Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Penny Drops

I was just emptying my pockets when a penny hit the floor. I picked it up and looked at the unusual object. Unusual, I say, because it was a US penny, and I live in Canada. Now, I am something of a numismatist, a coin collector, except that I don't really collect them. I just appreciate them, especially the artwork that goes into making them.

But there was something about this penny that caught my eye: the design on the back.

In case you don't know, the US penny has an image of Abraham Lincoln on the front and for many years has had his memorial on the back. This was very significant, for it was a symbol of freedom from slavery for many people. From 1959 all the way through 2008. this was the symbol that adorned the back of this small, but significant, coin. Freedom from slavery.

In 2010, this symbol was changed. I remember when it changed, and it bothered me at the time, but I could not have told you why. It's not that I was particularly attached to the Lincoln Memorial, but I definitely didn't like the new symbol: a shield sporting the logo "E Pluribus Unum", or "out of many, one". And while the 13 stripes on the shield "represent the states joined in one compact union to support the Federal government, represented by the horizontal bar above", according to the US mint, I think there is a deeper, more subtle significance.

In 1959, when the civil rights movement was really getting underway, the implication of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the penny was great. By 2010, though, the whole importance of the civil rights movement had faded, and the memory of 2001 and the Twin Towers was far more in the consciousness of the US population. The "attacks on Christmas" were in the headlines. The Occupy movement was underway. Civil unrest was at a height not seen for many years. Both the government and the media were giving greater and greater importance to kindling the sense of fear in the country, having already promoted at least one war, and generating the feeling of need for another. And so a shield on the back, denoting the importance of protection while under attack, seems eerily significant now.

In 2014, the multitude of slayings of unarmed black men by white police officers has brought the entire civil rights movement back into the spotlight.

Regardless of the guilt or innocence of any one particular police officer in any of these incidents, the sheer number of them, and the subsequent dismissal of the most grievous of these from going to trial, has shown the extreme disparity inherent in the US legal system.

Racism, in other words, is still a major issue in the States and must be faced square on, and finally dealt with.

When speaking with Baha'is all across the States, I regularly hear the same tired refrain. "Sure, racism is the most challenging issue", many say, "but I'm not racist."

And that, dear Reader, is where we have failed.

Now, this is not meant in the sense of success and failure, but rather in the sense of having failed to perform a task. We have failed to continue to uphold the banner of racial equality.

Before I talk about that, though, I should mention that I also believe that we have failed to remember the words of our beloved Guardian. You see, the Guardian never said that racism was our most challenging issue. He said, and I quote, "it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Baha'i community."

Why do we leave out the word "vital"?

This is not just some issue that needs to be relegated to a committee and handled with a simple march or a picnic. This is not some principle that is to be included in an old list and rattled off with a dozen or so other principles, important as they all are.

This is an issue of life and death.

This is an issue that is so difficult to understand, so complex, so painful to recognize the depths of, so problematic to solve.

And this is the one issue, out of them all, in which we need to be the leaders.

In a recent meeting in Washington DC, President Obama called together the recognized leaders in this arena to discuss the issue of race and, for the first time I am aware of in many decades, there was no Baha'i present. We are no longer seen as leaders in this area.

In one community, a major city in the central States, the Baha'i Faith grew in numbers back in the 60s because the friends there stood out. Their stance on racial unity was light years ahead of everyone else, as it had been for many years. In the racially torn years of that time, the Baha'i community was significantly better than what was available outside of it. Remember, "Until the public sees in the Bahá'í Community a true pattern, in action," wrote the Guardian, "of something better than it already has, it will not respond to the Faith in large numbers."

From what I have seen, since the mid-80s, in regards to racial equality, the Baha'i community has not grown. But the rest of the culture has. We no longer stand out. We no longer offer something better for those facing the racial disparity of the greater community. We have become the norm. The rest of the community has caught up with us, and, in some ways, surpassed us. If you are looking for a community in which your race is not a matter of stigma, there are plenty of communities and groups offering that.

But there is another area in which we are in a state of crisis.

In that community in the central States, the members of the Assembly have taken the race issue off their agenda, in a sense, for they regard themselves as not being racist. And while that may be the case, it is not the issue.

They are a large enough community to have neighbourhood Feasts, which in and of itself is not a problem. But, when the Feast is held in a black neighbourhood, or at the home of an African-American, the number of those attending drops significantly. "The White folk", as my African American friends say, "just don`t show up."

If we wanted to, we could try to claim this is some sort of manifestation of racism, but I don't think it is. I think it is more a fear of the neighbourhoods that racism engenders. It is like the time we were teaching in a very dangerous neighbourhood in Winnipeg. We told the friends involved to get out of the neighbourhood a good 30 minutes before sunset. Was that racism? No. It was realism. We knew the neighbourhood changed after sunset, and were justifiably concerned. In fact, one woman did not heed the advice and ended up in hospital.

But here, in this one city, with its Feasts at various homes, if there is an issue of concern, they need to find a way around it. Whether it is a group who provides escorts, as I have seen in another city, or ensuring that the Feast occurs during the day when it is safer, as others have done, a way must be provided. Watching the numbers fall and allowing this sense of racial disunity to grow does nothing but engender this crisis that must eventually be faced. I have had a number of friends in this city, all African American, say that if it weren't for their love of Baha'u'llah, they would have left the Faith already. We know that we are our own worst enemy, that people will leave if it were only the community holding us together. Fortunately it is the love of Baha'u'llah that binds us into a single unit and elevates us to undreamt of heights.

You see, the problem is not freeing ourselves of any racist tendencies, as important as that is. It is not about us. The problem is upholding the standard of racial unity. It is raising that banner and keeping it in front of us, for all to see. It is about using that outward-looking orientation we love to talk about, and standing up for what is right in a culture that has forgotten about such things. It is about going to those homes, not because it is safe and easy, but because it is right and just, and it is where our friends and family are.

And it's not about forgetting the core activities in order to do this.

It is about doing what is needed, where it is needed, when it is needed.

And today, that means picking up that standard, once again, and going to the front lines where this issue is being fought. It is about changing that fight from battling racism to promoting race unity. It is about understanding the issues faced by many millions of people every day, acknowledging their daily reality, facing their complaints and criticisms with heroic fortitude, and surrounding them with an all-embracing love that is worthy of the name "Baha'i".

For those of us not living directly in these areas, it is about seeing the pattern of action that the Universal House of Justice has given us in regards to defending the rights of our brethren in Iran and applying that pattern to defend the rights of brethren in the States. In Iran they are persecuted for their beliefs, while in the States they suffer for the colour of their skin. In Iran there has been an outpouring of loving encouragement to stand up for justice through a flow of letters to those in positions of power. Perhaps we, through a similar coordinated effort, could do the same. After all, we know that the majority of police officers and officials want to see a better world for all. Perhaps a flow of loving words will help them stand up to the agents of hatred and respond to the variety of situations they encounter in a manner more worthy of the badge they wear and the position they hold.

For all of us, it is about going back to our own Writings, studying this issue one more time, at the very least, and confronting those challenges that have been laid before us. We have been told that racism has "attacked the whole structure of the American society", that the principle of the oneness of humanity "implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society", and that America's "peace, her prosperity, and even her standing in the international community depend to a great extent on the resolution of this issue".

Now is the time to rise up, put down that shield, and pick up that banner once again.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Oneness

Oneness. What a strange word.

What does it mean, one with that suffix of -ness? Happiness means having the quality of being happy. So presumably oneness means having the quality of being one.

What does it mean to be one?

I'm reminded of the story of the little boy who came home from his Baha'i children's class and was asked what he learned. "I learned that God is one", he said to his parents delight, "and I am five."

Oneness. The quality of being one? Again, it's a strange word, if you think about it. A statement of something being singular. Many have used the analogy of the fingers and the "oneness of our hand", but is that an accurate analogy? We have five fingers on each hand (come on, give me a break, the thumb is a finger for all intents and purposes), and yet they are essentially part of the same hand. One. Yet, at the same time, aren't they actually five? If you break one of them, the others still work, despite the very real pain. Although the underlying structure shows that they are a part of the same unifying hand, are they not actually separate at some other level?

The answer to that, of course, as with most questions in religion, is both yes and no.

To better understand this idea, I often think about history. We speak of World War 1 and World War 2 as if they were two separate events. We learn about them as two different wars in recent history. We say that the first one began and ended sometime in the teen years of the twentieth century, and the second one somehow spontaneously began in September of 1939, if you decide to start with Hitler's attacks on neighbouring countries.

But they can also be seen as part of one continual process. World War 2 finds its immediate beginnings in the Treaty of Versailles, that unjust treaty that saw the conclusion of hostilities in World War 1. In fact, we could even argue that World War 1 was a necessary outcome of the various treaties that began in the 19th century. The case could even be made that many of the subsequent wars were and are a continuation of the colonial attitudes of the various treaties that ended World War 2.

History, as I have learned, is not a series of randomly occurring separate events. It is the unfolding of the continual process of human development over a vast span of time.

