For People with bishop Rob Wright

Letting Go… of the Fear of Death

Bishop Rob Wright For People Album
For People
Letting Go... of the Fear of Death

About the episode

We all understand our lives as gift, but Jesus tells us to not cower at the fear of death! When this physical form comes to pass, there is an overwhelming reality that will embrace all of us. And that is why we call it faith!

In this episode, Melissa and Bishop Wright have a conversation about death, as Good Friday approaches. They discuss  Western culture’s aversion to death, hoping to unearth a more enriched approach to life’s inevitable conclusion. It might just be that modern society’s tendency to distance itself from death’s reality keeps us from living a fuller life. Listen in for the full conversation.

This episode is based on part 5 of Bishop Wright’s 5-part Lenten series “Letting Go”. Learn more about this year’s series, watch the weekly videos, and download the reflection guides here.


Bishop Wright: 0:00

I think what Jesus is trying to say to us is that, yes, we love our lives, we understand our lives as gift, but we don’t have to cower in the face of death. And if it is my time the physical should end, I will live on with God. That’s all Jesus is saying, and that’s all Stevie Wonder is saying. If I’m going to be the past, okay, I mustn’t fear, because there is this overwhelming reality that will embrace me. That is why we call it faith.

Melissa: 0:40

Welcome to For People. I’m Melissa Rau, your host, and during this Lent, bishop and I are having conversations based off his weekly Lenten devotions. The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta has prepared a five-week curriculum for small groups or individual devotions and you can download the reflection guides and watch the weekly videos by visiting www. episcopalatlanta. org. Hello, bishop.

Bishop Wright: 1:05

Hello Melissa.

Melissa: 1:08

We I don’t know if celebrating is the right word, but we are recognizing or honoring the fifth week of Lent, and today you’re focusing on letting go of the fear of death. Right, and this is based off of the incredible theologian that is our young Stevie Wonder.

Bishop Wright: 1:31

Stevie Wonder and Jesus are having a conversation today.

Melissa: 1:34

Yeah, and then chapters, of course, John 12, 21 through 25.

Bishop Wright: 1:38


Melissa: 1:39

So this is really talking about death and this is kind of like the culmination of Lent, which I think Lent is. One of the very reasons and purposes that we have a Lenten season before Easter is to really come to terms or grapple with the very real thing of death like it’s real.

Bishop Wright: 1:59

Well, yes, and in the West we are deathophobes, and so we’ve got two messages In the church we’re talking about to have confidence and reliance on God, even in the face of death, and then everywhere else in the culture, we push death to the side, we’re outsourcing it, et cetera. And so I think there’s a direct line between our fear of death and our fear to actually live. Oh yeah, and if that is the case, if that is the case, jesus has got a word for us.

Bishop Wright: 2:36

All right, and that word is Well, I mean, this is what he says in the 12th chapter of John. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. So Jesus is again teaching us to throw off the fears that we may have and to realize that the universe has a cadence and a rhythm, and to participate in that rhythm, because we understand that we’re just not arbitrary but our life and our death have meaning.

Melissa: 3:12

You know, one of the things that I’m not sure we celebrated enough over the course of the last five weeks are the resources in addition to your devotions, Bishop, your study guides and your videos that you all produced are rather fabulous, and I really appreciated especially this week’s Reflections and Further Reading, and I looked up some of the resources there and you highlighted Mary Oliver’s poem, the Summer Day.

Bishop Wright: 3:43


Melissa: 3:44

And I loved that because when I read that I’d never read it before and when I read it I was like, oh my gosh, yes, this is right, because what this poem was about. I highly recommend you all look it up. You should use the reflection guides provided by the Diocese of Atlanta. But what I love about this most was kind of, I think, elevating the fact that so often we’re so much more concerned about living a productive or being productive, producing stuff, rather than collecting it and taking it all in and recognizing and honoring the beauty of just being with God.

