Monday, October 28, 2013

Vicariousness

Every now and then I drive my son to school. Normally we walk to the bus stop, stare at the mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca (be careful not to mis-pronounce his last name, if you please), gaze at the trees in the forest across the street, watch the eagles and other birds fly about, and talk about God and life and all sorts of wonderful things. But every now and then, like once a week or so, I drive him to school.

When I do, I always turn on the radio after dropping him off. (I can just hear myself saying, "I don't always listen to the radio, but when I do, it's CBC.") (Well, it is.)

A few weeks ago, after dropping him off and turning on the radio (CBC), I heard an interesting story. It was about cooking. Home cooking. Home cooking, and how it has declined by over 50% since the mid-60s in North America.

And as you may guess, it got me thinking.

Why, you may ask? Well, I'm glad you did, dear Reader.

It got me thinking about the importance of cooking, food, and eating together (an activity that is sorely lacking in my home, which I keep hoping to change, but keep failing at miserably).

Cooking, and home cooking in particular, is, in many ways, a basis of community. When you forage, you eat whenever you find food. When you cook, it suddenly becomes a more communal activity. You have to plan, ensuring that you have the ingredients you need. Someone has to prepare the food. You have to look forward to it, rather than having than just eating whenever you are hungry. It also becomes a point of communication, talking over the dinner table.

But, as I mentioned, home cooking has seriously declined, with more and more people preferring pre-packaged food, or fast food. In spite of this, and this is what got me thinking, cooking shows are more popular than ever. While there are many cooking shows that actually help you learn to cook, the most popular, like Iron Chef, result in scaring people out of the kitchen. They make it look like some sort of Olympian contest with often devastating or humiliating results, further re-inforcing the erroneous belief that it is better to go out and pick up something semi-palatable to eat from a fast food joint, or getting something in a cardboard box that barely resembles food your grandparents would recognize with negligibly more nutrition than the box itself.

In short, they try to convince you to spend more money getting something less nutritious while sacrificing the time you may have over the dinner table.

Of course, that's just my own take on it. You can see that I am a little against that sort of thinking, even though I understand the notion that many seem to have that it takes more time to prepare a healthy meal than it does to earn the money to buy a pre-made thingy and heat it up. (I disagree with that notion, too, especially after an old roomie and I had a race. He cooked pasta from a box while I made it from scratch. Not only was I done before he was, although I didn't allow the pasta to properly dry, the home-made pasta was both better tasting and cheaper.)

Anyways, given these two points, cooking down, cooking shows up, why is this? Why are we more interested in watching people cook when we don't do it as much ourselves? I think the simplest answer is that we are living vicariously.

"Vicara-what?" Vicariously. We are experiencing things indirectly, as though through a substitute. We seem to recall the wonder of a good home-cooked meal, but are living vicariously through the shows, instead of doing it ourselves.

And this is not the only instance of it. There are so many other instances of this, such as video games, movies, facebook and so forth. Heck. While we're at it, we might as well put pornography in there, too. Oh, and yes, I include facebook, which may be a bit of a stretch, but it often involves having "conversations" with an electronic device rather than the real people who are there with you. (And while I enjoy facebook, it is not a substitute for a real relationship with those who are around me.) (Sorry facebook friends, but I value my time with people around me more, even though I value your friendship, too.)

But seriously, think about it. How many kids today play Wii sports instead of getting out and exercising, or playing with their friends? How many people think that they are learning to play the guitar with Guitar Hero even though they have never felt the strings under their fingers? How many people want to fight the bad guys in Mario, but ignore the injustices going on around them?

Now, please don't think of me as a spoilsport. I enjoy these games, too. It's just that when Shoghi and play them, we do talk about them afterwards. We fence with each other on Wii Sport Resort, and then we go out back and fence with sticks with each other. I use the sticks to help him learn what is happening in the game, and we use the game to help practice our reflexes. He plays Mario (a lot), and we talk about the real injustices that are happening in the world, and what he can do about them.

One of my favorite stories with Shoghi is when we were looking at pictures of trees on-line. We found many amazing images, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over lots of them. But then I took him outside. We re-focused our eyes and looked at the looming cedars just down the way, at the majestic maple tree across the street, at the enormous pine trees with all the birds circling around. We smelled the air and listened to the sound of the breeze moving through the forest.

