Insula Barataria

Near the end of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and his donkey fall into a darkened pit, ending a series of misadventures in which he is tricked into believing that he is the governor of Insula Barataria (a non-existent realm). After being humbled by the demands of governorship, he flees, taking with him only a cheese wheel and some barley. He is further humiliated by his need for rescue at the hands of those who conspired to discomfit him, but Cervantes will not allow them the last word. His character, Sancho Panza, makes an impassioned defense of his actions, displaying an integrity, self-knowledge, and self-understanding lacking in most of the other characters.

It is here where Sancho utters one of the classic lines in the novel: “man proposes but God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him …” That is indeed a hard lesson to learn. As Sancho discovers, for our hopes and dreams to be fulfilling they must be consonant with not only our abilities but also our true selves. Sancho, the illiterate servant, is unprepared for public office, yet he is surprisingly wise, and in the end, far more admirable than those he attempts to govern and the duke and duchess whose private amusement he becomes. God does indeed know not only the plans of the duke and duchess but also the heart of Sancho Panza, and he allows the ruse to go forward. In the end, as Cervantes writes, “The duke and duchess did not repent of the joke played on Sancho Panza with regard to the governorship they had given him … giving them no small pleasure.” Yet Sancho remains to the end of the novel devoted and loyal to his master, and even though cast as a comedic foil, he retains a true dignity. He does so because even though he begins inexorably to share Don Quixote’s delusion, he never really forgets who and what he is.

This kind of self-knowledge is achievable by everyone, but it takes work, and it takes honesty. God does indeed dispose of things as he sees fit, and often it doesn’t matter to him how much planning and energy we have expended in an effort, because as Cervantes writes: “God knows what suits each man and what is best for him.” Learning to listen to our inner selves with discernment is the first step toward learning both what are our true desires and recognizing what God believes is best for us. If we seek him, as the Apostle James writes, he will be found. Yet far too often we are driven by other voices to seek places far removed from where God would have us be. Like Sancho Panza we will not be abandoned by God, who in his own time will place us squarely back on the path, but in the meantime, we may have to spend a disquieting time in a darkened pit with only our donkey for company.

There are Insula Baratarias in every life, calls to be who we were not meant to be. It is not an admission of inferiority or failure to turn away from such people, places, and things. It is wisdom.

Last weekend I watched the departure of the Pope from New York and his Arrival in Philadelphia. I turned on the news with my morning coffee and found that all of the cable news networks were covering the same story as BREAKING NEWS. Representing more than 1 billion Catholics, he speaks with authority, an authority that matters to the whole Christian world and an authoritative voice that needs to be recognized by the Protestant world, Baptists included. Our congregational structure – bottom up authority– gives us enormous autonomy and power in the local church, but it results in us having no central power structure and no recognized leader that speak with one voice on the important social and moral issues of our day. In a fragmented, denominationally exclusive Christianity, no other Christian religious leader could command the air time, the BREAKING NEWS spotlight that accompanies Pope Francis.

Like Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II before him, his magnetic personality and his deep faith and personal piety enabled him to reach out not only to Roman Catholics but to millions of others: those rooted in other traditions, those spiritually questing for a source of meaning, and those curious to understand why anyone would care about his visit. His simple life in a small Vatican apartment, the sight of him on the streets of Rome, behind the wheel of an aging Renault, make him a “People’s Pope.”  Hence the respectful and generally positive coverage. Yet, as cameras moved to a closeup of the Pope’s Fiat, one commentator couldn’t resist pointing out that it was the most expensive Fiat. Really? The 500 L MSRP is $24,695 dollars. Hardly a luxury model, not to mention it is one of the few models that will comfortably seat someone in the back seat. Why the comment? It is a distraction from the message, a need to discredit the messenger, however trivial the criticism. And I believe it comes from a deep, unconscious hostility, so prevalent in our society, to any prophetic voice.

There are times in history when a voice needs to call out into the wilderness to make straight the crooked paths. This is such a time; Pope Francis is such a voice. American Christians are deeply divided over social and political issues, seemingly consumed with the culture wars. We have forgotten the Great Commission. Pope Francis calls us back to the primitive church, to the church known simply as the Way. At a time when Christians are being beheaded on a beach for refusing to denounce their faith, when a Christian pastor and his children are set afire in their car, when hundreds of thousands are fleeing as refugees, fearing for their lives, when converting to Christianity is a death sentence in a growing number of countries, he calls us back to the center – to Jesus and to Him Crucified.

