What does the University have to do with Prayer?

Remarks by Gary David Stratton

Given at the Campus House of Prayer Annual Banquet 

The Foundry, Knoxville, TN

October 29, 2015

The University of Tennessee Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) was established in 2009 as a venue for 24/7 prayer, worship and intercession for U.T. students and campus ministers.
Gary and Rhonda Peacock founded the Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) at the University of Tennessee in 2009 as a venue open day and night for U.T. students and campus ministers to pray.

Thank you for that gracious introduction, Bryan. And thank you to Gary and Rhonda, for inviting Sue and I to be with you tonight. When the four us first met in Colorado over seven years ago, I don’t think we could have ever imagined that one-day we’d get to live and minister together in Knoxville.

And let me make something clear: ‘minister’ is exactly what I mean. Don’t let any changes in role and title over the years fool you; Sue and I are campus ministers through and through. We started our careers as Cru staff at the University of Memphis, an experience that nearly kept us from taking another job in Tennessee, [Laughter] and everything we’ve done since has only served the pursuit of our primary calling as ministers to students and those who lead them.

So speaking on prayer to the extended family of the Campus House of Prayer, CHOP, at the University of Tennessee makes perfect sense. And as I prayed at CHOP early this morning, I sensed that I needed to scrap my planned remarks and pave the way for the stories you have heard already tonight and the ones you will hear later by providing an educational rationale for a campus house of prayer.

But first, I want to start with a piece of advice that might lead to some great PR for CHOP. After just a few months of observing the UT community, I believe that the greatest service the Campus House of Prayer could offer the University would be to petition the football program to stop praying before games… [pause] ….and ask that the athletic department move the prayer time to the fourth quarter! [Laughter.]

(Note to those who are not Volunteer football fans: The UT football team–who open every game at Neyland Stadium with public prayer for the 102,422 faithful in attendance–lost four of its first seven games in the 2015 season after leading in the fourth quarter, including narrow losses to eventual CFP tournament teams Alabama and Oklahoma.)

Prayer: An Odd Duck in the Modern University

Let’s admit it, football traditions not withstanding, a House of Prayer on a college campus sounds more than a little out-of-place. Colleges are centers of learning; universities established as institutions devoted to study and to scholarship, not spiritual exercises.

In the second century after Christ, Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Now the tables are turned, and a better question today might be, “What does U.T. have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

Some might argue that the best answer that question is, nothing. Even many Christians may say, “We have so many campus ministries devoted to teaching Biblical truth in a manner worthy of a community of higher learning, why confuse things with a practice that appears amusingly antiquated to many in the university community, and completely delusional to others? Let’s preach the gospel and forget this troubling notion of prayer.”

However, tonight I wish to argue that the real answer to the question, “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?” is everything. I believe that is true even for those who have no faith commitment whatsoever. (I will have to leave that argument for another day.) However, it is especially true for those who name the name of Christ. Here’s why.

Prayer in the College of Christ

While Jesus never established a brick and mortar school in the modern sense of the word, the discipleship movement he founded was indistinguishable from first-century Jewish higher education. Itinerating with a rabbi was simply the way you “did” college in Jesus’ day. After a youth spent studying the Torah, only the most remarkable students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education: obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God.)

Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ curriculum centered on the study of his teachings and interpretations of Torah. Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ pedagogy was highly relational and centered on the creation of a learning community where master and disciples lived in close proximity and forged a friendship.

What distinguished the “College of Christ” from other first-century higher education was Jesus’ unique emphasis on the spiritual discipline of prayer. While prayer was part of all Jewish education, Jesus’ overarching commitment to prayer goes far beyond any Rabbi of his day. [2] Luke records no less that nine occasions when Jesus prayed with and/or modeled prayer for his students. [1] Matthew recalls least twenty-percent of Jesus’ parables and the Sermon on the Mount centered on prayer. John, perhaps Jesus’ favorite student, notes that his teacher devoted nearly half of his “last lecture” (John 13-17) to teaching his students about prayer, and praying together with them.

