One day in 2004, on my way into the office, I was listening to public radio, and Garrison Keillor, storyteller par excellence, shared the following poem by Emily Dickinson.
The Props Assist the House
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House supports itself
And ceases to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness –
then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –
This was a particularly vulnerable time for me, and I was immediately brought to tears. I was feeling sorry for myself for a number of reasons, but mostly because so much of the work I do feels invisible.
A lot of my work takes place behind the scenes: helping partners develop and refine their long-term vision, providing counsel for them and leadership for many international workers. I listen to many concerns and try to address them. Most of what I do is for the benefit of others, and few people see or understand the work that goes on behind the scenes in this administrative role.
However, as I listened to the poem, I realized that my service is like that of the props. They are, by their very nature, temporary. Their purpose is to hold up the walls, to keep things in place so that the next part of the project can be addressed.
I have come to see that many people play this role of serving as props to others in our different areas of work and ministry.
I am learning to see this role as a position of vulnerability, and one that is reflected in the ministry of Jesus. He said to his mother, “My time has not yet come,” when she wanted him to take the stage in providing wine for a wedding. When the disciples wanted to build booths on the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus just ignored them and went down the mountain to heal a person. Jesus carried out his ministry in many invisible ways, and made himself vulnerable to people, systems, and powers to the point of his death on the cross. His death went largely unnoticed, and yet it was for the salvation and reconciliation of the world to God.
Being a prop is a necessary part of ministry. It allows us to walk alongside and support our colleagues and partners in a way that champions the success of the other, rather than demanding that we be the one who is up-front or on stage. It calls us to offer our services, and then allows us to disappear, so that God’s mission might move forward, transforming and reconciling lives.
Let us give thanks to God for the opportunity to serve in vulnerable ways. Let us give thanks for the vulnerability that Jesus calls us to. Let us give thanks for the many people-props who have nurtured us and brought us to this point in our lives.
*Emily Dickinson, “The Props Assist the House” from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Copyright © 1945, 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.