Way back when, this little book got carried from England, across the Sound to Normandy. Then, probably in a duffle bag, it got lugged from France through Belgium and Holland and finally to Germany by a grease monkey from the U. S. Army motor pool, my father-in-law, whose job it was to fix up beat-up tanks and jeeps, to retool whatever machinery broke down on the Allied front, a battle line that stayed about a week or so ahead of him and his well-tooled brigade of mechanics.
It’s a book of devotionals, one per day for a year, and it was given to my father-in-law by his church, no date, probably before he left for Europe. Streams in the Desert it’s titled, Mrs. Chas. E. Cowman, compiler, 21st edition, published by The Oriental Missionary Society of Los Angeles, CA, 1941. His was likely not the only copy carried along by American GIs like my father-in-law.
We’ve been reading it, and, 70 years later, as one might expect, its voice and character are dated.
Through his griefs Job came to his heritage. He was tried that his godliness might be confirmed. Are not my troubles intended to deepen my character and to robe me in graces I had little of before? I come to my glory through eclipses, tears, death. My ripest fruit grows against the roughest wall.
So writes someone who's named bneath only as "Chapin." I have no idea who he was--or she (there are women here), but it could well have been Edwin Hubbell Chapin, a largely uneducated mid-nineteenth-century Universalist preacher from New York, well-known, Wikipedia says, as an orator and writer. A Unitarian. Imagine that. Firrst CRC of Orange City, Iowa, gives one of its own young GIs a devotional book written, in part, by a Unitarian.
Here's another contributor--Hanna Whitall Smith. Google tells me that Ms. Smith, born to a proper Quaker family in Philadelphis, left the fold to become Plymouth Brethren, then Methodist, then, late in the 19th century, a glorious part of the Holiness Movement, and therefore probably charismatic.
When my father-in-law put down his monkey wrench and read Ms. Smith—somewhere in Belgium, perhaps?—did he even see her name? Did he have any idea who she was?
Hannah Whitall Smith’s classic work is The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered it: A Spiritual Autobiography, published in 1903 and edited ever since by more fundamentalist types who deliberately exclude her universalist tendencies. Three whole chapters are missing from most of the editions you can still get, by the way, from Amazon.
Ms. Whitehall Smith was a suffragette and, later on, helped found the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Her daughter married Bertrand Russell, the agnostic English philosopher. Isn’t life a kick?
Of course, none of that would have meant anything at all to my father-in-law, wrench in hand, the noisy, dangerous war front just a couple of dozen miles away, Hitler's blitzkreig blitzed themselves. None of that would have mattered, and none of it apparently mattered to the good Dutch Calvinists of First Orange City.
There’s something remarkable about their largesse, a gregarious faith that runs counter to stereotype and caricature. Right here in this little book of meditations are hundreds of names whose familiarity died years and years ago, names that once held great stature in a widest spectrum of the Christian world, not a Dutch Calvinist voice among ‘em.
William Taylor, one-time Moderator of the Church of Scotland, born 1744, died 1823, principal of Glasgow University, undoubtedly something of a Calvinist anyway. Who knows? Who remembers anyway? That's him, above.
E. A. Kilbourne, a man who apparently wasn't photographed, but wrote a book, still available, with the hearty title The Great Commission and once penned these words, as alive as they ever were: “God is there to meet you in the center of each trial. And he will whisper to you His secrets, which will bring you out with a radiant face and such an invincible faith that all the demons of hell will never be able to shake it.”
Was Dad in Germany when he read E. A.—the date given in the book is November 4. Did he even look?
Streams in the Desert is ours now. Dad is cleaning up what little he has left in his room in the home. Probably hasn’t been opened in years. The names inside are long gone, barely memories, known only somewhat timorously to Wikipedia.
But strangely enough it’s alive, this book, crowded with voices that haven’t stopped confessing their great faith.
Here it sits, this old book, still speaking, still testifying, and still telling stories. This morning, my morning thanks are for all those voices and, of course, the vets themselves, so many of them.
This post is reprinted from 2011.
Addendum: Yesterday, at Sunday dinner, we read from Streams in the Desert for devotions, and I told the grandkids that Great-grandpa Van Gelder carried along this very book when he was in World War II. I'm not sure the meditation stirred them, but the image of their great-grandpa lugging a book of devotions along into war looked stunning when I saw it reflected in their eyes. I hope it found a place in their hearts.
Oddly enough, Grandpa himself was also stunned. He didn't remember the book at all, but he can be forgiven--he's 94. When he left after dinner, he took Streams along home with him. "I'll use it for my devotions," he said.
Seventy years later.