21 July 2019

American Division

US Capitol Building

Most thinkers have noticed that America is going through a difficult time. My favorite podcaster, Dan Carlin, tried addressing the issue of extreme politics in 2017 then went silent for months. His listeners urged him to jump into the fray because, "the stakes have never been higher". In May he let loose a podcast, saying his whole political worldview is in crisis, and that if you walk away from his podcast thinking, "yeah, that is exactly what I wanted", then you probably didn't need it to begin with.

(Dan is trained in political science and mostly podcasts with entertaining historical epics, from the Achaemenid Empire to a 5-part, 24-hour runtime series on World War I, which comes highly recommended!)

Dan's recent rantings have helped clarify, for me, the reality of the current political moment. There are a lot of people pointing out problems that are ultimately symptoms, but what is the underlying ailment? Everyone seems to have different ideas. Sure, people don't know how to consult, not enough people vote, money increasingly corrupts power, social media has fundamentally changed the way people get information, the news is bonkers, gerrymandering undermines democracy, it goes on and on. But why is it different now? Why does it feel like we've gone from a contentious debate to nearly a civil war?

20 March 2019

Baha'is of Nicaragua

Baha'is of Masaya, Nicaragua
Today's sunset will mark the spring equinox, the end of 19 days of fasting, and the Baha'i New Year. It also marks my family's halfway point of a 3-month stay in Nicaragua.

14 December 2018

19th Century Religious Movements



I have always been intrigued by the many, many nineteenth century prophetic movements all over the world. People from New York to Tehran to Nanjing were all getting prophet fever. Some were preparing people for the coming of a great day heralded by Christianity and Islam, others were claiming themselves to be the long-awaited restored religion.

Observing as a Baha'i, these new religious movements were part of a world upheaval in religious thought that was in the context of the revelation of Baha'u'llah and the concurrent collapse of established orthodoxy. 

It is amazing what they got right. William Miller's prediction of the return of Christ was within months of the Bab's declaration of His mission. Most of the movements held restorationist beliefs about the need for new guidance from God, and many tried to create a moral code suitable for the modern world, teaching of the equality of men and women or abstention from alcohol.

Here are short summaries of them, and some mysterious connections to the Baha'i Faith.

13 November 2018

Defection of the Faint in Heart

 I grew up a Baha'i. My older brother never had an interest in it and later told me that anyone who believes in God is an idiot. My sister enrolled as a Baha'i, had a Baha'i wedding, then mostly quit participating. Of all the Baha'is in my generation growing up, about half of them no longer identify as Baha'is. Now as an adult, about once a year I see someone leave the Faith, sometimes distant acquaintances, sometimes close friends.

So what does that mean about the truth of the Baha'i Faith? What does the current social climate say about the long-term prospects of the growth of Baha'u'llah's message? How should we view people leaving almost as fast as they're joining? Here are some thoughts.

18 December 2017

Lessons of the Civil War

I recently came across this quote by Ron Chernow in his book Grant:
For all the endless horrors of [the Civil War], Grant believed the country was stronger for having endured it: “We are better off now than we would have been without it and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made.” The country had become more cosmopolitan, its citizens more worldly, its economy more productive, its military more potent. Most important, Union forces had struck a major blow for freedom and equality. Like Lincoln, Grant deemed the war “a punishment for national sins that had to come sooner or later in some shape, and probably in blood.” Four million slaves had been emancipated and would shortly receive the right to vote, send their children to public schools, and enjoy the benefits of citizenship—progress that would be savagely resisted. For Grant, the war had validated the basic soundness of American institutions. Before, he noted, “monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.” He added the important caveat that the war had been “a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.

10 December 2017

Humor of Baha'u'llah

When a Baha'i goes on pilgrimage, they sign up for a formal 9 days in the Holy Land, marked by a few guided tours, talks, a hike or two up the terraces, and long visits to the shrines of Baha'u'llah and the Bab.

