I’m not original. Neither are you. Whether we like it or not, who we are is largely shaped by who we admire. We reverberate the voices we value most, a collage of influences that have shaped us over time.
This isn’t new. The Bible recognizes the power of others: wear the wisdom of parents like a necklace, says Solomon (Proverbs 1:8-9), and the surest way to victory is to surround yourself with counselors (Proverbs 15:22).
These truths bloomed for me in college and coalesced with the arrival of a person who shapes the way I live in almost every facet of my life today.
The “new guy in Student Life” attended a welcome back dinner for my college. I was 19, a sophomore, and in a small leadership position. I don’t remember much about that first interaction, or about his first year at my school for that matter, except for two things of unequal importance: (1) things began to change at my school, and (2) he had a very redundant name – “Who names their kid Gunner Gundersen?!”
My knowledge of the new guy matured as our lives overlapped at the school. He preached more, led more, and attended more events. Each time I sat under his influence, even at a distance, it shaped me. This regular impact from a distance led me to amble into his office one day and ask, “Can we spend regular time together?” That was almost seven years ago.
I can’t tell you how he invested in me. There was no organized program. We engaged in a intentional and providential immersion into each others lives. Eating, counseling, working, camping, teaching, worshipping, traveling, writing, walking, correcting.
The only pattern I’ve identified in Gunner’s investment was that it matured as I matured, and grew as I grew. It changed with me. There were three movements in his investment:
The Leader and Teacher
Gunner spent most of his time leading and teaching me at the beginning. He was either cleaning up my messes, or correcting my work. Then he would teach me how he took out my trash, let me ask questions, give me another shot, and made more corrections.
During an opportunity to preach to a group of fellow students, Gunner looked at my preaching notes before my sermon and sent me detailed (painfully detailed!) feedback on my sermon manuscript. Then after the sermon he sent me a long email with encouragements and areas of growth.
There are probably 100 other stories I could tell you about my mistakes, his corrections, and my consequent growth. His investment during this season was marked by quantity time, energy, and conversations.
The Mentor and Counselor
Don’t get the wrong picture. Gunner was not a pontificating sage while I silently took notes. To know Gunner is to be listened to – which gave this second movement of investment so much power.
I remember very little of the millions of words Gunner spoke into my life. But one thing I remember very clearly: he always asked me questions. As our relationship matured, I found the dynamic changing. Most of his investment started with one solitary question: “How do you think that went?”
That question was a portal into worlds of wisdom. I took that girl (who is now my wife) to coffee – ”how did that go?” I went home for a weekend to see family – ”how did that go?” I was studying a topic for class – ”how is that going?” It wasn’t overly formal, and the conversations were often ad hoc things, happening in small crevices in our daily lives. Yet Gunner himself was always intentional, always listening, postured toward pursuit.
The Brother and Friend
One night I found Gunner sitting alone on campus. I joined him, and soon Gunner began describing how he was tired and discouraged. It wasn’t a “teachable moment” of strategized vulnerability. It wasn’t a testimony. It was confession. He shared a burden with me – from one friend to another. This was the last, and current, state of Gunner’s investment in me.
Conversations weren’t marked by him instructing me. He simply partnered with me in whatever thing we were doing. We talked about our families, our marriages, theology, parenting, and goals for the future. We shared burdens and received help. We shared ideas and sharpened each other. We laughed a lot and enjoyed our time.
Less Impressed, More Influenced
Over a year ago my Dad died suddenly. Gunner was the first person I called. And that call initiated a wave of care that could only be given by a brother. He mowed my grass, called and listened, and even drove 130 miles to sit with me for 20 minutes. He preached at my church while I was gone. It was an incredible moment of care.
About a year later Gunner – my teacher, mentor, and friend – moved to Texas to pastor a church. A few months before he left, we had lunch and reflected on our friendship. Gunner said to me, “You know, I would say that after all these years you are probably far less impressed by me than you once were, but also far more influenced.”
He’s right. Actually, I’m far more influenced because I am less impressed by him. Gunner is a real person with real weaknesses and sin, and he invited me in to watch him in his gifts and deficiencies; joys and sorrows; victories and defeats; maturities and quirks.
I’m not writing this to give you a list of practical ways you can invest like Gunner. This isn’t that type of article. It’s a public monument to one of the most impactful relationships I have. This is a monument to a leader, teacher, and brother who loved through intentional pursuit.
Gunner once told me: “Most people won’t remember what you invested, but that you invested” This article is a tribute to that principle. Very few have shaped me like Gunner. But the curriculum of his investment wasn’t books and lectures. It was a persistent pressing into my life over time that left an indelible imprint.
That imprint, though embossed through Gunner, doesn’t look like him. It looks like Christ. That’s because his investment was translucent, allowing me to be less impressed with him so I could see through him to that truer Teacher, Mentor, and Friend – Jesus Christ.
For the sake of Christ, let us be less impressive and more influential.
Spencer Harmon is the Senior Pastor at Vine Street Baptist Church and the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement(P&R, 2017).