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Going to church to wake up

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 or friend her on Facebook to hear about her knitting and her grandchildren.


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Baba Yaga

Sarah, thank you for writing. Showing up is a mighty virtue and, when we can do it, we have cause to be glad and thankful.

I don’t think I know anyone who feels they are able to make the difference they’d like to see in the world. Thank God we can see each other at the circle of communion, or our courage might fail us.

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana

Sarah Turner

Thanks for this reflection, Pamela. I appreciate the way liturgy lets me experience being part of the capital C Church just by showing up. Without having to justify or define my place in it.

When I don’t feel able to make the difference I’d like to see in the world by myself, liturgy reminds me that my small piece is connected to something bigger, which reminds me it’s still worth doing.

Baba Yaga

Donald, thanks for these kind words. What I hope people will find in this essay is an affirmation of the week-to-week work of Sunday liturgy. Hymns, flowers, sermon, bread, wine, everything in the experience constructs a profound invitation to people to connect with the Spirit.

It is grand and beautiful that this work is done. Preachers, bakers, stitchers, singers, consecrators, storytellers, marchers-about with hardware of diverse kinds, ironers of fair linen, those who sit at various keyboards for hands and feet, and everyone else taking loving care of Sunday worship – well done. Keep up the good work.

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana

Donald Schell


Thanks for this piece. It touches a nerve in our society and our own psyches too.

I’ve just finished reading Goodman and Carmenico’s, “Coming to Mind, the Soul and its Body.”

a book that argues that agency, the “who” that’s perceiving, choosing, and acting, is essential to making sense of neurological data and human experience (quite apart from any philosophical question of immortality or essence of self distinct from body).

And I wholly agree with you that, “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. . . .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.” When we see that’s what we accomplish for one another in the liturgy, we begin to shape our liturgy differently. Again, thanks for writing this.

Baba Yaga

Good heavens! I misspelled my own website url – it’s

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana

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