Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Importance of Obedience

The other day I wrote an article that made me a bit nervous.  I'm not sure why, except that I thought I might be stepping on a few toes.

As you know, this blog is written for Baha'is (but this article and the other one seem to have a wider audience), although anyone is welcome to read and comment on it.  The views I offer are only my own, and in no way meant to be an official representation of the Faith, although I strive to be as true to the Baha'i teachings as I can.  Sometimes I am concerned that I may fail, and then I seek guidance.

That article was one in which I sought guidance.

Just to let you know, not a single word was changed from the original draft, but it's always good to check.

That gave me a bit of confidence, yet I was still nervous for some reason, even after it was posted.

Then I saw an article someone else posted about my original article, and all my concerns vanished.  To read that posting, click here.  Thank you, Catherine, for such a touching reference.  Although I have never met you, I admire the work you are doing in helping show alternatives in the world.  And you summed up my point perfectly.  ("This shuffle of paperwork": I love it)

Normally, I do not actually respond to comments (a leftover from my days writing for newspapers), but the final statement in this article got me thinking: "The rules of the Baha'i do not apply to non-Baha'i, and even if a Baha'i chooses to drink, that choice is personal."

I began to consider the concepts of  laws, obedience and punishment.

While I, as an individual, am not going to interfere with someone else's choices in their life, I do feel it is important to be obedient to what you regard as a standard.  So when someone says that they are a member of a faith path, in my case Baha'i, I will do all I can to assist and encourage them in following the laws of that Faith.

You see, I think it is very important to state that the Baha'i Faith is not a "permissive" religion, in which everything is allowed according the whim of the individual.  There are laws set forth in the Writings and institutions designed to administer those laws.  But the ways and manners in which those institutions work is quite different from anything else I have ever seen.

First and foremost, it is the job of these institutions to administer these laws, and not the role of the individual.  That is such a bounty and a safety, in my opinion.  It is also a relief for all of us: we don't need to be worried if we suspect (or know) that someone is violating a law.  We can just inform the Assembly and leave it with them.  They will act as they see fit, and we may never know what happens from there.  In truth, it is none of our business.

Story time: I am reminded of a dear friend who became a member of the Baha'i community a number of years ago.  She was, as I mentioned in a previous post, living with her boyfriend at the time.  They had just bought a house together, and were not in a position to live apart.  When the Assembly learned of this, they told her that it was quite probable that some members of the community would question (or chastise) her for this.  they said that if anyone said anything to her, she was to thank them for their concern and tell them to talk to the Assembly.  They then advised her to try and move her life into accordance with the laws of the Faith.  This meant to either move towards getting married, or eventually living seperately when it was feasible.

I just love the wisdom shown to her.

You see, the Baha'i Faith, from what I can tell, is not about "right" or "wrong"; it is about growth.  Whenever I introduce to the Ruhi curriculum to friends who are beginning Book 1, I always explain to them that there are no right or wrong answers.  There are only implications of answers.

For example, we all know the question in Book 1 about whether or not it is ok to take a piece of fruit from a neighbour's tree without their permission.  While most people answer 'no', based on the quote from Baha'u'llah in the section, I've had many people who have answered 'yes'.

I don't tell them that they are wrong, even though I happen to disagree with their answer.  I ask them why they believe it is ok.  One person said that it was alright, as long as the neighbour would not be eating the fruit.  If it was "going to go to waste", it was alright.  Again, rather than disagree, I asked if it was then ok to go into their home and take that "extra set of silverware that they are not using".

In the end, after some back and forth questioning in order to better understand their boundaries, they concluded that it was ok to take something as long it was "outside and worth less than $5".

I thanked them and went on to the next question.

"Why," you may ask?  Because they "advanced in their understanding".  They may come to a different conclusion later in their life, but for now, they had advanced, and that is enough.  I do not believe that we are about convincing people of our opinions, but rather we should assist them in coming to an understanding that is more in accord with the Writings.  Note that it is "more in accord", and not exactly in accord.  As long as they have considered the issue, thought deeply about it and advanced in their understanding, I am satisfied that I have done my job as a tutor.

But now let's go back to that Assembly who needs to "correct" the behaviour of an individual.

From what I can tell, there are two types of laws.  The first is the one that only concerns the individual, such as the laws of prayer.  These laws are self-administring, so to speak.  If you don't say your prayers, no one will chastise you (or at least they shoudn't).  Instead, you will probably find yourself short tempered, lacking inspiration in your daily life, and all sorts of other minor unpleasantries.

It is like the child who is warned not to touch the hot stove.  If they do, the loving parent does not take them aside and burn their hand as a punishment; the stove has already done that.  Instead, they treat the wound, shower them with love, and continue to educate them about cause and effect.

The second type of law is one that effects the community at large.  For example, if a Baha'i were to go into a bar and order whiskey, while telling everyone they are Baha'i, this would have a negative impact on people's perceptions of what it means to be a Baha'i.  (That's only a minor example.  I can think of many far worse cases.)

In this case, the Assembly might send someone to talk with them and let them know that drinking alcohol is not allowed for Baha'is.  If they had a drinking problem, they would probably be encouraged to seek help, either with AA or some other like-minded group.  In some cases, they might need to be reminded a number of times.  If, for some reason, things got so bad, they might have to seek permission to impose a punishment, such as not allowing them to vote in a Baha'i election, or contribute to the Baha'i funds.  This decision would rest with the National Assembly, and would be weighed in light of the integrity of the Faith.

You see, although I cannot point my finger to anything exact and specific in the Writings, there are many quotes in the Writings that speak of the Assembly as an encourager.  This Faith, in my own words, is not about "thou shalt not"; it is about growing spiritually, and helping the world grow spiritually.

What that means to me, and what I have seen amply demonstrated, is that the Assembly gently and lovingly guides the friends into obedience through informing them of the Writings, reminding them of how they apply, and, in very rare cases, explaining the implications of these Writings.

So although I completely agree that each person is fully responsible for their own actions, there are times when adminstration of the laws must be done.  And for that, I am so grateful for the wise guidance of the Assemblies.

Thank God I'm not the one who has to do it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A March for Peace

I was going through some old papers the other day and ran across a few items that intrigued me.  They brought up some old memories, as you can probably tell from recent postings, and reminded me of some experiences I had buried deep in my memory.

One moment I had buried was when I was asked to speak on peace at a "peace" gathering.  Obviously, as you can tell by the quotation marks, it was not what it was billed to be.  Peace is not the word I would use to describe what I saw there.  After the introductory inflamatory talks, which were cheered by the audience, I was asked to speak.  To say that it was a moment of discomfort would be a bit of an understatement.

While I don't actually recall what I said, the gist of it went something like this:  "Are you angry at the injustice  being shown in (fill in the blank)?  (loud cheers of agreement)  Are you angry at (fill in the blank again)?  (more cheers of agreement)  Are you angry at (fill in the blank one more time)?  Do you want to fight (fill in one last time for fun)? (even more cheering)"  All of this was said in a loud rallying type of voice.  The following was said quietly and calmly.  "Well then, you have just taken the first step towards war. Fighting for peace is like (bleep)ing for virginity."

The stunned silence allowed me the opportunity to really speak about peace, and how to develop it from the inside out, while still addressing issues of global injustice.

After that sad experience, I have always looked more carefully into the background of the events at which I am asked to speak.

So why am I telling you all this, dear Reader?

Because, amongst all the papers, I found the following talk, given a few years later at an actual march for peace.  This one was put on by an interfaith group, and I was very happy to be a part of it.  I hope you enjoy this talk:

The teachings of the Enlightened One, the Buddha, are just as profound and just as sacred as the teachings of His Holiness, Jesus, the Christ.  The laws espoused by the Prophet of God, Muhammad, may my life be a sacrifice for Him, are just as pure and just as stainless as the laws given forth by Moses, He Who saw God.  The light that shines from the deeds, acts and manners of the Lord Krishna is the same light that shines from the deeds, acts and manners of the Glory of God, Baha'u'llah.

In fact, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Baha'u'llah: I would make no distinction between any of Them.

Now, if you just felt a slight bit of discomfort when I likened the Founder of your Faith to the Fouder of another, you may wish to ask yourself why you are here.

The march towards eventual world peace requires far more than a few hours walk.  It needs more than outlawing germ warfare, prohibiting poison gas or banning nuclear weapons.  It demands more than imposing economic or political sanctions.  It requires a change in the conditions and attitudes of each and every one of us.

There are many causes of war: racism, subjugation of women, the increasing gap between the extremes of wealth and poverty, to name just a few.  But one of the most visible is still religious intolerance.

So long as we feel that slight tremor when confronted with someone else's faith, we have taken that first step from peace to war.

We must understand that religions are not parallel lines; they are bound to meet.  They are all the result of our ardent search for truth and our constant endeavour to live in peace with the world around us.

The Founders of all these beautiful teachings have given us the same light.

They all teach the Golden Rule, the honouring of parents, the need for prayer, and They all have raised up great civilizations.

