The Uneasy Empty Chair

For 25 years, there’s been an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table, my friend said (I’ll call her Carol). Perhaps not literally. No one expected Carol’s nephew to show up, so perhaps there wasn’t actually a place set, knowing it would stay empty, at the big dining table where the family would gather. But Peter’s absence diminished those feasts. The chair he should have occupied was empty. No one would lovingly prepare that odd corn relish that, for years, Peter had said was his favorite. He was definitely missed.

For the first few of those years, there was some story. He had to be somewhere else. He was working. Finally in year three or four, Carol’s brother pulled her aside and haltingly told what had been unsaid. Peter didn’t have to work. Peter wasn’t joining a friend’s family for Thanksgiving. The news was more complicated.

Peter was in prison.

It’s hard enough when a chair sits empty for reasons that we can own. This Thanksgiving will, for many families, mark the first holiday without mom, or grandpa, or our niece or grandson. Those times are exquisitely painful, and every family will eventually face them. This particular Thanksgiving marks an especially stark holiday for families whose untimely, violent losses we have mourned publicly, too many to name here, ranging from the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June to the early-morning November streets of Des Moines, and from routine traffic stops ending in death in too many months, in too many cities, to shocking numbers of shooting deaths this year in Chicago. We come to this holiday with a sense that far too many families have been rended.

It takes nothing away from our rightful concern for those families to remember also the ones whose absences are shrouded in stigma.

For two, three years, Peter’s family didn’t feel like they could speak their truth. Our son is in prison.  Our boy—the one you delighted in, with us—is in prison. His parents bore unsupported the pain of that breach, exacerbated by the uneasy muttering of excuses and lies, to cover what they felt was unspeakable.

Carol was saddened as much by their inability to say these words sooner as she was by the news of Peter’s fate. That they had felt they must carry this pain alone, that they had not trusted her enough to utter those words:  What does this say about our relationship? Why wasn’t I a safe person to hold this news with them?

Stepping back, one can see that this isn’t about Carol, or Peter’s parents, or their relationship, hardly at all. Our unease with some subjects seems to dictate silence. It happens around incarceration, as it did for Peter’s family. It’s not unusual for a woman I meet in prison to say, “My family doesn’t know I’m here.” A similar silence can happen when a family member is lost for a time to addiction, or is going through recovery, or is sadly impervious to anything resembling “recovery.”

We are similarly mute about mental illness. Our culture still calls that category of medical need “scary,” linking it to fear and danger and actions seemingly out of control, so that we might rather deny that it’s affecting us at all. Silence and blame pervade situations where mental illness affects us and our families. “It’s all in her head,” a friend of mine was told by her public school (!) counselor, referring to my friend’s daughter who has long dealt with depression, anxiety and similar challenges. “They just think I need to try harder,” said a woman I’ll call Teresa, describing her family’s response to her mental illness. I have personally walked alongside Teresa through a long stay in prison that has included a psychotic break, delusional thinking and voices that urge her toward self-harm. She is already trying very hard.

I’m saddened by the chairs uneasily empty for reasons that we can’t (won’t?) even really face. It’s not just an experience these families are having. It’s also happening in our churches.

Do we realize that we are coming to the thanksgiving table whenever we gather for Holy Communion? The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek, eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.” Our communal prayer at the table begins with thanksgiving. The uneasily empty chairs at our families’ Thanksgiving tables are paralleled when we come to communion. Those families’ absences are ours.

It troubles me that the church has not more fully embraced the place it (we!) could and should occupy.  This work belongs to us, to remember and seek out our own brothers and sisters who are missing for reasons that seem unable to be spoken. We can have a pivotal role in the dismantling of stigma, to pave the way to greater truth with greater support and less judgment. Can we hear without flinching? Can we embrace beyond fear? Where can we share our stories in ways that change the public conversation around every one of these “hidden” absences? Let’s practice!

As we more fully embody the incarnational relationships to which we are called, we will help one another to name our needs, and then to claim and receive the support that will help us and our families walk together through the challenges that befall us.

We’ll make that walk together and eventually sit down together, still family, reunited at the table. Like Carol’s family will this week, with Peter, who will join the feast as a free man for the first time in two and a half decades. That favorite corn relish surely is already marinating. Thanks be to God.


Yes, but will we welcome them

Many of us have hailed the news, over past months, that President Obama has commuted the sentences of hundreds of federal prisoners, most of them incarcerated with draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. President Obama has granted clemency at a rate far in excess of other recent presidents. This reflects, it seems, a growing bipartisan recognition that mandatory minimum sentences have not served us well.

