Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Service and Machines

One of my many joys in life is walking my son to his bus every morning. And while I'm there with him, we get a chance to talk about all sorts of wonderful things.

Today we were talking about math, which, in my mind, is a wonderful thing. We began by talking about the word "abide", which came up in one of our prayers this morning. You remember, in one of the morning prayers, "abide within the sanctuary of Thy protection"? Anyways, we talked about what the word meant, and I related it to his going through some math flash cards last night. He hadn't wanted to do it, claiming they were too difficult. I insisted and there were only 4 or 5 that he didn't know. He abided with my decision to do them, and he discovered that they were a lot easier than he had thought.

This led to a conversation with one of the other parents about how important it is to memorize the basic math tables, and she pointed out other useful skills, like reading a map. I mentioned a friend of ours who cannot read a map, and how he relies on his GPS. "What if it stops working", I asked.

"He'll be lost", replied Shoghi. "And all because he can't read a map. He really should learn."

Well, the conversation went on from there, with the other lady asking me if I had a GPS. "Nope", I replied. "I use a map."

We talked about the reasons for this, and while we both agreed that it is a useful technology, a map is really much easier in many ways. A typical GPS costs around $100, as far as we know, and requires electricity, a satellite connection, and all sorts of other stuff, as opposed to a simple $5 map.

From there we began talking about other "useful" gadgets, like a dishwasher. Presuming that you don't have a large family, neither of us really saw the need for one. A good one costs about $400, takes a lot of resources from the earth, requires maintenance, special soap, and so on and so forth. But what really intrigued her was the idea that it also takes away an opportunity for service to the family.

If we really want to raise a generation that values service to humanity, probably the easiest way to begin is in the home. And in our home, one of the things we do is encourage the simple washing of the dishes.

"O my dear children..." said 'Abdu'l-Baha. "A degree of joy was attained that is beyond words or writing that, praise be to God, the power of the Kingdom of God hath trained such children who, from their early childhood, eagerly wish to acquire Bahá'í education that they may, from the period of their childhood, engage in service to the world of humanity."

Monday, January 27, 2014

More on Meditation

I always love the question that come in from friends. They not only help remind me that real people are out there reading this (which I can easily forget sitting here in the office just typing away), but also serve to remind of questions I had long ago that I had forgotten about. (They also help start conversations with friends that I love and probably miss dearly.)

Just yesterday a friend (who is both dearly loved and missed) sent me a wonderful question that had actually never been on my radar. She said, "I've been wanting to 'learn' how to meditate forever but I vacillate from feeling like I should innately know how to do it to wanting to take a class- but not knowing which are 'Baha'i Compatible' which I don't even know what that means!"

The reasons that this was never on my radar are because first of all meditation wasn't really on my radar until I began teaching a workshop on it at UVic, and secondly because it never occurred to me that one would need to learn how to meditate, just as it never occurred to me that one might need to learn to pray. Oh, and a third reason is because it's never occurred to me that something might not be "Baha'i compatible". Whatever that might mean.

To start, let's look at the question of meditation itself and how one might learn it. (And this, of course, just my own opinion and nothing official, so feel free to take it or leave it. I won't be offended.) Well, when learning to do something, one presumes that there is a "correct" way to do it. But I don't think that's the case here. Meditation, as you know, is part of prayer. Shoghi Effendi, in his now-famous five steps of prayer, refers to the first step as prayer and meditation. They are a single step, not two. (For a little bit more about that, click here.) And prayer, presumably along with meditation, is described by 'Abdu'l-Baha as "conversation with God". While there may be some general rules in a conversation, such as allowing the other person to speak, listening attentively, thinking about what you will say before speaking,and so on, there is no hard and fast way to have a conversation. There is no "correct" way. Some styles of conversation may be more effective with some people, but not all methods of communication work for all people. So when learning to meditate, we should keep in mind that there is no "correct" method, just that some methods may be more effective for us.

But even though there is no one "correct" way to meditate, this does not mean that we can't learn anything from others. When I began doing my workshop, I immediately went to the internet and searched out various meditation techniques. One style is to sit in a group and chant a mantra together. Another style is to sit in front of a candle and stare at the flame, trying to clear your mind of any extraneous thoughts. You can do the same thing with a flower. (Staring at the petals, not the flame. If the flower is on fire, that might be more disturbing than anything else.) Another method is to sit quietly in the room and try to listen to absolutely every sound you can. You can take a sip of tea, focusing all your attention on the taste, the scent, the colour, and all other aspects of it. You can walk a labyrinth. The methods are endless.

With most styles of straightforward meditation, the general idea is to quiet that inner voice, that on-going running monologue, and learn to pay more conscious attention to the world both around you and within you. That can often take practice to become better and better at it, so we shouldn't become discouraged. Nor should we expect perfection at it. In fact, we should leave our inner perfectionist at the door.

When I combine this with prayer, it generally looks something like this: There is often something I am praying about, or for. I will select an appropriate prayer from the Writings, for they tend to be more conducive to my state of prayer than if I use my own words. Oh, and using your own words is a totally valid and legitimate way of praying. There are many Baha'is who have told me that we are not allowed to use anything but the revealed prayers of the Central Figures of our Faith, but nobody has ever been able to show me anything in the Writings that supports this view, so I only regard that as their own opinion and not binding. So, I say a prayer, and then I sit in quiet contemplation for a few moments. It is during this time that I allow myself to be even more open than usual for a response. It often takes the form of some random idea that just sort of pops into my head. But again, go back to that other article for more information on that process.

So there we have it. While we may "innately" know some methods of meditating, we can learn new ones by talking with others, and they are all good. I have yet to find any that are not. Some may not be all that useful to me, but I am certain that they are good for others. Unless there is a method I don't know about that goes against some law in the Writings, I would endorse all styles. (Ok. I've never heard of a method that endorses drinking whiskey until you can't think anymore, but if there is one, I would suggest that you skip it and try something else.)

But what about classes? Are there any that are not "Baha'i compatible"? I would interpret that as asking if there are any classes that go explicitly against the Writings. I'm not aware of any. (Well, except for the Jack Daniels meditation method.) But there is a bit of a caution. Some groups use the teaching of meditation to try and convert others to their religion. They are not teaching meditation for the sake of helping others. They have what we would call an ulterior motive, or a hidden agenda. This can make many of us feel uncomfortable. Of course, it is only a problem if you are not strong in your own faith. If you are, you can attend a course like that, learn what you want, and then leave when you are satisfied, all the while ignoring the overt attempts at conversion. And if it annoys you, you are free to leave any time you want.

Aside - This is also a problem for us to be aware of with things like our core activities. When we insist on everyone only using Baha'i Writings in a devotional gathering, then we give the strong feeling that we only accept what we believe in. This can make others uncomfortable. If we are expecting people to become Baha'i in a study circle, then that is our hidden agenda, and others can sense it. Clearly. If we teach children or junior youth with the expectations that they will join the Faith at some point, there is no way that the parents would allow us to help shape their spiritual capacities. So we, too, must be aware of this and avoid it like the plague.

For more information on prayer and meditation in general, you can look at the compilation from the Baha'i World Centre entitled Prayer, Meditation and the Devotional Attitude, or the book The Divine Art of Living, compiled by Paine. Both are excellent resources.

So thanks go to my friend who asked this question. It really got me to think a bit more about it. And now I need to go off and do my workshop, Meditation 101.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


"The Baha'is will disappoint you."

I could not, for the life of me, figure out why she was telling me this.She had been slowly and patiently teaching me the Faith for years and I had just declared less than an hour earlier. And now, here she was, telling me that the Baha'is would disappoint me. Was she trying to discourage me from staying within the Faith?

"No matter what happens", she went on, "always look to the Writings, not the people. The Writings will never disappoint you. Baha'is will disappoint, but Baha'u'llah never will."

To say that this was drilled into me may, perhaps, be a bit of an understatement. But you know what? She was right. And I praise her wisdom and foresight in warning me. (I also thank God, but she was the one who really carried that message to me, so I thank my teacher, too.)

Time and again over the years, I saw the truth of this. Over and over I found the Baha'is disappointed me. And I'm sure that I've disappointed my fair share across the years, too.

Now, to be fair, there are more times that the Baha'is impressed me far beyond belief (perhaps not the best phrase to use here, but I already typed it). Throughout my years within the Faith I have been very impressed with the quality of love, unity, insights, action, and I can really go on and on, but I don't want to tempt anyone out there with their ego.

But I have also had my share of disappointments. And if my teacher had not drilled into me the fact that this would happen, I might not be here today typing this.

From Ruhi Book 1, we all know the famous line from Baha'u'llah, "Nothing whatsoever can, in this Day, inflict a greater harm upon this Cause than dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy, among the loved ones of God", but that doesn't warn us about the tests we seem to impose upon each other.

