“Getting Through The Garden”
The ball game was over. The final score flashed on the scoreboard as the fans shuffled out of the stadium. A few ballplayers remained, signing autographs and chatting with fans. Baseballs were signed, some pictures were taken; overall, it was just another afternoon ballgame, finished and soon to be forgotten.
Then something unusual happened. A man noticed and nudged his friend, who in turn called out to someone he knew. Soon quite a few people had stopped in their tracks to turn and stare at the field. As they stood and stared, here is what the crowd saw:
One of the players was standing at home plate. Beside him stood a small child, about seven or eight years old. The ballplayer took the little girl by the hand and they began to walk slowly down the first base line. They stopped and the little girl leaned down and picked up a handful of dirt. She rubbed it in her fingers and smelled it. She let it fall from her hand as the ballplayer led here to first base. There she stepped on the bag as the ballplayer began talking to her, saying things that the crowd couldn’t hear. They moved from first to second, then second to third, stopping occasionally along the way. All the while the ballplayer continued to talk to the little girl. As they rounded third, he picked her up and broke into a brisk jog, as she burst into laughter. When they reached home plate the ballplayer jumped and landed on it with both feet, then threw his tiny companion up in the air, catching her and laughing all the while. The ballplayer then knelt down and hugged the young girl, taking off his hat and putting it on her head.
Her father came over and took her by the hand as she said her goodbyes to her new friend. After a moment, the father and his daughter turned and started to walk away. Then they stopped, and the father produced a small item from his pocket and handed it to the little girl. She quickly unfurled it for the entire crowd to see – it was a collapsible cane, the kind that the visually impaired use.
That’s when it hit the crowd. She had been at the ballgame, had heard the sounds and smelled the smells, but she had no idea what it was like to see baseball. Her father had taken her to the fence and asked one of the players to help her “see” the game better, and he had obliged, laying aside his time to help her better understand. With that, the crowd slowly began applauding, one here, two there, until all of those who remained were clapping as hard as they could, showering the little girl and her guide with their admiration. (Adapted from Darrell Pearson's, "The Slowest Homerun")
Much like the little girl in our story, sometimes in the ministry there are certain things that we are called to deal with that we don’t always understand. Some of us are asked to offer advice on marriage while we are still single. Others are asked to give guidance during a divorce without ever having any firsthand experience in the matter. In those instances, we do the best we can with what knowledge we have, diligently trying to “do what Jesus would do” and hoping that it is sufficient. And God honors our efforts with His Holy Spirit, sent to fill in where our strength and insight fall short.
But how much better is our advice when we have personal knowledge! When we can speak and draw from our own experiences! Not only do we know what to say, we also know what not to say – or if we should say anything at all. Our compassion and empathy are somehow more authentic and powerful when we truly can understand what the other person is going through.
One of the toughest, most soul wrenching aspects of the ministry is dealing with grief. Whether it is personal grief or the grief of the people to whom we are called, whether it is over the death of a loved one or the end of a marriage, grief touches every life. Some of us have been blessed that our lives have not yet been touched by grief; our parents are happily married, we’re doing well in our work, and we’ve never lost a loved one or friend. And this is good; it affords us a certain perspective on life that is beneficial in ministry. But ultimately there will come a time when a student in our ministry, or a parishioner in our pews will feel the sting of grief. A marriage will dissolve. A parent will die unexpectedly, or even after a long period of suffering. A family will have to sell their house to escape indebtedness. In each of these cases, we will be expected to offer ministry to those affected. How will we be able to help?
In the twenty-second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are presented a glimpse into the grief of Jesus Christ. His response to the impending death on the cross provides us with not only a road map for our own grief, but also insight into how we can minister to those who are grieving in our churches. And like the little girl who took the ballplayer’s hand, if we’ll hold on to the hand of Jesus, He’ll take us through the Garden and help us “see” grief a little better.
Beginning with verse thirty-nine, reading from the Holman Christian Standard:
39 He went out and made His way as usual to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples also followed Him. 40 When He reached the place, He told them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 Then He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and began to pray, 42 “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me—nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.”
[43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. 44 Being in anguish, He prayed more fervently, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.]