Muhammad tells us in the Holy Quran (17:110), "By whichsoever Name ye will, invoke Him.  He hath most excellent names."  Again, in Surih 42, verse 15, "I believe in all the scriptures that God has revealed."

The Buddha teaches, in the Dhammapada, "Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love.  This is the eternal law."

When we realize that this march upon which we are about to embark is but a metaphor for the march which we are all taking towards God, then we will see that we are all marching in the same direction.  We may not all follow the exact same path, treading in the same footsteps, but our goal is identical.

Even the candles we light today: the flame will symbolize different things for each of us.  They will have a world of meanings for each person.  But today, we all light the light of peace and burn away the veils of prejudice.

When we step towards the chasm seperating us from another's ideas and beliefs, and we no longer feel that vertigo when looking into the unknown; when we understand that someone else's faith is just as sacred to them as ours is to ourself; when we show them the respect we wish to be shown, then we will have made a great stride towards world peace.

Then this march will continue in our hearts, and not end with our feet.

Of course, you know, despite anything else I may do in my life, the line that I bleeped at the other rally will probably be the one quoted in my obituary.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Visitor

A few years ago we had a visitor in our neighbourhood.

My friend and I had heard about him, had heard that he was coming.  We were told where he would be, when he would arrive and even what he looked like.  In fact, we even knew that he was here and that, if we but looked, we would see him.  We knew that we would recognize him when we saw him.  We knew he was different from anything we had previously seen and that his coming was a very rare event, indeed.

It was all we had talked about for a little while, but now that he was here we realized that we hadn't even bothered to go out and look at him.

His name was "Hale-Bopp" and he was a comet, the most dramatic comet to visit our solar system in well over a century.

One evenging, shortly after his arrival, my friend and I were walking outside, talking, and decided to look for him.  We turned the corner and, partway up the sky, streaking across the firmament with a tail as long as my finger when held at arms length, there he was: our short-term visitor.  We both stood there, transfixed, unable to move or even speak.  We had never seen anything remotely like this, nor expected anything quite so marvelous.  All that we had heard paled in comparison to the reality.

We were on a brightly lit street, lights shining like the noonday sun, and still he stood out like a beacon.  People were walking past us, oblivious of this miracle that hung high in the sky before us.  We stopped someone and said, "Look!  This is incredible."  And he glanced at it and shrugged, continuing on his way.

My friend and I went out most every night after that, and even during the days when it was still visible during the daylight hours, just to stare.  Hale-Bopp stayed in our galactic neighbourhood for a few weeks and all we are left with now is a few photos and a number of stories, such as this one.

A few weeks after that, I was walking on a bridge, thinking, staring at the water rushing below my feet.  We have been told that all physical existence was created for our spiritual edification, and that everything can be seen as a metaphor for a spiritual truth.  This means, to me, that we can look at anything around us and glean a spiritual truth from it.

One friend had asked me how a mouse, a computer mouse, was a metaphor for a spiritual truth.  My response, after talking about it with some friends, was that we are all like icons on a computer screen (and give me a break, it's too cheesy to talk about "the computer screen of life"), and the Messenger of God was like the cursor.  He goes around clicking on things, telling the world what to do, in control of it all.  We look at Him and say, "Wow!  You're a cursor.  You're special."  He replies, "No.  That's not my reality.  My reality is that I'm a mouse."  As icons on the screen, this is beyond our comprehension.  But now, from our vantage point here in this world, we recognize the mouse.  And beyond that, we know that the mouse does not move on its own, but rather is guided by the Hand of God.

But what about this comet?  What spiritual truth could we glean from it?

And again, I thought of a Messenger of God.

The comet, in its love for the sun, comes rushing from light-years away, streaking forth to circumambulate it.  Not for a moment does it deviate in its course.

We here on Earth are condemned, if you will, to spend fully half our life in darkness, turned away from the sun, just by virtue of the nature of our creation here upon the face of this planet.  No matter our love for the light, we must, by the very laws of nature which bind us, turn away from it every evening.  It is no fault of ours, just a fact of our existence.  In fact, we must turn away from the light for our health, as recent sleep studies have shown.

But this comet is different.  It so loves the sun that never for a single moment does it turns its tail towards the it.  It is always, constantly, unwaveringly facing the sun.  never deviating.  Never turning away.  Never wavering.

It is, by its very nature, different from us.

As the Bab says, "The substance wherewith God hath created Me is not the clay out of which others have been formed".

This visitor was just like the Messenger of God, streaking across the firmament of the world of the spirit, changing the way we view the world around us, undeviating in His guidance, always turned towards God, different by His very nature.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Atoms and Apples

All existence is a metaphor for a spiritual truth.

I'm not sure where I learned that, but it seems to be true.

'Abdu'l-Baha, for example, speaks of achieving "the power of understanding" and coming "to know the inner realities of the universe", as well as going on to uncovering "the signs and mysteries of God".

There are many examples of this in the Writings of all Faiths, in which they speak of learning spiritual truths from the world around us.

So, if everything in existence can teach us a spiritual truth, then that means that we can find a truth in everything.  Seems redundant, doesn't it?  But have we tried it?  I used to play a game with myself while walking down the street, in which I would look at an object and try to find a spiritual truth within it.

A teacup was easy.  All you need to do is look at Zen and you will quickly come across the idea of yourself as a teacup.  "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

Some objects were more difficult, and I will share some of them later.

One that gave me a particularly difficult time, but was very rewarding, was an atom.

How is an atom a metaphor for a spiritual truth?

I've always been interested in the sciences, and have read quite a bit about atomic theory, sub-atomic particles, and similar things, so I had a bit of an education about an atom already.  This is what came to mind:

Picture an apple.  Its colour.  Its shape.  Its texture, scent and taste.  Imagine the skin, the seeds, and the drop of its juice that, as you bite into it, sprays forth.

Now think about the atoms that make it up.  How small are they?  Can we even begin to imagine them?  Think, for just a moment, how many atoms there must be within that apple.  Millions?  Billions?  Can we even contemplate how many?

Now try and picture that apple the size of the planet Earth.  Seriously.  Look down at the ground, or out your window, and visualize how big that apple must be if it were the size of Earth.  The whole planet.  From horizon to horizon, everything is just the surface skin of that apple.

If the apple were that big, each atom within that apple would be the size of a cherry, and everything you see would be made up of those cherry-sized atoms.  Your computer, the desk, the chair, every brick in your home, all the trees outside: everything made up of cherries.  Just imagine how many cherries that would be.  An entire earth-sized apple made up of cherries.

Now take a single one of those atoms.  Stretch the imagination again and picute that atom, no longer cherry-sized, but rather the size of an island, adrift in the sea.  Imagine this island, our cherry-sized atom, a full kilometer across.  There at the centre, in the middle of our now-island-sized atom, lies a pebble.  And way off by the edge, near the shore, lies a single grain of sand.  And rather than an island, there is nothing, save this pebble and this grain.

That is an atom.

That effectively describes how little matter there is in an atom.  Proportionately, a pebble and a grain of sand, over the distance of a kilometer.

At this point, it is very easy to understand the person who commits suicide.  Consider for a moment, what difference would it make if you removed a single cherry from this earth-sized apple?  Virtually none whatsoever.

If we were to imagine this cherry as a metaphor for ourselves, the problem meaninglessness comes into the fore, and suicide becomes a realistic option.  So how do we address this?

Let's shift back to that island again.  Did you know that the grain-of-sand-sized electron cannot be said to exist in and of itself?  In physics, it exists only as a probability.  We can define its movement, or its location, but not both.  We can either say, "It exists here", but admit we don't know where it's moving, or we can say "It is moving at this speed", but admit that we don't know where it is.  We can say where it might be, but never that it is.  One scientist described the atom as pat of butter smeared on a piece of toast.  The thickness of the butter described the percentage chance it had of being in that location.  Tricky that.  I won't even pretend to really understand what all that means.

What we can say, with certainty, is that it interacts with the nucleus, the other electrons, and even the other atoms around it.  Its existence may not be tangible, but its energy is shared.

Its interactions with the other elements around it, those do exist.  Although the atom is almost completely made up of empty space, it appears to be solid.

Why?  More to the point, how?

After all, how easy is it to hit a pebble with a grain of sand by throwing it half-a-kilometer?  If that is all that is within the atom, why doesn't your hand fall through the desk?  Why am I able to clap my hands together? 

The answer?  Simple.  The atom appears solid because of its interactions with those around it.

Thus it is with humans, too.

Our existence, in and of itself, is negligible.  Not even worthy of mention.  Made up of almost complete non-existence.  As Baha'u'llah famously said, "when I consider my own self, lo, I find it coarser than clay!"

As I wrote to my wife, shortly after we were married:

...What gives us our seeming solidity is our relationship with others.

Now picture the tree that gave fruit to the apple.

We can define it roots, or leaves, bark or branches.  We can pick any part we wish and give it definition, but by doing so we have lost the essence of the tree.

Although we can take pieces of the tree and use them in a metaphor, like the Blessed Beauty's statement to "Regard thou faith as a tree," a tree does not exist on its own.  Not only does it not exist on its own, it cannot exist on its own.

