flowers and forecasts

Here’s an excerpt from a post that I started writing a while back in Da Nang, in October 2010, and never finished—probably because it was time to take out the garbage.

nine yellow roses

it’s flower arrangement day at hotel Hai Lam (aka, Quynh’s family home). apparently, prevailing conditions allowed for the buildup of flower purchases in our vicinity, which favoured the formation of an active flower system leading straight to our door. Government florists describe the system as cyclical, although this particular system is considered to be stronger than usual for this time of year.

So anyway yeah. Lots of flowers in the house, for Quynh who just came home from a Baha’i Institute training in Malaysia, and for the family shrine too. Pink, red, white, yellow flowers, roses, lilies and (??). I met Quynh at the airport with red roses—and a bouquet of nine roses when she got home. We even got a new set of bed sheets with roses on them!

Rollin’ like the mack, indeed. You can tell the effect it had on the love of my life:

more flowers?

“i am not of the lost”

Still reeling from the shock of hearing of the tragedy in the small town of Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, Bahá’í artist Munirih Sparrow was inspired to share a video of herself performing “I am not of the lost”, an original song based on words written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to a mother whose son had passed onwards into the spiritual worlds.

The song was originally written for her new album Nightsong, which was released in November 2012. I had the chance to catch up with her recently during a break from touring the USA and asked her about the song and its significance.

Originally I went searching for a prayer for mothers, in my search I came upon this prayer. It was beautiful and comforting and had a feeling of “otherworldliness”.

A few years ago a close family member of mine lost her baby girl Ocean and around the time of writing that song it would have been Ocean’s 12th birthday. As I tried to put the writing to music, I literally asked Ocean to help me. Now, I know that sounds pretty “fuu-fuu” but spirits in the next world are always inspiring us and few artists create by themselves. My family continues to grieve Ocean’s death and I just had this feeling that she was there with a message of love and comfort for her parents.

On Friday, she dedicated the song as a prayer for the mothers and fathers of Newtown who lost their children, describing the importance of prayers and music in bringing about healing and peace in the face of grief and loss.

In the wake of such sad events as we saw in Newtown I feel confirmed in my belief in the power of prayer and music. Not only is that prayer important to the families who are personally devastated by these events but also for people like you and me who do not know these families but are still so saddened and upset.

It is prayers like these that assist us all in grieving and processing our anger and sadness about this event and others going on around the world. Through prayer we make peace in our hearts and our communities.

Munirih’s words largely reflect my experience helping Quynh’s family to grieve after her father’s sudden passing in August 2010. As many have said before, there are no words for the pain felt when a loved one passes away; particularly the pain of losing a child, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls “heart-breaking and beyond the limits of human endurance”. Two things helped us recover from our grief: the power of prayer—of spiritual conversation with God and intercession on behalf of those who have passed onwards—and the power of community. I suppose these are common to all humanity; we all tend to lean on each other, and on a Higher Power, when we feel overwhelmed by suffering.

Learn a little more about Munirih Sparrow, and listen to her music on her Bandcamp site.

See also: the prayer vigil offered in Newtown; a few of my reflections on the tragedy.

how much longer?

On the same day, December 14, 2012, two attacks on schools happened on opposite sides of the globe: a stabbing spree in Chenpeng village, Henan, China, in which 22 children and an elderly woman were injured; and a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, in which 27 were killed, including 20 children. I jotted down these thoughts soon after I heard the news.

I remember recently watching a mini-documentary about World War I that explained how the horrors of trench warfare led to cynicism becoming “normal”, first among the soldiers who had witnessed them, and then among the society they returned to. Man’s inhumanity to man had turned him sour, leaving him to despair. This sense of despair was reinforced by World War II and the conflicts that followed, and although economies recovered and material wealth grew, a crisis of spirit persisted. A new, idealistic generation rebelled against war in all its forms in the 1960s and 70s, showing a true and profound craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal in what they called the “Age of Aquarius“. For the most part, though, this craving was denied, and mankind sunk deeper into despair and cynicism.