Luke 22:39-44 (HCSB)
We all understand the context of this story. On the night of his betrayal by Judas, Jesus, after the Passover meal, went with his disciples to the garden of Gethsemane on the side of Mount Olivet. Once in the garden he took three of his most trusted disciples and went deeper into the garden to pray. There he cautioned them to pray against temptation, and Christ went off on his own to speak with his Father about his approaching sacrifice. We have heard this passage preached numerous times, and many of us have recently seen a dramatic portrayal of it on the big screen in “The Passion of the Christ.” In the rushing tide of the dramatic events of that last night of Jesus’ life, we sometimes rush through this scene in an effort to get to the Cross. If we race by it, though, we miss an opportunity to see an extraordinary picture of how to deal with grief. As He begins the suffering of His passion, Christ presents us a four-step model that we can use both professionally and personally when dealing with grief.
A man once got into a massive car accident when, according to witnesses, he deliberately burst through a railroad crossing guard-arm and onto the tracks, just in time to collide with the speeding engine of the train. Defying all odds he survived the accident and was rushed to the hospital for treatment. While he was there the police came to interview him, and possibly arrest him. When asked why he didn’t stop when he heard the clanging bell and saw the flashing lights of the crossing, he replied, “I had dropped a CD on my floorboard. I looked down to get it and the next thing I knew, I was hitting the train. I didn’t see the signals because I wasn’t looking ahead of me.”
Most people do not anticipate grief overtaking their life. When we look to the future it’s to plan how we will enjoy it – not how we might overcome suffering. Often our theology doesn’t make any room for determining how to handle real grief. We offer our people and ourselves the pat answer that Jesus said, “In this life you will have trouble,” and we bury the pain and move on. But the prophet Isaiah tells us that this same Jesus was “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, NASB). Jesus was familiar with grief in His earthly life: He wept over Lazarus and Jerusalem; He carried the burdens of His people; He carried the burden of His destiny.
And in the Garden of Gethsemane we find him, on the night of his deepest grief, praying as usual. It was Jesus’ custom, as Luke tells us in 21:37, to spend time in this garden in prayer with His Father. During those times of intimate conversation, those times of heart-to-heart talks, I believe Jesus found the strength to go forward in His calling. And here, in this moment of agony, He returns to the arms of His Father to find the answers that He needs. We cannot know what was said in those private conversations between Father and Son, but we can see the resultant obedience born from a relationship that was actively cultivated before the grief came crashing in.
Times of private prayer and conversation with the Father are needed if we want to be prepared when grief comes into our lives. As called ministers of the Gospel of Christ, we must be spiritually ready for whatever events may come. When that telephone rings in the middle of the night, or that deacon comes to our office with a note in his hand, our ability to respond in a godly way depends on the preparations we have made in our daily walk with God. If we have spent time with Him, getting to know His character, falling more in love with Him daily, then we can speak with assurance and comfort about what He will do in the lives of our people in their time of need. If we have neglected Him, we can only offer flat, lifeless clichés that ring hollow in the hearts of those who grieve.
This same principle applies to our personal lives as well. I am not a great man of prayer – I have not achieved the discipline to pray for multiple hours on end, focused and listening for the voice of God. I am instead one who prays briefly many times a day, offering my thoughts and heart to the Father and waiting for His response in my life. But even that small amount of discipline was of great help to me when my daughter passed away. It did not minimize the shock or pain of the event; it didn’t take away the hurt when spoke at her funeral; but it did give me the outlet I needed when the pain was at its worst, because I knew I could go to God and He would hear me. Being familiar with God was the greatest preparation for my personal act of grieving – because grieving involves a lot of questioning and wondering and begging and shouting, and having a God there who not only hears all of that, but accepts and understands it, is incalculable in its value.
The second thing that we see Jesus do was to fall to His knees in prayer. Rabbis at this time most often stood when they prayed, eyes lifted to heaven. But here we see the Son of God on his knees in the dirt. Matthew writes that He “fell with his face to the ground” (Matthew 26:39). Either way the picture is one of humility: Jesus, the God-man, on His face before the Father, humble, broken, incapable of carrying on alone.
The story is told of a little boy playing baseball alone in the front yard. He tosses the ball to himself and swings mightily with his bat, but he misses. “Strike one,” he says. He tosses the ball again, swings again and misses again – “Strike two!” He throws the ball up a third time, and a third time the ball falls to the ground with a thud. “Strike three! Yer outta there!” The next-door neighbor’s son, who had been watching through the fence, yells out, “You’re the lousiest hitter there ever was!” To which the young man responds, “No I’m not. I’m the greatest pitcher there ever was!”
