Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Preparing for the Conferences

As I'm sure you know, the Universal House of Justice has called for a number of conferences this year, and many of them have already happened. These are not just your ordinary conferences, where you attend as a passive individual, watching a series of presentations. No, quite the contrary. They are part of an on-going conversation, in which we engage in learning about Baha'u'llah's vision for humanity, and how we can take practical steps to bring this vision into existence here in our own neighbourhoods.

Before sharing a number of thoughts about this, I want to first mention the five themes that are to be addressed at these conferences.

    1. Baha'u'llah's vision for humanity

    2. The distance traversed

    3. Building vibrant communities

    4. Educational endeavours and the training institute

    5. Contributing to social transformation

As you can see, these themes are fairly broad, deeply applicable, and build upon each other. The question, though, to me, is what does it mean for them to be part of an on-going conversation? Well, dear Reader, that is what I want to explore today.

When these themes were first presented to us, I considered them, meditated upon them, and realized I knew very little about them. So, as is only natural for me, I asked others what they thought. But then, as I was putting that first theme down in a post on facebook, I realized that it wasn't really framed in a way that would elicit a variety of responses. I had written, "What do you think about Baha'u'llah's vision for humanity?" Well, I think my average friend would have said, "Uhm, not much. I have no idea what it is. In fact, who is Baha'u'llah?"

It was then that I realized I needed to get a better understanding of the intention behind that theme. By looking at the quotes offered to begin the discussion, I reframed the question as "What do you think is the purpose of religion?" Of course, I had to clarify this by explaining that I wasn't interested in a discussion on the recognized abuses of religion. What I wanted was something that either Jesus, or Buddha, or White Buffalo Calf Woman would have agreed with. What was its essential purpose, not how could it be used to manipulate people.

Once that was framed in a way that would elicit what I considered useful answers, I was astonished at the responses I received. Even my die-hard atheist friends offered insights that were profound and beautiful. And, interestingly, there was also a great similarity between most of the responses, showing that many of us have a common vision of the purpose of religion, whether or not we followed one. All of a sudden, I saw a connection, a  point of unity, a basis for beginning a fruitful discussion among my friends from a wide variety of backgrounds. And when I threw in the idea that most of what was said could be summed up as "working for the betterment of the world" and "helping us live together in concord and harmony", it was seen as a beautiful summary of what had been stated by this varied group of people, instead of as me pushing a quote from Baha'u'llah upon them. Baha'u'llah had, from my perspective, summed up what my friends were trying to say, and by reflecting this back to them, it opened up doors.

Following this, I have had a lot of discussions with these friends about this summary. Most of these conversations have revolved around the idea of "If this is what it is all about, what can we do to help move our own communities in this direction?" Boom. Practical. Wow.

Ok. That was the first topic touched on to varying degrees of depth. On to the second topic.

How, I wondered, did it follow on the first? I mean, if the Universal House of Justice gives us five topics to discuss, I can only presume that they would build upon each other. I mean, it's possible that they don't, I guess, but I didn't believe that, so let's check it out.

One aspect of the purpose for religion is for us all to live together in harmony. To do so, we need to eliminate prejudice. The second topic, you may recall from above, is to consider the distance traversed so far. Sounds good. Let's try that.

If we consider any of these issues, whether it is human rights, women's rights, race unity, care for the environment, global peace, or even the more generic "unity", how far have we advanced in the past 100 years? or 20 years? or even 5 years? What has changed in regards to race unity since 1920? How have we evolved in our understanding of women's rights since 2000? How has the conversation about the environment evolved in the past 5 years?

It was recognized by all I asked that we have made huge leaps forward in every single one of these areas. We still have a long way to go, obviously, but the trajectory was undeniable. The progress was unquestionable. The improvements in every single area were impressive.

Hope was re-kindled.

My friends began to recognize on a more conscious level that they were part of a growing community that was very concerned about these exact issues. And they should be! They were the ones who brought them up, not me. By looking at the true purpose of religion, they identified areas of concern for religions to discuss. Once those areas were identified, I merely asked how far we had advanced in just a few generations. And where they had been lamenting about how far we had to go, they were now celebrating how far we had come, without losing sight of the still-distant goal.

And now I saw the connection to the third theme, that of building a vibrant community. Now that they saw themselves as part of this emerging community focused on gender rights, or this like-minded community evolving around a concern for the environment, they were ready to address the question of what makes a community vibrant. While at first it seemed like a tangent, they quickly saw the relevance to the issue that was in their heart. Without that vibrancy, the community would never rally together. The cohesion would quickly disintegrate. But with vibrancy, there would be an attractive force to them which would allow them to grow and become more effective in achieving their goals.

By asking the question "What make a vibrant community", they were able to identify elements of community life that they found attractive. And this, of course, led to the natural question, "What can we do to help instill these elements in our community?"

"After all," I pointed out, "you are part of that community and have a vested interest. It is not up to anyone else to do this for you. It is up to you, and I want to help you, for that vision you have shared is a good and noble one." And as we discuss this, I naturally talk about the importance of consultation, inclusion, love and respect, diversity and unity. In other words, I bring the Baha'i principles to the table as part of my experience and share how it can help them advance in their own work, which was shared as part of their experience.