Bishop Wright: 4:22

Right, and I think this is why Jesus is such an important I mean in addition to Lord and Savior and Son of God and all that I mean. This is why Jesus is such an important teacher, because he teaches us how to circumvent the pitfalls of life Right. In Jesus we don’t just get anger management techniques or anxiety management techniques. In Jesus we get a whole big paradigm shift. He writes us, if you will, r-i-g-h-t. He writes us and he helps us understand number one, that life is a gift, and the gift of life is enhanced, the appreciation of that is given new depth when you realize that there’s life and then there’s death, and so I don’t have to live in fear of my death. Actually, what happens is is that when I accept the fact that I’m going to die right, and I don’t have to live in fear of it, every day, every minute takes on new meaning, new depth, and I can be grateful because all I know is I’m alive right now and I’ve got this moment, and this moment right now is pregnant with possibility, and if I am a better steward of the moments that I do have, you know, a grace wells up inside of me about how I finished my race. This is what Stevie Wonder said. He said this in 1976 in a song called as. As far as I’m concerned it could be the 67th book of the Bible, but Stevie Wonder says this today I know I’m living, but tomorrow could make me the past, and for that I mustn’t fear, for I know deep in my mind the love of me I’ve left behind”. And so now you know, far from me to try to sort of explore the depth of Stevie Wonder’s mind, but I think what he’s saying is that and I see this in real time in the real world is that there’s a lot of anxiety about us growing into next phases, different phases of life, etc. And then we’re holding on to what was so tightly that we can’t even appreciate what is, and I think it binds life, it makes life small. I think Jesus is helping us understand that. One of the ways that we can understand this notion called life and living and death and dying is to realize that it’s about meaning.

Bishop Wright: 7:00

Howard Thurman asked the very pregnant question what must I do to die a good death? That’s the question. That is the question for all of us right now and wherever you are, you know, if you’re a young college kid, this question is not premature for you, because if I can answer for myself, what must I do to die a good death? Then really what I’m asking is how might I live a really good life? And if you’re like some of the rest of us, which you know, we’re in our fourth chapter, or fourth quarter rather, you know, and you know that you’ve got some time, you’ve got more in the rear view mirror than you’ve got in the windshield then it could add real profundity to the days ahead.

Bishop Wright: 7:41

What must I do? Who must I tell I love? Who must I say I forgive? Who must I spread some of the wealth and gifts given to me? Who must I share them with? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Bishop Wright: 7:55

What must I say no to? What must I quit? What must I begin? I mean this begins to create an opportunity for real life. Otherwise we get stuck, and you know God loves us too much for stuck to be sort of the desire of you know and the direction of our life. No, jesus is always going to risk challenging us, confronting us, maybe even offending us in His word, so that you and I might be jarred to understand that there’s more to life than these small things that we’ve defined as life in total. And let me just say this too I mean this will challenge some people, maybe offend people I don’t mean to but let me just say, as a person of faith, what is it that we say? We say that we will live and we’ve been given life as a gift. But on that day when breathing ceases for us, we will live on, you know, in the arms of the one who loved us first and loved us best.

Bishop Wright: 9:04

A long time ago I was a senior pastor of a congregation, a rector of a congregation, and called a woman I think I may have told the story before called a woman. I was checking up on her and she had a double mastectomy and was recovering. I just called a check on her. I had already written my sermon. It was Thursday and I listened to her and I was so overwhelmed by what she was telling me about her faith journey I said, look, I’ve written my sermon. But how about if you preach this Sunday? A layperson? No preaching, training, et cetera.

Bishop Wright: 9:44

But she had such an important witness to bear, such a distillation of God at work in her life, and she got up on Sunday. She agreed without a baton in eyes. She agreed, without missing a beat. She stood up and told the congregation, who was shocked to see her in the pulpit, and told the congregation. She said this she told the story of the cancer and of the fear and working through the fear of the cancer and the blessing of the doctors and the healthcare and the insurances and all of that.

Bishop Wright: 10:16

Then she said she came to an epiphany while in recovery. And here was the epiphany. She said and if I do die? She said, what’s the worst that can happen to me? That I get to go home to my God that I’ve been praying to for my entire life? Is that the worst that can happen to me? And so I think what Jesus is trying to say to us is that, yes, we love our lives and we appreciate our lives and we understand our lives as gift, but we don’t have to cower in the face of death.

Bishop Wright: 10:50

And I think this is in this woman. She was an incredible gift to me and let me tell you, if I was selling Kleenex that Sunday, oh my God, I would be a millionaire a couple of times over. I mean, she brought the house down and they saw me with my clerical authority, my uniform, my outfit, and maybe they think I’m supposed to say that, but when this lay person, who they had known for 30 years, stood up and said I’m trusting God in the midst of cancer and if it is my time the physical should end, I will live on with God. Now, that’s all Jesus is saying and that’s all Stevie Wonder is saying. If I’m going to be the past, okay, I mustn’t fear, because there is this overwhelming reality that will embrace me. That is why we call it faith. Hi listeners, thank you for listening to Four People. The space of digital evangelism. You can keep up with us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. And now back to Four People.

