FamilyLife Today® Podcast

A Broken Feather; Broken Promises

with Tom Elliff | December 18, 2008
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Tom was tempted to retire the red Christmas feather when his father left his mother in 1981. After his parents divorced, his bitterness tempted him to retire the red feather the following Christmas, but the old feather remained, standing watch on the tree as in happier times.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Tom was tempted to retire the red Christmas feather when his father left his mother in 1981. After his parents divorced, his bitterness tempted him to retire the red feather the following Christmas, but the old feather remained, standing watch on the tree as in happier times.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Tom was tempted to retire the red Christmas feather when his father left his mother in 1981.

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A Broken Feather; Broken Promises

With Tom Elliff
December 18, 2008
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Bob: Tom Elliff has very distinct memories of a family tradition that began when he was still a very young boy.  A red feather was plucked from a woman's hat and placed on the family Christmas tree as a decoration.  Over the years, Tom said that feather bore witness to a growing family; their love for one another.  And it grew to symbolize God's extravagant love for us, which is demonstrated in the gift of Christ at Christmas.  After the Elliff children had grown up and married, when they would come back home for Christmas, the red feather was always on the tree.

Tom: Even the grandchildren sometimes would be held up in the air and would point at that red feather and tell them the story, and that red feather had symbolized to us all those years of God's extravagant love, generosity.  By 1981, the feather was a little faded, a little more frail, but there was something else that was more faded and frail, I'm afraid.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 18th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll hear today from Tom Elliff about what was going wrong inside the Elliff family that Christmas, December of 1981.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  We're talking this week about the power and the importance of family traditions.  It's interesting, and you're experiencing this – as your kids grow and marry and move out and aren't coming home every year for Christmas like they once were, some of those things that have been faithful family traditions for years start to fade, don't they?

Dennis: Well, they have to.  I mean, each of our children, who are married, five out of six are in the process of establishing their own traditions, as they must, and they have to leave and cleave and establish those things that build memories for their children.

Bob: I think it's time to let our listeners know the shocking truth to reveal.  It's a little bit of an expose here – this year at the Rainey house, there is no Christmas tree.

Dennis: That's correct.  And the reason is there will be no parents there.  We are going to go to Washington, D.C., and we're going to spend the Christmas holidays with our daughter, Laura.

Bob: But no Christmas tree?

Tom: Skipping Christmas?

Dennis:  We're not skipping Christmas.  We're not skipping Christmas.  By the way, that voice is the voice of Dr. Tom Elliff, who joins us again on FamilyLife Today.  Tom, welcome back.

Tom: Thanks, Dennis.  I'm sorry.

Dennis: No, I understand.  I actually said that to Barbara the first year we didn't have a Christmas tree.  This is not the first year.

Bob: This is not the first year?

Dennis: No, no, I'm sorry, Bob.  You're a little slow on the draw here.  But that does not mean we still are not practicing a lot of the traditions around the Christmas holidays, because those traditions are portable.

Bob: Yeah, they are portable.  But it's an interesting, again, phenomenon – the first year that you break some of those traditions …

Dennis: Oh, they're huge.

Bob: You almost feel like you've abandoned the meaning and the purpose of Christmas.  And we've talked already this week, Tom, about the tradition you had in your family that started back in 1946 – the red feather that went atop the Christmas tree that your mom had plucked from a new hat, and instead of keeping it for herself, she turned it into a family decoration.  Did that feather stay on that tree even after you had married and gone on and started your own family?

Tom: Bob, that feather stayed on that tree until 1984.  And we'll get there in just a little bit, but I just want to tell you that that feather became such a permanent part of our family's Christmas celebration, even when we were overseas when they would decorate the tree, well, that red feather was taken out of the box last, put up just below the angel in the tree, just as a reminder of that one moment in 1946 when my mother so typified the spirit of Christmas with that extravagant, seemingly impulsive act of generous love.  Just as the Father did when He sent His Son.

Bob: Christmas of 1981, the grapefruit box came out with the Christmas decorations in it with the red feather, and the family decorated the Christmas tree.  It was a little more melancholy Christmas than you had ever experienced.

Tom: Yeah, very much so.  That red feather had symbolized to us all those years God's extravagant love, generosity – even the grandchildren sometimes would be held up in the air and would point at that red feather and tell them the story of how my mother had really ravaged a hat that had been given to her, a beautiful hat, so that her children could experience the beauty of a Christmas tree – a little color in the tree.

Bob: Right.

Tom: By 1981, the feather was a little faded, a little more frail, but there was something else that was more faded and frail, I'm afraid.  Earlier that year, I'd gone over to share with my mother and father the fact that Jeannie and I were going to take our children and move to Africa where God had called us to be missionaries.