When I went in early 2001, Mrs. Grossman was my guide, and I heard many amazing stories while visiting the places in Akka and Haifa. Here are three stories that stood out to me because they serve as a reminder of the wit and humor of Baha'u'llah and His companions. These are from memory, and if you know of the references, please leave a comment.

18 August 2017

Vanquishing Racism






"Woe to the vanquished!" Shouted Brennus as he threw his sword on the scales. He had just finished sacking Rome and was weighing out the 1,000 pounds of gold that the defending Romans would pay to ransom the remainder of the city. After a complaint that the scales were rigged, he threw his sword on the weights because, well, he could.

That was 390 BCE. The Romans took that motto to heart. By 51 BCE Julius Caesar was using the same phrase as he conquered and crushed all of Gaul, where the descendants of Brennus lived. Out of an estimated three million Gauls, Romans killed one million of them, and took another million into slavery.

14 August 2017

Thoughts on the Far Right

I originally wrote this in September of 2009. At first I didn't share it here to avoid the association it might give the Baha'i Faith to a political ideology. After the white nationalists killing someone in Virginia this weekend, my thoughts went back to this, and now I feel compelled to share:

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Today is my last day of 12 weeks working in Redmond, OR, and exactly 8 years after I woke up to the radio telling me that the tower had just fallen in New York. As I sit here waiting for ice to contract my thigh tissue and heal a pulled muscle, my thoughts keep going back to the rise of the right over the last few years.

31 July 2017

Waiting for my real life to begin.

I've been told I'm not normal. I sleep too little or too much. My light is usually on when all other lights go out, and though I'm perceived as being a public personality, I'm in fact incredibly private in some ways. When people ask me what my dreams are or how I define success for myself I do not trust to hope and avoid fully answering. I think, "Who's business is that anyway?!"   ~_~   I'd be lying though if I said the fever dreams of success and the fear they awaken, doesn't frequently snatch sleep from me so late, that the light creeps over the rolling hills behind my house, and I abandon my bed to watch the sun rise.

18 July 2017

The Decline of Christianity








There is a clear trend in America: religion is on the decline. Go visit just about any church in the United States, and you'll see a lot more retired people than you do college students. This trend shows no signs of reversing. The "unaffiliated" saw a 6.7 point increase from 2007-2014. If you narrow it down to those born in the 1980s, the increase was 9 points in just 7 years. The Catholic church is losing about half of all people who grew up in it.

As a Baha'i, this creates an interesting dynamic. The social forces pushing down Christianity are pushing down religion as a whole, and replacing it with materialism. Baha'is are affected by the same trend, struggling to train youth against powerful social forces that pull them away from religion. So what may at first look like an opportunity to teach, is actually a sad slide into irreligion. It also calls to mind some warnings in Baha'i scripture about what will happen when the light of religion is extinguished:
"The weakening of the pillars of religion hath strengthened the hands of the ignorant and made them bold and arrogant. Verily I say, whatsoever hath lowered the lofty station of religion hath increased the waywardness of the wicked, and the result cannot be but anarchy."
Baha'u'llah. Tablets of Baha'u'llah
“Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness, of justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine.”
Baha'u'llah. Tablets of Baha'ullah

13 July 2017

Churches and Chicken

My city is segregated by affluence and poverty. 

Drive west in Nashville and you'll find old money, the bourgeoisie, and white coeds sipping $5 tea. Drive north and you'll find Fisk University, mostly poor black and some white people, and the roads always need repair. Drive east and you'll find where black people used to live, but now it's full of white hipsters who like the area for its "history" (it feels like Portland, OR). 

And then there's the southern part of town, my part of town. Full of hookah bars, taco shops, and people of color from all around the world trying to make a living in a place where upward mobility for most is a pipe dream. You can have your car worked on by Essy, the most universally trusted local mechanic. Walk down the street and get baklava or a pupusa while you wait. 

