Sunday, June 27, 2010

Study Guides

A few friends have recently approached me regarding the studies I've done with the Ridvan message. They all asked the same question. "Did you use the study guide?"

Now maybe it is just me, but I find this an interesting question. Last time I checked, there was no study guide that came with the message. I only mention this because in all cases they used the word "the" instead of "a", and from their body language and tone of voice it seemed they believed that there was a single study guide which we are all supposed to use. To date I have seen half a dozen or so study guides, none of which I found particularly useful. In some cases, they actually seemed to me to distract from the point, but that is probably just me. Oh, and if you wrote one, I'm sure it is much better and that it just hasn't crossed my path yet.

And just so you know, I applaud the efforts of those Baha'is attempting to engage more of the friends in a systematic study the Writings. I don't mean to slam any of them, but just want to see them become more effective.

You see, it's not that I have anything against study guides, just that I think we have to be cautious with them. It reminds me of the time a Counsellor was sitting in a meeting and was asked if he had any questions. He said, "Hmm, I'm not sure. Questions can be dangerous things." Anyways, I've lost count of the number of times that I've been told a particular study guide has been written in the "Ruhi style", only to find that there are a few questions whose answers are a direct quote from the Writings.

An example of this would be "The best beloved of all things in My sight is justice..." "What is the best beloved of all things in His sight?" As you know, this is the simplest level of question that is found in the Ruhi books, and one which they even say can get wearisome. "Don't worry", they imply, "we won't be using this style of a question for long." But now, for some reason, this facile style of questioning has been associated with the far more advanced, and far more effective, methodology used to develop the Ruhi curriculum.

Ok, that's just a rant, but it seems well earned. If we really wanted to develop a Ruhi-style study guide, wouldn't we need to identify what behaviours we would want to see? And then wouldn't we need to develop questions that would assist people in moving towards that new mode of behaviour, a movement that would arise out of their own realization of the importance of engaging in that behaviour? Following all that, wouldn't we need to see if that behaviour is actually being done? All right, it sounds complex, and I am not sure it would be easy, but it is the challenge I think we need to face.

Let's look at the Ridvan message, for example. What do you think the Universal House of Justice is trying to help us learn to do? How do you think they would like us to act, after reading it? Oh, and just so you know, I don't have any of the "study guides" in front of me, and am not quoting any of them. This is only an example.

The paragraph I would like to look at, however briefly, is number 19 (coincidence only, not due to any love of Baha'i numerology). As I'm sure you've already read it, you can just sort of glance at it. I only include it here becuase I had a dickens of a time finding a copy on the internet. (Oh, here's another rant: no matter how I typed Ridvan Message 2010 into google, references to this blog came up before any links to the message itself. Flattering as that may be, there is just something wrong with that.)
The developments we have mentioned thus far – the rise in capacity to teach the Faith directly and to enter into purposeful discussion on themes of spiritual import with people from every walk of life, the efflorescence of an approach to study of the writings that is wedded to action, the renewal of commitment to provide spiritual education to the young in neighbourhoods and villages on a regular basis, and the spread in influence of a programme that instils in junior youth the sense of a twofold moral purpose, to develop their inherent potentialities and to contribute to the transformation of society – are all reinforced, in no small measure, by yet another advance at the level of culture, the implications of which are far-reaching indeed. This evolution in collective consciousness is discernable in the growing frequency with which the word “accompany” appears in conversations among the friends, a word that is being endowed with new meaning as it is integrated into the common vocabulary of the Baha’i community. It signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation, a mode that fosters the informed participation of more and more people in a united effort to apply Baha’u'llah’s teachings to the construction of a divine civilization, which the Guardian states is the primary mission of the Faith. Such an approach offers a striking contrast to the spiritually bankrupt and moribund ways of an old social order that so often seeks to harness human energy through domination, through greed, through guilt or through manipulation.
The "standard" study guide questions that I would expect to see would be something like: 1. What 4 developments have been mentoined so far? 2. The evolution in collective consciousness is discernable in the growing frequency of which word appearing in conversation among the friends? 3. In a culture in which learning is the mode of operation, what does that mode foster? 4. What is the primary mission of the Faith? 5. What does the Baha'i approach offer a striking contrast to?

These questions are not bad, but I think they are fairly superficial. They also seem to distract from some of the more important, but subtler, points in that paragraph. For example, I have to wonder what the Universal House of Justice is hoping to achieve by redefining the various activities in that first sentence. Are they, perhaps, trying to move us away from a three word summary of junior youth groups, and help us capture the vision of helping them "develop their inherent potentialities and to contribute to the transformation of society"? This is far more powerful of a description.

Can you imagine going up to some parents and their early-teen kids and ask if they want to join a junior youth group? "Hey, do you want to join a junior youth group?" Can't you just hear the collective disinterested "A what?" Talk about underwhelming. But what if you, instead, ask "Would you like to develop you inner potential and help contribute to transforming society?" Now there is interest.

So, a more effective question, to me, is "How does the Universal House of Justice envision junior youth groups?" And "How does this vision help us in establishing these groups?"

When talking about the use of the word "accompany", merely asking which word it is seems pretty useless. What I want to know is, "What is the new meaning of accompany? How can you accompany someone else in this context? How would being accompanied help you in your work? Where do you need to accompaniment? How do you imagine this contributes to the culture of learning?" And so on and so forth.

In the last sentence, there seems to be a caution hidden within there: we should not try to manipulate others. How easy would it be to use the Writings to try and manipulate someone into accepting the Faith? But then there is the stern warning in the Writings to be certain to never proselytize, and the continual cautions in this very message to not be overly concerned if someone is or is not a member of the Baha'i community. By looking at this, and asking why this caution is in there, it can directly change our behaviour.

