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Reverend Eric Elnes: Connecting Interfaith Hearts in the Heartland



Guest: Rev Eric Elnes
Host: Preeta Bansal
Moderator: Aryae Coopersmith

Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of Service Space, a global platform founded on the simple principle that that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us.

Preeta: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening!. My name is Preeta and I am really excited to be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call -- welcome, and thank you for joining us! The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life -- speakers who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today, our special guest speaker is Reverend Eric Elnes. Thank you again for joining today's call! Let us start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call -- today, in conversation with Reverend Eric Elnes. As an all-volunteer offering, each Awakin Call is a conversational space that is co-created by all participants on the call, and we invite your active involvement in the conversation. In a few minutes, our moderator Aryae, will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker and by the top of hour we'll roll into Q&A and circle of sharing -- where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now, so at any point, you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us ask@servicespace.org or submit a comment or question via the webcast form, if you are listening online via the webcast. We invite your active co-creation of this space through your shared reflections and direct engagement with our guest.
Aryae is a ServiceSpace volunteer, and founder of One World Lights (OWL), a community of global citizens with the shared vision of people everywhere supporting a course change for humanity by supporting each other. Through OWL Wisdom Circles, global-citizen-spiritual-activists around the world gather by video-conference to share stories, wisdom and inspiration, and build friendships and community. Previously he ran the HR Forums, Silicon Valley's association of human resource executives.
Aryae is author of "Holy Beggars" a memoir about a college student, a spiritual teacher, and how they started the House of Love and Prayer and found themselves at the center of the spiritual revolution in 1960s San Francisco. Aryae has also been very active in Interfaith work with a background in the Jewish community and so he's a remarkable moderator for us today. So welcome, Aryae and thank you.
Aryae: Thank you, Preeta for that generous introduction. So I'd like to say a few words of introduction about Reverend Eric Elnes. He's a minister, biblical scholar, author, speaker and he's been a media host. Since 2008, he's been the senior minister of the Countryside Community Church of the United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska. Countryside recently became the Christian partner in Omaha's heralded tri-faith initiative in which a synagogue, mosque and a church are co-locating to a 37 acre campus to learn what it's like for the three Abrahamic faiths to live in relationship with each other. They've chosen to be together on one campus committed to practicing respect, acceptance and Trust. They combined with the belief that God is leading them to be together as a blessing to one another in their communities. The shared physical commons is thought to be the only undertaking of its kind in the world.
Eric often preaches about the need for inclusivity, the foundation of the tri-faith initiative. He explains that one of the clearest, most emphatic messages of Jesus in the Gospels is that those who would be his followers are to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. To Jesus, our neighbor includes our so-called "enemies." So if Christians are to take their faith seriously at all, according to Reverend Elnes, they must take Jesus' commands seriously as well.
He's internationally recognized for creating multi-sensory experiential services. Rather than making worship message-based, he makes it experience-based grounded in the belief that the spirit of God is fully present, and when we open even a crack, that Spirit doesn't hesitate to jump down and mess with us. In 2006, he helped lead a 2500 mile walk from Phoenix to Washington DC to promote awareness of the progressive emerging Christian faith. One tenet of which is to be a constructive force for social and environmental justice and peace in the world. The Convergence Christianity movement, which is one of the names of that movement, is the result of reconciliation among post-Evangelical and post-Liberal Christians, who have previously been on opposite sides of the theological spectrum. It's founded on the principles of love of God, love of neighbor and love of self.
The premise of reconciliation and inclusivity is a foundation of Eric's life and work. His work extends beyond the Sunday church service. For five years, he ran an internet television program called Darkwood Brew and he's written several books including the "Phoenix Affirmations: A new vision for the future of Christianity," and "Gifts of the dark wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics." And the book about his 2500 mile Journey called "Asphalt Jesus: Finding a new Christian faith on the highways of America." Eric, it's a pleasure and an honor to have you with us this morning.
Rev Eric Elnes: Oh, I'm very excited to be on. And boy, you've really done your research!
Aryae: Well, Preeta's been a big help, I'll tell you! Anyway, I'd like to start with an initial question and that is can you tell us something about your current Church in Omaha -- the Countryside Community Church? What's your congregation like and and what what type of services do you hold there?
Rev Eric Elnes: Sure, Countryside is one of the larger congregations in the United Church of Christ. We're about thirteen hundred members, right in the geographic center of Omaha. It's called Countryside Church because it was originally on the countryside, 65 years ago when it started. But now that Countryside has moved well beyond... And yeah, it's a spirited congregation, tends to lean to the progressive direction and it also has a history of interfaith involvement.
Aryae: Aha. So what type of services do you hold there? How are they perhaps different from other Church of Christ churches or are they very similar?
Rev Eric Elnes: Sure. And I should clarify. The denomination is United Church of Christ. Yeah, there's a denomination called The Church of Christ but they're much more conservative than we are.
Aryae: Okay, forgive my fuzziness on that.
Rev Eric Elnes: Okay, so no problem, common occurrence. But yeah, we hold two services on a Sunday morning. One is a focused, really the music is what is distinctive about each one. One focuses on classical music and the other is a jazz-based service. And so that's that's rather unique for us in the Omaha areas, the Jazz service. And then we're also developing a kind of radically different service right now, called 'Day one' which we hope to offer on a weekly basis once we move to the tri-faith commons, which is kind of a mashup. Like a historic compline service which comes from the monastic tradition, except it's done in a very modern context and with nods to our Jewish and Muslim faith traditions as well. And so that's another one.
Aryae: Aha, that sounds like that service has come out of your Interfaith work?
Rev Eric Elnes: Yes, it's very much the product of already the kind of cross-pollination that's happening. As our congregations become closer together, it's not a merger of the faith. It's still, and the service is distinctively Christian in expression, but it's a Christian expression with deep appreciation of our faith, and the other faith traditions that we relate to in the Abrahamic tradition.
Aryae: Very interesting. So we were talking just a while ago and you were telling me that your arrival at your congregation at the Tri-Faith initiative came after another church had tried, but it didn't work out. So your church is now in the process of getting ready for the move. Can you tell us a little bit about the the Tri-Faith initiative? How did it get started? And how did your congregation get involved?
Rev Eric Elnes: Sure. Yeah, I'd be happy to. Yeah, and when I came ten years ago, I had no idea there was such a thing as the Tri-Faith initiative.
Aryae: Yeah.
Rev Eric Elnes: When I heard about it when they came and approached me just to kind of inform me about what was going on, it just blew my mind. I couldn't believe my good luck to have landed in Omaha with this amazing initiative that I had never even dreamed that we would be a part of, one day, like this.
But yeah, the initial seeds of the initiative really can be traced back to September 11, 2001. On that day Rabbi Azriel who at that time was the senior Rabbi of Temple Israel in Omaha was prescient enough to know that the Muslim community would probably need some ground-support and protection. And so he and 40 leaders from his synagogue walked down to the nearby mosque and stood outside it, around it shoulder-to-shoulder, to protect it, and called on other people to join them. And as you can imagine that kind of set the heart of that, you know, those two communities towards each other in a very special and unique way.
And over the years their relationship developed, and at one point, both congregations, for different reasons, wanted to move west in Omaha. And they realize that if they located next to each other they could save a lot of money on having a common parking lot. And so the real practical origins of the Tri-Faith was simply to save some money on a parking lot.
Aryae: Oh wow. Very funny!
