Friday, December 31, 2010

28 December 2010 - Take 4

While it is fairly easy to make a few cursory comments here and there on this letter, I am far more interested in looking at what the overall spirit of the letter is, and how we can act upon it.

When I get to paragraph six, I feel like I am beginning to get a sense of community. In other words, I now get the sense that I am moving from the question of "What can I do" to "What can we do".

The beginning of this letter really spoke to me about how I can make a start in the teaching field, given the circumstances of my own life. (Oh, and I am going to speak as if it is all from my own point of view, but in fact what I am doing is synthesizing a number of stories I have heard into something fairly coherent that kind of ties most of these stories together.) It also seemed to speak of the support I can give to others as they begin to take similar steps (or maybe even some of the support I might receive in turn).

But now, with paragraph six, something seems to shift. There seem to be a number of individuals that are doing things, all of whom (or at least more than just a couple) are seeing some modicum of success. And it is the spirit that is generated by this that now lends "its influence on the course of events." What is this spirit? Well, I think it is the sense of purpose that we get when we begin to see things moving in the direction we hope to go. We are no longer a group of individuals doing whatever it is that catches our particular fancy. We are now a group of people all moving in a common direction, although we may each be taking a slightly different path to get there.

This is where the coordination of activities begins to really help.

I remember one time when I had hoped to start a Book 1 group (it's actually someone else, but just humour me here), but found that I was unable to commit the time. It was only because there was an Area Coordinator who was aware of the other study groups starting that I was able to suggest that this one individual join another group.

This, to me, was a marvelous example of how the work of the Faith in a given area required the position of a Coordinator. In this particular case, it happened to be a coordinator for the Training Institute, but as the Universal House of Justice points out, in some other clusters, the needed coordinator may be coordinating something else, like children's classes.

This example also helped elevate, for me, the work that I was doing. It was no longer something that I was just doing on my own in my own little area, but was really part of a global enterprise. My own meager efforts were able to help support someone else's study circle, just as some other people's efforts, later on, helped support my own.

But now, with paragraph seven, something new is energing. And once again, I find it useful to look at my own experience.

The way it happened for me is that I was just going about my own business, doing my own thing, when the occassional person would come to a devotional gathering, or perhaps accept an invitation into a study circle. I would be overjoyed, and hope, or even pray, that something similar would happen again.

As the years have gone by, we have all gone to reflection meetings in our clusters, generally out of obedience. I didn't really know why we were having them, but I accepted it as part of the new paradigm, and just went with it.

Now, more years later, I realize the importance of them, and have turned around and begun to reflect on all my activities.

In paragraph seven, they seem to suggest we do it the other way around.

Do some stuff, and then reflect on it. Learn what worked well, and do more of it. Learn what didn't work too well, and try something else.

When we begin to work in teams, or small groups, we can reflect as a team. When there are a number of teams in a cluster, it is only natural to reflect upon all of our work together. This eventually becomes the Reflection Meeting, capitalized here due to its importance. Of course, for a good Reflection Meeting, you would need an Area Teaching Committee, or a Cluster Growth Committee, along with an Area Coordinator and an Auxiliary Board member, to put it together. Besides, by the time the Reflection Meeting is needed, this administrative structure would already be in place, having been needed for a while.

As we do this, and learn from our actions, we discover that our teaching has a natural rhythm to it, which becomes our cycles of growth.

Pretty cool, eh? (I'm Canadian. Gotta throw in an 'eh' every now and then.)

And how do we know this is all developing appropriately? Because of our Auxiliary Board members and our Baha'i Councils. They have a clearer overall vision, and can see when the trends in any particular cluster are moving in this direction. With close collaboration, and lots of loving communication, these decisions are made not for the sake of form, but because they meet the needs of the people living in the cluster.

These structures, and this administration, are not something that are developed to keep us busy, or for their own sake, but are really conducive to further developing the relationships between the friends and helping them be more effective in their work. For more information on this, the Universal House of Justice directs our attention, once more, back to the Ridvan Message.

Of course, as all of this grows and develops, it has its own impact on the previously existing administrative structures, such as the local Spiritual Assembly. They remind us that all of our activities are done "with a humble attitude of learning" and that every task we do and every interaction we have can be seen "as an occassion to join hands in the pursuit of progress and to accompany one another in (our) efforts to serve the Cause."

Then, quite importantly, they point out an outcome of this. When we try to learn from everything we do, and see all of our work as an opportunity to work together, to support each other, a number of pitfalls are avoided. We will no longer tend to over instruct, nor will we be tempted "to reduce a complex process of transformation into simplistic steps". There are no steps. Or more accurately, there are no "correct" steps, and by implication no "wrong" ones, either. It's no longer about going from A to B to C. It's about taking a step and seeing what the next step in front of us is.

When we do this, when we recognize that the direction is clear, but the path is unique, then "even the smallest of steps is endowed with meaning" and we become far more aware of the "operation of spiritual forces".

And finally, they remind us that "the bonds of friendship" are of extreme importance. They are, as the Universal House of Justice says, "vital to a healthy pattern of growth". These bonds are not just a good idea, or merely a pleasant thing: they are essential to this process. And they're wonderful, too. After all, what would the Faith be without the friendships?

Hmm. Speaking of friendships, it's time for my family and I to go across the way to a friend's party. (You really gotta love a Faith that puts the importance on the friendships.)

28 December 2010 - Take 3


Last night, at the Feast, a study group was set up to look at this letter. At last. I won't be looking at this on my own (or at least, I'll be seeing it with more than just one or two others). So, starting on Wednesday, I am sure that my understanding of this will actually be a bit more on target. Until then, however, I still want to keep looking at it, just to see what else I can try to understand.

Oh, and as I'm sure you know, no look at this letter can be all that useful outside of the realm of experience. Even though I am reading this now, I am still trying to implement some of what it says. As I gain more experience, no matter how meager my experience may be, I'll be reflecting on it in light of this document.

All that said, let's take a look at the next section: paragraphs 4 and 5.

(And thanks for your indulgence so far.)

Oh, and before I go there, I just want to share one other thing that came up. The first few words of this message, "Fifteen years have elapsed since... we gave... the first intimation of the course the Baha'i community would have to take..." Back in the mid-80s, the Universal House of Justice was talking about the "process of entry by troops", and then, in 1993, they released the compilation "Promoting Entry By Troops". Shortly after that, or fifteen years ago, the message to Counsellors' conference came out, and our entire attention was focussed on advancing this process. Perhaps it is timely to go back and re-read this complation, in light of the experience gained since then.

In paragraphs 2 and 3, they also emphasize the importance of looking back at the Ridvan message in order to gain an appreciation of the methods and dynamics at work here. It seems they really want us all to have a firm foundation upon which to begin reading this letter. For example, we should all know by now, and I'm sure you do, dear Reader, that "the system thus created to develop its human resources", mentioned at the beginning of paragraph 3, is none other than our dearly loved training institute.

Now, in paragraph 4, they continue to unfold before our eyes the "organic nature" of the process at work in a cluster.

As they say, it all begins with the individual. The individual's personal circumstances, what they do in their daily life and who the interact with, will determine the starting point. For example, I am not a student at university, nor do I have a job in an office. The way I get to meet people in my daily life is substantially different from most others. I have to find my own most effective way of meeting people. For me, that generally entails doing my writing in public. My preferred choice? A coffee shop. It's cheap, relaxing, people often go there with the intention of talking to others, and I can sip a nice cup of tea or coffee while I'm there. Besides, I can even tell stories to the other patrons about Baha'u'llah's teaching in coffee shops in Baghdad. How cool is that?

"What happens next follows no predetermined course."

Well, thank God for that. I'm not sure what I would do if there really was a set of rules I had to follow, or a map that I had to stick to. I'm already so far out of the norm, I can't imagine trying to get back to some pre-set series of conditions.

No. In my experience, with the people I'm meeting, it seems that there are a few courses that are more likely to occur. As I'm meeting people who want to talk, they often have questions or concerns they want to talk about. This very naturally leads to either firesides or study circles, depending upon their interests. If the questions are clearly addressed in Book 1, and they show a strong inclination towards service to humanity, then I naturally offer them a study circle. If not, then I try to address their questions in more of a fireside setting. Either way, it is the friendship that comes first. I listen to them and try to get to know them.

On the other hand, in my home life, interacting with my neighbours, children's classes are far more prominent. There are many children in my neighbourhood, so this is just a natural, too. Especially since my wife and I have an almost-6 year old son.

With both of these, I try to bring the people I meet together when they have something in common. I try to encourage the spiritual conversations, the focus on prayers, and the coherence of community life. I do whatever I can to encourage stronger relationships between the people I am meeting, which, in turn, helps encourage people to see service to humanity as an important thing. Which, in turn, helps others see the importance of learning more about how to serve effectively. Some want to help teach the children, while others want to do volunteer service in some arena or another, and most understand that they need help learning how to do this, which leads to them wanting to take the courses of the training institute. This leads to a greater awareness of the need for devotions in our life, and so on and so forth.

You see how it all builds?

Regardless of how we get to this step, we need to have a clear vision of what it is we are heading towards. We are not looking at beginning another children's class, even though that is a good thing. We are not looking at having another devotional gathering or two, even though these will naturally arise. We are not trying to get more people into the courses of education, whether they are for children, junior youth or adults, even though more people will do this.