And that, dear Reader, is where I currently am. I have a number of on-going conversations of this nature with my friends and neighbours, about issues that they raised in response to these simple questions. These are issues that are dear to their heart, and I am watching as more and more of them are interested in taking these next few steps.

Where will this go? I have no idea.

Will these friends come share their experiences at the conferences in this area? Again, I have no clue.

I mean, if we pitch it as a "Baha'i" conference in which we can learn about Baha'u'llah's vision, probably not. But if it is offered as a conference in which we will be looking at these issues from a shared perspective, then more likely.

And I suspect that as we identify some of the necessary components that make up a "vibrant community", questions will arise about what they look like, or how we can begin to develop them. And this will naturally lead to discussions about study circles and the offer of components from the Ruhi curriculum that they may find useful in exploring these ideas, which is, of course, the fourth theme offered by the Universal House of Justice.

Now, please understand, this is where I am right now.

If someone says that they want to learn more about consultation, then I will certainly offer them that unit in Ruhi Book 10. But this will need to be done in the context of their work, and will require the necessary time to explore it in action. And where will it go from there? It's too early for me to tell.

* * * * *

Some additional points that I want to bring up which don't quite fit in above:


1. It is worth noting that in the last few paragraphs, I talk about offering components from the Ruhi curriculum. You will note that I am not talking about offering full courses, or entire books. While I am ready to offer that, I suspect that my friends are not ready to dedicate the necessary time. Instead, I am prepared to offer a few sections for discussion. Most of these friends are probably not ready to dedicate 2 - 4 hours a week for a number of months to taking an entire course. They are, however, more than ready to go for coffee and discuss a single section that is relevant to what they are doing. This is part of effective training. If they then see the relevance and importance of these courses, then I am certain they will commit the time, for we are all willing to commit the time to those things we deem important.


2. I also want to point some of the language I used up above, just to raise it to the level of conscious awareness. There are many sentences in this short article that begin with the word "And". Why? It's actually purposeful, and not just a disdain for the rules of English that are solely based on outdated Latin grammar. When we use the improv theatre technique of "Yes, and...", showing that there are no bad ideas, and that all ideas can lead to new developments, it has a peculiar effect on our brain. It fires up our creativity in ways we do not expect.

Story time: Back in the 1990s, when they were first developed PET scans, the scientists involved knew they needed to start by calibrating the machine to a brain at rest. They placed a young lady in the machine and told her to relax so that they could get a base reading of the brain, before asking her to do the various things they wanted to test. To their surprise, huge parts of the brain suddenly started to show great activity. "Relax" they said, "and try not to think of anything."  Well, that didn't work. She was relaxed, she said. So, thinking that it may be something to do with her age or gender, they hooked up an elderly man. And again, to their shock, when he said he was relaxed, large parts of the brain started showing great activity. It was then that they realized they were on the verge of discovering something.

They mapped out the active areas of the resting brain when the person was relaxed and discovered that those areas didn't correspond to any known, previously mapped areas of the brain. In fact, it was this mapping that helped them discover a new neural network that stretched from the front of the brain across the top, to the back, down to the bottom, and across both sides. It encompassed a huge part of the brain, over a greater area than any other part they had ever discovered before. And its primary purpose seemed to be to play.

It is through this mental play, in a network that touches numerous other brain areas, that we make some of our greatest and most insightful connections. And one of the easiest ways to access this incredible power is through the "Yes, and..." method of improv, encouraging our brains to make these wild leaps of insight.

That is why so many of the sentences I wrote above begin with "and".

We are embarking on a great social project that will require major leaps in our learning, and as a writer, I want to do all I can to help encourage this.

As we discuss these issues with our friends, many of us will find ourselves wondering at some crazy idea, or weird understanding. And while it would be so easy to stamp it down with a "No, you're wrong", we can encourage these leaps to greater truths with a simple, "Yes, and..."

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Importance of Planning

 I was reading from the Universal House of Justice the other day, when I ran across the following:

(...A sustained entry by troops) cannot be achieved by a mere series of spasmodic, uncoordinated exertions, no matter how enthusiastic. Confidence; unity of vision; systematic, realistic, but audacious planning; acceptance of the fact that mistakes will be made, and willingness to learn from these mistakes; and, above all, reliance on the guidance and sustaining confirmations of Bahá’u’lláh will advance this process. (Ridvan 153, to the Baha'is of Europe)

Interesting. And what an incredible list to study, especially as we get ready to embark on the first of a series of plans coming up later this year.

You may recall in the letter to the Counsellor's conference, dated 30 December 2021, we read the most advanced clusters are seeing "the mobilization of a sizeable number of Bahá’ís who are creatively and intelligently applying the Plan’s framework for action to the reality of their own circumstances wherever in the cluster they live." We also read that the friends in these areas "must be able to read their own reality and ask: what, in light of the possibilities and requirements at hand, would be fitting objectives to pursue in the coming cycle or series of cycles?"

Going back to that first quote, the one to the Baha'is of Europe, I just want to take a look at those requisites a little bit more. They listed five things that would "advance this process".

1. Confidence -  Well, that makes sense. After all, if we don't believe we can do something, we will not put all our effort into it.