Total aside, and a bit of a rant: I used to own a copy of a book, "The Timetables of History", which I am glad to have long since sold enabling my precious limited bookshelf space to accommodate far more relevant volumes. When I first picked it up, way back in the mid-80s, I loved it for the way that it showed what happened when in the long history of humanity, neatly dividing the various events into simplistic categories, such as "science", "politics", "arts", "religion", "entertainment", "sports" and so on. But even then I wondered why sports and entertainment were in two categories, for wasn't sports, as they defined it, just another form of entertainment? This book was quite good in terms of history further back than 200 years, but as it got more recent, it became more and more ridiculous. It put into context major European events like the signing of the Magna Carta in relation to, say, Da Vinci, which was quite interesting, but ignored most events outside of Europe and post-colonial North America. When it came to more recent events, it, for some absurd reason that I never quite understood, included such "world shaking" events as the Dallas Cowboys winning the Super Bowl. While it was really wonderful to have something that helped me see when different events occurred in relation to each other, this book had the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like history revolved around the European perspective, and that all these events were somehow disconnected from each other. Worse, though, from my own opinion, it made it seem like more and more astonishing things were happening today, inappropriately elevating the inconsequential to be somehow more significant, a trend we see all too often in the hyper-inflated, sensationalist news of today.

Anyways, back to the idea of "oneness".

I can speak of my childhood, adolescence and adult life as if they are separate from each other, but I am still only one person. While I continue to grow and develop, I am still me. But, of course, things change. Those priorities I had when I was a child are quite different from my priorities today. What I considered important then is often considered by me as trivial today. Those things that I value today were often completely beyond my vision earlier. Although I have changed, and continue to change, I am still me, one, singular, and indivisible. And although I appear to be separate from all those around me, like the fingers of a hand, am I? Really?

Before I look at that important question (which would have been beyond my vision when I was a child), I want to take a look at something else we often talk about when speaking about oneness: religion. We very flippantly speak of the "oneness of religion", as if all religions are somehow identical, except for those pesky social laws which some would seem to imply only confuse the issue, of course. We even cite that great statement from "One Common Faith" in which it says in so quotable a manner, "...there is but one religion. Religion is religion, as science is science." That's a direct quote. You can check it if you want. Page 33. (You're welcome.)

But what is the context of this quote? Great question. And interesting, too, for here is more of that quote: While it is true to speak of the unity of all religions, understanding of the context is vital. At the deepest level, as Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, there is but one religion. Religion is religion, as science is science. The one discerns and articulates the values unfolding progressively through Divine revelation; the other is the instrumentality through which the human mind explores and is able to exert its influence ever more precisely over the phenomenal world. The one defines goals that serve the evolutionary process; the other assists in their attainment. Together, they constitute the dual knowledge system impelling the advance of civilization. Each is hailed by the Master as an “effulgence of the Sun of Truth”.

Got that? "Context is vital". While the oneness and unity of religion is true at the deepest level, on the surface there are some very significant differences. Different fingers; one hand. The pinkie is not the same as the thumb. And if you flip someone your index finger, the connotation is quite different from showing them another finger in its singularity.

So back to my original question: What is oneness? Well, to start, I think it is like unity, in that it doesn't necessarily mean a synonymy. I believe that when Baha'u'llah says "all men shall be regarded as one soul" He isn't saying that we are literally one soul in billions of bodies, but rather that we shall see each other as if we are one soul. We shall truly regard one another as ourselves.

In terms of religion, it means that we need to be careful when talking about it. To flippantly say that religions are one is to ignore the implications of this statement being true only at "the deepest levels". Instead, we can think it about it in terms of what Baha'u'llah says about people: regard them as one soul. We can respect all faiths, all religions, because others do. We can see them as one, in spite of, or perhaps despite of, their differences. I often say that respecting other people's faith doesn't mean that I believe it. It means that I respect your belief not because I believe it is sacred, but because you do.

Of course, this is also within a higher context. Any religion that preaches hatred goes against the very basis of religion.

What is oneness? Well, as a child recently said to me, "It is like being on the same team." The individual members each have their roles and positions, but only when they work in total harmony can the collective become a team.

So when I speak of oneness, I don't necessarily speak of everything being identical. Instead, I think of it all as serving the same purpose. And that, to me, is why I can think of all religions as being one, and God, too, as being singular.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Oranges and Olives

I don't like orange peel.

I love oranges, but really can't stand their packaging material. In fact, it would be preferable to chew a piece of aluminum foil to having a slice of the peel in my mouth.

A number of years ago I was at a party when a friend of mine came bouncing over and placed a piece of chocolate in my mouth. She was kind of funny that way, and very sweet about it. Unfortunately it happened to be a piece of chocolate covered orange peel. (I know I told a version of this story a few months ago, but it really did come up again the other day, so pardon me for repeating it here so soon.) (I think this is divine karma, as you will soon see.)

Now I've been told by some that it is very amusing to watch the various contortions my face undergoes when I have the unfortunate reality of having a piece of the peel in my mouth. That moment was no exception.

Naturally, she felt very bad about this and ran off to get me something to drink. Knowing that I was a Baha'i and never touched alcohol, she had a bit of difficulty finding me a safe to drink. It was that kind of a party. But after a few moments of eternity to me, she ran back with a cup of tea. I grabbed the cup and quickly sipped some of that steaming beverage.

It was Red Zinger, which has copious amounts of orange peel in it.

I still shudder in memory.

And yes, I'm sure my expression was amusing to all who witnessed.

Can't you just see me, with an expression of extreme gustatory repugnance, disgust, and general abhorrence, eager at the thought of getting something more palatable in my mouth? And then that moment of frozen shock when I realize that the situation has just been made worse?

In fact, there was one time I was visiting a friend at a health food store, and they had just received in a basket of fresh kumquats. Another worker there, in her red knit hat with black specks and a green foof on top that looked incredibly like a giant strawberry, was so enamoured of these "delectable little morsels" that she was bouncing around the store passing out free samples to all who cared to try them. I, of course, politely declined. "Oh, but they are so full of flavour, so fresh, and so delicious." While I didn't doubt the first two, I certainly questioned the last. "But kumquats taste nothing like oranges", both little miss strawberry-head and my friend insisted. I explained my problem with the peel, explaining that there is a rare mutation of the palette that enables those with it to taste a particular molecule found in orange peel, lemon peel, and within grapefruit millions of times stronger than normal. Hence my preference for foil to peel. It really is less painful to me. Just imagine that slight sharpness of zest that so many people love within their food, that seemingly random explosive burst of flavour that dissipates more quickly than the after-trails of fireworks, and magnify it by millions. It is sort of like the difference between that little sparkler given to kids on the 4th of July in the States, and a 50 megaton nuclear bomb that wipes out vast areas of desert, transforming the surrounding sands into sheets of glass which you can use to help read at night. We're talking a mouth full of peel-flavour so intense that my entire face feels like a 35 ton bronze bell that's just struck noon. This was not something I particularly cared to try.

But, as my friend pointed out, I had never had one. And while they are related to oranges, they are not the same.

So I relented, and with great trepidation popped one in my mouth. Whole, as they suggested.

And promptly blacked out.

Now, to be fair, I didn't really black out. I mean, I did, but I didn't. From my perspective, it's a blackout. From their perspective, it was a bit more terrifying. Evidently I scrunched my eyes shut very tightly. They could actually see how tight my eyes were scrunched. And my jaw was clenched. Really clenched. They could actually see the force of the clenching muscles. And then my hands became fists and I began to pound on the counter, seemingly in intense pain.

They were ready to call an ambulance.

While these symptoms only lasted for a few minutes, so they said, I could taste the "delectable little morsel" for the next few days. Literally.

Little miss strawberry head and my friend were both very apologetic, and agreed. I don't like orange peel.

But what does this have to do with the Faith? Well, aside from God loving laughter, what does it have to do with the Faith?

A few things, actually.

First of all, just a few days ago I was sitting at a friend's home waiting for the start of a meeting, talking with another friend who was there. (Don't worry Greg, I won't mention your name.) While we were chatting, I noticed a dish of food there. The host, an elderly Persian woman, always has lots of food for us, and encourages us to eat far more than is likely healthy. She would give my Jewish grandmother a run for her money, even though she has never called me "bubala". (I'll let you look it up.)

Now, this wasn't just a dish of food. It was a small dish with little squares of dark chocolate covered with a sprinkling of shredded coconut. For that, I needed no encouragement.

With a smile of joyous anticipation. I reached over and popped one of those beautiful squares into my mouth.

And discovered it was laced with orange peel.

You may remember up above where I said that some people say "that it is very amusing to watch the various contortions my face undergoes when I have the unfortunate reality of having a piece of the peel in my mouth". It took my friend, the anonymous Mr Bell, quite some time to stop laughing. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen him laugh so much in my life. It would have been great to see if the cause had been any less personal.

When the hostess came back in the room, she had a tray of tea, thankfully not orange peel, and placed it on the table while she went back to get the cream and sugar. I jumped up and ran to get that tray. "Sit", she called out, "I'll serve you. Don't worry." "Oh, that's ok. It's no problem", I replied. Really, it wasn't. I gave laughing boy his tea and proceeded to drink mine fairly quickly. He was a bit slower in drinking his, due to respiratory problems he developed while laughing so hard, for which I had little to no sympathy.

Then I proceeded to relate to him the whole story I outlined above.

