Bob Massie "Faith Over Fear" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. I always enjoy interviewing people who are students of Henri Nouwen, people whose lives and subsequent work were impacted by their time spent with Henri Nouwen. Bob Massie certainly fills that bill. An award-winning author and activist, Bob is an experienced and effective leader on climate change, corporate power and social justice in America. I’d like you to meet Bob Massie.
Bob Massie, you’ve had such an interesting background. You studied history at Princeton, then you went to Yale Divinity School to explore faith. And then you went to Harvard to get a degree in business. How did this rich and varied background come together? How did you find the unique path God has had for your life?
Bob Massie: Well, my life is like everyone’s life. I think that you start off and you’re trying to figure out what your values are, what your purpose is, what you care about most deeply. And my childhood was an unusual childhood, in that I was born with a serious chronic illness, a genetic illness called hemophilia, which is a bleeding disorder. Your blood does not clot quickly. But it’s not about cuts; it’s about joint bleeding. And so, it affects your ability to walk and, much of my childhood, I could not walk. But in the process of growing up with that challenge, first of all, I had to try to just figure out how to grow up and become an adult, and what I want to study – all the regular things that people think about.
But because of my experience, I was kind of on a middle ground, that is, in some ways living a privileged, American, middle-class life. My parents were journalists and eventually writers. And so we had all of that access and so forth that made it possible for me to get decent medical care. But at the same time, I really strongly identified with people who were excluded or rejected, because I was kind of like a chameleon. If I wasn’t having any trouble walking or anything, I looked like someone who had no disability for many years. And then, but when I had a challenge, I was in leg braces or a wheelchair, and then people would react to me very differently. And so, I began to realize that I wasn’t the only person who experienced very, very different experiences from people, depending on what how they judged you, even in the first seconds. So, that kind of double life – on the one hand, getting in sometimes, and then on another hand, being rejected quite decisively at other times may have, I think, gradually brought me to think about that as a much more universal and deeply spiritual challenge.
How do you live in a life? How do you live a life of value in the face of those kinds of difficulties? And so, I began paying much more attention to people with other kinds of struggles. There were struggles of economic struggles, justice, or other healthcare problems or poverty. And so, my life just kept sort of expanding, you know, moving from an inner sort of circle of ideas and then expanding outward to more and more desire to engage with people and to understand God. And so, all of these things were happening at the same time. And then, as a teenager in college, this hunger for God, this desire to understand why we’re here and how we can – as I gradually came to – how we can serve, how we can support each other. This was a big jumble of thoughts in my head that I started fairly young – 12, 13, 14. And by the time I was in college, these were becoming even more important to me and began to guide what I wanted to learn and where I wanted to contribute.
Karen Pascal: It is quite a background. I even read that because of your having to have blood transfusions, you ended up with HIV and with also, hepatitis – did you also get that? And then eventually you ended up with a liver transplant and this solved some of this. But that must have been pretty profound to have that experience in the midst of a time in which it was rocking the world. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Bob Massie: Well, so you just compressed very well 60 years of experience. So, my medical challenges have been obviously the heart of who I am and how I’ve coped with life. And I was very fortunate in that my parents, although they came from modest backgrounds – my mother was the first person in her family to go to college, my father had been a scholarship student – but they had the ability to think through problems and gain access to resources, because they’re very persistent. And their love and support of me as a very young child gave me a kind of foundation of affection and commitment that really provided – I’ve obviously done a lot of reading and thinking about that – but it gave me a kind of resilience to face these different challenges and to learn from them and move forward.
Karen Pascal: Wow, you didn’t initially go chasing after faith in all of that, but it does sound like a wonderful, solid loving basis that enveloped you, that gave you the strength. Because I look at your life and I’m terribly impressed, to be quite honest. I see all of these things that you’ve championed and you championed things way before I think I was recognizing how important they were. I mean, you have championed creation and the importance of our footprint upon this planet. You’ve championed some very interesting things. I was moved by how that’s all come together with you. But maybe we should go back a little bit. I want to go back into, how did Henri Nouwen show up in your life? When did that happen? And what difference did that man make?
Bob Massie: So, when I was in college and starting to think about more deeply, what was I going to do next, I had always thought I might do something like law school and then go into politics – just because I cared so much about what was going on with other human beings, with the planet. But I began to feel a tug away from law school and so forth. And I was wondering what’s the purpose of life. What’s the meaning of life? Anyway, I was talking to a chaplain at my college and he gave me a book which I looked through and it was sort of an odd book. It’s a lot of photographs. I’m very open about its faith, and I took it and skimmed it and forgot about it. But I had a kind of conversion or reconversion experience between my junior and senior year.
