In this week after Thanksgiving we’re still aglow with positive posts and tweets of family meals and gatherings. Long tables decorated to make Martha Stewart envious; pies perfect enough to tempt Paula Deen ask for the recipe; and over-achievers getting a head start on Christmas decorating. It’s wonderful to celebrate and express gratitude, it’s good for our soul and healthy for our psyche. We want to share in each other’s happiness and blessings, yet we also need to make space for the empty chairs.
There are always several. Maybe work schedules interfered or travel plans went awry. A tough medical diagnosis or an illness, misunderstandings or hurt feelings, multiple invitations or accommodating the in-laws kept some away. Maybe we’ve lost touch and drifted apart, or someone moved. Or maybe there was a death, and the chair filled only with memories of guffaws and a crooked smile looms large.
Kathleen Norris writes in Cloister Walk of a long-forgotten writer who said that America’s true religions are optimism and denial. These “things will get better”, “nothing is wrong” defense mechanisms carry us far as a nation, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of them. But they aren’t the tools we need to deal with and move toward acceptance of the inevitable empty chairs.
For that we need lament and grief – neither of which will bring you a large following in any land or era. “Eat. Love. Pray” entices more than “Cry. Weep. Mourn.” Motivational speakers fill arenas, but a reading of multiple lament Psalms will empty one. Job’s three friends wearied of his sackcloth wardrobe and ashes mousse, and Paul mourned when everyone deserted him (2 Timothy 4:16.) Jesus wrestled alone in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion when Peter, James and John fell asleep after he’d invited them to pray nearby.
Grieving, mourning and walking alongside those in that place looks to be acquired skill, not something that comes naturally. We’d rather push ahead and deny the hurt than sit on the dung heap and scrape boils like Job. His friends wanted him to get up and get moving, but he choose to sit and feel the pain of stolen oxen, camels and donkeys, murdered servants, burned sheep, and the death of his sons and daughters. He sat in his unrelenting pain, started legal proceedings against God, doubted he would see happiness again, and wished he hadn’t been born. He had a string of bad days and friends with bad advice to make it worse.
But Job lived what counselors teach — the path to emotional and spiritual health is through the pain. We need to acknowledge it, not deny it or paint over it with an optimism brush. When we rail and cry out against it, that’s when we’re open enough to find God in it. It may take the equivalent of thirty-seven chapters like it did Job, and our “why’s” won’t be fully answered, but we maybe we’ll move to the point where we’re able to say along with Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5).
Job knew about empty chairs, we all know about empty chairs. Job took the less-traveled path and learned to allow the pain to lead him to praise and trust in his God; we can, too. At the next holiday gathering, recognize the empty chairs and be open to the pain they spark. Acknowledge it, sit with it; welcome the hurt, grieve the loss. You might find God has been sitting there all along.