Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Good God Evil World

"Why does God allow people to starve to death," asked the young man staying with me, "or let little children suffer? How can a loving God allow all these evil things?"

We had been talking about this blog and I had made a comment that he found interesting. I said that most of the major questions that people ask, those that are often seen as the eternal questions, are ones that I found satisfactory answers to many years ago. I said that I hadn't thought of them as questions for 20 or 30 years.

"Does God exist?" Yes. Next?

"Is there life after death?" Of course. Any others?

"What is the purpose of life?" To lend our share to the advancement of civilization, no matter how small that share may be.

These are not questions that keep me up at night. In fact, it has been so long since I have even thought about them that I cannot even recall what the questions were in the first place. And that, dear Reader, is why I keep asking for your advice about what topics to address.

So my friend asked his heartfelt question, the one you read at the beginning of this article. The one that is often stated, "How can a good God create so much evil?"

To which I respond, "He didn't."

"What?" I hear you cry, and yes you read correctly. I do not believe that God created all the problems we have in the world. I truly and sincerely believe that we did.

My young friend asked me about how I can reconcile a good God with the reality of fetal alcohol syndrome. "It just doesn't seem fair. How can that poor child be allowed to suffer such hardships when I've had it all fairly easy? Most of us in North America have such an easy time in life compared to those millions of children who starve to death in Africa. It's just not fair."

We spoke at length, he and I, about this issue, and this is what we came to understand: he's right. It's not fair.

But we can't lay the blame at God's feet, so to speak. God, through His infinite love, has given us free will. What we do with it is up to us. We have, however, been cautioned about the consequences of our actions.

My friend asked me why God didn't tell the parents of the child with fetal alcohol syndrom not to drink, to which I pointed out, "He did."

In Proverbs 20:1, it says, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise." In Romans 14:21, we read, "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine". I do not even need to mention any other Scriptures, for we know that strong drink and getting drunk is condemned in them all.

The truth of the matter is that God warns us, He cautions us, but He cannot compel us. He has given us free will, and that means that we are free to make very bad choices, if we so desire. Like a loving father, God has warned us of all those things we need to be aware of, but He allows us to choose and decide and grow for ourselves.

Time for a quick aside: I was watching a movie the other day in which our hero was facing down a bad dude who had a knife at the throat of the wife of said hero. He wanted the hero to do something or other that wasn't a good thing to do. I don't really recall the details because it was all quite absurd. But I do remember the hero guy saying that he wouldn't do it, and the villain guy saying, "You're killing her." As if the hero was the one holding the knife and getting ready to cut her throat. Nope. I just don't buy that argument. The bad guy was the one doing the killing. End of story.

This movie reminded me so much of the arguments and anger I hear about God.

We choose to abuse the land through our various farming techniques. We multiply until there are so many people on the planet that we can't support them all. We pollute the water so that it is no longer safe to drink water from a river until it has been filtered. And then we blame God for the crop failures, the floods, and all the other disasters that strike.

Now please don't think I'm mean-hearted. I weep real tears when I read of my brothers and sisters who suffer under these trials. I do what I can to try and mitigate the suffering.

But I don't lay the blame falsely.

When an earthquake hit Haiti and all those poor people lost their homes, their livelihoods, or their lives, my heart broke for them. But let's face it, most of the suffering was imposed by us humans. By erecting buildings in an earthquake zone that didn't have the proper re-inforcement, it just made a bad situation worse. And we can't really lay the blame on any one person or people, for there is a whole history of colonization that evolved this culture that made these choices.

With the child who has fetal alcohol sydrome, yes the parents are the direct cause of it, but the time comes when the child has to make their own choices in life. The parents are suffering their own hell for their choices in life, but they should not be blamed for the choices that the child makes as they grow up.

What it comes down to is personal responsibility. We are responsible for our own actions. That is the long and short of it, as far as I can tell.

To the age-old question, "Did God create evil?" I respond, "No".

God did not create evil, any more than He created darkness, or cold. Darkness, as we all know, is merely the absence of light. Cold is the absence of heat. They are the zero-end of a line segment that is infinite in one direction. Similarly, evil is the absence of good.

This is, of course, not to say that an absence of good does not have an effect, for remember, you can die from an absence of heat. If you don't believe me, you should've been here in Winnipeg just last month.

No, we make our choices, and we have to live with the effects. God has warned us many times about the consequences of some of our actions, but we have generally ignored it. We seem to forget that choosing to do an action means that we accept to live with the consequences of it. Sometimes, though, those consequences hit us in the next world as we become aware of the true effect of those actions.

But the important thing to me is to not lay blame where it doesn't belong.

Last note: As I've said many times here, I warn my son not to touch the hot stove. If he chooses to touch it, and I'm not fast enough to stop him, his hand will burn. I won't punish him by burning his hand, for I love him, and his hand will already be burned. It is just the natural effect of that action. If he were to burn it so badly that he would lose the use of it, I would be very saddened, but I would not say, "Why did God do this to him?" If, ten years down the line, he were to ask me why this happened to him, I would tell him, honestly, that it was his own action that caused it, and I would express my sorrow.

Similarly, if he were to be hit by a car and lose the use of his legs, I would explain that it was not God who did this, but some driver who was probably not careful. I would offer what comfort I could, and encourage him to pray for the soul of the driver who would go through their own torment either here, or in the next world, knowing that their actions caused a child to lose the use of their legs.

I believe that it is very important to place responsibility in the right spot, and accept it when it is ours.

So if I've made any bozoid comments in this piece, they really are my fault. And I accept full responsibility.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Speech

"Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets."

This quote has long intrigued me. It seems to be both a set of instructions and a caution about how to use the power of speech. But the more I look at it, the more I wonder how much of it I really understand. Oh, I don't mean on a deeper and more significant level, but just on the simple level of the language itself.

What does Baha'u'llah mean by calling "human utterance... an essence"? The word "essence" comes from the root word "esse", or "to be". It means that it exists, in and of itself.

"Human utterance" exists? It has an existence? And this existence, of which Baha'u'llah is speaking, seems to have a will of its own. It has an aspiration. It aspires "to exert its influence".

I may be off base, but I often think of words, in terms of speech, as fairly powerless, a mere breath of air. And yet as a writer I do know better.

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me"? Not true. How often have we been hurt by words, either carelessly tossed off, or honed to a sharp and precise weapon? It is said that the tongue is the only edged weapon that becomes sharper with use. To dismiss the pain that people feel from the words of others does those friends a disservice, for the pain they feel is real and should be acknowledged, not dismissed out of hand.

Here, Baha'u'llah seems to allude to something similar. Words, through the power of utterance, exist. They want to have an influence, and they need moderation. Quite the caution, that.

But wait a moment. They want to have an influence? Is that what it means when Baha'u'llah says that they "aspireth to exert... influence"? Aspire is an interesting word, for it actually has two very different meanings: to desire, and to breathe. Do words breathe? Obviously they are of the breath, but I don't think they have lungs. I am forced by my own limited understanding of the word to conclude that they have, somehow, a desire.

It is very interesting to remember that aspire and spirit both have that same root: aspirare, to breathe upon or the breath of life. Is there a clue within these meanings as to what Baha'u'llah is referring to? I'm not sure.

Aside from this, Baha'u'llah also seems to be saying that the effectiveness of an utterance's influence is based upon a keen phrasing, manners, elegence and subtle reasoning, for this is the definition of "refinement" (I just love the dictionary, in case you can't tell). Without these various qualities, the speech would be ineffective, for who would want to listen to it?

Imagine, if you will, someone wanted to try to convince others of something, or share some vital piece of information: wouldn't people be more willing to listen to them if they spoke well? Wouldn't others be more easily convinced if they were subtle in their reasoning instead of blunt and crude in their speech? Obviously with these various qualities, they would be more likely to be effective in achieving their objective.

This refinement is not just enough by itself, for you can have all the qualities listed above, and yet still not be trusted by your listeners if you have an ulterior motive. No, the best way to be effective in your work, through your speech, is to be detached from the ideas you espouse and at the same time pure in your motive.

How often have we been "befriended" by people, but later found that they only wanted us to join their "team"? I remember way too often being warmly welcomed into a group, usually a religious group, only to be spurned because I had no intention of wearing their team-jacket, as a friend of mine once put it. After that, I was far less likely to give any credence to what they said, no matter how wise it was. They had lost my trust.

Now I try to be extra cautious with this, myself. I pray that I am never that barrier between someone else and their Creator. That would be the worst possible thing I could imagine.

There is still one last part of this quote, though: moderation.

Moderation, or the avoidance of extremes or excesses, is very important. I can think of countless times where my enthusiasm for something got in the way of my being effective in conveying an idea. When we are told to show moderation in all things, He truly means "all things".

It is similar to that quote from Gleanings, in which Baha'u'llah tells us that we must "cleanse (our) heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline (us) to error, or that hate repel (us) away from the truth".

You see, I am of the belief that if we are overly enthusiastic in our speech, that may actually turn some people off, for they may feel we are blinded. This is not the same as speaking with conviction, for we should be convinced of what we are saying, nor is it the same as being radiant when we talk. But speech requires moderation to be effective.

