In Memoriam

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of my dear friend and mentor, John Claypool. To commemorate his passing – and celebrate his enduring legacy – I’ve composed this reflection, portions of which appear in the September 2015 issue of Baptists Today, alongside the reminiscences of others who were fortunate enough to learn from him during his time at the McAfee School of Theology.

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I don’t have to look far to be reminded of John Claypool each day. In our house hangs a copy of a black and white photograph showing the Rev. Dr. Claypool and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. having coffee in the refectory of Southern Seminary on the day the civil rights icon visited the campus in 1961. It’s very special to me – and not just for featuring two men whom I believe to be 20th century saints in the same frame. It’s special because, like most everything to do with John Claypool, there’s a story behind it: a story about choosing love and grace over all other available options.

My wife gave me this photograph as a Christmas present. Dr. Claypool brought the original from the Louisville Courier-Journal with him to class one day in 2002 as a prelude to the day’s lesson. As an aspiring preacher, seeing my professor with Martin Luther King, Jr. was like a basketball player seeing his coach with Michael Jordan. But Dr. Claypool hadn’t brought the picture to brag. He’d brought it to illustrate a point. That picture got him into a whole lot of trouble.

Claypool and MLK 1961

John Claypool (second from left) shares coffee with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Southern Seminary in 1961.

Dr. Claypool was the Pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville at the time, and as soon as the paper hit the stands he knew he had to brace for the backlash. It was one thing to be present when the prestigious Southern Seminary hosted a controversial but undeniably significant figure like King; it was quite another to be spotted sharing refreshment with a Black man, especially an “agitator” and a rumored Communist. Dr. Claypool knew what people in town would think – and perhaps do. But Dr. King had asked if there was a place to get a cup of coffee before he gave his address, so Dr. Claypool led the way. To hear him tell it, it was as simple as that. Of course, what he really did was make a profound choice. He chose the grace of hospitality over the safety of propriety. He chose to share a cup of coffee in calm, holy defiance of his culture’s bigoted, ungodly conventions.

The humility with which Dr. Claypool shared this photograph, and the openness with which he told the story behind it, forever endeared him to me as a mentor and exemplar of prophetic pastoral leadership. Throughout our time together, Dr. Claypool impressed upon me that simple but purposeful acts lie at the heart of Christian witness. Living intentionally out of Christ’s love, compassion, and generosity matters more than profound exegesis or homiletic agility. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like welcoming the outsider, that you tell Christ’s story through your story. It’s through such simple yet purposeful acts, like the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup, that God has long revealed God’s self.

I am one of the many to whom God revealed God’s self more fully through the simple yet purposeful witness of John Claypool. His humble, confessional reflections on the grief and joy of this world, and the mystery and wonder of the Holy, have helped me navigate the complex task of living faithfully in a complex world. He’s also inspired me to directly engage the civil rights issues of today. I’ve often wondered how he’d respond to the recent police shootings, and the riots, and the mass incarceration of Black men. No doubt he’d be offering refreshment, physical and spiritual, to anyone in need – and getting into what John Lewis has called “the right kind of trouble.” [1]

 

[1] https://kmslibrary.wordpress.com/page/2/.

Vine City USA

As you enter the town of Berwyn Heights where we live, you pass a sign that says: “Welcome to Berwyn Heights: a Tree City USA”

“Tree City USA” is a designation from the Arbor Day Foundation meaning that Berwyn Heights spends a certain amount of money each year on urban forestry efforts, has an administrative board specifically tasked with overseeing those efforts, and has passed ordinances that generally make it difficult to have a tree cut down.

Kristen and I have joked for years that a more accurate designation would be “Welcome to Berwyn Heights: A VINE CITY USA, because there are vines running amok all over the neighborhood – up and down our street, anyway. Our backyard is covered in vines that have crept over the fence from our neighbors’ yards, and we can look over into their yards and see vines creeping over their fences from their neighbors’ yards.

I’ve been battling one vine in particular that I’ve nicknamed “the Sarlacc” (after the tentacled monster in Return of the Jedi). We’ve been trying to get rid of this plant for five years. The first year we lived in our house we thought the Sarlacc was great. It covered the trellis just off our back patio and provided a nice, shady barrier in the summertime. Then, the second year it covered the trellis…and the flowerbeds and the patio and the tree and was going after pretty much everything within its spindly reach. Since then, we’ve drowned it in Round Up, and come at it with clippers and loppers and chainsaws. Last year, I hacked the two main trunks of the vine up out of the ground with my pickaxe and stood over the fallen, severed stumps like a Celtic warrior, screaming in triumph. Even so, we still find tendrils of this vine popping up in various parts of the yard to this day.

