JOHN CLAYPOOL: a tribute
Here’s a miscellany of stuff about the best (in my view) English-language ‘writing preacher’ / ‘preaching writer’ in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Unfortunately he’s not well known outside progressive mainline circles in the U.S. (conversely W E Sangster isn’t well-known in the U.S.). Pity.
Once a month, while pastoring a busy church in the 1970s/1980s, I'd receive John Claypool's printed sermons in the mail. Invariably the rest of the morning was spent devouring them. He was - still is – the best 'writing preacher' I've ever read. If there is one spot on this planet where I'd choose to spend a six-month study-sabbatical, it would be in a quiet room at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, reading their collection of his sermons.
John Claypool didn't fit easily into the conservative milieu of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was regarded with some suspicion as one of those 'Moderates' or 'Cooperatives' who inhabited the cutting edge of theological enquiry and socio-political issues - especially racism.
John Claypool was ordained to the Baptist ministry in 1953 and pastored five Southern Baptist churches – in Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi. Tiring eventually of the hard-line fundamentalism of his denomination, he left, and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1986, ministering as Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, for nearly fourteen years. He retired from full-time parish ministry in 2000 and then served as Professor of Preaching at McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Why 'writing preacher'? I've met John Claypool, and heard him preach. His preaching-style was thoughtful, and his vocal presentation a bit 'dreamy'. But his words and ideas-about-ideas, if you hung in there, were often mind-blowing.
But John Claypool was not simply an intellectual. His brilliant book The Preaching Event (the 1979 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School) discusses the what, why, how and when of preaching. The preacher, he says, is a reconciler, who seeks to re-establish trust at the deepest level. We are 'gift-givers': too often preaching can fulfil our own needs for love and status. We are witnesses: making available our own grapplings with woundedness to help others in their pain and grief.
Claypool approves of P. T. Forsyth's distinction in his 1907 Beecher Lectures, between 'oratory' and Christian preaching. The orator's goal is to “[get] people to do certain things to motivate individuals and arouse them to act in a certain way. However the goal of the Christian preacher is very different - it's to facilitate a spirit of openness, trust, at-one-ment between the creature and Creator. How was/is this trust broken? Through human beings' suspicions about God's love for them. How is it restored? Ultimately, as John Killinger once expressed it: 'Jesus was God's answer to the problem of a bad reputation.” And, Claypool adds, the miracle of the Easter event is central here. Easter is all about “the patience and mercy of a God who would still have hope for the kind of creatures who had treated his only begotten Son that way. Three days after human beings killed him in cold blood, the word was out, not only that he was alive again, but that he was saying ‘Let's keep on keeping on. Let's get back to the task of dispelling suspicion and reconciling the world back to the Father’.”
The Christian preacher thus has an awesome task to perform. It's not simply about moving people around at the level of behavior, but participating in "the miracle of primal reconciliation".
His magnificent conclusion: “Why do we preach? Not to get something for ourselves, out of need-love, but to give something of ourselves in gift-love. How do we do it? By making available as witnesses what we have learned from our own woundedness for the woundedness of others. When do we do this? At times and in ways that are appropriate to another's growing as a farmer nurtures a crop. To do this is to participate in the extension of the gospel into our own time. Could anything be a higher human joy? I think not! Let us go, then, under the mercy, with the great story, and in abundant hope.”
In a memorable interview with Claypool conducted by The Wittenburg Door magazine (April/May 1978) he revealed the core issues which made him the person he turned out to be. His spiritual awakening happened in College when he read C S Lewis, and with a “real flash of insight saw that Jesus was the clue to ultimate reality”.
Why did he enter pastoral ministry? Among other reasons, to ‘earn the blessing of his mother'. When this realization hit him later, he developed a 'confessional' preaching style - which, he would tell students in his seminary classes, can be a subtle form of exhibitionism if you're not careful.
He had a close friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (a 'first-rate thinker') and was active in the civil rights movement. Once he was in a coffee shop with Dr. King, and a journalist took a picture of the two of them. When that photo appeared in the Louisville Courier, he and his family received hate calls and mail, crosses were burned in their front yard, and his children were threatened. When he championed the idea that a Nigerian seminary student ('that our missionaries had converted') should be permitted to attend their church "a lot of people left and the money dropped off".
