One of my daughters threw a temper tantrum today. It was really the start of what we call, a Rage Tantrum. It deserves the capital letters, because they are not like typical tantrums. Also, she is 10. A little older than most kids who throw this kind of tantrum. But our dear one has a little bit of a traumatic background and as a result sometimes emotions that other kids her age might be able to handle a little more smoothly, or at least in a quieter way, just become too much for her to handle.
We haven’t had one of these in a while. And this was not the worst one I’ve ever seen…no where close. In the not so distant past, her tantrums have lasted hours. We’ve had to call the EMT’s on 2 occasions because we were afraid she would hurt herself.
This time was different. Everything started out the same. I requested that she do something. She refused. I told her the consequences if she did not make the right choice. She still refused. I gave her the consequence and then it was all out war. She finally stomped up to her room, screaming at me, and destroying things on the way there. But she was contained.
This time though, as I sat down on the couch listening to her scream and yell and throw things, I was reminded of an article I had read recently describing just such a tantrum cycle that another foster/adoptive mamma goes through with her dear one. It reminded me of the reasons she was reacting the way she was, and I decided to do something different.
I quietly walked up to her room and sat on her floor. I asked her in a calm voice to come sit with me. I said, “honey, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, so let’s try something new. come sit with me please.” I had to ask a few times, but she eventually came down. And when she did, I asked her if I could put my arms around her.
And then I sat with her for 5 minutes, with my arms around my 10 year old as she cried angry, angry tears.
I helped her calm her breathing. And I named for her what I thought she might be feeling.
We are a family in the middle of a lot of transition: we are preparing to move in 2 months. I have mostly finished my job at the church, so we’re not attending there anymore. Our foster baby is going on her first overnight visit with her bio-mom and soon will transition out of our home. And when we move, we will be almost 4 hours away from their oldest sister. All of that is a lot for my kids to handle, especially when you add in their background. I said, “Do you think maybe you’re feeling a lot of things lately about the move and it comes out in some not so good ways?”
Now, before you start judging too quickly, she still had a consequence. Her behavior and language towards me were not acceptable. But instead of punishing her for everything she screamed and instead of yelling back at her and throwing the proverbial book at her, this time I was able to step back and remember that her fragile heart is just not yet ready to handle all of the enormous emotions being thrown around right now. So I sat and held her.
And as I did so, I pictured God holding me in all of the moments in my life when I act exactly like that towards God. When I yell and scream and stomp my feet because of what’s going on in the world, or because the circumstances in my life don’t feel fair. And I thought, “if God can do that for me, I can do that for her.”
I sat with my arms around her, and I gave thanks for the many lessons parenting kids with trauma backgrounds has taught me about myself, about love, and about God. I gave thanks for the moments when I get it right, and thanks for the grace God gives me when I get it very, very wrong.
I wrote this reflection as part of my sermon for an Ecumenical Thanksgiving service yesterday. It was based on this article, “Second Blessing” that I used as the basis for my sermon. His idea in a nutshell, is that the story of Jesus and the Ten Lepers found in Luke 17 teaches us that there is a connection between our perception of our blessings and the vocalizing of our thanksgiving, and being made whole. The tenth leper, and the only one to return and give thanks to Jesus for his healing, receives a second blessing because he perceives and vocalizes his thanksgiving. He was already healed, but now has been made whole. This is the story of my second blessing.
So what does this second blessing, this wholeness that comes after articulate our gratitude look like? Well let me give you one example; I had this moment a few days ago that was holy for me. For those of you from the other congregations who don’t know me, I have a bit of an unconventional family. Four years ago this week, my husband and I were blessed to have 3 children walk into our home from the WV foster care system. They were 5, 6 and 15 at the time and are now 9, 10, and 19 (almost 20!) It has been four years of struggle, and blessing, of hardship and joy, laughter and tears. 2 years ago the adoption of our oldest daughter was finalized—2 months before her 18th birthday, and a year ago this past August, the adoption of our younger two daughters was finalized. During those 4 years, and even a bit before, I had 5 miscarriages. The last one happened right before thanksgiving 2012. So that’s the background. In April, my oldest daughter told me she was pregnant. It has been a long 9 months, as I waded through all of the feelings that have gone along with this pregnancy. Worry and fear for my daughter, because I know that life as a young, single mom is going to be hard. Sadness as her pregnancy triggered my own grief and loss. Joy because as a good friend of mine says, “a baby is always a blessing, no matter how or when it comes.” Jealousy and envy—because my body can’t do what Amira’s can. My pain was still fresh, but her joy was fresh also and at times they have intersected in ways that were not fun. As we’ve gone through the ultrasounds, and doctors appointments—all firsts for me, and for her— it sounds harsh, but there’ve been moments where I was just dreading all of it. But then just this last week, I was with her and my mother as she taught us a birthing class, and as we laughed and planned and learned, this overwhelming sense of joy and peace flooded over me. I was finally FINALLY excited to be in this with her. I am OVERJOYED at the thought of (any moment) becoming a grandmother. (a really young and hip one…well as hip as I’ve ever been…) So that was my first blessing. But THEN I voiced it. First I named it to some close friends of mine, fellow preacher women, and they joined me in giving praise to God. Then my girls and I were walking around the neighborhood this week (trying to get that baby out!) and I got to turn to Amira and say “I am so excited, and so proud and so thankful to be doing this with you.” And the look on her face– that was my second blessing.
