Really Useful Engines?

I wrote a few weeks ago about some of the books I’m currently reading: I didn’t mention that I also read about five Thomas the Tank Engine stories each day to Small Boy. He is in ‘The Thomas Phase’ – we play with trains every day, watch Thomas on TV as part of his screen-time ration, look up the names of engines, boats and cranes on the Thomas Wiki, and, as I’ve mentioned, read the stories (the original ones – which I prefer – and the more recent creations).

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Googling ‘The theology of Thomas the Tank Engine’ brings up a number of different and interesting pages so my thoughts aren’t new or original. My pile of books to read is now as high as my knees (with the superlative Just Living by Ruth Valerio at the top) so I’ve not read the biography of Rev. W. Awdry, the author of the Thomas books. It would be interesting to know more about his faith and theological views but I don’t have the time or the inclination to develop this particular ‘just reflection’ into something more substantive!

Is ‘The Fat Controller’, the stout gentleman who runs the railway, meant to be like God? I want to grab Small Boy, hold him close and tell him Father God is not obsessed with him being a ‘Really Useful Engine’ (the highest compliment an engine can receive). God – and I – love him because we love him not because of his ‘usefulness’ or achievements. Maybe Awdry was heavily influenced by the Protestant work ethic with an emphasis on hard work and discipline?

Yet, I am encouraged by the many stories where the engines go on a journey of self-acceptance. Stafford, an electric engine, wants to be noisy like a steamie but learns to appreciate his quietness when he is able to round up some frightened sheep. The focus is still on getting a job done though!

In a world with a emphasis on appraisals, achievements and awards, how do we remember that not only are we loved because we are loved but those around us are as well? Who in your life needs to know they are loved because they are loved because they loved? How could you express God’s amazing love to them?

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Being not doing

I’m enjoying spending time on sabbatical  maternity leave reading, ruminating and reflecting. I’ve had time to talk, to be, to learn and to dream.


Having read some of this blogpost about Understanding Voluntary Organizations by Charles Handy, I bought my own copy. My bookmark is on p.33 so I still have some way to go but already I love this book. It gives words and a framework to feelings and frustrations I have had for many years (I’ve worked in the charitable sector either as a volunteer or as a paid member of staff for about fifteen years).

Handy outline three ‘perils’ of voluntary organisations:

  1. Strategic delinquency – having a ’cause’ but no clear goals or objectives. Therefore no definition of success (or failure).
  2. Servant syndrome – a ‘make do and mend’ approach, with lack of investment and a culture of built-in inefficiency. A constant need to always say yes and respond to every problem and need.
  3. Ideological fanaticism – rejection of ‘success’, structures, professionalism and leadership.

In summary, he outlines the need for good management and strategic leadership. I can see myself carrying this book in my bag as a handy reference (little pun there for you!) for many years!

I wonder if these three perils are accentuated in Christian organisations? There is often already a tendency towards having a cause (‘the poor’) and a struggle to say ‘no’ as this could be seen as unloving or ‘unChristian’.


At the same time, I am reading Rhythms of Grace: Finding intimacy with God in a busy life by Tony Horsfall which follows on so well from my reading of The Perfectionism Book.

‘While many Christians claim to believe in the sovereignty of God, in practice most believe that everything depends on them.’

‘It is certainly possible to be doing far more than God ever requires of us.’

‘Prayer itself is seen as work.’

Maybe as well as needing strategic leadership and excellent management, social action also involves contemplative prayer. This may seem unnatural to an activist or even a waste of time but look:

Punctuation is a helpful way of thinking about Jesus’ relationship with silence and solitude …His times alone were the commas, pauses and full stops in the story of life. They gave the rest of his life its structure, direction and balance. His words and his works were born out of those hours of silent waiting upon God.‘ (David Runcorn quoted in Rhythms of Grace)


Jesus spent time alone with the Father. Just being. Not doing. 


His presence will go with me, and He will give me rest. He will go with you. He will give you rest.

He will guide me always; He will satisfy my needs in a sun-scorched land; He will strengthen my frame. 

He will always guide you. He will satisfy your needs. He will strengthen you.

Come to me, rest in my presence, hear my voice and words of love for you. You don’t need to work to gain my approval. You are my son, my child.


 

 

 

I love a girl who reads

I’m not great at small talk but I’ve discovered that when someone asks me what I am reading, the conversation can flow.

My current pile of books includes:

Understanding Voluntary Organizations: How to Make Them Function Effectively by Charles Handy

Rhythms of Grace: Finding intimacy with God in a busy life by Tony Horsfall

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Reading the first two books simultaneously has got me thinking about the link between contemplative prayer and social justice. This is something I want to explore and develop – maybe even write a Just Reflections book! If I have time, there’ll be another blog post later this week.

You may wonder how I find the time to read (and write!) when looking after Small Boy (an active, bright three-year-old) and Little Miss (who is now a wriggly-giggly five month old who loves food, her big brother and observing the world around her). The practical answer is a bit at a time, I mostly use the Kindle app on my phone and I neglect other tasks! Mr P is currently washing up while I sit typing at the computer.

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The real explanation though is that without books, without words, with no alternative reality to hide away in when I need to, without constant new input, I am diminished in some way. I’ll read pretty much anything.

I like to think I resemble the girl in this spoken word poem and if I don’t, then I want to!

Have mercy on me

‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner’

I first came across this ancient Eastern Orthodox prayer in The Perfectionism Book, and then again, shortly afterwards in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero (another marvellous book for those seeking to grow in Christian maturity). 

I often say it (out loud but quietly or simply in my head) when pushing my sleeping daughter in her buggy. The words remind me of my need for a saviour and how I do not need to strive to earn God’s love.

Grace offends. I relate more to the older brother in Jesus’ short story of The Prodigal Son. The child who works diligently and responsibly is aggrieved by the scandalous acceptance of the returning younger brother who’d asked for his inheritance early and spent it on wine and sex. 

The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’ (Luke 15:30 The Message)

‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner’

These words remind me of my need for grace. It often seems easier to accept God’s forgiveness for my wrongdoings and failings than to recognise there’s absolutely nothing I can do to earn his affection.

There’s nothing I can do that will ever stop him loving me. 

Yet, I struggle to believe his love for me is not dependent upon my performance and achievements: whether moral, academic, social or professional. 

The truth is there’s nothing I can do to make God love me. 

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‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner’

Forgiveness is liberating and when I experience – just briefly – the peace and acceptance which comes from knowing I no longer have to strive to impress God or meet impossible targets, I have a taste of a deeper freedom and joy: I am loved because I am loved. I am loved. 

And the truth is I am a sinner. I’ve messed up and I fail: I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I want to do. Sometimes I don’t even want to want to do the right thing! 

I had a longing this week to be ‘ashed’ on Ash Wednesday; a deep desire to publicly and physically acknowledge my need of mercy and my reality as a sinner. So I attended a service in a nearby high Anglican Church. 

I recently read Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas – the premise of which is that we all have different ways of connecting with God and growing spiritually. I did not score highly on what he calls ‘sensate’ – liturgy, architecture, classical music – a worship experience which affects all the senses. My preferred ways of encountering God are through study, showing love to others and fighting injustice.

Yet on Wednesday evening as I smelt the incense and heard the soaring soprano, my spirit sensed God’s glory and holiness. As the priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead with the words ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.‘, I was reminded of my mortality and weakness. I am frail. 

Being welcomed and embraced by God doesn’t depend on my strengths, skills, achievements or performance.

He loves me because he loves me because he loves me because he loves me. 

And he loves you too.