07 July 2017

Framily

Friends do things together
In 2012 I left Oregon, where I went through middle school and high school, and I moved to Nashville, Tennessee. I moved to serve the Baha'i Faith in a metro area where the junior youth program was just beginning. I found a place in Nashville through a Baha'i friend who was already there, and since I'm a musician it kind of made sense.

I knew that moving to Nashville would be difficult because the cultures are so drastically different between the west coast and the southeast. But I had no idea what kind of culture shock I would experience. The two friends I already knew when I walked into town, I never ended up seeing more than twice a year in my five year stint living there. My closest family member was an 8 hour drive away. The Baha'i community felt foreign to me. They were so excited to have a youth (I was 18) with experience in the junior youth spiritual empowerment program, a relatively new Baha'i core activity. I was immediately thrust with no cultural context or real friendships into leadership rolls. As I got to know more and more people I realized that the isolation and difficulty making friends was not unique to myself. There were people in the general population who grew up together or lived together and didn't know basic facts about each others' lives, such as the existence of siblings, a death in the family, what people did for work, or basic likes. The first question asked by anyone, anywhere, was, "Where do you worship? Where do you go to church?"

26 June 2017

Battle of Armageddon


All the great religions of the world teach of a Promised One, coming during a time of great world cataclysms and ushering in a new era of righteousness. In the American psyche, this is most pronounced in Christian prophecies of the seven years of tribulation, the anti-Christ, and the battle of Armageddon.

Baha'u'llah's revelation fulfills the expectations of a second coming of Christ, but not as commonly interpreted. In a repeat of the first coming, Christian clergy are expecting their prophecies to be fulfilled literally. Jesus experienced a similar attitude. The Jewish priests thought the Messiah would come as a political ruler who would burn his enemies like chaff and rule as a king. Instead of seizing political power, Jesus said His kingdom is "not of this world" and "inside you" and "among you". He called the priests hypocrites and vipers, so they killed him. 

Just as the Jewish priests were blinded by their own scripture from recognizing the Manifestation of God, now Christians shut their ears when they hear the claim of Jesus returned because they are told by their priests that they should not investigate any claim of divinity. They are sitting around waiting for the end times, and to them it will be so obvious that they don't have to watch. I've lost track of how many Christians have told me that they have no need to investigate Baha'u'llah's claims because the return of Jesus will be "obvious", despite some strongly worded scripture saying the opposite. 

So with this background, occasionally Christians want to look deeper and ask some questions about prophecies.

09 June 2017

How Many Baha'is Are in the World?

I found some!
How many Baha'is are in the world? The correct answer is: nobody knows. But there is a deep primordial need for Baha'is and non-Baha'is alike to somehow gauge the relative success and strength of the world religions. This need is most easily met with the simplest of statistics, how many believers are there?

To Baha'is who expect their religion to gradually permeate the majority of the world's population over the next few centuries, they will be excited to see its growth. In fact, they will most likely overstate its actual growth because growth begets growth. When an idea spreads in a population, it can quickly move from 10 to 50% of the population, but the growth from 0 to 10% can be painfully slow and difficult.

There are also those who want to see the Baha'i Faith fail. They will be excited for low estimates of the Baha'i population worldwide, because lower numbers are discouraging. It takes extra moral strength to carry beliefs that are different from the majority of society.

From 1991 until present, the Baha'i World Centre has said that there are "more than five million Baha'is." Outside observers have actually given a higher number, listing the community as "more than seven million", ranging from 7.2 to 7.8 million.

Internally, the Baha'i number is most likely from worldwide membership rolls, and the external observer sources are a variety of censuses and surveys. I'd like to explore some ideas about both of these sources, and if this is boring I totally understand if you want to go do something else.