Baha'u'llah, in a few of His writings, points this out to us this test that we will likely face. "The imprisonment inflicted on this wronged One, O Dhabih, did to Him no harm nor can it ever do so; nor can the loss of all His earthly goods, His exile, or even His martyrdom and outward humiliation, do Him any hurt. That which can hurt Him are the evil deeds which the beloved of God commit..." "My captivity cannot harm Me. That which can harm Me is the conduct of those who love Me, who claim to be related to Me, and yet perpetrate what causeth My heart and My pen to groan." "My captivity can bring on Me no shame. Nay, by My life, it conferreth on Me glory. That which can make Me ashamed is the conduct of such of My followers as profess to love Me, yet in fact follow the Evil One."

We never really think of ourselves as those who could possibly commit those evil deeds. And while He may be referring to some other things, some heinous deeds perpetrated by the friends, such as that ludicrous attempt on the life of the Shah by some depraved Babis, we should also recall that He considers backbiting "grievous error". He says that it "quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul." "How
couldst thou forget thine own faults", He writes, "and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me." "Accursed" is a very strong term, and may seem too strong, but if we look at the results of being accursed, then it is quite appropriate.

"If any soul speak ill of an absent one," says 'Abdu'l-Baha, "the only result will clearly be this: he will dampen the zeal of the friends and tend to make them indifferent. For backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw... (I)t would make the dust to settle so thickly on the heart that the ears would hear no more, and the eyes would no longer behold the light of truth."

So why am I writing about this? Because I think it is important.

I have seen too many friends pull away from the Faith because of something another Baha'i did.

Aside - I was once asked to breakfast with a couple of friends and their daughter. She was struggling with some issue and they wanted to know if I could answer her. It was a very common problem, and she explained it really well. But then, out of nowhere, she said that she had been told all people who do this thing would "go to hell".

"Who said that", I asked.

"My Sunday class teacher."

"Well, I think your teacher was wrong. First, we don't believe in a hell in that way, and second, there is nothing that says that people who do that will go there. This is what it says in the Writings", and I handed her some quotes. I was prepared for that question, but not in that way.

"Well, yes," she replied, "but my teacher said this."

"So who are you going to believe? Your teacher or the Writings?"

"My teacher."

What can you say to that? She was putting her faith in her teacher, instead of in the Writings. I tried to explain that we individuals are prone to error, present writer perhaps moreso than others, but that the Writings are always true. And while she didn't accept that, it did serve to remind me that we have to be extremely careful not to include our personal opinion when teaching, especially when teaching children.

Another friend of mine has become quite antagonistic towards the community, even though he still loves the Writings, prays regularly, and on and on. Over the years certain Baha'is had said some very bozoid things to him, and he has just decided that he can really live without the community.

Now, in both of these cases the people involved have severed themselves from the community, and it seems to me that it is because of what we in the Baha'i community did to them. We either said something silly, or did something thoughtless, and the effect was to turn someone away. And these were people who were actually within the embrace of the Faith. Imagine how our friends from the Greater Community must feel?

So, when I am teaching others, I always remind them that, yes, the Baha'is will disappoint you. For we will. Not on purpose, but through our carelessness.

The Writings, however, will not. They will never disappoint.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

That Extra Mile

"There are so many things that we miss in the Bible, such as your interpretation of turn the other cheek, or like going the extra mile."

This was said by a dear friend of mine who grew up Christian. We talk about religion at least once a week, and this week he offhandedly mentioned how a lot of people misquote the phrase "go the extra mile".

Well, he had one on me there. I didn't know it came from the Bible. Or perhaps I did, somewhere deep down in the murky pit of my memory, but it sounded like new information to me. I must have mumbled something affirmative, and then, when I hung up the phone, made a quick search for that phrase.

And it surprised me. I mean, it's not like I think of myself as a Bible scholar or anything, but I'm not ignorant of it either.

So, where does "Go the extra mile" come from? Matthew 5:41. And that was what surprised me.

Why? Simple, really. This was actually a passage I thought I was familiar with. You may recall an article I wrote a while back about "turn the other cheek", and how it is really a much deeper phrase then we often think. (You can click here for that article.)

If you don't want to read the whole article, the relevant point in it is that "turn the other cheek" is not actually there in the Bible. Matthew 5:39, which is in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, reads "but I say unto you, resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." And if you actually act it out, pretending to strike someone on the right cheek, then you notice that you have to use your right hand in a backhanded slap. It isn't an act of anger, but an act of insult. You can read the rest for yourself, but suffice it to say that it has a far deeper implication than the usual "If someone slugs you, let him slug you again."

The following verse amplifies this: And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

Here we are talking about someone suing you in a court of law literally for the shirt off your back. This was legal at the time, and a fairly good way to get repayment for a debt since the shirt would have been handmade, and probably the most valuable possession someone had. The cloak, however, was more important, since it likely doubled as a blanket in the cold night. And it was not legal to sue for the cloak, it being protected by a law in Exodus 22:26 - 27 (see, I do know a bit about the Bible).

But here Jesus is saying that you should give them your cloak, too. Unasked. The net result of this would likely have you standing naked before your peers, as well as freezing your now-exposed buttocks off at night, thus elevating the situation to being at the point of discomfort for the one suing.

I go into this a bit in that article, so I won't do it here.

What I never noticed, though, was the very next verse, Matthew 5:41. "And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two."

When just looking at that phrase on its own, I guess I would think of it as the meaning I learned growing up: Do more than what is expected of you.

Now, however, seeing it in this context, I wonder. Could there be more to it than I suspected?

The simple answer is, "Of course."

You see, I googled it to try and get a bit of conetext, and what I didn't know was that it was fairly common for the Roman legions to "compel" people to do certain tasks. This was evidently a big issue for the Jewish rebels of the time, as I'm sure it would be for me today. It was, in fact, one of their main complaints about the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, and something they desperately wanted to get overturned. And just as they expected the Messiah to come as a warrior and physically boot the Romans out, they also expected that He would demand the cessation of this law.

And what does Jesus do? Practically the exact opposite. (This is one of the many reason why the whole "What would Jesus do" thing drives me up a wall. He's a Messenger of God, for His sake. There's no way we would know what He would do.) He tells us not only to do what is requested of us, no matter unjust it may seem, but to go beyond what is asked. It is, in a sense, radiant acquiescence.

Now, the reason we were talking about this is because we were reading a bit of the Kitab-i-Iqan, and ran across the story of Muhammad changing the Qiblih, the point towards which you face when praying. Like all before Him, He would face Jerusalem. But one day, some of the Jewish leaders were backbiting or gossiping about Him, and He began to resent it. Knowing that it doesn't really matter which way you turn your body, He wanted to change the point of adoration, but didn't. Later, when He was getting ready to pray, so the story goes, the Voice of Gabriel said to Him, "We behold Thee from above, turning Thy face to heaven; but We will have Thee turn to a Qiblih which shall please Thee." But even then, He still turned to Jerusalem. It was only later, after the backbiting continued, when the angel said to Him, "Turn Thou Thy face towards the sacred Mosque", that He faced Mecca. And then He did it in the middle of the prayer, as soon as He was told to do it.

What struck us was that He had the permission to choose His own Qiblih, but would not make the choice on His own. He would never do anything without God's express permission. So even though He wanted to face somewhere else, He waited until Gabriel told Him to turn to Mecca. And then His obedience was instant.

So, what does this have to do with that phrase from Jesus? Well, maybe not all that much. But we saw the connection because of the concept of obedience, to either the Messenger or to God, and the fact that both were tests to those who followed.

The question, though, is how can we go that extra mile?

Monday, January 20, 2014

A New Day

"Why does the Baha'i day begin at sunset? Why not midnight? Or sunrise?"

While it would be easy to say that it just is because Baha'u'llah said so, I truly believe that everything within the Faith is far more profound than that.

And what perfect timing for the question. I'm just reading a book called "Time and the Baha'i Era" by Gerald Keil, and this is exactly the sort of question that seems to get addressed in this book. But, to be honest, the first 70 pages or so are an intensely scientific and historical discussion about the various mathematical and... uhm... historical stuffs involved in figuring out a calendar system. And while this is fascinating to some, it can get overwhelming or tedious for others. But trust me, it is well worth it. This is a book I highly recommend.

Anyways, back to the question. Why does the day begin at sunset?

Well, to start, taking a tactic from this book, let's ask ourselves why the day in our culture begins at midnight. Basically there are four distinct times that we can use to begin a day: midnight, noon, sunrise and sunset. Midnight is useful in that it allows us to change a date when most of us are asleep. But the problem is how do we calculate midnight? Without a clock, this is a far more difficult thing than I had ever considered. I mean, it's a chore, and dang near impossible. So unless you want to base your system on a man-made mechanical device, midnight ain't all that great an option. (Ok. If you really want to, you can take a very, very long string, tie it to a post and begin walking just as the sun sets. If you keep a perfectly even pace, then you can mark the string when the sun rises. Cut the string in half, wait a year, and walk again at exactly the same pace on exactly the same day the following year and when you get halfway, you'll know it's midnight.) (Never mind.)

