CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper writer, feature stories writer, poet, fiction writer, photographer, and painter. She maintains a blog at https://chrisricecooper.blogspot.com. She has a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice and completed all of her poetry and fiction workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing with a focus on poetry. She, her husband Wayne, sons Nicholas and Caleb, cats Nation and Alaska reside in the St. Louis area.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.
know what I mean.It’s all about Jesus.”
“Is it?”I said.This was curious to
me.“Isn’t it about
lot of things?”
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-
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Esther Painting attributed to Edward Long
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
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
thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge:
people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried”
Lord do so do me, and more also, if ought but death part there and me.
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 TheNew 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.
“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
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
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
“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
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
“Then I guess you better keep reading him.”
As she is walking down the New York Street at night
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
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 TheNew 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
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
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
“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. . . . ”
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