Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Beautiful Conversation

One of my favorite things about this time of year is that I begin my summer season at the market again. I have the joy of being outdoors, of seeing old friends, and meeting hundreds of tourists every day from all parts of this beautiful planet of ours.

Of course, seeing old friends that I have not seen since last September generally means that they ask me what I've been doing. Yesterday, one friend of mine asked me what I'd been writing. Well, as you can imagine, that led to a conversation about this blog and the various stories I've been writing about the early Babis. It was at this point that she said, "Oh yeah, I remember you telling me a story last year like that."

The story I had told her was that of Anis and the execution of the Bab. The version I shared with her can be found here, and that blue text means that it's a link to the article on which you can click. While telling her this story last year, I talked about how it was relevant to her, even though she is not a Baha'i. And that, dear Reader, is what made it stick out in her memory.

"I remember it", she said, "because you made it relevant to my life." See? I told you.

Ok, now I have pause for a long-overdue aside here. A number of years ago I was reading the Dawn-Breakers to another friend of mine in a coffee shop. For the story of that time, you can click on this link here. Now one thing that I didn't mention in that article was that while reading it we talked a lot about how it was relevant to our lives. And that, dear Reader, is what made that story stand out to my other friend who repeated it practically verbatim. Oh, the story of the martyrdom of the Bab, not the whole of the Dawn-Breakers. (See what you miss when you don't click on the link? Now go back and read it.) (You did? Oh. Ok. Never mind.)

Back to the market and yesterday.

My friend came by, and I happen to know that she is very interested in history from non-Euro-centric perspectives. This is great. She's actually loaning me a book on history from a Middle Eastern perspective, and I can't wait to read it.

I told her a bit about Tahirih, Tahirih's poetry, how much she taught us, and how her conception of Adam's wish has really changed how I perceive Jewish and Christian history.

We spoke about books, various interests, and story-telling. We talked about our lives, and the various influences different things have on us. And we talked about going out for coffee, when I would not be distracted by my work at the market and other customers. And through it all, I touched on all sorts of other stories that I have shared here over the past six months.

Now this article is not exactly about one particular story of the early Babis, but as you can see, brings together a number of stories. And the over-arching theme of it all is how people actually remember these stories even more when we help show them how they are relevant.

You see, my friend that stopped by yesterday is interested in history, poetry, world issues, and women's issues. It was only natural that we talk about Tahirih. Now she wants to read Tahirih's poetry, so I have to remember to bring one her books with me some day.

All this, dear Reader, is just to say that this is the real reason why I am doing this. This blog, for me, is practice for when I meet real people in real life. The fact that I get to share it with you is just a bonus. Now I would really love to hear from you. How have these stories helped you talk about the Faith?

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Correct Definition

"That which we call a rose", Shakespeare famously wrote, "by any other word would smell as sweet".

I love this line, not only because of its reference to those striving to overcome prejudice, but also because it speaks of the importance of understanding the meaning of words and their definitions.

This may seem like a strange introduction to this idea, but I believe it is very important to be aware of definitions, especially if we are looking to the words to have particular effects.

You see, dear Reader, not only would a rose by any other name still smell sweet, but conversely any other flower that you may call a rose would not smell as sweet.

Someone else once famously asked, "If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs would it have?" And the answer, of course, is still four. Just calling the tail a leg does not make it a leg.

So what, you may wonder, does this have to do with the Baha'i Faith? Great question. Thanks for asking.

For years I have heard various friends talk about having "firesides" on buses, or in coffee shops. And even way back when I was first learning about the Faith, I was brought to the Baha'i Centre in my home town for "fireside" talks. But let's be clear: those first ones are not "firesides", they are teaching opportunities. And they are wonderful! Lots of us have been introduced to the Faith through just such wonderful conversations.

Those presentations I attended at the Baha'i Centre? Those were not firesides, either. They were public presentations. And just to be clear, I became Baha'i through those very presentations. So please don't misunderstand me. I am not putting them down. I am just clarifying what they are.


Well, in a letter written on behalf of the Guardian we read that "it has been found over the entire world that the most effective method of teaching the Faith is the fireside meeting in the home." And it is those last three words that, to me, are crucial: "in the home". If we wish to have the bounty accrued by the "most effective method of teaching the Faith", then we have to use that definition. If we don't, but still call it a "fireside", then we may experience disappointment when we do not see the expected results. After all, calling that dog's tail a leg does not mean that he can walk on it, nor does it mean that the tail is not a useful part of the animal.

Another aspect of this is that of expectation.

I have to been many gatherings that are billed as "devotional gatherings", and I go to them expecting to enjoy the great bounty of worship with others. It is something I look forward to, and eagerly anticipate. But most of the time, what I actually end up experiencing is a public talk, or a small study on some aspect of the Faith.

