“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5: 38-42)
I’m in my 10th year of preaching. I have preached from this text a number of times; encouraging my congregation to live by this mandate from Christ to “turn the other cheek.” But I have never felt this lesson in my soul until this week. This week everything about these words changed.
This week, for the third or fourth time, one of my daughters told me that I am not her real mother. In many ways she is right. I did not wait for her to grow inside of me for 9 months, kicking and growing and changing. I did not give birth to her or see her first teeth, first steps, first word. In fact, I didn’t even know her for the first 6 years of her life.
But for the past three years, I have been one of the most stable and safe parts about her world. I have tucked her into bed almost nightly, prayed away her fears and hugged away her sadness. I’ve been the one with her when she is sick, dosing her fever with just the right mix of ibuprofen and Tylenol to bring it down. I’m the one who talks with her teachers, drives her to therapy, tracks her progress. I’m the one who takes her to violin/piano lessons, and helps her to practice. I helped her learn how to read, checked her homework, and encouraged her love of cooking. And for the past 4 months, my husband and I have been her legal parents. I am her mother.
Hearing those hate-filled words come from her mouth are about the most devastating thing I’ve ever heard. Every time she says it, it shakes me to my core.
The rational part of my brain knows why she says these things. She is hurt and angry, not fully understanding why she was taken from her biological parents. She is struggling with her own identity, having to follow limits that she previously did not have. She is learning what it means to be a pre-teen and for the first time attending school for a second year—learning how to be someone’s long-term friend. She is full of emotion, with a limited capacity to express them or release them. When she does, it is ugly. She has learned just what to say to those who are closest to her (me and her older sister) to push us away—before we push her away. I think this is her real fear—that we will push and send her away.
I know all of that. I can talk ad nauseam about her psychological state, her emotional well-being, her physical needs. But hearing those words screamed at me after a day of caring for her reduces me to an emotional wreck.
I want to scream back at her, “FINE! If you don’t think I’m your mother then I will stop acting like it. I will stop doing all the “mother” things you ask of me!” When she tells me that her biological mom could care for her better, I want to scream back all of the facts that I know to be true. I want to withhold my affection because I am wounded to the core.
But last night, as I was sobbing on my bed, praying for something to change a new thought came to me. I said to God, “I can’t do this anymore,” and God spoke back more clearly than I have every hear before with these simple words:
“Turn the other cheek.”
What?! Did I hear that right?
“Turn the other cheek.”
I have been telling people for years to let scripture seep into the depths of who they are (not necessarily memorizing it, but KNOWING it) so that in their deepest moments of need, it will come to them. I was expecting to call to mind words of comfort, maybe a reminder that this too shall pass. But instead I get this:
“Turn the other cheek.”
At first I railed against it. Forget it. I cannot continue to let her talk to me like that. I cannot listen to it again, it is too hard, too hurtful, too damaging. Having fought desperately to be a mother, being told by your child that you are not one is a deep, deep wound.
And yet, once again God reminds me that this is not about me. It is not about my needs, my emotional reaction, my heart. It is about hers. And God has called me to be her mom, as surely as God called me to be a pastor. And being a mom sometimes means turning the other cheek. It means checking my emotional response to be the best mom I can be. It means remembering (as her therapist told her this week) that we sometimes have to re-train our thoughts, because some thoughts lead to unhealthy emotions, which lead to unhealthy reactions. We have to learn to think the thought, but not necessarily follow through with the emotion or reaction. We have to make the choice.
And so, I will offer up the other cheek to my daughter. I will forgive 70×7 or however many times it takes for her to learn that I am her mother, that I will not turn her away, and that there is nothing she can do to change it.
But first, I’m going to go take a nap, because crying and turning the other cheek is exhausting.