Peter's Blog

Highlights from my Malawi trip

Written by Peter Johnston on .

I finally got round to editing together some of our video from the recent trip to Malawi. I confess I had not been in a "video footage creation" mindset when we were there, but was rather catching snippets here and there for the blog I was creating at the time. However, I hope this will give a wee flavour of what the trip was like.

You can hear much more from Fiona, Margo, Sheila, Robert and myself at our Malawi Partnership shindig taking place on Sunday afternoon, 30 August, 2:30 p.m. in St Stephen's Church, Powis Place. This is an open event for anyone to attend to hear our experiences. There will be snacks and drinks available too, but, alas, no nsima.


Titanic Belfast

Back to work...

Written by Peter Johnston on .

And so... the summer is nearly over. An in-service day for schools today so I still have the children all at home, but tomorrow school is back properly for the other five members of the Johnston household. I am trying to get some odds and sods done today before starting back properly tomorrow. That is looking like a pretty grim day with scheduled meetings morning, afternoon and evening. Ah, back to work indeed.

We did manage a lovely wee break in Northern Ireland visiting our friends, the McDowell family, in Ballyeaston. In our brief few days we managed to fit a lot in with a trip to the new Titanic Belfast exhibit at the harbour which was excellent (and you paid the price for that excellence!), a visit to Castle Ward where numerous scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed (good for the nerds amongst us) and Crumlin Road Gaol (but only visiting it, I hasten to add).

Amongst the huge Titanic Belfast exhibit, which does a superb job of setting the scene for industrial life around Belfast in the time leading up to the building of the Olympic class liners of which Titanic was the second. A ride around huge models that gave an idea of the sounds, heat and danger of fabricating such a huge boat was a highlight. However, the most poignant section of the exhibit was very low key. In a darkened section with minimal exhibits you followed the last hours of the Titanic's journey before and after having struck the iceberg through the various radio communications sent from and to the Titanic's radio room and the radio operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. This very simple exhibit along with the depictions of the situation the boat found itself in at the various stages of that night was heart breaking and very moving.

If you find yourself in Belfast then I would recommend a trip to the exhibit, it is as full an exploration of the ship that still haunts our imaginations and collective memory as one can find anywhere, and much more in depth than the exhibition at the Transport and Folk Museum in Belfast that we had previously visited a couple of times.

The Crumlin Road Gaol was fascinating. I had joked that our various visits had a distinctly dark side to them, wondering what that said about Northern Ireland's history, but there was no doubt that the visit to the Belfast prison was interesting and even captivated the children as the tour went on, particularly when we visited the condemned man's cell and the hanging room. Eeks! The prison had been in operation for around 150 years before closing in 1996 so there was plenty of history to draw on from earlier years right up until the troubles.

One of the things I found fascinating was how the loyalist and republican inmates were segregated. For a brief few months in the early 1970s on the request of the IRA who offered a ceasefire, segregation of loyalists and republicans into different wings was instituted (this was one of a number of demands that the UK government agreed to at the time). The ceasefire did not last more than a few months, however, and some time later it was decided to mix the inmates once more. The inmates themselves then decided to voluntarily segregate themselves. When it was time for exercise on one day all the republicans would go out, while the loyalists chose to stay in their cells; the next day this would be reversed. The same went for using the canteen to eat. I found that fascinating and rather tragic.

As far as the execution part of the tour, 17 inmates were hanged over the course of the prison's operation, and I suppose it was done in the most humane way possible in the later years when you walked through how it was enacted by Albert Pierrepoint's methods (the executioner par excellence in the UK from 1932 to 1956), but it was grim to see, make no mistake. Not something I would want to see us revisit as a country. There is a brilliant film about Pierrepoint's life, if you have not seen it, of the same name, where he is played by Timothy Spall. A particularly chilling afternote on Pierrepoint's role as a hangman was our guide's explanation of why the actual noose displayed was not the one that had been used for the executions but rather one of the two other spare sets: Pierrepoint had written to all the prisons in which he had carried out hangings asking for the ropes which had been used. Many prisons sent them to him. He put these up on display in the pub that he and his wife ran. The pub's name was "Help the Poor Struggler". Ouch.

Behind the curtains...

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Wednesday: almost the mid point of this year's Summer Club for primary aged children at Ferryhill. We have based this year's theme around material that I have used in the past, but now six years ago. It is interesting revisiting it again and making tweaks to adapt and improve on it. We are focussing on Jesus' stories, his parables, and what they still mean for us today.