All this to say, "No, I haven't used the study guide. Have you?"

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hidden Beginnings

So I've looked at the first paragraph of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and the first paragraph of the Kitab-i-Iqan. I've even looked at the first few lines of the Tablet of Ahmad, but what about the first paragraph of The Hidden Words? I have often wondered what mysteries there are in that wondrous paragraph.

Oh, and I call it "wondrous" because, at this moment, I kind of wonder why it is there. I mean, I've read it many times, and have even quoted or paraphrased (plagarized might be more accurate) it on numerous occassions. But studied it? Nope. Haven't done that yet.

And before you think to ask, I am not talking about the first Hidden Word. I am talking about that introductory paragraph before the first one. It is that paragraph that reads:
He is the Glory of Glories. This is that which hath descended from the realm of glory, uttered by the tongue of power and might, and revealed unto the Prophets of old. We have taken the inner essence thereof and clothed it in the garment of brevity, as a token of grace unto the righteous, that they may stand faithful unto the Covenant of God, may fulfill in their lives His trust, and in the realm of spirit obtain the gem of Divine virtue.
OK, that first sentence is an invocation before the paragraph, but I wasn't sure how to include it, and didn't want to leave it out. Who knows? There might be something there, too. (You think?)

For myself, I remember that this work was revealed before Baha'u'llah declared His mission, at a time when He was known as Jinab-i-Baha. Perhaps there was a subtle allusion to His station in that reference to "the Glory of Glories", in addition to the obvious reference to that attribute of God.

Of course, in the very next sentence He reiterates this by His reference to "the realm of glory", but this time it seems to be a reference to where the the previous Revelations have come from. He says that this Book, the Hidden Words, is that which was "revealed unto the Prophets of old", assuming that I am reading this correctly, of course.

Personally, I find this intriguing, as this was originally called The Hidden Words of Fatimih, and was supposed to be that Book revealed by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad's daughter to help console her when the Prophet passed away. Now we are told that this is also what was revealed to all the Prophets. Could this be another allusion to Baha'u'llah as "the Voice that was heard from the Burning Bush", to cite but one example? As usual, I really have no idea, but am only wondering aloud.

However we interpret it, it seems clear, at least to me, that this Book, The Hidden Words, is a very special Book. While the words themselves may not have been exactly what was given to the other Messengers, the spirit of the Words is certainly consistent. I only mention this because He then says that He has "taken the inner essence thereof and clothed it in the garment of brevity". This sure seems to speak to the spirit of the words, and not the words themselves.

It also speaks of a mercy, at least to one such as me who really likes brevity, not that you could necessarily tell from my writing, but you have to admit, a thousand words is not all that much. Oh, a thousand words is the average length of what I write here, and so I use it as an example.

But here, I believe that Baha'u'llah is saying that He has taken the underlying message in all religions and stated it simply here. In fact, I have often had fun going through teachings from religious history and trying to find a Hidden Word that sums them up. It never fails, there is always at least one. It is this that has led me to often refer to The Hidden Words as a table of contents for religious history.

We may now ask ourselves, "If all this has been stated before, why is He restating here?" His answer? It is "a token of grace unto the righteous". A proof of good will to those who act in a moral way? How is that?

Well, it may be that those who act morally are the ones who stand a chance of recognizing Baha'u'llah, and for them, this Book will be seen for what it is. For those who are not moral in their behaviour, they will miss its value.

Aside: I am reminded of the time some friends and I were helping open up a neighbourhood and were calling on people in their homes. As you can imagine, there were many times when we were turned away, politely or not. That evening, one of my friends was saying how hurt he was every time people didn't want to hear what he had to say. I suggested that he imagine himself offering these people a tray of gems. How would he feel if they turned them down? Angry? Hurt? No. He said that he would feel sad for them, and hope that might someday accept this great treasure.

Those who would turn down some priceless diamonds might do so because they cannot believe that someone would offer them something so valuable. They therefore think that those gems must be worthless glass, or something.

Perhaps this is the same thing. Those who cannot accept that Baha'u'llah might be a Messenger of God may not be open to seeing the wisdom in His teachings, even though they are there for them to read. Of course, even if they don't accept Him, they may still be open enough to draw inspiration from His teachings. This, of course, would be dependent upon their having an open heart and mind, which might be a sign of moral behaviour. Or I may be way off base. Who knows?

Presuming that we do accept and recognize this great gift, what are we to do with it?

I think we are to try and "stand faithful unto the Covenant of God... fulfill in (our) lives His trust, and in the realm of spirit obtain the gem of Divine virtue."

So there it is: our job.

To be faithful to the Covenant means that we first need to understand what it is. How can you honour a contract if you don't know what your role in it is? In this instance, He seems to be talking about hte eternal Covenant, so obeying the Messenger we recognize, and searching for the next One, seem to be high on that list.

To fulfill His trust? Again, we have to understand what has been entrusted to us. That could be a full series of articles on its own. I could talk about "the poor in your midst" being the trust of the rich ones, or any other example, but I only want to touch on it here, and not go into great depth or detail.

Finally, to obtain the gem of Divine virtue. Is this made up of all the human virtues, or more? Singular as God is, as opposed to plural? After all, it is said that if we perfected a single virtue it would be as if we perfected them all. Maybe all the virtues are one in their essence. This is another point worthy of meditation.

And now, after just a few moments of thought, I think there is a bit more to this paragraph than I ever noticed before. But that doesn't really surprise me. I mean, it is one of the reasons I am a Baha'i.