Last week I received healing from God, and in vocalizing my thanks I received wholeness. I’m sure that there will be (and are) other ways I’m broken and need healing. Other pieces of my self that need to be made whole. But today, for this second blessing, I will give praise to God. I pray that this thanksgiving, as you give praise to God you also receive healing and wholeness.
26 of us gathered at BWI this morning to leave for our pilgrimage to Israel. Three hours later we discovered our first flight was canceled and we needed to all be re-booked and eventually driven to another airport. Our second flight left an hour and a half late, after waiting on the Tarmac for 40 minutes!
But God’s hand is still moving. I sat on my first flight next to a woman whose only daughter was adopted as an infant, and is struggling with questions of identity now as an adult. We talked about how we can let God be the center of our identity, which can begin to fill those voids left by abandonment early on. We spoke about how one of the most important pieces of a parents’ job is to provide a safe space, a non-anxious presence when the rest of the world feels chaotic and scary. And that God does that for us, as our Parent.
These were holy moments, given to us because of a flight that never happened, and a change of departure that did happen.
We are no where near our destination yet, but clearly God is already ahead of us.
I continue to ask that you pray for us as we travel, and I will be praying for you!
Why can’t I be a miracle
Like Hannah on her knees, but rising
Or like Sarah old, but laughing?
Why must I be the empty one
Barren formless and void
And still waiting yet preaching of
Expectation and hope?
People say it will happen
When I least expect it.
Or when I stop trying, by surprise.
But I cannot imagine a moment when I could expect it less than I do now,
or even a moment when I will not want to be trying
So how can they be right?
I want to be a miracle.
So why am I the one doomed to minister and live an ever ongoing advent,
One where, unlike the birth of the messiah, the one hoped for May never come?
“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.
There are many people in my family who at times could be described as crazy.
People I love suffer with depression; the deep and abiding disease that makes you feel alone, unloved, unnecessary and unwanted. People I love suffer with anxiety; some of them unable to walk into a grocery store or complete simple everyday tasks, hold a job, or nurture relationships.
I myself have had multiple periods of depression. The first occurred after someone I loved deeply died suddenly at the age of 21. Soon after I found myself not able to sleep, fearing nightmares that made me think Sam was alive, only to die moments later. I could not focus in class, or on my schoolwork, I didn’t have energy to shower or clean my apartment. I didn’t like being alone, but also felt anxious when around people.
Therapy helped. Medicine helped. Time helped.
My depression got better, but there are times when life’s circumstances have brought me fresh grief and I find myself once again in need of therapy, medication, and time. For some of my loved ones it has not been so easy. Medications didn’t help, it was hard to find therapists they could connect with, and it seemed like it would never get better. Our genetics matter. As my friend Sarah Griffith Lund says in her book, “Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence one Mental Illness, Family, and the Church,” sometimes crazy is in the blood. But because crazy is in the blood, we are also able to have more compassion for one another, more understanding when someone is anxious, or depressed, or suffering in other ways.
As we attempt to break the silence, let’s do covenant together to do a few things:
Let’s stop talking about mental illness in hushed tones, or turning red when we mention visiting our therapist. Let’s encourage one another to take care of our mental health, the same way we encourage our loved ones to eat better heart healthy meals order vegetables for the vitamins they provide.
Jesus names a number of groups in his sermon on the mount: the poor, the grieving, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted. He calls all of them Blessed. In doing so, Jesus is telling us where God stands: with them. He is also telling us where we should stand: with them. Those who suffer with mental illnesses belong in this group too. And if Jesus is standing with them, (with us) so should the church. Let’s end the stigma and instead walk with open hearts into the kingdom of God, a place filled with the hungry, the poor, and the crazy. As a church, let’s offer more grace, more safe spaces, more room at the table.
(this was the newsletter article I wrote for our church’s October edition.)
During the first full week of school, I received a phone call from the Guidance Counselor at the girls’ elementary school. She was calling to tell me that Eva had been crying in her class and missed me. My reaction was probably not the one Mrs. Sullivan expected: I began to laugh.
I was laughing not because I thought it funny that my daughter was in pain, but out of sheer joy. This was the first time that my youngest daughter had said she missed ME during a time of sadness. For the past 4 years, any time Eva has been sad, or gotten in trouble, or been worried about something she would said, “I miss Aida,” who is her bio-mom. I understand completely why Eva misses her, but I longed for Eva to feel that way about me sometimes. And finally it happened. I spoke with Eva, comforted and consoled her, but all the while my heart was jumping for joy.
It strikes me that this is the way God feels about us when we turn to him. Just like I waited and longed for Eva to call out for me, and not her bio-mom, God longs for us to do the same. So often we turn to the things of this world to comfort us, instead of turning to the Eternal Comforter.
And when we call, God doesn’t laugh like I did; I’m sure the joy heard in heaven is a music like no other. Next time you are sad, or lonely, or worried before you call your best friend, or mother or sister, before you reach for the chocolate bar, glass of wine or the book to escape, send up a prayer to the One who waits for you.