For Jesus prayer and education were inseparable, because education and the knowledge of God are inseparable. Whereas the object of Greek education was to study to ‘know thyself,’ Jesus taught his students that true spiritual life is found in knowing God (John 17:3). This emphasis was consistent with the Rabbinic concept that you could only know someone or something you experienced. Jesus’ learning outcomes demanded that his students encounter God not merely intellectually, but experimentally as well. He taught them to seek this experiential knowledge of God not only through the discipline of study (as important as this might be), but in prayer as well.

1) Education and Contemplative Prayer: Instruction in Abba Intimacy

After years of teaching and modeling prayer, Jesus’ students finally ask their Rabbi, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus’ response would have sounded both disappointingly familiar, and astonishingly radical at the same time.

On one level, “The prayer is thoroughly Jewish “and “could easily have appeared without change in rabbinic literature.” [3] However, another level, the Lord’s Prayer highlights at least two unique aspects of prayer in the College of Christ.

First, in teaching his disciples to address God as Father, Jesus’ rooted the practice of prayer in his desire for his students to experience the intimate love of God. While the fatherhood of God is only inferred in the Torah, it is clearly evident in the Psalms and Prophets, and later rabbinic writings. [4] Jesus drew upon this rabbinic tradition, deepening it in a manner that would have been nearly unthinkable for most Rabbis of his day.

Renowned Near Eastern Studies scholar Joachim Jeremias discovered that “In the literature of Palestinian Judaism no evidence has yet been found of ‘My father,’ being used by an individual as an address to God… We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba (my father) in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way.”[5]

It is an astonishing choice of words. Abba implies a close, personal and familial relationship. “What others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy.”[6] What’s more, he taught his disciples to do the same. As New Testament scholar Joel Green asserts, Jesus’ teaching on prayer “begins and ends with references to God as the Father of his disciples.”[7]

Prayer was a critical educational practice, because in prayer students encountered genuine knowledge of God the Father. As Singaporean theologian Simon Chan affirms, “Intimacy with God is what characterizes a life of prayer.”[8]

The early Christians followed Jesus’ example so thoroughly that for the first 1200 years of the church, prayer and education were inseparable. In fact, for most of that time if you wanted to learn the great Greco-Roman liberal arts, you had to do it in a community devoted to prayer. As renowned church historian, Jean LeClerq, summarizes, “Hence, there arose a distinctive culture with marked characteristics, contemplative’ in bent, oriented toward spirituality [and] assuming there is no theology without prayer and the establishment of certain [experiential] contact with God.” [9]

How will they know unless someone teaches them?

This past summer I had the honor of addressing many of the top leaders in Christian Higher Education in Canada—presidents, faculty and student life staff. As part of my remarks I led us in a brief centering prayer exercise. Now, there is this wonderful thing that happens regularly in centering prayer known as “the drop.” It is a physical sensation that often accompanies moving from our head to our heart in prayer. Now, I can practice centering prayer for twenty minutes a day for a week and never experience the drop. However, that day the Lord graced us with a nearly universally experienced collective drop that you could literally hear in the transformation of everyone’s breathing patterns.

But was most instructive was when I asked how many of these perhaps most highly educated leaders in the entire nation, “How many of you have ever been taught the art of centering prayer and experienced a drop before?” The answer was significantly less than half the room. Their education had never included instruction in what would have been considered a Freshman 101 lesson in most Christian catechetical schools for over 1200 years. Why? Because there was nothing like a campus house of prayer on their campuses to teach them.

So… “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

If we are committed to building campus ministries capable of following after the model of the College of Christ by leading student into a life of Abba intimacy, the answer is Everything!

How are UT students ever going to learn to pray, unless as in the College of Christ, someone models a life of prayer so thoroughly that students ask, “Teach us to pray”? Which is exactly what happened to Aaron when he wandered into that CHOP city prayer meeting.