How much longer will this craving go unsatisfied, and how many more bodies will have to pile up, not only in our schools but throughout our bruised, battered and shell-shocked world? What will it take for things to change? I don’t really know the first answer, but for the second, I’ll tell you.

are you learning how to make a difference?In the junior youth group that my wife is running in our neighbourhood, she and the girls—aged 11 to 13—are reading about the story of Kibomi, a young boy who believes he can make a difference. Kibomi lives in a country full of strife, and his parents are killed in front of his eyes one day. He runs for his life, and along the way, as he struggles to come to terms with the horrors he has just seen, he meets people who help him see that he has a choice: either to sink into despair, rage, violence and revenge; or to turn his suffering into fuel that will help him change the lives of those around him for the better. Doing the latter takes strength of character that he’s not sure he has, but as he meets more and more people who are working hard to build bonds of loving-kindness and unity between the warring tribes, he realizes that he can draw on their strength to build up his own. Eventually his feelings of fear and despair fade away, and he makes his choice—to work actively towards the betterment of the world.

Now ask yourself again: How much longer will man’s craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal go unsatisfied? As long as we choose to let it.

Read some of my previous reflections after the shootings at Virginia Tech or Montreal’s Dawson College.

part of a whole

Many of you have probably read, listened to, or heard of a recent talk by former member of the Universal House of Justice Mr. Ali Nakhjavani, in which he emphatically expressed how important it is for Bahá’í communities to maintain teaching activities alongside core activities such as study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups and devotional meetings. You may also have read a (previously unpublished?) letter on this same topic, written by the Universal House of Justice on October 31, 2002, that’s also been circulating. I read through these myself recently, and they brought me to reflect on the evolution in my own understanding of the institute process, and in my own actions. I shared some of these reflections on Reddit recently, and thought I’d repost them here.

Several years back there was definitely an increase in focus on the institute process in our local community as we studied the messages of the Universal House of Justice which described training institutes and their centrality to the process of community growth. At the time, I was just coming out of university, and it was really the first time I had ever been strongly involved in Bahá’í community activities, despite having grown up in a Bahá’í family. Being involved in study circles was pretty transformative for me—studying Ruhi Book 1 was the first time I ever really thought about the life of the soul—and I was inspired thereafter to do some homefront pioneering, which involved getting further trained up to Ruhi Book 7. At the time, training institutes were new and I think we were still thinking of it in terms of yet another deepening program, and we often skipped the practical service aspects of the Ruhi curriculum which help collaborators arise to serve. I feel like, as a result, I didn’t really “get” the interconnectedness of it all, and just thought something like, “OK, these study circles are the key to transformation, so I have to put all my efforts into study circles”. Occasionally, that meant that I declined invitations to participate in other initiatives, such as music nights, social get-togethers, and so on, that would have been great teaching opportunities, because I was too busy with my study circle stuff. I know I must have disappointed a lot of well-intentioned and inspired friends because of that, but thank God many of them went ahead anyway and carried forward those initiatives, which are a feature of our local community life now.

I certainly did have an “either this one or that one, but not both” mentality when it came to community activities. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles I had to overcome was my fear of failure and my lack of confidence in my ability to teach—indeed, to create and maintain relationships with people in general. Somehow I was too comfortable with acting as a tutor within the safe, limited environment of an inward-looking community, and not comfortable at all creating genuine, profound relationships with others. I struggled with this for a while, especially as we spoke more and more about how the Bahá’í community had to open outwards, moving from the mindset of a congregation to that of a sort of commonwealth of mankind, blurring the lines between “Bahá’í” and “otherwise”. I think it was this internal struggle—and my continued willingness to adopt a posture of learning and participate in programs of growth in whatever ways I could despite my fear—that helped me see how many of these pieces fit together. The idea of coherence was particularly useful to me, in that I began to see how, for example, a study circle, devotional meeting, children’s class, and junior youth group could develop in sync and feed off each other, and be fed by things that we don’t call “core activities” but are no less crucial: firesides, home visits, and even just hanging out with friends and elevating conversation. In time, the sense of dichotomy disappeared, and now I find myself involved as much in establishing friendships with people in non-“core” ways as I do in teaching children’s classes or walking with friends through Ruhi Book 1.

