The journey of Holy Weekend begins on Maundy Thursday. Thursday was a big day for Jesus. A friend said to me tonight: It started out with a party, but it didn’t stay that way for long.
Jesus went from washing his disciples’ feet to eating a supper he called his body and blood. At that party one of his closest friends betrayed him and left, which must have really killed the mood. And then he ended up in a garden with a handful of friends who fell asleep while he prayed that God would come up with some other plan than this ridiculously painful thing that was about to happen to him. He didn’t. In the end his enemies arrived and arrested him. And Jesus surrendered.
Surrender is a great word to describe what happened in that garden.
The garden is named Gethsemane, and it is my favorite place in all of Israel. Going there made me feel connected to Jesus in a deep way, because I can picture exactly what happened there. Of all the places I’ve visited on my two trips to the Holy Land, Gethsemane still looks and feels somewhat the same as it might have the night Jesus prayed there. The ancient, gnarled olive trees with root systems around 1700 years old are descendants of the trees Jesus knelt by, watered with his tears and sweat in the agony of prayer.
Gethsemane is a place of surrender in a couple of ways. It was there that Jesus surrendered spiritually to God’s plan, saying “Not my will but yours be done.” And then at the end of the night he surrendered physically to the soldiers who arrested him.
One act of surrender seems active: a wrestling and inner struggle so powerful that we’re told his sweat came out in great drops of blood. The church next to the garden is called the Church of the Agony. Those Catholics are always so cheerful in when they name things. The night Jesus spent there in prayer was one of agony. He’s described as distressed, agitated, grieved, even unto death
If his surrender to God in prayer is an active one, filled with overwhelming passion and struggle, the military surrender that follows seems almost anticlimactic. A passive act. What we usually think of as a submissive relinquishment, the waving of a white flag:
“Go ahead and take me. I won’t fight. I surrender.”
Is surrender an active fight? Or is it when we passively stop fighting
I would say it’s both:
Surrender is the fight to stop fighting
Life has never seemed like a passive prospect to me
I’ve always been what you’d call “Goal Oriented.” Ambitious, even.
Growing up I became accustomed to seeing what I wanted and working to get it. The achievement of one goal always led to another ladder to climb, another target to accomplish.
When God knocked me for a loop halfway through a pre-med degree and pointed me in the direction of ordained ministry, I’m not sure I surrendered to that call. I really just found in it another series of goals to pursue.
Preparing for ministry is great if you’re an over-achiever. There’s an academic track to complete (graduate school with courses to cross off a list) and a set of hoops required by the church to reach ordination (tests, papers, meetings, and several levels of board interviews). Once you climb one rung, you find another. At the end of it all a bishop prays over you and you’ve reached the rank of pastor.
The same year I got ordained Jim and I got married and moved to the church where we currently serve. It seemed like the perfect timing to pursue the other big goal I had felt all along, the dual calling to ministry and to motherhood.
Achieving this second calling seemed like it would be easy enough, just another goal that would be simple to grasp. But it turned out I was wrong about that. For the first time there was something I wanted that I couldn’t just make happen.
What ensued was a 4 year struggle with infertility and the loss of several pregnancies. In the midst of the grief and even times of depression that followed, I still held onto my active, goal setting nature.
I came up with detailed plans about what doctor to see next, what drug to take next, what procedure was around the corner. My medical background and access to the internet meant that I read and researched so much I think I scared my doctors by telling them the best course of treatment before they could tell me. With all that was completely out of control in my life, I continually found ways to be as in control of the situation as possible, even if only in my head. But nothing that I did meant the realization of my dream.
Strangely enough around the same time I developed a phobia, a sense of uncontrollable anxiety and fear. Every time I got into the passenger’s seat of a car and someone else started driving, my heart began racing. As soon as they turned onto the road and I realized I didn’t have control of the wheel I would get nervous, panicky even, several times I bordered on an anxiety attack, just because I could see where we were going, but I couldn’t steer. I couldn’t brake. I wasn’t in the driver’s seat.
