Friday, May 23, 2014


For some reason my heart just sings over butterflies. I've never quite understood why, but I just love those little flutterers of colour.

Yesterday I was at the market, selling my jewelry when I went to say hi to a friend down the way. While talking with her, another friend, Sahar, came by with her pal Greg. It was quite wonderful to see them. As we walked back to my booth I saw an injured butterfly on the ground. Without even thinking about it, I bent over and let him walk onto my finger, and for the next hour that butterfly found a refuge by clinging to my shirt. When I came home the butterfly was now on my backpack, and I asked Shoghi to go out to the car and bring him in to the greenhouse tent in our back yard. We put him on a flower in there, and placed a small dish of sugar water nearby. I truly thought this injured little guy would perish in the night, but to my surprise, when I checked on him this morning, he was quite well, resting by the flap of the tent. And that, dear Reader, made my heart sing.

It also made me think about butterflies today.

And you know what? I think the Baha'i community in many areas is like a butterfly. Do you remember the old saying about how we are sometimes like a butterfly, starting off as a caterpillar and then becoming transformed into a beautiful butterfly? Sounds nice, right? Well, sometimes I think that little metaphor is a bit simplistic.

I was thinking about that the other day and realized that this isn't exactly what happens. It's a bit more complex, a bit more enlightening. The little caterpillar goes around munching on the leaves until one day it decides that it's time to change. Of course, this isn't usually a conscious decision. It is often forced by necessity of nature.

And there it goes. It finds a nice little place of safety and spends a bit of time wrapping itself in its cocoon. (Yes, I know that sometimes the cocoon exudes from its skin, but work with me here.) Then it spends quite a bit of time inside there. And it's not that it's doing nothing, resting and waiting. No. It's going through a massive inner transformation. It dissolves. It becomes a liquid. It truly undergoes an incredible and radical change that is not visible to one looking at it from the outside.

Only after this astonishing metamorphosis does it emerge.

And then, you know what? It rests. The butterfly will sit there for many hours resting after its tiring ordeal.

It isn't until it takes the necessary time to rest, to allow its wings to dry out and gather its strength that it will finally take flight.

That's where I think we are. Most of us, at least. The Universal House of Justice, in the2014 Ridvan message, spoke of a "lull in activity" that sometimes occurs in a community. And that's perfectly natural. Of course, it doesn't mean that we should be content and just sit there doing nothing. But rather that we should recognize it as part of the process of growth and transformation, not get discouraged, search on the reasons for the impasse and strive to move forward. But it takes time. And that's ok.

That's what I've learned from the butterfly.

I think that right now many of us, many of our communities, are undergoing this transformation. Perhaps it is not visible to those looking from the outside, but we are changing nonetheless.Some thing that we have taken for granted, such as walking around on those little legs, may not be needed anymore. We may change them for the long and beautiful legs of a butterfly. And you know what? Necessary as they are, they won't be our primary mode of transportation anymore. No. We'll mainly use our wings.

Of course, I have no idea what those wings will be, but I look forward to learning about it with the rest of us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

It's All In How You Say It

I'm a competent writer. I can usually get the point across without too much effort, but sometimes it takes a bit to make sure that the proper tone is used.

I remember one time, a number of years ago, I was asked to draft 5 letters for a Baha'i agency to inform people that their cheque had bounced. They wanted 5 different versions so that they could compare tone and see which was the most appropriate. I could understand that. No problem. Or so I thought.

The first version began with a very nice "Dearly loved Friend". It went on to say that we understood that sometimes these things happen, and that it isn't really much of a problem, just a simple oversight, but could they please, you know and so on and so forth.

The next draft was a bit more firm, but still exceedingly polite.

Four letters were written, each with a different style, and I was totally stumped for a fifth. I tried, really I did. But I drew a complete blank. Nothing. Nada. Zip. So I began, "Dear Bozo", and continued "Can't you do math?" It was so completely over the top that it was almost therapeutic. I was practically crying with laughter by the time I finished.

