Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ridvan 2014 - A Few Thoughts

By now you have likely read this year's Ridvan Message, which was, quite wonderfully, shared on the Universal House of Justice's web-site (click here to read it), and, as you know, I like to look at it with you to see what wisdoms we can find within its paragraphs.

Actually, I originally began doing this because I was sick and tired of the so-called study guides that pop up every year that ask questions that merely ensure you understand the most basic level of English. You know, the kinds that ask questions like "A full three years have passed since the inception of the current stage in the unfoldment of the Divine Plan..." "How many years have passed since the inception of the current stage in the unfoldment of the Divine Plan?" (There are way too many of these out there to begin to name them. Which I wouldn't do anyways. After all, their intentions are good, and they are helping people to at least read the Message.)

Of course, there is room that type of question, such as when they mention the "two essential movements" that "propel the process of growth". It is so important that we know this by heart, for it is vital to the growth of the community. We have to recognize that these two movements are the friends through the sequence of courses offered by the training institute, and the movement of the clusters along the continuum of development. Until we, as a community, can answer "What are the two essential movements in this Plan" without giving it a seconds thought, we need to keep asking it.

But really, there is so much more in this letter that we can ask about. We don't need to spend so much time on the basic language of it.

We could, for example, ask why these two movements are essential. And if we do, we may come to realize that the first one addresses the spiritual development of the individual, while the second one helps us recognize how our community is growing closer together, becoming more unified and more effective in helping bring about "the material and spiritual prosperity" envisioned by "Him Who is the Lifegiver of the World".

As usual, they use the first paragraph to help us understand just what it is we have spent the past year doing. We may feel depressed because we might not see as much movement in our own community as we would like. Or perhaps we saw some movement, but got stalled. Maybe we ran into some obstacle and can't quite see our way around it. Either way, the House of Justice lets us all know that we, as a global community, are doing quite well, indeed. And they even point out that the youth who attended those incredible conferences last year are a tremendous resource who are now mobilized in the field of service, helping move all of us forward on this path towards a better world.

But we can't rest easy. We still have a lot of work left to do. And while we have advanced 3000 clusters to point of having their own intensive programs of growth, we still have to find a way to raise another 2000. Great job, and more to do.

By the time we get to paragraph 2, they begin to break it down for us. They define many types of clusters, which are at different points along that path towards growth. We can ask ourselves where our own cluster is on that continuum. That will help us see what some of the next steps might be.

They also make a very interesting observation in that paragraph. They say that "as the quality of the process of spiritual education is enhanced through experience, souls are more readily attracted to participate in it." The implications of this are quite neat. And obvious. After all, why would someone who is not a member of the Baha'i community have any interest in taking any of these courses? We can't force them to do so. We have to attract them. And the best way to do this is by enhancing the quality, and that only comes with experience. So now we can ask ourselves what we have learned about enhancing the quality. What have we experienced that really moved us, touched our heart? How can we do something similar?

Of course, we are likely to encounter obstacles on the way. This is only natural. And how do we get past these obstacles? Consult on the reasons for the impasse. Try to honestly discover the problems. And it does require honesty. I know that I have tutored courses that were boring. I had to be honest about that and find a new way of tutoring. I had to see what touched me, and not just do the rote style of tutoring I had been doing. Doesn't work. We also need to show forth patience, courage and perseverance.

When we move to the marvelous example of Vanuatu in paragraph 3, it is worth noting that the friends there were more concerned about the greater community than their own activities. They have turned to the greater community to see what they needed, spent the time and energy and resources helping provide what they needed, and are now being amply rewarded for their wisdom. I could easily go on and on about the friends there, but let's move on. Paragraphs 3 and 4 tell us that this phenomenon is not unique there. It can happen anywhere.

In paragraph 5, they offer us a lot of guidance. That, to me, is the meat of the letter. We've been praised for what we have accomplished, and we have been shown an example of what is possible. Now we come to what we can do about it.

