Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Ridvan 2018 - Part 3

Well, I've only got about 45 minutes to do this right now, but I figured I should be able to get through at least a couple more paragraphs, right? Let's find out.

Where were we? Oh, yes, paragraph 6.

Here we are learning that we are using our "new capacities... to improve conditions in society..." Hey, that's great. I mean, isn't this what it's all about? But then they use a word that always jumps out at me: "kindled". Our enthusiasm is kindled. I love that word. It means, as I'm sure you know, that it ignites a flame when there is none, or makes it burn brighter when there is one. In Ruhi Book 1, we learn that prayer kindles the soul. Here, it is our study of the divine teachings that kindles out enthusiasm.

Why would that be?

As I am sure you are aware, I don't actually know, but I suspect it is because enthusiasm is generally lost when hope vanishes. Hope usually disappears when we cannot see the next step in our journey. The Writings not only give us a vision of where we are heading, but also guide us to the next steps we need to take to get there. While we may not often see these next few steps on our own, by studying with others these steps become more apparent. And this, it seems to me, would naturally kindle our enthusiasm. After all, enthusiasm comes from the phrase "en-theos", "to be filled with God". Wouldn't the writings naturally fill us with that divine spirit?

Another point that catches my attention in this paragraph is the singular word "meaningful". They talk about "discourses that are meaningful to society". How often do we find ourselves engaged in conversations that are, in essence, meaningless? And if they are meaningless, why are we wasting our time with them?

This reminds me of something that struck Marcus Bach when he met Ruhiyyih Khanum. He said "She talked as though time and conversation were intended for the deepening of knowledge and faith." We often talk about "elevated conversations", but rarely what that looks like. I believe that this insight of his on her conversations sheds light on this word, "meaningful".

In this paragraph, the Universal House of Justice gives us examples of conversations that are meaningful, such as gender equality, the role of youth in social transformation, among others, and praise us for engaging in these discussions "with growing confidence, proficiency, and insight". It is, of course, likely a result of those practices from Ruhi Book 2. And we should be cognizant of the fact that we, as a community, are becoming ever more proficient in these conversations. We have made tremendous progress in the field, and knowing this should make it even easier to feel comfortable having these conversations to begin with. So, kudos to us, and thank you Universal House of Justice for helping direct our attention to this matter.

Finally, for today, paragraph 7. Ok, wow. I had the hardest time reading this for the first time, as I was reading it aloud to my wife, and had absolutely no clue what they were going to say. I mean, the stuff about the web-site was wonderful and exciting, but I wasn't ready for the wealth of new translations that they are promising. I actually choked as I was reading this. "...(P)reviously untranslated and unpublished passages or Tablets"? "(N)ew volumes of Baha'u'llah's and 'Abdu'l-Baha's Writings rendered into English"? It is so hard to contain my excitement.

But for now, I have to. I have another engagement in just a few minutes. (I thought I would get more written, but my wife got home just now, and I had to pause to welcome her home.)

Hopefully I'll have a chance to write a bit more tomorrow, or read a bit about what you have gleaned from this breath-taking letter.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Ridvan 2018 - Part 2

Here we are at paragraph 4, where we are reminded that "this is truly a moment to give thanks to the Best-Beloved". This is such an important reminder, to take the time to remember to be thankful. They have just put the previous year into a perspective for us, showing us how much we have done and what we have learned, and even if we feel that we, personally, haven't done all that much (as I know I do), we should be thankful for all that has been done in this glorious community of ours. There really "are a great many reasons to be encouraged."

Ah, but they also remind us not to sit on our laurels. There is still a lot to be done. Fortunately they give us hat I lovingly refer to as a recipe list. We need to "maintain... a sustained focus on nurturing growth and building capacity" as well as develop our ability and discipline to "reflect on action and learn from experience". I find it interesting that they refer to this reflection and learning as an ability, as opposed to lumping it in with the other capacities. To me, the difference is like a stadium that has the capacity to seat 20,000, but only has a few people in attendance. The latter would be like the stadium being full. We begin by building this capacity, but then we have to put it to use.

