Friday, April 29, 2011

Spiritual Starvation, part 2

I'm sorry this post has taken so long to get out. I've been fighting a silly cough, and it has left my head a bit more fuzzy than usual.

My last post on this topic talked a bit about this sense of spiritual starvation that some of the friends have mentioned to me. In that post, as you know, I only really spoke about the Administration and, as one reader pointed out so well, acknowledged how we are still at the very beginning of this whole process of building the Baha'i civilization.

Before anything else, I'd like to take a quick look at some of these other traditions that a few friends are turning towards and see what it is that they offer. To do so, I'm going to look at my own life and my own particular leanings. After all, this is all about how I approach my own faith (hence the name onebahai), so why not start there?

As some of you may know by now, I grew up in a Jewish community. One of my most cherished memories from childhood is the annual Passover Seder, in which my cousins' grandfather, Grandpa Leo, presided over the ceremony. I loved all the little details of it, from the yarmulke he wore to the search for the "passover gelt", which was usually a silver dollar hidden somewhere in the house.

Odd as it may seem, we also celebrated Christmas. And one of my favorite things during that time was, as you can probably tell from my posts about Ayyam-i-Ha, the Christmas stockings. There was something absolutely delightful about running downstairs on Christmas morning and finding one of my socks absolutely stuffed to overflowing with little gifts. (I won't even go into the magical moment of running downstairs and seeing the ashen footprints leading from the fireplace to the Christmas tree.)

Yeah. These are precious moments, indeed.

But what are the magical moments that my son will grow up with? What are those moments of tradition that we find within the Faith?

Too often, when I ask this question, I am faced with the indignant reply of, "Oh, well we don't have any rituals within the Baha'i Faith."

While it may be true that we don't have any rituals, in the sense of the term that the Guardian used it, this does not mean that we don't have any traditions. In fact, we have a great many traditions, some of which are actually useful (in my opinion).

Aside: I remember one evening a number of years ago when I was renting a room in a family's house. I came down to prepare some dinner only to discover the mother with a hacksaw (yes, a hacksaw in the kitchen) cutting off the end (aren't you worried now) of the (isn't the suspense just killing you) bone on a (ewwwww) leg of lamb. (What were you thinking?) She was working quite hard at getting rid of the knot on the bone that goes into the hip joint. And so I asked her why she was doing this. She looked at me kind of puzzled, and said, "Well, my mother always did this."


She wasn't sure, so we got on the phone and called her mom. When asked about this, her mom replied, "Well, my mom always did it."

And so we got on the phone and called her grandmother.

"Grandma," my friend asked, "why did you always cut off the knob on the end of the bone on the leg of lamb when cooking it? Did it release more of the juices from the bone marrow, or something?" See? We were trying to consider why this would be.

"Oh, no," she said. "The oven was small, and it wouldn't fit in unless I cut it down."

It took me a long time to stop laughing. And even longer to not giggle whenever she made any sort of roast in the oven. In fact, I'm still giggling as I type this.

All this to say that some rituals are quite empty of the original meaning.

But some rituals are just wonderful, adding, as they do, a sense of beauty to our life.

It is not uncommon for my wife and I to light candles, or burn incense, or even use a bit of attar of rose when saying our prayers. This adds a greater dimension of beauty to an otherwise sacred moment.

And that, dear Reader, is what I wanted to mention. There have been some cases where a few of the friends, not the majority by any stretch of the imagination, have so reacted against the empty traditions of their childhood (or young adulthood) that they condemn all such traditions. In a very few cases this has led to some rather dry and dusty prayer gatherings, as one friend put it.

You see, the friends, in general, know that prayers are supposed to be beautiful and uplifting, and so they seek that out. Syndey Sprague, in his book "A Year with the Baha'is in India and Burma", made a very interesting observation on this phenomena. He noticed with surprise that the Persian Baha'is were always joyous and laughing. He pointed out they "do not take their religion, as did our ancestors the Puritans, with long faces and acid countenances. Religion is a thing of joy to them, and they rejoice in the spirit and are glad."

In so much of the guidance we find references to the need for beauty, and the importance of joy. And while everyone's intentions are pure, without any doubt, there are some cultural things that just don't translate well, especially in a prayer gathering.

I remember when my wife and I went down to Martinique. We attended a Feast, and while someone was saying a prayer, another person walked in late. Now this did not bother me. I'm actually used to it from my own past. People always come in late, but they usually wait by the door. In Martinique, however, the person reading the prayer stopped in mid-sentence and warmly welcomed the late-comer. This new person then went around and shook everyone's hands before sitting down. Once the greetings were finished, we all sat back down and the reader continued from the beginning of the paragraph where he had left off.

In the north, where I live, we generally read our prayers rather monotonously, or chant in a language most of us can't understand. And while both are beautiful in their way, to someone coming from a southern Baptist background, it sure seems boring. Nobody is jumping up and yelling "Ya! Baha'u'l'Abha!" No one is dancing in the aisles. There are no tears of joy as the Lord's Name is being read aloud. "What is wrong with these people", some may think.

Now that may not be my preferred style either, but it is a good and beautiful way to pray. And to one who is used to this, they may feel a sense of spiritual starvation without it.

It is for this, or similar reasons, that some of my friends have turned to Shamanism, or other similar practices when looking to fulfill their longing for a spiritual life. There is a mystique about it. There is a sense of beauty in the performance of a prayer. It touches them deep down somewhere within the core of their being. And let's not forget that religion is, at its core, fundamentally mystical, even though we also acknowledge that it is in accord with science.

And when they try to find that within the Baha'i community, they are sometimes shot down for it.

I remember a Native American friend of mine who wanted to smudge before the devotions at a Feast. This involves taking some sage, or sweet grass, depending on the tradition, and burning it. He had a large shell in which he would burn it, and then would use a bird's wing to fan it to keep it smoking. The smoke would then be "washed" over the individual to purify them, much like water with ablutions. It is a beautiful ceremony, laden with meaning.

But he was told "we don't do such things in the Baha'i Faith".

And that was where someone else lovingly disagreed.

"You may not do such things," they said, "but I do. As long as it is not against anything in the Writings, I will gladly do it." And they did.

It was a very confirming moment for me.

It made me realize just how inclusive this Faith of ours really is.

There is nothing in the Writings that I have found that says we cannot use incense. There is nothing that says we cannot dance for joy during our devotions, except in a House of Worship, but that is for different reasons. There is nothing that says we cannot anoint each other with rose oil, or smudge, if that is our preferred tradition.

Oh, and there is also ample guidance about what is appropriate during the devotional portion of a Feast, which is quite different from a Devotional Gathering. During the latter we have ample opportunity and latitude to experiment.

The purpose of prayer is to commune with our Creator. And if any of these things help us in that, then well and good.

But, as usual, there is a caution. Within many of the traditions that my friends are turning towards, there is the danger of the ego. When someone styles themselves "master" or "sensei" or some other grandiose title, I always take a step back to see if it is deserved. There are, sadly, too many people I have met in other traditions who are actually quite egotistical, and use their "hidden" knowledge to hold power over others. This is not of God. God does not hide His teachings. They are there for all to see.

When Jesus said that He had many other things to share, but that we could not bear them, He was not hiding His knowledge. He was protecting us. When humanity is ready, the knowledge is freely given.

And so, when turning to these other traditions, I always have to ask myself, "Am I looking for power? Or connection?" If the first, then there is an ego problem. If the second, cool.

But coming back to the Baha'i devotions, there are still many questions we can ask.

Can we have a sweat lodge as part of the devotions? Sure. Why not? If you have a 10 hour Feast and 3 hours for devotion? Why not have a sweat?

What? You haven't heard about those wonderful communities where the Feast lasts all day? I think we should experiment with this more in the West, where we tend to rush so much to do things that are not really all that important. Perhaps if we dedicated an entire day on a weekend to the Feast, we might just find that we advance by leaps and bounds in our teaching efforts. Who knows?

