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The Zacchaeus Tree

I believe the highest praise one could receive of their art is, “it made me want to make my own.” You hear a song and it inspires you to pick up your guitar again. You see a painting and you dig out all your brushes and wipe off a dusty canvas. For me, as I finished chapter three of Andrew Peterson’s The God of the Garden, I closed the book with a lump in my throat and began to write the story of my own favorite tree.

The Zacchaeus Tree was aptly named, because it was the tree where every summer at VBS, we would find Zacchaeus all robed up and ready to tell his story once again. This tree was full of low branches running horizontal to the ground, made even lower because the church parking lot had been graded right up to this cluster of trees. It meant the trees all sat in a ditch, so you could have a friend standing on the parking lot, eye level, while your feet dangled from one of the lower branches. Its branches were big and broad, and it was easy, even for little kids, to walk around from limb to limb, the brave ones going higher, the timid ones still feeling brave on the branches below.

So much of our time on Wednesday nights was spent congregating at the Zacchaeus Tree. We’d wait for our parents to pick us up, or we’d bring our dinner to the tree between confirmation and youth choir. As an adult, now I can see how it served the same community-affirming function as the coffee pot for the grown ups.

My dad was the pastor of this very fast-growing suburban Lutheran church in Minnesota. And it was one night at dinner, when I was in 7th grade, that Dad described the plans for the third sanctuary that was to be built. He was describing the new layout for the church offices, a much bigger narthex (our fancy word for lobby) and a sanctuary to seat a thousand. It was a very exciting time. Every service was overflowing, and Dad was leading five services every Sunday morning, one every Saturday night.

But at some point it became clear to me that the Zacchaeus Tree was right where everyone was pointing when talking about the new sanctuary.

I brought it up in a panic with my dad: “Dad, it can’t go there!” And I cried. What is sweet about my memory of this horrible reality is that my Dad was fully understanding and very sorry himself. His hands were tied, though. There was a building committee and a hired architect. The train was in motion. I must have been persistent enough because at some point my dad said to me, “Well, you are welcome to come to our next building committee meeting and let your concern be known there. That’s probably the best thing you could do.”

The next scene I remember is my brother, home from college, driving me to church at 7:00 for the building committee meeting. Dad had put my name on the agenda. My brother, a debate champion in high school, was coaching me all the while, “This is good, Becca. More people should be doing this sort of thing.” I remember feeling shaky. My heart was pounding and I felt sick.

But I walked through the narthex, the smaller one, and with bravery that inspires me to this day, opened the door where the meeting was held and stood just inside.

Before me was the building committee of twelve members all sitting in a U-shape, familiar faces from church, parents of my good friends. I felt faint. But I remember Mary Casey smiling at me, and Cris Ireland, my favorite church secretary, was nodding at me as if to say, “I know why you’re here and you’ll do fine.” I think I looked at those two because they were the moms in the group. Then my dad announced, “Becca is on the agenda tonight because she has a concern about our current building plans.” 

And I began my case. I imagine my voice must have trembled all the while. (I feel shaky even now.) I told of how this tree meant a lot for the community of kids at our church. How even in that room everyone knew it by name. And that I thought they should consider moving the plans so the tree could stay.

My dad smiled affirmingly at me. I remember that. I didn’t feel patronized. He was glad I was there and I now suspect, as we share the same sentimental and tender heart, he was relieved that someone was standing up for that tree.

I stood there and everyone agreed that the Zacchaeus Tree was definitely a great part of our church’s history, that it had always been a special tree. And then the chairs of the committee rolled out the blueprints and invited me over as they figured out exactly where the tree stood with the new plans. A little X was drawn right where the new curb was to go, leading to the new entrance. I felt sudden relief and exclaimed, “You could just build around it! It could just be a part of the entry!” I imagined a little green island with the tree at the center. It felt perfect. But they explained that already, the tree stood down three or four feet from the current parking lot and that with the grading to be done, it would likely be in a five-foot hole with low branches shooting out in all directions, blocking the entry and the loading zone. They noted that its exact location was where the handicap ramp would be, blocking the sidewalk, the drop-off zone, and the front doors themselves.

Then it was just sort of over. The adults in the room knew there really was nothing to be done. There was more on the agenda that night. I was commended for coming in and thanked for voicing my concern, and as I closed the door behind me, my dad resumed the meeting. I got in the car with my brother and told him the play-by-play, crying all the way home. He assured me that it was still the right thing to do. Even if it didn’t change anything, it was still the right thing to do.

It was months later that my dad told me, “They took down the Zacchaeus Tree today.” There was nothing else to say.

As I think about the location of this tree now, I can understand how impractical it would have been to build a curb all around a lone tree down in a five foot pit. If the tree could even survive all the earth movers, it certainly would be a hazardous entry. We would have had to put up a sign that said “Watch your step so you don’t fall down that hole.” And in truth, the tree was not stunning. In fact, I have no idea what kind of tree the Zacchaeus Tree even was, but if we’re totally honest, it was scrappy. So a very reasonable part of me can rationalize the sad outcome.

But the storyteller in me still feels the swell of love for its branches and grieves the most amazing missed opportunity. Because can you imagine this entryway?! With a huge hole that you’d have to walk around, a scrappy tree in the center? There would be kids in every branch and you’d have to explain to each new visitor, “Well you see, this tree is the Zacchaeus Tree, a beloved tree, so we decided to save it.  And you know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus? ‘I have come to seek and save the lost.’ Have you felt lost? Because you’re not anymore. The Way, the Truth and the Life is calling us to gather once again just inside these doors.”


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