2. Unity of vision - Hmm. That's an intriguing one. I have seen communities where some people believed this meant that everyone needed to do the same thing. Well, that's uniformity of action, not unity of vision. In fact, if we go back to the Ridvan 1990 message, we read "A unity in diversity of actions is called for, a condition in which different individuals will concentrate on different activities, appreciating the salutary effect of the aggregate on the growth and development of the Faith, because each person cannot do everything and all persons cannot do the same thing. This understanding is important to the maturity which, by the many demands being made upon it, the community is being forced to attain." A unity of vision would encompass the long range goal, and require an appreciation of the varied steps needed to achieve it. It would allow each person to play to their strength, lending the greatest share they could to the achievement of the goals.

3. Systematic, realistic, but audacious planning - Ok. This is probably my favorite. But to really appreciate it, I find that I need to break it up into its component parts.

First, we need to be systematic in our planning. This means that we need a plan, and we need to be methodical in the development of said plan. Given that our plans are outlined for us by the World Centre, we pretty much have this down. And given that we have been guided to look at the various cycles of growth, each roughly 3 months in duration and based around the natural activities in our community, we are doing fairly well in this, provided we actually take note of those natural cycles in our community. When we ignore that, our vision tends to be more inward looking, rather than outward focused. I have seen more than a few communities stumble in this when they plan their cycles around an arbitrary calendar, usually the Baha'i calendar, which only a handful of people in a given community follow. But when they truly begin to focus their attention on the greater community, and learn to recognize the natural cycles there, they flourish.

From what I have seen in my own community, for example, this tends to revolve around the school year. New activities start in September, when the children begin their school year. Community centres have their fall activities starting. Dance studios begin their sessions. Many extra-curricular sports teams start their seasons, too. Three months later, in December, the children are getting ready for their winter break, and they have to register for a whole new set of after-school activities. Then, in March, they change over to their spring activities, which also last about three months. Finally, when the school year ends in June, everyone registers for their summer activities. Three month cycles. And if we try to begin our children's classes outside this cycle, say in October, which would lead to January three months later and then on to Ridvan, most of the children are already busy, having already started their fall activities.

The second step here, though, is that our plans need to be realistic. We may be systematic, but if we are not realistic very little will come of it. The reason that most plans fail is not because the people involved are unaware of the lofty goals, or lack enthusiasm, but because they do not see the next practical step that they can take. This is where realism comes into play. If the next proposed step is too far, or outside their vision, most people will not even try to take it.

The third part, though, is that we need to be audacious. We may be realistic, but if we only take tiny, cautious steps, we will never achieve the great strides necessary to bring about a change of culture. Audacious not only means bold and daring, but also implies that we are not restricted to the old way of doing things. It suggests being original, trying new things, which leads us to the next part.

4. Acceptance of the fact that mistakes will be made, and willingness to learn from these mistakes - We will make mistakes. This is a given. If we are audacious and daring, we can be certain that we will sometimes fall on our face. But hey, falling on our face implies forward movement. The trick, though, is to learn. Over and over in the recent messages, we read about the culture of learning, a dozen times in the 30 December message alone. "...(T)he friends should be occupied", they write in but one instance, "in an ongoing process of learning about what is most effective in the place where they are." Making mistakes is inevitable, and we should embrace that.

Many people are afraid of making mistakes, though, for it lays open our vulnerability. But you know what? This is also how we earn trust. When we recognize our own vulnerability and put ourselves out there anyways, people tend to trust us more than if we only show strength, and do only that which is safe. It exposes us, and shows that we trust those around us to help us if we fall. It reminds us to be humble and shows others that we are human, too. It means that even though the Writings have all the answers, we do not pretend to know those answers. It proves we are willing to allow others to help us learn how to find and apply them.

When we make mistakes, and strive to learn from them, we discover new things, see nuances we may have missed earlier. It can make the invisible visible. It can more easily show us where the problems may lie, and help us to overcome them more quickly. Mistakes can help us see more creative solutions, and reveal new insights. They tell us about our skill levels and help us see what is, and what is not, possible at any given time. They also help us prioritize, and recognize the new priorities as circumstances change.

Mistakes help us learn to ask more effective questions, and questions are so important that we even have a month named after them. Effective questions lead to more effective answers.

5. Above all, reliance on the guidance and sustaining confirmations of Bahá’u’lláh will advance this process - "Above all". No, really. "Above all". We are not the ones doing this. Everything we do is completely at the mercy of Baha'u'llah. It is our blessing to be able to serve, and we should never forget this.


So now, as I begin to make my own personal plans, and as I consult with those around me on our community plans, I feel this guidance may help us be a bit more focused. It also seems that with these points in mind, we may all feel a little more comfortable challenging ourselves. After all, as the Universal House of Justice said to the Counsellors back on 9 January 2001, "Fear of failure finds no place. Mutual support, commitment to learning, and appreciation of diversity of action are the prevailing norms" in the community we hope to build.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Cycles

My family and I have been down with, presumably, covid for the past few days. Fortunately we're all vaccinated, so the symptoms are not as severe as they could be, for which we are all very grateful. But lying there, on the couch, with my cat by my side (more for the non-moving warmth than out of any sense of love, as far as I can tell), I've had a lot of time to think, while reading. Oh, that's one of the things about me. Even when I'm ill, and feeling a little miserable (not too miserable, but thanks, dear Reader), I will still find time to read. Of course, given the muzziness of my brain, I'm only reading a little bit at a time, and slowly, at that, but still I'm loving "When the Moon Set Over Haifa". Nothing like reading about the passing of the Master, I guess, to make me feel like my own cold is insignificant. Anyways, where was I? Oh yes. We've all been down with this, and when I have the energy, I get up and do some work until I feel my energy is about to go again, and hence, here I am, writing to you, my Friend.