I should also mention that one of the things that helped me gain confidence was being part of a team, in this case with Quynh. After we were married a few years ago, we found that we could support one another in our service, and do things together that we never dreamed that we could do alone. We are still learning about what seems “right” for us, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and where we can spend our energy most effectively. As a team, we balance and complement each other. If I can’t do something, then she picks up the slack; if neither of us can do it, we just focus our efforts on what we can do. And, most importantly, we are united, and we support each other no matter what. As long as we have that unity, we know that we will be confirmed.

getting things ready

seeing into the futureSo yeah. How are you, O dearly beloved reader of doberman pizza? As I noted earlier, you shall be seeing much more than scattered Facebook reposts from now on. For various reasons, blog posts have been scarce over the past few years—mainly because of the workload involved in preparing for our wedding, recovering from a loved one’s passing, and filling out the paperwork required for Quynh’s immigration to Canada. As well, since the recent social media boom and the rise of Facebook, Twitter and similar networks, random status updates have just been easier to post elsewhere than here. But fear not! There’s no reason to unsubscribe. Starting this week, doberman pizza gets a much-needed overhaul and relaunch. See you here on Thursday evening, December 6th, around 5 PM Eastern Time and onwards (see World Times) for the big switch, and, who knows, maybe a little real-time chat like the old days. I’ve been working at getting things ready for the past month now, and I really hope you’ll like it.

ascension of ‘abdu’l-bahá

ascension of 'abdu'l-baháWe awoke after only a brief rest, and slipped downstairs quietly. lighting candles and gathering around the fireplace, we placed His portrait before us and began to call to mind His life, His sufferings, His legacy. It was 91 years ago tonight that He, the Master, the Mystery of God, had passed onwards into the spiritual worlds, a most unique and blessed soul returning to His place of origin, having done as much as He could with the time allotted to Him in the limited, physical worlds.

We commemorated His passing with reflections on the sufferings He endured, reading a section of His Will and Testament in which He described the calamities heaped upon Him by those who broke Baha’u’lláh’s Covenant:

O MY LORD, my heart’s Desire, Thou Whom I ever invoke, Thou Who art my Aider and my Shelter, my Helper and my Refuge! Thou seest me submerged in an ocean of calamities that overwhelm the soul, of afflictions that oppress the heart, of woes that disperse Thy gathering, of ills and pains that scatter Thy flock. Sore trials have compassed me round and perils have from all sides beset me. Thou seest me immersed in a sea of unsurpassed tribulation, sunk into a fathomless abyss, afflicted by mine enemies and consumed with the flame of their hate, enkindled by my kinsmen with whom Thou didst make Thy strong Covenant and Thy firm Testament, wherein Thou biddest them turn their hearts to this wronged one, to keep away from me the foolish, the unjust, and refer unto this lonely one all that about which they differ in Thy Holy Book, so that the Truth may be revealed unto them, their doubts may be dispelled and Thy manifest Signs be spread abroad.

Yet now Thou seest them, O Lord, my God! with Thine eye that sleepeth not, how that they have broken Thy Covenant and turned their backs thereon, how with hate and rebelliousness they have erred from Thy Testament and have arisen intent upon malice.

As a testament to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s life, upon His passing, the entire city of Haifa was swept by “an unprecedented stir and tumult, and filling all hearts with unutterable grief”. This grief transcended all boundaries of race, nation and creed, uniting “Jews and Christians and Muslims and Druzes, of all persuasions and denominations; Arabs and Turks and Kurds and Armenians and other ethnic groups… in mourning His passing, in being aware of a great loss they had suffered.” (H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Baha – The Centre of the Covenant, p. 452.)

This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of His visit to North America, the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada has asked each of us to consider how each of us might carry on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s legacy through our own actions, becoming involved, as He did, with the people around Him, striving to improve their situations and contribute to their well-being, and to be to each one of them a channel of God’s grace. Six years ago on this day, I wrote down my own personal list of “to-do” items, many of which still stand: increasing my involvement with children’s classes; encouraging others to serve in whatever capacity they are able; making effort to turn towards God each day, imploring His assistance; teaching and serving with selflessness and humility. On this day, then, I concentrate my thoughts on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and ask God to help me follow His example more closely, little by little, day by day, and to “strengthen me in my servitude“.