There is, of course, another connection to the Faith, one which I like a lot more.

One day, it has been said, a man who really disliked olives was visiting Baha'u'llah. Knowing of this man's lack of appreciation for this venerated fruit, Baha'u'llah joked with him about how important a place this fruit has in the history of religion. After all, there are many references to the twin olive trees, to name just a single of these. "Haven't you read", Baha'u'llah is reported to have asked him, "of what the Prophet Muhammad said of olives?" "Of course", the man replied, to Baha'u'llah's great delight "but it's obvious He never tasted them."

There is also a pilgrims note that says 'Abdu'l-Baha encouraged us to take a bite of the rind whenever we eat an orange. And while I love all the stories of the Master, I am very grateful to the wisdom He showed in not putting this in writing anywhere else.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Personal Prayer

"But you should", she said. "You really are only allowed to read prayers from the Writings."

I had been talking about prayer, our habitual ways of saying prayers within the Baha'i community in North America, and how some people find this either boring, annoying or in any other way off-putting. I had described our monotonous manner in which many of us say our prayers in English, thinking, for some reason, that a monotone shows some sort of reverence, which it may, for some, but definitely does not for others. I spoke about how there are a few who come into our community, or join us for devotions in some setting, and proceed to say their prayers in a charismatic sort of way, only to receive a quick, unconscious glance of judgement. I explained that the judgement was not intentional, nor was the individual doing it aware of it, but that the effect was clear if you watched. I talked about how we, as a community, must really learn to be as open as possible to all styles of prayer, including those that arise naturally from the heart. All of this was not meant as any sort of criticism, for I often say my prayers in a monotone, too, but rather to help shed a bit of light on why some of our devotional gatherings may not have been as effective as we would have wished. I said that we really needed to examine this from an unbiased perspective, re-thinking what it is that we do, especially unconsciously.

"I have never", I confessed, "found anything in the Writings that says we should only use the prayers from the Baha'i Writings. Well, except for the devotional portion of the Feast, but that is the exception, not the rule, as far as I can tell."

That was when this woman said, "You really are only allowed to read prayers from the Writings."

I asked her where that was in the Writings, really wanting to know, but was told that we all just know it. It was obvious.

And so my quest continued. For years I've been looking for a quote that says we must either only read prayers from the Bab, Baha'u'llah, or 'Abdu'l-Baha, or one that clearly states that we can say prayers from our heart.

And for just as many years, I had never found anything, except circumstantial evidence.

Some of the Hands of the Cause, those eminent souls who "speak not without His leave", were known to have written some beautiful prayers. One of the most famous, the one that begins with the line "Make of me a hallow reed from which the pith of self hath been blown", inappropriately attributed to 'Abdu'l-Baha, was written by Hand of the Cause of God, George Townshend. Ruhiyyih Khanum wrote some beautiful prayers, in the form of poems, most notably after the Guardian's passing. And I say this because if prayer is "conversation with God", then those poems sure seem to count, in my opinion.

Baha'u'llah and the Bab both quoted prayers by some of the Imams.

Really, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that I never found any direct quote.

Until yesterday.

At the end of section 31 in Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, we read the following: "The brief prayer which thou didst write at the close of thy letter was indeed original, touching and beautiful. Recite thou this prayer at all times."

This is a very interesting selection, for in it the Master writes about the expansion of the Faith in England, and by extension the world. And at the very end, after some beautiful ideas, He mentions that this person beheld Baha'u'llah in Haifa, but did not recognize Him at the time. How incredible is that? Here we have the Master's own testimony that someone else from Europe beheld the Blessed Beauty!

Then, at the very end, the very last lines, is that quote I've been seeking for years. You wrote your own prayer, said the Master, and it is beautiful. "Recite thou this prayer at all times."

Now, why is this so important to me? Simple, really. I am always leery of how we may inadvertently set up conditions, rules, or rituals within our community that are not actually part of the Faith itself. What we take for granted, such as only reading prayers from the Writings, is actually cultural, not integral to the Faith itself. It's not bad, mind you, but just cultural.

If we are in the middle of prayers, and someone new comes into the room, should they wait by the door, either within the room or without? Should they sit down quietly? Should the reader stop reading the prayer and greet them, warmly welcoming them to the group? It doesn't matter. All those responses are both personal and cultural. I have seen each of these responses, and they are all beautiful. There is no right or wrong response.

The only problem is when we try to impose our cultural values upon others, and do so in the name of the Faith.

So it is with children. If we teach our children that we should only say prayers from the Writings, then we are inadvertently imposing a cultural bias on their Faith. If they only see us adults praying with prayers from the Writings, and never explain that it is ok to do otherwise, then we are, through omission, limiting their potential.

But when we say our prayers, consciously choosing to read and pray from the Writings, occasionally saying some from our heart, and carefully explain to our children that all prayer, all conversation with God, is totally acceptable, then we give them broader wings upon which their spirits can soar.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Look at "Creation from the Intellect"

Back to the Writings.

I feel like it has been way too long since I've really explored a single text. So why not right now? My wife is sitting at her computer, arranging some music for the band (she's a musician in the Canadian military, in case I've never mentioned it before), and I've just finished working on a chain-mail piece for my son's Halloween costume (a glow-in-the-dark scale-mail mask) (ultra cool).

Now what? Well, I'll walk over to the bookshelf, grab a random book by Bahau'u'llah, turn to a random page, grab a passage and see what turns up. (I'll be right back.)

(Thanks for waiting. Now I'm going to grab something to munch on while I write. I won't be long. I promise.)

Ok. I'm back. Thanks.

I grabbed The Tabernacle of Unity, which I have to admit surprised me. I would have expected something like Gleanings, along with a nice familiar traditional quote to dissect. No such luck.

What I got was paragraph 2.51. But to better understand it, I needed to go back a bit and find the context. After all, this tablet is to Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, responding to Manikchi Sahib's complaint that Baha'u'llah didn't answer his questions in the first tablet. In this second tablet Baha'u''llah inserts Manikchi Sahib's original questions and then shows how He answered each and every one of them with characteristic conciseness and brilliance. And so, in order to better explore this paragraph, I feel I should go back a bit and begin with the question.

2.47
A further question that he hath asked: “The Hindus assert that God fashioned the Intellect in the form of a man named Brahma, Who came into this world and was the cause of its progress and development, and that all Hindus are His descendants. The followers of Zoroaster say: ’God, through the agency of the Primal Intellect, created a man whose name is Mahábád and who is our ancestor.’ They believe the modes of creation to be six in number. Two were mentioned above; the others are creation from water, earth, fire, and from bears and monkeys. The Hindus and Zoroastrians both say that they are begotten of the Intellect, and thus do not admit others into their folds. Are these assertions true or not? That wise Master is requested to indicate that which he deemeth appropriate.”
2.48
The entire creation hath been called into being through the Will of God, magnified be His glory, and peerless Adam hath been fashioned through the agency of His all-compelling Word, a Word which is the source, the wellspring, the repository, and the dawning-place of the intellect. From it all creation hath proceeded, and it is the channel of God’s primal grace. None can grasp the reality of the origin of creation save God, exalted be His glory, Whose knowledge embraceth all things both before and after they come into being. Creation hath neither beginning nor end, and none hath ever unravelled its mystery. Its knowledge hath ever been, and shall remain, hidden and preserved with those Who are the Repositories of divine knowledge.
2.49
The world of existence is contingent, inasmuch as it is preceded by a cause, while essential preexistence hath ever been, and shall remain, confined to God, magnified be His glory. This statement is being made lest one be inclined to conclude from the earlier assertion, namely that creation hath no beginning and no end, that it is preexistent. True and essential preexistence is exclusively reserved to God, while the preexistence of the world is secondary and relative. All that hath been inferred about firstness, lastness and such hath in truth been derived from the sayings of the Prophets, Apostles, and Chosen Ones of God.
2.50
As to the “realm of subtle entities”16 which is often referred to, it pertaineth to the Revelation of the Prophets, and aught else is mere superstition and idle fancy. At the time of the Revelation all men are equal in rank. By reason, however, of their acceptance or rejection, rise or fall, motion or stillness, recognition or denial, they come to differ thereafter. For instance, the one true God, magnified be His glory, speaking through the intermediary of His Manifestation, doth ask: “Am I not your Lord?” Every soul that answereth “Yea, verily!” is accounted among the most distinguished of all men in the sight of God. Our meaning is that ere the Word of God is delivered, all men are deemed equal in rank and their station is one and the same. It is only thereafter that differences appear, as thou hast no doubt observed.
2.51
It is clearly established from that which hath been mentioned that none may ever justifiably claim: “We are begotten of the Intellect, while all others stem from another origin.” The truth that shineth bright and resplendent as the sun is this, that all have been created through the operation of the Divine Will and have proceeded from the same source, that all are from Him and that unto Him they shall all return. This is the meaning of that blessed verse in the Qur’án which hath issued from the Pen of the All-Merciful: “Verily, we are God’s, and to Him shall we return”. 17
2.52
As is clear and evident to thee, the answer to all of the questions mentioned above was embodied in but one of the passages revealed by the Pen of the Most High. Blessed are they who, freed from worldly matters and sanctified from idle fancies and vain imaginings, traverse the meads of divine knowledge and discern in all things the tokens of His glory.