Rev Eric Elnes: Shortly after, someone from the synagogue realized that wait a minute, if we get the Christians involved, we can do a lot more than just save some money on a parking lot. And that was really then the actual origin of the Tri-Faith initiative as an official thing. And so they spent a number of years trying to find some property, which is a lot harder than it seems, if you're going to try to find...Well, the current campus is 35 acres.
And then seeking that Christian partner. They initially had approached the Catholic Church to be the partner. But the Catholics for various reasons, they turned them down. And so they went to the Episcopalians and they said absolutely yes. We're very excited, but they just had a very hard time. There wasn't -- there were a lot of Episcopal Churches already in Omaha, and it was hard to start a congregation from the ground up, and try to raise the kind of money that would be needed to do that.
So eventually they approached us asking if we would become or consider becoming that partner. And that was an unusual request because our church has been in existence for 65 years in this location that we're at and it's a fantastic neighborhood.We have a beautiful building with very little deferred maintenance. We really like that. We love our building. We always have, it's always been a great symbiotic relationship with the neighborhood. And so literally there was no good reason to move whatsoever, except for the vision of the Tri-Faith.
And in the United Church of Christ, it is not the Minister who makes that decision, or a Bishop or a council. It's the entire congregation that makes a decision like that. And so we suddenly had you know this opportunity and challenge to take 1300 numbers and give them the background of what the Tri-Faith represents. We study it from all kinds of angles and make a decision. And initially we just simply took 40 days as a congregation to ask -- is this God's will that this even happened for us? That we even do this.
And we ask every question we could possibly imagine, except for one with respect to our potential involvement. And that one question we refuse to ask during that 40 days was -- how much would it cost, because you know money can really cloud discernment. You know? If you think you could never possibly raise the money, then you might just decide we couldn’t do it. Or if somebody would say, “Hey, I will write a check for the whole thing,” you might say, “Oh, let's do it!” without really asking -- Well, but is this the will of the Spirit for us, at this time? And so we held that question aside and just really studied it.
And I had ministers who told me, I mean, some of my closest colleagues said -- you know that if you allow this initiative, this discussion, to move forward, you will be fired, don't you? I was like -- what do you mean I'll be fired? They all were unanimous that no church ever moves because of a vision alone. It always needs to like have a roof caving in, or they're trying to move to find a new population in a growing area of town or what have you. And they're going to vote on this and they're going to vote it down. And with that vote down, you will no longer be considered the minister for a whole lot of people.
But then the exact opposite proved to be the case, much to my relief. And I never really sensed that that would happen unless the congregations had a long happy relationship with the other faith communities in Omaha, including Temple Israel, the Jewish synagogue. And in the end, 70% of our congregations voted to take that discernment to the next stage, which was -- how much would it cost? So it was, in our congregation, it was 50% plus one vote. We had 70% so we moved on. And determined a cost that was way more expensive than I ever dreamed it would be. So I was even glad that we didn’t consider cost! Twenty six million dollars and to that we added a 1 million dollar stretch goal, to be raised elsewhere, to try to not just build any building, but build the most environmentally sustainable church of its size in the country. And the reason we want to do that was not because we want to have some big prize, for being the best, most efficient. But because we wanted to make an environmental statement about reconciliation with the Earth. Just as we were making a statement of reconciliation with our neighbors through being on this Tri-Faith Commons.
And because we really feel like the two greatest threats in our world right now is our reconciliation with our neighbor, especially our enemies, now that we keep on getting better and more efficient and better able to kill each other every day and we’ve democratized the instruments of mass destruction, by the day. And then also reconciliation with the Earth, realizing that climate change could reach a point quite soon that where we could reduce our carbon footprint to zero and we would still have the climate warming in ways that could very negatively impact the entire Earth. And so we really feel like like those are the two great issues of our times -- the two great callings of the Holy Spirit in our time is to get involved in peace. You're waging peace, not just simply accepting peace, but waging peace with with our neighbor, and also reconciliation with the Earth.
Aryae: That's an amazing commitment that your congregation made, to take on all of that financial expense. I'm familiar with how money plays a role in synagogues and some churches, and I know that can be so divisive.
Rev Eric Elnes: Yeah
Aryae: And for your members to choose, yeah, we're going to accept that work of coming up with that money, is really a pretty amazing testimony to their belief.
Rev Eric Elnes: Well, we lost about 200 pledging households, as a result of that vote. Most of the people who left us were not against the Tri-Faith itself, but were really just opposed to the idea of moving again. Most congregations in the US just do not move for vision alone. They move for other, with other pressures. And so we had a number of people who, you know who had grown up in the church and even multiple generations, they loved the building and they just couldn't see us moving. So that that set us back a couple hundred members and financially. But nevertheless the congregation was able to just really surge forward and people committed very sacrificially to doing this. And we actually raised the 26 million dollars, so we'll enter it debt-free.
We have not been able to get that extra million to put on the solar panels that were necessary to create that additional sustainability factor. We have a very efficient building but that final bit has eluded us. But what we did is we did pre-wire everything and pre-plumb everything, so we can put the solar panels on eventually, you know.
Aryae: Well, I'd like to ask you about Christian convergence, which is an idea that's been very central to your work. Can you tell us what is Christian convergence? How did it get started? Who's involved? Where does it go now?
Rev. Eric: Sure. Well the earliest roots of that kind of awareness of what was going on came and that led to me suggesting to other Christian leaders around the country that something like a convergence is happening. And it goes back to that walk across the country, you mentioned upfront, in 2006. When we walked across the country, we were there to kind of proclaim a message that, at the time we were calling it Progressive Christianity. We really were trying to define what that was and you did an excellent job of kind of recapping that - it's about love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. When Jesus was asked what's the most important commandment, he said there's two - love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself. So three great loves - God, Neighbor and Self. And what we said in Progressive Christianity is that we insist that all three must be practiced together. You can't just simply settle on -- two out of three ain't bad. So I love God, myself, but not my neighbor. Or God and my neighbor, but not myself. The self oftentimes drops out of that equation. It's not a selfish thing to talk about love of self the way Jesus mentioned it. Because it's always in relation to love of God and love of neighbor, you cannot, you know, heighten love of self over the other two.
So we were out there to kind of raise the flag for Progressive Christianity. We created the document in concert with a number of clergy and theologians and biblical scholars across denominational lines around the country that became known as the Phoenix Affirmations. There are 12 points, four for great love and they talked about...Just as a brief aside, those Phoenix Affirmations can be found at phoenixaffirmations.org (https://phoenixaffirmations.wordpress.com/), if you want to get the quick list of the 12. But we started with the affirmation that Christian love of God includes walking fully in the path of Jesus without denying the legitimacy of other paths that God may create for humanity.
Aryae: Aha ha. That's a radical shift from a lot of traditions.
Rev. Eric: Yeah, and that proved to be the most controversial affirmation of the 12. More controversial than the affirmation 5 which really got into claiming the equality of all people, including LGBTQ equality. But yeah, that was hardest for people to wrap their minds around. We'd ask people why they have a problem with that. Well, did Jesus say: “I'm the way, the truth and the life. And no one comes to the father except through me”? Anyway, we could talk about that later if you want.
So we have these Phoenix affirmations. We were on the walk across the country. And the Phoenix affirmations included that one and LGBTQ friendly one, affirmations about caring for the earth and environment, affirmation about reading the Bible, taking the Bible seriously, but not literally. And affirmation affirming that faith and science can go together in the pursuit of truth. They need not be adversaries. About loving our enemies and about standing with the denigrated and the oppressed, with or without the support of others. An affirmation affirming the separation between Church and State and things like that.
