Near or Far: Where is the cross for you this Good Friday?

A YouGov poll this year found that only 50% of people associate Easter with Jesus.  If you are under 24 that drops to under 44%.  The most important event of the year is reduced to a double bank holiday, Easter eggs, and sports events.  For many on Good Friday, the Cross of Christ is so far in the distance it can no longer be seen.  National news media call this weekend the ‘Great Easter getaway’, as over 1 million people travel from Heathrow airport, and 26 million people get away by car.

We have gathered here today on Good Friday, to draw closer to the cross of Christ.  To bring it from the distant to up close.  Maybe like me, you have been so preoccupied with work and family, and the affairs of life, that you find yourself suddenly - here.  How did we get from Christmas to Easter this year?  The speed of life dragging, pushing, us through another year.  Or falling headlong through a new year, with advent in our rearview mirror.  Christmas behind us and suddenly the Cross and Easter right in front of us.

We sing that song, ‘At the foot of the cross’.  We want to be close to Christ, to come to his cross daily.  Yet so often his Cross is in the distance.  This year, have we been at the foot of His cross, captivated by Christ, listening to every word he has for us?  Or perhaps you are like me.  The cross is something so often in the distance, something to return to, as life so often pulls us away?  The calendar brings us back around to the Cross.  As you return this morning, where did you start your journey?  Was the cross close, is it a long journey you make this morning?  In your mind's eye, if the Spirit showed you where the cross is, is it small, is it large, is it close or far?  For me the cross is large, on the  Horizon, always visible, gigantic in scale, but I find it all too easy to carry on and live as it was not really there.  

I think it is afar because it is so strange.  

Chocolate eggs, sports and public holidays are far closer and more comforting.  The brutal execution of the Son of God, on a rubbish dump, is hard to look forward to, stay close to.  It is so ‘alien’ to the aspirations of everyday life.  

A few years ago I got close to a rubbish dump in a slum in Kenya.  1.2 million people within 2.5 square miles.  Here everyday life is full of HIV, AIDS, income less than $1 a day, rape, assault, illness, and where 1 in 5 children die before age 5.  No toilets, no water, no beds, no schools.

That slum looms large in my memory.  It was so utterly alien and harrowing.  But the rubbish dump for this slum was even more so.  I cannot describe it, but I will try.  Standing at the foot of what seemed like a mountain of the waste from that place.  Dead everything, all rot, and decay.  I retched and gagged when I was told part of what I could smell included decomposing cadavers. This place in plain sight was big enough to see from miles around.  It was on the edge of the slum, those compressed into living there, seeking as much distance as they could from this necessary place.

As I stood at the foot of this mountain of decay, my mind's eye, engaged in reflection and prayer, imagined the crucifixion placed on top of it.  The upright of the cross plunged all the way through the heap of putrescence. Rooted in it, it’s shadow in the noonday sun, making the sign of the cross over it, stretching towards the slum beside it.  And at that moment Christ beckoned me to the foot of His cross.  Yet to get to there, would be to wade through that detritus.  I shivered in the sweltering heat in revulsion at the thought.  The Cross of Christ was similarly located next to the rubbish heap of a city.  Golgotha, the place of regular executions was next to Gehenna, where rubbish and bodies were dumped outside the city.

When I am tired, weary, overwhelmed, I want to get away.  To withdraw to my study, my motorbike and the Kent countryside, a few days rest on holiday.  To meet Jesus someplace beautiful, restful, preferably with wifi and fresh coffee.  I meet the risen Jesus away over there, while his cross is somewhere else, behind me.  In my mind's eye as I escape, and look back to what I want respite from, his cross is there, planted in the centre of all I am overwhelmed by.  

So on Good Friday, we remember the cross and move towards it.  We draw close to where we do not want to go to.  Everything in our lives, everything in this world that we would rather escape.  Every fear, every loss, every pain, every anxiety.  How can this be good, looking at all the bad, piled up high?  If I begin to review the execrable of my life, I fear it will overwhelm me.  But worse than this, the cross of Christ is not mine alone, it is His, and it is shared with others.  The way to the foot of the cross is piled high with your rubbish and decay as well as mine.  Now, I really do want to escape, to get on my motorbike and ride out into the countryside and fresh air.

