Transformed by Love: Remembering Vernon Grounds
Sep 15, 2010 by Mark Young | 0 Comments
The day that we all knew was coming, but wanted to keep pushing further and further into the future, has finally arrived. Dr. Vernon C. Grounds slipped peacefully into the presence of the Lord on Sunday, September 12, 2010. He was 96 years old. His death has touched a very tender spot in the Seminary community’s heart. We’ve spent most of the last few days sharing “Vernon stories,” thanking the Lord for the privilege of knowing him, and grieving the loss of our counselor, teacher, encourager and friend.
I am a late-comer to the world that Dr. Grounds inhabited and shaped here at Denver Seminary for almost sixty years. Those who knew him far longer than I, have much, much more to say about his life and ministry than I do. Their voices can be found on our website and on numerous other blogs. Two that I would recommend are those by Gordon MacDonald and Don Sweeting.
My experience with Dr. Grounds during these past fourteen months has marked me profoundly. Although failing physically for some time, he remained mentally and emotionally engaging until his final few weeks. I cherish the memories of the times we could sit together and talk. Dr. Grounds drew you into conversations without a hint of effort. He listened; oh, how he listened. He questioned and probed but it didn’t feel like an interrogation. Rather, it was like slipping into a warm bath, water set at the perfect temperature, safe and secure. The conversation might run its course but you didn’t want to leave. Many have remembered how, in a crowded room or hallway, Dr. Grounds had the ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the world. He used touch masterfully. A hand on your forearm, a grip on your tricep, an arm around your shoulders—these were the tools of disarmament and affection.
There are many smart, articulate and well-educated Christians. Then there was Dr. Grounds. It’s rumored that, on average, he read three books a day. With a photographic memory, he did not read like a mere mortal, word for word or line for line. He read entire pages at a glance and devoured their content. Theology, philosophy, poetry, psychology, history, politics—his personal library, with over 25,000 volumes, has been called “a history of 20th century American thought.” Yet, Dr. Grounds never succumbed to the arrogance of the brilliant. He wrote, “I have taught a whole range of courses. And I have read quite incessantly. And yet I am aware of how little I know. I am relatively ignorant of history; I’m almost totally ignorant of science; I’m a moron in mathematics; and even in theology I realize how little I know. By God’s grace I have been able to put some things together, but my mood as I muse on the mystery of life, despite the light shed by biblical revelation, is frequently one of bemusement. There are certainties—absolute certainties—but there is this awareness of ignorance.” (Bruce Shelley, Transformed by Love: The Vernon Grounds Story.) His genuine intellectual humility is often lacking today. We’re the worse for that.
His intellect was more than impressive; his compassion genuine to the core. But I think it was his courage that most ministers to me. A contemporary of Carl F. H. Henry, Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga and others who shaped evangelicalism, Dr. Grounds’ was a prophetic voice that many in the movement did not want to hear. In the turbulent sixties he sounded a clarion call for evangelicals to take their social responsibilities seriously. He was a vocal critic of entrenched racism in evangelical churches and a supporter of the civil rights movement. Contemporary leaders in the resurgence of interest in ministries of justice—Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, John Perkins—often cite Vernon as a mentor. For his stand on justice, for his commitment to the development of an evangelical intellect, for his belief that counseling was important in ministry, the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism attacked him viciously and vociferously. Yet, he never backed away from the great core truths of Scripture and he never retaliated in kind.
Dr. Grounds’ theological and ethical compass was the redeeming love of God, what he called “Calvary-love.” He wrote, “I must invest my time in sharing the reality and sufficiency of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, what matters but to experience and communicate the wonders of redeeming love?” Indeed, Vernon Grounds willed Denver Seminary into a community characterized by Christ’s redeeming love.
As Dr. Ed Hayes was retiring from the presidency of Denver Seminary in the early nineties, the chairman of the seminary board at that time asked Vernon to write out what he thought were the “essentials and non-negotiables” of seminary education. In summarizing his rather lengthy response to that request, he wrote, “Unless we graduate men and women of prayer, Christ-like character, and devotional depth we will, from God’s perspective, be a Kingdom failure regardless of our enlarged endowment, increased enrollment, and academic structure. . . . Social concern, personal evangelism, and global outreach are the three legs of our academic stool. Remove any one and our program will become an unstable wobble.” My prayer is that we will not wobble in our resolve to be the seminary that he envisioned.
I have to confess that I feel a bit vulnerable after his death. Dr. Grounds’ presence on our campus seemed to enfold us in a layer of security. He moored us in our history, yet never anchored us to our past. With God’s grace we will honor his memory and pursue his purest desire, that Calvary-love would touch every heart.