We don’t like to admit weakness or defeat. We like to think that we have the answers necessary to deal with whatever curveballs life throws at us. But often we don’t. We don’t know what to do when the young couple calls and tells us they’ve had a miscarriage. We aren’t certain what to say when someone tells us that their husband is cheating on them with another woman. Rather than offering something that might be hurtful and offensive at worst, and marginally comforting at best, we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and humble ourselves. Some of the most comforting words that we can ever offer a grieving person are “I don’t know.” Often, what is sought after most is not rhetoric or explanation, but a humble presence in which to cry. When we confess to both God and the bereaved that we don’t have all the answers, then we find ourselves in a unique place of opportunity, a place where we can really minister in a meaningful way as conduits of the presence and love of God.
Humility is just as necessary for our personal walks when we are grieving. It is one thing to be humble when someone else is struggling and we are the shoulder they cry on. We can share in the comforting of pain, but not in the experience of it in our hearts. No, we must endure our own pain for us to see how humility truly benefits the grieving. While it is good therapy to seek out answers wherever they can be found, the great question still goes unanswered: why did God allow this to happen? Pride often swells up within us and we demand to know why this tragedy or this circumstance would happen to us. Especially when we are in the ministry! Shouldn’t we be exempt from pain and loss and grief?
The short answer is no. God is in control, He is allowing and in some cases ordaining these events to happen for reasons that belong to Him and Him alone. He is sovereign and wise, and we come to a point in our grief where we find comfort and peace in acknowledging that. Admitting to God that we are weak and in need of His help opens a channel in our soul through which we can receive grace and mercy and joy again. Maybe not right now, maybe not tomorrow, but one day. And in the intervening time, we come to know our Father more deeply, more fully, than ever before.
A salesman came down the dusty driveway towards the little clapboard house. By the way things looked, he couldn’t expect a sale here. He stepped onto the front porch and knocked on the door loudly. No response. He knocked again. Still no one came to the door. He ventured around to the rear of the house and came upon an old man on his knees in the dust, apparently praying. As the salesman drew near, he heard the farmer say, “Well Lord, I think the weather just really stinks. This drought is getting old. And I honestly don’t like the way that my crops are turning out. I’d be a lot happier if You’d do something about it. Amen.” And with that the old farmer stood and turned to find the salesman standing there. “Howdy,” the old man said, “you caught me in the middle of my prayers.” The salesman was taken aback by the old man’s casual way of praying. He said, “I think that you were a little disrespectful in the way you addressed God.” The farmer replied, “Sonny, do I look like I can make it rain?” “No,” the salesman responded. “Who do you think controls that?” the farmer asked. “God,” said the salesman. “Well, if God controls the rain, and I don’t, then the only thing I can really do is tell Him how I feel about it.”
Jesus knew that His purpose was to offer Himself on Calvary. He knew that was where He was headed, and that every passing minute in the Garden only drew Him closer to the time of His death. Kneeling there in prayer, in agony of spirit, He confessed to His Father that He didn’t want to go through with the Cross. “If you are willing, take this cup from me.” A clear, honest appeal for the burden of the Cross, and of the sins of Mankind, to be lifted from His shoulders and placed somewhere else. Jesus is not spiteful, nor is He disrespectful, but in earnest He is seeking His Father’s face to know what lay ahead of Him. And just as honestly, Jesus confesses His obedience to the Father – “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Two statements, seemingly in conflict, connected by one thing: an emotional and spiritual honesty that says, “Even though I’d rather not, I will if that’s what you want.”
A lot of us have no problem being honest with others. We are able to tell them even the most painful of truths with a minimum of discomfort. This strength is necessary when ministering to those who are grieving. Where some would seek to avoid the truth and offer sweetly couched lies, we are called to acknowledge the tough issues and questions and give honest, if difficult, answers.
But we can only be honest with others if we have first been honest with God and ourselves. Jesus gives us that example – take this cup if you will, but in the end, I’ll do what you want. Honesty with God involves not only telling God how we feel and what we’d like to see happen, but also telling Him whether or not we’ll accept His decision. A lot of us come to personal tragedy unprepared to roll with the decisions God has made. I struggled mightily with the death of my daughter. I had prayed often during the pregnancy that God would protect Ruthanne and bring her safely into this world, and if He didn’t, that I would be okay with that and would still praise Him because she would be with Him in heaven.