I read the gospels and wonder why were the disciples not there, at the foot of the cross, the greatest moment in history.  Why did they not cling to the cross, stay as close as possible, as Jesus Christ poured out everything he had and all that he was for them?  The gospel writers tell us little about the cross, or their thoughts as they stood before it.  It’s as if they were so overwhelmed with it, the emotions, blood, sweat, urine, excrement, tears and immensity of it, that all they can report is the bare facts.  This is how people who face traumatic events describe things, in clinical detail. An emotional distance kicks in to protect minds and souls that cannot fully enter into a traumatic experience but instead observe at a safe distance.

For at that moment, all the pain and loss, the death and decay of all who are and all who will be, was placed on Him.  Everything in my life that makes me wonder where God is, everything in life that separates any person from God, in its ugliness, and decay was translated upon and around him.

No wonder Christ struggling to breathe said ‘God my God why have you forsaken me’?  

The cross was not just a once in history thing, 2,000 years ago.  It continues to sit in the centre of and around everything that would separate us and others from God.

And yes Easter Sunday is coming.  But….

…the way and the door to that Easter Sunday is not by escaping, but by another route.  It is by participation.  By coming close to all we want to avoid, to wade through the things we are numb to and sometimes can only describe in partial detail.  To stop turning away, and instead to turn towards, and climb over the rubbish and decay of our lives and others.   To arrive and sit at the foot of the cross and ask “God my god why have you forsaken me too?”  

Then to wait with Him as we watch life ebb from his body, as all that takes the life from our lives, ends his.  To struggle to hear him whisper with his last tormented breath, ‘It is finished.  Then to and sit and stay and wait, and see what happens next.

Good Friday Service Reflection 30th March 2018.

 

  

 

 

What’s in a name? Why I am thinking of changing my name

“Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.”  - Neil Gaiman, Coraline

I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. - Rev 2:17 NIV

I am thinking of changing my last name.  Just putting that into print here seems even more pretentious than it has sounded in my head.

When is a parent not a parent?
Or rather I should say I have considered changing my last name since I was 16 when my Father abandoned me, my mother and younger brother.   That tragic moment and all the ensuing chaos that flowed from it precipitated into my first desire to change my last name.  My childhood has some happy memories, mostly from when I was very young.  But once self-awareness arrived at an early age, and it arrived early for me as a survival mechanism, most of my childhood became a long dark tunnel of physical, and emotional abuse.

The regular storms of abuse would be followed by deathly quiet interludes of silence, my anxiety scanning the horizon for the next storm.  Those lulls in hostilities, moments for survival preparation, gave me space to come to one conclusion about my situation.  How could I possibly be related to these two people?  

I had one recurring fantasy during all this.  A place my imagination took me to, in those darkest moments of abuse to make sense, to find hope and to plan my escape. For there are many ways to seek escape from abuse.  Mine were to become small, to become light and absorbent, or to fade away to somewhere else. So as I bore the brunt of the violence and desrtuction, I would make an inward retreat to protect myself.   I would imagine hearing a knock at the door.  I would answer the door to find my real parents,  come to rescue me.  They would explain how, in some fanciful and exotic way, I had ended up with the wrong parents.  There had been an awful mistake.  

And as they took me away to my rightful life, I would imagine the relief washing over me.   Relief of rescue. But there was a deeper relief I desired more than physical rescue.  For I savoured the imagined relief of discovering that I had been right all along, and my suspicions were confirmed - that these two people I lived with could not possibly be my parents. 

When is stepfamily real family?
My maternal grandfather was Latvian.  Grandad Melkis.  His name was exotic; he was exotic, barely able to speak English, gruff and daunting.  A man of a few phrases for greeting and talking about life, “By golly!” being one of my favourites. During a very violent storm at home that broke over the rest of my wider family, I ended up with my Nan and Grandad Melkis.  I remember him taking me on my own,  on a walk to the Fish and Chip shop.  My small hand engulfed in his giant hand.  My arm stretched a little uncomfortably, reaching up towards the sky and this quiet, gentle man looming above me.  Like a small balloon that earlier that day had bounced around a house,  I was now tethered and anchored to an immovable object.  As he walked, I now fluttered lightly and securely beside him.