So let's turn to noon for a moment. It is not all that difficult to calculate noon. You only need to measure the shadow of a stick and figure out when it begins to change direction. But without a clock, how can you easily calculate midnight? While noon is far easier, it has the downside of changing the date in the middle of the time when most of us are awake, so that is kind of not a good option.

Really, the only reasonable choices, if you want to base your system on some sort of natural phenomenon, are sunrise and sunset. And while the obvious problem is that sunrise and sunset change time each day, or are just absent in the polar regions, they have the advantage of being evident to the casual observer. And the changing time thing can be easily side-stepped by just ignoring it. In other words, have a clock that is not tied to the date (which is what Baha'u'llah has done).

So, sunrise? Reasonable, but sunset has far more interesting implications. And what are those implications? Well, let's take a look.

The Baha'i Faith is nothing if not optimistic. And everything within the Faith revolves around God. God, as you know, can be symbolized by the sun. So it only makes sense that everything within the Baha'i calendar is based upon the sun.

With me so far?

Well, the entire calendar system is solar based. Every other calendar system out there has some tie to the moon, usually through the months, but even some base their years on the moon. But not the Baha'i calendar. Our months, as you know, are 19 days long, which has no basis on anything except perhaps math (19 x 19, or 361, is the closet perfect square to 365) or the numerical values of some letters in Arabic (such as the word "vahid", or unity, totals 19). (In the tarot cards, the 19th card in the major arcana is also the sun, so it works there, too.)

So if the whole system is based on the sun, which is a symbol for God, then we can either say that we begin with the light and move towards the darkness of the evening, or we can begin in the dark and move towards the light. Guess which one it is?

So why sunset? Because the day is just like our life. We begin in the darkness of ignorance, and move gradually towards the light of certitude. (I could throw in all sorts of quotes and other analogies here, but I don't want to bore you.)

When I searched the Writings for such phrases as "the light of", and thought about them in terms of the day, this simple calendar system of ours became even more profound than I first thought.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Outstanding Characteristics of a Decadent Society

Ok. Let's check that last quote again.

The recrudescence of religious intolerance, of racial animosity, and of patriotic arrogance; the increasing evidences of selfishness, of suspicion, of fear and of fraud; the spread of terrorism, of lawlessness, of drunkenness and of crime; the unquenchable thirst for, and the feverish pursuit after, earthly vanities, riches and pleasures; the weakening of family solidarity; the laxity in parental control; the lapse into luxurious indulgence; the irresponsible attitude towards marriage and the consequent rising tide of divorce; the degeneracy of art and music, the infection of literature, and the corruption of the press; the extension of the influence and activities of those 'prophets of decadence' who advocate companionate marriage, who preach the philosophy of nudism, who call modesty an intellectual fiction, who refuse to regard the procreation of children as the sacred and primary purpose of marriage, who denounce religion as an opiate of the people, who would, if given free rein, lead back the human race to barbarism, chaos, and ultimate extinction -- these appear as the outstanding characteristics of a decadent society, a society that must either be reborn or perish.

That's quite the list, isn't it? 10 separate things, not including the sub-sections. Well, I don't know about you, but I'd like to look at them one at a time, perhaps see what they are and what we can do about them. (Addition: This was really hard to do. I felt overwhelmed during most of the writing of this one, but I think I got past that. Let me know what you think. Thanks.)

First, though, there is the beginning of the sentence itself: "The recrudescence". That just means the revival of, or breakout again, of something you thought had gone away, kind of like a disease. In other words, we thought we got rid of these things, but here they are again. Now on to the list itself.

1. "of religious intolerance, of racial animosity, and of patriotic arrogance" - This is the old habit of thinking that "we" are somehow better than "them". Whether it is based on our religion, the colour of our skin, or what particular stretch of land saw our birth, it doesn't matter. They are all barriers to peace, whether within the heart of the individual or between countries. And while we may have thought that these prejudices were on the way out, we have seen them come back with a vengeance in the past few years. We can all, however, take steps in our own lives to overcome this tendency that has rooted itself so deeply in our world. And while a few would argue that only the "oppressor" can be racist, anyone can show animosity. Our goal should be to show love to all, regardless of their background.

2. "the increasing evidences of selfishness, of suspicion, of fear and of fraud" - We only need to look at the increasing divide between the rich and the poor, and the subsequent dissolving of the middle class, to see that this is happening. There have been many more instances in the past few years of fraud by bankers, investors, and other high profile groups of people that suspicion is increasing faster than ever. The news stories that can be referenced here regarding people of all classes and societies defy description. For ourselves, we can strive to be trustworthy and beyond reproach, freeing ourselves from both the bane of materialism as well as stain of paranoia.

3. "the spread of terrorism, of lawlessness, of drunkenness and of crime" - These speak of personal behaviour on a more general level. While not everyone will be able to defraud a bank, or a nation, of millions of dollars, everyone can afford to get drunk to escape the problems in their lives. And while we may think of terrorism as an organized response to a perceived injustice, road rage can be just as terrifying for those involved. In response, we can try to maintain our calm and composure, not allowing anything to disturb us as we strive to live according to the laws of the land and the ideals of our faith. Deep heartfelt prayer, along with that companion of prayer, meditation, will go a long way to helping us find that sense of calm within our lives. Once we recognize this within our own life, then we can better help others find it within theirs.

4. "the unquenchable thirst for, and the feverish pursuit after, earthly vanities, riches and pleasures" - Black Friday. Need I say more? I mean, of course I can say more, but I think I'll leave it there. To overcome this, though, is to remain detached and recognize that all these "earthly vanities" are but dust in the end. And while it is ok to have possessions, and pursue noble goals, we should be satisfied with what we have and dedicate our time to more worthy ends.

5. "the weakening of family solidarity" - I find it interesting that 5, 6 and 8 are all separate, for I would have thought them tied together. But since the Guardian separates them, I'll look at them individually, although not comprehensively. For the longest time historically, our family was our closest bond. How often were things done to protect and secure the family, whether it was a brother or a parent, a sister or a child? We stood beside our family, through thick or thin, and they stood by us. It was a bond that could long be counted on. Today, however, it seems that we are almost estranged from our family. Many of us, myself included, live far from our families and don't see them on a regular basis. Perhaps our work takes us away from them for too many hours per week, or we no longer spend a reasonable amount of time with them on weekends. Maybe we're even working every weekend. Whatever the reasons, the solidarity of the family has been noticeably weakened. One solution to this is to be more moderate in our work, and spend more time with our family, especially being certain to pray together. That spiritual bond will conquer so much else in this world.

6. "the laxity in parental control" - It seems to me that we are afraid to discipline our children today. We almost seem to think that the rights of the individual secures the rights of children to behave however they wish. And while I am in no way advocating striking children to coerce them into some sort of semblance of good behaviour, I do believe that children need to learn appropriate boundaries from day one. A simple chastisement to a child who has been shown an abundance of love since they were an infant can do wonders for correcting behaviour, when needed. Without the time, however, to develop those intimate bonds of family love, any other sort of discipline will fall far short of being effective.

7. "the lapse into luxurious indulgence" - At first I would have thought this tied to number 4, but I now realize that it really is quite different. The former was a feverish pursuit after these things. Here it is a slip into it, almost accidental. The former you have to work for, while this one comes from not being aware. It is almost as if we take these luxuries for granted. I remember a friend of mine who lost their job and was having trouble making ends meet. But it never occurred to them to get rid of the cable tv. One solution for this, to me, is the Right of God. When we examine our lives, and consciously recognize what things we have that are necessary, then we become more aware of those things we have that are luxuries, and can then make more conscious choices about what we choose to spend our money and attention on.

8. "the irresponsible attitude towards marriage and the consequent rising tide of divorce" - Well, divorce is on the rise. There is no denying that. I shudder to think of the number of people I know who got on well, were perhaps in love with each other, and thought "Might as well get married". There was little or no getting to know each other's character, and the honest thought that if it didn't work out they could always get divorced. But when you see marriage as an eternal bond, you are less likely to just jump into it. So for me, studying what the Writings say about marriage, and taking one's vow more seriously, curbs this tendency.

9. "the degeneracy of art and music, the infection of literature, and the corruption of the press" - Again, we only need to look at the movies out there, or the books, or the art, to see this. We can even look at those so-called news outlets that are nothing more than obscene forms of entertainment, as opposed to being vehicles for information, to recognize their destructive nature. Baha'u'llah, in His tablet to the London Times says that they should "investigate the truth", and in Epsitle to the Son of the Wolf says that the arts should be "conducive to the well-being and tranquility of men". If we choose our arts and news sources carefully, then simple economics will move them back to where they belong, for those other media outlets will no longer find so willing an audience.

