Monday, January 2, 2023


My most recent article, the one the Virgin Birth,  raised an interesting point in my mind, at least the responses to it did. A number of people were not satisfied with the ambiguity. They wanted a definite answer, a yes or a no. A few people even went so far as to insist that their particular interpretation was the "correct" one, whether it was that it actually happened the way they said, or that it was a mis-interpretation of a particular word, or a metaphor, or whatever particular creed they believed. For many people, and it didn't seem to matter whether they believed in it or not; they just wanted a clear-cut answer.

Well, sorry to disappoint, but I don't think life works that way. I certainly don't think that religion works that way. Of course, there are some areas in which definitives are useful, but not here. I don't think a healthy religion is about the answers. I think it's about the questions. After all, we tend to learn a lot more by asking questions than we do from getting answers.

It seems to me that many of Baha'u'llah's writings are about helping people re-phrase their questions. For example, if we look at the Kitab-i-Iqan, some of the questions the uncle of the Bab asked can be summed up as asking why the Bab didn't fulfill the prophecies. Well, the question is based on a false premise. And this is what Baha'u'llah, in a sense, points out. He shows, in the first half of the book at least, that the Bab fulfilled the promises in the same manner as all the previous Messengers did. However, by asking the question the way he did, the uncle presupposed a negative. "Why didn't He?" Simply put, He did. As we learn to re-phrase the question "How did He...", then the answer becomes self-evident.

When we spend our time arguing over pointless questions, such as the infamous "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin", Baha'u'llah reminds us to exert ourselves in more productive endeavours. "Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in..." Of course, to be fair, the head of a pin does have a point, but that's beside the... point.

All this to say, it seems to me that learning to ask more meaningful questions is of greater importance than having an answer to a poorly worded one.

Aside - I was meditating on this issue the other day, struggling to put an order to my thoughts. Then, out of the blue, that wily member of the Concourse on High responsible for so many thoughts shared on this blog dropped a seemingly random thought in my head. I was suddenly reminded of the story of Jacob wrestling the angel.

Aside within the aside - A number of years ago I was invited to have lunch with the minister of a local church. As we went into the back room of the church to eat, he was visibly embarrassed at the table settings. They were all paper plates and napkins with the "WWF" logo. The World Wrestling Federation, complete with a violent image and all. Oh, was he embarrassed by this. I reassured him that it was ok. "After all", I said, "it is the only sport found in the Bible." It was because of this oblique reference to the story of Jacob that I was phoned a week later and asked to give a sermon. As you, dear Reader, know, this led to a monthly gig that lasted a few years, and even helped me meet my wife. So, yay for wrestling?

And now back to our regularly scheduled aside - Where was I? Oh yes, Jacob. So there he is, alone at night, with his thoughts. Suddenly, according to the story, he finds himself wrestling this angel. Of course, the angel is unable to beat him, so he wrenches Jacob's hip out of joint. Jacob still refuses to let go, and asks for the angel's blessing. To me, this is like our struggle with truth. It's not easy, and is often quite painful. But it is only through the struggle that we come to get truth's blessing.

No, I don't think religion is about the answers, for when we think we have the "answers" we stop looking, and the truth really is like an ocean. We can keep diving, over and over, and never come close to fathoming its depths. If we are satisfied with the first answer we get, we should not be content. We should keep looking for more answers.

While we are encouraged to seek our answers from God, and to not blindly imitate others, sometimes God gives us our guidance through others. It is this continual search that keeps us humble, and keeps us seeking guidance. And as we find the truths that are evident to others, we get a better and broader perspective of the world around us. This is why I continually talk to people who are not Baha'i about the Writings, not because I think I have anything to teach, but because I have so much to learn.

In the end, Baha'u'llah has told us to "be free to ask what you need to ask, but not such idle questions as those on which the men of former times were wont to dwell." And so I will continue to ask, and hope that the questions I ask may become better and better.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Virgin Birth

“How would you try to convince an agnostic about the truth of the Virgin Birth?”

