Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ordination Testimony

NOTE: You should know that I chose a tune called "Stepping Stones" to be played as part of the ordination ceremony. Several people remarked that it was quite moving. I'll post the lyrics at the end of my "testimony". You can sample Dougie MacLean's music at

Ordination Testimony

Anyone who knows me knows that giving me 10 minutes and a microphone is a dangerous proposition. You know you’re going to hear some history. So let me just apologize right now and get it out of the way.

My ancestors first began to come to Allegany County in the 1820s and 30s. They were farmers and teachers who worked hard to build churches that would nurture future generations in the way that Christ called us to walk. They built each other’s homes, and met in homes until they were able to build churches and schools for their growing communities. They believed that all their children should go to school and learn, so they could all build good lives for themselves, and for their children.

Please permit me to drop a few names, but I’ll try to be brief:

Our great-great-great-great-grandfather, Captain Benjamin Maxson, brought his children to Little Genesee in November of 1827, and helped build the old church that stood until only a few years ago, when it burned. His grand-daughter Mary, moved to Alfred when her husband helped build the home on South Main Street that we all call “33”. Great-great-great-grandfather George Sherman and his family came to Alfred in 1836, and created the farm where the Actons now live. His son-in-law, Samuel Stillman, created the farm where the MacCreas now live, and his children gave money they’d earned by selling milk and cheese, to put a clock in the Firemens’ Hall. They gave money in their father’s memory to provide scholarships for young men and women to attend Alfred University. Our great-grandfather, A.B. Kenyon, came as a student intending to return to his home in Rhode Island after he earned his degree, but stayed here instead. He taught mathematics and surveying, and was Registrar and Dean of Alfred University. He designed and directed the building of what is now Camp Harley Sutton’s Burdick Lodge, which was the University’s first gymnasium before it was moved to the camp. My grandfather, Ford S. Clarke, taught Sociology at the University, and was the first Scoutmaster of Troop 19. My grandmother taught Home Economics at what later became Alfred State College. My father, as you probably know, pastored five churches and led the Missionary and Christian Education boards of the denomination. These are my stepping-stones.

I can still recall the restlessness I felt when I was younger than our son is now, at being required to come to church, when I would rather have been running around outside. I’m certain I was the first and only little boy to ever feel those things, of course.

I can remember crawling under the pews, and playing “HangMan” in the back pew. I remember the triumph of discovering words like “Czechoslovakia”, which won the game for me until my opponents learned them. I remember hating having to wear a suit and tie to church. I rankled at not being permitted to watch television from Friday evening until Sabbath evening. But it was black and white back then, anyway – not “living color” and high definition. It was Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite, and Fess Parker, and the world was quite different.

I remember my impatience with such things, but I also remember having a sense that what Mom and Dad and others were trying to tell me were things to which I should pay attention. I don’t think I was ever a really bad kid, but there were things I’d been told not to do, that got done, anyway. The admonitions and instruction must have begun to sink in, however.

I remember sitting in Sabbath School classes with Bill Parry as teacher, and how his calm and gentle manner invited me to listen and to speak, as few others could. One day I drew a sketch of him that I treasure because, when I look at it, it can still take me back to those days, and to the calm assurance he conveyed to us. The stories of Jesus’ life were the ones that touched me most deeply. It was that personal connection, of trying to imagine what his life was like, that drew me in.

I remember looking forward to being permitted to take the communion bread and juice, after I asked to be baptized and made a member of the church. I remember sitting in the Tower Room of the Parish House with my father and Jere Rase and Eric Van Horn, to discuss the little orange book on church membership, which we all had to conquer before we were permitted to take the leap of baptism.

I still remember my father “dunking” me and Jere and Eric in the baptismal pool, right here, thirty-nine years ago I reckon it was. I remember the joy I felt at getting there.

I participated in the Junior Choir and finally graduated to the Senior Choir, when my voice stopped croaking and CHANGED. I wanted to be an usher so I could walk in rhythm with the three other ushers, and show that I could collect the offering as well as the older men. Synchronized walking, it was. I took interest and pride in coming to business meetings and participating in the discussion, and in being able to VOTE, like a grown-up. I still didn’t like to wear a suit, though.

I remember our father asking me to lead the “Friendly Forum” Sabbath School class for a time. Here I was in my late teens, being asked to lead a Bible Study and discussion, in a room of white-haired men and women. I remember my nervousness – and perhaps intimidation – that was so quickly followed by delight at finding those elders eager to discuss things, without answers already arrived at. I was absolutely swollen with pride when I was complimented afterward, for having led interesting and fruitful discussions.

