Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How do you get to an IPG? Practice, practice, practice

Do you know why doctors practice their profession? Because they're not perfect.

OK. It's not the best joke in the world, and I do actually like and respect doctors very much, but there is a grain of truth in it. They say that practice makes perfect, but in fact it only makes practiced.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with the Baha'i Faith? I'm glad you asked.

Can you recall the first quote in Ruhi Book 1?

"The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct."

If you don't believe me, check it out yourself.

And why is that the first quote, out of all the possible choices they could have selected? I think it is because they are reminding us that everything in the Faith is about application. Baha'u'llah, Himself, says in the Kitab-i-Iqan:

And yet, is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions?

We often speak about the internal condition, or the "being", but we must also remember that this inner condition must express itself in the outer condition, or the "doing".

I recall a group of friends who were taking Ruhi Book 4, The Twin Manifestations, and we got to the quote in which we are asked to "read the following quote with joy and radiance" (I don't have the book in front of me and may be mis-quoting here, but you get the idea). As the tutor, I asked one of the friends to do this, and they proceeded to read it quietly, while mumbling, and in monotone. I asked the friends if they felt her joy and radiance. None had, but it was acknowledged that we did not doubt that she had been feeling these emotions "on the inside".

"Joy, yes," I said, "but radiance must be seen outside to be considered radiant." We all spoke about the importance of how we are perceived by others, and how none can know what is going on inside our heads or souls. It proved to be a very enlightening conversation, which I, at least, had not expected.  It also helped everyone be more aware of how their actions are perceived by others.

But what does this story have to with the Faith, again?

Well, let's look at the practices of the Ruhi Books.

The first one is to read the Writings at least every morning and evening. This practice is a very simple habit we can all develop, and will ground us in the Writings. It will ensure that we are "on track", for if we do not come back to Writings constantly, it is too easy to veer off that path that is "keener than a sword" and "finer than a hair".

Another aside - I am reminded of a time a friend and I went driving in the southwestern United States. We stopped to visit an isolated believer, and found her at home. We visited for a few hours, said prayers, shared stories, and then I noticed something. She only had two Baha'i books: her prayer book and Gleanings. As I had a stack of books in the car, I asked her if she wanted anything else. "Oh no, I haven't finished studying Gleanings yet." What I understood was that she had been reading this tattered Book for at least 40 years, and felt that she still had much more to glean from it. She hadn't "finished" it yet. Oh, if only we all would read with that much care and attention.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, the second practice in Book 1 to study a prayer with a few friends.

I know it says Baha'is, but really, why limit ourselves? When you study the prayer with people from another background, you have a very different perspective and can learn that much more. Besides, many of them want to go on and take Book 1, and that can't hurt, can it?

Please note that it doesn't say to pray with them (although that is good to do), nor does it say to memorize the prayer (which is also good), but to study the prayer. Why do you think this would be? I don't actually know, but I believe it is to help us think about the prayers we are always saying and come to a higher understanding about them.  We learn to appreciate them even more, learn more from them, and even help fulfill the request of the prayer more easily.  It also helps us be more comfortable speaking about spiritual issues with friends.

The next practice in the sequence is in Book 2, Arising to Serve: to study the first three themes in the second unit with a few friends. Again, I find it better not to limit ourselves to Baha'is, although if there are new Baha'is in your community, they are a high priority.

So, why do I think this is the next practice? First, by presenting to friends, you are ensured a friendly audience on which to practice your presentations. This makes it easier to use these themes when you are asked questions by people who are not as friendly. Second, while it is not difficult to study a prayer with someone, presenting a simple theme is a little bit harder.  They are easing us into more and more difficult practices, building our strength. Third, those themes are ones that people are already open to hear about.

What? You don't believe me? All right, let's see.

The first theme is about the Eternal Covenant, which is found in all religions. It is like a train line. The train goes all the way to the last station, but we all get off at different stops. When presenting the topic as demonstrated in Book 2, we allow the listener to draw their own conclusions about where they wish to de-train. A Chirstian, for example, will readily acknowledge the truth of the Eternal Covenant up through all the Messengers and Prophets in the Old Testament, as well as Jesus. A Muslim will continue on through Muhammad. A Baha'i will go all the way through to Baha'u'llah. It doesn't matter. What we are establishing is the truth of a principle: that of the Eternal Covenant of God.

The second theme is about the life of Baha'u'llah. You think they will be offended? Do you think they would be offended if we present about the life of Gandhi? Of course not. It is a good life, and worth hearing about. We should not feel shy about presenting the life of Baha'u'llah to them. We may not want to talk about Baha'u'llah's Station as a Manifestation of God at this time, but of course, if it seems appropriate, why not.   Just remember that we don't have to.

The third theme is about unity, the most important and pivotal teaching in the Baha'i Faith.  This theme is also found in every religion, to a greater or lesser degree, but we like to focus more attention on it as we see the importance of it at this time in human history.

Another thing about this practice is that we begin to learn to make a coherent connection between themes when making multiple presentations to people. The Eternal Covenant leads into Baha'u'llah, Who is the latest link in that chain, which leads us into unity, the main theme of Baha'u'llah's teahings. Simple and straightforward.

It is also important to remember that we must do these practices in the context of teaching, not in the confines of a study circle.  Although we can study a prayer as a group to see how can be done, if it remains at that level, without actually going out and studying it with friends, we become very inward focused, and that is not healthy for growth.
All three of these practices are essential for when we are teaching large numbers of people. We must learn how to connect with people on a spiritual level, study spiritual issues with them, and present themes in a logical and coherent manner. If we could master these simple skills, our teaching would increase dramatically, as is seen in many parts of the world already, where whole communities are engaged in these practices.

Now it's time for me to practice teaching a friend of mine. Perhaps I'll learn something about the Faith while I do so.

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