The Empty Chair

The holidays are a joyful time of celebration full of family gatherings, gift-giving, laughter, and usually eating way too much food. Most of us eagerly anticipate the coming of each holiday season, looking forward to another Thanksgiving meal together, another Christmas, another New Year of new beginnings and hope. But for too many families that I know personally, including my own, the holidays are all too often a painful reminder that our families are sadly and sorrowfully broken.

We are the parents of prodigal children.

Michael Coughlin, in his article, “Hey, About Your Prodigal.” says:

John (in regard to “spiritual children”) said that he has no greater joy than to hear that his children walk in the truth (3 John 1:4). Inversely, how great is the despair experienced by the parents of a son or daughter who follows the wide road? I have heard stories of godly men and women who have over a half a dozen Bible-believing, Christ-following kids, who have been brought to utter despair and depression over the one that won’t submit to Christ.”

It’s not something we really talk about. Some people may not even know we are going through it. We don’t go through life holding up a sign that says, “Parent of a wayward kid”. It’s what I might describe as a silent sadness. The sadness isn’t constant, and we don’t live in an unending state of depression. But it’s always just under the surface, and it doesn’t take much for the sadness to resurface and the tears to come.

For the parents of prodigals, Christmas shopping is hard.

While others are out in the bustling stores with their lists of family and friends they are buying for, we are always reminded of the gifts we won’t be buying. I used to always buy 3 sets of Christmas Eve pajamas for my kids. (Yes, I still do this even though they are grown!) Now I only buy 2. And it hurts.
At Thanksgiving meals and the annual Christmas gatherings, there is a cousin, a niece, nephew, or grandchild that is conspicuously absent. A chair at the table that won’t be needed. It isn’t the same as being absent because of a work schedule, or that they live too far away to make it home this year. There won’t be a FaceTime call while we open gifts. There won’t even be a text message. There is just absence. The absence is a sad reminder of our child’s sinful choices, and that they’ve chosen that life over the family who has raised them, loved them, sacrificed for them, and taught them in the ways of the Lord. They have forsaken it all for the call of the world.
Oh, we do still have joy in celebrations with family. There is laugher and fun. But there’s always a piece that is missing.

If you have loved ones in your life who are the parents of prodigals, here are some things you can do:

*Pray that our lost children will come home.

We are always praying for our children. We pray for God to do whatever it would take to change his heart and draw him to repentance. If you join us in also praying for them and let us KNOW you are praying for them it means so much. And not just for their return to our home, but a return to the God they have rejected and to a saving faith in Christ.

*Acknowledge their absence.

We know our children aren’t there. And we know that YOU know our children aren’t there. But it’s ok to acknowledge what has happened and just be there with us in it. It doesn’t have to be an “elephant in the room”. You can speak their names, and even tell us you are praying that they will be back with us again one day. I realize that it may be hard to know what to say, but trust me, saying something thoughtful and kind is better than pretending our kids don’t exist.

*Be mindful of our pain.

While we are celebrating the holiday season with you, remember that sometimes certain things may trigger sadness. It may be looking through old photos, or not seeing our child’s stocking hanging on the mantle anymore. So there may be some moments that you notice we are quieter than usual, or not joining in the conversation. Just know that we’ll be ok, but may just need some time to ourselves.

*Know that we still love our children.

While our prodigal kids have caused us much grief and pain, they are still our children, and we still love them. Please don’t run them down to us or be insensitive. We know what they’ve done and we don’t need a play-by-play re-hashing of events to remind us. Trust me, we know. Be kind.

There is a poem by Michelle Lesley that perfectly captures that heart and the experience of being a prodigal’s parent.

The Prodigal’s Mom

There’s an empty chair at the table
Where my child once used to sit
When we all broke bread together
A family whole and fit

There’s an empty place in the photo
As his siblings celebrate
Without him again, missing him in
The memories they create

There’s an empty stocking at Christmas
Another year far from home
Joy with tarnished edges
As the wayward one still roams

There’s an empty place in my heart
That longs to be peaceful, content
Praying my child heeds the call of Christ
But fearing he’ll never repent

And so goes the song – it goes on and on –
Of a godly mother’s heart
Life’s full of empty moments
Her prodigal’s sin imparts

Until our knees and hearts are raw
We pray and pray again
A thousand tears we offer up
“How long, O Lord?” and “When?”

And the Father who once welcomed us home
– For we were His prodigals too –
Says, “Come and rest, and stand the test,
My grace is sufficient for you.”

For whatever reason, God has chosen us to walk this long, dark road. We wouldn’t have chosen it for ourselves, but we walk it nonetheless. We accept that He has a reason for it and that He has something good to bring from it, and His grace IS sufficient to get us through it. Hopefully and prayerfully we will see the day that our prodigal returns. That the Father will run to greet him in love, rejoicing that a child has come home. We ache for that day to come, even though we accept that it might not. Only God knows. We just keep trusting and having faith. Even though we hurt. Even though there is sadness. Jesus said,

“In this world you will have sorrow, but take heart, I have overcome the world” ( John 16:33 )

So even though the holidays for us are bittersweet, we celebrate the coming of our Savior who indeed DID come to bring us “second birth”. Without Him there would be no hope for the prodigal. Or for any of us. I pray a blessed Christmas season for you and yours, and if you are the parent of a prodigal child, or even SEVERAL prodigal children, I pray for them to come to the end of themselves, to repent, and for our homes and families to finally be whole again.

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