God and the Self, an Interview by Lydia Talbot

All of us know the Psalms as Israel’s “songbook,” a rich collection of Hebrew hymns, chants, prayers and devotions. Psalm 19, our text for today, is one of those psalms. Reading it, one feels the pulse beat of someone’s life with God. Advised by it, one senses promise for one’s own life.

The psalm begins with a celebrative declaration, a declaration uttered in awe before God:

The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day by day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice (or, line) goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1-4a).

In a later century the Apostle Paul echoed the psalmist’s word of witness, even asserting that no human can honestly dismiss the obvious evidences all around us that God exists, and that God is exceedingly creative and worthy of human praise. Here is Paul’s statement from Romans 1:19-20: For what can be known about God is plain to (humans), because God has shown it to them.

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

In our day, when we humans are prone to celebrate human ingenuity that (at most) multiplies gadgets in the interest of novelty, greater convenience — and commercial gain, it is important to remind ourselves that we are so dependent upon the world of Nature, a nature God shaped for our needs. This understanding can sensitize us further regarding the greatness and unchanging goodness of God.

The late Willard L. Sperry, long-time dean of the Harvard Divinity School, used to tell about how his idea of God broadened during his early ministry. While serving as associate to an older pastor, young Sperry was surprised to hear the pastor preach a sermon to the congregation about recent developments in astronomy. On the Monday morning after that sermon, Sperry asked the senior pastor what use could that exalted subject serve to a people whose daily activities and concerns seemed so remote to it. Exercising the privilege of age, and the benefit of wisdom, Pastor Adams answered that while the subject might seem of little or no use at all, it could greatly enlarge one’s idea of God. As the younger minister thought about this he realized, for the first time, how much an enlarged idea of God provides the right framework for the rest of one’s religious understandings. The psalmist understood this, thus his awe as he contemplated the heavens above and the earth beneath.


But nature is not God’s only witness, nor is it God’s best witness. In verses 7-11 we overhear the psalmist commenting about God’s more direct address to humankind in the Holy Scriptures. Some scholars have suggested that verses 7-11 should be understood as a supplement added later to the previous six verses which originally were a short hymn extolling God’s work in nature. That might well have been the case, but if so, then the psalmist showed great and profound insight by uniting these two units, because their themes belong together. It is one thing to experience awe in the presence of nature, but it is quite another experience to be personally addressed by a searching, revealing Word from God.

The psalmist confessed the impact of Scripture upon his life. He understood God’s word as “Law” giving direction for living; as “testimony” packed with wisdom for the simple. He knew God’s word as “precepts,” those necessary obligations by which righteousness can prevail, and as “commandments” which grant insight for constructive behavior. Verse 9 tells us that the psalmist knew God’s word to the covenant people as “ordinances,” each and every one issued and sanctioned by divine authority. “Moreover,” he added, “by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (vs. 11).

The divine Word to the Hebrews, handed on to us, and meant for all, does embrace laws, decrees, testimonies, precepts, commands, and varied ordinances — but there is more: there is in the divine word to us many heart-inspiring, life-sustaining promises by which we are encouraged and reassured for life in this world.


But this psalm tells us something more than what it is to feel awed and addressed by God. As the psalm ends in verses 12-14, we see the psalmist answering the God who has addressed him. We see the psalmist praying, asking for God’s help to handle some needs that became apparent when the word from God searched his heart: “Clear me from hidden faults” (vs. 12b). The psalmist was wise in his prayer because there are those factors and forces within each and all of us of which we are not usually conscious until they betray their presence in some troubling, embarrassing, and sometimes shameful way. Yes, the psalmist was wise to ask God for help because it is only by direct help from God that we gain needed help to handle the demands made upon by life in this kind of world.

Saint Ambrose, one of the esteemed Latin fathers of the Church during the fourth century (c. 339-397), understood this. Here is a line of entreaty from one of the hymns he fashioned:

Drive from our souls all darkness,
All thoughts and dreams of ill,
Be thou our guide and master,
And be thy law our will.
God is always eager to answer such a prayer, and the Scriptures encourage us so to pray.


The New Testament message is that God honors such prayers, and that God gives us help for living through the rescuing and sustaining ministry of Jesus — the God-given Mediator, Savior, exemplar and Lord.

Carl Boberg, a Swedish minister, was celebrating these benefits in the 1880′s when he penned some lines which have become one of the best-loved hymns in the Christian world. Inspired by the greatness of God as revealed in creation, Boberg wrote:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

But like the psalmist, humbled by the goodness and grace of God, Boberg went further in his praise, for he had experienced the unmatched favor and unmerited forgiveness that salvation brings. So he exclaimed:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Anyone who has experienced God in forgiveness rightfully rejoices and understandably sings — for the deepest human need has been met and one’s life has been put on the right track. The psalmist wanted to continue in God’s favor, thus the prayer at the close of his psalm:

Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (vs. 14).

Interview with James Earl Massey

Interviewed by Lydia Talbot

Talbot: Dr. Massey, in your earlier message you touched on the importance of enlarging one’s view of God. That has got to be essential in understanding faith and the religious underpinnings of Christianity.