You see, it reminds me of what 'Abdu'l-Baha once said:

Whensoever holy souls, drawing on the powers of heaven, shall arise with such qualities of the spirit, and march in unison, rank on rank, every one of those souls will be even as one thousand, and the surging waves of that mighty ocean will be even as the battalions of the Concourse on high. What a blessing that will be -- when all shall come together, even as once separate torrents, rivers and streams, running brooks and single drops, when collected together in one place will form a mighty sea. And to such a degree will the inherent unity of all prevail, that the traditions, rules, customs and distinctions in the fanciful life of these populations will be effaced and vanish away like isolated drops, once the great sea of oneness doth leap and surge and roll.

I swear by the Ancient Beauty, that at such a time overwhelming grace will so encircle all, and the sea of grandeur will so overflow its shores, that the narrowest strip of water will grow wide as an endless sea, and every merest drop will be even as the shoreless deep.

Does this mean that we won't have any traditions? I don't think so. I think it means that these traditions won't be the cause of separation. They will be the cause of unity and celebration. Instead of negatively saying, "Oh, that's not of my tradition", we will, instead, positively react and say, "That is so beautiful".

And so, in conclusion, all I can say is that I think this is all part of the great cycle in which we find ourselves. It is a marvelous part of the on-going crisis and victory as we learn what this up and coming Baha'i community looks like.

So, am I concerned that some of my friends are seeking spiritual connection in other traditions? No. Of course not. I only hope that they bring back the beauty that they find and share it with the rest of us.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Incompetence and Overwhelmedness

Wow. It has been way too long since I have looked at a piece of the Writings and studied it here with you. Sorry about that. Even though time has often gotten away on me, that is no excuse.
Hmm. What should we look at? Any suggestions?

Yes, you in the checkered shirt, there in the corner. A quote about incompetence? About the feeling of being overwhelmed? Ok. Sure. Why not?

There is a wonderful quote about that very topic from the Guardian. It's one of my favorites.

"If only the friends could realize it, the glory of our Faith is not that people with unique abilities do the work of the Cause, but that it is done by the sacrifice of loving and devoted souls who arise selflessly to undertake work they feel themselves incompetent, sometimes, to achieve. God works through them and endows them with gifts they did not dream they could ever possess."

Now I have to admit, I was actually thinking about looking at something from Baha'u'llah, Himself, but this quote will do.

Aside: (Have you noticed that some of the little phrases I used to use all the time when I first starting writing haven't gotten used much lately? I wonder why that is.) I was at a meeting a few days ago and I mentioned something about my blog (this one here). I can't recall what it was, but anyways, someone said, "Oh, your blog. Every time I search for something on the net about a topic within the Faith, your blog comes up first." Well I think that's disappointing. No, really. I do.


You see, I have tried to encourage more and more Baha'is to write about the Faith on a regular basis. "You don't have to write anything profound. Just write. I mean, look at my stuff. It's not profound. It's just written. And not very well written at that! Run-on sentences. Sentence fragments. (Which I guess average out.) And how often do my sentences start with a conjunction? My eighth grade English teacher would be rolling over in her grave, if she were dead."

So many people have said how glad they are that I am doing this. Why? Because they feel that they can't, and are glad that someone else can.

"Blargh", I say. (You can quote me on that.) We all can add in our bit. And we all need to. The work of the Faith is not done by people with unique abilities. It is done by the sincere efforts of those who arise to do it.

How many stories are there of the Hands of the Cause who were shocked by their appointment because knew how unworthy they were? John Robarts thought the telegraph was for his wife. When William Sears was appointed, he wrote back to the Guardian saying, "Not worthy." The Guardian replied, "Get worthy".

And that last, "Get worthy", has been a guiding light for me ever since I first read about it.

We are all called to do things for this Faith of ours that we know we cannot do. If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be writing about the Faith to the tune of 150 articles a year, I would have laughed. "No way. I can't do that."

But when we arise, trust in God, open our hearts to Him, offer our meager services, beseech His assistance, and do what we see needs to be done, then miracles occur.

I have learned so much by writing here, often surprising myself by what gets uncovered in our conversations, dear Reader. Oh, and make no mistake, this is a conversation to me. I really feel like we are talking with each other. I listen to your advice and read your comments. I take your suggestions to heart (except for the one who said that it was inappropriate to write ones own ideas about the Faith) (well, actually I did take that to heart, examined my own motives for doing this, and then I found clear guidance to the contrary in the Writings), listen to your requests, and ask your opinion.

If there is anything I could say here, it would be to say your prayers, trust in God and just take that step. (Hey! I can say it here. I just did. Wow.)

But there is another issue, aside from that of this unworthy and incompetent servant writing this blog, and that is the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Did you know that the word "whelm" means to cover over? So when you are overwhelmed, it means you are over-covered. It feels as if you are drowning.

But it also reminds me of a quote from Baha'u'llah: "Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths."

And when I was searching for that quote to cut and paste, I also found these: "...immerse yourselves in this Ocean in whose depths lay hidden the pearls of wisdom and of utterance" and "Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness."

I can't really speak for anyone else, but when I feel overwhelmed, it is because I am attached to a particular way of doing something, or a particular outcome. What I need to do at those times is just learn to let go, to be detached. For example, when I am concerned about writing an article every other day, when I feel that pressure to just produce, nothing comes out. You can look back at when I didn't write for a few days and see how often that happens. But then, when I let go of that attachment and just allow the words to flow, then I can write for days.

It is sort of like a garden hose. If you want to water the garden, you just have to turn on the tap and point the hose. If you clutch at the hose, gripping it for all it's worth, straining your hands trying to make sure it goes exactly where you want it to go, then you actually restrict the flow of water. You crimp the very hose you are trying to use, and nothing comes out.

But if you hold it loosely, but firmly, the water flows freely, albeit a bit all over the place. And you know what? That's good. There may be some hidden seeds of which you were unaware. Surprises happen that way.

Sort of like this article.

Maybe tomorrow I'll go through my drafts folder and see what I began but never finished. Or maybe I'll find a passage to study.

Who knows?

Or maybe I'll just water my garden.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Intentions of Teaching

As you know, dear Reader, and as I continually remind you (and me), what I write here is only my own opinion. It is nothing official. In fact, there is no person alive today that can speak with an authoritative voice on the Writings. While the guidance from the Universal House of Justice is authoritative, there is still no individual alive who has that same distinction.

Despite this, I have to point out that when I quote scripture, it is still through the lens of my own understanding. The selections I choose, as well as how I embed them in what I write, are all based on the way that I understand them. But it is, in the end, only my personal opinion, and you are free to take it or leave it.

And this is important, my friend. It is, to my understanding, a cornerstone of the Baha'i Faith, as well as the Baha'i community.

We often talk about the importance of freedom of speech, but the Universal House of Justice has put this phrase into a context for us. They have said, "the exercise of freedom of speech must necessarily be disciplined by a profound appreciation of both the positive and negative dimensions of freedom, on the one hand, and of speech, on the other." As for personal interpretation, they also write about "the interpretation which every believer is fully entitled to voice. Believers are free, indeed are encouraged, to study the Writings for themselves and to express their understanding of them. Such personal interpretations can be most illuminating, but all Bahá'ís, including the one expressing the view, however learned he may be, should realize that it is only a personal view and can never be upheld as a standard for others to accept, nor should disputes ever be permitted to arise over differences in such opinions."

Well, all that is quite the introduction, but I really wanted to ensure that this point was made.

Why? Because just the other day someone made some comments in which that was not clear. They, in my own opinion, tried to impose their understanding of an issue on some others, and that's just not cool.

What did they say? I'm glad you asked. I can always count on you to get right to the point, dear Reader.

They said something that may seem fairly innocuous to many of us, but raised a few eyebrows in the group. They claimed that when we do a home visit for the purpose of having a spiritual conversation, our primary intention should be for the person visited to become a Baha'i.

Naturally, I questioned this assertion, saying that it might be, for me, a secondary intention, but was certainly not my primary one.

It was their response that has prompted this article.

They said that my primary purpose should, indeed, be conversion, reaffirming this even after I questioned it.

This is where a few different points have come up, in my own mind: First, the importance of not imposing our own personal views upon others; second, the subtle distinction between a primary purpose and a secondary purpose; and third, my understanding of the role of a teacher of the Faith, especially in interfaith matters.