10. "the extension of the influence and activities of those 'prophets of decadence' who advocate companionate marriage, who preach the philosophy of nudism, who call modesty an intellectual fiction, who refuse to regard the procreation of children as the sacred and primary purpose of marriage, who denounce religion as an opiate of the people, who would, if given free rein, lead back the human race to barbarism, chaos, and ultimate extinction" -

Oh, there is so much in this last paragraph, and some surprising things that are not there. But looking at these one at a time revealed much to me that I was unaware of. Companionate marriage, which I had thought of as common law marriage, is actually often defined as "a marriage in which the partners decide not to have children, and to reserve the right to divorce amicably with mutual consent". This is quite different from a marriage in which the couple is unable to have children, for it is a conscious choice, as well as an apparently temporary arrangement.

One of the basic tenets of the philosophy of nudism is that modesty has no place in our culture. And while the Baha'i Faith does not condone "any form of asceticism, or of excessive and bigoted puritanism", it does place a high value on modesty, citing it as one of the ways we can help teach others.

While children are not the sole reason for a marriage, as is evidenced by the Guardian's own marriage, they are the primary reason. The institution of marriage is the foundation of the family. And this is to differentiate a marriage in the Baha'i sense from any other form of life-long companionship, which is often called a marriage in our culture. (I have a very difficult time expressing this, but trust that you can sense what I mean.)

Finally, religion should not be an opiate that dulls the senses. It should be something that stimulates the soul to greater heights, and carries us beyond what we ever thought possible. Whereas an opiate lulls into a sense of lifelessness, faith, as defined by the Master, is conscious knowledge in action. "By God, this is the arena of
insight and detachment, of vision and upliftment, where none may spur on their chargers save the valiant horsemen of the Merciful, who have severed all attachment to the world of being."

So this last paragraph reminds me of the high moral standard to which we are called, and that this is not a call to some sort of sitting around feeling good about ourselves. It is a call to action. And there is also the continual reminder that we are not to fall into fanaticism, but an upholding of the Baha'i standard with moderation and respect towards others.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Religious Rights vs Human Rights

I was recently asked to write an article for a local paper regarding a story that has been in the news here in Canada. This is the article. I thought you might enjoy it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Where are We?

"So what do we do about it?"

That was the most asked question regarding those last few posts.

Well, before I look at that, I want to look a bit more at where we actually are. I mean, we all know that it's pretty bad out there, but are we really aware of what it is that we are seeing? I know I am not. And the reason that I say that is because I just read some passages in Shoghi Effendi's book, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, that pointed out many things I've been seeing, but have been unaware of. There are many things he pointed out way back in the 1930s that I am still amazed at seeing today.

To begin, he cautioned the Assemblies to "watch lest the tool should supersede the Faith itself, lest undue concern for the minute details arising from the administration of the Cause obscure the vision of its promoters, lest partiality, ambition, and worldliness tend in the course of time to becloud the radiance, stain the purity, and impair the effectiveness of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh." In other words, I think what he is saying there is that we need to really be aware of the purpose of the administration of the Faith. It is just a tool to bring down the blessings and light of God. Now it is quite the amazing tool, but it is still just a tool. Of course this is only my own personal opinion, and nothing official, but I think he really saw where the world was heading, and the trends of thought that would be prevalent. So even before it became an issue, he warned us to guard against the sort of rigid thinking that is really quite prevalent today. He knew that we would, of course, be influenced by the world around us, and took many steps to help us see that these influences not "stain the purity" of the Faith.

Just a few pages later, a couple of years later in time, he once again helps us refocus on what is happening. He knows it is so easy to get caught up in the technology and toys of our time, and get down-heartened by the problems resulting from this technology. He probably saw the extremes of problems we would be facing, and knew we would be wondering how we will ever get through it all. He also knew that we would be wondering about the technology itself, asking ourselves if we should divorce ourselves from it. With a single sentence he clarifies: "Might not the bankruptcy of this present, this highly-vaunted materialistic civilization," he writes, "in itself clear away the choking weeds that now hinder the unfoldment and future efflorescence of God's struggling Faith?" The very technology that is so wonderful, and at the same time so damaging, might just be exactly what is needed to clear the way for the growth of the Faith. In other wards, we should always see the good in things, and use them to the best of our ability.

Some blame the problems of the world on tech, others on corporations, and some of the particular group that they happen not to like. But Shoghi Effendi is very clear. He writes that "the fundamental cause of this world unrest is attributable the failure of those into whose hands the immediate destinies of peoples and nations have been committed, to adjust their system of economic and political institutions to the imperative needs of a rapidly evolving age..."

He goes on, "Are not these intermittent crises that convulse present-day society due primarily to the lamentable inability of the world's recognized leaders to read aright the signs of the times, to rid themselves once for all of their preconceived ideas and fettering creeds, and to reshape the machinery of their respective governments according to those standards that are implicit in Bahá'u'lláh's supreme declaration of the Oneness of Mankind..."

But to merely name it is not the same as explaining it, and so he proceeds to explain what that principle implies. It "is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope", nor simply means fellowship amongst all nations and peoples. "It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced... It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world -- a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units."

But again there is a caution, for these problems are not due to one side or another in the various political games played by the people in the world. It is due to the structure of governance itself. The Guardian says that we are to adhere to this "principle... which involves the non-participation by the adherents of the Faith of Baha'u'llah... in any form of activity that might be interpreted... as an interference in the political affairs of any particular government." Regarding the various controversies surrounding any of these governments or parties, he says, "In such controversies they should assign no blame, take no side..."

Given these cautions, and these insights, he then defines the cause and the effect of the problems facing the world. The cause, quite simply, is "as a result of human perversity", which has quenched the light of religion in people's hearts. When this quenching occurs, the problems begin. "Human character is debased, confidence is shaken, the nerves of discipline are relaxed, the voice of human conscience is stilled, the sense of decency and shame is obscured, conceptions of duty, of solidarity, of reciprocity and loyalty are distorted, and the very feeling of peacefulness, of joy and of hope is gradually extinguished." (You may remember that quote from the previous article.)

As if that wasn't enough, he goes on to explain the results of all this, the signs that we see so clearly today: "The recrudescence of religious intolerance, of racial animosity, and of patriotic arrogance; the increasing evidences of selfishness, of suspicion, of fear and of fraud; the spread of terrorism, of lawlessness, of drunkenness and of crime; the unquenchable thirst for, and the feverish pursuit after, earthly vanities, riches and pleasures; the weakening of family solidarity; the laxity in parental control; the lapse into luxurious indulgence; the irresponsible attitude towards marriage and the consequent rising tide of divorce; the degeneracy of art and music, the infection of literature, and the corruption of the press; the extension of the influence and activities of those 'prophets of decadence' who advocate companionate marriage, who preach the philosophy of nudism, who call modesty an intellectual fiction, who refuse to regard the procreation of children as the sacred and primary purpose of marriage, who denounce religion as an opiate of the people, who would, if given free rein, lead back the human race to barbarism, chaos, and ultimate extinction -- these appear as the outstanding characteristics of a decadent society, a society that must either be reborn or perish."

And here it is very interesting to note what he mentions, and what he doesn't. I'm not going to go into it here, but will look at this list a bit more closely in another article. I think this one is long enough.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Bit of Mud

One day, many years ago, there was a Baha'i lady who had a dream. She saw a great flood of mud engulfing the world around her. Many, many people were stuck in this mud, struggling to get out, but often drowning. She watched as some tried to help others, sometimes succeeding for a short while, but usually getting stuck themselves. She that it was a disaster of truly epic proportions. And then she noticed 'Abdu'l-Baha up on a hill tinkering with some sort of machine. She ran up to Him and called His name. He didn't seem to hear her, so she called again, begging for him to help those who were drowning. That was when He turned to her and said, "But don't you see what I am doing? I am building this machine to clear up all of the mud."

To me, this story beautifully conveys both the dire situation we see around us in the world today, as well as the role of the training institute in helping raise up the World Order described by Baha'u'llah.

Over the past few days I have received a number of e-mails and questions regarding how we respond to different issues of importance around the world. And the truth is I don't really know. These questions are important, and these situations are real, but should we try to solve each problem one at a time, or should we dedicate our energies to solving the very root cause of all these issues?

Some of the issues mentioned, in case you are interested, are the environment, the minimum wage issue in the US, increases in religious persecution in some areas, school shootings, just to name a few. These are very real issues. People are getting hurt and often dying. But they all stem from a fundamental point: a lack of spiritual awareness.

