I taught the high school class at church for years. No one sat in the front row. Why we even set up a front row of chairs is a mystery, but I suppose if we didn’t then the second row would be the front and no one would sit there either.
That’s how I fixed things, by changing the second row to the front row. On a typical Sunday morning there would be games and singing and a couple announcements before it was time for the lesson. By then everyone who was going to show up had shown up and unless it was a particularly well-attended morning even late comers could find seats somewhere not in the front row.
It’s a bit disheartening to start speaking and see a row of empty chairs strung across the front like a battlement, separating me from the students as if I were an invading horde and they a helpless village I’d come to plunder. Then it came to me: what would an invading horde do?
They’d raze the battlement. So I did.
It was a Sunday like most, and the students were safely barricaded behind that front row of folding chairs as I got up to talk. I talked all right. I also folded. Chairs that is. I started at one end of the front row and folded those chairs and set them all to one side right down the line. The battlements were down, and I would have been the pride of even the best invading horde: Huns, Vandals, Goths – and I imagine Visigoths, too – would have cheered.
The second row was now the first row, and no battlement of chairs stood to interfere with me developing a rapport with the students (as much as can be done with teenagers early on a Sunday morning).
Moving On Up
It may be that the students were following Jesus’ advice:
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11.)
If they were modeling these humble guests, then that makes me the host of the banquet. Of course, this assumes that the front row is considered a place of honor in a youth group’s Sunday School class. I fear the comparison isn’t as apt as I’d like after all.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that when it comes to learning from Jesus – being with Jesus – he’s pleased when people come up close.
Think of young John reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper, leaning his head right up against his leader, his teacher, his friend.
And Mary, not wanting to miss a word he was saying even though she knew she took a place traditionally reserved for a man, sitting at Jesus’ feet as he taught the guests who had gathered in her home.
Jesus longed for this closeness with all of Jerusalem, to gather the city’s people together and hold them close, protecting them from harm as a hen protects her young.
And consider the children he gathered in his arms, taking time to pull them to himself and bless them as the adults stood and waited.
When it comes to Jesus, I think it’s not a matter of front row and back row but merely a matter of with: When you are with Jesus, you are truly with him. There is no separation, there is no distance, there is no row of chairs getting in the way.
There is only close as close can be. After all, Jesus is in you.
And as a preacher once told me, you can’t get closer than in.
[April Fiet recently came up with 9 Reasons Not To Sit In The Front Pew At Church. I think she’s on to something.]