We can talk about the roots, but without the earth from which the roots draw forth nourishment, they are a useless appendage that have no meaning.  Beyond that, they cannot even draw forth the water if it weren't for the fungi that grow on their edges, nor for that matter could the fungi survive if it weren't for the roots.

The thousands of apples that fruit forth from the tree would appear to be useless, and perhaps even confusing, if seen from the light that only a few will produce a tree.  But when we think of the nourishment that is generated throughout the forest by the fruit, by feeding the birds, or the insects, or enriching the soil, then we can see why the fruit is given.

It is only in relation to the entire forest, no, to the entire planet, that the sensibility and purpose of a tree can be seen.

And once again, I think of myself.

And you.

And I thank you.

For giving me relation, someone with whom I can worthily interact, with whom I can exist, and through whom my life can make a semblance of sense and purpose.

As the particles that make up the atom have no existence on their own, our own existence is, too, negligible without those with whom we share it.

And as the fruit of the tree makes no sense when taken out of the full context of the forest, so too do our fruits make little sense when taken solely on their own.

Our relationship is love, the first fruit of which was our friendship.   That friendship grew into the tree of our union, producing the fruit of our marriage, and more.  And it's not that I have no other relationships than you, it's just that yours is the most important.

And now, dear Reader, I thank you, too.

Thank you for making my life richer, more meaningful, and more solid, by giving me a stronger relation with the world around me.  Thank you for helping this tree grow, watered with love and given the light of prayers.

And all this from a simple atom.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The "Gay Marriage" Issue

OK.  This is to show that I am not afraid of tackling the "big issues".  But also, I must remind you, dear Reader, that this is only my own opinion, and is not in any way trying to be an authoritative perspective.  I do, as usual, draw upon the Baha'i Writings, but make no claims to being "correct".

The reason I am addressing this topic is because it was a question.  The question itself was, "How do you feel about gay marriages?"

This is a very interesting question, and what I'd like to address is the complexity of the question itself, because that often seems to be overlooked.

In our society, and here I am speaking about Canada in particular, there are actually two marriages in one, both using the same term.  One is the legal institution of marriage, along with its ramifications, such as the impact on taxes and insurance.  The other is the religious marriage, conducted through the institutions of the faith involved.  This topic gets confusing for many of us because the same word is used to describe both.

In regards to the first issue, that of the legal definition of marriage, I am not concerned one way or the other.  We can call it a marriage, or a legal union, or anything else the law decides.  This is purely up to the lawmakers, and in some cases the voters, who decide on the law.  The legal benefits that come with this are, again, up to the lawmakers, and I support them in whichever way they decide.

Here I have to add an aside.  I believe that it is very important to support the government in all its decisions.  This is also true for decisions of the institutions of the Faith.

Why should we support the decisions?  I believe the Master said it best:  Though one of the parties may be in the right and they disagree that will be the cause of a thousand wrongs, but if they agree and both parties are in the wrong, as it is in unity the truth will be revealed and the wrong made right.

So, to me, it doesn't really matter whether a decision is good or bad, I will support it.  After all, I may disagree with it, but that doesn't mean I am right.  Or I may agree with it, and it may be a very bad decision.  But through the support of all involved, we will soon learn if it is a bad decision.

Aside done, for now.

Where was I?   Oh yes, the government making a law.

As far as the law goes, I am happy one way or the other.  Whatever they decide is the legal definition, and benefits, of what they call 'marriage', I support it.

Now, what about the religious institution of marriage?

That is a different matter entirely.

If someone is a follower of a faith path, regardless of which one it is, I firmly believe that they should be obedient to its laws and institutions.  If they adamantly disagree with it, then they should ask themselves why they are following it.

That being said, if a religion supports gay marriages, fine.  If not, fine.  I'm not certain why it is an issue.  If someone really disagrees with their faith's stance on an issue, change your mind or change your faith.

If it leads to persecution, however, one way or the other, then there is a concern.

I have seen too many friends of mine, who are homosexual, persecuted because someone else believes that being gay is wrong.  On the other hand, I have seen some other friends of mine who are ridiculed or abused by gay people because their faith disagrees with homosexuality, even if they themselves never said a word about it.  Which side is right?  As long as they are trying to impose their beliefs upon others, both are wrong.

This is one of the things I love about the Baha'i Faith: its laws are for Baha'is.

Although I strongly dislike alcohol, and even forbid it in my home, I will not condemn someone else for drinking.  They are not welcome in my home when they are drunk, nor are they allowed to have a drink in my home, but that is my personal decision.  If I am at their home for dinner, and they offer me a glass of wine, I will thank them for the kind offer and turn it down.  I would never for a moment think that they are wrong for having a drink.  It is, after all, their decision.

If two people wish to have a homosexual union, and their faith permits it, there is nothing that I would say against it.

The real issue here, as far as I am concerned, is what it means to be a follower of a faith.  The key word there is 'follower', as opposed to 'leader'.  If you truly believe that the faith you follow is from God and divinely inspired, how can you question it?  If you do, then doesn't that mean that you think you know more than God?  Hmm.  I think I see a problem there.

Of course, there are some faiths that allow for discussion on these issues, and the laws change with the times.  In that case, there is a clear forum for this discussion, and that is wonderful.

Oh, and questioning to better understand is also always a good thing.

But if you believe that you have to be a member of a particular faith, and you want everyone else to conform to your own understanding, then it could lead to trouble.

But that's just my opinion.  Who knows, I may be wrong.


I love my neighbours.  I really do.  Although, at times, like earlier today, when I'm trying to write and the doorbell is ringing off the hook (oops, a mixed metaphor), they can be a bit trying.  But still, I do love them.

This has gotten me thinking these days about the importance of neighbourhoods and neighbours.  As you know, there has been a wonderful move within the Faith during this Plan to focus more and more on both.  The learning has shown that when you work closest to where you live, you tend to be most effective.

Of course, this does not override the need for pioneers, or the importance of pioneering.  It is, quite possibly, more important to be a bit less effective in an area that needs you more.  In fact, the rewards and benefits for pioneering are nothing to be sneered at.  The Guardian went on at length about the extreme need for Pioneers during the Ten-Year World Crusade, and even went so far as to name the first pioneers in an area as Knights of Baha'u'llah.

Also, when pioneering, you still have to live somewhere, and can teach in that neighbourhood, so it still works.

But I don't feel like writing about pioneers today.  Today my thoughts are in my own neighbourhood.

And for some reason, I'm also thinking about the Letters of the Living.

It occurred to me the other day that the Bab sent His Letters back to their home areas to teach.  In the Dawn-Breakers, it says, "To each He assigned his own native province as the field of his labours."

As I read the stories from all over the world about the successes in teaching, it seems to me that we all really are like those "heroes of God", bringing the first light of Dawn to the waiting masses.  And those masses are our neighbours.  So there really is something to be said about the importance of teaching in your home area.  Even the Bab, right at the beginning, used that technique.

As I look over the guidance from the World Centre, the guidance seems so simple and clear: Get to know your neighbours.  When you do, see which core activities will naturally fit best into your neighbourhood.  Begin them to the limit of your resources, and see how they develop.  While you're at it, don't forget to talk directly about Baha'u'llah and Who He is.

I remember some very dear friends who, a few years ago, decided to go to every door in their neighbourhood to invite people to their children's class.  They made the invitation to everyone who answered their doors and, in the end, had a few children attend.

At a Feast in which they shared this "radical" method of getting children to attend, their efforts were dismissed by some of the friends as not suitable for most of us.  One person even said, "Well, it's easy for some people to go door-to-door."  They didn't understand the pain and difficulty faced by these two dear souls who were terrified to try this.  But, fortunately, these two angels of Baha were not daunted.  They kept at it.

Later, when they reflected on their efforts, they realized that most of their neighbours were elderly, or at least had children who were already grown up.  My friends commented that it seemed like a lot of effort for little return.  Oh, they were glad they did it, and felt they learned a lot, but were raising an excellent question.

One thing they learned was this: by only offering children's classes, they missed a great opportunity to begin a devotional gathering and invite people to that.  They agreed in retrospect that their neighbourhood would have been better served with this other core activity (which has been on-going for a few years as of this writing).

Now when they go out to invite their neighbours, they talk with them first and get to know them.  After a few minutes (it really doesn't take all that long to get to know someone) they are more aware of which core activity would suit the needs of their new friend.

Hey!  Wait a second.  Doesn't the Guardian allude to this in The Advent of Divine Justice?

Having on his own initiative, and undaunted by any hindrances with which either friend or foe may, unwittingly or deliberately, obstruct his path, resolved to arise and respond to the call of teaching, let him carefully consider every avenue of approach which he might utilize in his personal attempts to capture the attention, maintain the interest, and deepen the faith, of those whom he seeks to bring into the fold of his Faith. Let him survey the possibilities which the particular circumstances in which he lives offer him, evaluate their advantages, and proceed intelligently and systematically to utilize them for the achievement of the object he has in mind.

