The “Real” Empty Chair
(Re-upping this post from a few years ago as we approach the season when the empty chair at the table seems to loom larger than life. This was originally posted January 11, 2016)
For his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama plans to feature an empty chair to bring attention to the lives lost in the United States due to gun violence.
When you see the empty chair the President knows you’ll have a visceral reaction and that’s because every one of us has an empty chair in our lives.
It seems counter-intuitive and even silly to ask, “who is sitting in this chair?”
The chair is empty. There’s no one sitting in it. Right?
Wrong. The point of putting an empty chair in front of you is to have you think of very real person sitting in that chair in your heart and mind.
My dad sits in that empty chair.
When I was 15 my dad died of a sudden heart attack. Our idyllic suburban in-tact, loving, upwardly-mobile, church-going, civic-minded, dual-income, party of four was radically changed in a myriad of ways in an instant. My dad was a robust 43 years old man in his prime. He was President of his own company, coach of my softball team, leader at our church and my mom’s very best friend.
For many years my dad sat in every empty chair. He occupied the empty chair at our kitchen table, he sat in the 4th chair in every restaurant, and he sat in the empty chair at the head of every holiday gathering.
So, I ask you again. As you read this today, in your heart and in your life: who is sitting in the empty chair?
Through my mom’s experience of losing my dad I know something of what living in the world as a widow looks like. My mom is a powerful force unto herself, but the death of my dad changed her identity. Couple friends no longer called to include “the fowlers” because doing so would invite into their party “the empty chair.” If you’ve lost a spouse, there’s someone sitting in the empty chair.
Tables are set for even numbers – 2 tops and 4 tops predominate in our culture. And when a singleton sits down, the empty chair only makes the odd-man-out appear all the odder. Why is that? Why do we focus so much attention on the empty chair instead of focusing our attention on the person, the individual, the precious child of God occupying the other chair?
Sometimes we are that one. I was the “party of one” for most of my adult life. I was a single woman in a married world from the time I graduated from high school until I wed at the age of 42. The empty chair of my childhood which was occupied in my heart by my dad, yielded over time to a yearning for the empty chair to be occupied by a person with whom I could spend my life – a husband, a friend among friends, a soul mate.
People often asked me when I was single, “Aren’t you lonely?” But there is a world of difference between being alone and being lonely. I am never alone. I am literally possessed by the God who made me, the God who redeemed me, the God who fills me, the God who animates me, the God in whom I live and move and have my being. God is not “mine” but I am “His.” I am never alone because the great “I Am” is always near. So, from that perspective, from the supernatural perspective on life, who is sitting in that chair?
Have you ever considered having an audible conversation with the One who promised to be with you always, even to the end of the age? Do you talk with Jesus when you are otherwise alone? Do you ask Him to make Himself known to you in the breaking of the bread even in table fellowship that involves the two of you?
Do you see just how full that empty chair is when you take a supernatural perspective?
- From the perspective of naturalism the chair is empty.
- From the perspective of emotion the chair is occupied by those we love who are no longer physically here with us.
- From the perspective of faith the chair is occupied by the One who has promised to never leave us nor forsake, the One who has come in power to occupy the voids, the Counselor, Companion and Friend whom alone is the Spirit of the Living God.
Are you beginning to see the chair differently? Does it still look empty? From what perspective? With which set of eyes?
Rocking baby angels
My grandmother’s rocking chair sat empty for many years in a corner of my mom’s room. We could all “see” her sitting there – rocking, crocheting, singing “The Old Rugged Cross” or humming “Amazing Grace.” She was always filled with peace and ever-so-slightly smiling.
When the youngest of her six grandchildren outgrew her lap there were times when you could catch her rocking with her eyes closed, humming lullabys, smiling peacefully. As she was dying of a painful cancer in a hospital bed her chair sat empty – and yet she rocked.
As death approached she told my mom that it was time for her to go to the Father’s house. My mother need not worry and need not fear, my grandma said. For she had long known what she would do for eternity – she told us that her task would be to rock the baby angels.
I can assure you that in our hearts and minds my grandmother’s rocking chair has never since been empty for a moment. We can “see” her doing what she loved, rocking babies. And if you’ve ever lost a baby, if you’ve ever grieved over an empty high chair, know this – my Grandma Benefiel has that baby in her loving arms…waiting expectantly for you.
You see, the rocking chair only appears empty here, but it is occupied in heaven forever.
We know the names of the people who occupy the empty chairs of our hearts who now take their seats in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Have you ever considered that from their vantage point, from where they sit right now, at the King’s table, set for the wedding feast of the Lamb, there is an empty chair that God has reserved for you?
Next to my dad, near my Grandma, surrounded by all the faithful followers of Jesus who have bowed the knee and received God’s grace in Jesus Christ, there is an empty chair. That’s my chair. You have one too.
Now, who is sitting in this chair?
There are people whom we all know and love whose chair in the Kingdom of Heaven will remain eternally empty unless they accept the invitation to receive the Father’s good and gracious of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in your chair at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Your place card is right in front of you.
Those who have died in Christ surround you. But there are empty chairs. Whose names are on those place cards? Who is next to you in this life that at this point does not know that there’s a seat available for them in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Heaven and earth are passing away and empty chairs we worry about today will one day litter the landscape. But with each chair that’s vacated on earth a person takes the seat in an empty chair in one of two eternal realities. The Christian’s responsibility between now and then is to live out the fullness of the Gospel in such a way that the empty chairs in Heaven are filled and the empty chairs in Hell remain unoccupied.
So, is the way you’re living your life now creating the desire in other people to want to sit next to you in the Kingdom of Heaven?
(And Jim LaBerge, if you get there before I do, save me a seat next to you.)