And in college I decided to go to divinity school. And when I got to Yale Divinity School, which I had learned about from a young pastor I’d met many years before, I showed up, and we did a retreat before the first weeks of class. And at one point I found myself, the new students had swum out to this rock and this sort of odd fellow also swam out. And so, I’m sitting there in my bathing suit and he’s sitting there in his bathing suit and we’re singing songs and hymns, and I’m going, “Who is this guy?” It took me a long time to figure out who he was. I eventually figured out he was on the faculty because he was about 25 years older than me. And I realized that he was a Catholic priest.
I’d never really gotten to know a Catholic priest, although I had done some things within Catholicism. And eventually I learned that he was a very gifted guy, and then I learned he was famous. But it all kind of came backwards. And so, I was very drawn, as so many people were, to him and to the quality of his faith, the depth of his faith, the intimacy of his faith in so many ways. And so, I began going . . . at that time, there was a Eucharist every day at five o’clock in a tiny little chapel that was called the Crypt, if I remember correctly, at Yale Divinity School. And I began showing up and there would be 10 or 15 people and Henri was at this every day. And so, I just would go and listen to him preach.
But as I listened to him preach, all the qualities that people have come to know about Henri began to show themselves, right in front of me. And I was deeply moved by what I sensed was a different kind of faith than I had been used to. I still thought church was a place you went and sat in a pew and listened to people say things that they then didn’t do. So, the hypocrisy of the church had annoyed me as a young man. But this man spoke in a very heartfelt way. And so, that’s how I began know him. And then over many years, I took some of his courses. I was a research student for him. I helped edit his book on going to Latin America, as a summer job. I did many, many things and he became increasingly a close personal friend, and it sort of went from there. And I was very fortunate that we gradually got to know each other in some depth. And he just became part of my life, my personal life, as opposed to, you know, academic life. And it’s in that way, over about 20 years, that I had the chance to learn from him and share my ideas and see what he thought of others. So, it emerged kind of organically from all of our encounters over those years.
Karen Pascal: I loved reading – you wrote a chapter in the book. Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen, and you wrote a chapter. In fact, I think it might even be the very first one in the book, and it’s called ‘God’s Restless Servant’. And I loved reading it. It was very moving. I’d encourage people to get this book because it’s kind of insights into Henri through the eyes of those who knew him as a friend. And I think that’s probably one of the first things that became really evident for his students: that he was quite prepared to be a friend, to be open, to be available, to be just somehow be a part of their life. But for me, as I was reading what you were writing, what I found in it was, I got the feeling that somehow by the way he was living and teaching, that he was teaching you how to be a follower of Christ. Do you recall in a way how that came alive to you through Henri?
Bob Massie: Yeah. I think one of the lessons that Christians need to review every day and reinforce and support in each other is the message of the gospel that we are forgiven, that we live a life of grace due to the love and commitment of God in Christ as the form in which God manifested himself/herself in life, in our human history. So, I had grown up with essentially a heresy that dominates the church, which is that God loves you if you do well. And so, just like if you took an exam and you got a good grade, you did well. And so, the love of God was conditional on us being good little students or good little people. And what hit me was that no, the love of God is not conditional on our behavior. It is a free gift.
And the consequence of this idea, which really began to enter my heart and soul before I met Henri, but he began to give me many concrete examples. And one thing I want to say is that Henri was a walking contradiction. I mean, there are many things we say about Henri, about how wonderful he was, but the truth was that he often disobeyed his own rules. I mean, and then he was honest about that – rules or guidance or principles. So, you know, he was always talking about being quiet and being interior and, you know, the downward mobility and hiddenness, and yet every time I turned around, he was in front of some crowd of 400 people and traveling to three cities in two days.
And similarly, you know, he talked about being a friend, but sometimes he was a crappy friend. I mean, he just sort of got distracted or fell off the radar, and then he would reappear. So, I think what was fascinating for me and for so many of you, is that in his honesty, in his restlessness, as you referred to, he was constantly reflecting on his failures and his incapacity. And so, in some ways he was this wonderful blend of Catholic theology and Protestant theology. Catholic, in his deep understanding of vocation, his understanding of the role of scripture and of the role of the Spirit, his understanding of the Incarnation. I mean, very Catholic in some ways. But his emphasis on the power of grace and the power of love as a form of liberation and freedom, not just individually, but also politically or spiritually for whole communities. This was an incredible experience, because I had, as I mentioned briefly, worried that although the church writ large – I was from the Episcopal church, but any church you walked in – you heard all these wonderful words, you’re told to love your neighbor and to visit those in prison and give the thirsty something to drink and to do justice and all of these things.