Normally, when we think about "cycles" in the Baha'i community these days, we are thinking about cycles of growth, generally three-months in duration. But nope, that's not what I am referring to.
I'm thinking about lager cycles than that. After all, in case you haven't noticed from the date, today is the Chinese New Year. Xīnnián hǎo. Or "san nin hou", if you prefer Cantonese. (Thank you, Chinese friends for teaching me these.)

So yeah, I'm thinking about the cycles of years today.

I'm first reminded of the quote, “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”

To me, this makes sense in so many ways. It's like religion. The new Manifestation arises in response to humanity's waywardness and leads people aright. But it's not easy. As we always say, the early Christians did not expect to be celebrated. They expected to be crucified. And so, it took a great deal of spiritual strength to be Christian in the face of that tremendous persecution. Later, once the spiritual integrity and power of that movement became more apparent, more people joined and declared their faith, too, and Christianity moved from its spiritual springtime to its great summer. Eventually it became the norm. A new culture was born, and civilization was transformed. At that point, it was no longer necessarily a sign of spiritual strength. Other forces started to dominate. The great movement was heading towards its autumn, and its eventual winter. Moral suasion gave way to intimidation and fear.

We can also look to politics for another example of cycles. People are generally unhappy about something, and it doesn't really matter what it is. Come the election, things will swing one way as people are swayed by a particular argument. Their lives do not miraculously get better, so the middle majority vote in the other direction the next election. Back and forth we watch this pendulum move.

But in the overall scheme of things, given the grander vision of Baha'u'llah, we're not all that concerned. It's akin to the difference between weather an climate. Any given day, in any particular part of the world, we may see hotter or colder days. We know this. It's to be expected. That's the nature of weather, so to speak. If it's raining, we bring an umbrella. If it's hot, we wear lighter clothing. We dress according to the weather.

Climate, on the other hand, is a bit different. It's when we average it all out and see the greater trends around the globe, over many years, that we see the disturbing news of global warming. It is because of climate that we change our behaviour. It is because of climate that we raise the concern.

Imagine how silly we would look if we based our global decisions regarding climate on whether or not it was raining today.

It is through the teachings of Baha'u'llah that I have become more cognizant of the cycles effecting humanity, as opposed to the daily variances. When studying the Kitab-i-Iqan, we read so much about these cycles. And I'm not just referring to those opening paragraphs where He mentions the various Manifestations and shows what They have in common. I'm really thinking about those paragraphs in part 2, in which He points out that the Return is not just of the immortal Sovereign, the Manifestation, but also of the circumstances surrounding the Manifestation, including the enemies and the companions, the oppressions and the triumphs.

And as all this, all these various points about cycles, run through my cold-addled mind, I return to the Chinese New Year, this new Year of the Tiger.

I wonder, is there a cycle in these traditional years of the Chinese calendar? Do they point, in some way, to the cycles through which humanity naturally moves? Are they like the climate, describing not the specific individuals but the general trends? Did the Year of Rat, with its onset of a global pandemic give rise to a people that needed to learn to adapt quickly to new circumstances? Well, yes. Those that adapted quickly are the ones who weathered that difficult year the best. This was followed by the Year of the Ox, with its attribute of dependability and reliance. Those were the exact attributes we needed to best see ourselves through the second year of a global pandemic. The ones who patiently plodded along are, again, the ones who have survived it best.

Now, with this Year of the Tiger, and all the things that are happening in the world, it seems evident that resourcefulness will, once more, be a much-needed resource. Versatility, another tiger attribute, will also allow us to move forward in this "new reality" in which we find ourselves.

And then, as the pandemic likely winds down at the end of another year, if it follows historic tradition, we will be entering the Year of the Rabbit, with its quiet elegance.

Yeah, it seems to me that we can learn from these various traditions found around the world. The Chinese calendar is but one of them.

And if we use the lens that Baha'u'llah has given us, and focus it on these other traditions, I bet we can learn a lot.

I wanted to say more, but I'm feeling feverish, so I think it's time to re-fill my tea, and lie down once more.

As usual, I'd love to hear your thoughts on these feeble thoughts of mine today.

Oh, and don't worry about my health. I'm sure I'll be better soon but thanks for your thoughts of prayers. They are very much appreciated. I'm sure there are many more, though, who are in far greater need of them for their health. Pray, instead, for my continued steadfastness. I figure, if Hand of the Cause William Sears felt the need to always ask for that, I must really need them.

We'll talk again soon, I'm sure.

Monday, January 24, 2022

A Change in Community

I've been thinking about the growth of the Baha'i community a lot in recent days. It's only natural, as we stand at the cusp of a new series of plans which, the Universal House of Justice writes, is "generational in its scope and significance". What will the Baha'i community look like by the end of it? Well, simply put, I don't think we can really guess, at this time.

