Melissa: Welcome to For People with Bishop Rob Wright. I’m your host, Melissa Rao. This is conversation inspired by Bishop Wright’s For Faith Weekly Devotion sent out every Friday. In this episode we’re celebrating our centennial episode. This will be our 100th episode. And we are celebrating over 2-parts, this part and next part. Today, we are going to be listing to a number of more popular and really provocative guests. Bishop Wright and I are going to unpack them a little bit for you. And then next week, our friend, Reverend Winston Arthur from the Diocese of Atlanta, myself, and producer Easton Davis are going to be listening to some of Bishop Wright’s more fiery quotes. So, we are really hopeful that you will take a listen and be inspired to share this with your friends, people who need to hear it.
Bishop, before we start and listen to our first soundbite, I’m wondering if you can share just a little bit about how you think we’ve gotten here with For People?
Rob: Happy anniversary we have to say, first and foremost. Happy anniversary, 100 episodes, no small thing. How we got here? What we believe is that when COVID hit and people sort of stopped reaching out and were encouraged to stay home, away from congregations and lots of public spaces. There was fear everywhere. We said, “Now is the perfect time to find a way to reach out.” We had always talked about doing a podcast, but it never made its way to the top of our list. We always had lots of other things to get done. But Easton Davis and I really just said, “Now is the time. Now is the time to reach out and find a way.” We had listened to podcasts personally, neither of us really knew what it meant to establish a podcast and get it done. This podcast represents iterative learning. We decided to try and we believe giving your best and that’s what God wants from us. He wants us to give our very best. And to be kind of ourselves as we iterate and learn how to do things. We got the word out and people seem to list it. And so, we are here.
And we began to invite people to join us, talk about the intersection of leadership and faith. And nobody told us no. They kept saying yes. New York Times best-selling authors, presiding Bishops, Governors of the State of Georgia, the Head of the Supreme Court in Georgia, State Senators, they kept saying yes. Professors, practitioners, clergy people, laypeople. So, we built up a little bit of momentum. And we hope that it’s become a space for people, as a drive, walking the dog, whatever they are doing, they can just overhear a conversation that has heart to encourage people to live faithfully and make a difference in the world.
Melissa: Well, I mean it has reached a lot of people. And I’m wondering if our producer Easton Davis might have some stats for us to celebrate.
Easton: You all normally just hear my voice when it says, Welcome to 4 People with Bishop Rob Wright. That’s great, that’s perfect.
I’ll start with this, the first episode we dropped, I remember about noon that day Bishop Wright, we jumped on a quick call. He’s like, “How are we looking,” on day one? I’m like, “I don’t know. We’ve got 350-downloads. That sounds okay I feel like for our first go at this.” So here we are two years later and we have over 120,000-downloads. We average 11,000-listens an episode. We’ve been in 102-countries and over 4,000-cities. In the last five episodes, which is a really good indicator of what your listenership is, we’ve had close to 7,000-downloads in 15-countries and 600-cities. We are really reaching.
And that’s also in the comments that we get. I’ve been at lunch with Bishop Wright just in Marietta, you know, chopping some stuff up, and a couple came up to us and said, “You are Bishop Wright?” He said, “Yes, I am.” “I listen to your podcast every week.” That’s the first thing that she said. It has been a path for people I feel like especially during these harder times. It’s been, certainly even for me, a spiritual practice that I know every Friday morning I’m going to be in my gym and I’m going to put on 4 People. I’m going to have some time to reflect.
Rob: We have been surprised, pleasantly surprised, right? So, the Holy Spirit can use a good try. On several occasions, out of the blue, people have said, “You know, I listen. I’m a regular listener.” Whether it’s in South Georgia, where I have been, or in other places, or even in other states that I’ve been, people are like, “I’m listening. I like this episode. I like when you said this. I used that in a sermon that I wrote.”
Easton: You got a letter from Texas, handwritten letter.
Rob: I got a handwritten letter from Texas, this lady was saying, “Hey, I don’t know anything about Episcopal, I don’t know anything about Diocese, I don’t know much about Bishop, but I can tell you that you’ve encouraged me through some difficult days.” That’s been amazing to hear that kind of feedback. And to hear people say that they feel like the conversation that you and I are having, Melissa, is earnest, authentic, and sincere. There is laugher. We don’t shy away from hard stuff.
