No Empty Chairs


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Welcome, everybody! I’m so glad you’re here. I’m excited to get started with this podcast project I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Some of you may be familiar with me from my podcast Finding Fifty with Mette Ivie Harrison, my best friend from high school who no longer participates at church. Some of you are brand new. Welcome, all! In this podcast I hope to provide you with some ideas that will increase the likelihood that there will be no empty chairs at your kitchen table.

For this first episode I want to talk a little bit about where the name of the podcast comes from. There’s an idea that circulates among the members of my faith community that parents need to make sure there are no empty chairs at the family table in heaven. As far as I can tell, this idea originated with the prophet President Ezra Taft Benson. He was the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 10 November 1985 until his death, 30 May 1994, which is essentially the time that I was in high school and college. Pr. Benson placed renewed emphasis on studying The Book of Mormon as another testament of Jesus Christ. That was the hallmark of his time as the prophet.

I’d like to read just a couple of paragraphs from Chapter 14 of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson on “Marriage and Family–Ordained of God.” It says: 

“From the beginning of their marriage, Ezra and Flora Benson made their home and family their top priority. When their children were young, they began emphasizing that they wanted their family to have no “empty chairs” in the eternities. President Benson emphasized this same message during his service as a Church leader. He said:

“God intended the family to be eternal. With all my soul, I testify to the truth of that declaration. May He bless us to strengthen our homes and the lives of each family member so that in due time we can report to our Heavenly Father in His celestial home that we are all there—father, mother, sister, brother, all who hold each other dear. Each chair is filled. We are all back home.” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, page 493.)

There’s a lot to love about this idea. I think it’s motivated by a desire for our children to know that we love and value them. As parents we want to remember that our family is our priority. We want to tend lovingly to each family member’s spiritual, social, physical and intellectual health. Encouraging that is what the Children and Youth program of the Church is built around. And it makes sense that we want to have the people we love with us, now and in the eternities. 

It gets a little sticky for me when I think of reporting to our Heavenly Parents that we are all there, as if that were something I have control over.

It is NOT something I have control over.

What I have control over is me. In my church we call this power to control ourselves “agency,” and it belongs to each of us as children of God, even our own children. In fact, before we came to earth God rejected a proposal that we would each come to earth and then be forced to do things the “right” way so we would all return to be with our Heavenly Parents without fail.

I think the reason that proposal was rejected is because that isn’t how it works. We CAN’T grow and develop to become like our Heavenly Parents without having the opportunity to make mistakes, and lots of them. Experience is the best teacher, and it’s what we came to earth for. And it’s why we have a Savior.

As I was researching this idea of no empty chairs, I came across an article from the Ensign magazine titled “No Empty Chairs.” The anonymous author shares how she first tried a drug while she was working in a nightclub. She says, 

“My grandfather’s face flashed across my mind just before I decided to put the deadly poison into my system.

The next morning, I found out that he had died during the night. My grandfather, feeling that his death was imminent, had recorded a tape to be played at his funeral. In it he told us that he wanted to see every single one of us on the other side of the veil. “Always remember,” he said in his tape, “no empty chairs.” As I listened, I felt sad and embarrassed about my inactivity in the Church and about what I had done.

But the shame I felt didn’t stop me….

I had become an “empty chair.” I felt as though Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ could never forgive me for what I’d done. Every time I would even consider trying to clean up my life during the moments when I could think clearly, self-loathing and discouragement took over. I would then give up on myself again.”

Shame doesn’t stop us from making bad decisions. It feels terrible and often leads to more bad decisions. “No Empty Chairs” sounds good when everyone is complying with expectations. When they don’t meet expectations, it can be poison, fueling self-loathing and discouragement like it did for this woman. 

Shame, according to Brene Brown, is the 
“intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

And I think sometimes that is the feeling people get when we talk about them as “empty chairs.”

