I was a bit of a clown at school and received the nicknames “ferret” and “sparrow” for my efforts. I was further rewarded at Spurgeons’ College where I was given the title “Baldrick” – I had long hair then which I didn’t wash that often…
Circus clowns captivated me as a child. They weren’t what we went to see; we went for the high-wire act, the lions and men with flashing swords. But the clowns often stole the show.
The novel It, by Stephen King, has ruined clowns for many of us. Who can forget its burning eyes as a child’s ankle is grabbed from the darkness of the sewers? There are other clowns that we just feel plain sorry for, like the lady in La Strada (The Road), a beautiful Italian film by Frederico Fellini, made in 1954, which still holds it own to this day.
Clowns exist in all cultures and traditionally there are three types:
1. Pierrot: He is a white-faced clown who is immaculately dressed with finely defined make-up. This clown is in charge.
2. Auguste: They are big sloppy-clothed clowns. They’re the ones who lose their trousers when their braces break.
3. The down-at-heel tramp: Charlie Chaplin encapsulates this type of clown.
I was called a Chaplin recently by the ex-Tonbridge Angels F.C. captain, Gary Elphick, in an article he wrote for the Courier. It is spelt Chaplain – but how was he to know (it’s derived from “chapel” which was originally applied to the shrine built to preserve the cloak of St Martin of Tours as a holy relic)?! And before you are tempted to paint a stereo-type: “All footballers lack brains”, Gary is an educated, polite and approachable man (he’s also huge – so that last sentence covers my back in case he ever reads this!). Also, I was interviewed by some Tonbridge School boys after a match and they spelt it the same way!
However you spell it, I have taken this idea of a Chaplain being a ‘right Charlie’ into my role at Tonbridge Angels. It has also spread into the rest of my work. I am quite happy to be known as a clown.
In the book Footballing lives as seen by chaplains in the beautiful game we read: “Clowns, like chaplains, are not contributors to the national output, but they are commentators on life.” Church Ministers can be tempted to grab so much power and reputation. In fact, so can churches within their communities and in the world at large. We assume the world is interested in answers we have to questions they might not be asking (ok, maybe an exaggeration to make a point – but it has a ring of truth to it).
Jesus seemed content to be a commentator on life until he transformed it on the cross (a Charlie Chaplin-like action at the time of a failed leader?). In Clowns, storytellers, disciples Olive M. Fleming Drane writes: “The supreme model for the Christian clown is Jesus, and our clowning must bear witness to him. Putting it in the simplest terms, the Christian clown will step in and receive the custard pie in her own face, rather than throw the custard pie at someone else.” Interestingly, Jesus was not tempted to prove himself with the powers that be. He didn’t really defend himself before the Roman Procurator Pilate, King Herod or the High Priest Caiaphas.
Do we see Jesus as a clown? For sure, as Christians we believe he is King, Lord, Shepherd, Friend and so much more beside. But do we have room for Jesus as a clown. Let’s remember that many of his stories, his parables were jokes, the absurdity of which made profoundly eternal points. If we’re not careful we could find we’ve “stain-glass-windowed” them so that they fit our view of who Jesus should be.
Frederick Buechner, one of my favourite authors shares his thoughts about good writing in Speak what we feel not what we ought to say. He says: “… it takes a certain kind of unguardedness, for one thing, a willingness to run risks, including the risk of making a fool of yourself.”
Am I willing to risk making a fool of myself? Will I take a custard pie for Jesus? Remember, we are instructed to be “fools for Christ” by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:20-29.
Two questions for us:
1. How am I, or can I be, a clown on my “frontline”?
2. How is, or can, Bessels be a clown?
In A brief theology of sport Lincoln Harvey (Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College, London) contends that the act of creation is God playing. He goes on to link it to us: “Given the central claims of the doctrine of creation, Christians should be the very people who are famous – more than anyone else – for not being serious. That the opposite is the case is a travesty for which the Church bears collective responsibility. All Christians should therefore enjoy being unserious in some way or other… Those who don’t may need to repent.”
Neither he nor I are saying that we shouldn’t take issues of justice and equality seriously. But I am saying that sometimes the Church can take itself a little too seriously, her Ministers can have a little too much self-importance and those who are a part of it can be slightly pious.
If we continue to lean into being clowns for the kingdom at Bessels I think God might have a little chuckle.
Yours because of Jesus – Neil.