"No wonder," writes Shoghi Effendi in The Unfoldment of World Civilization, one of the World Order letters, "therefore, that when, as a result of human perversity, the light of religion is quenched in men's hearts, and the divinely appointed Robe, designed to adorn the human temple, is deliberately discarded, a deplorable decline in the fortunes of humanity immediately sets in, bringing in its wake all the evils which a wayward soul is capable of revealing. The perversion of human nature, the degradation of human conduct, the corruption and dissolution of human institutions, reveal themselves, under such circumstances, in their worst and most revolting aspects. Human character is debased, confidence is shaken, the nerves of discipline are relaxed, the voice of human conscience is stilled, the sense of decency and shame is obscured, conceptions of duty, of solidarity, of reciprocity and loyalty are distorted, and the very feeling of peacefulness, of joy and of hope is gradually extinguished."

Doesn't this just sound like what we see in the world around us today? Can't we just see this debasement of people all around? Isn't confidence in all the various man-made institutions around the world shaken? Discipline seems to have just been thrown out the window, as well as any semblance of conscience. Our sense of decency? Well, we only need to look at the media and what passes for entertainment to decide on that. And all the rest of that list? We surly see signs of what the Guardian is warning us about here every day in the news.

So while I may address a lot of questions or issues here, I still feel that the most important thing is to take care of the very heart of the problem, which is the state of religion itself in the world, and the need for its seat within the human heart.

And on that cheery note, I think I'll take care of a few errands that need doing today.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Look at the Future

I have had a number of similar conversations with many people over the past few months. The main thing we discussed is that we are all aware that modern society is just not working all that well.

There are many aspects of these conversations, but what it really comes down to is that we all recognize that the primary concern, the most important thing of all in our society is the growth of the economy. All our laws are geared towards trying to improve the economy, despite the fact that these laws are not that effective. Our tax system is based on the promotion of corporate profits, as opposed to the well-being of society or families. In case this is not obvious, you only need to notice that you get a better tax break when you invest money in Wall Street than when you give money to charity. This has become so ridiculous that they even consider corporations as people in the United States. Our education system, which used to be based on getting you a better job, is now based on ensuring that schools get the most funding possible, both of which have money as their focus.

It is, quite simply, pathetic. It is also detrimental to the well-being of people, the environment, and the whole social structure. (I'm wondering if I can be more condemning than I am, but I don't think so.) It is, to put it succinctly, "lamentably defective".

These conversations also come in the middle of a series of three interesting things: a book I'm reading, a book I read, and a book I'm writing.

The book I'm reading right now, Abby Wize, is a bit interesting in the way that it postulates what life might be like in a few hundred years. It is, of course, from a Baha'i perspective, which is why I picked it up. Now I don't usually review books that I'm not all that impressed with, because I don't want to come across as negative, so please realize that I am enjoying it, even if I am frustrated with some aspects of it. Abby Wize starts off painfully slow and all over the place, and is almost at the point of ridiculousness with its pointless end notes, but is wonderfully fun when it finally gets into the main story. It is only the set up that needs work. Oh, and the overbearing tendency to "show off" knowledge of word definitions. That really wears thin. But it's still fun, and I have recommended it to my wife, who can put aside my verbal vented frustrations to enjoy the book on her own. With a bit of forewarning of what to skip over, I actually like it, despite what it sounds like here. I think all it needs is a good editing job, but that tends to be the main problem I have with nearly all self-published works. So there it is, a book about a future Baha'i society.

The book, or actually pamphlet, I read a little while ago is called "A Bird's Eye View of the World in the Year 2000". (At least I think that is what it is called. I can't find it right now to verify.) This was published originally in Star of the West, so it dates back nearly 100 years. It is extremely limited in its view, based on optimistic thinking of the day, and not all that rooted in the Writings, but mostly because of the scarcity of information. It is, however, a fascinating insight into the dreams and hopes of one member of the community at that time, if not all that realistic.

My own piece is nothing more than a series of letters that just don't hold together yet, but attempt to describe different aspects of a society in the future based on the Baha'i teachings. Given what I've seen in these other works, I am now more aware of certain pitfalls to try and avoid.

So there you have it. A number of different people all raising roughly the same question of how to improve the world. But where to begin with this whole big idea?

Well, if you're me, you begin by deciding what you think will be the most important thing, the fundamental primary concern. What is the one thing, above all else, that will always be given primary status? You see, in every community, and probably within every individual, there is something that is given the absolute highest priority, and all other things bend to it. For example, in chess, the most important thing of all is the king. Every other piece is expendable compared to the king.

What should be the highest priority of our society? We already know from current experience that the growth of the economy is not a particularly useful or good highest priority. Some, when I asked them, said it should be the individual. Others have said the family, or the environment. Some have said love. The problem with the individual as the highest priority is which individual? What do you do when two individual concerns clash? The same questions are raised with the family as the highest priority. The environment sounds like it might be a good option, but how? Does that mean that we should enforce a vegan way of life? Should we avoid any farming practices as they tend to disrupt the local environment in preference to an imposed one? Even the question of sustainability raises issues. And love? How do we define love? Is it the love of the individual for another individual? Or the love of money? Here I think we need to be far more specific.

Personally, I think it will be unity, which is fairly close to love. This ideal of unity, as described by Baha'u'llah, includes the well-being of the individual, the harmony and well-being of the family, as well as the happiness, harmony and well-being of society. It also ensures that we become the custodians of the earth. For if we let any of these slip, then we no longer have unity.

But what does it look like, to put unity as our primary concern? How would this impact our laws, our educational systems, our family life, even our arts? This is what I like to explore.

To begin, the education of our children would be given a much higher priority than it is today. Right now schools are given way less importance than the military or even banks. Governments are so ready to give tax breaks to corporations, or pay to upgrade the military far beyond what is needed to ensure the safety of our borders, and yet are so unbelievably reluctant to offer anything close to adequate funding to schools. If politicians truly valued children as members of our society, then this funding would not even be an issue. They would rather increase the amount of money spent on the prison system than pay to help people avoid the path of life that leads into the prisons. It truly is lamentable.

In the future education would not be geared so much towards helping us find a job as much as helping us learn how to develop our sense of virtues. Praise would be lavished, rather than criticism, and we would learn how to utilize our skills and talents for the benefit of the world rather than just ourselves. The sense of harmony would be an integral part of the educational system, as would the cultivation of empathy as a natural part of our life. Competition would fall by the wayside as collective endeavours are given more prominence and importance, until even contemplating a crime would be rare.

Our tax system would also reflect this higher importance of unity. I mean, charitable contributions would give you a much higher tax credit than an investment.

But all this is just the beginning, and there is ample guidance in the Writings that can be addressed to each and every aspect of our lives, both as individuals and as a collective.

My question to you, dear Reader, is what aspects of society would you like to see discussed here, or elsewhere?

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Troubles with Conversion

Yesterday's article prompted a reply from a reader: "this friend of yours who changed their path, not asking who he or she is or what path they chose, but can you tell us what religious background they had, if any? did they have immediate family in that faith also? was there any ostracism experienced as a result of the faith switch?"

What great questions. And while I won't answer them specifically to my friend in yesterday's article (can I claim ignorance here?) , I will respond to them in a way that I feel is more useful.

You see, when someone converts from one faith to another, it can have one of a few effects on those from the faith they are leaving. They either are glad that the person found a faith they want to follow, they don't care one way or the other, or they are upset.

If they are happy, all is well.

If they don't care, well, that says a lot about them, their own personal sense of faith, or their relationship with the person in question.

However, if they are upset, then the real question is "Why are they upset?"

To start, we should remember that one's faith path is one's own. While we may be guided by our parents, and parents should never underestimate their influence, the ultimate choice for anyone regarding faith is their own. But the parents still have a weighty responsibility to guide their children to be moral and upright people. As the Universal House of Justice wrote in the 2000 Ridvan message, "The beloved Master has said that 'it is enjoined upon the father and mother, as a duty, to strive with all effort to train the daughter and the son,' adding that, 'should they neglect this matter, they shall be held responsible and worthy of reproach in the presence of the stern Lord.' Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mold their children's moral character. For they exercise indispensable influence through the home environment they consciously create by their love of God, their striving to adhere to His laws, their spirit of service to His Cause, their lack of fanaticism, and their freedom from the corrosive effects of backbiting. Every parent who is a believer in the Blessed Beauty has the responsibility to conduct herself or himself in such a way as to elicit the spontaneous obedience to parents to which the Teachings attach so high a value." And yet, in all of this, you will note that they talk about the moral character, not the path.

Now, after all this education and guidance, if the parents deny the child the right to make their own choice regarding which religion they wish to follow, if any, they are actually telling this person that they do not respect their decisions. And isn't that insulting?

So why would they do this? Why would anybody do this? Why would a friend be insulted, hurt or resentful if their buddy chooses a different path than they do?

