All my life, I have had people I have looked up to and wanted to emulate. They all have the same characteristics. They are authentic, real in every sense of that word. They talk the talk and walk the walk.
One of my current heroes is eighty-six years old, still here but unfortunately challenged by some health issues. He is my idea of a real PC (Progressive Christian) Follower. As a youth, John Spong was an excellent student and still is, always wanting to learn more. His early youth was marred by his alcoholic father, who died when John was twelve. He was not deterred by hardship— he went to college and seminary, was ordained, and took his first job as an Episcopal priest. He must have been good at “priesting” because he rapidly climbed the ecclesiastical ladder. In 1979, he was elected Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, an area with almost every social problem known to humankind. In his young life, he had learned how to face adversity and to resolve all kinds of issues, especially ones that the institutional church often ignores.
In the Episcopal Church, he ordained the first openly gay priest in 1987. He supported lesbian and gay priests being married and open about who they were. He was involved in the consecration for the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay and married bishop. He paid a very high price for taking such brave stances. He had to have a bodyguard because he had been threatened with bodily harm, even in the House of Bishops. Yes, you read that correctly!
He actively worked for the ordination of women, who for centuries had been treated as second-class citizens in the church. In 1999, he was selected as The Humanist of The Year, but from my vantage point, he should have been given that title many years before and after.
He has written twenty-nine books, most of which I have read and all of which are very controversial, or, as I’d rather say, excellent food for thought. He was never afraid to go after the fundamentalists and their disregard for women, their abuse of the LGBTQI community, their misuse of the Bible, and their ill-conceived “causes.” He has been a great mentor who has led by example.
He has a handle on how the future Christian Church ought to look. He has lectured all over the world and is always welcomed by those eager to grow in the faith. Unfortunately, he is also not welcomed by fundamentalists, those who love to live in the theology of the fourth century, and those who foster bigotry.
In his adult years, he has had to face challenges. His first wife was very sick for fifteen years and died of cancer in 1979. At his wife’s funeral, he was sitting in the front pew waiting for the service to begin. A little old lady, who obviously wasn’t a fan, came up behind him and smashed her umbrella over his head. The service had to be postponed until the medics could clean up all the blood and stitch up his head.
His second wife is his soulmate, a wonderful woman whose gifts complement his own. They make a great team! He has four daughters, all of whom have put cracks in that glass ceiling of male-dominated society.
I could go on and on about this courageous man who has turned the world into a better place because he has never been afraid to stand up and be counted— just like his Christ. That would turn into a book, a rather long one. I simply want to briefly share the life of John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop who has set a very high standard for me and so many others on how to be a true Follower of the Way.
Do you have a superhero who gives you as much inspiration as mine and helps you to lead life to the fullest? I hope so! Don’t forget to honor that person while you can.