Going to church to wake up

by Pamela Grenfell Smith

Four thousand miles from home, in a city where I didn’t speak the language, I’d staggered off the plane more than a week ago but I still couldn’t get myself in focus. Then we went to a concert. The first piece was Gregorian chant, a familiar passage from Wisdom. Hearing it, tears came to my eyes and extra air somehow returned to my lungs. In the music and text I rediscovered myself, my own inner voice, my capacity to act.

Liturgy – even this small dose of liturgy – can wake us up, take us from clock time to kairos-time, re-situate us as active listeners. Singing, responding, we’re put back together, restored again to our own capacity for what social scientists call agency – an idea that is studied in all the human sciences and generally means the capacity of people and groups to act independently towards their own goals.

Personal and shared agency comes and goes, and has to be discovered, re-discovered, nourished, and reflected on. After the birth of my first child, I had a lot of trouble pulling myself together. We had moved – three thousand miles – leaving behind a crowd of friends and a job I loved. Alone all day with a much-loved baby, I spent a lot of time staring at walls. I hesitate to say that I was depressed, but I was certainly befuddled. At some point our daughter got strep throat and had to be given antibiotics on a strict schedule; I remember looking out at some lawn or other and thinking, this is serious. I sure wish there was someone who could take responsibility for this. And then: HEY. THAT WOULD BE ME. Behold the re-discovery of agency.

Routine and befuddlement aren’t the only potential threats to my capacity to act independently towards goals I have chosen, my sense of agency. Also on my list: pain, fatigue, grief. Meditation helps me know, name, and muffle these inner neighbors – when I find enough agency to meditate.

Let me name another threat to agency, a massive one that we may all have in common: overwhelmedness at the complexity and pace of change in our understanding of the world. I hear overwhelmedness in the voices of those who look on the sorrows of the world’s peoples – the destruction of its ecosystems – the suffering of its creatures – and find themselves believing there is nothing they can do to help. I hear it also in the voices of those who are overwhelmed by social change and respond with anger and resentment.

These failures of agency, these twin passivities of hopelessness and rejection, are toxic to us all. Is there a way we can hold them up into the healing power of the Gospel? Agency is social-science talk, so let’s reword this in God-talk: we are co-creators with the Holy One of this holy world. Day by day, minute by minute, the future is transformed by our choices and by our failures to choose.

And so I return to the capacity of liturgy to call us back into ourselves. Sunday morning is a powerful tonic for my own sense of agency – so much so that I’ve come to think that one of the roles of the parish church’s liturgy is to re-articulate and re-energize the human capacity to choose and act. Corporate worship is always an urgent, transformational opportunity to restore the people of God. We gather, sing the songs, speak the words, tell the stories, raise the prayers, and become more fully able to choose and act in Christ.

Pamela Grenfell Smith is a storyteller and hymnodist in Bloomington, Indiana. Find her hymns, projects, and liturgies at babayaga.org or friend her on Facebook to hear about her knitting and her grandchildren.

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