Gardens earned a poor reputation in the Bible. The two worst betrayals in history occur in Gardens. Humankind betrays God in the Garden of Eden and Judas betrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. So if a cynic were to write a hymn he’d call it, “Stay Out of the Garden.”
Fortunately Alan Miles, who wrote “In the Garden,” was no cynic. A pharmacist yes, but a cynic no. Miles later claimed that a vision inspired him to write this song as he sat at his desk with his Bible open to John Chapter 20. In this vision he witnessed the weeping Magdalene being comforted by the resurrected Savior. As soon as he awoke he wrote the lyrics fast — as quickly as they could be put down on paper, and exactly as they appear in the hymnal. Later that night he wrote the music.
Sometimes I wonder if Alan Miles was fully aware of the song he’d written. He would not be the first creator to misinterpret his own creation. Because when I read John 20, I get a sense of happiness and joy. This is the moment when Christianity begins.
But “In the Garden” the hymn is a not a happy song. The music sounds like a sad slow waltz and the words have a wistful elegiac quality to them. Here’s the final verse: “I’d stay in the garden with him, though the night around me be falling, but he bids me go, through the voice of woe, His voice to me is calling.” These regretful lyrics signal the end of something, not the beginning of a movement that would transform the world.
The reason “In the Garden” is meaningful to me is because it’s traditionally sung at our family’s funerals. I first became aware how powerful it could be after my grandmother died. My mother had arranged for a soloist to sing it from the balcony at the rear of the church and when she sang the chorus “and He walked with me and He talked with me and He told me I am his own” my cousins and their kids began — one by one — to weep.
We also sang this at my Aunt Lee’s funeral and later at my Uncle Wayne’s. As many of you know, my father died over the Christmas vacation. Before he went into the hospital he handed over a set of funeral instructions that, unbeknownst to us, he had been preparing over the course of several years. And sure enough, he asked that we sing “In the Garden” at his funeral. And we did.
I think “In the Garden” is popular at funerals because it offers a different kind of comfort than the kind provided to Mary Magdalene, and that the garden is a different kind of garden than we see in John.
To me the garden represents heaven, and in the first verse, when we sing, “I come to the Garden alone,” we are coming to see God. We have fought the good fight, we have finished the race, we have kept the faith. It is time for rest, it is time for God to tell us we are His own.
“In the Garden” seems like a farewell song, mixing optimism and sadness simultaneously. The hymn was written to comfort and I do find it comforting that someday we’ll be welcomed into paradise and have a personal conversation with God in the heavenly garden. I imagine a conversation where we tell Him our story, our concerns, and where we fell short. He’ll already know all this, of course, but He’ll listen like an attentive father.
This interpretation is very different from the one Alan Miles intended, but over the years it’s how I’ve come to relate to the hymn. In a way, it’s emblematic of how a hymn operates – making its meaning known after a lifetime of listening and singing. But regardless of what Alan Miles intended, I’m grateful for hymn because it’s brought me comfort and hope at some of the saddest times of my life.