No. What I believe we are trying to do is help transform our vision of community and encourage people to come to a better understanding of what a healthy community looks like. As we do this, all of these numbers will naturally rise. It is a question of putting the people first, not the numbers.

It's simliar to the concept of firesides. If we choose a topic and research it, and then try to find people to attend, then we are putting the topic at the centre. If, however, we find a good friend and listen to hear what their heartfelt concerns are, then we can try to design a fireside talk around that concern. Once we have that, then we can invite any other people who may be interested in that topic. This puts the person at the centre, instead of the topic.

Quite often it is through talking about our activities, and our contacts, with others that we can get a better perspective of what it is we are doing.  My wife and I often do this. I tell her about the people I have met, and she sees the next steps far more clearly than I do. She, in turn, tells me about the people she has met at her work, and I can see some other things she can do to help further advance them on their path towards their Creator.

Regardless of which way it goes, we rejoice in each others' successes. And that is not just because we are married. When we consult with others, too, we feel the same joy when they share their triumphs.

There is one dear friend (hi Janna) (everybody wave to Janna), who has also called to consult with Marielle and I. She tells us about what is happening in her area and we are so excited every time she does. But when she does call, we do not just talk about the theory of teaching. We immediately relate her experience to our own. We often, although not always, find parallels in our own experience and share what we learned, either good or bad. "When that happened, I tried this, and fell flat on my face." Or perhaps, "Wow, I saw something similar and tried this. I couldn't believe what happened. It was great!"

After we do this, share our own personal experience, she then figures out how it applies to her situation and goes off and tries it. And then a few days later the phone rings, or she sends us an e-mail. (Or, as just happened the other day, she pops over with her family and a friend, which is odd, since she lives hours away and has to take a ferry to get here.)

Now, does all this mean that Marielle and I know what we are doing? Of course not. We are just as lost as anyone else. (Of course, we have the letters from the Universal House of Justice, so how lost can we be?) This realization helps rid us of that nasty yuckiness called "paternalism". Blech. The love Janna and her family have for us and our love for them, as well as all the other friends who work with us, is genuine (and quite wonderful, I might add).

But does all this mean that we don't get discouraged at times? Of course not. We do. We stumble, just like everyone else. But our friends' "Calm determination... to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress" helps us move past that. And their "readiness to listen, with heightened spiritual perception" is "invaluable".

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

28 December 2010 - Take 2

As with every major message from the World Centre, there is a model of behaviour that I think we can all try to model. The first thing that they do, and this message is no different, is that they reflect back to us what we have already accomplished. Quite often they point out to us some salient things of which we ourselves are often unaware.

Once they do this, once they make sure that we are all on the same page, recognizing where we have come from, they give us guidance about where we need to go and what we need to do to get there.

This letter, as we would expect, follows the same format.

So what have we done recently?

To start, they begin by reminding us that it was 15 years ago at a previous conference for the Continental Boards of Counsellors that they first intimated the course we were to take as a global community for the next 25 years, until the centenary of the Master's passing.

They then ask the Counsellors to carefully consider how they "and their auxiliaries will assist the community in building on its extraordinary achievements". Now let's face it, I'm not a Counsellor nor an Auxiliary Board member nor even an assistant to one of the members of the Auxiliary Board. It would be very easy for me to say that this doesn't apply to me. My life could be so much simpler if I said that. But I can't.

This message, although not addressed to all of us, was sent to all of us. Why? Two reasons that I can think of. First, to be completely transparent in the affairs of the Faith. Even little old me, off in the far corners of Canada, has some idea of what is happening in the World Centre right now, as I type. And second, so that we all can study this guidance "with such diligence" and "strive to put into practice the guidance received". (See? I told you that paragraph 37 would guide my own study of this message.)

There is something else, though, that really stands out for me. They point out that we are building on achievements that we have already accomplished. We're not just starting from scratch. We have done a lot, even though it may not necessarily seem so from our own local perspective.

Just in case we are not certain about these achievements, they then go on to explicitly tell us what those were, and how to further them.

The first of these is how the mode of learning that has so often been stressed now needs to move beyond the teaching work and into other spheres of activity. In other words, we have made wonderful strides in our ability to learn about learning, but we now have to carry that further.

The second is that we need to learn more about the coherency between the various activities we are doing, such as the core activities. In other words, we are doing these various activities, which is a great accomplishment, but we have to see them more as parts of a whole, as opposed to separate activities that stand on their own.

The third is that we have to dramatically increase the number of people who are "alive to the vision of the Faith" and "are labouring so assiduously in pursuit of its God-given mission." Make no mistake: people are enrolling in the Faith, and others who aren't enrolling are still helping out with our activities. This needs to increase.

After outlining this, they then draw our attention back to the Ridvan message and how it is there that they "described the dynamics of the process of learning that... has steadily gathered momentum". If we're unsure about this dynamic, that is where we should look to learn more.

But just in case we are disappointed in the 3, 5, or maybe even 10 souls who have gone through Book 1 in the past year in our own home cluster (or hundred if we're in a really dynamic cluster), they remind us not to look at only our own area. Our vision is too short-sighted if we do that. Instead, they point out the truly huge number of people who have taken Book 1: 350,000. This has dramatically increased our "capacity to shape a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character". Now that our capacity has increased, which is measurable by this statistic, we need to act on it. We should see a concomitant rise in the number of devotional gatherings, for example.

The number of children's classes has nearly doubled, now sitting at around 130,000. Junior youth groups have seen a six-fold increase worldwide. Study circles are now seeing 500,000 participants at any given time, and the number of friends capable of tutoring has increased to 70,000. Beyond this, the friends are now ready to enter into spiritual conversations with anyone, and are eager to explore reality in a manner that gives rise to a shared understanding of the importance of this day, as well as humanity's needs and effective means for addressing the problems facing all of us. Wow. This is all amazing.

Finally, in paragraph 3, they once more remind us of the nearly limitless potential for the training institute. Strengthening it is an on-going, and vital, aim of our efforts. The cluster, in which we are all working, gives us a simpler way in which to think about how to facilitate the growth of the Faith in a small geographic region. And this gives clearer focus to the implementation of our practices in the Ruhi Books, which, in turn, allows us to make more reasonable plans for the near future.

They go into far more detail in the next couple of paragraphs, which I'll write more about separately.

What really stands out though, is that we have come a long way in just the past few years. While this is very obvious in some areas, we should never for a moment be disappointed if we don't see it clearly, for the Universal House of Justice does, and they are reflecting back what they are privileged to see.

I'm just glad for the opportunity to see it through their eyes.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

28 December 2010 - Take 1

December 28th, 9:30 pm. I have just finished my first read of this Message, gasped at the number 5000, and been lifted up to such wonderful heights by the vision of the Universal House of Justice. There is so much I want to write, but I know that I need to go over this message again. And again. And again.

I have no doubt that what I want to say will shift and change as I really sit down and study it.

But my first thought, dear Reader, was of you. I wanted to encourage you to read this message as soon as you can, and study it with as many of the friends as you can. Read it section by section, and all the while look how to apply it. I'm sure you will, but I wanted to make sure to throw in a word of encouragement, just in case it takes that little extra nudge.

After my own first quick read of this letter, one thing in particular really stands out to me. It is found on page 14, or paragraph 37. I'm sure that in the next few days, and probably even weeks, I'll look at lot more closely at this letter, as we all will, but for now, I want to make a few notes on this one paragraph, as it will influence how I study the rest.

This is the one that talks about the importance of seeing things in a holistic manner, and not looking at only a single piece in isolation. (Isn't it funny that I'm looking at this section in isolation? I can just hear the irony dripping.)

The particular paragraph that I want to look at is as follows:
It is heartening to note that the friends are approaching the study of the messages of the Universal House of Justice related to the Plan with such diligence. The level of discussion generated as they strive to put into practice the guidance received, and to learn from experience, is impressive. We cannot help noticing, however, that achievements tend to be more enduring in those regions where the friends strive to understand the totality of the vision conveyed in the messages, while difficulties often arise when phrases and sentences are taken out of context and viewed as isolated fragments. The institutions and agencies of the Faith should help the believers to analyse but not reduce, to ponder meaning but not dwell on words, to identify distinct areas of action but not compartmentalize. We realize that this is no small task. Society speaks more and more in slogans. We hope that the habits the friends are forming in study circles to work with full and complex thoughts and to achieve understanding will be extended to various spheres of activity.
To me, this speaks of the reason why I often study these messages in their entirety, and take my time looking at each paragraph separately and then consecutively.

Here, in this paragraph, they begin by telling us that our approach to the study of these messages is "heartening". I know that this is not the only blog that you will find on the internet looking at this message, and that there are probably numerous studies happening in your very own community. This is so encouraging to me, too, knowing that I'm not alone looking at all this. I'm in good company.

Then, right after that, they point to our desire to put into action what we learn. Knowledge in action! Oh, my heart sings at this.

Then, as if that is not enough, they praise our desire to learn from this experience we have gained.

It is so encouraging to know that we are on the right track. It is so uplifting to know that what we are doing is good. Thank you, beloved Universal House of Justice, thank you.

But, of course, there is a caution, too. We should look at the message in its entirety, and not try to pick out a few catchphrases.

Analyze it. Ponder its meaning. Identify lines of action. How much more simple can it be? While it is not easy, it is simple. In other words, the process is not that complex.

