It was a business session at an Alliance General Council, and the denominational machinery was clanking in motions and amendments and amendments to amendments. Dr. A. W. Tozer, restless and bored with it all, turned to Rev. Raymond McAfee, his associate pastor, and whispered, "Come on, Ray, let's go up to my room and pray before I lose all my religion."
James L. Snyder
A preference for God's presence was characteristic of Dr. Tozer. Many regarded him as an eloquent preacher, while others thought of him as an outstanding writer. However, these were mere products of a life consecrated to God. Dr. Tozer was primarily a great Christian.
To understand his life and ministry it is essential to focus on his devotional life. "Labor," Tozer wrote, "that does not spring out of worship is futile and can only be wood, hay and stubble in the day that shall try every man's work."
He hammered his ideas concerning worship into convictions that governed his life and ministry. "Worship," according to Tozer, "is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that majesty which philosophers call the First Cause but which we call Our Father Which Art in Heaven." This was the impetus behind all that he was and did. It controlled every aspect of his life and ministry.
The lack of spirituality among men and women of his day is embarrassingly evident. Tozer zeroed in on one of the primary causes. He said, "I am convinced that the dearth of great saints in these times even among those who truly believe in Christ is due at least in part to our unwillingness to give sufficient time to the cultivation of the knowledge of God."
Then as now, people were busy, their leaders setting a pace that prohibited the kind of Christianity that produces saints. Speaking about this, Tozer cautioned, "Our religious activities should be ordered in such a way as to leave plenty of time for the cultivation of the fruits of solitude and silence."
Tozer's own hunger for God eventually led him to the study of the Christian mystics. In his day the writings of the mystics were not popular reading, even by preachers. Nevertheless, Tozer discovered that these great saints were uncontrollably in love with God. His great love and appreciation for them sprang out of his own heart's longing after and thirsting for God.
"These people," Tozer would say, "know God, and I want to know what they know about God and how they came to know it." He so identified with the struggles and triumphs of certain devotional writers that many people referred to him as a mystic, a designation to which he never objected.
Once in a sermon Tozer referred to Lady Julian of Norwich as his girlfriend. The statement caused many raised eyebrows. "I think," Tozer explained, "that anyone who has been dead for more than 500 years is safe to be called a girlfriend." He discovered in her writings an attitude and passion for God that corresponded with his own spiritual quest.
His list of these "Friends of God" grew with the years, and nothing delighted him more than to discover some new devotional writer who long ago had been forgotten. Often he was ardently eager to introduce a new mystic to his friends.
Tozer's admiration for these writers did not mean he endorsed everything they did or taught. He was careful to point this out. It was their utter devotion to God along with their ability to share their spiritual insights and observations that he valued.
For Tozer, correct doctrine was not enough. "You can be," Tozer often said, "straight as a gun barrel theologically and as empty as one spiritually." Consequently Tozer did not, throughout his ministry, major in systematic theology. His emphasis was always on a personal relationship with God??a relationship so real, so personal and so overpowering as to captivate utterly a person's full attention. He longed for what he called a God?conscious soul??a heart aflame for God.
A related influence in Tozer's life was his hymnals. Tozer was a great lover of hymns and in his study he maintained a collection of old hymnals. Often, while riding to an appointment, he would carry a hymnal for reading and meditation. Frequently he would counsel people to "get a hymnbook, but don't get one that is less than a hundred years old."
Surprisingly, the Alliance church in Chicago that he pastored for thirty-one years did not use an Alliance hymnal for its worship service. A visitor to the church would have found a River Brethren Church hymnal. Tozer preferred it because it contained those great hymns of the Church that he loved and enjoyed hearing the congregation sing.
Great hymnody was an important part of his daily worship and pursuit of God. As editor of THE ALLIANCE WEEKLY, Tozer offered this advice to young Christians: "After the Bible the next most valuable book for the Christian is a good hymnal. Let any young Christian spend a year prayerfully meditating on the hymns of [Isaac] Watts and [Charles] Wesley alone, and he will become a fine theologian. Then let him read a balanced diet of the Puritans and the Christian mystics. The results will be more wonderful than he could have dreamed." This was his pattern year after year.
Starting in 1950, when Tozer was elected editor of THE ALLIANCE WEEKLY (now ALLIANCE LIFE), they required that he write a weekly editorial putting an unsparing drain on his creative and spiritual energy. At times he would come to his study at the church facing editorial deadlines but "as uninspired as a burnt shingle," as he would say. He faced, as does every writer, the problem of getting his creative juices flowing.
Tozer would go to his study with his Bible and a hymnbook and kneel down by the couch and begin to worship God. He would read some Scripture and perhaps read or softly sing a few hymns. As he released his spirit into God, he would soon be enveloped in His presence.
Then ideas would begin to come. He would pick up his pencil and write as fast as he could to keep up with what was being poured into his soul. Within an hour sketch of two, three or maybe four editorials would be before him. Later he would painstakingly polish these sketches for publication.
Mr. Ray McAfee was associate pastor, choir director and song leader for Dr. Tozer in Chicago for fifteen years. During that time he met with Tozer each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning for a half?hour of prayer. One can only imagine the richness of those prayer sessions.
Often when McAfee came into the study, would Tozer share something that he had recently been reading??a portion from a devotional writer or from the Bible or from a hymnbook or a book of poetry. Then he would kneel down by his chair and begin to pray. At times he would kneel with his face lifted; at other times he would lie on the floor with a piece of paper under his face to keep him from breathing carpet dust.
"On a day that I shall never forget," McAfee recalls, "Tozer knelt down by his chair, took off his glasses and laid them on the chair, rested back on his bent ankles. He clasped his hands together, raised his face with his eyes closed and began, 'O God, we are before Thee.' With that there came a rush of God's presence that literally filled the room, and we both worshiped God in silent ecstasy, wonder and adoration."
"I've never forgotten that moment," McAfee says, "and I don't want to forget it. The memory lingers in my mind, almost with the same freshness and vivacity as that morning. That, to me, was Dr. Tozer."
On occasions when McAfee was praying he would hear Tozer moving around. While still trying to pray, McAfee would open one eye to see what was going on. Tozer would be there, pencil in hand, writing. While McAfee was praying, Tozer had a thought he wanted to capture on paper quickly.
During the 1950s Tozer met and developed a close relationship with a man from Ireland. His name was Thomas Haire. Tozer wrote a series of seven articles about this "praying plumber from Lisburn" in ALLIANCE LIFE in 1954. The two men were as different as any two persons could be, yet there was a spiritual kinship that drew them together.
Once, while Tom Haire was visiting in the area, Tozer's church was having a day and night of fasting and prayer. In the middle of the night Tom got thirsty and went out for a cup of tea. Many at the church rebuked him for yielding to the flesh. Yet Tozer saw in that act the beautiful liberty Tom enjoyed in the Lord.
Like Tom, Tozer refused to get under bondage to anything or anyone. "I have found God to be cordial and generous and in every way easy to live with."