Wow!  He even addressed the "hindrances" that the friends may inadvertantly put in our way.

So, by simply knocking on the door, they were "capturing the attention".  The conversation, in which they were getting to know their neighbours, was a form of "maintaining the interest".  By listening closely to them, hearing their concerns and then considering which core activity was best suited to their interests, they were "carefully considering every avenue of approach" and "surveying the possibilities" of the different core activities, while at the same time "evaluating their advantages".  Then they "proceeded intelligently and systematically" to invite them to a core activity suited to their particular needs.  They were "deepening the faith" of their neighbours.

Hmm.  It seems like a plan is afoot.

And come to think of it, just a few pages earlier, there is this stirring passage:

Those who participate in such a campaign... must... thoroughly familiarize themselves with the various aspects of the history and teachings of their Faith. In their efforts to achieve this purpose they must study for themselves, conscientiously and painstakingly, the literature of their Faith, delve into its teachings, assimilate its laws and principles, ponder its admonitions, tenets and purposes, commit to memory certain of its exhortations and prayers, master the essentials of its administration, and keep abreast of its current affairs and latest developments... They must devote special attention to the investigation of those institutions and circumstances that are directly connected with the origin and birth of their Faith, with the station claimed by its Forerunner, and with the laws revealed by its Author.

Having acquired, in their essentials, these prerequisites of success in the teaching field, they must, whenever they contemplate undertaking any specific mission in... endeavor, whenever feasible, to acquire a certain proficiency in the languages spoken by the inhabitants... and a knowledge of their customs, habits, and outlook.

Why do I hear echoes of Anna's presentation in this first paragraph?  And the need to know our neighbours, echoed in the second?

But this all leads to my real question, one that has been asked by so many friends: What is a neighbourhood?

I tried using my macro-micro approach by looking at the definition of a cluster: Among the factors that determine the boundaries of a cluster are culture, language, patterns of transport, infrastructure, and the social and economic life of the inhabitants.

But really, that seemed too complicated for my simple mind.  So, instead, I watched my own neighbourhood.  How did I know where its boundaries ended?

Come to think of it, how did I know the boundaries of a nieghbourhood in another cluster I visited?

Simple.  I watched the children.

Today, I think of a neighbourhood as a place where the children will walk.

And then, when I want to begin teaching, I see where they hang out.  Chances are that the parents will be there, too.

The children are usually interested in joining the group (I don't often refer to them as classes, for that gives the impression of a sit-down thing in which you have to learn at a desk), and the parents love the idea of the morality described when I speak of these groups.  They often want to attend and make sure it's all ok, which gives me the greater opportunity of speaking with them directly about the Source of these classes.  They are then interested in groups for their young teens (which we confuse them by calling them junior youth, as if anyone other than a Baha'i knows what that means yet), and study circles for themselves.  Oh, and someone eventually asks for a devotional gathering, usually one of the children.  It's so beautiful.  Before you know it, your neighbourhood has been transformed.

And the next thing you know, there are a dozen kids in the park playing Dawn-Breakers and fighting over who gets to be Mulla Husayn and who is Quddus.

Ah well, some things never change.

Friday, November 20, 2009


"Can you talk some more about virtues?"

Such a simple question, how could I not respond to it?

There are really only two things I want to share about them, as so much is written elsewhere.  Why should I repeat what others have said so beautifully?  If you want definitions, lists, and projects that are virtues-based, I can highly recommend the Virtues Project website.

But that is not what I'm going to write about today.  Today, I'm going to offer two different points.

The first is that I believe the virtues are attributes of God to which we can all aspire.  Perhaps aspire is the wrong word.  What we really want to do is develop them within ourselves, make them stronger.

Another way of putting it is that if God is the All-Bountiful, we can show some bounty.  If He is the All-Powerful, then we have some power in order to accomplish good things in our life.  Whatever God is in the capital, we are in the lower-case.

I believe that a good starting point is to see where the different attributes of God are mentioned in the Sacred Texts.  As you know, I believe that every single word in Sacred Text is exactly what it should be, and where it should be.  Given that, it seems to me that  every time we see an attribute of God in Sacred Text, this is an indication of what we should cultivate within ourselves to better understand the Text in question.

For example, when we read the Tablet of Ahmad, we know from history that Ahmad regarded it as a teaching Tablet; one that told him to go and teach.  Therefore, given this hypothesis, when we read the opening attributes of God, it seems we should be able to learn something about teaching.

It opens with "He is the King, the All-Knowing, the Wise".  Why?  If God is the King, then we are noble.  The nobility are the "lower-case" version of the King.  In order to teach effectively, we must recognize our own nobility and strive to be worthy of so great an honour, that of teaching.  We also need to acknowledge and honour the nobility in the people with whom we hope to share the Message.

We also need to teach with knowledge and wisdom.

It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that in the long healing prayer, the phrase "the Abiding" is repeated twice in the refrain, for isn't that the attribute we most need to develop when we are asking for healing?

As an aside, I recall once going to a Bible study that was held just before an interfaith prayer gathering.  In this study, the youth minister was talking about his understanding of Corinthians 7:24, in which we are told to "abide with God".  He spoke so beautifully about how wonderful it is to live with God in our lives, and how blessed we are for being able to know anything about our Creator.  He went on in this manner for the whole time, and then asked if there were any questions.

As I had a question, I raised my hand.  My friend, who brought me, looked embarrassed and shrank down in his seat.  (I really can't imagine why.)

The minister, not seeing anyone else with a question, called on me.

"What," I asked, "does 'abide' mean?"  I really didn't know.

This poor man looked stunned.  He didn't know either.

"Doesn't it mean to 'live in'?"  He wasn't entirely sure of the answer, but thought that might be it, as that is what he spoke about in his talk.

"I'm not sure," I replied, "but I think that is 'abode'.  'Abide' might mean something else."

Someone else in the room had a dictionary, and offered the definition.  "It means 'to remain with, in times of great difficulty'."

Now I was embarrassed, for this seemed to go against everything he had said.  But really, is it all that easy to be "with God" in our life?  Didn't Muhammad say, "Think because you say you believe, you will not be tested?"

It is when we are ill, and in need of healing, that we must abide with God, for He, truly, knows what is best.  Of course, it is not always what we want, nor is it easy, but it is what it is.

And it is when we abide, while doing all we can to attain health, that we stand the best chance of recovery.

The very attributes that we call God in a prayer are those we must learn to develop in ourselves to have the best chance at having the prayer answered.

But what about the second point?  It is this: virtues on their own are not good things.

It may sound odd to say that, but think about it.  Patience is a virtue, right?  Sure, but a good thief is patient.  And steadfastness is a virtue, but the Nazis were steadfast.

I cannot think of a single virtue that is a good thing all on its own.

Baha'u'llah, after all, says, "Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence".  Virtues, I feel, fall into this category.

Actually, it's not that the virtue itself is a bad thing, it's just that there are other virtues that are missing.

We must learn to use the virtues together in order for them be good.  Each one moderates or enhances the others.  That thief is patient, but not trustworthy.  The Nazis were steadfast, but lacking in love and compassion.

When we can identify how the virtues interact with each other, then we are in a far better position to learn how to develop them in our own life.  Susanne Alexander speaks beautifully about this in her book, Pure Gold.  I think that book is worth its weight in, well, pure gold.

Look at that thief again, for a moment.  If we can assist them to develop their sense of trustworthiness, and aid them to become more truthful, will they not become a great member of society?  Isn't that the true purpose of our prison system?  Just imagine if we were conciously trying to assist people to develop those virtues that are most necessary to aiding them to become greater contributors towards a healthy society. By identifying those virtues that strong within someone, and then helping them to develop those that would moderate it and allow it to become a better thing, that, it seems to me, is a worthy purpose of our life.  It would truly aid in "carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization".

And isn't that what we do when we help teach someone the Faith?  Allow them to put their own strengths into the context of a world civilization?

Just a thought.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Short Piece About Marriage and the Valleys

My wife and I spend a lot of time talking about the Writings, specifically how they apply to marriages and life.  We figure if something doesn't apply, what good is it?   And since we know the Faith is good, we know it must be able to apply in all areas.

Sometimes we have a bit of difficulty figuring out an application of a specific verse, but that is what makes it all the more fun.

That being said, we were talking about The Seven Valleys last night, and she told me that I had to write down what I said here in this blog.  So here goes nothing.  The italics, by the way, are excerpted pieces from this wonderous work of the Blessed Beauty.

I suggested that the list of the seven valleys could be seen like an outline of a healthy relationship.

You begin in the Valley of Search by searching for a partner.  You look everywhere, while riding that steed of patience.  You should never be downheartedNo counsel will deter you as you seek that eternal partner.  You will witness a world of desiring ones searching, but never give up, for you seek her/him everywhere.  Haply somewhere you will find her/him.

Labor is neededArdor is neededAnd if you taste of this cup, you will cast away all else.

And if, by the grace of God, you find your partner, you straightway step into the Valley of Love.  Everything is wonderful and blissful.  You are no longer aware of yourself, for the fire of love is ablaze; and when the fire of love is ablaze, it burneth to ashes the harvest of reason.