And I remember the calm.  And I remember the peace, the sense of being safe.  Being safe was a rare feeling for me.  But I knew when I was with Grandad Melkis I was safe from anyone and anything that would seek to hurt me.

I so wanted who I was to have come from him.  I could imagine and believe that who I was, had come into being through him.  Perhaps who I was had skipped a generation from him to me?  So I was dismayed as I grew old enough to know and to discover that he was my step-Grandfather.  None of his blood coursed through my veins.  I was not exotic after all.

My grandmother, my mother's mother, was the quintessential grandmother.  She was old from the moment I was born, a silver-haired lady full of smiles, cuddles, kind words, cakes and treats.  I talked with her at some point, at an age, I cannot quite recall, when I was not too young and not yet a teenager, about how I wished I was Jason Melkis.  I do remember her saying how wonderful it would be for the family name to continue, with my Grandad having only daughters.  I remember at that moment a swell of pride about a family name.  Jason Melkis, grandson of Elmars Melkis.

Mother issues
Then I escaped home at 18, my rescue story something for another time.  I was engaged at 19, married at 21 to the still love of my life Beverley.  I had conversations with my fiance about her taking my name, from Proctor to Clark.  Somewhere in there were conversations about me wishing I had another last name.  That perhaps was the moment to have changed my last name.  I look back now and wonder why I did not.

My mother retained her husband's name.  I never asked, and I never knew why she kept the name Clark, long after my father had left us.  I suspect that it was because she did not want the name Melkis, her adopted name.  And she never took back her birth name Kelly.  Indeed families being complicated as they are her real last name was a family secret.  So I suspect my mother having no idea where her last name might spring from, held on the one that anchored her the most, or perhaps annoyed her the least.

At 21, changing my name to Melkis seemed something grown up, and I did not feel grown up enough when I married to change my name.  I suspect most of all I feared my mother's displeasure, for to take the name Melkis would be to receive her complaint of betrayal, as she turned every relationship I had into a betrayal of hers with me.  I loved my mother as only a son can, but she remains the most cruel, and destructive person I have ever known.  And she hated my Grandfather.  But then again she ended up hating most people.

Death and Family Trees
So life rattled on at a pace.  Both my parents took their own lives in 20011, six months apart from each other, and several thousand miles in separation from each other, something that mirrored the distance of the years between them.  Of the many thoughts I have had since their deaths, a recurring one has been a question.  Was I really related to them?  I suppose I am still waiting for that knock on my door.

My Nan Melkis died a little over two years ago, and my Grandad passed away last year.  Their deaths spurred me on to take a DNA test, and to start to build my family tree.  My identity itch needed scratching.  There will always remain a missing part of my identity, a maternal grandfather I will never know.  And from family stories, that I believe are true I think best I never knew him.

And in all that searching of identity through my family tree, an uncomfortableness with my name started to surface again.  Jason Clark.  It is me but it isn’t  me, or I wish that it was something else.

Mid life crisis and other considerations
So I have found myself at 48 concluding that perhaps I am now grown up enough to consider changing my last name.  But now I am so much older I have other considerations to make, like my wife who has been Beverley Clark for 27 years.  My children who are Clarks.  Then my friends, wider family, church community, students I teach, who know only Jason Clark.  How would changing my name affect them?

Is this the stuff of midlife crises I also wonder.  Some change names for marriage, some for immigration and culture. But who else changes their name other than confused middle age men, or those seeking new identities for celebrity and notoriety?  I know one man, one of the godliest, kind persons I have ever met, who is my spiritual director.  A man who through his suffering, and after the death of his wife came to change his name.  He changed both his first and last name.  Beyond my vanities, and insecurities, I wonder if like him I can change my name to describe who I have emerged to be.

I have reviewed all this with my wife and my kids.  They are kind and understanding, able to look at what this means for me, as much as it might for them.  I wonder if they are Clarks in a way that a change of my name would betray.

