04 September 2020

Priority: Charity or Baha'i Funds?


Wealth is praiseworthy, if it is earned honestly and used for philanthropic purposes. The desire to better the world leads to figuring out how best to give away money intentionally, getting the most value out of every dollar donated. Giving efficiently means not always responding to the needs in front of your face, but giving consistently to address root problems with a long-term vision.

Naturally, a question arises for Baha'is: how much should I give to charity versus the Baha'i funds?

It turns out, there are many writings already addressing this, and it seems clear that giving to the Baha'i funds should be the highest priority for Baha'is giving to charity. Although it may not be obvious at first, giving to the Baha'i funds is the best way to help the world, because it is building up a solution to address underlying problems. I have two analogies that convey the principle.

01 September 2020

Can Baha'i Assemblies provide welfare?

(I recently wrote about wealth and giving away money, which provide some background to this post about how the Baha'i Funds interplay with charity and welfare.)

I was once on a Local Spiritual Assembly that investigated setting up a humanitarian fund to help individuals in the community who fell on hard times. Of course, superficially this sounds simple: set aside some money and give it to the needy. Similar to the complexities of aid work, there are many pitfalls when crossing over that line of giving away resources. Trying to develop a framework for a local humanitarian portion of the Baha'i Fund was a long process that drove me into researching some interesting areas of the Baha'i Writings. 

12 August 2020

How to give away money


The Baha'i Writings are full of references encouraging charity and generous spending on the poor. Baha'u'llah wrote, "O SON OF MAN! Bestow My wealth upon My poor", and, "O CHILDREN OF DUST! Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth. To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues." And, "Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity." 

It seems like such a simple thing, if you have money, give it to the poor. But it's not at all that simple. Philanthropy can have unintended negative side effects, my favorite example of which was the very well intentioned Jason Sadler of Florida, who made it his goal to send one million t-shirts to Africa. He stepped into a debate among aid workers, that sometimes incoherent attempts to send aid end up making things worse. In the case of the t-shirts, there was no particular need for shirts (Jason had excess from his company), there were much more pressing problems that needed addressing, and flooding the market with free shirts would ruin many local businesses. That's not an argument not to care, it's just to say that aid is complicated.

28 July 2020

Carmel Baha'i School Online


 
When I was 14 a visionary married couple in my area started a Baha'i summer camp for youth. It was one of many inspiring events for young Baha'is while I was growing up. It became the only Baha'i summer school with a counselor program outside of the three permanent schools (Bosch, Louhelen, Green Acre), allowing kids as young as 12 to come without parents for a transformative week. 

The camp survived the passing of its founders and met continuously for 25 years, until now. The 2020 Camp Carmel became another casualty of the pandemic, and the in-person gathering has been replaced with a shorter online camp as a placeholder until next summer. 

On the plus side, the online camp will have many of the things that make the in-person camp amazing, like arts classes, some great special guests for evening programs, and even a good ol' counselor program for small group bonding with older youth. It also means that it can be attended by just about anyone. 

Of course, the heart of the camp is a set of classes that will teach about the life of Baha'u'llah, aspects of the future world civilization, and how to build race unity in America. 

It starts next week, and registration will close August 3. If you have any young people in your life, please go register them now!

https://cvent.me/VN98Kb
















07 July 2020

Wealth is praiseworthy if...

Maybe it is because I recently spent 3 months in a country with a GDP per capita of $2,100, or maybe because I recently entertained leaving a great job to spend more time with kids, or maybe because the pandemic is wiping out the economy, but I've been thinking about wealth lately. 

The Baha'i Writings are full of references like this: "to be poor in all save God is a wondrous gift, belittle not the value thereof, for in the end it will make thee rich in God" (Baha'u'llah). Or, "In the estimation of them that have fixed their eyes upon the merciful Lord, the riches of the world and its trappings are worth as much as the eye of a dead body, nay even less" (The Bab).

There are also other references that praise wealth. These are not in conflict with the need to denounce riches, but require virtue in the acquisition and use of funds. Here are two examples.

28 June 2020

Good Black Things

Did you ever notice how the English language describes dark things as worse? Think of 'whitelist' and 'blacklist', or how movies dealing with something bad or evil are called 'dark'. You know who noticed? Black people. Americans have been trying really hard to come up with a name for the descendants of African slaves. It has gone from negro, colored, or black, to African American, to another way of saying colored. But the most common name is still 'black', so all the negative imagery with blackness leaves some room for improvement. 