I've already outlined my feelings and beliefs on the first point, so I don't need to go on here about it any more.

On the second point, it tends to be confused with the reflex that some people have against it. To start, please be keenly aware that I am not against people becoming Baha'i. I'm not. I think it is wonderful when people recognize Baha'u'llah and embrace the Faith. I also believe it is imperative that the Faith grow in numbers. The work of the Faith cannot be done with the current numbers that are enrolled under the banner of Baha'u'llah. The needs of humanity, indeed of the world, cannot be met with where we are in the growth and development of the Faith. It is in acknowledgement of this reality that I believe the Universal House of Justice wrote, on 1 January 2011, "victories will be won in the next five years by youth and adults, men and women, who may at present be wholly unaware of Baha'u'llah coming". Growth is vital. "...(A) relatively small band of active supporters of the Cause, no matter how resourceful, no matter how consecrated, cannot attend to the needs of communities comprising hundreds, much less thousands..."

Now you know my personal stance on the importance of teaching.

It is vital. (That means we cannot survive without it.)

That being said, when I am visiting a friend for the purpose of a spiritual conversation, it is just that. I am visiting them for the purpose of a spiritual conversation. My primary purpose, my main intention, is to share with them a pearl out of the ocean of Baha'u'llah's Revelation. It is to share those teachings to the best of my ability. Whether or not they become Baha'i is not an overwhelming concern. "Bahá’ís", as was stated by the Universal House of Justice, "have the obligation to teach the Faith with the aim of assisting receptive souls to embrace the Cause, but the nature of the response is ultimately between the hearer and the Almighty."

And so I have no ulterior motive. This does not mean, however, that I am heedless of the opportunities that may arise.

You see, dear Reader, by telling people that it "must be" our primary duty to seek converts, this is forcing us into yet another false dichotomy. It puts people into the position of of either accepting this belief or not. It can actually paralyze the teaching effort as those who do not accept it are now at odds with those who do. In the group in which I was, there was an immediate polarization.

It is similar to when people begin saying that we have to engage in direct teaching at this time.

While this is true, it has never been otherwise. But it is not an exclusive thing. Some people seem to understand that the recent guidance from the World Centre about direct, collective teaching means that we should only engage in direct teaching. I do not believe this is the case. We must engage in teaching. And while we are teaching, we should follow the directive of Shoghi Effendi, who said that we "must be either wary or bold... must use the direct or indirect method... in strict accordance with the spiritual receptivity of the soul with whom they come in contact". In other words, we need to use both,e ach when appropriate.

There is, however, a caveat there. We have not, in general, been using the direct method often enough. This is evidenced by our numbers. In many communities we have seen a large number of people engaged in core activities with very few enrolments. This means that the interest is there, or else our community of interest would not be so great. Many of these people now, most likely, need a simple and loving invitation to join the community of the Most Great Name.

But, in the end, I may be wrong. It is possible that our primary intention does need to be conversion. I don't think so, but I'm open to suggestions.

One last tool I'd like to mention is that of looking at the effect of our actions, or intentions. When I go to a friend's home with the sole purpose of engaging in a spiritual conversation, there is a great response and openness to that. We usually end up having a marvelous conversation, both learning from the other, and they often express interest in engaging in further study.

When I have gone with others whose primary intention is conversion, that has not been the case. Those whom we have visited have reacted as if they were being attacked. And that is not good.

Finally, I have been told by some well-intentioned Baha'is that I should not engage in the interfaith work to the degree that I do. I have been told by some that I should concentrate all my efforts on the Baha'i community, despite the fact that we are to have an "outward-looking orientation". To those concerns, I merely thank these people for their advice, and remember what the Supreme Institution said in response to a letter I wrote them a few years ago: "Unhesitatingly recognizing the divine Source of all the great religions, Bahá’ís are happy to engage in dialogue or common endeavour with other religious communities to contribute to the betterment of the world."

And so I continue to do what I do. I set my priorities based on circumstances and strive to help spread these Teachings to the best of my meager ability, with my intentions as pure as I can make them.

I can only pray that this is acceptable before my Creator.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Thought on Ridvan

It still seems kind of weird to me, seeing lots of flowers in bloom at this time of year. I walk outside, amongst the rocks and forest, and see little clusters of daffodils everywhere. Hyacinths, too. And lilies, as well as countless other mountainous flowers that I don't recognize, but love.

Everywhere, amidst the greens, there are little pockets of whites, yellows, purples, and reds. The cherry trees have gotten and lost their blooms. The apple trees are covered with their flowers. Even the strawberries, cloudberries, and Oregon grapes have their flowers out right now.

When I look at the wildlife, the deer are all prancing around as only deer can do. The garter snakes are out, squiggling along their merry way. The bald eagles, blue herons and ospreys are flying overhead. We have even seen the ruby heads of the turkey vultures and emerald wings of the hummingbirds.

Life is abundant. And it seems to be celebrating.

It is also a time of extremes. At night the temperature drops quite a bit, necessitating a sweater and jacket in the morning, but by noon many of those layers come off and still you feel as if you are going to break out in a sweat despite the very chill wind.

Last year's plant growth is all brown and rotting while this year's growth is green. You wouldn't even notice the brown unless you look for it, which I occasionally do.

Why? Because it is a reminder.

It is a reminder of things past, and the fact that all eventually decays. It is also a reminder of the constant change and growth that occurs.

But none of that is what I look at today. Today I am looking forward.

Not only is today the second day of Ridvan, that most holy of all festivals, but it is also Good Friday, the day that Jesus gave up His breath. It is the day of which Baha'u'llah said, "Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee...."

As Baha'is, we can see the decay all around us, the sorrow that is reminiscent of those first followers of Jesus, but we can also see the glory that is coming. We know that the promised resurrection is fast approaching. We have been given a vision of where we, and all of humanity, is going.

In Canada this year, it is particularly evident, as we witness the contrast between the election we just had on the first day of this most glorious festival, and the upcoming federal election on the last day of Ridvan. These two elections bracket this time so well in my mind. And then, as if this wasn't evident enough, the Universal House of Justice, in this year's Ridvan message, reminded us of Baha'u'llah's counsel to those leaders of nations: "Your people are your treasures. Beware lest your rule violate the commandments of God, and ye deliver your wards to the hands of the robber."

As a family, this year's festival is also different than it has been in the past. Last year, at this time, we were in a community of over 300. This year, a community of over 30. The celebrations in these two communities are quite different, as you would expect in communities of such different size.

This also brings to mind that one phrase that made me jump when I read the 28 December 2010 message. I'm sure you know the one I mean. In paragraph 15 when they say, "If, in a cluster, those shouldering responsibility for expansion and consolidation number in tens, with a few hundred participating in the activities of community life, both figures should rise significantly so that by the end of the Plan, one or two hundred are facilitating the participation of one or two thousand."

My wife and I have been overwhelmingly blessed to have been given a vision of what life is like in a community 10 times the one in which we currently live. We have been privileged to see a glimpse of where we are heading in our community, by seeing a community that is already a magnitude larger. Oh, and not that we know the vision that follows that, but just that we can see a tiny glimpse of where we are going.

It feels as if we are looking at those last remnants of last year's growth, and seeing those priceless flowers just beginning to peek through. We can clearly see the growth that is happening, and that is so encouraging.

But closer to home for us is the sense of celebration that is now evident amongst our own family. Shoghi is now old enough that he is beginning to really develop his sense of identity as a Baha'i. He looks forward with eager expectation to this celebration, and is regularly reminding us to turn on our Ridvan lights each evening.

Oh, and just the other day, at a Feast, he wanted to say "The King" prayer during the devotions. As you may recall, that is the first part of the Tablet of Ahmad. And say it he did. But, as you would expect, he had a bit of trouble. Fortunately the community came to his aid. Whenever he stumbled, someone would gently and lovingly offer the next word or phrase. Beautiful as this was to watch, it had an effect that we did not expect: it encouraged Shoghi to try harder to commit it to memory. Every night now, he asks us to help him with this prayer, and with others.

