The Road Less Traveled

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
July 29, 2018
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:9-18
Sermon: “The Road Less Traveled”

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
I, the Teacher when king over Israel in Jerusalem,
applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

The book of Ecclesiastes was for ancient Israel a map of wisdom leading to answer questions we still search after: “What is life really about,” “What is truth,” and “How do I attain wisdom?”

How do we seek wisdom? By reading books? By going to college?

A couple of weeks ago, Carly and I attended her college orientation. Her classmates went one way while anxious parents gathered in a lecture hall to attend a seminar entitled, “Transition,” presented by a psychologist. Between you and me, I was psychologically pretty mellow. I had done my morning meditation, I didn’t have to pry Carly out of the car like one parent shared and I hadn’t given much thought to the fact she is going to school in Colorado where pot is legal—that seemed to be a huge area of concern for many parents. Yes, I was mentally at peace as the psychologist went on about some famous theory that said how every transition begins with an ending and ends with a beginning, and that in between endings and beginnings exists an unsettled neutral zone humans seem to avoid, yet must experience for personal growth. I was seriously processing all that was being said when suddenly the psychologist told us to get into small groups of 6-8. And so we did. He then asked us to share in our small group if we had any regrets about the way we raised our incoming student. As each parent shared their regrets, my mental peace of mind vanished. Thankfully, time ran out before it was my turn. All I could think about was the alleged wise teacher, possible king, who wrote Ecclesiastes. Quite possibly, they wrote it while attending a college orientation and subjected to the psychology of transition.

If I have any regrets about the way I’ve raised Carly and Luke—it is this: I did not share with them wisdom I gained from a modern day version of Ecclesiastes.

If I could go back in time to when the kids were say age 8-12, we would have together watched the 21st century version of Ecclesiastes, The Twilight Zone. In particular, an episode entitled aptly The Road Less Traveled. That episode of the Twilight Zone (to me) sums up politics in America ever since the hanging chad election in 2000. Urban Dictionary defines the twilight zone as “A state of surrealism, where things that should not make sense seem to do so.”

At the end of every Twilight Zone episode, wisdom in Proverbs-like form occurs. At the end of the episode entitled, The Road Less Traveled, the wisdom is:

“We make our choices and, afterwards, wonder what the other road was like.”

To me, that is the heart of the message of Ecclesiastes. We strive to figure out life and what our purpose is, and often wish there was a map to help us navigate our journey on earth.

I believe that we do have the ability to truly “find our way” in life, and it revolves around what many wisdom teachers of all faiths, like Jesus, would call spiritual awakening. Spiritual awakening invites us to be aware of what is happening around us—that along our life journey the universe leaves clues and directions like a map to help guide along the adventure seeking wisdom.

In her book, Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, Cynthia Bourgeault, writes that “virtually all Wisdom teachers would agree that the Source of Wisdom lies in a higher or more vivid realm of divine consciousness that is neither behind us nor ahead of us but always surrounding us.” We just need to be aware of what is around us, of the breadcrumbs that the Universe lays before us. But it’s tough because life gets busy and we get overwhelmed.

I’ve been thinking about this concept of spiritual awareness… and last Sunday that my daily devotion was quite timely: “Being overwhelmed makes it very difficult to listen to the still, small voice within, or pick up on the messages that the Universe leaves for us to follow.” Another wisdom book in Scripture, Proverbs, urges us to search for wisdom and calls us to make every effort to find and possess truth and understanding (Prov. 23:23). But what is truth?

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was “post truth” defined as “a condition where facts are less influential in shaping opinion than emotion and personal belief.” A few months ago, I found myself at a lunch seated next to Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and C.I.A. We had a philosophical conversation about “truth” and “reality” and how the “post truth” era will shape religion and other institutions and I was stirred to read his newly-published book, The Assault on Intelligence. It’s an interesting book that also reminds me of Ecclesiastes— that we live in a world where reality and truth are no longer objective, but subjective.