Again, please don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of public talks and studies. I love them. But when I am expecting to immerse myself in prayer, I feel let down, and mis-led.

While there are many examples of gatherings that are often mis-labeled, I think there are a few we should consider more carefully, with the ardent hope that we will be more effective in our collective work:

  • firesides and public talks
  • reflection gatherings and community gatherings
  • devotional gatherings that segue into a public talk

Once more, let me re-iterate that these are all good, but serve different purposes. And of course, this is all just my own opinion, but I truly feel it is good to be aware of what we are doing so that we can be more effective in our work.

A fireside is an opportunity for someone to ask their most heartfelt questions, while a public talk is an opportunity for someone to hear a presentation on a particular subject that may be of interest to them.

A reflection gathering is where the cluster reflects on its recently-completed cycle of activity, and considers plans for its next cycle. It requires the presentation and study of the statistics over the past few cycles, so that the movement of the cluster can be understood by the attendees.  They can then engage in careful reflection over the implication of those statistics. This results in plans for the upcoming cycle that are a natural extension of its current activities and growth, and consistent with the movement of the cluster over recent cycles. Of course, this is often filled with stories of recent activities, artistic presentations by different groups in the community, and joy. Lots of joy.

A community gathering is less formal. It can be pretty much anything at which the community comes together and enhances its own sense of being a community of loving and united people.

Finally, devotional gatherings are an opportunity for the friends to get together to worship their common creator in an atmosphere of loving unity. This is a great opportunity for galvanizing the service of the community into a more coherent whole. Of course, as the friends come together to pray, they also have the wonderful opportunity for studying together. Their hearts and minds are more open to receive the guidance that comes from a study of the creative Word. And so many communities take advantage of this opportunity. That's wonderful! But, as with most things, it comes with a caveat. Don't leave out the time for immersion in prayer. Without that, it is just not a devotional gathering, even if you do say a couple of prayers at the beginning. If it were, then our every Feast or Assembly meeting would be a devotional gathering. So remember, prayer is good, and we should use it to begin every meeting, but in a devotional gathering, we are more fully immersed in that wonderful ocean of prayer.

Remember, in the end, if we understand the use of a tool such as a fireside or a reflection meeting, we are in a far better position to use that tool to its best and desired effect.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

360 Degrees

When Abdu'l-Baha was about four years old, Tahirih was a guest in Baha'u'llah's home. At that time, a number of people visited the home to hear her and others speak.

"One day the great Siyyid Yaḥyá, surnamed Vaḥíd," wrote 'Abdu'l-Baha, "was present there. As he sat without, Ṭáhirih listened to him from behind the veil. I was then a child, and was sitting on her lap. With eloquence and fervor, Vaḥíd was discoursing on the signs and verses that bore witness to the advent of the new Manifestation. She suddenly interrupted him and, raising her voice, vehemently declared: 'O Yaḥyá! Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith, if thou art a man of true learning. Cease idly repeating the traditions of the past, for the day of service, of steadfast action, is come. Now is the time to show forth the true signs of God, to rend asunder the veils of idle fancy, to promote the Word of God, and to sacrifice ourselves in His path. Let deeds, not words, be our adorning!'"

This simple story, of a young child sitting on her lap, while she re-directed the great Vahid's focus, has long captured my attention. Vahid, you may recall, was the distinguished scholar who was sent by the Shah himself to ascertain the truth of the Bab's cause. Needless to say, Vahid became a Babi, and was renowned for his great learning.

But here, Tahirih shines even brighter.

Why? What is it about this story that calls to me so strongly?

I think it is because she rightly turns his, and by extension our, attention from the past to the future. Vahid is looking backwards. She is looking forwards.

This thought comes further into focus when we consider the conference at Badasht.

It was at this historic gathering that the Babi community was showing its division most clearly. Those who saw it as a reformation of Islam were fronted by Quddus, while those who saw it as a complete break were spearheaded by Tahirih. And the whole conference was managed and reconciled by Baha'u'llah, probably with the knowledge and active participation by Quddus and Tahirih.

Without going into too much detail, Quddus and his group were looking backwards, while Tahirih and her group were looking forwards. But in the end, neither were what we would call accurate. Both had their valid points, and both were missing something important.

This issue, and the solution, are both apparent in the Kitab-i-Iqan. We need to be grounded in the past, with a firm understanding of where our roots lie in history, while constantly looking towards our movement into the future.

This is what we need to learn even more today.

We need to be fully aware of our history, no matter we live in the world. We need to understand the effects of colonization, how our various governments have come about, what our traditional values are, how our religious traditions have arisen, and so on. But we always need to keep in mind where we are heading.