The first reason why UT needs the Campus House of Prayer is to provide a safe place for students and staff from every campus ministry to learn to grow deep in the experiential knowledge of Abba intimacy with God through prayer.

2) Education and Answered Prayer: Evidence of the In-breaking Kingdom

The Lord’s Prayer also reveals second reason why we need a campus house of prayer. Jesus didn’t want his students to merely become prayerful navel gazers, experiencing God in private. He wanted them to experience God breaking into their world. He taught his students how to enter into the coming of the kingdom, not only through faith, repentance, and prayer for “private” experiential knowledge of God, but also to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of the Father God of the kingdom.

He therefore instructed them to pray, “Cause your kingdom to come, your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Through the Spirit who was “upon” Jesus, God was exerting his “authority to rule” in order to bring about the will of God upon the earth that the Father intended in the heavens. Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry was a sign that the Messianic kingdom of God was breaking in upon the world (cf. Matthew 12:28). Supernatural answers to prayer were the fuel of his outreach and discipleship ministry.

Like CHOPS the prayer tent on UT’s campus, Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world through answered prayer. He modeled, mentored and coached his students into an increasing participation in supernatural answers to prayer. He pressed his students to grow into a confidence that no prayer was too big for God (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26).  He taught them that certain kinds of spiritual resistance could be overcome only through prayer (Mark 9:29). He assured them that miraculous answers to prayer they experienced in his earthly ministry would continue in the new era of the Spirit (John 14:12). And he taught them that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is given in answer to prayer (Luke 11:13).

Then, after their remarkable “graduation” ceremony from the School of Christ at Pentecost (we give students diplomas, he gave them the Holy Spirit), Jesus’ students continued to advance the kingdom of God by praying for power of the Spirit to be released in supernatural answers to prayer (Acts 4:30-31); and witnessed spiritual awakening after spiritual awakening that demonstrated that the kingdom of God was indeed breaking into the world. (Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 2:4).

Prayer preceded the first outpouring of Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1-2), and the second (Acts 4:31-5:11). Prayer was integral the spiritual awakenings in Samaria (Acts 10-11) and Antioch (Acts 13:1-3).

Prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the genesis of Paul’s great revival in Ephesus (Acts 19), where Paul adopted and adapted the best practices of Greco-Roman higher education by teaching in the lecture hall of Tyrannous until, “All the Jews and all the Greeks in all the Roman province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).

And that is not the inflated spin doctoring of Paul’s PR team. It is the inspired word of God. One can only begin to imagine what might happen if prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit on UT’s campus might lead to all the students and all the non-students in province of East Tennessee hearing the word of the Lord.

Which is why, as the CHOP website so eloquently expresses, “Historically, the great movements of God have been predicated by movements of prayer. On campus at the University of Tennessee there is a space that strives to lay this foundation of prayer. We call it the CHOP, the Campus House of Prayer. It is a melting pot where students of different denominations and backgrounds unify to seek God and catalyze a movement for Christ.”

This has been Sue and my experience on each of the fours campuses where we have witnessed spiritual awakening. In each case it began with a dedication group of students and adults becoming a house of prayer for all nations in their intercessions for the kingdom of God to break into their world by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether it started with a group of students who prayed from 5:30 to 7:30 each morning, a campus ministry team who fasted together for forty days, or a mother who cried out day and night for over 17 years for God to move on the campus where her son would one day attend, God granted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to those daring to take Jesus at his word and pray.

But one does not have to wait until a season of spiritual awakening to live out the teaching of the college of Christ. Sue and I have become deeply committed to teaching people to become “Two-Handed Warriors” for the Harvest. Men and women of God committed to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit, to both faith-building and culture-making—intellectuals, artists, ministers, philanthropists, and leaders in ever facet of society from the local church to global relief agencies, the Silicon Valley to the Mayo Clinic, Wall Street to Main Street, Hollywood to the Ivy League.

