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Monday, April 24, 2017

The New Yorker Magazine Journalist MACY HALFORD writes a memoir about her quest into Oswald Chambers and "My Utmost For His Highest"

Christal Cooper

Macy Halford: 
My Utmost A Devotional Memoir
“Finding Identity Through The Little Black Dress of Books that can bridge the gap of two worlds”

       Dallas, Texas native Macy Halford was reared in a lifestyle of Timothy – without a father and depending on her mother and grandmother for spiritual guidance.  

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.
--2 Timothy 1:5

She and her two younger siblings (brother Preston and sister Alexandra) were reared by their grandmother, Marjorie Macy Rutledge and mother, Deborah Rutledge-Hilkmann in the evangelical faith. 

They attended the very conservative Southern Baptist Church, The First Baptist Church of Dallas, every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night where they would hear Pastor Wally Amos Criswell preach from the Bible, something he did at the same church for 55 years.


       They also reared her on the importance of the Bible and the second most important book of all My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers. 


       Her grandmother, known as Nana, read the Utmost every morning and every night.  She told her granddaughter Macy what made Utmost so good was because it was real.

“Yes.  You know what I mean.  It’s all about Jesus.”
“Is it?”  I said.  This was curious to me.  “Isn’t it about
a lot of things?”
“No.  It’s about Jesus,” my grandmother said.  “That’s why I like it.”

       To Macy, Utmost was more than just a book but also a ritual, a habit that she witnessed both her mother and grandmother read every single night at 9 p.m.

I recalled the feeling, when I would spy on my mother and my grandmother during their devotions, that the atmosphere in their bedrooms was much altered from what it was at other times, and all because of the fact that they had a certain book open on their knees and were locked into it.  Time slowed around them, grew palpable.  They grew powerful.

                                                  Girl With Basket of Plums attributed to Emile Munier

       Macy’s first memory of Jesus Christ was at the age of two when she learned how to sing this song:

I am a C
I am a C-H
I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N
And I have C-H-R-I-S-T
In my H-E-A-R-T
And I will L-I-V-E- E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y.

       As a young girl Macy had accepted Jesus as Personal Lord and Savior and become saved, which according to the tenants of the Southern Baptist faith, guaranteed her eternity in Heaven with the Trinity God.

       It wasn’t until she was 13 years old that she was baptized, which Baptist teach is the first step of obedience after one becomes saved.  Her baptism experience was not a good one since she wanted to be baptized in the church but succumbed to the pressure of being baptized at church camp.

The one night at church camp, a counselor had given me an ultimatum: either I would agree to be baptized in the swimming pool with the other dawdlers, or I would make peace with the fact that I’d been choosing against Jesus my entire life, and He knew it.  I hadn’t heard logic like this expressed before, but it was effective, and on Saturday night, beneath steady stars and flickering neon lights, I was baptized.   It was a stressful experience.

                     Matthew 3:13-17

The one highlight of that August night of 1992 was when her grandmother presented her with her first copy of My Utmost For His Highest.
Macy explains further in an email interview dated April 11, 2017:   “It was presented to me by my grandmother on the occasion of my baptism, a rite that took place in a swimming pool in the plains of East Texas. I remember shivering—it was cold for an August night—and looking with blurred eyes as she extended her hand, saying she hoped the book would guide me on my walk.  

I’d taken the gift and opened it, careful not to drip water on the pages. It was, I thought, the most beautiful book I’d ever seen, slender and soft and covered in midnight-blue leatherette, with gilded lettering that seemed to embody the dignity and mystery of the title. At thirteen, I’d had an intense longing for these things—beauty, mystery, dignity—but as yet had found few works that captured them.

That year, I read Wuthering Heights over and over, and watched Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet on repeat.  To my unpracticed ears, the ornate language of Utmost sounded nearly Shakespearean (in fact, it belonged to the late-Victorian period, in which its author had come of age).

For the next two years Utmost sat on her beside table, until the summer she turned fifteen, the same summer she visited Paris, France taking Utmost with her.

