The Church of Nature

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God's Everyday Work

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.


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