In Trump in a Post-Truth World, Ken Wilber brings up a culprit that has shaped all of us—our susceptibility to Google search engines. He writes, Google disorganizes “the world’s information in an atmosphere of a perspectival madness, taking “diversity” to such an extreme that all views have an egalitarian and perfectly equal claim to validity— if, and only if, each wannabe truth is backed with enough passionate narcissism and outrageously fervent belief to make it really popular.”

How does Google affect our spiritual journey? I think it’s easy to get lost on various roads enticing us to seek knowledge, gain information, and gather intelligence. Sometimes I realize I rely more on Siri for directions than I do God.

Two central metaphors in Ecclesiastes are, “Everything is meaningless” and life is “chasing after the wind.” Overall, in Ecclesiastes the author is haunted by death and nothing we do in life can change the fact of death. We all know we will die, and sometimes fear the manner in we will die which is why I did not watch shark week this past week before I go surfing in a few days…

In many ways, the book of Ecclesiastes reminds me of what has happened in our post-truth era. In our world of alternative facts, I think we’ve constructed an alternative god: An alternative god who conforms to our desire to control and manipulate. An alternative god who rewards good deeds and hates sinners. An alternative god who thinks one faith is better than another. I know on my faith journey I followed the road of this alternative god— and it’s a road that leads to a very small god— it’s a road that people in our community follow leading them to etch swastikas in Memorial Park and plaster neo-Nazis fascist propaganda on our church doors. Being a Christian means being political.

A few weeks ago, the daily devotions from the Center for Action and Contemplation, which advocates for a contemplative mind in order to do compassionate action, focused on politics. I loved the quote from Thomas Merton that answered the questions I struggle with desiring to live a spiritual journey in a politically unsettling time:

{Those} who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening {their} own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others. {They} will communicate nothing but the contagion of {their} own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centered ambitions, delusions about ends and means, doctrinal prejudices
and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action .

The teachings of Jesus address the misuse of power and action. Over and over, Jesus invites people to see with their heart and calls us to spiritually awaken.

This fall, an opportunity to explore spiritual awakening is offered in studying a book based on The Course of Miracles entitled Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerry Jampolsky. He writes, “The world that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working… This book is intended to help us remove the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence in our lives.” We have strayed from a belief system founded on love for our Earth and for one another. Instead we have chosen a road of fear over love.

Back at the college orientation, the Dean of Students said that in the past two years racial and ethnic hate crimes have increased on college campuses nearly 60 percent. Almost a year ago to the day, our country saw a resurgence of neo-Nazis and the KKK in Charlottesville. Saddened by those events, Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Meacham was moved to write Soul of America. He writes about a candidate running for the Presidency who gave a speech in Kansas City saying that too many immigrants were coming to America and destroying our way of life, and that we need to build a wall of steel as high as Heaven…. The candidate was George Walker and it was September 1924.

Meacham’s book, Soul of America, reminds me of the words you heard from Ecclesiastes:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.

What if we’ve gotten stuck thinking that the time we live in now is somehow unique to the human experience and forgotten that we are connected to the past… If you are down about current political events, I encourage you to go downtown to the Brandeis building. Imagine it is Tuesday, October 6, 1925, and the world’s largest flag decorates the Brandeis building to celebrate the American Legion’s seventh national convention. President Calvin Coolidge spoke here in Omaha and said,

If we are to have… that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.

Meachem’s book, Soul of America, I think brings hope and echoes the message of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. We have the teachings of the Bible. Theologians. Teachers of wisdom. Intelligence directors. Historians. Presidents. How do we hear God in all of this? Are we awake?

All of these books, our academic degrees—we have more information and knowledge than the Buddha, or Lao-Tzo or Jesus….but are we any wiser?

In the circle of life, history and actions of humanity very much occur in cycles, transitioning between hope and despair. There are beginnings and endings, and endings and beginnings—it’s easy to get lost in a twilight zone, but over and over people arise who awaken us to choose the road less traveled. May we join them as we transition into a spiritual awakening of the heart, mind and soul.