There was no comparison.

The internet paled in comparison to reality.

While there are many quotes in the Writings that talk about the importance of experiencing reality, one of my favorite, the one that comes to mind right now, is "see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others".

If you want to experience the magic of a home cooked meal, cook it yourself. You won't experience it by watching someone on tv cooking it.

If you want to experience the joy of a pet animal, adopt one yourself. They will show you all the charm and wonder of the animal kingdom far better than a few photos on-line.

And again, this is not to say that these other things are useless or a waste of time. I have learned a lot from watching professionals cook. I enjoy the art of photography, and derive much pleasure from seeing photos that are beautiful. I enjoy playing a game with my son. But all of this is in moderation, and relates back to reality.

It is rare that I accept a friend request on facebook from someone I don't know. And I would far rather spend time walking with any of those friends, but sometimes facebook is the only way I can keep in touch with those loved ones who are so far away.

All of this to say: Life needs to be lived. For that is where the true joy is to be found.

Now, excuse me. I need to get out and go for a walk.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Evening Prayer

A few nights ago, as we were getting ready to say our prayers, Shoghi turned to me and said, "Papa, I'd like to learn a new prayer."

"Which prayer", I wondered aloud, "would you like to learn?"

"How about that night prayer you say a lot?"

I hadn't realized that I said this particular prayer "a lot", but I guess I do. There's something about the "evening" prayer that really touches me somewhere deep inside. I don't know why, but it does. I mean, yeah I know it's sacred text, from Baha'u'llah, and everything, but not all sacred words touch us the same way. There are some that really seem to go deeper, probably depending on us at the time. After all, Shoghi Effendi said that there some that "have been invested by Baha'u'llah with a special potency and significance", so we already know that this seems to be the case.

Anyways, I was wondering to what write about today when I remembered this little thing from the other night, and so I figured it might be a good time for me to look a bit more closely at this prayer that Shoghi is now trying to memorize.

O my God, my Master, the Goal of my desire! This, Thy servant, seeketh to sleep in the shelter of Thy mercy, and to repose beneath the canopy of Thy grace, imploring Thy care and Thy protection.
I beg of Thee, O my Lord, by Thine eye that sleepeth not, to guard mine eyes from beholding aught beside Thee. Strengthen, then, their vision that they may discern Thy signs, and behold the Horizon of Thy Revelation. Thou art He before the revelations of Whose omnipotence the quintessence of power hath trembled.
No God is there but Thee, the Almighty, the All-Subduing, the Unconditioned.

Every time I read this prayer I am always reminded of that story from Memories of Nine years in Akka, in which a group of Pilgrims were awaiting the Master. He was quite late that night in getting home, but the friends still waited for Him. No one knew where He was, or when He would return, but still they waited. Later and later it got, until it really was the middle of the night, past midnight and everything. Finally after many hours of eagerly anticipating His arrival, He came home, worn out from his very busy day. Not wanting to disappoint those stalwart souls who were kept waiting, He said some kind words to them and then asked one of the friends if he would kindly say a prayer. Stifling a yawn, this believer agreed to do so, and began, "This, Thy servant, seeketh to sleep..."

So, what is it about this prayer?

Obviously it begins with an invocation of God, referring to Him as the Master, implying that we are His servants. Then it calls upon Him as the goal of our desire. Personally, I don't think of this as an attribute of God, of which we are some sort of lower case version, but rather a reminder that all of our desires should lead us towards God. This is a good reminder to me as I'm heading off to sleep, for it is too easy to indulge in my sleep, spending far more hours idle in bed than is good for me. I mean, it really is quite remarkable just how comfortable my pillow and blanket can be, but then my jealous alarm clock comes between us. Probably a good thing. But this simple phrase is a good reminder to me that sleep should not be a goal of mine, but rather a tool that I can use to better serve my Lord in a refreshed manner.

(Wow. I didn't think I would be able to say anything about that first line. Well, there you go. That wiley spirit in the Concourse on High who has the unfortunate task of keeping me in check is really on top of things today.) (Gives me something more to think about when Shoghi and I say it tonight.)

The next line is one that I find quite fascinating these days: This, Thy servant, seeketh to sleep in the shelter of Thy mercy, and to repose beneath the canopy of Thy grace, imploring Thy care and Thy protection.