Now I am only left wondering why I never looked at it before now.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Letter to an Assembly Member

Dearly loved friend,

I have heard your concerns over the past little while and was encouraged to share with you a little bit of what has been shared with me in the past. I can only hope that you will be able to put it to better use than I have.

Before I begin, let me tell you a little story that happened a few years ago. Some friends and I had the incredible fortune of being able to pioneer in a city that had once had an Assembly as long ago as the late 19th century, and was even one of those fortunate locales in the West to be visited by the Master. Serving there was an incredible experience, and our hope at the time was to be able to help re-establish that lost institution. Well, suffice to say, we had the pleasure of re-forming that Assembly. One of the members had only been a Baha'i a few days (maybe weeks), and shortly after the election, the two of us found ourselves walking on the beach. "What," he asked me, "does it mean to serve on an Assembly?"

I had absolutely no clue, so I said the first thing that came to my mind. "Some people consider it a blessing to serve, and others consider it a bounty not to have to."

Those words have long haunted me, in a Casper the Friendly Ghost sort of way, and I now have the bounty of not having to serve on an institution once again. But please don't get me wrong: it is always a blessing to be able to serve.

As you know, what I say here is only my own personal thoughts and nothing official. While they may be based on the Writings and actual experience, I make no claims as to have successfully avoided all bozo-ness. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. Take or leave what I say.

Now, you have mentioned concerns about a few different things, but I'd like to focus on two: the agenda and consultation.

Ahh, what can be said about the agenda? It's long, I'm sure. Isn't that always the case?

I remember talking with the secretary of a National Spiritual Assembly about this, and I'll never forget his answer. He said that on the first day of his job as secretary, he walked into his office, not really knowing what to do. He sat down and looked around. When he noticed the inbox on his desk he saw a few letters in it. Not knowing what else to do, he picked up the first one, read it, typed a reply and placed it in his outbox. Ten years later he was still doing that. The moral? He said to take it one letter at a time.

But I know, what about all those agenda items that are waiting for attention? How can you categorize them and deal with them in an efficient and timely manner? I'm so glad you asked. You see, businesses have been dealing with this issue for a long time, and they've become pretty good at handling it. So why not look at what they do? How do you think Microsoft, or Coca-Cola deal with this? While some Baha'is may have once been uncomfortable looking at anything that is not in the Writings, we are so lucky to have the recent Ridvan Message in which we are encouraged "to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race..." As long as it doesn't violate the Covenant, what's the problem?

One tool that I've seen used successfully is the "Consent Agenda". The Secretary, the Chairperson, and often the Vice-Chairperson, go through the various items on the regular agenda and decide which ones appear, to them, to have "obvious" solutions. They then list the item, complete with relevent background information and the proposed solution. It is then sent out to the various members well in advance of the meeting. If any of the members have a concern or a question or a significantly better solution, all they do is flag the item. Any items that have flags are put at the end of the regular agenda, even if there is only a single flag on it. The rest are automatically passed.

It was amzaing how quickly our agenda was cleared. We went from three pages to less than half a page in just a few weeks.

Once the "piddly stuff" was out of the way, the real work began. And that brings me to the next point: consultation.

Please, my friend, do not be dis-heartened. There is so much guidance in the Writings about consultation that we do not need to be concerned about it. Oh, but we should never presume that we know what we are doing, either. Remember, the first thing the Hands of the Cause did in their first conclave together was study how to consult. What makes us think that we can learn it in just a few minutes, or a couple of hours? No. I would suggest grabbing a copy of Consultation: A Compilation, as well as John Kolstoe's book, Consultation. These are two marvellous resources that will go a long way to helping us learn a little bit more about this invaluable tool. We don't need to be concerned, but we do need to work on it.

In the meantime, here is a list that I have found useful when getting ready for a consultation:
  1. Identify the topic
  2. Give the background of the case
  3. List some of the spiritual principles
  4. Find relevant guidance in the Writings
Of course, you start with prayer, but I thought that went without saying.

So, a common problem that I have seen in step 1 is to not identify the issue clearly. For example, "Teaching"  is not a topic for consultation; it is a category. "How can we offer further guidance, support, aid and encouragement to Luigi's children's class?" That is more of a topic. No matter what the issue is, whether it is of a teaching nature, or a confidential issue like helping a married couple who may be heading towards a year of waiting, it should be clearly identified. Otherwise everyone may have their own idea of the goal, and that can just get confusing.

Another common problem that I have seen way too often is when the relevant background information is not there. Then everyone has to rely on their memory of the case, and, well, the less said about that the better. This is especially true if the case is an on-going one.

As for steps 3 and 4, well that just seems obvious, now, doesn't it? And yet so often we seem to skip it. Why? How can we consult well if we are not looking at the Writings? This is one of the greatest benefits, in my mind, of the Ruhi books. Those members that I have served with who got their start in the Faith through the Ruhi books just seemed to naturally turn to the Writings, while people like me plodded along on their own. When they got the rest of us to look in the Writings, things moved so much smoother. Go figure.

But then there is a question that should always be asked about any decision. In paragraph 22 of the Ridvan message, we read, "Rather (the Assembly's) strength must be measured, to a large extent, by the vitality of the spiritual and social life of the community it seves - a growing community that welcomes the constructive contributions of both those who are formally enrolled and those who are not." So when a decision is being reached, it seems reasonable to ask, "How will this decision affect the vitality of the spiritual and social life of the community?" If the answer is "In a negative way", then perhaps the decision should be revisited.

Finally, the last thing I want to mention is to have fun. Joy is an important quality of service on any institution, for how else can we feel and express the love we have for all the other members? How else can we expect to consult with the spirit of unity that is required? And if we are not happy, why are we doing the work?

