No Small Parts in God’s Drama

This spring, I participated in my first local theatrical production in nine years. I had a blast singing and dancing with strangers who would become a kind of foster family over the course of our two months of rehearsals and two intense weeks of performance. The process retaught me the sheer joy of making a beautiful piece of art in community. It also reminded me of some important truths about church, our life’s work, and God’s kingdom.

You know that old cliche: “there are no small parts, only small actors?” I don’t think I truly understood it until my recent foray into regional theatre. You see, I must confess: I went to the audition hoping for a specific principle role, and when I didn’t get it, I was way more upset than I care to admit. But after nine years away from theatre, I figured I needed the experience I would get from the ensemble role I was offered, so I accepted that “small” part and showed up to rehearse.

I was surprised to learn how much fun it was to work with a group instead of on my own as “the star.” I enjoyed getting to know new people, and I liked the feeling that we were in it together — no single ensemble member had to carry all the weight. But that mutual load-sharing didn’t mean that we weren’t all necessary. It was amazing how one missing person could ruin the effect of an intricately choreographed number, throw off the dynamics of a scene, or stall the precarious machinery of our quick set changes. I had gone into the show feeling like my part was disposable and not important to the story. But by the end I understood that every actor on stage had a necessary role to play in bringing this piece of art to life. There truly were no small parts, for without each of us, the show could not go on.

This recent lesson mirrors the slow, painful lesson I’ve been learning about my role in the world and in God’s kingdom. I pay lip service all the time to the importance of less-prestigious jobs and callings, to those with the “gift of service” instead of preaching, or to the everyday ministry of the lay people and not just pastors and missionaries. But in my heart, it’s hard not to feel that only the more impressive sounding gifts and callings matter in our world and in the grand drama of God’s kingdom.

Yet Jesus consistently focused on the “extras” in a scene, not the celebrities. He called little children and women to him. He encouraged his disciples to care for the “least of these,” and he reminded them that the last shall be first and the first last. And Jesus himself was no typical leading man. His hometown, Nazareth, was small and subject to derision. He was a lowly carpenter and a friend of fisherman. Jesus was, as Isaiah reminds us,

“… despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

In As You Like It, Shakespeare famously wrote,

“all the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”

Shakespeare’s speech becomes a rumination on life’s fleeting nature, as the “actor” in his example moves through the roles of baby, school boy, soldier, and so on until death. In life’s drama, the ordinary parts we play can seem a little uninspired. It reminds me of another of Shakespeare’s comparisons between life and the stage, this time from Macbeth:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

But in the grand drama of God’s redemptive work, each of those small roles we are assigned take on great significance in Christ’s kingdom. For we are, Paul says, “God’s handiwork,” that is, his poiema — his poetry, his work of art — “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

And how do we do these works? Must we leave home and family, preach from every street corner, write best-selling spiritual guides, garner millions of twitter followers clinging to our insights? The answer, thank God, is no.

The way of the kingdom is the way of faithful service — the way of the good steward who invested what he was given and received a return on his investment, to whom God says, “‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matt 25:21) The flip side, of course, is that of the fearful servant, who failed to invest his one bag of gold and, in the end, had it taken away.

Perhaps that fearful servant saw himself as playing a “small part,” but his actions exemplify those of the “small actor” instead. Remember that Shakespeare quote above about “sound and fury, signifying nothing?” The metaphor is about a “poor player,” not a bad play. It’s the “idiot,” not the “tale” that makes the story meaningless. A good actor takes even her small role seriously, and a faithful servant invests even a small amount with love and care.

Time and again, God has reminded me that faithfulness, not flashiness, marks the path of true greatness. Without each and every one of us living lives of faithful obedience in our “small” parts, the story will be incomplete.