Coming to hear John Claypool preach at Calvary’s Lenten Preaching Series was a Do. Not. Miss. Event. In his soft Southern voice, John engaged our hearts and minds to hear Jesus’ parables or the stories of Genesis not only with new ears but also with a new vulnerability. Undergirding all of his preaching was his conviction that Life is Gift, and that God the Ingenious Alchemist can turn the heavy lead of grief and despair into the gold of gratitude. “If we are willing, the experience of grief can deepen and widen our ability to participate in life,” he wrote in his book Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.
John had experienced that divine alchemy after his beloved daughter Laura Leu died of acute leukemia when she was only ten years old. After wrestling with grief and anger that threatened to undo him, John said that he began to understand that her life had been pure gift and that he was deeply blessed to have had her in his life at all. His message spread far and wide among what he called ‘fellow strugglers.’
John Claypool was born in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and grew up in Nashville. Originally a Baptist pastor, he was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1968 and played a pivotal leadership role in the volatile years of struggle for civil rights in the South. He was a preacher of powerful compassion and astute Biblical interpretation, enriched by a rich, self-effacing sense of humor.
The first time I heard him preach during LPS, he introduced his sermon saying: “I love coming to Memphis! I’ve loved coming here since I was five years old. My mother brought me here from Nashville every year to buy my clothes at Lowenstein’s. She swore by shopping in Memphis. When I was six or seven and one of my mother’s friends asked, “Johnny, where did you get those bright blue eyes?” I told her I’d gotten them in Memphis.”
One day, after John had preached and eaten lunch in the Waffle Shop, he asked a few of us where he could buy a raincoat that afternoon. He was preaching at Calvary again the next day, and heavy rain was predicted. He needed a new raincoat, anyway, and Memphis seemed like a good place to find one.
I’m not sure how I got the assignment to drive him to the nearest men’s store, but I did, and what I thought would be a one-stop shopping gig turned into an all-afternoon trek from store to store to store. (Lowenstein’s had long since closed.)
John was determined to find just the right coat – at just the right price. It was like shopping with Goldilocks: the coats were either too long, too short, too flimsy to repel water, or too (way too) expensive.
He apologized profusely for being so finicky, and we both started laughing. The more stores we visited, the more we laughed. By the time we found the right raincoat, we had become fast friends, and since by now we were close to where Frank and I lived, I stopped at our house where the two of them shared a good laugh and drank a toast to our mission accomplished. I will never forget that afternoon of laughter and light in the midst of Lent.
John Claypool died on September 15, 2005, at the far too young age of 74. He came among us as a fellow struggler deeply acquainted with grief, and he taught us, by word and example, that Life is Gift, that Love is Eternal, and that, “Through thick and thin and the very worst of times, the Ingenious Alchemist can still do the best of things.” (The Ingenious Alchemist).