And so I printed all five, relishing the thought of my boss's expression on reading the last one, explaining that I just couldn't come up with a fifth for him, and chucking it in the bin, with nothing more than a mild memory of amusement. I wasn't too worried. He was, after all, well known for his sense of humour. A few minutes later he popped his head in my office and asked if I had them done. I was more then happy to hand him the letters, and bummed out when he took them and disappeared.

It was about an hour later that he came back with something of a stern expression on his face. (I am, if nothing else, a master of understatement.)

It seems that he went straight to the photocopier, made 9 copies and practically ran upstairs to his meeting with the National Spiritual Assembly. Without even glancing at the copies, he passed them around for everyone to consult on which one to use. I still shake with laughter at the thought of that meeting. (I understand that they read them aloud, one at a time, and that he paused at "Dear Bo...") (My eyes are still tearing up at the image of that moment.) (And I still recall one of the elder members of that Assembly encountering me in the lunchroom and, with a smirk, mumbling under his breath "Bozo" to me. We both just lost it, and everyone was staring at us trying to figure out what he possibly could have said to make us both practically fall over laughing. Neither of us would tell.)

'Abdu'l-Baha, of course, was fully aware of the importance of saying things in a way that would be least likely to offend.  He said that when discussing matters with another person, and you find you disagree with them, rather than challenge them, we should be conciliatory and courteous. He said "we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: 'Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found.'"

Sometimes it's the tone of voice. Other times it's the words themselves. I recall one image I saw recently that said that arguments are 10% difference of opinion and 90% the way we say it. Whether or not that's true, for 78% of all statistics like that are made up on the spot, I think there is a degree of truth in it.

Just the other day I was at a reflection meeting and wanted to know the desired outcome of it so that I could better work towards it. I came dangerously close to asking what the purpose of meeting was, only changing that at the last moment to asking what the goal was. "What's the goal of this meeting" is very different from "What's the purpose of being here?"

I remember another time when my now ex-wife came home one day and was so excited. She was bouncing up and down saying, "I just got a sewing table! Now I can sew it all together." Without thinking, obviously, I said, "Sew what?" Now that may look nice and innocent in type, but it sounds like unfortunately the same as "So what?" Fortunately I was quick enough to react and say, "I meant what are you going to sew." (I think that qualifies as a near-death experience.)

Usually I'm on the giving end of awkward phrasing, but there was one time I recall too vividly of being on the receiving end. Marielle (my, spoiler alert, now-wife) and I had been doing a lot of studying of the Writings, and engaging in service together. I knew that I, for one, had begun to, as they say, check her out. So when she phoned me up one afternoon and said that we had to "talk" (ominous organ music in the background, please), I was, understandably, nervous. We went to a coffee shop (which I also vividly recall) (The Second Cup on Corydon in Winnipeg), I got a cup of coffee for myself and a tea for her. We went outside to their patio, sat down, and she began to speak.

"You're a nice guy, but..."

And that's all I heard for the next few minutes.

Inside I was crying out, "Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!" My poor heart felt as if it were fracturing, tears were welling up in my eyes. I felt as if my hoped-for future had been dashed to the ground and unceremoniously stomped flat. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes: they all raged inside the landscape of my soul. I could hear Elmer Fudd crying out "SMOG!" I was certain that my lower lip must have been trembling, but I really didn't want her to notice, for I would never, ever, do anything to try and coerce her into a relationship she felt uncertain of, or even worse, undesirous of.

And when the blizzard of white noise began to subside, a few nano-seconds alter, I heard her saying something about marriage and children and investigation of character and all those other catchphrases of sheer delight and bliss. I don't think I have ever pendulumed so quickly from one extreme emotion to another so fast. It must have been some sort of drug-free world record.

Only now, years later, do I recognize that English wasn't her first language, so of course she wouldn't have known about the "you're a nice guy but" assassination phrase of the male soul.

Yup. Phrasing is everything. Oh, and so is tone of voice.