In paragraph 5, they refer to the institutions "keeping this supreme need at the forefront of their thinking". Which supreme need? The "raising up and accompanying an expanding nucleus of individuals" who are both capable of and actually reflecting and learning from their experience. This nb
Further to this, by the members of these institutions taking action in this accompaniment, they are becoming more involved "in all aspects of the community's development". And this is not limited to the Baha'i community, but includes the greater community. Through this involvement, and recognizing the role that the training institute plays in this, they are still able to "maintain the community's focus on the requirements of the Plan". Of course, this leads to the question, what are the requirements of the Plan? This, dear reader, is a question that is well worth discussing in your community.

They also mention "higher and higher levels of unity", which of course leads us to ask what that would look like. Again, a great question to ask in consultation. I can just imagine an entire Feast consultation dedicated to this one question alone.

Finally, at the end of that paragraph, they talk about "cultivating in the community those conditions that conduce to the release of powerful spiritual forces". What are those conditions? How can we cultivate them? What signs will we recognize when these forces are being released?

While I may have some ideas on answers to these questions, I prefer not to look at them here right now. I think they are better suited for a community consultation, and I would love to hear what comes out of that.

Aside: I think that we too often respond off the cuff, giving our own thoughts on a subject before actually consulting on it with others. Or even worse, before consulting the Writings. I know that I'm horribly guilty of this. When I see something on the net, I often respond before looking in the Writings. But here, I'd like to take the moment to remind us of the importance of doing this, consulting the Writings and each other, and set the minor example by not offering my thoughts just yet on these very important issues.

Oh, and I'd like to continue writing right now, but my son just got home from school, so I'm going to end it here for today so that I can spend a bit of this beautiful day with him. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Ridvan 2018 - Part 1

Well, it's that time of year again, and the Ridvan message just came out a couple of days ago.

Along with the letter informing us of the new membership of the Universal House of Justice, the document "For the Betterment of the World", and the video "A Widening Embrace". Wow. What a collection.

As I'm sure you already have the Ridvan message, and have read it a number of times, I'm not going to copy it here. Plus, you can just google it if you need to.

Instead, I'm just going to go right into it and share my own paltry thoughts.

To start, the first thing I did, after reading it aloud to my wife, was number the paragraphs. There are 13 of them, in case you're curious. This is how I will reference it, by paragraph number. Clever, eh? (You can tell I'm Canadian. I used 'eh' instead of the American 'huh'.) (Have you ever noticed how much more upbeat 'eh' sounds? It lilts upwards. 'Huh' just sounds like you got hit in the gut, or something.)

The first paragraph, as usual, gives us a very upbeat ("eh") view of where we are, and what we have done over the past year. As they do this, though, they offer us hints or clues as to what we can focus on. Are we "more conscious of our mission"? Can we clearly state what that mission is? Beyond that, are we bringing our friends and acquaintances into contact with the Baha'i community? When put that way, it sounds so simple. And of course we are doing that. Have we learned how to "articulate how spiritual truths can be translated into sustained practical action"? All of a sudden those practices in Ruhi Book 2 seem even more relevant than ever. And most important, as we all know, we are more directly connecting the name of Baha'u'llah with "the teachings that will build the world anew". That is wonderful news.

It's when we move into the second paragraph that we begin to see some more interesting things arising. They begin by pointing out to us that the Faith has "emerged from obscurity at the national level". Back in the 1980s, they spoke of the faith emerging from obscurity on a global scale, but now it is at the national level. This is a profound shift, a quantum leap forward. The next step, of course, is to help it be more recognized on the regional and local levels. But still, this is quite an amazing thing, and truly worthy of both note and celebration.

And what is one of the factors at play here? The twin bi-centenaries. It was through the reaction to the celebration just finished that this emergence became evident. Now we know that we have to push forward even more with the bi-centenary of the birth of the Bab. To be clear, though, we have the tools. We have the experience. This is nothing new for us. We have literally decades of experience, since this current series of global plans began back in the 90s. We also see, in this paragraph, a hint of what we have learned, and how we acted. "The individual believer took initiative, the community arose in collective effort, and the friends channelled their creative energy into the plans prepared by the institutions." As we look back at these celebrations, we can reflect on what we learned and strive to do even more in the next couple of years.

