My Faith and My Work
Since I’m an assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church, people sometimes ask me how my faith influences my work. So let's dig in.
I’ve always been hesitant to label my work “Christian fiction,” although I have done it on occasion. Frankly, aside from Jan Karon’s work, I don’t believe I’ve read any Christian fiction. I’m not even sure what the term means. I’ve always assumed it might mean some folks feel it is "safe" to read books purporting to be in that genre. It might mean there is no swearing, no hint of explicit or extra marital sex, villains are non-Christians and heroes are Christians, and a particular theological view of social and political issues prevails. If so, that does not describe my books.
However, if it means that the central character or characters are Christian and that they perceive and live their lives through the lens of their faith, then that would be my books. I have to say that Maggie in particular refer often too the Bible and she does pray. Saint Maggie makes copious use of the Bible, that's true, but in the following books that has been reined in a bit. Still, the Bible and prayer
need to be there because they comprise part of who Maggie is.
In addition, I write an historical fiction series set in 1860s America, when there was an assumption that everyone was Christian. Of course, that is not true. There were other religious groups present, as well as a growing group of “free-thinkers” like Eli Smith, some of whom were more radical than others. Yet, Christians comprised a majority within the American culture at that time.
My Ph.D. in American Religion and Culture means that I have read plenty of secondary sources about the era as well as primary sources such as journals, diaries, magazines, books, etc. The reading, class discussions, lectures, and writing paper after paper gave me a good sense of the time period. And Maggie is right on point for an evangelical, journaling woman of her time. Oh, and the word "evangelical" used to describe Maggie and others like her does not mean the same as it does today. The term refers to people who took their faith seriously and sought to speak and live the "Good News" (evangel) of Jesus Christ.
My own faith boils down to one central thing: love, a love that finds its fullest form in Jesus, who ate with outcasts and sinners, welcomed children, had little patience with hypocrisy and hypocrites, and was merciful and compassion. When I affirm that Christ was God, I mean that God has the same qualities and embraces the same message as Jesus.
Nine years ago, I got a distinct feeling that the world needed hope, that things were spinning out of control and that many people were suffering, frightened, and despairing. That and the encouragement of my partner Dan Bush caused me to take a second look at a manuscript called Saint Maggie. And so my journey as an author began.
My goal since then has been to try to spread the message of hope, love, generosity, mercy, justice, and compassion not only through my work in parish ministry, but also through my writing. Not surprisingly, that also is how Maggie Blaine Smith approaches life. Does she always succeed? No. She is far from perfect. But when she falls or when she gets knocked down, she turns to God to help her get back up. And she does not give up hope.
I do not wish to hit people over the head with a Bible. Maggie is the most religious character in the series, with Emily Johnson running a very close second. Sometimes they can be rather pious, especially in the first book. That said, their piety is consistent with many women of their time. Moreover, Maggie and Emily are spiritual sisters despite the fact that Maggie is white, and Emily is black. Skin color ceases to have meaning in this little manifestation of the Kingdom of God. Maggie’s daughter Frankie is running right behind the two older women. In fact, in the first book Frankie is the one who stands up to the people in their church when they behave in unloving and vindictive ways.
As I began to write the first book, I realized that it would be helpful to balance Maggie’s piety with a little doubt. Enter Eli Smith, who becomes her husband. Eli has questions and is rather edgy, but he also is on a spiritual journey – perhaps against his will! His behavior sometimes elicits scolding from Maggie, especially when he cusses. “Elijah! Language,” is the usual rebuke. Sometimes I think he does it just to get a rise out of her. They have a playful relationship rooted in love and mutual respect. Despite their being “unequally yoked,” as Saint Paul warned – that is, a Christian married to a non-Christian – Maggie and Eli truly are equally yoked. He respects her faith and she respects his questions. He loosens her up, and she pulls him into deeper faith.
One thing I try to avoid are pat answers and easy conclusions. I do not want to send a “do this and you’ll be happy and safe 24/7” message. Because, frankly, just because you have faith in Christ, it doesn’t mean life is going to be hunky dory and safe. Actually, it might just be the opposite. And I think my books also bring that dynamic out. But with a little faith and a lot of love, the storms are weathered.
I'll close with a song, I Choose Love, lyrics by Lindy Thompson and music by Mark Miller, written after the 2014 shootings at Emmanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The lyrics sum up my faith as well as Maggie's faith: In the midst of pain, I choose love. In the midst of war, I choose peace, When my world falls down, I will rise.
Until Monday, folks. Have a great weekend!
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder