I got on a kick for a while where I was reading a bunch of books about the Native Americans- their beliefs, the clash with the white man, their resistance to conquest, and how their way of thinking differed from the Europeans.
That got me interested in reading about indigenous people groups all over the world, and how they conceptualize the world differently than we do in the West. I’m a Christian, and I know that some Christians get weirded out when you start talking about pagan or animist spirituality, but I think those people fail to realize how much of their Christianity is rooted in the West and the Enlightenment. We in the developed world are all formed by the Enlightenment in our ways of thinking about science, proof, and what counts as true. We’re all very interested in verifiable facts and less open to intuition. I think there’s something to be said for learning how indigenous people differ from us, especially how they find connections to God through nature.
I have a Master’s degree in theology from a fancy pants East Coast university, so I can have the heady academic discussions with the best of them. But that isn’t where I find God, and I think there are a lot of people like me. They think of themselves as believing in God and being a follower or friend of God, but don’t find a home in the American church. Some of us find God much more powerfully present in the outdoors.
I’m not interested in having a debate about who gets to be counted as a Christian so if you feel your feathers getting ruffled because I’m talking about communing with God outside of the walls of the church, you best move along.
I’m not looking to debate. I’m simply making the point that God is present for people in all kinds of ways, and has been throughout history, even to people groups who had not been “evangelized” and had never heard of Jesus. Read about Native American spirituality and you’ll see that clear as day. In some ways, many ways actually, they were spiritually superior to the people trying to convert them.
I read a children’s fiction book to my kids a while back and, in the book, the Native American boy’s father tells him that when he finds a feather, it’s a gift from the bird, that the bird is imparting some of his power to the boy. Now here again I differ from a lot of western Christians because I feel that animals do hold spiritual power. My horses have shown me that again and again. What the boy’s father said in the book resonated with me.
Very shortly after, I was walking through a large horse pasture and I saw a red shouldered hawk resting on the ground in the pasture. It’s rare to see them on the ground. Usually they’re perched on a fence post or a tree branch. It was a big, beautiful bird and I felt lucky to have seen it up close. As I approached, it spread its wings and took off in flight toward the woods. As it lifted off the ground, a single feather dropped and fell to the ground. Of course, I went and picked up the feather and took that as a little nod from God. It was one of those moments that was imbued with deeper meaning than just the surface act of seeing a bird drop a feather. I felt that the feather was for me.
Since then, the feather has been a symbol for me, or a sign that I’m on the right path. I don’t always find feathers on the ground, but when I do, I need them. They tell me I’m on the right path. Sometimes, when I’m really distraught about something in my life, or unsure if I’m on the right path, I see the whole bird.
We had some issues with the sale of our house and it looked for a moment like it wasn’t going to go through. It would have ruined our whole plan for moving, caused us to lose our house in NC, and set us back by months. I was understandably upset, and questioning whether the move was a good idea after all. Maybe I was trying to force something that wasn’t meant to be.
I was driving home from the barn about 4 in the afternoon one day while all of this was going on, and I looked off to the side of the road and saw an owl perched in a tree branch gazing out. Owls are very shy and it’s rare to see one out and about during the day. I’ve lived here for 14 years and only seen an owl one other time, late at night, and I spend A LOT of time outdoors.
The owl showing up like that was a sign to me that I’m on the right path, that moving home is a good thing to do, that God is in it with me. I don’t see any conflict with being a Christian and seeing God in nature. I think western Christians would do well to reconnect with nature and with some of the old ways of knowing.