There is an irrefutable fact: Jesus died in history – on a Friday afternoon in early spring, outside the walls of Jerusalem, this man called Jesus, was crucified. Undeniable, historical fact. But what we do with that fact makes all the difference. From its earliest hours on that fateful Sunday morning, the church – the living witness to the risen Christ – has made one proclamation: Jesus died for my sins. And we are called to witness not only to the fact but also to the confession. We are called to that proclamation again and again, day after day, and there is no time in the long history of the world when the world did not need to hear us. And there is no other time for us, for you and for me – this is our age, our time for that bold confession.

And we are called to make that confession with one voice. As Jesus prepared to depart from his disciples he prayed “that they may all be one.” (John 17:21) The Latin: Ut unum sint, is the ecumenical call for unity, for one voice. There will not, in our lifetime, be organic unity, that is, one church. But there can and must be recognition of our mutual call to witness against the destructive forces at work in our world, recognition of our common membership in the priesthood of all believers, recognition of our common Lord. For there “is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Agreeing to disagree on the things that divide us, Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox must proclaim with one voice: Jesus died in history; Jesus died for my sins. In this, at least, we can rejoice, that message was, for a few hours on cable news networks, BEAKING NEWS.

Both Time magazine and the Modern Library ranked On the Road one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. Jack Kerouac’s thinly veiled autobiographical novel, originally typed without paragraphing on a 120 foot scroll of paper, became the manifesto for the beat generation, but the controversy it ignited seems to us quaint. Sex and drug use are so much a part of modern storytelling, Kerouac’s descriptions of sexual encounters only dimly recalled through a cheap wine and marijuana induced haze no longer shock nor, truth be told, interest us.

What is of interest is the lengths both men go to avoid taking responsibility for their lives.   Superficially, Kerouac’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, and his friend, Dean Moriarty (real-life Neal Cassady) crisscross the country in an extended series of road trips looking for the big IT – the meaning of life. They become increasingly estranged as they slowly confront what the reader has long guessed, their restless wandering is not a quest for meaning, for freedom, for empowerment; it is a flight from responsibility – for Dean, a flight from relationships he can’t maintain; for Sal, a flight from anything that would anchor him to the adult world. For me, a pivotal moment in the book comes when Dean confronts Sal with his insensitivity to his friends’ feelings and needs. Sal replies: “’It’s not my fault! It’s not my fault!’ I told Him. ‘Nothing in this lousy world is my fault, don’t you see that? I don’t want it to be and it can’t be and it won’t be.’”

“It’s not my fault!” is not a cry of innocence. It is at once a cry of rage surrender guilt pain panic despair powerlessness hopelessness. It is the cry of New York and Shanghai and San Francisco and Tokyo, of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Frankfort, Paris, and London – of every city where millions of the disillusioned struggle for meaning, freedom, and empowerment. It is the last, desperate cry of the lonely.

It would be a sad commentary on life to accept the world as experienced by so many, to say “This is all there is,” to acquiesce to every assault on human dignity, to believe finally with the nihilist that there is no meaning to life. Viktor Frankl, noted psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines for himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.” This is the power of free will – the power not to change the moment but to change how I react to the moment – to become the active agent in my own life. Life finds its meaning in the choices I make.

It trivializes struggle and suffering to suggest that they are under our control, but it is empowering to say that struggle and suffering have only the “meaning I give to them.” They have the power to become for me avenues to despair or avenues to growth, hope, and faith. The difference lies in whom we trust, with whom we travel. Do we walk alone, unaided, or do we walk with one whose wisdom and power can transform every situation? For Christians that person is Jesus – the still voice, the lightly felt touch, the momentary brightness in a dark soul. We are never alone. It is to this presence that T.S. Elliot refers in The Wasteland, in what is a clear reference to the Gospel of Luke and the disciples encounter with Jesus along the road to Emmaus.

Who is the third who walks beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look up ahead the white road

There is always another walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman –

But who is that on the other side of you?

Who is that who walks beside you?

