The late afternoon matinee was packed full of middle and high schoolers buzzing with one obsession at the moment: Avengers: Endgame. Only ten minutes before show-time, I wandered around with my young boys looking for seats while my brother waited for the sold-out popcorn. We broke up and scattered ourselves into the front row. Popcorn was very delayed. I didn’t know it would be this crowded. Despite watching several of the Marvel movies at home, I would soon discover that there was a lot I didn’t know. Most of all, I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know that I had just found a seat at the Church of Marvel. Popcorn arrived just in time.
As the opening scene unfolded the audience-congregation let out audible gasps and groans. Someone shouted “Oh no!” When the opening credits and music broke, the room erupted in cheers and applause. This wasn’t just church. This was CHURCH.
I won’t betray the plot to Marvelists who had other commitments these past couple of weeks. What I will confess, though, is I get it now.
Throughout the movie, the Avengers feel and express a wide range of emotions, but their primary experience is complete grief and various forms of shame. The characters each respond to the subject of loss and mortality with their unique flavors of emotional immaturity: anger, alcoholism, over-helping, denial, narcissism, emotional “stuffing,” and the classic “stuck” one. When the characters come together, the grief bubbles to the surface and is undeniable. But from that place of grief but now in community, they commit to a different response.
The plot isn’t very complicated--a typical Hollywood scheme to defeat the “bad guys” that relies on a dozen improbabilities. What I noticed, however, was the emotional energy of the entire theater. What drew the most response wasn’t the vicious armor, weapons and traps of the antagonists (although my six-year-old crawled into my lap at some point). What drew the most response were the emotional touchstones of grief, love, and solidarity.
A young woman in the middle of the theater started bawling and couldn’t contain her sobs. It was more than one outburst. It went on and on. I expected this room full of teenagers to snigger. They didn’t. We knew what she was feeling in some capacity. We felt it, too. For that moment, the theater was a space where hundreds of mostly teenagers shared and honored one girls’ gasping, desperate grief.
Endgame gave all of us a public place to create sacred space. Like a lot of performing arts, it helped us express our emotions in community. It also created a transcendent experience. Not only did we feel all of our "stuck" emotions come out, we were encouraged to believe in something bigger than ourselves. All the messages I hear often at church meant something new. From the pews of the movie theater I heard:
“Death and loss are not the end; they will finally be answered with victory.”
“All those who have gone before you are fighting with you.”
“You are not alone in the Universe.”
“You belong. You are loved.”
It was beautiful. It was brilliant. It was the best church service I’ve been to in awhile. It even had some good jokes! What I learned from Endgame is that:
- We all need a brave place where it is okay to feel all of our feelings, especially our grief. All bodies are welcome in this space--LGBTQ, POC, women, and children in particular are vital.
- When we come together in community and let those raw emotions rise to the surface we can lose the meta-emotion/burden of shame.
- When we let go of our shame (who we should be) we can do great things and become who we are.
- Faith, hope, and love are more willingly received (even, created) from this place of safety and belonging. Suffering, grief, loneliness, and fear are now the teachers, not life itself, and therefore more bearable.
- The crowd at the theater taught me that communities form themselves around these ideas naturally--we desire brave, cathartic, transcendent spaces in our life.
This, in its essence, could be the formula for any church or spiritual community gathering. We need brave spaces to unmask ourselves---to stop hiding behind our coping mechanisms and face our emotions. From there, we can claim our authentic spirituality (who we are) and lose our shame (who we should be). Only then from this place of belonging can we hear and really receive words of love and hope.
How do we get there in the course of an hour, a year, or lifetime? I don’t have a prescriptive answer. I do, however, know that the leaders of church and spiritual communities must first be willing to do this hard work of unraveling themselves before they can ever hope to have an impact on the communities they serve. It is a leader's presence and example--their authentic spirituality, integrity, and humility--that magnetically attracts others and offers a different response to suffering. These are some of the key qualities for spiritual leadership we teach at United. By choosing to carry yourself in the world this way, you become a spiritual leader.
The Endgame for churches may not look like Hollywood, but I think we are wrong to think that “nones" have no church home. Humans know how to create, seek and nurture spiritual community in our life. The question for me isn’t “How do we get people to come to church?” The question is, “How do people get church?” Or, going further, “How do we ‘get church’ in a way we are accountable to and for each other?” If we nurture brave spaces wherever they arise, we create sacred space for transformation, healing and possibility. That, for me, is the #endgame.