I have been told that long before I stepped foot on the campus of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology the issue of what students ought to call professors was addressed at a staff meeting. At a relatively small school which stresses community, defining the fine line between professor and friend can be difficult though it is essential to do so for the roles to be played properly. After much debate, I believe it was decided that each professor could decide for herself what students ought call her.
It was here, in my second year as a student at McAfee that I met John Claypool. It was Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2003. I remember this date because I met him at my all-time low. My perfectionism had put me in the throes of depression, the girl I planned to marry had ended our relationship and while praying I inexplicably felt led to call a man I had never really met.
At first, I left a message on his answering machine. I seldom cry but in that message I briefly recounted my predicament through intermittent sobs. I had reached the point of suffering where I was just too hurt to be embarrassed. Shortly after hanging up, my phone rang. It was Claypool, taking pity on a blubbering stranger with an invitation for lunch the next day. He assured me he would do whatever he could to help me.
My aforementioned perfectionism was out of hand and, not wanting to appear ignorant, I familiarized myself by reading four of his books before our encounter. I did not know it at the time, but I would be meeting the person who would influence me more than any other outside of my parents. It is uncanny that a decade after his passing, it is his words I find on my lips more often than anyone I have ever met.
When Dr. Claypool greeted me, I found an unassuming man who had long ago ceased to be impressed by his own greatness. We shared the same height and ruddy complexion though Claypool always dressed in suits and emitted a distinct scent of Ralph Lauren Polo cologne.
He had been a renowned Southern Baptist preacher whose sermons had circulated in newsletter form long before the Internet made such accessibility commonplace. Later, he had become an Episcopal priest and was now in this final stage of his life returning to his roots as a professor in the Baptist tradition at McAfee. He had settled into his role as the campus’ spiritual guru and legend-in-residence.
Over the next two years I took his classes, occasionally served as his driver and availed myself of any opportunity to speak with him. I read his books and internalized his catch phrases (“Despair is Presumptuous,” “Life is Gift,” “Love is Not Coercive,” etc.). I also got to know him and found that I loved the author far more than his writings.
People have often asked me why the acclaimed preacher took such an interest in me. I would like to think that he saw some of himself in me, especially that double-edged sword of perfectionism that we both possessed. But honestly, I think he would have struggled not to like someone who thought he was the greatest preacher since Jesus.
Our connection may also have been in part because when we met we were both so open about our brokenness. He had been battling multiple myeloma, the cancer which would ultimately claim his life on Sept. 3, 2005. Though I felt my trials were minimal compared to his, he reminded me “you are no stranger to disappointment.”
I learned so much from Dr. Claypool. He taught me that everyone has something to teach me, to aspire to do something rather than to be somebody and that God loves me because I am a human being, not a human doing. Though I do not always preach confessionally, like Claypool, I am willing to undress myself spiritually in front of a congregation when the situation calls for it.
Dr. Claypool could also teach me without saying a word, often by point of comparison. An esteemed minister once advised one of my seminary classes, “Don’t be a prophet if you can help it.” He was alluding to the fact that prophets were typically murdered for their trouble (Matt. 23:33, 37; Luke 11:47, 49, 13:34). In another lecture, I saw the same pastor weep during a discussion of the civil rights movement. He admitted that he had known that segregation was wrong but could not risk his career to address the social issues of his day. He had not been a prophet and his tears represented regret.
In all of our talks, I cannot remember Dr. Claypool ever directly mentioning being intentionally prophetic. But when he died, the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a photograph from April 1961 of a young Claypool and Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting together at a Louisville diner. His support of King cost him dearly and ignited great conflict. But he had no regrets. That picture of Claypool and King sits on my office desk to constantly remind me that I would rather shed my tears earlier than later.
Dr. Claypool taught me how to suffer. I called him shortly after his first chemotherapy treatment in hopes of livening his spirits. I foolishly asked how he was doing. What did I expect him to say? I don’t know what I anticipated but it was certainly not what I heard on the other end of the receiver. He equated chemotherapy to taking the Eucharist: something from outside his body which he did not deserve was entering in hopes of redeeming it!
Dr. Claypool also taught me how to die. I don’t pretend to have fully embraced my own mortality, but I know I am better prepared having watched him die so well. When his cancer returned after a brief remission, he sent only a brief message back to our concerned school: “The bottom has held up.” He meant that his faith had held firm even under the rigors of cancer. He credited his success to his God, reworking 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, but I have found that the faith has kept me.”
Though he constantly taught me, Dr. Claypool went out of his way to make me feel as though I was his colleague. I distinctly remember a time when he and his lovely wife, Ann, invited me into their home. Somehow the discussion veered toward a comparison of Buddha and Jesus. Seeking my input, the aged professor appeared enthralled as I spoke. As if I were the expert in the room.
Dr. Claypool went to great lengths to demonstrate that we were equals. But I knew better. It was the one time I could not believe his message. It just never seemed right to call him John.
Image: From left, Martin Luther King Jr., John R. Claypool, seminary professor Nolan P. Howington and Frank Stanley, Jr., member of the Louisville Negroes Steering Committee. The photo was taken in Louisville, Ky., in August 1961. (Photo/Episcopal Diocese of Alabama)