Beyond that, our speech also has to have tact and wisdom, for without tact we will offend our listeners, and without wisdom, well, why are we speaking?

"The essence of wisdom", Baha'u'llah says, "is the fear of God, the dread of His scourge and punishment, and the apprehension of His justice and decree."

When we speak with this kind of wisdom, and an awareness of our own weakness and utter reliance upon God, along with a grave concern that we not give offense lest we suffer from the knowledge of having turned someone away from their Creator, then we know that we are doing the best we can.

When our speech is guided by this principle of wisdom, and a concern about the listener, when really take to heart that twice-stated warning from 'Abdu'l-Baha, "Beware! Beware! Lest thou offend any heart", then we have the greatest of all chances in our speech having the desired effect upon our listeners.

And I know that if I study this quote some more, I'll actually be able to begin to get a glimmer of the depth of wisdom contained within it. Call me "silly", or call me "crazy", but I believe that the more we study even a single line from the Writings, the more we can begin to appreciate a portion of what has been given to us.

In fact, call me whatever you want, for sticks and stones can break my bones... Oh, uhm, never mind.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Forbidden Fruit

A friend of mine, back in his university days, had a roommate who was not a Baha'i. Every evening this friend would read from the Writings, as we all do, and then head off to sleep. One night, his roomie asked him what it was that he was reading.

"Oh," he said, evasively, "it's a Baha'i book. You're not allowed to read it unless you're a Baha'i." And then, when he finished his reading for the night, he placed it back on the bookshelf.

Later, around 3 a.m., he woke up to the sound of his roommate turning off a flashlight as he put "The Hidden Words" back on the shelf.

He didn't say a word, either then or later, but every night his roomie would sneak a quick read in this "forbidden" book. It was a short time later that this roommate became a Baha'i, too.

This story has always had a place in my heart, for it relates to an emotion I can easily identify with: wanting to attain the forbidden. I mean, isn't this just one aspect of the "human condition" with which we all must struggle? OK, maybe not, but I sure do.

In fact, I think it is also one of the stories in the Bible that I was first able to relate to: the forbidden fruit.

Now I could go into all sorts of analyses of the story of Adam and Eve, and the serpent and the apple, but I've done that in other places. You could also read the section in Some Answered Questions, which says so much more than I possibly could, so why go on?

The reason for writing about this is quite simple: I've always loved that story about The Hidden Words and I just had to find some way to put it down.

But it also seemed to go well with something else I've noticed. You see, I write this blog for Baha'is. It uses some Baha'i vernacular (although I try to keep it to a minimum), bluntly talks about those things that Baha'is take for granted (like Baha'u'llah being a Messenger of God), asks the questions that many Baha'is seem uneasy to address (that's the rebel in me), and makes no apologies about it just being my perspective (and not authoritative, although I sincerely hope my perspective is at least in the ballpark). I don't explain the things we take for granted, nor do I expect the reader to question those assumptions, after all, we are all members of the Baha'i community.

At least that was what I thought when I began this, lo those many months ago.

Now I know better.

A friend of mine said that he figures 70% of you who are reading this are not declared members of the Baha'i Faith. (Where he got that number, I have no idea, but it sounded good to him, so I'll go with it. Besides, I think he is of the school that says 84% of all statistics are made up on the spot.)

Naturally, this made me ask, "So why are they reading it?"

His response? "Because you are writing it for Baha'is. They want to know what we really think."

Hmm.

Forbidden fruit? I don't know.

Given the number of e-mails I have received about this blog, and the questions about the Faith in those letters, I have to agree with him on some level. But is it going to change what I write? Of course not.

Well, that's not quite true. It does change what I write about, as I am prone to try and answer questions that are asked.

But that's not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to look a bit more at this concept of "forbidden" and "temptation".

You see, I often think about my own childhood and the way that I raise my son. In particular, I think about how to encourage him to do good things and avoid harm. When it comes to avoiding harm, those actions that are harmful are generally forbidden. So, how do I forbid something without making it exciting?

The easiest way is fear. I mean, look, when he was a bit younger I really told him firmly, and in no uncertain terms, "Don't touch the hot stove." But let's face it, a hot stove is not really all that tempting.

But with something like teenagers and drugs, there's temptation there, ad fear doesn't seem to work all that well.

In that case, and in most other cases, the best way to avoid temptation is through education. When you understand the dangers involved in touching the stove, or doing drugs, then you really are not tempted at all.

Yet, how often do we really understand the dangers involved in most of our actions? I would venture to say, not really all that much.

Let's take sex as an example. Based on the media, and the various scandals out there, it is probably the most tempting thing for most people. Do we really understand the spiritual implications of sexual union, though? I doubt it. Too many people treat it as a merely physical act, but if that were the case, then a person who is beaten would suffer the same emotional consequences as a rape victim, which they clearly don't. This suggests to me that there is far more going on than meets the eye. It is also probably a major reason that we are not to engage in pre-marital sex, for that kind of intimacy, without the long-term commitment, can be very dangerous, as we often see when two people break up.

That's all a topic for another article, though.

For now, let me just finish this by pointing out that the temptations we face in our life are quite real, whether physical, emotional or spiritual.

'Abdu'l-Baha, Himself, says, "O believers! The tests of God are very severe; you should beseech and cry unto Him that you may be firm and steadfast during all temptations."

And this, coupled with Baha'u'llah's statement that "the gift of understanding" is "First and foremost among (the) favors, which the Almighty hath conferred upon man", seems to imply that it is also the greatest tool we have in avoiding temptation.

Or at least, avoiding temptation that is bad, because not all things that are tempting are bad. For example, I gave in to the temptation to become Baha'i.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ed

Today is a wonderful day: my dear friend, Ed, is getting married.

This has been a long time coming, and his engagement holds an even more special meaning for me. You see, Ed and I used to live together. We were roommates at the Winnipeg Baha'i Centre, caretakers, if you will, for over two years. During that time, a number of older friends kept approaching each of us, single guys that we were, and wanted to know when we were going to get married.

There were many evenings, alone in the Centre, over a cup of tea, that we would talk about this. "Why", we asked each other, "are they so concerned about this?" It wasn't like we were their children, or anything. Why were some of the friends so concerned about us getting married?

It bothered us.

It bothered us a lot.

We knew they loved us, and they were concerned about our happiness, but didn't they know that we needed to take the time to find the right partner? Time was not of the essence. Quality was.

But, you know, the more they asked, the more it bothered us.

Finally, one night at a Feast, Ed and I were talking just outside the main hallway when one of the elders in the community came up to us. With a hand on each of our shoulders, he said, with his thick Persian accent, "Ven are you two going to get married?"

I don't know what came over me. I still can't believe I did it, but I said, "I don't know." I then turned to my friend, Ed, and said, "Hey, Ed, will you marry me?"

Without even a pause, Ed replied, "No Mead, I won't. You're just not my type."

I turned back to the older man and said, "See, I tried."

With wide eyes, a slightly gaping mouth, and not a sound, he turned and walked downstairs. Ed and I were left there in silent giggles.

And you know, I was never asked again when I was going to get married.

Another moment in my life in which Ed played an important role was when Marielle and I got engaged. As you know, Marielle had asked me not to tell anyone, so I didn't.

The evening that I had permission to tell people was a Feast night. Naturally, one of the first people I told was my dear friend, Ed. And Ed, in his own inimicable way, asked me if he could tell some other people.

"Sure, why not?"

So Ed immediately stood up on a chair (it was the social portion of the Feast) and yelled, "Hey, everybody, can I have your attention?" When the room got quiet and everyone turned to him, he shouted, "Mead and Marielle are getting married."

Now it is my turn.

It is with great joy that I get to tell people all over the world that my good friend, Ed, is getting married to Nicole.



(I always wondered how I would get even for his standing on the chair. Now I know.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Convention

I received a wonderful letter today from my National Spiritual Assembly. I have to admit, though, I was a bit shocked to see it in the mailbox. It almost made me feel as if I were being called to the principal's office. (Doesn't that just say something about me and my personality?)

When I first noticed the return address I had to think about my recent activity and consider if I had done anything that would get me into trouble. Then I remembered that I wrote them a letter asking about an issue based on a recent article (and no, I don't feel like digging back right now to link it here). But then I realized that I sent them the question via e-mail, so knew it couldn't be a response to that.

Being the pro-active sort of person that I am, I decided to suspend speculation and just open it.

To my surprise, and delight, it was a letter to all the delegates for the upcoming National Convention (somehow, don't ask me how, I was elected as a delegate this year).

They have taken the wonderful initiative of sending out ballots well ahead of time. (I'll avoid mentioning that the suggested deadline for sending in mail-in ballots is two days from now, after all, it's the thought that counts and I'm sure if I were in charge of this, the deadline would have been 2 weeks before I got around to sending it out)

The reason that this was done was so that the delegates could be reminded to consider their votes in advance. As this is a subject that is very dear to my heart, I am elated to see this. While it may have been done in the past, or may even be done in other communities, this is the first I have heard of it.

And so I have carefully read the letter, and naturally have a few comments.