Possible Names I am considering
So Jason Melkis I still consider.  But the change of surname puts me at odds with my children’s last name.  And I would be spending some considerable time explaining to everyone that Jason Melkis was aka Jason Clark.  My family tree has led to a name that feels like me, something I have tried on so to speak, saying it out-loud and writing it down.

Jason Swan Clark.

For on my Father’s side, a little over 100 years ago, my family name was SwanClark.  When I told my wife, this discovery she remarked, “So I could have been SwanClark all this time!”.  It has a beauty and elegance about it for sure.

It seems Swan comes from Sven, and my DNA test confirms my Scandinavian heritage, of Nordic peoples coming to the northeast of England, and changing their name from Sven to Swan (As friends have pointed out that makes me part Viking).  Two houses merged and Clarks and Svens became SwanClark.  Mind you my paternal great great great grandfather John Swan Clark had a criminal record.  I discovered he was sentenced to 1 month in prison in 1830 for the crime of larceny (In English law larceny was replaced as a statutory crime by theft in 1968).

So I am considering taking back this family name.  Because it is a family name, I descend from it (as best as I can tell subject to more DNA tests) from John Swan Clark.  My family tree on my mother’s side, is stunted and stops.  The name of my maternal ancestors a mystery still to be unearthed.  So to become Jason Swan Clark would be to take up and inhabit a family name.  Of course I considered Jason Swan but that sounds like a Bond movie character.

Then Swans are beautiful.  They are a symbol of grace,  and elegance.  And as noted from my wife's exclamation, Swan moderates the name Clark into something else.  To moderate means to make or become less extreme, intense, rigorous, or violent.   That moderation in sound and name feels like the experience and texture of my life. Jesus has moderated the violence in my life into beauty.  The Lord called me by many new and wonderful names (Is 62:2b,4,5b).

So Swan Clark is my family name, Swan Clark embodies and maps the textures of my life.  It is also somewhat practical.

Practicalities
My younger brother closest to me in age is Matthew Clark.  Or rather he became Matthew Shaw Clark when he married taking his wife’s last name.  I reviewed my potential name change with him, and he explained how his changed name works in practice.

It seems I and others still just call him Matthew Clark.  We conveniently drop the Shaw in everyday speech.  To become Swan Clark, he pointed out, allows people to continue to know and refer to me as Jason Clark.  There is a continuity and ease of location, for people looking for Matthew Clark, to find Matthew Shaw Clark.  The same locating would be afforded with my use of Jason Swan Clark.  It means I stay Jason Clark, father of my Clark children, husband of Beverley Clark.

Now back to vanity.  There are many Jason Clarks.  For instance the well-known actor Jason Clarke.  BTW my family tree often lists relatives interchangeably as Clark or Clarke. Clark was Clarke and Clarke was Clark.  

Then there is a world champion darts player, a baseball player, a US senator, and even porn star Jason Clark.  Be careful with your Google searches.  Then there is the US pastor, singer/songwriter and author Jason Clark, who is not to be confused with me, but often is.

But a Google search for Jason Swan Clark reveals no results.  It also seems all Jason Swan Clark domain names are available to claim and register.  I wonder how long it will take Google to catalgoue this post and list the name?

So will I change my name?  I might, and I am leaning in that direction. The writing I make here part of reflecting and considering and trying on the title to see if it fits.

Yours, as ever,

 

Jason Swan Clark

www.jasonswanclark.org

A stunning guide of the modern church to prepare for its future

A stunning guide of the modern church to prepare for its future

I owe a great deal to Andrew Walker.  A few years ago I had the privilege of driving Andrew by car to an event that took a day to get there and day to get back.  Over so many hours, Andrew asked as much about me, as I did about him.  Andrew had that ability to make you think what you had to say was the most interesting thing he could consider at that moment.  I, in turn, received a gracious and expansive tour of the church - the church I had been part of and a kaleidoscopic view of that which I had not.  I also received some incisive and empowering insights for the church's future.  By the end of that car ride, Andrew had invited me to consider undertaking a PhD.  That invitation changes my life as I knew it. 

