Updated: Sep 5, 2022
How a good Aussie bloke became responsible for the protection and upliftment of a global Faith.
Maybe you’ve noticed that I quote pop songs quite often in my writing. The way I see it, quoting pop songs is no different from quoting Shakespeare who wrote using the language of his day; words like hark! or forsooth! which often have the effect of turning kids off in a big way since it doesn’t seem to have any relevance to today’s world.
Speaking the language of the day is what pop songs do; they use current language to talk about current issues. And that’s why I’m going to mention Eric Bazilian of the rock band ‘The Hooters’, who in 1995 wrote a hit song for singer Joan Osborne.
He called it "One of Us" and it simply asked:
“If God had a name, what would it be
And would we call it to His face
If we were faced with him and all his glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?
It went on to imagine a God who was one of us, like a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home; what would He look like? What would you have to believe: things like heaven, Jesus, the saints and all the prophets?
His song posed the very questions I had pondered myself in my teens and twenties, much to the despair of my long-suffering Christian parents. For that reason it was very surprising when, in the first months of attaining to my thirties, I found myself late one night rattling in an old van up and over the steep hills and winding roads leading out of my new life in Gisborne and down towards the capital city of Wellington. I was going to meet a man who was the closest being to God that I could imagine in my small corner of the earth, one who did not dwell in Nepalese hilltops, Indian caves, or Arabic deserts but in my own small corner of the southern hemisphere; Australian Hand Of The Cause Of God, Collis Featherstone.
Knight Of Baha’u’llah, Hand Of The Cause of God: these were new terms that I was having to adjust to. But on reflection, I realised they were little different from the terms of other religions; like saint, prophet, rabbi, or imam. And actually, these newer Bahai terms appealed to the poet in me.
I was still a very green new Bahai but I knew enough of the key principles of this new religion to know without a doubt that this was what my soul had been restlessly searching for all those earlier years. However I still felt a bit cautious in finding my way around any new ‘culture’ or practices it might bring with it. Consequently I was relieved to find that there were very few, although the Persian names and some titles felt unfamiliar. I had a pretty good idea what to expect from a prophet or a saint or even a Pope, but who was this man I was now making such an effort to meet?
It was to prove an eventful trip in many ways. As our noisy van finally began to make its way out of the claustrophobic hills, we discovered that the rear door had become open at some stage, and my suitcase with its entire contents - clothing, shoes, personal effects
, prayer book, money etc. - were irretrievably lost into the black night. And so it was that on the following day I arrived at our formal venue to meet this illustrious figure, just about the nearest person to God I could imagine in my small part of the world, shamefaced and without makeup, wearing men's clothing that I had to borrow from a tall, male, travelling companion!
Old habits die fast. Joining the crowd, I fell comfortably into conversation with an old friend with whom I was in the beginning stage of a backbite when my arm was touched and I swung around to find I was being personally introduced to the man himself; Mr. Collis Featherston. I was frozen. How could this earthshaking moment happen when I was so unprepared? So covered in inner shame that the embarrassment of wearing men’s clothing palled into insignificance. Although a new Bahai, I knew enough to know that backbiting was one of the most destructive ‘sins’ of this otherwise sin-covering Faith.
Fortunately my comment was unheard by others, the shame mine alone. In such circumstances, and in so little time, I had painfully acquired so much knowledge. First and foremost was a strong determination to avoid backbiting in future. And, despite having lost everything I had bought with me, I found that I didn’t starve or go homeless. Turns out I didn’t even need my carefully chosen ‘best’ clothing. I did feel the loss of my very first Bahai Prayer book but even that was something I needed to gracefully accept.
Ironically, later I would receive such a generous insurance refund for my loss that even my few worrisome debts were covered. So now I turned my full attention to this man whom I would also have the privilege of meeting again in a future home town, fortunately under much more relaxed and favourable circumstances.
Although named Harold Collis, to his friends he was known as Col or Collis. At one time Mr Featherstone had attended three different church services each Sunday; had even contemplated becoming an Anglican clergyman, but simply couldn’t reconcile himself to the variety of churches and doctrines, eventually preferring one Unitarian preacher whose preaching drew on the scriptures of other great religions. In this way Mr Featherston began reading about comparative religions, eventually leading him and his wife Madge to become completely drawn to the Bahai Faith.
As a couple they possessed a single-minded energy and devotion to serving this newly discovered Baha’i Faith. In fact they had started hosting Bahai gatherings long before they formally became Bahá'ís. Together they enthusiastically attended Bahai summer schools, often requiring driving across Austalia with a caravan and children in tow.
They formally joined the Faith in 1944, exactly one century after its inception in far away Iran. Thirteen years later Collis was appointed a Hand of the Cause; a term meaning one of the "chief stewards" of Bahá'u'lláh's embryonic World Order, with responsibility for the protection and upliftment of the Faith. This drew upon his practical and methodical nature, and his vision and ability to think projects through from beginning to end. He was not a spur of the moment man but nevertheless acted quickly and decisively when necessary, always speaking with authority and inspired confidence.
He and his wife were very much ‘one of us’, as my pop song described. At one stage I even had the joy of hosting Marge in my home during her Wellington visit, and what a delightful lady she turned out to be, showing sincere interest in my youngest child and an unrequested willingness to help clear up after our meal. At the end of our visit I felt that I was farewelling a very favourite aunt whom I would probably never see again.
On 29 September 1990 Mr Featherstone was visiting Bahai’s in Nepal when he succumbed to a heart attack and died in Kathmandu. His burial took place at the "rooftop of the world" against a Himalayan sky, far from his native land, in the path of service to Bahá'u'lláh. So Harold Collis Featherstone (13 May 1913 – 29 September 1990) did end up in the Nepalese hilltops I had imagined long ago as the home of truly Holy men.
So in answer to the original questions posed by Eric Bazilian’s song: God's new Name for this age is Baha’u’llah. In Persian it means The Glory Of God. Most people (like the famed British orientalist Edward Granville Brown) found it too overwhelming to address Him to His face. And yes, we do believe in a life beyond, but very different from the one many probably imagine. And we do believe in Jesus and the prophets of the Bible, and there is so much more exciting teaching that follows! Please check it out for yourself.
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