And this, dear Reader, will be my model for the next little while as I study this message, both on my own and in groups. It will also influence how and what I put down here.

I just wanted that on the record.

Oh, and thanks for sending any thoughts you have about this message, too. I look forward to reading what you have discovered as I embark on my own discovery.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Conversation

"Who here is a Baha'i?" I asked the group of young adults gathered together that question.

Most of them raised their hands, but a few didn't.

"Ok," I continued, "who here is not a Baha'i?" It just seemed like the right question to ask, for some odd reason.

Most of the hands switched position, but not all that were down went up. One had stayed down for both questions. He was a young man, early twenties, I would have guessed. He was fairly tall, with glasses and dark hair. Lean and lanky, still growing into himself. In fact, he reminded me a lot of me. As he watched what was going on, I felt an immediate connection with him.

So I turned to him.

"You," I said, pointing him out. "You didn't raise your hand for either question. No," I said quickly, before he could get his defense out, "that's ok. You didn't have to. In fact, I like that. Sometimes these simple questions are not so easy to answer, and we often answer them too quickly with a standard, pat answer. 'Yes, I'm this. No, I'm not.' We don't take a moment to really consider what we are saying."

Then I quickly turned to one of the other youth, who I knew was a strong Baha'i. He was one of the organizers of the evening.

"What is the purpose of life?" I think I startled him with the intensity of my attention, but it is good, at times, to be intense.

"What?" He had that deer-in-the-headlights sort of startled look, but managed to say, "To carry forward an ever-advancing civilization."

"Good," I said, giving him my nearly-winning smile, "but what does that mean?"

Now he looked puzzled. It was if he hadn't ever really considered that. He opened his mouth to try and say something, closed it again, and opened it once more. By that time I turned back to my first victim. (I don't know why I think of them as victims, but I get some sort of weird enjoyment out of that.)

"You see?" Now I really gave him my full attention. "Do you mind if we have a private conversation, just you and I? I'd like to ask you a few questions. Oh, and all these other people can listen in, if they want."

"Uhm, sure." I could see his nervousness, but I tried to put him a bit at ease, by turning down that intensity. I guess it worked.

"So, you know that this thing tonight is all about the Baha'i Faith, right?"

"Yeah." Start off nice and easy. I like that.

"Do you know about the Faith?" I have to establish a starting point.

"Oh, sure. Yeah. I know about it."

"Really? Ok. What happened in 1957 that is one of the things in Baha'i history that makes it unique amongst all the world's religions?" Not only did he have no clue, but I could hear the puzzled expressions from eveyone else in the room, too.

"Let's say you know something about the Baha'i Faith, but not everything. Me, too." I like to start there. To establish that we all know something, but none of us knows everything. There are just way too many assumptions out there for my liking.

"Before we begin, though, I want to clear up a few minor things. First, I'm a Baha'i. Well, more accurately, I'm a member of the Baha'i community. You see, 'Abdu'l-Baha, when asked what it means to be a Baha'i, said that anyone who lives according to the teachings of Baha'u'llah is a Baha'i, whether or not they've ever heard of Him. Interesting, non? But someone who makes a formal committment to this is a member of the community. They're not necessarily the same thing. I'm a member of the community, but I'm on my way towards becoming a Baha'i. I hope." I'm sure I looked suitably sheepish there, for I sure feel that way most of the time.

"Second," I continued, without much pause, "I believe in God. And I'm not afraid to use that word. See? God. There. I used it again, but not in vain. I think there are some words that people are generally afraid to use, concerned that they should not be used in polite company, for some reason. And I'm not talking about body parts. I'm referring to God, religion, faith, prayer, and other similar things. Oh, and part of my belief in God is that I also believe He has sent down different Messengers throughout history to guide us and lead us onwards, and that Baha'u'llah is the latest of these divine Messengers. Not the last, but the latest."

"Third, I pray. I believe in the power of prayer. I've seen  the difference it has made in my own life. And I don't think it is just the saying of the words that makes the difference. It's the whole aspect of the prayer. The saying of the words, and the reflection upon them, what some call meditation. It's also the acting upon the words and that inner response I get from the meditation. It's all of it. Any part of without the rest is just not complete. But we can talk mor about that later, if you want."

"Fourth. I am convinced that we are all here, as he said, to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization, which means that we all have work to do. The world is not perfect, but we can help make it better, instead of taking it all for granted. Baha'u'llah has given us a vision that we are only beginning to see, a vision of a world that is built upon spiritual principals, a world in which we are raised with such virtuous qualities that to even think about committing a crime would be punishment enough. There, within His Writings and Teachings, is the blueprint for a civilization in which all the nations of the earth are brought together under a global system of governance, each one lending their share to the advancement of all the others while still maintaining their own unique cultural identity, and the cultural identity of all the different peoples within its borders.

"I could go on and on," I said, letting him absorb what I had already shared, "but I think I'll pause, as you already know most of this. I'm sorry for going on like that. What do you want to hear? What do you want to share?"

From that point on, the conversation revolved around his questions and insights. Most of my responses were based around the various themes in Ruhi Book 2, units 2 and 3, and appropriate parts of that "illustrative example in Book 6 of the Ruhi Institute".

What I wanted to do was to show how we can be direct in our conversations with someone we have never met before and ensure, right from the beginning, that the conversation is meaningful. This young man had come to a Baha'i meeting, so I knew that some groundwork had already been laid. Well, I presumed so, and verified it by my opening questions. I got a lot of the silly stuff out of the way, letting him know right from the beginning where I was coming from, while at the same time showing those who were listening in on our "private conversation" some of the things we tend to avoid for no real good reason.

Then I listened. I tried to maintain most of my focus on this one guy, which worked to my advantage, because I have a very tough time talking to more than one person at a time. And I listened as hard as I could to hear where his concerns were, offering what responses I could.

After our conversation, which I believe lasted about 45 minutes, I asked the group to analyze it. We went over how I began, what his questions were, and where my responses came from. It was very interesting. Kind of surreal. but educational for all of us, and, at least for me, tons of fun. I can only presume from the responses, of those who were kind enough to say so, that others enjoyed the evening, too.

Oh, and that event in 1957? The Hands of the Cause took up the reigns of the Faith, successfully carrying them until they were fully turned over to the Universal House of Justice in 1963. At no other point in time has any group arisen to take control of a Faith, only to willingly give it up later.

Monday, December 13, 2010

One Common Faith

I don't know how many times I have referred to this book in the past few months, but it must be a few dozen: One Common Faith. If you haven't read it yet, or haven't looked at it for a while, I would strongly encourage you to do so.

There was a recent article about the secularization of Canada over at The Globe and Mail, and it raised a number of questions. To make matters worse, I wrote a response to it at the Times-Colonist web-site on their blog, Spiritually Speaking.

All of this got me thinking, once again, about One Common Faith.

As you know, back around Ridvan 2002, the Universal House of Justice wrote a letter to the religious leaders of the world. In that document, they spoke of many things, but the one that stood out the most to me was the need for allowing people to choose their own path. They spoke of how there is only one Creator, what we generally call "the oneness of God", and that there are many paths leading towards Him. One of the implications of the interfaith movement, they said, and the spirit that has given rise to it, is this understanding of the freedom of faith. They especially asked these leaders to train their followers in this path of acceptance, and not to be concerned about people moving from one path to another.

Well, that all sounded good, but it was shortly after that time that some people noticed a growing trend within the Baha'i community towards intolerance of people of other faiths. This was minor, small, and short lived. You see, just as this began to occur, the Universal House of Justice commissioned the document One Common Faith.

Now please don't think that what I say here is authoritative. I don't know why the Universal House of Justice distributed these two letters, nor what salient points they wanted us to carry away with us. I am only going by my own perspective of it.

When reading these two pieces, they seem to have the same message: allow people the choice of their faith path.

In One Common Faith, however, they go into some detail about various arguments against religion, arguments that we may face in our daily work. Not only is there guidance for us to overcome the trend of intolerance that we may have been carrying into the Faith with us from our varied backgrounds, but they also look at many of the questions that we may face when people ask us why we have a faith to begin with. Their answers to these arguments are ones that we can use in our conversations with others.

This is what I tried to do in relation to that article mentioned above.

In Canada, you see, in the past 40 years, we have moved from having 1% of our population declaring themselves as having no religion to over 23%. This is quite the leap in such a short time.

I didn't question the statistic, nor did I think it appropriate to criticize those who would not declare themselves as the follower of a faith. The former seems pretty solid, and the latter is just rude. I mean, come on, how can I criticize someone for where they are on their spiritual path? I'm not much better, to be sure.

I am far more interested in why this number is growing so quickly.

And this, to my eye, is where One Common Faith comes in. While there are a few marvelous study guides on this document, I happen to like Robert Stockman's outline. It is simple and concise.

Whether the argument offered against faith is based on materialism or scientific dogmatism, the concern about globalization or the ineffectiveness of many religious institutions to address modern concerns, some great responses are found within this text.

The inability to respond coherently to any of these concerns has, for sure, lent a greater impetus to people giving up their own faith roots. This is what I feel we need to address.

I am not concerned about whether or not we agree that people are migrating from one faith to none. I am concerned about why people are doing it.

For right now, I will not offer a summary of this text. No. Instead, I'd like you to look like at it on your own and come to your own thoughts about it. Suffice to say, I'm going to look at it a bit more over the next few weeks, and wanted to give you a fair warning.

