Sunday, June 29, 2008

Annual Souvenir Picnic, Teaneck, NJ

Yet another wonderful, mystical weekend. I went to attend the annual Souvenir Picnic held at the Roy Wilhelm properties in Teaneck, NJ. This gathering of Baha'is and their friends has been held every year for 96 years on the last Saturday in June to commemorate a picnic that was held there by 'Abdu'l-Baha in 1912. What a pleasant occasion!! We all gathered under the shade of the pine trees for a relaxing summer afternoon. Such joy and love. I saw so many dear friends that I don't usually get to see. Old Friends that I have known in Philadelphia, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and many new friends to meet as well.
At around 3:00 in the afternoon we all gathered close to the spot where 'Abdu'l-Baha addressed the 250 friends who were in attendance on that very first picnic in 1912 and enjoyed a
brief musical and lecture presentation on the theme of Unity. Robert Ahdieh, professor of law at Emory University, currently a visiting professor at Princeton was the keynote speaker. He has come to this picnic every year of his life since he was a baby.

Here is another one of my very poor quality video presentations. In spite of the poor videography it gives a little window into the musical presentation where beautiful Diane tried to teach us a Hidden Word "O Son of Being, Love me that I may love thee, If thou lovest me not, My love can in no wise reach thee." As Diane points out Rambod was the most enthusiastic audience member.

In the middle of the presentation large rain drops began to fall and not a person moved. I was wondering how heavy the rain would have to get before the presentation would stop. After about 5 minutes it was the rain that stopped and the clouds blew away and the sun came out again and the presentation continued without pause. How lovely it was to read the following story from "'Abdu'l-Baha in New York: The City of the Covenant"--where the meeting was also interrupted with a few raindrops.

"On the 29th [of June, 1912], ['Abdu'l-Baha] went to the home of Mr. Roy Wilhelm, in Englewood [NJ], for the Feast. On this day, the friends came from New York and the
neighboring area. The grounds of Mr. Wilhelm’s home were beautified by a pine grove, surrounded by lawns spread with flowers of every hue, and tables had been set up under the trees. Seated on an armchair in the shade, the Master looked rested and loving. The friends surrounded Him on the lawns. He greeted every newcomer and asked two ladies to sit on
either side of Him- Mrs. Krug, young and elegant, and a very old lady in shabby clothes. They both had the same radiant look, their love for the Master shining like a fire in their
eyes raised toward Him.

He spoke to the friends: “This is a delightful gathering… This is a New Day and this hour is a New Hour… Such gatherings as this, have no equal or likeness in the world of mankind… This assembly has a name and a significance which will last forever. Hundreds of thousands of meetings shall be held to commemorate this occasion and the very words I speak to you today shall be repeated in them for ages to come…”*

At the end of the talk the meal was ready, but a sudden storm blew up, and big drops of rain splashed on the tables. The Master walked calmly in His ivory and white flowing robes, went out toward the road, took a chair which had been stranded there and sat down, His head toward the sky. The Persian friends who had followed Him were behind the chair. After a while, a strong rushing wind raced the dark clouds away and the sun shone again. The Master rose and returned to the grove, smiling at the children who rushed toward Him. Lovingly, He went among the 250 guests with a vial of attar of rose, anointing each one of the friends while a Persian meal was served. Then He went into the house to meet with visiting ministers. After dark, some 60 people were lingering, unable to tear themselves away from this place of love, unity and beauty. The Master talked to them by the light of candles held by the ladies seated on the lawn: “It was a resounding call to arise from the tomb of self in this Day of the Great Resurrection and to unite around Him to vivify the world.” He left them, disappearing into the night: “Peace be with you. I will pray for you.” His melodious voice chanted the last words echoing forever in their hearts.
On the following day, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the guest of Mr. Topakyan, the Persian Consul General in Morristown. The reception was attended by prominent people and members of the press. At night, the Master returned to New York.
*This event is commemorated every year at the same location, on the last Saturday of June. "

Here are the words that 'Abdu'l-Baha spoke on that day in their entirety:

