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Kristin M. Swenson, Ph.D. Headshot

Worship in the Sunday Morning Not-Church

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Sunday morning, and everyone else is at church. Well, not everyone, exactly, and that's just it. I've been thinking a lot lately about not-church church. This morning, post beach vacation at the in-laws and suddenly solo for a few days, I feel adrift. The writing projects, both fiction and non-fiction, that have so energized me or at least have kept me from wrecking havoc somewhere else (my latest house project left an heirloom rug weirdly textured in irregular streaks), seem dull and lifeless this morning. Or maybe it's just the company -- mine alone. Which brings me back to not-church.

One of the things that all religions share in common, in some facet of their beliefs and practice, is the value of getting outside of oneself or in some way inhabiting a non-self state of being. Some promote denial, of course -- turning one's back on pleasure, physical or otherwise. (I confess: not my thing.) For some religious communities, it's simply to focus elsewhere -- on an ineffable and unknowable divinity, on the needs and welfare of others, on the transient nature of one's breath. Whatever it is, the idea is to leave the self alone, take a break from centering on the me me me, at least for a time.

Sunday morning worship may involve a last-minute dress pressing, putting the dinner roast on low, mediating a squabble between the kids, and remembering the names of the congregation's newest members. But finally, at its heart, worship is really about casting oneself out of oneself in recognition of what is greater, more wonderful, awe-ful than us, and in the face of which our selves simultaneously disintegrate and are healed. What a relief, frankly, to shed the preoccupations of my life -- the guilts and worries, anxiety about what others think, and my own severe self-judgment -- simply to be in the presence of what is utterly and completely not me. This, thank God, is not a church-bound thing.

After all, church per se has no particular hold on the heart of worship (and most churches wouldn't imagine claiming that they do). Because that sensibility, the orientation of oneself away from oneself is hardly a church-bound matter. So on this Sunday morning, in my post vacation blues and the dull loneliness that sometimes comes with solitude, in the quiet of my little Richmond home hot but for the cheap fan pushing a breeze across my shoulders and neck, I am thinking that for just a moment and ever so carefully, I will untether my self.

It's fleeting, but what a relief to cast my self out like a kite on a long long string and me anchored in the sand the wide ocean all out in front, to recognize that who I am and what I do doesn't matter so much right now, if ever. It is enough simply to stand in and before a great and dynamic mystery that encompasses everything and is somehow also infused with great love. What's especially odd is that that is not the final word. That's not where it ends. Rather, along with that non-self sort of perspective paradoxically comes the liberation to be and to be about whatever is before me. What seemed so dull and lifeless about my work doesn't anymore; and even as I myself don't really matter, that itself feels like affirmation, encouragement. It's odd, paradoxical, and I'm no psychologist, mystic, or otherwise expert to parse out why.

Then suddenly, like other Sunday mornings back when I was a church-going gal, my self comes rushing back with all its nagging and its whiny complaints. The kite takes a dive and I reel it in all ragged, soaked, and streaked with some gray effluence. My work is hard, my thighs are flabby, and I fear I've been misunderstood. Nevertheless, there is something that remains of the knowledge of a mystery and goodness far greater than me. And maybe next Sunday, if I'm lucky, I'll find my way to worship again.