Well, I'm sure I'm over-simplifying the case, but it seems to me that it all comes down to fear and ego. It seems like they are afraid that they themselves are wrong in their own choice, no matter how convinced of that choice they may be.

Many people seem to feel stronger in their own faith if there are a lot of other people around them who believe the same. And the only reason for this that I can think of is that they don't quite trust themselves, or trust their own vision of the world. So, when someone else changes their faith, they take it as a personal attack.

So, what can we do about it? Well, on the one hand, not much. We can continue to show them love and respect, answer their questions, live a moral life, and pray.

On the other hand, we can take the brilliant approach that the other commentator on that same article took. They said, "I went to my rabbi and asked him "Do you want me to find and be close to God" ? As was to be expected, he said "Of course"!
I responded by telling him that I had done so and that, if anything, he should be happy for me rather than upset."

If any backbiting occurs after that, it is truly on their head, and has nothing to do with you.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Conversion and Independent Investigation

A friend of mine recently talked about joining a new faith. I won't mention which one because, really, it's irrelevant. I mean, I won't mention which friend. Come to think of it, I won't mention which faith either. Neither are relevant.

What I did, after he said this, though, was ask him why.

Now this question was not in the form of "Why on earth would you join that one", nor "Why would you even think of changing your faith", but rather "Why that particular one? What is it about this faith path you are choosing that makes you feel it is right for you?" (The emphases are added to really convey where the stress of the question lay.) As I knew, he understood it that way and we had a wonderful conversation about faith, paths, and independent investigation of the truth.

This is actually one of my favorite questions. "Why did you choose the path you are on?"

In fact, just the other day another friend and I were talking and in the course of our conversation they said that they had become a Baha'i about 5 years ago. I asked the same question of them: Why?

And again they understood that it was not a question of why they would possibly become a Baha'i, but why did they choose to be Baha'i over every other path out there.

Now, the logic tree of all this is fairly straightforward: They either have a faith path or they do not. If they don't, they either haven't chosen, or are atheist. If they haven't chosen, why not? What is stopping them from choosing? If they're atheist, why? If they do have a faith path, they either inherited it or chose it. If they inherited it, they either questioned it at some point or they didn't. If they did, why did they remain? If they didn't, why not? If they changed their path, why?

You see, it all comes down to why someone is on the path they are. And if they haven't given it much thought, well, I'm curious why someone wouldn't.

But really, the most interesting one of them all to me is the person who has actively and consciously changed their path. That implies a degree of effort, an overcoming of inertia, a massive change of trajectory. And that interests me. (Wow. I really had trouble typing that line. I must have screwed up "that" about 6 times, spelling that simple word every wrong way possible.)

In most cases, their story begins with dissatisfaction. There is something that they felt they were missing, and they went searching for it. This is a story we hear over and over again. Other times they see something better in the path they have chosen over the path they had followed, even if they weren't actively looking for a new one. Either way, their story is fascinating, and I often learn something new about my own faith, too. Many times they have questioned something that I have always taken for granted, and I appreciate the question being brought to my attention. Sometimes they have come to answer that I never would have considered, and that is always interesting to me.

Asking this simple question, "Why", has often proven to be both interesting and educational.

But what about the importance of the independent investigation of truth? (You may have thought I forgot about that aspect of this article, but don't worry, dear Reader, I didn't.)

There are a number of quotes that tell us of the importance of this basic and fundamental principle of the Faith. This is only a few of them.

“The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right", says 'Abdu`l-Baha, and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one.”

"By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds." Again, this is from 'Abdu'l-Baha.

In the Hidden Words, Baha'u'llah says, "The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes."

You see, first we can't presume that we know it all and have some sort of responsibility to impart this knowledge upon others. We all have stuff to learn. Perhaps more than most, in my case, but still, we all need to learn more.

Second, faith is not something that is blind. Bind faith, maybe, but not faith. It is conscious and applied.

So, we need to learn, know that we are learning, and then apply it.

Third, but not final, we need to see the world through our own eyes. While it is perfectly acceptable to turn to others for guidance or inspiration, we have to make the knowledge our own in the end.

But going back for a moment to the concept of blind faith, following merely because it is traditional. Baha'u'llah strongly criticizes this in the Kitab-i-Iqan. "Consider", He says, "how men for generations have been blindly imitating their fathers, and have been trained according to such ways and manners as have been laid down by the dictates of their Faith...Such men... become so veiled that without the least question, they pronounce the Manifestation of God an infidel, and sentence Him to death." Later in that book, He writes of these same people, "The more they are told that this wondrous Cause of God, this Revelation from the Most High, hath been made manifest to all mankind, and is waxing greater and stronger every day, the fiercer groweth the blaze of the fire in their hearts. The more they observe the indomitable strength, the sublime renunciation, the unwavering constancy of God's holy companions, who, by the aid of God, are growing nobler and more glorious every day, the deeper the dismay which ravageth their souls." This blindly following something just because it is traditional tends to lead us very easily into fanaticism, and that is never a good thing.

And so, with these, and other, quotes in mind, I feel that we cannot lay too much emphasis on the principle of searching out truth for oneself, as opposed to following merely because others have believed the same.

Of course, as we search, we will recognize those that we consider authorities and will have to, at times, take their word for granted. But this is not to be done blindly. It is much like deciding which university to attend. We begin by deciding upon the criteria for the university, such as accreditation, or recognizing certain professors as worthy based upon their research or their writings. Once we decide where to go, then we begin to take courses. During our studies there are often things that we take for granted until later in the course, when we actually have the wider base of knowledge for understanding.

That is how I have always seen my own personal faith. I studied the teachings of Baha'u'llah, never quite calling myself a follower until He had proven to my satisfaction that His perspective of the world was better than my own. That was when I took those things on faith that I really didn't understand. Like prayer. I still can't explain why it works. I just know that it does.

So anyways, that's the other reason that I'm always so interested in why people have chosen their particular faith path. They have moved past this and are acting on what they have learned in their lives.

And that's cool.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Marriage Preparation

"Ahh. The so-called 'dating' practice." The tone in his voice evoked sadness, disappointment and patience all at once. I don't recall the question, but I do remember the tone. It was used by a member of the Universal House of Justice. He was sitting on the corner of a desk, relaxed as could be, talking with those of us who were working in the office. This was in the early 90s. I also don't recall much else of his informal answer, but those words, and that tone, have stuck with me for years.

Why did he speak of dating in that manner? And what did he mean by "so-called"? Those were the questions that I had to ask for so long, before even beginning to come up with an answer. Those questions, of course, led me on a search for looking into the various methods of finding a marriage partner that would not elicit that tone of his that said so much.

As you may know, I am very happily married, and talk about my wife a lot here. She is truly one of the most wonderful things about my life, except that I don't think of her as a "thing", but I'm not sure how else to phrase it in that... phrase. She is one of the most wonderful aspects of my life? Parts of my life? However I phrase it, she is the wonder in my life.

For some reason, as of late, I have been asked many times how it was that we came to realize that we wanted to get married. Why was it that we never dated? How would I recommend people to go about finding a marriage partner? Those are great questions, and I'm really not sure why people ask me. Aside from having gotten very lucky, and Marielle suffering the temporary insanity that enabled her to say "yes" to me, who am I to answer them?

But let me go back a bit. I had been involved in the dating scene for years, and while I dated some pretty amazing women, none of them either made me sit up and say "Here is someone I'd like to spend the rest of my life with", or if they did, they felt otherwise. No complaints, mind you, just a simple reality that I acknowledge.

Back to that comment, though: "The so-called 'dating' practice." A date is, quite simply, a social appointment arranged beforehand with another person, or the person with whom that appointment is made. When "dating", you are making a commitment to another person to reserve your time for them on a regular basis, and promising not to become intimate with another person. Usually there is also the implication that you will not make social appointments with another person, with whom you may become intimately involved. (That was tough to phrase, even with the help of the dictionary.)

How useful is this for finding a marriage partner? Personally, I don't think it is very useful at all.

What I am going to say here, I have said many times before, but I think it still bears repeating.

The purpose of dating is, to me, to find a marriage partner. But the best way to find a marriage partner is to get to know the character of the person you want to marry. (Thank you, 'Abdu'l-Baha.) When dating, we put on a nice face, a good front, and try to be on our best behaviour, which is not how we normally are. So how is this conducive to truly getting to know someone? I would say it isn't.

Looking at my own life, shortly before Marielle and I got engaged, I tried something unusual in my circle of friends. I stopped dating. Instead, I recognized that I had a large number of acquaintances. In fact, I think we all do, if we only take the time to recognize it. Out of that large number of acquaintances, there are a good sized number of friends. And then, out of those friends, there are my nearest and dearest friends, those people for whom I will go far out of my way to spend time with.