My initial response was “Why would I want to?” In fact, I responded with that famous quote from Baha’u’llah, “Be anxiously concerned with the needs and exigencies of the age in which ye live.” Whenever I am asked to dwell on these abstract issues of faith, the issues that are really a matter of personal belief, I am reminded of that quote. It was initially written in response to a number of such questions, and when the person lovingly said that his questions were not answered, Baha’u’llah pointed out that this statement was His answer. If you read the second letter in The Tabernacle of Unity you will see what I mean.

But it’s a serious question, the one about “Why would I want to?” After all, when we spend so much time and energy on an issue, we really need to ask ourselves why. I’ve thought about this quite a bit in the past few days, as the one who asked me wrote back trying to get a more solid answer about parthenogenesis, the nature of miracles, and so forth.

Then, last night, I did what I usually do when faced with such questions. I asked my son for his input.

Here, I am going to attempt to capture some of the salient thoughts we shared back and forth. And you, dear Reader, have had the bounty of seeing his responses grow and develop over the years, so you already know how insightful his answers can be.

To start, let’s look at the initial question itself, that of the Virgin Birth. Baha’u’llah says that it is true, so there is that. But if one does not accept Baha’u’llah’s word as truth, so what? What good does that do? It’s in the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Baha’i Writings, but they don’t take any of those as fact, so we cannot fall back on that argument.

How about science, then? Parthenogenesis is a thing. It happens in nature. We have seen it in insects, birds, and even in mice. So we know it is possible.

Ok, but so what? It’s scientifically possible, but not re-creatable, and certainly not provable in the past.

The real question here is what difference does it make in our life today. Some have said it is the foundation of their belief in Jesus. Ok, but I would argue that this puts one’s faith on a shaky foundation. After all, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha said so well, “miracles cannot be a conclusive proof, for even if they are valid proofs for those who were present, they fail to convince those who were not.”

Beyond this, Baha’u’llah Himself said, in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, “We entreat Our loved ones not to... allow references to what they have regarded as miracles and prodigies to debase Our rank and station, or to mar the purity and sanctity of Our name.” To me, this implies that our focus should not be on what we think of as miracles, but rather on the teachings, for these are what will bring about a new world and a new civilization. It is the teachings of Jesus that transformed the world, not His lineage. By shifting the focus to the miracles, we often forget the teachings.

Another question that it raises, as implied by the initial quote from Baha’u’llah about needs and exigencies, is does it change how we treat our neighbour? Does our belief, or lack thereof, in the Virgin Birth, or any other miracle, affect our treatment of others? Does it somehow affect the society-building power of the Faith? If so, please tell me how, because I don’t see it.

Moreso, does someone else’s belief, or lack, affect how you treat them? Does their stance on that point somehow alter the way the Faith goes about building this new civilization?

When I was reading the Kitab-i-Iqan, that seminal work of Baha’u’llah’s in which He carries the Uncle of the Bab from not recognizing his Nephew to being a confirmed believer, there was a simple quote early in the book that caught my attention. In the course of His argument, Baha’u’llah is briefly talking about the Messengers of God the Uncle already recognizes. He refers to them in a simple manner and quietly shows what they all have in common. For example, when He refers to Noah, He never mentions the Flood. He talks of Noah’s sufferings, instead, for that is what is common between them all. But then, in middle of that paragraph, He says, “Finally, as stated in books and traditions, there remained with Him only forty or seventy-two of His followers.” “Forty or seventy-two”? Why doesn’t He state which one it was? Surely He knew, right? But then, as I asked myself these questions, I realized that it doesn’t matter. It literally makes no difference whatsoever. But some people firmly believe one, and some firmly believe the other, depending on their “books and traditions”. If He stated one or the other as correct, He’d be putting a barrier between the others and His truth. Baha’u’llah very simply sidesteps the whole issue by acknowledging that both are “stated in books and traditions”.

The more I consider this simple evasion of a potentially contentious issue, the more wisdom I see in it.

The number of Noah’s followers is so completely irrelevant to anything today that we should not waste any time even considering it. Your belief of one of those numbers over another has no effect whatsoever on my relationship with you, or at least it shouldn’t. And if it does, why? If we believe differently on this point, does it mean that either of us is less compassionate? Does it mean that either of us is any less worthy of respect? Could it possibly mean that the prayers of either of us are any less important than that of anyone else on the face of this planet?