Yes. This really is a time of promises fulfilled. This is a time of expectations realized. This is a time in which we can parttake of the glory of that garden promised so long ago.

It is, in truth, the festival of Ridvan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An Article on Ridvan

Well, here is the fourth of the three articles I was asked to submit. Yes, you read that right, and no I am not mathimatically illiterate. They asked for a fourth one at the last minute.

To read the article on Ridvan you can click here.

Hopefully it is a decent article.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Election Time

Dearly loved Reader,

Here is the latest post I have offered to my local newspaper for their blog, Spiritually Speaking.

It is about the upcoming elections, both the Baha'i election on 21 April, and the federal election in Canada just a short time later, on 2 May.

I hope you will check it out and, if you are so inclined, even leave a comment. (The editors notice things like that.)

Now, I was going to write a new article here for tomorrow, but I received a request from one of the editors to do an article for their blog (Spiritually Speaking) about Ridvan. How can I say no?

Now to just figure out the angle I want to take.

Thanks for understanding.

With love and prayers,


Saturday, April 16, 2011

God Does Not Exist: One Baha'is Perspective

Well, here is the second article. It is quite fun in that I wrote it before the previous one was published, and yet it seems to be a response to a comment on the last article.

I love it when things just work out that way.

You can click on the link for the provacatively titled article. LINK (clever title for the link, non?)

Once again, comments are most welcome.


Dearly loved Reader, I have to apologize. I forgot to put a link here to an article I just wrote for my local newspaper, The Times-Colonist. As I have mentioned before, I'm writing the occasional three articles for their faith blog, Spiritually Speaking. Well, it's my turn again. Or more accurately, it's the Faith's turn. I just happen to be the writer at this time.

So, for this series of three, the first article is on the oneness of God. I hope you enjoy it.

Oh, and comments therre are most welcome. (It looks good to the editors if I have lots of comments.)

The Oneness of God

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ruhi - Another Thought

Someone sent me a note the other day saying that they really got a lot out of the previous post. That was nice, and all, but then they went on to say how "brilliant" I was for putting it all in that order.


Let me just lovingly point out that I did not put the Ruhi books together. All I did was look at them and try to figure out why they worked so well. Even then, there is so much more there than I could ever figure out. In fact, I didn't even talk about the importance of how they get us trained to focus on the holy writings in the first few sections. I completely left out how they are teaching us about the importance of service and a life dedicated to prayer. There is so much more there. My only desire by writing all this is to try and motivate other people to explore these books a bit more and share what gems they have discovered. Maybe then my little pebbles of wisdom can transform into those pearls of great value. (See? I still think there's hope for me yet.)

After reading that last article to my wife, she sort of nodded that sagacious nod of hers (which usually tells me that I'm not too far off base) and then pointed something out.

She said that Book 2, Arising to Serve, still confused her a bit. She didn't understand how those presentations in Unit 2, nor the practice of presenting them to someone, was a demonstration of service. Service, after all, is not usually seen as a mere conversation. It is usually implying some sort of tangible action. (Without giving examples, that's pretty much the best way I can phrase it.) Oh yes, they were wonderful talks and all, and helped people tremendously, but she wasn't quite sure how it helped in that one area. "Me neither," was my own sagacious reply. "Let's see if we can figure it out."

And so we sat down in our rocking chairs (we're practicing for when we become grandparents, because you can never get enough practice in) (oh, and our son is only 6, because you can never begin practicing to be a grandparent early enough) and looked through Book 2 together.

One thing that guided our discussion was an observation I had made at our intensive campaign the week before. Someone was looking through a booklet of "Anna's Presentation", excerpted from Book 6, and was wondering how to introduce it to someone else. At that meeting I asked him what the first four words were, and he said, "The Baha'i Faith is".

"Interesting," I replied, "because in the book the first four words are, 'From our previous conversations...' That implies that Anna already knows Emilia quite well."

Some of the friends in the group were quite surprised to discover that, and it really changed how they thought of that presentation. Oh, and this isn't to imply that you can't use it as an introduction, for you can, and I have, but just that a friendship usually comes first. (It's also worth noting how often the two of them go off on tangents to answer Emilia's questions, and how Anna always comes back to her outline afterwards. Nice lesson there.)

Marielle and I began to wonder if there were other "clues" like that in Book 2. Needless to say, there were.

As I'm sure you know, dear Reader, Unit 2 of Arising to Serve is the story of those talks with the Sanchez family. The first thing we noticed was who it was that was giving those talks. Many people talk of Anna giving them, but it isn't. It is you. "You choose a few families you more or less know and decide to visit them regularly." "The brief explanation below... is probably like the one you have written..." It is you, dear Reader, who is visiting them.

But what is it that you are doing?

Well, when you look at the story within the Sanchez story, you will see that there is another pattern in action there.

First, you go and make a presentation. Of course, you don't really know what they need, so you pick a safe and likely topic: The Eternal Covenant of God. But the point I wish you look at is that it is you presenting.

While you are there at their home, you meet Beatrice, and immediately recognize her capacity. What do you do? You ask her to do the next presentation, with your assistance, of course. This is very reminiscent of those many passages in the Ridvan 2010 message in which the Universal House of Justice talks about the importance of those willing to assist in shouldering the work of the Faith, whether or not they are Baha'i.

You help. She presents. Life is good.

The third topic finds you presenting again, but this time in response to a perceived need. You now know the family, and you know a bit about the situation. And so you choose a topic that addresses a specific concern: unity. Naturally it doesn't go quite perfectly, but they already know you, know your heart, and are aware of your sincerity. In other words, they love you and trust you.

For the fourth talk, you actually engage them in a discussion in order to figure out the next topic to present. You are now directly engaging them. They are no longer just a passive audience.

The fifth talk finds Beatrice presenting again, with your help, of course, for you do not just leave her to fumble through it unaided. (You fumble through it together!)

The last talk in the series is geared towards helping them arise to serve on their own. They have had a good example, done some work with your help, and are now ready to go at it on their own.

This is great, but how does all this address Marielle's question above?

Pretty simple, actually, as I'm sure you know, dear Reader.

A friend of mine recently asked me if I could bake cookies for her to bring to a friend. (I make a pretty mean cookie.) Naturally, I went over to her place to bake them, but when I was doing so, showed her how to make them herself. (Actually, I just realized that this has happened a few times in the past couple of weeks. How odd is that?)

I made the first batch, while they watched. Of course, I didn't make nearly enough, so I helped them make the second batch. This still wasn't quite enough, so they made the third batch on their own, while I merely watched over their shoulder.

This has also led to me helping teach a friend of theirs how to bake cookies (different friend  than the one who got the cookies to begin with).

And so I offered a bit of serrvice, and helped someone else arise to serve. They invited another person into the group, and thus the community expands. A simple model in action.

There are many ways in which this model can work, but they all draw heavily on the idea of accompanying someone else in their service until they can do it on their own.

And many of these services last a lot longer than a plate of cookies.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Ruhi-Style: A Thought

"Can you facilitate a study of these quotes", she asked me, "in a Ruhi-style?" I had no idea what that meant. I mean, I had heard this request many times in the past, or the similar "We're going to study this Ruhi-style." What I presume this means, this "Ruhi-style", is to look at a passage from the Writings and ask a few simple questions, the answer to which is the passage itself. Oh, and then you would look at a few simple applications of said passage in your daily life.

But that, as you know, dear Reader, is only the simplest and most basic level of study that is done in the Ruhi curriculum.

My answer, as you can guess, was a simple "No, I can't."

Of course, this was followed by an explanation: The Ruhi-style, as far as I can tell, is to have a very specific goal in mind and then take years of trial and reflection to see how to best achieve that goal. It  requires an awareness of which quotes to try and use, with the open-mindedness to try different ones and see if they are more effective. It also demands a long-range vision with the understanding of the various steps needed to realize that vision.

There is, of course, much more than this, but it is a start towards explaining why I couldn't just take a few quotes and do a "Ruhi-style" study of them.

Oh, and please don't get me wrong. The intention was noble and wonderful: a study of the Writings. I only had a question about the term. What was really intended was to have a deepening, another aspect of Baha'i community life.

