The man at the desk looked at my book at the used book sale and said, “Not worth more than 25 cents.” It was a “condensed” book. Worthless in his opinion.
I bought it because it had contained the biography of Oswald Chambers, author of My Utmost for His Highest, a devotional book I have read off and on for more than sixty years. I wanted to know more about the man behind the book.
My copy of My Utmost was given to me at our 1947 wedding. A few weeks later, I recognized it as the book I had once accidentally picked up a few years earlier in my boarding house. The September 1 reading began: “Be ye holy, for I am holy.” The writer wrote that the purpose of life was holiness, not happiness. I was chasing happiness.
Christians were to believe in God because God is God, and not because of what we could squeeze out of him like stuff to fill shelves and rooms. I typed out the reading and forgot about it until this re-acquaintance several years later.
After my husband’s death in 1962, My Utmost became my diary. I jotted the stepping-stones of my life in the margins: births, deaths, illnesses, dark valleys, high moments. I also commented on the writing— content as well as diction and style. I argued with the words of this unknown writer. I underlined and re-underlined some passages. I wondered about the writer yet never stopped to analyze the appeal of this book for countless readers decades after his death. It was first published in 1927 and continues to be sold today.
I find I underlined heavily the words for November 11, “If God has made your cup sweet, drink it with grace; if He has made it bitter, drink it in communion with Him.” My cup was bitter, very bitter. Sudden widowhood, return to work, living in a new country, four young children to feed and nurture – would my cup ever be sweet again?
In Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God, biographer David Macasland explains, to a degree, the world-wide appeal of this British writer. Chambers lived a short life – he died at age 43 while working as a chaplain with the British military in Egypt. He had been a highly respected, inspiring, much loved preacher/teacher, undergirded by an unwavering faith..
As I flipped through my own worn copy of My Utmost after reading the biography, I understood more clearly his main appeal to readers like myself, especially in the post-war years. His writing was backed by years of study in aesthetics, psychology, philosophy and theology. He loved beauty. He loved classical music. He loved language, especially poetry. He loved explaining, dissecting, making things clear.
He pushed hard against legalism and hard-core evangelicalism. He had no use for a “prayer-meeting Jesus,” faith in Christ evident only in the church sanctuary. He rejected using the name of Jesus as a magic word in prayer, with the expectation that saying it would produce results.
He wanted his listeners to serve God without reserve. He never talked about where the money was going to come from. God would provide if we gave our utmost for his highest.
He discouraged the worship of “service” as an end in itself, or clinging to traditional beliefs for the sake of tradition. He rejected anything contrived to give the holiness a reputation.
In his thinking, faith was not the pathway to prosperity. Today he would have been preaching against the prosperity Gospel. He lived a simple life based on faith and was often willing to launch out on ventures that today would first require a preliminary budget with all the details filled in. His view was that if the task was of God, God would provide. Yet he insisted also that discipleship always carries the option of turning back.
What is not clear in my copy of My Utmost is that without his wife Biddy, this book and his many other writings would not be available to use today. She was a topnotch stenographer who took down his sermons in shorthand and then transcribed them. She saw the value of putting his talks into print. Before she died in 1966, 50 books bearing her husband’s name had been published as well as booklets, sermon leaflets.
Here’s one last quotation I highlighted: “The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.”
Those words directed my thinking when I first started writing. I struggled to articulate what my readers were thinking and unable to express.
My 25 cents was a worthwhile investment. I learned a lot.