God – an almighty best-seller

November 6, 2008 - One Response

Reading today that Harry Potter author J.K.Rowling made a mere $300 million last year, I’ve been wondering what makes a book a bestseller? Is it the plot, the characters or just brilliant writing? The unfortunate thing for those of us who wouldn’t mind being a J.K. Rowling is that there just doesn’t seem to be any formula. The only way of knowing if my book will be a success is to write it and see what happens.

Some books have been best-sellers for ages! The Bible’s had fans for thousands of years, while the Qurán has inspired its readers for 15 centuries. Millions of copies have been sold, and then there’s the Holy Books of Krishna and Buddha. It seems that when it comes to bestsellers, religion has a remarkable ability to turn out one hit after another.

But the awkward question is: who are the authors of these books? Could they all be from the same hit factory? Are they all saying the same thing and talking about the same God – or talking about a different God?

Somehow, the idea that there are many Gods, all competing for a market share of the believers isn’t very appealing. If JK Rowling can write several enormous books, can’t the Almighty do the same, and be the author of all the Holy Books, skilfully changing His style and story, to appeal to the audience he’s addressing at any given time?

According to the Bahá’í Faith, all the religions of the world come from the same source, but they come at different periods through history to help humanity advance. Their teachings are just like the different chapters of the same book.

This way of understanding why there are so many religions makes sense to me. So, if you’re a fan of the Almighty, then you’d probably find something to admire in all of his Best Sellers. And what’s more, you’d be impatiently looking forward to His next Big Book!

To think that God will not write another best seller would be to underestimate the talents of the most popular and influential writer of all time.

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Family history

November 5, 2008 - Leave a Response

It’s surprising how easy it is to lose our connection with the past. The TV programme Who do you think you are, which traces the family history of celebrities, shows how difficult it is to find relatives from the past.

I can only vaguely remember my grandparents on my father’s side, but that’s as far as it goes.

The only snippet of information I have beyond that is from a conversation with my father not long before he passed away. He was trying to work out how I had become so interested in religion. He said that that it must have come from his side of the family because they used to call his grandfather the pope!

I tried to probe further, but all my father would say is that his grandfather was nicknamed the pope because of his religious fervour!

Since then I’ve always wanted to trace my family history and felt even more motivated since watching Who do you think you are on TV.

Like the celebrities on that programme, I’m sure I’d get a few surprises and discover relatives I never knew I had. But I wonder what I’d find out if I went back many generations in my family history?

Apparently, scientists have done just that and traced back the ancestry of the human race to a very small number of people. So, according to their research, I have close relatives all around the world!

While these relatives may look very different to me on a racial level, scientists have found that this dissolves when you probe beneath the skin. Because DNA studies have revealed that 99.9 per cent of the human genes are the same in everyone.

Unfortunately, what has been proven in the laboratory, about humanity being just one family, is not yet accepted socially. And that’s because the barriers of race, nation, religion and colour have divided us up and prevented the unification of the human family.

Yet, over 100 years ago, Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, made a statement that cuts through these barriers to unity when He wrote: “There can be no doubt whatever, that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God.”

So even if I never get any further with my family tree, there’s one thing that both science and religion can tell me about my relatives  – that regardless of race or creed, we really are all kin beneath the skin.   

Playthings of the Ignorant

November 4, 2008 - One Response

Have you ever done what I was doing the other night – gone through an old photo album and been horrified at the clothes you were wearing?

What was I thinking? How could pink leg warmers ever have been attractive? Or pastel-toned lycra shell-suits? Not to mention the hairstyles!  What was that windswept Farrah Fawcett look doing on my head? Why didn’t anyone tell me how awful I looked?

The fact is everyone else looked just as awful! We were the dedicated followers of fashion as the song goes.

And what choice did we have? We bought what we bought because it was there – and there was no internet shopping. Now we can surf websites anywhere in the world and get what we want. And yet today, despite the choice, we’re still heavily influenced by those in the know about ‘what’s in’ and ‘what’s out’. I remember being teased at school because I was still wearing flares when everyone else had had their bellbottoms taken in to leg-hugging, spray-on tightness. Then, sure enough, in the late 1980s, flares were back. And then they disappeared. And then re-emerged, only to be replaced last year by skinny jeans, which – just as soon as you’ve laid on the floor and wriggled yourself into them – are out of date and now need to be replaced by turn-ups or some other such fad.

It’s funny isn’t it how we pride ourselves on our freedom of thought and our freedom to choose. And yet every one of us is influenced  by packaging on food, the reviews we read of books, the latest must-have gadget, and yes, the latest style of clothes.

Now I’m not decrying having nice things or making our lives more comfortable. It’s just that, in the Bahá’í teachings, we are told that we shouldn’t make ourselves the ‘playthings of the ignorant’. That’s an interesting phrase. Rather than being manipulated all the time into what others want us to be, Bahá’u’lláh’s advice is to adorn ourselves with good deeds and a praiseworthy character.

After all, when you look at a photo of a loved one from any era, what do you remember? The clothes they were wearing or the cut of their character?  

Physical and spiritual power

November 3, 2008 - Leave a Response

Have you ever forgotten something really important in your life? We may forget birthdays or anniversaries, but would anyone forget how much they have in the bank?

Our life is totally dependent on money, but only up to a point, because, as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

The Egyptian Pharaohs certainly didn’t take anything with them. They spent their lives accumulating gold and building magnificent pyramids, planning for an eternity of luxury. Imagine their disappointment when 3,000 years on, their gold, far from being of any use to them, is on display in museums all around the world. It wasn’t quite how they planned it.

