Talk to Baha’is about acceptance of and respect for Baha’i law and institutions, and two notions immediately come to the fore. Faith, of course, is one. But also immersion in the sacred writings and guidance.
Nathan Shepherd of Carrboro, North Carolina, says his understandings came about this way:
“I realized that I believed in and loved Baha’u'llah about two and a half years ago, roughly nine months after hearing about the Faith for the first time.
“I say realized, because I never really made a conscious decision to become a Baha’i. I just realized at one point while in prayer that I did, in fact, believe Baha’u'llah was the Manifestation of God for this Day and that I loved Him.
“Then I realized that if I believe Baha’u'llah is Who He says He is, then I ought to do what He asks me!
“This, of course, was a process, as the lifestyle that I had lived up to that point was nowhere near the station to which Baha’u'llah is calling His servants.
“And it was through love that I have been able to strive to follow His laws. ‘Observe My commandments, for the love of My beauty,’ reads paragraph 4 of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book.”
Shepherd says his certitude also was bolstered through reading the first paragraph of that book, in which Baha’u'llah says:
“The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration.”
“When first reading this, I thought, ‘Oh my! Well, I believe that I have recognized Baha’u'llah, and He says that I must observe His every ordinance, and that without this my recognition of Him is unacceptable.
“I knew that this was going to be a tough point in my life, that would require strenuous effort at all times to conform to His laws and institutions.
“Growing up I was not real fond of the institutions or laws around me. But this was different, this was from God.”
Love the laws, love God
Another realization soon came to Shepherd.
“After some time of striving daily to ‘observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world,’ I realized something: to love and accept the laws of God is the same thing as loving God,” he says.
“How could I possibly claim to love and accept Him Who is the Creator of the entire universe and beyond, and disregard that which He has bidden me?
“Paragraph 3 of the Most Holy Book says, ‘O ye peoples of the world! Know assuredly that My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures.’
“In fact, for me, one of the proofs of the truth of the Revelation of Baha’u'llah is the code of conduct and character that He is calling us to. This character could not be of men.”
Shepherd says he sees his continual reading of scripture as a form of fortitude.
“There have been moments where I have broken down into tears of gratefulness as a result of forcing myself to read particular paragraphs of the Kitab-i-Aqdas as a protection in order to prevent myself from committing acts which are prohibited in that book.
“In moments like those, His laws taste of the sweetest honey. Only the laws of God can aid humanity to exalt itself to a higher station.”
Likewise, Shepherd’s regard for the institutions of the Faith: “I regard this as my duty and obligation.”
He reasons: “Obedience to the Universal House of Justice is obedience to the Covenant of Baha’u'llah, as the Beloved Master, ‘Abdu’l-Baha said in His Will and Testament regarding the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice: ‘Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God. …’
“We must also have faith and confidence in all the institutions of the Faith, as this is conducive to unity.”
Shepherd says he knows that many of the institutions of the Faith are in their nascent stages.
“But in order for the institutions to grow and develop we must, as members of this community, have faith in them and in their decisions, and abide by them,” he says.
Struggles as opportunities to grow
So how does one nurture such respect and obedience in others?
“I approach it differently depending on where my spiritual perception tells me that person is at, what he or she needs to hear,” says Shepherd.
“One thing that I find myself referring to often is the idea of struggle. We all have struggles.
“Some are more apparent and clear to those around us, and some may be completely in our heads though equally destructive. In either case, this one struggle only represents an opportunity to grow.
“None of us are perfect,” Shepherd reasons, “but we must all be constantly striving. In reality, I fail in some aspect or another of my duties to God every single day, and this will probably go on forever.
“What is important is that I seek His forgiveness, learn from my mistakes, and strive to perfect my struggles through His unfailing aid and assistance.”
Bruce Grover applauds such approaches as Shepherd’s.
The New York City Baha’i serves as an Auxiliary Board member for Protection of the Faith advising Baha’is and their institutions in a territory covering parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
He says often “where we get into challenges as individuals has little to do with Baha’u'llah’s actual writings and teachings.”
“It has to do with the other believers in our community, or something we don’t understand about the Five Year Plan.”
So Grover has teamed with a fellow Auxiliary Board member to offer a series of gatherings for believers in particular clusters of Baha’i communities who are “seeking to arise to serve the Five Year Plan.”
The goal, he says, is to “ground us all in Baha’u'llah’s Writings.”
“Some of the participants may be fairly new Baha’is, but they got on this path. They have this fire of the teaching work. We get them together, and we take about three hours and really try to have some spiritual relaxation together.
“So we look at a few key quotes about Baha’u'llah’s Plan for the new World Order. They’re short little quotes, just three sentences or fewer, from Baha’u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
“We do a whole page of those, and they’re so inspiring. It takes about an hour and a half to do that first page. Then from there we go into maybe four or five more quotes from the Universal House of Justice about the framework for action of the Five Year Plan.”
Grover has found the level of conversation and reflection in these meetings to be quite deep.
“Each of those gatherings seems to have a profound effect not just on the service of these wonderful friends but also on their spiritual life. This made me pause and reflect again on the power of the Creative Word.”
Understanding paired with action
It’s a power Grover strives to bring to bear in the protection cases he handles.
“I’ve started to use the Writings more and more,” he says. “And, of course, it sounds so obvious when you say it. But I don’t think I was doing it deeply enough. To really study passages and prayers with others as Ruhi Book 1 (Reflections on the Life of the Spirit) and 2 (Arising to Serve) help us to do.”