Part of what we are celebrating in this 100th is we are thanking God for what has been and then also sort of thinking about what do we do for the next 100-episodes? Who do we need to be talking to? Who would be great conversation partners that would be difference making for listeners?
Melissa: I love that. Well, I know that the six-guests that we are going to be highlighting today have been difference makers for me. I’m really excited to get started. Easton, can you play us our first clip by Barbara Brown Taylor?
Melissa: Holy cow, it gave me goosebumps. Bishop, what do you think about that? That people come to Church to feel good and aren’t given permission to be real?
Rob: Yeah, I mean, Barbara has done such a good job with this subject. She’s talking about something that she calls Full Solar Theology, which is, you know, a happy, clappy, everything is okay with me, I’m all good. I’m walking towards the light and all is well. What we know, if we live a little while, that is not real life. So, what Barbara has done and this comment is all about, as she reads her Bible, she sees that God does some of his best work in the dark. We can take our darkness and our dark times and dark places to God and we can trust that God will work in those places. God is present in those places. We don’t have to be afraid of those places, ashamed when we walk into houses of worship, that we are not sort of happy, clappy, and that there is joy on the tip of our tongue. What she is doing is so important. She is recovering half of Christian theology, which is, yay, do I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me, right? She’s reclaiming that. And it has to be said again because I think that naively sometimes we are lifting up only one side of life with God. And that’s like lifting up only one side of life with a spouse or one side of anything. It’s just not complete. The complete part is that we have a friend in darkness and we can trust that God is at work in darkness. Our dark times are not aberrant. They are part of life.
Melissa: Yeah, they are real.
Rob: That’s real. And if that is real life and we have a real God who works on that, why be ashamed? And account for it, create space for people.
Melissa: I love that, creating space.
Yeah, they’re real. They’re real part of life. Yeah. Well, our next guest is Diana Butler Bass. She had really, really great two-part series when you had her on. I just love listening to both. But my favorite clip is the one we are about to listen too.
You know, Bishop, one of the things that I often will say, and it’s almost aliment, I think so often in Church we’re so concerned with what people know about God and we’re not as concerned with how people feel about God. I don’t think it’s exclusive, one or the other. I think it’s both and. And I really love what she had to say about maybe the vehicle through that head and heart connection is through story.
Rob: Right. Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing that we had these two amazing authors. And through the miracle of technology, we’ve been able to bring them in the podcast and into conversation with one another. And the throughline, of course, is our real life story is what she is simply pointing us back too. Jesus told stories. There was a man who had two sons. He told stories of goats, sheep, fig trees, wooden bear, and told stories. This connected people in their real life. I think that is what we have to do. You know, one of the things we have done in western, modern civilization is that we have overintellectualize stuff. We’ve overintellectualized God and we are embarrassed about the visceral parts of what faith is.
Faith is pulling down the God story into my story. Pulling down the God story into how I bring up my children, how I use my money, how I connect with my neighbor, and how I use my time. So, yeah to tell the story. And the stories of when I thought there was no way I wanted to give up, I was in despair. Somehow a left turn happened or my experience of prayer in my real life, have I found it affected? When have I doubted? That makes real life. I like to say that grandmas are the best evangelists in the Church and the world.
Because what does grandma do? I love you baby and she tells you some stories and she gives you something yummy to eat, right? And as she is doing all that, she’s telling you a story, downloading to you ethics, morals, and direction. It comes from this trusted source and we use that story to attach our stories too. So, I love the way that Diana does that and that’s at the center of what Barbara is talking about.
Melissa: How can we reclaim that? I feel like, yes, you are. Because she said, the most expert storytellers make the best preachers. And yet, what you just said about grandma, we all need to lean into storytelling and the way we are integrating our faith into the way we are living and downloading that to our generations beyond us. So, what do you think about that Bishop? How can we lean into that more?
Um, how can we reclaim that how I mean I Yeah just I feel like yes, you are because what she said the most expert storytellers make the best preachers and yet what you just said about Grandma we all need to lean into storytelling and that we were.
