The empty chair
Published 9:00 am Friday, March 3, 2017
By AL EARLEY
Ash Wednesday (March 1, 2017) marked the beginning of the Lenten season, which begins 40 days prior to Easter. Those traditions that observe Lent remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness prior to beginning his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). Lent was originally a time to prepare candidates for baptism, and became a period of penitence for those who had been baptized. As a sign of this repentance and contrition, during the Ash Wednesday service the congregation is invited forward, and ashes are placed on the forehead in the mark of the cross. Ashes are used because they are the Biblical symbol of purification (Numbers 19:9, Hebrews 9:13) and penitence (Luke 10:13). By tradition, the ashes come from the burning of the palms used on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter).
Though prayer is not specifically mentioned, we can trust that Jesus was in deep prayer to endure 40 days of temptation by the devil. Prayer is a precious gift God gives us so we can enter into a closer relationship with him. There is both power and mystery in prayer as people often see God answer “Yes” to our prayer requests, and have great experiences with God during prayer that are difficult to explain.
Because of both the power and mystery of prayer people find it difficult to begin praying, or stay with their prayer lives. Is it too good to be true? Why does the creator of the universe care what I think? If God knows everything what difference do my prayers make? There must be rules about prayer. I don’t know the rules, so I probably shouldn’t waste my time or God’s.
Thankfully there are no rules to prayer. God just wants us to pray. This simple story illustrates both the power and mystery of prayer, and that we should pray in the way that works for each of us.
A man’s daughter had asked the local minister to come and pray with her father. When the minister arrived, he found the man lying in bed with his head propped up on two pillows. The minister noted an empty chair beside his bed, and said, “I guess you were expecting me.”
The father responded, “No, who are you?” The minister told him his name and that he figured the empty chair was for him. The father said, “Oh yeah, the chair. Would you mind closing the door?” Puzzled, the minister shut the door. The father continued, “I have never told anyone this, not even my daughter, but all of my life I have never known how to pray. At church, the pastor would talk about prayer, but it went right over my head. I abandoned any attempt at prayer, until one day four years ago, my best friend said to me, ‘Johnny, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here is what I suggest. Sit down in a chair, place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus on the chair. It’s not spooky because he promised, ‘I’ll be with you always.’ Then just speak to him in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’ So, I tried it and I’ve liked it so much that I do it a couple of hours every day. I’m careful though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she’d either have a nervous breakdown or send me off to the funny farm.”
The minister was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the old man to continue on the journey, and they shared prayer with one another. Two nights later the daughter called to tell the minister that her father had died that afternoon. The minister asked, “Did he die in peace?”
“Yes, when I left the house about two o’clock, he called me over to his bedside, told me he loved me and kissed me on the cheek. When I got back from the store an hour later, I found him dead. But there was something strange about his death. Apparently, just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on the chair beside the bed. What do you make of that?”
The minister wiped a tear from his eye and said, “I wish we could all go like that” (Source Unknown). We read in Hebrews 13:5b, “God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
How is your prayer life? Do you get caught up in too many distractions, perceived rules, or the mystery of prayer? Find a friend and agree to pray together for 30 days. Talk at least once a week about your experience. God will take care of the rest. I promise you!
(To find out more about Al Earley or read previous articles, see www.lagrangepres.com.)