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ANDREA BURKE
Rochester, NY, 14620

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The Welcome Doormat

Andrea Burke

It’s another night of spaghetti and sauce overloaded with meat. Noodles sticking to the insides of stainless steel pans and tomato sauce splashed against the stove top, drying until I come along with a sopping wet sponge to clean it up.

Half-filled mason jars are scattered around on top of our old bookcases and paint-covered trunks. We’ve always used mason jars. Our moms always washed out the jam after the summer supply was spread, and we were left with jar after jar shoved into cupboards. I’m carrying on the tradition, filling my shelves with the remainders of stocked pantries and farmer’s market purchases. I feel like this is poetic for what we’re doing here. We want what has stood the test of time; things that are ok with feeling used. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Friends and strangers have kicked up their feet and I’m lending a book to someone I’ve just met. We are forging a little community here over hot rolls fresh out of the oven that soak up sauce and brownies that melt in our mouths. It’s amazing how one invitation of food becomes an invitation for hearts to feast. I want every person whose shadow passes through our doorway to know they’re loved, they have a place, a meal, a makeshift family, a stack of books to peruse, a jar of water, a friend to ask them “Tell me what your life looks like these days” and then sticks around for the answer.

I love community and I will keep finding a way to make space for it.

But even still, I feel wary of community for community’s sake. I want to turn the fresh rolls and red sauce into broken bread and holy wine. I don’t want our community to function for its own sake; for our own satisfaction and self-congratulatory pats on the back that say, “Look, we have accomplished it.” I’ve just started leading a women’s discipleship group at our house and one of the primary calls for the group was to not be a place to meet your new 10 best friends. This hooked me. Discipleship is not the cool kids club. True community is not elite, exclusive or always comfortable.  We want our home filled with people, not just to grow in friendship and relationship, but to grow in roots and truth.

Stop me at the stove and tell me what’s really going on. Let’s talk for a minute about how to win hearts and not just follow rules.

We’ll be honest with you and tell you what has been hard about the years in our lives and the lives in our marriage.

Ask the question about how to deal with this major cultural issue and we’ll unpack it here, where we’ll look to the Word for answers, where we want to be people of the Gospel and of grace. And we’ll make a lot of mistakes. We’ve already screwed up and surely we’ll screw it up again, but that’s why we want to keep pointing to Jesus.

My husband and I have talked about the (not-so) new mantra that suggests we can dispose of “negative people” and “toxic relationships” to improve our lives. Cut them off, some say. “Break up” with the friendship. Surround yourself with people who make you a better person.

And while I know that all relationships need boundaries, I can’t help but wonder if we’re missing the point with building circles out of our 10 best friends. Us four, no more. Granted, we are not designed to be doormats for the world but we are meant to lay down our lives (and sometimes, that might look an awful lot like letting someone walk all over you.) We are called die to ourselves. We cannot save the world. We cannot fix the broken world. We cannot smart-talk our way to a hardened heart or make enough spaghetti to dissolve the hunger of arrogance and hatred.

But we can be the fish and the bread. And we can be broken so that some will see the miracle that a life broken for Jesus does not fall apart, but is instead multiplied. We can love Jesus, serve Him and do it all in a messy, imperfect sort of way and let him use our crumbs and lunch scraps to serve the world.

Maybe this is the hardest lesson of all. We can’t just break up with broken people, but we can be broken up for them.

I don’t know how to do this well. I want my new 10 best friends to be with me all the time. I want to know that I’m always and forever in a group of peers who love me, respect me, cherish me and value me.

I don’t want to be in a group of peers who might eventually deny me, betray me, lie to me and question me.

But that’s who Jesus is. And I am a far cry from that kind of community leader.

“Everything you have is given to you to push back darkness around you,” my pastor said. I scribbled it down quickly. Push back darkness. In me. In our town. In community. In our home. Everything I have is not given to me to make my life suitable for me and the 10 people who I think are are the most awesome 10 people I have ever met. Everything I have is not meant to make me feel better about myself.

“When you primarily look at yourself,” my pastor said later in his message, “whether you see a slug or a rockstar, when we’re not just thinking too high of ourselves but rather think about ourselves too much — that’s pride.”