A few days ago I was asked to go over the first few books of the Ruhi curriculum and talk a bit about the coherency of them. In other words, I was being asked to help a few of the friends see the patterns within them that help them to work so well, or at least that's how I interpreted it. As some of them said that it was helpful to see all that, I figured it might make a good item to include here on this blog.

It's funny, though. I began, as I usually do, with a simple question: "What is the first quote in Ruhi Book 1?"

Well, I thought it was simple. A couple of people knew, but the first response was, "Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues."


I'm sure you already know that it is actually, "The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct."

When another friend gave that answer, I immediately asked, "Why? Out of all the magnificent quotes from all the hundreds of books and letters Baha'u'llah wrote, why did they choose that quote to begin the entire sequence of courses of the Ruhi Institute?"

There was a bit of discussion on it, and I explained that I don't really know the answer. I only had a theory. And you know what? They came to the same conclusion that I had. I guess there's hope for me, after all.

They decided that it all begins with action. Without action, nothing gets done. As Shoghi Effendi so powerfully put it, "Without his 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 he belongs, is foredoomed to failure. The World Center of the Faith itself is paralyzed if such a support on the part of the rank and file of the community is denied it. The Author of the Divine Plan Himself is impeded in His purpose if the proper instruments for the execution of His design are lacking. The sustaining strength of Bahá'u'lláh Himself, the Founder of the Faith, will be withheld from every and each individual who fails in the long run to arise and play his part."

Then I asked them what the theme of the section was. Well that was easy: Deeds, or action.
From this point on they pretty much carried the presentation themselves. There was very little I had to do.
I explained how I like to make a table of contents in the beginning of each unit (the books are made up of three units, each of which have a number of sections). For the first unit it looked something like this:
  • 1 and 2 - Deeds
  • 3 and 4 - Truthfulness
  • 5 and 6 - Kindness
  • 7 and 8 - Backbiting (Don't do it)
Of course, you shouldn't just use the labels we came up with. Find your own that have meaning to you.

Then I asked them why they thought those four topics were in that order.

And that, dear Reader, is one of the secrets to looking like you know what you're talking about. Ask the audience what they think. They will naturally presume that you knew what they would come up with all along.

In a nutshell, they said, "It all begins with action. But your actions have to be based on truth, or what good are they? However, you can be truthful and mean ("Wow, that dress is really ugly on you"), so kindness is important. Finally, you can think you're being kind but actually be backbiting, so be careful."

Then I asked them what happens if you backbite. Of course, they all immediately referred to the quote that says it extinguishes the life of the soul. "Eeep! You mean the life of my soul is extinguished? What do I do?"

Well, the second unit is all about prayer, which will "kindle thine own soul". And what does "kindle" mean?

"It's an E-reader that lets you become more aware of the Sacred Texts."

(Smart alec)

It means to ignite if not already lit, or to make burn brighter if it is. In other words, it is the answer to the concern about backbiting.

And the third unit? It gives us the overall vision of why we are doing what we are. It shows us the arc of our soul path throughout it's development. It is all about the life of the soul, our part of our motivation.

But what about the last section?

"Based on your experience, what did people talk about when you got to this last section?" As you know, this is the section in which you talk about those four points: How does this course affect your obedience to the laws? How does it affect your desire to serve humanity? To serve the faith? And your relation to the Covenant? (I don't have the book with me, but it's pretty close to that.)

And then it got interesting (well, it was interesting all along, but here it seemed to swerve a moment.). Someone began to talk about what they would expect people to talk about. And so I stopped them and asked them what people did talk about.  Based on experience.

The group basically said that people focused on the second question, the service to humanity.

And what a coincidence! Ruhi Book 2 is all about "Arising to Serve".

What a great lead into the second book.

"And without looking, what is the section of Ruhi Book 2 about?"

Ok. Now I had a few blank stares.

"Oneness of humanity?" "Equality of women and men?" (Hey, have you ever notice how I always put women first, there?)

And then someone got it: "Universal Education!"

"And what", I asked, "is Book 3 about?"

"Children's classes."

So you see, it all makes perfect sense. It works because there is a method to it all. A pattern, if we but look.

Now I'm sure you knew all this, dear Reader, but it seemed to really help a number of us to actually articulate it.

It also led to some of the friends re-think how they would invite others to participate, but that's another article.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Word of God

What is "the Word of God"? This is something that has been going through my mind a lot over the past few weeks. You see, dear Reader, someone recently left a comment on an earlier article I had written about creation and Genesis 1:1. (When I looked for it, I noticed that I have two articles called "Creation". I guess I need to be a bit more creative about these things.) Well, this comment got me to re-read what I had written, and that reminded me of another article I have long intended to write, but somehow just never got around to doing.

While Genesis 1:1 may be one of the most famous creation stories in the history of history, there is another one that runs a close second: John 1:1. And this, naturally, leads me to consider the question, "What is the Word of God?"

Why? What's the connection? Well, in John 1:1, we read the following: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

Just looking at the language of it, there is an initial comparison between the Word of God and God Himself. It as if John is saying that the first thing in existence was the Word of God. But then he goes on to say that this was side by side with God. Then he goes a step further and says that it actually was God. This Word, which seems to be God, he says, has made everything. After that, he says that in God there was a life, and that this life is the light of men.

When I read that part, I hear echoes of those quotes from The Hidden Words: "Thou art My lamp and My light is in thee." "...(W)ithin thee have I placed the essence of My light." This is a simple reminder that our true life is the life of the soul, not that of the body, and that this soul comes from, or is somehow likened to a part of God, perhaps in a similar way that the rays of the sun are likened to the sun itself.

Finally, he says that the darkness does not comprehend the light. This can either mean that it doesn't understand it, or that it doesn't encompass it. Or perhaps it means both. That's one of the wonderful things about sacred Texts: they can have truths on many different levels. I like to think of it as meaning that the darkness cannot comprehend the light, nor even be a part of it, for darkness is nothing more than the absence of the light. As soon as there is light, there is no darkness present. It is kind of like silence. As soon as there is a noise, the silence is no longer there.

But let's get back to the Word of God.

It shows up in so many different places. For example, in Hinduism, there is the recognition that God first created sound, the sound Om, and then that sound created the universe. In fact, that first sound consisted of three sounds, a-u-m, which is representative of so many triads. (You can insert your favorite triad here, and I'm sure it will work symbolically.) Even within this sound there is much symbolism. For example, the "a" sound comes from the far back of the mouth when it is fully open. The "u" sound comes from the middle of the mouth when the lips are partially closed. And the "m" sound comes from the front of the mouth with closed lips. It is like a physical and auditory symbol of a spiritual state. We begin with full openness, and then close ourselves off to the outside while we meditate on what we have learned.

Come to think of it, this is also very close to the sound that most of us make when we are contemplating something very deeply. "Uhmmm." But I don't think that is what is intended. Perhaps it is just a happy coincidence. (Or maybe our subconscious trying to be profound.)

Oh, and this idea of sound being first also seems to remind me of the Big Bang. You can't get a much louder sound than that (except that sound needs a medium to travel through, but never mind).

Speaking of profound, let's get back to the Word of God once again.

Baha'u'llah tells us to "ponder on the penetrative influence of the Word of God." And this is what I am trying to do.

So what do we know about the Word of God so far? Well, it is eternal. It is creative (and I should probably write that with a capital "C", but I get so sick of everything being capitalized). It is the source of life, and it is the light that shines within us.

Baha'u'llah goes on to say, "The Word of God may be likened unto a sapling, whose roots have been implanted in the hearts of men." Here we have the Word being compared to a small tree that grows with our heart. In many different places Baha'u'llah refers to the religion of God as being like a tree planted in the hearts of men, so we can now liken it to the religion. Oh, and not the dogmatic religion that some people unfortunately associate with that word, but that true faith that unites people together and helps inspire them to live their lives in a highly commendable manner. It is that true faith that motivates people to be better than what could normally be expected of them.

Here, in this analogy, the Word is like the tree of faith which requires the constant care and attention in order to grow strong and healthy. We give it food and water and light by studying the Writings, performing good deeds, and saying our prayers. It is through these various actions that we see our tree of faith grow stronger and healthier.

