The younger of the two men had asked me if we might talk. He approached me at the end of a weekend conference for men, where I had been the speaker. My subject: resilience.
My talks had been wrapped around what I called "the critical question." I asked the men at the conference: "Do you have the spiritual stamina to run the entire race of life and cross the finish line with the kind of `kick' [a burst of speed] for which so many great runners are known?"
The question apparently provoked this man who wanted to get together, and he concluded that he needed some help. We met for breakfast the next morning. Once we were served I said, "Tell me where you think you are in your life-journey."
His answer came after two or three minutes of silence while he doctored his coffee. Looking up, he said, "Your talks this weekend? They hit me hard. I feel as if I'm going nowhere."
"OK," I responded, struck by his bluntness. "What's inside those words?"
He thought for a minute and then started "streaming" his thoughts. "Well, my marriage sucks to begin with. I know my wife doesn't respect me. We've been married for twelve years now, and the only thing keeping us together is the kids."
"I hate my job. I have no idea if I'll even have work in the next few months, and I don't know what else I can do."
"My wife and I became Christians when Billy Graham came here about fifteen years ago. And she's taken it pretty seriously. She's in a Bible study and teaches kids in Sunday school. But...I don't know...I just kind of do church . . . come to things like these men's things. I guess I'm not into Bible study or anything. She wishes we'd pray together..but, you know, it's just not me."
"You're pretty hard on yourself," I said.
"But I deserve it, I guess," he said back. "Really, you know I'm just surviving from day to day. I've become a dull person going through motions. Know what I mean? I see my wife excited about the things she's doing. I see some of the guys I grew up with going places. And then there's me. I'm just plodding along, trying to keep my head above water, and my life seems to be going in circles. Maybe it's going someplace, but don't ask me where. See what I'm saying?"
That's my clearest recollection of our opening exchange.
"Any chance you're depressed?" I asked.
"Nah, I went to the doctor, and he said there's nothing wrong with me. I've just never had much willpower. Know what I'm saying?"
I asked lots and lots of probing, nosy questions. I suggested various ways of making a new start. I talked about the extreme makeovers (from the inside out) that happen when a person gets dead serious about following Jesus. But each question and each suggestion was parried by disappointing comebacks. "I've thought of that." "You know, I tried, but..." "That's not me." "Wouldn't work for me." "Don't want to."
"When was the last time you ever took a look at your life and determined that you would change something about it?" I wanted to hear about just one area of his personal life where he took a step forward.
"Oh, I think about things I'd like to change all the time. But I never end up doing anything about it. I'm just lazy I guess."
"So, who are your friends?" It's the last question I could think of.
"Hmm..." His answer took some thought. "Well, I..." He paused. And then he named a couple of men. "But they're really friends because they're husbands of my wife's friends. And if the women want to get together, the guys hang out a bit. I guess they're about the best friends I've got."
I begin to realize that my breakfast companion was seeking some "silver bullet" that would make all the indecision and inaction go away. He wanted someone to provide him with motivation and energy and capability, and do it cheaply, quickly, and painlessly. What he didn't want was for someone like me to tell him that he has a heap of personal work to do, and some of it was going to be difficult.
I had run out of things to say to him. It occurred to me that I had begun to take on the responsibility of finding a way to get this man's life in order and convincing him to do what I thought was best. That's a no-no in the world of counseling and is probably one of the reasons why I'm not that good a counselor.
But I am frustrated when I see a man wasting his life and unwilling to do anything about it. And I saw the possibility of myself in this man. l could have become the kind of person this man describes himself to be, I thought. He's me...if there had not been men and women whom God sent into my life, like Marvin Goldberg, to push me hard until I got jump-started in a reasonably right direction. Maybe that's why I kept pushing at this man. Because others did it for me. But in this case, nothing was working.
Finally I said what I was thinking and surprised myself with my candor. "You know, I want to say this respectfully...man to man. I've run out of things to say. I have no more questions; I don't have any more answers. You've obviously considered every idea I could suggest, and you don't see any of them as useful ways to address your dilemma. All I can tell you is that if you keep on this track, the second half of life isn't going to be much fun."
"Yeah," he said. "You're probably right." Strangely enough, he was not offended at me for being so confrontational.
"Why don't we arm wrestle for the check and be on our way," I said. "Let me think about what we've said to each other; perhaps I can recommend some other, smarter people for you to visit with, but I've told you everything I know. And I fear that the solution to the issues in your world really begins with you and what you think Jesus is asking of you, not with someone else's solutions."
He thought about that for a moment and then said, "OK. Well, I really appreciate the fact that you listened, and I'll let you know if I want you to look up any of those other people you mentioned. Thanks for getting together with me."
In my journal is this comment from somewhere:
One of the saddest experiences is to awaken at old age and discover that one has been using only a small part of self.
Barring a magnificent life transition, my breakfast companion is on his way to such an awakening.
