I heard about the Ebenezer Chapel project from a "sister" of mine and was struck almost immediately by the idea of a garden that sits above an underground chapel. Here is this place of prayer, this earthly sanctuary that is literally going to be carved out of granite, and above it is a park with gardens and plots filled with plants named in the Bible.
As a Christ-follower and someone who has traveled all over the globe for mission work, I was certainly intrigued by a place in my home state of North Carolina that was going to provide what cathedrals in Europe have been providing for centuries: a place to come to pray or simply sit in contemplation, a place to be quiet, and a place that would last and someday have that same historic feeling - that same feeling of grace and peace. But as a believer, the garden above the chapel site is what really got me thinking.
I'm a gardener and have had both vegetable and flower gardens, fruit trees and plants in and around my house my entire life. The cultivation of a garden takes love, patience and time because it has so many stages and there is always room for error. Believe me.
A garden needs the warmth of the sun, the water from the dew and rain, and fertilizer to grow. It needs weeding or it will be taken over by plants that don't produce anything of value. Sun and wind dry the soil's surface into a crust, so cultivation breaks it up, allowing easier penetration of air, nutrients and water into the roots. Deep cultivation is also necessary when preparing a new bed or when adding large amounts of organic material every few years. And finally, a garden needs care and feeding so it can produce fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
The metaphor of a garden is not lost on we Christians. I feel confident that there are more than a few sermons about this very analogy. Life is a garden, the body, mind, soul and spirit could easily be considered a “plot” and all need repeated cultivation in a single lifetime. In the Bible, there are at least four “gardens” of prominence, and as I read through those “garden” stories and passages, the comparison of our lives here on earth to each was easy to see.
The Garden of Eden - The Garden of Sin
Even if you live a secular life, you know this story well, as it's the first mention of a garden in the Bible: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.” Genesis 2:7-8
And we all know what happened not too long after. The only tree in the garden that man was asked not to touch or eat from was the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” and both Adam and Eve disobeyed, ate the fruit, and weeds began to enter their lives and their relationship with their maker.
I imagine that the original garden must have been lush; so extravagant and beautiful that my little mind simply can't imagine. It was perfect, holding all the “produce” needed to sustain life. With us, when we are born into the world, we are innocent for only a short while. We then learn to cry, whine, or do whatever it takes to get attention and "our way." As we grow older, we learn that pouting, lying, sneaking and other tactics can sway our parents and help us get what we want. Then, we enter a stage of understanding the difference between right and wrong and begin to make choices - negotiate between getting what we want at the risk of doing the wrong thing. We need “soul” preparation vs. soil preparation or we're destined to end quite like the first occupants of the Garden of Eden, with the gates shut behind us.
The Garden of Gethsemane - The Garden of Suffering
“And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane…..” Mark 14:32
I have been to the Garden of Gethsemane a few times. One time in particular, I was there early in the morning when no one else but the gardener was there. He invited me in and I walked under the old olive trees and thought of a time in history when a man named Jesus was there, by himself, praying.
Gethsemane means “olive press.” If our mind is our personal garden, then it's populated with many thoughts, emotions, reflexes, remembrances, dreaming, reflections and so on. Truly, our minds are tied directly to our hearts. In a garden's early stages, like the mind, if it's not cultivated correctly, it begins to grow things like anger, hurt, prejudices, insecurities, bitterness, and hate. I will call that a root and the Bible calls it a root of bitterness.
Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”
We can allow this root of bitterness to grow in our garden. It starts out quite small, but as it grows, it twists our minds and hearts like a gnarly vine, literally taking the life out of us. Or we can once again cultivate our garden, ridding it of the “weeds,” asking God for His revelation of our “sin” and to “press out” the things that are suffocating our garden. We must understand that when we walk with Jesus, we check our garden daily, we receive our nutrients through the “Son;” He waters us with His living water, He prunes us with His Word which in the end will produce the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The Garden of Victory – The Garden of Golgotha
“Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” John 19:41
I have been to this garden as well, have walked around it, walked in the tomb and taken communion. This place is where judgement, torture, suffering and sacrificing by our Savior took place and to me, it is one of the most sacred places on earth. He was placed in this garden only after he was “pressed out” of His earthly life. Even while His very soul was in anguish experiencing the separation from God the Father, He was saving the rest of us.
As I think of this place, I go back to the “garden of life” metaphor and picture Christ’s life as a living garden, producing all the fruits, vegetables and flowers of life. And in the end, the fragrance of His life continues to impact all of history. Some like the fragrance and some do not. But, I submit this question to you…. does your life contain the fragrance of Jesus? Have you picked the flower of life or are you just walking in the garden, admiring the beauty but not partaking of the fruit? Or have you decided this fruit is not for you?
The Garden of Paradise – The Garden of Eternal Life
The garden of life concludes with the harvest. The return to dust as our bodies are returned to the soil.
In the end, we either produced or we did not. Our spirit will either continue through the seeds or it will die out. Biblically speaking, if we experience life through walking with Jesus as our Gardener, our spirit lives on eternally. If we choose to allow the “weeds” of life to take over, the garden becomes consumed with sin of this world and the outcome is eternal separation from God.
In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Each one of us has our own garden to grow. What will your “garden of life” produce? I ask this humbly as I weed my own garden, try to tend my own relationship with Christ, try to produce good things and show only love, not judgement to everyone I meet.
My hope is that the garden and park above Ebenezer Chapel be a place of reckoning, not just contemplation. I hope people will sit among the beauty of the plants and feel His love for us through the brilliance of all of His creations and consider what their lives truly mean. And before each person descends into the chapel below for an even greater sense of quiet among the granite, that they will understand and feel a sense of pure grace, pure mercy and His pure love.
Ronda Corn is a missionary, a wife, friend and Christ-follower. She has worked all over the U.S. organizing and coordinating disaster relief efforts and showing love to everyone she meets. She's also a gardener.