Pass It On: Shirley Caperton Guthrie

By: Steve Negley

Posted: October 20, 2021

Category: Daily Devotional

Psalm 139:1-14

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
  you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
  and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
  O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
  and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
  it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
  Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
  if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
  and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
  and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
  and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
  the night is as bright as the day,
  for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
  you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made

Shirley Caperton Guthrie was one my professors at Columbia Theological Seminary. He taught Reformed Theology. He authored and edited a number of books, one of which, A Christian Doctrine, was created as a Christian Education tool for lay people in Presbyterian Churches and has become a standard seminary textbook. Dr. Guthrie touched my life and faith deeply in the lecture hall, chats in his office, and a night or two we spent as volunteers at a cold night shelter. While his writings inspire me, I am deeply moved by a story shared after Shirley’s death by another professor and mutual friend, Dr. Erskine Clarke:

While he had had a good report from his annual physical in the spring, his loss of weight during the early weeks of the summer made him look even thinner than his normal wiry self. His wife Vivian, a wonderful cook, tried to entice him into eating a variety of specially prepared meals, but he said he had no appetite.

In late July, she took him to one of Atlanta’s best restaurants hoping that it might encourage his appetite, but he only ate a little and the next day complained of discomfort that sent him to his family physician. A mass was found, tests were ordered, and a tumor was identified. Shirley was sent to an oncologist. He had, the doctor said, a virulent form of cancer.

Tom Guthrie, in the midst of a dissertation at the University of Chicago, came home to be with his father and mother. As news of Shirley’s cancer spread, friends and former students began to respond in numbers that almost overwhelmed Vivian and Tom. With the encouragement of Shirley’s colleague and close friend George Stroup, Vivian had friends to answer the phone at their home—a thoughtful arrangement that gave friends an opportunity “to do something.” After a few weeks into the treatment, Tom left for a quick visit to Chicago.

Vivian asked if I would help take Shirley to an appointment with his oncologist. They asked me to go with them into the examination room. The nurse was clearly concerned with the test results. The doctor, a young man, came into the room. He was kind, professional, and to the point. The chemotherapy would have to stop—he recommended home hospice care. When he left the room, Vivian and I were weeping. I asked if they would like some time alone. No, they said, that will come later. “I am not afraid to die,” said Shirley. “God gives us our life, and when our time comes to die, we give our life back to God. In life and in death we belong to God.” Shirley and Vivian spoke to one another with love and deep tenderness. We had a prayer together.

In this way, Shirley began his last days of teaching.


For all the blessings we find in the lives of the people You place into our life path, we give You thanks, O God. And when our earthly path comes to an end, we thank You that we are still with You. Amen.