To Scottish preacher Oswald Chambers, the word “tweet” described the sounds bird make. Having died a century ago, he knew nothing of Facebook, Instagram, or our other modern forms of communication. His world differed dramatically from ours.
So what could Chambers possibly say to us today about social media where religious, political, and lifestyle opinions are regularly posted to highlight our differences and often lead to anger and angst?
I suggest that Chambers’ approach to belief and the way we express our belief is a helpful example to the divided, noisy, uptight world in which we live.
Oswald Chambers’ personal style is just one aspect of a legacy that is as powerful as it is unlikely. A book of his daily meditations, “My Utmost for His Highest,” has sold more than 13 million copies worldwide since 1927. It remains one of the most popular Christian devotionals even today.
Some four dozen books bear Chambers’ name, nearly all of them published posthumously from verbatim notes of his teaching that were captured by his stenographer wife. Chambers’ insights are treasured a hundred years after his death by Christians of many ages and backgrounds.
All of us, though, whatever our beliefs, might learn something from the man’s example.
Chambers was unapologetically Christian, often describing Jesus as “the lodestar of life” and saying that “in everything on which I form an opinion I make room for Him and find out His attitude.”
The Bible, Chambers believed, “instructs us in righteousness … its meaning is to keep us living right.” But, while he held his spiritual beliefs strongly, he did not try to force them on people who might disagree.
Katherine Ashe, an older Irish woman who became a close friend and coworker, was proudly agnostic when she met Chambers in a boardinghouse where they both stayed.
Unimpressed by another traveling preacher who had lodged there earlier, Ashe said she and a housemate ignored Chambers “until his innate charm of manner and unmistakable reality in speech and manner first shamed us, and then altogether won us to welcome him into our circle. And then followed delightful excursions of talk upon every subject under the sun.”
In time, Ashe accompanied Chambers to one of his missions, where she said she became a Christian herself, “a wholly supernatural ‘conversion’ in a meeting to which a purely conventional courtesy had led me.”
A niece described her uncle Oswald as “quite without any suggestion of moral superiority.” Irene Chambers said that even though he abstained completely from alcohol and didn’t smoke or play cards, “I have known him to be in the company of folk who were smoking and playing cards, and while refusing to take part, yet create no sense of discomfort.”
Even the rough-and-ready British Commonwealth soldiers of World War I, whom Chambers served as a volunteer chaplain with the YMCA, found his beliefs and behaviors magnetic.
Chambers simply befriended and served the men, offering “talks” on biblical topics for any who chose to attend. Many did, drawn by the attitude and style of a man whose confident faith showed through his everyday activity.
An Australian soldier, Theodore Atkinson, recalled a previous chaplain who had “plastered” the meeting place near Cairo, Egypt, with messages such as, “Please remember you are in a Y.M.C.A. hut and don’t use bad language.”
Under the new chaplain, the signs quickly came down since, as Atkinson said, “It was never necessary to ask the men not to swear when Mr. Chambers was about.”
The once-dreary atmosphere of the hut changed noticeably after Oswald’s arrival, Atkinson said. “His table now was always busy, men thronged about him for a talk, and I have many a time seen a man’s face light up with astonishment and pleasure at being treated to so much kindness and help.”
And that may be Oswald Chambers’ greatest lesson for us today: it is possible to hold strong personal beliefs and yet to treat others with kindness and respect. We can be both committed to our philosophy and courteous with those who disagree.
On a ship in the Mediterranean, sailing toward the military camps of Egypt, Chambers wrote in his diary that what he found most “congenial to my own soul” was praying for the people around him. After that, he believed in “the willingness to testify to the hope that is in you, and to stir up people to think, and to take the apparently haphazard opportunities of talking personally to people about what you have discovered of God.”
Though the specifics will differ for people of other faiths (or those of purely secular philosophies), the principle remains the same: at base level, we must show kindness to everyone.
That by itself is right, but in showing kindness, we might also gain a hearing for our beliefs. And then those around us have a choice to accept our beliefs, to reject them, or simply to give them additional thought.
This example of Oswald Chambers seems far better than shouting and bumper stickers and mean tweets. One-on-one, face-to-face, constructive interactions take more time and energy – and, perhaps, courage – but have greater effectiveness in getting a point across.
“The irritable, testy man,” Chambers wrote from Egypt, “is really often a decent fellow, hurt on the inside by some perplexity of belief, and what he needs is not so much debating as a new point of view.”
If our own beliefs truly inform our lives, other people should see that. This will speak more powerfully than our words divorced from our example.
Oswald Chambers essentially gave his life for the soldiers he served. He shared in their hardships, working with little rest in the harsh desert camps. When he suffered a health issue just as the troops were advancing into Palestine, he resisted taking a hospital bed in deference to the wounded men who would be returning.
Chambers died from complications of appendicitis on November 15, 1917, and was buried with full military honors. He was only 43 years old.
Some time later, a friend and coworker from the YMCA facility wrote a reminiscence that emphasized the consistency between Chambers’ belief and behavior.
“He spared no pains to make the place attractive so that it might minister comfort to the men,” Jimmy Hanson said. “Then every night would see him at the work which he loved and excelled in – expounding the Scriptures in a masterly way to the men who gathered to hear him.”
Hanson added: “As one man put it to me – ‘If a man says he believes the New Testament, then the only outcome of his belief is that he lives as Oswald Chambers does.’”
What do we say that we believe? And how do those stated beliefs affect the way we live our lives and interact with the people around us?
“Be perfectly clear and emphatic with regard to your preaching of God’s truth,” Chambers taught, “but amazingly kind in your treatment of people.” That’s a lesson for all of us, whatever we’re “preaching.”