It was my mother who first told me about him. "He's an excellent preacher and he makes you feel like he is talking directly to you."
My mother, Annie Katherine Allen Townes, still licking her wounds from a recent divorce, needed help with managing her grief. And the Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool had mastered the pastoral market on grief. His book, “Tracks of a Fellow Struggler,” was all about how he moved through the torment of losing his young daughter, Laura Lou, to leukemia, and how he used that experience to deepen his relationship with God.
While in Jackson between 1976-1981, John served as senior pastor of Northminster Baptist Church, which was unlike any other Baptist Church that I had ever witnessed before with its dramatic processions and rich liturgy. He was in the vanguard of the Relational Theology movement that combined theology and psychology in a life-giving way and offered a wide and affirming appreciation of God's world. It held that God was the God of Truth, and anytime you find Truth - be it scientific or psychological or mathematical, etc. - there is a revelation from God to be valued and used for good.
I met John in 1977. Soon after I heard him preach in Jackson over a college football weekend, an invitation was extended to John to speak on the Ole Miss campus as a guest of the Committee of 100, a religious emphasis group of which I was a member. I had the honor of introducing him that evening, and I'll never forget his preaching on the words of the prophet Isaiah -- “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”With this as his text, he covered the geography of the spiritual life - Times of ecstasy when we soar; ordinary times where we are given the strength to maintain our pace; and times of desolation where God's grace alone holds us up as we walk through the valley of the shadow.
Through the blessings of numerous visits with each other, John became my spiritual mentor. In fact, he offered himself to me to serve in that capacity. Was I ever honored! And it was because of John's impact on my life that I, as a United Methodist, entered seminary - Emory's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. While there I met and married Lynnsay Buehler, an Episcopalian from her youth and now an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Atlanta. Wise person that I am - and the fact she slipped it in the pre-nup (Wink) - I joined her church.
While serving as the co-chair of the 1990 annual pledge campaign at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, I called John, now an Episcopal priest in Birmingham, to come to Atlanta and speak to the parishioners on stewardship. I remember trying to convince him: "It's your fault that I ever went to seminary and I wouldn't be doing this church stuff but for you, so you have to come and speak." He graciously accepted the invitation.
Looking back on his life and powerful witness, I am constantly reminded of the words he spoke to me and so many others - as if he were talking directly to each one of us:
Life is gift, and grace is windfall.
Nothing is evil in and of itself. Everything evil is something good, misused.
Life, in its complexity, gets better and better, and harder and harder.
As a tiger is to tiger-ness, Jesus is to human-ness.
Through Jesus of Nazareth, God became like us so that we could become like God.
Thanks be to God for the life of John Claypool and the positive impact he had on so many lives while in Jackson.
Rob Townes, who grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, has spent much of his fundraising career in Jackson consulting with nonprofit clients. While in town, he crashes rent-free at Allen Cunningham's home, his favorite sister.