I was lying. To God and to myself.
I wanted God to do things my way, and I wasn’t willing to accept any other alternatives. Jesus was. And if we want to minister with grace, and cope with grace, then we need to be honest with God about what we want and what we can accept – and then ask for His strength to accept what He has planned.
The final thing that Jesus did was accept the will of the Father and the strength that God had to offer Him for the task ahead: “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” The text does not say the angel offered strength to Him – it says that Jesus accepted the strength that the angel offered, and in doing so, accepted the Father’s will for His life. Another way of saying this would be that He surrendered to God’s will and God’s grace. Rather than fighting His Father, rather than shaking an angry fist at the angel and shouting at God’s face, Jesus took the divine portion offered Him and went obediently into the waiting snare of the Enemy.
A little girl and her brother were swimming in the backyard pool. They were wrestling playfully when the little girl pushed her brother under the water and held him there for a moment. Suddenly the boy went limp. The little girl reached down and pulled him up to the surface, and then dragged him to the edge of the pool. With all of her strength she hoisted him out of the pool and onto the deck, where she began to perform CPR. Inside the house, the mother was folding clothes, when suddenly her daughter burst into the room in tears, wailing out the story of her fallen brother. The mother told her to calm down and repeat herself, and when the little girl did the mother began to tear up. “So you gave you brother CPR? Is he okay now?” she asked. The little girl replied, “No, he’s going to die because I can’t finish CPR – he keeps pushing me away!”
Grieving people often push away those who wish to help them. Some choose to try and handle the pain themselves by burying it inside their hearts. Others choose to avail themselves of only friends and family. As ministers, we can only offer help to those who are grieving; we cannot force them to take it. There have been more than a few ministers who saw themselves as a superhero when tragedy struck, only to be repelled by those in mourning. I can recall a minister in my area who sprang into action after a car wreck took the lives of three kids at a local high school. Everyday he went to the school and tried to get students to talk to him about what had happened, and everyday he pretty much got shut out. When students did respond to his inquiries, it was to tell him that they had already spoken to someone about the wreck and they didn’t need his help. He got discouraged and angry with God and ultimately quit reaching out to students – in all contexts. When we are called on to minister to those who are grieving, we need to sincerely offer ourselves and then accept whatever decision the grief-stricken person makes, even if that means we do nothing more to help them. In the long run, simply being there to offer help and not forcing the issue, is of more comfort than we can imagine.
And when tragedy strikes us on a personal level we really begin to understand that concept. When we grieve we long for people to just accept our grief for what it is, a deep pain that we can’t quickly dispose of, and to accept that we must deal with it in the best way we know how. But we must also remember that we cannot get through our grief alone – we need the strength that God provides, and He often provides it through the words, hugs and deeds of others. We can find small ways of healing by letting the body of Christ minister to us in our times of need. Accepting the love that others have for us is akin to Jesus accepting the strengthening of the angel. In letting others minister to us, we say to them and to God that the grief is real and that we accept the circumstances of it. And when we accept it, rather than deny it, we begin to find our way through it toward the future that God promises us in Jeremiah 29:11 – a future of hope.
The only way that we can truly understand grief is to grieve ourselves. It is in those moments of desperate faith that we begin to comprehend all that Jesus went through in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in those moments we begin to find the strength that He found. Like Jesus, we must lean into our grief, acknowledging it’s presence in our lives and seeking the comfort we need in our relationship with God and His people.
Whether you have experienced grief in your life or not, the example that Jesus set in getting through the Garden has truth for your spiritual walk. We are called as ministers and as Christians to be prepared for the circumstances of life by cultivating a close relationship with our Heavenly Father. We are instructed to be humble and honest in our attitudes, actions and words. And we are asked to accept the will of the Father in our lives as well as in the lives of others.
This afternoon, regardless of where are in our lives, we need more of the grace of God in our souls. If you are grieving, or know someone who is, I invite you to consider the Lord Jesus’ night in the garden and to listen for the voice of the Father. Perhaps He is calling you closer, closer, for the healing that your heart, or someone else’s heart, needs.
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