Rob: Well, when I think about that in this thing called the Church, I think about one of the first things that has to happen is we have to commit to courage, right? Because my story is not clean and tidy. I can tell you manicured stories with happy endings, but that’s not my real life.
So, there have been stories of pain and despair. Like I’ve said, there’s been stories of joy. There are stories about things that I’m still carrying around that are unfinished. There are stories that I have that I don’t know what the answer is going to be. And so, we’ve got to find an appropriate way and courageous way to begin to tell our stories. I think that congregations are a great place to sort of begin to increase people’s capacity to do that. What if we found a way to do that? When I was a Senior Minister of a Congregation one time, we had a video project where we told stories about our lives in this congregation. And it was amazing to see how these people had come over this threshold for 30, 40, 50-years. They had buried husband, buried wives, baptized children, and been married, so on so forth. These stories were about what this place meant to them in their real lives, right? It was just transformative. We wanted toll roll out strategic plans and do all of that and develop fancy spreadsheets. And all of that’s important. But what really moved the needle on that community willing to embrace the changes that were up ahead was to go back first and tell the stories about what the place had meant to them. Somehow when we valued those stories, the people felt valued and more open to moving forward. And a deeper sense of community was built because people shared their stories. When one person was courageous to share their story, then others shared their story. Then it became a thing. Then it became what we did.
Melissa: It might be apropos for our next guest, Sheffield Hale, who we had on to talk about the monuments, national monuments. And it’s interesting, a story is always shared through the lens of the storyteller. And stories aren’t always necessarily true. They are truthy. But they are always, always told through the lens of bias. And so, I learned a lot from our next guest, Sheffield Hill. Easton, do you want to play that clip?
Melissa: Wild. I have to say, Bishop, how does that hit you today?
Rob: Oh my God, so what we have to remember, the people that don’t know Sheffield Hale, he is an executive director of the Atlanta History Center. So, literally an organization who for decades have been charged with telling the story of Atlanta, of Georgia, and of the South. So, you know, Sheffield Hale is a member of our congregations. I met him and he’s an all together cool dude. I invited him to the podcast. I knew he would bring this kind of nuance and insight to the conversation about storytelling. And at the time that we recorded the podcast with him, all the rage in the news and so on, was about moving memorials and monuments to the Confederacy, to men to note who happened to be slave holders, etc. So, Sheffield Hale, with all of his brilliance ended up helping people all around the country to begin to figure out, what do we do? In Richmond, what do we do with Monument row? What do we do with all of these statues? It was incredibly divisive and still is. I think what he does is he puts his finger right on the button, right? So, we are remembering what we want to remember. And in that case, we don’t want to remember that we were actually were secessionist and we lost.
Melissa: But wait, wait, wait, who is we?
Rob: Right, exactly.
Melissa: Right. Because he points out that 50% of the South was not for the War.
Rob: That’s right. So, some portion of men and women who lived in the South adopted a narrative called The Lost Cause, and claimed something called Southern Heritage and didn’t want to or don’t want to attach in polite society that with the horror and the brutality of American Slavery. And here is a storyteller, Sheffield Hale, who wants to remind us that we have a complicated American story. And it is more than a soundbite. That’s what I love about him. He gives this nuance. He helps us understand that while 40% of Southerners were enslaved people, another 10% who were against the secession for other reasons, and I would argue that there is another percentage of poor white folks, who were dirt farmers, scratching out a living, who weren’t slave holders at all. There was a lot of nuances in those conversations as well. So, who are we talking about? Again, it goes to the power of story.
Here you and I find ourselves in a moment in America right now, where in fact in Georgia today, the Governor banned certain books. There is a movement across the country right now to ban certain parts of our American history. We want to keep, as Sheffield is talking about, keep the mythology and bury some of the nuance which is actually true and makes it a much more nuance conversation. Same with Barbara. We want to, you know, chuck the dark and only keep the light. And in Diana, you know, we want to just take a little bit when the fullness of it all is really where life is.
Melissa: Yup, I love it. Just one more time, nostalgia, kind of like heritage is history with all the bad parts left out.
