A perfectly set table with fall colors and candles. Each chair – not part of a set, but each seat distinct yet purposeful … chosen – has the guest it would seat in mind.
A high back chair for a tall brother. A petite chair with a higher seat for a pint-size niece. A comfortable chair for an aging parent.
Each chair is set out with the guest it will hold in mind.
As the guests arrive, the room fills with laughter, warm wishes, hugs, and kisses. It’s a cozy, friendly, full house. Dinner ensues, everyone takes their seat, and the eyes of the family beam as they look around the table at each other.
Suddenly a flicker of pain escapes the family’s eyes as their sight falls on the empty chair.
Incomplete … loss … death … distance … prodigal.
Most of us have felt the pain that is caused by an empty chair. Each story different in its history, but similar in the painful emotion that it evokes.
The smell of fall in the air always makes me homesick for my family. Cool mornings, long talks with my mom over coffee, crisp autumn leaves under foot, and a moonlight walk with my dad. My desire to visit them left me with a lump in my throat one morning. I longed to fill my empty chair at their table but as life would have it, it was impossible to make the trip home.
As I was getting ready for Shabbat services, my feelings of being deprived of home spilled over my face. “I am so homesick for my family!” I cried out to the Lord. The ache within my heart was so real and raw.
In an instant I knew I had been heard.
His still small voice spoke to my heart. God understood. He knew my pain well. There are those in His family that are far off as well. There are empty places at His table too.
The story of the prodigal son illustrates the pain of “the empty chair.” How many days did the father stare at his son’s place setting? How many nights did the ache keep him awake? The tension within the father’s heart must have been enormous. There is no amount of distraction or amusement that can alleviate that kind of agony. It gnaws at you.
The text in Scripture says that while the prodigal son was a long way off, the father saw him and felt compassion for him and ran to embrace him. There was no other response appropriate than to run. All of the tension and longing unloaded as each step pounded the ground towards his son.
A banquet completes the story and the empty chair is filled.
I am reminded of another parable of a banquet in Luke 14:16-24. Many were invited, but few responded. The Master sends his servants out into the highways and along the hedges to compel them to come in so that his house is filled.
Every chair occupied.
My heart was kindred to God’s that Shabbat morning. My perspective was transformed. We live in the tension. The pain, loss, and distance is all very real and God dwells there with us. The thought that He understands brought so much comfort to my heart.
But another thought was also at work within my mind. On a grander scale – How can I alleviate some of the pain and heartache that my Heavenly Father feels?
What about the sons and daughters of the covenant that are far off, whose places at His table are still vacant.
What can I do to help heal the heart of God?
The heavenly banquet table has been set and everything is perfectly arranged. Each chair is prepared with the guest it will seat in mind.
Let’s make sure there is not one empty chair at His table.