First there is the reminder of being a servant again. There is also the reminder of the goal, through the word "seeketh". In the previous sentence, God is the goal, but now we seek to sleep. And not just sleep but sleep in the shelter of His mercy.

What does that mean? And why would we want to sleep there?

When I just asked that question in my mind, as I was typing it, I sort of imagined all the things that I would want to do in a shelter, and I realized that they all came down to resting. I had pictured myself wanting to listen to Baha'u'llah, or in some other way bask in His presence. But then I realized that nothing else would be done in a shelter. A shelter, as far as I can tell, is a place of rest in a time of peril, a place of protection when danger abounds, generally from the weather, but not exclusively.

Now I realize that it really is the perfect descriptor. Without God's mercy, we are left to His judgement. Without His mercy, we are truly doomed. I can't put it any other way, hard as I am trying. We are not living in a simple world, full of peace and love, all rosy and cushy. "By God," writes Baha'u'llah, "this is the arena of insight and detachment, of vision and upliftment, where none may spur on their chargers save the valiant horsemen of the Merciful, who have severed all attachment to the world of being." And I don't know about you, dear Reader, but just reading about this makes me tired, longing for a rest. And God, through His mercy, allows us a few moments to catch our breath.

Next we seek to repose beneath the canopy of His grace.

My first question is what is the difference between sleep and repose? Well, sleeping is a state of unconsciousness in which our body is refreshed. During this time we are also offered illumination through our dreams, if we are lucky. To repose is to be in a state of tranquility. When we sleep, we are not necessarily tranquil. We can have a restless sleep for many reasons, but to repose implies tranquility.

My next question is why the canopy? Well, that's an interesting question. (I'm glad I asked.) Years ago, we, meaning humanity, didn't have the most weather-tight of housing. Our roofs were often made of thatch, or some other material that likely leaked. It was for this reason that the four-poster bed was created. It didn't just look nice, like something out of a Disney fairy-tale. It was practical. It kept the water from dripping on us in the night. And as anyone who has camped in a leaky tent knows, there is very little more disturbing than a cold drop of water hitting you when you are sound asleep.

When we are resting, spiritually, it doesn't really take a lot to disturb our peace of mind. (Well, it doesn't take a lot to disturb my peace of mind. I don't know about you.) By trying to emulate grace, that courteous good will, we are better able to ignore those things that may disturb our tranquility. The Grace of God is often described as the undeserved favour of God. We can extend that favour to others in our life, too. Bahiyyah Khanum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, was exemplary at this. She once said that the trick of this was to not take offense in the first place. (I would love it if someone can remind me of where that line is.)

Through all this, we implore, we beg of God for His care and protection, further emphasizing the shelter and the canopy.

I beg of Thee, O my Lord, by Thine eye that sleepeth not, to guard mine eyes from beholding aught beside Thee. Strengthen, then, their vision that they may discern Thy signs, and behold the Horizon of Thy Revelation. Thou art He before the revelations of Whose omnipotence the quintessence of power hath trembled.

(I just put it there so that I could see it again and refer to it as I'm typing.)

God sees all. He even sees what we see. And here, we are pleading with God to only see Him, to only see the good. Doesn't that just hearken back to the grace just mentioned?

We are also asking God to be like glasses for us. We not only wish to see the good in everything, we also desire to see God's signs, wherever they may be. Quite often God's signs are hidden, usually right in plain sight. There is so much that is beautiful in the world, if we but take the time to notice it. Whether it is a butterfly flitting past, or a tiny little flower growing by the sidewalk, these are signs of God.

And so often we can easily be overcome by despair with all that is going wrong in the world that we forget to notice the signs of the maturing of humanity, those signs of all that is going right. The Horizon of God's Revelation is lit up with the majestic Sun of Baha'u'llah's World Order if we only take a moment to lift our heads and look. Despite, for example, the oppression of women in so many parts of the world, or the political backlash in some areas striving to take away the rights of women that were fought for years ago, we have still come a long way in the advancement of these same rights. This is not to say that we shouldn't continue to fight for these rights, exposing injustices when we find them, but just that we should not lose sight of how far we have come in only 100 years.

