One of the first really profound books I ever read about God (besides the Bible!) was A.W. Tozer's, The Knowledge of the Holy. I must've been 21 at the time and still don't remember how I had discovered this poignant book unless it was at the Christian book store I worked at from time to time to help with my apartment rent. I had been attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for the last three years, having begun my freshman year of university training at the conclusion of the Vietnam War era, where I was studying math and engineering, which wouldn't have been unusual except that it was I who was mostly out-of-place.
You see, my brothers and I were the last of six generations to live on the family farm, which was one of the earliest homesteads to the Paris Township district of southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan... having become little more than a place to house disused farm equipment, tools and assorted paraphernalia. Our farm was operational for the first part of my early life while also having the great benefit of grandparents living next door... whose friends and relatives came in a steady stream to share stories of the early 1900's. Speaking occasionally in hushed tones, or in raucous laughter, of farming life, work and play, schooling and family reunions - my ever attentive grandmother collected them all. For she was our family's historian who patiently taught us our family's rich oral legends all the way back to the early 1800's - how our family came to the area from Canada and New York; their survival against a wilderness still populated by Indians and bears; how our ancestors created orchards from pocket seed, and fields from dense swamps and thick forests; and how a ready axe could build fortified cabins, barns and homes. And with Grandma's passing many years later came with it the thunderous passing of 200 years of local lores and legends gathered from the lips of that stream of humanity that had entered her hallowed residency over the long years of our early lives.
It was in my eleventh year of life that our country school would close; where my brothers and I would complete five generations of Slater's and Patterson's that had been in attendance at this clapboard building (or its earlier log-school-rendition until hit by lightening and burned down after 20 years of faithful service). A school built by our earliest descendants 135 years earlier in a time when there were few inhabitants. There, we were given the rich blessings of a very high, and personally interactive, education in a one-room school bearing 19 students from grades K through 8th - which made my class sometimes two and sometimes three in valiant number. But it was to my greatest disappointment that I never graduated from that warm little school setting up upon a distant hill several fields away from our farm. And was thrust into public high school like my father had experienced, and like my aunts and uncles had done a lifetime earlier. But they had the one thing I never had... the opportunity to graduate from this little one-room school. Even as their aunts and uncles had graduated before them, and theirs before them, going back five generations in antecedal time. But until my dad's day, none of their generations before his brothers and sisters had gone forward into high school, because in reality, 8th grade was about as far as any country kid would necessarily go who was needed to help on the family farm. Nor would I have the pleasure of listening to my mother play Pomp and Circumstance as we paced our small, studied, steps from the back of the school to the front before the dozen or so parents and relatives gathered to greet us in regal applause and wide smiles underneath the large framed portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
No, the school was forced to close - and with it my golden aspirations - at the end of my fifth grade year after six blissful years of attendance. Our little country school had become part of a much larger city that adopted us into its own seething cauldrons of discontent and malediction. I was now to be inducted into the ways of public education through means of indoctrination at the behest of a very large middle school with hundreds of rowdy kids who liked to have gang fights at noon recess ringed around by hooligans howling for more teeth and blood until tardy, overweight, teachers ran out into the back fields and sandlots to break the savage fights up. My next middle school a year later, and the high schools (there were two - an old one, and then a new one) that I would attend two years after that, provided a decent enough education to a country boy who was still discovering what it was like to live in a foreign and unknown era called the modern era that held little evidence of the close-knit farming community I had grown up in. I played in the marching band, won a place on the baseball team (infield), and collected friends as best as I could. But I also knew that I was socially misplaced, and stood at the outer fringes of my new school's social circles. I had lived too far out in the country - and for too long - to have any possibility of close friendships over the years, and grew content in finding what I could in those thin days of social living. And so, being ill-prepared for my next step into the much larger world of university training and war rallies (though I grew up with the Vietnam War prominently displayed in nightly melodrama on our black-and-white television set) my next stage of life would shortly begin to both my loss and my gain. My loss, in that my past life was about to close forever even as my dad's days of farming and community were ending; and my gain, in that I would become enculturated to modernity. And though I did not know it, I was to participate in this abysmal Vietnam war in some small way to be soon discovered even though I had turned down a governmental appointment to the United State Air Force Academy the summer before.
And this is how I came to be daily walking through the heart of the University of Michigan's central campus during aggrieved hippie sit-ins, strident war demonstrations, boisterous peace rallies, mass marijuana protests by the tens of thousands, and inhaling the thick acrid smell of acid and weed floating throughout West Quad's dorm hallways (I lived in Wenley House for 2 years. Taking the stairs to the fourth floor my first year; and my own spacious corner room on Thompson Avenue and East Madison the next). Also discovered (not!) were the ever-stimulating athletic jock parties by weekend sybaritists whose alcoholic binges culminated in the weekly destruction of our very small lounge and rec room where I and my friend would enjoy competitive ping-pong when needing a much needed break from our 18-hour days of demanding studies. And, as one of my last inconsequential memories, we had a national insurrection group known as the Black Panthers bomb our dorm’s public toilets and showers six doors down from my dorm room. Other than making life inconvenient for me and my dorm mates for the remainder of our spring semester (it required us to hike up two stories to use the other available men’s facilities) I little understood the purpose of this mindless destruction of hedonism and personal angst. Nonetheless, I had gotten use to the craziness that enveloped America's college campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s, having myself witnessed its last year of ebbing war demonstrations at a major university slapped with the label the Berkley-of-the-Midwest. And yet, in many other ways, I have very fond memories - both pleasant and vivid - of my days at college.... Made more so because of excellent professors, phenomenal studies and research, youth's many exquisite adventures of curiosity and fun, several rec teams and intramural squads, great Christian fellowships (IVP, Navigators, Campus Crusade) and church, and the early days of first love. Each experience was personally formidable and enhancing in ways I would never had received if still at home.