And then, the people would stream out of the church and not do any of it. So, like a lot of people, especially for young people, I thought you know, the church was a place for people who said things in order not to do them. There’s a funny cartoon I saw some years ago: a man walking in front of a church. And there’s a young pastor pushing a lawnmower back and forth. And the man on the street calls out to the young pastor and says, “Pastor, you know, I would never join the church because it is full of hypocrites.” And the pastor cheerfully says, “Yep. And always room for one more!”
And so, I got over the sense that the church was about or God was about the big school teacher in the sky or the moralist or the this and that, to something much more radical, which is that we’ve been given the gift of life and we’ve been brought into community with each other, and we’ve been given freedom of choice. And we’ve been given freedom from judgment in very profound ways. What do we do with all those gifts? How do we respond to them? What is God actually calling us to do? And how do we distinguish what the gospel, in my judgment, really says from the way it’s been distorted and manipulated, either unintentionally or as a form of seeking and invoking power over others? So, when I actually started reading the gospel and reading it and listening to Henri, it became evident to me that Jesus’ greatest frustration was not with sinners, although he cares a lot about us, but with people who pretend that their holiness is a weapon that they can use against other people, like the Pharisee and the tax collector and many other examples. So, for me, it was the radical nature of addressing, of giving us the strength and the freedom that the gospel offers, so that then we can answer God’s call to justice and mercy.
So, it answered the problem that I thought it was ignoring. And I began to feel that people, especially me, really had very little understanding of this. I had a kind of loose, cultural understanding of what Christianity was. It wasn’t very attractive, but the gospel of peace and transformation and power and reconciliation and gratitude – these are all at the heart of the gospel and that’s what I was seeking. And I knew that’s what a lot of people were seeking. But Henri had thought about this and lived it for many more years than I did. So, he became a natural teacher in every way. And the way he acted and the way he succeeded and the way he failed and his humanity, which included amazing gifts of compassion and some, you know, very normal human, irritating qualities that just showed that he was not setting himself up on a pedestal far above all of us and, you know, exercising judgment on us in God’s name. That was the opposite of what he believed.
So anyway, his theology, his personality, his gifts captured me where I was at that moment. And then, also gave me the feeling that I didn’t need to become someone else; that God had given me a set of gifts and challenges, and that I could respond to God’s call, not by trying to become something that wasn’t real anyway, but being most genuinely living a life of love and forgiveness. Now I fail at it all the time. I’m, you know, terrible at it, but Henri helped me see the freedom that we have to go ahead and live the life for which we were intended.
Karen Pascal: Well, it’s interesting because you know, just in kind of rereading your story that you wrote in Befriending Life, I could hear that there were moments that he brought encouragement into your life to go forward. And it is interesting, isn’t it? I bet he was the first Catholic priest that you were kind of interacting with. And because I know, for example, I guess he and Margaret Farley were the first Catholics to come onto the teaching staff of Yale. And it was interesting because there was a wonderful bigness in him and a great inclusion, and I’m sure that the bringing together of those gifts of contemplation and action were part of what I think was passed on to you.
Bob Massie: Absolutely. I mean you know, at some time now, or in the future, I’d love to hear your own faith journey and how Henri played a role in that. I think he, like Jesus, taught both through his strength and through his fragility and that’s where the concepts like being a wounded healer and the things or the ideas in his book Reaching Out. (By the way, Reaching Out was the book that the chaplain in college had handed me.) And I came upon it later and I thought, wait a minute, this book that someone gave to me was written by this man, who’s now a friend of mine, but I didn’t make the connection. And so, anyway.
Karen Pascal: Well, I found it so interesting when I was reading your story to realize there came a moment, and this seemed to me to be like a pivotal moment for you, when you were thinking about going into politics and really wondering whether this was a temptation or a calling. And you called on Henri for that. By the way, our audience, probably most of us know Henri through his books. We’ve not had the privilege of knowing him as a teacher in the way that you have. But it’s insightful because I think as we read the books, we discover, there’s a person who’s being very, very honest about not just everything that’s working for him, but also everything that’s not working. And I think people tend to read Henri and go, “Me, too. Somebody has just read what’s really going on, on the inside of my life.” But take me back to that moment. You gave Henri a call, as I recall, when you were contemplating about whether to go into politics. How did he speak into your life at that moment?
Bob Massie: Well, I will tell you that story. I just want to give you a little of the context. So, you know, I’d gone to, first of all I had gone to Yale Divinity School because I had known of various people who had done joint degrees, like a joint law and divinity degree. And there are a number of people in politics who did that. And so, my thought was, well, I feel this; I’m drawn to these different worlds. And I’ve been really pretty much taught that you’re not allowed to do that, particularly as a white preacher. You know, black clergy play an even bigger role in their communities, because so many other forms of African American leadership are denied. But in the white churches, you know, you were supposed to sit off in a corner and talk about the future or something abstract and not get involved with the injustices and the suffering and the outrages that we’re surrounded by, and that are preventable.