So, what do you think about this book?

Oh, and if you would like to read the full text, you can just click here (for an on-line flash version), or here (for an on-line text version), or here (for a pdf version).

Friday, December 10, 2010

An Intense Thought

Owj. I jusd bid by tug. Zorry boud dad.

Anyways, last night I was sitting around with a few friends and we were talking about the work of the Faith in our cluster. We happened to talk about collective, direct teaching and what it means to be intensive in our efforts. As you can imagine, we also talked a bit about the planning and the expansion phase.

But today, I just want to share a little thought that came out of that discussion.

As we were talking about what an expansion phase can look like, I mentioned the idea I posted a little while back about going from early in the morning to late at night.

Well, just to make the point simple: it won't always be like that.

Like I state over and over, what I am giving here is only an example. Anything I say is only my own personal opinion, and not the be all and end all. I'm just one Baha'i.

In one cluster, a friend said last night, they tried that sort of approach and, because the Baha'is there were all mostly older, after the lunch break, when they were supposed to go out and teach, they all went home and fell asleep. We have to be certain to keep in mind the needs and dynamics of our own community. Intensity of action will not look the same everywhere.

Also, there is one other point to consider.

It seems to me that when we are studying the Writings, a certain dynamic begins to happen. At least it does for me. First, it takes me a little while to begin to really get into it. In other words, when I start my study, the words are just sort of washing over me. I don't really get much more than the mere surface understanding of what is being said.

Second, after enough of the words have begun to sunk in, some of them seem to swirl around each other. Various ideas that are evoked begin to form patterns, sort of like the ink on the surface when you begin to marblize paper (look at the nice photo below).

Once that occurs, then the ideas really start to move. There  is an excitement generated, a motion that is begun.

When that motion starts to happen, it is at that moment that I believe we have to get up, go out and teach. If not, we (or at least I) tend to become weary. It is as if I have reached my full point, and that point is shortly after my burst of energy.

If I manage to catch myself and actually do get up and go out teaching when I am at that high energy state, then the teaching work just seems to go so much better. And then when that occurs, I am given a new state of energy, even higher than before, and even more and more happens. It tends to feed upon itself.

The energy generated from the study of the Writings impels me to go and teach. A few small successes then generate their own energy which impel me to keep teaching. It feeds upon itself.

And speaking of feeding, I think it's time I got some breakfast.

Thanks for letting me share that little thought this morning.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kitab-i-Iqan Blog

Well, here is a bit of advertising: My friend, Samuel, and I are finally getting back to work on our blog that we are doing on the Kitab-i-Iqan. It's been a lot of fun, and we both feel like we are beginning to get a bit of an understanding of this Text.

To see it, please click here.

As usual, your comments are most welcome.

(And feel free to insert a beautiful, eye-catching banner here. I'm no good at that sort of thing. So, if you could, please just pretend that I am. Thanks.)

Ridvan Message, Take 11

All of the wonderful things that the Universal House of Justice mentions in the first part of the Ridvan Message "are all reinforced, in no small measure," by the awareness of the importance of accompanying each other in our works. Interesting, isn't it? To me, and please remember, this is all about how I perceive the Faith (in other words, I may be wrong), this observation has really helped me focus my own activities in the past seven months.

I mean, I was aware of the importance of walking with others on their path of service, but I wasn't really aware of the importance (highlighted and bolded here, please) of it. Now, when I am tutoring Book 7, it is the main focus (well, not quite, but I think you know what I mean). In fact, whenever I'm consulting with any of the friends about how to further advance the Cause, it is this sense of accompanying that is foremost in my mind. Are we all able to carry out the tasks that need to be done? If not, is there at least one of us who can? If so, perhaps they can be encouraged to show the rest of us how to do it.

It is this awareness of looking at the strengths of all the friends in a group that, to my eyes (which need glasses, so that should be saying something) "signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation".

Oh, and yes, it is quite different from "an old social order that so often seeks to harness human energy through domination, through greed, through guilt or through manipulation."

But when I look at the rest of this section of the Ridvan Message, my mind wanders all over the place. I think about the Spiritual Assemblies in my cluster, as well as the cluster agencies, not to mention the individuals. They are all doing so much, and I'm sure it is frustrating to some of them that they feel they are being asked to do more.

Well, you know, this has been an on-going theme with me since I began writing this blog. I don't believe we are actually being asked to do more (ok, we are, but not to the point of burning ourselves out). No, I think we are really being asked to be far more effective in those things that we are doing.

Imagine if all you had was a hammer. You know the old saying: If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. Well, I think we have the hammer in our toolbox, and we just call it the Training Institute. (Or perhaps we call it the Devotional Gathering.) If that is our singular tool, the one we feel most comfortable pulling out and using, then perhaps we are not using it to the best of its ability. After all, if you had to unscrew something from the wall, well, yes, you could use a hammer. You would use the claw part of it, and it would take you a long time, a frustrate you to no end. But you could do it. However, a screwdriver would do it much better, and faster, with less frustration.

One of my favorite activities right now is to go through the old messages from the World Centre and see how they refer to the various activities within the Faith. How do they describe the Training Institute? Oh, and please note that they do not refer to study circles, except as a component of the Training Institute. (Have you ever noticed how different the implications of training and studying are?) What phrases do they use to describe the home visits? How about children's classes or junior youth groups? Devotional gatherings? When we go through the recent messages and pull out those descriptions, we will probably find that we are not using these tools to the best of their ability.

How many of us really think of the junior youth groups as helping those dear souls "develop their inherent potentialities and to contribute to the transformation of society"? Do we really approach our study circles (which are a part of the training institute) with the awareness that they are primarily for "the development of human resources in a region" and that we will "explore the application of the teachings"? When we design our devotional gatherings, and think about who we wish to consciously invite, is it with a eye towards the idea that it will "strengthen the devotional character of the community"?

You see, I believe that when we re-visit these descriptions, the way in which we organize these activities, and even whom we will invite to which, will most likely change.

I often think about the needs of individuals and the needs of communities. If someone is fairly aggressive, you would encourage them to calm down. If they are lethargic, you would try to prod them into action. Both cases require action, but not the same kind.

Similarly, if a friend showed great interest in improving their devotional life, but showed little interest in service, I would encourage them to come to a devotional gathering. If I invited them to come to a study circle, they would probably drop out soon after beginning. At least, experience has shown this to be the case.

I have one friend who just loves to sit around and say prayers all day. But they rarely get out and do anything. They seem to be of the belief that a large group of people sitting around and only saying prayers will greatly help the world. Well, I won't say that this is a bad thing, but I don't believe it will have as much effect as if they embark on some activity after saying those prayers. This is a friend I am encouraging to get into a study circle. She wants to do good. She wants to have a profound effect upon the world. But she doesn't know how. If I invite her to a devotional gathering, I feel that I'll just be playing into this idea of praying without action. Instead, I hope to see her begin a study circle, and then start her own devotional gathering. Her tutor can play a great part in helping her move into the realm of action. And I truly believe that her understanding of the importance of prayer will help others partake of this great bounty.

Each person has a strength, and this strength can be used in service. But all of us also need help and guidance.

Anyways, I've probably rambled enough for now.

Like I said, my mind is scattered today. Sorry about that. Perhaps tomorrow will be better.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ridvan Message, Take 10

Oh, how to continue? That is the question, isn't it?

Yesterday I took a quick look at the first couple of pages of this past Ridvan message, in light of the experience gained in the past few months. I guess I might as well continue in that vein, and see what happens. The objective, of course, is to see how this can help us prepare for the upcoming plan. (I hesitate to call it another 5-year plan, because I don't remember seeing anything that says it will be 5 years in duration, only that we would have a series of plans carrying us to 2021.) (But I'd still lay odds on it being 5 years.)

Now where was I?

Oh yes. Paragraph 7. To meet the challenge of working with a receptive population, we need to strengthen the institute process. Why? Because it is the tutors who actually go out and assist the friends in doing the practices of the Ruhi books, and therefore raise the number of people capable of carrying on the work of the Faith. Simple, no?

Well, in theory, yes. But in practice, no.

Why? Because we have to overcome our own lethargy, and then assist others to overcome theirs. This is easy to talk about, but often difficult to do. It requires a lot of time and energy. It takes the raising of vision, helping people understand why they should engage in community building, and then assisting them in taking those steps they are not comfortable taking on their own.

But isn't this what friends do? When a friend of mine asked for help in dealing with a big corporation's customer service desk (now there was an oxymoron), I was happy to help him get his refund from them. When another friend needed someone to go to the doctor's office with him, my wife was right there by his side. Friends help each other, giving them support when they need it, and encouraging them to stand on their own two feet when they don't. "Nothing is too much trouble when one loves," 'Abdu'l-Baha was heard to say, "and there is always time."

This study of the Writings, the work of the Training Institute, is very different from the deepenings of old. There is no teacher in front of the group leading a discussion, or telling the friends what they have discovered. While we still have those types of deepenings (and even this blog could be seen in that light), it is true that they don't generally get people up and out of their seats (except when I say something really bozoid, but that gets you up and out of your seat for another reason). The training institute courses, on the other hand, get people moving in a direction that is conducive to the building of community (wow, lots of poly-syllabic words there) (and yet another one).

(Oh, and I'm now on paragraph 9, just in case you're trying to keep track. I'm not really referencing a lot here, but doing more stream-of-thought stuff.)