First and foremost, "it is the capacity for learning among the local friends, within a common framework, that fosters progress..." This is so important. Remember that framework? Those two essential movements? Well, one of them is studying courses, currently Ruhi, that result in a change of behaviour. There are some out there who still rage against them, for whatever reasons. And I'm sure some of their reasons are valid, especially given their personal experience, but that is not enough to rail against it. Doing so, consulting on the affairs of the Faith outside of this framework, stunts the growth. It is really that simple.

And we need to learn how to learn. Over and over this comes up. We need to learn, in our own community, "what is required for progress to occur". They happen to list 5 categories, but there are likely more. These five, though, are:

  • the nascent capacity that must be nurtured
  • the new skill that must be acquired
  • the initiators of a fledgling effort who must be accompanied
  • the space for reflection that must be cultivated
  • the collective endeavour that must be coordinated

This is a very important list. And you know, it begins with the inherent talents of the individual, which we learn about recognizing in Ruhi Book 3. (See? It's not just about teaching children.) We have to learn to recognize those inherent skills or talents and help the person develop them. You see, nascent means that it is only just beginning to be developed. Of course we encourage the friends to use their developed talents, but then we also help those who are only beginning to learn about their talents and skills. We take the time to get to know the friends and help them develop.

Once this occurs, and they want to begin an activity, some of them will require assistance. We have to be ready to accompany them, help them take their first steps until they can do it on their own.

Then we need to learn to reflect on our activities. This will begin in small groups, but eventually grow to become the Reflection Meeting we all know and love.

From there, the institutions will likely be in place now to help coordinate a large group of people who are beginning to learn to work together as a community.

But each community will have its own path. The talents in my community are likely different from the ones in yours. The interests in your community are likely different from the ones in mine. We all need to look at our own community, find the talents within it, and the interests from people around us, and build on those. "Awareness of this reality frees one from the fruitless search for a rigid formula..."

Their comment about the "narrow conceptions of 'success' and 'failure' that breed freneticism or paralyse volition" is a good reminder to avoid thinking in those terms. We are not about success or failure. We are all about crisis and victory. Recognizing that, and keeping that firmly in our mind, is a very important step on this path to growth.

Two last points I want to mention. First, when the Universal House of Justice writes a sentence that is only three words long, it is likely very important. It is kind of like a short punch to the gut. We should really pay attention when it occurs. "Detachment is needed." It is not just a good idea, or something that would be nice to have. It is needed. Perhaps we need to learn more about detachment.

The second thing is effort. That last paragraph is really all about the importance of exerting effort. The more effort we exert, the greater the aid from on High.

That's all I wanted to share for now. I'm sure that more will come to mind as I continue to read and study this letter, especially with others.

Unless, of course, they only ask simple questions to ensure I understood the sentences themselves, and don't want to dive into this deep ocean of wisdom that is contained within the letter.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Gift of Translation

"What is the greatest gift that you think Baha'u'llah has given us?"

That's a tough question, because, well, there are too many to name. But one of them is the ability to translate.

Marielle and I were talking this morning and she shared with me something that I'd known for a long time, but hadn't quite put it in the context she shared.

Last night, she went to a sweatlodge, and while there an elder talked about how the only way he can approach the Creator is through the Grandfathers. He said that there are so many different understandings of what the Creator is, whether we call Him God, Allah, the Earth Mother, Mother Nature, Gitchi Manitou, the divine Spirit, or what have you, that it is difficult to be inclusive. (No, I've never met anyone who has referred to God as the great "what have you", but it does sound good.) And he said that the only way he could talk about God in a meaningful way was by speaking about Him through the elders that came before him.

Doesn't that just sound like how Baha'u'llah says we can only approach God through the Manifestations? Or how Jesus says "No man comes to the Father but through Me"?

What I had known for a long time, and what I have spoken about quite often, is this idea that God does not change, but our understanding of God grows. I often use the metaphor of being in a glass building, looking up. Just above us are the elders. We point to them and say, "That is God". And we're correct, because we're pointing up. We look up and see these elders that we love and respect and decide that God must be really old. We point up. That is God.

But to someone standing outside the building, they will say, "No, that's just a bunch of elders. God is way above that." And they're right, too. It's just a matter of perspective, where you're standing.