I am so grateful to reference.bahai.org for this. It makes life so much easier when studying the Writings.

To begin, the question. Manikchi Sahib is basically asking "Which creation story is correct?" Well, really, how can He answer that? No matter what He says it will be both incomplete and offend some. It is like earlier in the book when He is asked which of four schools of thought is correct. The short answer is none of them, but that "the second standeth closer to righteousness... One can, however, provide a justification for the tenets of the other schools..." In the end, through His wisdom, He replied, "Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements." In other words, who really cares? What difference does it make in your daily life?

Here, he is asking are the claims of the Hindus and Zoroastrians correct? If He were to simply say "No", then virtually all Hindus and Zoroastrians would feel insulted. And yet all knowledge comes from God through the Manifestations, so it is likely that their claims are true in that regard. When you re-read the question in light of that, then we can readily see that there is a truth within their teachings.

The problem, though, is that they become exclusive in their assertions. "We're right and all others are wrong." He corrects that. He reminds us clearly, in paragraph 2.51, that we have all been created from "the Intellect", for we are all created by the same God. At no time should the story of our creation become divisive. "Know ye not", He asks us to consider in the Hidden Words, "why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other."

In paragraph 2.48, He reminds us of the essential mystery of creation, further emphasizing in the next paragraph that there is a difference between the creation of the universe and the other realms of existence. This whole thing about firstness and lastness, preexistence and so on, falls into insignificance when we consider what we know of the visible universe and the Big Bang. Time itself came into being with that Bang. And so to talk about anything "before" that is actually kind of silly. The very word "before" presupposes the concept of time and a chronological order to things. We have seen back to the beginning of time, and know that anything "before" that is pure mystery.

What we believe about anything before that moment is, in a very real sense, irrelevant. "Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements." What we believe has no impact on our daily life.

What matters, He seems to say, is not what we believe about scientific reality, although it should be in accord with what we observe, but what really matters is how we respond to the divine Manifestation.

Now, looking at 2.51, which is where this all began for me, it is also a reminder to be free from the ego. No matter what our field of study, no matter what our expertise, we can never claim to have a knowledge that others are deprived of. People who study religion have one view of the world. And in a sense, their view is correct. "One can, however, provide a justification for the tenets of the other schools..."

As long as we do not claim exclusivity, somehow thinking that only our particular perspective is the "correct" one, then we can respect the views of others, and others can respect ours. If we, for some odd reason, believe that only our definitions are relevant, then we become exclusive, denying a greater understanding of the world around us. When we accept other perspectives, we can readily accommodate the ideas of both scientific creation with the Big Bang, or even the String theory, along side the above stories of the Hindu and Zoroastrian creation, as well as the creation myth from Genesis (either 1 or 2), for we see the beauty and truth within the poetry of each. And that leads to not only a greater sense of unity, but also a broader and more beautiful understanding of the world.

As for me, I personally like the idea of "creation... from bears and monkeys."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Unity Feasts

I love my community. I said that at a recent gathering in Vancouver for all members of Local Spiritual Assemblies in British Columbia. I love them, I said. They're wacky.

"Last year", I announced at the microphone, "we celebrated 19 Feasts and are so proud of our achievement that this year we decided to see if we could celebrate 23."

And you know what? It's true.

As you are no doubt aware, the Baha'i Feast is reserved for members of the Baha'i community in good standing. Why? Well, to put it simply, it's because that is the time in which we have free and open consultation on the affairs of the community. It is sort of like a family meeting. As the Universal House of Justice has said, the Feast is "an entirely private religious and domestic occasion for the Baha'i community when its internal affairs are discussed and its members meet for personal fellowship and worship." It is "essentially domestic and administrative", and "No great issue should be made of it for there is certainly nothing secret about the Feast but it is organized for Baha'is only." And while we would "certainly not invite a non-Baha'i to attend", if someone does show up who is not a member of the Baha'i community, we would, of course, make them feel welcome.

In our community, as I'm sure you have seen in your own, there are a number of families in which one spouse is a Baha'i, and the other is not. This, of course, has led to some concerns, most of which were addressed in that letter from the Universal House of Justice a few years ago

We hope to be ever more open, while still being obedient to the guidance.

And so, in our community the question came up, once again, about having a Unity Feast. After all, we all know the importance of the Feast, and how we find ourselves "spiritually restored, and endued with a power that is not of this world." We know that is brings "bliss and unity and love", that it "rejoiceth mind and heart". How could we not want our loved family members to attend?

But the rules regarding attendance are still there.

So we looked at it again. We really wanted to see what the guidance was, and if there was any wiggle room that we could find,

While still being obedient, of course.

We looked at many Writings. We looked at lots of guidance. We looked at all sorts of aspects, from the three parts of the Feast to the guidance that the while non-Baha'is may be there for the devotional and social portion, those two parts are still considered part of the Feast and we would, of course, never think to invite someone who is not Baha'i. We even looked at the guidance about how if someone outside the community shows up, we could still have the administrative portion, given that most everything we discuss is not confidential in nature.

But still we could not invite.

And then we focused. Our attention was drawn to the line, "Feasts should be held on the first day of the Baha'i month, if possible."

What, we wondered, if we hold the Feast on another day? But it should be on the first day.

But what about a Unity Feast? No guidance there.

Hey! What if we have our Feast on the first day of the month, and a Unity Feast on another?

You mean, like a public meeting? No. A Feast. It would be modeled on the Feast, and follow all the guidance of a Feast, and the agenda of a Feast, but it would be on another day, and open to all.

Oh yeah, and then we can have a topic for consultation that is relevant to the greater community. We can see what others think about, for example, fostering the devotional character of the community.

And so, dear Reader, our community has set a goal for 23 Feasts this year. 19 regular Feasts, and 4 Unity Feasts, the first of which is this evening.

So how about you? Is this something that would be useful in your community? I'd love to hear your thoughts or experience.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Know Your Stuff

Ah, the summer's finally over. My market days are done for another year, and I can finally get back to work on this blog. I have to admit, though, that I'm going to miss it, like I do every year. It is such a joy to meet people from all over the world, and get to know more locals. Every season there seems to be a group of people who come by the booth on a regular basis and the conversations with them make it all worth my time.

A few weeks ago I had a beautiful conversation with a lady from somewhere in the US. She was very nice, and had a bit of a spiritual outlook on life that made talking with her truly delightful. During the course of our conversation, though, I made mention of working at UVic in MultiFaith Services. She got a bit serious and said that I should remember that in the Bible it says that we shouldn't add anything to the Word of God.

"Oh", I replied with enthusiasm, "you're a Deuteronimist. That's so cool."

She was, of course, a bit puzzled.

"Well, that verse", I explained, "is from Deuteronomy. So by following it, you get rid of everything in the Bible after Deuteronomy, like Psalms, Proverbs, the New Testament..."

She was a bit aghast at this, saying no, that's not what it meant.

"I know, but that's the implication of what you said." I didn't go into the history of the book of Deuteronomy and how it seems to have been added quite a bit later than the other books in the Torah. That would have been just too much info at once, I'm sure.

Instead, we got into a really interesting discussion about the "Word of God", and how you recognize it. She initially talked about how it's the Bible, and went on to realize that it was what she was raised to believe. After a few more minutes in which I agreed with her that the Bible was the Word of God, she came up with a few reasonable ideas about how she could tell for herself.

Once she did that, I then encouraged her to read the Upanishads, and the Qur'an, and the Dhammapada, and any other holy scripture that she can find and apply her test to those scriptures, too.

It was a very interesting discussion, and all because I happened to know where that particular quote was in the Bible. (Well, also due a large part to her openness of mind and heart.)

I was telling another friend of mine about this conversation a few days later and I was reminded of another instance like that.

A number of years ago I was staying at a friend's home and I happened to get up before everyone else one morning. I went downstairs, made myself a cup of coffee and was getting ready to read when a knock came on the door.

I went over and opened it, and there were two young ladies standing there. They were Jehovah's Witnesses. I didn't feel comfortable letting them into someone else's home, so I stood out on the porch to talk with them. They talked a bit about why they were there, and proceeded to tell me that I should re-read the Bible again from start to finish and take everything in it absolutely literally.

"Literally", I asked. "Everything literally?"

"Oh yes," they agreed. "Everything."

"Well", I enquired, "how do you explain 1 Timothy 2:12?"

After about a nano-second of a puzzled look, they whipped out their Bibles from their side-holsters, looking like nothing more than a pair of gunslingers facing off in the old West. They whipped over to first Timothy and skimmed straight down to chapter 2, verse 12: "But I suffer not a woman to teach... but to be in silence."

After a few moments of burbling, one of them meekly began to say, "Well, that's metaphorical..." And my friend, who had snuck up behind me said, "I don't know. It sounds kind of literal to me."

To put them at their ease, I explained a little bit about what I understood from the history of Paul, and his letter to Timothy, the troubles Timothy was facing, and Paul's solution for him. I also pointed them in the direction of a few instances where Jesus put the teaching of others in the hands of women, not to mention the importance of Mary being the one who was told to bring the message of His resurrection.

I helped them come to the realization that not everything in the Bible is meant to be literal, but that the general spirit of the teachings is of primary importance.