Massey: Yes, it has to be because one’s view of God controls one’s understanding of the world. It shapes the way one responds to the details of life.

Talbot: What was it for you? What was that moment, that revelatory experience for James Earl Massey that got you to approach God and theological understandings in that respect?

Massey: I suppose growing up in a Christian home where my father and my mother led us in daily devotions, and in watching their lives and the way they responded to life, enabled me to get a glimpse of God by seeing the grandeur of His greatness in my parents. I still think that is fundamental for teaching about God. God must be understood in connection with human personality.

Talbot: In the family, growing up in Detroit, Michigan, what was the church there?

Massey: The church was a vital, vibrant experience of fellowship and one got to know exciting personalities, not only preachers who would come, but the members themselves were exciting persons. I grew up understanding what it meant to have greatness all around me and I aspired because I saw it in other lives.

Talbot: I can picture you as a small boy growing up in that church, nurtured by the pastor and the parishioners, but tell me about the hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” You referred to it earlier and I suspect you learned that in church in Detroit.

Massey: I think I learned it a little later than my years in Detroit. I learned it by first hearing it sung by George Beverly Shea, but the song has a history that goes way back to the 1880′s, as I indicated in the message. Boberg hardly knew the future of what he was writing, but it passed down into German and then into Russian and finally was translated into English. Stuart K. Hine and his wife, British missionaries, made it have a wider circulation, and George Beverly Shea came to know the song and spread it throughout the Christian world. The message of the song I learned in other songs, because we have one in our own heritage, in the Church of God, that is very much like it. Every time I think of Boberg’s words, I think of the words of one of our songs which has the same message, moving from creation theology to the inner-experience of hearing and meeting with God. It is a vital thing. I learned about it earlier than the song, but the song encapsulates it so well for me.

Talbot: You refer to it in the context of forgiveness, discovering or experiencing God’s forgiveness in one’s life. As you look back at your many years in ministry, your incredible journey and pilgrimage and achievements, what meaning has that taken on for you personally?

Massey: Forgiveness. The joy of living is sensed only when one has been freed from the burden of guilt, and when one has discovered how to obey the commands. If one falls in love with God, it is easy to obey God. I learned that, too, as a boy growing up. My father was such a great man and such a generous man that I learned about God’s generosity and God’s greatness by watching my father. There was never anything I wanted or needed that my father did not get for me. Thereby, I learned about God through my father’s actions. My experience in being a son of that kind of father enabled me to have a wide and deep vision of God as the one who gives and forgives. I never did anything that my father could not forgive, but being forgiven by my father so softened my heart that I did not ever want to displease him, and so I grew up wanting to live for God in the same way.

Talbot: You must have experienced significant encouragement and support and affirmation by your parents. Certainly they must have been proud of your accomplishments — Who’s Who in Religion, Educators in America and graduate of Oberlin Seminary, dean of many schools from Tuskegee to Kingston. What was the call for you? What was that moment when you decided to go into ministry?

Massey: It happened in a worship service. I was sitting in the service. I was studying music at the time. I was a student at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, a piano student, and I had brought with me a score of Chopin. I would sit and read music so that I could study the structure and then when I got to the piano, I would have an easy entrance into playing it. That morning as I sat in the worship service, I had to fold up my score because God spoke to my heart. Even as you and I are speaking now, in my inner-consciousness God spoke to me just as definitely, and He said to me, “I want you to preach.” I turned to the young lady sitting beside me — who just happened to be sitting beside me; we weren’t related at all — and I blurted out, interrupting her worship, “You know what I am going to do?” She said, “No, James, what?” I said, “I am going to be a preacher.” She said, “That’s marvelous. That’s marvelous.” That was my encouragement.

Talbot: Who are some of the contemporary role models for you? Who has inspired you along the way?

Massey: In addition to my father and my pastor, there was Howard Thurman, a noted religious leader of our time, who just died in 1981. He was the kind of man who, like my father, took time with me and encouraged me, reassured me, taught me. That is the kind of person that I knew as I grew up.

Talbot: I suspect there is somebody else in your life who has been essentially important. You told me earlier that you had been married for 43 years and that you are still on your honeymoon.

Massey: I still am on my honeymoon.

Talbot: And your wife?

Massey: Actually, I met her at church. We were fourteen at the time. She had just come from Alabama to live in Detroit with her sister, and I was visiting her church that evening, attending a youth fellowship meeting. I saw her standing on the stairs of the church and something happened within my heart, literally. I asked the young man standing beside me, “Who is she?” He told me her name and I blurted out what seemed to have been prophetic, I said, “She is going to be my wife.”

Talbot: It was instant.

Massey: It was instant. Love at first sight.

Talbot: Love at first sight, and a life-time partnership in the ministry with you. In the few seconds that we have left, Dr. Massey, what advice do you give to young people today who may feel the call to ministry?

Massey: My first suggestion is to pray and get to know God as intimately as they know their friends, to study God’s word so that one can understand God’s message to us with clarity.

Talbot: Thank you for that clear and inspirational vision of ministry today, Dr. Massey.

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