(Hey, this is the paragraph that talks about deepenings and stuff. Right on. My subconscious must be working overtime here. Might as well go on to paragraph 10.)

What have I learned up to this point? Aside from the obvious, that passivity really is "bred by the forces of society today", I have come to recognize that many people are already aware of this. The problem is that they don't know what to do about it. They want to act. They want to make a difference. But they need some guidance. And, sure, there are some who don't want to do anything but sit around and be entertained, but I'm not even dealing with them. My hands are full trying to help those who want to do something. In other words, "Work with the willing, but keep the doors open to all."

Right now, I am working in consultation with a few people who are trying to motivate their own neighbourhoods. They are making awesome strides in developing relationships. They have discovered that there are numerous people around them who want to transform their community in ways that align with the Baha'i teachings. By lovingly accepting any and all help, by introducing the idea of consultation and helping their friends focus on the spiritual issues, they are succeeding in developing this culture "in which all consider themselves as treading a common path of service". Their conversations are always spiritual in nature, and they are even keeping records of whom they are meeting, and what is being discussed.

One by one, I am watching as these friends move from a position of uncertainty and hesitation to one of confidence and action. Beyond this, they are also doing so with an air of humility.

There is one friend who is performing miracles in her neighbourhood by bringing so many people together from such diverse backgrounds. As she is doing so, she is conscious of the qualities and skills that each person brings. She is making a great effort at translating the words that they are all using into a common speech. When one speaks of karma, she understands that another would speak of soul. When one uses the term "prayer", this is no different from another using the term "chant", or "mantra". By looking at the gifts of each soul, she is able to help them do so much more. One of the mothers may have the great gift of being able to host a number of people, making them feel so welcome, while another, a Buddhist leader, can unite them by sharing with the group her chanting. "And therein lie the dynamics of an irrepressible movement."

You know, it's funny. As I was typing the above paragraph, I realized that there are three of you, dear Readers, out there, who would swear that I am writing about you. Especially when I mentioned "karma", "mantra" and "Buddhist". Well, you know, you're all correct. That is how united we are at this moment. So, please, change that first sentence in the previous paragraph from "one friend" to "a few friends". Thanks.

"What is imperative is that the quality of the educational process fostered at the level of the study circle rise markedly over the next year so that the potential of local populations to create such dynamics is realized."

And there we have it: the direct guidance that has proven so fruitful in recent months.

This particular nugget in the rich vein of this letter has many applications. First, it has changed the way that I tutor. I am now so much more conscious of the "spiritual empowerment of individuals" when tutoring, as well as being certain to point this out to those who are embarking on starting their own study circles. These study circles are not just about reading the texts. They are not merely for the purpose of learning a little bit more about the Faith. They are about motivating people to arise and serve both the Cause and humanity. They are about both giving the people the tools to transform civilization, beginning at the level of the neighbourhood, and also allowing them to use those tools. More than that, it is also about helping them put those tools to use, and recognize what it is they are doing.

And all of this works for the adults in these groups, as well as the junior youth and children in their own groups. (This brings me to the end of paragraph 18, even though I could write so much about the particulars of each of these study groups. To go on at this point would be to repeat what I have written before, in the earlier reflections on this message.)

Now I feel so energized. I'm just bursting to get up and run out and share this Message with others. I guess that's my sign to stop writing and do just that. I'll type at you tomorrow, dear Reader.

And thanks again, in case I haven't said it recently. Without you, I would not be writing all this.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ridvan Message, Take 9

I can hear you now, dear Reader. "Ridvan message? But it's December!" Yes, that's true, but it's still relevant, isn't it? And yes, I know that we'll probably be receiving another community-shaking message when the Counsellors meet in the Holy Land.

But until then, there are only 5 more months left of this 5-Year Plan. Just a few short months left to "strengthen the pattern of expansion and consolidation... in preparation for the tasks" we will soon be called to do.

And what are those tasks that we will be called to try and accomplish? I'm sure I don't know, but you can bet your little pet bunny that it will be centred around advancing the process of entry by troops.

So, until we receive a copy of that message that will surely guide the Counsellors in their deliberations at the end of this month, it seems prudent to me to re-visit this past Ridvan message in light of the experience we have gained in the past few months.

As I re-read the first few pages from the Universal House of Justice, I was particularly struck in the second paragraph by their recognition and appreciation of our ability to "converse with others on spiritual matters and to speak with ease about the Person of Baha'u'llah and His Revelation." But I had to ask myself, "Can I really do this? Can I speak with ease in this manner?" If I can, well and good. But if not, then it is an indication that this is something to work on, for it will surely be a tool to use in the future. So, if I don't have this skill, how can I acquire it? If I do, how can I improve it? The answer to both of these questions lies in the Ruhi Books, especially books 2 and 6. With the assistance of a skilled tutor, I will be able to increase my capacity in this area. (Thanks, o tutors of mine.)

Then I moved on to paragraph 3, with its references to teaching campaigns. Do I really understand that a teaching campaign establishes "ties of friendship, on the basis of shared understanding"? Is this how I view it? If so, how does this understanding impact my work in my neighbourhood? Or how does it change my input into consultation on community teaching plans at a reflection meeting?

Looking back over the past few months, it is clear to me (isn't hindsight wonderful) that the most effective plans have had this awareness at their core. We are recognizing that when we truly develop friendships, everything else falls in to place. With friendships comes concern and care. As we grow to be truly concerned about these new friends, we naturally invite them to pray with us. We take a more active interest in their children. We are far more aware of their needs and their heartfelt desires, and we can respond to them in a more appropriate manner. It is through this caring and loving friendship that we naturally devote more time to working with them. And the work we do with them is actually with them, not for them.

Here I find that I have a new appreciation for the numbers we see in the cluster growth profiles. We do not track the number of children's classes because that number is important, in and of itself. No. We track it, because it helps measure our involvement in the spiritual life of our community. You see, if we discover that the number of children's classes has plateaued, the solution is not necessarily to have a campaign focussed on starting more children's classes. Instead, it is to help raise the awareness of the importance of providing for "classes that nurture the tender hearts and minds of children" so that we think about them more readily when we are engaged in conversations with our friends about their own children.

It is through this awareness, and seeing these tools as the means to address the needs of our dearly loved friends, that the core activities will increase in a fully sustainable manner.

When our newly established friends, or even our old ones, are crying out in desperate need for help, we should naturally turn to prayer for assistance from on high. Through the solace offered in these devotional gatherings, we will find that many of our friends will be attracted, returning more and more often. Some may even seek out more prayer gatherings, or start their own. A few may even want to know more about the spirit that animates our devotional gatherings, and we can offer Book 1 as an explanation.

Whatever way we find ourselves moving, it is the friendships that will steer our course of what we do, for then we are responding to the needs of the community, instead of looking for people who happen to fit into the activities we wish to host.

And out of all these activities, some will arise to work with us. There is nothing quite as encourging as having a friend join you, or support you, in your work. We will surely find some who will want to "participate in the proccess of community buidling" with us.

But here, in paragraph 6, we find ourselves at a fork in the road. "In cluster after cluster where an intensive programme of growth is now in operation..." Do we, in our cluster, have an intensive programme of growth? Oh, and I don't mean, "Are we an A-cluster" or "Are we launching our IPG?" Neither of those are the same as actually having one. Those two mean that we have all the pieces we need in place, but do not yet have the practical experience of sustaining our work.

No. An intensive programme of growth implies that we have growth, either through an increase in the number of people in the community of interest, the number of core activities, or in enrollments. Preferably, we would have growth in all three areas.

If we are regularly seeing this growth, then the next step before us is "to teach within one or more receptive populations". In other words, we have the tools, and we have some skill in using them effectively. Now let's focus our use of them on a single point, start a fire, and see what happens.

If not, if we are only seeing the occassional increase of one or two people in core activities, a slow fluctuation of activities with a regular but small increase, or an enrollment or two here and there, let's not be discouraged. Any increase is good. We can focus on what is working, and try to learn how to better it. Even if we don't have any signs of growth yet, it means that we have eliminated one option that is not working, so even that is good, as long as we are willing to learn and try to move forward.

But if either of these are the case, it may not be timely to go looking for a receptive population, for our need at the moment is to better learn how to sustain and increase. If we don't know how to do this with a small population, it will only be that much more difficult with larger numbers.

So, for myself, in these last few months of this plan, I will be striving to learn more about how to make friends in my neighbourhood and inviting them to join me in those activities that seem to suit their needs.

Oh, and I'll also finish re-reading the rest of the Ridvan message and sharing my few thoughts here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Teaching Outline, Part 2

Yesterday I took a bit of a look at that paragraph in The Advent of Divine Justice that goes from page 42 - 44. Within that paragraph, I found 14 steps that the Guardian indicates for us to use when making a teaching plan that goes from resolving to arise and serve, to helping another individual make that same committment.

Those steps, in case anyone forgot (or actually to make it easier for me to keep track of where I am), are:
  1. Resolve to arise and teach
  2. Consider every avenue of approach
  3. Survey possibilities in own life
  4. Proced intelligently and systematically
  5. Devise methods to open ways to more contacts
  6. Bear in mind dignity, etc...
  7. Consider degree of hearer's receptivity
  8. Remember example of 'Abdu'l-Baha
  9. Refrain, at beginning, from insisting on laws that may be too much
  10. Try to nurse the person into full maturity
  11. Help him declare
  12. Introduce him to body of fellow-believers
  13. Enable them to contribute their share to the growth of the Faith
  14. Do not be content until individual arises independently
Yesterday we looked at the first 6 steps, which I believe are about personal preparation. Today I want to look at the other 8 steps.