The first, interestingly enough, is about the very end of the letter. They say, and I hope I'm not violating any sort of copyright or privacy issues, the following:
As a delegate, you are called upon to fulfill the essential duty to "...exercise not only the vital and responsible right of electing the National Assembly, but... also fulfill the functions of an enlightened, consultative and co-operative body that will enrich the experience, enhance the prestige, support the authority, and assist the deliberations of the National Spiritual Assembly".
I must say that I am humbled by the thought of this.

But more than that, I am reminded that this also applies to the station of the Annual Meeting in my own hometown. As I often say, if it works on the macro-scale, I believe that it works on the micro-scale, too. We are all, in a sense, delegates when we attend our own Annual Meeting on that first day of Ridvan.

Too often, though, I have heard the friends talking about the Annual Meeting with new Baha'is, and they say that it is to get together and elect the local Spiritual Assembly. While that is true, it seems that we often forget the other part of it: to "fulfill the functions of an enlightened, consultative and co-operative body that will enrich the experience, enhance the prestige, support the authority, and assist the deliberations of the (local) Spiritual Assembly".

I may be out of line, but hey, this is only my own understanding, and it works for me.

In this letter, the National Spiritual Assembly refers to "the special responsibility you are being called to" and they encourage all the delegates to "prepare yourself for the sacred task..."

Isn't this how we should approach our Annual Meeting?

Now, I have to tell you, I'm something of a numbers guy. I look at trends and stastics and they seem to speak to me (no, not like the voices from the Concourse on High, sheesh). It seems to me very telling when I hear, year after year, in community after community, that something like 75% of the visible community (those members that we see at least once a year) cast a ballot, but only 10% attend the Annual Meeting. It seems to me that this shows we are very aware of the importance of casting our ballot, but may have a bit of work to do on understanding the other part of that "special responsibility", the other "function" of that "essential duty".

Maybe it comes down to that "congregational mindset" referred to by the Universal House of Justice. Too often I have heard people talk about letting the Assembly take care of things, but we just know that this is not what the Faith is about. The Guardian, himself, warned us that "Without (our) support, at once whole-hearted, continuous and generous, every measure adopted, and every plan formulated, by the body which acts as the national representative of the community to which (we) belong, is foredoomed to failure." And I think that support begins at the level of the Annual Meeting.

We have a very special duty, a sacred obligation, to partake in the consultation that arises at the Annual Meeting, to help it become more "enlightened". And the participation of each and every one of us will obviously "enrich the experience, enhance the prestige, support the authority, and assist the deliberations" of our Assembly. Even if we are not elected to that august body, we can still offer our views and insights. This can do nothing but help our institutions in their work.

Further to this, in the letter that I received, I was reminded "to vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired (me) to uphold." I am so happy that this quote is in there, for it is a solid reminder that all successful endeavours begin with prayer, and generally involve that inspiration.

Finally, they also offered 8 points to follow when filling out the ballot. While each of the points are straightforward and obvious, given a moment of thought, I am still glad that they are there. They have left nothing to chance. We are reminded to vote for only those Baha'is over 21, resident in the country, and not serving as a Counsellor. There are a few other simple guidelines, like being certain not to duplicate a name, and to write clearly and in block letters, but one point amused me.

Point number 4 says that we should do whatever we can to assist the tellers in recognizing who is being voted for, by not only writing down the full name, but "also any other identifying factor he or she may know". Now I understand what they mean, but somewhere in the depths of my twisted brain, probably arising from watching too many police dramas, I just imagine writing something like, "Jane Doe, resident of Small Town, has a little purple butterfly tatoo on her left shoulderblade, and likes pickled squid".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Psychic Stuff

Based on a number of letters and questions over the last post, I thought I would address a question that came up in various ways: What is the Baha'i view of psychic phenomena?

As usual, before I answer, I must remind you, dear Reader, that this response is only my own view. It is not meant to be an official representation of the Faith, although I do base it on my understanding of the Writings.

I would also like to take a moment to remind you that I am a Baha'i, and that this is being written with the presumption that my audience is Baha'i, too, with the various understandings and assumptions that go with that. The main assumption, of course, being that you understand that the Baha'i Writings are divinely inspired and that this is a common starting point for our conversation.

Whew. That being said, let's see what 'Abdu'l-Baha says about psychic phenomena.

The first, and probably most important, quote from Him is, "To tamper with psychic forces while in this world interferes with the condition of the soul in the world to come. These forces are real, but are not to be active on this plane." He goes on to explain "The child in the womb has its eyes, ears, hands and feet, but these powers are not in activity. The whole purpose of the womb-life is the coming forth into this world. So, the whole purpose of this matrix-world life is the coming forth into the world of Reality, where all these (psychic) forces will be active. They belong to that world."


Most of the other quotes that I found in the Writings seem to stem from this one.

But let me just say that I think there is a distinction between what He refers to as "psychic phenomenon" and the "inspiration" to which we should try and be open. Personally, I do not see them as the same, and I think some other quotes from Him bear this out.

'Abdu'l-Baha talks about "inspiration" as being one of the 4 ways by which we can come to understand reality. "What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart." Yet, like the other 3 approaches to understanding, this one, too, is fallible. Whether it is through the senses, reason, traditions or inspiration, none have a guarantee of accuracy. With inspiration, "The question arises, How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?"


The answer, like a similar question for the other 3 methods, is trial and error. But we must also, as I say repeatedly, be sure not to impose our understanding upon others.

Take this story that I shared in the comments for a recent post:
There is a beautiful time when (my wife and I) were talking to this man we had just met, when I clearly heard a voice say "Ghana".

Without batting an eyelash, I asked the man where he was from. He smiled and said, "Where do you think I'm from?"

"Ghana."

Both Marielle and Samuel (the guy), looked at me in shock.

This was the opening needed to really begin talking about the Faith.

Afterwards, when he had gone, Marielle asked me how I knew. I told her about the voice, and that I absolutely knew I had to somehow mention Ghana.

She looked at me in awe and said, "I know. I heard exactly the same voice just before you said anything. I was just trying to figure out how to bring it up when you asked him where he was from."
Was that a psychic phenomenon? I don't think so, for there was no effort on my part in an external direction. To me, it was no different than listening to the Samuel speak, just that the voice came from somewhere unexplained to me.

Did I "know" he was from Ghana? Of course not. But I did have a feeling, based not only on that voice (if I keep mentioning hearing voices, I'm sure I'll get locked up at some point), but also on his skin tone and accent. I didn't impose my "belief" on him by telling him that he must be from there, but asked him, instead. That was just courtesy.

I firmly believe that the Concourse on High, whatever we may understand that term to mean, offers every single one of us little nudges like that throughout our life. Being open to inspiration, to me, means allowing ourselves to accept these occassional nudges and act on them.

This is different from being "psychic", in which you are actively reaching out to try and cultivate these forces for your own use.

It is like the baby in the womb. As 'Abdu'l-Baha mentions, they have all these physical attributes, like arms and legs, but they are not actively using them. They are, however, using them, and exercising them inadvertantly. The action of a baby in the womb kicking has about as much volition as I do when I yawn.

The key here, to me, is to allow these nudges to guide me, but not to go out and seek them.

So, sorry if this didn't interest you, but I just had a feeling that I should write it. Then again, you probably knew that this is what I would write about today.

A Story of a Marriage

I have told this story so many times, but I've never written it down. As today is the 8th anniversary of my wedding with Marielle, it seemed like a fun time to tell this here.

It is the story of how my wife and I ended up as a married couple, and I tell it because it is not the traditional sort of happening. In fact, we really tried to ensure that we were following Baha'i law the whole way.

It all began many years ago when I was a young teenager in Europe. I had visited a diamond factory in Amsterdam, one of those tourist trap places, and felt impelled to buy the most expensive brilliant-cut flawless, blue-white diamond I could afford: 5 points big. I knew deep inside that I would make my own wedding ring someday, even though I had no intention of ever becoming a jeweler.

The stone was taken home, put in a safe place, and rarely thought of until a few years later when my first wife and I decided to get married. I told her the story of this diamond, offering to put it in a ring for her. She didn't like diamonds, especially white ones, and requested another stone instead. She told me, in a sincere and loving way, to save it for someone who really would appreciate it. Her preferences ran more towards coloured stones.

And so it stayed in a safe place.

It was at this time that I began working in the Temple gardens in Wilmette. One afternoon, after work, I was lying on the grass on one of those little hills. I was thinking about the world, and how our marriage partner is said to be with us throughout all the worlds of God. Knowing that we won't have a physical body there, I began to wonder how I would recognize my wife. "What", I asked somewhere in the depths of my being, "will I call her?"

As soon as the question had formed, I heard a voice as clear as a bell, and sweeter than honey, say "mar-yel-o-day". I remember sitting bolt upright in shock, wondering where that voice came from. It was so clear that I wrote that word down, so as to be sure not to forget it.

It was a number of years after this that Connie, my first wife, and I divorced. One day, over coffee, we were talking about where we were going to go and what we were going to do with our lives. I mentioned that I didn't know where to go, as she was the only reason I was staying in Chicago. I had job offers in many other cities, but none of them called out to me. "Winnipeg," she suggested. "You seem radiant every time you come back from Winnipeg."