You have no thought except for that of your beloved.  Everything is tinted with that rose of love.  You are not even aware of the steed of pain.

When you finally escape that dream-like state, and are free from the claws of the eagle of love, then you get to the Valley of Knowledge.  You begin to know the other person and that beautiful heady rose starts to lose some of its petals.  The rose is growing, evolving into the fruit of the flower: the rosehip.  You have successfully shut the doors of vain imaginings, and begin to better see your lover for who they really are.

Hopefully by now you are married and well into the Valley of Unity, drinking from that cup of the Absolute, and gazing on the Manifestation of Oneness.  Your lives become more intertwined as you learn to become interdependant with each other, sharing your strengths, helping each other grow where they are weak.

It would be so easy to go on and on, comparing your lover to a lower-case version of the Lover described in this Book, but I will let you read this for yourself and see it with your own eyes.  While we all know that God is the true Lover referred to in this Work, the concept of macro/micro still works, and we can see an analogy here for our partner.

To continue this journey, you enter the Valley of Contentment, satisfied with your life.  You are no longer  burning with desire.  Your sorrow has been turned into bliss, and your anguish to joy.  You are living a life of delight and rapture.  Although you may dwell upon the dust, you feel as if you are throned in the heights of mystic meaning.  Life is truly wonderful.

You have entered the Valley of Wonderment.  Every moment your sense of wonder grows.  Every line of this Valley abounds with a new meaning, each metaphor is filled with hidden depths as you contemplate your life, your partner, and your family.   In sum, there is no end to the description of these stages.  To try and even capture some of this makes my pen groan and the ink shed tears.

And then your children enter college and you move into the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Tree of Faith

"Regard thou faith as a tree. Its fruits, leaves, boughs and branches are, and have ever been, trustworthiness, truthfulness, uprightness and forbearance."

I was sitting alone in a coffee shop reading the compilation on "Trustworthiness". Why that compilation? It had occurred to me earlier that week that the Universal House of Justice always seems to know what we need well before we do.

Every time a compilation is released, there is a delay of about 10 years before we realize that we need to study it.  I mean, we dutifully study them when they are released, but we don't always know why.  It always seems to be about 10 years later, after the light of experience illumines our needs, that we begin to get a small glimmering of why a particular compilation is so useful.

Of course, I'm only talking about myself.  I'm sure there are many others out there who get a great deal out of these studies the day these compilations are released, but for me, with my horizontal learning curve, it takes about 10 years.

So there I was, looking through my library, going through all the compilations when I noticed something odd.  The compilations on the Local Spiritual Assembly, Marriage, Family Life, Consultation: these all made sense.  I could see why they were useful.  But then I noticed Trustworthiness there amidst them all.

"Trustworthiness?  Why do we need a compilation on trustworthiness?"

I checked the date, and sure enough it had been released about 10 years earlier.

With this in mind, I went out to a coffee shop and began reading.

And stopped.

I stopped at the second quote, the one quoted above, unable to go on.  What did this quote mean?  I knew there was something there that I was missing, so I was determined to investigate it and learn a bit more about this quote that had stopped me in my tracks.

As you may have guessed, dear Reader, I am a very simple person.  I like things that are simple and easy to understand.

Naturally, when I read that quote, I automatically saw two columns: one listing the parts of a tree, the other listing virtues.  And when I see two lists (1, 2, 3, 4) and (a, b, c, d), I immediately link them as "1 is a, 2 is b, 3 is c, and 4 is d".  With that in mind, I ended up with:

Fruits - Trustworthiness
Leaves - Truthfulness
Boughs - Uprightness
Branches - Forbearance

I then brought this quote to the next table over where some friends of mine who were homeless were enjoying a cup of coffee, and I asked them what they thought.  The following is the result of 2 hours of conversation with 6, or so, friends.  The youngest, Liz was 14, and the oldest, whose name I cannot recall, was about 80.  It was a conversation that will stick with me for the rest of my life, and probably beyond.

We all agreed that the above list was probably a good starting point for analysis.  With that in mind, we took them one at a time.

"What", I asked the group, "is the purpose of the fruit of a tree?"  It is refreshing, nutritious, and contains the seed of the next tree.  This seed, of course, produces a tree somewhere other than where the tree itself is.

And then Liz added, "And a tree that bears no fruit is only fit for the fire."

At which point someone else added, "Hey, that's right.  It doesn't mean it's useless, though.  It has one final use: to produce warmth and heat and light."

From there we all spoke about how rare it is to find someone who is really trustworthy.  It is, like the fruit, refreshing and makes you feel real good.  And if your faith does not lead you to be trustworthy, how good is your faith?  Please note that this is not the same as questioning your degree of faith, but rather asking a qualitative question of how good that faith acually is.  If you met someone who professed to be of a faith, but they were not trustworthy, would you want to investigate that faith?  After all, its fruit is not showing itself to be all that good.

But to find someone who is trustworthy, and who follows a faith path?  This makes you more likely to investigate that path.  It is, quite literally, the seed that can be planted.  All that is needed is the light and water: the light of Divine Guidance and the Waters of Certitiude.

The leaves of this tree of faith were then likened to truthfulness.

What is the purpose of a leaf on a tree?  It draws down the energy from the sun and converts it into a food that the plant can use.  You can often tell where in the cycle of the seasons a tree is by looking at its leaves.  They go from being simple buds in the spring to full leaves in the summer.  They then begin  to change appearance, usually colour, in the autumn, to falling off in the winter.

There is an old Aboriginal teaching which says "A tree that loses all its leaves in the winter will not come back in the spring."  I've checked in my own neighbourhood, and it seems to be true.  Every tree I've seen that has no leaves at all in the winter is dead.  It doesn't come back.

We must be cautious, however, to not compare this personal faith described in the quote to a general world faith.  If a Christian or a Hindu, for example, has lost all the leaves of their personal faith, this does not mean that the global faith of Christianity or Hinduism has lost its power or effect.  Remember the article about One Common Faith, in which I quote that document about reaffirming the validity of all faiths.

But what is truthfulness?  We spoke for a long time about that one question until it was summed up as follows:  Truthfulness is that which conforms to reality, which is not quite the same as honesty, which is that which you believe.  If you believed, for example, that I was 40 and told someone I was 40, then you would be honest, but not truthful.  If you believed I was 40 and, as a joke, told someone I was 42, then you would be truthful, but not honest.  If you took that time to ask me, and I was honest, then you would learn that I am 42, and could tell someone so.  Then you would be truthful and honest.

So how does a leaf of truth fall away?  The simple answer seemed to be when an understanding of faith is in contradiction to visible reality.  For example, for some people it was an article of faith that the earth was the centre of the universe.  This is obviously contradicting visible reality.  That leaf fell away.

If enough leaves fall away, then the tree of personal faith eventually passes away.

But really, are the leaves falling away?  In fact, they were never really truth, just a mistaken belief, and therefore not a leaf at all.  Perhaps the real answer lies in the manner in which the individual can perceive reality around them.  Their expression of these truths are a way in which others can see them, and thereby understand where in the cycle of seasons that tree is.  You see, the leaves are not determined by the individual at all, but rather by their religion.  Their ability to understand and accept the truths found in their religion are the actual leaves of their personal tree of faith.

When your faith leads to a greater understanding of the world around you, and this is fully supported by experience, then your tree becomes healthier and stronger.

The third part of this analogy was the bough of the tree being likened to uprightness.

The bough is the main branch of the tree, that thickest branch from which all  the smaller branches branch.  Uprightness means adhering to the law.

If the bough is weak, someone said, then it cannot support the rest of the tree, and it will die.

"Or," said Liz, "it means that the tree is young."  This statement came into play for a me a few years  later when a dear friend enrolled in the faith.  She was living with her boyfriend at the time, and was not in a position to move out.  The Assembly, that wise institution, recommended that she stay in that house, but try to bring her life more into conformity with the laws of the Faith.  They said that the laws were like the fruits of a tree, and that if they overburdened her with too heavy a law, it would probably kill the tree of her faith.

Anyways, this part of the conversation was very much intertwined with the discussion on the fourth part: the branches being likened to forbearance.

The branches are those parts of the tree that support the leaves and the fruits, while forbrearance means to patiently endure or maintain self-control when subject to annoyance.

If we lose our self-control when someone is annoying us, it doesn't really matter how trustworthy we are, they won't want to have anything to do with us.  If we are not patient with them, anything we say, whether or not it is the truth, will have no effect.  They won't want to listen to us.

And if we are in violation of the laws of our own faith, then our own self-judgement leads us to being impatient with others.  We become testy and irritable, and more judging of others.

Needless to say, these thoughts are not my own.  They are the result of a wonderful discussion with a group of dear friends upon a single quote in the Writings.  It didn't matter that none of them were Baha'i, except for me.  They had beautiful insights that taught me a lot about the Writings, and about my own spiritual growth.  It also brought them a bit closer to the Faith.