So now, when I'm sharing some of the ideas of the Faith with people (or, in Baha'i parlance, teaching), I try to be aware of loaded terms. For some people, "spiritual" instead of "religious", and others "reality" instead of "God". I'm only now beginning to be aware that people in British Columbia tend to phase out anything about community building, but are very interested in individual development. I mean, not everyone, of course, but just as a general rule. And talking about the Spirit of Christ is just as easy as talking about attaining Nirvana. They're all the same to me, so I don't really care which phrase I use. But if choosing one word over another can help prevent a wall from going up inside, why not use it. After all, teaching is about reaching out from one heart to another. It's not about words, but about spirit. It's all in how you say it.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, they didn't choose that last letter. They went for the first one.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Oddities

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science," said Isaac Asimov, "the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'" And it's true. Time and again in the various sciences, we have been complacent in our understanding of the universe, confident that "little anomaly" we see in the data will simply work itself out. Of course it was those "little anomalies" that led us to things like the Theory of Relativity, and the awareness of dark matter and dark energy in the universe. We still don't know what the latter two are, but we have consistently seen anomalies in the expected data that it requires us to re-think what we know.

I find the same to be true with the Writings. And not just the Writings of the Baha'i Faith, but all sacred Writings.

For example, in the book of Malachi, there is a reference to the Promised One purifying us like the silver. Why silver, I wondered. Why not gold? And then when I began to purify the gold and silver for my wife's wedding ring, I began to understand. Gold, when you melt it, has a black sludge on the outside. As you purify it, the sludge goes away, for those were the impurities. Silver, on the other hand, always has the sludge on the outside, for the sludge is the silver. With the gold, you watch the surface, and when it's clear, your gold is pure. With the silver, you have to watch the centre. As you begin the melting process, the very middle of the sphere of the molten silver is all wibbly-wobbly. At some point, though, it sort of clicks into place and it becomes a perfect mirror. That is when you have to take off the heat. Not only is the silver then pure, but if you keep heating it, you run the risk of it becoming crystalline, kind of, and fracturing as you work with it. The Promised One, when He purifies us, will do so like the silver. He will keep the heat of tests on us until He sees His reflection within our heart.

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha'u'llah has that unusual mention of the Universal House of Justice in regards to the funds of the Faith. He says that after the Aghsan, the funds go to the Universal House of Justice "should it be established by then". If not, then it goes to them "who speak not except by His leave", or the Hands of the Cause. That was a strange little thing to put in there. And yet, it was exactly what was needed to secure the funds during the ministry of the Hands.

In a well-known prayer, as well as a number of other places, Baha'u'llah says, "Thy might, in truth, is equal to all things." My wife thought this was an odd phrase, for isn't God's might greater than all things? But no, Baha'u'llah says that it is equal to everything. That's a very exact relationship. It is neither less than, nor greater than, but exactly equal to all of it. God's energy, His might, is equal to all matter, all things. In other words, energy equals matter, which Einstein, just a few decades later, proved.

Oh, and that prayer, as I'm sure you know, begins, "Many a chilled heart, O my God, hath been set ablaze with the fire of Thy Cause, and many a slumberer hath been wakened by the sweetness of Thy voice." Both of these metaphors are about energy, and raising the level thereof.

When talking about the Spiritual Assembly, 'Abdu'l-Baha says that the members "are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden." When Marielle and I were reading this, we kind of skipped over it a bit. Well, I was reading it aloud to her, and I kind of skipped it, thinking it was another of those "this of one that" sections. That was when she lovingly chastised me and said that this was sacred Text I was skipping. It was this that got us to look at it a bit more closely, for it was something odd, kind of stuck in the middle there. That was when we saw they were pairs, going from macro to micro, covering water, light and life. It was because of this we really began to understand that it was implied that the writings on consultation worked not only on the macro level of a full Assembly, but also on the micro level of a couple of people. And it was this study that really led to us getting married.

It never fails, every time we see something in the Writings that makes us say, "That's strange", it always leads on this marvelous adventure ending in some incredible discovery for us.

