Sixteen years ago I walked down the aisle of a 14th century church in Plympton, England. I was wearing a blush-colored dress and a homemade veil, and I promised to Peter, before God, “I will.”
“I will serve you and obey you. Love, honor, and keep you. In sickness and in health. I will forsake all others and be devoted to you alone, as long as we both shall live.”
Like most brides, I had no idea what I was getting into. But I’ve spent the last sixteen years trying—and repeatedly failing—to figure it out.
When I was in my twenties and single and contemplating love, one of my favorite books was A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. It simultaneously inspired and intimidated me.
Sheldon Vanauken (Van), a twentysomething son of privilege, was apathetic and disengaged and entering adulthood in an America still reeling from the Great Depression. Like most young adults, he was longing for something to live for. Then, one snowy night on a university campus, he quite literally collided with Jean Davis (called Davy), a rebel soul running from her own past of poverty and family pain.
While the world around them descended into war, Van and Davy escaped into a love affair that was nothing short of idyllic. They determined to build a bond that could never be broken, so they erected what they called the “Shining Barrier” around their love. To construct this Shining Barrier they resolved to share every memory, every experience, every idea (every shared thing was another cord of connection), and they determined to keep out whatever could possibly separate them.
“The killer of love is creeping separateness,” they said. And though they took matters to an extreme (even they came to see their love as obsessive and even idolatrous after they converted to Christianity), I still think they knew something of love that many of us lack.
Peter and I didn’t know each other very well when we put our heads together for the very first time.
We were dating. Sort of.
At least I thought we were.
We met in September of 1998 over lunch in the college cafeteria. And one Saturday just a few weeks later, he surprised me by riding the commuter train from his grad school dorm in Chicago to my suburban apartment in Wheaton so we could hang out. I was thrilled, but swamped. I had a mountain of laundry to deal with and a freelance writing project to complete.
So off we went to the laundromat for a romantic afternoon. I stuffed three machines with my whites, darks, and reds. Then I suggested we head to the coffee shop next door to wait and to work.
Obliging as he was, Peter settled in across the table from me, his handsome head buried in a thick theology textbook, while I took out my yellow legal pad (I didn’t yet own a laptop) and started to scribble—rather unsuccessfully.
Partly, I’m sure, I was distracted by Peter’s presence. But partly, I was simply fresh out of ideas. I was trying to create a curriculum product for junior high kids, but none of my teaching methods seemed engaging. None of my approaches felt innovative or right.
I knew Peter had an education degree. I knew he had a creative streak, and I knew he had taught fifth grade for four years. So after I shifted my laundry to the dryers, I mustered up the courage to ask him for help.
And a bond was formed. The first brick in our own Shining Barrier was laid. Thus, we had our first glimpse of how God might be calling us to work side-by-side.
A couple of months ago Peter and I spoke at a marriage retreat at Conference Point in Williams Bay, WI. Thirty or so couples joined us—some married for decades, some for just a few weeks. And together we took a close look at God’s intent for marriage from Genesis 1—3.
We were reminded that man and woman were created in the image of God—a plurality in their unity. Then God gave them tasks to complete together, tasks best fulfilled in the context of marriage. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it.
In Genesis 2:15 we read that God put the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. It was that word for “work” that particularly captured our attention. For while it is commonly used for labor and tilling the soil, it also speaks of service to another and is often used of worship.
Our work is our worship. And in marriage we are designed to do this together. Side-by-side.
Peter and I spent the summer of 1999 working at a day camp. Side-by-side. Peter was the leader of the junior high program. I was one of the counselors. It was hard work—serving fifty middle school kids, teaching them, refereeing for them, subduing them. I don’t remember thinking of it as “worship.” But I suppose it was.
Surely it was a bonding experience for Peter and me. Another brick in a Shining Barrier of sorts. Another opportunity to see how God might use us as a couple, how we are better together than we are apart.
Near the end of the summer, after a particularly intense week of junior high camp, Peter and I were recovering and debriefing and marveling at how God was beginning to move in some kids’ lives.
Then I suggested, “Let’s go for a run.” Peter agreed, and we headed out.
After our first lap around the neighborhood, Peter suddenly stopped running and dropped to one knee.
“Will you marry me?” he asked. He told me later that, in that moment, he could envision a life of working side-by-side, and he had to get the question out while he still had the nerve.
And after I recovered from the shock, I said, “Yes. I will.”
At the marriage retreat in October, we gave the couples several assignments.
The first was to write a mission statement for their marriage. We asked them: what do you want your relationship, your family, to be about?
A second bit of homework was to illustrate their relationship using a Venn Diagram. You remember Venn Diagrams, don’t you?
They were conceived by John Venn in 1880, and they are used to teach elementary set theory. They show all of the possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets. They show what two or more entities have in common.
Adam and Eve’s Venn Diagram might have looked like this.
Van and Davy’s Venn Diagram might have looked like this as well.
However, I think too many marriages in 21st century America look more like this.
Spouses more like roommates. Living together but not pulling toward the same goals. Not working and worshipping together on a daily basis.
Creeping separateness. The killer of love.
Many times throughout 2015 Peter and I have been asked, “What is it like to write a book together?” Interestingly, this question is often followed by the comment: “My spouse and I could never do that.”
And actually, we understand. At various periods in our marriage, we would have said the same thing. At times we’ve lived our separate lives. At times we’ve pulled in opposite directions, dreamed different dreams, even allowed resentment to reign.
Thankfully, God can heal these things. He’s eager and committed to doing so. More committed than we could ever be. He is the true Shining Barrier. When we say, “I will”—before God—He says, “I will” as well.
“I will guide you and grow you. Love, cherish, and keep you. In sickness and in health. I will pursue you determinedly and be devoted to you, for as long as you both shall live.”
So—back to the question—what’s it like to write a book together as husband and wife? It’s an interesting collaboration process, for sure. A new type of partnership. And we’ve slowly established our own methods and means. When we begin a piece, we brainstorm. This is where Peter takes the lead. He can quickly generate a constellation of ideas. I offer a few of my own, and we cross off any unworkable ones. Then based on our rough notes, Peter drafts the essay or chapter. (He works fast.)
When he finishes, he submits it to me for crafting. (I am slow.) Graciously here he gives me full reign. Sometimes I gouge out huge sections of Peter’s work to make way for my own thoughts. Sometimes I leave his content relatively unchanged, and I just edit for structure and voice. But perhaps the best pieces are a true and miraculous amalgamation of our individual perspectives that forms an unforeseen third view. Plurality and unity. Our work and our worship. And by the grace of God alone, something surprisingly good.
Of course, writing a book together isn’t the calling of every couple. But—dare I say—working and worshipping together is.
What is your mission for your marriage? Are you building a Shining Barrier? What is the work He has for you to do?