31 August 2010

Beautiful Prayers

Strive that your actions day by day
may be beautiful prayers.
Turn towards God, and seek always to do that
which is right and noble.

Enrich the poor, raise the fallen,
comfort the sorrowful, reassure the fearful,
rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!

'Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p.81

28 August 2010

In Praise of Islam

It’s been a hard month for Muslims in the United States; and I’m tired of seeing Islam presented as the Other; whether that’s as the Other to be feared and condemned or the Other to be merely tolerated and respected. I’d like to see some full-throated admiration of the Faith. And at this point, I know that’s not going to come from the US media. So here are two things, among many, that I love about Islam. I invite readers to share in the comments section aspects of Islam that they admire.

26 August 2010

An Integrated Approach to Agriculture

This is a very interesting article in "The Economist" on Brazil's agricultural miracle. Can their "systems approach" be replicated? It seems to me that there is no single answer to making agriculture sustainable AND plentiful enough to feed a growing population. It must be an integrated effort. There is value to local and organic food, but we can't go back to some over-romanticized past. Science, technology and the economies of scale also have their place. What's clear is that we need more research to be done that is not influenced by corporations such as Monsanto, but instead inspired by the desire for human betterment. The Embrapa research institution in Brazil seems to provide a nice model for the rest of the world, not only as an example for better agriculture, but also as an example of how science can be used for the betterment of humanity.  Here is an excerpt. 

Becoming a Vegetarian

I recently posted a blog post titled “The God of Evolution” which explored the nature of evolution, and as a thought experiment, the God that we would induce from it. The reason I wrote the post is because I have been thinking a lot about the cruelty, often needless cruelty, and indifference of the natural ecosystem, and what it means. Looking at it from the gene level, each living organism is simply a platform for genes to get themselves carried over to the next generation. The better adapted the genes are for that particular environment, the higher chance they have to propagate themselves. This is the driver of biological evolution via natural selection. So where do the organisms themselves fit into this picture? From the point of view of the gene, they are merely a means to an end, once the organism reproduces, they can be disposed of.

While the natural ecosystem is largely indifferent, many animals have evolved the capability of expressing communal and empathetic behavior, even beyond their species. For example, elephants will morn their dead, and their are numerous accounts of dolphins coming to the rescue of humans. Humans have this capacity to an extraordinary level (and an equal and opposite capacity for destruction and malevolence).

24 August 2010

The True and Outworking Spirit of Modernism

In its Ridván message of 2010 the Universal House of Justice made a powerful statement about the nature of Bahá’í endeavors: “That the world civilization now on humanity’s horizon must achieve a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life is central to the Bahá’í teachings.” A great deal of meaning is contained in this statement. It’s worth taking some time to illustrate how it is grounded in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

In one passage Bahá’u’lláh writes,
A new life is, in this age, stirring within all the peoples of the earth; and yet none hath discovered its cause or perceived its motive. Consider the peoples of the West. Witness how, in their pursuit of that which is vain and trivial, they have sacrificed, and are still sacrificing, countless lives for the sake of its establishment and promotion. The peoples of Persia, on the other hand, though the repository of a perspicuous and luminous Revelation, the glory of whose loftiness and renown hath encompassed the whole earth, are dispirited and sunk in deep lethargy.
Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XCVI p. 196

22 August 2010

Window in Time

The old windows drip. Surrounding me on three sides, I lay still in the moonlight a reflection of my waking self. 

The bedroom was slapped onto the side of the house to raise it's market value. There is not much privacy, for them either. 

The rain is relentless tonight. Once barking proud dogs, they now lay cowed in the street-lit shed. I wake many times in and out of various lives of questionable form and meaning.

For a moment I am the same as I was staring through that window. In what could be a memory, or could have been a dream, shadows of women are storing herbs and grains in large jars which slowly dissolve into the cupboard. They only emerge during sunset when the dusk intrudes on both sources of light. 