Room for Grasshoppers

I went for a walk in the city and remembered too late that the season is upon us. Strangers in dress and manner and custom have descended upon Old Town. They are not alien, they are us, only us from the West and from New England and the West Coast and from the Deep South and the Midlands. The river walk is crowded with waffle cones and selfie-sticks and guide books and maps. I wonder as I walk, how many of these invaders see what I see? Absorbed in capturing memories and frantically trying to “see everything,” they miss the moment. Eyes that see don’t see the beauty of the river at high water; ears that hear miss the sound of the wake slapping against the quay

I am reminded of a quote from Albert Camus’ essay, “Prometheus in the Underworld,” “With so many men gathered together, there is no room for grasshoppers.” Following a quote from Chateaubriand, Camus bemoans the fact that we have become too busy, too captured by this moment in history, perhaps too angry, too much a slave of the times to live. “[We} sometimes miss the grass that has always grown, the olive leaf that we’ll no longer go to look at just to see it, and the grapes of liberty.” It is not just that there are too many of us, it is that the crowded us leaves little room for the I. And feeling the grass between your toes and trying to scoop the grasshopper with a cupped hand are solitary pleasures.

We are undeniably caught in a moment in history where instability is seen as a matter of course. The world we thought safe has become a dangerous place. The fixed values of our grandparents have vanished only to be replaced with shifting and as yet unfocused visions of the world that compete for our collective affirmation, our loyalties. This world needs our attention but not our souls. “History is a sterile earth where heather does not grow.” (Camus, “Prometheus”) Heather blooms wild and unattended but only where there is room for it to root. Making space for heather does not mean abandoning the world, but it does mean quieting the conversation with history, making space for silence, and in that moment allowing ourselves to see the grass that has always grown, to look at the olive leaf just to see it, and then, because it will always be necessary, return to the world of work and responsibility. World and spirit, bread and heather. “If he is hungry for bread and heather, and if it is true that bread is the more necessary, let us learn to keep the memory of heather alive.”

Isaiah writes “For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) We are called by God to more than toil; we are called to rest. “In quietness and trust is your strength” is more than a declaration, it is a promise, but it is a promise with a catch. Quietness and trust comes to the I not the crowded us. A life of faith is an intentional life, one grounded in the reality of a transcendent yet personal and present God. It is a life transformed by living the present moment in the presence of the One who is all moments. Such a life keeps the memory of heather alive, feels the grass between its toes, scoops grasshoppers with cupped fingers, savors waffle cones, surrounded by thousands it is alone yet connected. In such a life, even with so many gathered together, there is room for grasshoppers.

It’s cold for an early summer evening. Mist hangs in the air, and the occasional breeze brings the damp air inside, through the screen onto the porch. The hawk in the great red oak drops from his perch, wings spread, and glides off into the gray twilight, no doubt looking for a better hunting ground. There isn’t a songbird in sight, and as I think about it, except for a chattering mockingbird in the cemetery down the hill, I haven’t heard a bird call in half an hour. My neighbor, head down, briefcase tucked tightly under his arm, umbrellaless, hurries home as the mist gives way to a steady, light rain.

Thomas, my red tabby, has had enough. He jumps to the floor from his perch on the chair next to me. His entire body ripples from nose to tail. I reach down to pet him and he flattens himself in that classic feline “don’t touch me” posture, but not before I feel the drops of moisture on his fur. He looks up at me, questioning whether I will follow him inside. Not yet, Thomas.

Surrounded by millions of people, quiet times, when both inner and outer worlds recede, are rarer for me than they used to be. I suppose I am not alone in that. There is just too much to do, too much to think about. And when we tire of the demands, there are too many options for hiding. I ate lunch in a local restaurant yesterday. Seated next to me were two middle-aged women, both wearing earbuds, faces buried in smartphones. Even had I wished to eavesdrop, there was nothing to hear. They were lost, not in private worlds but in private diversions. How much we miss.

Perhaps it is time to take seriously the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.” It is nothing more nor less than paying attention to the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of our present moment. It is not blocking out, rather it is not holding on to the busyness that assaults us. It is “hearing” the sounds, seeing the colors, feeling the passage of the air, and breathing in the smells of the city around us. There is nothing mystical about intentionally being alive.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us against excessive worry, and at a deeper level, he is inviting us to live more fully. In the Relaxation Response, physician Herbert Benson wrote of the mental and physical benefits of meditation: reduced anxiety, lowered blood pressure, more restful sleep, generalized feelings of well-being. Yet, meditative states elude most people. How often have I heard someone say: “I just can’t sit there doing nothing but counting breaths!” or “How many times do I have to say that mantra thing before something happens?” It is the desire for something to happen that is at the heart of the problem. There is too much “happening” already!

