Sunday, January 31, 2010

Down on the Farm

I have often heard it said that teaching the faith is kind of like farming.  I suppose that this is only meant as a metaphor, and not some sort of comment on how impersonal it can be, for surely it must be personal.  Personal and intimate, for are you not sharing the Word of God with another soul?

But this analogy about farming: it really got me thinking.

Baha'u'llah, in the Kitab-i-Iqan, amongst many other places, refers to the "earth of men's hearts", and in Paris Talks, 'Abdu'l-Baha says that tests are like the tilling of that soil, allowing the seed of God's Faith to be planted more deeply.  "Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment." (Thanks, Ken, for the reference)

So what happens when those tests come if  there is no seed?  What happens when you plough the ground, but do not plant a crop within it?  As any farmer knows, the ground either grows even more weeds, or it gets very hard in the next rain.

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why we are told how little time there is to teach, and how we must hurry.  Those tests are now happening on an ever-increasing scale, with greater and greater frequency.  The earth of people's hearts are being ploughed to a degree we cannot even imagine, and if we fail to get those seeds in the ground, the weeds that shall grow may become quite strong.  Or else their hearts may end up hardening to the Word of God.

But let's go back to this analogy again for a moment.

How do we plant plants?  I know for myself, I usually get a small pot of soil, dig a tiny hole, and put a seed in it.  Then I carefully cover it up with more dirt, add water and fertilizer and wait.  Oh, and I am sure to continually give it the right mount of water, as well as putting in a good place for the amount of sun it may need.  Then I wait patiently, never trying to force it to grow faster.

Isn't this what we do with the Faith, too?  We gently plant the seed, continually add the Water of Life without overwatering it, and ensure that it gets the right amount of Sunlight through the Writings?  I mean, some plants require full sun while others need only partial sun, or even shade.  That is sort of like people.  Some can be taught directly, given the full splendour of the Sun in ever increasing doses, like the plant going from dawn to noon, while others are repelled by "religion" and need to be given only small doses.

I also plant tomatoes in the back yard, in the garden, and the same process works there, too.  Dig a small hole every foot or so, stick in a seed and water daily with the hose or a watering can.  Go through the garden occassionally and pull out those weeds, in the same way my friends and I share ideas and I help them see which ones are going to produce fruit, and which ones are only draining their energy.  (Oh, and they do the same with me, too.)

Yes, the process is the same, whether it is with one plant or a hundred.

But what if I was a farmer?  What if I had a thousand acres to plant?  Surely I couldn't go through that process for every individual plant.  First, it would take me halfway through the growing season to even dig enough holes to plant all those seeds.  Half the ground would be wasted, covered with weeds that would deplete the soil of much-needed nutrients, and that would make growing anything there next year more difficult.

If I tried to use my watering can, or a garden hose, on a thousand acres, most of the tender plants would die of thirst before I got to them.

Of course, if I wanted, I could hire enough people to come in and dig those small holes. I could also give them tons of watering cans, sending them out each morning to take care of a small area, but you can see how this would not be practical.

No, a new technique would be needed.

I would need to learn to systematically go through an area that has been ploughed, and carefully drop seeds every so often in the freshly tilled ground.  Then I would need to get a major watering system to deliver the water when and where it is needed.  Fertilizer would need to be spread all over the place in order to ensure that each seed got what it needed, even though it might mean that some got a bit too much.  But even that would be ok.  They would not suffer for it.

Some parts of the earth would also need to be used to plant stakes to hold the hoses and sprayers that deliver the water to areas further out.

Hmm.  This is beginning to sound like the Institute Process, to my ears.

When we identify a receptive population, we can presume that they are receptive because some test has occurred that ploughed the soil of their hearts.  They are ready, so we must go and deliver the seeds of the Faith to them, planting them carefully in their hearts.

If there are weeds, we have to lovingly remove them, carefully ensuring that they are, in fact weeds that are being removed, and not plants that are uesful.

Oh, time for an aside: I remember walking down the street one fine summer day, and there was this nice lady weeding her garden.  She had a huge pile of "weeds" that she was tossing out, and I asked her if I could have them.  I told her that they were mint, but she still thought they were weeds, so she gladly gave them to me, all the while thinking I was nuts.  I have never had so much delicious mint tea in my life.

Once the seeds have been planted, we need to regularly go and visit these friends, carefully tending to these seeds by adding the water of love and friendship.  We need to make sure they are continually receiving the right amount of light from the Writings, trusting that the seeds are growing, even though we cannot see any sign of growth above the ground yet.  We know that the seeds are germinating and will sprout, breaking ground when they are ready.

Aside number two: I remember when I was studying the Faith, there were a few times people came up to me and told me that I was a Baha'i, but just didn't know it yet.  "Really," I thought with full sarcasm, "I am?"  It would be months before I looked at the Faith again.  Why?  Because they were trying to take away my God-given right to free choice.  They may have thought I was Baha'i, but I didn't.  I was not a member of the Baha'i community, no matter what they presumed.  If you think of someone in this way, please don't do that to them.  It will only set up a barrier.  Perhaps they are a Baha'i, according to the Master's definition given in London (page 105, look it up), but they are not yet a member of the Baha'i community.  Please respect that.  Sorry, that's just a pet peeve of mine.

Where was I?  Oh yes.  Once the earth is showing signs of growth, we can choose a suitable area to set up the next extension for the hose that will deliver the water even further away.  Just like when we find someone within an area or population to help with the teaching work.  We know we can't do it all by ourselves.  We have to get help.  We know that a sprinkler will only spray the water so far, and we need to find ways to extend our reach.  The easiest way is to get another sprinkler to help.

So perhaps teaching is like farming.

Fortunately, we are not only growing tomatoes.  Different soils and light conditions will grow different plants.  We need to experiment and see what will work.  Monocultures also are not all that great, so we need a variety within an area, too.

In my garden out back, I regularly grow the three sisters - corn, beans that grow up the corn stalk, and squash that grow between the corn stalks.  Each gives something that the others need in terms of fertilizer, and they all taste great together at the end of the season.

Hey, that sound good.  Maybe I should make some Three Sisters Soup from what I harvested last autumn.  Mmmmmm.

You see, farming can be very rewarding, even though we often don't see any results for some time.  Just like teaching.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The New Guilt

This afternoon, while I was studying the Kitab-i-Iqan with my friend Samuel, he made a very interesting comment.  It really got me thinking.

He said, "I no longer feel guilty for doing something bad.  I feel guilty for not doing something good."

As you can imagine, my first thought (which probably says quite a bit about me) was that he now does bad things with impunity.  But, obviously, that is not what he meant.  He's too good a guy for that.

I think what he meant is actually a very profound statement on the focus of the Baha'i teachings.  This faith of ours is not a "thou shalt not" faith, but rather a faith of what we should do.  It is not a faith of inaction, but one that is all about action.

As Tahirih famously said to Vahid, while the young 'Abdu'l-Baha sat on her lap, "Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith, if thou art a man of true learning."  Or in the words of Baha'u'llah, "Let deeds, not words, be your adorning."

To start, though, let's look at the definition of guilt, as opposed to shame.  Why?  Because Baha'u'llah, in The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, says, "...there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame."  So whereas I do not think guilt really has that much of a place within the Faith (at least the way I practice it), I do believe that shame is quite important, as long as we have a reasonable understanding of what it means.

Guilt, I think, is an emotional response to something we have done, or not done, in the past.  Shame is what prevents us from doing something in the future.  Guilt is past tense, while shame is future tense.

Many faiths have used guilt as a tool to keep people from doing something, and it is quite effective, as guilt is often a source of paralysis.  However, it is always after the fact.  You have to done something in order to feel guilty about it.

Shame, however, is more effective as it prevents you from committing the act in the first place.

So what does this have to with Samuel's comment?

Our faith is one concerned with spiritual growth, as opposed to "salvation" (now there's a theme for another article).  There are numerous times in the Writings where we read that we should not be concerned about heaven as a reward, but instead focus on the love of God, or on spiritual growth.  'Abdu'l-Baha said it best: In the highest prayer, men pray only for the love of God, not because they fear Him or hell, or hope for bounty or heaven.

We pray because it is good for us to pray, not only because it is a law.  (Perhaps it is a law because it is good for us?)  When we don't pray, we tend to be more irritable, and things just don't quite "go our way".

We don't eat or drink during the fast because it is good for us to not do that.  But fasting is not about "not eating"; it is about fasting, an action in and of itself.

We give to charity because it is good for us to give to charity and exercise our generosity.  And when we don't give to charity, when we buy that extra shot of espresso in our latte instead of giving (as opposed to "in addition to giving"), then we feel guilty about it.

And that's what Samuel meant.

As Baha'is, we feel guilty if we don't say our obligatory prayer, or forget to read from the Writings every morning or evening, or neglect to smile to a small child.

