Thank God for Larry Clayton
Thoughts from his friend, Judith Larsen
We Meet……and Meet Again
It happened naturally. In the old Environmental Protection Agency building in Washington D.C. I walked down from my 4th floor office to the newly-established Document Room, probably to look up the legislative history of a law I was working on. Larry, founder and organizer of the Document Room gave me a friendly greeting and explained how to identify and retrieve the documents. He had the most amiable “down home” manner – casual, approachable and deeply Southern. What was that accent? Louisiana, though I wouldn’t have been able to place it at the time.
That first conversation must have been lengthy, trusting and fun (it was easy to make fun of the bureaucracy) because a week or two later Larry came looking for me in my upstairs office. He had a problem and his intuition led him to think I might suggest ways to solve it. When he had put in a request for a secretary the personnel office sent to him a young woman who proved to be difficult: as I remember she was belligerent, wouldn’t take directions, and disappeared for long periods of time. Larry looked at her personnel records and discovered that she had come from my office. Remembering our friendly initial conversation he decided to see if I could recommend strategies for working with her. I was delighted to see Larry again. We joked about the bureaucracy’s personnel-roulette, and I probably recommended that he pass her on down the line, as in the game of Hot Potato.
Third sighting: I moved to San Francisco for a year to work in the regional EPA legal office and lost sight of Larry, who in the meantime had left EPA. But when you are meant to engage, angels manage it easily. When I returned to my Virginia home and to work again at EPA headquarters, I also reconnected with my home Quaker meeting, Langely Hill Friends. I was startled to see a familiar face among the silent worshippers in the dear, quiet room – Larry, accompanied by a silver-haired, small woman with a thoughtful expression: Ellie, his wife and soon to become my good friend. After worship we greeted each other happily, and thus continued our friendly relationship.
Our Deepening Friendship
Larry became my spiritual brother. The feeling of family came partly because we shared some characteristics: we were intuition-led explorers. I trusted Larry completely, and from the beginning there was no pretense between us. Whenever we came together we immediately moved to the spiritual heart of whatever idea was under discussion. More often than not Ellie and my husband Paul joined our lively conversations. Ellie could always offer a thoughtful factual, scientific perspective. To an outsider we might have sounded like debaters, so emotional and emphatic was our back-and-forth.
Larry’s mind was brilliant and penetrating. He had honed his intellect at his beloved Duke University, and in seminary, but also continually throughout his life. I never heard him claim ownership of ideas. Rather he accepted ideas as God-given, streaming toward him. Larry’s task was to discern how to use the ideas .
As a young man, Larry had a thrilling vision of Jesus in answer to a prayerful request for spiritual direction. The vision led him to enter seminary and accept pastoral assignment from the Methodist Church. As it turned out, Larry’s faithfulness to his spiritual calling led him first to assignment as a church preacher in several Southern parishes, but ultimately to other tasks. His was not a standard pastoral journey. He felt called to serve as a probation officer and develop a ministry for alcoholic miscreants in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Then his heart was opened even wider by the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. which offered ministry to the poor. That struck Larry as close to Jesus’ vision.
By loving and sacrificial agreement Ellie and Larry arranged that their sons would finish the school year in Winston-Salem before moving the family to D.C. So for the good part of a year Ellie was the parent-in-residence for their boys while Larry labored in the vineyards in D.C. Ellie was finally able to join Larry at the Church of the Savior. Their unit of the church, whose members lived and worked together, took on a task to build and renovate homes for the poor, and provide the resident families certain life-sustaining services.
When Church of the Savior ministry turned in a direction that Larry could not follow, in obedience to his divine calling Larry and Ellie left the Church. It was through that fraught circumstance that I found them in the quiet Quaker meeting in Virginia.
Larry gave unwavering attention to the Spirit calling. He never claimed insights and resulting actions as personal to him: it was the Spirit working through him. Although Ellie never said so, I can’t help but believe that this was hard on his family. When he received a call, he answered, as when he gave up a vocation as a church pastor for work with alcoholics, as when he was summoned to D.C. to work with the poor through the Church of the Savior, and as when he gave up his membership in the Church of the Savior despite his dear friendships there because he saw that he must travel a different road.
Meanwhile, Larry and Ellie’s three sons – Paul, Mark and Rob – were passing through high school into adult concerns, and predictable struggles with their father emerged, always resolved in a loving manner, but honestly and directly with the accompanying tensions one would expect. Paul crafted an independent life in North Carolina, becoming an accountant; Mark studied architecture and is a professor in Texas, and Rob became a psychologist, practicing in California.