At that meeting, as my mother wept and assured me of her love and her prayers as we went, I noticed my father was very nervous and through teeth that were almost clenched, he said, "Well, since you're going overseas, I guess I better just put everything on the table here," and he looked at my mother with whom he'd been wed for 43 years.

Dennis: Now, your father had been a pastor, but at that time he was still in the ministry although not in the pastorate, right?

Tom: Right.  He was serving as a leader of pastors, and he looked at my mother, they've been wed for 43 years, and said, "Jill, I don't love you, and I am leaving you."  And it was as if a dagger had been thrust through my mother's heart.  I literally saw her physically wince when he spoke those words.  I couldn't believe it, and he …

Dennis: Wait, wait, wait, what about your heart?  I mean, if you saw her wince …

Tom: Dennis, I …

Dennis: You were 37 years old?

Tom: I was 37.  I don't know what it does to a seven-year-old, I can tell you what it does to a 37-year-old.  My heart went into my shoes.  Driving home that evening – I had a two-hour drive back to my house that evening, I wept all the way.  When I got home, I told my wife, we remained awake the rest of the night just holding each other.  We've experienced a lot, just like your listeners have experienced.  I mean, we've lost a house in a fire, we've lost another house in a tornado, we've had family members who were injured in a car that was sabotaged.  You know, other issues in life – nothing has hurt like that – and I was 37.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and it – you know, how my dad ended up in this moral and spiritual abyss is a whole other story, but I can tell you that I was so shocked I have very little memory of what else was said that night.  It just literally was like someone taking a baseball bat and slamming me right in the stomach.  All the air left me.  I mean – my mother wept.  I'm sure I tried to reason with my father.  I'm sure I must have said something to the effect that we're going to try to work this out because I know – oh, the ensuing months we did, my wife and delayed our trip to Africa trying to help my parents.   And, of course, my two brothers and my sisters did as well.  We all piled on, so to speak.

And there were moments when dad was home, and it looked like this was going to work out, and moments when he was gone, but by Christmas 1981, he had – he was at home, we had had our family celebration, the feather was up there in the tree, we acknowledged, and the fact that this was such a picture of God's love for us all.  And my dad, in fact, put his head on my shoulder and wept, and he said, "Tom, thank you for your forgiveness."  And he said, "You can go to Africa now, trust me."  You know, if a son ought to be able to do anything with his father, since his father is a picture of the heavenly Father, it ought to be trusted.  And he said, "Trust me," and, for some reason, those words just rang hollow, and we did get on the airplane. 

As a matter of fact, we stopped in New York City, I called my parents just to congratulate them on being together, because Dad had said, you know, the problem is over, I'm back home for good.  And when my mother answered the phone, she said it was a lie.  He's gone, and this time he's gone for good.  And so that Christmas, that holiday season, was different than anyone our family had ever experienced before that.

Bob:  Did you look back – I mean, even going into that Christmas, you had to go in with some level of anxiety – what's really happening with our family?  It's almost surreal.  But there's hope that maybe Mom and Dad are working this out, and God's going to be glorified in the midst of this.  The red feather there symbolizes some of that hope and that unity that's keeping the family together.

Tom: We did believe that this issue had been resolved.  I will say, Bob, that as a pastor for 44 years myself, I've discovered that many people around the holiday season who have family relationships that are fragile try to repair them in ways that only set them up for future failure.  You know, a father will buy extra gifts for his child, putting him deeper in debt.  They will do something else that creates another strain, and so everything is wrong during the season.  Nobody wants to break up during Christmas, right?  And – but the diet's haywire and the time, you know, is askew, and people are tired and too much money is spent and so often people have just deluded themselves through the holidays only to wake up when it's all over and discover that the marriage is all over, too.

Dennis: Your father went on to file for divorce, and you flew back to console your mother, and you watched your mom crumple in the midst of that.  So you've seen what unfaithfulness does.  You've been in ministry 44 years.  Was there ever a time when you were intensely tempted to do the same thing your dad did?

Tom: I can honestly say no, and I say that in this room before the Lord.  Does that mean that I'm a perfect man or that all of my thoughts have been morally upright and pure all of my ministry life or all of my married life?  Does it mean that I am without sin?  No.  But I can say before the Lord there never has been a moment when the thought has entered my mind that there would be anything right, anything good, anything that was God-honoring, anything to be gained by being unfaithful to my wife.

Dennis: Do you think, having watched your father go through that, that it short-circuited some of those moments, just the momentary temptation that flashed in front of you of turning away from that …

Tom: I'm sure that's the case.

Dennis: Instantly?

Tom: I'm sure that's the case.

Dennis: You saw the pain that it brought.

Tom: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Dennis: And you saw it firsthand in your mom when you came all the way back from Africa to visit her, and you really found her crushed?