Last year we had a full on drama each morning with our Circus troupe, but this year we have gone for some puppetry with Katie and Callum (voiced and puppeted by Linda Kerr and myself). We are having great fun with this, though it is a full on workout for the shoulders doing the longer narratives with them.

Today we included a manic rendition of the children's song 'I've lost my sheep' as part of the lost sheep and lost coin parable introductions. It was a real laugh though also a good thing the children could not see the mayhem behind the stage curtains as I managed to rip my trousers moving around too quickly behind the scenes from my kneeling position at the front stage to the back stage, and as we desperately tried to affix a tea towel to Callum's head during one of the song's verses before the first chorus started that Callum was supposed to be singing as the shepherd. We did not manage to get the tea towel properly attached and during the chorus the teatowel went aflying hanging on to one ear by the sole safety pin that we had managed to attach during the verse break... it had seemed like such a good idea. What it did create, of course, was a huge number of laughs as the tea towel flapped around during the chorus!

I'm enjoying this week. The children are doing great, really engaging in the stories, songs, games and crafts. And the team are doing a fabulous job too. Listening to different people each week approach telling the parable's stories each day is great to hear. Kudos to everyone involved.


Blogging Malawi Visit

Written by Peter Johnston on .

It is getting late on the night before I leave for Malawi. I am getting picked up by Margaret Mitchell who is also going on this trip at 9:30 a.m. Not long. But, believe it or not, I have both suitcases just about all packed. One is definitely complete and bang on the weight limit of 23 kg. The other is awaiting a few last minute items - I have just finished ironing a bunch of shirts... I know, ahead of putting them into a suitcase where they will get completely creased, but hey it made me feel virtuous.

For this trip I am planning, internet willing, to do something a bit different to record the trip in that I hope to live blog as a kind of diary of our time. To do this I am going to experiment with a new piece of tech called Microsoft Sway. I am thinking this may work better than trying to blog directly to the church website and organise images etc from Malawi. It also allows me to make something a bit more interesting and swish, in a modern cloud computing sort of way!

I have started my "Sway" already but it is embryonic at the moment. I will add to it as our trip continues, as I say, when I have the internet access to do so, so please do keep an eye on it. You can find my Malawi Visit 2015 Sway here.

Please keep the whole group in your prayers as we travel.


A Cosy House BBQ

Written by Peter Johnston on .

It has been a very busy day today. This morning was the final Sunday for the Sunday Club before the summer holidays begin, so we heard about some of what they had been doing over the year, in particular a project based around the life of Mary Slessor. We also had presentations to the children, and then a presentation to me from the Sunday Club of a big package of stationery items for me to take out to Malawi and a wonderful book the children had prepared filled with their own messages to take out to the children in Chigodi Church.

I had on display at the front of the church, and am completely kicking myself that I did not get a picture of it, some of the items that have been donated for me to take out on my trip with four other folks from Aberdeen Presbytery. These include lots of clothes, some knitted dolls, many Scotland tea towels for the new kitchen block in Chigodi, a communion cloth, some cards beautifully created by classes at Ferryhill Primary School, and a large picture of the Nativity Window (taken by Andrew Cumming). The latter I had made into a perspex display piece which looks fabulous. After the service everyone from the church signed it. Absolutely brilliant.

What is not so brilliant is that when I got home and weighed the suitcase with all these wonderful gifts (less the rather heavy picture of the Nativity Window - gulp), I am a kilogram and a bit over my weight for that suitcase already! Some juggling to be done, clearly.

After a meeting this afternoon in Peterculter of the presbytery's Malawi Partnership Committee, Lorna Glen and I swung past Queen's Cross manse where we picked up two extra dogs, Bonnie and Islay, who will be staying chez Johnston for the next month! So we are now a four dog household. We just got back home from taking all four dogs for a walk around Duthie Park feeling rather like a commercial dog-walking outfit!

This evening I pulled out the barbecue and got grilling... Not only was it the final day of the session for the Sunday Club, we also had a summer barbecue for all our regulars at The Cosy House, our youth café thing. We had a great night with lots of food, much chat amongst parents, and an impressive level of noise and laughter from all the young folks either bouncing away on the trampoline or playing hide and seek around the manse. It is 11:30 p.m. as I type, and I think everyone got found... Thanks to everyone who came and made it a very fun evening.

Now, I need to really start thinking about getting the last minutes things organised for this imminent trip to Malawi, plus finish getting the end of term service for the school planned, taking a funeral, and a few other things to do over the next two days.

This week is going to be a whirlwind.