Ours is a faith of love and progress: progress of the individual soul, and the continual advancement of society.  It is a faith in which our laws are not seen as limiting our ability to act, but rather as "the choice wine", leading us to a higher understanding of the world around us.

There is a beautiful line I once heard: For some, God uses His iron finger to carve His Law in stone so that they will see and remember.  For others, He touches their hearts with love and they can never forget.

And that is how I feel about our Faith.  Baha'u'llah has touched our hearts with His love, and we can never forget this.

Shame is, if I can call it that, the new guilt, for we act, and continually strive to act more in accord with His teachings.  And it is this sense of shame that prevents us from acting contrary to His advice.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dreams and Visions

Today, dear Reader, I want to share three dreams.  Why, I'm not sure, but it just feels right.  The first two involve the Temple.  The third does not.  The first was a proof to me of the power of dreams, the second a promise, an the third a lesson.

So why am I going to share these dreams? Because for me, they are important. After all, the Guardian reminds us that this is a religion, and "the Bahá'í Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character".

As you may know, I grew up within the "shadow of the Temple", just north of Chicago, Illinois.

Looking back on it, I now see it as kind of odd. I mean, as far back as I can remember, I knew of the Baha'i Temple. We all called it "God's orange juice squeezer" and felt we knew something about the Faith, despite knowing nothing of its teachings.

The Guardian, as you can imagine, was a bit more respectful. I have heard that he referred to it as a "lighthouse", illuminating the far corners of the North American continent, but I have not been able to find a reference to that. That image, though, of a lighthouse shining as a beacon, has stayed with me.

Why? Well, to start, the darkest part of a lighthouse is right at its base. This is how I view the Temple. I have often found it easier to introduce the Faith to someone who has never heard of it, for they have no pre-judgement about it (note how I avoid the word prejudice). Everyone around Chicago, though, knows the Temple, so it's never the first time they're hearing of it.

As I have mentioned in other posts, when I first became a Baha'i, I began working in the gardens of the Temple. That was a summer filled with hard physical work, and deep spiritual joy. It was a wonderful experience, only to be followed by the even greater joy of working on the Temple itself with the restoration crew. Of course, thinking that was as "high" as I could go, I was then asked to serve in the World Congress Office, and nothing has compared to that. Except for pilgrimage, and other services in the Faith, but I won't go into all that here.

When I was working in the gardens, there was a dear friend of mine who used to come over and visit me either on my lunch breaks, or just after I got off work. We used to sit in the gardens and talk for hours (well, less than an hour if it was during my lunch break). Usually, we would lie on the little hills of grass that bordered the gardens, under the cypress trees.

One day we were sitting there talking about the institution of marriage. You see, he was having marital problems at the time (all solved now), and I was not yet married. As I lay there listening to him talk, I fell asleep (not the usual response for me), or some may call it a trance.  We had been talking about the eternal nature of Baha'i marriages, and how we are with our partner through all the worlds of God.  The following question was bouncing around in my brain: What would I call my eternal consort in the next world?  A voice answered, as clear as a bell.  It answered with such startling clarity that it actually woke me up.  The answer was so real that I even wrote it down, as best I could.  What I wrote was "mahree-ell-oh-day".  It was not until many years later, after I met my wife, that I realized it was her name: Marielle Audet.  The reason I hadn't realized it earlier was that I had never heard someone pronounce her name with a French accent before that.

At the time, however, I was just very curious, as my fiancee's name was nothing like that.  Now, today it merely reaffirms my belief that my wife and I had very little to do with our getting together.  It also proved to me, although it does not constitute a proof for anyone else, the mystical power that can exist in dreams.

Another dream I had was a bit more mysterious.  It occurred just before the World Congress in 1992, during those few hours that I actually got any sleep.

I dreamed I was standing on Linden Avenue, in front of the Temple, watching a construction crew dismantling it.  A man was standing on a hook at the end of a giant crane, and was being lowered to the top of the dome.  He deftly put the hook through one of the panels and motioned for the crane to raise.  As it rose, the crane just tossed the piece aside, as if no longer needed.  While it was swinging away, another crane was coming in with the new piece, which was so much brighter than the previous one.  As it was being lowered into place, the next section was already coming out, and a new one going in.  Faster and faster this was happening, until the whole temple shone with such brightness that it woke me up.

What stuck with me upon waking was the realization that the pattern for our community was there, but that the reality was so much more than we imagined.  I knew that something was about to happen to reshape our conception of what the Faith looked like, and that this new reality would be so much more glorious than we had previously thought.

Today, as I look at the new vision of the Faith laid before us by the Universal House of Justice, and see these new people coming into the Faith under the influence of the training Institute, I feel that we are now begining to get a glimpse of that bright new Temple.  In fact, when the pattern of action laid out by the intensive programs of growth becomes the pattern of action for our community, we will tell our children and grandchildren about life before this Plan, and they will look at us and say, "What did you do with all your time?"  It will be like trying to imagine the community before clusters existed.

The third dream was quite different, but just as powerful to me.

A friend and I were driving across country when I suddenly fell asleep (no, this is not a usual occurrance).  Fortunately, she was driving.  Later, she said that it really freaked her out, as I was in the middle of a sentence and just suddenly was sound asleep.

I dreamed that I was standing on a grassy hilltop talking with the Ayatollah Khomeini.  He was very pleasant to talk with, and quite an interesting conversationalist.  At some point, he realized that I was a Baha'i and began to get angry.  As his anger grew, the sky darkened and the hill began to tremble.  A preternatural calm came over me, and this seemed to fuel his anger even more.  The angrier he grew, the darker the clouds, the more violent the shaking of the hill, the greater the calm in my heart, until finally it all broke.  The storm swept over us as the hill exploded in volcanic eruption.

I found myself merely fascinated by all this as the clouds slowly began to disperse.

The hill under us calmed again, as he struggled to catch his breath.  He seemed puzzled by the fact that I was unhurt.  As the grass began to quickly grow back, a little girl came up the hill and handed him a flower.

We both realized that she was a Baha'i, and his eyes grew wide with that understanding.

More Baha'i children came up the hill to hand him their flowers, until he practically overwhelmed with flowers.  Thousands upon thousands of these children were handing him their flowers, and we were amidst a sea of beautiful children, all smiling up at him with love.

By now he was openly weeping as he realized what he had been doing to these children and their families.  He fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands as the clouds began to rain, cleansing him of his pain and hatred.

That was when I suddenly snapped awake, only to discover it really had started raining.  To this day I can still feel that cleansing rain on my face from that dream, see the drops splashing on the windshield in front of me, and the wipers cleaning them off.

I was practically shaking from the intensity of that dream, and immediately told my friend what had just happened.

She merely said that it was spooky, and decided to turn on the radio as a distraction.

The news was coming on, and they announced that the Ayatollah Khomeini had just passed away in Iran.

Dreams and visions, as you know, are merely meant for the recipient.  I have only shared this last dream with a couple of people in my life, but now it just feels right to put it out there for you, dear Reader.  Perhaps given what is happening today in Iran, it might serve a reminder that we must pray not only for the release of the friends in prison who are suffering over there, but also for the poor souls of those who are inflicting the suffering.

And maybe, just maybe, this forgiveness needs to be part of the foundation for this new Temple that is being raised within the hearts of those in our community.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Suffering and Pain

"Why does God allow evil to exist?"

I was never all that sure that He did.

Actually, I'm serious.

I mean, let's look at it for a moment.  What is evil?  Generally we call anything evil that we don't like.  In the Writings, 'Abdu'l-Baha says that evil is the absence of good, just like darkness is the absence of light.  He gives the marvelous example of a scorpion:
...A scorpion is evil in relation to man; a serpent is evil in relation to man; but in relation to themselves they are not evil, for their poison is their weapon, and by their sting they defend themselves. But as the elements of their poison do not agree with our elements -- that is to say, as there is antagonism between these different elements, therefore, this antagonism is evil; but in reality as regards themselves they are good.

He goes on to point out that darkness is merely the absence of light, and cold is merely the absence of heat.  Evil, by the same token, is the absence of good.  And like the darkness disappears with the light, so the evil disappears in the face of the good.

Of course, this is not to say that it doesn't have an effect.  As anyone who lives towards the polar extremes knows, you can die from an absence of heat.  In fact, there is a definite absence of heat outside as I write, prompting me to wear a heavy sweater today.  And that leads me to another point: preparation.

There was a flood in the news a few years ago, and someone had lost their home.  "Why," she complained, "did God do this to me?"  Upon a bit of investigation, I noticed that her house was on a flood plain.  Although I was saddened by her plight, I had to ask myself, "Why did you build your house there?"

You see, dear Reader, I often find that most of the disasters that afflict me in my life are actually self-imposed.  Not all, of course, but quite a few.  A little bit of awareness, a touch of preparation, a modicum of foresight, and the "disaster" would only have been a minor inconvenience.

