(Above: G.P. Paltz, “The Prodigal Son,” early 20th century.)
For this child did I pray, and the Lord hath granted me my petition, which I asked of him. (1 Samuel 1:27)
When I was a boy, I only wanted toys for Christmas. My yearly letter to Santa Claus listed whatever trendy space ships, laser-guns, or actions figures that were being marketed to children in order to promote Stars Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or the Six Million Dollar Man. If, for some reason, I unwrapped a present under the tree and discovered a sweater, a jacket, or a blanket – I ungratefully stuffed it back into the box and threw it in the corner. Like the rest of my gifts, my parents had sacrificed in order to give them to me. I didn’t know that. Usually by the time my birthday rolled around in April, I was bored with the toys I received at Christmas and I wanted some new action figure playset that looked incredibly realistic on the TV commercial but rather cheap and flimsy in real-life. Yet, for a while, I could make-believe that I had been transported to some far away galaxy. However, I always dropped back to earth.
The sweater that I received, although I loathed it, kept me warm through the winter. I took it for granted. I forgot where it came from; it was just there, I thought.
I was a somewhat lonely and sad kid. I had few male friends and lacked the bold confidence that resulted in many young boys falling out of a tree or off a skateboard. I usually chose to stay safe on the sidelines and draw little pictures – I enveloped myself in the realm of fantasy. But I was perpetually cold and lonely. When I was old enough to venture out into the world alone, I went in search of my dreams. Returning home, with a brand-new toy, I wanted everyone around me to share in my happiness. A year later, I showed up with someone else. I expected that my request for approval should be met with almost immediate fulfillment. Instead, my parents gave me a sweater. Like a petulant spoiled brat, I threw it away. I loathed that sweater when I was a boy; now, I loathed the truth.
I didn’t go home. Why should I? I didn’t get what I wanted. Year after year, a present was placed under the tree with my name on it. I didn’t unwrap a single one. I wanted a plastic toy. I wanted a sign and words of approval from those around me. I wanted everyone to confirm my boyish need to live in a fantasy world. I am Luke Skywalker; I am the Bionic Man; I am gay. Being gay was like the playset I wanted so desperately for Christmas – it was fun for a while, but then I realized something – none of this is real. Finally, I chose to wrap myself in the protective warmth of truth. That which I rejected, when I was suddenly hungry, stripped naked, and left to die, looked incredibly welcoming. I crawled over to that forgotten corner of the room – piled high with rubbish – and dug through the pieces of torn and crinkled wrapping paper, looking desperately for the sweater I tossed away. In my undeniable wretchedness, it was all I had.
The greatest gift that can be given to someone we love – is the truth. The unwillingness of the recipient to receive it, in no way lessens the importance of that gift. When I was a child, because I did not want that sweater from my parents – does not mean that the wool it was made of was any less warm. When I disregarded it – my mother put it lovingly in my dresser. I forgot it was there. On a cold morning, I put it on. Then, in my heart, I was happy to have it. Many years later, when the harsh and bitter winds of reality ripped apart my illusions – I accepted that gift of prayer. One day, your son will return – he’ll appear on the crest of a distant hill – disheveled and dirty. You embrace him. Afterwards, in his old childhood bedroom, he goes back to his dresser – the sweater is still there. Now, I understood how my parents kept and preserved it for me. They sacrificed much on my behalf. Without them, or their gift, I would have froze to death. I put on that sweater – at first, it was scratchy and uncomfortable but I thanked God for it.