And so, it was at this point in my third year of study that I was now living on the second floor of an old church rectory on the other side of campus which was shared with seven other young Christian men between its collection of five antiquated rooms (mine was wrapped in burlap cloth on the walls). That bore a closed-off porch room at the end of the rectory's second story hallway serving as a local residence for a family of raccoons that liked to rummage amongst its forgotten and dusty contents of ancient years gone by. Which housed a small, but well stocked, academic bible bookstore on the floor below and quietly laid off main street near to the student stores, pubs, pizza joints and community centers. Next door was a very old, Episcopalian style church, laid in by cut masonry and large stones, and housing a very large sanctuary where a hundred-or-more Black Pentecostal worshipers would gather on Sunday evenings in folding chairs and large Cadillacs parked fender to fender outside. Within its bowels lay a large, stainless, kitchen from which we ate our weekly starvation rations; an unused basketball court I daily played upon beneath very high, and very large, stain windows holding back the sun's dark rays; and a wooden steeple resting in the shadows of Michigan's Bell Tower off State street rising o'er the autumnal blooms of fall before ushering in fell Michigan snows bringing howling drifts and colder walks to the distant campus. This very old church had grown-up, and in a manner, died, as its earlier pioneering families came-and-went-and-passed away. And next door lived a little old woman who blessed my heart as I listened to her faith stories weekly. As with all things, my evangelical church (Grace Bible) purchased it for use before outgrowing its sturdy premises and moving to the outer fringes of Ann Arbor's city boundaries, there to become a much larger assembly of virulent believers driving family sedans and soccer vans, to be pastored by a much beloved, and bespeckled, Jewish pastor from Johannesburg, South Africa, steeped in fiery elocution and a passionate love for Jesus.
It was impossible not to be absorbed into Grace Bible Church's gregarious evangelical culture preaching Jesus and His amazing love Sunday to Sunday while ministering astringently to my campus on the other. Our college youth group of many hundreds strong, held evangelistic campus rallies and fascinating missionary Sundays. Flocked to noisy Michigan Stadium to watch Bo Schembechler football. Sang popular Campus Crusade songs on Sunday morning bus rides out to the placid church perched five miles away. Held lunches and suppers with the church's many open-hearted families and senior adults. And hosted fun college fellowships on any given weekend - complete with food for hungry college kids living out on their own. In a way, a sense of balance was being restored to me for the many years that I had missed, but it was not because I craved Christian fellowship (though I did) but because I hungered for a humanity withheld from my earlier country wanderings, having few neighbours and fewer friends. Nor did I ever feel uncomfortable with non-Christian friends or my campus' university surroundings, its programs and wide-variety of opportunities for student involvement. I participated in all of it as studies allowed while little noticing an unsettling disenchantment beginning to worm its way into my soul requiring my eventual displacement at great distress to those I loved. Still, even to this day, I much prefer a non-church environment to that of a closed-cultural Christian setting. More probably because I enjoy people, listening to their stories, and having the chance to befriend any-and-all whenever possible. Which I suppose harkens back to my childhood and teen years when nary a soul my age could be found in its stark isolations and bleak solitudes.
For it was in those early days of itinerant preachers visiting a little one-room country school, and attending Sunday Schools once a week in my growing Baptist church, and perceiving in a first blush of realization that Jesus' gospel of love and salvation was meant for me, though eleven years of age. Whereto, many years later, I was to discover the depths of A.W. Tozer's blessed little book, opening my eyes to the majesty and transcendency of a holy God who was my Father, my Savior, my Redeemer-Protector. Who was wholly-other than I myself, and who became wholly incarnate man to share with me my turmoils, strifes, guilt and shame. And as I read and studied the Bible I found a spiritual rejuvenation and astonished illumination as a young, growing Christian, that somehow led me to Tozer's little book towards a higher, clearer understanding of God, that to this day does not dim, nor rings in my heart's chambers less true, than before all other bells that have rung and gone silent in their ringing.
And it is to this well-thumbed book that I would encourage devotional readings for any would-be converts. For me, it proved a difficult book to grasp, and required of me to read and re-read its passages until I understood what it was saying. It stretched my youthful mind and soul in ways previously unknown. And continues to amaze me before its sturdy little passages when contemplating the newer disciplines of post-modernism, relational and open theism, and emergent, postmodern Christianity. And though I doubted this country boy could ever have left his early 1900s agrarian roots from a post-industrial era - from a land and community I deeply loved and grieved - I have with the Spirit's help attempted at first to wear modernism's casual change of clothes, and now, post-modernism's radical hippie colours, knowing that the revelation of God revealed by His very personage and divine presence is relevant for all time, all seasons, and all circumstances. Where someday I may change whatever attire I may be found for a fresh pair on whitened garments ironed in the glistening rays of the dazzling Son of Man. My Lord. My Savior. My King.
Thou hidden love of God, whose height,
Whose depth unfathomed, no man knows,
I see from far Thy beauteous light,
Inly, I sigh for Thy repose;
My heart is pained, nor can it be
At rest till finding rest [at last] in Thee.
- Gerhard Tersteegen
- Gerhard Tersteegen
September 1, 2011
revised, August 6, 2013
A.W. Tozer - The Knowledge of the Holy
revised, August 6, 2013
A.W. Tozer - The Knowledge of the Holy