And so I moved here.

The years went by and I began to serve the Baha'i community here. One of these services came to me by accident. It was my monthly talks in Augustine United Church, which led to many church talks in other churches. I've told this story in another article, so I won't go into it here.

Let's just say that the fact that I was being invited to speak in Christian churches intrigued Marielle, and she wanted to know how I did it. One night at a Feast, she approached me and asked if we could talk about it.

Ooh! I get to do an aside here now. I haven't done one of these for a long time.

Marielle was wearing a stunning red dress that evening, and a number of the male Baha'is were ogling her. Some were even making some minorly rude comments. Hard to believe, I know, but sadly true. I like to think that they were moved by some unseen spirit to do this, as they normally would not have, just so that Marielle and I could talk. Anyways, the fact that I politely answered her questions, and spoke with her on an intellectual and spiritual level, never once commenting on her dress, made a very favorable impression. I, however, was clueless of this. In case you have never noticed, I tend to be clueless about a lot of things like that.

So there we were, talking aout service to the Faith, and she asked if she could attend some of these talks.

How could I say no?

It was also at this time that I was going up to Dauphin, Manitoba, on a regular basis to talk about the Faith up there. The friends in Dauphin asked me, one day, if I could bring some musicians with me, to give some variety to the talks. I immediately thought of Marielle and my friend Samuel.

We drove up a few weeks later, along with our dear friend, Sinj, and that was things began to change.

During the presentation that evening, I noticed that Marielle and I worked really well together. My stories blended beautifully with her music, and her music led right back into the next story I wanted to tell. It felt comfortable. No, more than that: it felt complete.

Fortunately, Marielle felt that, too.

Now, she had just recorded a CD, and was getting ready to do a tour, so she asked me if I could go with her to help teach while she was performing. Once again, I found myself in the position of not being able to say no. Not that I wanted to say no, but even if I did I couldn't.

Although the tour never materialized, we did prepare for it. We sat down and studied the Writings together, knowing that we would have to have a very solid foundation if this were to work. When thinking about what to study, we realized that, as collaborators, we would need to know how to consult together, and so we chose the Consultation Compilation.

As you know, dear Reader, that whole compilation is all about Assemblies consulting with their community, or with each other. How, we wondered, did this relate to two individuals who want to learn to consult with each other?

I suggested that we look at the idea of macro-micro. In this compilation, we read about an institution consulting. I figured a two-person institution would suggest marriage, and so suggested we could see it in that light. I had no ulterior motives in making that suggestion. Really! It was just the simplest way I could see it at the time.

We did, however, wonder about the permissibility in making a leap like that. Then we got to extract number 10, in which we read "for they are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden."

Me being me, I skipped over that bit, thinking "Oh yeah, the this of one that. Let's get to the important stuff."

Marielle being Marielle, thank God, stopped me. "You're skipping over sacred Text. Let's see what's in there." And thus began an analysis that changed my life. What I was skipping over was a classic example of macro-micro, there within that Text. Sea - river. Stars - one sun. Trees - flowers. Water - light - life. It was as if 'Abdu'l-Baha were telling us that if it works on one level, it is ok to read it on another. More on that here.

Now we began to learn how to consult as two individuals, unknowingly paving the way for our future marriage.

While all of this was happening, a friend of mine who owned a jewelry store invited me in so that he could teach me how to make a ring. For some reason, he said, he felt impelled to teach this to me.

"Take a ring from that scrap pile," he said. So I did. It was the smallest gold ring in the pile. Super tiny. But I knew it was the one I needed.

"That's too small," he chided, "get a bigger one."

"No, this is the one I want."

And so he proceeded to show me how to take a scrap ring and turn it into a work of art.

When I went home that evening, I got out my diamond from my safe place and put it in my backpack. The next day, when I went to finish the ring, it went in. I had cut out a 9-pointed star by hand, free-form, in white gold, and the diamond fit perfectly in it.

I was in tears.

When Dean, my jeweler friend, asked me what this ring was, I told him it was my wedding ring. "Really? Who's the luck lady?"

"I have no idea. I just know that it's hers."

That night I went to the Baha'i Centre for another Feast, and was so excited about this ring that I showed it to a number of friends. Marielle walked up and asked if she could see it. I handed it to her and she slipped it on her finger - a perfect fit.

After we were married, she told me that she never looked at jewelry, but when she put on that ring, she heard a voice say, "This is yours."

She was very disappointed when I told her it wasn't for sale.

It was just a few weeks later that we found ourselves studying the Writings again in a coffee shop, and ran across a paragraph in which the Master describes some good virtues to find in another person.

I read that aloud and stopped in mid-sentence. I reached in my pocket, pulled out the ring and asked her if she would marry me.

"Yes," was the immediate response, to the surprise of us both.

She later said that her mind was screaming, "What are you? Nuts?" But her heart would not allow her to say no.

It was that afternoon that we snuck one quick kiss, never to kiss again until after we said our wedding vows a few months later, 8 years ago today.

It was shortly after that when I ran across that piece of paper I wrote in the Temple gardens: "mar-yel-o-det".

My wife's name? Marielle Audet.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring Cleaning, part 2

It never fails: I have an idea, talk it over with my wife, sit down to write it and forget the main point. Fortunately, I did talk it over with my wife first, so when she reads the article, she is able to tell me what I missed.

Quite often this oversight on my part leads into a new article on a totally different subjct, and nobody, except Marielle (and myself) are the wiser.

Yesterday, I wrote a little bit about spring cleaning, or at least that's what I was hoping to write about. It didn't quite work out the way I had planned when I originally thought about it the night before.

The point that I totally failed to get across was that what we need to really be sure to get rid of are those preconceptions that we try to impose on others.

Now don't get me wrong, preconceptions are not necessarily bad, in and of themselves, but they should not be imposed on others. Those are the sorts of things that I think we really need to get rid of in our spring cleaning.

To clarify, though, I don't think preconceptions are always wrong. In fact, I would even say that most of our preconceptions are pretty good. While they are, by definition, formed before any information is gathered first-hand, we gather a lot of information unconsciously and from the world around us.

For example, long before I actually knew much about the Baha'i Faith, I had met a number of Baha'is and I had a good feeling about most of them (well, probably all of them, but I don't really remember). This gave me the preconception that the Faith was a good thing.

Then I learned about it and discovered that my feeling was accurate. Preconception: good.

But this is not always the case.

There are many times when we have a preconceived idea about something, generally an odd connection made somewhere in our brain based on something unrelated in the past, and we believe that we are right. This tends to lead us into thinking that we should defend it, or impose it on others.

However, if we take the time to investigate it, we may discover that we were wrong, and change our minds. That is spring cleaning.

One example is the idea that Baha'is should not have tatoos. Obviously this is not correct, for there is nothing in the Writings against tatoos, but many of us have carried this thought into the Faith from a previous religious background. For more on that subject, click here.

There are other examples that are quite obvious in community life.

One that comes to mind is the some communities read the Tablet of Visitation for the Ascension of One of the Central Figures. In many areas, everyone will stand and face the Qiblih. While this is nice to do, it is not mandatory. Nowhere does it say that it should be this way, although it is not a bad ting to do. The problem is that there are those who now believe you must do it, having seen it all the time, and through unspoken peer pressure, convince others that they must do it, too. I mean, come on, if you're a new Baha'i and really trying to be obedient to the Faith, and you go to a commemoration of the Ascension of Baha'u'llah, what are you to think? Everyone stands up and faces the Qiblih, so naturally you do, too. Nobody said anything, but you do it so that nobody will look at you odd.

Sure, it's not required, but you try sitting down in that situation.

Another thing that stands out in my mind is this one community where the seats were always arranged in "pew style" for the Feast. There was a large hall in their Baha'i Centre with a podium up at the front. Naturally, the chairs were lined up in rows facing the podium. It just made sense.

One evening, while setting up for the Feast, the host, who was responsible for the arrangement of the chairs, decided to put them in a circle. They did a great job of it, artistically arranging them so that the podium fit in quite well into the circle.

The host then went downstairs to set up the food for the social portion, and when he went back upstairs someone else was just finishing lining up all the chairs in little rows again. (The lizard-brain, we can blame the lizard-brain) Good intention, not the best of actions.

It took a few more Feasts in that community, with active work by that host, before this was overcome. The host, who was not hosting these other Feasts, by the way, actively went to the Baha'i Centre early and set up the chairs in a circle time and time again, but didn't leave the room. Eventually the community "got it", and they really did become more adaptable after that.

So next time you go into a room, and see the chairs set up in the same old way, you may want to ask yourself "Why?" Is it just convenient, or is there a more valid reason?

Why are we doing the things we are doing? Is it just out of habit? And is it the best way?

Try a bit of change, and see if some of the ideas need to be tossed. Who knows? You might find a better way of doing things.

But always be careful not to do things merely because "that's the way it's done", for you may be inadvertantly imposing your ideas on others.

One last example: I remember this lady who really loved the Faith, but never declared. She came to all the activities of the community that she could, and really defended the Faith where possible. She taught up a storm, but never enrolled. Finally someone asked her why she wasn't enrolling. Her answer? "Because I don't have a black dress."

