Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Next week will be American Thanksgiving (I refuse to call it “Turkey Day” on principle). It will be a day of food, of family and friends, a day in which we, those who have been incomparably blessed by a magnificent and glorious God, simply say “Thank you.” It is a day in which we become living eucharists, and we would do well to remember the Great Thanksgiving and the whole of salvation history as we tuck in to our overflowing plates.

But this year, things will be different for countless families. They will, for the very first time, observe the holiday without a family member. A parent has died in the last year, a sibling disowned his or her family, a spouse did the unthinkable and the other was forced to end the marriage in a bitter divorce. Chairs across the country will be empty, and those who remain will remember the ones who once sat across the table.

They never really leave us, do they? Grandparents and parents in particular live on in their families. We share traits with those who have gone on, little quirks that always remind us they’re not truly gone. My sister buys raisin bran so she can pick out the raisins and have frosted bran flakes (like our grandfather did). I have a fondness for chocolate-covered cherries (like our grandmother). A cousin has her mother’s eyes, a father carves the turkey with the same knife his father used, and on and on and on. It’s those little moments of recollection which give us a twinge of memory, a faint smile, and the hope of one day sitting around the table with them in the age to come.

Others have a more difficult time of it. Families ripped asunder by divorce may sit in awkward silence, a mother dreading a child asking why a father isn’t home this year. A man who believed he had found “the one” sits alone in the only apartment he could afford and wonders why she suddenly stopped loving him. Holidays are hard days.

Regardless of the nature of the missing, those people will still be missed; they will be conspicuous only by their absence, but that absence will be felt. Even though they’re gone, they remain a part of us, and we carry them with us throughout our lives. I’m reminded of a Wordsworth poem, “We Are Seven.” It’s a bit long, but it’s worth the read.

“We Are Seven”

———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”
“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

 

Take time this Thanksgiving to offer thanks for another year with a family intact. Take time to remember those who face an empty chair but whose hearts still say “We are seven.” And give thanks to the God who gives us all things, the creator and sustainer of all which is seen and unseen.

If you still have time after that, go eat some turkey.

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Thanatopsis

Now that the holidays are over, the blog returns!

On 29 December, my grandfather (my father’s father) passed away after a lengthy hospital stay following surgery. I officiated at his graveside service (he refused to have a full funeral), and it was undoubtedly one of the harder things I’ve done in my life. The family has many long days ahead as we continue to mourn and deal with the process of sorting my grandfather’s belongings.

All of this has me thinking a bit about death. It seems to be the one universal constant: things are born, then they die. Our possessions slowly decay or are used up until they are no more. The cycle of seasons devotes a quarter of the year to the slow, inexorable decline and slumber of the environment itself, which will then lie dormant for another quarter year before returning fully to life once more. As I write this, I can look out my window to see bare trees standing upon dead grass — the savage beauty of winter.

But is death really all there is? Is our immutable fate truly the end? Can death really have the last say?

Well, no. I don’t think so. I believe in an afterlife (which, in my opinion, is a bit of a misnomer; we’re still alive, after all, and our bodies will be again as well). With the historic confessions of the Church, I, too, believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. For me, and for all Christians, death is more of a parting of ways, a segue into something different and better. One of my favorite authors is the grandfather of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, who once said, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Asimov was an avowed atheist, but he’s still right in this case. We love the living, we often forget about the dead, and we seem to worry about the transition a great deal.

The transition should be the least worrisome part to a Christian. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And again elsewhere: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), something often paraphrased as “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” So if we live in this life, we serve Christ. If we die, we worship God “in-person,” if you will. There is nothing “on the other side” that should scare us, worry us, or give us pause. The abundant life we enjoy now comes to full fruition after our death.

Eventually, at the end of the age, the Bible tells us two things. The first is that we will inhabit a new creation, a place free from sorrows and pains and trials and heartaches. The new heaven and new earth (and new Jerusalem) is a land where God shall wipe away the tears from our eyes (Revelation 21). We’re also told repeatedly in Scripture that death will be defeated (Isaiah 28:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 20:14). Death is a defeated foe, and one day, the reaper will be reaped. The victory won on the cross will come to completion at the end of this age, and death and the grave will lose all power.

This should give us hope and remove from us the fear of death. God has already beaten it, and He passes on the victory to those who bear the name Christian.