By Timothy George
July 25, 2016
I first heard the voice of James Earl Massey when I was a theological student at Harvard Divinity School and he was the stated preacher for the Christian Brotherhood Hour, a weekly international broadcast sponsored by the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). In those days, homiletics was not a regular part of the curriculum at Harvard. As a young minister with a small pastoral charge, I was eager to learn all I could about the craft of preaching, especially in a multi-racial, inner-city congregation. James Earl Massey was different than any other radio preacher I had ever heard. His diction was perfect, his command of the English language was superb, and his style was lively and compelling, though never marked by ostentation. He also had a way of getting on the inside of a biblical text, of unraveling it, so to speak, not the way a botanist would study a leaf in a laboratory, but like a great singer offering a distinctive rendition of a famous song.
Music is an apt analogy for Massey’s preaching. Early on he received advanced training in classical piano and had all the makings of a refined concert artist. The modalities of music—rhythm, pitch, tone, phrasing, cadence, melody, mood—also apply to the work of the preacher, and Massey is a master of them all. When his career path turned from music to the ministry, the world lost a great pianist but gained a magnificent preacher of the Gospel. For Massey, though, preaching is never a mere performance, however well honed and powerfully presented. The sermon is more a deliverance than a performance: What is said is more important than how we say it, though these two aspects can never be completely divorced.
In any event, Massey was propelled into his life’s work by a palpable sense of divine calling. As a young man of sixteen, he had come to the sanctuary of the Church of God of Detroit one Sunday morning with the score of a waltz by Chopin in his hands, intending no doubt to work on his musical assignment if the sermon proved boring! In his autobiography, Aspects of My Pilgrimage, Massey describes what happened next: “But during a brief let-up in my concentration on the score, I found myself being captured by the spirit of the worship occasion. As I honored the meaning of the worship hour and opened myself to God, I felt caught up into an almost transfixed state, and I heard a Voice speaking within my consciousness: ‘I want you to preach!’” In that “great listening moment of grace,” the trajectory of Massey’s life was re-directed. As he puts it, “The Voice that called me was so clear, and its bidding, though gentle, bore the unmistakable authority of a higher realm.” Read the rest at First Things.