In his introduction to the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Guardian describes the book as being "of unsurpassed pre-eminence among the writings of" Baha'u'llah. I thought that was odd, for surely the Kitab-i-Aqdas must surpass it. But no, for this book is about how to recognize a Messenger of God. The Aqdas is about being obedient. Recognition and obedience, those twin, inseparable duties.

Then, in the very first paragraph of the Kitab-i-Iqan, Baha'u'llah tells us to sanctify our souls so that "haply ye may attain that station which God hath destined for you". "Haply?" What a strange word. Shouldn't that be "happily", with joy? But no, it is "haply", with luck, as in haphazardly. In other words, we can do all we can, but it is still up to God. There is no magic formula, like the Universal House of Justice says in the 2014 Ridvan Message, "Awareness of this reality frees one from the fruitless search for a rigid formula for action..." It works on the level of the individual, and it works on the level of community. Oh, and I mention this because in some religions people believe that if you a particular prayer in a particular way, with all the correct rituals in place, then whatever you are praying for will magically occur.

Now one oddity I've never quite figured out is why Baha'u'llah put paragraph 152 in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. I mean, I know why it's there, but why there? Why in that particular place in the Book? He has just told us, in paragraph 150 to teach our children the verses of God, and in paragraph 151, to renew the furnishings in our home on a regular basis, every 19 years. In paragraph 153 He tells us to be gentle to those who show us anger. I mean, these are all fairly significant things, from the education of children to responding with kindness to anger. But there, in paragraph 152, He tells us to wash our feet. That sure seems random to me. Odd, for sure. I've never quite seen why that one is placed right there, unless he's calling importance to it because, after all, a vast number of people suffer from a simple infection they get by walking through parasite infested water. It is, in fact, one of the most wide-spread diseases on the planet. So maybe it is a huge issue after all. It will likely take a physician to explain this one to me.

Either way, I have to admit that every time I have investigated an oddity within the Writings, presuming it is within my ability, then I feel like I have made a major discovery. (Well, it was, for me.)

So next time you say that prayer about chilled hearts, remember, e = mc2, harmony of science and religion, and all that other stuff.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ridvan 2014, a few more thoughts

Here I am, back at the university again, wondering what my project for the day shall be. I was going to finish writing up my report about the Canadian National Convention, but then discovered that I left my laptop's power cord at home. Ah well. I guess this is God's way of saying, "Mead, you're a bozo."

Fair enough.

And so, rather than work on that report, transcribing all 30 pages and sorting out the various ideas, I've decided to write a bit more about this message from the Universal House of Justice. In the next few weeks, I am hoping to write a few thoughts about some other topics that arose from this letter, such as "veils", the phrase "safe and secure" (you'll have to read it to see the connection), "tabernacle", and "accompaniment".

Before that, though, I'm just going to share a few other thoughts that arose about this message.

In paragraph 2, they talk about spiritual education being enhanced through experience. This is a great reminder to me, and please remember that this is only my own opinion and nothing official, that we should listen to our youth. The Universal House of Justice, in paragraph 1, reminded us that the youth have just had this incredible experience of the youth conferences last year and are doing all these marvelous things. Now, "through experience", they can talk about what they have done. Their experience is real, and relevant. They are not limited to, nor bound by, experiences from the 70s, 80s, or 90s. Their experience is fresh. We, who are of a... finer vintage, need to learn from them.

In paragraph 3, there are many subtle gems hidden within. To start, they refer to the size of the island, Tanna, a mere 30,000. They may not mention the history of the place, but that is available in other places. For example, a number of years ago, when the Local Spiritual Assembly was offered a large sum of money to build I think it was fresh water wells, they consulted and built the wells in two other communities before building their own desperately needed one. This set up the example of looking to other people's needs before their own. Now they have engaged in an open dialogue with a third of the island's inhabitants. This leads me to ask if they can do it, what can we here in Canada do? But it is also worth noting the length of time this took. It was not done overnight with a single home visit. It took years and "a supreme effort". Note that phrase, "a supreme effort", and then compare it to the very last paragraph; "If only ye exert the effort..."

