Death of a Bawdy Holy Man

I write this on a hot 4th of July afternoon.  Somewhere, not far off, women wonderfully wear swimsuits fit for dental floss, boats churn good water and children are romping footprints onto some warm, wide shore. People are having times so good it’ll nearly hurt one day to remember them.

And I am mourning the loss of a dear and beautiful man.

This is no mourning in the grim, ashen, casket-cold way. This man’s death, this holiday morning, reminds me of the radical fall-back joy of being fully alive.  His dying is a calling — a chiming cue — to celebrate the full pants-down fun of drawing breath. Because of how he lived, his dying has already helped me let fly lung-shattering laughs at memories so outrageous they’d redden the face of Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson.

The Reverend Bob Lawrence looked the way many of us imagine God:  A mane of white hair draped to his neck, the salt-and-pepper beard not quite a veil upon the lively smile, and a set of burning planets for eyes, looking as if they’ve just collided with something so unutterably lovely it would blind the rest of this human race.

With Alabama-born thunder, Bob could hold forth the Christian gospels with humor and scholarly poetics that seemed to reach and realign the stars.  Bob aggressively shed the clumsy, off-putting pretensions of religion. He’d rather remind us we are boundlessly loved by a God who is so much greater than we imagine.  Inescapably loved. Love was Bob’s high church.  He preached it, steeped people in it, rolled in it as if love were some healing mud bound to make us forever young.

And he’s the same preacher who once sang a World War II song about jock itch to my mother-in-law at a packed PF Changs restaurant at Christmastime.  He’s the man who came within a nano-syllable of saying “rats ass” in the middle of a beautiful sermon to a large congregation, then joked about it being the fault of the microphone because it kept wilting on him.  “The !#% thing had erectile dysfunction.  I got all distracted.”

Bob Lawrence surely proved God knows us and loves us anyway, and that God invented and adores the music of the human laugh.

With a break torn into my heart, and yet a borrowing of that smile, I announce here, out loud, the sudden death of this man – Bob Lawrence: World War II gunner among the heroes of the B-17s, orator extraordinaire, and one of the most deeply human, wise, outrageously salacious tongues on earth. Bob could out preach a million clerics and out cuss the crew of an aircraft carrier. He was a beautiful treasure. He is a thriving presence within me and all who love him.

Leave it to Bob to make like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They all died on the 4th of July. Bob served these United States with boundless valor in war. He served the human race by making his life into a rare spread of peace.

To all the readers of She-Rain — Bob inspired Rev. Lew, in all his wild bluster and radical love.  Like Rev. Lew, Bob lived way out ahead of his time — especially on civil rights and human grace.  Bob stirred your writer here to open the book’s funeral sermon with, “Are there any whores in this congregation today?”  I heard Bob preach such a sermon – in all its celebration of grace for working girls and the rest of us who fail, constantly, the goodness of God – and he did it in a language anyone can grasp.

I just came from Bob’s home. His widow, Dani, is cracked open at the soul with heartbreak, yet she cannot say his name without a smile. That was his way — wiring the shocking joy of the Divine straight into this wilderness mortal life we’re more than surviving together down here. Even in death, he is joy.  In absence, he is our great presence.

I looked around his sitting room before I left their home just now.  It was just as he left it before collapsing suddenly and peacefully dead this morning: A flask of whiskey-and-honey “cough medicine” on a table, a wall of scholarly reading and good jazz, a large sign at the fireplace reading, “Choose Joy.”

The walls hang with his paintings — scenes with water and hot weather that make you want to wear your shortest britches and throw away all shoes. Clouseau, their beloved and deceased bichon frise — that’s a small and willful dog — looks curiously from a painting upon the welcoming quiet of the world Bob and Dani shared. Standing there, I felt a near electric overflow of gratitude.  I have known the man of such a house, such an overflow life.  He has marked me, left his imprint upon me.  His dying has reminded me how to get after life with my hair full of its good wind.

To look further around that home is to find a garden that hangs with color and life. The walls thrum with joy, and on one of them I found the quote I leave you with below. Bob was a sailor, on so many levels, and a Christian who embraced what Ghandi meant when he said, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  This man never seemed to forget his brokenness, our brokenness, the depth of our human failing and our mortal beauty, and the fact that God loves and forgives and celebrates us nonetheless.  Bob wired us into such a heaven.  He fed us with its peace and grace, and the table of his theology was always set in such a way that we could eat there like we mean it, never troubled with what lands in our laps.  Never unwelcome because our pants and our hearts came there unclean.

Bob, cheers to you and what those words below mean! In the heavens, may sea and wind carry you to shores so lovely words won’t do for them. We’ll all be along, soon enough, the warm wind of grace to our backs.

“There is more to sailing than ropes and winches, cleats and bulging sails. There are faraway places and the ever-changing light, and the silence, and a great peace at the bottom of your soul. Ferenc Mate’

In loving memory of the Reverend Bob Lawrence, my great friend — a gentle man of hilarity and grace and the deep goodness of being truly human. You helped grant me a great peace at the bottom of my soul. You always will.