Some people will see the Manifestations of God, on a floor quite a bit higher than the elders, and their eyes will focus on Them. They will point to Jesus and say, "That is God." And they're correct, for they are pointing in the right direction. Up.

But again, someone standing on the outside will say, "No, that's just Jesus. God is way above that." And you know what? They're correct, too. Again, perspective.

Muhammad comes along and points to the a "higher floor", one that has the attributes of God on it, and we point to that floor and say, "The All-Knowing? The All-Wise? That must be God." Pointing up? We're good. Still in the right direction.

Someone outside? "God is above that." Still correct.

And now Baha'u'llah comes along and says, "(I)f I proclaim Thee by the name of Him Who is the All-Compelling, I readily discover that He is but a suppliant fallen upon the dust, awe-stricken by Thy dreadful might, Thy sovereignty and power." He even goes on to say, "Whoso claimeth to have known Thee hath, by virtue of such a claim, testified to his own ignorance..." Once again, our vision is raised. We are being directed to a "higher" understanding of God.

But let's go back to that first floor.

We still have to go up. We have to honour our parents, and our elders, for without that, we can never truly know how to honour God.

Then we can move up to honouring the Manifestations of God. We can go through that floor to a greater understanding of the importance of the attributes of God, as manifested by the Manifestations. Every time, it seems to me that we need to go through understanding one stage to get to the next.

Nobody can get to the "Father" except by going up through all these different floors.

And you know what? It was only through reading Baha'u'llah's Writings that this began to make any sort of sense to me. So now, when someone talks about the elders, I can see that they are pointing towards God. When someone talks about Jesus, I can see that they are pointing towards God. When someone refers to the Bear Spirit, I can see that they are talking about God.

Baha'u'llah has given me a great tool for translating what someone else is saying and allowing me to see the truth in their words.

And you know what else? That also works with prayer, and all sorts of other things. I now understand that prayer is that attitude we have inside, not the ritual outside of us by which we pray. That allows me to have a greater respect and understanding of others when I see them in that state of being.

Pretty cool that.

Unless you're in a sweatlodge. Then it's pretty warm.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Insights, Part 3 (or Part 2, depending...)

Well, I'm still looking at that document, Insights from the Frontiers of Learning, and while I'm at it, I should mention that any look at it is fairly incomplete without also looking at the video / movie. (To watch it, or, in other words, to see what the Baha'is around the world are actually doing to make the world a better place, click here.)

For now, though, I'm just going to continue to put down a few thoughts regarding the study of the text here. (But not the text. I've already explained why not. It's just too long, and is available in many other places.)

2. Emerging Programmes of Growth

First, I noted who it is that has to maintain those core activities. It's not just the usual few who maintain most of the activities int he community. It's in particular those who are progressing through the sequence of courses. This, as far as I can tell, keeps it dynamic, as well as allows each individual to find their own area of service, one they are passionate about.

Then I wondered what the word "nascent" means. It means budding, or just coming into existence.

And what are those two nascent capacities? The first of them, and they are sequential, is for the tutors to help other study the Ruhi materials and accompany them into their service as they begin their own core activities. Tutoring isn't enough. It must be accompanied by helping others begin their initial steps of service.

The second capacity is that those who are doing these services, those who are in the courses, must learn to attract others to participate in their core activities. After all, hosting some sort of activity that no one attends doesn't really do all that much good to building a new civilization, does it?

2.1 Establishing a Basis for Building Capacity

We "should feel no hesitation to initiate (our) own effort to establish a programme of growth." After all, if we do feel hesitant, what are we waiting for? Who else will do it? As they say, start small. I mean, you can start big if you have the resources, but don't feel bad about starting small. Just start. We can all learn as we go. But if we don't begin, we'll never learn.

Then the section goes on. Pioneers? Visiting teams? Great if you can get them, but really, not our problem here. Let's go on.

Institutional support? Great idea, but what is it that they are supporting? And please remember, dear Reader, I'm looking at my own little cluster here. My own community. You need to look at yours, and decide what is relevant. So, what is actually needed on our part? As a community, I think we need to ask this question, and be very honest about it. I have no answers to provide here, and hope that my community will consult on this during our deepening.