But there is an interesting thing here: the Word of God is like the faith within our heart which is fed by studying the Word of God, which is written in the sacred Texts.

Well, that just makes sense. It is almost like adding water to a barrel of water. Of course you will get more water when you add some. But here, the analogy breaks down, for it is not simply additive. It is multiplicative. As we study, our faith grows in greater and greater proportions. It truly is like a tree, in that it grows more than we would expect, multiplying further as it bears its fruit.

Another aspect of the Word of God is that it transforms us, like the caterpillar into the butterfly. Except here, Baha'u'llah compares it to base metals being transformed into gold. He says that the transformation enacted by the Word of God is even greater. "Perplexing and difficult as this may appear, the still greater task of converting satanic strength into heavenly power is one that We have been empowered to accomplish. The Force capable of such a transformation transcendeth the potency of the Elixir itself. The Word of God, alone, can claim the distinction of being endowed with the capacity required for so great and far-reaching a change."

He also says that it is "The Word of God (that) hath set the heart of the world afire"

Elsewhere, He writes that the "Word of God... is the Cause of the entire creation, while all else besides His Word are but the creatures and the effects thereof. Verily thy Lord is the Expounder, the All-Wise."

It "is higher and far superior to that which the senses can perceive, for it is sanctified from any property or substance. It transcendeth the limitations of known elements and is exalted above all the essential and recognized substances. It became manifest without any syllable or sound and is none but the Command of God which pervadeth all created things. It hath never been withheld from the world of being. It is God's all-pervasive grace, from which all grace doth emanate. It is an entity far removed above all that hath been and shall be." It "is the master key for the whole world, inasmuch as through its potency the doors of the hearts of men, which in reality are the doors of heaven, are unlocked." And it "can never be confounded with the words of His creatures. It is, in truth, the King of words..."

The Bab also says that He is "one of the sustaining pillars of the Primal Word of God", "none other than the mighty Word of God".

For me, one of the most important aspects of this Word is that it is the master key that unlocks the gate of the city of human hearts.

Maybe if I ponder it a bit more I'll come to some sort of an understanding of what it is. For now, however, all I can do is let these words, or Words, wash over me as I try to ge a bit of what they all say.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Does it Mean to Trust Baha'u'llah

When I look at that title, my first question is, "Why would I ask that?" Well, dear Reader, the simple answer is that I didn't.

No, seriously. I didn't.

It never occurred to me to ask it.

So where did I get that question from? I'm so glad you asked.

I recently noticed a section in my blog stats page that informs me of how people got to this blog, and one of the things it records is keyword searches that people used. For some reason, and I don't really know why, that exact phrase came up as third most common on the keyword search list. It had 30% more people than "Ridvan 2010". Of course, number 1 on the list was "Birthday Thoughts", followed by "Blogger". Now, I don't really think that people who used those top two searches necessarily stayed to read too much, as I'm sure they were really looking for something else, but that third one is definitely all about being a Baha'i.

So, based on that, it crossed my mind that I should probably write an article about this question. After all, you asked it.

"What does it mean to trust Baha'u'llah?" In fact, if you had asked me, dear Reader, then I wouldn't have asked the question at all. I would have asked, instead, "What does it mean to trust in God?"  And that, dear Reader, is something I can talk a bit about.

I remember, lo those many years ago, when I first became a Baha'i. For reasons which I won't go into here, I realized that I needed to change my job. I had a job which I enjoyed, and which was promising to make me some decent money, but I realized that I couldn't continue it in good conscience.

And so I decided to put in my two weeks notice and begin the arduous task of looking for new work.

It was a difficult decision for me because I still had my student debts, as well as my rent to pay. I had barely enough to get by if I didn't find another job fast. So I said prayers, and decided to test my faith. "God," I said. "You always tell us to trust in you, so here I go. I'll apply for work wherever I can and will accept the first job offered, no matter what it is. That way I'll know it's from you."

Apply I did, and within a short time had a few offers.

The first one I had was from the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette, offering a job to work in the gardens for near minimum wage. The second offer was from a major corporation, and it was offering significantly more money, plus tons of benefits (but I think the benefits from the Temple were probably better).

This is where I really have to tip my hat in appreciation to my Mom. I mean, really. Imagine this from her point of view. I had a pretty good job, with great prospects, and then I join a relatively unknown Faith. Next thing she knows I have quit my job and gone to work for said Faith. Must have looked pretty scary, if you ask me.

But did she complain? Express concern? Nope. She just accepted it, and offered her support. (Thanks, Mom.)

That summer I worked in the gardens at the Temple, trusting that there was a wisdom in it. But I'll tell you, for the life of me, I couldn't see it. I enjoyed myself, but I really had to wonder what was going to happen after the summer was over. Where would my next paycheck come from?

Now, looking back, it was that decision, to put a test out there and trust in the response, that significantly changed my life.

From that simple job in the gardens I went to work on the restoration project on the Temple itself, and then on to the World Congress Office. From there I was hired in the National Teaching Office, and then I moved to Canada. It has been a whirlwind of activity and service ever since that first decision. I don't think that I have done anything significant, in terms of service to the Faith, but these activities have kept me busy, and they sure kept my focus on the things of the spirit.

But how did it all happen? What was it that I actually did for that first step? What does it mean to trust in God and put your life in His hands?

As usual, I don't really know, but I can make some educated guesses based on my own experience.

To me, trusting in God implies that we are open to that guidance that comes from on high when we ask for it. When I asked for God's direction as to which job I should take, I put a qualifier on it that would make it obvious to me which job was from God. Normally when applying for a job, I would never just take the first one that was offered. I would apply for a number of positions and then, after seeing who responded within a certain framework of time, compare the various offers I was given. That time, however, I believed that the first one was offered with a wisdom that was beyond what I could understand.

I accepted it, rather than second-guessing it. It would have been so easy to merely say, "Oh, that was just a coincidence. I'll take the one that offered more money."

Nope. That wouldn't have been fair.

But that's only one side of trusting in God.

The other side is trusting Baha'u'llah, and what He says.

You see, dear Reader, as I've said before, I became a Baha'i because Baha'u'llah had proven Himself to me over and over in His Writings. There were many things that I disagreed with, mainly because they went against the conventional wisdom of my society, but every time I did, He was eventually proven right. Finally, I realized that He had a better understanding of how the world worked, and what was good for me, than I did. That was why I declared my faith.

Once I came to that realization, it would have been pretty silly of me to disagree with anything He said. It would have been as if I were saying, "I know better than God." Well, that's just absurd, and I would never think to make that claim.

That, to me, is the essence of trusting in God.

As far as the Writings go, you look into them to see if you think they're from God, and then once you recognize, you wholeheartedly accept.

As far as trusting in God, you put out your request and trust in the response. Too often people say, "God, give me a sign", and when they receive that sign say it was only a coincidence and ask for another one. Nope. When you get that sign, you have to act on it.

Of course, when you do that, you better hold onto your hat. Because you'll be in for quite the ride.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Milk and Honey

I made some milk with warm with honey last night, and I got to thinking about the Bible. Why? Well, it's simple really. In the Book of Exodus, the Promised Land is referred to as "a land flowing with milk and honey". When you read the Tanakh there are many references to the Promised Land, and most of them refer to it in this way. Ezekiel says, "in that day I lifted up My hand unto them, to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had sought out for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the beauty of all lands..." This is only one of many references like that.

My first question is why milk and honey? Why not a land flowing with apple juice and coconuts? Or pomegranates and petunias? Why milk and honey in particular?

Well, there are probably many reasons, but I'm sure none of them have anything to do with sticky rivers in which all the fish would have a hard time swimming. (Yes, I actually saw it depicted like that once, in a book shown to me by a Jehovah's Witness, but I won't name names.)

One thing which occurred to me last night is just how pleasant warm milk with honey is when you have a cough. It's a great remedy that just makes you feel warm and snuggly inside.

Some have interpreted it more in lines with the Talmud, in which it says that the milk is flowing from the udders of the goats and the honey is flowing from the dates and figs. That speaks of a land that is plentiful and full of life.