Their staggering belief in the immortality of material things made them think they were building an eternal existence.  But in reality they were creating a material civilisation that soon perished.

Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, suggests building a more balanced civilisation – a Divine Civilisation, which is made up using both material and spiritual means.

In the Bahá’í Writings we read: “For man two wings are necessary. One wing is physical power and material civilisation; the other is spiritual power and divine civilisation. With one wing only, flight is impossible.”

Imagine a bird forgetting to use one of its wings, flapping about on the ground using only one wing! Yet many of us live our lives using only the wing of materialism. No wonder we sometimes feel grounded!

For me, this is where religion comes in. Not the rituals and traditions that are passed down and blindly followed through generations, but a sense of the sacred and divine that lifts us when we’re feeling like a bird with a broken wing.

Bahá’u’lláh writes: “I am the Sun of Wisdom and the Ocean of knowledge. I cheer the faint and revive the dead. I am the Royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty. I unfold the drooping wings of every broken bird and start it on its flight.”

I like the idea of a religion that instead of clipping your wings, inspires you to spread your wings and soar heavenward.

Religion in a new light

November 2, 2008 - Leave a Response

We’ve all heard endless versions of the joke about how many people of this or that profession it takes to change a light bulb. The purpose of these jokes is to show how some of us can make such a meal of doing something so simple as changing a light bulb.

Imagine how much more embarrassing it would be if the light bulb didn’t need changing in the first place! Say, if the light switch was off, or if there was so much dust on the bulb, that it hid the light completely.

This idea of light being hidden by dust is a powerful metaphor in the Bahá’í Writings. Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, compared religion to a radiant light that is all too often obscured by the dust of prejudice, dogma and fanaticism.

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It’s surely unnecessary to give examples of some of the terrible deeds that have been carried out, that bring shame on the name of religion. So it’s not surprising then, that people are turning away from religion altogether, and blaming it for many of the problems in the world today.

But if the dust of prejudice were somehow removed from the light of religion, then maybe we could see all the world’s faiths in a new light – not as separate and unrelated to each other, but all united, all part of one eternal Truth, coming from the same Divine source.

Bahá’u’lláh said that unity is the only power that can bring light to the world. He said: “The well being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

Since Bahá’u’lláh wrote these words in the middle of the 19th century, we’ve taken significant steps towards unity among nations, but not among the world’s religions. All around the world, we still seem to be caught up in old ways of religious conflict.

And if we really can’t remove the dust of prejudice that’s obscuring the light of any religion, then we have two options. Either we stay in the dark – or we search for a new light bulb.

It’s wonderful

October 31, 2008 - Leave a Response

Philip was an elderly Bahá’í friend who passed away a few years ago. He was a colourful, larger-than-life American who made everybody laugh. One of his favourite expressions, which captures his life right to the end, was: “It’s wonderful.”

Even as Philip lay dying, his wife told me that he kept saying: “It’s wonderful” over and over again, until the moment he passed away. She said that she had felt like a midwife helping Philip’s soul to be born into the next world.

I thought the analogy of birth was such an inspiring way for her to view the death of her husband.

In describing Philip’s peaceful passing, and comparing it to a birth, she reminded me of how Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, invited us to view life on earth – as a preparation for the world to come.

Bahá’u’lláh compares life in this world to that of a baby in the womb. There, the whole purpose of the baby’s existence is to develop its physical body, to prepare it for life in the physical world.

In the same way, the purpose of life in this physical world is to develop our spiritual side – our souls – to prepare us for our birth into the spiritual world.

According to Bahá’u’lláh, it’s impossible to try and understand the next world, because, He said: “The world beyond is as different from this world, as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.”

But, like the baby in the womb, we can, nonetheless, prepare ourselves for birth into the next world. And because the world we’re going to is a spiritual world, we need to develop our spiritual limbs and faculties here, in this life, to prepare us for the life to come.

Qualities such as love, faith, and truthfulness are some of the spiritual limbs we need in the next world.

My friend Philip certainly had many of these qualities – and a charming humour – in abundance. No wonder then that the words he uttered in his last breath were: “It’s wonderful!” And I am sure he is still saying it.

Suffering for perfection

October 30, 2008 - Leave a Response

A few weeks back, while reading a book by Somerset Maugham,  I was struck by a comment made by one of the characters about suffering. He said: “It’s not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

Well, I have to say it got me thinking about whether or not that’s really the case. Does suffering ennoble the character, or make us petty and vindictive?

Image after image of human suffering went through my head – the starving mothers and children of Africa, HIV ravaged communities in developing countries, the wounded and dispossessed in war zones and the orphaned victims of man-made tragedies. Does suffering ennoble their character? I think you may come to the same conclusion I did.

But then I got to thinking about people whose suffering changed them from ordinary people going about their day to day lives, into extraordinary champions of justice and education. There are numerous examples here in the United Kingdom. Diana Lamplugh, the mother who became one of the country’s foremost experts on personal safety, after her daughter disappeared while working as an estate agent twenty years ago. Or what about Colin Parry who established a trust to help children learn peace-building skills after his son Tim was killed in the IRA bombing of Warrington?  And there are plenty of others.

According to the Bahá’í teachings, personal suffering shouldn’t make us petty and vindictive, but should be regarded as opportunity for spiritual growth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one of the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, was well qualified to speak about suffering, spending more than 50 years of His life as an exile and prisoner.

He wrote: “Men who suffer not attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit… Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest of men have suffered most.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the human spirit has a great capacity to turn despair into hope, tragedy into constructive action and grief into forgiveness and progress.