So we walked across country, waving the flag for Progressive Christianity. And what we found almost immediately shocked us. Which was -- there a whole lot of people out there, more in the conservative side of Christianity, who would come up to us often times quite quietly saying, "Thank you, you're walking for me". And we're like "What?" "Yeah sure. Nobody from my church would make that affirmation, but I'm really excited about these affirmations, what you're walking for."
Aryae: Now you say these are people from the conservative side of Christianity?
Rev. Eric: Exactly! They'd say "Yeah, I'm sure I'm the only one", but we would actually know that they weren't because maybe two or three people from the same church would come up and say the same thing to us. We discovered as we walked across the country that especially like in these rural areas that we always think are so conservative, and really really entrenched in a more fundamentalist to view -- that there are a whole lot of people who actually aren't there theologically, and they’re yearning for something else. But especially, in those rural areas, if you go against your church, you not only lose your faith network, but also largely your social network and even your economic network.
Aryae: Wow, so that's got to be very scary.
Rev. Eric: It is very scary. And then on the other hand, you get in some of these communities, somebody like an attorney named Bob I ran into in, was it Miami, no Canadian Texas. I ran into him on a Sunday morning in a coffee house and I struck up a conversation with him and learned that he had been going to a United Methodist Church in town for 30 years, but had not been in the last three. And so I'm like, "Tell me more". He said well, the pastor had preached one Sunday about how the Earth was literally created in six days and against Evolution, and he kind of had some questions about that. And because he had questions, he was driven out of this church. But he wasn't driven out by the conservative elements from the church. He was driven out by his friends who agreed with him. Well, what is it? What happened? Well, they kept telling me -- “Hey Bob, we can't afford to split the church here. We are too small. We can't have this kind of controversy. We don't want to rock the boat.” And Bob was a good-hearted person, and he was like, well, I'm not a church splitter. I don't want to do this to my friends. And so he just kind of quietly bowed out. But we ran into a whole lot of Bobs.
Aryae: That's amazing! That's something which most of the rest of us don't know about.
Rev. Eric: Absolutely, we didn't know about that either. What the other thing that most people and we didn't realize als,o was on the more liberal end, there were a whole lot of people who absolutely were committed to more liberal social values and also had more liberal understandings about scripture and Jesus and so forth. But they felt like they were missing something in their Church, namely some of the things that Liberalism has kind of tossed out, because of the way fundamentalists use them. Like in the more Progressive Church, we're really good about proclaiming what we were against, but not so good about saying what we're for.
And the progressive side of Christianity has kind of a tendency to say in a sense whatever the fundamentalist do badly, we won't do at all. So if they do the Bible badly well, we will de-emphasize the Bible. If they do Jesus badly, we will de-emphasize Jesus. If they do prayer badly, we will not talk about that. All down the line, until pretty much the fundamentalist ends up ruling the show, because we're saying we won't do what they're doing badly in our opinion.
And so there were a lot of people who were really missing Jesus and spiritual disciplines like prayer, what is that and meditation, those kind of classic spiritual disciplines. They are feeling pretty dry. So we found on both sides of that theological swimming pool, people who had grown up native to one side or the other, who are having problems within their own camps. And when you ask them, well, what are your hopes and dreams for the future? What does the Faith look like at its most deepest level and exciting level for you? Both groups of people who had problems with their own tradition were talking the same language. They were espousing the same ideals and those ideals actually sounded quite a lot like the Phoenix Affirmation.
We realized that there's this huge untold story at the Grassroots of America. That there are a lot of people who you'd think would be bitter enemies, who would have nothing good to say to each other, who are actually yearning for very, very similar things.
Aryae: What an amazing amazing discovery!
Rev. Eric: So they didn't know each other. Nobody knew that. They didn't know that. We always thought, well if these two groups ever find one another, you know, they're almost like, to take an analogy from the Hebrew scriptures, it's like they were two groups of escaped slaves from Egypt. They're both wandering in the desert completely unaware of each other, yearning for some promise. And we thought -- God if they'd ever meet, maybe there would be this gift-sharing, kind of like at Mount Sinai, Moses when he calls the people - what did you bring with you that you just absolutely couldn't leave behind from the old life? Toss it down and let's build something together. That will be an amazing kind of gift sharing going on.
And over the years we asked have the people discovered each other yet? And every year I had to answer that question quite frankly "No." Until several years ago, about five years ago, when the Wild Goose Festival appeared on the US scene. The Wild Goose Festival (http://wildgoosefestival.org/) was a group of Christians who just simply put up a flag saying -- hey, if you're interested in spirituality, justice and the arts, we're gonna hold a festival around those three things. A bunch of us responded to that call and showed up and guess who showed up? Those exact camps - the evangelicals, the post liberals, without realizing it, and meeting one another, and the discovering each other was just an incredibly joyous and creative thing.
Aryae: So what happened, when these, I mean if you can give us a story, when the post evangelicals and the post liberal Christians meet each other and talk to each other, what comes out of those encounters?
Rev. Eric: Yeah. Well, first of all, a lot of kind of shock. And then at least, there's a kind of awe and wonder that then breaks out in this excitement. What you find is like you take a classical, real Progressive Christian who has grown up thinking that anybody who's Evangelical, you know, they they have no interest in, for instance, LGBT equality. They're certainly going to throw everybody who's not Christian to hell. They read the Bible literally, they don't like Science -- these kind of things. They want to merge church and state into a theocracy. We have all these ideas about it and then you listen to that Evangelical saying oh my God, you know, I'm glad I found you. I've been yearning for these very things you're talking about. Like what?
And then on the other side of the equation, Evangelicals are growing up thinking that no Progressive or liberal Christians love Jesus. They don't like the Bible. They don't read it much and it's all kind of relative and they're just kind of into the Theology of the day and all this. And then you discover that there are these Christians out there, who are from these Liberal traditions, who are yearning and love Jesus, and love meditation and prayer, and are really into these classic spiritual values. And they're like what? We weren't taught this. But these aren't the people we expected!
And so the each side discovers that the other is bearing gifts that the other has been looking for!
Aryae: Mmm. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Interesting. Yeah, you know, I'm curious now. I'm thinking that maybe it's harder to bring the Christians together than it is to bring the Christians and Muslims and Jews together. I don't know, but what about your experience with people of other faiths, you know, what sort of situations and initiatives and encounters have you had, and what have you learned from that work?
Rev. Eric: Sure. Yeah that's a good question. First of all, yeah is it can be a bit easier to bring people of three Islamic faiths together, in a sense that when you're part of the same exact tribe, you expect like everybody's going to believe the same thing. You know? If you don't -- like what? Wait a minute I've got the truth. No, you ain't got the truth. But if you already acknowledge that the faiths are different, you can tolerate differences, even deep differences because you're not expecting them to believe exactly like you. So there is kind of a built-in possibility for Grace there, that sometimes doesn't exist in within the same tribe.
But what we found is that if you take those Phoenix affirmations, those aspirational goals that I've just kind of been talking about, if you look at the more Progressive end of each of those three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam and Christianity, they are all kind of in the same kind of mode. They start talking about similar dreams and visions and hopes for the future and so forth. They look a lot like those Phoenix affirmations. And so there seems to be not only this kind of convergence going on, this kind of gift-sharing going on between those within Christianity, but there's also this growing convergence, I believe, between these different Faith Traditions as well.