Take the recent earthquake in Haiti.  That was an absolute disaster by any standards, and it was only made worse by human folly.  When you live in an earthquake zone, you should build accordingly, just as a person living in a flood plain should build their home accordingly, too.  This is not to imply that I am blaming the Haitians for the disaster: far from it.  I'm not sure there is much that could actually withstand an earthquake of that magnitude.  But I believe that it could have been far less of a disaster if the buildings were built more for the earthquake-prone area in which they live.

And my heart does bleed for the friends living there.  My wife and I are even looking into adopting a child from there, if this is possible.

My comments about preparation are only for the future, not a judgement or an indictment about the past.  A tragedy has occurred, and we need to first help the people there, and then learn from what happened.

But back to the basic question of evil.  Perhap the real question is more along the lines of "Why is there suffering and pain?"

To that question, I can only answer that this is the way it is.  In fact, there is pain and suffering on all levels, and, in most cases, it is a sign of growth.

Baha'u'llah, in the Hidden Words, says "The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials."

What does this mean, and how does it apply to our life?  Well, let's look at the example of muscles and exercising.  When you work out, there is often some pain involved.  The old, "No pain, no gain" theory.

In fact, from what I understand, this is actually true.  The pain is caused by the fibers in your muscles ripping.  This, in turn, allows new muscles to "fill in the gap", thus giving you more muscle mass.  Of course, you can go too far and tear the muscle beyond the healthy point, so you do need to be careful.  If you want to get the most effect out of exercising, you must do it patiently, over an extended period of time, and within the bounds of reason.  There will be pain, and you just have to accept that.

I think Ruhiyyih Khanum said it best.  She once said that she didn't know the why of it, but she knew that when she suffered, she always came out of it stronger.

And that is how I feel.

Baha'u'llah, in that quote, seems to say that it is through these tests that we will recognize, if not even achieve, our true strength.

When I think of my relationship with my wife, that quote just rings true.  It is easy to love her when everything is going well (actually, it's always easy to love her, but just bear with me for a moment).  But when the tests come, that is when the true strength of our relationship is shown.

When the petals of the rose of love are blown away by the winds of tests, then the fruit of the rose can begin to grow.  (Hey, that's actually pretty poetic!  I should keep that one.)

The sign of our love is patience under tests.  Actually, the true sign of our love, to me, is the extreme patience she shows me.  And the true sign of our love for God is when we show patience and fortitude under the suffering.

We should not lay the blame at His feet, nor should we resignedly say that it is only God's will.  We should be aware of the world around us, and prepare for what is likely.  God gives us signs about how the world will act, and we must be responsible to take those signs seriously and prepare for the inevitable.

I live in a fairly cold climate and prepare by making sure I have long underwear in the winter, and a heavy coat.  I know that the basement of my house was designed to flood, as it was built for a coal burning furnace, and so I keep everything off the ground.  In fact, if I have anything that can be damaged by humidity, it doesn't even go in the basement.  To put it there would be sheer folly on my part.

And so, back to the original question: Why does evil exist?

I don't think it does.  It only appears to be evil in relation to ourselves, just as something seems cold in relation to the heat of our skin.

And we suffer so that we can be made stronger by it.

Well, time for me to get stronger by going outside in the blizzard again.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Virtues of Others

When being unjustly banished from Adrianople to Akka, Baha'u'llah noted, "the weeping of the people of the Son exceeded the weeping of others -- a sign for such as ponder".  The Christian's were weeping more than anyone else, and this, according to the Blessed Beauty, is "a sign for such as ponder".

Given the fact that pondering, and contemplating, is rated so higly in the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Book of Certitude, I have spent a lot of time wondering about this statement.  In most instances we are told to consider the past, ponder the significance of the stories we have seen of long ago, meditate upon them and see how they apply to our lives today.  In this case, we are asked to ponder a virtue shown by another community: the virtue of compassion.

This simple statement, "a sign for such as ponder", has made me really think about the virtues shown by other communities, for I believe that they all have developed at least one strength that is noble and worthy of consideration.

As all of the world religions have come from God, it seems to me that they each have something worthy of study.  For example, Islam has a lot to offer about learning to submit to the will of God.  Christianity has plenty to offer about the importance of recognizing a Messenger of God.  Judaism, in my opinion, has a lot to offer about the role of the family and how it integrates into a culture.  These are, of course, only simple examples, and not meant to be comprehensive.

Today, my family and I went across the street to the Laotian Buddhist temple to take part in a celebration wishing one of the monks farewell.  He is returning home to Laos, and will be sorely missed over here.  He has touched the hearts of many in the community.

Over the years that we have "consorted" with this beautiful community, we have learned many things, and not just some marvellous recipes.  We have learned of a tradition that is truly inspirational and gained a different perspective of remembering the souls of our dear ones in the next world.

When we go to the Temple across the way, it is the custom to bring some food for the monks.  The monks, you see, do not prepare their own food.  The community prepares the food for them.  They have a breakfast sometime around 6 am, and then they have a lunch at 11:30.  After that, they do not eat again until the next morning.

As you can imagine, I was very curious about this and wanted to know more.

It seems that the gift of food given to the monks is not just a gift of food, but is also symbolic in nature.  When you give them some food, they say a blessing over it, releasing the spirit of the food to the next world for your ancestors to eat.  The monks then eat of the physical food until they are full.  Again they say a blessing over the food that is left over (and there is always a huge amount left over) and return it to the community.  We all eat our fill and any left over food (and again there is always a huge amount remaining) goes to people who can use it.  It therefore becomes a marvelous form of charity.

This tradition, along with all the symbolism attached to it, has engendered a truly inspirational sense of generosity amongst this community, amd Marielle and I wanted to learn from it.

We spoke at length about the manner in which the Baha'i Feast was held in our community, and how there is always a search for people to host the social portion.  I recalled a few times, many years ago, in which a family or two were hosting it, and I brought a dish to share.  Although I was thanked, it felt as if I were intruding on their space.  Slowly I found myself no longer bringing the occasional dish.

After looking at the Buddhist community, and the way in which they openly shared everything they had, Marielle and I began bringing a dish to Feast without telling anyone (shhh, it's a secret).  We spoke with a few other Baha'is about our experience with the Buddhists, and they, too, began bringing an occasional dish or two.

I shared this with a few other people on the internet, and they introduced this idea to their communities.  Now, rather than finding a single host family for their Feast, everyone brings a dish or two.  The immediate result was a greater variety of good food each month, as well as more conversation about recipes and food ideas.  People started inviting each other over for dinner more often, and generally became closer friends.

A secondary result that they mentioned was a noticable increase in the Fund contributions.  It seemed that this was helping them become more generous.

Now, I won't say that the Buddhist community across the street is perfect, but I have seen what they have to offer.  And it is admirable.

But then, it came from a Manifestation of God, so what else would I expect?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Zoos

I just love visiting zoos.

Seriously.  Every time I visit a new city, I try and make time to go to the local zoo.  I grew up in Chicago and loved the Lincoln Park Zoo (by the lake), the Brookfield Zoo (in Brookfield, IL), and the Milwaukee Zoo (in Brookfield, WI).  When I was in Beijing, I went to the zoo.  London?  The zoo.  San Diego?  Absolutely.  I have lost count of the number of zoos I have visited.

And through them all, a few things really stand out.

The first is the need to care for the world around us.  I have seen animals in cages that were little more than a prison cell and could feel their depression.  There was just no comparison to those animals that were in full habitats, and fed healthy diets.

Long overdue aside number one:  I will never forget seeing the lions in the Beijing Zoo.  It was so sad.   Some of the exhibits were amazing, and the animals were thriving, but not the lions.  I guess they hadn't renovated that cage yet.  It was about the size of my living room, and the visitors were throwing things at them through the bars.  Also, right next to them, in another very small cage, was a family of beagles (yes, the dog).  The lions there were like a case study in depression.

When I went back to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, it was the total opposite.  They had recently renovated, and the lion was standing atop a rock formation roaring out his joy.  It was inspirational.

I find it wonderful that it was the Lincoln Park Zoo that showed this to me, for that is the zoo that 'Abdu'l-Baha visited when He was in North America.  He was eager to visit a zoo as He had never seen one before.  The friends warned Him that, since it was spring, the mother animals would hide their young as soon as a stranger came up, because they would be scared.  'Abdu'l-Baha was not concerned, and asked that the friends walk a bit behind Him.  As He visited each cage, the animal-mothers brought out their young to show Him.  As soon as the friends stepped forward, they would rush to hide their young again.  (Thanks Susan, for this story reference)

Even the animals could sense the absolute love and care the Master felt for all the world.

The second thing that stands out is the need to be aware of the senses of the animals.  This is why you don't knock on the glass of a fishtank: it really, really hurts the ears of the fish.  When people counsciously design habitats that are more sensitive to the animals' acute ears and noses, then I will be much happier.  (It was quite disconcerting seeing a tapir exhibit right across from the tiger exhibit at one zoo, as tapirs are the natural prey of the tiger.  The tapirs were visibly nervous, and the tigers were definitely watching them with intent.)