I write down as much as I can until my hand almost cramps in the forever posture of trying to write down something I'm sure to forget.  Amidst a culture that says to put yourself first, close the doors, save more, fulfill your own dreams, prolong youth — God calls us to die to love a little more every day. Like the one we follow, our lives will feel spent, split and spilt and because He did, we can do this without pressure to perform, the need to impress or the panicky feeling that suggests we aren’t building ourselves up enough. Maybe in the dismantling of our pride, we can find that the best community isn’t built on us at all.

What a relief.

I Doubt It All

Andrea Burke

“I DOUBT THAT YOU LOVE ME!”

She screams this in my face. Her face, scrunched. Eyes clamped shut.

We learn a lot things in the stumbling act of parenting. How high the sky is, what happens when you pour salt on ice cubes and the magic of gooblick. 

And we learn what it means to show love. To give love. To be a messenger of what God's alive and breathing love still looks like. 

So when I’m walking slowly up the stairs, and I can hear her disappointed tears muffled in her pink and blue quilted pillows, I pray “Give me grace to see what you’re doing in her heart.” 

I’m tired. Dinner is barely finished. The chicken was still hot and the rolls still steaming when we sent her to her room. The husband and I exchanged the “you or me” look at the table and I volunteered. “I’ve got this.” He nods and gives me the half-smile. The "You've got this" twinkle. He stacks my dirty plate on top of his.

Each way we turn right now we see life and hearts, messy and unfinished, needing lots of cleansing. 

I'm outside of her door and I tap lightly against the wood. A tiny paper airplane swings on a piece of string. A little note on the door says "stay away" and another says "we are bise" (busy).

“Sweetheart, can we talk?”

She grunts. She’s curled into a ball on her bed, but her furrowed brow and hazel eyes are on me when I open the door. She’s angry. Today, we didn’t show up for the book fair. She reminds me of this again. An absolute parenting fail. Again. “I thought you were going to BE THERE!” she screams. And then sobs. Her snot is mixing into her tears, but I don’t mind. Mothers usually don’t. I slowly wrap my arms around her squirming body.

“I know,” I say. “I’m so sorry we disappointed you today. We will go tomorrow.” But this does little to assuage any anger. I am holding the fraying ends of a child who probably just needs to go to sleep. It's been a full afternoon of this. Attitudes unraveling, words spit out in anger, disrespect, cold shoulders and ignoring words of correction. All of the characteristics that children exhibit without hesitation. All of the things we do as adults but pretend aren’t that bad. 

“LET ME GO!” She screams, but I say no. I’m not in a wrestle of power here. I’m in a wrestle of love. And until she sees that, I’m not letting go. She twists inside of my arms, free to wiggle out in any direction, but staying, determined to tell me she wants me to leave her alone. She arches her back and I continue to whisper quietly, “I love you. So much. We love you. We love you. Whether you’re good, or bad, angry, sad. We love you. I love you.” 

This goes on for at least 10 minutes. I’m sweating and near to tears. The fight for love is sometimes not letting go. Sometimes it's just presence. Tonight it's consistency. Beneath all of the attitudes and anger today, she really needs nurture. Maybe it's the Spirit showing me this; maybe it's my intuition. But something inside of me says, "Don't let go."  

She’s screaming at me, red-faced. “I DOUBT THAT YOU LOVE ME! I DOUBT IT! This last "doubt" is drawn out and tongue shaking loud. My ears are ringing.

But then I see it all, the messy tears, the wrestle, the fists raised toward Heaven and I’m seeing all of us, shouting at God that we doubt it.

I doubt it all. 

I doubt that you love me. That you remember me. That you’ll stick it out to the end of this fight.

I doubt you’re long-suffering enough. I doubt you have the time. I doubt you. Let me go. 

But he doesn’t. And I didn’t. 

And suddenly her arms went from battering fists to gripping me tightly. 

She's sobbing now, her body in heaves. “You do love me!” I hear in my neck. She’s sweaty and snotty, but she’s almost laughing. “You really do love me!” I cry, she cries and the fight turns to rest. Here we talk about what went wrong earlier. We talk about her hurting heart. We talk about how we all make mistakes. How mom and dad make mistakes too. How we apologize because we love each other. We don’t want broken relationships. Not here. Not in this home. 

----

Today, I woke up before dawn in hopes to eek out some quiet moments before the day’s running began. But the noise of my coffee grinder stirred the little person upstairs and she walked into the kitchen, sleep-drunk and eyes half open. 

“You love me so much,” she says, pushing her nose into my hip. “I love you so much.” 