There is so much in the Writings about joy and happiness. When visiting the West, the Master often asked of people three times, "Are you happy?" He was not content asking just once, but generally asked three times.


I'm sure I don't really know, but I figure it is due to the nature of Persian and Arabic. From what I can tell, when you write in those languages, the only way to stress a point is to repeat it. After all, you can't italicize it, for the script itself is italicized. If you underline it, then the words become new words altogether. And so, you have to repeat.

Besides, when you ask someone if they are happy, they often will say, "Yeah, sure". Ask again, and they say, "Uhm, yes, I think so." Ask a third time and then you get a real answer. Or you just annoy them.

So keep the humour and joy in the work, for if we are not happy, why are we doing what we are doing?

Yeah, I know: for the love of God. But then again, that love should produce joy, so "nyah".

Monday, June 14, 2010


When you fly from one city to another, it is a lot like getting off an elevator: you never really know that you are someplace else. The door closes on one scene and then just opens on another. The intervening distance doesn't seem quite real.

When you drive, the reality of distance becomes a bit more obvious. You can see the scenery slowly shifting as you move from one zone to another, as trees shift from one type to a completely different one, flowers and fauna are not quite the same as the ones you left behind.

When you walk, it is rare that you notice any change, unless you are walking for days, and even then the shift occurs so slowly that you tend not to notice it as it is happening. It is sort of like the frog in the pot.

While I love walking wherever I can, driving is generally my preferred form of long distance travel. Well, that's not quite true. Bike or train or boat, not a cruise liner but a real boat, are actually my preferred forms, but I don't think I'll ever get to own a train. A boat maybe, but not a train. And taking a boat across Canada is a bit difficult at times, at least if you're going east to west. Biking is do-able, but too time consuming for me.

No. I really like driving across country. Perhaps that is why I have spent so much of my time doing it since I've moved to Winnipeg. Now I get to fly to Victoria for a week, come back, and then make the same trip in a car a few weeks later.

I've been thinking about this a lot, and I am looking forward to both journeys.

I've also been reflecting on these journeys, as I have done both of them in the past, and have reallized a couple of things that I just feel like sharing today.

If you ever have the bounty of flying across the American prairies (and yes, Canada is in America, which is a continent and not a country, thank you very much), heading west, you may have the opportunity to notice a wonder of nature. It is as if nature itself has offered us a leit motif, if we but care to observe it. Then again, nature always offers us motifs, if we but care to observe them. That is part of the miracle of what I have come to call micro / macro, or "if it works on the large scale, it works on the small scale". Come to think of it, although I've used this concept in many different articles (for an example click here), I don't think I've ever actually written directly about it. Hmm. There's an idea for a future article.

Anyways, where was I? Oh yes, driving across the country.

Upon leaving Winnipeg, the first thing I notice is the extreme flatness of the land. I mean, it is very difficult to describe just how flat the land is. There was one time I sent someone a postcard with a map of Manitoba on it (you know the kind, one of those cheap tourist postcards that you get for a quarter at tourist traps), and wrote on the back how it was one of those new topographically accurate maps. I don't think I was exagerrating. Manitoba is one of those places where you can watch your dog run away for a week. It's great.

As you drive further west, one of the things you notice is the similarity between Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I think Saskatchewan was made with the same topological template as Manitoba, except that it got a single crease up the middle of it, which they now call the Qu'Appelle Valley.

Time for an aside: I have spent a lot of time in the Qu'Appelle Valley and love it very much, but wish to correct some mis-information about the name. When you go there and ask about the name, they give you some fictional story about a woman who fell in love with this guy. He went off to hunt and as he was coming home, canoeing across the lake, he thought he heard someone calling his name. He called out, asking who was there. When there was no answer, he asked again in French, and only heard his echo in reply. When he returned to his village, he found out that this woman, his fiancee, had died with his name on her lips as he had been canoeing, and thus they say the valley got its name. The only problem is that "who is calling" in French would be "Qui appelle?" Qu'appelle would be "what's calling", or "Say what?"

By now you find yourself driving across eastern Alberta and the ground is just beginning to ripple. The ripples grow and grow in size, becoming foothills and eventually upswelling into the Canadian Rockies, and eventually calming down and falling off into the Pacific Ocean.

This upward movement of the earth, as you move further and further west, is very much reminiscent of the waters that you eventually reach. They begin calm and placid on the prairies, pacific, if you will. Then the geological waves begin to appear, each wave taking millenia to form, rising and rising, upward and upward, higher and higher, until they culminate in those majestic peaks.

As you find yourself driving in the mountains it often feels as if you are lost, for you find yourself wending and winding, going north and then south, sometimes even turning back upon your own path and heading east, just when you thought you were supposed to be heading west. There are dangers and pitfalls everywhere, if you are not careful, but the vista is absolutely stunning.

Then there is a moment of rest in western British Columbia before you find the whole geological turmoil thing starting all over again in water instead of rock. But as you take a moment to look around, you begin to realize that there are things on the western side of the mountains that just don't occur on the eastern side of them. There are trees that you don't see anywhere else, animals that aren't found in other parts, even the movement of the clouds and the weather patterns are different from any other place in the country. As you carefully study the environment, you begin to realize that the small stripe of land wedged between the mountains and the ocean is similar, but unlike any other place you have been.

This, in essence, is my impression of Canada as I drive from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Ok, I know I said Victoria earlier, but it was really Vancouver.

I didn't really notice this at all from the plane, for I usually spend my time talking with the person next to me. It was only when I made the drive that this became obvious.

Why is that? I think it is because in the car, I am travelling closer to a human pace, and nearer to a human perspective. While not actually at the human perspective, which I think of as a walking pace, it is close enough that these observations became possible to me.