They also mention, in that same paragraph, "the bounty of being able to turn to a Local Spiritual Assembly for guidance and for the resolution of difficult situations..." This is a good reminder to me that I need to recognize the importance of this institution of the Faith in terms of the greater community, not just in relation to the Baha'is. It also gets me to ask what it means for a decision of this institution to be "characterized by wisdom and sensitivity"? How can I, as an individual, serve to assist my institutions to better increase this capacity?

I am reminded of a statement made recently by a Counsellor. He said that for any of the three protagonists of the Faith, the individual, the institution, and the community, to increase in capacity, they have to be primarily concerned about the development of the other two. In other words, if I want to develop as an individual, I have to really look at what I can do to help my community, as well as my institutions. That has led to some interesting soul searching on my part, and I can only presume that it is doing the same for these others.

Down in paragraph 5, they speak of this concept of "success" and "failure" breeding "freneticism" and paralysing volition. Interestingly enough, frenetic literally means an inflammation of the brain resulting in insanity, and is generally used to describe a fast and uncontrolled movement. Paralysis is, of course, another medical term describing an inability to move. Both are uncontrolled and related to movement, each one at an end of the spectrum. And this concept of success and failure also describes both ends of an unhealthy spectrum. Personally, I find that interesting. After all, Baha'u'llah is the Supreme Physician, with His finger on the pulse of humanity. And now it is the Universal House of Justice identifying the ailment and prescribing the remedy.

In the same paragraph, they speak of this "fruitless search for a rigid formula". I wonder: What does a rigid formula look like? If we can describe it, perhaps that will make it easier for us to avoid it, especially by accident. It seems to me that it is anything that insists on a particular manner of doing something, especially before examining the circumstances in which it is to be done. This also relates back to the earlier phrase in paragraph 2, "searching consultation". When consulting on the reasons for a lull, trying to find a way past an impasse, if we go in with "the answer", then it is not a "searching" consultation. We are likely to be an impediment to finding a solution.

This reminds me of the prayer that my son is now trying to memorize. It is from the Bab, and beings "I adjure Thee by Thy might..." It then says, " moments of heedlessness guide my steps aright through Thine inspiration." When we find ourselves at an impasse, it is a test. And if we are heedless, we may accidentally find ourselves moving towards establishing a rigid formula, mostly out of desperation. But we can also pray for assistance at this time. We can see that we are wandering in the woods, unaware of where we are going. And when we are heedless, especially in the woods, it is easy to step off the path. But with guidance, with that moment of inspiration, we may also just as accidentally place our foot on the path and stay safe. So here, I like to be aware of what this "rigid formula" can look like so that I can be careful not to step there.

Oh, and all this also reminds me of the importance of not only reflecting on what we have learned, but also on learning how to share it. (By the way, these are not necessarily my own ideas. A lot of this comes from talking with others and listening at the National Convention. I'm just thinking and seeing what comes up.) How often have people merely told a story without sharing what they learned from it? And how often have people said, "We learned a lot", without saying what it is that they learned. This is something else that we need to work on, in general. (Well, I know I need to work on it.)

Finally, for today at least, there is the overarching theme of accompaniment in this letter, and many other recent ones. This theme of helping others arise to serve is so important. As I said earlier I will be dedicating a whole article on it, and I am sure that it won't be enough. After all, providing service is easy, but helping others arise to provide service takes time and commitment. And you know what? We all need to be accompanied at some time. In one of His prayers, 'Abdu'l-Baha says, "...accompany in my exile."

Oh, and if you have noticed a drop in the number of articles I've been writing lately, it's because other bloggers have been asking for help in getting their own blogs started. Accompaniment is truly such an important topic. (As is detachment, and effort, and patience, and courage, and perseverance, and so on and so forth.) I feel I have grown so much as a writer in the past year because I have had the bounty of helping others begin their own blogs. Thanks to you all.