A few years ago, I was editing a small Christian magazine, and we had commissioned a series of articles from Randy Harris, who had become popular for his "standup theologian" style of teaching at Abilene Christian University.
He sent me his first article hand-written and by fax. Who hand-writes articles, and who uses fax machines anymore? Randy's handwriting was difficult to decode, and I was a little frustrated, but what I did not know then was that he wrote that piece in the middle of his 40-day retreat at Lebh Shomea house of prayer in the Texas desert. He had no computer, no Internet.
This 40-day prayer retreat changed the life of Randy Harris. It started when he asked himself, "What would happen if I gave God my full attention for 40 days?"
The fact that I did not get the context of Randy's hand-written piece illustrates an important truth: I can't fully understand someone's prayer journey until I pay attention to God as well.
Like the Israelites waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai or the disciples waiting for Jesus in prayer on the mountain, we expect that someone who has spent time with God, paying full attention, will come back with words of wisdom that will blow us away.
Randy doesn't claim God gave him any special revelation, but he did receive something profound during his 40 days in the wilderness. Randy found that God wanted to teach him the gospel all over again. This time he would learn it more with his heart than with his head.
Those 40 days also set Randy on a quest to learn to live out the teachings and mission of Christ.
Over the next decade, Randy spent time with practitioners of prayer and mission in Celtic and Ignatian retreat houses. He did a two-year program in the Shalem Institute, learning to do contemplative spiritual direction. He spent time at the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., where he saw a way to bring together the contemplative and missional, a powerful way of following Jesus and touching the world.
"I had done a lot of mentoring of students, but it always seemed to be from the neck up. It wasn't bad, and it impacted a lot of people, but I wanted to know if there was another level of engagement," said Randy.
"As a college professor, I'm very interested in spiritual formation, but college students are notoriously difficult to form," Randy said in his recent book, Living Jesus. "It's a great formative age, but many students have also checked out of church. So I began to wonder, Is there a way to form students that will take permanently? They are probably never going to be able to replicate their four-year college experience, so what are the ways to form them so deeply that will impact them for the rest of their lives?"
That question and his journey led Randy toward an experiment he's doing now with students at Abilene Christian.
After studying contemplative and missional communities, he learned not to be afraid of the word "rule" or "religious order," as countercultural as that might seem. A rule is simply a way of life that a group of people commit to live.
Two books that helped him understand how to establish orders outside the context of a monastery: The New Friars by Scott Bessenecker and Punk Monk by Andy Freeman and Pete Greig, who come out of the British 24/7 prayer movement and build on Benedictine disciplines.
He devised a plan. He would form a group of freshmen and develop a three-and-a-half year plan, taking in a new group every year and having the upper-classmen continue on in the group.