From the perspective of the air, while flying at tremendous speeds and at great heights, it was more like the perspective of the angels. I could see the general outline of the patterns of our society, from the long lines of the roads to the geometrical shapes of the farmers fields. I might have been able to watch the occasional truck or car as they sped along, but they were almost meaningless in their individuality, for I was too high up, moving too swiftly.

Those patterns that I actually barely noticed from the car were now very evident when seen from those lofty heights. And this is when another question begins to form in my mind: are these simple observations of mere rocks similar to what Baha'u'llah saw about societies and civilizations? Is this recursive patterning, found in both the movement of the ground and in the water, like what He saw in the patterns of movement in the old world civilization and the new one that is unfolding before our eyes? Could it be that the simple wave motion that takes so many thousands and thousands of years to occur in the rock, and only moments in water, both of which form relatively quickly but whose effects last far longer, is like the social movements that are only now just forming?

Perhaps we are moving from a world of rock to a world of water in effect. And right now, at this moment in time, as we are beginning to learn about how these rules work in this new environment, we are caught in that unique moment where the flora and fauna and landscape and weather patterns are different from anything else we have ever encoutered, although similar in many ways. There are dangers and pitfalls, and the view is incredible. It seems to me as if we are currently coming down from the mountains, ready to embrace a whole new set of rules that are similar, yet strikingly different, to what we have had before.

Hmm. Phrased that way, I am also reminded of the story of Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. He knew about these new laws, and was aware of the new civilization that would arise from obedience to these laws, but what he found was a bunch of people who were heedless and deliberately disobedient to the old laws. They were lost in the wilderness of desire.

In case you are not aware, it was because of this, according to Jewish tradition, that they wandered in the desert for 40 years. It was because nobody who was present at that moment was to be allowed to step foot in the Promised Land. He had to wait for an entire generation to pass before He could lead them to where they were to go.

But here, I wonder where the analogy ends. Which generation is it that will be allowed to see this new civilization? We know that "the civilization that beckons humanity will not be attained through the efforts of the Baha'i community alone", and will "demand centuries of exertion". Who is it that "shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding"? And what will they be like?

Hey, I wonder if I can get a plane ticket there, instead of having to drive. Nah. If I'm not mistaken, Baha'u'llah is going to make me walk.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


My last posting, the one about bubbles, reminded me of another post that I have wanted to write for some time: one about soap.

"You've got to be kidding." No, I'm actually serious.

You see, I believe that it is the responsibility of every Baha'i to live as harmoniously with nature as possible. In fact, I believe this to be true of all people of spirit. When we recognize nature as an embodiment of the divine will, then we will treat it more and more with the respect it deserves.

"And what, pray tell, does this have to do with soap?"

Soap, from what I can tell, is one of the products in the average household that is harshest on the environment. What, I had to wonder, should I do, as a Baha'i, to help take better care of the world around me?

Well, the answer came in an unexpected way: our dryer died one afternoon. I had a load of wet laundry and was faced with a dryer that did anything but. What to do? That wasn't a difficult problem, as I hung everything outside to dry in the sun, for it happened to be a sunny day. When my wife came home, we did a quick bit of research on the internet and headed out to buy a new dryer.

Upon arriving at the store, we found ourselves looking at new washing machines. They looked so much more snazzy than the boring old dryers.

The long and short of it is that our dryer broke, so we bought a new washing machine. Now this wasn't just some capricious whim of consumerism, for we figured our washer was soon to go, too. We also happened to choose a front-loader that was high efficiency, so bonus for us.

Then, when we saw the price of the "matching" dryer, we really questioned whether or not it was worth it. And so we found ourselves at home with a new washing machine and no dryer. Fortunately we happened to have a couple of drying racks, a dehumidifier and a fan. Put them all together and voila: no need for a dryer.

Not only did this save us the cost of the dryer, which was nearly $800, if memory serves, but also the exorbitant cost to run the thing. Plus, it was another very good move for the environment. Double bonus for us.

But what does all this have to do with soap?

Well, by getting an HE washer, we had to get HE soap. We had been given a sample, and so used it, but still had to find a long-term solution (no chemistry pun intended).

As we were looking for a good, enviornmentally friendly alternative to the usual junk on the market, we happened to be at a health food store, and the lady there gave us a sample of Kaley's soap nuts. She said that they worked well in the HE machines. I went back a day later and bought the largest bag they had. I think it cost $40, and now, nearly two years later, I still have half of the bag left. What other laundry soap will cost so little for so long? Oh, and it's not that we do lanudry so rarely, but rather that it lasts so long.

We place about 5 of the nuts in a small cloth bag and toss it in the wash. When we remove the laundry, we put the soap bag aside and use it for a total of 4 or 5 loads. It is only when the nuts begin to change their texture that they lose their potency.

Needless to say, I'm hooked on those things.

Also, by not having a dryer, and using these nuts as well, our laundry has never been so soft. No static, no loss of clothing due to a harsh dryer (what do you think all that dryer lint is? It's your clothing), and no waste of resources.

Not too bad, if you ask me.

So what does this have to do with being a Baha'i? Well, the Guardian says, "We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions."
The soap nuts, and the lack of a dryer are, of course, just a simple and small step to helping the environment, but it is a start.
As Baha'is, we can also help our communities become more "green". For example, there is a wonderful web-site about making sacred spaces more environmentally friendly. I believe that it would do a world of good if we encouraged our Assemblies to look at this site and try to make some of the changes suggested. There a variety of suggestions, ranging from something as simple as not purchasing styrofoam cups to something as sophisticated as solar paneling on the roof. In other words, there is something for everyone.
Me? I started with the soap nuts, and also made some basic dietary changes. But let me caution you, don't try to make peanut butter with the soap nuts. It tastes really yucky, and gives "going green" a whole new meaning.

