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Chapter 1994: Empty Chairs

One of the most bittersweet realities of decades in campus ministry is that you grow older. Alone. It’s not a bad thing, just hard sometimes. Anyone in campus ministry for a long time will echo the same thought.

Since 1994 I have relived the cycle of the four-year college student. I have shared with many as they moved from their parent’s home and ventured into the realm of independence. Again and again I have been able to walk alongside a student as they overcame the initial learning curves of how to be an adult.

When I was younger my role was as a peer. Jenny and I shared with our college students as someone who was only 5 years (or less) ahead of them. We laughed, cried, questioned, failed, succeeded and learned together. Many of us built families together. We sat at the table of life together to fellowship and dream. We share in that spirit and rhythm to this day. Our seasons are the same even though we are far apart.

As I became older my role changed. It changed from being a peer to knowing the way. I no longer walked through life as a peer, but as a guide. My ministry became teaching from what I had learned and the mistakes I have made. The connection with students came with a different hat. The hat I needed to wear asked me to learn to mentor and become transparent and confessional. I needed to learn to guide instead of leaning on the joy of adventure. My failures and limitations became a stronger resource. I learned to allow others to grow without imposing on them my thoughts and views as absolute. This is not very easy.

Every May I break up with a group of students. Every August I make room in my life and heart for brand new friends. I am a year older. They are still 18. I am another season beyond them. They are still 18. My worldview, my culture, my interests have altered with time and health. They are still 18. I am not able to continue on a linear road into the next season alongside those next to me in the same season. Half of me is always asked to return to year 18. It is a feeling of being stretched. Without Christ’s love and gift of grace, it would be impossible.

It can be lonely in this role. Sometimes I felt as though I was the only one at the table. Was mine the only chair? Had I wasted or destroyed the chairs of others? Was I able to help them know they will always have a seat at this table? It is a double-edged sword to see more empty seats around the table. It is a reminder of both the change and disconnect that is required of campus ministry and the sense of legacy and bonds that transcend time and distance.

Along the way, I have seen many dear friends leave the table. I have added additional chairs to make room for new friends. I sit down at the table and see both new faces and empty chairs. Some have left behind coffee cups half-filed. I try to pick them up, clear the table, and reset for another serving. I see the water circles ingrained on the wood from cups of the past. I am reminded of many conversations, dreams, and visions in which we wrestled to make the most of every opportunity for the students in our care.

Campus ministry can be filled with empty chairs. Countless memories remain of friends, families, and fellow Christians who have moved into other stories, experiences, and seasons. There is not a single day that goes by where I am not summoned back in time to another moment within the UC facility where I sat and visited, dreamed, prayed, and hoped with someone who is no longer present. We shared in the passion and vision of how wonderful and full of fire is the impact of campus ministry in the generations of the kingdom of God. Our voices and our hearts sold out together to nurturing students through the process of growing up in faith. We shared communion every day together at this post and accepted the call.

Life has separated us. Stories have diverged. But campus ministry is about lighting a flame in the hearts of those who come today. To help them sing about tomorrow. To see a world reborn and hear voices ringing in the future - this will always fill the empty chairs.

There's a grief that can't be spoken

There's a pain goes on and on

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone

Here they talked of revolution

Here it was they lit the flame

Here they sang about tomorrow

And tomorrow never came

From the table in the corner

They could see a world reborn

And they rose with voices ringing

And I can hear them now!

The very words that they had sung

Became their last communion

On this lonely barricade at dawn

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me

That I live and you are gone

There's a grief that can't be spoken

There's a pain goes on and on

Phantom faces at the window

Phantom shadows on the floor

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will meet no more

Oh my friends, my friends

Don't ask me what your sacrifice was for

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more

(Les Miserables)

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