I have been given many gifts that I have loved. And a lot of strange gifts too. My daughters love to give me underwear with comic characters, dollar signs, and so on. I view it as my chastity belt. I would never let anybody see these usually over the top underwear. I have been given a box of quarters. I save quarters. I call it my mad money. So if I ever get mad I can spend my quarters to cool me off or the alternative with mad money, to commit some act of sheer nonsense.
I have been given gifts that have a tragic story. I often led meditation groups with my homeless or HIV impacted clients. A client who was also an addict told me how she had used per my guidance an image of Jesus as a meditation tool. She gave it to me in a very solemn mood one day. This was unusual and I was worried about her. My worry was justified; the next day she left her group home to return to her addictive ways. She, as I expected, had given me the picture for safe keeping until she returned to herself. She never came back.
Another gift later that is special but is sad now was a cross stitch from a teenager. I had been her youth minister and we had shared some hard times together. The cross stitch was of a wedding couple with the date of my first marriage and the words “love forever” stitched under the date. Of course that marriage ended badly. But I keep it in memory of the youth whom I once helped.
I lived with my first wife and son in two small rooms in a chapel that housed the homeless, mentally ill, and seminary students. As part of my job I supervised over twenty-five churches as they served meals to the homeless. Once when we came back after a trip, a church had filled our two small rooms with thank-you notes and presents. It is one of my favorite all time gifts.
One other gift which is my favorite is a rocking chair. Although I am a little young for the stereotypical rocker. I have enjoyed it as much as any gift I have ever received.
But probably the best gift I ever received was the biggest misnomer of a present for me. When I worked In Louisville I lived in as previously two small rooms. I lived and worked with the homeless in a church. Woody was one of the homeless residents I worked with at the church. He came to us homeless with major depression. Everyone loved him except himself. He was a devout Christian who also happened to be gay. This was in the eighties when gays were not generally accepted. He did not know what to do with himself; through many long talks he began to reconcile the two for himself. The church, which was confused and not settled yet on the issue of gayness, loved him despite themselves and this helped his self-esteem. He was happy and had completed his EMT training and was employed. He was leaving for his own apartment at the time I was realizing I too would have to leave. I was not happy that it was in the cards for me to leave.
But he had set up an appointment with me to present this gift. We met in my “expansive” home and had snacks and conversation. He was anxious to give me my present. He told me how much he had learned from me and my sermons. So he handed me the present. I could tell it was a book. I opened it. It was an autobiography of, as he told me, another great Baptist minister: Jerry Falwell (the leader of the Moral Majority).
I was sure he was joking but was holding my tongue until I was sure. He said open to the first page. I did. He had written inside the cover ‘To a minister who is as great as any minister he knew. Thanks for loving and helping me. Love, Woody.’ I looked at his face and could see he was not kidding. Tears were streaming down his eyes.
I said I had wanted to read more about Falwell, and thanked Woody for sharing the gift and his life with me. We hugged although we would see each other in the next few weeks. We knew our journeys were now taking us in different directions and we were probably never to be like this again. I knew his journey was still filled with many challenges. The book in so many ways was a testimony to that. He was only beginning to reconcile his queer ways with the bad and unloving theology of the far right.
Gifts are wonderful things. Sometimes they can be totally the wrong thing but yet miraculously they have meanings that make them the totally right gift.