I have a little bit less background and a little fewer friends who are Hindu and Buddhist, but I have studied those and I do have friends in those traditions. And from what I can tell, there seems to be a similar thing going on in those communities as well. There seems to be a pretty vast thing that's going on, a vast, I would say, spiritual awakening going on, that tends to, in a sense, it's tilting. You know, if the faiths are kind of like marbles on a table, it's tilting the table. So the marbles are starting to roll in a very similar direction.
Yeah, it's not the majority. So this is not like the big New York Times story of the day. Like all these people are doing this. It's actually a minority within each of the Faiths that seem to be very much tilted in a similar direction, rolling in a similar direction, but with distinctive ways of doing that, that are unique to themselves.
Aryae: Yeah, you know when you're speaking about your experience of the Abrahamic faiths, I'm reminded of something that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (http://rabbisacks.org/), one of my favorite Rabbis who used to be the chief Rabbi in the UK, said about his study of the three faiths. He wrote a book called "Not in God's Name" where he examined conflict and reconciliation, and he said that from his view there are three things that the three faiths have in common - love God, love your neighbor, and love the stranger. One of the things that intrigues me about what you say, is that the love the stranger part, based on your understanding of Jesus is that when Jesus said ‘love your neighbor’ -- that included the stranger.
Rev. Eric: Yes. Yeah, and I would include as a stranger, yourself too. Who of us really knows who we are? The poet David Whyte (https://www.davidwhyte.com/english-poetry/) talks about like the worst thing you can tell a person when they go on stage is: just be yourself. I mean who the heck am I?
Aryae: Yeah, so tell me about loving yourself. I mean, I'm one of those people, the first thing I think -- love yourself, that's selfish. But you mean it in a spiritual way. Can you dig a little deeper? What do you mean by love yourself?
Rev. Eric: Absolutely. Well, for instance loving yourself means that recognizing that God created you with a mind and a heart -- brain and a seat of emotions, and we were to love both of those aspects of ourselves. So heart and mind go together in the pursuit of truth. They're not adversarial and I can love that about myself. If you don't love yourself, then how are you to love your neighbor as yourself? If you don't love yourself some way, then please don't love me as you love yourself .
I think our Muslim friends are really good at getting at the heart of it. The heart of Islam itself is about bowing to a God, submitting to God. They would remind all of us that there really is no love of self without love of God. In that, there's no...unless the soul is bowed down before the Creator, there is no true love of self. There's no true freedom without submission, in the sense of that ultimate kind of spiritual paradox -- that we find our ultimate freedom in submission. Or as Jesus said, we find our lives by losing it.
So they're all tied together: God and neighbor and self. If you keep them together, then you start to see yourself as not just an isolated Lone Ranger, but rather you are a community, and the community is you. You are intimately connected to other people, to the Earth itself, God's creation and to the Spirit of the Living God. So all of those make up you. And so to love you cannot be abstracted from loving your neighbor and your God.
Aryae: Yeah, that makes sense. I hear you. So I want to come back to this phrase that you referred to earlier, where in the Bible, where Jesus says -- “No one comes our Father except through me.” And traditionally Christians have said that the only way to do that, is to be a Christian. And I'm curious as to how you understand that phrase?
Rev. Eric: Sure. Yeah, first of all, as a Biblical scholar, I would acknowledge that in the Gospel of John, that phrase comes from the fourteenth chapter. There's a lot on the Gospel of John that people say -- did Jesus actually say that? The Gospel of John reflects about 70 years of theological reflection on Jesus, and not necessarily his exact words, but rather their theological reflection on them. However, I'll just take it at its word and let's say Jesus absolutely said those words.
I would assert that he absolutely would disagree with that interpretation that only Christians get in and everybody else goes kind of the hell way; it's his way or the hell way. First of all, we know that Jesus was not talking to Buddhists and Hindus and Taoists and so on. He was talking to his own disciples and saying -- you are my disciples, you come to the Father through me.
People often overlook too that just a few breaths earlier in chapter 10, in the same conversation, Jesus says, the Christ of John says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold and they hear my voice, they already recognize it, they come when I call.” I mean, there's already recognition that there are these other paths out there, that are related to one another. So that should give some people pause before they simply write off, you know, all other faiths. But what he's really getting at, you know, we talk about things like Jesus, where we are supposed to affirm the name of Jesus is above all names. Well, what does that really mean for a Christian to affirm the name of Jesus above all names?
The name in all of scripture has more to do than just simply a group of sounds that come together to identify you. A name in the scriptures really has to do with a way of life, your sense of power. In fact often times, you know, people would change their names, you know, Saul is changed to Paul after his conversion, things like this, to reflect a new reality in their lives. When Jesus says, you know, whatever you do, whatever you pray for in my name, you will receive. You know, that's not true, that you can just simply use the name of Jesus and get it. If so, you know, I'd be driving a Ferrari, and every book I wrote would be a New York Time's best-seller. It just doesn't work that way.
What he gets at when he’s saying about praying in my name is the way of life. If you pray according to the way of life that I represent, if, you know, praying for things I myself would want, that's what brings that extra spiritual energy into the equation towards the realization of those goals. And so when Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," he's talking about a way of life that connects us to God. And we ask well, what is that way of life that is so essential? Well, he tells us in the gospels in those two great Commandments, "Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and strength," which is a direct quote from the Shema in Judaism, Deuteronomy 6:4, and also "Love your neighbor as yourself," which is a direct quote from Leviticus.
And so there's these three great loves that constitute the way of life that Jesus represents, where they cannot be abstracted, you cannot say two out of three ain't bad. So I call those the three G's in a sense, the three great loves. But to this Jesus adds a fourth G, which is grace. Which is absolutely not unknown in Judaism as well. He draws it from Judaism, which is the religion of his birth and he was always a practicing Jew.
And Grace really tells us that, you know, try as we might to practice these three great loves in concert with one another, we fail all the time. We need God's perfection to stand in for our imperfection. We need God's vision to stand in for our lack of vision, and God's imagination to stand in for those places where we lack imagination. We need to receive grace in order to kind of pull this all together and make this work. Otherwise, we shoot ourselves down before we even start. And so basically, what Jesus is saying is that you know, if you can't receive grace or give grace -- good luck connecting to God. Or if you're going to love yourself and God, but not your neighbor, well God's not really, you're not going to find that connection to God at all, really.
And so these really four G's, the three great loves and grace, need to come together inside of a person. That's what connects us to the divine. Well, when we look around we find, well shoot, that's not just Christianity that teaches and practices these four, call it 4G Faith, call it the cellular network, you know? God speaks in 4G. But you know, we find that 4G network, you know, in Judaism and Islam, in Hinduism and Buddhism. It's not that all these religions always practice this, but certainly that's what the religions teach and that's what many people practice.
Aryae: Yeah. Wow. This is really good. I'm going to re-listen to what you just said, Eric, because there's really a lot there. So I want to get to the issue of the Abrahamic faiths versus say the Eastern faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. Probably, my guess would be that most of the people who are listening today come from backgrounds in the Eastern faiths rather than the Abrahamic faiths.
And I know that you've said that most of your experience obviously is with the Abrahamic faiths, but I'm wondering if, in your interfaith work with Muslims and Jews and Christians, if you have the sense that there is something that is particular, particular kinds of issues that come up in those faiths that might be different from the kinds of issues that would come up, if you were working with a group that included Eastern faiths? Or are we all the same?