So, I was torn between that. So, I went to Yale Divinity School, not at all sure that I wanted to be ordained or anything like that. And also, not sure that the law was the right place, because I was really interested in the economy – that is, the stark differences between the poor and the rich, and the corruption of our hearts that can happen when we become entangled in problems of wealth and so forth. I was very interested in all that. And I went through divinity school sort of choosing courses with the mind of, first of all, trying to answer a question of calling – do I want to be a parish minister and you know, strive for some kind of leadership within the administration or of the church or who knows, or not? What was I even doing?
And Henri was very sympathetic to that. And it’s one of the reasons that he invited me to edit this book, Gracias!, which was about confronting poverty in Latin America in the eighties. And so, he tried to support me and encourage me, and he told me not to worry too much about the ordination questions or whatever. And I graduated from divinity school and eventually I was ordained. But I took a year and worked in Washington for a while for Ralph Nader. And so, I got to look at issues of corporate power, the economic structures that aren’t working very well for a lot of people. And so, it was in that context, I had moved to Massachusetts a couple of years before with my wife, and I had been pastor and I had decided – and it’s such a strange thing – but I decided to go to Harvard Business School, because I was tired of people telling me that I didn’t know anything about the elements of business and therefore I couldn’t really comment on them.
And I got into HBS with a full scholarship and I thought, well, all right, sort of be careful what you wish for. And after that, after I completed my doctorate, I was invited to teach at Harvard Divinity School, where I taught on these crossover courses. So, I taught about apartheid in South Africa. I taught about conflict and conflict resolution. I taught a course at the time called The Church, Economic Power and Social Change. And as I was going through all of this, there was always the question, do I go become an academic or do I go and serve a church? Or what do I do? Anyway, in that context, which was some years after I completed Yale Divinity School, I felt this. And I had spent most of, well, six months in South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar with my wife and two little boys.
And that was the period when South Africa was going through an enormous set of changes, rewriting its constitution. And I was there and I met and I was there to, first of all, write my senior thesis, my doctoral thesis. And then I eventually started working on a very long book on the same topic, on the U.S. and South Africa, which had many moral questions, many political questions and economic questions. In fact, my family used to joke, they’d say, “This is Bob’s book about everything.” And it’s true, you know, my book about everything. And then, I realized when I got back from South Africa, that democracy was this alive and engaging and critically important world and vision in South Africa. And in the United States, we’d become incredibly cynical and had lost faith in many of the instruments in democracy.
And so, you know, we are still struggling with those same problems, many of which are worse. But so, finally, I began to think about running for office. I put this into my prayer life. I had a very rigorous prayer life, except for when it wasn’t rigorous, but I was really asking God. And eventually, through that prayer and process of discernment and a whole lot of stuff I did to try to find out whether I was being tempted into something that would destroy me and destroy my good intentions, or whether this was something unique that I, with my weird set of experiences and personality and all that, whether this was right. So, finally we get to the story: I decided to run for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.
And that sounds like a big, heavy lift if you’ve never been in politics. But if you know about Massachusetts politics, the position of the Lieutenant Governor is a strange one and it doesn’t have that many qualifications necessary, that you have to have. And I realized that I could go around the state and talk about this issue of justice and reconciliation and climate change and all those things. So, I jumped in. But as I was getting ready to jump in, I called Henri and he was the last person I wanted to talk to. I mean, I literally did, that I chose to talk to, because I thought Henri was going to kind of lecture me on, you know, “Oh, Bob, being a priest, you know, for Jesus, is the highest calling in the universe. Why are you giving up? And I’m disappointed in you and blah, blah, blah.” That’s what I thought he would say.
And when I called him and I said, “Well, Henri, I’m doing something that I hope is what God intends. And I’ve been praying about it. And I’m going to run for Lieutenant Governor.” And he had this sort of like low laughter you know, chuckle. And he said, “Well, you know,” with his little Dutch accent, “I’ve been waiting for you to do this for a long time.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, it’s been clear that this is, you know, these are your gifts and this is what I mean, everybody who knows you, Bob. And especially after the years of conversation we’ve had, this is obviously what you should do, and what’s your address again?” And I gave it to him and he sent me my first check.
Karen Pascal: Oh, isn’t that great.
