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My Utmost

Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Publisher: Knopf
On Sale: 02/07/2017
Price: $26.95
ISBN: 978-0-307-95798-6
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open close ABOUT THE BOOK
A  beautifully written and heartfelt memoir by a young woman from Dallas, Texas, exploring the Evangelical Christianity of her childhood and its meaning to her in the present through the classic daily devotional My Utmost for His Highest.

Raised in an Evangelical household by her beloved grandmother and mother, Macy Halford eventually leaves Dallas for college and a career in journalism in New York City. As her work and friendships increasingly take her into a more secular world, Halford finds her Evangelicalism evolving in interesting directions. Yet she continues to read My Utmost for His Highest—a classic Christian text, beloved by millions of Evangelicals around the world—every day. Eager to understand Utmost's unique ability to bridge her two worlds, she quits her coveted job at The New Yorker in order to look more deeply into the background of the devotional—with its daily selection from the sermons and writings of the Scottish Evangelical preacher Oswald Chambers—wrestling with who Oswald really was, what ideas informed his teaching and beliefs, and why the book means so much to her. Interweaving her own story with that of the Chamberses (Oswald died ministering to British soldiers in World War I Egypt; his devoted wife spent her life publishing his speeches, sermons, and books), Halford gives us a captivating and candid memoir about what it means to be a Christian, a reader, and a seeker in the twenty-first century.

“Halford’s enlightening memoir is a must-read for those interested in Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest or evangelicalism in the 21st century . . . Chambers’s life and legacy, along with Halford’s own personal journey, prove to be a powerful lens through which to examine the roots of fundamentalist evangelicalism and its rocky relationship with the modern world.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Self-aware but never self-indulgent, My Utmost provides an edifying look at one person’s spiritual journey and the impact an obscure Scottish preacher’s musings can have years later.” —Christine Engel, Booklist
MACY HALFORD was born and grew up in Dallas, Texas; graduated from Barnard College; and worked at The New Yorker, where she eventually wrote most of the book reviews for the website. This is her first book. She is now living in Paris.
open close READ AN EXCERPT
A river touches places of which its source knows nothing.

—­september 6

Dallas, 2011. The slender blue book had been lying on my bedside table for years before I started reading it, ever since the night of my baptism, when my grandmother had presented it to me as a gift, a sort of token of my entry into religious maturity. I’d tried to read it then but hadn’t gotten very far. At thirteen, I was a keen enough reader, and My Utmost for His Highest was an inviting book—­ a daily devotional, with a brief reading for each day of the year—­but at the start it suffered unfairly from its association with a senior citizen. After one sentence, I’d decided it was old-­fashioned, as fusty and tedious as everything else my grandmother liked—­the book equivalent of boiled vegetables, potted pansies, needlepoint, PBS, Chanel No. 5, and the taupe-­colored Chevy she’d been driving for twenty years. All of these things bored me—­I think they even bored my grandmother. If she liked them, it was because they were set to her frequency. Once, when I asked her why she never talked about her life, or anything, really, beyond the weather, she offered this as an explanation: “The Macys are a very boring people,” Macy being her maiden name and the source of my own. I replied that I hoped she wasn’t including me in her assessment, and she smiled and said, “Oh, no, Macy dear, you are always fascinating.” It is tempting to read into this comment a slyness or even a bite, but my grandmother’s was not a mind given to doubleness. On the rare occasions when she spoke of her own parents and grandparents, who had all lived out their lives “back on the farm,” she used the expression “salt of the earth” without irony.

But I shouldn’t employ the past tense when I talk about my grandmother. She is still alive. It is merely her mind—­or much of it, anyway—­that belongs to the past, having begun its final flight several years ago, around her eighty-­sixth birthday. Otherwise, she is well and still going about her daily rounds as she always has, in the little red-­brick house on Wabash Avenue, in Dallas, Texas, where in the 1980s and ’90s she helped my mother to raise me and my brother and my sister, and which I left—­to go north, to New York—­just after my eighteenth birthday.