Melissa: 11:58

So you highlighted earlier about the rhythms of life.

Bishop Wright: 12:02


Melissa: 12:03

And I was thinking about how somehow we tend to put death as like the ultimate end.

Bishop Wright: 12:10


Melissa: 12:11

And I actually think death is a part of the rhythm, right, it’s of everything, like we have every day. Every day we have a night, and every morning we have a sun, and that’s kind of like the death of a day and a new birth and a beginning of a whatever. And so I’m not sure if I’m saying anything prophetic here.

Bishop Wright: 12:30

I do, I do more though.

Melissa: 12:32

Bishop, I can’t help but wonder if we’re able to focus more on the full rhythm, the birth and the death of everyday things, that maybe we’d be more inclined to do some of the healing that we actually prevent ourselves from doing because we don’t want to talk about death.

Bishop Wright: 12:51

No, we don’t want to talk about it and the culture supports us in not wanting to talk about it. In fact, the culture has monetized us not wanting to talk about it. And I remember in the ancient days this is where I get to sound like an old man in the ancient days we didn’t scurry around and move the dead out of our homes. We didn’t outsource their last days’ care to other folks. I’m not disparaging that, I’m just saying it was different then. And I wonder if we weren’t better off then where we grandma died grandma died in the living room in the bed and we were around her and we loved her and cared for her and stayed there with her for a while, for a season. Maybe we cleaned up her dead body and called the rest of the family over to pray over grandma and to cry and to lament and to have a meal and all those things. Maybe we were better off then, rather than professionalizing all of that and to where she’s immediately whisked away, if she’s in the house at all. And I remember 1,000 years ago I was a school chaplain and I remember taking the kids through a columbarium where we keep the ashes up in New York, and I remember a parent hearing about us doing that and being furious with me. And then, as we sat and we listened and I appreciated what the parent was saying, what we came to was the parents’ absolute fear of death and dying. The kids were fine. We saw columbariums where people’s pets were included with the ashes of their beloved masters or where people were visiting and putting flowers and candles and remembering those they loved. The kids were fine. They somehow got that and that grandma and grandpa were positively located. These are her or his earthly remains, but grandma and grandpa’s spirit. Now they live with God. Somehow the kids can manage that. And what we saw as the conversation went on was the mom and the dad. The parents just fear. They were petrified of the subject and as we pushed and pushed, they were petrified about the notion for themselves. And so we were in some ways we were cheating the kids out of a clearer understanding. So when the kids wanted to go to grandma and grandpa’s funeral, whatever, they didn’t go, they were being shielded, and I think this was a mistake.

Bishop Wright: 15:42

Look, and so Jesus does this in plain view. I mean, he does it in plain view. And what is Good Friday? But death in plain view and all of its indignity. I mean Jesus died a particular kind of death, but all of that, all of its vulnerability, I think one of the best things that has happened to us as a globe religiously, is when the former pope, his abilities, mobilities and facilities began to decline and he didn’t hide and he showed us a dignity in aging, he showed us a dignity in infirmity and ultimately he showed us a dignity in death. And some people and I would understand, and some people would have said, well, he should have done exactly the opposite. And where was his dignity? Why weren’t people shielding his dignity? And I thought he was being a great steward of sickness and immobility and death.

Bishop Wright: 16:48

Dr King, I think would it be a great conversation partner for Jesus and for Stevie Wonder, because he’s worried about the other kind of death too that happens to us when we live in fear. And this is one of his best lines. He says that. And how about this?

Bishop Wright: 17:05

Georgia poet huh the cessation of breathing in life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. A man or woman dies when they refuse to stand up for what is right. A man or woman dies when they refuse to stand up for justice. So, in as much as we were talking about a physical death and making our peace there, I think the other part of this is also some of us might be dead now and just still have the benefit of synapses firing and our diaphragm rising and falling. I think Jesus was concerned about that too, and so, remember, he’s giving his sermon about death and life to the living. So somehow I think he wants to enhance life as we have it right now, and on the way to that. It’s that we’ve got to actually close the gap between what we say on Sunday, for those of us who worship in church, and how we live on Monday. That has everything to do with life and death.

