rising through the waves

sea wall in akkáAt every moment, the ocean of humanity is astir with waves. This morning, Bahá’í youth around the world are probably feeling two different waves washing over them. One is the wave of excitement, anticipation, and hope generated by their imminent participation in the 114 youth conferences set to begin next week—gatherings meant to uplift their souls, steel their resolve, and impart the vision they will need to carry forward the work of the Divine Plan at a scale they have never witnessed before. The other wave is that of shock, broken-hearted sorrow and grief, brought about by the news of the destruction of the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad—the House that was the site of His exile for so many years, and from which He travelled to the Ridván Garden on the day of His Declaration in 1863.

Crisis and victory. Integration and disintegration. One force tears down, another builds anew. As we are buffeted by the waves today, oft-recalled words and phrases wash through our minds too, reminding us that in every calamity, there are the seeds of a greater providence. Ours is the work of gardeners, to plant and water those seeds and to help them grow.

Many of us are still busy preparing for the 114 youth conferences across the globe, some of which are beginning as soon as next week. If you’re reading these words right now, you’ve probably read about the 5 things to do while you’re waiting for the youth conferences. You may have been going through a checklist in your mind, asking yourself: Have I read up on everything the Universal House of Justice expects of me? Am I lacking any training in the various skills of service? Do I even know how I want to serve humanity? And many other questions. Although these preparations are important—essential, even—we must also be open to the idea that the setbacks and crises we experience in life are a form of spiritual preparation. Yes, even terrible, hurtful and tragic things. When I look back on the last ten years of my life, I can identify several points—though they were painful and even traumatic to go through—that have helped me to increase my spiritual capacity and prepared me for the challenges I face today. Experiences such as these prompted me to pen the following reflections on a grey autumn afternoon, just a year after I returned to Ottawa from a difficult experience as a homefront pioneer:

Being a Baha’i is such a beautiful, beautiful thing. Harrowingly difficult at times, and challenging, to be sure. Challenging because we are called to be the quickeners of mankind, pillars of strength around which a shattered, crumbling humanity is destined to seek shelter and solace. Difficult because we must set aside our own ego, our own self, and seek the improvement of the life and condition of all. Tests and difficulties come at us from all sides sometimes, and they seem designed to make us as uncomfortable as possible. Sometimes I wonder: when will it all stop? Sometimes I get tired and discouraged, and I want to slip quietly into my bed, sleep it off and wake up in spring when things are better and there’s more light. Yeah, sometimes it’s harsh. But those are the breaks for everybody – all are tested, and only so much as their capacity allows. We are all meant to grow, that’s why we have tests. “The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks). When we hear this we don’t mind any more that the tests will never stop. We don’t mind that this life will be nothing but a continuing cycle of crisis and victory, of triumph and setback. When we hear this we know that there is a plan. The more we exert ourselves, the further ahead we get.

We stand at a pivotal moment in the fortunes of humanity. Terrible trials lie in wait, but also incredible triumphs—that’s just how the cycle of crisis and victory works. When we come to understand this more deeply, we stop being so anxious at what might be, and we come to see setbacks as sparks that further ignite our faith, turning the flame of our love into a raging blaze of fire and light, a spiritual fire that can never be extinguished. And as we strain every nerve to conquer ourselves, so do fear, sorrow and doubt begin to fall away. As we pray for strength, so is it given to us, “no matter how difficult the conditions”. We reflect, we commit, and we steel ourselves, calling on a strength that is beyond ourselves, and relying on an abundant flow of blessings. These blessings, too, are like waves of the water of life. Rather than struggling to keep our heads above water, let us plunge into the deep, drink our fill and arise.

Heroes are they, O my Lord, lead them to the field of battle. Guides are they, make them to speak out with arguments and proofs. Ministering servants are they, cause them to pass round the cup that brimmeth with the wine of certitude. O my God, make them to be songsters that carol in fair gardens, make them lions that couch in the thickets, whales that plunge in the vasty deep.