I am the same as I was basking in the ray of light coming through the large sliding glass door. I am sharing the warm spot with Sambi, our black Labrador Retriever. Her name had been Sambo until my mom was told that it had a negative racial connotation. I was once envious of her four-legged life. I needed to understand her secret, take in the subtle exhilarants waiting beyond the backyard fence near the abandoned buildings and warehouse alleyways. Maybe dig a hole in the backyard and relish the cool earth on a hot day. 

Vines hang down from the ceiling. Little plants are being raised in tofu containers and the water is draining through the punched holes. The electric light is a surrogate father until they peek through the window and delve into the universal soil of their kin.

The Insecurity of Taking Action

Action is risky, insecure. The fruit of building a vibrant community life is priceless. But in the process of getting there, it can be tempting to turn back. Laziness and complacency are boring and can be very lonely. But they offer security. And in moments of weakness people treasure security more than anything else.

Action requires that we dare for greatness; not for our own glorification, but for God. Action requires becoming visible to others and trying new things. Action carries the risk that we could fail and that others will see it. A study circle could disintegrate. Neighborhood parents would notice if a children’s class is failing. Any number of things could happen. Learning to do new things is hard. But it must be done. This is why our motivation must be to glorify God rather than our own selves. The Apostle Paul was right to describe himself and the other Apostles as “fools for Christ.” They endured hardship and became fools in the eyes of the world so that they might spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to new cities. But, in the face of their troubles, they succeeded at establishing the Church throughout the region, thereby winning a victory for the Lord.

19 August 2010

Sacrificial Service and the Power to Sustain it

These are some ideas I posted to this site over a year ago. In the course of editing the old text, I ended up re-writing the whole thing. I think the ideas are well worth a second posting.

One long-standing problem within any social movement is that, though a spirit of sacrificial service is indispensable to gathering momentum, it more-often-than-not leads to burnout among core human resources. The movement can then grind to a halt as key people no longer have the time, energy, or physical and mental health to carry on; This often leads to an impression among many that in order for an effort to be sustainable they should just relax and take it easy; that they shouldn't push themselves too hard. Understandably, this approach to sustainability leads to a situation in which there is little action to sustain in the first place. The problem then is that sacrificial service and sustainability, though both are vital, end up pulling each other apart.

It seems to me that within the model of taking action exemplified by the Ruhi Institute, sacrifice and sustainability are not only harmonious, but that they actually reinforce each other.The reason for this is that raising the capacity of an ever broader number of participants is at the heart of the institute's vision of moral and spiritual empowerment.

17 August 2010

More Clergyblogging

The following link is a response to the article I linked to recently on the declining health of clergy. In this case, the writer, himself a minister in the United Church of Christ, sees the declining moral authority of clergy and the desire of congregants to be entertained as a driving force behind clerical health problems. I don't have any commentary of my own. Perhaps, readers will contribute their insights in the comments section.

14 August 2010

Developing the Developed World

It seems to me that one of the greatest impediments to the social and economic development of the United States is that we have convinced ourselves that we are a "developed" nation alongside nations that conversely are "undeveloped" or "developing." Besides taking a narrow ethnocentric view of what prosperity looks like, to regard the United States as developed is to situate the entire process in the past tense. And that it seems to me is a problem. We are, so people say, no longer developing. We are already developed. To describe American society in this way, I believe, stunts our collective capacity to recognize shortcomings and search for improvements in the way we live. This is important because clearly the United States is in need of a lot of improvement.

12 August 2010

The Advantages of not having Clergy

The New York Times has a recent article on the growing health problems of clergy. I think it really highlights the wisdom behind Baha'i efforts to raise up human resources for spiritual leadership at the grassroots.

Often when Baha'is speak of the Baha'i Faith's practice of not having clergy, they describe it as the liberation of ordinary believers from the corrupt and over-domineering influence of priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, etc. But there's way more to it than that, to the extent that that's even a problem. Spiritual leadership is far too important to be placed on the shoulders of just a handful of individuals. When a community of many hundreds of people get the idea into their heads that one or two of them should be in charge of guiding the flock, then individuals do not develop the ability to take charge of their own spiritual growth or to help friends and family walk their own path of faith. Thus, the whole weight of the community falls onto the clergy. And as the New York Times article helps illustrate, clergy just can't keep up.