15 March 2017

Health Care Reform

I wrote this originally in September, 2009, as death panels were being debated.
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This week I listened to three members of the Oregon Health Authority talk about past and present reforms to Oregon's health system, and I also listened to the chair of Family Medicine at OHSU. Over the past few years I've been increasingly engrossed in the issues of health care reform, and here, tonight, live on the Internet, I'm going to lay out how to fix health care in the United States. That's right, the whole thing.

03 March 2017

The Eradication of Racism in America

In response to "the critical nature" and "historic opportunity" presented by this "pivotal juncture in our nation's history", the National Spiritual Assembly wrote to the American Baha'i community on February 25, 2017 to reinforce the principle of the oneness of mankind, the chief and distinguishing feature of the Faith Baha'u'llah. In the letter, the National Assembly wrote that "in the decades ahead, Baha'is will contribute in an ever more effective way to the eventual eradication of racism in our country."

We live in an exciting time. At first glance things are going poorly. America is stratifying by race and class, a xenophobic militarism just swept into power, and the government is gearing up to dissolve consumer protections and unleash thousands of police to round up minorities. Mosques, synagogues, black churches, and their followers are being targeted, harassed, or killed. 

If this were not the case, those attitudes would still be laying dormant in 40% of America, just stewing. Does this wave of injustice represent the beginning of a long reign of terror, or the last throws of a white nationalism that must be eradicated to move the nation forward? Can you honestly believe that open and ugly racism is going to be the new norm? Absolutely not! And why? Because it is not the truth! 

26 February 2017

Black History and Affirmative Action

One of these things is not like the others.
"Unlike the nations and peoples of the earth, be they of the East or of the West, democratic or authoritarian, communist or capitalist, whether belonging to the Old World or the New, who either ignore, trample upon, or extirpate, the racial, religious, or political minorities within the sphere of their jurisdiction, every organized community enlisted under the banner of Bahá’u’lláh should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it."
 -Shoghi Effendi. Advent of Divine Justice
It's black history month, so I'm going to talk about black history. The uncomfortable history. I want to talk about the America that just pulled a big wad of white supremacy out of its pocket and slammed it on the table for all to see.

When would you say the playing field was leveled for all races in America? When did we achieve the ideal of equality of opportunity?

01 February 2017

Black People

I'm a fairly rich white guy living in a poor, mostly black neighborhood. I moved in almost four years ago to join ongoing efforts to grow and sustain Baha'i core activities, which have been moving along successfully. But this is not about children's classes, this is about some observations on race.

I'm not only a fairly rich white guy, but I'm in the whitest big city in the country. Portland had two neighborhoods where black people were funneled into during the 1950s, and where they had to stay. Both areas turned into high poverty/crime neighborhoods in the 1980s and 90s. One of these was gentrified and people migrated to poorer parts of Portland. The other was renovated with a federal grant and turned into mixed income housing, and that is where I live. Here are some of the antics that have gone on since I got here.

20 January 2017

President Trump

In the summer of 2013 the Universal House of Justice initiated youth conferences around the world. My wife was just below the age cutoff at the time, and I was bringing several youth from my neighborhood, so we went to Tacoma, Washington and stayed several nights. It was really a special time, discussing high ideals about shaping the future of the world. On one of those nights I had a dream that seemed significant, so I wrote it down.

The dream had a nefarious character that seized power, and at the time I perceived it as a potentially prophetic dream about a real person whose identity might become clear in the future. Two and a half years later I was on a late night flight and while walking down the aisle of the plane I saw an ominously similar vision on the plane as I saw in the dream. On the plane I was walking down a dark aisle with people on both sides sitting staring at phones and computers, and in the dream I was walking down a dark aisle with people on both sides sitting on bunks staring at phones and computers.

Less than a week later I was driving and listening to a story about Donald Trump, and in a flood everything became clear. Keep in mind that this was January 2016 and the primaries were far from over, but I realized that Trump was the prisoner in my dream, and I realized with great certainty that he was going to be the next President. It all made sense, why he was going to win, what he would do, and what would come of it. As the vote grew closer I was confused by all the projections showing him definitively losing but I knew an upset was coming. In fact I have had absolutely no anxiety from that day until now, inauguration day.

