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The Fourth Chair


Every year or so, my two best friends and I get together for a long weekend of “just the guys.” We live in different states so it is a challenge to coordinate our schedules, family responsibilities and jobs to make it happen.  More than once we’ve had to cancel due to last minute issues that crept up.  Our gatherings so far have taken us to Washington State, Utah, and Colorado.

The purpose of these meetings is invariably fellowship.  We might stay at one of our homes, or go camping. We spend a lot of time talking about our youth as we all attended the same boarding academy and college and at one time or another were roommates.  We also deeply care about each other, and our gathering serves as a way of reviewing the previous year and where our lives have gone.  At times it gets very personal, and deeply spiritual.  Late night around a campfire, in the quiet of a moonless sky, seems to be the most fruitful stimulus for baring one’s self.  I’ve known these guys for decades, and still learn things. 

We spend a lot of time talking about God, and how our picture of Him has matured over the years. We laugh at some of the crazy experiences and messages we heard in boarding academy; the most infamous was a worship talk by the boy’s dean on how there will be no feces in heaven!  In college we were blessed by having Morris Venden, and challenged by the oratory and conviction of Desmond Ford.  It was a time when Adventist theology was stressed and challenged and our view of God and Salvation changed, never to go back to the paradigm of our younger years.  Since then, one of us left Adventism but is now the most spiritual of the group, having actively embraced another Christian faith.  It has not hurt our friendship at all – in fact it gives us far more to talk about.

These gatherings have become one of the highlights of the year, where three guys drop their professional facades, and become “buddies” again.  More importantly, it is a time of soul searching and prayer, a period of fun and rest, an opportunity to encourage one another, and to refresh our purpose and life-focus.  I highly recommend what we’ve come to call ”the gathering” to anyone.

But my intent in writing this is not just to tell you about our gatherings, but about an experience at this year’s gathering that was spent camping in the high country of Western Colorado.  

While loading our supplies for the trip, we packed three camping chairs but at the last minute I added one more; a fourth chair.  This was deliberate because I felt oddly impressed that God would send someone to fill it.  This is not at all typical for me, but just the same I felt impressed to do it. 

When we arrived at our camping spot, we didn’t even set up the fourth chair.  But the next day we had some leftover fresh pineapple from our breakfast and so I walked over the campsite next to us.  No one was outside so I didn’t even know if anyone was there.  After yelling “Hello, anyone home?”, a middle-aged man came out. His name was Tery, and he happily accepted our gift as we started talking.  What happened next still surprises me.

When getting to know someone you look for commonality.  I asked him where he was from and he said Phoenix.  I know one person in Phoenix, so I asked if he was familiar with Pastor Mark Martin of Calvary Community Church? He immediately said he was.  I then told him that Mark, myself, and my other two friends, (pointing in the direction of our camp) had all gone to a small Christian college together and two of us also studied theology together with Mark.  He became very interested in this fact and the conversation eventually went towards Adventism.  He seemed more anxious to talk about it than I was.  He said he had been watching 3ABN and thought they had some excellent speakers on the various programs, he was dissuaded by the emphasis on “Sola Ellen White” instead of the Bible.  Our conversation continued for a few more minutes and then I politely told him we needed to get our day going.  As I walked away he started to follow me and said he would really like to meet the others in our group.  As Tery and I walked over to our campsite I called out to one of my friends to “set up the fourth chair.”  My friend knew exactly what that meant.  What followed was an hour of conversation that started with friendly banter but soon had deeper sharing of spiritual truths mixed with our own unique experiences in our Christian walk.  Tery knew scripture better than any of us and quoted it frequently, and most appropriately, as it applied to our everyday lives.  We were impressed and blessed by this meeting together, and definitely felt this was why we were supposed to bring the fourth chair.  Before he left, we all had prayer together. 

The fourth chair did not get put away that night.  The next morning while fixing breakfast Tery came back over to our campsite with coffee in hand and took his place in the fourth chair.  We had plenty of food so we invited him and his wife to join us for breakfast.  The next two hours we talked more of spiritual things, and how God has manifested himself to us throughout the years.  We discussed our joys and disappointments, the mistakes of youth, and how God has helped us make sense of it all.  When we separated, again we left with prayer. 

Now every time I go camping, there will be an extra chair.  I never would have thought such a simple and benign action could have such significant and blessed consequences.

Don Barton is a Laboratory Informaticist at Delta County Memorial Hospital, in Delta, Colorado.

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