I like to think of a baby learning to walk. Most of them fall down. A lot. And getting back up is the way they develop the muscle strength and coordination to keep progressing toward an ability to walk. As a parent, I want to be there to love and encourage. I want to give guidance that will keep them from serious harm that is outside their understanding. And I want to let them fall down so they can become stronger by getting back up.

That last part can seem particularly challenging as a parent of older children who may be making mistakes that we deem more serious. Drug use, sex outside of marriage, taking physical risks. It can feel more challenging to discern when to let them fall down and when to prevent them from serious harm that we think is outside their understanding. At some point along the way we have to hand them the title deed of their own lives as adults and let them do with them what they will.

Sometimes it seems like it would be a better idea to micromanage them along through all of the decisions so they’re doing what we think is best. We have really good ideas, and we love them! But we cannot yet love them perfectly and we don’t actually know what is best for them, or what path their journey toward God’s love will take. When I remember this, I return my focus to what I can control, which is only me. I can continually work toward being more loving and less fearful myself.

The anonymous author I mentioned above continues her story:

“Finally, two years after I’d first taken the drug, I mustered up what courage I had and decided I could not go on like this anymore, or I would end up dead. There was an LDS church across the street from where I lived. I knew what I needed to do, and although I was scared, I walked across the street. I did not know who the bishop was; I just knew I had to talk to him.

I will never forget that bishop who invited me in with such kindness, charity, and compassion. When I met him I was very nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was afraid of what he would think of me. Gently, he asked me to explain everything to him….With his encouragement, I decided to start the quitting process.”

Kindness, the pure love of Christ, compassion, gentleness. These are feelings that create an environment where someone feels safe to be who they are. When it’s safe to be who we are, we often decide we want to grow because we feel encouraged.

Lately I’ve had a couple of phrases from the New Testament running through my mind. One is from 1 John 4:18-19 

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear…We love him, because he first loved us.”

I worry less and less about my children loving God, or even loving me, and put my energy toward loving them right now, exactly as they are. My only responsibility is to keep picking myself up off the floor and walking ever more steadily toward my loving Heavenly Parents.

I also think of the story in Mark 10:17-22. A man comes running to Jesus wanting to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the commandments and he asserts that he has observed them from his youth. 

“Then Jesus beholding him loved him.”

Even though, I imagine, Jesus knew what was coming next. “Jesus beholding him loved him.” Jesus didn’t love him because he kept the commandments. Jesus just loved him, knowing that in a moment he was going to value his great possessions more than eternal life. Knowing that this man had not yet become as loving as we all eventually need to become to actually be like Jesus, Jesus saw him and loved him.

The way I like to think about “No Empty Chairs” is that heaven will take care of itself. President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shared this: 

“A prophet of God once offered me counsel that gives me peace. I was worried that the choices of others might make it impossible for our family to be together forever. He said, “You are worrying about the wrong problem. You just live worthy of the celestial kingdom, and the family arrangements will be more wonderful than you can imagine.”

I have the idea that there may just be all kinds of people living on the earth when it is renewed and receives its paradisiacal glory. I think what may constitute the highest order of heaven is the capacity to love like God loves. It isn’t a place; it’s a way of being with other people. I heard Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife speak once about the ability to metabolize evil, to receive what comes our way with softness, to extract what is nutritious and useful for us, and let the rest go, without becoming defensive or reacting with similar behavior. This way of being improves our own experience and increases our influence for good on the people around us. But it doesn’t control them, just like our Heavenly Parents don’t control us. They operate from love, desiring our growth, rather from fear and worry that we are getting it wrong.

We don’t need to worry. We are going to get it wrong. So are our kids. That’s a given. What’s also a given for me is the infinite power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ to redeem me AND my children. I choose to believe that nothing has gone wrong.

Let’s not worry about having “empty chairs” in heaven. Let’s lovingly extend a standing invitation for our children to fill the chairs at our kitchen table now, just as they are, whatever they believe, and whenever they’re ready. And let’s not think of our children as empty chairs.