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Close to Home: What’s Up on Whitton?

[5-minute read]

They must be wind-protected. (Photo from National Candle Association, literally not metaphorically.)

It was a relief when the police tape came down, but it hasn’t felt the same, not yet. Maybe it’s just imagination, but Whitton Crescent seems a lot less lively now. Shocking violence can do that to a neighbourhood, and it’s not only the besieged and grieving family that will never fully recover from that terrible morning in early September. The perpetrators — just kids, really — and their families are also ruined in their own particular ways. It was another sad day in, and for, Overbrook, my little piece of Ottawa, where a curvy little street is named for Charlotte Whitton, first female mayor of a Canadian city.

It’s a question that came up in my living room on the weekend: Aren’t you afraid to live here? The answer, sadness aside, is a simple No. We chose this area when we moved to Ottawa. We love it. My family lives two blocks from the murder scene, and from the shooting the week before, which we learned to our dismay injured a lovely woman we know well. We’re a two-minute bike ride from the shooting at the “four corners”, where the convenience store and the pizza restaurant have seen too much of this kind of criminal traffic. Though we don’t fear for our own safety — without a doubt my daily commute across town to my high school coaching gig is more dangerous than where my house sits — it’s unsettling. As for everyone in Overbrook, but especially those on Whitton or near the four corners, these events feel far too close to home. So what are we to do? My wife and son and I are privileged folk in many ways, including our relatively easy option to move out, but that has never crossed our minds.  Nor have we considered extra home security, spending less time walking or biking the streets, or (God forbid!) getting suspicious or cold towards our neighbours.

Just the opposite, actually. If darkness has sometimes fallen on my part of town, the thing is to get to work and create more light. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” as the ancient proverb says. When violence strikes at the heart of community, if the threat of it erodes our hopefulness and our trust in each other, then we have TRULY lost. The better course? Build more community. We started by asking what we might be able to do for the victims’ families? We’re trying to go beyond that: what are we already doing that involves us with Overbrook folk or local development? How do we do more of that? We wonder, What’s missing in this area? and then look to take some small action to begin to fill in that gap. Doing something helps us, first, and let’s hope it ripples outward, but mindset is critical.

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Paradise Is Always a Garden: The Baha’i Thing, From Then to Nearly Now

After finishing this piece, I learned of the passing of a great pillar of the Canadian Baha’i community, not to mention an internationally renowned painter. His name was Otto Donald Rogers, “Don” to most who knew him. He was a quietly magnificent human being, and I’d like to retroactively offer this as a small tribute to a great man. Peace to his family and friends.  
[12-minute read]
A rather different (shorter) version of this piece appears at the Baha’i Teachings website: click here for Part 1, here for Part 2

Maybe you’ve been obsessing about the NHL or NBA playoffs. (No Canadian teams left in the quest for the hockey grail. No LeBron, no more Spurs.) Or wondering if spring will ever come. (Spoiler: it will. It’s underway. Just ask flood victims all over everywhere, but don’t mention climate change. That would be rude!) But for the Baha’is, it’s coming near the end of the “Most Great Festival” of the Baha’i calendar, and I’m all in.

This is not the original Najibiyyih Garden that Baha’u’llah called Paradise, but it evokes the same spirit.

This festival is called “Ridván”, an Arabic word meaning “paradise”, and the best my Canadian mouth can manage is something like ‘Rez-VAHN’. It’s a 12-day period that celebrates the public “mission statement” of the Faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, in a Baghdad garden in 1863. This Persian nobleman, already stripped of wealth and social status and banished from his homeland, was turning a supposedly humiliating further exile into, well, a mighty big party now celebrated by millions around the globe. It’s Day 11. Two nights ago I prayed and partied with a small group not far from my house. I’ll do it again tomorrow night on Day 12, but on April 21, I joined in with a big crowd of Baha’is and their friends for the Big Ridvan Opening, where we were invited to consider how the Baha’i community got from 1863 Baghdad obscurity to the world-wide reach it has today. I’ve been trying to follow Baha’u’llah’s mighty System of knowledge and practice for a long time now. Sometimes it feels I haven’t gotten very far, but I’m still walking, and the Baha’i Big Picture is bright and ever-developing.

Anyway, it all got me thinking about histories: my own, that of the Baha’i community over the past century and a half, and even of earlier crossings into New Millennium territory.