The reason this is so important to me is that I do not believe we are even aware of our own senses, but more on that in a moment.

The third thing that always stands out to me is the way in which different animals show different attributes of God.  We can learn so much from them, if only we are open to it.

When Shoghi was between 2 and 4, we would go to the zoo every week.  I would pick a virtue and describe it to him in terms that he could understand.  Then we talk about the virtue in relation to plants, while visiting the conservatory, and then to animals while visiting the zoo.  The zoo keepers also got in on this, asking us what the virtue was, and then telling us how they showed the virtue to the animals, or how the animals would show it.  We learned so much during this time.  It was truly wonderful.

But going back to the second point, I have another aside.  Amidst my numerous hobbies, I used to blend perfume for people.  I would smell their wrist, in order to know their scent, and then design a perfume based around it and their preferences.  One day, I was with a friend at the Tucson Zoo, in Arizona, and we were talking about the sense of smell.  We were talking about how vision is our primary sense as humans (unless you're blind), and I was explaining that a rhino's primary sense is smell.

My friend didn't quite understand.

"Look," I said, using a word all too appropriate for the conversation, "when you smell smoke, it is a sign that you should look for fire.  Right?  When a rhino sees fire, it is a sign that he should smell for smoke.  If you look at the difference between the eyes and the nose of a rhino, you will recognize that they have far more of their body invested in that sense.  When you watch them, you can actually see that they are building their perspective of the world around their nose.  If something catches his eye, he will turn and smell, whereas we do the reverse."

To further emphasize this, I pointed to a rhino who was quite far away from us.   "Here.  Watch this."

I took a small vial of attar of rose out of my backpack and quickly opened and closed it.  The wind was behind me, blowing right towards the rhino.

A moment after doing this, the rhino raised his head (it actually shot up rather quickly) and smelled right at me.  I won't say he looked right at me, for I'm sure that he wasn't.  He then walked all the way across the field and placed his head on the fence, as close to me (or the rose oil) as possible.  I could actually reach out and touch his horn.  It was so cool.

Both my friend and I were shocked as to how quickly the rhino reacted to this, but it sure made the point.

Now, just in case you think this is the end of the story, it isn't.  I happened to be at the San Diego Zoo a few days later.  The panda exhibit had just opened, and the two pandas were seperated by a wall.  My friends and I were standing in a Disney-type line, zigging and zagging back and forth slowly moving closer to them.  To pass the time, I told them the story of the rhino, and showed them the attar of rose.

They all smelled it and said it was nice.  "But there's no way we could smell that well."

"Of  course not," I agreed.  "But we can smell quite a bit better than we think.  For example, that panda on the left," I said, pointing to the animal in the distance, "is a female."

"How can you see that far?"

"I can't.  I can smell her.  She has a female scent."

"No way," they all said.  They were not prepared to believe me, so I asked them all to take a deep sniff.

The guys in the group both smiled, saying that the scent in the air was quite pleasant.  The women both said it smelled like rancid cat pee.  The gender bias did not escape them.  The men were attracted and the women repelled.

As we continued to move in the line, and were now downwind from the other panda, I asked them to sniff again.  This time it was reversed: the men winced and the women wanted to know how to bottle it.

Not only were they now convinced, but even those around us were sniffing to see if they could tell, too.  And they all could.

Later, as we were walking down Cat Canyon, one of my friends said that it was probably just a lucky guess on my part. After all, I had a 50% chance of being right.  I sighed and stopped in my tracks.  I closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply.

"Six cages up on the right," I said, "is a civet."

My friend looked puzzled.  "And what is a civet?"

I shrugged.  "A small cat.  They use the scent from its glands in perfumery."

Needless to say, six cages up on the right, was a civet.

Now that was a lucky guess.  I could clearly smell it (once you smell a civet, you never quite forget it, kind of like a skunk), but really had little idea how far away it was.  Six seemed about right, but I never mentioned that to them.

So why do I mention all this to you, dear Reader?  Because I think zoos do offer us a lot if we take the time to learn.  I also truly believe that we have far more potential within us then we even dream of.  The sense of smell is just a minor example.

I also believe that we can learn a lot about the virtues by interacting with animals.  After all, 'Abdu'l-Baha tells us the following:
...it (is) essential that ye show forth the utmost consideration to the animal, and that ye be even kinder to him than to your fellow man.  Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests.



Friday, January 22, 2010

Unit Convention

I have had a few people ask me, in recent weeks, about the Unit Convention and how it works.  Well, that's not quite true.  Some of the questions have been more on the order of how Baha'i elections work on the national or international level, and I just equate this with the Unit Convention.

You see, dear Reader, many of us understand how it works on the local level and are able to explain this to our friends, but we just don't quite get how it works beyond that.  As usual, I won't pretend that I have an accurate understanding, or claim to give an official representation.  I only offer my own perspective, and how I see it.

First, let me say that I believe it is of extreme importance that we understand how our administration functions to such a degree that we can explain it to the skeptic.  In a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, we read, "...moral issues which were clear a half century ago are now hopelessly confused and, what is more, thoroughly mixed up with battling political interests. That is why Bahá'ís must turn all their forces into the channel of building up the Bahá'í Cause and its administration. They can neither change nor help the world in any other way at present. If they become involved in the issues the governments of the world are struggling over, they will be lost. But if they build up the Bahá'í pattern they can offer it as a remedy when all else has failed."

What is this pattern?

I think one part of it is the way in which we elect our administrators.

As you know, we have no campaigning and no form of electioneering.  We can vote for any Baha'i over the age of 21, who is in good standing.  We cast our votes based on a few criteria of character: unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability and mature experience.  Recent guidance from the World Centre has added a few more to that list.  Those five comprise the qualities for our short list, but in a community of a few hundred, we will find dozens who fit the bill.  Once we have narrowed it down to those few dozen, then we should take into consideration such factors as age, gender, racial or cultural background, in order to ensure as wide a diversity as possible (we still only seem to ever have two genders represented).

Compiling this short list is not a task to be done in just a few minutes, or in an hour or two.  You may recall a previous post in which I spoke about spending months compiling this list.  Fortunately the criteria do not change from election to election.  They are always the same (which is why we often see Assembly members elected as delegates for the National Convention).

As the year progresses, I am always looking out for those charcteristics in my fellow community members.  I check out what they say at the Feast, see what they're doing in their neighbourhoods, ask for their advice in my own services, and just generally get to know them.  Sure enough, throughout the year, I am continually impressed with the qualities they are showing (and questioning the ones I am showing).

When it comes time for the Unit Convention, that time when we elect our delegates to go to the National Convention to consult and also to elect our National Spiritual Assembly, I already have a good idea who I might vote for.

Then comes the election.  This is a moment whose sanctity is covered in the constitution of the Universal House of Justice itself.  Under the fourth by-law, they say "A silent and prayerful atmosphere shall prevail during the election so that each elector may vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection inspire him to uphold."

Isn't that beautiful?  How often do we see an election that is conducted silently and prayerfully?  Well, as a Baha'i, at least a couple of times a year.

This helps us see how the Baha'i electoral process works in the local level, but what about nationally, or even globally?

For that, I turn to my own experience.

There is a woman in my neighbourhood who does some of the most incredible work.  She knows everyone, helps us all, and is truly an inspiration to each of us who meet her.  I would, in a heartbeat, vote for her for some neighbourhood position, except that she is not a Baha'i.  But if she were, she would be ideal.

And yet she would suffer if she were elected on a city-wide level.  That is just not her sphere of activity.  Her movement, her world, is in the neighbourhood alone.

Then there are a few other friends of mine who are also exemplarly qualified  for service and they do work on the national level.  Their work and their interests carry them to that level.  They know Baha'is all over the place and see them regularly.  It is only natural that, as they meet more and more Baha'is in other communities, their name would begin to appear in votes for the National Asembly.

But they are only known in Canada.

Then there are those few souls who move most naturally on the global scale.

Year in and year out, people all over the world see them in their daily life.  They are watched in their actions.  They are known for their great qualities, tireless service, and steadfast dedication.  These are those precious souls that might be considered for service at a higher level.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that election for the National Assembly is done by the delegates, for those delegates tend to be the ones who are already acting at that broader level of service.  They already have some idea of the other people who are serving at that level and can cast an informed vote.

And I'm sure it is also of no coincidence that the members of the National Assemblies are the ones who elect the Universal House of Justice, for who better is aware of what is happening globally than those magnificent souls who are serving as the members of the nascent Secondary Houses of Justice.

But it all begins here, at the local level, with the Unit Convention.  In just a few weeks I will go to my local Baha'i Centre and, in a silent and prayerful room, cast my vote for the delegates I am most inspired to "uphold".  And they shall take my prayers to the National Convention.