It was a recent visit to this house and my grandmother that prompted me to begin thinking about Utmost, or rather to begin thinking about it in a different way than I usually did. At that point, I’d been reading the book more or less every day for fifteen years, and so I thought about it often. Or maybe it makes more sense to say that I thought with it, since its presence in my life had become so fixed that I hardly noticed it was there anymore. It wasn’t until this visit, when I happened to spot my grandmother’s own ancient copy on the kitchen countertop, where we were sitting drinking coffee, that I began to wonder about the fact that we’d both been reading it so long, she even longer than I, and even after losing her mind.

“Do you still read this book, Nana?” I asked, and, after I’d repeated the question, she confirmed that she did. “Every morning when I wake up, bright and early,” she said. “Six a.m. That’s when I’m up. ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ ” It was my grandmother’s short-­term memory that had disappeared, not her long, or (alas) the bit where her vast collection of moralizing aphorisms was stored. “Also a woman,” I replied. “Just look at you! Ninety years old and still going strong,” to which she shook her head in confusion, having apparently forgotten her previous statement. How, I wondered, could a person who couldn’t recall what she’d just said still enjoy reading? Wouldn’t she have forgotten one sentence by the time she reached the next?

My grandmother took a sip of her coffee, then abruptly turned and left the kitchen. She’d gotten into the habit of disappearing like this, as if she’d been called away by a voice only she could hear. I let her go, the way people are instructed to let sleepwalkers go, and while I waited for her to return I flipped Utmost open to the entry for the day: September 6. It was the entry about rivers, the one that contained the line “A river touches places of which its source knows nothing.” I smiled, both because the line was apt to the day and because I’d been waiting for it to come around again, ever since the first hint of autumn had swept across New York. It was still high summertime in Texas, and it seemed strange to me to be reading the page on such a hot day, even though it must have been in the summer heat that I first encountered it. I read the words over again, trying to raise the temperature in my mind, but they refused to conjure anything but the crispness of impending fall in Manhattan, the coolness of the rivers that embraced the island. I seldom read the book out of order. Every evening, I opened it to the day’s reading, read through to the end, and wondered whether I’d remember it 365 days later. Some entries, like the one for September 6, I always recalled very clearly, as if I’d just read them; others were perpetually new, though I’d read them eleven, twelve, thirteen times. I was never sure whether this was because they hadn’t struck me as being memorable, or because I’d changed so drastically in certain particulars over the course of the year that I was really reading them with “new” eyes. This possibility had been planted in my mind long ago, when I was a teenager. One Sunday, as I was sitting in a pew at church, reading my copy of Utmost and waiting for the service to start, a man had approached me and had begun to tell me why he found Oswald’s book to be so compelling (Utmost readers tended to refer to its author by his first name only). “It’s a book that reads you,” the man had said, “rather than the other way around.” I’d regarded him coolly, noting the snakeskin sheen of his cowboy boots, the black twine of his bolo tie, the gel-­slicked flop of gray atop his head. His comment struck me as a silly, unmanly thing to say, particularly for a man dressed as he was dressed, but over the years, as various of my Texas-­born prejudices had fallen away, I’d come to see the truth in it. It helped to explain why certain passages seemed to morph over time, and why people tended to read Utmost for decades on end. It was certainly a large part of the book’s appeal, this strange mutability. How many books had the power to evolve with a reader over the course of a lifetime, never growing tiresome? The Bible, perhaps, along with certain others—­the works of Dante, Milton, or Shakespeare, Whitman, Melville, Joyce, or Woolf. But Utmost was in a special class. It was holy, and when I was a kid I’d often heard it mentioned in the same breath as the Bible. There had even been a disclaimer printed in a version that came out in the 1990s—­nearly seventy years after Utmost had first been published, in 1927. The disclaimer read:

This book is not the Bible—­it is intended to point you to the Bible.

