Burn Your Own Wood, Massey Advises Preachers
by Sean Flynt
Dr. James Earl Massey concluded a three day lecture series at Samford's Beeson Divinity School March 4.
Massey, Dean Emeritus and Distinguished Professor-at-Large of Anderson University School of Theology, and winner of Preaching magazine's 1998 Book of the Year award (The Burdensome Joy of Teaching,) returned to Samford for his third engagement in the William E. Conger, Jr. Lectures on Biblical Preaching.
Massey's lectures covered a variety of topics related to the larger theme of "The Poetics of Preaching," including "Our Great Confession," "Centered Creativity and "Engaged Eagerness.
Massey's March 2 lecture on the creative process of shaping sermons attracted to Hodges Chapel a large and responsive audience. Vocal agreement and encouragement echoed Massey's every point, even as the highly-regarded preacher warned against dependence on the responsiveness of an audience. Massey also reflected on the burden of the calling to preach, readiness to preach, individuality and even details such as whether to preach extemporaneously or with detailed notes.
In an age of instant celebrity, even among pastors, Massey also warned of the "magnifying glass" that comes with such attention. As a reminder of even the famous preacher's mission, Massey quoted Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore: "Blessed is he whose fame does not outshine his truth."
Even so, Massey emphasized the individuality of the calling to preach, and repeatedly encouraged listeners to "be who you are" at a time when it is easy to be someone else, changing to suit a given audience or using secondhand inspiration and words from more gifted preachers.
"We look at other preachers who seem to do it better than we do, and we wish we could do it as well," Massey said. But, he added, "woe be to the preacher who becomes so seduced as to think that he or she is the standard by which all others must be judged."
Massey noted that he inherited the sermons and notes of his renowned mentor, Howard Thurman, and although he finds inspiration there, he does not use the manuscripts in his own preaching. "Never use somebody else's sermon," he said.
To illustrate his point, Massey recounted a strange coincidence from his service in Jamaica. As a local television channel signed off for the evening a pastor delivered a religious message that sounded very familiar. As he listened, Massey realized that he was hearing one of his own published sermons.
Massey wondered how that Jamaican pastor--and, by extension, any other pastor who appropriates the work of his colleagues-- would feel if confronted by the author. "Light your fire wherever you find flame," Massey advised his audience, "but burn your own wood."