To me, this is how I see the issue of the Virgin Birth. I do not think I have ever said to anyone, my wife included, whether or not I believe this particular point. I have repeated what I have read in the Bible. I have pointed out to others what Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha say about it. But I don’t think I have ever conclusively told anyone “This is what I believe about it”, for I think it is a personal issue and has no bearing at all on anything else.

Now, given all that, why on earth would I want to even consider trying to convince anyone else one way or another? Their belief in it is their own, and I will accept it as is. If it helps them appreciate Jesus more, great. Now let’s focus on His teachings.

One last point to consider.

If I found a bit of gold in an area, I would continue to look around for some more. The best place to find gold is in a gold mine. But if someone said someplace was a gold mine, and I found no gold there, I would question it.

Modern society has done a lot to demonstrate the complete irrelevance of religion. So much of what passes for religion has no bearing on our daily life, like the issue of the Virgin Birth. It has gotten to the point where the countless arguments about religion have become a source of ridicule. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

We have successfully managed to forget that these ancient Books have taught so many such great wisdom and morality throughout the ages. These ridiculous arguments have overshadowed all else that many are convinced that there is no gold in these mines, so to speak.

My job, I believe, is to remind people of the great learning to be found in these texts. And I’ll tell you, pointing to these irrelevancies defeats that purpose.

Rather than trying to convince someone of some obscure point of theology, an interpretation of a single word in the sacred books, a point that in my mind falls squarely under the category of “beginning with words and ending with words”, I would far rather direct their attention to the countless gems of wisdom that lie within the Writings. I would prefer to spend my time talking with them about the issues that will help build a new and more vibrant civilization. It is of far greater importance to me to explore the teachings about human behaviour and the needs of society.

By directing their attention to the powerful teachings of the Faith that can impact the direction of our society, perhaps they will help me uncover aspects of the teachings I had never seen. And maybe, just maybe, we will both come to appreciate the Writings a bit more.

Monday, December 5, 2022

A Matter of Perspective

"But what about Heaven and Hell?"

The question was was a good one. Most of us, when we hear people talk of heaven and hell, think of places. Heaven we may see as a delightful place amongst the clouds, while hell would be a fiery pit of torture beneath the ground. Some may think of heaven as a beautiful field with brightly coloured flowers, animals playing and perhaps a sweet water river flowing gently throughout. Hell would be a desolate desert with people dying of thirst and vultures flying overhead. Many think of heaven peopled with winged angels, adorned with halos and harps. Hell would be filled with devilish red demons with tails, pitchforks, and maybe a banjo. Well, maybe not a banjo, but I think it's a distinct possibility.

For most of us, the imagery we have of heaven and hell is often inspired by popular culture handed down from Medieval Christianity, built from concepts dating back to earlier days of desert tribes, filtered through European Renaissance paintings, and on and on. This vision of both heaven and hell as two distinct and dichotomous places influences so much in our society, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. The very concept of salvation versus damnation has set the stage for our "right and wrong" way of viewing things.

The Baha'i Writings, on the other hand, are not as clear cut. First, neither are viewed as a place. They are seen more as a matter of perspective. "But the paradise and hell of existence", says 'Abdu'l-Baha, "are found in all the worlds of God, whether in this world or in the spiritual heavenly worlds." Shoghi Effendi more simply states "Heaven and hell are conditions within our own beings."

What are we to make of this? How can two such extremes be merely a matter of our own perspective? And how can this concept affect our life?

Let's begin with a simple set of examples.

If I wanted to describe heaven, I would probably say a place of joy and peace, where I learn more about the world around me, somewhere where I have a meaningful job to do and I strive to accomplish it with tremendous enthusiasm. And the more I sit here and try to write more about it, the more I realize that I really am describing my own feelings, rather than a place itself.

So how about if I try to visualize an actual location? What would be a truly amazing place for me, a veritable heaven on earth? Well, to be honest, a bookstore, or maybe a library, in which I could sit and read to my heart's content. There would be people around, too, with whom I could talk about what we are all reading. Oh, and with a free coffee bar. That would probably be asking too much, though, wouldn't it? Well, it is my heaven, after all, so free lattes. But in the end, it would not just be sitting and reading. I would find that a bit boring. No, I would need to be reading about things that I could put into action to help make the world a better place, and then be able to go out and actually do it. That would be heaven, to me.