Of course, we likely won't spend too much time here. I think another 20 minutes for this whole section, given that most of it is out of our hands. But before we go on, the next sub-section is actually quite relevant.

2.2 Expanding the Reach of Core Activities

This begins with the individual taking advantage of the opportunities in our daily life. It does not mean twisting all conversations beyond their natural reach (see Bahai-jacking), but rather making those natural connections that help bring the level of conversation to a more meaningful level. In other words, when I talk with my friends, we don't just talk about the weather, or who won the latest sports game. Quite often we talk about movies, and we always talk about what we learned, and the characters could have acted differently. We also talk about current events in our community, or the world, and how they impact us and our families. We talk about issues that have meaning to us, and how we can act to make the world a better place.

You see, what is important to me is what it means to have a conversation. Rather than just talk about "raising conversations" or "making them meaningful", let's describe it. Let's consciously figure out what it means.

To me, a conversation is, primarily, two-way. And it is mostly about listening. (There's the old saying about how God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.) It is also relevant to all parties.

You see, this first paragraph also talks about the spiritual and material conditions of the community. How do we know what these conditions are? Are we guessing? Or do we know from talking to people about it?

Aside - I remember going to one community years ago. It was a fairly rural community, and I got there about 5 hours early, meaning before the meeting I was supposed to address began. Naturally, I did what I always do. I went out for coffee and talked to the people I met in the coffee shop. Later that evening, when I was talking to the community (Baha'i, in this instance), it somehow came up that we needed to address the concerns of the community (greater, here). That was when I asked the friends what the people in their community were concerned about. I honestly thought they knew, and was looking for the obvious answers. What they gave me were some things about world peace, gender equality, and all these other global issues. That kind of made me stop. I said, "That's what you're interested in. And they are really worthy of concern. But what is the average person in town concerned about?" They really didn't know, because they never listened. (They said as much.) (Ironic as that is.) I told them that the people I met on the street and in that coffee shop that afternoon were far more concerned about the increased drug use in their community, and getting the harvest in. Those were their two primary concerns. From there, we talked about the spiritual implications of both concerns, safety and security being high on the list. Evidently, it really changed their focus of activities.

So what do I get out of this? We rally need to take the time to have conversations, meaningful conversations and not just ones that are entertaining (although conversations should be fun) (like blog articles), or superficial. And we need to really listen.

Oh, and one other thing. In that second paragraph, it briefly mentions how, in Belarus, activities really took off when a "mother and her husband" began "to serve as animators". Check that. It was not a couple of youth, or even young adults. It was two parents with children. Time and again I say this: While youth may be the most effective animators, they are not the only ones who can do this important service. It is very dis-heartening to hear over and over again from people older than thirty who are discouraged from acting as animators, or even told not to do it. If we need animators, and there are people willing to serve in that capacity, let them. This faith is all about encouraging people, helping them arise to serve, and not about turning them away. (At least, that's my opinion. So there.)

And how long will it take us to talk about part 2? Again, I would say about 30 minutes. A few minutes for a couple of points mentioned above, and the majority of it talking about the last part. So up to this point, we've probably spent about an hour deepening on this document. Oh, the joys of reading it ahead of time.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Insights, Part 2 (Or Part 1 of the document)

As you know from the last post, I've been look at the document "Insights from the Frontiers of Learning" with an eye on how to apply some of it in my own community. Unlike a lot of previous posts, I'm not going to copy the whole document here. It's just too long, and it's available in other places. For example, you can find it in the May/June/July 2013 issue of Baha'i Canada, or by clicking this link.

I'll cross-reference the various section numbers, just to let you know where I am, and offer some thoughts on questions that I would like to ask in a group. If you have any other ideas for studying it, please feel free to let me know. After all, this is just one Baha'i's ideas (hence the name of the blog), and nothing official.

So let's read section 1, that 3 paragraph introduction to the first part of the document.