Whether that’s a screenwriter who turns to prayer in a time of desperate need only to rise and write an Academy Award-winning screenplay, a scientist whose research project had failed, but turned to God who granted her Nobel Prize-winning scientific discovery that took her decades to prove in the laboratory, or a UT student who turned to God when an engineering simulation proved impossible like Bryan, or a group of UT campus ministers who are called to tackle racism head on like Matthew described. These men and women are true two-handed warriors following the example set by Jesus in the School of Christ.

Through both the intimacy of “Abba prayer” and the supernatural power of “Kingdom prayer” the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the College of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God. Even in the midst of tremendous pressures of leadership, nothing could distract Jesus’ alumni from devoting themselves to the two key disciplines he had carefully cultivated within them. When pressed with tremendous ministry and service demands they pressed back, “We must devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4). His graduates not only knew about God and his word, they had experienced the Father God of the kingdom.

3) CHOP: Leading UT Students into a More Experiential Faith

It has been forty-five years since J.I. Packer warned the church, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of him.”[10] Today, we may be danger of producing students who possess neither. If Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean’s sobering research on the sorry spiritual state of today’s Christian students is to be believed, we are facing a generation who knows neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:9) and are therefore bored out of their minds. And who can blame them.

The church has managed to take a spiritually intimate and supernaturally powerful faith and made it about as compelling as, “whatever.” [11] Contemporary Christianity offers little of the “personal relationship with Jesus” students were promised when they made their profession of faith and virtually no power whatsoever.

In a generation hungering for intimacy at an unprecedented level, can we offer students pathways to encounter the Father’s transforming love? In a generation flocking to supernatural movies, television shows, and video games, can our campus ministries help students experience the kingdom of God breaking into the world in ways that defy all natural explanation?

Jesus would say we can, but only if we summon the courage to fill our outreach and our discipleship ministries with prayer. A recommitment to a biblical worldview will never be enough to rescue a generation from “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” [11] They need the experiential knowledge of God. We need to be able to offer students the power of answered prayer to break through the insipid deism of a materialistic worldview. We need to be able to offer students the intimacy of reflective prayer to encounter the love of the Father and evoke genuine love of God in return.  Half measures won’t cut it.

“What on earth does prayer have to do with UT and UT with Prayer?” Nothing?

Everything?

You decide.

As for me, I can only throw my lot behind Gary, Rhonda and CHOP and cry out,

“Lord, teach us to pray!”

 

© Gary David Stratton 2015

Notes

[1] Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28; 10:17-21; 11:1; 22:39-46; 23:34,36.

[2] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian origins: diversity, continuity and transformation. (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 2003). See Also, Gary David Stratton. 2014. “Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God,” Two Handed Warriors, http://wp.me/p1TN9X-2R.

[3] Marvin R. Wilson, Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 118, see also. p. 288. David Bivin, “Prayers for Emergencies,” Jerusalem Perspective 37 (Mar./Apr. 1992), 1-17. Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 358. Bradford H. Young, The Jewish Background of the Lord’s Prayer (Austin, TX: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984).

[4] Psalms 2:7; 89:26; Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Jeremiah 3:4,19; Malachi 3:10. See, N. T. Wright, Jesus and the victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 265. See also, Scot McKnight, A new vision for Israel: the teachings of Jesus in national context (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62-63.

[5] Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 57.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Penn: Westminster, 1985), p. 21.

[7] Joel B. Green, The theology of the gospel of Luke. New Testament theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 111.

[8] Simon Chan, Spiritual theology: a systematic study of the Christian life. Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1998), p. 132.

[9] Jean LeClerq. 2007. The love of learning and the desire for God: A study of monastic culture, 3rd Edition. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007, p. 3.

[10] Knowing God (London: Evangelical Press, first published in 1970), p. 16.

[11] Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: what the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[12] Smith, and Denton, p. 2.