This leads us right into the third paragraph, and the present plan. "(P)rogress is not uniform from country to country" is the reminder at the very beginning. We shouldn't judge ourselves according to anyone else. If our community isn't seeing the same growth as another, fine. Note it and move on. Learn from your experience and grow. It's very interesting that, at the end of the first sentence, when talking about these intensive programmes of growth, they say "the rate at which this number is rising has been steadily increasing." How do they know? Because they have the statistics to prove it. They've been monitoring the numbers for years now and they can see that this particular number, the number of intensive programmes of growth, is in fact on the rise. But then, right after that, they say, "Looking more closely". This is the analysis part of the statistics. You see, dear reader, there are still some people out there who don't see the value or use of statistics. They think they are just mere numbers. To be fair, for many of us they are just mere numbers. But to one who is literate in statistics, these numbers tell a story. By looking more closely at these numbers, there are certain things that you can discern. The sheer number of people around the globe who attended celebrations of the bi-centennial of the birth of Baha'u'llah tells us that many more people were invited. We know that not everyone invited came. The stories surrounding this event also tell us that the friends are recognizing that "their day-to-day interactions with the people around them can be infused with the spirit of teaching." This is important. It means that we have learned how to more effectively invite people to activities. If this number wasn't on the rise, then this is where we might need to focus our training. Once we have learned this skill, then we can focus our training in other areas. The statistics help us learn where to focus our energies.

Just to stay on this topic for a moment longer, I'd like to look at my own home community. We know from the letters from the World Centre that the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Programmes are extremely important. There is no doubt of that. When I look at the stats, though, it seems that our strength, at this time, is in devotional gatherings. When we have focused on them, the numbers have skyrocketed. When we focus on other activities, they barely move. Is this a bad thing? Not at all. It means that we can clearly see our strength, and play to it. Once we get the devotional gatherings really moving, then we can learn to transfer that to the areas in which we may need a bit more help. The stats help us see our strength, and we are, after all, a community "moving from strength to strength".

Ok. Back to the Ridvan message. The Universal House of Justice says that "a vibrant community life is taking root" in all the communities where the work is gathering momentum. By using this particular phrase, "taking root", it seems to imply that it may not yet be visible. I imagine a small seed that I just planted in my garden. Once it germinates, it takes root. Only later can I see it breaking the ground as a small shoot. Leaves and fruit come later. So, for me, if I know from the statistics that the work is gathering momentum, then I can take heart that a vibrant community life is taking root. This is so encouraging.

Throughout this whole paragraph there is a constant sense of movement. And this movement is natural. They speak of this "continuum of development", and how "children move seamlessly through the grades", and that the levels of the junior youth groups reliably succeed each other. These "foundational activities" become a natural part of the community in which people move from one stage to the next, uninterrupted. There is a flow. It is not forced, and it is not awkward. We think nothing of a child going from grade 2 to grade 3 in school, and in a like manner, children are moving through the various courses open to them in the Baha'i community. As it becomes "an indispensable aspect of the life of a community", we will see all aspects of the Baha'i Faith becoming a natural part of the community life, further enriching the entire community. This is a part of how a new civilization will be born. These friends will take charge of their own development and "build immunity to those societal forces that breed passivity." This right here, is a phrase that is so well worth contemplating and consulting upon. What are some of those forces of society that breed passivity? How can we protect ourselves from them? And how can we avoid those two debilitating illnesses, apathy and lethargy? As we better learn "to articulate how spiritual truths can be translated into sustained practical action", then we will be in a far better position to counteract this passivity. And as we know from the first paragraph, we are learning to do this.

The children in these classes learn so much about service and personal responsibility. The junior youth are encouraged to healthy social action, drawing upon their natural inclination towards justice. The youth lovingly encourage those just behind them, moving all towards greater feats of service. The adults learn more and more about accompaniment and how to nurture all peoples in the community, of all ages. And as we speak about these, and other, practical steps, "Possibilities for material and spiritual progress take shape. Social reality begins to transform."

