Signs and Kingfishers

IFile:Belted Kingfisher.jpg like Belted Kingfishers. I like the way they can hover in the air then plunge into the water and come up with a fish. They look cool sitting on a branch like a little king dressed in blue. The dry rattle of their call is haunting as it echoes across the water and grows fainter as they fly further. They let loose with this call, it seems to me, only while flying. I don’t know if their ratcheting call is to scare off other males or for the simple joy of flying down a river.

On my trip to Israel, the Smyrna Kingfisher was one of the few birds I saw. We were crossing the Jordan River, which was not much bigger than an irrigation ditch, when I spotted it right by the bus window on the rail of the bridge. My drive to work along the Isthmus Slough here in Coos County gives me plenty of opportunities to spot kingfishers on a branch or phone line near the water. The females have a rusty belt below the blue band.

I have often wanted to take the sight of one as a sign or good omen. When I see two along the slough, I tell Teckla I am going to have a “two—kingfisher day”. But I always catch myself before I plunge too deeply into pagan divination.

More often I turn to Teckla and say, “I saw a kingfisher. You know what that means!”

“Yes,” she sighs, ” it means you saw a kingfisher.”

“Exactly.”

The idea of God or the gods communicating with us through birds isn’t that far-fetched. Noah’s dove with the olive branch was a messenger of hope. In the wilderness Elijah was fed by ravens and a dove descended upon Jesus after his baptism.

The pagans went even further. Greek priests associated specific birds with different gods and had to be well-trained to interpret the divine meaning of birds’ behavior and sightings. They also slaughtered animals and tried to decipher the divine messages in their entrails. I prefer birds.

I think, however, my own instinct toward divination reveals something about human nature. We are always looking for meaning—for some sign of God communicating with us. A sign or omen is like hitting the lottery: riches without work. Real communication with God flows from relationship. And it takes some work to maintain that relationship and stay tuned to the voice of His Spirit. The static created by sin, guilt, and rebellion are always interfering with reception.

Honestly, we would often rather have an omen than real communication. God has the habit of not restricting his remarks to the topics we assign. His words often require change. We like omens because they can mean about anything we want. Two kingfishers usually confirm that I ought to do all I have decided to do.

In the past my efforts to be led by God’s Spirit may have veered into divination. The whole thing of putting out a fleece and looking for a sign can easily become a kind of ventriloquism where we put our words in God’s mouth. It easily slips into witchcraft of a sort.

This mild paganism of looking for signs is comfortable because it puts us in control of the dialogue. Real communication with God is dangerous. The first words that angels had to say to folks were, “Fear not.” After all, the Scripture is right when it says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

I still like kingfishers, and whenever I see one, I’m sure it is a sign that God does too.

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About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.

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