Graeme Clark: A firsthand account

Friday 11th November 2005

British worship leader GRAEME CLARK recounts his battle with cancer. Mike Rimmer reports.

Graeme Clark: A firsthand account

The first time I met Graeme, he was leading worship in a cow shed. Things have improved since then! That cow shed was at the Grapevine event in Lincoln and in 2005, we met again to chat about his third album 'Firsthand'.

Clark is based in New Life Church in Lincoln, the base for Stuart Bell's Ground Level ministry. There's also a history of good worship emanating from the church over the years. Clark observes, "It's got a strong heritage, going back from when Chris Bowater was there and people like Trish Morgan and Johnny Markin have been there. More recently we've got Dave Middleton and a guy called Paul Simpson Parry as well. So there's five of us currently who are the five key worship leaders. It's great because there's no competition. We share worship leading, we do a lot of team worship leading and joint worship leading, which is how I like to do it. So I don't see it as competition."

But the acid test has to be whether people in the church sing his songs when he's not leading worship. "My songs are used," he insists. "I get emails from people saying that my songs are going well. Andy Bromley, who leads worship at Grapevine, told me recently that he loves singing my song 'Glorious King'. So that was an encouragement. But to now be in a church which is singing my songs is quite bizarre. Because when I was 12 or 13, we were singing all of Johnny's songs and all of Chris' songs, and now they're singing my songs! It's nice but it's a strange feeling sometimes."

It could have been very different. Graeme is the first to admit that while he was at university and leading worship at youth events, he wasn't as dedicated as he might have been. That all changed in the summer before his final year. "I just suddenly realised, what am I doing? God's given me this talent, God's given me abilities and there I was wasting it. I wasn't doing a thing with it. Someone on the worship team actually came to me and said, 'Look Graeme, we see loads of potential in you but at the moment we can't push you into where we feel you should be because you're not showing commitment in the right areas.' It was a real wakeup call for me. There was a part of me that was just expecting things to happen. I was expecting that certain prophecies over my life were just going to happen irrespective of my behaviour. I took a step back and said, to myself 'Let's get stuff sorted.'"

Having completed university, Graeme got a job teaching and became more fully involved in the church worship team and continued to write and record, waiting to see what God had in store for him.

Alongside the CD of the new album, 'Firsthand' comes complete with a CD Rom featuring the music for the songs but also with a documentary of the making of the album. The songs were written in the middle of very trying times. In April of 2005, he married Charlotte and a month later was diagnosed with cancer. Remembers Graeme, "The first doctor that we saw wasn't the most helpful of chaps. He just said, 'You've got this thing called lymphoma.' And we said, 'What does that mean?' And he said, 'Oh it means tumour of the lymph glands.' And we said, 'Well what does that mean?' And he said, 'I can't tell you anymore, I'm not a specialist.' And those words were all we had for two weeks. Of course, the human side of you just hears that word 'tumour' and goes, oh no! I could be about to die in two weeks! We were really worried. Obviously we had to go for more tests and then we actually saw the lymphoma specialist, who diagnosed it as what was called Nodular Sclerosis Hodgkin's Disease which is actually the most common and the most treatable of the four different types of lymphoma. But it still meant that I was facing a number of chemotherapy sessions and a number of not very nice treatments to be honest."

Graeme's initial response to hearing the news of his illness was to write "First Thought". He remembers, "After writing my previous album 'As For Me', I hadn't really picked up my guitar to write a song in over a year. I was actually starting to think about an album and I was thinking of writing some stuff after I'd got married and we'd got all of the organisation side of the wedding out of the way and settled into married life. But no sooner had that happened, I'd been to hospital for tests and been diagnosed. I picked up my guitar and wrote 'First Thought'. It was a commitment right at the start saying we don't understand some of the things that happen to us. But through everything, Charlotte and I wanted God to be our first thought at the centre of everything over whatever period it needed to see God's healing in our lives."

Graeme continues, "I went through the chemotherapy treatment and the song 'Firsthand' was basically written at the end of all of the treatment. The opening line, 'All will be well', was a word me and my wife Charlotte felt God gave us right at the start. And it just started off with that."

