In 1990, my young family experienced a significant move when I accepted a call to become the pastor of a large downtown Episcopal parish in Tyler, Texas. With that young family, I wanted to live as close to the church as possible so that I could make it home easily in the push-pull world of parish ministry. So, we decided to buy a house in the Azalea District, a historic section of Tyler on the edge of downtown, made up mostly of older homes.
The home we chose was a gray painted brick house with a formal garden, a back lot, and a carriage house for my office and wood shop. It was quite a find. It would have been out of our reach financially without the economic downturn in the early eighties. I came to know that the house was called “the Babin House” by the locals, as it’s owners, the Babins, had renovated the old place. It was a “stop” on the annual Spring Azalea Festival Tour, with a world-class exhibition of azaleas, thanks to the work of the former owners. It will probably be the “best” house I will ever live in. But there was an unlikely problem that complicated things. And that problem came in the unlikely form of a pool.
When I initially flew into Texas, looking down on the suburbs of Dallas, it looked like every house had a pool. Part of the Texas mystique, I thought to myself, a cement pond, as Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies called it. I quickly found out that in the Texas heat, a pool is not a luxury but a necessity. The maintenance of such an aqua feature was a bit of a concern but nothing like the sheer terror I had of introducing young children into that Danger Zone. I had a friend whose child had drowned when she took her eye off her child for what seemed to be a second, but turned into a moment that lasted for eternity. That happened in a backyard pool in an instant. My wife and I were both concerned with the issue of safety at our house on Chilton.
That fear only heightened when Thomas drove his Big Wheel into the pool early in our residency……I don’t think he had been drinking., but to be honest, I did not check his blood-alcohol level. We were right there on the scene, which made for an easy save, and a great story. Thomas’ plunge became the focus of a sermon topic which connected with the hearts of other parents who shared the inherent fear that goes with the job of parenting.
To ward off such vulnerability, we immediately signed Thomas up at the local Y for swim lessons, drown-proofing is what we called it at my college. Mary Glen, who recently had emerged from in utero was accustomed to floating in fluid but she was too young to qualify at the Y. That would have to wait.
By royal decree, it was hereby ordered that if a kid wanted to go into our picture-book back yard, they would need to ask for a parent to accompany him/her. That seemed like a reasonable rule to safeguard my young family in our early Texas days. As springtime and the blossoming of azaleas came in our first year, the rule would be tested by my curious son.
Thomas would stand at our French doors, pressing his nose against the glass, looking at the Disney-like explosion of colors going off in our backyard. The golden jasmine, the multi-colored azaleas would appear each morning, birds chirping and squirrels squirreling, announcing the renewal of life from the doldrums of winter. It was spectacular.
There is a word that gets used a lot these days, “awesome”. It’s used to describe something that is remarkable, beyond the normal, on the far side of the expected. It’s a word I was introduced to during a national military campaign of “shock and awe”, with “awe” referring to something that connotes Almighty Power, originally with a connotation of being feared. It’s cultural usage has evolved.n It means it is big, really BIG, when something is awesome. I hear people use the word to describe a meal, an experience, a song….. you name it. It is awesome!
Typical of my Scot’s family’s motto, “In Defiance”, I find myself rebellious, avoiding the word altogether. Much like the over-used “slippery slope”, I simply have banned the utterance of the word from my lips, searching for other terms that might capture the feeling, the experience of the moment.
That being said, this particular springtime display was AWESOME. No other word quite captures nature’s magnificence. The juxtaposition of a dreary winter in our first season in Texas added to the wonderful surprise of color going on in our backyard and all over this lovely East Texas city.
That beauty was not missed by my three-year old. He would gaze at the colors, and finally come to one of us, asking us to take him out back so he could see, smell, and touch the wonder of his first cognizant Spring. Our rule, my royal David’s edict, made sure he was safe, but there was a price to pay, that of being interrupted.
It was on a Sunday afternoon after I had finished my duties at church. In that first year, I was the only priest, so it meant three services on Sunday morning plus a church school class that I was teaching to introduce the congregation to my way of thinking. Added to that was the obligatory greeting of people as they were departing at the back door of the church. Christ Church had a long tradition of hugs and salutations that I had to honor, even in my introverted fatigue of being with folk all morning. I played along, learning people’s names, listening to their passing advice, assuring them of the orthodoxy of this Atlanta invader. And they could have not been more welcoming and kind to me and my family. But, I could not wait to finish that parade of folks wanting to press the flesh.
I would literally run to my SAAB to drive the couple of miles to my idyllic home, have lunch with my family, a glass of wine, and then relax, finished with responsibilities, that is, until the six o’clock communion service. That afternoon had become sacred to me, a respite in the rush of being a priest. And that’s when it happened.
Thomas appeared in front of my club chair as I had just settled in to relax, maybe even grab a brief nap. With his hands clasped behind him, shifting back and forth on his feet, he inquired, “Daddy, will you take me out back?”. Begging for reprieve, I asked, “Can you wait for a little while?”. “Daddy, I’ve been waiting all morning. Can’t we go out back now?”. “Thomas, why do you want to go right now?”. And that was the payoff pitch that he knocked out of the park: “Daddy., I want to go outside to see what God is doing.”.
Game. Set. Match.
We went outside and I watched him, his young eyes seemed to be drinking in the deluge of colors, his ears listening to the buzz of the bees, the soft spring breeze kissing the skin of his cheeks. His young eyes were watching and witnessing God’s presence in Creation in a way in which I was familiar, in the way I had when I was a child. And yet, on this afternoon, I had the gift, the privilege of watching my son basking in the glory of God’s world. It was awesome.
From my childhood, a hymn came into my mind, having been pushed to the periphery of my consciousness by Anglican anthems and liturgical litanies, claiming its rightful place as a starting point for my spirit that found its birth in Nature:
“This is my Father’s World, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the beauty of the spheres. This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought, of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, His hand his wonders wrought.”
Fresh eyes. To see the Presence in the middle of the ordinary. To attend to the world, awash in the Holy. Fresh eyes to see.
As I get older, I find that I value the gift of fresh eyes more and more. The fresh eyes of a student who is energized by learning something new. The fresh eyes of a recently graduated nurse who sees opportunities to optimize the work of care. The fresh eyes of lovers taking in the lines and curves of the other, the beloved. The fresh eyes of an elder who has recovered a sense of wonder and has taken on a beginner’s mind. Fresh eyes to see the world anew.
It’s winter, cold and windy, bleak, but I find myself hoping for Spring….and fresh eyes.