I realized one day there was an uncanny parallel between the lack of control in doctors’ offices – my feet pressing into stirrups as I searched for ways to control this out of control experience of infertility – and the anxiety of my foot pressing the floor of the passenger’s side – my reflexes looking for a brake even when it was obvious that there would be no controlling the journey.
The years we spent in and out of doctor’s offices, up and down the roller coaster of infertility and pregnancy and miscarriage, taught me more about surrender than I cared to learn.
I learned over and over again about the fight to stop fighting. I had no choice. I had to surrender and let happen a future I couldn’t control or predict.
When we got pregnant with Drew we went to a high risk doctor for a while, holding our breaths at every visit while we waited for the heartbeat to flicker on the screen, waiting to see if this was finally the baby who was going to make it. There were drugs and tests and daily injections with crazy side effects and lots of statistics to read about on the internet and worry over – as if I had one ounce of control over the outcome.
At the end of our time with that doctor she released us to the care of a regular obstetrician. I’ll never forget that day. I should’ve been ecstatic. I had reached a goal! I was graduating! Instead the day I walked out of the high risk office doctor’s was one of the hardest days of my life. Our doctor took me off every medication. She took away my daily injections. She stopped the weekly visits and ultrasounds that kept me going.
Before I left I asked her: “And what do we do now?”
“Just let it happen,” She said!
Let it happen? That was not in my vocabulary! I made things happen. I didn’t let them happen. I panicked. The passengers’ seat was not a comfortable place to be.
It was tempting to replace research and medical intervention with constant worry. The fight to stop fighting was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Even today, with a healthy two-year-old and pregnant with our second child, I forget sometimes that I don’t have to actively plan and orchestrate this baby’s growth. What am I supposed to be doing? If I don’t think about what organ is developing or what phase of growth this baby is in, will it still happen? I forget that something is happening TO me, someone is growing inside of me without my help or even consciousness, and I’m supposed to just let it happen.
All of that surrendering has been great training for parenthood, for learning that no matter how much I plan and read and act, I actually have much less control than I would like over the two year old in my house, his behavior, and the person he will become.
Surrender has been great training for my relationship with God too. As much as I’d like to think otherwise with my work and prayer and study and ministry and feverish effort to contribute to His Kingdom, God is just not a plan I can work. He’s not a ladder I can climb one spiritual discipline or ministry act at a time.
The most powerful force in the universe is actually the one working on me, not the other way around. And my job is to let him. To surrender.
I’m not the one in the driver’s seat. And the life of the Spirit is growing in me slowly, moving inside of me, gradually, taking over every system of my life. I’m not making it happen – I’m letting it happen to me.
I’m in the midst of the biggest surrender of my life – a fight to stop fighting the God who has a grip on me so tight that I can let go. I can loosen my grip a little. And it will be OK.
Gethsemane means “The Olive Press.” When olives are pressed, they surrender the most valuable substance they have to offer: their oil. It is a staple in parts of the world for cooking, but also for healing wounds. That oil has been known to be a nourishing and a healing balm for as far back as people knew what an olive tree was. But it only comes out when the olive is crushed.
The Mount of Olives where the garden stands has a perfect view of the opposite hill where Abraham laid Isaac on an altar and surrendered. It overlooks the city where Jesus was hung on a cross and surrendered his spirit and died the very next day after his prayer in the garden.
The story of Gethsemane in Luke tells us that under pressure Jesus sweat great drops of blood in that garden that fell to the ground and into the roots of those trees. That means that the first blood of the cross didn’t fall on Golgotha, it was spilled in prayer on the ground of Gethsemane, the olive press, the place of surrender.
The place where Jesus taught us about the fight to stop fighting God and say: “Not my will, but yours be done.”
At the end of that night in the garden, when Peter went rogue and pulled a sword to try to start fighting the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, he had no idea that there was no reason to go into battle. It was already over. The surrender had already happened before those soldiers even showed up
And because of that there was nothing they could take from Jesus – he never actually surrendered to them because he had surrendered already. To his Father. The battle was basically done on Thursday before the cross ever appeared on Friday.
That’s the power of surrender. There’s nothing the world can do to us – because the control has already been handed over to the one who understands the power of surrender better than we ever will.