Telling this paradigmatic story of my journey through life, I got back in touch with some deep truths that have come my way. I have told this story before, in sermons, in this column, but this time it was to a friend and colleague during the recent retreat I was co-leading for clergy. It feels right to tell it again, as a re-minder to me of a deep truth that was given to me in a particularly painful moment. Plus, it’s a hell of a good story.
I was serving as the Canon Pastor at the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta. Part of my duty was to celebrate the Eucharist (holy communion for those of you South of God) every noon in our lovely little chapel, with usually ten to thirty people who would show up, whether they needed to or not.
Elizabeth Dickey, the cousin to Deliverance’s James Dickey, almost always was there, a resident at our retirement facility, the Cathedral Towers. She was so faithful, one of Dave’s Faves, but always about a beat behind in her articulating the words of the liturgy. She sat in the same pew every day on the lefthand side of the chapel.
Another parishioner, Phil Sapelo, was also there most days, sitting on the front right pew. Phil was a bit overbearing in his opinions, even before the current culture wars, and was one of those people sent by God on a special mission to train me in my spiritual discipline of patience. He was always about half a beat ahead of the normal rhythm of our liturgy, which made the service a bit tricky for the celebrant. “Cacophony” would be too strong a word, but “disjointed” barely approaches the feel of confusion,.
One day, I actually broke down and tried to train them, like an orchestra conductor, to be conscious of that rhythm, and it worked for a minute, but soon we returned to the syncopated liturgy. It turned out that I was more of a conductor on a train, headed for the proverbial train wreck. I smiled, and accepted the lesson in my early days of priesting.
During my time, I would notice the people who showed up for this service. For some, it was a daily habit that provided a structure to one’s day. Many times, it was a moment of convenience as one was out shopping and just dropped by for a spiritual pause in their day. Other times, a crisis had occurred and the person was literally on their knees, seeking guidance. It was an opportune time for me as a priest, to greet the person at the door in the back, giving them an option to engage. And some would take advantage of the moment, while others would scurry back to the world, as I honored the unique role of the Cathedral to provide a safe space for transition, a moment of liminality, a valuable pause in our social network.
Early on in my time beginning to take on this duty, I noticed a handsome, distinguished older man, who sat midway on the right side. He wore a black blazer, not the more common navy with brass buttons. His glasses were perched on the end of his nose, with a cord around his neck, securing his spectacles conveniently.
He was there almost every day, but whisked out before I could greet him. Finally, one day, I rushed to the back and caught him. going against my normal rule of leaving people alone who wanted their privacy. I said that I noticed his regular presence and was glad to see him. He introduced himself as Gary Garnett. I asked if he would like to grab a cup of coffee, an old Episcopal ploy. Over the steaming cup of coffee that Christine had made, he surprised me by telling me that he was an Episcopal priest. He had been a “fast track” priest in North Carolina. He had burned out and had left the parish ministry, something I was beginning to understand. He went on to tell me that he was gay, and had partnered with a man with whom he had a business. We continued to meet weekly, exploring his original calling to priesthood, the things he loved about the work, and the things that made that role problematic, eventually causing him to curtail his formal exercise of that office.
It began with a simple offer. Would you ever like to celebrate the daily Eucharist in the chapel? His eyes lit up, like I had flipped a switch. And so it began. He began to take a day in the weekly rotation in the chapel. Soon, I invited him to provide a limited number of hours, serving as our hospital visitor, as he would drop in on parishioners at Piedmont Hospital. To cut to the chase, I wound up asking him to come on my pastoral care staff, as he became a full-time priest on the Cathedral staff. Truth is, Gary became one of the most beloved priests at the Cathedral, using his considerable pastoral skills while visiting folks in the hospital, Plus, he did not have to deal with all the administrative “stuff” that I had to mess with. It was perfect for him. and he thrived.
Gary became a treasured colleague, but even more a friend. I would often end my day by going to his condo on top of a building behind the Cathedral. We would sit in his roof garden, enjoying the view of the Atlanta skyline, sipping spirits, and solving the problems of the world, the challenges of the urban reality of Atlanta, and the Cathedral in particular, even the rhythm of the chapel liturgy of Elizabeth and Phil. Actually, we often found that it was humor that helped us make it through the times. It was a holy space for me, a place of communion.
One day, Gary came into my office, shutting my door behind him. Through tears, he told me of a diagnosis of lung cancer that was advanced. He would undergo treatment but the prognosis was not optimistic. We prayed, sat in silence, and then talked until closing time.
That night, I had a dream during my sleep. It was vivid, different from most of my dreams, but it was not the first elaborate dream I had on occasion. My witchy grandmother McBrayer once told me that it ran in the family, this dream “thing”. She admonished me to pay attention. She said her father, John Columbus McBrayer, had had a dream of the death of his wife when they lived in the black dirt soil of Waco, Texas. And the vision he had, of her dying during childbirth came to pass. My grandmother said that she also had dreams that pointed to things coming. I remember her telling me one day, as an impressionable little boy, “Pay attention to your dreams! It is God speaking to you!”
