as I pick myself back up

It’s been a while since I’ve spent much time looking after this blog. No doubt there are still people out there reading, whether they’re subscribed by email or RSS, or follow on Facebook, or simply check back every now and then out of curiosity or nostalgia.

It’s been a tumultuous time for the owner of the world’s longest-running Bahá’í blog (if it hasn’t been stripped of that title due to the succession of hiatus after prolonged hiatus). Things started getting busy around the end of 2010. Life started getting in the way of writing, you know, in the way it does. Successive tests descended. Things which were once clear became muddied and murky, as the hand of providence stirred up the water of the ocean of life. They say that in that kind of muddy water, the beautiful lotus will bloom, resting calmly upon the water, opening up its petals and offering itself to the sky.

I can’t really say that the tests have ended yet—nor can I say that I’ve reached that perfect state of calm—but what I can say is that there is something of a growing sense of clarity budding somewhere deep within. Things are clearer, while still being unclear. I am—and we are—slowly learning how to draw from that sacred quiet space within our hearts the living water of certitude.

There is so much to fear in the world today, so much anger, hatred, instability and chaos. And yet, there is also the evidence of a growing, collective movement of humanity towards something much, much greater and more beautiful. Something that looks like kindness, and courage, and justice, and love, and patience, and perseverance, and generosity, and sacrifice, and service. Every day, we pick our side: Shall we advance towards a day of despair, or one of hope? O Great Spirit, give me the strength to choose hope today, to love and to serve Thy creatures.

So, yes, it’s been a tumultuous time, and most of the time I’ve simply felt too confused and exhausted to spend time sharing quips and queries or telling the little stories of my life. I dare to cherish the hope that this time of crisis is coming to a close, and that victories lie ahead. But I must be humble, and remember my place: A mere gnat that only aspires to become an eagle. Sorry. I know this sounds cryptic, and I hate to be one of those cryptic bloggers. The gist of it is that I’m feeling a little better nowadays, now that things have become a little less chaotic. But big things are in store in the coming years. Big changes, big growth, big challenges, and hopefully big adventures worth telling stories about. Maybe I’ll be blogging those too in a little while. For now, I’m off to rest and meditate a little. Greetings and glad-tidings to you and yours, dear friends.

6 qualities of the empowered

studying the guidanceYou know how you can read something one day, get something out of it, and then read it again next week and get a fresh new insight? That’s often what happens to me when I read the Bahá’í Writings. Most recently, I’ve been working hard to finish reading all of the recent messages of the Universal House of Justice—the 8 February 2013 and 1 May 2013 messages announcing the convocation of the worldwide youth conferences, for example, and the 1 July 2013 message to all the conferences; the 2013 Ridván message; and Insights from the Frontiers of Learning, the long but fascinating companion document to the wonderful new film Frontiers of Learning.

Anyway, a friend of mine shared the last sentence of the 8 February 2013 message the other day, and I took the opportunity to read it again with fresh eyes. In it, the Universal House of Justice writes of its hope for the youth of the world, giving an overview of the kinds of qualities that characterize the “new race of men” anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh—a race not defined by nationality or ethnicity, nor by superhero-style mutations or magical powers(!), nor indeed by any material considerations, but by the strength and maturity of their character, by their spiritual qualities. To give a little context, the Bahá’í International Community gave some very useful commentary on this term in its Statement on Bahá’u’lláh:

The distinguishing feature of humanity’s coming of age is that, for the first time in its history, the entire human race is consciously involved, however dimly, in the awareness of its own oneness and of the earth as a single homeland. This awakening opens the way to a new relationship between God and humankind. As the peoples of the world embrace the spiritual authority inherent in the guidance of the Revelation of God for this age, Bahá’u’lláh said, they will find in themselves a moral empowerment which human effort alone has proven incapable of generating. “A new race of men” will emerge as the result of this relationship, and the work of building a global civilization will begin.

In the last paragraph of the 8 February 2013 message, the Universal House of Justice enumerates some of the qualities that youth will need in order to make a difference in the world—qualities related to moral and spiritual empowerment. Let’s examine them here, point by point. “In our prayers at the Sacred Threshold,” the message reads, “we entreat the Ancient Beauty that, from out a distracted and bewildered humanity, He may distil…”: Continue reading

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

overcoming lethargy and apathy

Quote

Shoghi Effendi, in a passage written not long before his passing, referred to the future of the American nation. And one of the things he mentioned as being within the future of the American nation has arrested my attention in recent years. He said, at that time, that the Bahá’ís of America faced a future challenge. And what was that challenge? In the message published in the book Citadel of Faith, Shoghi Effendi refers to a number of challenges before the American friends, one of which was that “apathy and lethargy [would] paralyze their spiritual faculties in the future.”

We, today, face that test—the test of overcoming apathy and lethargy. The test that those around us increasingly lack zeal and idealism and a passion for changing the world. Society around us has lost its vision. It lacks heroes and heroines. They have become discredited. Exposes have been written about them. They have been found to have feet of clay. There are no heroes. There are no heroines. There is no vision.

It is a matter of making it through day by day, being concerned only for one’s self because no one else is interested in us. You survive or not. It is a hard, cruel world out there.

That is not the Bahá’í way. We are people committed to the creation of a new society. We are summoned to heroism. We are summoned to sacrifice. We are summoned to idealism and to altruism. We are people creating a new society, a new civilization. We are people who love and are concerned about generations yet unborn and we are prepared to dedicate our lives that those generations to come, in decades and centuries into the future, may have a better life; may have a life of peace and unity and harmony and the possibility for the full development of their potential.

This is the idealism to which we are summoned as Bahá’ís. We need to overcome the apathy and lethargy of society and stand apart as people dedicated to the creation of a new world.

From a talk given by Peter Khan,
former member of the Universal House of Justice

“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.

a prayer for newtown

prayer vigil was held recently in the town of Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of a tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th. Faith leaders gathered from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Bahá’í religions. President Obama addressed those gathered, and the entire world through a live broadcast, offering not only words of comfort and sympathy, but also words that cried out longingly for transformation: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

John Woodall, member of the Newtown Bahá’í community* who was present at the vigil, shared the following on Facebook over the weekend, perhaps echoing President Obama’s call for transformational change:

We are all quite overwhelmed and exhausted today and wonder how we can move forward. This is the time for grief as the grief is a proof of our love. So, we grieve openly in honor of the love of those lost. We have come in contact with our powerlessness over events. We had no control over this event. But, we have decisive control over our response which can be as life-affirming and noble as our heart can dare to reach. We all have this choice in life with the trials we face.

Mr. Woodall and his wife, Margo, offered a profoundly moving reading from the Bahá’í Writings at the vigil, sharing a letter written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to a mother who had lost her son.

The Woodalls have been asked, through their organization The Unity Project, to be a part of the response to the shootings by helping train youth mentors to help counsel younger kids, strengthen family and community bonds, and to help the town heal through large numbers of student inspired service projects. If you’re interested in helping the people of Newtown recover, you can check out The Unity Project on indiegogo—and check them out on Facebook if you’d like to know more.

See also: a few of my reflections on the Newtown tragedy.

* Although various reports have referred to Mr. Woodall as a “minister” or a “leader” of the Bahá’ís, the Bahá’í community has no clergy and its members do not act as priests.