Rev. Eric Elnes: I think we're -- even though I have less background, it's not that I have no experience in them. And in fact, I was deeply influenced by travels in India I did in 2004 and I spent some time at an ashram there. It was a Christian ashram actually set up by Bede Griffiths, or at least he was one of the leaders from that background that was intentionally looking at bridging the divide between Christianity and Hinduism.
I remember sitting down with the leader of that ashram, whom I'm asking about how he saw the relationship with the faiths and that really stuck with me ever since. He compared the relationship among us like a mountain and like there are these different paths up a mountain. Every faith tradition has a different path and some paths are so different that they're clear on the other side of the mountain, like you might be climbing your path and never even realize they are on the mountain until you get to the top, and you realize "Whoa!" At the highest level of realization of each of these paths, you discover one another up there. And so to me that was a helpful analogy because a lot of people who engage in interfaith work kind of have this practice of dumbing down each faith to the lowest common denominator like, "Oh, you believe in love? Oh, so do I!, Oh, isn't that wonderful?"
Aryae: Yeah, yeah.
Rev. Eric Elnes: Sometimes you can find it, at least I find it, certain kinds of interfaith conversations could be like some of the most boring conversations ever, dumbed down like that, and not really meaningful or moving at all. But if you take that analogy seriously, what it says is that every faith has a very different path, but they're leading towards the same goal and we can acknowledge that there are actually extremely different paths. And the way he characterized the difference between East and West, I thought was helpful, kind of both sides of that. The Eastern faith is kind of on one side of the mountain and the Western on another. Again, both lead towards the same goal.
But you know in the Western tradition, those faiths, in particularly the Abrahamic faiths, which actually include more than just Christianity, Islam and Judaism, they are just simply the three most prominent of those, we really focus on radical engagement with the world, in order to find that love of God, neighbor, and self and the grace. It is about radically engaging with the world to discover God in the world like this. And on the Eastern side, it's more about disengagement from the world. It's not that the Eastern is not active in the world, but it's about stepping away and seeing the world as Moksha or Bhakti, an illusion, and not being as attached to the world.
Another way of characterizing as I've heard of it, is like comparing a circle -- like Jesus and the Buddha are right next to each other. But it is right next to each other, like they're so different in a certain way, that it's like traveling the circumference of a circle where you wind up next to each other, but there's actually a great distance between you. But you're still at the same place.
It's like radical engagement or radical disengagement -- it is actually both aiming at the same target, in different ways. And of course, I'm not a Hindu or a Buddhist, I don't feel at all qualified to say, "Oh, that's what it is." I don't feel I have any expertise, that anything I've just said is accurate. But those are my own experiences. And that's to me, especially that mountain metaphor makes a lot of sense.
I've been deeply influenced by Buddhism. In fact, if I weren't a Christian, I'd probably be a Daoist. But I have a lot of heart from what I understand of these faiths and and seeing that actually radical engagement and radical disengagement go hand-in-hand, actually. They're one of those deep profound, ...
Aryae: ... paradoxical truths. (Laughter) We've just got a few minutes left before the top of the hour and Preeta is going to take it at that point. But for sort of the last thing, I just want to focus a little bit, if I may, on your own personal journey. I'm curious about two things, sort of how did you get to be a minister and specifically the kind of minister you are, and then along with that, you've talked about spiritual practices of different types, prayer and meditation and so on, and I'm curious if you would like to share with us your own personal spiritual practices and what do you rely on to guide you through your journey?
Rev. Eric Elnes: Sure, big questions. I actually, for most of my early life, I never thought about being a minister. But I had an experience just after my junior year of high school finished up, or actually just before it finished. A mystical, profoundly mystical experience with a friend that convinced us both of three primary things. One is there is actually a thing as God - and second that, somehow in some way, this God is deeply aware of us. So intimately aware that down to every last hair of our head, and so of our bodies. That aware -- and because of that awareness and despite that awareness, this God loves us beyond our fantasy, beyond our wildest imagination. And that really set both down a path and would change the course of our lives.
And I tried being a solar energy research scientist - but in the months following, I started getting these feelings, like, about the ministry. They scared the heck out of me. I’d never thought of that before. Plus, a recent experience I had of my own church was that the minister I had grown to know and love, who confirmed me in the faith, of being booted out of this congregation. Asked to resign, that is. And I thought -- wow! And I literally saw him the Sunday after he was asked to resign, get up the pulpit, try to preach a sermon, and fall apart crying. And couldn’t bring it back together and had to be led off the pulpit. “This is what it means to be a minister? No way, I want nothing to do with this." And so in conversation with his successor, I decided to run as far away from ministry as I could. And see what happens. Realising that if I was successful, I would save myself lot of pain and trauma. And if I wasn't successful, then it would give me the sense of a true call.
So I deliberately enrolled in a secular college, majored actually in economics. My experience had changed me. I did not want to be in the ivory tower of academia anymore. I wanted to be out with people. I thought maybe I want to get into business, which I perceived to be about as far away from ministry, as I could get at that time. But the more I pulled away, the more I felt the tug, to do what I am doing.
And so by my junior year of college, I finally resolved that ok, I still couldn’t be convinced to be a minister; but at least I had this knowledge that I couldn't at least lead a life without going to the seminary. Once I got to Princeton Seminary, it was three years of such utter joy and ecstasy -- learning that tens and thousands of people who had similar experiences like me, lots smarter than I was, about this love of god and grace, and had real great ideas about how to implement it in this world and so forth. So I couldn't stand the thought of leaving after only three years. So I stuck around for a Phd in Hebrew scriptures, for five years after that.
Aryae: A Phd in the Hebrew scriptures?
Rev Eric Elnes: Which in itself was ironic. Because before I got to the seminary, I hated the Hebrew scriptures. I didn't hate it -- I should say I was terrified of them. Because I was terrified of what I perceived of the God. I thought the God of the Hebrew scriptures had way too many anger-management issues. And literally two years before going to the seminary, I was in a boat in Alaska, working as a quality assurance manager trying to raise some money to go to a seminary. And I thought I am going to face my fear and loathing of this book and read it cover to cover.
So then I started with Genesis 1 verse 1. I did not even get through to Chapter Nine. I was so angry, I threw the Bible against the wall. And did not pick up the Hebrew scriptures until at the seminary. But once I got into the seminary and started learning the Hebrew scriptures from people who actually had studied them deeply. And knew something about them. I fell head over heels in love with that body of texts. So yeah, the rest is history.
Aryae: Your description of your reaction is like a lot of people who come to study with us initially at our Torah circles -- after a while they get past that anger into the depth of what is behind the surface.
Rev Eric Elnes: Well, I found that even some of the stuff I hated I grew to love. I mean I still have a problem with violent God in any tradition. Any tradition. But some of the Hebrew scriptures have an earthiness about them. I feel there are no heroes in the Hebrew scripture. There isn’t actually a pure hero. They are all like anti-heroes. At the same time, when you think, King David, I mean - regularly touted in the Hebrew scriptures as being the greatest king who ever lived. Yet when we read about King David, we’re like wow! That guy had a lot of issues. And yet there is such a gentle reminder - ok - if God can work through somebody as deeply flawed as King David, well maybe, just maybe God might be able to work through me too and my flaws.
Aryae: What do you consider your main spiritual practises at this time?