It seems that all the Persian women in her community at that time wore black dresses, and she thought to be a Baha'i, you had to wear a black dress.

You really can't fault anyone there. It was just an assumption, which could have carried over for quite some time. But really, imagine if she did enrol, and began teaching that you had to wear a black dress. Hmm.

Well, time to say my evening prayers.

Maybe I can pray for a black dress for my wife. She looks good in black.

Spring Cleaning

Once again, it's that time of year. (Hmm, I wonder how often I'll use that phrase in the course of a single year)

It is time for spring cleaning, that time when we go through all of our stuff and decide what is good and useful, worth keeping, and what is junk and only worthy of the trash heap (or a garage sale or recycling).

I also thought it might be an interesting opportunity to look at my own beliefs, and the way I approach my faith. Now please note that this is not meant to question my faith itself, but rather to be seen as a time to re-examine what I believe about my faith and seek out those things that are my own baggage, as opposed to those elements that are part of the Faith itself.

One example that sticks out for me is the recent Feast. As it was the Feast of Baha, we decided to first get together to break the fast, and then go into the Feast. Some had suggeted starting with the social portion, but this, it was pointed out, is not permissible. And so we said a prayer, broke fast together, said some more prayers for the Feast, had the administration portion, and then a very short social portion, as it was quite late and all the children needed to go to sleep.

This, to me, was an example of looking at the Writings to see what was allowed, and what was just our own desire.

Another example with the Feast is the Fund report, and when it occurs. The Assembly in my area has looked through the guidance and they have found no indication of when a Fund report should be made. They have tried many different things, except putting it in our newsletter, and seen what impact each variation has. They have tried having it right after the devotions, in the middle of the administrative portion, and just before the social portion. What they found, through careful analysis, is that sneaking it in at the end of the adminstrative portion seems to work best in this city. Perhaps it's because we've just consulted on the work of the community and we are all acutely aware of the needs of the Fund.

Now this is, of course, on the community level, but what about on the individual level? What are those things that I do in the practice of my faith that are actually part of my own baggage?

In the Hidden Words, Baha'u'llah tells us to "bring thyself to account each day", but He does not specify when. Most of my friends do this at night, just before saying their evening prayers. As you may have noticed in some recent postings, I often do this in the morning, when the house of quiet, allowing this reflection to set the course for my day. I originally began doing this in the evenings, and continued doing it then out of habit, but lately realized that the morning hours were more conducive to this for me.  It was an insight that was only made by taking the time to reflect on my daily activities.

As I sit here thinking about what else to "spring clean", I find that nothing else is really coming to mind. Perhaps it comes from having done this sort of reflection for this blog, or perhaps it is just that it is difficult to look at the things I take for granted, precisely because I do take them for granted.

The only other one that comes to mind is the way I say my prayers. In my community I noticed a while ago that we all seemed to say our prayers by either reciting them in a monotone voice in English, or chanting them in Persian. Either one was likely to put me to sleep, the monotone because it was generally boring, and the chanting, beautiful though it was, because I had no clue what was being said. Obviously, this is an indictment against myself, and not on those friend who can chant so wonderfully.

My solution, for what it's worth, was to talk with some of the youth and show them a video of some Southern Baptists praying. At the next Feast, when I was asked to say a prayer, I read a prayer from Baha'u'llah, with the bolded words bolded to show you my emphasis:

ALL praise, o my God, be to THEE
Who art the source of ALLLLLLLL glory and majesty...

Well, you get the idea. Anyways, while I was reciting this prayer, one of the youth jumped up and cried out "Ya! Baha'u'l'Abha!"

I thought a few of the friends were going to have a heart attack, the way they jumped at that.

But you know, it is a valid form of prayer.

The reason that I did this was not to be a disturber of the peace (although that was a bit fun, I have to admit), but because I had been at a few devotional gatherings and noticed something very disturbing. There were some friends who were there who were not Baha'i, and they had said some prayers from their heart. While I thought they were beautiful, having spent a lot of time in a church where prayers from the heart were the norm, I noticed that there were some glances their way as a few of the friends realized that what they were saying was not a "revealed" prayer.

Now these glances may not have seemed like much to those who gave them, but afterwards, thoes who were the recipients of them said that they felt "condemned". That was their word. I had to explain that in the Baha'i Faith, very few of us use our own prayers, and many of us are not used to it. Those looks were not meant to be condemning their style of prayer (at least I presume not), but were actually looks of surprise. I said that the friends needed time to process something that was different from what they were used to. After all, I explained, we know that prayer is conversation with God, and not all conversation is scripted. Sometimes it goes in a direction different than you expect.

This may not be the best example of "spring cleaning", but it is what comes to mind right now. I am certain that I will continue to re-examine the ways that I do a lot of the things I do over the next few weeks, not to mention over the next few years or decades, and if anything else springs to mind (pun intended), I'll let you know.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Gifts

Early Sunday morning, the sun peeking over the horizon, a cat purring on my right. The scent of fresh coffee wafting through the air, an uncommon scent this Naw Ruz day after having abstained from caffeine during the fast.

Naw Ruz is a morning of reflection for me, a time when I reflect a bit more than most mornings, casting my thoughts over the past year and watching them leap forward for another one. It is also a time of small indulgences, a time to appreciate the gifts of God within this world.

Although most mornings I make myself some sort of a hot drink to clear away the dryness from my throat, today I make an especially good cup of coffee, and add in some cinnamon (the best I can find), along with a tinge of the best vanilla available. We are, after all, to enjoy the gifts of this world; neither to scorn them nor allow them to become a barrier between us and our Creator.

I partake of some homemade muffins, made with fine ingredients, and soon to be shared with dear friends as the rest of the house slowly wakens.

This is a good day.

I am reminded, as I pause to think over the past 19 months, since last Naw Ruz, of the strange twists and turns this last year has taken. My dear son, who is now 5, has grown healthier and more rambunctious, filled with a sweet spirit of faith, and a wisdom that defies my belief.

My wife has had a difficult year, what with being out of town most of last summer, and then suffering a mis-carriage. It has been trying for her, but she is coming through stronger and more beautiful than ever.

My dear step-father passed away late in 2009, and he will be sorely missed, dear friend that he was since I was my own son's age. I am truly grateful that we were able to see him one last time, and say our farewells, before he passed. That was a gift beyond compare. Shoghi still breaks out in tears every now and then, months later, saying he misses his "Papoum". I can only smile with tears my own eyes as we say a prayer for Harold's soul. Again, I am grateful for Shoghi's wisdom and love.

The paw on my lap reminds me to not forget George, my God-touched cat, and his role in this blog. If it was not for this cat, this blog would never have begun.

But all of this is, in the end, the superficial stuff. It is what gives flavour, to be sure, to my life, but the true gifts lie below it all. It is the true gifts that allow me to appreciate these other ones.  After all, throughout this recent fast, I have asked God to supply me "with the Hidden Gift Thou didst ordain for the choicest among Thy creatures." What, I must ask myself, are some of these hidden gifts? I have already easily recognized just a few of the obvious ones, the ones that are not really hidden, even though I left out many, such as dear family members and friends.
 
I have prayed, time and again, to "Number me not with them who read Thy words and fail to find Thy hidden gift which, as decreed by Thee, is contained therein, and which quickeneth the souls of Thy creatures and the hearts of Thy servants." And I read, over and over, to be allowed to turn in the direction of these gifts, to acknowledge them, and to not let them out of my sight.


"What are they?" I find myself asking on this morning of gift acknowledgement.

These true gifts, to which all these other ones bow, include "First and foremost... the gift of understanding... Next in rank, is the power of vision, the chief instrument whereby his understanding can function. The senses of hearing, of the heart, and the like, are similarly to be reckoned among the gifts with which the human body is endowed."

When I think of those who have passed away this past year, I recall that Baha'u'llah says that death "conferreth the gift of everlasting life".

As I filter through the Writings, looking for more of these gifts, I find "the gift of Thy presence", "every ordeal suffered in Thy path", "justice", "wisdom", God's "majesty", "the gift of unity", "peace and tranquility": these are just a few of the ones mentioned.

Without any one of these gifts, these precious treasures found within the storehouse of the Divine, all the other gifts I mentioned would wither. These are what allow me to appreciate what I have.

But "That which is preeminent above all other gifts, is incorruptible in nature, and pertaineth to God Himself, is the gift of Divine Revelation."

And that, dear Reader, is what makes it all valuable.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Naw Ruz - Baha'i 101

Alright, alright. I didn't forget.

Earlier, someone had asked me to begin writing what she called "Baha'i 101". Now, I can't really use that title, because the US NSA has it. To see their version, you can click here.

But today, I was asked "What is Naw Ruz?"

Well, that seems like a simple question, because you can just say "It's the Baha'i New Year", and be done with it. But then I got thinking, is that all? I mean, I just published two other articles on Naw Ruz, and yet I never really talked much about it.