After two years of college, I tried to earn enough money to return to college and go overseas, but as anyone who has tried to make a living in Allegany County knows, it hasn’t ever been easy. A friend helped me get a job in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, so I left all my family and other friends behind, and spent nearly a decade there, working and still trying to finish my degree. For those years, I was a lone Sabbathkeeper until I married Jeanette. This church had its share of upheavals in my absence, and I remember my parents’ letters describing their anguish at all of that. When I started dating Jeanette, I told her I wanted to come home and look after my parents as they aged.

Jeanette decided she was amenable to that, so we were married in May of 1988 and moved to Alfred to live, three months later. For twenty years, now, we have been active in this church that nurtured me in my youth. We have endeavored to be part of this church’s rejuvenation, so that future generations will have the same anchor for their faith, which we have had.

In those twenty years, I’ve been Trustee, committee member, Treasurer, Assistant Treasurer, President, bell-ringer, usher, sound system technician, custodian, and repairman. I’ve led tours of the buildings for students and visitors, played guitar and sung hymns, and filled the pulpit when the pastor is absent. I’ve picked up beer bottles and scooped dog poop from the church lawn, and worried when windows got vandalized or lights got left on.

I’m not telling this to brag. Perhaps I’m admitting that I’m jack of all trades and master of none. But I’m really telling all this because these are the things that are so badly needed in a small church, and I’ve felt called to do them. I would rather be building something big and new if I could, and doing something more exciting, but this is a small, old church, and its survival depends on those few of us who are here now. It can’t be a hope for the future unless we are God’s hands and feet, here and now. What is happening here, right now, is affirmation of all that I’ve just told you.

I love this church, because it has stood for so many things that I believe Christ called us to stand for, no matter what the cost.

The people of this church believed in education, and its members gave all they had to build and maintain schools and have their children educated. This church supported the Theological School, which trained men and women to be pastors. We have one of the few Seventh Day Baptist pastors who happens to be a woman, today.

Darwin Maxson, who was a member here for many years, wrote articles for the Sabbath Recorder proclaiming that all men and women are children of God. His home was a station on the Underground Railroad that conveyed people to places where they might find equality of opportunity. Maxson presented an amendment to the church constitution on November 7, 1858, striking the word "male" from Article 3, thus opening the door to women becoming voting members. Women were invited to speak to the question but not vote, in February, and the vote was 22 to 12, in favor, but there were not enough to meet the constitutional requirement of 2/3 majority. The question was renewed in 1860, by Jonathan Allen, but was withdrawn. Finally, on the 24th of May, 1874, a motion put forward by O.D. Sherman did pass with only one dissenting vote. Three years later, a motion was made to allow women to be deaconesses. It was ten years after THAT (1889), that one of my great-grandmother's sisters, Madelia Stillman, was installed as one of the first deaconesses.

Our father also grew up in this church, and he remembered the cold, wintry day in 1929 when smoke began wafting up through the floor here, and he and all the other children were quickly but calmly ushered out of the building by Fritjoff Hildebrand. In fighting that fire which could have destroyed this building, all the stained-glass windows were destroyed by firefighters. It was a good thing that the donations given to replace them, were given in memory of this church’s human pillars, and plaques were put at the base of each window to remind us what they built for our benefit. I invite you to look at them when you have a chance. We have short biographies of those people, if you are interested.

I chose long ago to live as Christ would have me live, but with every year that has passed, I have come to appreciate each of the generations since Christ’s time, who have worked to find his truth, anew, in the living of their lives. I choose to live in that tradition, that faith that first called me so many years ago. My hope and prayer is to be a stepping stone for others. I trust that He who led those who came before, will continue to lead me, and us, as well.

G. Douglas Clarke September 6, 2008

Stepping Stones

So much time has gone
since we worked out in these open fields
With the hope of generations pulled around us
and a strength revealed
And so much has been done since we ran around the Snaigow wood
Never knowing where our gentle lights might lead us
Or indeed they could.

And we do not stand alone
I know we stand with all the others
Out in the deep unknown
I know we stand upon their stepping stones

Sure and simple souls
guarded round us as we worldly grew
With nothing greater than what working days
might show them they gave us all they knew
And though their dreams were small
O their true and rural hearts were strong

And with an honest smile
that burns from somewhere distant
They helped us all along


And in these silent hours
when reflection lays our journey down
And we think on all departed conversations
It’s such an earthy sound


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