Great news, we might say.

But will we welcome them?

In other news, we are beginning to see the release of juvenile offenders whose mandatory life sentences were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. About 2,300 persons were affected by this ruling, but each case has to make its way through the courts, with (usually) re-sentencing, possible appeals, and action by the state’s parole board. Finally this year these releases are beginning to occur around the country.

And how will we respond when they show up on our doorstep? in our churches?

In neither situation are prison doors being thrown open without regard to severity, criminality and behavior while behind bars. President Obama’s actions appear to be based on review of individual files.  Juvenile offenders are subject one by one to new sentencing hearings and parole board scrutiny, making foolish the inflammatory warnings from some quarters about the crime sprees we must now expect. 

Still, both fullsizerender-17of these situations—federal commutations and the release of juvenile “lifers”–are raising complicated questions about how these individuals will manage their return to society. Many of these persons have spent decades in prison under the weight of a sentence that said they would die there. Those incarcerated at a very young age missed out on life stages and experiences that have formed the rest of us. It is a daunting prospect, as some accounts have reminded us, to step into a world that has moved on.

It will be tempting for us to do that, to keep moving on, past this moment in history, through this season of—as many of us believe—increased justice in our system of incarceration and release therefrom. We might pause long enough to wish these men and women well. We surely hope they will make good on this second chance that has been offered to them.

But will we welcome them?

The opportunity might arise when they come to the business where we work, and apply for a job there. Will they be asked to mark “the box”—the one that admits they’ve been convicted of a criminal offense? If they do, will their chance of being hired vanish? Our opening might come when we hear about that kid who plays on the same team with ours, who turns out to be the daughter—or, more likely, the grandchild, or niece—of that guy over there, sitting by himself, looking a little uncomfortable and left out of the easy comradeship of us soccer parents.

The welcome I’m most interested in is the one that comes—or doesn’t—in our churches, and among us church folk. If one of these ex-prisoners wends her way into the church where we sit with our family, comfortably joining in Amazing Grace and Christ for the World We Sing, and passing the peace of Christ to our neighbors, will we move over and make room, smiling warmly and extending our hand in greeting? Will that warmth endure ten minutes or ten months later, after we hear her story and realize that she was one of those lifers, or had a long drug sentence commuted? Will we know how to act when we figure that out?

We may find that it’s easier to celebrate the theory of commutation, and mercy, and justice, than it is to live out the relationships that we have the opportunity to form when justice brings her beneficiaries to sit next to us.

It’s worth wondering, though, what Jesus would do. I think he’d welcome these men and women. They are who he’d spend his time with. Or at least not shrink from.

If this feels daunting, there may be some rough consolation in the possibility that these people have already figured out that the church is not going to be a place for them. I found not a single reference to the church in the Washington Post’s lengthy profile of 46 persons released in 2015 after President Obama commuted their sentences, nor in a recent report about some juvenile lifers released earlier this summer. There are a few references to God, and to faith. But not one story (in this admittedly narrow sample) lifts up the church, and relationships with folks there who are guided by their faith commitments, as providing meaningful and valuable support for this path on which their feet have been set. I suppose it’s possible the writers were purposely avoiding mentioning religion. But still. Ouch.

It’s not that we’re called to welcome people as if they had no criminal history. There may be lingering consequences and there are definitely good boundaries that will need to be set into place as we welcome a person from prison into our churches, our soccer bleachers, and our communities. But let them be reasonable, healthy boundaries that aid thoughtful engagement with other human beings whom we will, in fact, be blessed to know. We will be served well to think ahead of time about these possibilities, so that in the moment we can focus on how, not whether, we will welcome these sisters and brothers.

So, let’s practice our answer to the question of welcome with which we began. “Yes, and won’t you sit here next to me? I can’t wait to know you.” It’s a start.


Photo courtesy of Diane Bottorf, 2003

Forgetting to Notice

FullSizeRender (12)“I forgot to notice,” I said early this morning, of the light cover of snow that was even then sifting down. My husband had just commented on the snow that had appeared on our sons’ cars, out across the big farm driveway where they sit out in all kinds of weather. It surprised me that I didn’t see it.

When snow is to come overnight, that’s usually my first thought upon waking. I’m always excited at the prospect of that transformed landscape. (Yes, I know what some of you are thinking; I am indeed one of those unapologetic snow lovers.) I’ll wake in the night, fumble for my glasses and then peer out our upstairs window to see, in the glow of the barnyard light, whether it really happened.