To begin at the beginning, which usually seems like a good idea to me, I noticed that they refer to 3600 clusters, and of those the 200 most advanced. From those 200, they further refine it to the 20 strongest of them. So they begin by looking at the strongest clusters in the world to see what they have learned, giving us a distant goal towards which we can work.

And you know what? That goal is not as distant as we would like to think. But it will take effort, and time, to get to where they are. (At least in my cluster it will.)

In those opening paragraphs, what they really seem to point out to me is that what distinguishes them all is their ability to mobilize large numbers of people into service. And not just service to the Faith, but service to all humanity. But they also point out that this takes time. It doesn't just happen overnight.

This is something we need to continually remember: It takes time. Time and persistence. It actually reminds me of what 'Abdu'l-Baha said about the training of children: It is, however, very difficult to undertake this service, even harder to succeed in it.

Then, still in those opening paragraphs, they give us what I like to refer to as a recipe list. They point out 14 things that are in place in all of those 20 clusters. And you know what? I'll let you look for them. They are right there, in that second and third paragraph, just before 1.1. It's quite the list, describing various things that people are doing, such as participating in cluster-wide teaching campaigns, lending their talents to the teaching and administrative fields, and so on. It gives me something to use when looking at my own community, to see if all of those elements are there. Are we all aware of the obligation (as they put it) to attend the Nineteen Day Feast? Or the Holy Day observances? If any of those elements are missing, what can I do , as an individual, to help foster its development?

The last four elements, by the way, become the titles of the subsections in part 1.

Perhaps we can just go on to section 1.1, "A Sustained Rhythm of Expansion and Consolidation".

In that third paragraph, they point out a couple of potential pitfalls. What are they?  Having a single approach to the expansion cycle, and being preoccupied with increasing our numbers in a relatively short period of time. (There we are with that time thing again.) (Reminds me of Doctor Who, with the timey-wimey thing.)

But going back a moment, to paragraph 2, how do you think cycles can "unfold uninterruptedly"? What would that look like? Is that what is happening in our cluster? Right now I don't think it is, so maybe that can be looked at more closely.

Jumping ahead to paragraph 6, what is needed (as in "it won't happen without it") for this "pattern of growth to be maintained"? And what would that look like, in practice?

You see, dear Reader, we could go on and on looking at so much more in these paragraphs, but for the purpose of trying to become an effective teacher in my community, I think we can actually move on at this time. In section 1.1, the steady development of a community was described, and I think that about covers it for now. Once we begin moving with a bit more speed, we should look back at this section again.

1.2 describes the development of an individual. Obviously this refers to the sequence of children's classes, junior youth groups, and study circles, the first two being sustained by people in the third. But then, in the middle of it, in paragraph 4, they point out that this can take as many as 20 or 30 cycles. That's 5 to 8 years! So again, we need to have a realistic time frame in mind when looking at our activities.

We could, of course, ask why it would take so long, and I think one of the reasons is that we are developing new habits of perception. And how are we developing them? Through the practices in the Ruhi Books.

And where do we begin? By being realistic.

(There are, of course, more responses to these questions, but I ask and move on for now.)

So let's move on.

1.3 Have the human resources in our cluster become more abundant? No, not really. While this section gives us a great vision, it's not particularly applicable here just yet. Keep it in mind, and move on.

1.4 Do we have a growing number of individuals in our cluster? No, not really. Vision noted, let's move on.

Actually, paragraph 4 in this section might be applicable. This is something that members of Assemblies everywhere can ask of themselves. How can we, as members of institutions, provide greater encouragement and support?

Ok, now let's move on.

1.5 Are we at those first steps, or ready for more complex ongoing endeavours? I would suggest in our community that we are likely at the first steps.

In paragraph 2, we don't really have significant numbers in children's classes, so let's keep it in mind and move on.

Paragraph 3 - What are some of the local needs here? And how do we know? Are we guessing, or actually talking with people in our community? (No further comments here from me.)

And you know what? That takes me to the end of part 1. In a group setting, if we have all read this ahead of time, this would have taken about 20 minutes.

On to Part 2 next time.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Insights

This probably sounds a lot loftier than it is. The insights are not mine. It is actually a reference to a document put out by the Baha'i World Centre, Insights from the Frontiers of Learning. All I'm doing is getting ready to look at that document and study it with some friends in my community.