Now that we have refined our methods of meeting people, and are meeting a number of folks with interests that are similar to ours (in other words, we have something in common), we turn our attention to the individual in question.

Now this is a point of particular interest to me, as I often see myself going into a teaching scenario with my own not-so-hidden agenda. I will, for example, decide that I want to begin a study circle and will, therfore, invite everybody, and their dog, to join, regardless of their interest ("Oh, you really want to say lots of prayers? Well, come join my Book 1"). Or I may decide to host a fireside one evening on some abstract theoretical theological topic ("What did you say? You want to be of service to humanity? Well come and hear a lengthy talk on some subject you have no interest in."). Or someone may express an interest in hearing a little bit more about the Baha'i Faith, and I may begin a long discourse on the Conference of Badasht, when what they are really interested in hearing about is our views of science, or maybe they were just being courteous.

No. The first thing I really need to learn to do is to get to know the person. And this doesn't take long, not like years or anything. In fact, quite often when I'm talking with someone new, it only takes a few minutes of listening to them before they tell me what it is they are interested in hearing. By engaging them in a conversation, as opposed to making them endure a monologue, you can really guage their capacity. This may take some practice, but after talking with a few people, and reflecting afterwards upon the conversation, you will see what I mean. Not everyone is interested in hearing about the Faith, and many who are interested are not ready to be challenged by the mighty claim that Baha'u'llah makes. This is what is meant by an indirect approach, but more on that in another article. Throughout all of this, of course, we are showering them with love.

This, to me, takes care of steps 7 and 8. Oh, not that we've perfected them or anything, but just that we can keep them in mind and try to use this information when teaching.

And now they have declared. They are identifying themselves "with the Cause embodying such teachings". (I bet you were wondering when I was going to copy some of that text. I figured I had copied the whole piece yesterday and didn't need to repeat it again here.)

But this is not all there is to do. It may help, at this point, to think of their faith as a tree. Once they have declared, our job is not yet over, for their tree of faith still needs to be nurtured into full maturity. And one of the fruits of that tree is the laws. Of course, if the tree is young, then it may break under the weight of such laws as are too great a burden. I have seen many friends who have left the Faith because others tried to impose the laws upon them. On the other hand, I have seen other friends who were nurtured in maturity by wise and loving Assemblies who refrained from doing this. In one case, a friend had just bought a house with her boyfriend and they were living together. The Assembly wisely understood that she would withdraw if she was asked to move out. Instead they nurtured her and helped her move into obedience with the law over time. They did not let the law slide, but they let her know that she could grow into obedience.

This, to me, is the height of wisdom.

At this point, when they have matured beyond the breaking point at these silly tests that we impose upon each other, then we are to introduce them "to the body of his fellow-believers". I find it interesting that we do not do this earlier.

Oh, and it is not that we don't introduce them to other Baha'is. It doesn't say that. We introduce them wisely to many Baha'is, but they are not yet their "fellow-believers". It is now, though, that we introduce them to the full body of the Baha'i community, through Feasts and Reflection Meetings and other events and activities that make up that body. It is here that they continue, for they have already begun, in their service to the Cause and to humanity.

Through this, they will come to take a greater ownership of the Faith they have espoused and will, in time, become amongst its ardent supporters.

Yeah. I just love this paragraph.

Tablet of Ahmad, Section 2, Part 2, Addendum

My wife is ill today. She has a bad cold. That's the downside.

The upside is that I was able to read some of the past few articles to her and get her feedback.

Normally I would take her comments and just sort of insert them in the article itself, hopefully unnoticed by anyone but me. But in this case, her point is too good, too profound, and too thought-provoking. Well, actually, it's that it's too long to put into a sentence or two.

Regarding yesterday's article about the Tablet of Ahmad, she pointed out that I seemed to have missed addressing:
"Produce it, O assemblage of false ones.
Nay, by the One in Whose hand is my soul, they are not, and never shall be able to do this, even should they combine to assist one another."

To be honest, I thought I had addressed it, but if she missed it, I guess I did, too.

My thought was that everybody has a proof that works for them regarding their own faith path. Those proofs tend to fall into two diferent categories: silly and profound. If the proof is silly, which it rarely is, people are often aware of it, and will actually admit it, when it is pointed out with love and humour. If the proof is profound, as it often is, the same proof can be applied to Baha'u'llah, or any of the Messengers of God.

I had read this passage with the understanding that it is impossible to come up with a good proof that cannot be applied to all the other Messengers.
Marielle, on the other hand, had a different understanding of this same piece. And that is something that I just love about this Faith of ours: we can all have our own understanding of the Writings, and, as long as it doesn't completely contradict a basic tenet of the Faith, nobody can say we're wrong.
So she linked these sentences a bit more closely to the ones just before them. She reads it more as "If you deny the verse above that says you have to let people choose their own path, then by what proof have you believed in God? Just try to produce it, and you won't be able to." He then goes on and calls the people who do that "False Ones".
She points out, very cogently I might add, that if you read it as I did, then it might appear insulting to people of other faiths. And that just doesn't seem right.
Whereas I read "these verses" as referring to the Bayan, she reads it as referring to the verses about the freedom of choice.
And you know, I think both are valid. We may have a preference one way or the other, but both make sense to me.
Now, let me expand a bit more on what I see within Marielle's interpretation.
If someone is, say, a Christian, and they don't believe in Baha'u'llah's verses, fine. We accept that. They are, after all, entitled to choose their own path. This is a given. But then, if we read this section the way I have, there appears to be a bit of defensiveness coming into it. Well, maybe defensiveness isn't the right term (in fact, I know it isn't). But it could read as if Baha'u'llah is saying, "Don't believe these verses? Just try and do better. You can't, you false one." And that would be an unnecessary insult. After all, we've just acknowledged that the freedom of choice is there, so why be insulting about choosing differently?
No. I don't think this is what Baha'u'llah is doing, and neither does Marielle.
In fact, upon re-reading this passage in the context of the Tablet, I now see a couple of questions that arise. First, who is Baha'u'llah referring to when He says "O people" in the passage that continues "if ye deny these verses"? Second, which verses are He referring to?
From my own reading of it, it seems that this whole section, the second part of the Tablet, is about Ahmad "calling the believers in the divine unity", and therefore the "people" may be referring to the Babis. On the other hand, it could also refer to all those who arise to teach like Ahmad, which also seems quite plausible. On the third hand, which gets into all sorts of genetic mutation scenarios which I will henceforth ignore, it could also refer to all the people of the world, but then we get into the insult scenario, and that seems unlikely to me. So, for myself, I will think of Him as primarily referring to the second set, as that would also include me in my own daily life.
Now, about "these verses". He could be referring to the recently mentioned Bayan, in which case if He is addressing the Babis, may be a reminder to look at His own Writings and then decide if He is "Him Whom God shall make manifest". If a Babi were to decide that they accept the Bab's Writings, and then turn around and deny Baha'u'llah's, claiming that any Babi could write them, He probably wouldn't look too kindly on that, and the accusation of "false ones" could sure apply.
On the other hand, He may be referring to the previously mentioned sentences that speak about freedom to choose. If this is the case, then He seems to be addressing all of us who arise to teach as Ahmad did. And if He is, then it is a reminder to allow those we teach the freedom to choose their own path. This makes a lot of sense to me, as if we do not allow others that freedom of choice, then our own faith is quite suspect, and seemingly filled with egotism. In this case, too, the accusation of "false one" would also be justifiable.
On the not-to-be-mentioned third hand, "these verses" could also refer to His own body of Writings. If that is the case, and it seems unlikely to me, than anybody who is not recognizing Baha'u'llah's Writing as coming from God would be deemed a "false one". And here I have to think it cannot be, for then we are denying people that freedom which was just mentioned a sentence earlier. It would be like saying, "You can choose any path you want, but if you choose the wrong one, you're an idiot." That just doesn't seem right to me.
So once again, I find by discussing the Writings with someone, especially to one as dear to my as my sick wife (physically ill, and not a reference to her state of mind for having said 'yes' when I proposed), I come to a new, and probably better, understanding of the Writings.
Now I can't wait to look at the third section. Perhaps after I get home from the dentist.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Teaching Outline, Part 1

I was looking at a passage from Shoghi Effendi with a friend yesterday, and they asked a wonderful question. They asked, "And what does that mean?" In other words, how does it apply in our life?

You see, I am of the belief that everything in the Writings can be acted upon. I believe that every word and every phrase can have a direct application to our daily life, if we only try and look for it.

Admittedly, some are easier to see than others, such as washing your feet every day in the summer. I can do that. That's not too difficult to act upon. In fact, it even feels good, squishing the cool water through your toes on a hot summer day. But I digress.

There are other passages that seem easy, until you try and figure it out in detail. One example would be "Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart..." I mean, really, how do you actually do that? (And obviously you don't go out and buy a nice heart in the butcher's shop, clean it up and plug it into the wall.) For that, you really need to look at more of the Writings to figure it out.