Rob: Yeah, all the bad parts removed. That’s right.
Melissa: And it’s not true. It’s not true.
Rob: Yeah. Wasn’t it Stephen Colbert who gave us that word truthy? So, there’s a truth. If we don’t have the capacity to square our shoulders and face the truth, then we will settle for truthy, right? I think that’s what is happening in America. Women are saying no more with the truthy. I think people that were formerly marginalized are saying, “No more with truthy. Here was are. Big and bold.” I think that’s what is happening.
What feels so scary about it all is that we have erected this glass house of truthy. There are people walking around with hammers. And they have decided to not take mythology. And I can sympathize on both sides because for the people, for whom the glass house has served, they feel like the whole thing is crashing. But the lie and partial truth has served them well, whereas it has diminished others.
Melissa: Well, let’s talk about something that can bring us all together. Our next guest, Gregory Ellison, had something to say about really well-crafted questions.
They walk on the surface of the soul.
Rob: Yeah. That is our dear friend, Dr. Gregory Ellison, from Canler School of Theology. You know someone who spends his life trying to increase the fearlessness in people to have dialogue. What I love about that is, in my own head, I had an amazing paradigm shift. You know, we grew up thinking that we ought to have the answers to questions. We got gold stars on our hands when we were kids. We raised our hands with enthusiasm. At least, I was that kid. I also had my hand up, you know. I got older, I’m really good at playing Jeopardy, you know. It’s about knowing lots of stuff and having fast retrieval of those facts. And then you get into real life. And you realize in the intersections of real life, we don’t have all the answers. Especially someone that tries to exert leadership. We realize, really fast, when we face things like COVID, unknowns, economic unknowns, uncertainties, you realize that the only way forward is to become a better question marker. The MIT Sloan School calls that catalytic questions. Questions that take you right down, as Greg would say, to the bedrock of the soul. And he was quoting Howard Thurman who developed 8-questions for leadership. One of those questions, what do I really want? It’s sort of a piercing question. We have to get past our own veneers, right. And get down to what I really want, really?
It’s funny that we didn’t really build a podcast in this way. But this is the contour of the conversation that we’re talking about story, the story leads to question, and questions, real good questions, not interrogations but real good, gentle, and catalytic questions can actually lead to transformation. And Jesus does this time and time and time again. Either in response to questions or as he makes questions, you know. He asks the man, one of my favorite passages, John the 5th chapter. Asked the man laying by pools of water for 38-years, what do you want? Would you be healed? I mean, these are questions that if we really let them penetrate, they can change direction. They can change marriages. They can change jobs. They can change approaches to life. They can change despair into joy.
Melissa: Yeah. You know what they also do is they crack open wonder. Is if we are more inquisitive, more wondering, then we are less judgmental. We are less about the other person. So, approaching life through the lens of question versus answer, I think, might give us the capacity for compassion. More than not, you know. I don’t know. What do you think?
Rob: Well, I mean, I think about questions and how probing questions can be, really important questions, because I know that’s going to take a season for me to really square up to those questions in my own life, having had that experience, I hope that I’m a little bit more patient with other people as I understand that they are trying to square up to important questions in their own lives, do you see what I mean?
And I think what I would also say about questions, I think Greg is right, he had a little module that he used to hold up in Emery. It wasn’t sort of a proper Church service but would invite people in, they would sit down, and there’d be little rules on the table about how we’re going to conduct ourselves in terms of speaking, questions, and a meal. A lot of time was over when you did these modules, it was amazing to me that very busy people lingered. And they almost wouldn’t go home because the questions had got something going, an energy, an authenticity that people were really enjoying. There was no homily. There was no sermon. There was no biblical teaching. It was just some really well-crafted questions that got people close to each other and I think close to the truth.
Melissa: Love it. Well, let’s listen to our next clip by Natasha Reid Rice.
Melissa: So, Bishop, I don’t know about you, but when I listened to Natasha’s story, there were so many things that came to my mind and truths that I had that I was able to put my own self in certain circumstances that I have lived. And it was just because of the power of story that Natasha was sharing that I was able to even, you know, come to my own conclusions about my own life that actually had nothing to do with Natasha. I’m wondering after your conversation with you her, along with the rest of our clips that we’ve listened to today, I’m wondering if that hit you any new way?