Tom: Well, of course, she was crushed.  And my mother, as I said, was a very bright, engaging, intelligent active person and much of a pray-er.  When I came back to comfort her, I tried to talk with my dad, my dad was in another state now getting married, as a matter of fact, and he didn't want to see me at that time.  And, Dennis, to be perfectly honest, I will tell you that there was sewn in my heart at that time a bitterness that I had never experienced in my life.

In fact, I first began to feel it as we were flying to Africa.  I told my wife, "I feel like I'm going the wrong way.  I need to be back home encouraging my mother," but, you know, I have a couple of brothers who are here, a sister who lives right close by, as well as a brother, and we got caught up in learning the new language and doing what missionaries do.  But this was a gut check, to be perfectly honest.

When I flew back, and my dad said, "No, I don't think I want to talk to you."   This is my dad, my hero, you know, and I began to realize that there was something wrong with me, too.  I was struggling with the whole issue of what it means to forgive.  I just couldn't – I just didn't see that there was any possibility ever that I would forgive.

Bob: It's pretty tough to be a missionary when, hidden in your heart are these seeds of bitterness and wondering if you can forgive your father.

Tom: Yeah.

Bob: That's got to affect how you communicate the Gospel to others, doesn't it?

Tom: You can't live a life of faith if you are unforgiving, and the Bible says without faith it's impossible to please God.  In fact, it says "whatsoever is not of faith is sin," and a person who will not forgive can't live a life of faith because he believes someone else holds the key to his joy.

Bob: So here you are, over in Africa with your family back here, you're still processing all these emotions with your dad; you're not sure you can forgive him; and you're on the mission field, and you really can't do your job well – I mean, was that a crisis of faith for you in Africa?

Tom: I think, to a large degree, it was.  I mean, I can remember praying – on more than one occasion, I can remember praying, "Dear God, You're going to have to teach me to forgive, and I think it was an answer to that prayer that – partially an answer to that prayer that God took my family and I through another event, which tested us and the moment of forgiveness.

Bob: And this was almost a year later, Christmas of '82, that this happened, right?

Tom: Well, about nine months after we had arrived in Zimbabwe, my wife and children were involved in a tragic car accident, and my eldest daughter was left severely burned from her calf right up to her shoulder, and a lot of skin grafting, and all that goes with that in a hospital in a country that is falling apart at that time.

And, of course, all the technical support staff were leaving, and so these were some trying days for us.  I had received a phone call from the people in the vehicle inspection department where the accident had occurred, and when I went down to visit with them, they said, "We've got the proof here.  This was a setup.  They probably didn't want to kill your wife and kids, okay, but they wanted this vehicle, and they were willing for something like this to happen hoping that when the car stopped that they could take the vehicle."

Bob: Somebody had tampered with the vehicle?

Tom: Oh, yeah, yeah.  In fact, my wife – they asked the question, "Does she remember somebody following them?"  And, of course, this was a time when you would be periodically stopped by men in their fatigues, and they'd paw through the – you know, these were soldiers who would go through what you had in your car and then let you go – hopefully, let you go on your way, you know.  And the country, at that time, was really in strife and continues to this very day to be the same.

So when this happened, you know, well, it was a setup.  Well, in my heart, again, I thought, "Wow, I'm over here as a missionary" – as a matter of fact, I was stopped on the road – as I went home, I was stopped on the road at the very same place this accident had taken place, and these guys were pawing through my car, you know, and normally, I just wanted to say, "Hey, guys, let me tell you about the Lord.  I've got some Bibles here for you."

I just wanted to grab somebody by the throat and say, "Are you kidding?  Look what you've done to me and my wife, and my daughter is up there in the hospital," you know, and I remember going home and falling on the floor of our house and saying, "Lord, you must teach me how to forgive."

Dennis: What did you learn about bitterness?  I mean, here you are – you've got a father who has left your mom, and you've been attacked, for all practical purposes – your wife and your children.  You are having conversations with the Lord.  What did you learn about bitterness that marked you for the rest of your life?

Tom: A friend of mine said to me recently that bitterness is to entertain; to harbor bitterness in your heart is the equivalent of drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies.  It's like an acid that enters your system, and it eats you, corrodes you from the inside out, and I discovered that that was happening to me.  It was affecting the way I looked at the world.

The Scripture talks about the fact that a root of bitterness, you know, springing up within you will defile you.  Now we can look at that passage a lot of different ways, but I can tell you that a bitter person sees everything in the light of what's happening to him, and that's an unhealthy way to live.

Dennis: Your bitterness was fueled as you would talk to your sister and brothers about what was taking place with your mom.

Tom: Oh, yeah.

Dennis: In fact, there was a story about your sister finding your mom?

