Honor, integrity and wisdom…
Those three words would best sum up for me the qualities that best describe you, and make you who you are.
I have had the honor and pleasure of hearing you speak several times. The last time was this past summer in the lovely chapel at Lebanon Valley College. That was also the first place I ever heard you speak many years ago. There were three lectures in July, two on Sunday and one on Monday evening. I was so fortunate to be able to ask a question of you at each lecture. Intellectually, I was as amazed as ever at your seemingly unbounded knowledge of all things biblical, historical and spiritual. Emotionally however, I was in for a huge surprise. As I made my way to my car in a drenching downpour, after having you sign two of your books I had just purchased, and shaking your hand goodbye, I started to cry. I had been taking notes fast and furiously as you spoke on your lectures of the Gospel of John, wanting to remember everything you had said. As I was writing, I remember this wave of emotion washing over me, and I can only describe that as finally understanding through your words that night what is meant by the love of God. How boundless and and unconditional that truly is. Through your words and your emotion, I believe I finally felt the love of Christ. And this quest of mine for answers that I have been seeking for so many years finally became more than a curiosity. It became life. It explained love. It all suddenly became real. Love wastefully at last had real meaning. And I cried almost all the way home, never exactly knowing the reason why.
Before I said goodbye to you, I said I would just have to write you a letter to try and explain the impact you have had on my life. This is that letter. I was inspired to write it at last by reading for the second time your response to Gavin in Las Vegas, the ignorant bigot that you so beautifully dressed down and put in his place. It was without a doubt the best ESAD letter I have ever read in my entire life, and I have been known to pen a few of those myself. But none of mine have ever been done so eloquently, or with such an impressive list of credentials to back up my position. I read it the first time on my iPhone at work, and was laughing out loud so hard I had to stop and put it away until I returned home. I can only say two things in response to that letter. The first, Bravo!! The second, he is probably too ignorant to understand the beautiful barbs you impaled him with. My biggest puzzlement is how could such a cretin find anything meaningful in your teachings? He certainly came off like a perfect tea party fundamentalist.
Well, back to my letter. After I returned home that night, I called my good friend in Wisconsin, who actually met you years ago. When I told her of my mysterious and endless tears during my drive back, she told me I had experienced a “God moment”.
Years ago she was a Catholic Youth Minister, and she is the one responsible for my first journey from being an agnostic to a tentative believer. Some truly miraculous things happened during our friendship, which set me on this journey. It was sometime after that I found your books. How special, since I too hale from Charlotte, North Carolina. For the first time, my eyes were opened to the fact that one can be both a believer in God and not be forced to check their brain at the door in order to do so. Even my fundamentalist ex husband, who also heard you speak at Lebanon Valley all those years ago, said after your lecture he felt”showered by intellect”. Too bad some of that intellect could not rub off on him. Hence the “ex” in husband.
In you Bishop Spong and your teachings, I see hope for the world of spirituality and Christianity, which has become somewhat of a dirty word for many, as it had for me some years ago. It still is, for a Christianity “practiced” by someone like Gavin from Las Vegas. There is another pastor here in Pennsylvania that I admire, who does not like to call himself a Christian for just that reason; that the word has become rife with bad connotations. He prefers to call himself a true follower of Jesus. I have come to see that there can be a vast difference in the two.
I have such hope that some of your young students at Harvard will be the new voices to carry on your work, and the work of others like Paul Tillich and Karen Armstrong. It would thrill me to find a group of people to meet with who are of like minds and hearts, and are open to new ideas and new ways of exploring the vast mystery of this eternal and limitless love. In A New Christianity For A New World, you summed it up so perfectly when you said God is Love. Love is God. Such a simple statement with such a profound meaning when one stops for a moment to grasp what that truly means. All I have to do is imagine trying to describe love to one who has never experienced it. How then would you describe God? I do believe the Ground of all Being comes the closest.
My paternal grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. My faith at this point would come the closest to the beliefs of the Native Americans. That God is in and has created all things. And all of those things are good. Gay/straight. Black/white/green or red. All have been created by God. Yes, there is evil in the world, but so much of that is of our own doing. Where there is black there is white. Where there is Yin there is Yang. There is a balance to the universe, and Love can tip the scales in one direction or the other.
I certainly do not have any of your historical knowledge of the Jewish traditions, teachings, or customs. I realize the Bible is steeped in those traditions, and most especially the teachings of Jesus and his disciples. But my feelings and my rebuttal to the fundamentalists regarding Jesus’ statement “I am the way, the truth and the life. The only way to the father is through me”, as proof that anyone will burn in hell unless they accept Jesus as their ultimate sin remover is this. That statement for me is Christ telling us to emulate the way he has lived as the true path to God. With love, honor, and humility. His way IS the truth. His way IS the way to live life. All we have to do is follow his example, and that will bring us into the love of God. It has nothing to do with forgiving our sins or some barbaric ritual of being washed in blood. It has nothing to do with being Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or Agnostic. Those words to me now have a totally different meaning, and for the first time in my life they are all inclusive, rather than being exclusive. What a wonderful beautiful difference. Whereas my interpretation may be painfully simplistic, it has been for me your teachings that have allowed me to open both my mind and my heart to new meanings. You have for me been both my mentor and my hero, and I wish nothing more fervently than I had hours to sit at your feet and discuss all of these things for hours on end. Well, your books will just have to do.
And with that, I will conclude my “love letter” to the one who most perfectly explained what real Love is. I cannot thank you enough for your love, your guidance, your wisdom and your tireless energy to bring these marvels to such as me. I am enjoying immensely the subscription to your newsletters, and read each one eagerly and very often share one or more with friends. Thank you Bishop John Shelby Spong for all that you are and all that you do in the name of this great and good God and this Love. I am forever a changed person because of that, and you.
With profound humility and gratitude, your student,