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Once every couple of months, whenever the weather's particularly fine, my husband, Haywood, and I pile the kids in the minivan, head for the Little Harpeth River, and play hooky from church. The tulip poplars are thick, the river is wide and shallow and filled with silver minnows, grass goes to seed on the banks, and everything feels fresh and untroubled though Highway 70 echoes nearby. Instead of griping all the way to Sunday school, our boys tell knock-knock jokes and laugh hysterically. Henry will start to hum, and then Joe will join in, and finally even 15-year-old Sam will pop out his iPod earbuds and break into a voice-cracking rendition of "Margaritaville." In the front seat, Haywood and I look at each other, amazed. Who could believe we'd become this off-key version of the Partridge Family just by substituting a picnic blanket for a pew?
Our adventures in apostasy began one Sunday when Sam, our eldest, was in first grade. He was sitting at the breakfast table, pushing a spoon around a bowl of cereal. "I wish there was no God," he muttered. I stared at him. What was this? Existential angst at age 7? Disappointment in some unanswered prayer? The prelude to a wrenching confession of secret misdeeds? Whatever was causing this theological crisis, I doubted my ability to remedy it. Many years ago I abandoned any attempt to justify the ways of God to man. If too much reading, spirited debate with my confessor, and 34 credit hours in philosophy and religion hadn't answered all my own questions, who was I to attempt theosophy in front of an innocent child? Still, I took a deep breath and asked, "What's bothering you about God, honey?" He looked up mournfully.
"If we didn't have God, we wouldn't have to go to church. I'd rather watch my tadpoles." So, not exactly a dark night of the 7-year-old soul. But raising our children to resent God wasn't what Haywood and I had in mind, either, when we joined a church and gave up long Sunday mornings over coffee and The New York Times. By the time I was pregnant with Sam, any remaining issues I still had with the faith of our fathers seemed minor next to what a faith community offers a child: support in trouble, the sense of being unique and precious, a framework for understanding the need for compassion. And now that child was finding the whole candle-incense-stained-glass scene a boring interruption of what ought to be the best day of the week -- a day with no school, no errands, no soccer game, no homework. Who could blame the kid? And who's to say that a 10-gallon bucket of tadpoles slowly transforming themselves into tree frogs in a little pool near the backyard couldn't demonstrate God's plan at least as well as all the verses of "How Great Thou Art"?
I considered my hunched-over son. I considered the glorious summer day beckoning my boy outside. I considered my watch: 30 minutes left to get ready for church and give our son one more reason to begrudge God His hour on Sunday. "Get your sandals on," I said. "Time to visit the church of nature."
We headed to a nearby park, where Sam saw a water snake, three turtles, a spiderweb shaped like a funnel, a cicada shell, half a robin's egg, a nest of "roly-polies," and about a million water striders. Every few seconds he would call, "Hey, Mom, look at this!" and point out some wonder he'd have missed entirely if I'd hauled him to the altar. We stayed for an hour, walking along the trail and turning over rocks to find salamanders, and we came home muddy and happy. There was no more talk about hating God.
The church of nature has been a family tradition ever since. There's nothing overt about our sermons -- no bright "Okay, kids, let's find examples of God's handiwork and talk about them." Nonetheless, those special Sundays, walking along the Little Harpeth River, with its swift, flashing water and its dappled light and finches' wings, are full of what can only be called holiness. For Haywood and me, it's also a reminder of our own childhoods, the chance to watch our kids studying crawdads and making toy boats out of bark just as we did as children. As kids, we never needed a special occasion to visit the church of nature because we both grew up among creeks and fields and piney woods, catching lightning bugs and collecting cicada shells. As long as we were home in time for supper, our mothers didn't care if we spent the whole day chunking rocks into the creek.
The other day a friend of mine looked ruefully around her tidy family room and said, "My kids don't have toys anymore. All they have are video games." It's not that bad at our house, though my children's days -- filled with soccer practice and Cub Scouts and music lessons and endless piles of homework -- are far more scheduled than mine ever were. But it's not strictly for the kids that we ditch church on especially gorgeous Sundays. Haywood and I need the church of nature at least as much as they do. Some days I'm too busy with work and laundry and carpools and bills -- not to mention the e-mails that suck me into cyberspace as completely as any online game grabs my children -- to venture into my own backyard, much less the walking trails of Edwin Warner Park. Wordsworth had it right: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in Nature that is ours."
But when we spend Sunday at the river, I understand again that the earth itself is holy, and that I am one of its creatures. There, it is enough to live and breathe and care for my young like all the other animals, enough to lie down in the shade and hear Joe shout to his brothers, "Hey, look at the snakeskin I found!" while Henry and Sam debate whether that rattling in the grass was a rattlesnake or only a grasshopper. Haywood and I sit on the bank and hold hands and watch our children play with one another. Could there be a more perfect prayer of thanksgiving?
Last Sunday we were at the river when Henry called out, "Hey, Mom, look at this!" I went over to find a tiny frog clinging to the tip of one finger. When I glanced past that impossibly small being into my son's shining eyes, I suddenly thought of another sermon delivered outside church walls: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2007.