It truly is a miracle, this Administrative Order, and I know I need to keep studying it to gain a better appreciation of what "God hath wrought".

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Humour and Healing

As you may have noticed, I believe in the therapeutic value of humour.  And it seems I'm not alone.

There's a marvelous article from Dialogue magazine that was sent to me (thanks Steve!), written by Bob Ballenger, that spoke all about the Master's sense of humour.  To see the whole article, just add one to the last number in the URL line (5 becomes  6, then 7, then 8, until you reach the end).

I am also reminded of something my dear friend, Mary, said on her deathbed.  She said that she felt the Master was not happy about being seen as this imposing icon on a wall, and that He wished to be remembered as a loving Grandfather.  Of course, this was only her own opinion, and should not to be regarded as anything other than a pilgrim's-type note.

This view of the Master that Bob and Mary shared, however, struck a chord with me.  The more I examined His life, the more I could see His humour shining, struggling to get out, to leap off the page and into our hearts.  The more I read, the more I began to understand Ruhiyyih Khanum's statement that we should take the Faith seriously, but not ourselves.

It seems, though, that we have this stereotype about how laughter may sometimes seem inappropriate.  Many of the books about the Central Figures of the Faith often read, "Lo, a Child was born unto the house of Mirza Buzurg", instead of in a language that is more approachable by many of us.  Now please don't forget that one of my favorite books is the Dawn-Breakers.  There is a place for that type of writing style, and I cherish it.

This also has nothing to do with the style of language employed by the Guardian or the Universal House of Justice.  They use the perfect style of language for their needs.  In fact, it is often stated that rather than re-translating the Sacred Texts, and simplifying them from the exalted style of language used, we should increase our education in order to better read and understand that style.  This is one of the many gifts that the Ruhi curriculum has given us: a simple tool to better understand the exalted style used in the Writings.

No, what I'm talking about is all the other literature out there.  There are some marvelous biographies of the Central Figures that are being written and published in a more common style of language, and I love them.  They are helping us see these Figures as real people, and therby helping us gain a greater appreciation of what They have done.

But this use of humour also goes deeper than that.

I remember one time when I was asked to sit in on a Ruhi Book 1 study circle.  The group was in the middle of the third unit, Life and Death, and it was very tense.  The group was so uncomfortable.

I happened to have been forewarned about this.  The reason was that a member of the group, the tutor's nephew (or grandson, I can't remember which), had recently committed suicide, and this was the first time they were coming back together as a group.

They started with some prayers, and tried to go into the book, but it just wasn't happening.  Oh, they were reading the words and answering the questions, but it was just too mechanical.  There was no spirit about it.

After some time, I finally stopped them, and asked what was going on, as nobody had said anything about this unfortunate incident up to this point.

Not knowing that I was already aware of what had occurred, one of them "clued me in" by explaining about the tragedy.

At that point I turned to the tutor, who was, and still is, a very dear friend and asked, "Didn't you explain to him that there is no practice for this unit?"

They all froze, as sure as if I had doused them with liquid nitrogen.

And then the tutor started to smile.  Tears began to well up in her eyes, and she began to giggle.  Well, that was it.  The on-rush of laughter just gushed forth as the tears streamed down.

The nervousness over such a comment gave way as everyone began to laugh and cry.

For the next hour or two, all they did was talk about their feelings, tell stories of this dearly departed soul, say prayers, laugh, cry, hug.  Oh yes, that's "all" we did.

And then, after we had spent ourselves out in this manner, the tutor turned back to the book and re-read the quote that I had so "rudely" interrupted.

Now, in light of this sad event, the quote took on more relevancy and made a deeper impression upon all there (myself included).

Of course, I would not suggest using this particular method of humour in most circumstances.  It can be quite dangerous and really hurt someone's heart, but in this particular instance, I happened to know the tutor very well and knew she needed the excuse to laugh.  I also trusted that she would know my intention was pure, and not malicious.

But let us remember the words attributed to 'Abdu'l-Baha: My home is the home of joy and delight. My home is the home of laughter and exultation.

He has said that it is "good to laugh", for "laughter is spiritual relaxation", but we should never laugh at the expense of others, lest we sadden their heart.  Our laughter should spring from our joy, our love, our sheer pleasure at creation.

We should be happy, and wholeheartedly, for 'Abdu'l-Baha wants us to be happy, "to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you".

And it can help heal wounds that would, otherwise, fester.

Yeah, there's nothing like a good laugh.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Changing Times

I can't believe this one came up.  More so, I can't believe I'm writing about it.  Not that I find it offensive or anything, but just that it seems so unusual I'm not sure a lot of us can relate to it.  It is interesting, though, and well worth the thought of the implications.

And, as I've said before, I'm not afraid to tackle the tough questions.

There is a very good friend of mine who asked me about the Faith, and specifically asked a couple of very interesting questions.  I must admit, despite my twisted approach to the Writings, and bizarre manner of seeing odd connections, I never thought of this one.

These questions should go to the Universal House of Justice, but I'm just too embarrassed to write them.  I'm not sure why, but I am.

I should probably tell you a bit about my friend, and how we met.  I've known him for more than 10 years, ever since she first walked into my booth at a fair (back when I was still a jeweler / artist).  She loved my work, and we hit it off really well.  A few years ago, I saw him again at the library, and we reconnected.  My son really liked him, and we rode in the glass elevator for about an hour, talking, sharing jokes, and getting re-acquainted.  A few conversations and lunches later, the following questions came up.

They are real.  I can't dispute them, or pass them off as a joke.  They are serious, and I take them as such.

You see, in case you thought the above was a series of typos, they weren't.  It was all accurate.  She was transgendered a few years back, just before we reconnected.  Now this does not make a difference to me, for his character hasn't changed.  He is still very kind, considerate, compassionate, intelligent, courteous, and so on and so forth.  This is someone I am proud to have as a friend, and dearly wish we could connect more often.  I love the time we spend together, just as I do with any good friend.

Here is the question that came up: If he declared, how would this effect marriage?

I have to start by pointing out that he is not a Baha'i, and therefore not bound by Baha'i Law.  I have written about this before, in relation to gay marriages, and repeat it here for emphasis.  Only Baha'is are bound by Baha'i Law, and we do not impose our rules upon others.

But what if he declares his faith?

As you know, within the Baha'i Law, gay marriages are not permitted.  Would he be considered a man, able to legally marry a woman?  Or would the transgender operation (sex-change for those of you who do not know the lingo) not be considered in this picture?  Would he still be considered a woman?

If the latter, if he is considered a woman, then he would be expected to marry a man.  This would give the appearance of a gay marriage to virtually everyone who saw them.  There is quite a bit in the Writings about the importance of appearances, so this would seem to be an issue.

But what if he is considered a man?  Then he could marry a woman, with no questions asked.

Now here is the kicker: if he is considered a man, then would he be eligible for election to the Supreme Institution?

OK.  Don't laugh.  This is serious.  And I think it really is a question that should be addressed to the Supreme Institution for guidance (but I'll tell you, I'm not ready to write that letter just yet).

Let's make this a hypothetical case, although it is not far from the reality.  Suppose someone underwent transgender surgery before becoming Baha'i.  What happens when they declare?  You see, the crux of this issue is that they were never disobedient to Baha'i Law, as they were not bound by it at the time of the surgery.  But suppose he declares, is he considered a man or a woman?

This truly does effect their ability to marry within the Baha'i context, and let us presume they wish to be obedient.

And if he is considered a man, how far does that extend?  Would he be considered a man in terms of eligibility for election to the Universal House of Justice?  Suppose that they were phenomenally gifted and spiritual, and this really did become a question.

Where is the line drawn?

Well, this is yet another time when I am very glad that I do not serve on that august body, for I have no idea which way they would decide.

But I promised that I would ask the question, so I have.  I can't find anything in the Writings that addresses this particular type of situation, although I am certain that they would not be expected to undergo surgery again, back to their original gender.  Nor can I imagine any rights being removed, as that would just be silly.

And so, as there is nothing in the Writings that directly addresses this situation, it is to the Universal House of Justice that we must turn for guidance.

Who knows, maybe I can still convince him to write them, for I'm not sure that I'm ready to try and write such a letter yet.

19 Mithqals of Gold

I don't know how many times I've seen that phrase in my readings of the Writings: 19 Mithqals of gold.

What is it?  Fortunately, a simple answer can be found in the back of the Kitab-i-Aqdas.

A "mithqal" is a unit of measurement equal to 19 nakhuds (according to the Bayan, as opposed to the 24 nakhuds it traditionally is).  Does that make it easier?  No?  Oh, sorry.  OK, 19 mithqals is pretty much equal to 69.192 grams, or 2.22456 troy ounces.  Almost 2.25 ounces.

There you have it.  A simple, mathematical definition.

But why is this important?