It is like a pyramid. Acquaintances on the bottom, and above them friends. The next tier up are my close friends. And I (rightly) figured that the woman I would marry would be in that top tier. So I began to look at those people even more closely. If they were single and female, I began to "check them out".

I asked one of them if they wanted to go in on a gift together for a mutual friend. We took $20 and went to the store to buy a gift. And that settled it. Great friend. Not a chance for marriage.

Another one I asked if they wanted to help me cook a dinner for a group of us. We planned the meal and got the groceries, and all looked fine. Then we were in the kitchen, and I decided that she and I would make great friends.

In the meantime, there was Marielle. We slowly began to get to know each other, after having seen each other around the Baha'i community for some time. We discovered we had similar interests, and began to do some small service work together. To aid us in this, we began to study the Writings together. And all the while we went to movies with friends, had dinner with groups of people, and on and on.

One day the Baha'i community sponsored the Wildfire Dance Group to come in to Winnipeg, and for some reason there was a dinner that nobody had prepared. It just slipped through the cracks. And so I said to them to come over and I'd feed them. I rushed home, back to my small apartment, and began to hurriedly get all the food in the house ready for them. My roomie at the time made a large salad, while I asked Marielle to put all the cans of beans in one pot. I quick-thawed some chicken and got it ready in the oven. Marielle was finished with the cans, so I asked her to blend some syrups I had (including Rooh Hafzeh) and make a drink for everyone. (She just told me that she thought it was going to be awful, but was amazed at how delicious it was.) I had a vision of a quick meal for at least 15, but probably more like 20, and choreographed my friends to help prepare it as soon as we could, for the group had another performance later that evening.

As we all sat down (on the chairs, on the floor, in the hallway of the building) to eat, I eyed Marielle a bit more closely, for working with her like that was just like dancing. It was awesome.

I think this was when I realized for myself that there was something there. But even then, neither of us were interested in a relationship at the time. (Looking doesn't mean that you're actually interested in finding just yet.)

But back to other things, like dating and intimacy. Those two really seem to go hand in hand, and I really need to address that here, for if I don't, then what's the point of this?

Just a few points on intimacy. First, when you become intimate, you don't really see the individual any more: the infamous rose coloured glasses. You see some sort of idealized version of them that usually has little to do with reality. And when you want to investigate character, reality is your best friend. Now these glasses may help after the marriage, but not before. When getting to know the individual, you really want to keep your head and your vision clear.

The second point is that intimacy differs from person to person. You see, relationships are all about a heart-bond, or a soul connection. The physical actions that bring about that heart-bond are different for each person, and do not necessarily require full sex. For some, holding hands is going too far. But either way, full baby-making coitus sure seems to bind the hearts together, regardless of who you are. It just seems to be the way we are made. I mean, look, if sex were merely physical, then rape victims should suffer the same degree of trauma as a victim of a physical beating. Obviously they don't. There is something deeper happening. (My own opinion, of course, and nothing official.)

The third point is that checking each other's character does not require physical intimacy. That has nothing to do with character. Intimacy has to do with building the spiritual bond. As my wife said, when a child is born, there is already that deep spiritual bond between the child and the parents, whether or not the parents recognize it. But for two fully grown adults, they need to do something to create that bond, and sexual intimacy is one way of doing that.

A side point here. When we become intimate with someone, our heart is somehow connected to them. If we lose that relationship, either through a breakup or a divorce, it is like that part of the heart is ripped out. And while I don't know from personal experience, I've been told that separation through death, painful though it is, is not the same. Regardless, the heart is not meant to go through the pain of breaking up over and over again.

And that, to me, is one of the main reasons that this man lamented over the practice of dating. This practice binds the heart over and over again, encouraging the intimacy before it is appropriate. And then breaks it over and over again as we search for that right person.

And then, when we finally find the right partner for us, all we have left to offer them is a wounded heart.

My wife and I both were previously married, and we both came into our relationship scarred. It has taken us a long time to try and help each other heal those scars, and we are still working on it today. But now I can truly thank God that we were guided to each other in a safer, more compassionate way, a way that we felt was recommended to us in the Writings.

If we can encourage others to drop the whole dating thing and, instead, investigate their partner's character more carefully before making that commitment of the heart, then our own personal pain will have been worth it.

Ah, who am I kidding. I'm with Marielle. It's already worth it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Right and Wrong and Progression

"What does it feel like when you're wrong?" That was the question asked by someone giving a talk at a TED conference. (This is the same talk I posted yesterday.) (And this is another of the articles I began some time ago, which has been sitting in my 'drafts' folder for the same "some time".)

As you can imagine, most people said things like "bad", "awful", "not fun", and so forth. But, as the speaker pointed out, that's not really the answer to the question. What they answered was, "What does it feel like when you realize you're wrong?"

The answer to her question is, "When you are wrong, it feels as if you are right."

And that, dear Reader, was such a profound statement of truth that I just had to sit up and pay attention to the rest of the video. As you can imagine, it really got me thinking.

In particular, it got me thinking about the concept of certitude, that feeling of being correct, and the Book of Certitude. You see, I'm not sure, but I don't think Baha'u'llah wants us to feel certainty when we are wrong. He wants us to be assured in that which we have verified.

Remember, this is one of the most important works He wrote. The Guardian refers to it as being "of unsurpassed pre-eminence among the writings of the Author of the Bahá'í Revelation". That's how important certitude is.

So looking at that Book for a moment, and re-examining it in light of this talk, I noticed a lot of things I hadn't seen before. Well, I had seen them, but I hadn't paid as close attention to them as perhaps I should have.

Most notably, I began to see His injunction to "consider the past" far more relevant to this train of thought. When I really begin to talk about religion with people, it is not the events of the past that they seem to disagree with, but the thoughts of the future. Now obviously this is not an absolute truth, but rather just a blanket observation. The problem, though, is that their view of the past may not be all that clear.

Looking at the past, as Baha'u'llah encourages us to do in the Kitab-i-Iqan, we will readily see that everything Baha'u'llah talks about regarding the other Messengers in those first couple of dozen pages we not only already know, but already agree with. Well, presuming we had heard of Hud or Salih, we already knew and agreed. And presuming, of course, that we actually had studied our own religion, for this Book was written to the Uncle of the Bab, and this man was a good Muslim as well as a scholar.

In other words, Baha'u'llah presumes that we already know a bit about what we believe.

And you know what? Chances are that we aren't wrong. But the chances are that we are not quite right either.

In the very beginning of the talk Kathryn Schulz refers to that time when she was looking at the strange Chinese symbol all across America. She was correct in that it was a strange symbol, for her, and that it did stand for something. But it took a moment of re-focus for her to realize what it really was.

I think Baha'u'llah gives us that moment of re-focus in the beginning of the Iqan.

Let's take a look, for example, at paragraph 7, which is chosen not at all at random:
Among the Prophets was Noah. For nine hundred and fifty years He prayerfully exhorted His people and summoned them to the haven of security and peace. None, however, heeded His call. Each day they inflicted on His blessed person such pain and suffering that no one believed He could survive. How frequently they denied Him, how malevolently they hinted their suspicion against Him! Thus it hath been revealed: "And as often as a company of His people passed by Him, they derided Him. To them He said: 'Though ye scoff at us now, we will scoff at you hereafter even as ye scoff at us. In the end ye shall know.'" Long afterward, He several times promised victory to His companions and fixed the hour thereof. But when the hour struck, the divine promise was not fulfilled. This caused a few among the small number of His followers to turn away from Him, and to this testify the records of the best-known books. These you must certainly have perused; if not, undoubtedly you will. Finally, as stated in books and traditions, there remained with Him only forty or seventy-two of His followers. At last from the depth of His being He cried aloud: "Lord! Leave not upon the land a single dweller from among the unbelievers."

Ok. Why this paragraph? Because I think we all know a bit about Noah. Oh, and this is where Baha'u'llah finishes talking about Noah. He doesn't go on and tell us the popular story that we all know. He doesn't mention the ark, the flood, the animals, nothing. Not a word.

You see, I think one of His purposes here was to help us recognize a Messenger of God. These qualities, these aspects of His life are what help us recognize Noah as a divine Messenger. They are what He has in common with all the other Messengers. The story of the flood and the ark are what make Him unique. And Baha'u'llah isn't interested here in what makes Noah unique. It is irrelevant to His argument. It is actually a distraction.

Instead, Baha'u'llah goes through paragraph after paragraph, page after page, re-telling us the stories that we already know. And He is showing us what we have failed to see all this time. He is showing to us what all the Messengers of God have in common.

Now again, it's not that we were wrong about Them. We recognized that They were special. Their stories have withstood millennia. That's pretty impressive.

But what He is doing here is casting Them all in a new light, and helping us, very slowly and very patiently, to become more certain in our own Faith. And to be fair, He is not, for example, lowering a Christian's view of Jesus. Instead, He is raising our view of all these other Messengers. He is not lowering Jesus. He is raising our understanding of Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, Moses, and all the other Messengers.