This, dear Friends, is what I mean by "know your stuff".

Many years ago 'Abdu'l-Baha said that we should know the Bible better then the Christians and encouraged the Baha'is in the West to really study it. In a famous pilgrim note (and yes, He said it elsewhere, too), we read "Study the Holy Words, read your Bible, read the Holy Books, especially study the Holy Utterances of Baha'u'llah; Prayer and Meditation, take much time for these two."

Besides, it's kind of fun to be able to toss these quotes back at people, and help them see the implications of just what it is that they are saying.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Walk to the Bus

I haven't been able to go to the beach for dawn prayers for some time now. Dawn is just too close to when I have to take Shoghi to his bus for school.

So what to do?

Just last week, when Shoghi still wasn't in school yet, I asked him to come with me. He said he would, and the next morning he complained about being "so tired". Guess what? So was I. We went to the beach, said some prayers, watched the beautiful sunrise, and then he turned to me and asked if he could come again the next day.

Well, now it's school and sunrise is just too close to when he gets picked up by his bus. No luck there for now.

This morning, though, we were walking to the bus and we decided to play a math game. You see, he needs to work on memorizing his multiplication tables. I explained that we could make a game out of it, but sometimes just rote work gets the job done a lot faster. I said that I would make up some basic 12x tables for him, and have him fill them out. It's boring, but useful. I talked about how you could actually make it fun, even though there were many other ways that were much more fun. But this is the fastest way I know of to learn them.

He asked me about other ways, and so we explored a few.

"One way is to play 'math fish'. It's like 'go fish', but with math. We deal out 8 cards to each player, and you have to put down pairs of numbers that total 10."

"That's too easy, Papa."

"Okay. How about another game where you get 8 cards, and you have to put them down as equations."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you can put down 4, 4 and 8. 4 + 4 = 8. Or you could put down 5, 5, 5 and 2. 5 x 5 = 25."

"That's cool."

So I asked him to pick 4 numbers, any 4, and we played that aloud for a little while.

Then I explained to him that this was the sort of game I played in my head when I was his age. I would do this while walking around by myself, and it helped me get better and better at math.

Then I told him how I would also play my metaphor game. I know I've explained it before, but I'll do it again, just in case you missed it. The basic premise is that everything in creation can be seen as a metaphor for a spiritual truth. We just have to figure it out.

I said, "Look at that fire hydrant. How can that be seen as a metaphor for some spiritual truth?"

"Well," he said almost immediately, "it's shaped like a cross. And if you open it up, you get a lot of water. The Water of Life."

I was impressed, and told him so.

And that, dear Reader, is what Shoghi is working on today: seeing what metaphors he can find in common everyday objects.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Meaning of Friendship

What is friendship? What does it mean to be a friend? How can I be a better friend?

These are some of the questions that went through my mind when I wrote the previous article, questions I didn't really answer. Hey, I didn't even begin to address them.

But they were there, and I've been thinking about them a lot lately.

Why? Well, in recent weeks I've had some interesting reminders of friendship. First of all, there is my very dear friend in Winnipeg with whom I've been writing another blog. (www.iqan-study.blogspot.ca)
(That is a blatant plug.) He's getting married in a few weeks, so I'm flying back there to be with him. We often speak of our friendship on the phone, but this is really making it hit home for me. Another instance is another friend who lives near me here in BC. He is self-confessed as being socially awkward, which he can be, I guess, but his heart is truly in the right place. I have come to treasure this man's friendship very deeply. This was further re-inforced when I received a postcard from him saying how hard it was for him to call anyone a friend, but that he used it for me. I was, and still am, very touched by this.

When thinking about friendship, and why I would consider anyone a friend, I am reminded of Hand of the Cause of God, William Sears, for whom I still think the tower in Chicago should be renamed after. He said that he was only friends with people to the extent that they showed forth the attributes of God. The more of these attributes that they showed, the closer he felt to them.

This is something I think about a lot: my friends and their virtues. Of course, it is a two-way thing. There are the attributes that they are showing, and then there are the attributes that I am seeing. No one, we should recall, is perfect. Everyone has flaws, especially me. And if we dwell on these flaws, focus only on what people are missing, we will never recognize what they have. We will never see their strengths. We are cautioned of this over and over in the Writings. Just look at those numerous Hidden Words about busying ourselves with the faults of others, or looking at their sins. Time and again the Master tells us to see His Father's face before others. "To look always at the good", says 'Abdu'l-Baha so pointedly, "and not at the bad.  If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, look at the ten and forget the one. And if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten." Not only is it a matter of my friend showing forth the virtues, but also a matter of me focusing my attention on them, noticing them, and treasuring them.

This, to me, answers that last question: How can I be a better friend? It also speaks to how I can be a better friend, for the very act of shifting my focus also makes me a better friend.

Another aspect of friendship is what we do together. There is that old thing about "friends don't let friends drink and drive", and you can even leave off the last two words, in my opinion, and it still holds true. Of course, I don't mean "be a fanatic", but just that I won't encourage my friends by going out drinking with them. The activities we choose to engage in together can also dictate how strong our friendship is. I will be far closer to someone I choose to serve humanity with than another person with whom I go to a movie with. And it doesn't mean that we don't go to movies together, but just that it is a part of the breadth of our friendship. One of my dearest friends is a co-teacher of children with me, and we strive to enjoy a movie once a month, but usually fail. (I mean, we fail to see one each month, not that we fail to enjoy the few we do get to see.)

All right. That last paragraph just reads weird to me. What I was trying to say is that we try to do things together that actually encourage each other in our spiritual development, joy being one of those virtues. When speaking of the loved ones of God, 'Abdu'l-Baha says that they should "...let their talk be confined to the secrets of friendship and peace."

Much better.

That seems to address the second question, "What does it mean to be a friend?" Quite simply, I think it means to help another develop their spiritual attributes.

But it still doesn't address my first question: What is friendship? In a clinical sense, we can say that friendship is a relationship between two people who care about each other.

That doesn't really cut it, does it?

We could talk about the joy we feel in the presence of our friend, how they can make even the most boring of routine things seem like fun. We can talk about how they remember our preferences, such as how I would rather chew aluminum foil than eat something with orange peel in it.

Aside - I have a very dear friend who was at a party with me a long time ago. We were all in a very joyous and playful mood, and in the middle of it all she came bouncing up to me and put a piece of chocolate in my mouth. I was very touched by her consideration. After all, giving your friend a piece of chocolate is a good thing, right? Well, this was a piece of chocolate covered orange peel. Bleah. My painfully wincing expression told her that this was not something I enjoyed. It was not the pleasurable culinary experience she was hoping to share with me. And so, being a good friend, she ran off to get me something to wash that taste out of my mouth. And being a good friend, she knew I didn't drink alcohol, which made it difficult, at that party, to find something for me. What she ended up grabbing was a cup of tea. Unfortunately it happened to be red zinger tea, otherwise known as orange peel tea.

Baha'u'llah, to me, gives us one criterion we can consider, when He says to prefer each other to ourselves. My good friends are those people whose preferences I generally prefer to my own. Now, I have to tell you, I often watch movies by myself (which is not in the same category of weirdness as those who drink by themselves). And I would far rather see a movie that a friend wants to see then make them watch one that I want to see that they don't.

There are certain virtues that I believe are conducive to making a friendship stronger, such as trustworthiness, trust, fidelity, honesty, caring, love, compassion, and joy, just to name a few. I think encouragement goes a long way, too. In fact, there is a wonderful little quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha in which He says, "When we find truth, constancy, fidelity and love we are happy."

And then there is that other quote from Him, found towards the end of that great prayer, in which He says of God, "Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself." Why would this be? Well, who else is truly worthy of our trust? Who can show greater love? Who is more wise, compassionate, and loving than God?

In he end, we will all fail each other in some way, for that is part of the nature of our being human. And if we can better learn to overlook the shortcomings of others, and help them overlook our own shortcomings, then the more our friendships will flourish. God, of course, is the absolute example of all these virtues, and is, therefore, more friend to us than we can ever be.

But really, if we can learn to be more generous, more forgiving, more worthy of the trust of our neighbour, and so on and so forth, then we will not only learn to be better friends with each other, but also better human beings. And we will, in the end, learn a lot more about making the world a far better place to live.

So, what is friendship? I think it is the application of the virtues in relation to each other.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Friends

"How", my mother-in-law asked me over dinner one night, "can you be friends with someone you have never met?"

I thought this was a very good question, and quite insightful on her part. As with any question, it made me think. It made me think about my friends, both those I have known for years and those I have never had the pleasure of meeting in person. It made me think of those that I have only known for a short time, and those that I will meet for the first time in the near future.

It also made me wonder how we become friends in the first place.

Now I have to explain, before I go on, that she was not criticizing me, but actually curious about something that Marielle were going to do while we were visiting. You see, we were going to the visit a friend of ours who used to live with us in Winnipeg. In addition to meeting this friend, we were also very excited about meeting her parents, and Lise (said mom-in-law) truly wanted to know how we could consider these parents friends when we had never met them.

"Well", I asked, because I had never really thought about it before now, "how do you become friends with someone?"

"Oh, you get to know them by looking them in the eye."

