The irony of small children is that they have absolutely no ability to entertain themselves and yet every ability to be destructive and bring harm to themselves. So during this season, parents learn to never look away. You learn to get down on the floor and build train tracks and play princess. You learn to put lesser things aside and grab a pile of books to read about Horton and Llama Llama and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Well, at least, that’s what we did yesterday. One of the books we read was the story of Tootle by Gertrude Crampton. Tootle is a young train who dreams of becoming the Flyer on the New York-Chicago line. But in order to do this, he must attend train school. He takes classes in “Not Spilling the Soup in the Diner” and “Stopping at Waving Red Flags.” But, according to the headmaster Bill, the most important class, the one that every little train must master, is “Staying On the Rails No Matter What.” Tootle must get a 100 A+ in this class.
Things are fine for a bit, but eventually the lure of the meadow is too much. Day after day, Tootle sneaks off to dance in the daisies and frolic with the butterflies. Bill becomes aware of what Tootle is doing, but instead of reprimanding him, instead of insisting on obedience, Bill makes a plan. He gathers all of the townspeople, gives each of them a red flag, and then hides them in the meadow.
Eventually Tootle comes to the meadow again to play. But as he’s enjoying himself, he suddenly sees a red flag in front of him. He stops and turns to the left. But there is another red flag. And then there is one on his right. Soon the only thing he can see are red flags. He is caught and helpless. The one law he knows to obey--the law of Always Stopping for a Red Flag—has trapped him.
But then he sees it. A green flag! A green flag means freedom. A green flag means “Go!” A green flag means race. A green flag means he can fly. Bill is standing on the tracks, waving a green flag with all his might, beckoning Tootle to come to him.
To our modern sensibilities, the moral of Tootle’s story—Stay on the Tracks No Matter What—could sound a lot like conformity. Won’t this make children feel guilty about pursuing what they love? Doesn’t this reinforce legalism? Shouldn’t we teach children to think outside the box? But the moral of Tootle isn’t quite that superficial; it isn’t about conforming to societal expectations and it isn’t about legalism. In fact, the moral of Tootle is deeply teleological; it’s rooted in who Tootle is. Tootle has to stay on the rails, not to please Bill, but because he is a train and he is destined to become a Flyer. The horse can run in the meadow. The bees can buzz around the flowers. But a train stays on the rails.
A lot of times we can believe that God’s standards are a barrier to our happiness. Like Tootle, the idea of “Staying On the Rails No Matter What” can feel unnecessarily confining. Worse still, some of us have been taught that we have to choose between making God happy and making ourselves happy. So when we do conform to His standards, they weigh heavily on us and we can begin to believe that we’re missing out. But we trudge on, committing ourselves to keeping “the rules” out of fear or self-righteousness. Some of us can’t handle that kind of pressure and eventually end up rushing off to the meadow.
But the truth is that neither of these paradigms is right. A train is not made for the meadow, but it not meant to trudge down the track either. A train is meant to fly down them with joy.
In Made for More, I write about this tension:
Because God's boundaries reveal His nature, they also reveal our own... Instead of a barrier to keep us from being ourselves, God’s law is intended to guide us back to our true selves… Apart from God’s law, we would ruin ourselves because we would keep living in direct opposition to what we were made to be.” (53-54)
But as we all know, and as Tootle learned, a standard by itself is not powerful enough. We need Jesus. Just like Bill stood on the track to guide Tootle back to where he belonged, Jesus stands waving the green flag, inviting us to the abundant life that only He can offer.
But it takes faith to live in our true identities. The world tells us that we will only be ourselves when we do what we want, when we do what we love. Faith tells us that we will never be more fully ourselves until we live as image bearers of God. But when this happens, when we are conformed to His Image through Christ, we are free to race. We are free to run. We are free to fly down the tracks.
We are finally free to be who we are meant to be.