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A Christmas Letter to my Community of Readers

Dear Friends:

As the calendar in the year 2014 dictates this column should arrive at your email address at about 2:00 o’clock A.M. Eastern Standard Time on December 25th. I have a fantasy that all of my east coast readers in the United States set their alarms for 2:00 A.M. each week so that they can receive this column hot off the press! It is possible on this day, perhaps, that some people will attend midnight services on Christmas Eve and then go to an after-church egg nog gathering in someone’s home. Thus, when they finally get home they might actually check their e-mails before going to sleep and will find this column. So fantasy might become reality for perhaps one tenth of one percent of my readers on this one day that will occur about once in a decade when Christmas actually comes on Thursday, our publication date.

Regardless of when this e-mail is opened, I want to express my gratitude to you for being part of this effort. The idea that we could put online a serious adult Bible study and contemporary issue subscription service that would attempt to breach the gap between the Christian academy and the Christian pew and to help us all learn how to think theologically in a new way, was once nothing more than a dream. Each of you has helped to turn that dream into a reality.

2014 has been a good year for this column and for its parent ProgressiveChristianity.org. This column has grown every year since its beginning, now almost fifteen years ago. Today we have readers in many of the countries of the world. I am no longer surprised to get a response or to receive a question from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Russia, Poland, Italy, Thailand or Cambodia. Our regular subscription base keeps our enterprise in the black and we are pleased that all of the profits after expenses, go to the work of ProgressiveChristianity.org. There have been some issues of this column that have been opened as many as 100,000 times in the week of publication. Occasionally a column will go “viral” and be opened, passed on, re-published in other media (with permission of course) and be circulated on large mailing lists, and thus will be read more than a million times. The “champion” in this category was entitled “My Manifesto.” If you would like to read it again, click here or search online. You can read both of its impact and the controversy it engendered.

I have on occasion asked my readers to send a letter or an email to the subject of a column. I recall one column entitled Phyllis’ Garden. It was a human interest story about an eighty year old woman, who left school at age twelve to enter domestic service in England. She lived in government subsidized housing for the elderly poor in the village of Stoneleigh, near Coventry, England. She had cultivated a piece of land no larger than 18 inches by 36 inches that lay beneath the street sign announcing “Greene Street” that was literally outside her door. Her flowers grew over the months of the spring and summer, each blooming in its time. This was her simple, but effective, contribution to the beautification of the world. In a column I told her story and asked my readers to send her a letter by mail (she had no access to a computer) to thank her for the gift she had given the world. Some 600 of you responded and suddenly this elderly woman began to receive more mail each day than all of the other people in her village put together. Some days as many as sixty letters arrived. Her postman, baffled by this sudden upsurge, even asked if she was dealing in drugs!! She became the talk of her village and a local newspaper story appeared about Phyllis’ Garden. Christine and I saw her several times after that before she died and each time she would bring out and show us the large box containing all her letters from all over the world. This became maybe “the” major moment in her life. Sometimes it takes so little to transform a person’s day.

I am frequently amused when I get a letter from a reader that says: “Would you have someone on your staff look up this for me?” I smile because my “staff” is my wonderful wife and me! I do hire a secretary on an hourly basis to type my handwritten column each week as well as the question and answer feature, so that Christine and I can edit it, fact check it and get it to our publisher in Seattle. This typist’s name is Rosemary Halstead and she is the part-time secretary at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Morris Plains, New Jersey. That is the absolute limit of “my staff.” That is why I cannot respond personally to the enormous volume of mail that this column engenders. I do read it all myself, however. I pick out the one that I will attempt to answer in the column and I do try to respond personally to four or five a week. Today I have a backlog of over 5000 questions from readers and that category grows every week. Since I can publish only one a week or 52 a year, the possibility that I will ever catch up is nothing but another of my fantasies.

For some people this column is their only ecclesiastical community. They might be a single person or a lone family living in places like the Pan Handle of Texas, rural Mississippi or in the low country of South Carolina, who find themselves to be the only non-fundamentalist in a wide area. They do not dislike their neighbors, but they cannot identify with the kind of Christianity they encounter in those places. They write to tell me that this column keeps them religiously sane. They are made to feel like atheists in their own communities when they are in fact nothing but thinking Christians.

I try to share with my readers through this column those individual congregations that are open and transformative places of worship. I want the whole world to know about places like the Congregational Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina (and its Ashley lectureship), the Spiritual Life Community in Lake Oswego, Oregon, the Unity Church that worships in Symphony Space at 95th and Broadway in New York City, the United Church of Christ in Greeley, Colorado, the Disciples of Christ Church in Amarillo, Texas, another UCC congregation in Brookfield, Wisconsin and many, many others. The live in and offer an oasis of hope deep in the religious heartland of America. Their clergy or pastors are heroes to me, standing as they do on the front lines, battling both biblical ignorance and deep cultural prejudices based on that biblical ignorance. They stand tall against racism, those forces that want to define women as sub-human and those who treat gay and lesbian people as if they are either mentally sick or morally depraved. I love the chance I have to tell their stories to the whole world. One serendipity of writing this column that I never anticipated is the number of churches that use this column as the material for their adult education program each Sunday. I get reports of rousing discussions and deep engagement.

I have now been writing this column for 15 years now. I have committed myself to continue to do so, God willing, through the end of 2016 at the earliest. I could possibly go beyond that if I continue to be blessed with good health and the lack of senility. Time will tell.

The silent community of my readers and those with whom my readers share this column sustains my life in so many ways. I am grateful for you and to you.

So on this Christmas day I send my wishes that you will find the sacred in the midst of the secular, the holy in the midst of the mundane and God in the presence of human love for that is what both Christianity and individual Christians call the “Incarnation.”

Fear not. God is.

Because I believe that this is so, the call of Christ to us this Christmas season and our mission as God’s church is not to make people more religious, but to free them to live more fully, to love more wastefully and to find the courage to dare to be the deepest fullest self that they can be. That is the vision that caused our ancestors in faith to postulate that on the night when Jesus was born a star shone in the East and angelic choruses’ sang to hillside shepherds more than 2000 years ago.

John Shelby Spong

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