She collapsed after six bullets entered her legs, recent adornments from her husband who casually sauntered up the stairs with a gun and a statement: “I’m going to kill you.” Another was pinned on the ground while her boyfriend’s hands closed around her neck, applying pressure until she lost consciousness, releasing until she awoke, reapplying until her world went black. Yet another was stabbed in her left cheek, in her neck, in her right cheek, in her torso, until her body was vandalized with twenty lacerations inflicted by her boyfriend of just a few months. Yet another. And another. And another.
At the conclusion of each focus group with survivors of domestic violence, a central element of my job, I exit the room unsteady, teetering between despair over the dense depravity of mankind and awed by the profound courage of a scarred spirit. And what follows, as always does, are the questions: how does a person live into such a dark existence that they can so brutally harm another human being? How does another survive the unimaginable with such tenacious love and generosity? And what do we do with the heaviness we all carry around with us in little backpacks?
In March of 2016, I turned my white Chevy Cobalt onto Lydia Avenue after a demanding afternoon with my students. As I slowed to a stop, I noticed my roommate’s sister pacing, compulsively checking her phone, outside our home. When our eyes met, she crossed the street and delivered the news: “Daizsa is dead.”
What followed were days and weeks that melted into an incessant tormenting present: lightless and soundless hours spent hip-to-hip on our living room couch, an evening candlelit vigil outside of Foot Locker, freezer dinners that transitioned untouched from microwave to trash, and the uninterrupted looping of “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke or “Rise Up” by Andra Day. Shoved somewhere within this colorless petri dish of grief were the moments of uncovering: they found her in a motel. Our 18-year-old friend was sexually assaulted and then strangled, acts committed by her father. Six weeks before her high school graduation. Sixty years too soon.
A few days or a few weeks post our undoing, Easter weekend thudded into the aftershocks. I willed myself into the back row of a local Kansas City church to attend a Good Friday service, where I landed face first in a micro-concert. The lead singers professed their adoration at a pitch just shy of causing permanent ear damage, the Christian bodies demonstrating their uncontainable jubilation through elaborate jumping, the chaotic darting stage lights blinding my already clouding eyes from seeing Jesus. I was craving a moment to sit in the dark, to acknowledge the dark, if even for just a moment. Instead, I found a roaring confirmation that Jesus is about the celebration and not the suffering.
* * *
He entered a storm-shadowed garden with three close friends, his fears and anxieties torrentially drenching his companions like a firehose. He begged his mates to just sit with him, to look out for him, while he rumbled with his suffering and his fate. The weight of his grief forced his face to the ground, where he prayerfully pleaded with his Abba for an alternative route:
“Jesus did not try to deny His emotions in the garden but instead expressed them honestly, respectfully, and repeatedly […] Under the crushing weight of all that was to come, Jesus offered variations of the same prayer three times: ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’ (Matthew 26). We rightly hear this as the ultimate manifestation of Christ’s submission to the Father, but there is also within Jesus’ prayer a theological question that is extremely relevant today: Is there another way? If so, I want to take it.”
– Alicia Britt Chole
The Garden of Gethsemane, the final spot Jesus prayed as a free man before his death, is a place I have known about since Sunday school and whose name I have trouble pronouncing, even in adulthood. I’ve been taught to identify this outdoor space as the setting of a graceful surrender, reading Jesus’ prayer as, God, I’d rather not die this week, but since you decided long ago that this would be the plot twist, I will peacefully and compliantly be martyred and crucified in the next few days. Agony erased.
I find profound comfort in re-entering the garden and discovering that Jesus intimately knows the grief that suspends time and crumples knees. The foresight of his own resurrection and the redemption of humanity did not minimize his present anguish. Instead, he confronted the disorienting war zone of human emotion by creating space – he ventured into nature to center himself in its stillness. He surrounded himself with a small circle of his closest friends. He designated time to honestly present his internal disquiet to his Father.
The Garden of Gethsemane is a place of significant dissonance; it is here that we encounter the unedited Jesus. Here is where the raw emotion of Emmanuel affirms the formative role of suffering in our journey towards redemption. If the Savior did not minimize or flee from his own despair, instead leaning into the suffering, might it be that darkness is a necessary ingredient in our spiritual formation?
One chapter before the loss of our friend to domestic violence, maybe even just a few pages before, my roomie and I had weekly kitchen floor baptisms. She had recently lost a dear childhood friend, and while dinner was simmering, tears and unedited thoughts would frequently wash the floor tiles. During one kitchen cleansing, she made a statement I’ve been chewing on for the past three years: The darkness of losing her closest friend made the reality of Jesus so much more beautiful and urgent and necessary.
Our desire for the presence of God is magnified by the very reality of our spoken and unspoken pains. The urgency of our suffering creates in us an insatiable longing for redemption. The ache of loss, when brought into a garden and presented honestly to our Abba, brings with it deep gratitude that the resurrection is surely coming. In the in between, as we wait, may we create spaces that hold grief without attempting a quick fix, that offer restorative justice to the ones inflicting the deepest wounds, that usher holistic healing for those who use every ounce of energy to open their eyes in the morning. On the anniversary of the Lord’s death, may we bravely acknowledge the darkness, both within us and about us, and allow it to propel us towards a deeper longing for our Jesus. Emmanuel, “God with us,” won’t you come.
[To read my most recent piece “May We Become What We Receive,” published on Nations Media, click here.]