All great leaders walk with a limp

All great leaders walk with a limp

All great leaders walk with a limp.  The Holy Spirit birthed a worldwide church movement called the Vineyard. Read the most poignant story by one of the founders and limping leaders of that movement.  Reckless Mercy is a tale of the pressures of leadership that can generate failure and brokenness.  It is also the most amazing record of God’s redemption and mercy in response. - Jason Clark

Words have power

For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of - Luke 6:45 NIV

My church has embraced and engaged with My One Word this year. A simple idea - like so many great ideas - it has revolutionised conversations within our church community.  The image above is a weighted word picture of the One Words from my church community.  The larger the word the more frequently it was shared by others.

When we ask each other how we are, we often reach for single words from standard cultural stories to measure and assess our location - I'm tired, busy, worried, etc.  With My One Word, I have noticed something else taking place.  People reach for their One Word as their key descriptor.  They now say I've been trying to be 'brave', to 'listen', be more 'grateful' etc. 

Or as they tell the story of their last few days, they use some powerful words, words that map the territory of their experiences external and internal.  Then something amazing takes place.  As they observe those self-narrations, they instinctively deploy their One Word.  It's like they bring their One Word out of the deepest parts of their identity and re-narrate those stories with a much more powerful word.

Conversations of being 'so busy' quickly turn to a realisation and articulation of opportunity to be present.  'My one word is 'present'; I realise I need to stop letting life pass me by with my busyness and enter into what God has in front of me, right here and right now'.

We are meaning-making creatures.  Stories and scripts run as the operating systems fo our inner lives.  Some of those come from our parents, some from popular culture, some from our experiences.  Some originate from the enemy himself - the father of lies.  God's word is the story by which we exchange, measure, update, and assess all our other stories.

That's why My One Word is so powerful.  It places one word, a word that takes time to elicit and elucidate, into the centre of our life stories.  The process to hear and locate one word is a process of re-narration.  The One Word process becomes a means for encoding larger and more expansive stories.  Ultimately the story of God and my location in His reality is distilled into one word.  

That one word when evoked in our storytelling boots up a different reality.  

My one word this year is 'differentiate'.  It seems to takes lots of words to explain that to others. Mind you take a simple word like 'Joy'.  You think you know what that means until you ask someone to explain why it is their one word.  Then a feast of life, experience and meaning come flooding out, and you think, how can one word contain so much?

Differentiate - this is the extended experience of some of my deepest struggles the last few years distilled through the lens of a life-changing conversation with a friend last year.  That led to hours of reading, reflecting, coaching, mentoring and spiritual direction.  This one word, differentiate, has become a trigger in my prayer life, thought life, inner monologues and external conversations. It contains a kaleidoscope and cornucopia of meaning, meaning that helps me navigate who and where I am before God.

 

When mental health hits you as a leader

My seminar from the Vineyard Churches UK&I national leaders conference on Mental Health and Church Leadership. You can listen online/download here.

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If you are a church leader chances are you have frequent interactions with people struggling with their mental health. Then for us as leaders, the daily toil of leadership places huge wear and tear on our own mental health.

This seminar explores how we can better understand mental health and its intersection with leadership and spiritual formation.  We will see how mental health is not something to fear, but is a place to powerfully meet Jesus, and find hope and healing and transformation.

What's the point of Church?

Audio recording of my seminar talk on 'What's the point of church' at the VCUKI national leaders conference this past week.

Over the last 20 years one of the fastest growing groups of Christians are those who have given up on church. If you are a church leader and pastor, you likely have people regularly asking you why do we bother with Church? Do we really need Sunday services, buildings, church programmes etc? Surely its better to be into Jesus and stop being so obsessed with the church?

This seminar explores how we got to this place, where doing and being church has become detached from knowing and following Jesus. We’ll look at how most of the reasons people give for not needing church are actually part of the problem. We’ll look at why the church is vital to anyone knowing and following Jesus and how we can respond with confidence to this greatest of challenges.

EU referendum

I suspect most of the UK will be glad when the campaigning for the EU referendum is over. It has been one of the most ignominious experiences of UK politics I have experienced. 