But my own edition, from the eighties, contained no such warning, and I’d quickly succumbed. Utmost sat on my bedside table right on top of my Bible, the minute grooves in their soft leather jackets locked together. Actually, the leather Utmost was bound in was faux—­midnight-­blue “leatherette”—­and the gilded lettering of the title was fake as fool’s gold. But to me, it was the real thing, fine and fancy and all mine. 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 My 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. Now, I can admit that I was probably guilty of using it as a placeholder when there wasn’t time to get right to the source. But back then I was convinced that it was just as good. After all, each entry opened with a Bible verse, so it wasn’t exactly true that in reading the book one wasn’t reading the Bible.

I hadn’t been much bothered by this issue until I got to New York and encountered a different breed of Evangelical from the one I was used to. This breed, which might be called “Evangelical intellectual,” appeared during my senior year of college, in the form of a young man from Kentucky. He was a student at Union Theological Seminary, which was located a few blocks from Columbia University and my own school, Barnard. I met him one Sunday at church—­I was going to Riverside Church, which was a politically liberal, quasi-­interdenominational congregation with ties to the Baptists (the Northern ones), the Church of Christ, and the Civil Rights movement, such strange mixtures being commonly occurring phenomena in Evangelical Christianity, which has never yet brought forth a “pure” example of its type—­and struck up a brief friendship with him. He was, I soon discovered, extremely serious about his religion, by which I mean extremely snobby, and when I told him about my Utmost habit, he lashed out. Devotionals like Utmost were disgusting, he said. They pretended to do the work of interpretation for the reader, excusing Christians from what he considered their most pressing task: to grapple with Scripture in all its mystical, rhetorical, contradictory glory. If he could have his way, every Christian on the planet would be reading the Bible in the ancient Hebrew and the ancient Greek, followed by the Summa Theologica and then Luther and finally Calvin (there wasn’t really a need for anything else in the way of Christian literature, he thought, and besides, those four could fill more than one lifetime). He hadn’t read Utmost himself, but it was his understanding that it was a book full of dubious theological equations, fitting into no particular tradition, something he regarded as evidence of a lack of intellectual rigor on the part of its author. (Here, I’d interrupted to offer the boy the author’s name: it was Oswald Chambers, and he was a Scot who’d been born in the late nineteenth century and died in the early twentieth.) It was beyond him why so many American Evangelicals—­tens of millions of them—­had embraced the book, except he knew that most American Evangelicals were uneducated and hopelessly lowbrow. “These are people who send all their money to swindling television preachers and use what’s left over to go to the water park,” he said.

His words hit home. Wally Amos Criswell, the preacher of my own childhood church, a massive congregation known as the “jewel in the crown of the Southern Baptists” (the denomination to which it belonged), had been both a fixture on television and a very successful fund-­raiser, and I’d always had summer passes to the Wet ’n’ Wild. But I resented my friend’s accusations, particularly the accusation of anti-­intellectualism. I thought Utmost was a smart book for smart people. It was certainly better than many of the Evangelical offerings on the shelves when I was growing up, books like Dare to Discipline, Love Must Be Tough, and The Satan Seller.

From my current vantage point in the kitchen, I could see that the books I remembered from my childhood were still on display in my grandmother’s tiny library, in the same order they’d always been in. Perhaps they hadn’t been touched in two decades. The Bible and Utmost—­those were my grandmother’s lodestars. She still read them regularly, and she still professed to love the activity of reading. I’d never understood why she limited her range so drastically, though it might have had to do with how she viewed her own capacities. She’d told me frequently when I was growing up that she wasn’t smart—­despite the bachelor’s degree (in home economics) she’d earned in the 1930s, and the master’s degree (in nutrition) she’d earned in the 1970s, after her husband died. She’d earned those, she thought, merely by working hard. “I’m not clever like you, Macy dear,” she’d say, though I thought that she was very clever. True, she lacked a sharp tongue and a high humor, preferring instead the even keel; and, yes, she’d turned away from much of the cultural product of the twentieth century, maybe out of fear, perhaps out of discernment. But I’d observed her for more than thirty years, and I knew that she knew very well how to exist in the world, helping others, doing no harm, peaceful in mind and body.