Monday, June 7, 2010


I don't know what came over me, really. It has been a tiring time, as of late, what with getting ready to try and sell the house. Perhaps I'll use that as an excuse, but I know it doesn't excuse anything. All I can do is just hang my head and offer a puppy dog look of being ashamed (while trying to hide a bit of a smirk).

I can't believe I did it, but I did. I confess, although I know that we should not be confessing our sins (yeah, yeah, we should bring ourselves to account each day, instead, thanks), I am actually guilty of doing this. I opened up Ocean (I can't believe I'm actually writing this in public, on the internet for all to see) and typed in (I hope you're sitting down) the singular word "bubble".

I'm not sure what I expected, or even why I was doing it, but that word seems to have been used twice in the Writings (that is only including the 3 Central Figures, not the Universal House of Justice). "Bubble"? Well, why not? (And look, I've just used the word "I" eighteen times since the start of this article. Sheesh.)

So what are those two quotes? Well, they're both from 'Abdu'l-Baha, and are as follows:

1.  O my Lord, verily, the sins are bubbling foam and Thy mercy is a full ocean.

and 2.  Indeed Thou hast assisted Thy servants in the past, and they were the weakest of Thy creatures, the lowliest of Thy servants and the most insignificant of those who lived upon the earth; but through Thy sanction and potency they took precedence over the most glorious of Thy people and the most noble of Thy mankind. Whereas formerly they were as moths, they became royal falcons and whereas before they were as bubbles they became seas.

I was going to only include the last little bit of the second quote, but decided that it really needed to be in context of the full quote. And I know, the first one used "bubbling", not "bubble", but you settle for what comes up. Right?

As usual, when writing an article of this nature, I have no idea where I'm going with it. It all starts with a randomly weird idea, a quick check in the Writings, and where the wind blows from there on to the end.

What is a bubble? It is a spherical body of liquid with a gaseous centre (hey, that could go into It is quite fragile, impermanent, and moves wherever the wind blows (to use a phrase from above). It truly has very little substance.

Why would the Master compare the sins to bubbling foam? Perhaps that is the most apt description of their beauty and evanescent nature. "Wait", I hear you cry, "what do you mean by beauty?"

Let's face it, sin wouldn't be a temptation if it wasn't fun. If we truly understood the dangerous nature of sin (a movement against the laws of God), and the destruction that it can cause, we wouldn't do it, now, would we? So there has to be an appealing sense of beauty about it. But, like all beauty of this world, it is only temporary. It is as foam when compared the true beauty of the spirit, or the mercy of God, which really is like the ocean.

Also, the bubbly foam may be fun to play with, but compared to the joy of swimming in the ocean? Come on, you have to be very shallow minded to even notice the foam at that point.

I remember my son (4 years old at the time) and I going down to the ocean one morning and there was a pile of foam that had just washed ashore. He glanced at it, but ran straight past and dove into a huge wave, screaming for joy as the wave carried him up and down. After body surfing for an hour or two that little pile of foam was very much forgotten. I only remembered it now when trying to call up the image of oceanic foam in my mind. Isn't that how we should treat sin? A mere glance, if even that, and then on to the good stuff?

So what about that second quote?

It seems to speak of the power and mercy of God. Those servants 'Abdu'l-Baha  mentions were like the lowest of the low, and God raised them up. More to the point, He took the illiterate fishermen and made them the saints of the Christian dispensation. He took utter barbarians and raised them to the heights of spirituality through the power of Muhammad's light. You see? There is hope for me yet.

Ordinary people have been transformed from the quivering moth of the night to the mightiest of birds, that royal falcon. Individual souls, who were like no more than a mere bubble in history, ready to pop and disappear at the slightest touch, became those seas that provided sustenance for generations, through their wisdom and example. Whether we are speaking of the great Rabbis, or the Saints, or the Imams, or any of the mighty teachers from any other faith, they really were just ordinary people at the beginning. Through their faith, humility and dedication (I'm sure there are other attributes that were necessary, but this is a start), and by the power of God, they were raised up to be more than they could have ever dreamed.

Now I have to ask myself: Do I want to be a mere bubble disappearing so soon? Vanishing at a touch? Or do I want to become a mighty sea, offering up whatever I can in the path of my Creator?

You know, I'd settle for being just a puddle.

Hmm. I wonder what would happen if I looked up "puddle" in the Writings?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Recognition and Obedience

A number of years ago, well before I ever took any of the Ruhi Books, I had been invited to give monthly sermons at a local church. This initial invitation has led me on to a lot of service in the interfaith arena. As such, there have been many things I have tried over the years to become closer and closer to those dear friends from other faith paths in the same arena of service. (Hmm. I think arena may be the right term here, as sometimes it does feel that there are battle lines being drawn by some of them, but this is not the norm, for sure.)

One thing that I had done, just as a matter of curiosity, was to give a friend of mine who is a minister the first five paragraphs of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and ask his opinion. I didn't tell him where they were from, but I can only guess that he presumed they were Baha'i literature. His response was what I would call very encouraging. He said that it summed up what he had been trying to say for years and was one of the most profound pieces of writing he had ever seen.

I was reminded of this yesterday when some friends and I were studying Ruhi Book 4 and came to the section, right near the end of the book, where we are encouraged to memorize those same paragraphs. This morning, I thought it might be interesting to look at the first one, at the very least, and see where it goes from  there.