But the one we were looking at yesterday is from The Advent of Divine Justice. And it seems like it should be straightforward, but there are many questions that arise as we begin to act upon it.

It's a fairly lengthy passage, but seems to cover most of the basics about helping someone move from never having heard about the Faith to becoming an avowed supporter of the Cause.

So, in its entirety, here is the paragraph from pages 42 - 44 (I said it was long).

"Having on his own initiative, and undaunted by any hindrances with which either friend or foe may, unwittingly or deliberately, obstruct his path, resolved to arise and respond to the call of teaching, let him carefully consider every avenue of approach which he might utilize in his personal attempts to capture the attention, maintain the interest, and deepen the faith, of those whom he seeks to bring into the fold of his Faith. Let him survey the possibilities which the particular circumstances in which he lives offer him, evaluate their advantages, and proceed intelligently and systematically to utilize them for the achievement of the object he has in mind. Let him also attempt to devise such methods as association with clubs, exhibitions, and societies, lectures on subjects akin to the teachings and ideals of his Cause such as temperance, morality, social welfare, religious and racial tolerance, economic cooperation, Islam, and Comparative Religion, or participation in social, cultural, humanitarian, charitable, and educational organizations and enterprises which, while safeguarding the integrity of his Faith, will open up to him a multitude of ways and means whereby he can enlist successively the sympathy, the support, and ultimately the allegiance of those with whom he comes in contact. Let him, while such contacts are being made, bear in mind the claims which his Faith is constantly making upon him to preserve its dignity, and station, to safeguard the integrity of its laws and principles, to demonstrate its comprehensiveness and universality, and to defend fearlessly its manifold and vital interests. Let him consider the degree of his hearer's receptivity, and decide for himself the suitability of either the direct or indirect method of teaching, whereby he can impress upon the seeker the vital importance of the Divine Message, and persuade him to throw in his lot with those who have already embraced it. Let him remember the example set by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and His constant admonition to shower such kindness upon the seeker, and exemplify to such a degree the spirit of the teachings he hopes to instill into him, that the recipient will be spontaneously impelled to identify himself with the Cause embodying such teachings. Let him refrain, at the outset, from insisting on such laws and observances as might impose too severe a strain on the seeker's newly awakened faith, and endeavor to nurse him, patiently, tactfully, and yet determinedly, into full maturity, and aid him to proclaim his unqualified acceptance of whatever has been ordained by Bahá'u'lláh. Let him, as soon as that stage has been attained, introduce him to the body of his fellow-believers, and seek, through constant fellowship and active participation in the local activities of his community, to enable him to contribute his share to the enrichment of its life, the furtherance of its tasks, the consolidations of its interests, and the coordination of its activities with those of its sister communities. Let him not be content until he has infused into his spiritual child so deep a longing as to impel him to arise independently, in his turn, and devote his energies to the quickening of other souls, and the upholding of the laws and principles laid down by his newly adopted Faith."

Ok. If you're like me, and I know you're not, dear Reader, you probably skipped over most of that and just scrolled down to here.

To make it comprehensible to one as obtuse as myself, I decided to make a bit of an outline, just to see if it made any more sense.

  1. Resolve to arise and teach
  2. Consider every avenue of approach
  3. Survey possibilities in own life
  4. Proced intelligently and systematically
  5. Devise methods to open ways to more contacts
  6. Bear in mind dignity, etc...
  7. Consider degree of hearer's receptivity
  8. Remember example of 'Abdu'l-Baha
  9. Refrain, at beginning, from insisting on laws that may be too much
  10. Try to nurse the person into full maturity
  11. Help him declare
  12. Introduce him to body of fellow-believers
  13. Enable them to contribute their share to the growth of the Faith
  14. Do not be content until individual arises independently
Fourteen steps, some of which occur concurrently, but still. Fourteen steps.

It seems to me that the first four steps are all prepartion. Obviously the first step is to be committed to actually getting up and teaching. If you don't resolve to do it, you'll never actually get off your butt and do it. But even then, you can be determined, but not look at your own reality, your daily life. Steps two, three and four are all about looking at your own life and working within that context. I may want to teach the Faith amongst the Romany people, but there isn't a Romany population here in my home town. Kinda sucks, doesn't it?

No. All our teaching efforts have to be centered around our own circumstances. That is why there is no "correct way" to do all this. Each of us is unique and our circumstances are, too. What works for me may not be applicable to anyone else.

But the outline is still the same.

Sep one (through four) - consider your own life.

Once you have done that, you may have a list that looks something like this: When I am writing, I like to write in coffee shops, so I should find one in which people are more open to talking to others. I love the arts, and am an artist, so I can join an art society. When I put my work in a gallery, I can have an open house in order to meet more people who like what I do.

This is, of course, just a beginning. But you see how each idea connects to my own life?

In step five, we go beyond our ordinary life with work and stuff, and see if we can reach a bit further. I love to cook, and I enjoy people, so volunteering at a soup kitchen may be an idea. I live near a military base, so perhaps I can do some work with the Military Family Resource Centre. I have a passion for religion and interfaith work, so joining an interfaith society may be right up my alley.

This is where I am now beginning to see where my own interests can move me into circles that have similar ideas towhat we see within the Faith.

In step 6, we turn our attention inward a bit. We remember that we should proceed with dignity, as we are representing the Faith to numerous people at this point. The way we dress, the words we say, how we say them, our every action: people are watching. And if we act in a bozoid way, this actually reflects poorly upon the Faith, not just on ourselves.

I remember a situation years ago in which I was selling my artwork at a show, and I had to camp out there for nearly two months. As there were a number of us living on the site, we had something of a small community feel. During that time, although I was not aware of it, a number of these friends began to comment amongst themselves that they noticed I never swore or drank alcohol. They noticed that I always tried to be clean, which can be tricky when you're camping in a muddy field. In short, they noticed many things about me that I wasn't even aware of demonstrating. I'm sure there were many poor qualities they noticed, too, but were just too polite to mention. But as they learned that I was a Baha'i, my previous behaviour worked in my favour. Many were interested in hearing about the Faith, and some even declared. (How cool is that?)

So we always need to be aware of our behaviour and act with dignity, especially when we think nobody is watching.

This brings us up to step 7, in which we finally get to meet the person we are hoping to teach. We have already stepped up to the plate by steeling our resolve. We have gone out and mingled with many individuals, and made sure to be on our best behaviour, but now we narrow it down. Now we are actually dealing with a real person, and not just a crowd.

Tablet of Ahmad, Section 2, Part 2

Well, I didn't quite get as far as I wanted to yesterday. I thought I could go through most of that second part, and kind of got stuck looking at the the first sentence. What can I say? It's a good text I'm looking at.

Aside: Have you ever been getting ready to say a prayer in a group setting when someone turns to you and says, "Can you say a prayer please? Oh, and say a good one." Hmm. Are there any bad ones? I mean, sure, there are some that are inappropriate at times, but bad? (Oh, c'mon, would you really say a prayer for the departed at a wedding?)

Anyways, where was I? Oh yes, the Tablet of Ahmad. Second paragraph of the second section.

Say: O people be obedient to the ordinances of God, which have been enjoined in the Bayan by the Glorious, the Wise One. Verily He is the King of the Messengers and His book is the Mother Book did ye but know.
Now that we have the tools with which we are working, those virtues mentioned yesterday, Baha'u'llah goes and tells us what to say. Ok, He actually tells Ahmad what to say, but let's look at how it applies to us.

Ahmad is, presumably, talking to Babis. And not just any Babis, but specifically Babis who have just survived the whirlwind of death that overtook their community in the 1850s. What we read and admire in the Dawn-Breakers was their daily life. Now most of the pillars of that community had already been slaughtered and, from I have read, there was a number of others who had become disillusioned. They were questioning the validity of their faith, especially given the trouble that Mirza Yahya was making. Now here comes Ahmad with this specific message from Baha'u'llah, one of the most respected and prominent Babis still left: "Be obedient to the ordinances... in the Bayan". Don't forget, he says, the Bab was a Messenger from God. And more than that, "His book is the Mother Book".

These Babis are spiritual giants, even if their faith may have been shaken. They intimately understood the Qur'an and were fluent in many of the traditions surrounding Islam. One of those traditions was the idea of a Mother Book, of which the Qur'an was almost like a shadow. If you loved the Qur'an, well the Mother Book was just so much greater. And here, Baha'u'llah is telling Ahmad to remind these friends of the relation between the Bab and Muhammad, the Bayan and the Qur'an. The Qur'an is the Book of God, but the Bab's Book, the Bayan, is what gave birth to the Qur'an.

To me, this is a reminder to continually remind people of the majesty and glory of the faith in which they were raised. 'Abdu'l-Baha once said that we in the West should know the Bible better than the Christians and help deepen them in its truths. I have found that when I do that, or at least try, there is an openess that is unexpected. When I sincerely praise the faith that they love, the tradition that is dear to their heart, they respond with a sense of joy. In some cases, they also respond with a sense of relief.

Once that stage has occurred, I also begin to talk about Baha'u'llah as another Messenger of God. When I do this, I try not to do so in a manner that derides Whomever they follow, or in a way that places Baha'u'llah above Them. No. I try to show that They are both Messengers of God, and that I see no difference between Them.

Here I try to keep in mind that marvelous passage from Gleanings: "Whoso maketh the slightest possible difference between their persons, their words, their messages, their acts and manners, hath indeed disbelieved in God, hath repudiated His signs, and betrayed the Cause of His Messengers."