And I thought: I would have made a very poor 1st– or 2nd-century Christian. I would’ve wanted the Kingdom to come NOW! But the growth of Christianity was slow, and the times were confusing. Heck, Pope Gregory wouldn’t be born for centuries, so the Gregorian calendar that dates our lives based on Jesus’s life hadn’t been invented; 100 years after Christ, the word “Christian” was just beginning to distinguish this tiny community from the many other Jewish cults and sects that had arisen. Even 300 years after the life of Jesus Christ, His followers were found only in tiny pockets in what we call the “Middle East”¹, Turkey, northern Africa and southern Europe, basically within a few donkey-days journey of the Mediterranean Sea. They were just beginning to organize their scriptures and get their doctrines and dogmas together, 325 years after Christ’s life, and the Christians wouldn’t become a major population even in the Mediterranean region until the 6th century. Today, it’s the most widespread religion in the world, of course, and we all take its supernatural degree of influence and prestige for granted. But I would have been so impatient as an early Christian!

¹ Ever noticed how Eurocentric that term is? As if everyplace should be measured from London or Paris (which, for many centuries, it was.)

So listen: when I joined the Baha’i community as a 1970s teenager, I began to wonder, Why are other faith groups, often younger than we are, seeming to grow so much faster than we are? I was noticing the Hare Krishna chants on Toronto streets, or the sudden North American splash, in news media and in recruitment, of the Unification Church, the so-called “Moonies”. I wasn’t tempted to join them, or even emulate their methods, but their bursts of public prominence bugged me.  A wise Baha’i elder answered our youthful questions in his deep, heavily accented but utterly logical way. (If you want to channel the voice of Dr. Danesh, imagine American diplomat Henry Kissinger, but with a Persian rather than a German accent, and with a devotion to the psychology of peace and justice rather than to strategies of conflict.) He calmly explained it this way: Think about what we are trying to grow. If you look at two plants in their first season of growth – one of them a pumpkin, one of them an oak tree – your conclusion might be easy. The pumpkin is obviously more impressive, vines and bright flowers and, within months, gigantic orange fruits! Meanwhile, the oak looks like a tender, fruitless twig. The community of Baha’u’llah is growing like an oak tree; as impressive as pumpkins seem to be, at the end of a year you have a few pumpkin pies and maybe a rotting jack-o-lantern, and that’s it.

That made sense to me then. (The reference to pie and jack-o-lanterns is probably mine, but you get the point.) There must have been a host of movements, 1900 years ago, that would have soundly defeated the Christians on a “Most Likely To Succeed” ballot. But the followers of Jesus, in the above analogy, were a slow-growing but eventually mighty oak tree, not a flash-in-the-pumpkin-pie-pan. I still have a lot to learn about patience, but the evolution of the Baha’i community, from its quietly intimate beginnings in the rose-coloured Garden of Ridvan to what I see now, is enough – barely – to keep me hopeful and sane. It’s over 150 years since Baha’u’llah announced his mission in Baghdad, which isn’t as long ago as our present-focussed obsessions and shortening attention spans can make it seem. His writings confidently predicted the growth of world-wide attention to his teachings and of the community that would arise in his name:

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness….Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.

The original “Ridvan” garden, on the shores of the Tigris River in Baghdad. There were roses, roses and nightingales, and joy.

Ridvan now feels like a mighty Declaration, but back then even an attentive neutral observer might have missed the planting of that seed. Baha’u’llah confirmed publicly, to only a few people, what many of his family and friends had quietly known: that he was the one who would lead us to the long-promised day of peace and justice. He thus transformed his upcoming banishment into his modern community’s greatest festival. So how did we get HERE from back THERE? The Baha’is then were few in number, decimated by persecution, and frankly their fellowship seemed like a rather hopeless little twig. I seized on five pivotal years in the steady, seemingly unspectacular growth of the Baha’i community into the beautiful young tree it is today. Here is annual snapshot number one:

 

1892. My father’s parents were young, and would soon meet each other. It’s a little over 125 years since then, the year when Baha’u’llah passed away, leaving his son and family and a still-tiny band of followers to carry on the astounding, world-changing mission he had described and put into motion. Baha’u’llah (an Arabic term, meaning “splendour/light of God”) was not much more widely known than Jesus Christ (“the anointed one”) had been on the cross. His son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, still a prisoner of the Turkish empire, was left to encourage and inspire a few thousand believers, in a few Middle Eastern countries, to live as his father had prescribed, and to tell the world of Baha’u’llah’s message of world peace, world unity, and the essential oneness of humanity. Good luck with that, folks! But listen: they began.