But hey, that's never stopped me before.

And to be fair, they do say that the capacities we will acquire by the end of all this "can scarcely be glimpsed at present", which means that we can get just a tiny little peek of them at this time, so, why not?

To try to wrap my head around all this, though, I decided to look backwards to see where we have come from, so as to get a better understanding of where we may be heading.

Aside - You know, dear Reader, it's been a while since I've done an aside, hasn't it? I feel they make these articles a bit more conversational, and allow me the freedom to toss in these odd little observations. They're like the ADHD of writing. But here I wanted to draw attention not to my meandering thoughts, but more to my lack of regard for "proper grammar". Have you ever noticed how many times I begin sentences with conjunctions? Or end sentences with prepositions? Oh wait. I meant to say, "But have you ever noticed how many prepositions I end my sentences with?" (I can see my English teachers rolling in their collective graves.) But, despite the number of times I do this, I still get people "correcting" me on it. For them, I just want to point out that I am not writing in Latin, and do not, therefore, need to follow the grammatical rule of that language, no matter what Winston Churchill has said (oh he of the "This is the sort of language up with which we will not put" fame). The House of Justice, in paragraph 9 of the 30 December 2021 message, to cite but a single example, begins a sentence with "And in areas where..." So if they can do it, I feel fine with it, too. Anyways, back to my actual point for writing this article.

Looking back, I got to thinking about the differences in the Baha'i world before the 10-Year World Crusade, and after. Then I thought about the changes in the Baha'i world before and after various other Plans.

I'm no expert, nor a trained historian, but it seems to me that before the Crusade the Baha'i world, though united in their love for the Central Figures and in their obedience to the Guardian, was still a collection of individual national groups each doing their own thing. There were 12 National Assemblies, and the only one on the African continent was Egypt and Sudan. By 1963, 56 countries had National Assemblies. (Google is my friend.)

Prior to 1953, there were numerous national or regional plans, but there was not a lot of work between the various countries. A little, but not a lot. By the end of the Crusade, they were all working together in a unified global endeavour.

Similarly, before the start of the recently completed series of Plans, in 1996, the Baha'i world was unified, but each country had their own focus. While the various goals in the Plans united them, each country seemed to have its own focus. One would look at firesides, while another would focus on the development of schools. They were all moving forward, but when you visited each one, you had to learn about the focus of that particular country. And although our Feasts were all laid out similarly, it was hard to recognize that they were all Baha'i communities. Now, to be fair, this is not a fault. It showed the great diversity of cultural expression within the Faith. It just made it awkward, at times, to try and help another community in their work.

By the end of the recent series of Plans in 2020, every country in the world was focused on the same things, each from their own cultural perspective. You could go to any Baha'i community around the planet and know that they were doing the same activities, whether it was devotional gatherings or children's classes. You could visit a new community and help with their activities right from the git-go. And wherever you went, you would be certain to learn about how they applied their own culture to those same activities, and maybe bring some new ideas home with you.

So, again, pre-1953, all the friends were looking to the Writings and the World Centre, but doing their own thing. From 1953 - 1963, we had learned how to collaborate on a global level. Between 1963 and 1996, we were collaborating on a global scale, but each individual community was doing what it felt was most important. Today we are all working on the same projects, and coming to appreciate the diversity of ways in which these projects can be accomplished.

One more thing to consider, and that is how we developed in our abilities.

My favorite example of this is the Tablet of the Divine Plans. Shoghi Effendi brought them to our continued attention, and helped us recognize that they were the basis for all global plans that would come. When we examine the Tablets, we notice a definite systematic movement within them. The first one refers to various states and how within those same states some cities have believers and some do not. We are asked to go to those that don't. The second Tablet pushes the concept forward by saying that there are few believers in the southern States, and that we should either go there ourselves, or send someone there on our behalf. In the third Tablet we are taught even more about how to distinguish between places and set priorities. Some states, we are told, have believers while others do not. Prioritize those that do not. The fourth Tablet talked about going to the western states to teach or sending others. The fifth broadened it to Canada and Greenland, while the sixth expanded the vision to the whole world.

Step by step, the Master helped us learn to prioritize, and the Guardian slowly moved us towards being more systematic.

In the previous series of Plans, the Universal House of Justice patiently built upon this base as they guided us towards a better understanding of the importance of action and reflection. During this reflection period, we learn more about how to recognize and set priorities, based on the results of the actions taken.

I can only imagine that this learning will greatly increase in the years to come.

Looking at a little bit of what is happening around the world, it is evident that many work day in and day out just to earn the right to have a roof over their head. But as we come together as a community, and learn to help support each other, we can allow more people to dedicate their time to the needs of the community. My wife and I decided any years back that one of us would work a job that allowed the other to dedicate more time to the Faith. We also gave up a lot things that some people consider essential, like cable television. We did all we could to cut down our expenses to ensure that the hours we would have needed to work for those things was spent in service instead. I can easily see a time when more people come together to do just that. Three or four sharing a place, allowing them to do greater service for the community. We're already seeing this happening with some animators of junior youth groups. And as rental prices increase more and more in urban areas, I am confident we will see more people having to come up with innovative ways to allow others to serve effectively.

