Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Friendship

Many years ago I was asked to fly to the North to attend a Baha'i School.  And no, this is not another story about talking to youth.  It was not a youth conference, but a Baha'i Summer School.  I was not even asked to speak that time, so I was off the hook.  I was just there to watch and learn.  In fact, if anyone ever wants me to attend a function to watch and learn, I am an expert at it.  I can learn lots.  Plenty to learn, in fact, and I would cherish the opprtunity.

But there I was, getting ready to go north when I received a phone call.  It was a well-intentioned phone call, but seemed odd at the time.  In fact, it still seems odd to this day.

It was a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly that was hosting this school, and he had been asked to brief me about teaching in the North.  I don't believe the Assembly directed him any more than that, for the call would not have seemed odd, otherwise.  I have a lot of faith in Assemblies.

He called me to talk about the North, and I don't remember anything at all about that conversation except one thing.  He said, quite clearly, "Teaching in the North is unlike teaching anywhere else on the planet."   Well that got my attention.  I was all ears.  "First," he continued, "you have to become friends with the people."

And that is all I remember.

No, that's not quite true.  I clearly remember thinking, "Become friends first?  Oh, just like everywhere else."  I'm not sure if I said that or not, but it really stuck in my mind.

And you know, I have encountered that exact same line many times since.  "Teaching here is unlike anywhere else in the world: You have to become friends first."

What do you say to that?  How can you possibly respond intelligently to that without seeming like you are insulting them?  After all, you don't want to insult anyone.  They are correct in their reasoning, just a bit off in their presumption (maybe assumption actually works better here, Abbott and Costello considered).  You do have to be friends first.

Oh, I think I remember one other thing about that conversation, but it very well could have been told to me while I was up there.  Someone said, "Making friends in the North takes a lot longer than anywhere else."

Those were the two statements that were made to me, and nothing at all confirmed them.  I mean, making friends first was right, but the idea that this is unique to one place, and takes a long time?  Both of those were proven false to me really quickly.

Thinking that this was unique to one part of the world had already been proven false to me based on previous personal experience and conversations with many pioneers.  The second was proven false when a fellow visitor from the South and I were both invited on Day 3 to go hunting.  This was a very high honour, which we had to decline as the party was heading out on the land the day after we were supposed to fly home.

In the few days that I was in the North, on that trip, I met a number of local people whom I just loved.  We shared stories, laughed a lot, swapped gifts and drank coffee (lots of coffee) (I mean lots of coffee) (no, really, lots of coffee) (so much coffee that I'm sure I must have had heart palpatations from all the caffeine and I think that is how they keep warm in the winter, by vibrating from all that caffeine).  In short, I still get tears of love in my eyes from thinking about the North.  In fact, I often think of the North in the same way I think of sushi (I love sushi) (I mean, I really love sushi) (no, I mean... you get the idea).  I often say that if the sushi is not in my mouth, it's been too long since I've had sushi.  If I'm not visiting the North, it's been too long since I've been there.

Friends: You really do have to be friends with those people with whom you are sharing the Faith.  After all, teaching is about touching the heart and helping connect their heart to their Creator, isn't it?  And who but a friend will let you touch their heart in that way?  The Guardian, in a letter written in 1954, felt "that the most effective way for the Bahá'ís to teach the Faith is to make strong friends with their neighbours and associates."

But what does it mean to be a friend?  Although there are many different definitions in various dictionaries, including "a person attached to another by feelings of affection" or "a person who gives assistance", my personal favorite definition is "a person whom one knows, likes, and trusts".

Knows, likes and trusts.  That sure gives more importance in my mind to the compilation on Trustworthiness.  It is foundational to friendship, which is the most effective way of teaching.

My question, as always, is what does this look like?

Many stories come to mind.

First, there is my dear friend, Steve, whom I talk to all too infrequently.  When I met him, I owned and ran an art gallery.  He came in one evening, sort of like a bear ambling along, and said in a quiet and shy voice, "Himynameissteveandimanartistwouldyouliketoseemywork". 

Once I deciphered what he was saying, I agreed to see his artwork.  After being amazingly impressed, I booked a show for him, and then we got to talking.  He was going through some troubles, so I listened to his problems and gave him help where I could.  To make a long story short, he came over every night for a few weeks before enrolling in the Faith.  A few weeks after that one of my dearest memories of him occurred.  We were sitting in the gardens at the Temple in Wilmette, lying on one of those hills of grass, talking, when I opened up my prayer book and read him a prayer.  "This is a broken winged bird and his flight is very slow..."

I have no idea why I chose that prayer, but he soars now.  And I think a lot of it is that I truly cared for him, as a dear friend, that first time we met.  It didn't matter to me whether or not he enrolled, although I was extremely delighted when he did, because first and foremost he was a dear friend.

Another friend whom I truly love, and haven't seen in way too long, is Kamao.  I used to visit him and his family out in Saskatchewan every time I would drive there, and every time I learned so much from him.  His gentle spirit, quiet wisdom, and practical knowledge all impressed me.

And then there was his "sense of humour".  Please note the judicious use of quotes.

This guy, remember that he is still a dearly loved friend, raises horses, and one time when I was out there, I asked him to put me to work.  I seem to recall that I was working in the evenings doing some training or something, but had my days free, so I asked him to let me be of service.

"Sure," he said, "you see that horse over there?  The one with the rope around his neck?  Just go over and take the rope off.  You know how to approach horses."

So I tried.

I would quietly talk to the horse,and place my hand on its flanks, slowly moving closer to the head.  When I got close, I would have to quickly jump way, because the horse was about to buck.  And buck he did.  Every single time.  For hours.

I am conservatively leaving out all the expletives I could use for this horse, dear Reader.  Suffice it to say, it took a few of us to get this horse pinned against a fence so that we could get the stupid rope off that bleeping horse.

Kamao really demonstrated his trust of my ability to read an animal's body language that day.  (Or else he was trying to get me killed.  I'm not sure which.)

And Kamao, my dearly loved friend, over dinner that evening, was telling his wife about it.

"Yeah, this White guy," he said, lovingly referring to me. "He's got a lot guts.  No brains, but a lot of guts."

Why do I tell this story?  Because I really do love the guy, and his true and deep friendship really did allow me to learn a lot.

My relationship to him is a lot like my relationship to the woman who taught me the Faith.  It was both of their deep friendships that allowed me to learn something.

I can only presume that it also works in reverse.  My deep love and friendship for another may allow some of the teachings of the Faith to penetrate their heart, which is, after all, the seat of revelation.

Why do I mention all this?  Because I think it is important to realize one of the dynamics involved in teaching: friendship.

This, to me, is the key to not having a hidden agenda when we are teaching the Faith.  Many people are only "friends" with someone because they want something.  Too often have people shown me what I thought was friendship until they realized that I had no intention of converting to their faith.  Then they disappeared.

With true friendship, this does not happen.  You are not concerned if someone declares or not.  You share the teachings of the Faith with them openly and honestly, with no expectation on their part.  If they do declare, wonderful.  Light upon light.  And if they don't, who cares?  They are still a dearly loved friend and know a bit more about Baha'u'llah's teachings.  That can be nothing but good.

But also, it doesn't take long to become a good friend.  And some will declare within a very short time.  Steve, and a few other dear friends, declared after only a few weeks.  I saw one person declare after only a couple of days.  I'm slow.  It took me around five years.

But so what?

Friendship is forever.

Fortunately, that rope around that horse's neck was not.

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