Verily Thou art He of abounding grace. There is none other God save Thee, the Mighty, the Powerful, the Ever-Bestowing.

Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.225

house of baha’u’llah in baghdad destroyed

From the Bahá’í World News Service, we read this morning of the heart-breaking news of the destruction of the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad, Iraq.

houseThe worldwide Baha’i community has learned that the house of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, in Baghdad, Iraq – a profoundly sacred site known as the Most Great House – has been destroyed. The precise circumstances surrounding the demolition are not yet clear.

Bani Dugal, the Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations said: “This deplorable act has robbed people throughout the world of a priceless piece of their spiritual heritage.”

“While the details are not yet clear, there should be no doubt as to the Baha’i community’s strength of feeling about this terrible and shocking deed”, she continued.

“The Baha’is of the world are, of course, heartbroken by the news. Yet, as always, they remain positive and focused on their efforts to promote peace and contribute to the betterment of their communities”, she added.

The Most Great House was Baha’u’llah’s place of residence for much of the time of His exile from Iran to Baghdad, Iraq. The site is located close to the banks of the River Tigris.

Upon reading of this tragic development, many of the Bahá’ís turned immediately to the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, who himself foretold of the indignities which would befall His House, saying that it would “be so abased in the days to come as to cause tears to flow from every discerning eye”—but that, in time, it would be exalted in the eyes of the world:

Call thou to mind that which hath been revealed unto Mihdí, Our servant, in the first year of Our banishment to the Land of Mystery (Adrianople). Unto him have We predicted that which must befall Our House (Baghdád House), in the days to come, lest he grieve over the acts of robbery and violence already perpetrated against it. Verily, the Lord, thy God, knoweth all that is in the heavens and all that is on the earth.

To him We have written: This is not the first humiliation inflicted upon My House. In days gone by the hand of the oppressor hath heaped indignities upon it. Verily, it shall be so abased in the days to come as to cause tears to flow from every discerning eye. Thus have We unfolded to thee things hidden beyond the veil, inscrutable to all save God, the Almighty, the All-Praised. In the fullness of time, the Lord shall, by the power of truth, exalt it in the eyes of all men. He shall cause it to become the Standard of His Kingdom, the Shrine round which will circle the concourse of the faithful. Thus hath spoken the Lord, thy God, ere the day of lamentation arriveth. This revelation have We given thee in Our holy Tablet, lest thou sorrow for what hath befallen Our House through the assaults of the enemy. All praise be to God, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.

Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh,
No. LVIII, p. 114-115

Upon reading these words, I was immediately reminded of the concept of crisis and victory as explained by Shoghi Effendi—that with every calamity comes the seeds of a greater victory—which inspired me to put down a few thoughts about how we can rise through the waves of tests.

“be not dismayed…”

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“Be not dismayed if your endeavours are dismissed as utopian by the voices that would oppose any suggestion of fundamental change. Trust in the capacity of this generation to disentangle itself from the embroilments of a divided society. To discharge your responsibilities, you will have to show forth courage, the courage of those who cling to standards of rectitude, whose lives are characterised by purity of thought and action, and whose purpose is directed by love and indomitable faith. As you dedicate yourselves to healing the wounds with which your peoples have been afflicted, you will become invincible champions of justice…”

Excerpt from a Letter to the youth of Paraguay
from the Universal House of Justice , 6 January 1998

on impending parenthood

tômThe inevitable has happened! No, not world peace, not just yet. No, I mean Quynh and I are expecting a baby. A baby boy, at that. Congratulations are flowing in from all sides, with hugs and pats on the back from all. No cigars yet, thankfully.

The feeling of impending parenthood is at once joyous and portentous. Sort of like the feeling of having a nice, fresh bun in the oven, and knowing that when the bun’s done baking, it’ll spend months—nay, years—making strange noises nonstop, spilling dough all over your kitchen, and swapping the scent of baked bread for the less delicate fragrance of poo. OK, I know, that’s not all there is to parenthood. I guess I’m just trying to get psyched by reminding myself that the next chapter in our lives will be quite intense.