Just last weekend, I noticed that something had sprung up and was pushing its way through the boards of the fence on the south end of our backyard. I thought it was a sapling of some kind that had taken root and shot up over night, but when I went to take a closer look IT WAS THE SARLACC. I then spent the next half hour trying to unravel it from the fence posts and wrench it from the ground.

Needless to say, I’ve about had it with vines. So when I hear Jesus declare, “I am the vine, you are the branches” in John 15, I’m not too thrilled with the metaphor. I much prefer the comparison Christ offered in our Scripture reading for last week: I am the Good Shepherd. Why don’t we just stick with that? Isn’t that enough? Why would Jesus want us to think of Him and think of ourselves as something so pervasive and invasive, that covers everything within reach, that scales walls and pushes holes through fences, and is next to impossible to get rid of?

So I asked Him. In a terse prayer, I asked Jesus what the deal with the vine was. And you know what? Within the depths of my soul, I heard a small but clear voice answer:

“Because we live in a world divided by too many walls and too many fences that need to be covered over and punched through. If you’re going to be My disciple, that’s the kind of tenacious presence I am calling you to have, the kind of love I’m calling you to spread. I’m not calling you to be any ol’ vine; I’m calling you to be a particular kind of vine, My vine, a vine that bears fruit; a vine that provides shade and sustenance for the people of my world. Love and sustenance – these are the necessities of “the life that truly is life” – and that is what my world desperately needs.

“If you need proof, just look north. The inner city of Baltimore burned last week for the same reason the California countryside burned last summer: it’s dry. It’s more than a food desert. It’s a desert of humanity, and it’s an environment that’s completely man-made. The high fences and thick walls of that city keep out the things that nourish life, and so all it takes is a spark. If it seems like history is repeating itself, that it’s 1968 all over again, it’s because these are the same fences and walls that stood 45 years ago. They’re still there. They’re still standing tall, because instead of pulling them down, America decided it would be better to install some gates. Gates are a step in the right direction; but a gate is the same as a wall if you don’t have a key.

“It’s time for the walls to come down. It’s time for the fences to come down. That’s why I’m in the world,” the small, clear voice declared. “That’s why I’m in the world as a vine: to crack the mortar and pry apart the boards that suffocate life. And that’s why I’m calling you, My people, to be branches of this vine: to spread out into the world, to be leverage for this work, to bear fruit, to offer love.”

Was this the voice of the LORD? You can wonder with me. I do know these words within my soul are consistent with 1 John 4, the companion reading to John 15 in the Revised Common Lectionary. …[B]ecause love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God [and] whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. ….There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…. [Therefore] the commandment we have from Christ is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Love. That’s the fruit Christ calls us to bear. That’s the leverage He calls us to exert. And let’s be clear: the implications of the Gospel imperative to love are nothing short of cosmic. Because God loves us with deep and abiding love, we have the capacity to love one another with a deep and abiding love – and deep, abiding, divinely inspired love has the power to transform as well as save  the world.  The two actually go hand-in-hand.  Where there is love, there should also be transformation, because love by its very nature is transformative. If you are loved, you are changed. If you love, you are changed. So, if our love isn’t transforming the world, then we have to wonder whether it’s love we’re truly offering.  And if we aren’t transforming the world, can we really believe we’re saving it – even if a steady stream of folks “walk the aisle” on Sunday morning?

We have the power, and we have the commission from Christ our Lord to change the world. The question is: do we have the will? Put another way, “How ‘viney’ are we willing to be?” The answer to that question is a mosaic of answers to other questions. Some of them are big questions: questions of public policy, and national and community priorities. Are we willing to engage those debates? Are we willing to demand better for our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, even our enemies – all of the people Christ bids us to love? Others are small questions, in terms of scale if not ease. Will I choose to live out of generosity or fear? Will I go about my day with my eyes open or shut? Will I allow love to spur me to action, or will I hold back and wait for someone else to take the risk first?

Those are the kinds of questions love asks, and the answers to those kinds of questions will transform the world….or won’t.

And so, brothers and sisters, whatever you’ll be doing after you read this, resolve to do it with the love of Christ. Whether it’s difficult or easy, simple or complex, resolve to do it with the love of Christ. For He is the vine, and we are the branches. As He is in the world, so we are called to be in the world. We shouldn’t wait for the world to come to us, anymore than a vine waits for the trellis to come to it. There is mortar to be cracked, there are boards to be bent. There is life to let in.

May abundant life pour in like waters, and swell like a mighty stream through the cracks we make. Amen.

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