Ellie was growing in skills as well. She had achieved a Bachelor of Science with distinction at the time of her marriage. As her sons moved into the adult world, Ellie was tapped for computer skills by the Department of Defense.
The family was thus arranged when I encountered them on my return from San Francisco.
Gift of Life
I had a heart connection to Larry and Ellie, and I trusted them implicitly. Here is an example of the kindness and counseling I received from them. I carry a tendency toward depression. While my husband Paul was in Europe as part of a government delegation to a conference, I was struck particularly hard with thoughts of suicide. Knowing Larry was a man of God, I sought his counsel. I particularly wanted to know if I would be cast into hell if I died by my own hand.
When I called Larry with an urgent request to meet with him, Ellie and he were clearing out their home prior to its sale. Larry said “Come right over.” We three sat on up-ended boxes in a little huddle. It was hard for me to speak through the pain I felt, but I stumbled through a description of my state of mind, while Larry and Ellie listened intently. Then Larry spoke. There was no such thing, in his view, as God cursing a soul. I should put that concern away. Larry talked about the gift of life, what a treasure our ordeals are because of the leaps forward they make possible. He said that I would not be given greater burdens than I could carry. As my understanding grew I would come to appreciate and love life.
Ellie was still during this counsel. We both listened intently. Larry led us in a prayer for healing. Looking back I remember extreme relief that I would not be cast into hell for harboring ungracious intentions. I believed completely in what Larry told me, even though I am by nature wary, disbelieving and uncertain.
My heart is filled with gratefulness for Larry’s counsel and for Ellie’s intense silent support.
Larry was at home with himself, never projecting a false image. I wonder if that is what made him so uncomfortable in the early days when he was a preacher. He said the people in his parish were just as good and just as bad as he was. When he would say goodbye to them at the door of the church after the Sunday sermon, he heard “Preacher, you really stepped on my toes!” Then, Larry said, they would go home and eat their chicken dinners and listen to a football game. He came to feel that as a preacher he was not helping them to grow spiritually.
An endearing aspect of Larry and Ellie’s relationship is that he never asked her to assume duties of a preacher’s wife. While Ellie did join activities in the parish, she was originally not the committed Christian that Larry was. Larry never asked her to be anything but herself. She gradually came to a profound commitment to the sacred, but that was through encounters with authors and artists, particularly William Blake. Larry and Ellie shared admiration of Blake, so much so that both maintained a “Blake blog” which Ellie still carries on. Larry wrote a book on Blake and e-published it so that it would be freely available.
Larry’s natural “down home” manner did not open all doors. A mutual friend of our who was a graduate of Duke and whose father had been a professor there, was offended that Larry talked like a country boy. She felt that Duke graduates should speak the king’s English with the king’s accent. But Larry was utterly without pretense. It was this that opened doors with people closer to the street level. Once when I was emerging from a Wendy’s restaurant after a post-church tea- and- biscuits break, I found Larry at the cash register having a heart- to- heart talk with the cashier about the state of her soul.
Larry could be stern and outspoken. Once when Larry and Ellie visited us in Virginia I was walking around our neighborhood with them. I love stories and it was my habit to tell a story about the people in the houses we were passing, assembling a few facts and adding some colorful speculation. We had interesting neighbors, for example, people who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even someone who appeared to be in a witness protection program. I was weaving their stories as we walked along when I became aware that Larry was tense and angry. Then I understood that for him people’s lives are not a game. He heard me as mocking my neighbors.In his later years Larry was a visiting pastor at a local hospital, bringing encouragement and sharing prayers with the afflicted. Larry said he was not just a giver, but equally the receiver in these visits. That loving practice may have helped to sustain his spirit when he was in a hospital preparing to die at the age of 90. Ellie says he was asking friends and family for blessings and forgiveness as he began his final earthly journey.
A Whole Man
I wish I could give an accurate impression of what a unique and powerful person Larry was. The elements of his character that stand out for me are that he was soul directed (that is, God-directed: in constant conversation with God); unpretentious in his daily relationships; astute and intellectual in a graceful manner born of genuine curiosity. Now that he has passed over into paradise I see him clearly. I think he stands out from most of my friends and family who are in the Beyond because he was so fully himself, without many cultural add-ons. He never pretended to be what he was not. He saw that, like those whom he counseled, he also was a flawed human in need of love and forgiveness. He was able to open to the Spirit, let it grow in him and pass it on to reach others.
I have a powerful, living impression of Larry. He continues to be my guide, one who leads me through the complexities of the material life.
Thank God for Larry Clayton!