Bob Massie: He sent me a thousand dollars, which was the limit at the time. And to get a thousand dollars from Henri Nouwen, to do something that I thought he would condemn or be disappointed, was just an astonishing affirmation of all the things that you and I have been talking about, that I was, I could dare to be the person that God was calling me to be. And if it turned out that he wasn’t calling me to do that, then it would become a mechanism for doing something else. And I should just say that I lost. I won that primary, but I lost the general election. But because of losing that election, I eventually became the head of an organization called Ceres, which brought religious pension funds and others to work to push companies to address major problems like climate change and racial discrimination. So, it became a path to something I simply couldn’t have imagined. But I had to commit to, you know, I had to start climbing the mountain before I could see what was on the other side of it.
And so, Henri was basically saying to me, “Go ahead, be the person, you know, once you have asked God as honestly, and openly and persistently as you can, ‘What is it that, what should I be doing?’”
My actual prayer in all of these times was, “Lord, I wish to serve you. What should I do?” And I actually experienced, I wouldn’t say, like, a voice, but I began to explore that sensation of a response, which was a very simple one, which was: “Then do this.” Meaning, “Well, if you’re so interested in serving, I’ve given you all these, I’ve given you a toolkit. Now, get out there and get busy.” And in other words, “You’ve done, you’ve investigated your inner life and you’ve put it before God. And if it turns out to all be a big mistake, so what? You’re still forgiven, you can find other ways to serve. But let’s stop talking about this. Why don’t you get this?”
It was kind of a sensation I got in my prayer life. And it was very much echoed by what Henri said. So, that was a key thing. So, I jumped in and, you know, it was insane, but I actually won that election. And but you know, we were running against an incumbent and I got beaten. But just to link it back to my health experiences. You know, I think one reason that I wanted to be so public is that I’d been so, in many ways, so hidden, so cut off. And so, part of my desire by, you know, being really honest was I wanted people to like me, I want to go out and talk to people. I’d spent so much time at home recuperating, and this would give me the opportunity to meet thousands of new people and to engage with the critical moment, critical questions of the day.
And I should stop running away from that. I should stop using ministry or Jesus as some way to you know, tell people, “Don’t worry about me. I’m not going to be one of annoying folks who urges you to change your life.” And I realized that that IS what I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, with as much generosity, spirit or whatever, as you can, but I am at my core prophetic. I mean, in that sense, you know, if there’s the pastoral side and the prophetic side, I have a very deep pastoral side and I have served in churches in that capacity and loved it. But for me, the scale of our problems, the urgency of our problems and the failure of us to lead, because we’re scared of this, that, or the other seemed increasingly crazy. And so, it was with Henri’s support that I kind of came face to face with who I was intended to be. I was in my mid-thirties and it was kind of either you’re going to do it, or you’re not. And very strangely, I came to the conclusion that I was, and that was very much because of Henri – and others – but Henri who gave me that spiritual backbone to step forward.
Karen Pascal: There’s something very empowering about the reality. We’re all so uniquely made. It’s not like we’re cookie-cutter Christians in any way, but thank goodness you took on what you did. I’ve just been so impressed with the list of things that you’ve been involved in and at the sense in which they were about justice in the world. They were about how do we bring justice to bear on the economy? We talked yesterday and I wanted to bring this to the fore. We talked about how would we relate Henri Nouwen to today? And today, there are ways in which Christianity is dismissed. What do people who go deeply into their faith have to offer today? We’re in a very unique time.
Bob Massie: Well, I think people should calm down. What do I mean by that? I mean that many of the dilemmas we put in front of ourselves, we put in front of ourselves. In other words – let me see if I can explain this – you know, we are very fearful creatures. We’re fearful when we come into the world as children, because the world is so overwhelming. And then we have to make all these complicated decisions about the morals or purpose or this or that or the other. And we’ve been taught to be afraid of making mistakes. And we cover that up with a lot of other stuff. We cover it up with our possessions and our popularity and our, you know, whatever it is, our addictions of various kinds. And, you know, one of the things I think that God, in God’s wisdom – and as a Christian, I can say through Christianity – but I know God’s present throughout the universe and throughout the world, but you know, you just don’t have to worry about as many things as we choose to worry about.
I mean, it’s sort of like if, you know, if God is for us, who can be against us? And that’s a very profound form of freedom. Like for example, you go out and you run for office and you make some mistakes and you say something stupid, or you don’t run, and then what is that? I mean, I ran for governor two years ago; now we’re 25 years later. And, you know, people would say, “Well, you know, aren’t you afraid that you might lose?” And I said, “So what? I mean if I lose, the only thing that will have happened is that I won’t be governor, and I’m not governor now. So, how terrible is that? I’m just taking an opportunity to talk about what I care about, what I think so many of us care about, but we often neglect to talk about, because we’re afraid of what people will think of us.
