Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Filling Our Pockets With Feathers

I started collecting feathers many years ago. I find them on paths in forests, along mountain trails, and beside lakes and streams. Like people discovering pennies and figuring them for good luck, I have always thought of feathers as some sort of blessing, a sign of good fortune or heavenly approval. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I considered them to be something more.

Every Sunday, as the pastor of a small church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I am called upon to lead both a sermon for the adults and a sermon for the children. I usually try to shape them around the same Bible story or the same message. Recently, there were two Sundays that I talked about angels. One week I told the children about a man named Jacob who wrestled with an angel. His is the story of a guy on his way home to reconcile with an estranged brother and I told them that angels sometimes help us do the hard work of forgiveness and managing conflicts. The next Sunday I told the story of the prophet Elijah and how he ran in fear for his life until he fell exhausted in the desert, begging to die. I explained how an angel came to him bearing the gifts of cake and water and the presents of rest and refreshment. It was that Sunday and with that story that I decided to give away my feathers to the children, explaining to them how I loved to collect them and how they remind me of heavenly attention. “In fact,” I said, without much forethought, “When I see a feather, I think that an angel has passed by that place.”

Jimmy, a bright eight year old boy who comes to church every Sunday, likes feathers too. He took a couple of my long hawk feathers, tan with narrow brown streaks, their curved form, soft and smooth to the touch. Jimmy’s life is not an easy one. His mother, addicted to drugs, is in and out of trouble and in and out of unhealthy relationships. He was adopted by his great-grandmother when he was still a baby. Jimmy sometimes has trouble concentrating and staying on task. He also struggles with anger. The days before the beginning of the school year this summer were especially hard for Jimmy and his great-grandparents.
He started third grade a few days ago and his great-grandmother dropped by the office later in the week. “I walked with Jimmy to the bus stop the first day of school,” she reported. “While we waited for the bus he spotted a feather right at his feet. He believes an angel was there.”

I waited for the rest of the story. “He bent down and picked up the feather. ‘Why do you think an angel came here?’ He asked me.”

“And I told him, to make sure you had a good start to school. And then,” she said grinning, “he had the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.” She paused.

I knew trying to raise an eight year old was no easy task for my parishioner. I knew she was often tired and frustrated and that she was deeply afraid that she would not always be there for her young great-grandson. “I didn’t tell Jimmy what I really think,” she confessed.

“And what is that?” I asked, not exactly sure of what she was going to say.

“I think Jimmy and I are going to be okay,” she replied. “I think the angel really came for me.” And she drew in a deep breath, turned around, and left my office. And as she walked away, I thought I saw a feather drop from her fingers. And it was then that I realized that sometimes we merely find the signs of angels and sometimes, if we’re paying close attention, we catch a true glimpse of them before they slip away.

What I Learned at Camp

Philip is what would be described as a high-functioning client in the circles of caregivers for those suffering from developmental disabilities. He carries a job, is literate, and manages most of his own personal care. His question, posed to me at camp on the last night while we danced to Beyonce’s “If you like what you see put a ring on it,” came as a surprise. I was shaking and gyrating and grooving, using muscles I forgot I had when he asked what his question, jolting me right out of rhythm. “When do you think Jesus is coming back?” That was what Philip wanted to know.

Since I come from a long line of literal-minded Christians, I know what Philip was asking. What he wanted to know was whether I thought the rapture would happen in our lifetime or whether it would be later. He could probably even quote me chapter and verse to back up his theory of when the world would end, but I was dancing and I didn’t really want to stop and hold a theological discussion.

The funny thing about his question, however, was that I sort of felt like the second coming of Jesus had already happened. The reign of God, as far as what I know, was breaking out all around me at that very minute Philip asked his question. I saw it when I glanced over to see Jill, a tiny slip of a girl, nonverbal and profoundly disabled, donned in her pink helmet and hugging her teddy bear, standing right in front of the speaker, smiling and rocking in perfect rhythm, perfect rhythm, her face completely at peace. I saw it when Bonnie, a staffer who teaches high school English, wheeled a squealing Johnny, darting in and out of couples and circling the group. I saw the reign of God break out when Larry, a camper who would never even enter the room where we danced in years passed, wore his cowboy hat and a huge grin, camped out in the center of the floor, dancing the entire night.

Bill, now in his sixties and suffering from dementia along with other developmental disabilities, slow-danced with Martha, a young woman who points to pictures to show you what she wants and laughs hysterically when offered cookies and applesauce. Roger, bound to his wheelchair, also profoundly disabled, was lifted up and out by his caregiver and whisked across the floor. Frank held hands with Matthew, swinging their arms back and forth while Debbie, a staffer and survivor of breast cancer twirled by herself, laughing right out loud.
It was all there and it was complete and whole and right. The reign of God, a dance of crooked people, broken people, despised people, all holding each other up, all dancing together, all in perfect delight. “If you like what you see, put a ring on it,” pulsing louder and louder.

“When do you think Jesus is coming back?” Philip asks his question so innocently, so honestly, so desiring of acceptance, so desiring to be seen as normal.

And I look around the room and I bounce from side to side, snap my fingers, dip my knees, fling my hips, and I smile and say, “Philip, he already has. He already has!”

Going To Camp

Every year in June I direct a camp in Blowing Rock, NC for developmentally disabled adults. Since moving to New Mexico, I have at times thought that it’s just too expensive and time-consuming to go back every summer, but as the time rolls around I realize I’m not just doing this because it’s a charitable thing to do or because the camp needs my help. I lead this camp, I participate, because it’s really the best thing I can do for myself and subsequently, the best thing I can do for my family and for the parish I serve.

I don’t exactly know why or how or when it happens, but at some point during the week of crafts and devotions and sing-alongs, the talent show and shared meals, I remember the person I want to be. I see the woman I desire to become. I find myself slowing down, paying attention to small things, saying thank-you more often, laughing at myself, holding hands with someone. At some point in the midst of the campers’ delight, their unique spiritual maturity and their special needs, I find myself more loving, kinder, a gentler spirit and I have to admit I am happy and relieved to find and be that woman again.

It’s not that I dwell in self-loathing. It’s not that I hate who I am the other fifty-one weeks out of the year. It’s just that I’m not always pleased with how I handle things, how I process events, how I participate in relationships. It just seems that so often during the rest of the year, the rest of my life, I hurry through the days and worry through the nights and I’m not always very nice or very hopeful and I look in the mirror and I’m not happy with who I see. Special Days, this camp I attend, puts me back on the spiritual track I try to follow. It makes me slow down, makes me be attentive to things going on around me, makes me sing and laugh and reach for the hand of somebody else. And somehow by Tuesday night while the campers congratulate each other on their great talents or Wednesday morning when we’re heading out to Tweetsie Railroad, I catch a glance of myself in the mirror and I see her. I recognize her, that woman I want to be. There she is, the kind woman, the loving woman, the gentle woman. And truth be told, I’m afraid that if I quit going to camp, quit participating in this summer experience, I will lose her forever and that I will not remember how to find her.

So, during the first week of June I will be in the mountains. I’m directing a camp called Special Days. I’m playing the guitar. I’m helping with crafts. I’m dancing. I’m serving meals and rocking in a rocking chair. I’m leading devotions and I’m riding the train at Tweetsie. And most importantly, I’m finding the woman I want to be. The good news for my family is that when I come home I plan to bring her back!