Randy Harris: ‘I’ll Have More Time to Pray’
By LORETTA FULTON
For years, Randy Harris joked that he was “the Church of Christ’s only monk,” but he may have to come up with a new calling card.
Recently retired from teaching at Abilene Christian University, Harris will continue his leadership in a program that he founded at ACU, the Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative.
To date, five classes of 12 members each have graduated from the program, with more coming. Historically, Churches of Christ have focused more on doctrine than on spiritual development and contemplative prayer, but interest has increased over the years.
“I haven’t had any trouble recruiting 12 a year,” Harris said.
The Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative is part of the Siburt Institute at ACU, led by Carson Reed, executive director. Reed noted that as a trained spiritual director and experienced minister, Harris brings both backgrounds to his work with ministers who are early in their careers. Harris is a good listener and asks good questions, Reed said, and he understands the pressures that face ministers.
“He probes deeply, and he calls them into deeper practices of prayer,” Reed said. “In so doing, he helps ministers reimagine their practice of ministry, their personal lives, and most significantly, their life with God.”
Harris’ personal journey into contemplative prayer began when he read Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline. He took a deep dive into the practice when he attended his first 40-day silent prayer retreat at Lebh Shomea House of Prayer in South Texas that included Holy Communion each morning, 30 minutes of instruction, one hour of manual labor, silent meals and silent prayer.
“That was such a transformative experience,” Harris said.
Since then, Harris has been certified as a spiritual director by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. And, he has combined his love of spiritual direction with teaching, serving as spiritual director for ACU’s College of Biblical Studies. Those who know Harris best note that his talents lie in many areas.
“Randy Harris is one of those people who is unusually gifted by God to be able to relate well to people of all ages,” said Royce Money, former president of ACU who teaches in the Department of Bible, Missions and Ministry.
Money noted that Harris has a talent for interpreting the “deeper things of God” in ways that everyone can understand, making him a popular teacher for young people and speaker for groups of older people. Harris’ abilities as a spiritual director are admired by many.
“As a spiritual mentor,” Money said, “Randy has had enormous influence on hundreds of ministers and students. He’s one of God’s best!”
Another attribute that draws students, colleagues, and others to Harris is his authenticity, said Jeff Childers, a professor in ACU’s Graduate School of Theology.
“His lifestyle choices, his constant awareness of his own need to grow, and his eagerness to learn from students remove any barriers,” Childers said, “and make it possible to have a deep and transformative relationship with him.”
Among those lifestyle choices are being “happily single,” contemplative, and a minimalist. In fact, one of the few non-essentials Harris owns is a pinball machine. Apparently, Harris’ students are fond of the pinball machine, too.
“It’s helped my student evaluations,” Harris joked.
But it took more than a few games on the pinball machine for Harris to pick up all the honors he has earned at ACU and at Lipscomb University in Nashville, where he taught before joining the ACU faculty in 1999.
At Lipscomb, Harris received the Outstanding Teacher Award in 1990. At ACU, he was chosen Honors Professor of the Year in 2001, Honors Mentor of the Year in 2003 and 2011, Outstanding Faculty Member of the College of Biblical Studies in 2003, and Outstanding Teacher of the Year for the university in 2011.
Those teaching awards are no surprise to former students like Ethan Laster, who now is working on a doctorate in theological studies in St. Louis. Laster holds a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees from ACU.
During his ACU years, Laster was in several of Harris’ theology, philosophy, and Bible classes, his mentoring group, and he worked as a graduate assistant with Harris for four years. A trait that Laster appreciates in Harris is “how present he is to the people he cares for.” Harris communicates the deepest care and concern for those around him, Laster said, and will set everything aside to listen, talk, and help.
“In the classroom, Randy never tries to show off his (absolutely towering) intellect,” Laster wrote in an email, “but is one hundred percent concerned with nurturing a rich intellectual and spiritual life in all his students.”
When teaching difficult theological concepts that might be new or confusing to students, he tells them, “give me your intellect and I’ll take care of your heart.”
“I think that idea sums up personally what he is all about,” Laster wrote. “So many peoples’ lives have been changed by Randy–mine included–and I count my friendship with him as one of the most important blessings of my life.”
Harris was born in Springfield, Missouri, and grew up in Bentonville, Arkansas, where a brother still lives. Harris graduated from Bentonville High School in 1976 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1979 from Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. He added two master’s degrees from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee, and a master of philosophy from Syracuse University in New York, his lone sojourn out of the warm south.
“That was my experience in the arctic north,” Harris said,
After joining the ACU faculty in 1999, Harris taught both religion majors and non-majors in courses ranging from preaching and theology to an introduction to philosophy and ethics. Going forward, Harris will focus on his work with Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative, continue as a volunteer with the local chapter of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), and chip away at a book on systematic theology. He also is a member of Highland Church of Christ.
The book project, he joked, is what every theologian does when he retires. He hopes to write two pages a day for two years, resulting in a book aimed at the educated layperson. The book will cover basic Christian doctrines.
“I’m writing for me,” Harris said. “If anyone else wants to read it, that’s fine.”
Harris also will continue to dabble at chess and playing the hammer dulcimer. And, of course, there’s the pinball machine beckoning for diversion. Primarily, though, Harris will spend his semi-retirement years doing what he cherishes most.
“I hope to have more time to pray,” he said.
Photos: Abilene Christian University
Photos: Abilene Christian University