Well, that seemed like a reasonable answer. But then something occurred to me. "What if that person was blind? Or what if you were blind and could never look them in the eye?"

One of the things I love about Lise is that she really considers the questions asked of her.

"I'm not sure," she responded. "I don't know anyone who is blind. But you could still have a conversation with them. Hey, that's it. You talk with them and get to know them."

I liked the sound of that, but then something else occurred to me. "Well, what if they were deaf?"

I could see her processing that, but nothing really came to mind as a response, so I tried another thought. "You said that you get to know them through speech, or words. Right?"

"Oui, c'est vrai." Oh, did I mention she's from Quebec? Well, it's sometimes difficult for us to communicate because I don't speak a lot of French, and her English is not fluent, even though it is very good.

"Well, that's how I become friends with people I've never met: through words."

She obviously didn't quite understand what I meant, judging by her expression.

"There are times when I speak with people who are right next to me, and other times we speak on the phone. But then there are also times when I communicate through my writing, like when I write my blog."

The conversation went in a few different directions there, and we ended up at another interesting point. She asked, "But don't you get to know people better in person?"

I said that I wasn't really sure. For myself, I know that I communicate far better, more clearly, and more truly to who I am when I can think about what I'm going to write. I showed her my notes for this and other articles and explained how I can better express myself when I can organize my thoughts, and even edit them.

This she clearly understood.

And now, all of that has led me back to my original thought from the beginning of that evening, the one I haven't mentioned yet: my gratitude for being allowed to meet so many wonderful people in my life. When I spoke of some of the people for whom I am grateful, I realized that I hadn't met all of them yet, like my friend's parents whom I met later that trip.

This all came up because I mentioned that I am, by nature, an introvert. Given my preference, I would love to sit in a room all day and type, never meeting anyone. But I know that this would not be healthy for me. And so, rather than indulge in a life of solitude, I make sure that I do most of my writing in public, usually in a coffee shop or a library. I ensure that I get out and meet people by working the market, selling my jewelry to real people in person and face to face rather than just through the net.

But I do meet lots of people through the computer.

One person that comes to mind, whom I haven't met, is a Baha'i from Washington, DC. We met because we had both bid on some Baha'i books on Ebay. Through simple e-mails, and even a delightful phone conversation, I feel like I have a good friend there.

Another friend, but this is one whom I have met, is a Baha'i from Congo. She now lives in Winnipeg, and Marielle and I miss her every single day. Despite how late this is in the article, it was her story that started this whole conversation and train of thought. We spoke of our friendship with this woman, and how we got to know her. And all of that led to the simple question above, which was considered quite intensely.

But for now, I'd like to interrupt my train of thought and get back to that story that started all of this, a story of desperation and prayer.

When she was leaving the Congo, Francoise was on a boat filled with refugees. Many of them, as you can imagine, were praying. There were some Christians praying for God to deliver them from the evils of those who hadn't yet found Jesus. There were some Muslims praying to be delivered from the heathen Christians who worshiped "a false God".

Aside - It reminded me of that story of the shipwreck and the Jew, the Christian and the Muslim who were in the lifeboat together. The Christian prayed to be delivered from the Muslim, and the Muslim prayed to be delivered from the Christian. The Jew remained silent as these two called aloud their prayers to the heavens. Finally the two turned to the Jewish man and asked why he wasn't praying. He said that he was. "I am praying for God to answer both of your prayers."

So there was our poor friend, stuck on a boat with lots and lots of people, in great danger, I think from the boat capsizing or something. I never did quite understand. But I understood that there was great danger. And all of a sudden a very dangerous water viper jumped into the boat. People were screaming, and many jumped overboard, so terrified of the snake that they ignored the death that was waiting for them in the water. But Francoise closed her eyes and kept on praying.

Finally there was silence.

And when she opened her eyes, she said, she practically alone on the boat, and the snake was gone.

So what does this have to with applying the Baha'i Faith? Well, again, I wanted to tell a story that I liked. But I was also thinking about how I met a dear friend.

And that raised the question, "How do you make a friend?" And that led to the question asked by my Mom-in-Law.

Maybe later this week I'll write a bit more about friendship, after all, friendship should be shown in deeds, not words alone. And to answer the question from the very beginning, you can meet people in many different ways, many of which are not actually face to face.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Grandpa Joe's Nose

One fine, crisp, winter day, Marielle and I were walking in Winnipeg. This was long before we moved out to Victoria, and even before Shoghi came along and joined our family.

We were walking on the river, heading from the Forks to Osborne Village.

Aside - I remember another winter day when I called my Father. This was before he passed away. (Obviously.) In the midst of the conversation, he had asked me what my day had been like. In the midst of describing my day, I mentioned that I walked on the river, and it was one of those rare moments when he began to wax poetic. He spoke of the beauty of the sound of the splashing water, and I stopped him with, "No Dad. Not near the river. Not beside it. On it." It was very amusing. He hadn't realized just how cold it gets up north, as he was in Chicago, and it hadn't occurred to him that the river walk was actually a walking path on the river itself.

Second aside - Another time I was talking with him and he asked me what the temperature was. I said, "Minus 40." "Oh? Fahrenheit or Celsius?"  I laughed and said, "At this temperature, who cares?" He was amused. (I really miss my simple conversations with Dad.)

So, there we were, on the river, walking to Osborne Village, a good couple of kilometres away in total. In the cold. The freezing cold. The sort of freezing cold that makes you think that we should begin using the IQ system instead of Celsius, how stupid you have to be to walk outside.

And there was the wind.

In our faces.

And not for the first time in my life, walking that path with my beloved wife, she-who-will-be-my-partner-in-all-the-worlds-of-God, I began to seriously question my sanity. Oh, not because I was with her, but just because I was outside for what would be a subjectively long time in that weather.

To be fair, though, it was bright and sunny. (Which, of course, meant that it was just that much colder.)

Anyways, there we were. Walking. Enjoying each other's company. And shivering.

And the absurdity of the whole situation just sort of hit me.

"Marielle," I said. "I can just picture it. Years from now, when I'm an old man, I'm going to be talking to our grandchildren, and one of them will ask, 'Grandpa, why is your nose so big?' And you know what I'm going to say?"

We had already talked about having children, so this wasn't too much of a leap. She could tell that I was in story-telling mode, so she asked. And that, dear Reader, was when I began using my Grandpa Joe voice. If you haven't heard it yet, I've been told that it is quite good, very convincing. And that I really get into the character. Oh, and this story was all made up on the spot, completely improv, timed to last the rest of the journey to our destination.

So now, dear Reader, if you will, please imagine the rest of this in a sort of old man's voice. Thanks.

"Well, darling, one day your Grandma and I were out walking. And let me tell ya, it was cold. It was a really cold day there back in Winnipeg. And we were walking on the river. I don't know why, but there ya go. We were doing it, walking on the river. And we were freezing. Just shivering as we walked. And that wind comes along and began biting. I thought my cheeks were gonna freeze. Try as we might, we just couldn't get warm. It was a bit ridiculous, it was.

"And then one particular gust of wind come along, and my gosh, I couldn't believe we were there. And you know what? That wind done froze my nose right off. Boom. There it went, fell right on the ground.

"And you know what? My nose started to run. Course, that's not all that odd, really. Lots of folks noses run in the winter. Kinda normal, that. But mine began to really run. It started to run right on back to the Forks.

"And I began to chase it, trying to get my nose back, but it was fast. Pretty fast for such a little guy. I tried to grab it, but I just couldn't catch it.

"That little nose began to run faster and faster, and I'm chasing it for all it's worth. It got all the way back to the Forks and began to run towards this fire they had burning outside. It ran around and around this bonfire, trying to warm up.

"That was when I noticed that there were all these other guys chasing their noses, too.

"Musta been a couple o' dozen of us all running round that fire, chasing our noses.

"Finally, after a short bit, I leapt and tackled it. I was able to grab my nose and shove it back on my face. Held it there, makin' sure it didn't get away again.

"It was only when I got home, a bit later, that I realized I had grabbed the wrong nose.

"And that, darling, is how I ended up with such a big one."

*     *     *     *

Now, what does that story have to do with my living out my understanding of the Baha'i Faith?

Simple, really. I think it is very important to keep a light heart. Marielle and I made it into the Village that afternoon, half frozen, but filled with joy.

Not all stories have to have a deep spiritual significance. Sometimes just the joy of a good tale is enough. And sometimes, just sometimes, anything more would be too much.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day something or other

Just the other day my wife was getting ready to water the garden when she noticed a tiny baby rat curled up against the black garden hose for warmth. It was just over a week old, with its hair grown in but its eyes not yet open. It was obviously healthy, but hungry and scared. She picked it up and brought it inside, to show me. We found an eyedropper to use for feeding it, and I did a bit of quick research, learning that goat's milk cut in half with water seemed to be the ideal formula for it.

Within a few minutes we learned all the basics of taking care of a baby rat and were on the way to nursing it back to health.

In no time at all, the little guy warmed up to us and began to crawl on my shirt, exploring his new surroundings. We found a small home for him and made sure to keep him warm, feeding him every 5 hours, as suggested.

The little guy, now named "Ravi", a blending of the French for both rat and live, was welcomed into our lives.

