Her utmost, for decades

March 22nd, 2017

Who reads the same book, cover to cover, at least a page every day, over and over for more than sixty years? — and the Bible doesn’t count. My mother-in-law, Jean Stevens Stockton. Early on, when Lisa and I were dating and then engaged, I noticed something remarkable I’ve observed ever since for over thirty years: whenever I get up from sleep when staying with them, I wander into the front room — of several houses now — and find Jean sitting in a chair with her feet up on an ottoman, not for comfort, but to provide a human desk, across which would be splayed an open Bible, various notes on pieces of paper, and that book, My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. Every day for thirty plus years.  And I’ve only witnessed less than half of her life with My Utmost.

Naturally, I’ve been impressed and moved by this immense devotion to God, this singular commitment to learn and grow into the things of God. But I never asked many questions, not wanting to pry into what obviously was deeply personal, private devotion — until a day in February when the Wall Street Journal featured a book review that caught my eye. Macy Halford, My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, a book about the book her grandmother had given to her and what it had meant in her life.  

I thought, I know that book — sort of. I’d never read it myself. You would think that I, as a clergyperson, would be a voracious consumer of devotional books. But they generally strike me as too thin, too trivial, and I just get bored. 

The Halford review piqued my interest though. I knew it had become almost a sacred object in our family; Jean had decided she would, on her death, bequeath it to my daughter, her granddaughter Sarah, who had always shown outsized interest in it. I put Halford’s book about her grandmother’s gift in my Amazon shopping cart, thinking it might be a quirky gift to my daughter when her birthday rolled around.  

Then, that Sunday, before church, I was thumbing through the New York Times Review of Books, and there it was again: Macy Halford, My Utmost. I’m not big on “signs.” But I did revisit my Amazon cart and actually ordered her book. And while I was signed in, I had them ship a copy of the book, Chambers’s book.

They showed up together in a package. I started Halford that evening, and Chambers the next morning — February 22. Chambers’s topic? “Spiritual tenacity,” something I’ve dreamed of but have never possessed. Thinking of Jean’s multi-decade discipline, I read that day’s very first sentence, which I knew she had read sixty or more times, and which I knew I would now never forget: “Tenacity is more than endurance, it is endurance combined with the absolute certainty that what we are looking for is going to transpire.” Oh my. The next paragraph began, “If our hopes are being disappointed just now, it means that they are being purified.” Indeed, for several weeks I had been floundering in a bit of a funk, demoralized about various things. Chambers, who died half way around the world in Egypt way back in 1917, was helping me already in just a little over one paragraph.

The next morning, February 23, Chambers said this to me: “If we are devoted to the cause of humanity, we shall soon be crushed and broken-hearted, for we shall often meet with more ingratitude from men than we should from a dog… When we realise that Jesus Christ has served us to the end of our meanness, our selfishness, and sin, nothing that we meet with from others can exhaust our determination to serve men for His sake.” My funk, I realized, was a feeling of being unappreciated that had grown like kudzu, exhausting me, forgetting my worse-than-meager sense of gratitude for Jesus’ patient service to me.

I cheated, not sticking with the daily routine, instead discovering an index that could point me to the text I was preaching that week. His remarkable surmise about the Transfiguration (that at that moment, Jesus could have gone to heaven alone, but he refused, came down the mountain, and went to the cross so he could take us to heaven with him) saved that Sunday’s sermon and made it into my weekly preaching blog.

Was this really happening? Maybe God really does fashion unbelievably complex relationships across space and time in order to bless us. Halford shares Chambers’s life story, full of all kinds of high drama. I was thunderstruck, though, to learn he hailed from my favorite country, Scotland, and even my favorite place in Scotland, Glencoe — which I’ve always said “speaks” to me in some way I can’t explain. His immersion in philosophy as a gateway to religion mirrored mine, and his reluctant entry into ministry fits my story so very closely. His wife’s name, Gertie, is the same as Sarah’s dog. Okay, maybe I’m pushing the connections too far.

And so it began, day after day, my walk through My Utmost for His Highest: a pregnant thought here, a reformulation of a familiar but fresh truth there, with that uncanny directness that this thing must have been written for me. Perhaps I was beginning to enter into what Jean knew so well, and what Macy Halford reported in her memoir. Her grandmother didn’t wait until her death to give her copy away — but Macy set it aside, like a relic perhaps, maybe a little skeptical about its contents, as “it suffered unfairly from its association with a senior citizen” (a line that made me laugh out loud). After finally picking it up, she embraced the routine, and after fifteen years of a daily reading, she says “I thought about it often.  Or maybe it makes more sense to say I thought with it, since its presence in my life had become so fixed that I hardly noticed it was there any more.” Lovely. I wondered if this book, with which I was falling in love, could be that for me.  

Her next words were flat out jarring. Pondering the fact that she and her grandmother had been reading this book for so long she added “she even longer than I, and even after losing her mind.” Jean, my beloved mother-in-law, had in fact, over the past year, been losing her mind to dementia; not catastrophically, but noticeably, to us and to her.

So I made some decisions. I’d keep reading Chambers every morning. I’d explore this further with my daughter, the heir to the book. And I’d interview Jean, and pore over her book. We all knew she had written all over the margins of the thing, making note of her reflections on it, prayers she’d prayed while weighing its words, with hundreds of notations of the significance of each day, births and birthdays of family and friends, turning points in her life, and comments about loss and death.

