Sometimes I settle in a pew in the back of the sanctuary. The musicians start playing on the stage up front, and families and couples and friends walk down the aisles and file into rows. I watch them from my spot in the back, friends greeting each other with hugs and parents settling their children next to them. The littlest of the children stay in their parents' arms or stand up on the seats and face the back. I know these children from those times I talk to their parents, the children shyly hugging their moms' legs or demanding their dads pick them up. I also know them from helping in the toddlers' class once a month. I give the kids wipes before serving them snacks in tiny paper cups and make revving engine sounds when we play cars together.
Ethan is one of these young children. He just turned three. He has many words, though most of them are slurred together. I have heard him say guacamole and tortilla, but the rest has been a guessing game. Except for when his mother leaves him in the toddlers' class to join the rest of the adults in the sanctuary - then I hear him clearly and loudly call for his mommy, whose neck he was tightly hugging just a few minutes ago when she brought him into the classroom. Most of us know that Ethan is one of the children who will be consoled by our picking him up and distracting him with a toy, so when I am in the class with him, this is what I do. Soon enough he's wriggling free of my arms and making pretend breakfast in the play kitchen in the corner.
Yesterday, from my spot in the back of sanctuary, I saw Ethan and his mom and dad and sister make their way down the aisle to the front where most of the kids and their families sit. Ethan was in his mothers arms, and when they turned into the pew, she deposited him in the seat next to her so that she could unload her bag and reach up to fix her hair. Ethan scooted himself around and put his hands on the back of the pew to pull himself up and look back. His eyes met my gaze and I smiled at him to signal I remembered him from our times in the toddlers class together. His mouth turned up in only the slightest smile. Then he ducked his head behind the back of the pew. One hand still gripped the top. And then, a few seconds later, Ethan slowly lifted his head again so that one sparkling eye met mine again. Though his mouth was hidden from me, I detected a smile. He was having a little bit of fun with me.
This makeshift game of hide and seek went on for a few more short rounds. Soon, Ethan moved on. He turned to his dad at his side and allowed himself to be lifted up so that he could rub his tiny hands against his father's bald head.
The music still played on stage as the rest of the church-goers faced the front, read lyrics from a screen, sang and clapped or swayed along. I listened, but was still thinking of Ethan and how he met my eyes with his over and over, his delight slowly growing at knowing that he'd see me there each time. This is worship, these childlike attempts to see God, as delightful as a laugh that grows in our bellies and spreads a smile across our faces. I wondered how often I peer over the edge of what's in front of me and expect to see Him holding a steady gaze, looking right back at me. I wondered at His joy in being the constant one, in waiting for us to lift our eyes to him again, and again, and again.