Melissa: 18:20

Well, bishop, I wanna give you kind of the last word here, because we’re moving out of Lent and into Easter in just a few days.

Melissa: 18:31

And a week or so. I’m curious about the whole idea of paradox and how we’re so quick to cling to certain things that just the act of release or letting go actually freezes up to be more of who God would have us be. In all the last five weeks that you highlighted certain things letting go of the fear or letting go of control, letting go of condemnation, letting go of the narrative or the current iteration of that which is church, letting go of the fear of death, et cetera, et cetera.

Bishop Wright: 19:07

Any last words of wisdom or advice as we Well, no advice or wisdom, but I mean I’ll just. You know, I’m a traveler with you and others and I mean I’m thinking about all this. I have none of this, master, but I try to take seriously, as others do, you know, the words of our faith and the traditions, and so you know. I think that what we have to recognize is that fear in all of its forms thrive in dark, passive corners of our minds and we can feed our fears or we can do something different. And the way we do something different is that we know that fear, as I’ve said in the meditation, fear shrivels with candor and disclosure and sharing. So we’ve got to find a way to share our fears. We’ve got to find those traveling partners where we get to say some of that out loud.

Bishop Wright: 20:06

Jesus always named the demon before he cast out the demon, right? So as long as these things stay unnamed, they stay ominous. In fact, they grow and they inhabit, you know, the dark corners of our sleeping time and our waking time and they shrink our lives. But Jesus comes, just like David confronted Goliath. Jesus comes, you know, to defeat Goliath and he’s looking for a partner. Jesus is, and that’s who we are. And so you know, I would say one of the things we’ve got to do is take up active behaviors and so on this matter of letting go of the fear of death. One of the ways we can do it is this plan your funeral. Plan it right now, If you’re the kind of person who’s a meticulous, decide on who gets to preach. A dear friend of mine, years before he died, told me Rob, you’re going to preach my funeral, and these are the lessons and all of that.

Bishop Wright: 21:00

And I did. And we had such a great belly laugh at his funeral because he had a pension for a little bit of control and he made sure that even from the grave he controlled how the service was going to how the worship service was going. We had a great laugh about it, but he wasn’t afraid of it. He wanted to be a good steward of it. So plan the menu for your memorial reception. What are folks going to eat? What are the pictures that are going to be shown? Write down where you intend for your belongings to go. Give away as much as you can now, file all the medical documents that are necessary and, as we are living now, find some mighty purpose for the remainder of your days. Right, that stretches your heart and makes God smile. That’s what we’re talking about, but that’s paradigmatic.

Bishop Wright: 21:49

I think what we’re saying is, in all these things letting go of the church, letting go of condemnation, letting go of the familiar, et cetera we’ve got to take active steps or it’s just talk. What you’ve got to love about Jesus is. Jesus walked it and he talked it, and so we’ve got to find the resolve and indeed the Holy Spirit is already standing right there to be our partner in all of this. Think about this the thing that you really want for your life, the thing that you’re pining for, longing for, begging God for, is on the other side of the work that you are not doing right now, on the thing that you don’t want to do right now, and so I hope what that does is not it doesn’t give anybody a complex, but I hope it gives you clear coordinates.

Bishop Wright: 22:33

The thing that you don’t want to do right now because it’s too hard or too ominous or you’re afraid. On the other side of that is where you get a refreshed witness. You get a refreshed glimpse of who God is. You get a fresh jolt of that Holy Spirit power that is in all of us for our living out among other people that you have found it difficult to love or even to like or to serve. Out there with them is exactly where we need to be to find the medicine for our souls, and so it’s been great traveling with so many people over this Lenten series. I would remind you that this Lenten series is not bound by Lent. It’s available to you all the time, the study guides are available to you all the time, and I look forward to talking to you about Good Friday and, ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, from where we grab all of our power and all of our strength to live this life.

Melissa: 23:36

Bishop, thank you. I’m looking forward to letting go and letting God.

Bishop Wright: 23:39


Melissa: 23:42

And listeners. We’re so grateful to you for tuning in to For People. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. Please subscribe, leave a review and we’ll be back with you next week.