The book itself, as a physical object, is a testimony to its purpose and usage: terribly fragile, and yet miraculously sturdy. How any book that has been picked up, opened, written in, and closed more than 20,000 times is anything but shreds is stunning to me. After multiple retapings, Jean abandoned the cover a few years ago. But we retrieved it, cradled the pages of the book inside it again, and then she began to share.

Where did she get it?  It had been printed in 1935, when she was too young to read. She said “the Holy Spirit led me to it” without a slightest hint of the kind of smug spirituality you hear from so many people who talk this way. I think this kind of mundane sense of what is profoundly spectacular is one of the fruits of spiritual tenacity — speaking of the Holy Spirit with the same intonation you’d use if you mentioned getting a cup of coffee. One day she was in her dad’s office, her dad being the legendary Dr. Charles Stevens, a gentle fundamentalist of a Baptist pastor whose ministry in Winston-Salem was singular and holy. She spotted this book among many on his shelf, pulled it down, and started her life with Chambers.

I was surprised then when she said, “I’m not sure my dad was all that happy about me reading this.” What? Did he have some theological reservation? Chambers wasn’t an outright fundamentalist at all.  Apparently, Dr. Stevens’s worry was that Chambers might become a substitute for daily Bible reading itself; “Be sure you read the Scriptures!” Macy Halford was chided in the same way by her evangelical friends. Clearly my mother-in-law heeded his admonition, as her Bible is as well-worn and heavily marked up as her Chambers volume.

I asked her what this book had meant to her. Her gut reaction was, “It’s been my constant. Sort of my Linus’s blanket. With so many moves, so much change, it’s been my one constant.” And she ruminated, again with humility and grace, how this book had shaped her spiritual life (and I would say her life, period). I asked if year to year she ever got bored, if it ever felt like she'd read this before. She said no, there’s something fresh, some new realization, and relating it to what’s going on now brings a new understanding.

That’s where her marginal notes come in. July 16 was a big day: “Dad died today” (1982), and also a notice that her husband, my father-in-law, was consecrated as a bishop (1988). Chambers’s words for that day? “Notion your mind with the idea that God is there… Then, when you are in difficulties, it is as easy as breathing to remember — why, my Father knows all about it!” Did she ponder that her earthly father, gone for six years, knew about her husband’s life-changing event? “God is my Father, He loves me, I shall never think of anything He will forget, why should I worry?” In 2016 she added “God loves me. I love Him even in the darkness. Trust him even in the darkness of my broken mind. God is my Father and my friend.”

That’s when I realized what my daughter he been suggesting to me: since her stroke affected her memory and thinking a year ago, she had been working out her grief, her confusion and her agony in the pages of her Linus’s blanket. Quite a few pages mention her stroke and struggles. She had done the same, I noticed, back in 1989 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the margin for April 14: “Biopsy – cancer. I’m ready to learn of Him through this.”

She even used the book to work out lingering wounds from many years ago. Our family has always known and been awed by the fact that as a newlywed, she had somehow, courageously endured three miscarriages and a stillbirth before managing to bring Lisa into the world. I shuddered and was moved to tears then when I read a recent comment she penned on July 9, seven months after her stroke, where Chambers asks “Have you the slightest reliance on any thing other than God?... You say ‘But God can never have called me to this, it can’t mean me.’ It does mean you, and the weaker and feebler you are, the better.” Her comment: “I have never been weaker or feebler than now, except when I carried a baby who I learned had died in utero when I delivered her. She was dead, but I still love her. I named her Mary Grace recently, because I have never forgotten her.”

October 22. My birthday. Since I met Lisa, Jean has always sent me cards and various gifts; she and Tom always phone me, singing “Happy Birthday,” and apologize for the quality of the music (and this is entirely chalked up to the inexplicably lousy quality of his singing, not hers, which is lovely). Then in the book I found her greatest birthday gift. A prayer, for me, prayed how many times? “Today, Lord, my prayer is for James. It is his birthday. Give him a special gift today of your Holy Spirit at work in his life. Explode within him or quietly slip into the crevices of his mind and spirit that a seed of faith, your love and guidance may invade him in some powerful way.”

Her observations, which could themselves fill a book (as they actually do now), are pretty much as wise as Chambers’s own. There’s this: “Intercession means that we rouse ourselves up to get the mind of Christ about the one for whom we pray. God does not call me to ‘understand’ the people for whom I pray, but to love them with His love.”

And this: “I can only hear the voice of God when I accept what comes with reverence. If I accept it with resentment, then the rebellious cry of my own heart makes me deaf to the voice of God.” Probably years later, jammed into the small space left, she added “Forgive my resentment, Lord. I want to hear your voice.” I love that. The spiritual life most assuredly is not (a) read a page of a devotional, (b) think it’s so good you absorb it with finality and then (c) move on to the next spiritual challenge. It’s circular, with progress, setbacks, insights and then you’re back where you started. God does not ask for perfection, or even progress in our devotional life. Just some spiritual tenacity. God wants what Jean scribbled on more than a dozen pages in the book: “I want to give my utmost for His highest.”

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