Explicitly racist language has mostly been removed (look up what Brazil nuts used to be called), and people are trying to come up with alternatives to the phrase 'blacklist' (we'll see what catches on). Honestly, it will take some work to change phrases. 

We all need to work on positive imagery associated with black skin, so here are a few examples of things that are great because they are black. 

14 June 2020

The George Floyd Protests

"Why are all rich people white?" That question came out of nowhere from an African-born teenager visiting my house years ago. "It's complicated," I said.

A majority of people in America want to see racial harmony. People want life outcomes to be based on the content of one's character and not the color of their skin. However, the life outcomes of black citizens in the United States tend to fare worse than those of its white citizens. The roots of this problem are not simple or easy to fix.

Watching the George Floyd protests I have been surprised at the positive response from the masses of white people. This week my company held a townhall phone meeting just to let people share their thoughts on race in America for an hour and a half. It was full of spontaneous personal testimonies and calls for empathy, awareness, justice, and inclusion. It was attended by 1,000 people, about a third of the company. 

The current conversation about race feels different than anything I've experienced in my life, and I think some positive change will come of it. I want to share some thoughts on this moment and I hope to cut through some of the meme-fueled anger and get into the nuance that doesn't fit onto protester signs. 

20 May 2020

Universal House of Justice on the Pandemic

On 9 May 2020, the Universal House of Justice wrote a letter to all Baha'i National Spiritual Assemblies on applying the current global plan to the new situation of a pandemic and some thoughts on what is to come. Or as they put it, "The world is caught in the grip of a fast-spreading virus that has claimed many thousands of lives and severely disrupted a large share of humanity’s social and economic activity... we wish to explore more fully what the coming year might entail."

The House of Justice has released multi-year plans to direct the worldwide Baha'i community and focus on certain incremental goals. In 2001 they launched into a series of four 5-year plans that would culminate in 2021, which will be the centennial anniversary of Abdu'l-Baha's passing. The importance of this transitional year has been talked about among Baha'is for over a decade, so it's not totally surprising that a once-in-a-century pandemic is taunting the world and the next 12 months are ominously uncertain.

Millennium Development Goals.
Created at the Millennium Summit in 2000. 
In an earlier letter of 18 January 2019, exactly 100 years after the opening of the Paris Peace Conference that ended WWI, the House of Justice wrote that three major steps were taken in the preceding century toward world order: the formation of the League of Nations following WWI, the formation of the United Nations after WWII, and a decade of international cooperation and agreements that followed the end of the Cold War, culminating in the Millennial Summit. The deficiencies in each of these advancements led to the instability that became the impetus toward another, greater push towards world order. Though the last decade of the 20th century saw a major improvement in world peace, throughout the 21st century the trend has been away from world order. According to the letter, "the dominant currents in societies everywhere are pushing people apart", "political and economic systems have enabled the enrichment of small coteries with grossly exorbitant wealth--a condition that fuels fundamental instability", "religious fundamentalism is warping the character of communities, even nations", "a decline in public trust... systematically exploited by vested interests seeking to undermine the credibility of all sources of knowledge", "certain shared ethical principles... are eroded", and "the will to engage in international collective action.... has been cowed, assailed by resurgent forces of racism, nationalism, and factionalism."

The forces of disorder and disintegration have been gaining ground, and world unity will certainly worsen, "possibly with catastrophic consequences" according to the 2019 letter. Every major push toward world unity has been preceded by some dramatic and destructive changes that push people toward the inevitable world federal system Baha'u'llah envisioned. The current movement away from world order will continue, according to the House of Justice, "until a chastened humanity sees fit to take another significant step, perhaps this time decisive, towards enduring peace."

13 May 2020

Thoughts on God

 
    "O All-Sufficient One! Thou dost suffice Me in every hardship that may descend upon Me and in every affliction that may wax great before Me. Thou art My sole Companion in My loneliness, the Delight of My heart in My solitude and My Best Beloved in My prison and in My Abode. No God is there but Thee!"
 
The Bab

"Nicolae, I don't believe in the God that you don't believe in", was how Ali-Akbar Furutan responded to his Soviet friend who asked him, "Do you believe in God". If he responded that he believed in God, he risked a visit to the gulag. If he said he didn't believe in God, he would be lying.

