It’s kind of weird for me to be leading the whole service. For a lot of reasons, but also because I just can’t knit when you’re all watching me!
I’ve been here for about two months now, and I am starting to settle into a worship routine on Sunday mornings. I come in, greet worshipers, pray with the choir, and sit in my seat in the second row. I think about my prayer for the people during the songs and the scriptures, I give the prayer, and then I settle back into my seat and I knit while Cheryl preaches. A couple people have mentioned this – it looks disrespectful, like I’m just, y’know, doing my own little thing, while the Word is ~happening around me.~ But I promise you, if I were not knitting, I would be off in dreamland during the sermon. When I keep my hands busy, I not only get beautiful garments to wear and gift, but I get way more out of the sermon. It may not make sense, but I actually hear more of what God is trying to tell me. I’m going to talk about this for a minute before I get to the story of wee little Zacchaeus, but don’t worry! I’ll get there!
My bachelor’s degree took eight years from start to finish, in four schools. I was smart and I should have done very well in college, but I struggled on every possible front. I had trouble making friends and I had trouble paying attention in class and I had a LOT of trouble managing my time. When I finally went to Temple to finish up, a friend of a friend whom I had met once or twice asked me to join her knitting group. Around the same time, I went to student health for a routine issue and left with a survey on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and a request to call my mother and ask for my mental health history. I had been in and out of treatment, both counseling and medications, for depression, and I had a diagnosis of ADHD from high school but was not currently doing anything about . . . anything. I learned how to knit when I was sixteen, but I picked it up again when Tamar suggested I come join her and her friends. I started taking Adderall. I made my sister a beautiful afghan for her wedding, and I suddenly started getting straight As for the first time in my life.
My favorite part of the Zacchaeus story is the tiny detail that he is of short stature and has to climb a tree in order to see Jesus. As soon as he conquers his physical limitation – not a limitation in itself, but one that is created by the other people he is around – Jesus recognizes him and invites himself over for dinner. People throw a fit – Zacchaeus is a sinner, Jesus, you can’t be serious, are you really going to do this?! And Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, who could never have had such an opportunity for grace if he had not climbed that darn tree. And Zacchaeus found the grace of God.
In my experience, the many different things I do to battle my various mental illnesses are the branches of the tree. I knit and I take antidepressants and I see a therapist and I have two cats. I call my parents and grandparents just to hear the voice of someone who loves me unconditionally. I spend time with my friends. I go to church. I pray. That’s only a partial list of the tools I use to get closer to God, but they’re the most important ones. I have to climb that tree, even when the depression is so heavy that I can’t get out of bed.
Too many people conflate mental illness with sin. Some Christians think that people who are depressed are “just not praying hard enough.” This line of thinking misses the point entirely. In the Zacchaeus story, this is like calling Zacchaeus’ sin his shortness. Zacchaeus was a sinner – he made a lot of money off poor people and also off the other people who made money off poor people – but he had to be able to see God for him to even be able to repent from those sins. Not that I don’t pray for God to deliver me from my depression and ADHD sometimes, but God gave Zacchaeus a tree to climb and God gives me a different prescription or a shift in my therapy. What do you think are some tools you have to climb your personal trees? [pause]
The other side of this conversation is something the church is generally pretty good at doing. If the crowd of people had moved aside to let Zacchaeus see Jesus, as short in stature as he was, he would not have needed to climb that tree. Summit is an exceptional example of meeting people where they are and letting them have access to Jesus, no matter how short or how tall they are, no matter if they are in a wheelchair or if they struggle with depression, no matter what stage of life they are experiencing. There is something here at Summit for everyone, and there are fewer trees here that we need to climb in order to reach redemption.
I spoke with our beloved Charles a few times this week. Charles was in a terrible accident a couple years ago, and probably should have died given the number of breaks and fractures and the traumatic brain injury. He told me about peers in therapy shortly after the accident who had less serious injuries, but who did not make it. Charles, of course, is still with us. God has helped heal him, but Summit has helped too. You all didn’t make him climb a tree when he couldn’t even see, you moved aside so God could reach him. You were there for Charles – and Melanie! – when he was depressed after his accident. You prayed with him, you prayed for him, and you made sure he could participate as much as he wanted in the activities he wanted to, especially singing in the choir. You supported them as they moved past the accident that changed their lives.
Sometimes moving aside so people have access to God is praying with and talking to people, joining in fellowship, singing along with them to a favorite hymn, holding a hand. Sometimes it’s more concrete – making meals for people so they don’t have to cook right after they have a baby, driving someone to a doctor’s appointment. Sometimes it’s protesting with Black Lives Matter, writing letters to senators about beds for youth experiencing homelessness, bringing a friend to the Heeding God’s Call installation as it travels around Philadelphia, starting a new nonprofit to address needs that no one else is, donating your clothes to Philly AIDS Thrift, tithing, voting, evangelizing, shutting up for once, coming out. There are so many ways we as the church can help to bring other people closer to God, both big and small. And in the meantime, there is absolutely no shame in climbing a tree if you have to, using the tools that are available so that you can reach God yourself. If the people won’t move aside for you, God will give you that tree. Somehow.
Thanks be to God.