And when we look around and see how far we still have to go, see those great corporate or political or fanatical powers arrayed against us, we can still remember that the very "quintessence of power" trembles before the might of God.

After all, there is no God but God, and He is Almighty. He can subdue all. Nothing can stand against His will.

Finally, He is unconditioned. This doesn't just refer to God not being masculine or feminine, or insert any other descriptors you wish. God is beyond all that, obviously. I think it also refers to God not being subject to our conditions, as in a contract. God loves all, whether or not we do. God supports all, whether we agree with them or not. God is for all, whether they believe as we do or not. God is not subject to any conditions. This is not to say, of course, that we are unconditional. No. We are subject to many conditions. For example, "If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee." This is not a condition upon God, but a statement about us.

God offers the shelter of His mercy. It is up to us to go in.

And you know, it doesn't matter how many times I read this prayer, I still mistakenly end it with the "air conditioned". One of these days that will be purged from my brain.

Ah well. What can you do?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Trust and Reality

There has been something going on for some time that has both amused and disturbed me. It has to do with the idea of playing with people's reality, fooling them into believing something is happening that isn't, usually for the amusement of others.

For example, one of the earliest instances of this was the famed radio broadcast War of the Worlds. While it was very well done, I love the show, and they regularly announced that it was all a drama, it still undermined some people's trust of the newscasters and the media.

Generally these sorts of pranks were done on the first of April, and were what I would call relatively harmless.

Lately, though, they seem to be proliferating at an alarming rate, and they are becoming more and more intrusive on people's reality. For example, if you were listening to the War of the Worlds, you could pretty much look outside and see that what they were reporting wasn't what was really happening. Today, though, it isn't quite that simple.

Check out this video in which one family in a restaurant was subjected to prejudicial and harassing behaviour by a waitress. The problem, though, is that it was all staged. The family and the waitress were all actors putting on a show to see how others would react, and some of them reacted very nobly.




While I agree that it was interesting to see the reactions from the other patrons, and witness the heroic actions of those who stood up to the waitress, and that it illustrates a very real problem, it could have another unintended affect. I imagine myself eating there and feeling truly sickened by the actions of the waitress. In fact, my stomach is still a bit upset after having seen it again. But I can imagine myself there and know that I would do something very similar, but probably not as tactful as the man in the video. And while I would feel justified in coming to the defense of those being persecuted, I know that I would suffer the ill feelings for quite some time afterwards. That type of justified confrontation, while I still do it, has a very real toll on me. It truly makes me ill for some time.

But then, after the whole thing is done, to be approached and told that it was all a hoax, a test, would make it even worse. It would make me question the reality of it if I saw something similar at a later time. I can truly see myself witnessing another similar, but this time real, scenario, and hesitating, to the detriment of all.

Now, like I said, I understand why they are doing it here, but I think they are missing a very real consequence of it.

As you can probably guess, I saw this video a while ago. It disturbed me at the time, especially to learn that there are a whole pile of similar videos and situations that they did for this "reality" show. It wasn't just the once. It was over and over again. It was as if they decided to see how bad they could make a situation just to see how others would react, without really thinking about the long-term consequences of it.

I mean, how many times do you have to see the staged versions of these things before you become immune to them and end up ignoring a real situation? I'm just wondering.

But now, we, as a culture, seem to be going even further. If you watch this promo for an upcoming movie, you'll see what I mean.



Again, I think it's a real cool effect that they have done, but is this the right place to be doing such a stunt? What impact does it have on those who witness such things? Have we overstepped some boundary that should be there? Does this somehow fall into a similar category as shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre? Have we allowed ourselves to become the "playthings of the ignorant", mere tools for the people dreaming up these stunts? When do we say enough is enough and claim our reality back as our own?

Monday, October 7, 2013

How to Start a Blog in Two Easy Steps

Thank you, dear Reader, for all the e-mails of congratulations and well-wishes. I really appreciate it. Especially during this time of the year when my allergies are making themselves known to me. So abundantly making themselves known to me.

Last night, as I was finishing up a bit of work, I told Shoghi that I had just received a number of your e-mails about having written 500 articles. His eyes got really wide and he asked how it was that I could write so much. This sort of dove-tailed with the questions I got about how to begin writing your own blog, and I think the answer to his question is pretty much the same as the answer to yours.