Now imagine if I was stuck in a sports arena, watching sports all day, served nothing but hot dogs and beer. Well, I'd probably be given soda pop, instead. But no, I'm describing my own hell. I'd be served warm beer. And it wouldn't even be the good ale I enjoyed before I was a Baha'i and living in Europe. It would be American beer. Warm American beer, and hot dogs with ketchup. I'm from Chicago originally, so hot dogs with ketchup is already a horrible concept. Oh, this would truly be hell for me.

But I can easily imagine some of my friends for whom this would be reversed. The bookstore would be a boring hell, while they would love to be in that stadium.

All of a sudden we can easily see how one person's heaven could be another person's hell.

Now, imagine if your life revolved around food, and all of a sudden you lost your sense of taste. Or if you spent all your time accumulating stuff, and then found that you had nothing. Just imagine if you spent your whole life collecting a pristine set of, I don't know, Spiderman comics. And then, all of a sudden, this prized collection was suddenly dispersed to the winds. It's easy to see how the loss of what you treasured would be a form of hell.

You see how we can now make sense of this notion that heaven and hell are more due to our own perspective, right? But again, how does this impact our daily life?

Let's be clear that we do not take our body with us when we die. That's a starting point for me, a given. But let's also be clear that we are still conscious, aware of our surroundings, of our sense of self. Some may call it a soul, or our spirit. I'm not concerned either way, but just that it impacts what comes next.

We no longer have a sense of taste, for we no longer have a body with which to taste things. We have the memory of taste, but that's likely as satisfying a being diabetic and having to content oneself with the aroma in a wonderful bakery. Hell? Yup.

Can we relish in our collection of stuff? Nope.

But what if our greatest treasure was the expression on someone's face as they succeeded in accomplishing a difficult task? What if our most prized possession was working with someone in coming to a deeper understanding of a difficult topic? What if our greatest joy was found in the accomplishments of others?

These are things that we can appreciate in the next world, without need for a body.

When we begin to find the deep soul-felt solace in contemplative prayer and meditation, when we learn to treasure those hard won accomplishments of others, it feels to me as if we are training ourselves for our life in the next world.

But when we dedicate our life to those fleeting things of this world, it is as if we are spending our time striving to move backwards, back into the womb of our earthly existence.

Everything in our spiritual life seems to be encouraging us to move forwards, to learn to appreciate those things to come, and detach from those things we must necessarily leave behind.

So yes, heaven and hell do seem to be a matter of perspective, and yes, we can train ourselves to be prepared for that world to come. We can train ourselves to find that perspective that will allow us to see what comes next as an anticipated heaven.

And if I do happen to find myself in that stadium, perhaps I will learn to appreciate the struggle of competition on the field, and relish in the hard-won victory of the winning team.

But I'll still give a hard pass on the hot dogs and beer, thanks.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Hidden Words, #44

All right. All right. I hear you, dear Reader. I know it's been a while since I've posted. I'm sorry, but it's been a very busy past few months.

That's not why you're complaining?

The title? Oh, my mistake. Which Hidden Word #44? Arabic or Persian? Why, yes, I'm glad you asked.

Well, let's see shall we? We'll start with the Arabic.

"O Son of the Throne!"

That's a nice beginning. It is like a reminder of that other Hidden Word half the book ago, # 22: "Noble have I created thee..."

But then there is the Persian #44:

"O Companion of My Throne!"

Hmm. I notice a trend. Probably just a coincidence, right? Let's move on with a bit of each, Arabic and Persian, and see what happens.

"Thy hearing is My hearing, hear thou therewith." "Hear no evil..."

Now wait a second. My Spidey sense is tingling.

"Thy sight is My sight, do thou see therewith..." ...and see no evil..."

Okay. There's something going on here.

Now He asks us to take it a step further, moving from our passive senses to our actions.

"...that in thine inmost soul thou mayest testify unto My exalted sanctity." "...neither sigh and weep. Speak no evil, that thou mayest not hear it spoken unto thee, and magnify not the faults of others that thine own faults may not appear great; and wish not the abasement of anyone, that thine own abasement be not exposed. Live then the days of thy life, that are less than a fleeting moment, with thy mind stainless, thy heart unsullied, thy thoughts pure, and thy nature sanctified..."

