There are five people in our family, but there are six chairs at our kitchen table.
Most meals, the sixth chair remains empty. We walk around it, reach over it, pretend it isn’t there. At times I have been tempted to move it and free up a little more table space for just us five.
But I don’t, because that empty chair is a gift.
Our empty chair is a love-gift to the weary mama-friend who calls in tears mid-morning and needs a place to tell her story. It is a grace-gift to young Mormon missionaries who want to share their tracts, but instead get to share our meal. It is a hospitality-gift to the person who stopped by to return a lost shoe, but whom we have space to invite in and say, “Come, be more than a familiar face, be a friend.”
We have an empty chair at our table because it reminds us to leave space to welcome the stranger and to always have room for love. Our extra chair is a gift for our guests.
That sixth chair is also a gift to our children. It is a visible lesson in practicing hospitality. It is a reminder to them that when they see someone sad or hungry, they know there will always be space to invite them to eat with us. The fare on the table will not be fancy, the table itself will almost certainly be sticky, but there is room at our table. The empty chair is a gift for our children: they can be generous with the chair. They can be generous — period.
But mostly, that empty chair is a gift to me, because it reminds me of God’s perfect grace for every changing season of life.
In the first years of being a stay at home Mom, I grieved. Yes, I rejoiced in my children and yes, I rejoiced in the blessings of being able to raise and disciple them. But I grieved the loss of feeling productive in my efforts. Losing my income didn’t even feature in comparison with the feeling that I had lost my impact.
I went from a position of feeling I had a positive influence over hundreds each day to being responsible for just one — and she was a crying, squalling, non-sleeping one at that.
My life was changing seasons and I felt like the master gardener had pruned off every fruitful branch. I looked around and saw empty space and stumps where once there had been boughs of activity and action, and I grieved.
But then one week, in the midst of my pruned-pity-party, I met someone at a park who was sad and needed a listening ear. I invited her home and she pulled up an empty chair at my kitchen table and talked. It was nothing fancy, just tea and sympathy.
A week later, someone else dropped by after work and they seemed sad about going home to an empty house. “Stay for dinner,” I said, gesturing to the empty chair. “We have space.”
Weeks and months and years have gone by, and I could not tell you how many have been ushered into that empty chair. And it is a gift to me, because when I see that chair now what I see is a strong, new bough of ministry which the Master Gardener has grown, dripping with fruits of love and hospitality. It was a bough which could not and would not have grown in a former season, but which God has called forth in His service in this one.
Changing seasons often brings the grief of losing the ministries and relationships in which we felt we were most useful. Pruning always seem so severe at first: branches are lopped and it seems that nothing remains. But for those in Christ, God never prunes for loss, He prunes for future abundance.
The empty chair at our table is a gift to me: a tangible sign that in this less-visible and less-honored season of life that God still has work for me to do and love for me to show. It is not what I expected, but my in-home service of impromptu-invitations to our family meals matters to Him. I know it does. It is carved into the empty chair.