Vernon Grounds: A Man for All Ages
When my generation was in its infancy, it was often told that "children should be seen and not heard."
This bit of "wisdom" meant don't interrupt … wait your turn … listen to your father … don't make waves … never contradict, and (in summary) keep your mouth shut when adults are talking.
When I was 9 years old, I met a man who did not believe this. He came to visit in our home and to preach in my father's church. From the moment I was introduced to him, I knew he was unlike any other man I'd previously known. He looked me straight in the eye, asked me questions, listened to my answers, and remembered what I said.
As if it were yesterday, I recall him preaching and doing it in a way that was perfectly comprehensible, even to me at that age. His text was 1 Corinthians 3:21: "all things are yours, and you are of Christ." It was the first time I understood a sermon, and—after all these years—I remember that I said to myself, so this is what a sermon is supposed to be like.
Unlike many others, this man chose to hear me as a 9-year-old kid, and he continued to hear me through the next six decades. Over those years he became my spiritual father, and a mentor, coach, confessor, teacher, and deep personal friend. I loved him.
His name is Vernon Grounds, and he died last week at the age of 96. I begin to understand the lament of old men and women who, when a father or mother has passed, say, "Who is there to hear me any longer?" Today I feel fatherless.
As I think about the fact that Vernon Grounds has left us for heaven, I recall the many times he was there for me. When, as a teenager, my family imploded, he was the man who took me regularly to breakfast and monitored my stability. When I met my wife-to-be, he was the go-to guy to sign off on the rightness of the relationship. When I was ready for a first pastorate, he was the man who made the introductions and did the endorsing. When I wrote my first book, he was among the first to read it and offer encouragement.
I have to be careful not to assert exclusive rights to a personal relationship with Vernon Grounds. All over this world are men and women who also claim him as something of a father figure. Each is equipped with his or her "Vernon story," as they reflect on times when they met him for a cup of tea, a breakfast, or simply a quiet conversation at the round table in his office.
Each will tell you that few people, if any, in their lifetime ever understood them as he did. They will speak of his probing but caring questions, his incredible ability to listen, his way of sending you on your way with a gesture of affection, a word of counsel, and the gift of mercy.
Many are those who have faced a moment of extreme brokenness (usually due to their own foolishness) and virtually crawled to Vernon Ground's door to ask if there was anything like a "reset" button in life. And he always started his answer with a yes.
He never seemed to give up on anyone because he so strongly believed in both mercy and fresh starts as the essence of Jesus' gospel. I know this because, years ago, I was one of those who crawled to that door. When I went through a time of personal and catastrophic failure, he was there to remind me of this "gospel of the second chance."