by Elizabeth Thornton
I write big, juicy historical romances for a living. My first novel was published in 1987, when I was the pastoral assistant at First Presbyterian Church, Winnipeg. When my congregation heard that I’d published a book, some thought I’d written a Greek commentary on one of the books of the New Testament; others thought I might have published my prayers or, more doubtfully, my sermons. To put it delicately, they were surprised when they learned the truth.
Frankly, I was surprised too.
I’d never seen myself as a writer of popular fiction. It didn’t fit in with my notions of what was a proper career for me; it didn’t fit in with how God had called me over time to use my gifts in the service of the Church. I didn’t plan to become a writer. It just sort of happened. At forty-six years old, I wrote my first book on what I thought was a whim, after attending a seminar at the church (which I had arranged) on preparing for retirement. “If you want to take up writing or piano playing or gardening when you retire,” said the speaker, “do it now or you may never begin.” So I did.
In hindsight, I see that I shouldn’t have been surprised at this new and vast horizon that suddenly opened up before me. As I plot the turning points in my life and journey of faith, I see that I’ve been taken by surprise by many twists in the road that have led me to new horizons. Coming to Canada almost thirty years ago with my husband and three young sons was just such a turning point. It opened up possibilities we would never have considered in our native Scotland. Though we had been active in the Presbyterian Church all our lives, we found ourselves attending Quaker meetings, and for our first seven years in Canada, we were members of the Religious Society of Friends.
That surprises me too.
I don’t regard my sojourn with the Quakers as a detour. It was a testing ground for my faith. It was also a time of great spiritual awakening and, I believe, a preparation for the next turning point in my journey when I became a lay minister, specifically the pastoral assistant of First Presbyterian Church, Winnipeg.
I look back on those years as pastoral assistant as some of the most rewarding of my life. I learned so much about the nature of ministry. I had excellent teachers — my minister, Dr. Bruce Miles, and the members of my congregation. I discovered that God had endowed me with gifts that had been lying dormant for years because I’d never needed to use them. I used them now in the service of my church and fellow Christians.
At the end of ten years, I felt a sense of completion. It was time to move on. On the edge of the horizon, I saw retirement looming. Writing was to be my hobby, something I did in my spare time, in between being an elder, serving on committees, visiting shut-ins, and helping out wherever I could.
I was in for a big surprise.
Retirement has completely faded from the horizon. Writing is my full time occupation. Though I love what I do, this is the most perplexing ministry I’ve ever taken up because it’s to the “secular” world. I’m not writing inspirational romances for Christians. I’m writing commercial fiction to appeal to a mass-market audience that is largely unchurched.
I’m in good company. The late Dorothy Sayers, the creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries, comes to mind, as does John Updike who writes literary fiction. As we’ve said in our different ways, we’re not Christian writers. We are writers who happen to be Christians. So don’t judge our work on its Christian content. Judge it as you would judge the work of a Christian tailor or a Christian artist. It should be the best of its kind.
Is this ministry? I believe that it is. In my own case, I discovered, late in life, a gift I wasn’t aware I possessed until I began to use it. I can tell entertaining stories. And through them, I express the values I cherish as a Christian.
What’s on the horizon? I don’t know, but whatever it is, I bet I’ll be surprised.
“Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.” [ I Corinthians 12: 3 – 6. R.S.V.]