21 Empty Chairs

Published 9:46 am Sunday, June 5, 2022

Garfield the cartoon cat is sitting in a comfortable chair and sees the dog, Odie at the window looking in. Garfield says to himself, “Poor Odie. Locked outside in the cold. I just can’t bear to see him like this. I’ve got to do something about it.” At this point Garfield gets up from the chair, looks at poor, pitiful Odie in the window and closes the curtain.

Last week we endured, yet again, an unspeakable tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. We cry, we pray, we rally, we argue, we complain. But Sunday, I placed 21 empty chairs in front of us representing 19 young children and two gifted schoolteachers. Those empty chairs represented real people no longer in school or church or playing sports or teaching a child ever again.

Churches can be much like Garfield when it comes to being a witness. I frequently say that we are all ministers. Witnessing our faith, standing up for what is right, taking a stand on important issues that involve all of us is an important part of our ministry. This is easy to preach but far more difficult to put into practice. I too, plead guilty to often closing curtains on people as well as controversial issues.

Nineteen children mostly ten years old, two dedicated schoolteachers gone, now add the husband of one of those teachers and the damage spreads. This tragedy has been repeated over a hundred times across the nation. When do we put politics and self-interests aside and work together to find a solution?

Of course, there are many good reasons: We fear rejection or ridicule. We may be unsure of answering tough questions. We are concerned about getting involved in controversial issues. All good reasons but still wrong. In 1 Peter 3:15 Peter, writes: “Quietly trust yourself to Christ your Lord and if anybody asks why you believe the way you do, be ready to tell them but do it in a gentle and respectful way.”

When it comes to doing something about violence, the churches are often just as divided as the population at large. Will restricting guns alone stop the violence? Probably not. Will stricter background checks? Not by itself. But gun restrictions combined with background checks combined with a more vigilant community on the alert for people who display violent tendencies? That can make a difference.

Peter advises us to be ready. Here are three ideas to guide us:

1. Keep learning to follow and trust Christ. It’s your foundation. Your willingness to trust Christ in your daily tasks, whether at work, or home or somewhere else, sets a visible example for others to see.

2. Be prepared to be a witness. What I mean is a simple explanation to why you follow Christ you could say in the length of time you ride on an elevator. What do you believe? Why? Who influenced you?

3. Be gentle and respectful. This is not a debate. It is an act of sharing love you received from God with someone else. Other people also have opinions and beliefs. They should be treated with respect.

Could this same formula be applied as we search for a way to respond to the tragedy of violence happening across our great nation? Yes.

Years ago, a man was brought to the hospital where I was serving as Chaplain. He had been involved in a propane explosion. His face, his hands and his upper body were badly burned. It took over two hours to get him to the hospital. Two hours of unbearable pain that only severe burn victims experience.

He was brought in screaming from the pain. Once in the hospital trauma room, the medical staff moved quickly to help him. I was tied up with the family of another seriously injured patient and couldn’t stay with him. The painkillers gradually began to work but what seemed to sooth him were the actions of a nurse who without any prompting began to talk about her faith in Christ as she trimmed away his charred skin and applied bandages.

She could have closed the curtain on the man and done her job but instead, she quietly recited several Scripture verses about God’s care and assurance. During the whole ordeal, this wonderful nurse encouraged him to trust in God for his future. That nurse in one brief act did as much for the patient as the strongest of pain killers. She literally made Christ’s presence real in a hospital trauma room.

Peter said: “Quietly trust yourself to Christ your Lord and if anybody asks why, be ready to tell them and do it in a gentle and respectful way.,” 1. Trust God. 2. Be prepared. 3. Be gentle and respectful.

We are called to respond to 21 empty chairs pleading with us not to close the curtain. Do not let these 21 people die in vain.

So, what will you do? What will we do? Trust God. Be prepared. Be gentle.

REV. LARRY E. DAVIES can be reached at larrydavies@vaumc.org.