Simply put, Naw Ruz literally translates as "New Day", and is celebrated on the spring equinox, that first day of spring. It is a celebratory time that goes back millenia in many different cultures, although some will try and claim it as their own. But really, let's get serious, tons of different cultures have celebrated the equinox. It is, after all, one of the most natural holidays out there, so to speak.

In the Zoroastrian tradition, which I didn't know until just a few moments ago, some say that the first Naw Ruz fell on the sixth day of Creation, which, as we all know, is the day that God is supposed to have created human beings. I'm sure we can all read something allegorical into that one, if we try.

In the Badi calendar, the calendar used in the Baha'i Faith, Naw Ruz coincides with the day Baha/Baha. That is, it is the first day of the first month. In case you haven't noticed by now, the Badi calendar is made up of 19 months of 19 days each, which totals 361, and so we add 4 days of Ayyam-i-Ha, or 5 in a leap year, tomake up the rest of the solar calendar. The names of the months, by the way, are the same as the names of the individual 19 days in each month, hence 1/1 is Baha/Baha.

The first bird that we see on that day in North America, incidentally, is called "Baha Baha Birdie", and is usually a robin. (I expect an e-mail from a Counsellor or an Auxiliary Board member any moment reminding me to be a bit more respectful) (Just kidding)

Baha'u'llah, Whom I consider something of an authority on the subject, says that Naw Ruz is "a festival unto those who have observed the fast for love of Thee and abstained from all that is abhorrent unto Thee." Quite the "reward", that.

He goes on to ask "that the fire of Thy love and the heat produced by the fast... may inflame them in Thy Cause, and make them to be occupied with Thy praise and with remembrance of Thee." To me, this always seems like He is asking that the fast be a springboard for our teaching work, and that it really take off beginning on Naw Ruz.

In addition to this, 'Abdu'l-Baha clearly likens this celebration to the Day in which we live, when He says "The springtime of God is at hand. This century is, verily, the spring season." He even says, "If we are not happy and joyous at this season, for what other season shall we wait and for what other time shall we look?"

This is "a day of joy, a time of happiness, a period of spiritual growth". Time and again this day, Naw Ruz, is referred to in terms of joy and happiness and growth.

And that, dear Reader, is what I wish for you and all of yours on this joyous and festive day.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Spring Garden

I love being able to take an old piece and place it here. It makes writing during the Fast so much easier. The following piece was written a few years ago, just after the Fast, and it seemed appropriate to reprint it now. Besides, most of my time these past few weeks has been spent getting some work done on a study of the Kitab-i-Iqan. Although there is little published as of yet, my friend and I are trying to get caught up on our work.

Enjoy these last couple of days of the Fast, and have a very happy New Year.

- - - - -

Well, it's that time of year again. Spring has come and the winter's snows have melted. Marielle and I looked at the backyard this morning, wondering what to do with it. As usual, it is a slushy, sloppy mud-pit. The crystaline shimmering snows have turned to dreary piles of dirty ice. There are dead plants in the garden, and the grass is all brown and mucky. Garbage has blown everywhere, and all the trees that looked so healthy last year now seem little more than a mess of dead twigs.


And yet, it is one of the most beautiful sights I can imagine.

There is so much we can lament about it. We could cry over the lost plants from last autumn, or strive to re-build those sparkling structures of snow that gave such mesmerizing moments of pleasure throughout the winter. Instead, we realize that the melting snows that look so dismal at this time are carrying the waters necessary for the garden to bloom.

It would be so easy to say that there is nothing we can do to make it better. The work that is involved in making it a beautiful, lush garden once again is dauting. And we can even say, "What's the point? It will just get ruined again next winter." To those who watch us over the next few weeks, it would be so easy for them to wonder why we are "wasting" our time. All they will see is the family digging in the mud, raking out the grass, and tossing the piles of branches onto the compost heap. They may see us take perfectly good peas, beans or kernels of corn, or tiny seeds from myriad plants, and "throw them away" by sticking them in the ground.

But to those with vision, they will understand that we do it in order to reap the harvest at the end of the season. They understand that most every seed we carefully plant will blossom and give either flowers or fruit. They will know that we will gather the fruit and eat of it. They will see the wisdom in planting the flowers that will give us medicine for the next year. They will smile as they see us labour for a bounty that is, to most eyes, as yet invisible.

It is for this reason, too, that I write these articles.

It is for this reason that Marielle and I take the time to work with the neighbourhood children and teach what little wisdom we can impart.

It is for this reason that Baha'is, all over the world, are not concerned about the various political dramas playing out in many countries throughout the globe. Although we lament any hardships they may cause, still we strive diligently and intelligently to plant the seeds that we know will grow into a plentiful harvest in the years to come. We do not try to re-build the shimmering structures of yesterday, trying to capture their mesmerizing beauty. We work to plant a new garden that will grow into itself and help sustain a needy world.

It is the vision of the gardener that sees the garden in the mud. It is the true gardener that understands that the beauty of the icicles and snowflakes pale in comparison to the true beauty of the flowers that shall come. It is the true gardener who understands what lies ahead.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

And a Muddy New Year

I love Naw Ruz. I'm not sure why, though. It is not the party that seems to come around every year, nor the unusual fact that it is the only Baha'i Holy Day with no direct relation to the life of a Messenger of God. No, I think it is just the idea that this is a day when we celebrate the fact that the whole thing has come around full circle.

Then again, it may be the story-teller in me.

With most of the other Holy Days, many of us seem to feel constrained to re-hash the "traditional" stories that float around for that day (like the regular reading of a section of Nabil's Narrative for the Martyrdom of the Bab). Oh, and please don't get me wrong, I love those stories.  As I have said time and time again, The Dawn-Breakers is one of my absolutely favorite books, and I have had the pleasure of hearing some truly dynamic readings of it.

It's just that with Naw Ruz, there is no story associated with it.

As a story-teller, Naw Ruz is like having carte blanche: you can talk about whatever you want. I love it!

For me, it also happens to coincide with one of my favorite times of the year: the spring equinox, that first day of the re-awakening of the planet. It is a time when the icy snows of winter have melted away and the first shoots of the flowers are just beginning to peek through. It is a time when the birds are just beginning to re-appear after their months down south (remember, I'm in Canada).

And it is a time of mud.

I just love the mud. In fact, as I'm typing, I'm waiting to hear the first stirrings of my son this fine sunny morning, eager to dress him and feed him so that we can go to the park and play in the mud. I am a firm believer that every healthy childhood needs a good helping of mud-wallowing, and who am I to deprive my little guy of this?

In fact, it is this very mud that has given me one of my favorite stories for Naw Ruz.

Imagine, if you will, that you only lived for a week. You were born, matured, raised your family and passed away all within the space of a week. Your perspective of the world around you would be a bit different than it currently is.

Also imagine, if you don't mind, that you live in Canada, or some other far northern country. This makes it a bit more dramatic, for everything you know about the world would be coloured, so to speak, by snow and ice at this time of year. In fact, snow and ice would be your world, as it was your parents and your grand-parents, not to mention all of your ancestors for the past 10 or 20 generations.

You would have grown up hearing wonderful stories of how beautiful the ice and snow were, crystal-sharp, sparkling and radiant in the sunlight during the few hours of light available. But you, dear Reader, would be looking around you at the decaying structures, the mounds of dirty snow, and a world that is melting before your eyes.

You would have heard, perhaps, of a great ice hotel that was unparalleled in its time, or those magnificent ice sculptures that captured a beauty that you can scarce imagine. But when you go to visit them, they are nothing like what you heard. The mighty spires that once capped the hotel are only rounded blobs, looking like a candle that has burned for far too long. They are not sharp and pointy at all, much to your disappointment. As for those ice sculptures, there is no detail to them. It is as if the artist saw the world through gauze. You really cannot understand what all the fuss was about.

But then there are those who believe the old stories, and they want to try and recapture the beauty as it once was. They go around and gather more ice and snow, trying in vain to rebuild or save the old structures. Despite their great efforts, nothing really seems to come of it and they end up looking quite silly, for all the well-intentioned fervor and passion.

You look around you and see all these old structures melting away and cannot understand what is happening. You routinely hear the elders pining for the "good old days", but truly do not understand what they are talking about. Yours is a generation of despair and disappointment.

But then someone comes and explains the cycle of the seasons, tells of how the earth is merely continuing its advance around the sun. Yes, there may have been some degree of beauty in the snow, and the ice may have held some sparkling wonder about it, but all this pales in comparison to the coming beauty of the springtime. While we may have been enchanted by the prismatic reflection of the sun, it is a mere shadow, they say, compared to the true beauty of the flowers and grass that are on their way.

"Flowers?" you would ask. You have never heard of flowers, or if you have, they have only been mentioned as a myth. Nobody has ever seen flowers.

"Grass?" you might wonder. "You say that muddy patch over there is a field?" This would defy your own senses, for anyone can plainly see that all that is there is mud and muck, although it once was a beautiful ice-skating rink.

But to one with vision, to one who understands the nature of, well, nature, he knows that all that snow will melt away and turn the once-solid ground into mud. The rivers will overflow their banks, and everything will be covered with muck. It is just the time and nature of the season.