Yesterday, though, we awoke to find that he had passed away in the night.

As we said our dawn prayers on the beach that morning, there was a bit of sadness in the air and in our hearts. Just before I left for work, I had a quick opportunity to tell Shoghi that Ravi had passed away. He looked like he was about to cry, but then smiled and said, "He had a short, but happy, life."

This morning Marielle and I went back to the beach again to say prayers once more. I soon began walking along the sand, following a family of otters that were playing in the water. When I rejoined her, a few minutes later, she was shaking a rattle and chanting a beautiful prayer, or perhaps mantra is more accurate.

Afterwards, I said a prayer, or maybe two, and then Marielle began talking. She spoke of how attached we had all become to Ravi, and how she regretted that we had not taken any pictures of him. And then she said something that really touched me.

She described how puzzling it is that we get so attached to things in life, even other lives. One of the gifts that Ravi brought us was an appreciation of life, despite, or perhaps because of, its impermanence.

Marielle spoke of Shoghi's comment about a short but happy life, and then added, "It's like being attached to a wave." Silly, really. Part of the beauty of the ocean is that the waves continually ripple and flow. It is only through the vast multitude of waves that we really get a sense of the beauty of them. And while we may appreciate one wave because of some treasure it has left on the shore, it is still only one of many.

The past few days have been delightfully pleasant on the beach at sun-up. And I am looking forward to many more mornings on the beach. When it begins to rain, I still don't know what I will do, but I would like to continue to pray at dawn, somewhere besides in the comfort of my own home.

I likely won't write much more about it in the near future (or maybe I will, we'll see), but I truly encourage you, dear Reader, to give this a shot. Try getting up for dawn prayers, if you aren't already. Try making it a community project. It's fun! (Especially when you see the looks on the faces of the friends when you suggest it at the next Feast.)

And who knows, we may all live to see that wonderful day when we get our own Mashriqu'l-Adkhar in our own community.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Dawn Prayers, day 7

There was a car there this morning when I went down to the beach. And as I approached, I saw two women sitting on the bench near where Marielle and I usually say our prayers. Now, Marielle and I don't usually sit on the bench. We sit on a log just in front of it, with another longer, but lower, log in front that acts as a little table for the incense she often burns.

But let me start again. This morning I awoke around 5:50, and Marielle and my Mom were still sound asleep. I was fairly awake and realized that, once again, God was my alarm clock (as opposed to a few days ago when my alarm clock was God). (That's a reference to "Thou hast wakened me out of my sleep".) And so I headed on down to the beach by myself, camera, drum and prayer book all in hand, anticipating a sunrise of prayers all by my lonesome.

Well, that was not to be.

As soon as I was near the bench one of the women said that she was glad to see someone else down to see the sunrise. She went on to explain that she lives near there and her friend was visiting and that watching the sunrise was on her bucket list. Our conversation went on to all sorts of things, from community building to career development. We talked about world perspectives and how the parents can help shape the vision of a child to allow them to see the wonders of the world.

Aside - A number of years ago there were some car execs from the US who flew to Japan to see what they were doing that was helping their companies just explode in the car business. When they came back, someone interviewed them, and they said that they were unimpressed. "It was all staged", they said. "Those weren't real factories." You see, they had a pre-conceived idea of how factories had to work, and those factories didn't conform to that idea. They were unprepared to see the reality of what they were looking at. I said that her own children, whom she had raised to ask a prayer and look for the universe to give an answer, didn't get regular confirmation because she was right, but because she had given them the chance to see the reality before them.

Aside number 2 - She later said that she was going to read this (Hi!) and see if I went all over the place like our conversation did. (The answer is yes.)

We talked about how every morning is so very different from each other, and how I can read the same prayer every day and how it says something different to me.... No. Scratch that. I can read the same prayer every morning and I hear something different in it each day.

We also talked about practical spirituality, one of my favorite topics (in case you haven't noticed yet). "How do you manage to do dawn prayers every morning?" "Step 1. Get up."

At some point I went off to a log, sat and tapped the drum. I read a few prayers, and felt myself immersing within the ocean of His words. The sun, which seemed so much brighter today than on previous mornings became a beacon of beauty to which I was continually drawn. It was also a reminder of just how much more spectacular prayers are when shared in the presence with others, especially those whom you haven't met before. I mean, it's a treasure to pray with your loved ones, and it's a different joy to pray with new friends.

I took a handful of photos, marveling at the little wonders that I never seem to be able to share with others.

I found a sweet memory that I could share as a little otter swam by. There is something truly wonderful about discovering a tiny beauty, and then being able to share it with others later, much like I am doing here. Perhaps, if I get a chance, I'll post a few of the photos here. This morning, though, I have to get ready to head out to Union Bay with Mom, Marielle and the little guy. So while I may not actually post here for a few more days, I will be taking notes. The place we are staying at is just a short walk from an incredibly beautiful beach, with black sand, and gorgeous view, and large moon snail seashells.

It was a beautiful sunrise today, filled with the promise of a marvelous day. And in addition, I met two new friends. That, in the end, was the best answer to any prayer I may have. Thank you, both of you whom I met on the bench (whose names I won't mention, although I do remember them), for sharing this magical dawn with me this morning.





Well, I guess I was able to share the photos today.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 4

"I give praise to Thee,", Baha'u'llah says in one of the morning prayers, "O my God, that Thou hast awakened me out of my sleep, and brought me forth after my disappearance, and raised me up from my slumber. I have wakened this morning with my face set toward the splendors of the Daystar of thy Revelation, through Which the heavens of Thy power and Thy majesty have been illumined, acknowledging Thy signs, believing in Thy Book, and holding fast unto Thy Cord."

This is one of the prayers I have been saying most mornings during this experiment with dawn prayers. (I know. It just seemed like a good one to use. I tried using the one that begins with "I am Thy servant and the son of Thy servant", but I've always felt awkward with that one. My Dad was an atheist, and try as I might, I just don't feel worthy enough to consider myself a servant of God.) (I'm sure the interview for the position is actually quite easy, but I just don't feel I have the necessary qualifications or experience.) (And now back to our regularly scheduled blog.)

"I give praise". Isn't that what started this whole thing? A place where souls gather at daybreak for humble invocation and communion? I give praise, truly I do.

"That Thou hast awakened me out of my sleep." (Wait. What? My alarm clock is God?) It's always good to be grateful for awakening to another beautiful day. I mean, one of these days I'm going to wake up dead, so I try to be grateful for every day I wake up alive.

"And brought me forth after my disappearance." When I read this phrase, a seal popped his head out of the water, and I sort of felt that this is what it must be like. I'm asleep, swimming, in a sense, beneath the ocean of existence, and then suddenly wake up, popping up again to take part in the world above. And much as I might like to stay there, in the ocean of His reality, I still need to breathe, and so must come up every now and again, rising "up from my slumber".

As I continued to read, I envisioned myself waking up (which I probably was doing, despite having already driven down to the beach) and appreciating the beauty of God's creation. I breathed deep of the fresh salt air, enjoyed the light spray of moisture on the breeze, welcomed the myriad sounds of nature. I noticed a patch of orange illuminating a small rift in the clouds, a breech of heaven insinuating itself into this realm. And I became even more aware of the book in my lap. (Try as I might, I could find no cord, except the one connecting my spirit to the realms above.)

"I beseech Thee, by the potency of Thy will and the compelling power of Thy purpose, to make of what Thou didst reveal unto me in my sleep the surest foundation for the mansions of Thy love that are within the hearts of Thy loved ones, and the best instrument for the revelation of the tokens of Thy grace and Thy loving-kindness." I read this and thought about the shallowness of my dreams. With gratitude I continued to read, truly thankful that it is Baha'u'llah's vision towards which we are aiming, His vision, His dream, and not my own. If it were my own vision that became the foundation of these lofty mansions, then we would all be in trouble, for that foundation would not be solid and stable.

Then I recalled Jesus' statement about how there are many mansions in God's house (John 14:2). It is so beautiful., this idea, this truth that there is a mansion of God's love within the hearts of each every one us. And as this thought passed through my own little one-bedroom mansion I realized that one of my joys is to have other people over to visit. And then I thought, "Well, I better clean the place up." And isn't that one of the purposes of prayer and meditation? To clean up the mansion of our heart?

At the moment I recalled a dream I had of Ruhiyyih Khanum. I asked her why she didn't come to people's dreams more often, and she said, "Why would I want to visit so dirty a place?" I realized that if we don't keep our very thoughts pure, then that itself is staining the purity of our heart. It is like when Jesus said that if someone even thinks about committing adultery, it is as if they have already done it (Matthew 5:28). (Isn't it nice of me to give you these references?)

"The best instrument." What God reveals to us, and in particular to Baha'u'llah, is that very best tool for revealing and recognizing the various signs and tokens of God's grace and love. To me, and please remember that all this is just my own opinion and nothing official (it's been a long time since I've mentioned that), this is a reminder to not only trust in what I know of Baha'u'llah's vision, but also to trust my own instincts. They're there for a reason.