Tom: Oh, you know, I remember my sister saying to me shortly after we had gone back to Africa, she said, "I went looking for mom at the house after the divorce, and I couldn't find her.  I knocked on the door and knocked again, and she didn't answer and finally" she said, "I just opened the door and went through the house looking for mother," and she said, "I found Mom back in the clothes closet of their bedroom" where my father had – Dad had left a coat there, and she said she was sitting on the floor holding the coat in her arms, holding the sleeve up to her nose and smelling it and weeping and rocking back and forth.

And when she told me that, it viscerally impacted me.  I've never been the kind of person who wanted to go strike my father or anything of that nature, but I thought, how could he have done this to my mother?  And so when we got to Christmas of that year, I'll just be honest with you, we were delighted – by that time, my daughter was out of the hospital, she was on the mend, we had some other guests in our home during that time at Christmas, and I knew that back at home, that Christmas Eve – in fact, I said to one of my family members – I know that back at home and my mother has a tree, and in that tree there is that old red feather and that somehow God's love has got to be enough to cover this.

Bob: You know, you think about that theme and that Christmas – if there was going to be a Christmas where you wouldn't put the red feather on the tree, where you'd say, "It's time to retire the red feather.  It served us through when the family was together, but the family is not together.  Tom and Jeannie are over in Africa, Dad's left and not home, Christmas is falling apart, the family is coming apart at the seams."

Tom: Bob, I think it was the next Christmas when I was most tempted to abandon the red feather. 

Bob: Tomorrow we're going to have you take us to Christmas of 1983 where you were tempted just to ignore the feather.  But I have to wonder, Dennis, how many folks are facing Christmas 2008 and there's bitterness or anger or unforgiveness or hardness of heart or a family that's unraveled over the past year.

Dennis: Yeah, and back to what Tom said earlier, they've tried to poison somebody, and they've realized they've drunk the poison, and you're being eaten up with it, and the message of Christmas is – Come clean – there is a Savior who came and invaded the earth who wants to also invade your soul and who wants to wash you clean and release you from the prison that you put yourself in, and, you know, you can do that.  You can come to Him and cry out, "Be merciful to me, a sinner," and receive His forgiveness and then say, "Lord God, help me forgive.  Help me release this bitterness I am holding against this other person."

And my encouragement at this point, if you're identifying with what Tom is describing, and that's you, don't let the sun go down today or come up tomorrow without dealing with what it is you're holding against your brother or your sister or your parents or that other person. 

Bob: Yeah, and sometimes it is in the process of hearing someone else share their story that God starts to stir in your own heart, and you realize, "I've got some work I've got to do as well."  And that may have happened as folks have been listening today. 

I would encourage those folks, get a copy of the book that Tom has written that tells the story of the red feather.  That's what it's called "The Red Feather," and it traces the history of this feather from Christmas of 1946 all the way through the present day.    We've got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and if our listeners are interested in getting a copy, they can come to our website, which is, and there you'll find information about how to order copies of the book, "The Red Feather."

Again, the website is  You can also get information by calling us at 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  When you contact us, someone on our team will let you know how you can get copies of the book, "The Red Feather," and we're going to send along at no additional cost, the CD that features our conversation this week with Tom Elliff that tells the entire story.  So that will come to you along with the book.  Again, our website is or you can call us at 1-800-FLTODAY.

You know, this time of year, as we approach the end of the year, is a time when many of our FamilyLifeToday listeners get in touch with us to make a year-end contribution to the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  And this year we have heard from a number of listeners who have called us and said "We want to support the ministry."  Many of them have heard about the matching gift challenge that is going on this month.  Every donation we receive during the month of December is being matched, dollar-for-dollar, up to a total of $425,000 thanks to the generosity of some friends of ours.

But I have to tell you that we're hearing from fewer this people than in years past, and I'm sure that the economic challenges we have been facing as a nation and have been facing as families is part of the reason for that.  We understand those economic realities and, in fact, as a ministry, we've had to respond to those as well in order to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us.  We are hoping here at year-end that we'll be able to take full advantage of this matching gift opportunity.  To do that, we need to hear from as many of you as possible.

So if there is any way that you can help with a donation at the end of the year for the ministry of FamilyLife Today, whether it's a $25 donation or a $50 or $100 or $500 or $1,000, whatever you can do to help support the ministry, I want to encourage you to either go online at and make a donation or call 1-800-FLTODAY, make your donation over the phone.  Keep in mind that each of those donations will be matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to a total of $425,000, and let me just say thanks in advance for whatever you are able to do.  We appreciate your support, and we appreciate your generosity.

Well, tomorrow we are going to hear the conclusion of the story of "The Red Feather."  Tom Elliff is going to be back to tell us the rest of the story, and I hope you can be back with us as well.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow. 


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