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.