Come to think of it, it also helped me develop an even greater appreciation for the wisdom that could be found in people of all walks of life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


A few years ago there was, for some odd reason, an increase in the amount of backbiting in my community. We never did figure out what the reason was, but does it really matter? The fact was that there was a lot of hurt hearts and the Assembly, that blessed institution, acted swiftly and with confidence.

How did they act? Again, your perspicacity astounds me, dear Reader.

They began by collecting information, seeing who was being backbitten about (is that even a phrase?), where it seemed to stem from, looking at the Guidance, and so on. Let me assure you, however, that they did not bring anyone in to meet with them, nor send accusing letters, and they never once considered the "brute squad" (I just love The Princess Bride for wonderful reference points).

For the purposes of education and guidance, let's see what the Writings say about this horrid practice, and then I'll tell you what this wise institution did to help guide our community, guidance that was so rich I feel impelled to share it with you many years later.

First, and most important, in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Blessed Beauty not only condemns backbiting, he does so in the following manner:

Ye have been forbidden to commit murder or adultery, or to engage in backbiting or calumny; shun ye, then, what hath been prohibited in the holy Books and Tablets.

Why do I say this is such a high condemnation? You may recall that I do not believe anything in the Writings is accidental, and that every word is exactly what it needs to be. So why is backbiting put into the very same parasgraph as murder and adultery? And what, exactly, is calumny?

Once again, I need to make the standard disclaimer that this is, of course, only my own opinion, and not an authorized interpretation of the Writings. That being said, let's go on.

First, I think that if I were to write a list such as this, I would make it a crescendo, going from the least bad to the worst. It makes a dramatic sort of sense to me. But here, the Blessed Beauty seems to have put it in a reverse order.

Or has He?

Murder, I realized upon meditation of this verse, is the killing of an individual. Adultery is the murder of a family. Despite what we may think with our "modern values", doesn't that make adultery worse than murder?

So what about backbiting? And we still haven't addressed what calumny is.

Backbiting, from what I have seen, kills the bonds of trust within a community. It is a form of murder on one of the grandest scales.

And calumny? Well, backbiting is when you say things that are actually true. They may be hurtful, nasty, cruel and so on, but they are true. Calumny is when it is a deliberate lie. It has all the evil effects of backbiting, plus it's a deliberate lie, calculated to have these effects.

When we look further in the Writings, we find other mentions of backbiting, including the following:

Baha'u'llah tells us that "backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul."

The Master informs us that "backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw."

The Universal House of Justice even speaks about "the corrosive effects of backbiting".

I could go on and on, but really, isn't that enough?

Going back to my own community, the Assembly knew that the friends were aware of these quotes. So why, they asked, were they doing it? Obviously, because the friends weren't aware that what they were doing was backbiting. In their collective wisdom, the Assembly decided to act on the presumption that the friends were not aware of what they were doing, and therefore decided not to accuse anyone.

They chose, instead, to engage in a community-wide deepening on the definition and effects of backbiting.

And they chose the Feast as their forum.

I have to tell you, it was one of the most fun Feasts I have ever attended.  They had four people get up in front of the community and read a series of examples of possible situations to see if they constituted backbiting or not.

Now, my wife and I were asked to write those scenarios, and we had a blast doing it.  We put forth about ten that we knew absolutely were backbiting.  We had about six examples we knew for certain were not backbiting.  And we had a few that we were not sure about.

Then we went to the Feast.

Everyone agreed that the above-mentioned ten were backbiting.  They included things like telling your spouse about something bad regarding a friend, or spreading rumours at work about someone.  They were fairly obvious.

The six that we knew were not backbiting?  It turned out that a few of them were.  I can't recall them offhand, but upon consultation, some of the friends pointed out how those situations could be considered backbiting.

As for the ones we were not sure about, it turned out most of them were backbiting, too.

I wish that I had saved those examples, but I didn't.  Either way, it really made me re-think what I thought I knew (I think that makes sense) about backbiting.  Backbiting is a far broader thing than I had imagined.

One thing that was pointed out by someone at the Feast was to look at the effects of an action.  If the effects matched that of backbiting, chances are that it was backbiting.

This consultation also helped raise the awareness of backbiting within the community without inadvertantly condemning anyone, and solved the problem far more smoothly than anything I would have imagined possible.  Consultation is such a wonderful gift that we have in the community.

Oh, and just in case anyone reacted like I did with the statement in Ruhi Book 1, quoted again above, (you know, the one that says if you have backbitten, the light of your heart is quenched and the life of your soul is extinguished?), don't worry.  Baha'u'llah solves this problem for us (did you ever think otherwise?) in Unit 2 of Book 1: the one about prayer.

He tells us to:

Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men.

When you kindle something, it either increases the flame that is already there, or if there is no flame, ignites it.
So, me?  I just try to be more careful in the future not to backbite, even by accident, and at the same time, I say a lot more prayers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Art of Story-Telling

"What is the most exciting story in the history of the Faith?"

This was the question that hung in the air at the youth conference.  I had asked it of a group of youth around 14 years of age, and they were busy talking amongst themselves about it.  I could overhear a few snatches of their conversation as they quickly narowed it down to the early history of the Faith, before the Garden of Ridvan.  Shaykh Tabarsi was mentioned, followed swiftly by their final decision.

"The martyrdom of the Bab."  Once that tragic event was mentioned, there was no more discussion.  It was, without any doubt, the most dramatic story in the history of the Faith, as far as they were concerned.

"OK," I said.  "I'm going to begin telling you that story in the way I usually hear it told and I want you to shout out the word 'boring' when you are bored.  Here goes."

You may be wondering what I was doing at a youth conference asking such a question (or maybe not, but I'll tell you anyways).  It occurred to me that many of us love to tell the stories of the Faith, but have no, or very little, training in story-telling.  This was before Ruhi Book 4 was commonly available.  Of course, now that I think about it, many tutors don't spend a lot of time on the dynamics of story-telling when tutoring Book 4.  Having done some acting, and having had some training in techniques, I like to share them with the participants, and that was what I was doing there.  My goal was to assist them in better "maintaining the interest" of their audience, whether it was on stage or in a one-on-one teaching setting.

And so I began, "On July 9th, 1850, in the city of Tabriz..." was about as far as I got before the resounding boom of "BORING" echoed throughout the room.

I asked if everyone was familliar with the story, and they were.  "Please continue telling the story where it is left off, and when someone says 'boring', go on to the next person."

We made it around the room in about 2 minutes.  By this point, we were all convinced that we needed to learn something about drama.  After all, if this is the "most exciting story of the Faith", we might have a bit of a problem here.

Most of what I covered is actually found in the Ruhi books, at some point or another.  I spoke of the difference between the outline of the story and the details, making sure that it is told in such a manner that the listener doesn't get confused or lost.  I asked them what skills they felt were needed, and they brought up such points as speaking clearly and loudly, using common words instead of obscure ones.  Someone mentioned the need to explain names and titles, as they can get confusing.

In short, a lot of excellent points were made, and then one final one was added: tell the story from an interesting perspective.

This may be my own bias, but I generally find the objective, unbiased, historical narrator perspective quite boring.  From their reactions, it seemed they did, too.

"I would like to share this story with you," I said, "from a different perspective, one I've never heard before."

I changed my position in my chair, sitting cross-legged now, instead of with my legs in front.  I looked at each of them, directly in the eyes, and spoke in a softer tone.

"Do you remember Anis?  The young man who was martyred with the Bab?"  They all did, although they had not known his name.

"How old was he?"  They had never considered this before.

I pointed to one of the youth, whom I happened to know, and said, "He was about your age.  We're not exactly sure how old he was, but he was about your age.  Just imagine," I said directly to my young friend, "going through what he did."

They were interested.

They now had something they could focus on, right there in their presence, and they had no idea where I was going with the story.

"Try and imagine that day, hot and dusty, in July.  The night before, your Lord and Master selected you to accompany Him today, the day of His martyrdom."

Now they were riveted.

I described, simply and succinctly, being dragged from the prison cell by the rough guards, and placed there, before the multitudes, with the Bab.  I spoke briefly of the initial attempt on His life, and how, when the smoke cleared, Anis was still standing there, alone, probably wondering what had happened.

"Imagine the smoke clearing away.  You feel the Bab is no longer with you, the ropes have been shattered.  You look around," and this was accompanied by appropriate motions, "expecting to see Paradise, and find yourself still in the square by the barracks."

I talked about the panic amongst the people, the hurried search for the Bab, and how the militia refused to  fire again.  I mentioned how they found the Bab, brought Him back to the square, and got a new group of soldiers to carry out the execution orders.

"Now you are standing there, in front of 750 large men, older men, all of whom hate you."  I stood up, spoke with a snarl, my face showing the anger.  I raised my arms, as if sighting down a rifle, stared, again, at each of the youth.  I could see they were intimidated as I drove this point home.  "They are ready to kill you for daring to follow the Bab."

"And now they tie you up, again.  Your arms are tied tight.  It probably hurts, because they are not concerned about being careful.  They raise you up, and place your head upon the Bab's breast."

