By Thomas M. Fuerst
As a white United Methodist pastor living in the American South, I have grieved for two years as Covid-19 has run through my city, my region, my nation, and our world. Fortunately, I pastor a congregation that largely takes masks and vaccines seriously, but I lament that I live in an area of the country where fewer than 40% of the population has received a single vaccination.
I often tell my congregation that hard times do not make us into different people; rather, hard times reveal who we already are. And this pandemic has certainly revealed a lot about American culture, generally, and the Bible Belt, particularly. We have front row seats to the failures of American individualism and our inability to appreciate our interconnectedness with each other.
Still, if the pandemic has revealed the underbelly of our culture, it has also revealed the failure of our most basic religious beliefs and practices to prepare us for this cultural moment.
Take prayer as an example.
Two years into this pandemic and I am persuaded now more than ever that white American Christianity has not adequately prepared us to pray with integrity in a situation like this. Rather, much of our praying has helped us avoid or minimize suffering. We utter passionless prayers from positions of privilege that function as pure opiates, desensitizing us to the reality of suffering in the world. Such prayers protect us from having to see the effects of our actions or feel our own pain or the pain of others.
The more privileged we are, the more this rings true. Privilege positions us on the periphery of suffering, enabling us to confuse certainty with faith and denounce doubt as evidence of moral decline. Our privilege has, in short, robbed us of the spiritual resources to make religious and theological sense of our current moment.
Polite, proper prayers uttered from the fringes of grief cannot hold the weight of our current cultural moment where grief is undeniable and pain unbearable. Prayers filled with platitudes can never join our neighbors and the biblical prophets in calling God to account with questions like, Why?, or How Long?, or WTF?
Per usual, artists and musicians outside the church have done a more faithful job articulating grief. As I curate a deconstruction playlist for my congregation for an upcoming sermon series, I am aware of how few of the songs come from Christian labels.
One of my favorite “secular” inclusions on the playlist is Jimmy Eat World’s 2019 song, 555, which catalogues the all-too-human struggle to find God in uncertainty. In many ways, it articulates the loyal opposition of Doubting Thomas who said, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Got the feeling I’ve been talking to a dead, dead line
Always a reason to let it change
Is there anyone there listening while you cry, cry, cry
Always a reason for the pain
I’m doing the things I’ve been told everyday, everyday, everyday
Then why does it feel like I’m moving in place, in a place, in a place
The song articulates prayer from a perspective wholly unknown to white Christian traditions. It wonders whether the other end of the line is dead, whether he has only been talking to himself all this time.
555 lives and moves within the tension of a world where God does not pick up the phone but humans keep searching for reasons, keep doing what we are told, keep moving without ever gaining traction. We do everything required of us, yet everyday, everyday, everyday we spin our wheels in the miry clay of uncertainty.
The 555 number gets no response because maybe there was never Anyone on the other end to begin with. The number was always just a sham, a dead line used on television to appear authentic. I believe; help my unbelief:
I gotta believe that you’re there
When I sing, when I sing, when I sing
Cause if you’re not real then I’m losing my head, in my head, in my head
Got the feeling I’ve been talking to a dead, dead line
This kind of praying – prayer of honesty and doubt, questions and uncertainty – is the kind of praying our pastors have taught us is off-limits or that our priests have said threatens faith.
But our prophets disagree: this is the heart of faith!
One-third of the psalms, the entire Book of Job, and Christ on the cross crying, “My God, my God why have You forsaken me?” shout to us that there is faith beyond certitude, faith even without answers, faith expressed in moments of frailty, faith that looks a lot like doubt.
But this faith never reveals itself in shallow prayers and cheap religion that refuses to hear the world’s cries of pain and question the silence of God amidst it all. The Lament tradition of the Bible calls for a faith expressed precisely as loyal opposition to God. Lament invites us to scorch our own throats as we scream into the phoneline with no answer from the other end. Lament launches grenades of misery and anguish into the heavens as we fall further and further into the pit of despair. Lament questions the goodness of a God who stays silent during a global nightmare.
This is the only kind of praying worth praying two years into a pandemic.
Jimmy Eat World, with many of the psalmists, teaches us that we worship with our why questions. We show devotion with our doubt. We live our faith in the flailing moments that feel like failure. We keep singing, but we stuff the melody with melancholy, harmonize with the trauma of creation groaning for redemption, stuff each verse with sighs, and sometimes stay silent in solemn respect for all we have lost. Lament teaches us that raising our fist to heaven can also be a way of surrendering our shallow, privileged religiosity. We worship with our why questions.
Lament returns us to the simple things that may lead to peace. It believes that we were made for a relationship with God, and any relationship where one party cannot express their honest feelings is not a true relationship.
Thomas M. Fuerst enjoys a good debate and sacred conversation. He’s a “form and content” go together kind of guy. Prophecy is his specialty, but not the kind everyone expects. His book “Underdogs and Outsiders” was a hit among D&D and Justin Bieber fans. He’s adept at making everyday conversation awkward. When not pastoring Bluff City Church in Memphis, he’s working on a PhD in 19th century African American prophetic rhetoric.