But I said there were two men and two conversations. If the account of the first of those two has left me feeling sad and empty, the second one fills me with hope.
If there was a hall of fame for resilient people, I know a man who should be in it. Today he is ninety years old. He says we met when I was five years old, which means he's been a beloved friend for sixty years.
His name: Vernon Grounds, retired president of Denver Seminary, a man who has been a father-figure to me throughout my adult years. Sometimes I call him my father-in-faith.
The life of God is in this man, I say to myself when I sit down with him. There is a gentleness of spirit about him, and you feel it when you enter his presence and he moves toward you to give an affectionate hug.
Vernon Grounds can usually be found in his office in the middle of Denver Seminary's learning center on almost any school day. I much prefer, however, to think of his office as a chapel, which is where holy men like this one should spend their days. You do administrative things in an office. But you change lives in a chapel. And that's the business this man is in.
When Vernon Grounds retired from the presidency of the school in the mid-1970s, the succeeding leadership was wise to see the value of locating him at the center of student life. There he would become (my words) the soul of the school, available to any student, professor, or administrator (including the new president) who wanted to talk.
There were others in the school's hierarchy with whom one could discuss financial aid, course changes, and theological issues. But when one's life was in turmoil, when there were personal doubts about faith, and when questions of life-direction were at stake, Vernon Grounds was the go-to guy.
From my vantage point, Vernon is resilience personified. Long before I was old enough to conclude that Christian resilience was one of the biggest issues of life, I saw qualities in this man that I intuited to be the essence of Christian nobility. I made a conscious decision in my early twenties to become as much like him as I possibly could. Among the kindest compliments I have ever received is from the person who says, "When you said that [or did that], I saw Vernon in you.
So here I am, in this "chapel" of his. The walls are plastered with the pictures of men and women and their families who have passed this way in years gone by. That my picture is included in this mass of faces is very important to me.
Books everywhere. Stacks and stacks of books, obviously in the process of being read. The bandwidth of the man's literary interests is staggering. Sitting in his book-strewn office, I think back to our orientation days at seminary more than forty years ago when the then-president, eyes twinkling, had, said to the entering class, "Buy books until you have to mortgage your marital bed. And then keep on buying." Many of us believed him (and obeyed) then...and still do. He caused us to love books.
What I came to appreciate over the years was that Dr. Grounds actually got better and better as a person as the years went by. And here he is now, at ninety, still a most sought-after man, still the kind of gentleman from whom all kinds of other people draw inspiration and resolve. How silly, I think, to ever tell people-as has our culture-that sixty-five is a retirement age after which you spend your life playing in Florida or Arizona. Here is a man whose most useful years have come after sixty-five, and he's still working.
Our conversation begins. Instantly, he pounces on me with questions. Always the questions: a Grounds trademark. Questions about my family, my work, my plans for the future. He wants to know what I'm seeing and learning about as I travel from here to there. He wonders if I know anything about common acquaintances. Then he moves on to soul questions: Do I still love God? Am I holding on to time in my wild schedule for spiritual development? What am I reading? And what do I think of?
There was a time when I could spend an entire hour with Vernon Grounds and do nothing but talk about myself in response to his questions. He felt no need to give his opinions or talk about himself. He was always keenly and genuinely interested in his guest. Then, as I matured, I began to ask questions of him. He would answer one or two and then deftly sidestep my questions and turn the conversation back toward me. And there I would be again: talking about myself.
But now, as old friends, we've improved on the balance. I've learned to coax him to open his life to me, and our conversation moves along at a delightful pace: rejoicing in news of both of our families, trading ideas and thoughts that have come from recent readings, wondering aloud (as old men do) where this world is going.
I have known only a few people in my life for whom I would reserve the word saint. This man is one of them. How did he get to be that way? And my answers to that question form the backbone of this book.
Vernon Grounds is the quintessential resilient man, because he has always thought about his life and the lives of others around him with a big picture in mind. He has always known the center of his strength and his call. And he has wasted little time out on the edges of activity where he is less competent.
His personal account of his conversion to Jesus is a specific one, although not a spectacular one. He never doubted for a moment that at a particular point in his young life, he made a life-altering choice to organize all of life around Jesus. Those who know him well are aware that no biblical phrase has marked him more powerfully than Jesus' words to the disciple Simon Peter, who often seemed distracted and scattered: "What is that to you? You must follow me!"
Somewhere in his earliest years it became plain to him that he was a builder of people more than anything else. People simply grew under his influence, even when he was unaware that he was exerting it. They found order in their lives when they talked to him. They felt constrained to emulate his peaceable demeanor. They discovered a likeness to Jesus in his extended kindness.
As a man with an earned doctorate in the field of psychology, he could have pursued the life of a scholar or graduate-school administrator. But even though he bore the burden of a seminary presidency for twenty-five-plus years, as I see it, he was first and foremost a people builder.