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

What is International Convention?

“What’s International Convention?”

My 13-year-old son and I were having breakfast the other day, chatting on this and that, when out popped this question. It was one I had not given much thought to over the years. The difficulty, of course, was to explain these things in ways that he would grasp. It was easier now that he was a junior youth, but still a challenge.

“Do you remember the Unit Convention we had a few months ago?” I asked.

“Yeah. That was where we elected someone to go to the National Convention, right?”

“Right. But, do you remember, we did something else there too.” This was so often overlooked I wanted to make sure he remembered this part of it.

“Well, we consulted on some questions while we waited for the results.”

“That’s true, but this isn’t just something that we did as an aside. It is an integral part of the Convention.” I sat back into my chair, settling in for an in-depth talk with my son about the election process within the Bahá’í Faith.

“In the Writings,” I said, “it says that the National Convention has a ‘twofold function of electing the body of the National Spiritual Assembly, and of offering any constructive suggestions in regard to the general administration of the Cause…’ This applies to the Unit as well as the International Convention. Consultation and election. Whatever works on one level of the Cause also works on other levels.”

He thought about that for a minute, and then asked, “Have you ever been to one?”

“To an International Convention? Nope. I’ve never had that bounty. I would love to be an observer, but they don’t have them. Actually, that is a difference between them. The National Convention has observers who can watch, but only the delegates can participate in the discussion on the floor. That’s something that makes the Unit Convention unique: we can all contribute to the consultation.”

“Does that mean that they’re all alike? The Unit, National and International Conventions?”

“Kind of. They all have the same basic function, just on the different levels, either local, national or global. While the first two happen every year, though, the International Convention only happens every five years.”

“How does the election happen, anyway?”

“Well, something to consider is an interesting point found in the bylaws of the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice. They say that ‘A silent and prayerful atmosphere shall prevail during the election so that each elector may vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection inspire him to uphold.’”

“Oh, so we can look to the International and National Conventions as a model for our Unit Convention.”

“Yes,” I replied, encouragingly, curious to see what he would add.

“So we could have quiet music, for example, to help people remember to keep this prayerful attitude?”

“Perhaps. It says silent, too, but that’s a good point. Maybe we could try to keep in mind other ways we can help remind people of this.”

He was silent himself for a moment before asking, “What does consultation look like at the International Convention?”

“Great question. What do you think it would look like?” I usually respond like that when I have no idea how to answer his questions.

“I remember at the Unit Convention someone from one neighbourhood had a question, and someone from another area was able to share their experience. I suppose it would be the same. A more advanced country in one field would be able to share their experiences, and perhaps gather new ideas, too?”

“Like our reflection meetings? That makes sense to me, but honestly, I have no idea.”

“I bet they would all be amazing at sharing their learnings”, he said, remembering some poignant examples from a recent gathering, “and not just go on and on with all the details of their stories.”

“Probably”, I said, laughing, knowing I tend to ramble a bit when sharing.

“Who gets to vote at these International Conventions?”

“Great question. The members of our National Assembly have the wonderful bounty of casting their votes there. Just like the delegates from our unit vote for the nine members of the National Assembly at the National Convention, so, too, the members of the National Assembly vote for the nine members of the Universal House of Justice.”

“So only members of National Assemblies can be elected?”

“Not at all. They can vote for whomever they are inspired to, so long as they are over 21 and are a Bahá’í in good standing. Remember, there is no nomination or electioneering in the Baha’i community, so people vote for who they already know.”

“But how do they know who to vote for?”

“Well, the criteria are the same for all elections: unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability and mature experience. It’s just that on the national or global level, but it’s still the same basic pattern.”

“It sounds like participating in the Unit Convention gives us a taste of what the International Convention is like.”

“Pretty much,” I agreed. “I mean, there are some obvious differences, but the pattern is the same. It’s like prayer. Praying at home is wonderful, but do you remember how powerful it was to say our prayers in the Shrines last year on pilgrimage?”

“Oh, wow. So, International Convention must really be out of this world.”

“Yeah, I would think so.”