"The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration."
The first thing that really struck me about this paragraph, especially when giving it to a minister, was that Baha'u'llah does not specify recognition of His own Station here. He specifically says, "recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation." The minister, quite understandably, understood this to be a reference to Jesus. And I had to ask myself, isn't it? After all, we are to beware to not "make any distinction between any of the Manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation." He even goes on in the same passage (Gleanings number 24), to warn us, "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."

Quite the stern warning that, and one that really made me think when I first read it.

But this is not to say that we should be lackadaisical about it, nor help people understand the true station of Baha'u'llah. No, quite the contrary. We need to be intimately concerned about this, for if someone only recognizes a single Messenger, then they are missing out on the greater scope and beauty (as well as magnificence and awesomeness) of the full panoply of multiple Messengers. (It's not often I link to the dictionary, but I really like the use of this word.)

It does, however, say to me (and this is only my own opinion, after all) that recognition of any of the Messengers is a good thing.

My job, as a Baha'i, I think is to help ensure that someone's understanding of their faith is in line with what Baha'u'llah says and teaches. If a Christian, for example, believes that his faith tells him to hate Muslims, then I know that they have obviously misunderstood something. Baha'u'llah has helped me to see this. Now that I know what I am looking at, I can help them find those passages and teachings in their own faith that will help them see it, too.

Either way, all this is an aside. This paragraph from the Most Holy Book (that is what Kitab-i-Aqdas means) tells us that recognition is the first duty, but it certainly not our only one. The second duty, which is twin to it, is obedience.

I think this just makes sense. I mean, come on. If you recognize Someone as a Messenger of God, you have to be pretty silly to not do what They advise. It's like calling in an expert in a field for advice and then not listening to them. Why hire them in the first place?

I think that is part of why Baha'i laws are only binding upon Baha'is. We recognize Baha'u'llah authority and expertise, so to speak.

When we recognize that Source of authority, we have "attained unto all good". But if we haven't, and yet we do good deeds, why are we deprived? Come to think of it, what are we deprived of? I have heard many Baha'is say that if we don't recognize Baha'u'llah, all our good deeds are worth nothing, but I do not believe this is true. It isn't what Baha'u'llah says here, that's for sure. What He says is that we are deprived of "all good", which I don't hink is the same as "any good" or "some good".

Could we truly believe that Mother Teresa, for example, has earned no reward for her amazing deeds on this world? That would be ludicrous, and even unjust.

Time for a stated aside - A dear friend of mine had worked with Mother Teresa in India and mentioned to her, at one point, that she was a Baha'i. Mother Teresa responded in a similar manner as Gandhi. She said, "I, too, am a Baha'i. And I'm a Muslim, and a Buddhist and a Hindu." It seems to me that she really had a good understanding of that passage, Gleanings 24.

But let's get back to that first paragraph again. Recognition and obedience. How can we claim to recognize a Messenger of God if we are not willing to obey Them? Would we not be saying that we know better? Pretty absurd. And how about if we are obedient, but don't recognize? This gets to a point that is mentioned over and over in the Kitab-i-Iqan: while obedience is good, blind obedience is what led to the persecution of the various Messengers throughout history.

In another sense, Christians have shown themselves over the years to be very concerned about recognition, that first duty. How often have we heard the refrain, "All you have to do is recognize Jesus"? I would venture to say that they really understand the importance of recognition.

Muslims, on the other hand, really seem to understand the value of obedience. In my many dealings with Muslims, and all the time that I have heard various Muslim scholars speak, obedience is stressed quite highly. They speak quite passionately about the importance of obligatory prayer, or zakat, or any of the other pillars of Islam. They genuinely seem to get the importance of obedience.

Baha'u'llah, He is often wont to do, brings about unity by telling us the twin nature of these two duties.

In this recent Ridvan message, the Universal House of Justice wrote many times about the importance of respecting people of other paths. You don't need to be Baha'i to help build a new civilization, nor to draw inspiration from the Writings. It can help, but is not necessary.

Recognizing the oneness of religion, and having the overarching perspective that Baha'u'llah gives us, can greatly aid us in bringing about unity between the different faith paths, but we must be consistent and sincere in this, as well as humble.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ridvan 2010 Message - Take 8

My friend, Samuel, and I have been studying this rich message for most of three days a week, a few hours at a time, since Ridvan, and we just got through it this afternoon. As some of you may know, we normally use this time to study the Kitab-i-Iqan, or The Book of Certitude. Some of what we have learned, and a few of our various thoughts on this Book, is recorded in our blog together.

This afternoon we read the last four paragraphs of the Ridvan Message, and I was so moved by what we discovered within it that I just had to record it here.

Just to give you a bit of a picture, Samuel looks a bit like Theoden from Lord of the Rings, and I look a bit like Weird Al. We generally sit in a coffee shop that is frequented by people who are nearly twice our age, at least at the time of day we go there. To say the least, we stand out from the crowd. The young ladies who serve us our coffee (or tea) have become regular readers of this blog (wave to them everyone) and are always asking many fascinating and insightful questions of us. Although we had thought their questions mere courtesy at first, we were quickly corrected of this notion.

So here we are, amidst the geriatric coffee klutch, reading this message, out loud to each other. As we do this, Samuel's back is to the people in the shop, so I have the pleasure of watching their reactions as they overhear what we read. On more than a few occassions I have also overheard some of them change their conversations as they react to what we have said. There have even been a few times where I have engaged them in conversation after Samuel has left. Rare, but it has happened. For some reason, it is very awkward to acknowledge that either party has overheard what the other has said, and so it doesn't occur as often as I would hope.

All that aside, what I really want to share with you, dear Reader, are the few insights that Samuel and I have had on this letter. I'm sure you are already aware of the details of this letter as you have read it many times by now, and have probably already seen what we did, but hey, I'm still excited by it, so bear with me.