On another note, as I was searching online for a picture to use in this post, I came across this blog entry about the Roman collar. Before I joined the Baha'i Faith I was on the path towards the Catholic Priesthood. And as I read the post, and the quote from Pope Benedict XVI on the side, I realized the extent to which I still feel a personal connection to these issues. I'm a Baha'i to the core, but reading these sorts of things brings back a lot of fond memories.

08 August 2010

The God of Evolution

Eliezer Yudkowsky has written an interesting post about how we  humans tend to incorrectly (in his view) attribute coherent purpose to the process of biological evolution, which leads to an incorrect assumption about the type of god that would design such a system. While I suggest you read the whole thing, here are some excerpts. 

Why is so much of nature at war with other parts of Nature?  Because there isn't one Evolution directing the whole process.  There's as many different "evolutions" as reproducing populations.  Rabbit genes are becoming more or less frequent in rabbit populations.  Fox genes are becoming more or less frequent in fox populations.  Fox genes which construct foxes that catch rabbits, insert more copies of themselves in the next generation.  Rabbit genes which construct rabbits that evade foxes are naturally more common in the next generation of rabbits.  Hence the phrase "natural selection". 

Why is Nature cruel? 

06 August 2010

All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Recently, I've been involved with an initiative to build capacity for integrating the arts into Baha'i study circles. The vision we have been developing of the role of beauty in our lives and the process of community building unfolding at the grassroots has filled me with a fresh boost of joy and optimism about the direction of the Baha'i world. After doing some creative writing inspired by the House of Justice's recent Ridvan message, we briefly explored some concepts from the Baha'i Writings. I'd like to share some of the thoughts we have shared in our group. To a great extent, they crystalized and have entered into our shared vision through the study of the first two sections in Unit 3 of the seventh book in the Ruhi sequence of courses, the unit entitled "Promoting the Arts at the Grassroots."

In a passage translated for the compilation The Importance of the Arts in Promoting the Faith, 'Abdu'l-Baha writes,
All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvelous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose when showing forth the praise of God.

02 August 2010

Perfect Partnership

By DreamCatcher
Cross-Posted from Refugee Dance Hall

My life is perfect.
The only things that I can improve on require some paperwork and some time.
Frankly, if the fixes are that simple, really, what do I have to complain about?

I read an article, which I cannot, for the life of me, find about a straight couple who chose to refer to one another not as the common boyfriend-girlfriend jargon, but as partner. The explanation of this left me saying 'EXACTLY! Why didn't I think of that?!' The author explained that, once out of high school, referring to someone as a boy or girl seems a tad undermining. It also, and I can't recall if this was part of the article or my own misgivings about the popular terminology, seems to undercut expectations of an adult relationship.

01 August 2010

Discovering Collaboration

Imagine millions of drops of water trying individually  to reach the ocean, seeping inch by inch through the soil. It would take ages for them to get there. However, when drops join with other drops they gather momentum and carve paths through the soil. First, they come together as trickles. Then those trickles form a stream. Before long, they become a river surging towards the sea. Those drops of water reach their goal by joining together and aligning their momentum with that of others.

Recently, I’ve been learning that this is what it means to be an effective tutor for a Ruhi study circle or animator for a junior youth group. The generality of people want to contribute to positive change in their own lives and in the life of their community. But sadly, very few of them know any means by which they can raise their capacity to do so. What thousands upon thousands of us are discovering through use of the Ruhi Institute is that we gather momentum, not by ignoring such people or by making them the passive recipients of our services, but rather by joining with them in devising paths of service in which our impulses toward action catalyze each other. We need others and others need us. We must render mutual assistance, if together we are to realize our potential.

As we align our efforts with the framework outlined by the Universal House of Justice we soon find ourselves, without excessive strain or exhaustion, rushing towards the goals we collectively cherish. For me, this is the meaning of collaboration.