I cite it at the end of She-Rain, and so conclude with it here, from Psalm 139 –

“Even the dark is not darkness to Thee.  The night is bright as the day.”

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22 Responses to “Death of a Bawdy Holy Man”

  1. Jay West Says:

    What an excellent tribute to friend! Now we all have had the pleasure of knowing Bob Lawrence.

    • Amen, my dear brother. Bob’s death this day reminds us to get after it, live life with the throttles buried to redline!! Thank you for living as my brother for life!! Love to you and all you love!!

  2. Somehow, you just had to listen when he spoke.

  3. Thank you for these beautiful, moving, and true words. It’s a joy to learn how my Grandaddy touched so many lives beyond my own.

  4. John Ashford Says:

    Beautifully written from deep down in your heart. It was impossible to hear Bob preach or be in his presence without feeling God’s love. Heaven got another angel today!

  5. Michael, that you for a wonderful tribute to Bob. I came to Fourth Pres. after Bob’s retirement, and came to know him for his ready wit and kindly smile. The legacy of his sermons, many of which I have ready, surrounds me still. Thanks for the laughter, Bob, and my prayers are with Dani and family.

  6. Susie Stewart Says:

    Rob Lawrence is a very dear friend of mine. I now feel like I have known his father as I know his son. What a tragic loss for so many but what a life lived to the fullest. We should all be so blessed. An exceptional tribute to this man. Well done! My deepest condolences to his friends and family…….Susie Stewart 7/5/12

  7. Wain Wesberry Says:

    Michael, I wish to express my sincere gratitude for such a beautifully written tribute to Bob. I am deeply saddened by his death, but I am so grateful for having him in my cloud of witnesses. I admired Bob deeply, loved his wit and wisdom, and during my time as Associate Pastor at Fourth Presbyterian in Greenville learned a great deal from him (even though he was long since retired). Going and having lunch with him was one of the true joys of ministry for me. You captured Bob’s emodiment of grace so well, and I thank you most sincerely for that. I wish for you, your family, and all your colleagues at WYFF4 the very best. My wife, Sarah, and I are avid viewers. All the best, Wain Wesberry (Pastor, First Presbyerian Church, Clinton, SC)

  8. Sam Parsons Says:

    Michael,

    Excellent words to describe an absolutely incredible man. Dani and Bob have been the adopted grandparents and great-grandparents for all of us who live on W. Hillcrest Dr. It will be eerily different to not hear his voice and wit in neighborhood gatherings but I’m sure there will be plenty of laughs and jubilation as we rejoice and celebrate his stories and presence in our lives.

  9. ttaylor Says:

    Beautifully, beautifully spoken. I first met Bob when he filled in for us at McCarter Presbyterian when I was choir director there. He was a delight to work with, and we always looked forward to his visits. Bob was also a neighbor, and he and Dani would always stop to chat with my wife and I as they were walking the North Main neighborhood streets. I had a brief stint at Fourth Pres before Hank’s tenure, and his legacy was strong in the church. He will definitely be missed.

  10. Carter Jarrard Says:

    I wish I had know this man.

  11. Bob Lawrence was my minister from the time I was a tiny child and he married my husband and myself. He was an amazing man and minister – I always felt spoiled by his awesome skills of delivering a sermon and holding the interest of a teen-ager! I am sure the other residents in Heaven will enjoy listening to such an amazing man.

  12. I did not know him and yet with your eloquent words I feel as though I have met his very essence. You have captured him in words like the painter that paints light in a myriad of colors, hues and tones and textured brush strokes on simple canvas. What a beautiful tribute to your dear friend! 🙂

    • Kimberly, thank you!! Wonderful to see your generous pouring out of grace and kindness here! Bob was — and is — a beautiful soul!!!

      Peace. Please feel free to spread his word!!
      m

  13. Sally Flinn Says:

    Bob was so special to our family and then Dani came along. How perfect . We always knew that we were blessed.

  14. Cantey DuBose Says:

    Michael: Thank you for your incredible tribute. Bob and I were fellow seminarians, “way back when”, and fellow ministers here in Greenville. He was indeed special in every way..

  15. C. Conrad Says:

    First – Thanks to Michael for a wonderful tribute to Bob.

    My esperience with Bob was as Liturgist at Grace Convenant Pres. Ch. when Bob was filling in. It was a great experience. He was a TRIP!!!!!! Dani, please believe that our thoughts and prayers are with you.

    Charles Conrad

  16. C. Conrad Says:

    Thanks to

  17. C. Conrad Says:

    Thanks to Mike. It was wonderful.

    My experience with Bob was with when he served as intertim at Grace Covenant Pres Ch. He was a trip.

    Dani, we have you in your thought and prayers.

    Charles and Linda Conrad

  18. 1bubbado Says:

    A unique soul, indeed, with a such a special friend for his journey while on earth. I’m sure he is so proud of you and your tribute, Michael. We are so blessed you have shared it.

  19. heartwritten Says:

    A unique soul, indeed, with a such a special friend for his journey while on earth. I’m sure he is so proud of you and your tribute, Michael. We are so blessed you have shared it.

    Reply

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