Friday, February 10, 2017

"My Utmost A Devotional Memoir" by Macy Halford - Book Review and Discussion

As soon as I read the synopsis for "My Utmost" I knew I wanted to read it. I instantly felt a connection with the author Macy Halford, a former book blogger for "The New Yorker". Besides book blogging, Macy is also from Dallas, Texas, a hop- skip and jump from where I currently live. I knew her memoir would resonate with me - and I was right. I was surprised though, by just how much I would be able to relate to, and be inspired by, her story.

My Utmost A Devotional Memoir
by Macy Halford
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.

Book Review and Discussion of
"My Utmost" by Macy Halford

Are you familiar with "My Utmost" by Oswald Chambers? If your answer is no, you have company- because neither was I.

I'm Catholic, and had never heard of the daily devotional beloved by millions of Evangelical Christians. However, while carrying Macy's book around my corner of Texas, multiple people stopped me to comment, expressing their interest in Oswald and this daily devotional. I am constantly reading, which means carrying books around all of the time - and this almost never happens. So after several of those conversations, I jumped on Amazon to order "My Utmost"- clearly it was popular and had made a significant impact on many people. I was surprised by the book when it arrived - Oswald's book of daily devotionals, "My Utmost for His Highest" is an intensely difficult read. Oswald's language isn't easy to follow, and I typically have to read each day's message two or three times before anything cohesive appears to me. Certainly not what I expected at all from a book of which so many people are familiar and love.

Reading Macy Halford's book was an excellent partner to starting Oswald's daily devotional. "My Utmost A Devotional Memoir" includes many personal narratives of Macy's, but it is also includes an extensive history of Evangelical Christianity and Oswald Chamber's place in that movement. On a very practical level, I enjoyed reading Macy's book because of the context it provided me for Oswald - which definitely expanded my understanding of the daily devotionals.

One of my favorite parts of Macy's book were the personal narratives describing various times in Macy's life when "My Utmost" had influenced her. The descriptions and conversations were so well written and imaginative, that at times it felt more like a novel to me than a memoir. I had a difficult time reading the historical portions, and often wished the book would snap back to Macy's life, and her spiritual coming of age story. Macy's book is an excellent read for those influenced or interested in "My Utmost" or Evangelical Christianity.

Although I had never heard of "My Utmost", I can absolutely relate to the sense of conflict and challenge that comes from being raised in a home that values one thing, in a community that seemingly values another. In fact I think many people will be able to relate to that feeling - and will hopefully find the same inspiration in Macy's words that I have.

From middle school through high school, I grew up outside Chicago, IL, and felt that tension - particularly in high school. That feeling might best be illustrated on the day in my social studies class that we watched "Outfoxed", a documentary lambasting the Fox News Channel. I sat in my seat and watched the documentary knowing that after school, when I went home, our TV would be tuned to that very channel for our "fair and balanced" election coverage. While the documentary wasn't directed at questioning religion- the conversations in class afterwards certainly were, and this was and is incredibly common. Whether discussing abortion in health class, the Crusades in social studies, or The Bible as a "book" in English - I always felt that my teachers in life were deeply contradictory. Because while at church I was taught one thing, at school I was taught another. Which of itself isn't necessarily wrong - but it does lead to a lot of conflict.

I immensely enjoyed Macy's writing about her own experience with that conflict - as a teenager and an adult- and how she processed these situations-  whether working in NYC in the publishing industry as a Christian, balancing the line professionally and spiritually- or at home in Dallas, when her childhood church's method of delivery seemed to fall more on the political than the spiritual.

There were many moments from this book that stuck out to me, but one in particular was Macy's interaction with a teacher in high school when her faith was questioned. Afterwards, while visiting Paris on a school field trip she is struck, as many of us are long after the fact, by what she could have said in that situation:
"I realized now that I didn't know. I didn't know, I thought again and again smiling. I didn't know, I didn't have to know, I couldn't know."
I was so moved and inspired by that moment, and I know it will stay with my long after finishing this book. What a difficult thing that we grapple with each day as faith of any denomination is questioned by others, and we in turn question our faith. I was comforted by Macy and Oswald's encouraging answer to the questions for which we do not know the answer. I felt a comfort in their decision to embrace the mystery of faith in those moments, because - I don't know, I don't have to know, I can't know.

Have you read/ are you familiar with Oswald's book? Can you relate that sense of conflict and how do you handle it? Let me know below! Thinking of reading Macy Halford's book? Click here to find a copy at your local library or click the link below to view the book on Amazon!

Many thanks to Pengiun Random House Books for allowing me to read this book prior to publication. As a "girl about library", where books are always free, you can be sure that all opinions expressed here are my own. Happy reading!


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