Because this was clearly his call and his gift, he gave himself to it without ever striving for other forms of professional greatness or influence that might have been his. He understood that life was lived out of call and conviction, and his call was to build according to God's design for them.
Result? Thousands men and women today are doing what they are doing because his work with them was strategic.
A second piece of the puzzle that explains Vernon Grounds's resilience has to do with the fact that he never allowed any of the common adversities in his life to cripple or shrivel his soul.
I know Vernon well enough to have heard stories of his childhood. Some of his experiences were tough ones, and they could have so torn at his soul that he might have developed an edge of habitual anger or resentment toward some significant people in his youth. But that never happened.
In his days as an organizational leader, there was a bevy of critics and naysayers who took every opportunity to slander him, to question his motives, to make his work as a seminary president as difficult as possible. But I never saw him fight back or defend himself. That doesn't seem to have occurred to him. Instead he chose to be a grace giver.
Third, Grounds developed resilience because he determined to manage the routines of his life with intentionality. That's one of my words for discipline or self-mastery. He worked hard, but his work habits were healthy and productive. He was careful to prioritize energies and assets. One never got the feeling that he was striving to find a place of international Christian power or notoriety. He was not hungry for bigness in terms of reputation or opulence in terms of material acquisition.
Intentionality meant maintaining a relatively simple lifestyle, faithfulness to his family, loyalty to his church and the organization he led. It meant regular physical exercise, spiritual discipline, and a careful containment of all those ego-driven impulses that tarnish too many leaders. When I asked him what he thought was the secret of his long-lived vitality, he said with a contrived air of gravity, "God, gym, and genes."
When a student, I met my father-in-faith on countless occasions at a local restaurant for breakfast. I think every student at the school met him there perhaps as frequently as I did. He would sit at the same table every morning as if he owned it. I always suspected that the waitpersons (as they are now known) competed to serve him because he made their work a pleasure. They addressed him by name and with great respect. And they knew exactly what he would want to eat.
Toward the end of the breakfast, he would snatch the check and keep it out of anyone else's reach. If one protested, his familiar rejoinder was, "Someday when you become a wealthy pastor [a joke in itself], you can pay the bill. Oh, and you can also give generously to the seminary."
Now, many years later, if we have lunch or breakfast together, I have learned to arrange with the waitperson to get the check before we place our order. When he frowns at this tactic, I remind him of the deal he made years ago. Given the number of checks he picked up in my younger days, I have a long way to go before the score is evened.
Intentionality for Vernon Grounds means intellectual rigor and spiritual depth. Long before we had a generation of evangelical Christians who saw the importance of intellectual depth, Grounds pursued a PhD in psychology. Spiritually, he sought the heart of God, and his preaching and teaching showed a remarkable depth of insight into Scripture and its application to faith. Anytime the word got out that Vernon was preaching, a crowd gathered.
Again and again the reader or listener is left breathless with the breadth of knowledge from which Grounds draws to express his love for the gospel or his challenge to people to grow in Christlikeness. It all smacks of an intentionality to grow and keep on growing until his last breath.
Finally, Grounds has always understood the importance of key personal relationships that are marked with loyalty and mutual care. The people who worked with him have always loved and respected him. They smile at his eccentricities and enjoy his unusual mannerisms. And they support him--I suspect would die for him--because they know he loves them and puts them first.
I have been the recipient of that great relational skill of his many times in my life. When I was a troubled teenager, he would invite me to breakfast for a talk. When I was breaking into public ministry, he was there to remind me that God knew my number and would call me when I was ready. When I had major decisions to make, he was prepared with questions and insights that brought me certainty. And when my life fell to pieces years ago, he was present to help me put the pieces back together again.
Today, Vernon Grounds and his wife, Ann, live on the tenth floor of a residence for senior people. The owners of the complex will do anything to keep the two of them happy, because they have figured out that their presence in that community of seniors is a key to everyone's sense of well-being. Go through the front door at 5:00 p.m. on most Sunday evenings, and you will see Vernon conducting a worship service while Ann plays old and familiar hymns on the piano. This man will never retire.
On this particular day, I have come to talk to my dear friend about his health and his strength. He's ninety, I remind him, but he's living as if he's twenty-five years younger. Amazingly, he allows me to ask the bulk of the questions. We sit close enough together that I can frequently put my hand on his arm just as he has so frequently done to me in the past. And I think, as we talk, This is the kind of a conversation a father and a son are supposed to have, that two old friends are supposed to enjoy, that two people who love God and who dearly wish to live life with resilience are supposed to share.
When the conversation is over and I must return to the airport, I find it hard to jerk myself away. His warm, fatherly embrace is a blessed experience, one that many men have longed for all their lives: the blessing of the father-in-faith. I fight tears all the way to the car.
This is what resilience looks like when it has a face. And it's a face that belongs in a hall of fame. A champion.