Oh, and I should mention that this document goes along with a video (at over an hour in length, I feel I should call it a movie), The Frontiers of Learning. And while I mentioned these both last year, I never really did look at them all that closely here. It was really just a bit overwhelming.

But now, a bit removed from it, looking back with experience on acting upon what is in there, I feel I can better get a handle on it. Or them, seeing as there are two things in question, text and video / movie.

And more importantly, since my community wants to study it (them), this gives me a really good opportunity to examine it (them) more closely, with a singular focus, as opposed to trying and taking it all in at once.

Like usual, the first thing that I would like to do, based on the ideas my friends gave me in the previous article on studying the Writings, is look at that opening paragraph:
When the Universal House of Justice at the start of this Five Year Plan called on the Bahá’í world to build on the extraordinary achievements of the previous five years, it described a community that had not only surpassed its numerical goals but had also achieved qualitative progress at the more profound level of culture. Since then, the friends have extended their efforts to an increasing number of clusters, embracing ever-larger contingents of participants in a process of community building. At the close of the Plan’s second year, there is already a rich experience that has significant implications for future action. The purpose of the present document is to review this experience and describe a number of approaches that, when applied by the friends in a manner suited to their circumstances, may enable them to accelerate the progress under way. For this review the clusters at the frontiers of learning worldwide will first be considered, then those where the friends are beginning to establish programmes of growth, and finally those where efforts are being made to increase intensity. A few words will also be said about administrative arrangements at the regional or national level that support the movement of clusters.

Here, it would be very easy to ask all sorts of simple questions like where this letter occurs in the context of Baha'i history, or where within the various Baha'i epochs. But really, I'm not all that interested in a general history of the Faith as part of this study. I mean it's interesting and all, but not particularly relevant here. Instead, I am more interested in that "qualitative progress at the more profound level of culture", the "number of approaches that" can be "applied by the friends in a manner suited to their circumstances", and where we are within the development of clusters described at the very end of that paragraph. (You'll notice that I don't even talk about questions like what two things we have achieved in the past few years.)

In terms of the first, that progress in culture, I'm very curious what that progress looks like. How can we recognize it? What sort of things have we achieved? For once we recognize what it is that we, collectively, are doing that constitutes this progress, we can more readily strive to work towards it in individual communities. The answer, or perhaps I should say clues, to this lies primarily in paragraph 2 of section 1. So there we have a cogent question and a place to search for an answer. More on that later.

In regards to the second, the various ways that people are working towards advancing the process of entry by troops around the world, we will see that more clearly in the video and spread throughout the document. It's just a matter of identifying what the friends in other areas are doing and seeing what might work closer to home.

As for the third, that will, of course, depend on the community in question. As I'm dealing with my own community, I'll look at that. The International Teaching Centre first describes those "clusters at the frontiers of learning": We're not there. Then they mention those clusters "where the friends are beginning to establish programmes of growth": That sounds like us. They then mention those other clusters where "efforts are being made to increase intensity": Hmmm. That also sounds like us. In our cluster we have a number of activities, but they don't feel like they are "intense". They feel more sporadic and disconnected. Based on that, I believe we are somewhere between those two stages.

Here, some of the friends in my community may disagree with me, and that's ok. I don't claim to be authoritative on this. I'm only stating my own opinion. It seems to me, based on what I have seen, and the numbers of activities reported at the reflection meetings over the past few years, that this is where we are. It is nothing to be disappointed about, or upset over. It is just an assessment of our strengths, for we do have regular activities happening, and the challenges we are facing, for the numbers show that we haven't established solid growth yet. We have a slow movement upwards.

Remember, the truth is our friend. If we study and plan our activities based on faulty information, our planning with also be flawed. So I am trying to be as honest as I can.

Now, after this initial look at the first paragraph, it seems that we have a bit tighter of a focus for the study of this whole document.

I leave this for now, and continue making some notes as I go through the rest of the document. I'd love to hear what you have found useful in your own teaching work, and in the work of your community.