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Sanai (on pearls, swine, and patience)

Jesus Christ, when he made the famous statement Cast not pearls before swine, must have meant something like “Hey buddy, don’t waste your breath. No sense talkin’ if there’s nobody listenin’.” Something like, “Speak not until ye obtain a hearing”. Something like, Don’t let a precious thing be plopped down into the porking feedlot of distraction.

Sanai, I read recently, put it this elegant way:

“If to the fool my love you’d bring,

Or think my secret can be told

To him who is not wise —

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‘Abdu’l-Baha (on truth and national limitations)

His father called him "the Master". He preferred to be known as a servant.

His father called him “the Master”. He preferred to be known as a servant.

He was a big story in 1912, but aside from the Baha’i community and its friends, few remember ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas. For 239 days, he travelled about North America to considerable acclaim: he was heralded in newspapers from Montreal to San Francisco, New York to Chicago as an “Oriental Seer”, the “Baha’i Prophet”, as a “Wonderful Persian Mystic” and “Apostle of Peace”. He gave hundreds of talks in synagogues, churches, universities, public auditoriums and private homes. His topics were many, but the central core of his message was one of spiritual awakening, the hard but necessary road to global peace, and the essential oneness of all faiths, races and peoples. Imagine: 1912.

On May 3, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (it means something like “servant of the Glory”) spoke at the Hotel Plaza in Chicago. He analyzed what factors led to the advancement of civilization and the living of an ethical, productive life. He pointed towards what he called “universal educators”, those historical sources of spiritual, intellectual and material guidance around whom whole systems of belief and practice have arisen. Given where he was, Jesus Christ was his main example.

The quote below almost seemed a throwaway line given at the end of the talk.

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Abdu’l-Baha (on the Tao of Jesus)

Sigh. I could blame the exams, the final projects, the nutbars that I live with or another knock to my already addled head, but I’m late, as usual.

Of course, we don’t actually know the precise date of the birth of Jesus, so I could also plead historical vagueness as a virtue, but that’s not why I missed, either. Let’s just say it’s the season. Let’s just say that it has taken me some time before I could really think much about The Reason for the Season, as Christian friends back home like to remind themselves and their fellow crazed consumizens. (In China these days, it is even more bluntly obvious than it is among comfort-craving North Americans: avid consumption is the best-understood expression of citizenship. “Consumizens.” Not bad.) In fact, it was the thoughtful questions about Christianity from a young Chinese friend that got me thinking more deeply about why this time of year still stirs my blood and brain.

Anyway, I ran across this statement

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Nelson Mandela (on the prison of hate)

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison…. Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) quotes are flying around in mad electronic flurries, and call me guilty: I haven’t been able to find the source for either of these (possibly connected?) excerpts. I have read them in reputable outlets, but I’d be happy if anyone could inform me about their provenance.

An elder for the world, though he never claimed to be a saint.

For all that, these are worthy, challenging, and even rather witty thoughts. They could have come from many a sainted mouth, though Mandela refused that term “unless by ‘saint’ you mean a sinner who keeps on trying”. The above quotation is deeply Christian, profoundly Buddhist, fundamentally Baha’i.

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Abdu’l-Baha (on peace, happiness & everything)

“The body of the human world is sick. Its remedy and healing will be the oneness of the kingdom of humanity. Its life is ‘The Most Great Peace.’ Its illumination and quickening is love. Its happiness is the attainment of spiritual perfections.”

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921) was the son of Baha’u’llah, the source of the Baha’i system of knowledge and practice.

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Thinking of Yourself, Less

Time to plant.

I remember when humility was a virtue, a quality that most people felt was praiseworthy and useful. We had no trouble distinguishing it from humiliation, which was a shameful condition visited upon us by others. Oh, we liked it when the braggart was forced to “eat humble pie” (sometimes, even, when it was us who had to eat that bitter confection), but mainly we felt that baking that pie and nibbling at it regularly was not just good medicine but often a sweet and sustaining way to eat.

