“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Last week we talked about the Netflix series, Virgin River. I don’t usually come back to talk about the same series so soon after hitting it once, but as I watched the penultimate episode of season three last night, I was bothered enough I couldn’t ignore it. And I was going to wait until tomorrow like I usually do, but events in my own life lined up such that today is the right day for it. We’ll go back to Mark tomorrow instead. Today, we need to talk about a funeral.
I’m going to preach a funeral service today. That’s why I couldn’t avoid talking about the Virgin River funeral episode today. Can I let you in on a little secret? I love doing funerals. I know, I know, that sounds weird and more than just a little morbid, but hear me out. Given that I’m a preacher, most of the funeral services I am asked to do are for people who believe roughly like I do. So do the most immediate members of the family who asked me to do the service. Well, given the things we as followers of Jesus believe about death and what comes next, doing funeral services are chances to celebrate the goodness of God and the life we have in Christ. At the end of the affair, while there may not be any dry eyes in the room (there is a loss being mourned after all), neither are there many folks who are simply wallowing in grief. Instead, there is hope to give them strength and courage to move forward. This is not because I’m such a great preacher. It’s because of the message I have the privilege of sharing.
In the second to last episode of Virgin River, season three, one of the main supporting characters has died and everyone goes to her funeral. All of them are struggling with it in different ways. They were all impacted rather directly by her life. Although Lilly was a very private woman (in the first season she had managed to hide from everyone the fact that she had had a baby in what has to be sometime in her 50s, and this season she had managed to hide stage 4 pancreatic cancer from everyone until – if the series timeline is to be believed – within a few days of her dying from it), she was an incredibly generous and gracious one as well.
As they all began to head for the service, Doc mentions to someone that it is time to head to the church. This was a bit of a surprise to me. There has been no mention of faith or religion of any kind at any point in the entire series. How interesting that here at this intersection point of life through which we all must travel the writers felt the need to include a reference to not just religion, but the Christian religion. Now, there is no sign of a preacher or pastor or priest in the church (probably a priest as it looks like a generically Anglican church), but the fact that they are having the service there at all was notable to me. There’s no mention of a burial even though there is clearly a casket at the front of the chapel. Instead, they finish the service and all go back to Lilly’s house to fellowship together. Instead of a pastor to lead the service, Doc takes on the emcee role. He says a few words about Lilly and then one by one, various members of the town come and offer their reflections on her life and the impact she had on them. Finally, her own daughter says a few words before Doc returns to close out the service. That was it.
Now, I know the whole scene was put together the way it was for the sake of advancing the storyline. But there was one thing about the service that really jumped out at me. The whole thing was completely devoid of any kind of spirituality. Never mind for the moment the absence of a Christian spirituality since the thing took place in a church. Perhaps the funeral home didn’t have a chapel, and the church was the only space in town big enough to hold everyone for an event like this. There was no mention of any kind of spirituality. None. The only mention of anything that might come after death came on the lips of her daughter who said that Lilly really liked sunsets because of their reminder that the sun will rise again, and that when the audience sees a sunset they should take comfort in knowing she’s somewhere watching one too. On what theological or even philosophical grounds this sentiment was justified I do not know. The writers of the scene certainly didn’t share one. The sum total of the whole thing was intended to convey a sense of love and comfort, but I’ve got to be honest, it came off to me as entirely devoid of hope. They all talked about the impact she had had on their lives…and that was it. As the scene wore on, I fairly well wanted to shout: “What hope or even meaningful comfort are any of you being given that will empower you to move through the season of grief waiting to cloud your life from this point forward?”
The whole scene with the score and soundtrack (something which the show’s creators have generally done an outstanding job of putting together) and the meaningful glances from one character to another were all intended to show how they were banding together in their collective grief, and that somehow these shared stories were going to be enough to help them cope with the emotions and real sense of loss they all seemed to be feeling. But if the only “hope” they have is the memory of what was, they are never going to be able to move forward to the season of life waiting on the other side of the grief. We can’t rely on the past to carry us into the future.
In spite of its taking place in a church, this funeral service was entirely secular, and, as far as I could tell, worthless. If this happened in real life, not a single one of those folks – especially the daughter who now has to go home to raise her infant sister by herself – would have left there with anything like the comfort and encouragement they needed for the journey that lay before them. The secular worldview that is thriving in so many parts of our culture today utterly fails in moments like these. It offers no hope for a better tomorrow because it has no hope for a better tomorrow. There is simply what is until it’s not. That may be a way to live when you want to behave however you please without dealing with the conscience dragging weight of a worldview that takes a bit more active approach when it comes to governing your behavior, but when it comes to any one of the big intersections of life through which we all must travel from time to time, secularism offers no help. It can’t. It’s empty.
As I reflect with the congregation on the life of a great woman this afternoon, her sister-in-law asked me to include a reference to Romans 8:18 in the service. Now, I didn’t remember what that was off the top of my head. When I read it, though, it struck me as absolutely perfect for the occasion. Jeanette lived a good life. By all accounts she had the kind of impact on the people around her that Lilly from Virgin River did. But Jeanette’s life was ultimately marked by her faith in Christ. And even though things were hard for her in the end, the end we’ll mark today isn’t really the end at all. Listen to what Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman church: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
Do you know what that is? That’s hope. Tomorrow is going to be better than today. Today may be hard, but tomorrow will be better. It will be a lot better. In fact, it is going to be so much better that trying to compare what we see and experience now with what things will be like then isn’t even worth our time. It’s not an apples to oranges comparison; it’s more like apples to battleships. The glory of eternity – something the Christian worldview offers that the secular worldview on display in the Virgin River funeral scene can’t even begin to touch – offers us a hope powerful enough to sustain us through the pain and hardships we are going to face in this life. It is a hope strong enough to sustain us even in the face of the agony of losing a loved one to death. We can have this hope when we are willing to place our faith in Jesus.
I wouldn’t wish what was put on display in that funeral scene on even my enemies. To face a loss so powerful with so little of substance is a pretty despairing prospect. What the Christian worldview offers is something entirely more potent than that. There’s a reason Paul gave instructions and teaching to the Thessalonian church so that its members wouldn’t grieve like those who have no hope. That’s no way to grieve…literally. You can’t grieve without hope, you simply sit in grief and don’t go anywhere. Life may go on around you, but until you find something to hope in, you don’t go with it. Yet if that hope does not let you look beyond merely this life, it won’t be strong enough to sustain you for long. Put your hope in something…in someone…greater. You’ll never regret it.