“I first started reading My Utmost for His Highest, the 1927 daily devotional by the Scottish preacher Oswald Chambers, the summer I was fifteen and for many years I read it aspirationally, believing that one day, when I was old enough, all its mysteries would be revealed.”

       It was The Book, the one I reached for first, always, I used it in the way I knew many people at my church used it (for it was from them that I’d first learned how to read Utmost, in a manner that was close to praying), turning to it each day for a concentrated dose of spirituality, meditating on its insights, committing them to memory. 

       At the age of eighteen, she moved to New York, taking My Utmost with her. 

There she attended Barnard College where she majored in medieval history, graduating in 2000. 

For the next four years she lived in New York earning a living as a nanny until she got the job as copy editor for The New Yorker in October of 2004.  She moved on to the Web department where she wrote and edited a blog about fiction books.   

       Her life In New York made her realize how different she was from her fundamental church, and other fundamental Christians, not that they believed in different things, but because they deemed intelligent thinking a direct contradiction to what the Bible taught.  Macy believed the Bible taught one to think outside the box, to question his or her faith, because it is through thinking outside the box and questioning one’s faith that one’s relationship with the Trinity God grows even stronger.

       As a result Macy felt isolated from the conservative political right and the conservative religious right. 

       The difference went all the way down.  I didn’t seem to think as these Christians thought.  Yet the difference wasn’t total, and therein lay the dilemma.  I still recognized myself in my Southern Baptists – the earliest, closest version of myself, the girl whose visions had fueled the adventure – and when they prayed aloud, in a church service or a Bible study, I heard in their prayers echoes of my own.  Surely, we were speaking the same God.

       As a result, Macy found herself on a quest of defining her identity, which had different layers and meanings.  Her mother compared her to Esther, who hid her Jewish heritage from her husband the King, but yet never abandoned her Jewish heritage/family or denied her Jewish faith.  Macy disagreed with her mother because she felt Esther lived in a time where one’s culture and one’s honor to her God were synonymous. 

                                Esther Painting attributed to Edward Long 

 I’d been taught early to turn to Scripture in moments of difficulty and had often found sustenance there.  But when I went looking through the Bible for examples of people trying to perform the kind of cultural tightrope walk that defined my adult life, no single hero or heroine emerged. 

       Instead Macy found her identity in two people Ruth and Orpah from the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of Naomi who faces the death of her two sons.  Naomi gives her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah the choice of going back to their families or staying with her.  Orpah chooses to go back to her family and Ruth chooses to remain by Naomi’s side: 

Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge:
Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried”
The Lord do so do me, and more also, if ought but death part there and me.
--Ruth 1:16

       To me, it was Ruth and Orpah, two faces on a two-faced coin.  That coin was inside me, turning and turning, and had been for a long time.  Perhaps the issue would have resolved itself had it ever been forced by external pressures, but although I lived (as all Americans did) in the midst of a very old and ongoing culture war, it was generally easy for me to avoid confrontation. This was the benefit, and perhaps the curse, of living in a secular society in which freedom of religious expression was both paramount and tricky to exercise – or rather to enjoy – in the common, secular sphere.  It was like a currency one could not spend.  Of my many friends in New York who had grown up religious, there were only two who practiced now, the rest having accepted the obvious: that it was extremely difficult to bridge two warring worlds.

Her life took a turning point when her mother insisted that she attend a women’s Christian publishing event at New York in the Keens Steakhouse on West Thirty-sixth Street.    

Macy was hoping to find more “kindred spirits” in the group of Christian women but was confronted with ten women wearing red blazers, gold-cross necklace, and tiny flag pins.  She felt self-conscious with her head-to-toe black attire, enormous horn rimmed glasses, plum lipstick, and frizzy French style bun.  She decided to keep her “secular” job at The New Yorker a secret.  