But is this all that it means? I mean, sure, goats were a symbol of wealth back in the day, and dates and fig trees were, too, but then why not say goats and dates? I think it is because there is more to it than just the mere material wealth.

In that incredibly mystical work, The Song of Songs, Solomon writes, "Thy lips, O my bride, drop honey -- honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon." I doubt he is speaking of someone who has difficulty eating, or one who drools while consuming food. (And I can only presume that she did not smell like goats.) No. I think he is referring the beauty of her words.

And it's not only here in the Tanakh that we see these references. In the Hindu Faith, we are told that if we are obedient to the laws, and recite the sacred verses every day, this "will ever cause sweet and sour milk, clarified butter and honey to flow".

Here, as in Judaism, there seems to be a connection between our good actions and obedience, and the flowing of this milk and honey. As one Jewish scholar pointed out, the land of Palestine is "completely dependent upon the waters above for a bountiful harvest". Without the good will of God, there would be no food in a very short time.

In the Vedic scriptures this theme is also repeated, when the Brahmins, those holy men who were to guide the people spiritually, were told to be "even as two lips that with the mouth speak honey, even as two breasts that nourish our existence".

Baha'u'llah, in one of His Tablets, says, "Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility." In the Hidden Words, He refers "to the delightsome words of My honeyed tongue". In the Seven Valleys, He talks "of the honey of reunion with Him".
More and more references are given by Him to the impact of these Words He utters, and His very presence.

"If others hurl their darts against you," says 'Abdu'l-Baha, "offer them milk and honey in return". I suspect that He is not telling us to walk up to them with a warm cup to drink, but instead suggesting that we speak to them with kind and loving words. In another prayer, 'Abdu'l-Baha refers to "the honey and the milk of Thy love".

But most of all, Baha'u'llah says, "Out of the pure milk, drawn from the breasts of Thy loving-kindness, give me to drink, for my thirst hath utterly consumed me."

And this last quote, with the reference to the milk of His Words, reminds me that when Baha'u'llah was there in the Holy Land, that land promised way back in Exodus, it truly did flow with milk and honey.

Monday, April 4, 2011

To Err is Human

Yes, dear Reader, it's true: to err is human. And I have to admit, I'm so glad that I'm human. I've proven my membership in humanity over and over again.

I think one of the most memorable times I proved it, after becoming a Baha'i, was when I was asked to talk about the Faith in front of a fairly large gathering. I had been asked to speak a bit about the history of the Faith, and so, after gathering my courage, and failing to gather my notes, I proceeded as best I could. One of the things that really moved me about the history, and which I spoke of at length, was the wonderful coincidence of how the Bab declared His mission on the first day of spring in 1844. How wonderful it was, I said, that this spiritual springtime coincided with the material one.

Oh well. My heart was in the right place.

I can only thank the wisdom of the friends who were there for not standing up and correcting me at the time. After all, when giving a talk about the history of the Faith, with the purpose of trying to connect hearts to Baha'u'llah, getting an occasional date wrong is not really a big deal. Nobody will be turned off to the Faith because someone gave an incorrect date.

But why am I talking about all this? I'm glad you asked, dear Reader.

I was at a gathering the other day and someone was saying a prayer. It happened to be one of the few prayers I know by heart, so it was obvious to me that they had gotten one word wrong. For some reason, instead of just going with it, and letting the beauty of the prayer wash over me, it made me metaphorically jump. I didn't say anything, of course, but it took me a moment to get back into that prayerful state.

I can think of a few other times that happened. Once was at the World Congress in New York City when a reader from Africa pronounced the "e" in "awe", making it sound like "ah-way". Even today, I still love that pronunciation. If she hadn't said it in that way, and if I hadn't been jarred out of my state of prayer, I would never have remembered that prayer being said, but as it is, I can never forget it. And I can't really call that one an error. It was an accent. And the memory is such a great association that I now treasure that prayer even more than before.

But generally this occurs when someone thinks they have a prayer memorized and say it from memory. One friend used to always say the prayer that begins "I have wakened in Thy shelter, O my God" incorrectly, and another used to recite the opening of the Kitab-i-Iqan wrong. No problem, really. I mean, their hearts were in the right place, and their intentions were sincere. The problem was with me. (Oh, and it's also why I always use my prayer book, even if I have memorized the prayer I'm reading.)

Why does it jar me, shake me out of my prayerful state for a moment?

I think it is for the same reason that my eye is always attracted to the stick or the rock in the river. My eye, and I suspect this is true for many of us, seems to be naturally drawn to the disturbance. A river is far more interesting to me when there is something interrupting that natural flow, causing ripples to spread out further downstream. And this seems to be something that is just part of the world.

Nothing is perfect, except for God.

One of the things this implies is that you can find a flaw with anything. Everything can be improved upon. Even in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, when Baha'u'llah is commanding us to build Houses of Worship, He says, "Make them as perfect as is possible in the world of being..."

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that criticism is so frowned upon in the Baha'i Faith. "But again", Shoghi Effendi says, "it should be stressed that all criticisms and discussions of a negative character... should be strictly avoided." 'Abdu'l-Baha, Himself, when addressing a question asked by one of the friends, said, "We do not oppose anyone's ideas, nor do we approve of criticism."

When speaking about the decisions of the Spiritual Assemblies, the Master wrote, "It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously, though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. In short, whatsoever thing is arranged in harmony and with love and purity of motive, its result is light, and should the least trace of estrangement prevail the result shall be darkness upon darkness.... If this be so regarded, that assembly shall be of God, but otherwise it shall lead to coolness and alienation that proceed from the Evil One."

I love that He does not say that all the decisions will be perfect, for He knows us better that that, but that any decision made with love would result in light.

But all of this is a side issue.

The fact remains that we are human. We make errors. And there is nothing wrong with that.

We are striving for perfection, striving for excellence, and we should appreciate every step we take in that direction. In fact, we should appreciate every step that everyone makes in that direction. And we should continually encourage each other, build on our strengths and overlook our flaws.

But this is not easy, for we are naturally drawn to look at the errors, and in our love for the Faith, we want to see it perfect. We don't like to see mistakes. We want to try and correct everything.

And this is impossible, for we are human.

Instead, we need to focus our eyes on the bounties, learn to love each other and strive together in harmony.

Baha'u'llah also said, "Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday." And if this doesn't say what I mean, then nothing could.

So, sorry for this long post. I just had it on my mind and had to get it out.

After all, to air is human.

Sunday, April 3, 2011



I just love words. Have I mentioned that before?

Immerse, as I'm sure you know, means to either plunge into, or dive deeply, or completely involve. It is not merely staying at the surface level of something, but going full force into it.

"Immerse yourselves"

When you immerse yourself into something, you are in over your head.

Hmm. Isn't that interesting? "In over your head"? That phrase usually refers to being involved in something beyond your capacity. It comes from the idea of swimming in water too deep for you, when you run the serious risk of drowning.

If Baha'u'llah tells us to immerse ourselves, are we at risk of being in over our head? If so, what are we at risk of? While I don't really know, I think it may be that we are at risk of losing ourselves, which may not be such a bad thing.

"Immerse yourselves in the ocean"

Ah, so we are to immerse ourselves in the water. But not just any water: the ocean.

I have had the incredible bounty of being able to swim in many different bodies of water in my life: streams, rivers, pools, fresh water lakes, salt water lakes, a couple of seas, and the ocean. And let me tell you, there is nothing like the ocean.

I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, so called because you cannot see across it. It goes past the horizon. I have body-surfed on this lake when the waves were over 10 feet high, and that was amazing. (It may not seem like much to an ocean surfer, but to a prairie kid, it was unbelievable.) But never did I get the sense of awe that I got when I first saw the ocean. That ocean was the water from which all life sprung on this planet. There was no doubt of it. Although to outward seeming, they both looked the same, going all the way to the horizon, with waves moving across them, there was a visceral awareness from the scent to the sound, and even the actual way in which the waves moved, that told me this ocean was much more.

And diving in them? Again there is no comparison.