And when we realize that our previous view may not have been all that great, all that accurate, He gives us a chance to reflect, to ponder, to consider. Over 80 times He encourages us to do this.

Why? I think it is because He understands our very basic nature about the need to feel like we are right. And this is what Kathryn exposes in her talk.

I could go on here about the dangers of the ego, or how consultation helps lead us to a higher understanding than we previously had, or how humility helps us overcome so many obstacles in our life, but I won't. That's not what I wanted to discuss here. I only wanted to give you this little thought about feeling right, and how Baha'u'llah leads us through this minefield. Or, to use the Coyote analogy, safely past this cliff.

By taking a few dozen pages to carefully lead us from our old understanding of these ancient stories, He is giving us a chance to allow this "I'm right" reflex to subside, if we but take the time to reflect. Then He takes a single quote from Jesus regarding the Second Coming, Matthew 24:24, and spends over 100 pages analyzing it.

And what do we do? Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I would summarize all of it, over 200 pages, with the words "progressive revelation". And what an injustice that would be to anyone listening to me.

Baha'u'llah doesn't begin with anything controversial, or questionable. He begins with something He knows we already know. He carries us step by step through the entire train of thought. He gives us the time to think about what He's saying. He allows us to recognize the truth of His words, ever so patiently.

And, if that wasn't enough, He also tears down some silliness along the way. If there is an obvious argument that people have used for a long time, and it is patently false, He says so. If we toss out the idea that God's hands are tied because of what we have understood from a Holy Book, He reminds us that this is ridiculous. God can do whatever He wants. Do we believe that someone else's Holy Book is somehow incomplete or wrong and that this is why they have disbelieved? He says that this is open blasphemy, for God would never mis-lead His people. Do we believe that God has some sort of hand that will tear asunder the sky in the end days? That's just silly. Are the stars that shine in the night sky going to somehow fall onto the earth? Give me a break.

But all this time He trusts that we will examine these ideas of His with an open and sincere heart.

And if we feel that we are right, and He is wrong? He doesn't push the point. He just asks us to consider.

Because you know what? If He were to push the point, that would just get us to push back. And He is just trying to help us quell that very normal reaction.

So, yeah. I like this talk. Not because it helps me to be more certain in my faith, but because it helps me to understand what is going on in my own mind, in my own heart, when I think I'm right. And it helps me to be more compassionate to those who believe differently than I do.

I mean, I may be a Baha'i, but it doesn't mean that I understand what Baha'u'llah says better than anyone else. There may be something very obvious in the Writings that I have just mis-understood this whole time. I may be seeing that strange Chinese symbol instead of the picnic table.

(And here is the talk again, just so you don't have to search for it.)

A whole whack of ideas

I have about 80 articles started in my "drafts" folder. This is, or was, one of them.

Every now and then, when I'm wondering what to write, I take a look in this folder and see what leaps out at me. Every now and then it is a fully finished article that I just never got around to posting, perhaps due to having posted another one earlier in the day. Other times it is an article that is so close to being done that all I need to do is add a few extra phrases here or there.

Today it is a series of six short paragraphs, most of which are just a single phrase expressing the beginning of a thought, and all of which need copious amounts of work to be ready for publication.

Or not.

Let's see.

To start, the first idea is "post the video about how we don't feel our own opinion is interesting". Okay. That's easy. Here it is:

Ok. That wasn't actually the one I wanted, but after looking for an hour, and listening to many other amazing talks, I couldn't find the one I really wanted and settled for this one. The one I wanted was about how there are many people who dismiss their own brilliant insights because they think, "Oh, it's not that great. Anyone could've thought of that." In other words, to ourselves our insights don't seem all that great, because we are the ones who thought of them.

Baha'ì connection: I have to include this because that is the whole point of this blog. The Baha'i connection for me to the above idea is that we have to include our opinions in consultation. When talking about teaching, or pretty much any other subject, if don't offer our thoughts, we may be denying the entire group the exact point that is needed to find a better understanding of truth. Of course, we must offer these thoughts clearly, and with detachment, courtesy and humility.

The second paragraph in my notes, also known as "an incomplete sentence", was "people keep doing the same thing and getting the same results." Well, this is a no-brainer. We only need to look around to see that this is true. If you keep on doing the same thing over and over again, you will get the same results over and over again. Generally speaking, that is. I mean, if you play the same lottery numbers over and over, you might actually win, but probably not. (As I told Shoghi, the lottery is a great game for people who don't understand math.) But this statement is also a good summary of the scientific method. If you can`t replicate the experiment, then it isn`t considered valid.

The follow-up to this is that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a fairly good definition of insanity. If we truly want to get significantly different results, then we need to change what it is that we are doing.

Baha'i connection: Well, this is why we have the Baha'i Faith, isn't it? We've been trying to apply the same remedy to humanity's problems for a very (very) long time. They worked for a while, helping advance the cause of unity and raise humanity to a higher and more moral station, but these ideas seem to have stopped working a long time ago. We have a whole new set of problems that we are trying to deal with, and we need some new guidance. Of course, this is not to say that the teachings and guidelines from previously revealed religions is no longer valid, but more to say that we have overlaid such a mess of baggage on top of these teachings that we have a difficult time separating the original intent of the teachings from the dogmatic traditions. Seeing these teachings through the lens of Baha'u'llah's teachings helps us get back to the spiritual heart of these differing faiths.

Number three: "look at Marielle's story about Mario". I have no idea what this is referring to. I know that it referred to something about a co-worker of hers, and nothing about the video game. That's what I get for not writing down more details at the time.

Number 4: "Talking with Darod: I don't like my job. Work, done in the spirit of service to humanity has been elevated to worship... Talking about what is prayer and meditation and service."

This is referring to a conversation I had with a dear friend who has since moved to Ottawa. I really miss him and his family. Anyways, one day we were talking in his living room when he made the comment about how he really didn't like his work. It seemed to me that he had a job that was fairly reasonable, and well-suited to his skills and interests, but I think he was just frustrated at various intra-office stuff. Knowing that he is a very devout Muslim, and that service to humanity is extremely important to him, I found a connection to a Baha'i teaching that I thought would assist him in his dilemma.

It worked.

I quoted 'Abdu'l-Baha's statement, "Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship...." This seemed to ease his heart and give him a new inspiration to keep up a high standard in his job.

Baha'i connection: See above quote.

The fifth statement: Multi-faith versus interfaith and non-denominational versus multi-denominational.

This is a bit more abstract and may take a bit more time to explain. Also, there are two different ideas in this one.

The first is multi-faith versus interfaith. In my job as a chaplain at multi-faith services at UVic, this has come up quite a bit. Multi-faith implies a group of different faiths all working independently, although perhaps in the same proximity. Interfaith starts at the same point, but implies a mingling of them. When you hold your fingers out, they are each fairly weak on their own, but when you interlace them, there is a greater strength there. They work far more closely together, but may not have as much independent movement.

In the office, just before I started, they changed the name from "Interfaith Services" to "Multi-faith Services". There were some who didn't like the idea of working more closely with the others. Their beliefs were nothing that they were willing to compromise on, and they felt, for some reason, that working with others in a more "inter" manner would somehow be a compromise.

Which is better? Well, I prefer "inter" to "multi", but I'm not the only one in the office, and I will stand by their decision. Out of all of us in there, I'm probably the one with the least number of students to work with, and hence the most "free time". I'm sure that if I had 1000 students to deal with on a regular basis, I'd want to do my own thing on my own, too.

The second point in here, multi- versus non-denominational. The first is, again, inclusive of a number of differing groups, but not necessarily working together in harmony. They may all be doing their own thing in the same space, such as one group having a service at 9:00, and another at 10:00. They may never see each other, except in the hall, or in a meeting to agree when they will get to use the space. But, to be fair, they are working together to some degree in that they are sharing the space.

Non-denominational means that they fall under the banner umbrella, such as Christian, but not under a specific slant of the teachings, such as Catholic. And while many groups claim this, I have never found one that actually is. They all claim to "read the Bible as it is", which is the same claim as any other denomination. And while they have their own particular slant, they generally don't show the conviction of it by stating that they have it. To be truly non-denominational, they would need to read the Bible, or whatever sacred Text they use, and offer no commentary on it. Of course, they would also need to read it in the original, as a translation would also have a slant.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm authoritative, or even right, on these views, but they are what I believe. And I think we need to look at these terms a bit more closely when using them. Inter-, multi-, and non- all have their own benefits and their own weaknesses. They are different, and we should be aware of the differences.

Baha'i connection? I'm not sure there is one, except that they come up in my own work regularly.

So that was one draft article, sort of added to fairly quickly, mostly to get it out there, but also to see what others think.

Now to go out and enjoy a beautiful sunny day outside.