Another significant event was his surprising resignation - after only 5 years – from a church of 5,000 and 11 staff, to go to a much smaller pastorate. Why would a gifted preacher step down the rungs of the 'success ladder' and do such a thing? Simple: he was tired, and for him "fatigue became a moral category". He was challenged by Gail Sheehy's book Passages about the dangers in mid-life of over-investment in work and under-investment in relationships. Conducting hundreds of funerals of people he didn't know (and hoping he pronounced the names right) became wearing. “A major mistake,” he confessed later, was that “I didn't call in the community. I acted in isolation: there were surely many options in any situation that address the panicky fear of a tired person”. So he negotiated a paid month off before starting in his new pastoral role, to study at Yale Divinity School. Slowly he was re-invigorated, and learned that “God is the God of fertilizer: God can take dung and bring things of beauty out of it”.
John Claypool's most 'wounding' event was the death of their little eight-year-old girl, Laura Lue, from acute leukemia. She lived only eighteen months and ten days after that first shocking news was given to her parents.Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, his first and probably his best-known book, comprises sermons he preached during that time, together with a final chapter 'Learning to Handle Grief', preached three and a half years later. It's the book I've shared with many parishioners who've had to journey 'into the valley of the shadow of death' with a loved one.
He often told this story about his way of handling grief:
"We did not have a washing machine during World War II and gas was rationed. It was going to be a real challenge. At about that time one of my father's younger business associates was suddenly drafted into the service. My father offered to let them store their furniture in our basement while he had to be away. Well it so happened that they had an old grey Bendix washing machine. And as they were moving in, my father suggested that maybe they would let us use their machine in lieu of our giving them some storage space.
"The next question became, who is going to become the wash person in the family?
"In that mysterious way that families assign roles, I became the wash person at the grand old age of eleven! For the next four years, I had a ritual every Tuesday and every Friday. I would come home from school, gather up the wash, take it down into the basement, fill the old Bendix with water, put in the clothes, add some soap, and then watch as the plunger would make all kinds of configurations of suds. It had a hand roller to wring the washed clothes out and I can remember as a child trying to stick my finger between those rollers to see how far I could go without it cutting off circulation. In other words, I became affectionately bonded to that old mechanism in those four years.
"When the war was over my father's friend came back. One day when I was at school, a truck came to our basement, took out all of their things, including the washing machine, and nobody had told me. It was a Tuesday. I came home and gathered up the clothes, went down in the basement, and to this day I can remember my sense of horror as I saw that empty space where the old Bendix had been. I put down the clothes and rushed back upstairs and announced loudly, 'We have been robbed! Somebody stole our washing machine!'
"My mother, who was not only a musician but also a wise human being, sat me down and said, 'John, you've obviously forgotten how that machine got to be in our basement. It never did belong to us. That we ever got to use it was incredibly good fortune.' And then she said, 'If something is a possession and it's taken away, you have a right to be angry. But if something is a gift and it's taken, you use that moment to give thanks that it was ever given at all.'
"That was the memory that resurfaced for me the night Laura Lou died. [That little girl] was in my life the way the old Bendix washing machine was in our basement and I heard the voice of my mother say, 'If it is a gift and it's taken, you use that occasion to give thanks that it was ever given at all.' And that memory helped me to decide that night to take the road of gratitude out of the valley of sorrow. The Twenty-third Psalm speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of grief. I would suggest to you that the road of gratitude is the best way I know not to get bogged down in our grief but to make our way through it.
"Life is gift, birth is windfall, and all, all is grace. And I give you the gift that was given to me and I pray that somehow the sense of life as gift will enable you to make a brave and hopeful journey, not just into the valley of the shadow of bereavement, but through that valley to the light on the other side. May your journey be a brave one. Amen.”
John Claypool wrote eleven books, and in 2008 a new collection of his sermons on the twelve disciples, entitled The First to Follow, edited by his widow Ann Wilkinson Claypool, was published.
He died on September 3, 2005 aged 74. In a eulogy Kirby Godsey, President of Mercer University, said, "John Claypool touched our souls. Amidst our wounds and our triumphs, his voice became for us the voice of God – a special measure of grace and with unfettered gentleness. John’s presence in our lives and our histories is more than mere death can ever take away. He will continue to walk among us, giving light to our steps, wisdom for our hearts, and hope to our souls. John Claypool’s life and presence and teaching were profound and enduring gifts to the entire Mercer University community.”
Many of John Claypool's sermons are available online, including a few on our John Mark Ministries website (jmm.org.au). I have borrowed some ideas from his notable homily on Ananias and Sapphira and adapted them here:
http://www.jmm.org.au/articles/2400.htm . (Note: 19/5/2016: At present this article - with hundreds of others - has gone missing from the John Mark Ministries website. Mystery.