Rob: Well, as a general matter, I have to tell you this podcast, over these 99-episodes, and now our 100th, have been a blessing to me personally. Because they have allowed me to chat with people. They have allowed me to draw near to some people’s stories to see what is really going on in their life, to use some of their wisdom, learn some of their wisdom, how it was earned. To learn from them and I can’t tell you the ways in which these conversations have helped to shape me. I think that’s what we do in real Christian fellowship and real fellowship with on another. We are shaping each other. I’m sharing my bit of truth with you, you are sharing your bit of truth with me. Natasha Reid Rice is a Harvard trained lawyer. She was a classmate with the soon to be Supreme Court Justice Jackson. She’s a brilliant woman, lawyer, and a brilliant woman of faith. We found out that we shared together through her candor and fearlessness, was that both of us are biracial. Both of us, so African America so to speak, have white mothers. And the trauma of that and what it was like growing up being both and the benefit, the superpowers to all of that, the perceived liabilities to all of that. So, I have really appreciated her courage. While not being an Episcopalian minister, she nevertheless serves at one of our congregations in Midtown Atlanta. And has brought her perspective to a group of people who are very different from her and it has been really amazing to watch how they are benefiting from hearing another side of the story. So, yeah, I think that this is the way forward. One of the reasons I’m really proud about this podcast is that to the extent that we continue to keep people’s stories front and center. Some information, yes. But keep the stories moving. I think it will continue to be a benefit to people.
Melissa: Yeah. I agree. Because everybody has a story. And yet, Bishop, it strikes me how many people will listen to other people’s stories and have the gull not to believe them. What the hell, man? I’m just saying. Anyway, we don’t have to talk about that. I feel like there are two sides to every story, right? It’s not just this and that there is always one person’s side and the truth. But some person is bringing their lived experience into a space and being brave and sharing. I just hope and pray that we can get better at receiving that and seeing that it is another human’s experience.
Rob: Yeah. I hope so too. I thin that, you know, cynicisms that we bear, we have to interrogate what that is about ourselves?
Slightly off of that, I can tell you one of the first times that I was invited into the House of Bishops, I was a brand new Bishop. You know, someone preached a sermon and we were supposed to divide up in groups of 3 or 4 and work through some questions. I thought to myself, I have sort of been here, done that, got the coffee mug. I think when you get into those groups, immediately, everyone goes into their brain, what can I offer that sounds sort of relevant but is safe? At least, that is how I was thinking. This one Bishop, told a story of the broken nature of his relationship with his daughter. And I’m just sitting there with my mouth open. She’s a young adult, her choice in boyfriend has really caused a major break in the relationship. They used to go out for sushi regularly. You could just tell there was such love and affection there that had been ruptured by not only their relationship but other factors. And at the end of telling the story, he said, so I’m asking you to pray for me and my daughter and our reconciliation. I never forgot that. Immediately because of his vulnerability and his courage, I had to immediately think about offering more of myself in that group. And I would have never had that thought because I’ve been in those kinds of groups, icebreaker conversations thousands of times. You know, you want to get out of that unscathed. You want to get out of that without making any contribution. But this man changed the temperature of our fellowship with his authenticity and I still see him. And I ask him about his daughter.
And so, the essence of Christian fellowship is not just being in a building together with people for an hour and a half. Or you know, me giving the soup bowl and you giving the soup in a soup line, right, as we feed people who need a meal. But it’s something much, much more. It’s sharing the texture of your life. And you know I hope that’s what the podcast is doing. You know, some information and the texture of this thing called the Christian Journey. I think that is what we are supposed to be doing with one another because that changes things.
Melissa: Yeah. Well, let’s listen to our last clip, Will Willamon.
Melissa: Wow, so Bishop, there was clearly two different parts of Will Willamon’s episode, kind of schmooshed together, I think. Because both of them had really, really fantastic parts.
I have to say, let’s take the second part first. That was fire for me. I listened to it, I was like dang, that was fire. Our response to undocumented people, our response to illegal immigration, is baptism. That was like mic drop moment for me.
