by Rev. James Eaton
Harry loved stories. So let’s hear a story. Jesus told this one, it’s in the Gospel of Mark.
The Sermon of Harry’s Life
I wanted to read this scripture today not because I intend to preach a sermon but because I want to reflect on the sermon Harry preached with his life, a life that has so profoundly shaped my own. Because you have gathered here, many at some expense and traveling far, I know your life has also been affected by the sermon of Harry’s life. Usually we start with scripture and work toward the sermon; today we have the sermon, the life; what Word informs it? The Bible frequently uses images of growing to describe God’s purpose flowing in us. From Genesis, where we are told our purpose is to tend the garden of creation to Paul where we are encouraged to bear the fruits of the Spirit, it’s one lesson after another in agriculture. When I thought of how to speak about the sermon of Harry’s life, this parable surfaced because it combines the elements I see, I hear, I remember and will carry forward.
Someone sows a field. Jesus has already described the wild, hopeful sowing he means: seed scattered without plan, only hope. Isn’t that just like Harry? Never counting the cost of the moments he shared. As a young minister, he worked with youth. But with Harry, it wasn’t work, it was a constant, encouraging, loving attention. I remember how our youth group would simply drop in at the Clark’s home, never wondering whether we’d be welcome—we always were. I remember riding my bike to Pine Hill Church, dropping in on him in the office, long talks where I always had his full attention. At 15 it never occurs to you that maybe the man was busy and I was interrupting. Harry never suggested he was.
Later, he scattered seeds even more widely. He brought people together in seminars in Boston, in England, he endlessly encouraged ministers working to knit churches and clergy together. He never stopped sowing; he never stopped hoping. It cost him time and effort; we say ‘spiritual’ as if it’s an ethereal thing, but it’s actually time spent, effort expended, waiting for a crop to grow. It takes a lot of effort to organize a canoe trip, take a group along up the wilderness, give them the space and time for growth to happen.
All these things are seeds he scattered, just like the man in the story. What does the sower do next? He waits. Jesus says: “…sleep and rise night and day…” This is a thing about Harry it took me years and years to appreciate, his stubborn, patient hope. Harry never gave up; I know he never gave up on me. He waited for me to grow, he waited for all of us to grow, always insisting quietly, always pressing gently, so that we would become better people. If there are indeed better angels in our nature, they were angels apparent to Harry that he hoped we would make evident in our lives. He always seemed to see the gift in a person and encourage that gift . He didn’t tell you how to do it; he listened while you struggled and figured it out.
It isn’t that he wasn’t practical; he was. When I came to him, telling him I planned to become a minister, I had visions of leading a church the way he did, standing the pulpit, preaching. Harry’s response was, “Well, ok, why don’t you type up the bulletin.” Later in life, when he was busy helping with McFadden Farm, the NA sent out a letter asking how they could help retired ministers and suggesting some churchy things. Harry wrote back: “If you want to help me, do something about the price of hay! It’s outrageous!”
The deep spiritual genius of this man is that he was more stubbornly patient than anyone I’ve ever known. Think of the story: the man waits—he sleeps and rises. How hard is it to wait? Harry waited. Patient, hopeful, always available to listen. In 60 years of friendship, he never said, “Hey, I’m busy today, I’ll talk to you another time.” He waited, he listened. The parable says: God gives the growth. Church and clergy are always talking about purpose statements and action plans and programs, things we do. Harry waited for God to grow us.
I know it wasn’t easy. I remember when he worked at the NA, he got so frustrated one day about ministers and churches trying and failing to find each other that he yelled, “I want to be a bishop!” That’s as close to swearing as a Congregationalist gets. But if he got impatient, as we all do, he did something many of us fail to do: he waited anyway. He waited for God to give the growth, he believed what we all say, “God is good” but for him, faith was action, faith was lived. Harry’s pulpit wasn’t just in a church; it was as much a table after breakfast with coffee, as much sitting with a beer on the deck, overlooking the creek, listening, encouraging, with that smile when you finally offered the right answer.
Harry knew what took me years to learn from him: that God’s love is inexorable, inescapable, like a river cutting a channel, flowing of itself. One of our friends, Cliff Shutjer, once said, “I never met a fad I didn’t love.” Most of us are like that: we have an idea of what to plan, what to do, we want to make something happen. But look at the farmer in the story: he waits for God. Look at Harry: he waited for God. We often measure accomplishment in medals and plaques; Harry certainly earned many of those. But he measured in relationships, friendships, with Dick Buchman, with too many to name. He set us an example in his love and devotion to Nora and the family; he invited us to see God’s love flowing without being fussy about the words and theology.
Somewhere up in Fond Du Lac county, the rain and dew gather into a stream that becomes the Milwaukee River. South it flows, around rocks, past bends it has carved over centuries, gathering water from West Bend and later Cedar Creek, past the deck Harry loved, until it becomes a broad stream, a river powerful and determined. Past farms, past the riverwalk, it flows into the heart of the city and then out into Lake Michigan, moving on through Huron and Erie and Ontario, it flows out the St. Lawrence and reaches the great oceans of the world.
In just the same way, Harry’s heart flowed out in streams that washed and nurtured all of us, joining with Nora and later Terry and Laury and Amy, still later with me, with Roc and Dane, with Theresa and Kivi, with Bill Trump and Rob Fredrickson and Beth Bingham and too many others to name. His heart became a part of our hearts and now that same stream joins the ocean of God’s love, both its source and its destination. Harry loved canoeing and I think he’d understand this, how drops and streams and rivers form and flow, join together, roll on and on. I think it would make him smile.
So today, this day, and days to come, remember that smile and the way his love flows through us, how it touches others. We are not alone; we are part of a great stream that flows that joins us together. That is his gift: joining all of us in love, flowing that love outward until it finally is one. That is the harvest and if we would for ourselves have delayed it, the harvest has come: now we go on to share its gift, the gift of this great life, knowing our own lives have been shaped by him, and that he has indeed done what every minister hopes: moved us closer by his love to the great love of God.
The Rev. Dr. Harry Wilbur Clark died at home on October 5, 2022. Born in East Chicago, IN, on December 24, 1927. He found his love, friend and companion for over 71 years, Eleanora (“Nora”) while attending Indiana University. He found calling in Christian ministry early and was ordained in 1955. Harry earned a BA at Indiana University, an MDiv at Colgate Rochester seminary and an MA in Theatre Arts at Wayne State University. He received honorary doctorates from Olivet College and Piedmont College. His love of theater was deep and he wrote and directed may chancel dramas. Harry served in a pastoral role in four churches and for ten years as the Associate Executive Secretary of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. In that role, he became a mentor and inspiration to uncountable ministers.
He leaves a legacy of love and grace that has profoundly inspired many. He is survived by his wife, Eleanora Clark, daughters Terry Clark Bauman, Laury Clark, Amy Clark, son-in-law Rick Bauman, grandson Dane Bauman, grand daughter-in-law Theresa and great grand daughter Kivi, grandson Roc Bauman. He leaves a legacy of love and grace that has profoundly inspired and uplifted many.
A funeral service will be held at the Ozaukee Congregational Church, 1142 Lakefield Road, Grafton, WI, on Saturday, October 15, at 11:00 AM. Memorial contributions Because of Harry’s love for music and his appreciation for the church’s outreach, donations may be made to Ozaukee Congregational Church in support of its music program and benevolence fund.