Rev Eric Elnes: A lot of my practise have developed over the years. And I have only recently come to realise that a lot of them are extremely resonant with ancient Celtic Christianity. Which truly sees, which is, some of their insights are really related to Eastern religions, which is seeing the whole earth as infused with the presence of God. And revealing God's presence. And power and grace and love. And so I have a - I do a lot of walking meditation, and time out in the wild places that I find around the world. And my local area. My bread and butter is though, is everyday, doing at the very least, half and hour of just sitting meditation. I find myself in the last couple of years trying for a minimum of an hour, of doing that.
And in that meditation I kind of go through -- I have a number of forms of this. I find that if I stick with any one form for too long - it starts to kind of loose its edge. So it is like I deliberately mix it up. And also we all have this strategic mind going -- we are capable of manipulating. So I try to de-center myself so as to not manipulate what I get from meditation. But my bread and butter is sitting meditation. Hopefully get an hour or more.
And I go through the stage of four vows -- which is like you know - if you were to enter a sacred place, you might, you bow your head, going in, acknowledging the presence of God. And when I bow that head internally, if not externally, I think of the last twenty four hours of my day. I ask what blessings I can give thanks for? Where love touched me? Where I touched others with love? Which is also a blessing. And those things I can be thankful for.
And then I bow a little more deeply as if, I mean I do this physically -- but internally, it is like a bow at the waist -- and I focus on somebody who is in my attention that may need some help - somebody who might be either struggling physically or mentally or spiritually - and I do some work to try to send some kind of energy towards that person - and pray for that person's health and vitality.
And then I bow a little more, a bit more deeply, and I kind of let go more deeply into the presence -- almost like bowing on hands and knees. Not grovelling - before some God who has anger management issues - but really recognising that I am in the presence of something that is light - an incredibly wise friend who loves me beyond my wildest imagination. Who I want to connect with. Who has my interests in mind -- even if I am not the center of God’s attention -- and so then I ask: what do I need right now? And I try to articulate that as precisely as possible. What can I feel in my gut is something that I need, to be a fuller human being right now? Or a fuller follower of God. So I kind of focus and try to find that.
And then I take that into what would figuratively be an outer prostration. Kind of like daring to use the Hebrew tabernacle example - daring to crawl into the curtain of the Holy Holy -- let go of all the agendas including the agenda of something you need, and just let go of all of it. And simply rest in the presence. From that point on, the Spirit guides the conversation. So what I do is spend the next several minutes intentionally letting my mind wander, letting it go wherever it will. And letting go of the agenda I just identified before I got into the space. And let God change the conversation on me. And if nothing changes, then I figure God wants to talk about the same thing I want to talk about. And I start to kind of let that kind of twist and turn, and end by giving thanks. That's just kind of a basic bread and butter. I change a lot of those facets, but the key in this is those four vows.
Aryae: That's beautiful, Eric. Thank you so much for sharing that. I'm just taking that in. Thank you. So thank you for this last 45 minutes of our conversation. Right now since we're at the top of the hour, I'm going to turn it over to Preeta who will take it from here.
Rev Eric: Yeah, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Preeta: Yeah, thank you so much. Aryae, thanks for a beautiful moderation. And Reverend, wow, I'm still taking in your four vows. What a beautiful practice and what a beautiful articulation of that practice. I have a couple questions which I will begin with as host prerogative, but I also want to invite callers and those participating on the web stream to dial in their questions or write them in on the web form. If you're live on call you can hit star six and enter our queue to ask your question and you can also email us at ask@servicespace.org and you can also submit a question or a comment or a reflection on the web form if you're listening via live web stream.
So with that I wanted to, as I mentioned, take host prerogative and ask, I'm fascinated by so much of what you're doing and want to try and like file it down. One question I have is, increasingly there's reports that maybe forty to fifty percent of the population identifies themselves as spiritual but not religious. And I'm curious how that plays into your thinking and especially about organized religion. There's a view that -- I mean what you're doing is beautiful, taking these different faiths, finding commonality, loving the neighbor, bringing a sense of separation, in some sense, to it, a sense of greater wholeness. There's increasingly, I think a lot of people, especially millennials, who see themselves as in a greater place of wholeness and not wanting to identify with any particular religious tradition, and I wonder what you think of that and how that plays into how you're thinking about the Tri-Faith?
Rev. Eric: Yeah. Sure. Yeah, good question. Well, first of all, there's of course a lot of hand-wringing in religious circles about how many people are not committing to their particular tradition. And to some extent I can identify with that, but not from the sense of all those bad people out there, but rather, I really am a big believer in growing the roots deep into. I don't care whether you are Christian or not, but grow your roots deep into one of these traditions that have been around for thousands of years and then in order to spread your branches very wide. And so I'm a big believer in kind of trying to dig deeply rather than kind of scan the surface of things and putting these together.
Now that having been said, I think there's a lot of people who are in that "none" category. First of all, I can relate to very deeply, and there's times where I've forgotten about my own faith tradition and sometimes I thought, well gosh if I weren't a minister, would I be a Christian at all? Now, I've always answered that eventually yes, I would be, but it's not such a clear-cut thing anymore.
And I think that one of the reasons why there's so many "nones" out there is because of something good that is happening in the world not because something bad is happening in the world. It's not just simply a sign of the social breakdown of Western Civilization or the world or what have you and the times. It's actually I think it's because of something that, the Spiritual Awakening that has been going on gradually for the better part of a hundred or more years, actually more and more, that is causing quite a profound shift of Consciousness.
In fact, I'm profoundly influenced by Phyllis Tickle (http://www.phyllistickle.com/) who was a sociologists of religion, who wrote this marvelous book called "The Great Emergence" several years ago, who really looks and sees that in Western monotheistic faith, and she's not trying to speak outside of that circle, that you can see a pattern that goes about every 500 years where you have this amazing awakening that happens and that is followed by this - it just kind of turns the tables on their heads and causes then a lot of mayhem, and a lot of sorting out about what is real and where do you find authority and who gets to claim that and how then shall we live?
So what I look at 500 years ago, first of all, you look at the great Renaissance in the West and in the flowering of Science and Arts and Philosophy and so forth. We kind of tend to over glorify that time-period thinking that everybody must have just been dancing around saying, "Glory to thee, we live in the Renaissance". But if you read the history, like people were freaking out in the Renaissance. They were so afraid because everything they knew and thought they knew and stood the test of time was utterly crumbling in their midst. Not just in science, but even like the center of culture, which had been in the the rural landscape under feudal lords was now shifting to the cities and serfs. And you had, for the first time in human history, money issued by National Banks. Yet the National Banks were crumbling because the governments behind them were crumbling.
You had all this stress during the Renaissance and that to me characterizes all of the last century in our world. I mean, for instance the level of change that took place in the last century in the world. I mean the first patent on record in the New York City patent office, in 1900, was for a paper clip. And we ended the century cloning sheep. I mean that change is unparalleled. What we just went through in the last century is the greatest Renaissance that human beings have probably ever experienced in our history of being human. If we had our eyes open. But we didn't experience that as ‘light and life and glory be.’ We experienced that as stress.
Well, so where are we now? I look at what happened after the Renaissance. Once the tables have been turned on their heads through all this good stuff coming into the world, everything broke down and you had this huge renegotiation take place about what is real, who has power, who has authority? Which we look back to call the ‘Reformation’, when the church split into two different streams - Protestants which meant protests, protesters, and traditional stream Catholicism. So that was the result of this huge kind of renegotiation of what's real and who has authority. That's where we are now.