 Finally, He hints at what will be our reward.

"...and I within Myself may bear witness unto an exalted station for thee." " that, free and content, thou mayest put away this mortal frame, and repair unto the mystic paradise and abide in the eternal kingdom forevermore."

* * * * *

Alright. Let's go back to the beginning and I'll share some thoughts. Of course, these thoughts are nothing official. They're only my personal thoughts, so you can take them or leave them, as you will.

First, as mentioned above, we are given the reminder in both of these Hidden Words that we are inherently noble. This is a fact of our creation. The question, though, may be why we don't always act like it. And for that, we need to continue reading.

Actually, we can go back to that other Hidden Word, #22, where it continues "yet thou hast abased thyself." It is we, through our own actions, that have brought ourselves down. Of course, it's also stated there in the Persian Hidden Word, "...abase not thyself..."

But now, with these other two, we can see a solution, a way out, a way back up to our noble station. Our hearing is God's hearing, "here thou therewith". But how do we do this? "Speak no evil, that thou mayest not hear it spoken unto thee..."

That seems simple enough, but as I'm sure you know, it's far more difficult in practice.

For me, it means simply walking away when people begin backbiting or gossiping, and being careful to which media and arts I subject myself. Of course, I'm certain it requires far more than just that, but this is a beginning. I could easily go on with quotes from the Guardian about the importance and implications of chastity, as found in The Advent of Divine Justice (page 24, if you really want to know), or even Baha'u'llah's statement in The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf about the purpose of the arts, "productive of good results... and... conducive to... well-being and tranquility". But I am sure I've said enough about it already. Be careful what you expose yourself to, for it has an influence on your spirit.

I'm more curious about what it would be like to see the world through His eyes. What does it mean to "see no evil"?

I believe we get a hint from 'Abdu'l-Baha when He speaks of the scorpion and snake, in Some Answered Questions, 74.5. "...(S)corpions and snakes are evil, but only in relation to us and not to themselves, for their venom is their weapon and their sting their means of defence. But as the constituent elements of their venom are incompatible with those of our bodies... the venom is evil, or rather, those elements are evil in relation to each other, while in their own reality they are both good."

Imagine if we could see the world like this. How differently would we view the world when we understood purpose? We would understand how those pesky mosquitoes feed the birds, and while we would still not want them to take a drop of our blood, we might not vilify them as much.

Of course, there are those who are purposefully evil, such as the tyrant or the thief. 'Abdu'l-Baha cautions us, in Selections 138: 

Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind—except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before. No matter how much kindliness ye may expend upon the liar, he will but lie the more, for he believeth you to be deceived, while ye understand him but too well, and only remain silent out of your extreme compassion.

Here we find that balance between justice and compassion. But when we understand where they are coming from, why they are lying or whatever, we can see them more as an unruly child. It doesn't change the punishment meted out to them, but rather removes the burden of hatred from our own soul.

After the parts in those Hidden Words about sight, we then get to that reminder of our own noble station. It is as if by viewing the world with His eyes, and coming to an understanding of the motivation of others, that we return to the "exalted station" mentioned in the 44th Arabic Hidden Word.

When we turn to the Persian Hidden Word, it picks up where the Arabic has left off. We are being shown our reward for striving to act in this lofty manner. We will be "free and content", as that aforementioned burden is removed.

 In that same Persian Hidden Word, we are also reminded of the "fleeting moment" that is our life. Why would we want to waste any of that short time carrying around such a burden? Wouldn't we rather be free of it? Light of heart and soul?

I think the word "unsullied" is also very purposeful. It brings to mind Baha'u'llah's story of the bird, found in Gleanings, #153:

Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.

When we listen with God's ears, and strive to see with His eyes, we shake off that dust. We are far less likely to become sullied, or burdened, with our own limited and obscured vision.

Just imagine how liberating it would feel to have no hatred for anyone, no anger in our life. We would still grieve at the injustices of the world, but we would not be weighed down with our own unworthy reaction. Can we not imagine ourselves soaring easily without that weight on our soul? Perhaps it is with this freedom that we can go on to "the mystic paradise and abide in the eternal kingdom for evermore."

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


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.