Then each woman was asked to give examples of how the Lord blessed her on the job and how the Lord challenged her on the job.  When it came to Macy’s turn she had no choice but to reveal that she worked for the secular, sinful, non-Christian liberal God forbid The New Yorker magazine.

‘How impressive.
“You must be the only Christian!”
“Why were they so mean about W?”
“You’re such an Esther!”
“They were mean, weren’t they!”
“How lucky we are to have you there!”
“That’s a Jewish magazine, isn’t it?”

Soon the leader of the group Rhonda asks Macy
if she would recommend Christian material for her to read and she recommends My Utmost For His Highest.  Rhonda tells Macy that Utmost is her favorite book:  “It’s like the little black dress of books!”


       After Rhonda reads a devotional from September 14th to the small group of women she gives a mini sermon on that devotional, where she urges to group of women that in order to be of use to God one must be “spiritually real.”  Macy approaches Rhonda and asks her what she meant by “spiritually real.”

       “Oh, well you know real.  It means that you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord of all.  That you trust Him totally, instead of trusting the wisdom of the world.  Also that you’ve been tried and tested – that’s very important.”
“And how do you know if you’re real?”
“Oh, Macy,” she said sadly.  She shook her head, “If you’re real, you just know.”
We stood for a moment at the tope of the stairs.
“You should read Oswald,” she went on.  “He’s very good on this question.”
“I’ve been reading him for fifteen years,” I told her.
“Then I guess you better keep reading him.”

As she is walking down the New York Street at night
she remembers the comment her mother always made about Utmost, “The only people who were real could understand it.”  She calls her mom on her cell and asks her mom what she meant.

  “I guess what I meant is you got the good, you got the bad.  You’ve got both sides, you’ve seen them, you know they’re in you, you know that the only thing in existence that can save you from the bad is Christ.  You know what it’s like.  It’s like that movie Black Swan.  She’s got the bad in her and the good and she doesn’t know what to do about it.  Of course, the ending was ridiculous.  She’s like “Perfection is possible.” Please.  Not this side of heavy honey.  And then she dies.”

       Macy also confides in colleague Tom about the events that happened at the ladies meeting and he gives her sound advice:

       “Replace hypotheticals with facts.  What’s the deal with this book?  What do you know about the guy who wrote it, about his context?  Maybe you’re not the one’s who reading him wrong.”

       Macy takes her friend’s advice and decides that she needs to go on this spiritual quest- to find out who Oswald Chambers his, so she can find out more of who the Trinity God is, and have a better understanding of who she is.  She saves enough money to last her six months, sublets her Queens apartment, quits her job at The New Yorker and moves to Paris.

       She resides in a boarding house in Paris, located on the Fourth Arrondissement on the Boulevard Henry IV.  Her room the brightest white consisting of a high ceiling, twin mattress, large window, shower, an armoire, a desk, a sink, and an old microwave oven.  

       It is here as well as at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, that she asks the important questions:  Was Oswald a Baptist, an evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic, non denominational?  What did Oswald mean by the terms “actual” and “real” and what are the differences between the two?   How did Oswald manage to balance his life as an artist/intellectual to that of the spiritual life focused on Christ?  How did Oswald view the Holy Bible?   How did Oswald view Satan and Hell?  How much of Oswald is in the Utmost for His Highest or how much of it is his widow Biddy?  How did Oswald view baptism?  How did Oswald define the Trinity of God? What was Oswald like?

And more personally how can she live a joyful meaningful life without denying her love for Christ and denying her natural born gift to think outside the box?  

       The process is studious, insidious, and painstakingly intricate.  She delves into every single aspect of Oswald Chambers’ writings, which include over 50 books and literally thousands of pages as well as research trips to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois; Discovery House in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris, France; and recollects on a previous trip she took to Scotland in 2004.

       Through her research she learns things about Oswald that most people don’t even know.  In fact, most people think of My Utmost For His Highest and Oswald Chambers as synonymous, which is far from the truth.   It is in these discoveries that she learns the intricate, intimate, complex figure of Oswald Chambers. 

