What's a pastor doing writing novels?
I'm glad you asked! It's a long story, but I'll keep it brief.
I left a very special paid ministry position over four years ago, unclear what I was supposed to do with myself next. Six months later, sitting alone at a spot somewhere along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, I was still wondering, and cried out to God to show me the right direction for my life. At the time, I was reading through Isaiah. After I had prayed, the very next words I read were these:
"Hear, you deaf, look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the Lord? You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing." (Is 42:18-20)
Needless to say, I sat up and took notice! What was it I had not heard or seen? Immediately I felt God say to me, not in a judgmental way, but in a gentle and loving voice: 'I've already shown you what to do, Jo-Anne! Go home, write the book, and learn Turkish!'
I did exactly that. At least, I tried to learn Turkish, as time permitted. I had already begun to think about my first novel before this trip to Turkey to visit my friend, but had put it aside, too distracted to make any headway, and too unsure about whether this was indeed a 'legitimate' project on which to squander my time. Now I decided that if God had said it was all right, then maybe I could do it – especially if by one day having it published, I could thereby fund future trips to Turkey to support my friend's ministry there!
I began writing in earnest. There had been an idea for a novel deep inside me for a long time – over twenty years, in fact, ever since meeting a courageous woman with an amazing life story in a church where my husband was ministering. She was dead now, but could I possibly weave her story, or parts of it, into something of my own creation? I would try, I decided. I would try to show how God sustained her (or rather my 'heroine') through many difficulties in her life, and hopefully allow her to inspire others to stand tall and keep the faith.
And soon she came alive for me, as did other characters who seemingly appeared from nowhere at times and insisted on becoming part of the narrative. It was hard work, but I loved it with my whole heart. I felt so at home with myself and with God – as if all the things I had done in my life were coming together in a shape that was truly me, the person I had been created to be. Under God's hand, I had needed to do those other things, including being a pastor. Yes, they were extremely important in themselves – but they were also part of the larger picture, part of the preparation for what lay ahead.
After a year, and countless revisions, my first novel was complete. Another year, and quite a few rejection letters later, it was finally accepted for publication by Ark House Press, an Australian Christian publishing company. A few months passed, and I was then told it was considered to be too long, and would I be willing to divide it into two? Eventually, I did so, fashioning a shorter novel and a sequel from the original manuscript. More months went by, until at last I was notified that 'Helena' would be published in April 2007, followed by the sequel a year later.
In the meantime, I had written a third novel, and have now completed a fourth. I believe novels can often convey deep truths about God in a way that is non-threatening, that can move people profoundly, and impact them in their daily lives forever. I believe God can use the words I write or the characters who emerge in my books or an image in a story to say things that might not be understood otherwise, and perhaps even reach those who might never otherwise hear such things. As I write, I find myself both listening to God and listening to where the story wants to go – I dare to hope even that these might be one and the same. Often for me, as the American writer Madeleine L'Engle once said, 'to write is to pray'. What a privilege it is to hear the creative and loving heart of God and to try to recreate something at least of this with my own words!
I have a long way to go yet as a writer – I feel at times I am only beginning to find the voice God has given me. I still love speaking publicly, but I have discovered another deeply satisfying way of communicating, of hopefully touching hearts, perhaps even more significantly, with life-giving truths from God. I am deeply thankful for the journey on which God has taken me. I am so grateful in particular for my years of study at theological college and of pastoring in a local church. Truly God's ways are higher than my ways – 'to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness' (Ps 115:1b).