The great shift, tectonic shift in Consciousness has caused traditional structures to crumble and fall apart in many many ways. And so you have this giant garage sale going on, you have a lot of people looking at -- “Do I need this anymore? Well, no let's put that out in the yard. Oh this. No, let's keep that.” And doing that kind of thing. You have this giant garage sale going on. Those traditional structures that have not acknowledged the level of change and responded to the shift of Consciousness are crumbling and the people are leaving, you know, who are no longer finding a residence with those traditional structures.
Preeta: Yeah, great. I have a couple of callers I want to get to, but just right before we do... I'm really fascinated by what you were talking about the Bobs in the world, I think that is how you defined it, especially people in rural areas that might be craving a greater sense of connectedness to neighbor and unity, but you said because their economic and social structures are so tied to their faith structures, sometimes they have trouble articulating that. And I'm wondering, you're in the center of the country, a very conservative place in some ways, how is the Tri-Faith initiative or is the Tri-Faith initiative going to connect to those rural areas and to those people who are potentially seeking a greater expression?
Rev. Eric: Yeah, good question. We're still working that out, and probably will be working it out for some time to come. I can't tell you for certain how that's going to be, but what I can say is that after having many conversations with people in the rural areas, that there's quite a degree of excitement out there. Again, it's kind of like with all those other issues, a lot of great excitement, but not necessarily people standing up on Sunday morning saying, let me tell you about this wonderful thing.
But I think that the Tri-Faith initiative is really the response, is really kind of a concrete manifestation of a deep spiritual shift that's going on right now. That's part of this whole Renaissance Reformation thing, part of the good that's coming into the world, this spiritual insight that we are... what I characterize the good that's coming to the world is about all these convergences. People who have been on the opposite side of things, who have had trouble with their own traditions finding a greater unity with each other.
And this has happened not just between the faith. But we've had convergence of faith and gender issues. Convergence of faith and science. Convergence of faith and sexual orientation expression. All these different ways that we used to find ourselves divided, we are finding common ground now. So the Tri-Faith initiative is just simply a little speck on a sea of change going on right now.
So we could point to the Tri-Faith and say what did you do and how was it received? That's really more like what is the Spirit doing in the world and here's one little map of a station that is out there. And so there's a whole lot of people relating to the very same things that we're relating in the Tri-Faith initiative, but they're just simply, they haven't formed the Tri-Faith initiative yet. Or they're doing other interfaith work or they're doing other work with heterosexuals and bisexual, transgender, and gay people -- things like that. They're crossing lines in their own ways and finding a common spirit.
Preeta: Okay. Wonderful. I'm going to turn to one of our live callers right now.
Caller 1: Eric, thank you very much for your participation. I may ask you questions later on, as I'm going to have your contact, but right now I have two (I have so many questions there's not enough time to do it), but just two questions. Question number one - the Abrahamic religions, do they have the same God or not? The other thing is that you mentioned that you're going deep into your own religion, which is going through Bible and through Jesus to get to the truth. Then, if let's say a Muslim religion, they go through the same deep religious travel, let's say somebody who is Muslim in your interfaith community that you live together, from Muslim, they become Christian. And then one day, they want to go back to the Muslim section of that interfaith. How do you resolve that issue within your interfaith?
Rev Eric: Those are excellent questions. Thank you. First of all, I definitely believe that these three Abrahamic faiths worship the same God. They come from a common root. I can articulate this in a couple of ways, perhaps the easiest one is we're kind of like three children of the same parents. And each child wants to see themselves as the parents favorite. The apple of the parents eye. We may fight with one another, I'm the one, no I'm the one. But if we actually shut up and start listening to each other and asking well, what's your experience with the parent? We actually learned, oh my gosh, the parents seem to love you too. And not only that but the more I listen to you, the more I'm learning things about my parents that I didn't know. So it actually deepens our experience of that parent.
In a more mystical way, this analogy will break down faster therefore, but I could also characterize this as three people all fall in love with the same lover. We of course think that "well, no, she's mine and I am hers" or what have you. Perhaps her nature is so much more deep than ours that she can have an integral relationship with the three of us. But we can't. We fundamentally don't understand it. So we fight - no, I'm the only one. But then again when we listen to each other, we realize, oh my gosh, this person also has this deep relationship and so forth. We feel fundamentally uncomfortable because we're not capable of that kind of relationship, but we trust that she is, and we learn more deeply about our beloved that way.
So when it comes to people who might convert, well, first of all, on the Tri-Faith commons, one of our primary principles is that there is no proselytization. That is each faith will not try to convert people to the other person's faith. So we've created a zone of safety. So we don't have to worry about that. Now having said that we all recognize that more we fall in love with each other, we literally might fall in love with each other, we might have a Christian that a Muslim might fall in love with, and want to get married for instance, or one might convert to the others faith. And that's okay. We all three have different ways of doing, kind of conceiving the okayness of that.
I just talked to the Imam the other day, because that subject actually came up. What happens if a Christian or a Jew wants to marry a Muslim and the Imam said that's perfectly fine with me as long as they acknowledge the spiritual significance of Muhammad, they acknowledge that he was a legitimate spiritual figure, that's perfectly fine with him. To me it's love wins, no matter what. I would say even if somebody did not recognize the spiritual significance of Jesus, that there is true love there. Love in the Christian scriptures say that Love is God, that if you are connected with love, you are connected with God. So if there is authentic love between people -- that's our grounded source of being and so I would bless that union.
Preeta: That's fabulous. Thank you. We have a caller. We have a question from Wendy.
Wendy: Thank you so much Reverend Elnes for all you're doing in this world and with the different faiths and you're searching. I have a question of when you bring your three communities together and in sharing a Sacred Space and it's kind of a natural that there will be social action to do together and music. But I'm also wondering if different communities will go to each other services or will you have combined services?
So how do you share some of your spiritual practices in order to both grow and learn about other practices but also go deeper in your own. For example, we were at a service with our teacher Rev Almond and Ibrahim Sufi Sheik. We were doing both Jewish chanting and prayers as well as doing Zikr together, with that opening. And I'm just wondering if you have plans for any of these experiencing each other spiritual traditions as well?
Rev Eric: That's a great, great question. Yes, as we've grown closer together, there's been more and more interest from the congregations about not only what justice work we can do together, which we are. And what common ground we share in our faith and also where we can negotiate differences but also in the spiritual practices of the other.
We are finding each other in each other’s services more. Members who are going, in fact there were a lot of us who just attended a couple of services at a couple of synagogues, from my church recently, after that horrible shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. There was a call by the Jewish Community to stand with, for other people of other faiths, to stand with members of the Jewish Community by attending a Shabbat service. Everywhere I looked, there was somebody from Countryside Church in the synagogue I had attended that Friday.
As we go along I think we're going to be learning our way into this. We have had like prayer retreats together, with three different leaders from the three faiths, learning and engaging in each other’s spiritual practices. I think it's going to grow more and more in terms of people discovering, kind of being influenced by the other faiths.
For instance this third worship service we've created, that hopefully will be a weekly service once we get to the commons. We were deeply influenced by Jewish worship and learning the musicality of it and the way liturgy runs from start to finish and is largely sung. And so this service has liturgy from start to finish that is largely sung. It's actually chanted and sung behind us by others. It's not done by the whole congregation, but sung by others. But that was part of the influence of our growing attachment to the Jewish community. And if you look up front in the sanctuary, there are 99 candles lit. That's under the influence of the Islamic concept of the 99 beautiful names of God and growing study of those 99 names and the vitality that comes from studying those.