Baha'u'llah, in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, says that when our wealth, or our money beyond our necessary expenses, totals at least 19 mithqals of gold, we are to pay the Right of God on it.  The exact words are, "whenever one owneth 19 mithqals of gold, or acquireth possessions attaining this value, after having deducted therefrom the yearly expenses, the Huquq becometh applicable and its payment is obligatory".

This is where many of us have come into contact with the phrase "19 mithqals of gold", but it is not the only time we see it in the Writings.

Did you know that there is another law, which is not yet applicable, regarding that sum?  It is the dowry (city-dwellers are supposed to pay a gold 19 mithqal dowry, but country-dwellers get away with silver).  Unlike some dowries, the Baha'i dowry is paid by the husband to the wife.  Although this Law is not yet applicable, it does seem to make sense as, in many cultures today, the man is still the main income earner in the family (mine being one of the odd exceptions).  As this sum belongs to the wife, it seems to act as a form of life insurance in case anything should happen to the husband.  It would give her a bit of a cushion to help survive until she can earn an income of her own.

But there is one other time we find this phrase in the Writings.  Again in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, we find the following: Ye have been forbidden in the Book of God to engage in contention and conflict, to strike another, or to commit similar acts whereby hearts and souls may be saddened. A fine of nineteen mithqals of gold had formerly been prescribed by Him Who is the Lord of all mankind for anyone who was the cause of sadness to another; in this Dispensation, however, He hath absolved you thereof and exhorteth you to show forth righteousness and piety.

Thank God that this has been "absolved".  2.25 ounces of gold for making someone sad?  I would be so far in debt that it wouldn't be funny.  In fact, most of us, I would venture to say, would have a similar problem.  There would be no financial crisis, for none of us would have any money left.  Oh, except the happy ones.  Hmm.  Would stand-up comics make a fortune in that situation?  All I can say is that I'm so glad this particular law has been absolved.  There's hope for me yet.

But an fun image does come to mind with this.  I imagine us all having this little lump of gold, 2.25 ounces worth, that we all give back and forth whenever we make each other sad.  It would be like the fruitcake of the Baha'i Dispensation.  You never actually use it for anything else.  It just gets passed along when you need to pay.  After all, no one ever eats those fruitcakes they're given for Christmas.  They just give them as a gift the following year.  This is just the high end version of it.

Anyways, back to the main topic.  Let me just see if I have this right.

Before the Kitab-i-Aqdas was written, you had to give someone 2.25 ounces of gold if you caused sadness to them?  And now, if you are a man, you have to pay a woman 2.25 ounces of gold if you want to marry her?  I'm sure this is just a coincidence.

Fortunately, my wife agrees with me.  We're certain there is no connection between the two.

But what about the Right of God, the Huququ'llah?   Does the woman have to pay the Right of God on the dowry?  Or does the man have to pay it before he can pay her dowry?

I won't even go into the concept that "certain possessions are exempt", for a spouse is certainly not a "possession" (don't even think about 'necessary furnishing').  But it does raise an interesting question.  Is the Right of God applicable on the dowry, or is it considered a necessary saving for an emergency?

Or maybe, just maybe, the idea of a fruitcake can be applicable to me when I ask these types of questions.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Global Commonwealth

I read a passage from the Guardian today that made me sit up.

Although it may take you by surprise, as it did me, and you may react harshly against it as it is here, slightly out of context, I ask you to pause with that reaction, and keep reading.  It raises a very interesting question, and, given today's climate of distrust, would not surprise me if many were initially against such a notion.

But we are Baha'i here (at least I am writing for Baha'is, so if you're not Baha'i, please, I ask you to trust me for a moment), and we all have faith in our beloved Guardian.

So, now that I've got your attention, what is the quote?  As usual, dear Reader, I'm glad you asked.  I just love how perceptive you are.

Before I tell you, I must remind you, dear Reader, that this is only my own opinion, and not an authoritative representation of the Baha'i Faith.

The Guardian, in 1936, spoke of the implications of world unity, and the unity of which Baha'u'llah spoke.  He wrote of the establishment of what he called a "world commonwealth", at a time when the League of Nations had already been admitted to be powerless, and well before the establishment of the United Nations.  He said, "This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legisalture, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples."

So why did this make me sit up?  Why am I concerned about how you may react?  Specifically because of the statement in there in which he talks about the control of resources.  He says that this body will "ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations".

And why, after expressing concern, am I not concerned about this?

Because, after reflecting on it, it just makes sense.

Why?  Well, let's explore this from a purely practical standpoint.

Let's take water, as just a single example.  As we all know, fresh water is a staple of life and a very valuable resource.  To date, some countries have commodified this resource and are selling it off without much concern for their population, appearing to be more concerned with the corporations that are purchasing these alleged rights.

Now, we could protest against such behaviour, or take part in rallies or marches, decrying all sorts of things, but let's not forget the wisdom shown to us by the Universal House of Justice:  Humanity's crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age.

So what do we do about the water situation?  I would venture to say that we change the laws.

And how will that solve the problem?

Well, let's look at it from a slightly different perspective.   Suppose someone, person A, stole something of yours and then sold it person B.  Do they have any rights to it?  Of course not.  It was stolen, and will, upon recovery, be returned to you.  At that time, the object of the theft will have transferred from being your item to being the money that person B spent.  In other words, person A will now have stolen the money from person B, and you will be out of the picture.

My wife and I were talking about investments the other day and this idea came up, the idea of paying for stolen goods.  If we know that a company has paid for stolen goods, and will at some point realize it, why would we invest in that company?  They are operating under false pretenses, and have far less than they think they do.  Sounds like a bad investment to me.

This is how we understand the commodification of water.  At some point, this global commonwealth will control this resource and use it for the betterment of all peoples.  Any contracts that were signed before that time will be recognized as absurd, or even criminal, so they will not be honoured.

Pretty simple.  No concern on my part, except to help people come to the understanding of the need for this commonwealth and legislature, and the powers that it must have in order to be effective.

You see, in other words, I think that what we are dealing with is a reconceptualization of human relationships (I think that's the phrase with the longest words I've put into this blog so far).  And, as the Baha'i International Community has pointed out, it "cannot be achieved -- indeed, its attainment is severely handicapped -- by the culture of protest that is another widely prevailing feature of contemporary society."

So, if protest is out, what can we do?

First, we can begin by acting wisely and within the bounds of reason.  We can make choices that reflect our understanding of the global situation.  We can modify our behaviour and strive to act more in accord with the standard set forth in the Writings.

Second, we can help educate people about the need for a global commonwealth as described in the Baha'i Writings.  This will allow the further development of governments that have the trust of their people, as well as their support.

Third, we can fully support our governments, and politicians, and help them understand the important role they play in human affairs.

Fourth, we can modify our behaviour and strive to act more in accord with the standard set forth in the Writings.

Oh, I mentioned that one?  Well, I think it bears mentioning again.  It's that important.  Nothing will change unless we change our behaviour.

Finally, we can vote and take active part in our government in a manner that is productive and conducive to good will.  Actions that do nothing but anger others are counterproductive, despite how good it may make us feel.  When we cast our votes in accordance with Baha'i principals, instead of by reacting to advertisments or stated platforms that go against what we know of the people making them, then we can learn to put the appropriate trust in our governing bodies.  When we elect our representatives based upon their character, we will feel good about them, and be happy to work with them.

You see, I believe that nothing will change unless we actively work to change it.  But the ends do not justify the means.  We must act in accordance with our beliefs and strive to uphold the dignity of ourselves, the people we are dealing with, and the Faith.  When we do, we will understand that the way in which we try to change things is just as important as what we change.

We will also realize that different levels of government have different perspectives.

An example that comes to mind is the Baha'i community.  There are things that individuals may wish to do, but the Local Assembly may be aware of other things happening in the community that they may be working against, by accident.  There may also be things that a local community may wish to do that would go against something that is happening nationally.  Or internationally.

This is why I am, at times, cautious about what I write.  I understand there are things happening in other countries that may be adversely affected by what I write here in my office in Canada.  My perspective just isn't that broad.

And so I stick to the Writings.

Baha'u'llah says to support our governments, and so I do.  And I encourage it in others.

'Abdu'l-Baha tells us to be kind and loving, firm and yet flexible.  He has set a standard of behaviour for us that I encourage all to try and emulate.

The Guardian described for us some of the elements of this global commonwealth, and I believe his vision is more acute than mine.  So I support his vision, and encourage others to support it, too.

The Universal House of Justice has also given us great guidance on how to change the world around us, and a Plan in which to do it effectively.  So let's support that Plan.

Now, does that quote about resource control still make me sit up?  No.  Well, except to pay more attention to it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Tree of Life

"Verily, He is the tree of Life that bringeth forth the fruits of God, the Exalted, the Powerful, the Great."

