I met with Vernon Grounds the morning after his 65th wedding anniversary and the day he joined dignitaries in breaking ground for Denver Seminary's new campus. The years had taken a toll. He reached up now and then to adjust a hearing aid and rose slowly from his seat to answer the phone. His hunched posture belied a lifetime of working out with weights. "I have three secrets to longevity," he said as he turned 90: "God, genetics, and the gym."
For 23 years, Grounds served as the seminary's president before retiring into the role of chancellor. He crisscrossed the country at a time when that meant three or four stops in propeller planes. He preached thousands of sermons and delivered thousands of lectures. He was a pioneer in Christian counseling as well as social activism. Along the way, he sustained fierce attacks from fundamentalist board members who scorned Billy Graham as a modernist and argued for strict separatism.
"I still have a walking stick from those days," Grounds reminisced. "I used to take long walks, a couple of miles at a time, discussing my critics aloud with God." He knew the fundamentalist controversy well, having attended a seminary founded by the combative Carl McIntire. (Christian authors Joseph Bayly and Kenneth Kantzer were classmates.) It was there Grounds first heard the definition of fundamentalism as "too much fun, too much damn, and not enough mental."
Over the years, Grounds's faith matured in a way that offered both hope and comfort to young seminarians. In his lectures and in personal counseling sessions, he told the honest truth about the ups and downs of life with God and with the church. Love is the key, he insisted. Jesus gave it as a command, not an option. We serve a God who even loves his enemies. I have heard many stories of how Grounds demonstrated that love by meeting weekly with troubled souls for 10, even 20 years.
Through the windows outside his office, we watched a cluster of students walk from a classroom to the library, bundled against the wind on a cold, drizzly day. "So many of these students seem concerned about sensing the presence of God," Grounds said. "They expect to live in perpetual sunshine. When a student tells me about an unsatisfying spiritual life, I point them to others, such as Henri Nouwen, who struggled with the same problem. Or Lewis Smedes, who never really felt he was God's friend.
"We shouldn't expect a relationship with God to be on a constant plane all the time. Believe me, over 65 years of marriage, you don't stay on a plane of ecstasy all the time. Romance started for me as a blazing bonfireyou know, 'You light up my life.' After a few decades, it settled into something more like a heap of glowing coals. Sure, some of the heat dissipated, but coals are good, too: You can roast marshmallows, warm your feet. A different level of companionship opens up."
A few times, Grounds said, he has felt twinges of spiritual ecstasy, when, as the old hymn puts it, "Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul." But those were rare. Mostly he persisted because he valued the relationship with God, just as he valued the marriage relationship: "I warm my feet by the fire." When he passed 60, he began reflecting more often on old age, praying in words borrowed from Robert Frost about "how to make the most of a diminished thing." Little did he know a third of his life lay ahead.
After I heard Grounds describe some of his physical ailments, as well as the loss of many of his friends, I asked if he had ever seen a bona fide miracle of physical healing. Without a flicker of hesitation he leaned forward in his chair and said enthusiastically, "No, but I'm still hoping!" He told me of a friend diagnosed with an untreatable kidney condition. He is praying daily for the man's miraculous healing, fervently believing in God's power to perform such a miracle even though in 90 years he has never witnessed it.
In nine decades, Grounds has seen his share of trials: a flood that ruined many of his sermon and lecture notes, his wife's struggle against cancer, a saboteur's attack on an airplane. "For me, the controlling principle in prayer comes out of Jesus' model in Gethsemane: 'Remove this cup nevertheless, thy will be done.' I have unquestioning confidence in God's ability to accomplish whatever God wantsthe Resurrection proves thatbut I also believe that other spiritual forces are trying to frustrate the forces of good. I accept mystery and paradox. When you've been around as long as I have, you have to. Like the Chinese philosopher riding backwards on a donkey, we live life forward, but only understand it backward."
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Previous Yancey columns for Christianity Today include:
For God's Sake | What 147 elk taught me about prayer. (March 1, 2006)
The Word on the Street | What the homeless taught me about prayer. (Dec. 29, 2005)
Exploring a Parallel Universe | Why does the word evangelical threaten so many people in our culture? (Nov. 3, 2005)
God Behind Barbed Wire | How a Nazi-soldier-turned-theologian found hope. (Aug. 29, 2005)
The Japanese Joseph | What the North Korean regime meant for evil, God used for good. (June 21, 2005)
A Bow and a Kiss | Authentic worship reveals both the friendship and fear of God. (April 28, 2005)
Global Suspense | The trick of faith is to believe in advance what will only make sense in reverse. (March 01, 2005)
Back from the Brothel | Thanks to brave ministries, prostitutes are still entering the kingdom. (Jan. 05, 2005)
Hope for Abraham's Sons | What will it take for us to overcome this violent world? (Oct. 27, 2004)
Forgetting God | Why decadence drives out discipline. (Aug. 30, 2004)
Discreet and Dynamic | Why, with no apparent resources, Chinese churches thrive. (June 28, 2004)
Doubting the Doomsayers | Thank God not everything they say is true. (April 30, 2004)
Cry, The Beloved Continent | Don't let AIDS steal African children's future. (March 04, 2004)
The Colonizers | The best preachers have challenged earth to become more like heaven. (Jan. 16, 2004)
The Leprosy Doctor | Paul Brand showed how to serve others sacrificially and emerge with joy. (Oct. 23, 2003)
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