07 December 2016

New Book on Evolution

Darwin's Original Title
Six years ago I started writing a post for this blog to address the topic of evolution from the Baha'i Writings, a sticky topic for sure.

It didn't take long for my blog post to turn into 14 pages, and I realized I had a problem. When it hit 100 pages and I realized how awesome it was, I considered sending it to a publisher. This week I signed a contract with George Ronald to publish in 2017!

One reason it expanded was that I wanted to review all the other authors who have written on the topic, and that alone is a substantial task. `Abdu'l-Baha made comments that seem to indicate a kind of parallel evolution for humans, in a way that they evolved over millions of years from a primitive form, but in a way that they were distinctly human and not animal throughout their evolution. This interpretation clearly presents a conflict with standard science, but it is far, far removed from modern creationists.

The majority of Baha'i authors have addressed the issue by taking the modern scientific consensus as factual, and reinterpreting the context and language of `Abdu'l-Baha to suggest that the parallel growth interpretation is an unfortunate semantic mistake.

Originally, my only concern was to suggest that Baha'is not totally abandon the idea that new understandings in science could still validate the apparent meaning. After all, it is still naturalistic and does not involve a special creation by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I hypothesized some potential discoveries that could validate and affirm the apparent meaning of `Abdu'l-Baha's comments. Then I was surprised that pretty much all of my hypotheses had already been discovered, and I found that numerous leading evolutionary biologists were advocating for a paradigm shift in our understanding of evolution, so I began documenting.

I expect most people will scoff at the idea of someone writing about a change in science to support a religious doctrine. Anyone remotely familiar with the absolute dominance of neo-Darwinian theory should assume that my conclusions are wrong, but I can guarantee it'll surprise you. I encourage skeptics to read it and see if it doesn't leave you convinced that the model of independent descent is highly plausible.

I'll share more when the book becomes available, but I wanted to give you a heads up, and yes, it will be available as a Kindle eBook as well as print.

10 November 2016

6 Reforms to Save American Democracy

The majority of voters in this year's US presidential election said that they were inspired to vote against the opponent, rather than for their candidate. On the sidelines sits the most dysfunctional Congress that any living person has ever known (Americans are four times more likely to approve of the Internal Revenue Service). This, at a time when several slow-moving issues could eat out the soft innards of America's economy and leave memories of a once-great power. If there was ever a time to talk about major reforms to the political order, it is now. 

Here, I'll lay out some of the ideas that I've come across over the years of contemplating power and democracy. Minor tweaks in the election process create vastly different outcomes. The United States has the longest running constitution in the world, and it is a testimony to the foresight of the founders that it has worked so well, for so long. But it is a big ship letting in water, slowly sinking while the people who should be fixing it are fighting with each other over who gets to be captain. There is a pessimist inside me saying that it will sink no matter what, but the optimist wrote this article.

I listed these in order of feasibility. Tweaking how primaries work is a no-brainer and easy to implement at different levels. A constitutional amendment, however, requires a proposal from two thirds of Congress (or two third of states), then ratification by three fourths of states. The chance of Congress proposing an amendment that reduces their own power is unlikely, but this is not a thought experiment in what is likely, it's a brainstorm session on a better democracy. 

30 June 2016

Predictions for Britain and the European Union

Less than a week ago the United Kingdom voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. This was the most significant change in the EU's status since its expansion into eastern Europe in 2004. As one of the three big economies in the EU, Britain's leaving will have serious repercussions, and I have some predictions on how things will shake out.

24 February 2016

Rural America and Federal Land

Oregon. The southeast counties right to left are Malheur, Harney, Lake.
I have had a good life. I was born in a small university town in Oregon to well off parents. Turning fourteen I got to live in Mexico for half a year and experience a new culture, but I also learned a lot about my own country by leaving and observing it from afar. It was while living in Mexico that I realized the United States is the preeminent and most affluent country in the world. This was a rather shocking revelation to a teenager who never really thought about the freakishly lucky conditions of his birth.

