Monday, December 16, 2013

Unconditional Love

Luke 1:46b-55, Advent 3 A, December 15, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

I recently listened to the NPR program This American Life. The episode was appropriately named, “Unconditional Love,” and one segment was called, “Love is a Battlefield.” The reporter told the story of a mother who helped her adopted son overcome his attachment disorder. In many ways, this mother’s love for her son is like God’s love for us.

Heidi and Rick Solomon were fairly ordinary Jewish Americans before Daniel came into their life. When they were ready to have children, they decided to adopt. During the process, they saw a picture of Daniel in an adoption catalogue. For some reason, this picture among the hundred other orphans pictured stood out to them.

So, they flew to Romania to take Daniel home. They saw the terrible condition in which Daniel had lived his first seven and a half years. Daniel shared a crib with another boy even though he hadn’t been a baby for such a long time. There were a hundred or more orphans in one room, all sharing cribs. These children had no education, no playtime, or any other interaction. They were forced to stay in their cribs except to eat and use the bathroom.

Daniel seemed happy at first, but the years of isolation and neglect had taken its toll. For his first six months in America, Daniel was ok. He certainly had his fair share of tantrums, but they always led to progress. Heidi and Rick enjoyed teaching Daniel English and about American culture.

Then March came and brought his eighth birthday. Then Daniel had an existential crisis. He didn’t know what a birthday was or why he had never had one before. This was the first time that he considered that he had another set of parents that had given him up. In fact, it took him a long time to comprehend the difference between biological and adoptive parents. Daniel blamed Heidi and Rick for the terrible life that he had in Romania. Even after he knew it wasn’t their fault, his anger remained.

Anger is an understatement. Daniel was filled with rage. He was destructive, punching holes in the walls of his bedroom. All of his furniture had to be taken away, leaving him with just a mattress. All of the specialists who tried to help him left the house injured and bleeding. Heidi called the cops regularly when she was afraid of Daniel’s vicious outbursts. She even hired a guard for her house – a bodyguard to protect her against her eight-year-old son.

For some time, there seemed to be no way out. Their family and all their doctors encouraged them to institutionalize Daniel. Rick even considered leaving Heidi, but Heidi could not give up on Daniel. She knew that there must be a way. She loved Daniel even when he threatened her life.

They lived like this for two years. Daniel was shuffled between doctors and psychiatrists, none of them providing a viable solution. Then, when Daniel was ten, he was diagnosed with attachment disorder. He was unable to connect with others, unable to form relationships or feel empathy. Daniel had no conscience, meaning that he could hurt others without feeling guilt. Daniel was dangerous, and the possible therapy was highly controversial.

When Daniel was a baby, he never made a connection with a mother. He was never cuddled; no adult stared lovingly into his eyes. He never felt loved. The intensive therapy recreated this. For eight weeks, Heidi always stayed within three feet of Daniel.

They did everything together, repeating simple tasks until Daniel did it properly. They had to make a lot of eye contact, with each task and every time they talked. Daniel couldn’t ask for anything. Like a baby, Daniel had to trust that Heidi would provide for his every need. Instead of having time outs, Daniel’s “punishment” for misbehaving was “time-ins”: extended periods of hugging and cuddling.

As expected, Daniel did not like this treatment. He resisted it as much as he could. For the first three weeks, he regressed. Then something clicked. He finally understood that this crazy hugging-eye contact making-always around woman loved him. He finally, after ten years, discovered what love is.

Life wasn’t perfect after that therapy. Daniel still acted out, but he wasn’t dangerous anymore. In May of 2006, he was given a special award at his synagogue and was able to give a speech. He took this opportunity to express his gratitude to his parents for never giving up on him.

At the end of the interview, the reporter asked Heidi, “Do you think you are loved by Daniel?” Heidi responded, “I don’t think he wants to hurt me. I don’t worry about that at all.” That may not sound like love, but it is. Heidi is pragmatic, realistic, and brave. Not every parent could have performed that therapy for such a difficult, detached child. Creating a bond of love like this is not for the softhearted.

Heidi and Daniel’s story powerfully parallels God’s story with us. In Mary’s Magnificat that we used as a psalm today, Mary boldly proclaims God’s role in human history. Many of these descriptions don’t sound like love. God has scattered the proud of heart and brought down the mighty rulers from their thrones. God has sent the rich away empty and shown His strength to the generations. God has done all of this to foreigners, yet God has also done this to God’s own people. God has done this out of love because:

Sometimes love looks like taking all your bedroom furniture away except a mattress so you don’t cause damage to your room or to yourself.

Sometimes love is hugging you and never letting go even when all you want is to be alone.

Sometimes love is forcing you to do something simple like passing a notebook over and over again until you do it kindly – with eye contact.

Sometimes the greatest love is tough love because that is really what we need.

When Gabriel told Mary that she would bear God’s son who would save the world, she knew that this wouldn’t be an easy ride. She knew that her God of mercy also was a powerful God able to overturn the strongest rulers. Mary didn’t know exactly what raising Jesus would be like, but she did know that she was up for the challenge.

This God that we worship is not just full of soft, cuddly kindness. God’s love for us is often shown in tough ways. God’s love is that kick in the butt to move forward when we don’t think we can take another step. God’s love for us may seem like intensive therapy sometimes, yet we come out of the experience truly feeling what love is. 

Love is not bubbly hearts. Love is moving forward. Forward to the manger on the way to the cross. Amen.

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