A couple of weeks ago, I identified Maggie Blaine Smith as my “altar ego,” someone who I strive to be. But I also mentioned that the character closest to who I am is Lins Mitchell from HEART SOUL & ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. Our similarities mainly stem from the fact that we share a vocation: assistant pastor at a church.
Don’t run away!
I know I mentioned the words “pastor” and “church,” but believe me, I’m not scary. I just want to take you on a little journey to see how art imitates life, or more specifically, my life.
So, read on. Please.
The fictional Church of the Epiphany echoes First United Methodist Church (Somerville, NJ), the real-life congregation I serve. However, to create Epiphany, I also borrowed things from the five other congregations I’ve worked with. So, the portions of the novel that describe Epiphany’s congregation and Lins’ life with it are rooted in my own experiences.
Here’s a prime example. When Lins describes her Sunday morning experience, she is describing what I experience most of the time.
"[Sunday morning] normally consisted of trying to prepare for my ministerial duties and being continuously interrupted. I had developed a habit of getting in early to do the things I needed to do first so I could be available to deal with the questions and problems that arose once parishioners started arriving. The routine required some juggling but it worked."
Most of the time I get to the church before everyone else for the same reason Lins does. How do I describe the Sunday dynamic? Well, think of a normal morning in a home and you’re either mom or dad. Everyone is running around with questions, needs, and things they must tell you. They’re looking for stuff they can’t find, have questions they need answered, and being happy, sad, or “meh.” And everything needs to get resolved or handled before the school bus leaves (or in my case, before worship starts). This is what happens when families are together. And so,, pages 2-5 describe what one Sunday morning in Lins’ life looks like, and echoes what my own Sundays. Art imitating life.
But then there’s this: the congregation I serve does not have a cross-generational worship service like the Epiphany Church. I took the that description from the cross generational movement in general, and from Faith Inkubators and Rich Melheim in particular. But here’s the weird part, I published HEART SOUL in 2015, when my church had all ages worship together for the first fifteen minutes, and then dismissed the children to go to Sunday school. But around 2016, we stopped doing Sunday school and worship at the same time. In fact, we stopped doing Sunday school (gasp!) Now, everyone worships together. This year (2018), we started Sunday school after church for families with preschoolers through 5th grades. Parents, grandparents, and other adults are encouraged to attend with the children because we want adults to know what the children are learning. And -viola! - our reality imitates art!
In Chapter 5, Lins is called to the hospital because a mother and son from the congregation have been in a car accident. Both Lins and I are all too familiar with the pain and anxiety that comes with any kind of injury, illness, or trauma. As Lins says, “Hospital waiting rooms. I hate them. They’re full of uncertainty and fear. They’re full of prayer, too, but it’s usually desperate heart-broken prayer.” So are homes, offices, and church sanctuaries (worship rooms). While I have never experienced the situation described in the book, the feelings resonate with me. I’ve done hospital visits, prayed for and with people in distress, and even officiated at funerals. Painful, heart-rending, and a time when love and support is or can be most tangible. Art imitates life.
Lins and the senior pastor (Drew) work also as a team, not only during worship but in most things. I know from experience the kind of camaraderie that builds among members of a healthy church staff. And I built it into the relationships between Lins and Drew, and Lins and Sue, the church secretary. Working in a church office, like working anywhere can lead to friendships. I have felt close to many of administrative assistants. And with all of them we have shared our highs, our lows, our frustrations, and our hopes. Art imitates life.
I have to say that I never have worked with a pastor who did not respect me or who was threatened by me. I carried this over into Drew’s relationship with Lins, too. He not only serves as her boss, but also is her mentor and friend, which a good senior pastor should be. He wants Lins to be happy with her work at the Church of the Epiphany. Note: being happy does not mean absence of challenges. Rather, it means being content.
But Drew is wise and realistic, because he also tells Lins: “You know… sometimes people change, situations change, callings change. People go from one type of ministry to another.” And this is true! But callings are funny things. They aren’t clear cut. You feel called to “ministry” or “to serve Jesus” but how? There are so many ways to do it! So, we find Lins at age 40 wondering if she should be doing something else and missing her days leading a college rock band. Then Neil comes on the scene and presents her with an opportunity. But what he offers doesn’t look like her understanding of calling or ministry. Art imitates life.
Now, I’ve never been called into a rock band, but I have been called into writing. I’ve been writing all my life, went to seminary because I was called to go deeper to strengthen my writing, and then ended up serving churches for over twenty-five years. Around 2009-2010, I got “smacked upside the head” (sort of) to write stories again.
It’s been seven years since I began self-publishing my novels, and I haven’t left serving the church yet. Someday I might. But then again, I might not. My story isn’t finished yet. Hmm… is life imitating art?
 If you want to know more about cross-generational worship & learning, go to http://www.faithink.com/
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder