Several years ago, an 80 something year old man walked into one of our classrooms. We often have older “students” sit in on our classes, members of various churches who want to continue growing in their knowledge of the Bible and the world. But it quickly became clear that Bob was not a typical “auditor.”
Our professors could hardly get through five minutes of their lectures without an objection from Bob. And Bob’s objections came in the form of loud grunts followed by aggressively expressed opinions. I remember teaching a class on Paul and having to suddenly field this objection from Bob: “I don’t think Paul actually believed anything he wrote. I think he was in cahoots with the Roman government, and wrote what he did to throw people off.” Needless to say I hadn’t prepared to address that particular theory, so I responded with something along the lines of, “Wow, okay. I can’t think of a single thing in Paul’s writings that would support that theory, but I’d love to talk to you more about it after class.”
Sometimes Bob asked good questions, but for the most part, his objections were off-the-wall, groundless, and frequent.
It wasn’t long before our professors were asking each other, “Have you had Bob in class? What’s his deal?”
It turns out Bob was invited to class by one of our for-credit students: Dave. Dave had just left his teen years, and would talk to Bob at the YMCA where they both worked out. Bob had never considered himself a Christian, but as Dave continued to befriend him and talk to him about Jesus, Bob eventually became curious enough to accept Dave’s invitation to sit in on some Bible classes. I still tear up when I think of this sweet, faithful guy in his twenties patiently and graciously befriending this lonely, grumpy guy in his eighties. To an extent that we’ll never fully appreciate, the Kingdom of God expands through smiles and simple greetings.
I’ll admit that Bob was more of a nuisance than anything else at the beginning. Some professors had to talk to Bob about not disrupting the class with frequent objections, asking him to save his comments for after class.
But then a curious thing happened. Bob began showing up early to church services and greeting the congregation as they walked in. He didn’t do this in an official capacity—he just wanted to do it. He became more friendly and began speaking fondly of Jesus and of many of the things he was learning. Eventually, we were all sure that Bob loved Jesus, that his heart had been transformed.
As we got to know the new Bob, we learned that his first 80-some years of life were very lonely. He fought in three wars (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) and experienced situations that haunted him for the rest of his life. He was even used as a “model” to test radioactivity-proof clothing, which means that he and his squad crouched in a desert bunker as an atomic bomb was detonated. With his eyes closed and hands covering his face, he said it was the brightest thing he had ever seen. Surprising, Bob never grew any extra arms, but he is quick to affirm that the clothing didn’t work.
After a lifetime of being more or less alone, Bob became part of a family. He took every class he could at the college, took professors and students out for breakfast and lunch, and frequently expressed his appreciation for his new family in Christ.
Post-conversion Bob could still be a bit of a curmudgeon. As an 80 something year old theological novice, Bob stumbled into more than a few odd doctrinal views, but he never stopped discussing the Bible and the Jesus he had come to love so dearly. The new Bob was frequently in tears. Mention Jesus and Bob would be sobbing. He was so struck by the brotherhood of believers that he insisted I call him “Brother Bob” whenever I greeted him. He was so deeply appreciative of Jesus that he would often rebuke me for not using the term “the Lord Jesus.” Bob could be an absolute grump, and the exasperated objections continued throughout his late educational career. But the new Bob was a man who loved Jesus, and we knew he was a man who loved people as well (even if he still barked).
During the last few years of his life, Bob put a lot of effort into planning his memorial service and inviting everyone he could to attend. Jesus was calling him home, Bob said, and he wanted his memorial to be a celebration. It took a few years for his actual earthly end to arrive, but Bob never tired of talking about the day he would be with Jesus. Overplanning his own memorial was Bob’s way of making sure everyone he left behind would remember what really matters.
St. Augustine’s famous words express well Bob’s feelings toward the end of his life: “Late have I loved you, Beauty so old and so new. Late have I loved you.” For me, the curious case of Bob Armstrong will always be a reminder that God is never done with a person’s life; that it’s never too late to be a learner, never too late to start again; that a prickly exterior does not always reveal was is happening beneath the surface; that no one is ever beyond the reach of God, no matter how hard or how long they’ve been running.
[Anyone in the Simi Valley area this weekend is encouraged to join us in celebrating God’s artistry in the life of Bob Armstrong. See details below.]