Wednesday, June 15, 2005

book review: Oswald Chambers -- Abandoned to God

My discovery of the book Oswald Chambers - Abandoned to God by David McCasland recently (Discovery House Publishers, 1993, ISBN 0913367729, paperback, 286 pages), was a real find. As a several-year reader of My Utmost For His Highest, I was exceedingly curious about the writer of this devotional. If this biography has done anything for me, it has made me respect Oswald Chambers more than ever.

The book encompasses Chambers’ life from his birth on July 1874, to his death in October 1917 at 43 years. It also goes beyond that time to explain how Chambers’ wife Biddy was the main thrust in getting his sermons, lectures and talks published.

The story is an inspiring one. Oswald, an exceptional young man from the beginning, came to a crossroads in his life at 22 when he felt himself pulled toward the ministry and away from his original ambition to become an artist. In response to that call, he left the University of Edinburgh and went to a small training college in Dunoon Scotland to be taught and mentored by Duncan MacGregor.

Quickly his gifts in various areas were recognized and used, so that he did things like help with the architect’s drawings when the college added to their buildings, teach philosophy, and speak in the surrounding district.

In 1906 he left Dunoon to become an itinerant speaker, largely under the sponsorship of a non-denominational holiness group called the "League of Prayer." He made interesting contacts wherever he went and soon had invitations to speak in the British Isles, USA, Canada and Japan, preaching at camp meetings and in schools like God’s Bible School in Cincinnati and the Oriental Missionary Society in Japan.

On one of his voyages to North America, he was asked by the mother of a parishoner in his brother’s church, to look out for her daughter, who would be traveling to New York on the same boat. Gertrude Hobbs was that girl. Two years later in May 1910, Biddy (Oswald’s pet name for Gertrude) and Oswald were married.

Due to bad health, Biddy had not been able to go to complete her schooling but had taken courses in shorthand and typing. Oswald quickly saw how her skills could be a great advantage to his ministry, and from their honeymoon on, whenever possible Biddy listened to his lectures with pencil flying across her steno pad

Never one to let anything slow him down, the married Oswald kept up his frantic pace, which now included, in addition to speaking, putting together lessons and marking hundreds of papers for a correspondence school run by the League.

In 1911 his dream came true when the League rented a large building in London, and the Bible Training College opened its doors. Ever since the years at Dunoon, he’d been convinced of the value of not only learning about the Bible, but of living its principles in community. As McCasland explains it:

Oswald enjoyed the courses in Manchester district but still longed for a place where students could live as well as study. In Dunoon he had learned more by living with Duncan MacGregor than from anything he said in the classroom. Listening to MacGregor preach had been inspiring. Observing him at home had been life-changing.

Oswald’s months at God’s Bible School had brought home the value of day-by-day interaction in an atmosphere of commitment to God. In community living, more was "caught" than "taught." During every Cincinnati camp meeting he had been most impressed by the unselfish work of the students who cooked and cleaned. In a class he could teach people to study and preach. In a home he could help them learn to serve. (Page 179 - page numbers as in the 286-page book. This book has since been republished in 1999 as a 336-page volume.)
The Bible Training College soon reached its capacity of 25 students. From the description in the book, it became a true community with Oswald and Biddy sharing their lives (and their baby girl Kathleen, born in 1913) with the students. They even holidayed together.

When war broke out in 1914, Oswald gravely considered his obligation to his country and in 1915 applied to and was accepted for work in the YMCA desert camps of Egypt. The Bible Training College closed. Leaguers were informed that it was in its ‘Expeditionary Force’ phase. And yes, many of the BTC students, along with Biddy and Kathleen did join Oswald in Egypt.

In Egypt Oswald was a great favorite with the soldiers, and soon had hundreds in his Bible classes. He worked as incredibly hard as ever. On some Sundays he preached four times a day, walking an hour in the sand to and from one of those speaking places in the hot Egyptian sun. In fact, photos in the book of that time show how bony his face was becoming as the heat and his schedule took its toll on his body.

He died in 1917 after a several-week illness, the result of complications from an appendectomy.

The book managed to convey so much more than the consecutive events of Oswald Chambers’ life, however. McCasland has made this a valuable and reliable biography by bringing into it much primary material in the form of letters, journals, bits from printed articles and anecdotes from eye witnesses. Some of the things I didn’t know about Chambers till I read this book were:
- How much he loved kids. McCasland tells many stories about his interactions with children, how he treated them and how they loved him back.

His niece Irene remembers the times he came to visit their home in Stoke-On-Trent:

"He came into our quiet home life with its parochial outlook like a west wind, waking us up and bringing an exciting sense of the limitless possibilities. He was always ready at any moment for anything, anywhere. One never knew what lovely, exciting thing might happen where he was, and maybe catch us up in its train. He had a great scorn for small petty outlooks and actions, ‘small potatoes rather than frosted" was his expression for all that. (P. 134).
How he encouraged rigorous thought and reading across disciplines.

"Chambers stressed that an active mind was essential to vital experience. In many of his lectures, he sounded a constant warning to people who said, "Thank God, I’m saved and sanctified, now it’s all right."....The result of resting on experience, according to Oswald, was "fixed ideas, moral deterioration and utter ignorance...." When assignments seemed overwhelming, he assured students that the pains they felt were signs that their brains were working. "With a little practice," he laughed, "the pain will pass away." (P. 178,179)
How upbeat and optimistic he was. Note these Diary snippets:

March 10, 1917: "This morning I am filled with a sense of quiet wonder at the way things have transpired and that the B.T.C. Expeditionary Force" should really be altogether here now. ‘This is from the Lord; and it is marvelous in our eyes..."

March 26th, 1917 "The Saturday evening class was peculiarly satisfactory....Sunday was a full and glorious day....

July 24, 1917 "This is my birthday, my 43rd. It has been a glorious day in all ways, very hot but physically very fine, and it was a summarizing time for me..." (Pages

How Oswald Chambers didn’t really write My Utmost for His Highest at all.

In 1924 Biddy told Oswald’s publisher she was working on a new collection of daily readings taken from all Oswald’s talks.

The problem was getting it ready. She needed three hundred sixty-five portions, each on a single theme, each complete in itself and not more than five hundred words long. Before she could make the selections, there were hundreds of talks she must transform from verbatim shorthand notes into typed copy...." (Page 277)
No where in the book does Biddy talk about the part she played – the taking of the shorthand notes, typing Oswald’s messages (being a transcriptionist myself, Biddy, I feel your pain!), merging the thoughts from sometimes three different sermons into one paragraph.

The book took three years to compile. If you have a copy, you’ll see the initials B.C. under the "Foreword." This is the only trace of herself Biddy left on the book.

Above all, Abandoned to God left me with the sense of a man who was in love with Jesus, preached surrendering every iota of oneself to Him and who, as much as possible, practiced what he preached. When that preaching is as lofty as My Utmost for His Highest, we are prompted to look beyond the person and acknowledge the "quickening life and inspiration of the Holy Spirit."*

*Concluding words of B.C.’s "Foreword."


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