Reading Between The Lines of “The End of The Road”

Here is a review by Jerry Drino of a recent sermon.

To your sermon.  I like the way you created a litany out of “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”  A very powerful tool.  I’m reminded that one of the phrases in the prayer just before this refrain is “All of us go down to the grave, yet even at the grave we make our song, ‘Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.'”  Your sermon is that song.

As I said, if we were to construct a lesson using this sermon as the text, I would take your beginning section:

John 12:24 (NIV)

24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Last Sunday, it was brought to my attention that an unattended closet in the education wing contained several volumes of church minutes, many dating back to the mid-1800s. These documents were in rough shape. Many of the pages had withered over time. Monday, I gathered these materials and transported them to the Virginia Baptist Historical Society where they will be repaired and properly preserved.

When I had finished this work; my hands and clothing were covered by layers of dust. I was quite literally covered with the dust of our ancestors.

I was reminded of that line from the Burial Rites in the Book of Common Prayer. A Priest stands near a casket, holding a fist full of dust. Dropping the dust to the ground, the minister says:

… we commend to Almighty God our brother (or sister) and we commit their body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Then I would use some of next part of your sermon as ENTERING THE STORY

This gives the historic context of what has happened.  I would add here the portion of the prayer I mentioned about because it works into some of the questions below: “All of us go down to the grave, yet even at the grave we make our song, ‘Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.'”

Then I would move to EXPLORING THE STORY

This is the meat of any lesson plan.

The writer would first choose one theme out of possibly many themes in the text.  Your emphasis was on ashes and dust of your ancestors.  With that in mind the first round of questions focuses on CONTEXT and asks people to put themselves in the place of the people gathered on that last Sunday, both preacher and people.  You could ask some of these following questions:

If you were sitting in a pew hearing these words on the last Sunday of your congregation, what kinds of feelings might you have sitting deep inside you?  What might have been the journey you and others have been on to come to this day?  What questions and issues did your wrestle with together and alone?  What kept you up at night?  What might have been the array of positions or opinions you and others held in the congregation?  How might you have cared for each other?  What might happen if there had been no consensus or if there were hold-outs who still didn’t want to disband the congregation.  What other words would you use for being covered by ash and dust?  What is added when you realize that this is the ash and dust of your spiritual ancestors in this place?

If you were the pastor, how would you be wrestling with this issues?  What other cares and concerns might he or she have?

Then we move the second series of questions which focuses on THE WORLD. 

Some questions may be:

Where do we see people in our world covered with the ash and dust of a previous family, institution, society, nation?  What struggles are they going through?  If you listened in what would you hear people shouting, whispering or quietly discussing over dinner or a cup of coffee with others who have gone through this ending? 
Some endings are gradual, like a decline of a congregation.  Some a abrupt like a hurricane.  Because this is text at the end of a gradual decline, where in the world do you see people struggling with the fact that there is no turning back, no bailing out?  The what once was is now over?  How do you see communities coming to terms with that, or not coming to terms with that?

Where do you see people accepting the ashes and dust and in the words of the prayer, “yet even at the grave they make their song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”  Where might they be recognizing that this ash, this dust is of their ancestors? What might have happened to these people who can say Alleluia?  What does their song represent?  Saying or singing “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia” adds what?

Then we move to the third series of questions which focuses on OUR SELVES.

Some questions may be:

What do you know about endings in your life?  Take a piece of paper and write down all the endings that you can remember.  Look at them for a moment:  Have they really ended or is there something that you are still holding on to, some longing or resentment? How much energy have you put into going through endings?  Are you still holding on and therefore using up more energy?  When have your really know that it was over and could say “Alleluia”  When have you been in a congregation, a group, a school, a business, a movement that has come to an end?  What were the ashes and dust?  What was the process like that might have ranged from chaos, to conflict, to a progressive unfolding?  What did you learn in all of this?  Where were the ashes and dust of your ancestors?

Then we move to a fourth series of questions which focus on your INNER SELF.

  Some questions may be:

Where are there endings going on right now?  What resistances are there?  What are the many voices in you saying or shouting?  Have any dreams come that seem to speak to this issue of endings?  Were is there something very ancient in you that is like an inner ancestor?  Where are you aware of their ashes or dust in you?  

Then you go to the next sections called BETWEEN THE LINES.

At that point I might be asked to write something and so I would offer this:

William Bridges (see below) says that before you can have a new beginning you must have an ending.  Endings can take a long time because it is an unraveling, letting go and bringing all the strands of hopes, dreams, memories, fears, accomplishments and failure to a real closure.  So a new beginning doesn’t start the day after an ending.  It can be a long time.  In fact the death of a loved one, a divorce, a unexpected loss of a job can take two or three years.  For a 150 year old church it can take much longer.  He calls this in-between time “A Neutral Zone” but then adds “its crazy making!”   During that time we may what to “start something new,” a new relationship, a new project, a new job, but it seldom works because the full ending hasn’t happened. However, at some point in the future when all the crazy making has released the past and the ashes you will wake up one morning and say “Its over!” and you might add “Alleluia.”   So when have you experience this process of moving through an ending into the neutral zone and finally to a new beginning?  The “Alleluia” is a good indication that it is a real beginning.  So when have you gathered the ashes and dust of the past that ended and finally thrown them to the wind because you knew that a new beginning had started.

After that there would be a section called EXPLORING FURTHER which would contain quotes from various sources that would amplify the theme.

I cited William Bridges above.  He had three books on Transitions in which he lays out for corporations, for individuals, and for people facing the hardest transitions of illness and death out the formula of Endings > Neutral Zone > and New Beginnings can be understood.  I highly recommend going to Amazon and ordering the one on personal transitions.  It has been my “bible” in several transitions over the last 20 years.

So, this is how your sermon would be shaped into a lesson for RBTL.  Open ended questions for each person to ask that don’t have to have any correspondence to anyone else response.  Some subscribers use this material for their own meditation and write in the journey through the week responses to the questions that are present.  This is the contemplative audience to consider in marketing.

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