This new series of Plans will no doubt change the way we interact with the greater community around us. It will see a shift in our priorities. It was witness a new approach to how we live. For without these changes, we will only try to continue doing what we have always done. And we know that the approach we are used to is not enough.

And I, for one, look forward to a community that continually reflects on each step it takes, making sure that the next step is as effective as possible.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Our Own Reality

Reality is our friend. By understanding our circumstances, and knowing where we are on the path we wish to walk, our life is made easier.

Years ago I was working as a math tutor. Quite often people would come to me for help in algebra, concerned about their struggle in the subject. I would explain that mathematics are very systematic, and if the foundation of one level is not firm and solid, the next level would be wobbly and difficult. Before helping them with the requested algebra, I would assess where they were. Every single time it would turn out that their grasp of arithmetic was just not as strong as it needed to be. And so, that would be the focus of our studies. By helping them get a stronger grasp of arithmetic, it would turn out that they no longer needed the help with the algebra. The problem would sort itself out.

This process works similarly to the development of a cluster.

I remember one cluster in which they were told that they were at a certain level of development. When reading the guidance, they saw what the next steps were supposed to be for clusters like that. But when they tried to put those next steps into action, things got messy. They found those next steps extremely difficult. They were unable to sustain certain activities. Momentum was being lost. For years they struggled to seemingly no avail. But then, when they went back and re-examined the Writings and the guidance from the World Centre, they realized that they were not actually working based on their own reality.

Recently a group of us in my cluster were looking at the 30 December 2021 message and read paragraph 7, in which they refer to the three milestones of the developmental path. "Where", we asked ourselves, "were we?"

We had been told that we were at a certain level, but many of us felt uncomfortable with that assessment. And so we looked at the criteria that the World Centre offers for each of them, so that we could verify this for ourselves.

In the 28 December 2010 letter, the Universal House of Justice writes of those clusters that have passed the first milestone, "...devotional gatherings, children's classes and junior youth groups are being maintained by those progressing through the sequence of institute courses..." When we looked at our cluster we all agreed that this was, indeed, happening. Then the House of Justice continues by saying that the friends in such a cluster are "committed to the vision of individual and collective transformation they foster." Again, we all agreed that this was the case.

Later, the International Teaching Centre added "one or more friends in a cluster must be able to help individuals study the institute's sequence of courses and accompany them as they initiate core activities... (T)hese individuals must be able to attract others to participate in the core activities." Again, when we looked at our cluster, the people involved, and the activities that were going on, we all agreed that this was the case. We could strengthen the second part of that quote, but still, it was happening.

First milestone passed. Check.

Then we turned our attention to the second milestone.

In that same 28 December message, the Universal House of Justice describe a cluster in which "a steady stream of friends is proceeding through the courses of the training institute and engaging in the corresponding activities". Here we looked at the numbers and decided that this wasn't really happening. Well, it was kind of starting, but we weren't seeing a "steady stream".

They continued by describing how this stream will help "increase the number of fresh recruits into the Faith, a significant percentage of whom invariably enters the institute process". Nope. We are not seeing that in our cluster.

Second milestone? We can safely say that we have not yet passed it.

Going on to the third milestone, to help us get a broader vision of the whole process, a cluster at that level of development is described as one in which "the believers encounter receptivity within distinct populations"; "greater demands are being placed on the organizational scheme of the training institute"; "the Area Teaching Committee is rising to a new level of functioning"; "the Local Spiritual Assembly is enhancing its capacity"; "a mode of learning... permeates the whole community"; and there are "the stirrings of social action". We are definitely not there. We just don't have enough activities happening to be able to discern, yet, a receptive population within our area, nor are there enough activities to demand greater organization. We don't have an Area Teaching Committee, so it cannot rise to a new level of functioning. We are, however, seeing the Assemblies in our cluster enhancing their capacity, so that's good. And while there are pockets of friends who embrace this mode of learning, we do not feel it permeates the entire community yet. And social action? Well, there are some activities, but they really are more random than arising from the intimate concerns of the friends for the well-being of their loved co-workers in this great endeavour.

So now, in our cluster, this small group of friends who went through this fairly simple exercise have a very clear understanding of what our next step needs to be. We need to work on strengthening our ability "to attract others to participate in the core activities" and encourage this "steady stream of friends" to move through the institute courses.

Invitations. That is what we need to work on at this time.

If we merely tried to work on the steady stream, it would be like trying to work on the algebra before really grasping the arithmetic on which it rests. By looking back at the guidance, we could clearly see that one of the elements of the first milestone was a bit weaker than the rest, and this was causing difficulties for us now. 

"They must", writes the House of Justice in that 30 December message, "be able to read their own reality and ask: what, in light of the possibilities and requirements at hand, would be fitting objectives to pursue in the coming cycle or series of cycles?"

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Study of Messages

As you know, I was compiling a list of questions to help us look at the 30 December 2021 message from the Universal House of Justice. However, it was recently brought to my attention that such guides often lead to a "school room" attitude, and the search for the "right answer". Of course, there are no "right" answers. There is only learning, and the application of that learning. What is more useful, it was suggested, is a guide to how to look for meaningful questions.