Throughout the letter we had noticed many references to the idea that it doesn't really matter if one is a member of the Baha'i communityy or not, they can still aid us in our work, or draw inspiration from the Writings. While this is really nothing new, it is so refreshing to see it stated so explicitly. We, incidentally, have taken the liberty of highlighting those phrases that allude to this so that they really stand out.

Having taken our time reading this letter, and seeing how it impacts our daily lives, as well as our teaching efforts, we were a bit relieved to finally come to the very end and all the stuff about social action and public discourse.

We had already posted some of the quotes from paragraph 29 on Facebook, and received a lot of positive comments about them. Pieces that really stood out for us were lines like, "Access to knowledge is the right of every human being..." and "...while social action may involve the provision of goods and services in some form, its primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world."

The whole concept of this social action and the participation in public discourse arising out of the teaching work was a bit difficult for us to understand, at first, but then we applied the ideas to a concrete situation in our own home town.

In recent days (not weeks, mind you, but days), there has been a rash of violence in a part of town right between where the two of us live. Children were sexually assaulted in parks. Teens were shot and killed on their doorsteps in broad daylight. Young girls were shot through the windows in their homes. Stuff like that.

It has not been pretty, and many people are very concerned.

This is when we looked at paragraphs 29 through 32. We asked ourselves what this would look like in a neighbourhood like I've just described.

What effect, we wondered, would we have if we went to the neighbourhood meetings to discuss the situation and presented some of the ideas we have learned from the Baha'i teachings. The answer, quite simply, was "not much". We didn't know anyone there, nor were known. In fact, despite a general love of humanity and a concern for the well-being of our fellow people, we didn't have a deep set love for anyone in that neighbourhood, but only because we didn't know them.

We could go in and try to engage in this social action, or take part in this public talk about what is happening, but the truth is that we really aren't "there" yet. It would be premature, and fairly ineffective.

But what if it occurred in my own neighbourhood? There really is not much of a difference between where I live, and where these shootings occurred. If it were here, near my home, then it would be a different story. Everyone knows me, as well as my whole family, and the chances are that whoever was shot would be a very dear friend, someone I love very much. Here, these people have watched us for years, and we are a part of their lives. They have come to appreciate the perspective we have and would be willing to listen to us, as we have earned their respect and trust. Here, in our neighbourhood, we would have an effect.

But how has this happened? Samuel and I analyzed it, and came to some conclusions that we feel are fairly accurate.

In my neighbourhood, we have prayed with people. We have talked about serious spiritual issues with our neighbours and, insome cases, studied the Sacred Writings with them. This has drawn us nearer together. It has built up the love we feel for each other. We have, in effect, become more unified.

"Further involvement in the life of society should not be sought prematurely. It will proceed naturally as the friends in every cluster persevere in applying the provisions of the Plan through a process of action, reflection, consultation and study, and learn as a result."

By doing what we have been guided to do, from taking part in the expansion phases of a cycle of growth, as well as the consolidation that must follow those up, and helping people move into the core activities, as well as visiting the friends in their homes for the purpose of engaging in a spiritual conversation, we have come to love our neighbours even more than we ever have before. Our lives are intertwined, and practically inseperable. Just last night one of my neighbours saw my light on at 10 pm, so he knocked on the door just to say "hi". He knew he was welcome, and, despite my mild annoyance at the hour, my face lit up when I saw him standing there.

What if it were his daughter who were shot? How could I not be "drawn further and further into the life of society"?

"Involvement in the life of society will flourish as the capacity of the community to promote its own growth and to maintain its vitality is gradually raised."

All of a sudden, the way that this happens in a practical setting suddenly became clear.

But there is one last thing that really drew our attention, and that is in paragraph 31. The Universal House of Justice has felt "compelled to raise a warning". Doesn't that just draw your attention? "...the value of engaging in social action and public discourse is not to be judged by the ability to bring enrolments."

I try and imagine the above scenario, where my dear friends are shot in the street, and I go to the public meeting about it while judging the success of my actions on how many people want to enrol. I just can't do it. I cannot even imagine how anyone could even think of enrolments at a time like that. Our first concern would quite naturally be the safety and well-being of our dear friends. What else could it be? "Sincerity" is the word they use to describe it here.

Then I try and imagine going into a meeting like this and really pushing the fact that I'm a Baha'i and how the Faith has answers to problems like this. Again, I can't imagine doing that. I mean, really, how offensive would that be? No. I would present a few thoughts or ideas, or possibly a perspective, that I have gleaned from the Writings and share how I believe it would change the situation for the better. I would offer information, but let the friends present decide what to do with it. "The watchword in all cases is humility."

This all made sense, and was fairly obvious, now that I read it.

Then we came to the last sentence in that paragraph: "While conveying enthusiasm about their beliefs, the friends should guard against projecting an air of triumphalism, hardly appropriate among themselves, much less in other circumstances."


And they felt "compelled" to put that in there.

Whenever the Universal House of Justice adds in a clause like, "hardly appropriate among themselves", I always have to ask myself why. Have we been projecting this air of triumphalism? Or even worse, have we been doing it in private, thus adding hypocrisy into the mix? Whatever the reason, we must be consistent.

Three virtues: sincerity, humility and consistency. Any social work we do must contain those virtues, or else all of our work will be undermined.

But then, when the love is there, how could you not act with those virtues?

Yes, I`m glad I had the opportunity to study this message to some degree with my friend, and found that looking at real-life situations made it so much more comprehensible.

But then, isn`t the Faith always like that?

I wonder if I'll be able to find anyone else to study with when I'm out in BC? And will they look like someone from Lord of the Rings? Maybe Eowin? With my luck, I'll probably get stuck with an orc.