A few years ago and I taught my daughter’s grade school Sunday school class, and I never ceased to be amazed at the passion that welled up in the children every time we lined up to go anywhere: each of them wanted desperately to be in the front of the line. The pushing, the boxing out of kids who are their best buddies, the pleading faces aimed towards teachers.
One day we were lining up to go upstairs to practice the Christmas play and the heated contest continued among them.
"There is no difference,” I said, "we’re all going to the exact same place, just line up so that I don’t lose any of you on the way up there. Your parents would not be pleased if I lost you.”
What they didn’t realize was that whoever was first in this particular line would walk into the row of theater seats upstairs first and sit down, resulting in their being at the very end of the line when we stood back up to walk up on stage for the play.
"Ugh! He cut! I was here first! Frownie Face! BLEH!”
Why did I sign up for this?
“Guys, seriously, what is our memory verse this week? 'Whoever wants to be first must be the very last and the servant of all.' Jesus said that if you want to be the first, be the very last. So maybe next time you line up, instead of racing to be the first, try saying, “After you.” And let someone else go before you. See what happens.”
They all got in line. Primarily because they were tired of me talking at them like Charlie Brown’s teacher.
A few weeks later one of the sweetest girls, (who I don’t think has ever pushed her way to the front of anything) came up to me and said, “I did what you said to do at school. I let everyone go in front of me in the line.”
“Oh, yeah?” I laughed, amazed that something I said stuck. “How did it go? What do you think?”
“Well…. I was just sad,” she said with dramatic slumped shoulders, “because I was at the very end of the line.”
I have no idea how I responded. I’m sure I laughed, and “aww-ed” and side-hugged her and said thanks for doing that, and I tried to say something of value …. but really… what is there to say? I asked her to do something hard and she was good sport and did it, and it turns out it was, in fact, hard.
I don’t believe there is a literal line that we stand in to enter God’s restored life, but I imagined for a moment that there was … and that we all lined up, racing to the front to be nearest to God, who was waiting to take us “upstairs," so to speak. And we were all racing to elbow each other out of the way to get our shiny faces closest to God. But perhaps, Jesus is there at the end of the line, saying, “after you, after you” until no one has been left out or forgotten.
The person at the front of the line is, I imagine, so proud to be a servant of God, holding out his arms and basking in the glory of being so close to God, and the person behind him, has the unfortunate circumstance of being a servant to God and this fool in front of him, and the person behind them both has it even worse, being a servant to God, and to two selfish buffoons. The poor girl at the very end of the line, the servant to all, is nowhere NEAR God. The glorious soul in the front sees himself as finely attuned to God’s every move and he can dedicate his entire life to God’s service. Yet, if someone behind him needs a hand, how would he know? The girl at the end, on the other hand, would be pretty well-positioned to be “a servant to all” way back there, where she can see everyone.
And then, perhaps, God will say, “OK, we’re ready to go!” And we’d all turn around following Jesus into full, awake life. And in this way, as the good book says, "many who are first shall be last and the last shall be first."
I read this verse recently, thinking about all the news of the day, and then I thought about these memories. And my heart breaks for the people in my community, and in this world, who are being elbowed out of the line.
And my heart steels with the reminder that it is, in fact, a hard thing God asks us to do. And I’m overwhelmed that I don’t know what it looks like for me in my community, house, school, church, country, these days. But I know that it should look more like, “After you," than like, “Me first!” That will continue to be my roadmap.
And I’m sorry to those of you who have been dealing with being shoved out of line for your entire lives and I haven’t really been paying attention. I’m hoping to join you in the work you’ve been doing.