So, instead of continuing on with the study guide from last week, I will, instead, post some thoughts about the questions I was selecting to include, and why they were there, as opposed to some others. Hopefully this will assist you in your community in asking questions that will be more effective in your own studies.

To start, we need to recognize that there are no bad questions. Some questions will be fairly simple, and apply at the basic level of comprehension. In other words, do you understand what is being said. Some questions are more complex and require a degree of insight and experience. Some questions are more useful than others, and some may be more timely than others. But all questions can be good.

First there are trivia questions. For example, in paragraph 7 we could ask "How many clusters are expected to launch intensive programmes of growth by the end of this current Plan?" The answer, of course, is "over 6000". And let me be clear, I am a lover of trivia. I think it's a ton of fun. However, in a study of the implications of this message, and a consultation on how we can act on it in our own local community, such a question can be distracting. At a Feast, during the social portion, I think it would be a lot of fun. But I would tend to avoid it during an actual study of this message, unless it was needed to break any tension.

Second, there are hunt and repeat questions. Some people refer to these as "recall" questions, but I prefer thinking of them as "hunt and repeat" as it more accurately describes what tends to happen with them. These are questions that require the participants to find a particular phrase in the letter and repeat it back. For example, in paragraph 2 we could ask "What is the purpose for which mortal men have been created?" "The purpose", we would respond, "for which mortal men have, from utter nothingness stepped into the realm of being, is that they may work for the betterment of the world and live together in concord and harmony." While these questions may help us memorize a quote, or draw our attention to a particular detail, they can get wearisome if we do not further explore the implications of these quotes. There is a reason that the Ruhi curriculum does not use them to a great degree after the first few sections in Book 1. They are useful, but their use is also limited and should be used sparingly, or with caution, for tedium can ensue.

Now, it should be remembered, of course, that all this is only my own thoughts on it. It is nothing official, and only an attempt to help us become more effective in our studies.

A third type of question would be general questions. These are questions that are more abstract, and do not rely on personal experience or a knowledge specific to your locality. For example, in paragraph 3 we could ask "Who are the three protagonists of the Plan that will pursue this overall aim?" In a general sense, we would answer "The individual believer, the local community, and the institutions of the Faith." A more specific question would add the phrase "in your locality", with the response requiring a knowledge of both the communities in your cluster, as well as the actual Baha'i institutions in your community. To respond "the Baha'i institutions" would not actually suffice with such a question. We would expect a response of "the Local Spiritual Assembly of such and such", or "the so and so Area Teaching Committee".

I was actually in a meeting where this question was asked, and when prompted, we all began to name the various institutions. We got the basics, like the LSAs, but as a group we forgot the assistants to the Auxiliary Board, as well as a few of the committees in the area. It was a good reminder to us all, and brought our attention to them.

Finally, there are the specific questions. These are the ones that go into specifics, drawing on experience, and requiring a follow-up action. One example would be from paragraph 2. We could ask "How can help people feel more welcome to labour alongside us in our work?" This would require a knowledge of how we currently do that, an awareness of whether or not people feel that sense of welcome, and what we could do to further enhance the feeling of being welcomed. It is important in this example to understand that this feeling of being welcomed is a two-sided thing. We may believe that we welcome others, but if they do not feel it, then we are not effective in that sense. Sometimes asking people if they feel comfortable offering suggestions is necessary. If they say that they are not, then we can ask them what we could do to help them feel that comfort. If we believe that our internal attitude is enough, we may be missing may signals and opportunities.

Now, it needs to be repeated that this is only my own take on it. There are many others who define numerous other types of questions, such as yes / no, closed, funnel, loaded, leading, and so forth. As I am concerned with the study of this message, or any other pieces from the Writings, I am limiting myself to the ones that I feel are applicable here. And it is, of course, just my own opinion, nothing official.

In general, you will note in the questions I put forth in my own study guide I tend to focus on the questions that are more specific to the locality in which the study happens. When we keep the questions more general, we often miss how to apply the answers we uncover.

Looking at paragraph 10, for example, we could ask the general question, "What are some effective ways of teaching the Faith?" But here we would likely devolve into the theoretical and share beautiful and wonderful stories from all over the world, while not necessarily applying any of them.

We can re-phrase the question in this manner: "What effective ways have you found to teach the Faith in your community? What methods have you found that place barriers in front of people?" When we do so, we are now drawing on specific experience to the locality. In some areas, the very word "religion" is a barrier, and many friends have noticed this. They often choose to use the word "spiritual", instead. In some localities, opening with the phrase, "Baha'u'llah is the return of Christ" elicits great interest. In other areas, not quite as much.

By being aware of our own situation, knowing the dynamics of our community, and being more conscious of the interests of those around us, we can be more effective in our teaching of the Faith.

What I have given here are just a few thoughts. What I put in the previous article was just some ideas of questions we may want to ask. In the end, the greatest learning will come as we find our own questions, and apply them in our own situation.

Remember, the question we ask will often determine the answer we receive. And sometimes the best questions are the ones that require us to struggle to find an answer.


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Personality of Institutions

Reading the 30 December message, I noticed the references to the institutions of the Faith. I mean, how could you not? They are one of the main protagonists of the Plan. But as I was re-reading those passages, I was thinking about something my wife said. What if, she wondered, we were to see these institutions as their own entities? After all, Baha'u'llah refers to Mount Carmel as an actual being, as well as various cities in some of His Tablets. What if we imagine an actual spiritual reality to them? To be clear, this is just my own personal thought experiment, and nothing official.