So, I think. . . now, you want to add to that. But the world is, creation is groaning in agony. I mean, we’re just destroying a planet for idiotic and unnecessary reasons, out of fear, out of greed, out of stupidity, out of cruelty. We’re destroying each other. We’re, you know, it’s heartbreaking to me: Almost everything that happens within the human domain is caused by our fears and our own lack of trust in each other or in God and so forth. And, you know, the Christian message is there is nothing to fear. I mean, that’s why when all of the angels appear in the gospel stories or any other stories, first thing they say is, “Do not be afraid, do not be afraid.” And to go back to Paul, you know there’s nothing that can separate us and that includes death.
And one of the things I think is really wrong with our society, our modern society, is it is utterly terrified and primitive in thinking about death. And so, what do we do? We pretend it’s not, it doesn’t exist, while at the same time, we’re fascinated by violence and by death, so that we just seem incredibly ill-equipped to face life as it really is. And I’d like to tell a story that I, when we spoke yesterday, if you don’t mind, about coming to this realization in a new way. So, when I was probably in my early forties, Senator John Heinz, the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania was killed in a midair plane crash. And for various reasons that have to do with my parents and others, I had come to know Senator Heinz and his family, and I knew his son. And when he died, I wrote his widow and said, “This is obviously an immense and unknowable tragedy, but I’d like to remind you that we were in Easter season. And the core message in Easter is that love and God are stronger than death. Now we don’t know exactly what that means, but even the thing we fear the most can be vanquished. And I just hope that as you go through this extraordinary suffering, that you will allow people to minister to you and allow people to help you.”
Anyway, because of that letter, I suddenly found myself invited to participate in Senator Heinz’s funeral at the National Cathedral. And I was to read some prayers. So, there I am. I’m sitting in this cathedral that holds 3,000 people and I’m waiting for the service to begin and I’m looking out and what do I see? I see everybody that you see in the newspaper every day. I mean, the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, the entire Supreme Court, all the members of the Senate, pretty much the whole House of Representatives. Everybody that in America when it comes to politics who were considered powerful and, you know, famous.
And at the beginning I thought, well, you know, “Look at all this power! It’s amazing.” But, as the service unfolded and you heard the opening words, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and you looked at the faces of all these famous people, including – you know, I’m 15 feet from the President – former presidents and others, I realized that they were kind of lost. I mean, this extraordinary man, handsome and wealthy, you know? I didn’t share all of his politics, but he was a good man. He had suddenly been ripped out of our universe and disappeared. And they had nothing to hang on to. They just looked like terrified people who could not handle how immense this was. And so, it was a kind of shift, if you can imagine one of those balances, you know, the power of the world was present at the beginning, but over time, it diminished into a small, skittish, little group of people. And the majesty and power of the affirmation of God’s nature as Creator, as Redeemer, as Sustainer became evident right there, at least in front of my eyes.
And I realized, yeah, you can be anything you want. You can have any title in front of your name you want, and you can [inaudible], but in the end, we’re mortal and we’re broken. And we need to be free from those fears. And that recognition has never left me. And it was very much consistent with the kind of things Henri talked about experiencing. But, you know, in the end we’re talking about something so much more infinitely vast and powerful and healing than what we’re familiar with, that it offers a huge restorative power, not just for individuals, but that we can share, that we can bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. And that’s one of the core things. So, that’s an example of, you know, experiencing the reality, power and strength of the gospel in real human life that we go sailing by on TV. And, you know, I watch silly stuff on my computer, and then you go sailing by all that stuff. But the reality of life is filled with the dignity and beauty and strength that we neglect to recognize or that we don’t know how to recognize. Anyway, you’ve got me up in the pulpit now.
Karen Pascal: Preach it, brother. My goodness. One of the things that I have seen in your life, obviously you cared about economic disparity and we are living in a very interesting moment with a protest that’s not just captured America, but captured the world, a response to a death that was visible to all and unjust. And we have been in the habit of policing poverty rather than problem-solving it. What can you say to this time that we’re going through and what would you say to those people that are on the street and protesting? And I hope it’s not going to pass. I hope it’s not a moment. I hope it’s really the beginning of a new era.
Bob Massie: Well, the first thing I would say is, “be not afraid.” I mean, human history is actually remarkably short and we’ve gone through some pretty awful periods, but we’re still here and we’re unfinished. And the call that I was talking about briefly before, that there’s a calling for justice, we’re invited, we are asked, we are summoned to serve, to bring justice into the world. But we also are offered the gift of mercy. So, you know, this isn’t one thing that happens and then it falls off the news. Here are eternal problems, and you can find them in the Hebrew scripture. And so, yes, we are now in the middle of not an entertainment culture or a greed culture. We have to focus on a justice culture – and people have not been willing to do that.
