1 John 4: 7-end; John 15: 1-8
Our readings from the letter of John and John’s gospel weave around the same theme, the love of God, being connected to that love like branches in a vine, living in that love.
This reminded me of a story I heard a few years ago on the podcast, This American Life, about a couple and their adopted son, and so this morning I want to share that story with you.
Heidi and Rick Solomon adopted Daniel from a Romanian orphanage when he was seven. They flew from Ohio to Romania, picked him up and took him home. Until that point, Daniel had lived in a large room with 100 other children, sleeping two to a cot. He had never been outside, never had any toys. He did not know the names of any of the adults who looked after them.
Heidi worked as a special needs teacher. She knew there would be challenges, but she felt ready. For the first six months, there was steady progress. But then Heidi and Rick talked to Daniel about what they might do for his eighth birthday. He had never had a birthday before. It was as if a new awareness opened up for him, that he had been born on a given day, to parents, who had taken him to the orphanage and walked away. A surge of rage at what they had done overwhelmed him. He directed his anger at his new adoptive parents. They explained that it had been his biological parents, not them, but by then the anger had developed its own momentum.
Powerful, destructive anger would overcome him for many hours at a time. In the end they had to remove everything from his bedroom except his mattress. And over time he became violent towards them, not just during his tantrums but also with an unsettling calm and a smile.
Somehow Heidi and Rick coped, contained, managed. Eventually they sought professional help. When he was ten he was diagnosed with Attachment Disorder. There were many treatments offered by different specialists, under the banner of Attachment Therapy. All aimed in some way at addressing the deficiency left by not having experienced loving relationship in infancy, especially with his mother. Heidi and Rick tried some, avoided others.
Then Heidi heard of a doctor in Virginia proposing a new, intensive therapy and having some success. The idea was that Heidi and Daniel would spend eight weeks constantly no more than three feet away from each other, except when he was asleep. She gave up work, he stopped going to school. When one of them went to the bathroom the other waited the other side of the door. And more than that, they would have to make eye contact during every interaction. If Daniel avoided his mother’s eyes, then Heidi would have to start again until he did.
Predictably, Daniel found it incredibly hard and resisted. And then, instead of “time out” he had to undergo “time in” – spent in even closer contact with Heidi, for example cuddling on the sofa.
After about three weeks there was a change. To quote Daniel’s words:
I think I realized that she's not as bad as I thought she was.
… I didn't have as much time to hate her, I guess. And so,… I kind of liked her a little more. Like, before, … she would tell me not to do this. Then for, like, 45 minutes, I would hate her because she told me not to do this.
Well, you know, there wasn't a time where I could kind of, like, go somewhere else and hate her. I was next to her.
The “three feet” therapy cured Daniel of his violence, but it was still a long slow road from there. Into his teenage years they still, every evening, did “holding therapy.” Heidi would have Daniel sit on her knee, even though he was bigger than her, and the three of them would talk – to get him to agree to it she and Rick would feed him ice cream.
“It’s like, what is this?... they were feeding me ice cream. So I was like, OK fine. But… that’s when I actually first started to be able to talk about what I was feeling.”
Part of our interest in this family’s story is that it was an extreme case. I am not suggesting anyone try this at home – except possibly the ice cream!
But it also made me ponder on what it might say about the nature of love.
What struck me about Heidi was how utterly determined she was. Heidi was practical, unsentimental. As the narrator put it, “She's not a flowering earth mother with a wealth of love to give.” But she never gave up. Sometimes love is a tough business.
And about Daniel, I wondered, don’t I also sometimes yearn for a break from love? Isn’t it so much easier to dislike, to judge, apart?
When Jesus talks of the vine and the branches, what strikes me is that the connectedness, the attachment is constant. The sap of love flowing from God, through us, which is our life. This is not something we can walk away from and come back to.
As the psalmist says:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
All this the letter of John distils into a few timeless words: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”
May we all open our hearts to live in this love.
Richard Young (Rector)