When looking at our traditional values, we need to see if they bring us towards greater unity. When looking at the history of our country, we need to see if we are encouraging all those various members of that community, or are some being excluded based on race?

When examining the religious traditions of the past, we need to see what effect they were trying to achieve, and ask if they are still working towards that end. If so, great. If not, how can we change them to better achieve the spiritual effect desired?

This, to me, is one of the greatest teachings of the Baha'i Faith, and the underlying importance of the story of Tahirih: Instead of only looking backwards, or only looking forwards, we need to learn to get a full 360 degree view of the world around us.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Vision

For over six months now I have been writing these short summaries of the stories of the early Babis and how they are relevant to us today. You see, dear Reader, back in June of 2018 the Universal House of Justice wrote to the Baha'is of the world the following:
In keeping with the overall approach to this bicentenary, it will be important to reflect on the purpose of calling to mind these remarkable narratives, which possess a merit far beyond an exploration of history.

And as I read these words, and in fact this whole message, it occurred to me that many of us see these stories as mere history. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we relate them as mere history. Inspiring, to be sure, but still historical.

The question for me, as a story-teller, is how do I relate these stories so that they are obviously relevant to the reader or listener? How do I help them draw the parallels to their own life?

That, dear Reader, was the motivation for this exercise which has consumed so much of my blog for these past months.

As I was thinking about this, and what to write this week, I realized that I have not yet talked about Tahirih. Now, I'm not going to talk a lot about her right now. I'll save that for the next few weeks.

One thing I want to mention right now, though, is how she came to recognize the Bab: through a dream. She was already a follower, and ardent admirer, of Siyyid Kazim, and knew many of his disciples, including Mulla Husayn. In fact, she was in Karbila when Mulla Husayn set off on his historic journey to search for the Bab. She was there when all the other future Letters of the Living also left Karbila on their quest. In fact, it was during this time, when all the others had gone on a retreat to a mosque in Kufa to pray and meditate, following Mulla Husayn's example, that she, too, fasted by day, and held vigil by night.

One night, during this period of holy preparation, she was given a dream, or a vision. A "youth, a Siyyid, wearing a black cloak and a green turban, appeared to her in the heavens; he was standing in the air, reciting verses and praying with his hands upraised." When she woke from this vision, she wrote down one of the verses He had said, and later discovered that it was a line from the Qayyumu'l-Asma, that very book the Bab was to later reveal on the night of His declaration.

It was at this time that she gave a sealed letter to her brother-in-law, who was one of those disciples of Siyyid Kazim who retreated to the mosque in Kufa, and told him to give it to the Promised One. And in that letter, she declared her faith to Him. The rest, as they say, is history.

But, as I say, it's also relevant to today.

There are many times in our life when we will have a brief encounter with the mystic, the sacred. And this should be honoured. We should respect this, both in our own lives, and in others.

Of course, this does not mean that we should impose our own visions on others, nor insist that others act according to them. Not at all.

But I remember a few times when friends had dreams or visions of Baha'u'llah, or the Bab or even 'Abdu'l-Baha, and they wanted to become Baha'i. In one instance, this woman I knew prayed to be guided. She had previously prayed to be led to the "correct" church, and was surprised when no answer was forthcoming. Finally she changed her prayer to being guided to the truth, and we met the next morning.

She had never heard of the Faith before that, but knew immediately it was the answer to her prayer when she overheard me mention it to someone else. Of course we warmly welcomed her into the Faith. But to tell you the truth, there were a few Baha'is who wanted to delay her enrolment until she "knew more about it".


Why not let her enrol, and continue learning after she is a member of the community? We all continue learning after our enrolment, so why should she be any different?

This is one of the great lessons I have learned from the story of Tahirih.

When someone recognizes the Truth, don't stand in their way. Even though I came to the Faith through my head, through years of study, I have no expectation that others have to arrive at this door in the same way.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Stone

Of all the stories I have read about the early Babis, there is one that stands out beyond many others for me. I have long wondered about it, and what, exactly, it is that it teaches us.

The story is of Baha'u'llah, Who, at the time, was being led back to Tehran as a prisoner. There had just been an attempt on the life of the Shah by some misguided bozos... I mean, some foolish hot-headed Babis, who somehow thought that killing the Shah would be a good thing to do, even though Baha'u'llah Himself had counselled them against it. They were so foolish in their attempt that they used bird shot, which was totally incapable of killing the Shah, and merely wounded him. As I'm sure you know, dear Reader, the outcome of this ridiculous attempt was totally disastrous. It merely resulted in the unleashed fury of both the clergy and the government, which roused the public to a savage frenzy beyond what anyone thought possible.