29 June 1912

Talk at Unity Feast,
West Englewood, New Jersey

Notes by Esther Foster

This is a delightful gathering; you have come here with sincere intentions, and the purpose of all present is the attainment of the virtues of God. The motive is attraction to the divine Kingdom. Since the desire of all is unity and agreement, it is certain that this meeting will be productive of great results. It will be the cause of attracting a new bounty, for we are turning to the Kingdom of Abhá, seeking the infinite bestowals of the Lord. This is a new Day, and this hour is a new Hour in which we have come together. Surely the Sun of Reality with its full effulgence will illumine us, and the darkness of disagreements will disappear. The utmost love and unity will result; the favors of God will encompass us; the pathway of the Kingdom will be made easy. Like candles these souls will become ignited and made radiant through the lights of supreme guidance. Such gatherings as this have no equal or likeness in the world of mankind, where people are drawn together by physical motives or in furtherance of material interests, for this meeting is a prototype of that inner and complete spiritual association in the eternal world of being.

True Bahá'í meetings are the mirrors of the Kingdom wherein images of the Supreme Concourse are reflected. In them the lights of the most great guidance are visible. They voice the summons of the heavenly Kingdom and echo the call of the angelic hosts to every listening ear. The efficacy of such meetings as these is permanent throughout the ages. This assembly has a name and significance which will last forever. Hundreds of thousands of meetings shall be held to commemorate this occasion, and the very words I speak to you today shall be repeated in them for ages to come. Therefore, be ye rejoiced, for ye are sheltered beneath the providence of God. Be happy and joyous because the bestowals of God are intended for you and the life of the Holy Spirit is breathing upon you.

Rejoice, for the heavenly table is prepared for you.
Rejoice, for the angels of heaven are your assistants and helpers.
Rejoice, for the glance of the Blessed Beauty, Bahá'u'lláh, is directed upon you.
Rejoice, for Bahá'u'lláh is your Protector.
Rejoice, for the everlasting glory is destined for you.
Rejoice, for the eternal life is awaiting you.

How many blessed souls have longed for this radiant century, their utmost hopes and desires centered upon the happiness and joy of one such day as this. Many the nights they passed sleepless and lamenting until the very morn in longing anticipation of this age, yearning to realize even an hour of this time. God has favored you in this century and has specialized you for the realization of its blessings. Therefore, you must praise and thank God with heart and soul in appreciation of this great opportunity and the attainment of this infinite bestowal--that such doors have been opened before your faces, that such abundance is pouring down from the cloud of mercy and that these refreshing breezes from the paradise of Abhá are resuscitating you. You must become of one heart, one spirit and one susceptibility. May you become as the waves of one sea, stars of the same heaven, fruits adorning the same tree, roses of one garden in order that through you the oneness of humanity may establish its temple in the world of mankind, for you are the ones who are called to uplift the cause of unity among the nations of the earth.

First, you must become united and agreed among yourselves. You must be exceedingly kind and loving toward each other, willing to forfeit life in the pathway of another's happiness. You must be ready to sacrifice your possessions in another's behalf. The rich among you must show compassion toward the poor, and the well-to-do must look after those in distress. In Persia the friends offer their lives for each other, striving to assist and advance the interests and welfare of all the rest. They live in a perfect state of unity and agreement. Like the Persian friends you must be perfectly agreed and united to the extent and limit of sacrificing life. Your utmost desire must be to confer happiness upon each other. Each one must be the servant of the others, thoughtful of their comfort and welfare. In the path of God one must forget himself entirely. He must not consider his own pleasure but seek the pleasure of others. He must not desire glory nor gifts of bounty for himself but seek these gifts and blessings for his brothers and sisters. It is my hope that you may become like this, that you may attain to the supreme bestowal and be imbued with such spiritual qualities as to forget yourselves entirely and with heart and soul offer yourselves as sacrifices for the Blessed Perfection. You should have neither will nor desire of your own but seek everything for the beloved of God and live together in complete love and fellowship. May the favors of Bahá'u'lláh surround you from all directions. This is the greatest bestowal and supreme bounty. These are the infinite favors of God."