Now, this may sound pseudo-mystical, wondering if they have their own individual identity, but please bear with me. When we step back and consider it, there may be a sound basis for it.

In the business world, we are already familiar with the concept that corporations are considered legal entities, or people. This is already an established legal reality in many jurisdictions. And the House of Justice further alludes to this concept when they refer to the community as "distinguished from the individual and the institutions" and having "its own character and identity". In other words, we already recognize the "individuality" of these entities.

Thinking about it in terms of the business model, it means, for example, that the institution of Coca Cola, Inc would be its own entity, have its own reality. It would be like a mega-person whose primary goal is to take its carbonated sweetened excretions and feed it to the peoples of the world. In exchange it would feed off their continued supply of money and other necessary resources for its growth. The shareholders would, in this analogy, be like parasites, drawing off some of its resources for their own benefit. When I consider the corporation of Coca Cola, Inc in this light, its varied actions make more sense. We often ask how these big corporations could act with so little regard for the environment, for example. To me, this helps explain it.

So, what about the institution of the Local Spiritual Assembly? What happens when we consider the concept that the Assembly is more than just a collection of nine individuals? To be clear, I am not concerned about the "reality" of this assertion, but more concerned about the implications of considering it. (Why do I feel it important to continually reiterate that?)

For starters, it gives me a slightly different understanding of the phrase from the Universal House of Justice when they talk about how understanding "the proper application of the principles governing the operation of the Assembly will (allow) this institution to grow and develop toward its full potential." 

This reminds me of a young child learning to ride a bicycle. They will try and likely totter and fall over. This is not a failure on their part, but a necessary aspect of the learning. By allowing them to fall over, and encouraging them to try again, they will learn to ride far more quickly than if you never allow them to fall over in the first place. To me, this is like a nascent institution making a decision that may not be the wisest of acts. It is only through the full obedience of the friends, and effective reflection, that any learning will occur. As said in a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, "This is not something which can be learned without trial and test..." As with riding a bicycle, patience is needed.

Another point occurs to me. When meeting with an Assembly, I have always felt the joy of being with the nine members of that institution, but this idea would imply that there would be a tenth being there, the Assembly itself. All of a sudden, when I read the phrase "(a)t this meeting they should feel as if they were entering the Presence of God", it makes me think of how I can sense the "Presence of God" in the soul of another person. When we are told "'Abdu'l-Baha is constantly engaged in ideal communication with any Spiritual Assembly", it becomes a far more real thing, like a literal conversation between two dear friends. Even more so, when I read the passage from Baha'u'llah in which He refers to the members of the Universal House of Justice as "the Trustees of the House of Justice", it reads as if they are the ones who are caring for this entity, ensuring its health and well-being to the best of their ability.

All of a sudden, this concept feels more than just merely anthropomorphizing an institution. As my wife says, "This principle makes me feel as if I am championing this institution." It means that we can arise to its defense, take care of it, nurture it, ensure that it reaches its healthy maturity.

To bring in another analogy, we could picture the Assembly as a car. We can easily imagine the members of the institution as the tires of the car, with their connection to the ground. The car would go nowhere without the active involvement of its members. But while we may see the Assembly itself as the car, perhaps with this insight it would be more like the driver. The driver may have a destination in mind, but if the tires go their own way, it will never get there.

Now, to shift the focus again, let's imagine ourselves serving on this august institution, the Local Spiritual Assembly. We have all read the numerous passages about service, and the importance of detachment in consultation. This principle, of thinking of the Assembly as its own being, has a profound implication on the consultative process.

In the past, when I have had the bounty of serving on an Assembly, an item would come before us for consultation. Me being me, I have asked myself how I would respond to such and such a given issue. I would offer my ideas, without concern whether or not they were accepted. I would listen to the input of others and strive to help improve any ideas coming forth. But in the end, when I consider my own internal state of mind, the question I was asking myself was really "How would I respond?"

The real question, though, is how would the institution want to respond? I know that I can be quite terse, at times even too direct or abrupt. I recognize that this can put some people off. But I know, deep in my heart, that the institution of the Spiritual Assembly would not want to respond that way. Of course, I know that my soul doesn't want to respond that way either, but I have a lot of work to do in that area.

How would the Assembly want to respond?

That is such a beautiful question. It makes me far more eager to try to hear the voice of that institution, to try and find that response it wishes to offer, that suggestion it wants to make. It makes me long to hear the guidance it wants to offer. And I think it takes not only offering our suggestions to sense that voice of the Assembly, but also quieting our own egos to allow ourselves to hear it more clearly.

One last point for now, though. Going back to the example of Coca Cola, Inc, it raises further questions. If we consider these various institutions as their own entities, then we should consider all institutions as entities. However, the Universal House of Justice makes it clear that there is a difference between individuals and institutions. So perhaps these corporate institutions should not be given all the rights of individuals. And maybe this is one of the points of struggle in these strange times. We know that one of the greatest tests today is to try and find an equitable balance between the rights of the individuals, the institutions, and the community. Perhaps we also need to better understand the prerogatives and limits of each.