No matter the outcome of the vote, the fratricidal behaviour of our government augurs for an unpleasant post election season.

I have cast my vote by post and voted to stay - so no turning back now for me.

What I have written here is not as pastor expressing God's view nor is it a way to tell others how to vote. It is rather my reflections on something that is rather monuments in my life time, for myself and my country and documents how I have voted and why. 

Some of my friends reading this, will have decided to vote to leave. I do respect their decision, and that reminds me that we live in a democracy - something I am very grateful for. 

As I posted my vote, I found myself convinced of the following:

1. Economic Risk: The sheer volume of world renowned financial experts on the likely economic shock to the UK if we exit Europe. There is a paucity of alternative economic responses to support Brexit, in terms of volume, and quality. I can't bring myself to take any comfort from leading politicians - claiming they know better than some of the most well known financial experts in the world - that if we leave Europe there will be no major economic downside in the short term at least.

2. Savings from EU costs: The £350 million claim of cost of being in the EU remains a major untruth aka a lie. The real figure after our rebate is half that, evidenced again and again by all financial institutions that calculate and know the real costs. The promised savings of Brexit from Europe would be completely eradicated by the costs of a recession and economic loss from exiting Europe. Also the claims that savings from EU fees will go direct to the NHS, or that subsidies from the EU will be protected on exit, seem to be extreme special pleading.

3. Competence: Leaving Europe requires the complex and complicated re-arrangement of trade deals, border controls, and laws, amongst other things. Given the general lack of competence of our government on any major items it has to overhaul, I have no confidence that our government in the state is currently in, can possibly navigate those items without causing collateral damage to much of our society. The conditions of behaviour by our government in how it has conducted the referendum seem proof to me that they are not competent to attempt the changes required in the event of a leave vote.

4. Character: The numbers and character of many of those supporting a vote to remain in Europe is compelling for me. The nature of some supporting a leave vote, and who would be more involved in governing concerns me. 

5. Benefits of being part of Europe: I enjoy and like the benefits of bring part of the EU. These include European harmony post world war II, and legal and human rights. Claims that Turkey are about to join the EU are spurious and ignore the veto position of all EU members.

6. Immigration: Some of the leave campaigning seems to have demonised EU immigrants and so has some of the remain campaigning. I'm repulsed by any demonisation of EU citizens moving to the UK. So I've looked where I can at statistics on EU migrants - the European Economic Area - and it seems most accredited statistical sources show that the UK is a net beneficiary from this migration where tax receipts outweigh cost and benefits to migrants. It seems what our government has failed to do, is use the increased tax receipts from population growth from migration to develop schools, and healthcare provision to keep pace. 

7. Sovereignty: I do believe we'd gain some obvious extra sovereignty from leaving the EU, for our laws, border controls etc. But we'd have to have the competence to make use of that. No.3 above means I'd prefer the arrangements we currently have. 

8. European: I find myself liking being part of Europe, being a member of the biggest project of collaboration since the second world war. I am not embarrassed at our EU membership.

9. What would have convinced me to vote leave: I went into this campaign inclined to vote leave and wanting to be convinced of that. I wanted our conservative government presenting together instead of destroying each other as they appeal to some of the worst of human instincts. I wanted those campaigning for leave to admit that leaving will likely cause short term economics losses, but appeal to me for how things might be better in the long run. I wanted a vision for leaving the EU that did not require demonising immigrants, and special pleading for the complex changes leaving will lead to. I'd rather hear, it will be an immense challenge, it will be complex, it will take many years, but here is why it is worth it. One metaphor I found compelling, to sum up the whole process, was how some want to claim this divorce from a 40 year relationship, will not be painful, not cost us anything, and the other party will be ready to give us everything we want.

10. Summary: So I am convinced that UK membership of the EU is valuable and beneficial to us, despite some of the problems. I think it is better to be part of the EU from the inside.

Some Sources: 
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153877268048640&set=p.10153877268048640&type=3&theater

https://www.facebook.com/UniversityofLiverpool/videos/1293361974024537/

http://econ.economicshelp.org/…/benefits-of-european-union.…

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/…/05112013-ucl-migration-research-sa…/