And in fact, we’ve spent an enormous amount of time constructing arguments, why everything that is, is the way it should be. A lot of economics is simply justifying inequality. And you know, that’s shocking, but we do it. So, but every now and then – and my wife uses the term – we face a reckoning, you know, where you’re suddenly like, all of those words and excuses and all that stuff falls away. And we get to see and kind of make in clarity, what is it that we’re actually saying and doing. And the answer is “not enough.” And in fact, the outrage that people are feeling is not only legitimate, it’s long overdue. However, you expressed a concern that it could all get shoved back under the rug, under the bed and forgotten. And obviously that’s what a lot of people would like to happen, is to have it all go away or to pretend that this is all somebody else’s mistake or, you know, whatever.
But I would say that this reckoning and this moment of calling is, what are we going to do individually? How are you going to allow this moment to change you and to change the world that you live in, that we live in? Or are you going to just, you know, go back down the gopher hole and say, “Wow, that was awful. And I hope I never have to deal with that again.” So, there are these moments and I think we see this in the life of Jesus. I mean, when I first read about Jesus, I expected him to be this really sweet guy who went around, urging everybody to love each other and, you know, walking around in his night robe. But he’s not like that. He’s a passionate warrior of the Spirit, so to speak, for justice, for mercy, for honesty, for clarity and for healing.
So, I also think that the political situation in the United States is shocking. I mean, we’re betraying our secular principles as well as our religious principles. And without getting directly into politics, we have to reaffirm what it is we believe in, or the United States is going to be a little, 250-year-old blip in human history that will be forgotten. It will be forgotten because we couldn’t live up to our own principles and perhaps it should be forgotten. And we’re being tested right now. So, that’s kind of how I view it. But I want to go back to “do not be afraid.” Yes, what’s being done is horrific. And the anger that comes from recognizing how long and persistent this has been is legitimate. But we still have a long way to go and we have a long way to go with each other. And that’s what I think, you know, we’re called to do.
And Henri was often invited to sit in a nice, little religious box, where he said nice things to nice people. And they all went away thinking, “Boy, that was sweet.” And they don’t hear the calling that I think Henri did everything he could, to try to point to. This isn’t just about receiving something nice from God and then going home, like from a birthday party. No. It is about committing to the way of life that resonates with the love that created the whole universe. And you know, it’s nothing short of that, and there’s nothing more exciting than that, even if it’s incredibly painful.
Karen Pascal: I want you to tell me just briefly, so that our audience can tune into this, because you’re doing some exciting podcasts on video right now. How can people see those? We’ll put a link in our notes to them, but what do you call them?
Bob Massie: The podcast, which is a video podcast – you can watch us talking or you can just listen to them on various streaming [platforms]. It’s called ‘Creating the World We Want’. And this is where the work that I do, and my wife’s work – my wife’s a designer and an architect. And often our failure to make changes, because we simply can’t imagine the way the world is. It’s the way it’s always been and the way it’s always going to be, but we should in our own personal lives and in our communal lives say, “Well, what do we really want?” What is it that we – you know, it’s not just that we came here and got stuck here and we leave. How do we want to co-create with God? How do we want to be not just subjects of divine authority, but participants in this magnificent, immense universal story that’s unfolding?
And so, what we do, it’s not a particularly religious show, but I have invited . . . there’s clergy and we talk about these fundamental issues of moral values and how they play out in our systemic racism and our relentless failure to address poverty and our failure to provide housing and healthcare, which obviously is something I know I’ve experienced quite a bit. So, it’s designed in the same way we talked about at the beginning, to offer a moment for us to step back from all the reasons those things can’t happen and say, well, let’s worry about what can or can’t happen later. Let’s ask the aspirational question first: Who do we want to be? What do we want our world to become? What is the world we want to create? And so, you can find it at CreatingtheWorldWeWant.org. It’s also on Apple music, it’s on Spotify and you know, we’re just getting it off the ground. So, I hope people will investigate it and hopefully it will be something even bigger in a couple of years, if that’s what’s meant to be.
Karen Pascal: You’ve certainly given us good food for thought, and I’m really going to encourage people to go there. When I picked up the phone and called you a week or two ago, asking if you’d do this podcast, there were a lot of things that I did not know about, but the very first thing you said to me was you were turning 64 and it reminded you of Henri, because of course, Henri, that was the length of his life. And I found it interesting, when I looked in your story that you wrote within Befriending Life. You wrote about how you had asked Henri because you didn’t anticipate that you might have a long life. You were concerned because you’d known what it was to have health challenges. So, you’d asked Henri if he would pass on to your children, what your faith had meant to you, if he’d make it real to them.