Also we've been more and more influenced by the daily practice of the Islamic Salah prayer five times a day and asking ourselves how can we take this weekly service and turn that into daily practices that our parishioners might practice. It may not be the five times a day Salah prayer, but how do we actually get our congregation involved more in daily spiritual practices, that take place throughout the day? I think as time goes on, as we start doing more and more things like that, we will discover new opportunities to come together in worship.
There may even be, a truly Interfaith service, at some point. I don't know but what we're very intentional about is -- we're not talking about merging the faiths into some kind of conglomerate Tri-Faith religion. We want our partners to be full-blooded, Christians, Jews and Muslims. There's actually value in our being distinct from one another, as well as being similar to one another. I think each brings gifts to the table that are distinctive to them. They're not unique to them, like you can find these gifts in the other two, but each one kind of leans in a certain direction. And so each lean kind of serves as a corrective for the way that the other faith can lead in problematic directions.
So for instance, in Christianity one of the ways that we lean quite strongly is on this whole Grace thing, that's a core piece of our tradition and a whole lot of our theology is about Grace. Well, Grace is definitely not unknown to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christianity just makes a lot of that but the downside is related to the good side. If you emphasize so much Grace, like God loves you no matter what and so forth, sometimes Christianity can veer towards Libertarianism. Like hey, it's all good. I could do whatever the heck I want and God will always love me, and affirm me, and think I'm the greatest person who ever lived or whatever. That's not Godly.
Islam, the way it leans is, in the whole submission to God realizing that you are not truly free unless you're submitted to God. So they remind Christians when we kind of get more liberty and like anything goes and God will still love me -- Well, there is a freedom but it comes through that submission. Things like that. Each faith has its own distinctive gifts that help the others become truer practitioners of their own faiths.
Wendy: Thank you. What an exciting experiment that you're doing and I hope that we all learn how this all turns out.
Rev Eric: Thank you. Me too!
Preeta: Thank you, Wendy. On that note, I'm curious Reverend a lot of what you talk about is not different in some ways from the orientation of the Baha'i community. I know there's an active Baha'i community in Omaha and obviously Hindu, Buddhist and other communities. Is there openness on the part of the Tri-Faith initiative to programming from time to time with those groups as well?
Rev. Eric: Definitely. Yeah, when one gets in a setting like this where one faith has acknowledged an openness to look at the legitimacy of another faith is -- any of us who do that, our tendency is to want to then radically expand that, because we realize well, it's not just us that have this common ground. That there's other faiths alongside us. We also recognize that just coming together in a very deep way as Christians, Jews and Muslims, we’ve got a lot of work to do.
And so to work out our own issues in that -- you try to deal with influences, how do you deal with Israel-Palestine, that whole squabble? Also take on, like, what do we do with Hinduism and Buddhism? There's a lot of complicated questions that if you really want to go into a deep dive, you have to kind of draw a circle there. But we make sure that circle is not entirely closed and so we are already, we’ve been intentionally interacting with those outside the community of those three faiths. And in fact, just recently we picked up the ownership of the Interfaith Journal which is the largest subscription-based journal, I think, at least in the country. And that is a journal that is absolutely about exploring the world's great faith traditions, it's not just simply the Abrahamic faiths. We are trying to remain as open as possible without losing our focus on what we're called to do as well.
Preeta: Yeah, that's beautiful. And I think we're near the end of our time. So I just want to ask a final couple of questions. One is how has this participation -- ServiceSpace is very much about change yourself change the world, the Gandhian process of the intersection between the two -- I'm curious how has this experience of interacting with these other communities and through the Tri-Faith initiative, how has that affected or transformed you?
Rev. Eric: Oh boy, in so many ways. Yeah. I thought I came with an inherent appreciation of these other two faiths and what I find is that -- yes, I did, but it just keeps going deeper and more appreciative. I find myself more and more interested in those daily spiritual practices like the Muslims with five times a day Salah prayer which is really the core of their practice. It's not the weekly worship that's the core, it is the five times a day of prayer. And so I have a Fitbit now that five times a day reminds me, "Hey, remember God". It's not timed to the Salah prayer, but my own timing. But I do that.
I was also influenced by their practice of Ramadan and in fact, last year, I participated in Ramadan but in my own way. I mean Muslims will not likely count the way I practiced it as officially Ramadan practice. But I radically altered my eating practices during Ramadan to not only be aware that my brothers and sisters were fasting during the day, but also to experiment with my own as an extension of my own spiritual practices when it comes to the food I put into my body.
And Judaism has long been an influence on me ever since I fell in love with the Hebrew scriptures in seminary, but I'm continually just amazed at the degree to which the liturgy matters to them. It points them to Spirit. And I've been pretty much almost anti-liturgical throughout most of my 25 years of ministry, wanting to blow up liturgy in the Christian church, and radically open it out. Finally with this third service that we're creating, it's highly liturgical. And the Jewish communities helped me rediscover the ways in which liturgy can be life-bearing, not simply death-dealing. So I'm starting to experiment more and more with liturgy.
Preeta: That's fantastic. So final question, and we ask this to all of our guests. How can we as a global ecosystem of hundreds of thousands throughout the world, how can we support your work and shine a light on what's happening?
Rev. Eric: Hmm. Well that's a great question and thank you for asking it. Yeah, I think the best way to support our work is to continue doing the great interfaith work, deepen it in their own locations, however they are doing it. We hope that one day we will not be the only one in the world that's doing this the way we're doing in terms of intentionally co-locating communities like this. We're hoping there'll be hundreds of Tri-Faith initiatives and nobody will be paying attention to us because like well, that's ho-hum.
But one way to just kind of concretely, with regard to the Tri-Faith initiative, is simply to connect with the Tri-Faith initiative, at trifaith.org and actually membership in the Tri-Faith is open to all people and that gives you our newsletter and keeps you current on current events. We do definitely plan on doing internet-streaming, both video and audio podcasting. And so you'll be apprised of those kind of things that are happening too, once we're all kind of all together on that campus. There should be a lot of materials that people could access and also they can contribute materials to us.
One of the things that we've been involved with from the Christian side is working with San Francisco Theological Seminary on creating a massive web hub for the 12 principles behind the Phoenix Affirmations called thisweaffirm.org and so that is meant to be a crowdsourcing situation where people can upload materials. They don't have to be Christian, just have some resonance with any one of those 12 affirmations. And so that's a way people can directly contribute the wonderful things they're doing in a way that will help others, at thisweaffirm.org.
Preeta: That's fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Reverend. There's so much beauty in what you're saying. I'm really really taken by many things, especially your 4 vows, that part of your personal practice - the kind of metaphoric bowing of the head before you enter, the bowing at the waist, the kind of hands and knees and then the deep prostration, such a beautiful practice. I'm also really taken by the way in which you talked about the mountain-top and the way the two sides of the mountain and the kind of radical engagement and pursuit of radical disengagement as possible ways of looking at the Eastern versus Western traditions, and how they're reaching for the same spot. So we're incredibly grateful for you, incredible grateful for your wisdom, for your heart, and for your actions to bring about a more compassionate society.
Rev. Eric: Yeah. Thank you. It's a pleasure.
Preeta: And Aryae thank you for your beautiful moderation.
Rev. Eric: Thank you Preeta and thank you for your work in the world too. It's really inspiring to see just how many people are connecting over such beautiful values and actually trying to implement them in the world, really appreciate your work.
Preeta: Thank you. So with that if we could just hold a half minute of silence to internally express our gratitude for all the wisdom we received, that would be great.
Thank you very much and happy holidays to all. Goodbye!

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