"Well," I replied to Shoghi, "every day when I read the Writings, I always find something in them that catches my attention. When that happens, I think about it all day. I play with it in my mind, in my heart, see what it looks like from all sorts of angles. I try to discover how I can apply that teaching in my life. And you know what? Sometimes I'm even successful. Occasionally the Concourse on High helps show me a way to apply it. And that's when I sit down and write."

"But what about those times", he asked, "when you don't?"

"Hmm. Good question. Every now and then", I said, "I begin to write about whatever it was that caught my attention and think about it as I'm writing. Sometimes I am very surprised that just doing that gives me a new perspective. Other times I don't come up with anything. Sometimes that wily Concourse on High just doesn't get through to me. Maybe I'm too busy with my own thoughts that I don't pay attention to what they're trying to tell me. And that's when I write about how I don't understand something.

"You see," I continued, kind of getting into the rhythm of it, "one of the most important things we can talk about is what we don't know. Do you remember in our children's class this morning how nobody knew the answer to the question I asked? I said that answering 'I don't know' is the best answer at those times. By admitting that we don't know, we open ourselves up to hearing what the real answer is. Or a real answer. Or sometimes just an answer.

"When I don't know how to apply something, or I just can't figure out what Baha'u'llah is trying to say, I admit it. And that is how my friends all over the world know to send me their thoughts. And you know what? One of them usually has an answer for me. By putting it out there, and waiting for an answer, we all learn from it."

Ok. Maybe that's not exactly what I said, but that's the general spirit of it.

Then he asked me again, "But 500? How could you write so many?"

That was when I was reminded of a friend of mine: Reggie Newkirk. I have to say that Reggie is quite the guy. He's wise, witty, and very practical. He has served the faith in many different capacities, and always exemplary. (But pleae don't tell him I said so, for I don't want it to go to his head. His humility is another wonderful thing about him, and I don't want to tempt his ego by my words.)

There was one time when we were both at a summer school, and I noticed that Reggie got up very early every morning and went for a long run. I don't know how long, because I never joined him. Until very recently I was not what you would call a "morning guy".

Anyways, one morning at this school, some of the youth saw him running back into camp and asked him how it was that he was able to get up so early.

"Oh, now that's a good question. Well, you see, when I wake up, I put one foot on the floor. Then I put the other one on the floor and I start my day."

In other words, he just does it.

When Shoghi asked me how I was able to write so much, I thought about that and said, "One article at a time."

Perhaps the word is persistence, or perseverance. I'm not really sure. I just know that I begin typing, quite often without knowing what I'm going to write, and just keep typing until the article is done. Or until I have to be somewhere else. Or until I get too hungry.

Whatever.

I just begin, and then go until I'm done.

So, for those of you asked me how you can start writing your own blog, I think that's my answer: Just begin. Find something that catches your attention and write about it. Find something that you are passionate about, and write about it. Find something that makes you say, "Neat", and write about it.

Once you've done that, then hit "publish". Oh, you can always hit "spell check", or "grammar check", or insert a photo or a video, or something, if you want, but you have to be sure to hit "publish".

Got that?

Two easy steps, like it says in the title (see above).

  1. Type.
  2. Publish

Easy, non?

And if you're anything like me, you won't think that your insights are all that special, but you never know, to someone else they just may be. Your quirky little perspective that you take for granted may be just the thing that nobody else has ever thought of before. (Maybe for good reason, but maybe not.)

If you have started a blog on the Faith, please let me know. I'd love to read it. After all, I sure have a lot to learn, and who better to help teach me?

I mean, except Baha'u'llah, of course. But you know, there are many things in His Writings that I just don't get yet.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

500

Wow.

I can't believe it.

Another year has gone by. Yes, it's my birthday again (tomorrow, not right now), and, again, I am giving pause to reflect. In previous years I have sometimes mentioned it, and even written about it. But this year something else is happening, too. This is my 500th article on this blog.

I really can't believe it. 500!?!

When I look back over the past few years, I am truly amazed at all the changes that have happened.

But first, I want to reflect a moment on how I began all this.

At the time, I was serving the Faith in an administrative capacity, and one of the joyous responsibilities of this service was to travel throughout the Snoman Region. Saskatchewn, Northern Ontario, and Manitoba; what else were we going to call it?