Rob: Yeah, if that was a basketball event, that would have been a 360 reverse high flying acrobatic slam dunk. Few people, in my opinion, show you how crazy it is to live for Jesus as clearly as Will Willamon does. I mean, I think that’s what he is saying, most people think that I’m going to be a Christian, that means I’m going to have the full support and affirmation of society, and I will be a nicer person, somehow the nation will be incrementally better because heaven is just like a regular democracy on Earth, right? And here is Willamon just running a sledgehammer through that plate glass window saying, “If you want to be Christian, and you’ve got some concerns about people without papers, and immigrants, well, there is enough love in the gospel of Jesus Christ to make them family. And we have a normative response to that, that is called baptism.” I love it.
Melissa: I love it too. I thought, you know, what an inconvenient truth?
Rob: Oh my God. Oh my God. You know, it’s Simon and Cyrene’s response to helping Jesus carry his cross, right? It’s the woman, who brings spices to the tomb, and said, well, they killed him. But I’m going to give him dignity in death. So, I guess what we might say, if there is a line through, we can say, if the God story somehow touches your story in a powerful fashion, then you should send out to make a different in somebody else’s story. That’s what he is saying. He is saying the whole baptism story we tell, the little kids, the Cherubic little kids, that has power to change national policy. And on the way to national policy, you and I get to take a stake in that, a role in that. Oh my God. That is why they used to kill Christians. And that is why they assassinate people like Martin Luther King. Because when the love of Christ looms so large in your life, it begins to affect society and you really realize that the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t make you adjusted, it makes you maladjusted. Then usually the societal response is to marginalize you, fire you, and ultimately kill you. Because that response, making undocumented people family, is frowned upon by the status quo. Now, you are at the intersection of, “I love Jesus so much. That I’m going to point out to the country that I love where she is a stray from the gospel.” Now, you have a recipe for disaster.
Melissa: Well, Bishop, it sounds like you’re talking about politics.
Rob: Well, I am, because the gospel is political. But the gospel is not partisan. So, politics means about people. So, when Jesus is talking about people, he is talking about politics. He just doesn’t have a party in mind.
Melissa: I hope you picked upon that sarcasm there. I’m not really good about it.
Rob: I do of course. Of course. But for anybody who is still struggling at that intersection, where they somehow want to divide the universe or country into neat baskets, we’ve talked about this before, our first and foremost citizenship is in heaven. That is what is drives us to live out our Earthly citizenship. It’s not my Earthly citizenship that drives my heavenly citizenship.
Saint Paul was very clear about that. Willamon is talking about, in Christ, there is no East and West. No North and South. He’s talking about no slave, no free, no male, no female. He’s talking about this radical notion of me belonging to you and you belonging to me and God making us siblings.
Melissa: Amen. Well, gosh, Bishop, this has been an incredible conversation. I’m kind of sorry that it’s over. But we know that we’re back every week. We have more and more of these conversations. And yet, I’m curious, what would you have us do, have our listeners do because of the way they are leading their lives because of this podcast?
Rob: Yeah. Well, I hope that in some ways it’s a great support to people who are endeavoring to try to live at the intersection of faith and leadership, whether we’re talking about family, or work, or congregational leadership, or business leadership, whatever it is. We hope that this is a great support to you, a seasoning on your Christian life already, on your faith life already. And so, what we hope is that if this is working for you, share it. If this is good news for you, share it. Why wouldn’t you share good news? And I understand that you know sometimes we’re a little coy about sharing. But I’m asking you to share it. We don’t charge for this. You know, there’s no sort of sales pitch here. But we just believe that people who have been positively impacted by something, sharing something makes all the difference in the world. And so, we’ll continue to do hard work and good work on this end. And we’re asking you to join us, be a partner with us in this work, by commending this good work. And if you are the praying type, we ask that you pray for us. Pray for myself, Melissa, and Easton, as we try to do the work of God for the people of God.
Melissa: Amen. Well, Bishop, thank you as always. And listeners, we thank you for listening to For People. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. Please subscribe. Leave a review. Share this with others. We look forward to being with you next week.
Rob: Happy 100!