There is another way. It is simply to pay attention, real attention, deep attention to what is going on around you and inside you. It is to be “mindful.” Try it. Alone on the porch. Walking in the park. Absorbing the sights and sounds of a city street. Be fully engaged; be fully alive. It takes effort at first, but the result is worth it. You just might discover a new world. The one you live in.

His snoring gives him away. Like a feral cat going to ground, Zamboni is deep in the linen closet. Unlike his wild counterparts, he prefers Fabreze-scented towels and soft linens. Growing older, he sleeps twenty hours a day. Sometimes basking in streams of sunlight in the middle of the library floor, at other times, hidden in what are now predictable haunts. Zamboni is the largest of our three cats, but he is the least sociable, the least courageous. Hiding is his reaction to any change, whether changes to routine, changes to the environment, or changes to people. A house guest can spend a week with us and never catch a glimpse of him.

Few of us can afford the linen closet however tempting it might be to hide from the world. We can accept it or resist it, but unlike a cat in hiding, we are rarely able to ignore change. I have known a score of people in my life who slept twenty hours a day. They are the ones on the subway with fixed stares and the blank-faced ones, motionless and emotionless before their computer monitors. Most of us are like the Daschiell Hammett character in the Maltese Falcon of whom Sam Spade said: “That’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to their not falling.” Accommodation and compromise. Perhaps the compromisers and the blank-faced ones are not that far apart. One acknowledges the changes, the other doesn’t notice. Neither questions.

Understanding each new situation is key to the art of living. How often do we react before we really understand what we are reacting against? The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: “Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Paul is acutely aware of our shared tendency to defend our position regardless of the cost. He counsels restraint. Can I win this argument? Can I change the situation? Or are we both so entrenched in our positions that no mutual understanding is possible? If so, the only real outcome is resentment. Often, we go to battle before deciding whether or not this is a hill worth dying on.

Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus refuses to be drawn into an argument. His reply to inflammatory and confrontational statements diffuses the situation and leads to a deeper understanding of the real issues. We are not so quick witted as Jesus. David gives us sound advice in the fourth Psalm. “Be angry and sin not. Commune with your own hearts on your own bed and be still.” There is a time for the linen closet. A time for solitude and quiet meditation. It is in quietness and reflection that we will discern the courageous alternative. There is a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak. Knowing the season makes all the difference.




A foundational belief among Baptists was the idea that each person, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was capable of interpreting and actualizing belief in Scripture. This individual freedom was to be moderated by a community of faith to which each individual was expected to belong. That is, early Baptists could not imagine anyone claiming the name of Christian who would not willingly seek out like-minded individuals to join with them in worship and mutual support. A corollary of this belief was and is that individuals are free to reject the claims of the Bible and to pursue their own interests, free of any coercion. Separation of church and state, another prized distinctive of founding Baptists flowed naturally from these beliefs. Baptists, who had suffered in England and the Colonies under harsh laws restricting their right to assembly and to proclaim their faith, were determined that the new nation would protect these basic rights.

Baptists were never naïve about religion in the public square. Reports from early Baptist missions through the newly-created states found “right thorny ground,” as one young man wrote in a letter to his sponsoring Association. Conversions and baptisms were few. The same individualism informing Baptist faith led many Americans to very different beliefs, or as was often the case to no beliefs, creating an American religious landscape that is pluralistic and often divisive.

The current culture wars reflect this diversity, but there is a disturbing tendency among evangelicals to forget both our own history and the promise of Jesus with respect to secular society. Far from declaring the triumph of the cross, Jesus proclaims rejection, betrayal, and persecution for those who follow him. “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” Jesus’ statement reflects the “already but not yet” dilemma facing the church in the modern world. Faith is required to witness to a different reality. Courage is required to proclaim the truth as we understand it. Humility is required to acknowledge that our interpretations may be wrong. In all things, we Baptists must give place to “soul competency,” i.e., that no one may be forced to the foot of the cross.

Jesus prayed for his disciples: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” We are called to proclaim this love, making Jesus known to our world, not by force or legislation, but by example. The world sees neither God the Father nor the Son, but it sees us daily. The mistake we make is to believe that this witness will be painless, will be without cost. The last of the Beatitudes proclaims: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” We do not live in a country where masked men behead us on a beach, where frenzied mobs set fire to us and our families in our cars, where government agents dismantle the crosses on our buildings and remove church names from our doors. We do live in a country that is increasingly intolerant of our message, but living on “right thorny ground” is a far cry from the persecution experienced by our brothers and sisters around the world.

For us, the cost of discipleship is modest and the demand light. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”


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