Have you ever been snorkeling? Remember how I just said that I loved words? This is one word that I really love. It's so onomatopoetic (I love having a poet's license to make up words as I will). I think snorkeling is called that because it is the sound you make if your tube slips while you're under the water. "Snork".

Sorry about that. I digress. Where was I? Oh yes. Snorkeling. (I really do love the sound of that word. "Snorkel". It sounds like something Dr Seuss made up.) (Sorry again.)

When you snorkel (I can't stop giggling at the sound of that word) (which is really bad because I'm drinking tea right now) (you know, you also make that sound, "snork", when you are giggling with a mouthful of tea at the sound of the word snorkel), you dive under the water and get to witness such beauty as you never see above the waves. It is as if you are floating in a brand new world.

Oh, and you have to imagine this from the perspective of never having seen any photos or films of the underwater realms. It would have been completely new to anyone of Baha'u'llah's day. (Except the pearl divers, but I digress again.)

You feel as if you are floating over the world, watching everything play out underneath you. You try to interact with the fish, but the naturally swim away, going on with their day as if unconscious that you are there.

It must be something like being in the next world, trying to interact with people here.

And all the time, while you are floating, you are buoyed up by the water, surrounded by the all-embracing love of the Mother of Life.

Oh, and what's more is that the trials, troubles and turmoils that abound on the surface never reach underneath. To one with depth, the tossing waves and tempestuous storms never bother.

"Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words"

But as you know, dear Reader, Baha'u'llah is not talking about something so shallow as the ocean. He is talking about His words, which have a depth far greater than a mere ocean.

When you immerse yourself in the ocean of His words, then you truly feel buoyed up in the very core of your being. You feel surrounded by His love. You know, beyond all doubt, that you are in the very grip of the source of all life.

And at times you may feel as if you are drowning.

When I first went snorkeling (and yes, I've still got the giggles over this word), the hardest part was to allow myself to breathe through the tube. I naturally clenched up and occasionally choked ("snork") before I learned to relax and breathe. It took time. It took practice. It took patience.

But most of all, it took trust.

 "Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets"

Once I achieved that trust, then I could begin to explore. And oh, did I explore. I saw the schools of fish that were right there, under my feet the whole time. I never knew they were so close. I saw small plants, corals, shells, all sorts of wonders. I had seen the remains of these types of things on the beach earlier, and thought those discards were beautiful, but I never suspected how much more incredible they were when alive. Even today, when I go down to the ocean, I am in awe of the beauty of a crab claw washed ashore, or the opalescence of an oyster shell broken by the gulls. But all this fades to dust when I witness them alive in the ocean.

I love the Writings of Baha'u'llah. And when I dive deep within them, it is truly awe-inspiring to see some of what is contained there.

But I know that I am only at the merest shallows of the waters. I don't have the skills or the capacity yet to dive much deeper. I am not yet a trained scuba diver, with the luxury of an oxygen tank to allow me to stay under as I would like.

Perhaps some day.

"Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths."

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Thought on the Concourse

So there I am, in an intensive campaign, studying a section from Ruhi Book 6, when all of a sudden my eyes fall on this one quote, and BLAM! I'm distracted. And you know what, dear Reader? That kind of sucks, because I was the facilitator at that moment. (Oh, and I'm not the only facilitator. I just happened to be facilitating at that particular moment.)

What was the quote? I'm glad you asked, dear Reader. I can always count on you to pick up the hints that I drop. Thanks.

The quote was from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi:

"Perhaps the reason why you have not accomplished so much in the field of teaching is the extent you looked upon your own weaknesses and inabilities to spread the message. Bahá'u'lláh and the Master have both urged us repeatedly to disregard our own handicaps and lay our whole reliance upon God. He will come to our help if we only arise and become an active channel for God's grace. Do you think it is the teachers who make converts and change human hearts? No, surely not. They are only pure souls who take the first step, and then let the spirit of Bahá'u'lláh move them and make use of them. If any one of them should even for a second consider his achievements as due to his own capacities, his work is ended and his fall starts. This is in fact the reason why so many competent souls have after wonderful services suddenly found themselves absolutely impotent and perhaps thrown aside by the Spirit of the Cause as useless souls. The criterion is the extent to which we are ready to have the will of God operate through us.

"Stop being conscious of your frailties, therefore; have a perfect reliance upon God; let your heart burn with the desire to serve His mission and proclaim His call; and you will observe how eloquence and the power to change human hearts will come as a matter of course."

And why, pray tell, did this catch my eye?

It was a reminder, dear Reader. It was a reminder.

I felt as if some sneaky little member of the Concourse on High blew the page, causing it to flip over from where I was to where I needed to read. You see, I have received a number of letters recently from you (plural, not royal) (but hey, if you are royal, that's kind of cool) thanking me for this blog and the "insights".

Well, I have to tell you: most of these insights are not mine. I mean, sure, I collect them, and perhaps even write them down, but they're not really mine. When you take the time to really read the Writings, study the individual phrases in the context of the whole piece, as well as with an eye towards applying them in your daily life, that wily Concourse whacks you over the head with a two by four of an idea on a regular basis. But don't think it's yours. Because it ain't.

Pleasant side: I remember one of the first times I ever went canoeing. It was on the Red River just south of Winnipeg, with my dear friend Ruth. She was always a joy to be with and showed me many wonderful things in life (including the top of the Hand of the Cause of God, William Sears' Tower, but that another story). As I had never really canoed much before then, she asked me to go in the front so that she could steer, and compensate for my lack of experience. As we were paddling up the river, talking about pleasant things (as it was such a pleasant day) (hence the "pleasant aside"), I suddenly heard a loud splash off to the side, followed by a "Wow! Did you see that big fish?" I turned back to look as I said, "No. Where?" And then, miracle of miracles, the fish jumped again. And it was huge. Now, you have to understand, fish don't normally jump twice in  row like that, so this really was something of a minor miracle that we could both appreciate. And appreciate I did. "Oh, beautiful," I said, as I put my oar in my lap so that I could clap. After a few claps, I noticed that Ruth was looking at me with an odd expression, and she said, "No wonder nature accommodates you. You really are a good audience for her."

You see, there are many times in my life where I have been blessed to witness incredible scenes of nature, like the time I was driving some Baha'is in rural Saskatchewan at night, and learned that they had never seen the Northern Lights. I saw a brief flicker, so I pulled over and told them that we should take a few minutes to watch. As we got out, and looked up, we saw a minor display of a very faint green light dancing in the sky. They were impressed, so I decided to just wait for them and enjoy their wonder. And as soon as I made that decision, even though it was quite late, and we were all very tired, the Lights began to get a bit brighter. And brighter. And brighter. And still brighter. Now I've seen the Northern Lights many times, but I have never seen them so wild in all my life. They filled the full firmament, from horizon to horizon, in all four cardinal directions, covering the complete dome of the sky. And they didn't just dance a flickering dance; they spiraled and twirled in such abundance as to make a Whirling Dervish dizzy. For well over an hour we all stood there in absolute awe at the beauty we were privileged to witness.

That is what my friend, Ruth, was referring to. I am never at a loss for awe when I look at the world around me.

And that, dear Reader, is how I feel when I study the Writings and am given the bounty of being whacked up side the side with a minor insight from one of those Conourse members, or from a friend studying with me, or from an article I read on the net. I love it. I appreciate it. And, most of all, I share it.

But it is not from me.

I literally sit down to type with barely more than an idea on a scrap of paper (today's said "6:2:11 --> Blog") and go where the wind blows, so to speak. I had no clue, for instance, that I would write about Ruth, or the Aurora Borealis, or any of this.

My heart burns with the desire to share this Message. If there is any eloquence to the way I do it, I can assure you that it is coincidental.

And if you doubt that, and think I am merely being humble, remember the last part of that quote:

"...In fact the mere act of arising will win for you God's help and blessings."

That, dear Reader, is what I feel surrounded by, and comforted by: God's help and blessings.

Now I only I could get my soul to be a bit purer than it currently is. (Maybe Brita makes a soul purifying unit.)

And maybe tomorrow, I'll be able to pay a bit more attention during the institute campaign.