When this storm broke, Baha'u'llah was a guest of the Grand Vizier, Mirza Aqa Khan, in the village of Afchih. He was staying in the home of one Ja'far Quli-Khan, when news of this attempted assassination reached Him. Both the Grand Vizier and Ja'far Quli-Khan wrote to Him encouraging Him to go into hiding until things blew over. "The Shah's mother", He was told, "is inflamed with anger. She is denouncing you openly before the court and people as the 'would-be murderer' of her son. She is also trying to involve Mirza Aqa Khan in this affair, and accuses him of being your accomplice."

Baha'u'llah, like the Bab before Him, courteously refused to go into hiding, and instead met His accusers straight on.

He rode into Niyavaran, and was invited to stay at His brother-in-law's home, near the Russian Legation, where he worked as a secretary. Being so close to an army camp, though, word got out that Baha'u'llah was there, and a warrant for His arrest was immediately ordered. The Russian minister refused to give Baha'u'llah over, and instead demanded that He be escorted to Mirza Aqa Khan's home, whose guest He still was. The minister insisted that a promise for Baha'u'llah's safety be guaranteed and said that he would hold Mirza Aqa Khan personally responsible. Nevertheless, with the clamor for His arrest, Mirza Aqa Khan meekly handed Baha'u'llah over to the Shah's officers.

He was bastinadoed, and stripped of His turban and outer garments, before being marched some fifteen kilometers to Tehran, and the infamous dungeon, the Black Pit.

It was at this time, as He entered the city, that an old woman, filled with rage, tried to catch up to them. She wanted to fling her stone at the Prisoner. Baha'u'llah, hearing her pleas with the guards to slow down, interceded on her behalf. "Suffer not this woman", He told the guards, "to be disappointed. Deny her not what she regards as a meritorious act in the sight of God."

And this is where I pause.

We never hear what happened after that.

Did she fling her stone? Was she filled with shame, that "faculty which deterreth (us) from, and guardeth (us) against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly", and put her stone down? We don't know.

And that, to me, is one of the beauties of this story, because, for us, it doesn't matter. She is not the main character. Baha'u'llah is. She is not the one who can teach us a lesson. He is.

The choice she made is her own, and Baha'u'llah does not tell us what her decision was. He really is the "concealer of sins".

But even that does not matter to me.

What captures my attention, and what I am left with, is how Baha'u'llah honoured her right to make that choice. He does not praise that act, nor does He condemn it. Instead, He reaches into her heart and recognizes that her intention is to do something pleasing to God, something that she believes is meritorious.

This story is, to me, the ultimate expression of God's granting us free will.

In fact, we actually see the importance of free-will throughout this story, and many others. Here, we see Him allowing the Russian minister to come to His defense, and Mirza Aqa Khan being allowed to turn Him over to the authorities. In fact, we even see it when Baha'u'llah decides to go back to Tehran, allowing those who call for His arrest to do with Him as they please. Whatever they wish to do, it will not affect His path. He will move as He wills, and not cower or hide from anything. Instead, He will allow them to pursue their heart's desire without impediment, and thus they arrest Him.

We see an identical example of this when the Bab is returning from His Pilgrimage, and the governor of Shiraz calls for His arrest.

We even see a similar example years later when the cowardly and jealous Mirza Yahya poisons Baha'u'llah. Do we really think that He didn't know the teacup was smeared with poison? Do we really believe that He didn't know what was consuming His half-brother's heart? Of course not. So why did He drink that poison? Because He always allowed others to do as they wished. He would counsel them, of course, and talk about the importance of good actions, but He never interfered.

That, to me, is an example that we can strive to live up to today. There are many times when friends of mine do things that I would not consider doing. Sometimes it's investing in a particular property, or taking a particular job. Oftentimes I feel like I'm watching a slow-motion train wreck, and I truly feel sorry for them. But I realize that it is their life. It is their choice. I offer counsel or guidance, point out certain things that I think are wrong, but, in the end, I know it is their choice, not mine.

Of course, this doesn't apply to children in the same way. There were many times in my life where I stopped a child from doing something harmful. After all, they are children and need to learn.

But when an adult makes a decision like taking a drink or marrying a particular person, it really is their choice, and I need to respect that.

There are even times when their decision will hurt me. And you know what? That's ok, too. They can make their decision. They will have to live with it, and the consequences. And I will make my decision, too. This is the bounty, and the curse, of free will.

No matter what they choose, I have to respect their God-given right to free will. I may not respect the decision they choose, but I have to honour their right to that choice.

And when I do so, I often remember that old woman with the stone and wonder what choice she made.