Monday, June 23, 2008

material embodiments of spiritual power

I had the most extraordinary experience spending the weekend in a home in Lancaster, PA that is the embodiment of Baha'i spirit and power. An extraordinary home. It is a large and spacious home, a row house that looks unassuming from the street and yet expands into glorious cavernous spaces, three stories and a basement. Every inch of the home is used for service, love, edification, enrichment, spiritual delight. Three little girls enjoying their friendship brought laughter and sweetness among us. They pranced around loved and cared for by the spectrum of youth and adults who seemed to stream in and out of the home. All the vacant rooms in the home were filled with young people just graduated from college and transitioning on to other things in their lives. They were there soaking in the empowering energies for a few months and engaging in various acts of community service--to children and youth. Then there were the visitors, including me and marvelous Melissa, who had spent the weekend or who streamed in and out for a brief visit to one of the inhabitants of the household or for spiritual and intellectual meetings---- The great attraction I believe was the desire to just be close to the blessed owner of this home and his wonderful wife. In spite of the high traffic in the home the atmosphere was one of cleanliness, orderliness and pure refinement. Such elegance, simplicity combined with loving, friendly, unassuming, welcoming comfort. Instantly one feels at home and so loved.

The experience really got me reflecting on the importance of purity and refinement in our environment, in our speech and in our actions and the powerful effect this can have on our own spirits and on the spirits of others.
The only feeling I could compare it to was the feeling that I have experienced in the Holy Land--since i did not take any pictures this weekend let me pause to post a few pictures of the Baha'i propreties at the World Center that seem to embody



refinement, taste,

and the extent to which

classical and modern blend harmoniously. It seems also useful to consider how such refinement can also feel so friendly and welcoming and infused with love...

In the aforementioned home, spirituality finds physical expression in the environment and this environment in turn impacts upon the spirit.

"We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon theother and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions."
(Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 84)

Somehow there was always enough food for everyone to eat at a long table to which individuals spontaneously appear and are welcomed with such wholehearted sincerity and humility as dearly loved family members. Such joy and fellowship, each one feeling comfortable instantly and yearning for the blessing to offer some small service in the co-construction of the spontaneously emerging event. Book shelves line the walls in the living room and in the dining room containing tomes of the worlds classical and contemporary spiritual, philosophical and social thought. The conversations in the home range from light and humorous to conversations of deep intensity...

Truly a holy and sanctified home. A rare spot. A rare spot. The embodiment of the following ideals...

"Blessed is the spot and house....where mention of God hath been made and His praise glorified." (Baha'u'llah)

"Verily, I pray God to make thy home a center for the radiation of light and the glowing of His love in the hearts of His people. Know that in every home when God is praised and prayed to, and His Kingdom proclaimed, that home is a garden of God and a paradise of His happiness."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v1, p. 69)

"My home is the home of peace. My home is the home of joy and delight. My home is the home of laughter and exultation. Whosoever enters through the portals of this home, must go out with gladsome heart. This is the home of light; whosoever enters here must become illumined...."
(Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 397)

"In this glorious Cause the life of a married couple should resemble the life of the angels in heaven -- a life full of joy and spiritual delight, a life of unity and concord, a friendship both mental and physical. The home should be orderly and well-organized. Their ideas and thoughts should be like the rays of the sun of truth and the radiance of the brilliant stars in the heavens... They should always be elated with joy and gladness and be a source of happiness to the hearts of others."
(Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 397)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'?

Bob Dylan's "Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie"... a poem

thanks so much to my dear friend Bradley who is always introducing me to beautiful thought- provoking gems...he is my popular culture guru

Monday, June 16, 2008

a new stage in social evolution

My dear friend Alicia and I went to Green Acre Baha'i School in Eliot Maine to attend the "Vision of Race Unity" program a couple of weekends ago. It was my very first trip to this historic landmark in the Baha'i world.

Negin Toosi and Lev Rickards, a powerful pair, presented a stimulating morning session that not only got us thinking about the oneness of humankind but also the power of harmonizing perspectives from science and sacred scripture.

Negin presented a review of the literature on social psychology of racism and racial bias. We are, one and all, riddled through with bias and, given this fact, one of the most important spiritual tasks in this day and age is becoming aware of this problem within ourselves and then setting to work on eradicating all forms of prejudice from our hearts. There can be no progress if we are not even willing to recognize that we have a problem.

Following the presentation of the scientific evidence by Negin, Lev lead us through a discussion of excerpts from the Baha'i Writings. Here are a couple that I found so fresh...