And he promised he would do that. And then you literally lost him in a moment that you had played a good part in as well, way back in 1986. You were the one – you and your family – were the one that brought Henri to Russia, where he apparently spent days in front of The Return of the Prodigal Son. And I think your mother had a good part in making sure that he was allowed to stay there with his own chair and he could study it. And we all know that out of that came probably most powerful book that Henri wrote, The Return of the Prodigal Son – or the most popular one. But I’m just curious. Here you are, now, at this point you played an important role in Henri’s life. It’s not just that he played a role in your life. You know, that is good friendship, isn’t it? I mean, it’s that you inspired each other and you led each other forward, but here at 64, this is an important moment. What would you say now?
Bob Massie: Well, the first thing I’d say is thanks be to God. I mean, it’s you know, because of the injections from hemophilia, I was exposed to the HIV virus as you mentioned, very early in 1978, before even people knew it was such a thing, but we know this was [HIV because] they kept samples that they tested many years later. So, I almost died of HIV, but I didn’t. And then I almost died of liver disease, hepatitis C, and I didn’t. And there are many other challenges where I’ve come close to passing through that door that awaits all of us. But it’s true, just statistically, it seemed unlikely that I was going to live much beyond, you know, I thought I might have, at that time, I might have 10 or 15 more years, or maybe radically less. So, I remember we were sitting together, sitting in the car, parked outside of the L’Arche community and we were talking and we were about to plunge into something where he’d be talking all the time and our trip was drawing to a close.
And I said, “Henri, I do have a request.” And I had two young sons at the time. And I said, “Would you speak to them about my faith? Because I think you understand it in a way that few other people do, and I may not be able to communicate that.” And it was a wonderful, very personal moment and he vowed to do it. And then he died, like, a year or two later. And I was actually sitting in church when somebody gave thanks to the life of Henri Nouwen. And I was like, “What? I just talked to him.” So, that sense that, you know, I guess the sense is that the gifts that we’re given and the time that we’re given, there’s an element of finity in everything; we only have so much time and we only eat so many meals.
I mean, you only know so many people. So, each thing is precious. And Henri was wonderful in talking about things like gratitude. And a lot of what he said about gratitude is about maintaining a sense of surprise in the world that we live in, being able to see – we often talked about, you know, you have eyes but you do not see and ears but you do not hear. Henri so much wanted us all to wake up to those sounds and voices and those images and the beauty of the world. And so, I do feel, and as you do, and so many others who have come to care about Henri, that, you know, it’s in some ways, very much like Jesus, although Henri would be kind of shocked if I said that. But you know, that he had to leave so that we could take up what is our piece of this, and then become advocates in the world for the underlying reality and personality of God.
I mean, we’re talking about some things that the human languages don’t even really work, so thank you for raising that. It was a very important moment in my life. And it was a tragic moment in the sense that we experienced a reversal, but obviously neither one of us anticipated. But as I say, you know, I’m turning 64 in August. And you know, now I get to think of what the rich life I was given, and I miss and mourn Henri a great deal. But I had my time with him and I still have his books and he’s not the only person who has been a guide and mentor. And, you know, I’ve reached the point where I think it’s okay for me even to be proud that I have offered things to other people, as he said, it wasn’t just about him changing me; I think I did have an effect on him.
And then all the things that I’ve learned from him have become part of my preaching and how I try to live, you know, I fail at it. But so anyway, thank you for raising it. I mean, meeting Henri helped define my faith and underscore that the gifts that God had given to me were not to be held onto just for my own private use, that they were offered to me precisely that I could offer them back. And I’ve lived enough of my life to feel like, well, occasionally I’ve actually done that. And that gives me a sense of peace.
Karen Pascal: Bob, I just thank you. I think that is so rich. I really do, because I hope that others, as they listen right now, are going to say, “That’s what it’s about. That’s the heart of it.” It’s been inspiring. Thank you.
Bob Massie: Well, thank you so much. And thank you to all the people who are listening. And I’ll just say again, “do not be afraid.” We’re surrounded by the grace and love of God, and we can be windows through which we perceive that in each other. And, you know, there’s discouraging moments and moments of great pain, but in the end, we live in a life blessed by the power and the love of God. And what could be a greater gift than that?
Karen Pascal: Thank you, Bob. This has been good. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. And I’ve learned a lot about Henri. I’ve learned a lot about you. And I think in the midst of it, I’ve learned a lot about God and to be less fearful and probably more courageous, to take on those things that we’re called to. That is also what I take away from today.
We do thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I hope you enjoyed this interview with Bob Massie. He had so many good and valuable, hard-earned truths to pass on to us. If you did enjoy it, please share it with friends and family. We would be grateful if you’d give us a good review or a thumbs-up. For more resources related to today’s episode, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You can find additional content and other related materials, including books to get you started if you’re not familiar with the writings of Henri Nouwen. Or you may wish to send for Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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