I tend not to u
se the word "God" in normal speech. It means so many different things to different people that it almost needs definition when bringing it up. I can agree with an atheist that the traditional vision of God is a false and harmful idea. When speaking to a Christian, I would profess myself as a believer in God. If that sounds confusing, keep reading.

What I actually believe about God is so different than the common understanding that I need a different word other than "God", but there is no such word available, and I'm not even sure how to articulate what I think I believe. I know what God is not, which is the superman miracle worker who manages heaven, but I also recognize that whatever I might be able to articulate about God is probably also wrong. And if God is unknowable and unarticulatable, then why even worry about it?

I've gone back and forth wondering whether figuring out God is either the most important question, or so esoteric as to be divorced from practical daily life.
Probably not.
After some thought, I concluded that the absence of the supernatural God of lore extends much deeper than I imagined. God has no material form, and in a sense doesn't exist in the universe. What I mean by God comes down to two things: the inherent virtues that exist potentially in all people, and the Manifestations of God. 

03 April 2020

Thoughts on a pandemic

There seem to be two ideas on how to handle this pandemic. One is to enter a period of isolation so that the virus will burn itself down, followed by massive testing and case tracking to completely eliminate it. The other approach is to enter a period of isolation so that the bulge of initial cases don't create rationing in the health system, then the virus will become endemic and more slowly spread in a manageable way.

My impression is that a majority of people view the first scenario as realistic and see anyone proposing the second as okay with mass murder.

The evidence supports the second scenario, and it's not nearly as scary as everyone first assumed. The virus is already endemic, as of today the world has 1 million confirmed cases touching almost every country, but the real infection rate is probably many times that number because half of those infected barely notice they have it. In places like the United States where testing for the virus was initially very low, the actual infection rate is at least 4 times the number of confirmed cases.

25 March 2020

Do healing prayers work?

There were a variety of habits and beliefs of early Christian kingdoms that today we would recognize as superstition. For example, people believed that God was continuously intervening in the world, so in the case of a serious dispute they would let the two people fight to the death, believing that God would intervene on the side of the righteous and help them win. This belief was so complete that the guilty party would often confess their crimes to avoid the divinely guided fight.

It’s easy to recognize in hindsight that some early beliefs were erroneous and not guided by the teachings of God, but what about today’s beliefs?

I remember being somewhat of an adult and realizing one day, “Ghosts aren’t real!” I’ve found this subject surprisingly polarizing when I mention it to people. Some are convinced that spirits can still materially influence the world after death, and of course others deny the existence of any such spirit and view a belief in ghosts as a superstition of the ignorant. I’ve found the same split among Baháʼís who sometimes believe that supernatural phenomena go hand in hand with belief in God. For the record, ghosts aren’t real, but that’s for another blog.

I also remember realizing one day, “Prayers don’t heal people!” Sort of. At least not the way I previously thought. This is a little more complicated than the ghost story but it’s still true, and it gets to the very heart of what it means to pray.

24 March 2020

A revolution in cars

Left to right: 2013 Chevy Volt, 2016 Chevy Spark EV, 2018 Pacifica PHEV
Despite the current chaos and social isolation amid the coronavirus, there are things to look forward to. In about 10 years a majority of people in Europe and America will be buying electric cars, and it will have an enormous positive effect on the economy, the environment, and your health.

06 March 2020

Multifaith Devotional Cards


Many years ago I made my own prints of quotes from the Bible, Qur'an, and Baha'i writings to use in devotional gatherings. I drew the quotes from readings that personally inspired me and printed them on color coordinated cardstock to give them a nice feel. I'm sharing the files here for anyone looking for a quick way to spice up your meeting and make it friendly for people of different faiths. 

The junior youth group (now youth group) that I originally made these for was composed of African immigrants with a mix of Christian and Muslim families. Initially the youth would choose to read from their family's tradition, which gave them and their parents a sense of stability and a point of reference. Over time, everyone began readings a mix of the different sources and started to notice and point out the common threads that run between all scriptures. 

I'm sharing the Word format as well in case anyone wants to change the quotes around. If you have any recommendations, have trouble downloading, or want to share your own tools, email bahaicoherence@gmail.com and comment below.

PDFs


Word Docs

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:

--------------------------------------------------------------

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?"