The Church of Nature
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."