A few years ago, I had the bounty of staying at the house of a dear Baha'i soul and we were talking about the raising of children.  He told me a story of his daughter who, one day when she was quite young, was overheard reciting the Tablet of Ahmad, in Arabic, from memory.  As she did not speak Arabic, he was quite surprised.  "When did you learn that", he asked.

"Every morning when you would drive me to school, you were reciting it in the car."

He had been trying to learn it, so he would practice at that time.  She overheard him every morning for months, and learned it, too.

I have taken that story to heart, and now recite the Table of Ahmad most every night for my son.  This has been a habit since ever since his second birthday.  One evening, when he was only three-and-a-half, we were at a Baha'i gathering and I was asked to say a prayer.  I asked Shoghi which prayer I should say, and he said, "King."

"King?"  I had no idea what he meant.

"Yes, King.  He is the King.  All-knowing.  Wise.  Lo.  Nightingale of paradise singeth twigs tree of eternity..."  He recited nearly the entire first quarter of the Tablet from memory.

I was not the only one who was absolutely shocked.

This evening, when we were saying our prayers together, he asked me about the Tree of Life.

"What is the Tree of Life?"

I should have expected that, as he has asked me about almost every other word or phrase from the Tablet.  Seriously.  He has.  And you try explaining what "the court of the presence of the Generous One" means, to a four year old.

Tonight, it was the Tree of Life.

And you know, I'd never really thought about it before.

The earliest reference I am aware of regarding the Tree of Life is from Genesis.  He begins by mentioning that this Tree is in the "midst of the garden", and then again in 3:22.  "Behold Man has become like the Unique One among us, knowing good and bad; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat and live forever!"  And thus we were cast out of Eden.

Now, I recognize that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has long been mis-understood to be the Tree of Knowledge, and that when you understand the full name the story makes more sense.

Combine this with the idea of Adam's Wish, in which Adam, as a Manifestation of God (to use the Baha'i term), fully understood the path upon which He was leading mankind and the story is profound.  Adam, so the story goes, was fully aware of what He was doing and "ate of the fruit" so that humanity could take that first step leading us to the advent of the Bab, and thus to Baha'u'llah.  He was fully aware of the great destiny awaiting us and willingly placed us upon that path.

On another note, eating of the fruit made us aware of the effect of our actions, allowing us to distinguish between good and evil.  This had the net effect of allowing our actions to have greater merit.  The child who does not know how to lie is not showing any significant virtue by telling the truth.  He has no choice.  But once he knows how to lie, and chooses to tell the truth, then he is demonstrating a great virtue.

By the way, Adam's Wish, I think, comes from Tahirih, who wrote a marvelous poem about it.  Even if she got it from somewhere else, it still exonerates women from the false guilt imposed by our mis-understanding of Eden.

So here, Adam, by granting humanity that option resulting from awareness, allowed us to show the various virtues by being aware of the choice.  You follow?  Choosing not to sin, when you know how, becomes virtuous, whereas if you don't know how, it is no big deal not to sin.

But what about this other tree?  The Tree of Life?

In Proverbs, it is referred to variously as wisdom (or the ability to derive new knowledge from the clear comprehension of information), the fruit of a righteous person, an attained desire and a soothing tongue.

It also shows up in Revelation.  In Chapter 2, we read, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."  Again in 22:2.  "...on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."  But then, most significantly, it occurs in 22:14, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."  The Bab, as you know, was the Herald of Baha'u'llah, and His name means "The Gate".

From Genesis to Revelation, it surrounds the Bible.  It embraces it.

And here, in the Tablet of Ahmad, Baha'u'llah likens it to Himself.  "He is the Tree of Life..."

I could add in the numerous references in the Quran, or in the Writings and talks of 'Abdu'l-Baha, but this would then become too long.  Suffice it to say that it is, in short, the Divine Messenger.

So what are we to make of all this?

As usual, I really don't have any idea, but can only make a guess.  This is, of course, just my own opinion, and not anything official from the Baha'i Faith itself.

It occurs to me that there are two special Trees in Eden: the first being the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, represented by Adam, but giving its fruit each Springtime with the advent of another Messenger of God.  Every Messenger has corrected our understanding of what is good and what is evil.  Moses, for example, helped us understand that the Sabbath is good and holy and should be kept.  Jesus clarified our understanding that it is to be kept, but only within the bounds of reason.  We are not to allow someone to die just because they got hurt on the Sabbath.  Of course this doesn't mean that we should do away with it, just that we should understand its place in the order of creation.

The second tree is the Tree of Life, represented here by Baha'u'llah.  He is hinted at being the Wise One, Righteous, our Ultimate Desire, Who speaks with a "soothing tongue".

It is interesting that both Baha'u'llah and Adam are the Messengers who begin a Divine Cycle.  As 'Abdu'l-Baha puts it, "We are in the cycle which began with Adam, and its universal Manifestation is Bahá'u'lláh."  It is like those referred to in this other amazing quote, from 'Abdu'l-Baha:  Briefly, there were many universal cycles preceding this one in which we are living. They were consummated, completed and their traces obliterated. The divine and creative purpose in them was the evolution of spiritual man, just as it is in this cycle. The circle of existence is the same circle; it returns. The tree of life has ever borne the same heavenly fruit.


Going back to Revelation, we are given more information in that mystical Book.  This Tree has twelve kinds of fruit, one coming forth in each month throughout the year.  Doesn't that speak of the neverending quality of Baha'u'llah's Revelation?  The day which shall not be followed by night?

The leaves of this Tree will heal the nations.  And doesn't Baha'u'llah refer to the women in His family as the Leaves?  The more we study their lives, the more we can appreciate the truth of that statement.

So, getting back to Genesis, why weren't we allowed to eat this fruit at that time?  Why were we kicked out of Eden?

I think the answer is in the Kitab-i-Iqan.  "Yea, such things as throw consternation into the hearts of all men come to pass only that each soul may be tested by the touchstone of God, that the true may be known and distinguished from the false."

If we were still in Eden, we could not be tested individually.  This idea of testing for purity comes up over and over again in all religious Texts, so why not take it right back to the beginning?  Why not presume that God is consistent?

In Genesis, Adam is created outside of Eden and shown the thorns and thistles before entering Paradise.  He knew the alternative.  He was fully aware.

We, too, it seems, are created outside of Paradise and are aware of the "thorns and thistles".  In some cases, all too aware.  We know the alternative.  It is before us every day.

But now we can see the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We have before us the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Let's take part and eat of it.

Now, how do you explain all this to a child who is not yet five?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Church Talks

Yes, it's true.  I really was asked to speak in a church every month for a few years.  I don't think I could've made that up if I tried.

I'm sorry, what was that?  "How did it come about?"  Oh, well, that's a story in itself.

Once upon a time, under the azure dome, I had gone out for coffee with my good friend Gary.  (Gary, incidentally, was such a good friend that when Marielle and I bought our house, I made sure we had an extra room on the main floor, just in case Gary needed to move in with a family during his last few years.  Alas, he passed away too suddenly, and we didn't have the bounty of his presence in our home.)

During our coffee together, he checked his watch and suddenly announced that he had to go.  He was on his way to a communion service at his church, and would I like to join him?

To his surprise, I agreed, saying it sounded like fun.

The service was about what I expected, and was, in the end, fun.  When it came time for taking communion, Gary insisted that I go up with him.  Evidently, the minister knew I was a Baha'i and was watching to see what I would do.  I later learned this, and also learned that he knew Baha'is are not supposed to drink alcohol.  I gracefully accepted the piece of bread that was offered, and then, when the wine was offered, I took the bread and touched it to the edge of the cup, with a slight bow of reverence.  I then ate the bread.

This seemed to impress him.

Over lunch, afterwards, the minister and I were sitting next to each other.  The table was laid out with paper plates and napkins, proudly displaying the logo, and an amusing image, of the World Wrestling Federation.  The poor minister seemed so embarrassed, until I said how appropriate it was.  He looked at me, with a very puzzled expression, to which I replied, "Well, it is the only sport found in the Bible."

This is another example of that wily Concourse on High setting me up, for that thought just popped into my head.

It took the minister a moment to realize that I was referring to Jacob wrestling the angel.  Now he really was impressed.  Why, I don't know, but that's just the way things work.

The phone call from that dear lady came a few days later, asking me to give a talk.  This is the lady referred to in that earlier article.

So, one month later, after rehearsing five talks hundreds of times, I entered that church again.  There I was, sitting in a pew, unknown to most, ignored by virtually all, wondering what was going to happen.  And then I was called up to speak.

Inevitable aside, number one.  The last talk I had given in public before that one was to another church group, in which they asked me to assist them in learning how to approach the poor.  Why they called me, I will never know.  They must've gotten my number from that Concourse on High, who just seem to delight in setting me up.  Well, from the way they spoke, and the way they asked me to do this, I realized that they didn't really see "the poor" as people, but as a faceless mass.  Knowing that most members of this church were fairly well off, I decided to try something unusual.