Here I stopped.  I fell back into my chair, my eyes closed.  I spoke in almost a whisper, a sense of wonder in my voice.

"Can you imagine this?  I can't.  This is truly beyond me."

I opened my eyes, tears brimming over, looking over my audience once more.

"Can you truly imagine what it must have been like?  There, at that moment, the culmination of His life?"  Every capitalized word was emphasized so that there would be no confusion about Whom I meant.  "This is what He wanted.  This is what He lived for: to offer up His life's blood in the path of His own Lord, Baha'u'llah.  And you, Anis, are supremely blessed to be there, at that moment, with your head on His chest, listening to His heartbeat.  Listening to His final heartbeat."

The room was silent.  And mine were not the only tears.

I believe that it is very important that we learn the arts, whether story-telling or music, dancing or painting, or any of the other myriad forms of art.  When we learn to convey the power and majesty of our own faith in such a manner that it touches the hearts of the listeners, and brings them closer to the Word of God, we may begin to see more people interested in hearing what it is that Baha'u'llah has offered humanity.

So, dear Reader, how will you convey the exciting stories of the Faith?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cultural relevance and Book 1

I love Ruhi Book 1.  I really do.

In fact, I really love all the Ruhi books.  They are so well laid out, with so much room for personal movement.

Today, someone asked an interesting question, which was if I thought they were culturally relevant to a particular group, which I won't name, because I don't think that's relevant.  After thinking about it, I said that I felt it was.  Perhaps not directly, but releveant in what we can learn from translating it internally.

"Internally?"  They were curious.

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I explained that when I tutor Book 1, there are almost always (at least for the last 5 years) participants who are not Baha'i.  By way of assisting them, I tell them to feel free to translate what they read, as it was written specifcally for new Baha'is from a Catholic background.

"One of the questions," I tell them, "asks if, as a Baha'i, you can do such and such.  Not a Baha'i?  Read it as if it asks you as a spiritual human being."

The question, of course, asks if it is permissable, as a Baha'i, to drink alcohol.  The answer is "no", but when you read it "as a spiritual human being, can you drink alcohol", the discussion is quite different.  The answer is 'yes', but then it opens up the discussion to that of the Laws of the Faith, and how they are only binding on Baha'is.  Of course, they are good laws for everyone, and we can speak about the dangers of alcoholism.  The discussion goes in a very different direction than it would if we were all Baha'i, and is quite rewarding.

One question is about whether or not it is permissable to confess your sins.  If you're not from a Catholic background, this is fairly immaterial.  The intention of the question, however, is still important.  Is it permissable for another person to forgive your transgressions for you?   Obviously no, and we look back at the quote about bringing yourself to account.

Most importantly, though, is when I encourage them to "translate" the phrase, "Baha'u'llah says".  "Use the phrase 'Jesus teaches' and see if it still holds true."  Of course, it does.

I call this the most important thing because by learning to translate the book in this manner, a few things seem to happen.  First, they are learning the very important art of listening to the intention behind what someone is saying, instead of merely the words, which can often be a block when dealing with people of different backgrounds.

Second, experience has shown that when they translate "Baha'u'llah says" to "Jesus teaches", they are making an equation between Them that is very healthy and, in fact, accurate.  One Christian participant said that she was surprised when she was listening to a sermon and, when the Priest said "Jesus teaches us", she translated it in her mind as "Baha'u'llah teaches us".  She nows sees the synonymity (is that a word?) between Them.

A friend of mine used to use the word "Creator" whenever he saw the word "God" in the book.  Was that ok?  Sure, why not?

Another participant would read "Buddha teaches us that" whenever she saw the words "Baha'u'llah says" or "'Abdu'l-Baha says".  Was that good?  Seems good to me.

It reminds me of a story of Hand of the Cause of God, Dr Muhajir, when he was asked about the natives in a particular area where he was living.  He said that they were naked and heavily tattooed.  "Well," someone asked, "what did you do? Did you tell them to put on clothes?"

 "No," was his response, "why should I? I didn't go there to tell them to put on clothes. I went there to tell them about Bahá'u'lláh."

This is how I view the study circles.  We are there to assist in them in developing their spiritual identity.  For some, this will entail them joining the Baha'i community.  For others, they will get a greater understanding of the teachings of the Blessed Beauty, and isn't that enough for them?

I think that when we trust in this process, allow the friends to develop as much they are able, and keep the vision of growth in mind, we will see more and more miracles occur.

I know that in some areas, there has been concern about "translating" the books so that they are culturally appropriate, but are we not then denying these friends from other cultures the opportunity to learn this internal translation process?  While there are exceptions, my own experience has been that they are quite rare.

For now, I use the books as they are, and encourage an open dialogue on what is there.   The rewards have been tremendous.

So, are they culturally relevant?  I think so.  At least, I believe helping bridge the gap between cultures is always relevant.

But that's only my own opinion.  Others are free to theirs, of course.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Show it to Me

"Show it to me in the Writings."

That was probably the most important phrase the woman who taught me the Faith ever taught me.  She told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I ever wondered about anything she said regarding the Faith, I was to ask her to "show it to me in the Writings".

Of course, this was so that I could "see through (my) own eyes and not those of others", but I didn't know that at the time.  I just figured it was some sort of standard Baha'i phrase.  Only later, when using it with Hands of the Cause or Counsellors or members of National Assemblies, did I realize otherwise.  (I blame it on my horizontal learning curve that I actually did that more than once.)

Despite the countless times in which I embarrassed myself by asking this question to those above-mentioned spiritual giants, and the nearly similar number of times in which they did show it to me, there are the occassional moments (possibly singular) in which we both learned something.

I remember one afternoon when a National Assembly was meeting, and I had the overwhelming bounty of enjoying lunch in the same lunchroom as them.  A friend and I were chatting about the arts and we both discovered our mutual admiration for the art of the tatoo.  Unbeknownst to us, a member of said Assembly over heard this, turned around, and lovingly informed us that tattoos were "forbidden in the Faith".

Before my brain engaged in gear, my mouth said, "Show it to me in the Writings."

Well, this poor, loving soul, may Baha'u'llah shower His belssings upon him, didn't know what to do.  Of course he couldn't show it to me right there in the lunchroom.  So, he did what anyone would have done: he asked another member of the National Assembly.

"Oh, yes," was the response, "I'm sure I saw it somewhere in the Writings."

Well, to cut to the chase, 5 members of this beloved institution all recalled seeing it "somewhere in the Writings".

Now, I didn't disagree with them, for I was sure they knew far more about the Writings than I did, but I really did want to see it for myself.  After that lunch, though, I didn't give it another thought.

Until a couple of weeks later when I received a letter apologizing about this misunderstanding.  They had looked.  And they had not found anything about tattoos, save a singular letter from the Master in which He responded to an individual who had the Greatest Name tattooed on their arm.  "Praise God," I believe was the response, "for you are the only one who will ever have that tattoo."  I am, of course, paraphrasing, but it was something along those lines.

Oh, and they also pointed out that there is a photo in the visitor's centre of the Temple in Wilmette of a woman with facial tattoos.  They spoke very lovingly of how tattoos are regarded as a cultural art form in many parts of the world, and when they maintain the dignity of the individual, are a wonderful art form.

They then encouraged me to continue to ask to see things in the Writings.

I love these institutions.  They really do show forth such love and wisdom.

But how does this apply in the interfaith arena?

In my previous posting, I spoke about seeing all things through the lens of Baha'u'llah's teachings, and how it applied to a teaching of Jesus.

What is that teaching, you ask?  Once again, O Reader, you have hit the nail on the head.

It is a phrase that is very common amongst many Christians, and one that I have wondered about for many years: "Turn the other cheek."

To me, this seems to say, "If someone slugs you, let him slug you again."  What does anyone learn?

Having learned my lesson in the Baha'i Faith, I asked someone who had used this in a sermon to show me the quote in the Bible.  And you know what?  It's not there.  Nowhere could we find the phrase "turn the other cheek".

What we found, and what he was referring to, was Matthew 5:39, in which we find "whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also".

Immediately I pointed out that Jesus is actually quite specific.  He does not say, "If someone slaps you, let him slap you again".  He specifcally says if they "slap you on your right cheek".

And we tried it.

My friend went to slap me on my cheek (only pretending, of course), and used his right hand to punch me on my left cheek.  Oops.  The left cheek?  Wait a moment.  Jesus said the right one, not the left.

My friend then went to use his left hand, but he wasn't left-handed.

All of a sudden this became intriguing to us.

To do as Jesus said, and maintain his right-handedness, he had to slap me backhandedly.  It was, to our understanding, no longer an act of anger, but an act of humiliation.  It was like the old knights slapping someone when challenging them to a duel.  Already by looking at the Text, our understanding had changed.

At this point we decided to switch roles.  What happened when he turned his left cheek to me?

Ostensibly nothing.

Except that if I were to strike again, I would get him square in the face.

All of a sudden, it seemed like a taunt.  "Come on, strike again.  I dare you."

I realized that whereas I might be willing to strike someone on the cheek, striking them square in the face was a very different matter.  A slap on the cheek might sting, but square in the face?  That could do some serious damage.

And there, we believed, was the true lesson.

With that simple action, turning the head just a bit and offering the aggressor the left cheek, they learned shame.  "Whoa," they might say, "I'm not willing to go that far."  A spiritual lesson is learned.

Of course, if they do strike, then everyone around them will chastise them.  "What are doing?  Leave him alone.  He didn't hurt you."  A spiritual lesson in collective security.

No matter which way the aggressor decides, a spiritual lesson is learned.

And that seems, to me, a lesson worthy of applying.

Of course, the very next line in the Bible is "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also."

This requires context, but simply put, it means you owe them money, and they're suing you for it.  Your shirt was probably your most valuable possession at that time, having been handmade, and you probably only had one.  By offering your cloak, too, you are forced to stand naked before your peers, or at least in your underwear.

Pretty humiliating.

And would your friends stand for that?  Probably not.  Again, it seems like the same lesson in another context.

By simply asking to see it in the Writings, I learned so much.

So, dear Reader, if I ever write anything completely off-the-wall, please remember to ask me: "Show it to me in the Writings."

Faith in Interfaith

It seems that most of my work within the Faith is without the Faith.

This does not mean that I am without Faith during most of my work (give me a break), but that it is spent outside the common boundaries of the Baha'i community.  You see, most of my time is spent in the interfaith arena.  But how, you ask, did this come about?  I'm glad you did.  You're very good, O Reader, at picking up these cues.

In my search for a faith path, I spent a lot of time searching many different paths and developed a love for them all.  While most would say, "We're right and everyone else is wrong," the Baha'i Writings said different.

Baha'u'llah, in His Most Holy Book, said, "Consort ye then with the followers of all religions".  This is in the same paragraph in which He "abolished the concept of 'uncleanness'", which was often an excuse for abuse in the name of religion, either of people or things.  In that same paragraph, He refers to God as "the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Generous", and "the Most Compassionate".

I believe it is worth noting here that I do not think anything in the Sacred Text is accidental.  I believe that every word is exactly what it needs to be.  If an attribute of God is in a particular place, it seems to me that Baha'u'llah is alluding to that same attribute within us for our edification, or perhaps to assist us in fulfilling what is called for in that place.  What I mean by this is that if God is the All-Knowing, and we are created in His image, then we can have some knowledge.  If God is the All-Wise, then we can have a bit of wisdom.  If He is the Most Generous, we can show some generosity.

Here, when we are told to "consort... with the followers of all religions", we could stand on an egotisitcal "I'm right" pedestal and see the reference to "the Ever-Forgiving" as an admonition to "forgive" those who are "wrong," but I suspect that is not what is intended.  I prefer to see it as a release from the guilt we may feel if we ever did avoid someone, or hurt someone, because we felt they were in some way unclean.  It is a reminder that God forgives us, and that He is Most Generous. We, in our turn, can also be generous to those who may have been abused for reasons of seeming "unclean", and we are reminded to be compassionate.

But in that particular quote, one word was unclear to me: consort.  What does it mean to consort with someone?  At first I had thought it meant to kind-of hang out with them in a sort-of friendship kind of way (as you can see, it was fairly distant and not clear to me).  But then I looked it up, and realized that the word is a bit more intimate than that.

While there are numerous definitions, when looking at them all they give a sense of closeness that I had not previously associated with the word.  I noticed that Prince Philip is Queen Elizabeth's consort: her husband.

This became my guiding principle in my interfaith work.  I was to be so close to the followers of other Faiths, truly united with them (I'm not talking about a physical intimacy but a spiritual one, sheesh) that it is as if their faith is my own.

Over the past few years, it has been summed up in my own mind as "I regard what you regard as sacred, because it is sacred to you."  When the Buddhist monk spins his prayer wheel, or the Aboriginal American elder smudges with the sacred smoke, this is the same, to me, as my recitation of the daily obligatory prayer revealed by the Blessed Beauty.  Prayer is prayer, and they all go to the same Creator.

Recently, a friend asked if this is what is meant by tolerance, and I had to laugh.  I pointed out that if my wife only "tolerated" me, it would be a pretty good definition of a living hell.  No.  The attributes of love, compassion, respect, honour, and so on and so forth, that I show my wife in our spiritual discussions are the same attributes that I need to show people of all faiths.

OK.  I think I have shown you a bit about how important interfaith work is to me, and how dear it is to my heart.

But what does it mean in practical terms?

First, I love to read and study the Sacred Texts of all faiths.  Second, I look at them through the lens of "Baha'u'llah's matchless utterance" and teachings.

If there is something that I find within Sacred Text that does not agree with Baha'u'llah's teachings, then I know that I have misunderstood what they say and need to go back and check it again. 

When some friends and I were studying that priceless book commissioned by the Universal House of Justice, One Common Faith, we ran across the following statement in the foreword about the principle of interfaith:  "Far from challenging the validity of any of the great revealed faiths, the principle has the capacity to ensure their continuing relevance."

Later, on page 39, when we read "even so influential a figure as Mohandas Gandhi proved unable to mobilize the spiritual power of Hinduism in support of his efforts to extinguish sectarian violence on the Indian subcontinent", someone made the comment that this showed that "Hinduism has lost its power and everyone should become Baha'i".  We sat up and all decided to go back to the foreword.

"The principle has the capacity to ensure" the "continuing relevance" of "the great revealed faiths".

We knew that we needed to go back and re-read that statement about Gandhi, for what we had done was try to dismiss the relevance of one of "the great revealed faiths".

And what we discovered was that what was said was that not that Hinduism was irrelevant, but that Gandhi was not able to mobilize its power, which was still relevant.  The reason was due to the many reasons stated earlier in the book about why faith seems to be losing its relevance in the heart of many people, and this was just another example.

Most of the people in that study came away with a far greater appreciation of the importance of other faiths.  And it showed me, yet again, the Baha'is Faith's overwhelming love and respect for all faiths.

I was going to finish with an analysis of a teaching of Jesus, to demonstrate the second point above, but I think I'll leave that for the next post.  For now, the day is beautiful and it's time to go out and enjoy the weather.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Question of Children and Curricula

This morning over breakfast I was reading about the development of the institute process and the Ruhi Institute.  There were so many things that they learned which I can now see as applicable in my own life, particularly when it comes to the idea of consultation, action, and reflection, and how these are not linear, but carried out parallel to one another.

Take this blog, for instance: although I am not writing these articles with any overall coherent scheme in mind, I do actually consult with others about topics.  So, consultation: check.  I write them.  Action: check.  I read all the e-mail that comes in about the articles, and talk with friends about them, sometimes editing them even after they are posted.  Reflection: check.

At times, someone will suggest a topic, while referring to a previous article, inadvertantly pointing out a probelm.  This prompts me to go back and edit it, improve it.  All at once: check.

Now, if I ever edit this for a book, I'll need to put some coherency into the order.

This morning, though, as I was pouring the cream in my tea (a rare occasion to be sure), watching it swirl around, slowly diffusing in the dark liquid, I thought about children's classes and a quote from Paul Lample.  "...The process of entry by troops could be secured only if the next generation of children received a Baha'i education."  I was thinking how this education diffuses throughout the community like the cream in the tea, permeating everything, leaving nothing untouched, effecting the whole of it.

Then I was thinking about the curriculum of the Ruhi Institute and how it was developed: through continual consultation, action and reflection.

Then I remembered an e-mail that came in last night, in which the author wished us a warm Holy Day, the Birth of Baha'u'llah, and she quoted a song she learned in a children's class as a child in the 60s.

What happened to that song?  What did we learn about curriculum development in those days (lo those many years ago)?  How have we improved upon it?

These are, of course, important questions which I am not in a position to answer, but as someone who has struggled with regular lessons for a children's class for over 4 years, they are very real to me.  40 years later, and I'm still trying to develop curriculum for these children as if in a vacuum.  I have very little to build upon.

Where are these lessons, and how can I learn from them?  Sure, there are some wonderful sites that bring up some of these questions, and share ideas, but even this raises more questions.

How well do we evaluate our children's classes?  How do we learn to improve our curriculum?

In the public school system, we use exams to guage our success in teaching, but does that work well?  Should we set up exams for our children's classes?  That doesn't seem too practical, nor does it actually measure much, except how well we take tests.

I'm not sure, but I think life itself is the exam.

For example, if we are teaching cleanliness in one of our classes, can we then see if the children are practicing it more in their life?  Are they helping clean up after class?  Can we ask their parents if they are keeping their rooms more clean?  And if not, doesn't that mean we should do the lesson again?

In school, we don't teach the children how to add for one lesson and then expect them to "get it".  We review it over and over, doing the same lesson many times, each with a slight variation, hoping that after multiple times they will begin to understand the concept.  It seems to me that we should do the same thing with these more valuable (valuabler?) lessons of moral and spiritual import.

I don't have a lot of answers in this posting, but as I state in the title, it's a question.

Now to find some tea that is still hot.