In Memoriam: Robert Roy Wright
December 11, 1917 – November 25, 2002
When Bob’s office was situated just across a small anteroom from mine in the Grace Church Education Building, we would compare notes about a lot of things, theological, political, religious, personal, and literary. Bob entertained the possibility that in retirement he might develop a concordance of hymns. Then a preacher, with his fondness for the poetry of the church, and a determination to get it right, could look up a keyword in a line of a hymn whose name he couldn’t remember. I agreed with him that such a tool would be useful to me too, that I was frequently racking my brain for the name of a tune though I had only a phrase or two of the words. But, alas, Bob reported to me, cold realist that he was about the publishing business, that those who decided what would be marketable put thumbs down on his proposal.
Maybe I can persuade the book editors or, failing that, you, just what a good idea Bob had.
Sitting in my recliner just minutes before Marian phoned with the sad news of Bob’s passing I was mulling over in my mind these twilight years we have with (usually) declining health, knees for me, lungs and heart for Bob. I wondered if I was going to be able to approach my own end of this mortal life with the same equanimity which seemed to possess Bob Wright. That thought invoked a line from a hymn Bob could probably recite by heart, a prayer: “Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed.” Right: “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night,” verse 3. For Bob shouldered his recent years of infirmity with uncommon grace. When last we met, at his and Marian’s invitation to dine with them at a shoreside restaurant in Port Washington, Bob arrived equipped with breathing apparatus and his own oxygen supply, never once in my hearing complaining about his encumbrances. I marveled then to myself as I do now with you that he should live out his days without kicking and cussing (as I probably will) about the hand dealt him. “Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the judgment day.”
Several times during Bob’s retirement I invited him back to Grace Church to preach during my absence. You could depend on him to send his service details to the Church Office way ahead of time. One hymn was chosen with regularity, one which we sang this morning, “Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know.” Bob commented that he thought the words were about as good as any hymn could be. Marian tells me that she was unaware of this hymn’s prominence in Bob’s mind. But I think I know why it endeared itself to Bob. It takes the central moment of the Christian Gospel, the cross of Jesus Christ, and, far from dwelling on the sorrow and evil of it, celebrates it as God’s best triumph. “Who is life in life to me? Who the death of death will be? Who will place me on his right, with the countless hosts of light? Jesus Christ, the crucified.” My professor of homiletics at seminary, himself a very literate preacher, insisted that every sermon should end at the foot of the cross. Bob would agree, with the qualifier that there we should be lifting up our grateful praise.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” Bob could tell straight away: “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Once he asked me, albeit with tongue in cheek (I think), after some small conflict with the church fathers and mothers, “How does it feel to have had so placid a ministry?” I am glad I didn’t respond in kind. I mean, Bob seemed to have a quiet contemplative life, a loving and often adoring wife, a job as a book editor, a residence in a choice suburban community, time in his last two decades to pursue his fascination with clocks, their innards and their “outards,” time to read almost as many books as Marian, time to develop his skill as a gourmet cook, time to travel to the ends of the earth; in other words, a quiet happy life. But you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Marian, Sis, David, Sylvia, and the granddaughters and grandsons know where of I speak… firsthand… with the untimely passing of son Bob, and the pain and turmoil that attended it. The family made their way through that ordeal by relying on their own resources of love for each other, and with the help of a lot of friends, and, for Bob and Marian, I would suggest, a vast reservoir of faith, that “Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake, all now mysterious shall be bright at last.” So, “Be Still, My Soul.”
A concluding hymn/prayer: “Grant them the joy which brightens earthly sorrow; grant them the peace which calms earthly strife, and to life’s day the glorious unknown morrow that dawns upon eternal love and life.” Bob might not have counted this hymn among his favorites, and he might also not have been able to identify it. “O Perfect Love.” But it sings a sentiment two friends of mine have lived together. Bob and Marian shared life and love as perfectly as any two souls can. They have, in the words of the benediction of the marriage service which united them golden years ago, so lived “together in this life that in the world to come they may have life eternal.”
God bless Bob. His life certainly was a blessing to us.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Jesus, the crucified, great is our gladness in you and the triumph of your life over everything that keeps us from rising with you to peace and joy and love and goodness. In your name we lift our praise to the Father for the life lately lived among us and lived so fully and well, for Robert Roy Wright, a dear child of yours, a faithful servant too, who spent his years in professional service to your church. We thank you for his gentle and peaceful way, and for his literately faithful way, honoring the preaching of the Word about you with skill and precision, fluency and eloquence. We thank you for his loyal friendship, for his steadfast and compassionate fatherhood, and for his deep and abiding affection for his Marion. On his behalf we thank you for giving him the strength of mind and body to go far beyond the expectations he set for himself as a child of the Midwest, traveling far and wide, editing prayers and meditations that supplied millions with devotions to you. Welcome him, we pray, into the eternal kingdom and give him to hear the blessing you told us the faithful steward would receive, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Keep him within your eternal company. Give him to breathe easily and to stride with strength across the pastures of heaven. And, above all else, we pray to you, Jesus, to hold us with him in a strong connection of the Spirit, until we too shall join him in better scenes with those whom we have loved and lost awhile. In your name and by your grace. Amen.