Pregnancy is its own little roller coaster ride. From the initial lift after discovering “the second stripe”, we descended into the Valley of Nausea, with stops at Morning Sickness, Afternoon-and-Evening Sickness, Overdosed-on-Orange-Juice Sickness, and so on, before rising again to the top of Mt. First-Ultrasound, where we caught a first glimpse of little Tôm (Vietnamese for “shrimp”, since that’s what he looked like at our first meeting). Once past the peak, we careened into the Learning Curve, which was quite steep, and into the 1,000-Decision Corkscrew, before rising again onto the Found-a-Great-Midwife Plateau and Mt. Perfect-Test-Results. At the moment, we’re sailing into ever more ups and downs, including the Heavy-Belly Slide, the Feeling-the-Baby-Kick Lift, the Backache Drop, the Prenatal-Class and Ever-More-Frequent-Checkup Loops—with more to come. And come November, it’ll be a whole new ride—one that lasts a whole new, shared lifetime.

They say that having kids is a transformative experience. For almost ten years now I’ve been aware that educating children is “among the most meritorious acts of humankind”, and I’ve expended a lot of effort in learning how it works through organizing and teaching neighbourhood children’s classes. Becoming a parent, though, is a whole new ball game for sure, and will require a constancy, strength and perseverance that’s never really been required of me before. I’d like to think I feel ready—but who’s ever really ready to become a parent? All I know for now is that I’m willing to learn, and to grow. Perhaps God doesn’t ask much more than that?

relationships: crucial to resilience

hanoi floods - aftermathHumanity is no stranger to adversity and suffering. Maybe it’s due to my own growing awareness of world events, but since the turn of the 21st century, it seems like the world has been confronted with an ever-accelerating chain of shocks—ever more frequent, ever more varied and costly ones. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and off northeastern Japan, or earthquakes in Iran, Kashmir, China and Haiti. Widespread droughts in places like the Western United States and the Sahel, threatening food security and human well-being. Growing social unrest and terrorism, resulting in the deaths of innocents everywhere—from the Middle East to Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. In the face of such enormous suffering, one thing we often end up doing is shutting it out—changing the channel rather than thinking about it. But what happens when our neighbourhood is the one that’s flooded, shot through, or reduced to rubble?

Resilience is the quality of being able to bounce back from crises, to recover quickly from adversity. When tragedy strikes, resilience helps us to regain hope, recover our strength, rebuild our lives and move on. Very often—if not always—resilience depends upon strong family and community relationships. If we are surrounded by support from family, friends and neighbours who are looking out for our well-being, we have a better chance of weathering a crisis.

family in whiteI witnessed something of this in action after Quynh’s father passed away in August 2010. Summoned to return much earlier than intended, I arrived in Vietnam two weeks after his passing, to find the grieving family—especially his beloved wife—in tears. Around them, close family, friends, neighbours and concerned well-wishers circled, first offering words of solace and support, then drawing back to allow time for grief to run its course, then returning when the time was right. At several points during my visit, they gathered at the family home for memorials, to burn incense and offer prayers. These memorials, I learned, were no mere expressions of superstition. Rather, they were signs of solidarity, and a way of providing structure for and sustaining the grieving family. I did my part as a Vietnamese son-in-law, taking up basic tasks to support the family, and in doing so, became part of a network that helped them recover from their pain over the months and years that followed. If that network wasn’t there, or if it wasn’t strong, what would have happened to the family? Nothing good, that’s for sure. But because the community was united in their concern for each other, they rallied around our family, visiting them and helping them to recover from their loss.

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diversity, cause of love and harmony

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tulips in rockcliffe park

The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord. If you meet those of different race and colour from yourself, do not mistrust them and withdraw yourself into your shell of conventionality, but rather be glad and show them kindness. Think of them as different coloured roses growing in the beautiful garden of humanity, and rejoice to be among them.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá