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James Earl Massey: Adjusting to God

Being Christian, says a distinguished pastor and theologian, means adjusting our personhood to God’s will and becoming servants to humanity.

November 29, 2010

James Earl Massey has served churches and educational institutions for more than 50 years, walking alongside such seminal leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., and Howard Thurman. The passing of great leaders, he says, does not mean their tradition will die also. According to Massey, a true leader is always giving, always sharing for the sake of the future.

Massey is dean emeritus of Anderson School of Theology in Anderson, Ind. From 1954 to 1976 he served as senior pastor of the Metropolitan Church of God in Detroit. He was dean of the University Chapel Tuskegee University from 1984 to 1989 and dean of Anderson School of Theology from 1989 to 1995.

In his recent book, “Aspects of My Pilgrimage,” Massey pays tribute to the great religious leaders who influenced his life’s journey.

Massey spoke with Faith & Leadership about the meaning of religious leadership and the influence of great leaders he has known. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: Your generation is a bridge to leaders who have passed on, like Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. What does it mean for the African-American church and for American churches in general as this tradition is handed off to a new generation of leadership?

In the economy of God, there has always been a plan to continue what has been started through Jesus Christ and before him what God started in Israel’s life and history. The passing of persons who are in current leadership does not mean that there is not provision for the future. There are those coming on who will take up the mantle when it is necessary. History grabs the person it needs at the moment. You can always trust providence.

Q: Are there personal gifts you received from past leaders, such as King, that you hope could be carried forward?

Dr. King and I were friends and we worked together. From him I drew strength of purpose. There was iron. There was steel in his soul in the sense of a fixed attitude towards life and activity that nothing could shake. Being human, he was discouraged quite often. During the latter years of his life he suffered depression because of the rise of those advocating black power at the same time that he was advocating non-violence. Sometimes on the marches that he led, there were those who tried to interfere with his platform by introducing their own and this disturbed him greatly. In spite of all that, the work that he did found solid ground and the nation was changed.

Always there is opposition in life. No matter how good one’s planning, no matter how good one’s purpose, there is always something that opposes it. That’s what we call evil; leadership at its best depends upon God for its success, in time, through struggle.

Q: I’m struck by King’s own example of responding to evil with reconciliation and forgiveness rather than with anger or retaliation.

It is the teaching of Jesus. There’s something revolutionary and fundamental in the teachings of Jesus that many do not tap into because we don’t have the experience of being disciples well in the church. We think in terms of church membership, church activity rather than church meaning. When the meaning is part of our bedrock understanding, activity grows out of it.

Q: What stands out for you about Howard Thurman?

Howard Thurman was a mentor. I met him when I was in my teens. I was at the University of Detroit at that time. He came to Detroit to preach as part of the Lenten Season and was the guest of the Detroit Council of Churches that sponsored the Lenten services each year.

I heard him on the radio before I saw him in person. That night, when I heard him on the radio, I said, “I’ve got to meet this person.” I skipped school the next day, went down to hear him at Central Methodist Church there in Detroit. I met him after the service and from that time until the day of his death we were in touch with each other. Sometimes we spent whole days together. He was teaching, mentoring me and it was gracious on his part to take in a young fellow like me and help me learn what he had known and lived through the years.

This is a way a true leader does, always giving, always sharing for the sake of the future. That’s leadership.

Q: Much of your leadership work has been investing in the young, at Tuskegee University and then at the Church of God Seminary. What reflections do you have on turning your life inside out for the sake of a younger generation?

It is a part of the grain in my wood. One must do what one feels born to do, which means finding one’s giftedness and letting God guide one in the path where that giftedness can fulfill itself in relation to other people. All gifts from God are for the sake of persons. If we think in terms of gifts as individual and for our own selves and to make money, we don’t understand grace. All that we have comes to us graciously. All that we have has been given to us. Paul said, “Why would I boast about what I’ve been given as if it hasn’t been a gift to me?”

[My] leadership in ministry has been encouraged by examples, by persons who helped to nurture me and by my understanding of how I am to be used in life. I’m to be an agent of the Lord in furthering his ministry among the people that I meet.

Q: You’ve spoken previously about the spirit of Irenaeus tuning us to God. Could you talk about what the image of Irenaeus means for you?

Irenaeus, one of the great church fathers, had so much teaching for the church. At that time the church was undergoing an onslaught of teachings that were in opposition to the teachings that the apostles had given to the church for all time. Irenaeus, in his teaching about the Holy Spirit, was helping his generation understand the function, or the purpose, or the mission or the ministry of the Holy Spirit to our lives.

There’s a teaching abroad now that associates the Holy Spirit only with ecstasy and joy, but the main ministry of the Holy Spirit according to Irenaeus is to adjust us to God. In other words, taking the reigns of human life and adjusting our personhood so that we are becoming more like Jesus and less like Adam, less like the person that ran away from God and more like Jesus who fulfilled God’s will. Adjusting us to God makes us truly Christian, anointed ones like Jesus was. We become like Jesus and we work for him.

This is the main ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, in instructing his disciples during the days after his resurrection, taught them when the spirit of truth has come, he will guide you into all truth and he said, “Wait for the Spirit because he will make you witnesses unto me.” This is our work and this is the work of the Holy Spirit, making us witness for Jesus not only in our words but in our personhood. That’s what Irenaeus had in mind.

Q: How have African-American traditions such as preaching changed over the decades?

African-American preaching at its historic core has remained the same in its emphasis on the main story of scripture -- God at work setting humans free from the bondage of sin, God at work guiding humans in the development of their life, God at work shaping the church, this kind of thing.

On the fringe of this tradition, there is now an emphasis of prosperity. There’s an emphasis on God answering my prayer, name it, claim it, that kind of thing, but that’s on the fringe. At the core of the tradition itself are the emphases on Jesus Christ, his role as redeemer, as rescuer, as a person who is concerned to help us fulfill our life in God’s will. This is the core of preaching itself according to the New Testament.

Q: Has more mainline, liberal preaching changed over the years?

Oh yes. That has changed a great deal. The emphasis for a long time was on therapy, counseling by way of the preaching sermon, a lot of self-help, a lot of culture, a lot of educational emphases, a lot of denominational concerns. At the core of the New Testament there is always the emphasis on Jesus and his role in the world, which is why preaching was established and ordained for the Christian church.

Q: You’ve managed to be friends with a lot of people who aren’t friends with one another. You’ve spent time with evangelicals at places like Asbury and with mainline liberals at places at like Oberlin and Duke. How do you maintain friendships with people who are so different?

Christian love enables me to have a heart wide enough to take in those I meet without seeing any differences. I’m aware of differences of tradition, background, race, all of that, but I don’t feel any different because love is the motivating factor that causes me to reach my hand in fellowship. All I want to know is: Is your heart open enough to receive me? Mine is open enough to receive you. Whether the person is Christian or not does not determine how I relate to them. They are human.

If we both have the same belief system, we have a stronger tie. But even if our orientation is different, I can still find ways to relate because they need me as a human being and I need them.

Howard Thurman puts it like this: Ultimately there is only one place of refuge on this planet for any person and that is in another person’s heart. Therefore, I must make of my heart a swinging door. This is the key to successful community living -- love, appreciation, respect, openness and regard.

Q: You’ve been involved with many theological institutions over the span of your career. Could you tell us how you think about the way institutions bear grace to us?

Institutions are the organized means by which an idea or an ideal makes its way in the world. We formalize the ideal or the idea in such a way that it becomes visible and it becomes rooted and it becomes permanent. Strangely enough, no matter how organized the idea or the ideal is, it undergoes changes as it confronts society, so the institution always has to watch itself lest it lose the ideal that initially motivated it. Everything, even the church, has to be reformed by re-examining whether or not the idea or the ideal is visible in its present form.

Q: How has your work as dean or president at theological institutions, in terms of budgets and ambitions, been influenced by the Christian nature of those organizations?

The Christian part makes a difference in that the rationale of one’s leadership and one’s leadership style is motivated by Christian love and a respect for human beings so that the organization does not become a domineering entity. It becomes a servant entity. Institutions must always serve humanity. It must not dominate them. Everything that relates to human beings must be in their interests; when that changes, the institution becomes a monster and an enemy to human betterment. Governments are the worst culprits when the constitutional form of the government doesn’t allow for the worth of the individual.

Q: Some 15 years ago you worried that Martin Luther King Jr., might have been the last great religious reforming voice in the church in North America. Have there been others since that time?

There are others. Perhaps they’re not as visible, because the press helped to make Martin known worldwide. When he was leading the Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama during the mid-50s, what he was doing was broadcast across the nation and finally across the world.

Q: In a world that is very different than it was in King’s day, what should voices aspiring to be forces for religious reform be advocating for?

They should be advocating for equal rights worldwide. Nations are still dominating human beings in such a way that class and wealth count too greatly; people are being mistreated.

Martin Luther King’s message is just as vital today as it was when he was here. There are changes in our legal system due to what he did, but there are other parts of the world and parts of America that have not yet put that into full action so that wealth doesn’t become a barrier to human kindness and human relationships. Our present state shows the extent to which human selfishness has brought us to this crisis. That’s a shame and we can’t get beyond partisanism.

Right now in our voting we’ve been conditioned to selfishness. I’m not saying anything in favor of one party or the other. I’m talking about what hinders us from coming together as people.

Q: So given what worries you, what gives you hope?

That God is still in control of his world and that as long as history continues there is room for change. I would not give up on humanity because I don’t give up on God.

Q: In our culture following President Obama’s election, will there be a role for historically black colleges and universities such as Tuskegee?

I foresee the continuance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) because of the vast meaning of nurturing those who have a history of victimization in America. It takes a long time to go against what has happened. There are others who were raised in a more bicultural society who feel at home in institutions that are non-HBCU and there are different ways of handling the educational process. One makes one’s choice as to which way one goes depending upon what one intends to do with one’s life.

Q: When historian John Hope Franklin died and President Clinton eulogized him here at Duke, he described him as an angry-happy man and a happy-angry man -- having experienced racism and not being conquered by it but rather approaching life with a kind of buoyancy. How does one do that?

John Hope Franklin was a renaissance man; a man whose mind was as broad as his experiences had been, a man whose sense of pride was deeper than the ocean, a man whose ambition was higher than the tallest mountain. That kind of spirit cannot be squelched.

The memory of the scars of his youth gave him a sensibility about what life can mean. His intellect shaped him to deal with all that had happened in such a way that others would understand it so that they could be persuaded not to live that way and not to respond as victims. His anger had a part of his psyche but his ambition was in control, so he maintained his balance.

He could speak his mind and he did. In his book “Mirror to America,” he told his life story, not all of what he had gone through but the major instances that had shaped his thought. He helped America see itself so that America could redeem itself. There are still pockets in America that have not yet discovered what equality is all about. I’m a better person for having known him.

Q: What allows some religious leaders to work through the decades with joy and faithfulness, compared to the ones who burn out before the race is run?

The difference is the way they keep spiritual values in focus. Spiritual reality is a key to a serene and happy life; we must not look at the things that are seen. We must live by the things that are unseen, which calls for a true faith in God. As long as a person has that there is a steadiness and surety by which they can live. After all, in the beginning, God, and in the end, God and in between, God; that’s the secret.