The tree was a radiant arboreal resident of Whitewater State Park. I saw it while on a hike last weekend. It was a tall tree rooted between limestone bluffs and Trout Run Creek. Among a forest full of barren branches, this one tree was loaded in the finest golden leaves.
"Look at that," I said to Justin, who was admiring the fly fishing skills of a nearby angler. "It still has all its leaves. Amazing."
We stood for a bit admiring the autumnal finery in the distance. I grabbed my cell phone to snap a photo. I knew it wouldn't capture the tree's real beauty, but I wanted another way to be able to remember the moment.
The day after the tree-sighting, I headed to Onalaska, Wis., for the synod's annual Theological Conference. This year's event theme was "Leadership in a Time of Change." On the final day of the gathering, Bishop Steven Delzer preached a sermon based on a Scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verses 14-16. Jesus is the speaker, and he uplifts two images to describe what it looks like to follow him. One is a light on a lamp stand and the other is a city on a hill.
The Scripture reading reminded me of the golden-leafed tree at Whitewater State Park. It was the only tree of its kind. All the others had already released their leafy accessories. Yet something in the internal mechanisms of a singular tree in a great big forest persuaded it to hold on and keep shining.
Sometimes it's really hard to keep shining. The realities of our lives and world can feel deflating and unpredictable. The thought of being a lamp on a lamp stand, a city on a hill, or a tree covered in golden leaves can be daunting.
I find that it's generally easier to shine with the love of the Holy Spirit when I'm feeling good about things. It's harder to have the energy to shine when I feel like someone just extinguished my light.
And yet the assignment from Jesus is not conditional. He doesn't add qualifiers like "Shine when you feel like it" or "Shine on the days you wake up on the right side of the bed" or "Feel free to selectively shine only when your preferred presidential candidate is elected."
Instead, Jesus bestows on his hearers a poignant truth, "You ARE the light of the world." He reminds them that they were created to shine so that the love of God would be recognized, experienced, and multiplied. Shining doesn't mean being happy all the time. It means being rooted in justice, mercy, and humility (Amos 6:8).
There is a lot of fear right now in our country. Myself included. I'm scared and everything feels uncertain.
Here's what I know about fear. It loves to hide in the dark. Fear hates the light. Fear hates to be exposed for what it really is: a distracting manipulation that stands in the way of love.
An invitation to shine is an opportunity to illuminate the fearful places that exist in our homes, communities, country and world. And most of all, in our hearts.
Brothers and sisters of the planet, you were not created for a life of fear.
In a time that feels anxious to many, I encourage you to find an image of something shining that speaks to your spirit. A lamp. A sunrise. A golden-leafed tree. A candle. Put it somewhere that will remind you of your identity as a beaming, blazing ray of hope!
You were created to shine. We were created to shine. To cast out fear. To illuminate love. And so this is what we will do.