"Do Thou ordain for me through Thy most exalted Pen, O my Lord, the good of this world and of the next. I testify that within Thy grasp are held the reins of all things. Thou changest them as Thou pleasest. No God is there save Thee, the Strong, the Faithful." I really do hope for the good in both this world and the next. Not only for myself, but for those around me. And while it is up to God, I also need to work on it. (More on that in the last paragraph.) But that which is good actually changes from time to time. What is good for me today may not be good for me tomorrow. Something that I enjoy today may prove harmful to me later on. That which I believe right now may prove to be wrong later on. God reveals His laws to us over and over again, but sometimes those very laws change because the needs of the society change. I could go on and on about this, about keeping an open mind and examining all things, but this all fits into a massive study of the Kitab-i-Iqan, and this blog is too short for that.

"Thou art He Who changeth through His bidding abasement into glory, and weakness into strength, and powerlessness into might, and fear into calm, and doubt into certainty. No God is there but Thee, the Mighty, the Beneficent." Here I envision someone who has been abused, or through a serious trauma. They have been abased. We have been lowered. Society has taught us that we are far lower than we really are. But Baha'u'llah raises us. He reminds us that we are created noble. He only asks that we arise to that station for which we have been created. He reminds us of our many strengths, and helps us put those strengths to use. Any fears that we may have had find no place left in our heart. And we achieve that wonderful station of certitude when we see the results of what we achieve when we arise to serve.

"Thou disappointest no one who hath sought Thee, nor dost Thou keep back from Thee anyone who hath desired Thee. Ordain Thou for me what becometh the heaven of Thy generosity, and the ocean of Thy bounty. Thou art, verily, the Almighty, the Most Powerful." Remember when I said "more on that..."? Now is that time. While God provides the means, it is we who have to take the steps. It is never God that keeps us back, but ourselves. Whether it is through our laziness or our ego, it is always we who put our own obstacles in our own way. Actually, that's not quite true. There are always obstacles in our way. They are a part of nature. But with perseverance and an openness to new ways, we can overcome anything. And with a readiness to be open to other goals, we will see that sometimes the answer to our prayers is not quite what we may have envisioned. God may never keep us back, but sometimes we try to take a long way around, or just give up entirely.

And all of this passed through my mind and my heart as my wife and I sat there this morning, at the very edge of that ocean.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 3

When I was a kid, we used to go to my aunt and uncle's house for Passover Seder every year. My cousin's grandfather, Grandpa Leo, used to preside over the ceremony of the supper, reciting the prayers and leading the family in the remembrance of why we were there. I loved the beauty of the ceremony, the recitations, the stories, and the various tools he had. I loved his yarmulke (probably the single stupidest spelling of any word I know), his shawl, and everything else.

This annual celebration was likely the very beginning of my love for religions.

But now, years later, I realize that I was likely also highly attracted to those various accouterments. And that those very accouterments that attracted me could also have become a distraction to the spirit of the ceremony itself. That, perhaps, is why, as much as I love all those various doodads, I often prefer to just say my prayers with nothing around to distract me.

I thought about this when we got to the beach and my wife began fiddling with the incense and setting up her clarinet. Now I'm not saying that there is a problem with this, but just that I now understand a bit more about why I don't deal with any of that. I appreciate it, but I don't go out of my way for it. (Actually, I really loved the wafting scent that occasionally blew in my direction today.)

This morning, as we were driving down to the beach, my wife was saying that she had a new understanding of prayers and healing. She said that a way to approach healing through prayer is to state the intention and then turn all your attention to God. This is different from what most do, as they often turn towards God and then focus on the problem they want to fix. This is focusing on the negative. But if you simply state your intention, then you can turn towards the light and focus all your attention on the positive, allowing it to flow where it needs.

This, incidentally, is what the short healing prayer seems to look like. Almost the entire prayer is dedicated to focusing on God. It starts with mentioning the need for healing, but then seems to go on to all sorts of other things.

When we were sitting at the beach reading some prayers, I read one of the morning prayers, which has the phrase, "with my thoughts fixed so steadfastly upon Thee", and realized that this is another confirmation of this insight Marielle had.

So, today. This morning. We were sitting on a log, alone on the beach, with the fog low in the sky, but enough above the water that you could see quite far. We watched the birds and the waves, the gentle waves today, much softer than a few days ago. The birds glided along, a single reflection silently passing by. Quiet. Contemplative. An occasional cry of a gull. Peace.

When my wife began to play the clarinet, some of the birds sat and watched. And when she finished a lone seal swam by. She began to play again, and the seal paused, watching, listening, before diving under again.

It was a long moment of quiet joy.

What a great way to begin the day.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 2

Well, it didn't happen today.

Despite the best of intentions, I just couldn't drag myself out of bed this morning. I tried (well, maybe not that hard), but I just couldn't do it.

Yesterday, my Mother was supposed to come into town yesterday around 8:30 pm, but her plane was delayed, and mess-ups happened, and she finally got in just after midnight.

I asked her if she wanted to join me at the beach at 6 am, but she said she'd rather not.

Anyways, I woke up at 6 and felt decidedly not well enough to go out, so I sort of rolled over, said, "Ya'Baha'u'l'Abha" and went back to sleep.

Besides, I heard the falling rain and thought I better have a back up plan for inclement weather.

Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 1

"It's a beautiful letter", he said last night, "of information, but I don't see where they actually tell us to do anything."

And that was where my mind kind of went, "Ping!"

We were talking about the recent message from the Universal House of Justice, dated 1 August 2014. And, you see, I can't imagine a letter from the Universal House of Justice like that in which we are not given some sort of indication of something to do. Of course, it may not be overtly stated, and you may have to hunt for it, but I think all of their messages give us guidance for some sort of action.

So what about this one?

Well, I'm not really sure, but this is what I found: "a place where souls gathered at daybreak for humble invocation and communion before flowing out of its doors to engage in their daily pursuits."

I mean, the whole letter begins with a bit about interfaith relations, or at least that's what I read in the quote referring to "the Lord of all religions", and then talks about the importance of community building and service. And while these are on-going things, it was this bit about gathering at dawn that caught my attention.

My train of thought, if you want, was really along the lines of "how can we prepare for a Masriqu’l-Adhkár in our own community?" And this is what I came up with. Let's try dawn prayers. Let's see what happens when we get together at daybreak and offer humble invocation before going forth to engage in our daily pursuits.

And so, this morning, at 5:45, my wife and I headed out of our home and down to the far end of the beach at the Esquimalt Lagoon. (We were way down by Lagoon Road, if you want to join us some day.)

There really is something about leaving the home to do it. It's not the same as just heading downstairs in your pajamas and saying a prayer or two while curled up on the sofa with a warm cup of coffee. It requires a degree of effort beyond just setting the alarm clock and heading back to sleep a few minutes later. There is a degree of sacrifice if you're not used to getting up at that time. It does mean changing the habit of one's routine to include that extra time in the morning. It does mean heading to bed a little bit earlier. But, hey, isn't all that a good thing? Isn't a major part of religion about using what we discover to change our behaviour for the better?

Anyways, we got there around 6 am, and were amazed at the lonely beauty of the beach at that early hour. There were tons of birds, and some seals bobbing their heads in the water. There were the early morning clouds still blanketing the mountains in the distance, with occasional flashes of lightning throughout. And there was the sound of the waves. Oh, the sound of those waves, with the piercing cry of the gulls, and bursting honks of the geese. What a symphony of sound.

We decided to grab our drums so that, just in case, others might know what we were doing: praying (that's a local Native tradition, drumming while praying). My wife grabbed some sweetgrass to smudge with (that's a Native ritual of cleansing with smoke), and I grabbed some blueberries (that's a traditional berry in the area that I eat before prayers) (but only because I was hungry). We parked our car (a traditional means of transportation to go from one place to another), at the far end near the restrooms (that's a traditional.... never mind).

And then we got out and sat on a log and began.

We must have gone on for about 30 minutes, reciting prayers, drumming, keeping beat with a rattle, and chanting. And it felt so good.

It felt SO good.

Of course, to be honest, there were some times when I felt that the various things my wife brought were a distraction, but that's ok. While smudging may not be part of my tradition, I don't insist on someone else not doing it. I just need to learn to not get distracted by it.

And while I sometimes found the drums distracting, that's ok, too. If they help someone else focus, great. I just need to learn not to be distracted. No problem.

We were getting ready to go when this man, who was watching us, waved to me. He had ridden his bike down to the lagoon,  heard the drums, and decided to stop. He saw a little sign near where we were that said "open", and figured that we had put it there. Well, we hadn't. We hadn't even noticed it. But we were glad he came by.

As he walked up to us, I read aloud the words on his shirt. "This little Indian loves Jesus".

It turns out he was visiting from Hawai'i, and had decided to ride the bike while waiting for his family to wake up.

We had a great conversation, shared places to visit. We all told a bit about our lives, our tests and our victories. It was truly delightful. I gave him our number, and asked him to call us. I hope he does. It would be wonderful to visit him near Volcano National Park some day. Perhaps he'll come by tomorrow, too.

Oh, and tomorrow we are going to bring down our white board to invite people to join us. We may not say "open", but we will sure be inviting. Perhaps we'll say "A gathering of gratitude - please feel free to join us."

This was a wonderful way to begin our day, and I look forward to trying this every day for the next week, just to see what happens.

Perhaps I'll make a habit of it.