A lot of the songs from the album were written out of the experience of going through treatment for cancer. He admits they helped him keep his spiritual focus. "Right at the start we had a word from God to take our positions for the battle. And we said to God, 'Right, what is our position?' We felt really clearly God say, 'You've already got your position. Graeme, you're a worship leader. Charlotte, you're on the worship team as a singer. That's your position. I don't want you to step away from it.' We were offered time out by our worship team. We just said, 'No, we're not going to. If we are feeling physically like we can't do it then we will have a week off.' But we said right from the start that our strength is to be found in worshipping God and praising God. Sometimes you can just praise God because of your circumstances being great. But to praise God when your circumstances aren't great was such a releasing thing and such an empowering thing as well. All the Devil's plans to bring us down - that was us stamping on it and saying, 'No! You're not going to stop us from doing the things that we were created to do. You're actually going to encourage us to do them even more and do them with more passion!'"

He continues, "There were so many times when I was either leading worship or at church worshipping a week after I'd had chemotherapy. And physically, that was almost the last thing some people would want to do. But irrespective of the fact that I was suffering with cancer, there was so much to be thankful for! I wrote 'Your Courts' out of that. The lyrics have been written by many other writers before me so I nearly didn't write it but then I thought that irrespective of what I was going through, I just thought, no, this is how I feel. I'm going to write how I feel and not worry about whether it might have been said before. Because it's my experience of it, not anybody else's."

Having had a whole series of chemotherapy, Graeme had to go to London to have a PET scan to check whether the treatment had worked. "We actually went down the week after we recorded drums and bass for the album. They told us the results would be back in 10 days. That was in early January of 2005. We went down on the Monday and the following Thursday, three days later, they rang us up and the nurse told me I was clear. It was good to hear it from somebody who we'd got to know so well. There were so many nurses at the hospital, mostly non-Christian nurses who we gave free albums away to. While I was having my treatment, Charlotte would be witnessing to them. And so many saw the strength that we'd got from God and that was a great witness. We were able to speak to the nurses and doctors when they were saying that they couldn't do anything. They would see our confidence that we knew it was going to be alright. I think that was a real witness to them."

Having recorded the album at dB studios in Lincoln in the first half of 2005, what is he hoping people will get from it when they have it in their CD player? "I hope it's an album that people can draw strength from," he says, "not just people who are going through the same as what I went through. It's for people who are just going through any situation that feels hopeless. I've already heard from people who've got the album, emails and letters from people saying, 'I'm going through anything from relationship problems to financial problems. This song has been a help to me and seeing how you coped with going through a situation like that has helped me to put my situation into perspective.'"

It is said that sometimes the sweetest worship comes out of situations when you praise and your life isn't going well. What about writing songs when you're life's a challenge? Does Clark feel like the songs are more powerful than previous songs? "They're more powerful for me," he explains. "There are some songs on the album that I struggle to sing. When I lead worship at our church, at times, someone has to take over because I'll be in tears just thinking about it. I think especially for people who know me and people who know the story; when they know where the songs have been written from, it suddenly becomes more than just, 'these are the words of somebody.' I think people understand that I've written it and I've been through it. So it carries a bit more weight because this is written out of experience."

At Grapevine, I am interviewing Graeme and Charlotte on a late night radio show and the pair of them talk about their experiences. He is fine chatting away though there are moments when his wife gets a little teary. Graeme explains, "She's passionate about everything. There are times I can talk about it and be fine with it. But I was leading worship at a Grapevine event and I was speaking about what I'd been through and how God was everything that we need for every situation. And it took me about 10 minutes to say what could have possibly taken about a minute because I was just in tears crying. I think sometimes it just hits me, what we went through. And for Charlotte, it's the same for her. In situations where I couldn't battle for myself because I physically didn't have the capability to do it, she'd be up until all hours. It was only afterwards that I found out some of the things that she used to do."

He elaborates, "I used to come home from my chemotherapy at seven o'clock and she'd spend pretty much that night and the next day just by my side, praying for me, reading Bible verses over me. She wanted to make sure that she was being strong. I only actually found out a few weeks ago that if she needed to cry she would go into the bathroom, turn the taps on and cry. So that if I did wake up I wouldn't hear her. She was brilliant! There's no way I could have got through it without her by my side and without her carrying me through it. I could be sleeping at three o'clock in the morning and she'd be sat there just praying for me and speaking Bible verses and truth over me." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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