Here’s today’s question: does a humble writer try to increase his page views by shamelessly flogging his ‘brand’? (“Duh, of course!”) Or to put it another, less JH.comAllTheTimeHeyEnoughAboutMeWhatDoYOUThinkOfMyWebsite?- centric way, how can we use the incredible connectivity and expressive potential of social media without becoming insufferably dull and incurably self-absorbed? I don’t know, and mainly err on the side of Luddism and avoidance.

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Take the Red Pill! Rainn Wilson & The Matrix II

This is the second part of my recollection of actor Rainn Wilson’s talk at the recent Association for Baha’i Studies conference in Irvine, California. Part One is here.

Rainn Wilson related, with wonder and amusement, how excited many people became in  connecting the “man was embryonic in the world of the matrix” quote of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to the  mind-blowing Matrix trilogy. He said that there were groups of people who embrace “Matrixism” as religion, and regard ‘Abdu’l-Baha as its early prophetic voice, and as its link to the entire history of revealed religion. This was news to me, but I found them in a most curious and bemusing on-line presence. One of their four basic tenets is the use of hallucinogenics as a sacrament; another is “adherence to the principles of one or more of the world’s religions until such time as the One [Neo doesn’t count] returns”. This tiny group does elaborate a few more funky laws, my favourite of which is that “all forms of professional athletic competition have now been abrogated”. (The revenge of the picked-on against the surly jocks!) That’s funny stuff, I guess, unless it’s pathetic. However, it points out again, if we needed more evidence, how hungry human beings are for a sense of meaning in life.

Wilson showed another clip from Matrix the first. Neo faces off with the baddies who are trying to prevent him from penetrating and exposing the mass hallucination that intelligent machines have created. Their programming illusion is intended to convince the humans that life is as it always was – meanwhile, their actual bodies are imprisoned in pods and used as robot fuel. This is where many of the oh cool! effects of the movie are featured. Neo bends

“Bullets, be still and know that I am Neo!” Who hasn’t done this?

space and time. A hail of bullets slows at his silent command and clatters to the floor. He leans at impossible angles, and leaps with impossible speed. He artfully decomposes a bad dude by flying right into his holographic gut and exploding him from the inside. (Nice!) Neo has wondrous powers in the supercomputer-generated matrix because he understands that it is only a projection, an unreal construction. (Well, and because he is The Chosen One, which obviously helps.) By knowing the reality of life in that world, he becomes the master of it. 

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Rainn Wilson Explores The Matrix

The Association for Baha’i Studies is knocking the “stuffy” out of the notion that academia and intellectual pursuits are narrow, competitive, elitist and pretty darned dull. The concept of scholarship is being remade out of its old “ivory tower” paradigm into something more closely resembling a noble, shared adventure in learning. This, among many other things — the new friends I meet, the musicians I add to my playlist, the books I lust over, the writing ideas I hatch — has made the Association’s annual conference one of my greatest treats. So many smart and good-hearted people! Such outstanding, mind-altering presentations! So many confirmations of my careening efforts to “walk the spiritual path with practical feet”! 

Anyway. What follows is Part One of a report on one of the highlights of the recent conference of the ABS in Irvine, California, which is (kind of) on the way from Ottawa to Dalian…

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“So I went to the fights the other night and a hockey game broke out!” Rodney Dangerfield

It’s an old gag, but it’s still a goodie. In the same spirit, I went to the 37th annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies and a pop-culture laugh riot ensued. Not only did I feel happy and a little smarter at the end of that comic lecture, but nobody tried to sell me anything except ideas. This is the second time, so far as I know, that actor Rainn Wilson has spoken at one of these spirited, brainy conclaves. He brings a healthy kind of irreverence and the humour one would expect from a certified Comedy Star, but also a serious commitment to his faith community, a sharp mind and a blazing conviction that soul matters. (And no, he doesn’t speak or behave like Dwight Schrute from The Office.)

The iconic poster: trenchcoats and coolness and guns, oh my!

Mr. Schrute’s Wilson’s talk was designed to show that the 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix had more to it than awesome special effects and a cool visual style. He wasn’t joking, but he was hilarious.  Just in case we’d forgotten, or had missed Keanu Reeves (as Neo) and Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) and the gang when The Matrix came out, Wilson went to the video screen for a reminder.

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