And yet it is that very mud that holds all the seeds of the flowers. It is the melting snows that will give them the water they need to germinate. In just a few short weeks, all that mud will start to see the growth of life and will soon turn into a lush field, filled with verdant life, abundant in colours and textures.

This, dear Reader, is the world around us.

All those old structures that we once regarded as so beautiful are melting around us. There is mud and grime everywhere. Nothing is remaining as it once was.

Yet it is that very mire that holds the seeds within it of the upcoming spring.

Those prismatic flashes of beauty that we have all tried to recapture are but the merest hint of the beauty latent within the flowers that are just beginning to germinate.

The world around us is transforming. Nothing will be the same.

And you, dear Reader, have been given a glimpse of this within the Writings of Baha'u'llah.

"The Divine Springtime is come, O Most Exalted Pen, for the Festival of the All-Merciful is fast approaching. Bestir thyself, and magnify, before the entire creation, the name of God, and celebrate His praise, in such wise that all created things may be regenerated and made new."


And again, "This is the Day, O my Lord, whose brightness Thou hast exalted above the brightness of the sun and the splendors thereof... This is the Day whereon the hopeless have been clothed with the raiment of confidence, and the sick attired with the robe of healing, and the poor drawn nigh unto the ocean of Thy riches."

This is a new day, a new season, a new era, and nothing we have seen can really compare with it. Not even squishing our toes in the mud.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Dance of Faith

Sometimes God just puts the right idea in your path at the right time. During those other times, I find that I have to really struggle to get an idea to write about, but today, well, it's the right time.

A few days ago someone sent me a video link, and this was followed a few hours later by an unrelated comment on this blog from a new believer who is the first Baha'i in his city. These two combined somewhere in my brain and really got me thinking about how the Faith grows in a new locality.

The video is a short talk about how leadership seems to work in action, as far as getting followers go. Using a lone dancer, the narrator points out that the leader has to be willing to stand alone, and possibly even look ridiculous. The crucial point is when another person joins the first one, and then calls his friends over. It is still just the two of them, but the invitation to others has been made. What's more is that the original leader treats the follower as an equal. He makes the dance look easy, allowing the other person to join in the first place. He also focuses the follower on the movement, not on himself. From there, more followers join, and they emulate the other followers, not the original dancer. It all blossoms from there.

It seems to me that this is not unlike the Faith, when introduced into a new community, especially when that introduction is from someone who has just enrolled there.

They often stand alone, supported at a distance through the love and prayers of their fellow-believers. To many of their friends, this new faith which they have espoused may seem strange, or perhaps ridiculous, but we can be sure that they are watching this new believer, waiting to see how it changes their life.

At this point, I am reminded of a passage from the Guardian, in which he describes the movement of an individual from never having heard about the Faith to becoming an active believer. He describes this fully committed individual as having "so deep a longing as to impel him to arise independently... and devote his energies to the quickening of other souls, and the upholding of the laws and principles laid down by his newly adopted Faith."

So this is that crucial point, again. After having accepted the Faith, and taken the time to begin their concentrated deepening in the "fundamental verities" of it, the new believer then begins to really change their life to be more in line with the direction of the Faith itself. They will usually continue their studies in the Ruhi curriculum, and probably begin their own devotional gathering. This gathering will be supported by the friends with whom they study a prayer, as described in the practice of Ruhi Book 1.

As the individual moves through the sequence of courses, they will find themselves not only more naturally being able to raise the level of conversation to the spiritual, but be able to do so more effectively. This will further increase people's interest in them, which they will direct towards Baha'u'llah, instead of themselves.

Someone will take the step forward of asking direct questions, and together they will both look in the Writings to find the answers. They will work as equals, finding joy in the search and in each others' company. Eventually, this other person may enrol.

When this happens, the spark of faith has been transferred.

If the focus is maintained, and this sense of love and equality is carried forward, more and more people will naturally be drawn together. "Naturally", by the way, implies that it will occur, but does not carry a sense of time with it. A tree grows "naturally", but sometimes very slowly. Here, in a new community with a single new Baha'i, it can open up in days, weeks, months or sometimes years. The skills taught in the Ruhi curriculum helps us move that time scale to the days and weeks end of it, and away from the months or years.

But the two of them may still be seen as two loonies. It is when the next person joins that things really begin to roll. Three is the proverbial crowd, and a crowd cannot be ignored.

The group now has to ensure that it remains public, outward focused, for people need to see them to also become engaged. As Derek Sivers points out in the video, "Everyone needs to see the followers, because new followers emulate followers - not the leader." The first Baha'i in a community may be seen as a leader, but he may in fact be a nutcase, as far as others are concerned. The other followers, however, are people they can relate to.

As more and more join the study circles, and come to the devotional gatherings, those who were sitting on the fence will now feel more at ease to join. And perhaps they will enrol, too, given enough love and encouragement. They will also discover that this first Baha'i was not, in fact, a leader, but another follower.

And the major lesson here?  Again, as was said so well in the video, "The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in."

In a new city as a new Baha'i, we need to courageously follow the Faith and show others how to follow, for we are not the first, nor are we the leader. We are actually in the role of that first follower. And the hardest job is to find just one more to come after us. From there on in, if we keep our focus, and maintain the vision of the Five-Year Plan, crowds will come after us.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Chip Off the Old Block

Although I know it is very dangerous to try and write a blog article an hour before the Fast ends for the day, I'm going to be foolish enough to try. Perhaps prayer will get me through.

Actually, this is an easy one.

For the past few days, Shoghi has been regularly asking me if he could write an article. He has said that he wants to write one, and that he knows what he wants to write. The fact that he has just turned 5, and still is not all that great on his spelling, doesn't faze him.

So me being me, and trying to be the encouraging Dad that I hope to be, I asked him what he wanted to write about, while we were driving home this afternoon. He told me, and I have taken careful notes. The following is all from him:

I give you all my love and then I make new love.

I have loving making machines inside me. God gave them to me.

I don't try to love everyone; I just do it. I am made to love everyone.
And there you have it: Shoghi Simon's first published article.

Remember you read it here first!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Little Seedling

Yesterday, as we were driving cross-country, my son asked me if I loved him. Then he asked me if I loved everybody.

Actually, he asked me this dozens of times: "Papa, do you love me?" "Yes, Shoghi, I love you like the wolf loves the moon." "Papa, do you love me?" "Yes, Shoghi, I love you like the elder loves his stories." "Papa, do you love me?" "Oh, Shoghi, I love you very, very much."

A few minutes later a variation of this would start again.

"Papa, do you love me?" "Of course, Shoghi. I love you more than I can describe." "Papa, do you love everybody?"

And then I would think for a moment. "I try, Shoghi."

"Even bad guys?"

"I try, Shoghi, but it isn't easy. So yes, even bad guys."

After the fiftieth or sixtieth time of this, I decided to check and make sure he knew I loved him.

"Shoghi? Do you know I love you?"

"Oh yes, Papa." I could see his smile in the rearview mirror. "Papa, do you love me?"

"Shoghi, do you love flowers?" For some reason I couldn't fathom, this just seemed like the right question in response. Whenever my instincts say to do something like that, I just go with it, even if I don't know why. Especially if I don't know why.

And so, thinking about his joy when we go to the conservatory, I asked if he loved flowers.

"Yes, Papa, I love all flowers."

"Even red flowers?"
"Yes. I love all flowers."

"Do you love yellow flowers?" Yellow is his favorite colour.

"Even yellow flowers. I love all flowers."

"What about purple flowers?"
"Yes, Papa, I love all flowers."

I was beginning to wonder why I was asking. I'm sure he and my wife were, too.

"But Shoghi, do you love flowers with polka dots?"

"Even with polka dots."

"What about flowers with stripes?"

"Yes, Papa. I love all flowers."

"Do you like flowers that smell nice, like roses?"

"Oh, I really like those."

"What about flowers that smell like rotten garbage?" We had just read an article about flowers like that.

"Bleah," was his immediate response. This was followed a moment later with, "Well, I love them, but not their smell."

And there was the lesson we needed to learn. A beautiful summary of "love the sinner, not the sin".

At this point, my wife chimed in. "That's how we love bad guys, Shoghi. Their bad actions are like the bad smell. They are still beautiful flowers, but they just have a scent we don't like. Do you know why they smell that bad?"

Shoghi shook his head, "No".

"Because those flowers need little bugs to help them make baby flowers. And those little bugs like the smell of rotten garbage. But we don't, do we?"

"Bleah," was the giggled reply.

"Baha'u'llah says 'to the beetle a sweet fragrance seemeth foul', so would you rather be a beetle or a person?"

"A person." No question there, for him.

"You see, Shoghi, we get to choose. We can either be a person, and choose to be good, and get to love the rose, or we can choose to be bad and get the rotten garbage, instead. Which would you prefer?"

I just love my family. They teach me so much, and make those cross-country rides even more of a joy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Fun Conversation

A few years ago some people came to my door and wanted to know if they could come in and talk. Never one to turn down a good conversation, I invited them in.

The two young women who entered were both members of a not-to-be-named religious group, and they wanted to know if I had ever read the Bible. Of course I had, so I said so. They then proceeded to have not so much a conversation as a lecture telling me how to read it. They said that I had to re-read it and take everything in it absoutely literally.

