Life is both baffling and exhilarating.
That was just one of the many pieces of wisdom the Rev. Dr. John Claypool dispensed during his more than 50 years as a minister. Born in Kentucky and raised in Tennessee, Claypool was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1953, and over the following three decades pastored churches in four Southern states. Along the way, he also played a role in the Civil Rights Movement, serving as treasurer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Kentucky and counting the movement’s leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a personal friend.
After 30 years in the Baptist church, Claypool moved to the Episcopal church, and was ordained as a priest in 1986. His first and only parish in that role was St. Luke’s, in Mountain Brook. Claypool was the rector at St. Luke’s for nearly 14 years, retiring from full-time ministry in 2000 and moving to Atlanta to be a professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. He was also a prolific writer and speaker on theological matters, authoring 11 books. Claypool died in 2005, at the age of 74.
Now, one of Claypool’s parishioners at St. Luke’s has compiled a book aimed at capturing the esteem in which the minister was held by colleagues, friends and church members, more than 100 of whom shared their remembrances. Birmingham’s Carolyn Sloss Ratliff — a self-described “cradle Episcopalian” — says she intended for the book, titled Life is Gift, to be both a tribute to Claypool and an opportunity for people to reflect on the impact of his life and ministry. She also hopes it will serve as an introduction for those who are not familiar with the man she describes as “inspirational in every way.”
“I wanted to people to have the experience of John Claypool,” Ratliff says. “He had such love and compassion for people, along with the ability to be fully present with the person in front of him, whomever and wherever that was. He made people feel so special. He’s been gone for 10 years, but I still walk around with him every day, and I know so many other people who do, too.”
One of the common threads of the reminiscences in Life is Gift is the effectiveness of Claypool’s preaching style, which Ratliff attributes in large part to his background in the Baptist church. She marvels at the number of times she has heard people say that they often had the feeling that, in a crowded sanctuary, Claypool was talking directly to them.
“He delivered his message in a very meaningful way,” Ratliff recalls. “His theology was very rooted in that idea of communicating God’s love. He taught tolerance, acceptance and self-awareness, and he did it in a way that touched many of his listeners, including me, for life.
“He was a very godly man.”
Life is Gift will be available at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church for $35. It can also be ordered online at saint-lukes.com. The official release date for the book is Sunday, August 30, when it will be available as part of an event called “Confessions” beginning at 9 a.m. Proceeds from the book will benefit St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Ministries, including the Claypool Lecture Series.