Dan Gill has taught social studies at a middle school in New Jersey for thirty years. That alone makes him worthy of recognition. But all these years, he has followed a practice I found especially noteworthy: he keeps an empty chair in the front corner of his classroom.
He explained that it “symbolizes that we will always have room in the classroom for anyone.”
He learned his passion for diversity at a young age. As a nine-year-old in New York City, Gill went to a friend’s birthday party along with his best friend at the time, a Black student named Archie Shaw. The child’s mother told Archie that he had to go home because “there are no more chairs.”
Gill said, “I felt so bad because he had been humiliated. We gave her the presents and I said we’re going to go to my house, where there are plenty of chairs.” When he began his teaching career fifty-two years ago, he started a tradition of telling the story to his students annually on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. He added an empty chair to his classroom thirty years ago and it has remained there ever since.
His story struck me on a personal level for reasons I’ll explain today.
Why standing on one leg matters
At this writing, an earthquake that struck Afghanistan yesterday morning has killed more than one thousand people, with more than fifteen hundred injured and the death toll expected to grow. In other news, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jaylon Ferguson has died at the age of twenty-six; a cause of death has not yet been announced. A search is continuing this morning for a gunman who shot two people, one fatally, on a packed commuter train in San Francisco yesterday.
And a new study indicates that an inability to stand on one leg for ten seconds in later life is linked to nearly double the risk of death from any cause within the next decade. A medical professor explained that one leg standing requires good balance, is “linked to brain function, good muscle strength, and good blood flow,” and “likely integrates muscular, vascular, and brain systems.” As a result, “it is a global test of future mortality risk.”
What do these stories have in common? They all illustrate the personal dimension of Christian empathy.
I was tempted to pass over the tragedy in Afghanistan in a way I would not if it had occurred in Dallas, where I live. If Jaylon Ferguson had played for the Dallas Cowboys, his sudden death would have felt more personal. If I lived in San Francisco, I would be more concerned about the unidentified gunman.
And I had to try the ten-second standing test. I passed, which makes the news feel less relevant to me than if I had not.
How to be led into “all truth”
This week, we’ve been exploring my assertion that it is always too soon to give up on God. No matter how dark the night, Jesus is still the “light of the world” (John 8:12). He will forgive every sin we confess to him (1 John 1:9) and transform any life entrusted to his grace (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Here’s my problem: rather than give up on God, I’m tempted to give up on the world. On one hand, I can ignore suffering that does not affect me directly. On the other, I can empathize with our hurting world so deeply that I develop compassion fatigue and withdraw from our culture.
The best approach is to seek the heart of Christ for every person I meet and every story I hear. If I begin the day with him and walk in his presence through the day, his Spirit will teach me what to say and when to say it (Luke 12:12), give me strength to defeat temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), and lead me into “all truth” (John 16:13). (For more on the privilege and power of daily intimacy with Jesus, please see my latest blog, “My Apple Watch is smarter than I am.”)
In the context of cultural challenges, the Spirit will guide me to those issues that align with my kingdom call and will give me discernment to know what stories and subjects should be my focus. And he will give me the compassionate courage of Christ wherever I need to experience and extend his grace.
Meet the first three British martyrs
Alban lived in third-century Britain in the Roman city of Verulamium. One day he gave shelter to a Christian priest fleeing persecution. While protecting him, Alban was inspired by the priest’s faith and asked to be taught about Christianity. As a result, he came to faith in Christ.
When the authorities caught up with the priest, Alban’s newfound faith would not allow them to arrest him. Instead, he exchanged clothes with the priest and was arrested, allowing the priest to escape. Alban refused to renounce his beliefs, so the magistrate ordered that he should receive the punishment intended for the priest.
As a result, he was led out of Verulamium and up the hillside where he was beheaded, becoming the first Christian martyr in the British Isles.
Before his death, the executioner assigned to kill him became so impressed with his faith that he became a believer as well and refused to kill Alban. The executioner was then executed, becoming the second Christian martyr in Britain.
The third was the priest. When he learned that Alban had been arrested in his place, he hurried to the court in hopes of saving Alban by turning himself in. He was then martyred as well. The place of their deaths is near the site of St Alban’s Cathedral today.
If the Spirit of Christ could empower them to die for Jesus, won’t he give us the compassionate courage we need to live for him?
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