My life continued to get better and I continued to appreciate traveling and exploring the world's mix of peoples. I spent a summer in Spain, then joined the US Air Force, which took me to Texas and Mississippi for almost a year. The military sent me to Qatar for half a year where I baked in the sun with camels and worked alongside people from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Palestine. I went to college as an electronics engineer then lived in China for a year before starting a wonderful job for a power utility in Portland, Oregon. I've also seen Nicaragua, Ecuador, Greece, and Israel thanks to my access to wealth and a US passport.

In all my travels and studies, I've only increasingly appreciated the peace, stability, fairness, and economic opportunities in the United States. Even if China surpasses the US in GDP, it will be decades before it can become a more desirable place to live.

Visiting America

Then I visited a new culture that presented an interesting challenge. My wonderful job took me to field offices all over the northwestern United States in small remote towns that most people would never pass through. I did not have any trouble associating with people of different backgrounds. But I had just come out of a decade of international travel and university study, where people talk about technology, sustainability, and how to fix the world's problems. What I ran into in rural towns were discussions about what to do when the government comes to take away all your guns and serious opinions about Obama being born in Kenya. It was a culture shock.

21 January 2016

The End of Nuclear Weapons and a New World Order

"There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth." 
Abdu'l-Baha to a Japanese Ambassador, 1912 

The World
North Korea just detonated their fourth nuclear weapon and Iran is in a standoff over its nuclear program. The US policy toward nuclear weapons needs a major overhaul to avoid slipping to the point of no return. The United States is in a strong position to unilaterally renounce the use of nuclear weapons, then systematically destroy its nuclear arsenal.

I expect the typical American will think that disarming would be suicidal and ludicrous. The typical American is wrong. Nuclear disarmament is in the best interests of the people and government of the United States, not to mention the whole world. The world order that has been in place since the end of World War II is fraying at the edges. To secure the future, the US needs to help mould a new order before the old one unravels completely.

10 January 2016

15 Great Group Games

My first junior youth group, 2003
Over about 12 years of facilitating junior youth groups in various forms, I made a growing list of the best group games I've encountered. I'll provide details below on how to facilitate the games, and what worked well in different situations.

The spiritual empowerment program for junior youth is intended to provide a rough balance between study, service, and recreation. To be successful, the group should not focus on one of those exclusively, or ignore one entirely. With that in mind, the recreational piece can be defined pretty broadly, and incorporate anything from crafts to sports, hiking, or trips to the zoo. Many of these games have the advantage of being short and easy to organize, so they could be added to every gathering. 

Junior youth groups are meant for ages 11-15, during a time of growing social awareness. Especially in the first few meetings after a group forms, it's important to establish an attraction and desire to participate. While the facilitators should be careful not to make it a group who's only purpose is to play, recreational activities are great for establishing friendships and leave people with a good feeling about the group.

Please leave comments if you have more to add.

Concentration 

The tricky part of this game is that you need to create a repetitive beat that everyone participates in. For example, slap your legs, clap, snap, pause. Repeat. 

Once everyone gets the pattern, pick a category, such as animals. As the facilitator, you'll start, and on the "pause" beat you'll say the name of an animal. On the next beat the person to your left will have to say the name of an animal that hasn't been said already, then the person to their left, and so on. If someone hesitates or repeats on their turn, they get eliminated and the next person in order continues.

Eventually you'll have two people going back and forth one after the other until one fails. The game goes fast, so don't be afraid to eliminate people and start a new category. If people are having a hard time, practice first with the alphabet as the solution set, or say that the game has to go around the circle once before anyone can be eliminated.

Try another round with the category plants, or states, or countries, or names of people you know.