"In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance -- that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes -- he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself."
(Baha'u'llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 20)

"It is always important to remember that with the coming of Baha'u'llah the human race as a whole was summoned to recognition of its oneness, and this has launched it on a wholly new stage in its spiritual and social evolution."
(The Universal House of Justice, 3 June 2007)

I was privileged to receive a personal invitation to the event from one of the blog writers I admire most--Phillipe Copeland of Baha'i Thought fame. I am so glad that I took him up on it! How fun when friendships in virtual reality can facilitate face-to-face friendships and interactions. In the afternoon Phillipe moderated a discussion led by some distinguished panelists including a leader in the New Hampshire NAACP and a provost from the University of New Hampshire. The discussion was heartfelt and painful at times but hopefully also productive of important thought and partiuclarly to the extent that it awakened within us an awareness of the severity of the issues and effects of racism.

This past weekend I was privileged once again with an astonishing opportunity. I attended a meeting/conference with, in my estimation, one of the contemporary world's greatest visionaries, Dr. Farzam Arbab. Dr Arbab is a member of the Universal House of Justice, the governing institution of the Baha'i world community. He has also worked tirelessly for much of his life in the development and design of a program of education that aims to achieve the spiritual empowerment of humanity starting at the grass roots level. Spiritual empowerment of individuals is to translate into action for community empowerment and regeneration. The program is global in scope and thus it aims to eventually bring about global regeneration--and all starting from the transformation of the individuals that inhabit the villages and neighborhoods of the world. The Ruhi materials and method have spread from the villages of Columbia to every corner of the planet and have become the main mode through which the Baha'i world community engages in learning and community development--people coming together to interact with the Sacred Word and with each other, each sharing the deepest wisdoms from her or his heart with others and reflecting on how to translate spiritual principles into daily actions to bring about societal transformation. The vastness and splendor of this project is something I am trying to fully come to terms with. It leaves me in awe really. A grand project for the civilizing of the planet to bring love and justice into our midst.

I bring this up in the context of the work in achieving racial unity because Dr. Arbab placed great emphasis on the task of overcoming prejudice. He lead us in pondering how we go about overcoming our prejudices and according to my understanding discouraged us from spending too much time talking about the problem. What we really need to do is to act. How do we act? We go out and engage with people directly who are outside our common social circle. Baha'is are doing this around the world. They are standing up and going out to meet humanity and have conversations with their fellow humans about the spiritual principles for the age that are brought by Baha'u'llah. They are engaging in prayer and study with people from all faiths and racial backgrounds in purposeful projects that bring about close spiritual bonds between people. As they do this they are "drawn further and further into the life of the society around [them] and will be challenged to exend the process of systematic learning in which [they] are engaged to encompass a growing range of human endeavors." Universal House of Justice, Ridvan Message 2008.

He also stressed the key role of the quality of humility. We are ALL... EVERY member of humanity...learning together about how to go about building a new world civilization. There is no sense in which some of us from "privileged" backgrounds are to imagine we can design programs of development which we can impose upon those who are "underprivileged". We all have indispensable roles to play in the regeneration of each other and of the whole planet. As we walk the path of spiritual transformation together processes of social action emerge organically and are thus intimately connected with local needs and issues.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

the garden state

I had a very enjoyable, inspirational and educational five days touring the Garden State last week with the Rutgers Faculty Traveling Seminar which was designed to connect faculty members at The State University of New Jersey with the state that they serve. We learned about

state politics,

agriculture--NJ is one of the three largest producers of cranberries

and is the "horsiest" state in the nation with more horses per square mile than any other state.

We got insights into land use and environmental issues in the state from the South Jersey Pinelands to the Highlands in the Northwest.

Did you know that the largest waterfalls in the Northeast US after Niagara falls are surrounded by the struggling urban landscape of Paterson, NJ? Rutgers professor Steven Handel, a specialist in urban restoration ecology [which sounds like a profession I might have aspired to had I known it existed] is helping to preserve and beautify the area immediately surrounding the falls so that they can once again become a tourist destination.

Day 4 of the tour took us to the heart of urban New Jersey with a whirlwind tour of Newark, the largest urban center in NJ and the nation's third oldest major city.

We toured the brand new Prudential Center home of the New Jersey Devils ice hockey team,

the magnificent (mainly inside) and historic Newark Symphony Hall which is scheduled for major renovations.

We had a stroll around Lincoln Park where our gracious host Professor Clement Price introduced us to community leaders in the arts and in other community service such as

drug rehabilitation institutions

We also had a chance to visit the church of Reverend Dr. M. William Howard, who also happens to be chair of the board of governors of Rutgers. While there we were inspired by the work of Bethany Cares, a project coordinated by

the dynamic Tynesha McHarris that works with young men who have had some run ins with the juvenile justice system.