       One of the most complex things about Oswald Chambers is that he loved Jesus Christ, and believed that the expression of this love and the expression of the Person Christ is not limited to strictly germane spiritual realms – it could be found in literature, poetry, nature, and even other people who were not Christians.  It is because of Oswald’s ability to see Christ, even in those who did not believe in Him, that His love of Christ was so visual, inviting, and is the supreme subject of My Utmost for His Highest.  

       Utmost is truly a from of spiritual art, and is not one specific person’s book bur rather the book belongs to those who take the time to read the book, and go on his or her own spiritual quest.  We all will reach different destinations and different views, but there are two things that cannot be denied – Oswald’s love for Jesus Christ and the existent of Jesus Christ.

       The most powerful excerpt from Utmost is a conversation (similar to the conversation Jesus and Nicodemus had in John 3: 1-22) that Macy has with an unbeliever as they sit on top of the roof of the boarding house, looking out onto the Paris skyline at night, drinking a cup of wine. 

“Oswald had these great ideas about God that were so free, so freeing. He said that God worked through circumstances and that He worked through chaos – what felt like chaos to us.  He called it “haphazard order.’  It’s kind of a chaos-order that embraces all possibilities, good and awful – even the ‘blackest facts.’  I guess on some level it sounds trite.  You could say his philosophy was something like ‘God moves in mysterious ways,’ or ‘God works everything together for the good’ for the faithful, I mean, because that was a big part of it, this idea that we never needed to worry about the chaos because God was working it all out.  When you study more what he’s saying, you start to see why it’s so freeing.  When he talked about God’s order embracing all possibilities, he didn’t mean only things like natural disasters and historic events, he meant people.  We, each of us, are unique possibilities, none of us predetermined, each of us necessary – have you heard the saying that it takes everything to make a world?  It takes all of us to make God’s world, or rather each of us.  Oswald has this one sermon about how there’s no such thing as ‘humanity,’ that God doesn’t make groups or masses, He makes individuals, each one a ‘single, solitary life.’  That also might sound trite, but if you start thinking about yourself as this haphazard collection of circumstance, stretching back to the beginning of time, encompassing everything that conspired to bring this thing into being, that is you, every event in every one of your ancestors’ lives up to the point they procreated at least, every variation in their always mutating DNA, you begin to understand that you’re as vast as the universe, as incomprehensible and uncontainable as that.  He said that personality was like the tip of an island in the sea:  the true dimensions lie beneath the waves, too grand to be reckoned by anyone but God.  It was important for me, because it meant that nothing in my immediate world had an ultimate claim over me.  Those things had some claim, but not the final claim.  There’s only one authority, Oswald said, and that’s Christ.  Everything else – your tribe or society or family or a church – is just collections of individuals, each one the product of his or her own unique chaotic set of circumstances, as indebted to the mystery as you are.”
“Wow,” the young man said.  He sat up and poured more wine into the cups.
“Sorry,” I said.  “I’ve just been reading about him all night.  All year.”
“Does it work?  This philosophy?  You feel free?”
“Sometimes.  Not always.  I think one reason Oswald protested so much about groups and cultures and religions is that he knew how powerful and eternal their grip on us was.  He knew that on some very basic level we needed frameworks and authorities.  He was about rebellion, not anarchy.  But I’ve never been a very good rebel.  I definitely don’t feel free from the pull of everything I grew up with.  I’m not sure what I’d be without it.  Mostly, I feel guilty when I think about it.  I fell guilty about not belonging to a Southern Baptist church and not living at home.  I feel guilty that I like what I like, and not what my family wants me to like.  I even still feel guilty about not enjoying my baptism.  But I’m not sure that’s the point.
“What’s the point?”
“I might not feel free,” I said,  “but I am free. . . . ”

MACY HALFORD now lives in Strasbourg, France, with her husband Thierry Artzner. She teaches English at Sciences Po University and works as a freelance reviewer and translator.

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