By showing a love for the Messenger they follow, and showing an identical love for Baha'u'llah, I have often found their heart to be warmed and opened.

Thus doth the Nightingale utter His call unto you from this prison. He hath but to deliver this clear message. Whosoever desireth, let him turn aside from this counsel and whosoever desireth let him choose the path to his Lord.
Here could go on about the metaphor of a nightingale, but let's just say that it is a bird whose song is loud and beautiful, and is is also noted for singing just before the dawn. While it sings throughout the night, and can even be heard during the day, it is conspicuous around dawn, as that is when it is defending its territory. Here, Baha'u'llah is obviously referring to Himself as this bird.

Now that He has done so, He states His purpose: "to deliver this clear message".

And isn't that what we are being trained to do? To deliver Baha'u'llah's message? And not only to deliver it, but to do so clearly.

Then comes the reminder that this is the end of our responsibility. Our job is to deliver it, not to make sure it is received. God has given us all free will, and none can take that away. And every time that we try to impose our beliefs upon another, either through the negative form of prosyletizing, or the postive form of "Oh, you're a Baha'i, but you just don't know it", we are inadvertantly trying to take away this God-given gift. And generally, people don't react too kindly to that.

Once the message has been given, it is up to the individual what they do with it. They can either turn aside, or "choose the path to (their) Lord". This is also an interesting turn of phrase, for it does not, to me, imply that those who turn aside will never get there. I can choose the direct path from A to B, or I can turn aside and go from A to C, and then from C to B. Which way is better? Both end up at B, but the first one is shorter. Does that make it better? I know I prefer it, and I understand that there is far less chance of getting lost, but I can't, in my own view, say that it is inherently better.

It seems to me, and this is, of course, only my own opinion, that Baha'u'llah is giving the people the freedom to choose as they will. He, like us, is probably just hoping that they choose the path with the least trouble.
O people, if ye deny these verses, by what proof have ye believed in God? Produce it, O assemblage of false ones.
Nay, by the One in Whose hand is my soul, they are not, and never shall be able to do this, even should they combine to assist one another.

And here is the crux of the argument, to me. In the beginning of this paragraph, I feel like I am reminded to ask people what their own Faith path is. Here, I feel like I am to ask them "Why?" I have done this many times, and it is always a joy, and what's more, people don't seem to get offended by it. They may have trouble answering the question, but they seem to feel that it is a good one. "You believe in this particular faith? Why? What is it about it that tells you that it is true?"

No matter what they answer, I have found that it is either silly, and they agree, or that Baha'u'llah also lives up to that proof.

If they say that they follow a faith, and know it's true, because their parents follow it, then by that argument all Christians should be Jewish and all Buddhists should be Hindu. By that logic, Abraham should never have rebelled against His forefathers. No. The inheritance argument just doesn't hold any water, except to say that it is worth examing the faith of your parents because they may, after all, be right. But really, it isn't a proof.

When it comes down to it, the most solid proof of a faith is the Writings upon which it is based, and the stories of the life of the Founder.

And so, if someone says that the Writings of Baha'u'llah do not come from God, then we can ask them to show us writings that they believe do. But this should never be done in an insulting manner, nor in the manner of "our God is better than yours" or "our Messenger can beat up your Messenger". No. It should be done with love, tact and respect. After all, when discussing matters of faith, you are walking upon holy ground, the earth of men's hearts, and you should tread carefully.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tablet of Ahmad, Section 2, Part 1

For many years now, whenever I have been asked to talk a little about the Tablet of Ahmad, I have usually focussed on the first section. Why? Because it is what I knew the best. It was a fairly simple and straightforward look at the verbs in that paragraph, and how they foreshadowed the rest of the Tablet, outlining it, if you will. You can read my initial article about that here.

Since that time, I have been asked on numerous occasions to look at the rest of it. I gotta tell you, though, it makes me a bit nervous. I mean, I feel like I had a bit of an insight that first time around, so will be I get another one this time? No clue. Oh well. Nothing like trusting in God and taking that leap. In public. With people watching. Or reading, as the case may be.

You may recall that I like to think of this Tablet as divided into four sections, with Ahmad's name doing the dividing. So, the second part is as follows:
O Ahmad! Bear thou witness that verily He is God and there is no God but Him, the King, the Protector, the Incomparable, the Omnipotent. And that the One Whom He hath sent forth by the name of Ali [The Bab] was the true One from God, to Whose commands we are all conforming.

Say: O people be obedient to the ordinances of God, which have been enjoined in the Bayan by the Glorious, the Wise One. Verily He is the King of the Messengers and His book is the Mother Book did ye but know.

Thus doth the Nightingale utter His call unto you from this prison. He hath but to deliver this clear message. Whosoever desireth, let him turn aside from this counsel and whosoever desireth let him choose the path to his Lord.

O people, if ye deny these verses, by what proof have ye believed in God? Produce it, O assemblage of false ones.

Nay, by the One in Whose hand is my soul, they are not, and never shall be able to do this, even should they combine to assist one another.
To begin, I just want to remind you that I see this whole section within the context of that first paragraph. We can see Baha'u'llah moving from a broad proclamation in the beginning to a call. In particular, He is "calling the believers in the Divine Unity to the court of the Presence of the Generous One", and I will be looking at this section in that light.

Oh, and I should also give you the regular reminder that I am not writing this from any authoritative position. I'm just giving my own take on it, and you can agree or not, as you will.

Here, He seems to be giving Ahmad a mission: to bear witness to God, and remind the people that the Bab was a true Messenger from Him. Well, this seems fairly straightforward, given that He is already "calling the believers". But let us not forget the climate in which Ahmad was asked to do this: torture and execution were the most likely outcome for him.

But for now, for the sake of brevity, let's grant him wisdom, and presume that he is only talking amongst the believers.

What is he telling them? What powers does he draw upon to carry out this noble task? And how does all this help us in our teaching work? As usual, I think the answers can be found to the second and third questions in the attributes of God that Baha'u'llah puts in at this point: "the King, the Protector, the Incomparable, the Omnipotent".

First of all, God is the King, and we are His subjects. But we are not just His subjects, for we were created in His image. This, to my way of thinking, makes us noble. There is an inherent nobility that we draw upon when we are delivering His message, and it is this that helps make the message a bit more attractive, initially, to some people. There is something about the dignity of the nobles that is inherently attractive. Of course, once people begin to see the message for themselves, it is the message that continues the attraction, not the individual. It is also worth noting that when we recognize this same nobility within all whom we meet, this sense of attraction becomes that much stronger all around.

The seccond attribute here is "the Protector". This seems to go in many directions, for surely God is protecting us from harm when we carry out His work. Oh, and I don't mean physical harm, for of what concern is that? No, I mean spiritual harm. Just knowing that we are helping deliver this incredible message will aid us in doing this very scary task.

But I think there is another dimension to it. As a teacher of the Cause, I believe that we have some responsibility to those we are teaching. We have to be careful, almost protect them, if you will. Remember, Baha'u'llah tells us that "an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk". Why would this be, if not to protect the hearer from "spiritual indigestion"? Too often have I said too much about Baha'u'llah when introducing the Faith to someone, and only later wished that I had had the wisdom to have said less. Even now, when writing to different people, I am often a bit too blunt with my words, regretting it in hindsight.

There seems to be another pointer in that direction from the Guardian, in The Advent of Divine Justice. In that book, he is describing the movement of an individual from never having heard about the Baha'i Faith to proclaiming "his unqualified acceptance of whatever has been ordained by Bahá'u'lláh". It is only then, "as soon as that stage has been attained", that we are to "introduce him to the body of his fellow-believers". Why would that be, if not for their protection from the inadvertant tests that we impose upon each other?

The third attribute that Baha'u'llah mentions here is that of "the Imcomparable". Aside from the obvious fact that there is nothing that even comes close to comparing with the scope and depth of Baha'u'llah's teachings, I see this as a reminder to be on my best behaviour. Although I cannot imagine it happening, especially to me, 'Abdu'l-Baha did say, "If any one of you enters a city he must become the center of attraction because of the sincerity, faithfulness, love, honesty, fidelity, truthfulness and loving-kindness of his disposition and nature toward all the inhabitants of the world, that the people of the city may all cry out: 'This person is unquestionably a Bahá'í; for his manners, his behavior, his conduct, his morals, his nature and his disposition are of the attributes of the Bahá'ís.'" This, to me, speaks of that attribute of incomparableness, and I can only hope to begin to think about striving towards it.

The last of those attributes offered here is that of "the Omnipotent". Although God is truly the Omnipotent, we, too, have power, and nothing should deter us from our work.

These four attributes, when combined, will be a powerful force aiding us in our teaching work.

Finally, after all of that, Ahmad is pointedly reminded that he is speaking to Babis. At this point, it would be so easy to turn away from, or perhaps even disregard, the Bab, in favour of Baha'u'llah. But no, we are not to do that. The Bab is a Messenger, sent by God, and we are all conforming to His teachings, even Baha'u'llah. He had not yet revealed His laws, and it was to the Bab's laws that He was turning.

This, to me, is also a message about how we should regard the Messengers of the past, each and every one of Them. They should be held in the highest regard, and we should always strive to conform to the spirit of Their laws.

But this post has gone on long enough. I'll continue it later. As usual, feedback is always welcome.