He points to the disunity that has burdened the souls of believers in one cluster.
“I had a consultation with one of the people and invited this individual to say ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Visitation morning and evening, and we studied a few portions of that prayer together,” he recalls.
“About six months later the person called me and said, ‘Bruce, I want to thank you so much for inviting me to do that. I’ve been doing that morning and evening ever since we talked, and it’s changing my relationship with the Faith and my fellow Baha’is.’”
Grover says it’s fortunate that “in our Faith we don’t have anyone that passes judgment until the name of the Faith comes into it.”
“At some point an Assembly or Board member might step in,” he says. “But for many of these things a sin-covering eye is sort of the mode of operation. Again, that’s where the writings can be so helpful.
“And also I feel sometimes you just have to be honest, you just have to be direct and just be able to say, ‘You know I’m observing some things and I just want to consult with you about it and let’s study this particular passage from the writings that talks about purity, or something.’”
And Grover sees the vital need to pair understanding of the Word of God with applying it daily.
“If one approach is trying to get people back to the Creative Word, because it produces miracles, the other source of miracles is action in the field,” he says.
“Sometimes with folks who are struggling, … what I’ve seen is if the person will just arise and do some small thing — even if it’s just going to the home of another believer and studying a prayer, a most basic level service, but doing some form of action around the Creative Word — that has a transmuting effect.
“And again it’s one of these things that’s a no-brainer, but it just works. It’s like gravity in the physical world. Baha’u'llah confirming service seems to be a spiritual law. It just works.”
Grover recalls what Counselor Ann Boyles said once at a meeting in the Northeast.
“She was talking about being comfortable with ambiguity. And letting certainty emerge over time through action and reflection and consultation,” he relates.
“Sometimes we get anxious, particularly when we’re putting stuff on the line.
“You’ve been working with your friends over time, you finally invite them to a devotional, the devotional doesn’t go well because of whatever, that’s really anxiety-provoking. These are your friends; you’re taking a big risk.
“But sometimes you don’t know what is going to happen, or you get partway through a process and things begin to fall apart. And you pray, ‘Oh my God, let things go well.’
“Of course, six months later you look back and say, ‘That was kind of amazing,’ because you can now see a process unfolding. But living for those six months with uncertainty about it, trusting in the process, takes a certain amount of courage.”
Prayer and a peaceful presence
Someone who has seen the process at work as an assistant to an Auxiliary Board member and as a member of Local Spiritual Assemblies is Julie Swan of Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Three cases stand out for her.
“A man in his 30s was shocked and hurt when his wife of 10 years decided to leave him and their home (no children). He was not a Baha’i, and she was,” Swan relates.
“Interestingly, he turned to Baha’is for help because he knew them to be people who were good listeners and did not take sides or pass judgment.
Swan says the man began to meet with several Baha’is in an area where there was no Assembly. One referred him to an Assembly out of the area, and he had several meetings with an appointed committee.
“He maintains these friendships after several years,” she says.
“His experiences have not caused him to join this community of faith, but they did create a comfort zone for him as he worked through the pain and process of separation and divorce, and he still drops by to visit his Baha’i friends.”
In the second case, an elderly Baha’i woman wanted to move to a town with a few Baha’is since she was isolated.
“She was given hospitality by another single woman who recognized her need to look back on her life and sort through some difficult memories in order to move forward,” recalls Swan.
“After some time, she moved to this town and became one of the most active Baha’i teachers in the group.”
The third case involves a woman in her 40s who became a Baha’i, causing a marital rift.
“Her first meeting with an Assembly was to consult on this matter. For the first time, she could open up and share her pain.
“The loving way her difficulties were heard, and the mature consultation that followed, helped her to broaden her understanding of her new faith and the beauty of consultation.”
Swan says, “listening to stories that are full of anger and resentment is the hardest.”
“I have found that prayer and a peaceful presence for people in emotional turmoil can alleviate their immediate suffering and help them put things in perspective.
“Often, as they talk through their woes, they formulate new ways of thinking about their situations without a great deal of advice or guidance.
“Going to the Writings at such times is a great way to foster this habit,” she says.
“There is always comfort there, if not specific guidance. Praying with a person who is full of consternation has an almost-visible effect. It opens them to the comfort of God’s love.
“Recognizing that time and God’s Will will take care of most situations helps one to be a better listener. I have learned that when I am impatient to fix a problem, it rarely helps or works. Loving patience with spiritual practice helps all of us heal.”
The institute process as a living resource
A concluding thought comes from Chet Makoski, a member of the Regional Baha’i Council for the Northeastern States:
Much of what the folks quoted above are applying to improve their own and others’ lives is imbedded in the institute process, he says.
“The knowledge, insights and skills it gives us are a great foundation for our understanding and acceptance of the laws and institutions, and for how we can explain them to those we teach or guide.
“These [Ruhi Institute] books should be ongoing resources for us, not something we use in a course then put aside.”
Makoski points to particular passages as especially relevant: the section of Book 6 (Teaching the Cause) known as Anna’s conversation; the deepening themes in Book 2 (Arising to Serve); and the pre-publication materials available from the upcoming Book 8 (The Covenant of Baha’u'llah).
“If we’re not grounded in the laws and in our understanding and acceptance of the Plan and its agencies, we’re going to give mixed messages at best to those we teach.”