But today, I forgot to notice.

Some years ago I was moved by the way a colleague paid attention to the unremarkable woman behind the counter at a restaurant where we were placing our lunch orders. I was doing what I do in an unfamiliar restaurant, scanning the menu and figuring out where to order and did I want the smoked chicken or the burnt ends. My ruminations were interrupted when Michael greeted that worker with a few words that reminded me and perhaps her that she was a person. Up to that moment she might have been just an automaton tasked with hearing and properly transmitting our selection among the various menu options, and sizes, and how hot the BBQ sauce should be, and whether or not the iced tea should be sweet. In a moment, with just a few words stunning in their simplicity, my friend summoned the living, breathing human being that she was, with her own story and aspirations and challenges. I left that encounter determined to offer a similar gift to the people I might meet behind counters and in booths and maybe even in my own workplace. At home, even.

But over and over, in the many years since, I have forgotten to notice.

I reminds me of that true word many of us have heard in worship settings, when we’re about to pass the peace of Christ. “Look first for the people you don’t know, and greet them, and only then turn to the ones you do.” Good words. Needful words, whether it’s during that specific worship moment or during fellowship times or on the street outside. I hope I’m not alone, though, in confessing that many times, as the next hymn began, or the reading, or as the children have streamed up for the children’s time, as I’ve settled back into my seat I’ve felt pierced when that realization steals over me: “I forgot to notice.” The moment we stood up, I had glimpsed that friend whom I hadn’t seen for awhile, or remembered some business I could quickly carry out with that committee member over there, and as quickly as it came, that open, receptive, potentially pregnant moment was over.

Even with good intentions, and clarity about what is right to do, I so easily fall back into what’s familiar and comfortable. It’s no wonder that question resounds down through the Bible, including Jesus asking his disciples:  “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (Mark 8.18) Jesus knew us so well.

As this old year ends and the new one begins, I want to remember to notice. To remember to live the vision God has granted.


Inviting “the Other” to the Manger

The essence of the nativity scene is the startling incongruity of who gathers there. Mary and Joseph don’t belong in that barn. It’s no place for a newborn baby. What angel ever chose such a habitation? Add some pungent shepherds and overdressed magi,* and you’ve got a motley party indeed.

FullSizeRender (10)Yet you could look a long time at the nativities that grace our homes, our churches, and our lawns without seeing any oddness in the figures collected there. Whether made of china, of resin, of plastic, of fabric, of wood, they seem invariably designed so that everyone in it fits. If Mary is made of shiny porcelain with hand-painted tendrils of tawny hair, so is the shepherd, and the wise man. If the donkey is hewn out of olive wood, so is Jesus, and the angel. You look at that scene and there is a pleasing harmony among the figures in terms of size, material, color, effect. No one is out of place. Likeness reigns.

It reminds me of our churches, our circles of friends. Our crèches are a reflection of, and perhaps also give permission for, our desire to surround ourselves with people just like us.

I want to crack that open. Whether it’s our churches, our circles or our crèches, I long for us to reach out toward and welcome those who, at first glance, don’t exactly fit. It’s what I’m certain Jesus would do. Where we are most homogenous, we are least likely to see him.

So, let’s begin. Who, right next door to you, or down the street, doesn’t fit your picture of the “perfect Christmas”? How might you include her in some way as you observe this season? What would it look like to spend time with him, even this afternoon?

I’m asking myself this question even as I ask you.

I’m not sure quite what to do out there.  But in here, at least, I’m making a start FullSizeRender (11)by inviting some new characters to the manger, in this last week before the baby arrives. I’ve always loved that the stable offers a wide-open welcome for us to eavesdrop on the holy labors within. If we’ll let “the other” do that with us, maybe we can begin to make space for him or her in our churches, our activities, our hearts.



*The magi are part of a whole other Christmas story—Matthew’s (Matthew 2)—and arrive probably months or even two years after the stable we visit in Luke’s version of Christmas (Luke 2).

Right Next Door connections

In October 2015 we hosted a conference focused on how churches and communities can better connect to people we have overlooked. That includes persons affected by incarceration, mental illness, sexual violence, domestic abuse, addiction, poverty and the like. Participants–and those who connect after that fact–are invited to continue the conversation. We’ve set up this page where you can comment and share what you’re doing, how we can support you, what ideas you have and more. We’ll be watching for your comments here!