September 8, 2019 – IS BEING USEFUL GOOD?

TEXT:  Psalm 139:  1-6; 13-18

It takes times to realize what’s really behind the words we often hear. When Peace, my older son was little, he loved playing with Thomas & Friends toy trains and track sets. His mind and heart were so captured by the talking trains that sometimes he played with the toys at a local toy store for hours and then continued to play with his own toy set after came home. It was obvious that his favorite thing to watch was Thomas & Friends. He had probably watched the 10 years of Thomas & Friends at least thousands times. As a young parent, I also had to watch the same video almost to the point that I would know what’s coming after each scene. A typical Thomas the Tank Engine story is a morality play about hubris. The stories take place on the fictional Island of Sodor where train cars with faces and personalities go about their work. Almost inevitably, one of the trains tries to run too fast or pull too many boxcars and ends up in a big mess. By the end of the story, though, he comes to understand what he has done wrong. As the last line of “A Big Day for Thomas” puts it, “Thomas had already learned not to make the same mistake again.”

This popular TV series has some cultural nuances. For example, Emily, one of the few female characters appears to be weaker than her male counterparts. She is described as the one who seems to know how to get herself into trouble, and ends up being in need of help. Here comes Thomas, the tank engine who always find a way to rescue Emily. This typical stereotype was created by a patriarchal worldview, and couldn’t pass Ha Na’s criticism which turned out a learning curve for me. There was another problem in Thomas & Friends that I only discovered recently after I encountered someone who was struggling with an end of life issue, which I will talk about later. Almost repeatedly at the end of each episode, Sir Topham Hatt, also known as the Fat controller, comes to visit the trains. He gives them a life lesson, and depending on the outcome of their daily work, he sometimes gives them a compliment, “You have all worked hard and been really useful engines.” Or punishment, “You will go back and collect the iron at once!” The facial expressions of the trains clearly show how such messages can either lift or demolish how they feel about themselves.

I suspect that our society is not much different from the Island Sodor. Productivity is considered almost as a virtue in this fast moving world. How many times have we felt guilty for being lazy or for all the things we wish we could have done but left undone? Our cultural upbringings have created a whole list of should and shouldn’t. I’m particularly concerned about our tendency to praise being busy and to condemn being lazy. The real issue is how we feel about ourselves when we are not productive as we used to be or we wish we could be.

Recently I met someone who was struggling with his life because he lost his sense of purpose. He was the sharpest and the best of the best in his work field, but as his health started dwindling he is no longer able to find meaning in life. He said, “I am useless.” I was trying to listen to not only what was said, but also what wasn’t said. In the expression of his sense of resentment and grief there was a deeply ingrained belief we all share that life is worth living only if we can contribute something to someone else. The word, “useful” itself is problematic. Usefulness is usually determined by someone else, and that’s not universal. What’s useful to me may not be useful to you and vice versa. So usefulness shouldn’t be the standard to measure the worth of life.

Psalm 139 provides the alternative, a different way of looking at our life. It does not begin with how we view about life or how the world sees us but begins with how much God knows us, “You have searched me and known me.” God is described as the one who knows us most intimately and profoundly. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” It is God’s deep understanding of us that leads to self-esteem and self-respect. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”

We must reclaim our self-worth, and we must help others reclaim theirs. Nowhere in Psalm 139 does it say we have to prove our worth by being useful to others. Our self-worth is not something we earn, but something we are given by God. This original blessing is shared with everyone else in the world regardless their religions, beliefs, cultures or identities. Our faith is rooted in this radical affirmation. When God created the world, the Bible says in Genesis 1, God saw that it was good. Read carefully. It doesn’t say that it’s good because it’s useful, but it says that God recognizes its goodness! You are beautiful just as you are. You are loved for being who you are. You are blessed by God. This fundamental awareness leads us into actions. We can open ourselves up to those who struggle because they have lost meaning and hope in life.

My heart broke when I heard the news about God’s Lake First Nation declaring a state of emergency after four young people took their lives, as well as 22 other attempts over the summer. The intergenerational trauma of First Nations still runs deep, and indifference of our society and systemic racism gives the harmful message that makes those young people question whether life is worth living.

If we truly believe that our lives are interwoven, and that no one is free until everyone is free, we must act as we grieve the brokenness of our society. I don’t know if there is a breakthrough in terms of making right relationship between Indigenous people and settlers in Canada. But I do know that how we see each other is the beginning of the change we need.
While I was talking with the person who struggled with what seemed to be meaningless life, I noticed how his face gradually changed. At the end of the visit, he thanked me for coming and listening to his story. Perhaps the meaningful change we need as a society can begin with small steps by showing up, by listening, and by remembering, trusting that we share the same love from the creator. We can become each other’s keepers, and our world will be different from the Island Sodor, not based on productivity or usefulness but based on love and acceptance.