"Jason, you never struck me as a back pew kind of guy."
The words still hang in the air around me, like an echo that never says good night.
The observation came from a good friend and church leader who visited my congregation last year. When the service ended, he approached me with a handshake and a wide smile, saying the words I still hear today.
We'd known each other for some time and he had visited our ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before, but on the Sundays he'd passed through, I was traveling or attending elsewhere.
I knew he didn't mean them as a personal criticism or jab. He's a man without guile who only wanted me to know he was genuinely surprised to see me and my family occupying the last row of the chapel, especially when so many pews were available closer to the front.
Since that Sunday encounter, I've been paying more attention to where I sit and how so many of our church meetings fill from the back to the front rather than the front to the back. While attending church out of state recently, I was surprised to see that the back half of the chapel was so full, they opened the overflow into the cultural hall for the latecomers. This despite there being enough room in the first six rows for twice as many as streamed in.
There may, of course, be perfectly good reasons to sit near the back: a fidgety baby, a legitimate need to slip out early before the meeting ends, wheelchair access, the highly contagious Ebola virus, etc.
I wonder about my own motives. Had the desire to sit near the back become an outward reflection of an inward commitment?
Did it demonstrate an unwillingness to be called on?
A disinterest in the topic or speaker?
Apathy about attending in the first place?
As a frequent public speaker in schools, conventions and conferences, I often step to the mic and note the same pattern. If the room were a plane, we'd never take off. If it were a ship, we'd sink.
Maybe in my case it really is the speaker.
If my habit of sitting near the back sent a message, what does the practice of sitting up front suggest?
An excitement to learn? A willingness to be called on?
A public demonstration of faith that the speaker and the presentation will have value to my life?
If you've also been a physical or spiritual back-row regular, moving from the last pew to the front can be a daunting jump. So what's the best way to take a few steps to move up a row or two at a time?
Could it be those "small and simple" things, as Alma taught (see Alma 37:6)?
Being on time, even early? Always having scriptures in hand? Engaging in the lessons or talks from start to finish?
If we ever find ourselves in the same congregation, I can't guarantee I'll always be on the front row. But I promise to move in that direction.
And if you get there first, save me a seat.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company