I squeeze her still bed-warm body, "Yeah birdie. I love you."

Today we begin in love. Today we’re determined to remember that above all. We are not wrestling for position or to win battles. We aren't fighting against a tired God. We aren’t beating our fists against a moody or forgetful King. Today, we’re kids. We're born desperately wanting to believe in true love but age with the begging ache that says "Prove it." Sometimes we all want to know that there is someone who is holding on even when we let go. No person here on earth can promise this forever. Not one.

So, we find our way back into the love of Jesus that doesn’t just soothe us and comfort us, but fights to hold on, long after our strength has screamed her wild energy out, red-faced and sweaty. 

The day is new and we start again.

The Fake of Death

Andrea Burke

My great-aunt passed away last weekend. She lived a long, full life. 96 years of friendship, camping adventures, walking, gardens, story-telling, farm tales and more. We sat on the front row at her service, the casket open displaying the body of a woman I once knew.

This is death. The flickering candle from a jar of oil. The somewhat hidden electrical cord running along the baseboard behind the casket stand. It's tangled a bit, running up to the lamps with pink lightbulbs, shining on her body. They're probably supposed to give her a glow of life, blood still rushing under her sallow skin, heart still pumping. It seems no one wants to really look death in the face. We want to pretend she's still there, sleeping. 

"I always look to see if they're still breathing," my own mother says. 

"Me too," I whisper back and we giggle a little, watching her very still hands lay on top of a very still body. The music coming through the speakers is a piano version of The Little Mermaid's song, "Part of Your World." I find this incredibly comedic. Disney and Ariel and nothing at all what I imagine at a funeral. Except, perhaps in this moment, maybe it is perfect. We're the mermaids. We don't have our feet yet.

"If I go first, make sure my funeral is a lot of fun," my husband whispers. "Tell a lot of jokes." This makes me laugh and then cry for some reason. Maybe because I realize someday, funeral homes might be more common in my life than wedding bells.

"Are those happy or sad tears?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say and reach for the tissues. "Funerals make me feel all of the emotions."

"As opposed to the rest of the time..." he snickers and I elbow him in the side. 

Now "Wind Beneath My Wings" is the canned music. A keyboard and synth strings play the melody line. 

"I like the wallpaper," I say to my husband. "I wonder where they got it."

"I hate it," whispers my mother. I don't know if we're talking about the wallpaper anymore.

This is death. The creeping, spine-tingling silence of hushed voices and a room full of people who don't know each other that well. Someone laugh, I want to say. Someone talk louder. Aunt Margie would hate that we're all being so proper. 

The minister steps up to the casket to begin the service. 

"I didn't know Miss Margie personally," she says. Is this the worst thing you can say at the beginning of a funeral? I feel like yes. Don't announce that. Don't let on that you're memorializing a life which you never witnessed. But this is death — the immediacy, the end of things, the strangers milling around who don't know her middle name. Hey, even I didn't know her middle name until today. So I suppose that makes me no better.

I stand up to read Mary Oliver's poem "When Death Comes." I'm in a room of some family, mostly strangers, many closer to the end than the beginning (which really is an illusion anyway. None of us really know where we are in our timelines.) I read how death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades.

It doesn't feel like that so much today. Today it feels like death came like a warm blanket in the middle of winter. It feels like death came like the last candle blown out before we all say goodnight. Margaret has painted pink lips. She almost looks like she's smiling. I think they do that on purpose. 

"I hope I don't make it to 96," a woman says to my husband and I. She knew my great aunt for more than 40 years. She is in her early 80s, I gather, based on her telling me about her ailing husband at 84. "I really hope I die sooner than that. I don't think I'll make it to 96. Not based on how I'm feeling now. That would just be awful."

She looks toward the casket and we awkwardly stare at her. Do I say, "I hope that for you too!" No, no. I don't know how to respond so we nod. 

"Losing either all of your physical body or your mind," she tsks. "Just awful. No thank you!" 

I can't say I blame her. The thought of ending my life that way doesn't appeal much to my vanity either. 

But this is death — the stealing. Of time, of energy, of strength, of mind. Of memory, of opportunity, of people, of story. Of Eden. 

It was never meant to be real. It isn't anymore, not really. It isn't actually the end. Margaret knew this. She was waiting to go home. She was ready.