"Absolutely literally?" I wanted to make sure that I heard them correctly. "Everything?"

"Oh, yes," they confirmed, "absolutely literally."

By this point, a friend of mine had come into the room and was listening to our conversation.

"So," I asked, "what about 1st Timonthy 2:12?"

Now I've seen some people move pretty quickly in my life, but these two, after a quick glance at each other, drew their Bibles out of their packs quick enough to make a gunslinger in the old West proud. And they did their teachers proud, too, for they found that verse within no more than a couple of seconds.

Then they blinked. In unison.

And they re-read the verse again, just to make sure they read it right.

With slightly puzzled frowns, they looked up at me like two drowning kittens mewing for help.

What they had read in was "I do not permit a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence." Not the same translation as what I had, but close enough.

In a desperate attempt to cover themselves, before I could say anything, one of them stammered, "Well, that is only, uhm, metaphorical..."

My friend piped in, "I don't know. Sounds pretty literal to me."

"I'm sorry for doing that," I said, "but I just wanted to see if you really knew what you were asking me to do."

I proceeded to tell them of my love for the Bible, and my appreciation for the wealth of stories and wisdom contained within it. We spoke for a long time about how we can glean certain lessons from the stories, whether or not we accept them as literally true, and how that should not even matter. We talked, of course, about the need for being "anxiously concerned with the needs of the age (we) live in". We also spoke of the importance of coherency of a message.

So why, dear Reader, do I mention this? Well, first because it is a fun story, and second because I think it shows the need for knowing the Bible quite well in this society. (Of course, if you live in a Hindu community, then you really should know the Vedic scriptures, or if you are in a Muslim community you should know Qu'ran, but I live in Canada, and here I need to know the Bible.) At the time, I think I only knew about half a dozen Bible verses by heart, and that just happened to be one of them. Now I think I may be up to a full dozen, but either way, we still need to be well versed in the religion of our culture.

The actual point, to me, is that we need to be consistent. We need to seriously question our own assumptions, and ensure that what we are doing is both relevant, reasonable and consistent with our message.

You see, over the last few days, I have noticed that the unreasonable stance of many people, in the name of religion, has proven to be a barrier to other people. I have noticed that when the subject of religion comes up, the first thought is that you (or me, in this case) are a religious nutcase with no sense of what is perceivable in the world. It is a barrier that has to be overcome before a good conversation can actually ensue.

The reason for this is that a number of people, for example, have tried to impose their belief of Creationism upon others. They preach a message of love, but do so with a stance of anger, or condemnation. They, similar to the young women that showed up at my door, insist on having a literal interpretation of the Bible, and forcing that interpretation upon others.

These are people who tend to use the Writings of their Faith as a weapon, instead of a light. Or perhaps I should say that they tend to use the light of their Faith as a flamethrower. (A napalm bomb?)

But you see, the Writings of God are never meant to be a weapon, they are meant to be a balm. (Hmm. Balm, not bomb. Pretty alliterative for this early in the day.)

My wife has told me that somewhere in the Writings, 'Abdu'l-Baha says something like those who stick to the letter of the Law have often missed the spirit of it. Although I have not read that particular line, it sure seems to go in line with many other things He has said, so I don't mind mentioning it.

And as I said, that is the real point. I think we need to look at the overall message of our Faith and ensure that our understanding of particular parts of it are in line with that general purpose. I've mentioned this many times before, and it always seems to come up over and over again, so why not here, too?

If the overall purpose of Jesus' message is "love", then we need to ensure that our understanding of all His works is in line with that fundamental teaching. If the overall purpose of Baha'u'llah's message is "unity", then we need to ensure that this message comes through in all aspects of our works in His Name.

When those two young women came to my door with their message, they obviously did not understand this principal, for a singular example, out of many to be sure, showed them that they were working against what they were preaching. Most of our conversation after that awkward beginning revolved around the idea of finding the message of love throughout their study. And it was through that conversation that I felt I was able to best share Baha'u'llah's message of unity.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Most Appropriate Response

There are so many questions that come in that I really feel I cannot answer. Oh, it's not that I don't have a response, or that I can't find something about it in the Writings, it is more that I choose not to answer. Quite often they are questions like, "Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?" or ""Do you believe in Creationism or the Theory of Evolution?"

 
Many of these questions address issues that I do not even discuss with my wife, so why would I put them out there for anyone else to see? It's not that I have anything against anyone knowing my opinions, mind you, but there are some issues that are truly personal and have no bearing on anyone else. My personal belief in these areas has no effect on how I live my life, nor does it effect anyone else, whereas if I state a personal opinion, I may begin to cause contention.

 
Just the other day, in conversation with a friend (ok, it was my brother, now that I think about it, but he's a friend, too), he mentioned that he understood that the Baha'i Faith is not there to cause contention, but instead is there to shed light upon issues.

 
My favorite quote about this, one that repeatedly comes up over and over again, is found in The Tabernacle of Unity.
Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.
I think this answers almost every question that comes in. I mean, really, what difference does it make if I believe in evolution or not? It doesn't effect my life today, does it?

 
But let's look at the original quote in context. Here we have Manikchi Sahib who, from all accounts I have read, was a fairly intelligent guy. I mean, come on, Mirza Abu'l-Fadl was his personal secretary. How much more of a recommendation do you want? I would have given my right hand to be Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's personal secretary (but then I wouldn't have been able to write all that legibly, not that I can anyways).

 
So here we have this fairly smart guy who has met Baha'u'llah and is impressed with both Him and the Baha'is. Naturally he has a few questions, so he writes them down and sends them off to Him for a response. These questions, by the way, are a bit abstruse and fairly erudite in nature.

 
What does he get in response? A Tablet that is home to some of the most famous and widely known quotes that Baha'u'llah writes in His lifetime. I mean, really, when I first read that Tablet in its entirety my jaw hit the floor over and over. "That quote is from here, too?" I swear, I had already read about 75% of this Tablet before I even read it, if you know what I mean.

 
Or as it says in the introduction to Tabernacle of Unity, it "is celebrated for its striking and well-known passages epitomizing the universality of Baha'u'llah's prohetic claim." A few too many syllables for me, but you get the point.
 
It is only when I read the second Tablet that I really appreciated Baha'u'llah's sense of humour. I mean, I had read some of His replies to people before that, and saw some humour in them, but here it really stood out, along with the profundity of His response. Not only is it humourous, in a sense, but brilliant, too, in its explanations, both of the realities of the world and the nature of His earlier response.

 
In case you are wondering what I mean, let me explain. This guy writes the Blessed Beauty and gets an incredible reply, one that stands out for its eloquence even amongst His own Writings. But then this guy is not "entirely satisfied" and seems to have written back saying, "You didn't answer my questions." To which Baha'u'llah replies, in a sense, "Oh, but I did. Here, let me show you."

 
And thus we have the second Tablet, explaining the first. In it, He says that Mankchi Sahib "hath failed to consider the matter closely" and that "the answer to all that the distinguished Sahib hath asked is clear and evident". Isn't that a merciful way of calling him a "bozo"? But then again, I read a statement like "Consider how clearly the answer hath been revealed", and I say, "You're kdding, right?" I mean, sure it's clear and evident when you're the Messenger of God, so I don't think I could've done any better that old Manikchi. Personally, I'm very glad that he wrote back and said, "I don't get it." It gave people like me an opoprtunity to figure out what He was saying.

In this second Tablet, He points out that "it was not deemed advisable to refer and reply to each (question) individually" and, instead, responded "in a language of marvellous concision and clarity". This time around, He refers to each question and shows how a single statement in the first one answered the question.

For example, Mr Sahib asks about "four schools of thought in the world" and their views of creation, wanting to know "Which of these four schools is approved in the sight of God?" The short and sweet answer could have been "None. They're all wrong." But that would not have been all that sweet, really. Instead He replies in a manner that is similar to that used later by 'Abdu'l-Baha in Some Answered Questions, when asked about reincarnation. 'Abdu'l-Baha, rather than giving a simple yes or no answer, begins His marvellous response with, "The object of what we are about to say is to explain the reality -- not to deride the beliefs of other people; it is only to explain the facts; that is all. We do not oppose anyone's ideas, nor do we approve of criticism."

Oh, that more of us would learn to reply with such tact and wisdom.

I think too often we are ready to share answers that really have no relevence and, in the end, do nothing but divide people. This is quite often in regard to subjects that are irrelevant to making the world a better place.

Here are a few of the questions that have come in, to which the above quote is the most appropriate response:

  • When performing a baptism, do you immerse or sprinkle?  Or, as I would say, dunk or splash?
  • Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?
  • Do you believe in reincarnation?
  • What type of wine was served at the Last Supper? Red or white?
  • Is the earth flat or round?
  • Do you believe in evolution or creation?
  • Do you believe in the trinity?
  • What side do you butter your toast, top or bottom?
OK, that last is an homage to Dr Seuss, but it is about as relevant as the others. And still, there are many more that I have not included.

In the end, I think we should "Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age (we) live in, and centre (our) deliberations on its exigencies and requirements".