In the evening we stopped by a panel discussion at the studio of WBGO public radio station which was commemorating Martin Luther King's 1968 visit to Newark.
We had dinner at the New Jersey Historical society in the presence of a picture of American poet Walt Whitman who lived in Camden, NJ in his later years. We also were able to view the exhibit about the "urban rebellion" that took place in Newark in 1967. Whew! This was a powerful day.

On the final day, the traveling seminar ended with a trip to Ellis Island where we were able to visit parts of the island that have not yet been opened to the public or even renovated. It was fascinating to walk through the vast maze of hospital wards where immigrants were screened and given what appears to have been top quality treatment for the time.

Not only did the five days of the traveling seminar give a sense of the diversity that characterizes the landscape, economy and population of New Jersey, it also offered a precious opportunity to interact with a diversity of wonderful and brilliant professors teaching in departments from astronomy to political science. I learned as much from my interdisciplinary colleagues as I did from the astonishing array of people from all walks of life who were given the microphone to speak to us. It was fascinating to hear the questions that professors asked of different people. People trained in different disciplinary backgrounds have such intriguingly different ways of understanding the world and thus have different types of questions that bring to light different aspects of reality. Yet more evidence that diversity of all types lends important richness to our lives.

Monday, June 09, 2008

the Samaritan woman at the well

The past 8 days have been a whirlwind of amazing experiences.... learning, learning, learning in the most wholesome, challenging, joy-filled ways.

I will start with a quick post about my trip to Asbury Park, NJ last Sunday, June 1st, to hear Reverend Fred Hanna preach at the Triumphant Life Church. The church was filled with the shouts of glory and praise of the Lord and I was filled with awe at the vibrance and richness of the experience and the extent to which the rest of the nation needs to draw upon the vast spiritual resources that are available in African American Christian communities.

Picture from Sharpiron

Reverend Hanna's sermon was a masterpiece, a symphony, that integrated rigorous biblical scholarship, contemporary critical pedagogy, deep spiritual insight, and delight-inducing humor. He drew on the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4 to call on us all to follow Jesus' example and turn our sights to working at the grassroots level in our communities, to reach out to the poor and marginalized and those "burdened with sin". If such individuals can be supported in uplifting themselves through the "water of life" to the station for which they were created perchance they may in turn be enabled to upraise, uplift and recreate our world. In the last couple of weeks I have been thinking much about our inherent nobility and the high station to which we are all called. What steps should we take to reach this nobility for ourselves and how can we better prepare ourselves to collaborate in the upliftment of others? It strikes me that our own upliftment and that of others are intimately interconnected. It is only in humbly trying to assist others to understand their true nature that we ourselves come to understand our own.

Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.
(Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)

"all i want is the chance to see the person i was meant to be"--from the song "My Refuge" on the Dawnbreaker Collective CD Arise.

A prayer from the Baha'i Writings that seems most suitable for the "samaritan woman" within us or at our side...

"Glory be to Thee, O Lord my God! I beg of Thee by Thy Name through which He Who is Thy Beauty hath been stablished upon the throne of Thy Cause, and by Thy Name through which Thou changest all things, and gatherest together all things, and callest to account all things, and rewardest all things, and preservest all things, and sustainest all things -- I beg of Thee to guard this handmaiden who hath fled for refuge to Thee, and hath sought the shelter of Him in Whom Thou Thyself art manifest, and hath put her whole trust and confidence in Thee.
She is sick, O my God, and hath entered beneath the shadow of the Tree of Thy healing; afflicted, and hath fled to the City of Thy protection; diseased, and hath sought the Fountain-Head of Thy favors; sorely vexed, and hath hasted to attain the Well-Spring of Thy tranquillity; burdened with sin, and hath set her face toward the court of Thy forgiveness.
Attire her, by Thy sovereignty and Thy loving-kindness, O my God and my Beloved, with the raiment of Thy balm and Thy healing, and make her quaff of the cup of Thy mercy and Thy favors. Protect her, moreover, from every affliction and ailment, from all pain and sickness, and from whatsoever may be abhorrent unto Thee.
Thou, in truth, art immensely exalted above all else except Thyself. Thou art, verily, the Healer, the All-Sufficing, the Preserver, the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Merciful."
(Baha'u'llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha'u'llah, p. 234)