I dressed in the most ragged clothes I had.

When I got there, I was shunned by all of them, except the minister, whom I had warned.  When he introduced me, I got up and told a story from the Master about the poor man who was invited to dinner.  He was kicked out.  He came back wearing nice clothes, and was warmly welcomed.  He then put all the food in his pockets, claiming that it was his clothes that were welcome and not him.  This story was told to the group in a refined British accent (yes, I can do accents when needed).  Anyways, I spoke to them about their prejudice, and talked about meeting people as people, and not as a faceless group.  If they wanted to truly help the poor, they needed to get to know them personally.  It went over really well, and they did a lot of great work with the poor in their community.

And now, back to the blog.

I went up to the front of the church, to a microphone in front of the pulpit (Baha'is, evidently, are not supposed to use pulpits), and said a prayer.  Remember, the success of all your plans requires ample prayer.  So I said a prayer, and my mind went blank.  I looked around and saw that stained glass window of the Last Supper, referred to in that other article.

And that was what I talked about.

"Can you imagine", I asked, "being there?  At the Last Supper?  I can't.  There is no way that I would have had the spiritual insight to be able to recognize Jesus in His lifetime."

"But I can imagine being the waiter."

"And you know what?  I think there would have been a lot of joy and laughter.  I mean, they didn't know it was the 'last' supper.  All they knew was that they had done it.  They had found the Messiah, their Lord.  And they were the ones priveleged to have dinner with Him.  What a bounty!  How could they not be happy?"

For ten minutes I spoke about joy and laughter.  Then I asked the real question.

You see, the audience, oh, sorry, I mean the congregation, had looked puzzled at first, when I began speaking.  After all, what do joy and laughter have to do with church?  What kind of topic was this for a talk?

I asked them, "Why are we here?  Not why are we created, but why are we here, in this church?  Why do we come here every week?  I think it is to be happy and joyous, to become closer to our Lord.  And if we are not happy, why do we come?  When we come to church, we should be uplifted."

Then I spoke about what I meant by upliftment.  I said that it meant to me to be lifted up.

I told them about when I was a little child and my father would toss me up in the air, catching me as I giggled.  He would lift me up high and that feeling of upliftment was such a joy.  Then, when we would go to a parade, he would lift me up on his shoulders so that I could see better.

That was when I realized by being up there, on his shoulders, I had a better view than he did.  I could see further.

This is what I told the congregation.  My father had metaphorically lifted me on his shoulders when I was a child and he pointed out to me the goal of his life.  He showed me the goal he had selected when he was a child on his father's shoulders, and he wanted me to find my own goal.  By being up there and taking a look, I could see further, and was therefore able to see a better, and more distant, goal.

By lifting me up, he allowed me to find a worthy goal in my life.

And this is what I hope to do with my son.  He wasn't born at the time, but it is what I hoped to do, even then.

I also pointed out that at some point in the future, we must begin to look to the goals of our children, for they should be higher and more worthy.  If we do not work towards their goals, instead of our own, then we have admitted that we have failed to raise them properly.

All this to say that this was why I was there: to be uplifted.  To gain a better vision of the world around me.  To be raised up to become a more noble human being.

Well, dear Reader, I must have said something right, for they asked me back many times.  Those Concourse on High: they sometimes seem to know what they are doing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

HELP! Quotes needed

Hi Everyone.  I am in need of some assistance in finding a few quotes that are just escaping me.

If you pass them on to me, I'd be very grateful.

Thanks.


Mead


1.  Somewhere in recent times, either the Universal House of Justice, or BIC, have said something along the lines of "people want to make the world a better place, but don't want to change their own behaviour."  Does that ring a bell?

2.  Somewhere in the Writings, there is a description of how we can increase our steadfastness.  I believe it consisted of showing another virtue, along with an action.  Sound familiar?

3.  I'm looking to collect humourous stories about the Central Figures.  Any help for that?


You can either post references here, or send them to me at mead@elsewhere.ca

Intuition

I'm not really sure what to write about today, but I have a feeling I should write about intuition.  In fact, whenever I have this feeling, I go with it.

This was the feeling I had when I decided to apply for my landed immigrant status in Canada.  It was the same feeling I had when I spontaneously proposed to my wife (a long and beautiful story), and presumably the same feeling she had when she accepted my proposal (she says that her mind was running away in terror at the thought of getting married, but her heart wouldn't let her say 'no'.  How can you not love a woman like that?).

It is also the feeling I get when I am about to give a public talk.

Hey, there's a good excuse for an aside.

Most often when I prepare for a talk, I actually prepare five talks and practice them as often as I can before going on stage.  When I was first asked to give a talk in a church, that was what I did.  You see, this lovely woman phoned and asked if I would like to give a talk in their church.  I agreed, before thinking about what I had just been asked, and then quickly said, "Oh, but you know I'm a Baha'i?"  "Yes dear.  We thought we'd like a different point of view for a change.'

Can't argue with that.

I had a month before the talk, so I prepared five talks and rehearsed them over and over.  I'd go through them in my mind while eating, or sitting alone at night, or even walking down the street.  I must have gone over them hundreds of times.  But when I got to the church, and was introduced to the congregation, everything flew out my left ear.  I stood up there, and couldn't think of anything to say.  I had a feeling that I should say a prayer, so I did.  Then I looked around and saw a stained glass window of the Last Supper.

And that was the basis of my talk.

It must have been alright, for I was asked to speak there each month for the next few years.

Anyways, where was I?  Oh yes, intuition.

How often do we prepare for something, only to have it go a little bit wrong?  And then we try so hard to keep with the original program.  Sure there is something to be said for persistence, but there is also something to be said for flexibility.  This is where intuition can come in handy.

In fact, I  always say that the preparation I did for those five talks was what trained me to be able to speak coherently when I spoke on something else altogether.  It was training the instrument, my voice, so that God could use it as He saw fit.  Then I just had to step back and go with the intuition, trusting in God.

In fact, most of the stories I write about in which I was speaking front of people have nothing to do with what I was supposed to talk about.  They always have to do with the moment of inspiration.

Intuition, or inspiration, is a very interesting subject, but often overlooked in modern society.

According to 'Abdu'l-Baha, it can help you "grasp (a) spiritual fact".  Very handy, that.

Also, in case anyone besides me missed it, there is an interesting reference to intuition in the paper on Women and the Peace Process released by the Baha'i International Community in 1993.  They refer to intuition as a "rational process".
At a time when conquest and aggression have lost their credibility as means of solving difficult problems, qualities in which women are strong, such as the capacity to link intuition to the other rational processes, and facility with networking and cooperation, are gaining importance.
We often seem to be afraid of our intuition because we cannot demonstrate it to others as easily as we could a scientific argument, but does that mean that it is any less valid?  I would say not.  In fact, some of the most famous scientists relied heavily on their intuition, and then applied "the other rational processes" to test their intuitive understanding.

Why should we do any less?

When I was giving that first talk in the church, I began with what my instinct told me say, instead of what my mind prepared.   While I was doing this, I was also watching the audience reaction.  That was my confirmation.  That was what told me to continue doing what I was doing, for intuition alone is not always accurate.  We sometimes make mistakes.

There are plenty of stories in which I was giving a talk, and my intuition was way off.  As soon as I realized it, I would go onto an aside (sound familiar?) and see where the tangent would lead. Based on the response from the audience, I would sometimes never return to the original topic.

So what is intuition?  It is a quick or keen insight, providing an understanding of truth without any direct reasoning.

Does that mean it shouldn't be tested, or confirmed?  Of course not.  We should always confirm.  After all, aren't we believers in the need for an independent investigation of truth?

Whenever Einstein or Edison or Newton, to name just a few, had an insight, or an intuitive understanding, they would always try and confirm it through a more rigorous process.  But even then, there were things that they knew they couldn't rationalize, such as Einstein's understanding that God "does not play dice".

More importantly, though, are 'Abdu'l-Baha's statements about intuition, and how it relates to gender issues, and thus to world peace.

In one place, He says, "In some respects woman is superior to man. She is more tender-hearted, more receptive, her intuition is more intense."  In another, He adds, "The spiritually learned must be characterized by both inward and outward perfections; they must possess a good character, an enlightened nature, a pure intent, as well as intellectual power, brilliance and discernment, intuition, discretion and foresight, temperance, reverence, and a heartfelt fear of God."

Finally, in a third quote, He brings it together. If we wish to be more balanced in our life, and be more in tune with our spiritual nature, then we need to learn to cultivate the intuition, and balance that with our intellect. He says: We must also remember that our intuitive understanding of the Writings is only that: our own.  We cannot impose them upon others, nor insist that others agree with us.
The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over women by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting -- force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age, less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals -- or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.


Now, why I wrote all that will, I am sure, become clearer to me in the future.

For now, I have a feeling that I should get something to eat.  Of course, that may be more than just intuition.