Short Thoughts by Geoff
I cannot recall ever getting a prize at primary school, which is probably because I never got one anyway! But I can remember getting a prize at Sunday school and on an annual basis. It wasn’t for any high theological performance but was purely based on attendance. (As Woody Allen once said “80% of life is just turning up!”) I had a full star card and that entitled me to a book prize at the end of each year. I remember two of the books particularly. When I was twelve it was ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and at the other end of the spectrum, when I was about five I got an illustrated book about a trainee railway engine who was learning how to be an express. I loved that book and never thought of it as being ‘religious’ at all. It was only when, in my 20’s, I came across it in an old suitcase that I realised it was actually very profound and had unwittingly influenced my Christian life. It’s title was ‘Tootle – the engine who stayed on the rails no matter what.’
Tootle started in the training school with other young engines and learnt how to start and stop smoothly and all the other things necessary for a good engine to achieve. He knew that to become a mainline express he had to work really hard and learn all he could and he longed to grow up to become the express he wished to be. Apart from learning how to haul a full train with power he learnt how to use that power carefully so as not to spill the soup in the dining car and he did very well in all his exams. There were though two laws which all engines had to strictly adhere to and they were: Stay on the rails no matter what and Never ever go past a red flag.
As Tootle grew he was moved on to the more onerous parts of the course which only a few engines managed to achieve and this meant he had to practice, practice, and practice again. One afternoon in the hot summer he was going round the tracks on his own and was feeling the heat. As he passed a lush meadow the cows called out to him to come and join them. Tootle refused though as he remembered the first rule was to stay on the rails no matter what. The next day it was the same and the cows called out for him to be like them and lie in the cool grass. It was very tempting but again he refused – after all he was an engine with a goal. This continued all week until on a particularly hot day he succumbed and left the rails and joined the cows and effectively became like them. That night, back in the engine shed, the engineer noticed that his star pupil had grass in his cowcatcher and daisies in his wheels and he knew what that meant.
It was a disaster; how could the engineer get him back on the rails without him ever straying again? He came up with a plan. Next day when Tootle went out the engineer had positioned his colleagues in the bushes by the meadow and when Tootle left the rails to join the cows a red flag suddenly appeared out of the first bush. Tootle knew he couldn’t go past that so he turned another way but another red flag popped up from the next bush. Soon red flags were appearing all round him except for a clear path back to the rails. Tootle learned the lesson and he never strayed again – he stayed true and became what he was meant to be. Tootle realised now more than ever that he was created as an engine and not a cow aimlessly chewing grass in a field. In order to realise his potential he had to behave like the great engine he was capable of becoming and not to despoil himself by acting as something other and very much less.
When you think about it the two books are not very different. In ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, Christian, the pilgrim, has to go through many trials to make his way through to reach the celestial city. He has to learn to ‘stay on the King’s highway no matter what’ in order to become what he was destined to be and to reach the heights he was created for. And that is true for us all.