So one day, way back then, I was at a meeting in Regina, sitting in the main hall at the Regina Baha'i Centre. Now, if Regina were in the States, it would have been the Regina Baha'i Center, but it isn't. It's in Canada. And therefore it is the Regina Baha'i Centre.

So there I was, sitting in the main hall, listening to people share their stories about how their children's classes were going. Story after story of these incredible gatherings were being shared, one after the other, really giving us all a sense of how much was happening in the area. But then someone stood up and asked the question that really made the day stand out for me, above and beyond all the other similar meetings I had attended. He said, with his straightforward, matter-of-fact, farmer's drawl, "This is all well and good, but how did you all begin? How did you get those kids to come over to your house the first time?"

Now, you have to understand, at that time my wife and I had had a children's class going in our home for a few years and I hadn't ever really considered that question before. How did we get those kids to come over the first time? And then I remembered.

Then I snickered.

It was just a little laugh, but the guy sitting next to me (whose initials are Ward Johnson) heard. Later, when he was giving me a ride back to where we were both staying, a good 30 minutes or so away, he asked me why I had laughed.

"Oh," I replied, "I was just remembering how Marielle and I began our children's class."

He looked a but puzzled and asked, "How?"

"Well, our cat peed on our comforter."

As I told Ward the story of how our classes began, which you can read about here, he was laughing so hard that I realized I had a good story to share. I needed to write it down. And so I decided to write a little bit about what I had learned about the Faith.

And that is how this blog began.

Over the previous umpteen years a number of people had told me that my very simple way of looking at the Faith, and figuring out how to apply the Teachings, was useful to them. And while I didn't think much of my own insights, and still don't, really, others had said that they did help them find more in the Writings.

And since I am really just one lone Baha'i struggling to find his way amidst the... Hmm, I can't think of a good analogy here.... Uhm, since I really am just one lone Baha'i trying to keep afloat in this vast ocean of His Writings (how's that?), I thought I would call it "One Baha'i".

So I did a quick search for a reasonable blog site, came across blogspot, typed up the story, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But then I ran into a problem.

What else could I write about?

Well, the second article was easy. I just wrote a bit more about that little old children's class.

And then I remembered another interesting thing that had happened at that same meeting in Regina and wrote that little bit about the Right of God.

Oh, and then I recalled something I had once said about the Tablet of Ahmad that really stood out to someone else. And then it was time for an election, so I wrote about that. And then I remembered... Well, as you see, it has kind of gone on from there.

500 articles gone on from there.

Nearly 4 years gone on from there.

And for those of you, and yes, I'm referring to you, dear Reader, who have been reading this for most of that time, you have seen me move from the prairies to the coast, watched my son double in age from 4 to 8, and seen me get back into my artwork. You have seen me lost in wonder, puzzled over a quote, inspired by a line I had never considered, chastised for skipping sacred Text, crying over the loss of a friend, confused over what something in the Writings means, and generally blabber and blither as I talk about those little tidbits I am able to find amidst this vast treasure house of Writings.

A lot has happened in those nearly 4 years.

Now we have seen the Baha'i Faith grow and change, too. Four years ago I never would have dreamed of seeing the call for local Houses of Worship in my lifetime. It never would have occurred to me that we could possibly see over 100 youth conferences in so short a span of time. I could never have imagined how much we would learn about actual growth in just a couple short score of months.

Way back in October of 2009 I used my first quote from the Writings in an article here in this blog: "O dwellers of My Paradise! With the hands of loving-kindness I have planted in the holy garden of paradise the young tree of your love and friendship..." Today I look back on that quote and realize that little seed has come to fruition through your love and friendship.

I never would have dreamed of the people I would meet through telling that simple little story of going to the laundromat and beginning a children's class. I never would have dreamed of all the e-mails I have received from all over the world. I never would have dreamed of all the joy and tears and questions and insights and laughter and... well, I never would have dreamed of how this simple little practice of writing a blog about how the Faith has influenced my life would influence my life.

Thank you for sharing this with me, and thank you for all of your kind words and loving support.

And if anyone ever asks me how I began writing this blog, well, it is all because of my silly little cat peeing on my comforter.