The photos cycle through on the slideshow. There she is. Young and in hula skirts, surrounded by family, girlfriends sitting on rock hillsides or front stoops. This is her life and I'm here analyzing the wallpaper and laughing that now the music piped through the speakers is something from "Evita...no...Phantom. Ah, I don't know. It's definitely Andrew Lloyd Webber."

My husband nods and we sit in silence again. Someone gives us a box of molasses cookies. We make lunch plans.

This is death. The living in spite of it. The guessing, the company we never acknowledge, the painted lips and last breaths, the icebergs and the candles. The going home.

 

The New Married Life

Andrea Burke

I remember the exact moment. Old jazz music blaring, a feast of food placed in front of us at our small table, and the rising sound of our friends and family laughing, talking, hugging and dancing. 

“Oh this feels like what Heaven must feel like,” I turned to my brand new, hour-long husband. The candles flickered, the pine lay fresh and green, the kids spun in dresses and mini-suits on the hardwood floor. He laughed and I continued. “Right? Doesn’t this just feel like heaven? All of the people we love in the same place. Dancing. Feasting…” 

“I think that’s the whole point?” he said, trying to not crush my happy little moment. “The wedding feast? Of the church…?” He’s waiting for me to get the point and I laugh because of course. It just never felt so less allegory and so much real as it did in those few hours on a snowy night at the end of January.

Marriage has been almost two months for us little newbies. A crash course in parenting for him. A whole slathering of revisiting all the ways I’m a hot mess. 

For instance, I cry a whole lot more than I realize. At everything. All the time.

And apparently, I’m a messy person. I’m familiar with being artistic and creative; an eccentric writer who dramatically leaves remnants of a "beautiful life" around her desk. But then he asks why there are bobby pins everywhere. Or when I can’t find something, he smirks and says, “Well, where did you leave it? Did you leave it in the place it belongs?”

“It has a place it belongs?”

This is a common conversation. 

But an update on married life can be summed up with this — we like it.

We have no advice. No hard-earned wisdom. No top five list for anyone. We each married our best friend which means we laugh a lot. We like hanging out. We've known each other for years so there are no shocking surprises (yet). We're a team. We're a family. 

Maybe eventually I will write “How to not lose your mind when you realize that you’re a control freak when it comes to how your daughter’s desk is arranged or how the bed should be made.” 

Or I’ll wax poetic about “What do when you start crying and don’t know why and don’t know how to stop.”

But more seriously, “How to talk to your kid who is new to this whole thing too about why mom and dad lock their bedroom door sometimes.”

And the hard truth? Going from being a single mom to a wife and co-parenting in a few months has given me another chance to either die to self or to wear myself out (big difference).

I'm far too prone to self-reliance. I have a hard time admitting that I need help, or that I can't juggle as much as I'd like to think I can. Where I thought I could cover and bridge the gap for every piece of my daughter's heart, I'm seeing how her heart was made to bloom under more guidance than just my own. Some seeds are not mine to cultivate. Some words mean more coming from his mouth. Some games, stories, and memories were not hoped and prayed for with me in mind. In the evenings, when we're kneeling at her bedside and sending simple prayers to Heaven, she gives thanks for God hearing her prayers and sending him. He, whom I love deeply, is God-sent and has been placed at the helm and I am learning all over again what it really means to trust.

Once again, the story of Jesus drops into the middle of our world. I see redemption in the wedding. I see the Gospel at work within and among us, around the dinner table and at bedtime prayers. I see the truth of Grace flowing as always, beckoning me to stop trying to earn love, rely on my self, impress the one who loves me or muscle through to prove I can do it without him. The Gospel at work within me, for me, despite me.

We are learning how to live together, how to communicate when we’d rather eat cookies, how to navigate parenting situations when we don’t agree, how to wake up slowly on weekends and enjoy the precious stolen moments of a love that is still very new. And I'm waking up to the whole picture of a Story that is very, very true showing itself at work in my day to day life as mom and now a wife. 
 


[photo cred: BeanArt Photography]

These Simple, Ordinary, Beautiful Days

Andrea Burke

I made pancakes and he scrambled eggs. Not a very momentous occasion outright, until maybe years go by and I'll reflect back and say "Remember the Saturdays when we had no place to be, no event to cart little people off to, no children off and out on their own, and we stood side by side at the stove, flipping pancakes and whisking eggs?"  Sometimes the most simple and practical moments become the ones that I consciously dog-ear in my mental storybook for later reference. Like the eggs and pancakes.

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