One didn’t have to look far to find a marriage book in my parents’ house. Neat little tomes of marital wisdom in glossy paperback could be found stacked on shelves or strewn across tables. Usually they included beaming
smiles, shining eyes, straight teeth, and two fit bodies, often sweatered, clasping each other.
There were nouns like fulfillment, intimacy, or satisfaction, phrases like finding the marriage you’ve dreamed of or the marriage you’ve always wanted,
written in cursive, set next to dew-dropped fruit or feet poking out of clean white sheets in sunlit rooms.
In theory, these books belonged to my parents. In practice, I read them. And they turned over in our home in roughly six- to twelve-month cycles. My family would pick a new set of relational tips and terms, flowing down from my parents’ marriage, talk earnestly about them at the dinner table, put them into use for a season, and then gradually move on. Most of the books were helpful, I think. And yet as months and years rolled by, I began to feel a certain unease with each new title. I couldn’t name it, but something was missing. Not that there was something wrong, per se, but rather that things felt partial, like I had heard only one side of a multisided topic.
The feeling was like a drop of dye in a glass of water, fanning out in wings of color. I jostled the glass, held it up to the light, and examined it. What was it? A hunch, not quite distinguishable, let alone something I
could put a name to.
The dye spread. The more I peered at it, the more it stood out. There was something
there, but what?
There was marriage and my adult life. There were all the tips I had read in my parents’ books, all the marriage sermons I had heard from the pulpit, all my eagerness to fall in love, and all the relational quirks in my evangelical communities. In my upbringing I had learned an awful lot about marriage—both its blessings and challenges—and yet still something was lacking.
As I peered into the glass, the feeling thickened into other topics and into a range of questions about love, self-denial, obedience, loneliness, solitude, and forgiveness.
They weren’t questions I asked for the sake of asking. The questions were personal. I wanted to know because I needed to know, because I had to know. I wanted to know for the sake of Claire and also for myself.
I can’t say our story is one I’m exactly proud of, although I can’t help being fond of it. The story, which is true, works something like a photo negative to the other pages here, a set of inverted colors prior to fullcolored
The boy-meets-girl stuff happened long before the rest of this book came about, and perhaps could be read as our first attempt to make sense of that certain tension in our lives, the conflict between the story we’d been told since childhood and the reality in which our relationship was growing. (Our pseudonyms, by the way, help this happen.) Interwoven with the story is what came after: the exploration of the issues we grappled with. It’s sort of like boy-meets-girl-and-then-they-have-questions.
Claire will tell most of the story, but I’ll chime in here and there. Keep an eye on the boy/girl figures at the beginning of each chapter to clue you in as to who is talking. (And if you can help it, we recommend not skipping the analytical bits to only read the parts about two people strolling around New York. It’s all mixed together for a reason.)
The goal here isn’t a simplistic yes or no to marriage overall, which would be both unhelpful and a bad idea. The goal is to ask if we missed something in our evangelical assumptions about marriage. What did marriage mean for discipleship? What did discipleship mean for marriage? If Christ’s love was the way others would know we are His (see
John 13:35), what kind of love was it?
This book is the beginning of an answer. It is about growing up in a web of hyper-romance and sermons nudging us down the aisle. It is about how, as we get older, we rigidly define the qualities we’re seeking in a “soul mate” as we look past our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and the least of these. It is about the observation that Christians don’t approach romantic relationships all that differently from the way other folks do.
It is about our growing understanding that God’s plan includes more than hearts and flowers and a happy ending with rice flying in the air above a tuxedo and a white dress.
This is not a book about marriage or singleness; this is a book about love.
It began with a piece of fan mail.
An editor at a magazine I wrote for forwarded me this e-mail.
Does anyone have contact info for Claire? I was just rereading her excellent piece and wanted to contact her
The University of Chicago Law School
October always renews a sense of novelty to New York. Summer’s heat evaporates into the chilly autumn air. The spectral reds and oranges of Central Park trim Fifth Avenue with elegance. And the relief of a new start is seen in the sunburnt faces of the city dwellers. October means change.
And yet the transformation of thousands of city trees cannot compare to the turning point this brief e-mail signaled. Sitting in my fourthfloor cubicle in a publishing house in the West Village of Manhattan, I was far more delighted by the e-mail than good sense should have allowed me to be. I wasn’t accustomed to fan mail, especially from someone with such an attractive e-mail signature. So with unchecked enthusiasm, I e-mailed this Eli JD Candidate back.
He responded exactly thirty-three minutes later.
Eli liked my article, but that actually wasn’t his main reason for writing. He reached out to me because my byline, by then outdated, told him I was at The New York Times, and he wanted coverage for a website he had launched with friends. I was a little disappointed by his motives, and yet I still sensed a stroke of providence was at play.
But that was typical. I was always reading into things. Coincidences, those sneaky gleams that outline a shadow, often gave shape to my hopes. I was a catcher of coincidences, always reaching out for wisps of the unexpected
and turning them over for hidden meaning. When none was revealed, I released them to the wind, only to catch another, never realizing that all I was grabbing were the beams of light that always swirled around me, forming every moment.
Eli’s e-mail was just another coincidence that I clasped to my chest. But unlike others, this beam didn’t flit away when the sky moved. It steadied itself, homing in on a hope that was growing increasingly tender.
Call it love or call it silliness, but Eli’s happenstance e-mail got me daydreaming. Later that night, standing under the tin ceilings of my apartment, preparing dinner, I began to color in the sketch of Eli that had formed in my mind that afternoon.
Then my roommates came home one by one. With inexplicable excitement, I told them all about this new website I had discovered. They were mildly interested, until they finally asked the question I was fishing for: “How did you hear about it?”
With an incriminating smirk, I told them about Eli’s e-mail.
“A boy!” There were giddy screams of delight. I proceeded to gush about this dashing young man about whom I knew absolutely nothing. It wasn’t long before my best friend said what I had been thinking: “Claire, I just feel something. I think he’s the one!”
Their enthusiasm only fueled the fire. I tried to talk sense into myself—and them—but failed. For the past year I had been single, and I was tired of it. I was poised and ready for the gentleman who would cure my plight. I had prayed desperately that God would deliver my husband to me, and surely each day brought me closer to that, so didn’t it make sense that this e-mailer could very well be him? Yes, it was ridiculous, but it made sense to me. I was a believer in coincidences, and Eli was perfect. With one exception. He was in Chicago. I was in New York.
Excerpted from Altared by Claire and Eli. Copyright © 2012 by Claire and Eli. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.