Now, science and the Enlightenment had knocked most of that mystical stuff out of me. I prided myself in my scientific perspective, although I had begun to play with the role of dreams in the unconscious as explored by Carl Jung. It still felt spooky to me, but I had experienced strong intuition and had a tremulous dream on the night I was on retreat at the Trappist monastery before my ordination to the priesthood, which I have recounted here in South of God. But this dream was different.
So this particular dream happened the night after Gary told me of his cancer diagnosis:
I was standing on the ridge of a small mountain, overlooking a valley. It reminded me of a location on Pine Mountain, at Dowdell’s Knob where President Franklin Roosevelt would picnic on visitation to Warm Springs. It was a place my grandfather would take me as a boy.
The sky was dark and stormy, the way it gets in mid-Georgia during the summer months. Tornado time. I was standing on the mountain, shaking my fist at the sky, and I was screaming/crying: Damn you, God! How could you do this to Gary? He’s found himself, recovering his sense of vocation, serving as a faithful priest, loving Your people, and now you are going to strike him down? I don’t get it. This makes NO sense. Gary does not deserve this. Damn you!
In my dream, a kind, even-toned voice came from the sky:
David, you let me take care of Gary, and you go grow roses.
That was it. What the hell did that mean? I woke up, wrote down the dream on a pad I kept by the bed, and reviewed it the next morning. In fact, when I awoke in the morning, I thought I had dreamed about writing the note down, but there it was, this vexing dream content of my outburst at the Almighty, with God’s quiet reply.
What was I to make of this? I called my Trappist monk spiritual director who grew bonsai trees in the monastery greenhouse. I never will forget his laughter when I told him, he was trying so valiantly to not laugh at his young perplexed friend. I asked what he thought, and he responded, “If I were you, I’d grow roses!”
The story gets even more strange. I called up an old church member from Decatur who was a renowned rosarian in the Atlanta botanical world. I didn’t feel comfortable telling him about my dream. I simply asked him to tell me how to grow roses….my admirable habit is to consult the best.
Beryl Brown began to tell me much more than I wanted to know. First, you dig out the Georgia red clay from the beds where you are going to plant the roses, three to four feet down. You install French drains to help with the moisture. You amend the soil with peat moss, sand, and perlite. You install a drip irrigation system to precisely water each individual plant. As he is droning on with his masterful lecture, I stopped him and asked him if all of this was really necessary. He paused at the end of my question and I imagined the contortion of his face. “You ASKED me how to grow roses. I am trying to tell you!” he said, with no attempt to disguise his disgust.
Got it. Three to four feet, huh. Really?
So I ordered 70 bare-root roses from Oregon. Dug out two beds, one by the side of the house, the other in my Peachtree-Dunwoody virgin forest backyard. I built a raised bed out of railroad crossties. Amended the soil as prescribed. Planted these things that looked more like sticks than bushes. Installed a drip irrigation system that, to my utter surprise, worked! My house did not explode with water shooting out my chimney, as I had imagined. And, the plants began to grow just like the man said. Beryl even gave me a secret tip, a mystical concoction of alfalfa pellets, water, and other secret ingredients that I would have to kill you if I told you. I mixed it up in a large rubber trash can, witchily stirring the brew with my granddad’s old boat paddle. The smell would knock you naked, as my old friend Ron Lane would say. But, by God, or Beryl, it worked.
Roses grew abundantly. I worked hard, caring for my roses, leaving Gary’s fate to God, learning to trust in a new way. It was sacramental, as I experienced a visceral reaction to the sweat, muscle soreness, escaping blood, and earthy smell that was a part of my piece of Eden. I would carry roses to the staff at the Cathedral, especially Gary, giving me an occasion to express my love for him. It was quite a season for the roses, and for me.
I wish my story had a fairytale ending. The chemo took out some of the cancer, but exacted a terrible price on Gary’s body, though his spirit remained valiant.
In the middle of this cosmic drama, I received a call from an amazing parish, Christ Church, in Tyler, Texas, curiously known as the City of Roses. Surprisingly, I accepted the call, took my young family across the Mississippi River to my grandmother’s native soil, and began to do the hard work of growing people in that part of God’s Creation, staying a decade in the fields of East Texas.
As I left Atlanta for the Rose City, I said my goodbyes to a fine colleague, and even better friend, the Rev. Father Gary Garnett. We both knew that day, it would be the last time we would see each other, as we shared an embrace. Our farewells were watered with tears, but I was able to give my friend, Gary, one last red rose, knowing that the God who gave me an enigmatic charge, would take care of His end of the bargain. It was off to Texas for me while the journey of my friend was drawing to a close.
Go grow roses. Oh my.