I am also pondering how best to keep an online diary (internet coverage permitting) of the trip to Malawi. So keep an eye on the blog as I will post a note here of how to access my visual journal in due course.


Spill the Beans, Issue 16: Now Available

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Spill the Beans Issue 16

The Spill the Beans team made some changes for this summer to give us some breathing space to bring our planning process forward by about two months for each issue by basically skipping doing an issue for this coming summer, other than a freebie booklet. This is really paying dividends for me as I edit and create the final document from all of our combined contributions. It was becoming an increasing pressure and rush to get each issue out as the production phase always seemed to land at the same time as a holiday or busy festival period. Pulling together Issue 16 has been a much more straightforward process, and it is out three months ahead! Fantastic!

So here we go with Issue 16, the first issue of the second year of the Narrative Lectionary cycle, with one extra Sunday to make life a little easier for us in the UK - those Americans and their amazingly lengthy summer school holidays! This issue covers from 6 September to 22 November 2015.

Note that issue 15 is still available (see the sidebar on the right) if you are wanting something to take you up to the start of the summer holidays. And we also have a free booklet with some summer ideas available.

In Issue 16 you will find the usual rich assortment of ideas and resources for worship and age groups. Have a particular look, if you are doing worship planning, at the Through the Season ideas for this issue. We have a continually developing visual theme using a tree that will need a bit of forethought and planning but will be very effective.

A big shout out to all the creative team who added their contributions to the 'OneDrive' working documents before they were pulled together into the final form. This continues to be an incredible team effort and it is a real privilege to be a part of it.

If you have already used Spill the Beans, you will know what a fabulous resource this is, created by folks here in Scotland. If you have not yet, but are intrigued, have a look at this sample.

If you'd like to download a full copy of Issue 16 for use in your church or personally, then click the button below. The cost is only £12. You can make a secure payment via PayPal and then an email with secure link to the download should wing its way to you. Please note that you can only download the file using this link three times, so please make sure you save the file to your computer (or share to your book library or Adobe Reader if you are using an iPad).

Please follow the instructions carefully. The Adobe pdf file is approximately 7 MB so it will take some time to download.

Spill the Beans Issue 12

Spill the Beans Issue 16 Cover

Buy Now and Download

You can also get involved in feedback and discussion on the Spill the Beans blog, where we try to put up weekly PowerPoint backgrounds too. There is also a facebook group in which we share ideas.

Print Copies

If you would like a print copy of Spill the Beans, then this can be arranged. The cost is usually around £20+P&P and these can be arranged directly with the office at Lanark Greyfriars Church. Each issue is in full colour and comb bound for ease of use. We have had to raise the costs of the print copy from our initial issues as we have found the original costs were not covering the costs of producing the copies.

If you would like to order copies (which are all printed to order so there may be a few days to wait before you receive yours) then you can email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with your order details. An invoice will be issued after dispatch of your order. If you prefer you can contact Greyfriars Church Office on 01555 661510 and place your order over the phone.


Psalm 113

Written by Peter Johnston on .

This morning in our worship we had a good look at Psalm 113, a perfectly formed wee Psalm of Praise. The Psalm explores who we praise, as a worshipping community, and why.

Psalm 113

God the Helper of the Needy

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord;
    praise the name of the Lord.

Blessed be the name of the Lord
    from this time on and for evermore.
From the rising of the sun to its setting
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is high above all nations,
    and his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
    making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

This afternoon my friend, Keith Blackwood, minister at Mannofield Parish Church posted on facebook an image one of the members at that church created for their own worship based on that same psalm. My hat is doffed to Fraser Beaton for a superb visual representation of the psalm.

Both Keith and I were particularly taken by the image of the Solar Impulse 2 in the bottom left corner as it waits to embark on the eighth leg of its round-the-world trip powered solely by solar energy. That eighth leg is the most dangerous all the way from Japan to Hawaii.

Praise the Lord!


Spill the Beans Summer Special

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Having posted in my last blog article that we have begun planning for Issue 17 of Spill the Beans while Issue 16 is being finalised, we are actually taking a break over the summer to facilitate getting into a better pattern of working, which basically allows me a bit more space for the editing and creation of the final resource book each quarter. However, I did spend this evening breathing over a great idea for a summer series of services, unconnected to the Narrative Lectionary that we are following with the main issues, which is now available.

This series has been developed by Bryan Kerr at Greyfriars Parish Church in Lanark and is titled "The Genius of Jesus" looking at different aspects of Jesus' ministry and personality: what he did that broke new ground.

We are offering this free to anyone who would like a bit of inspiration for a summer series. There is no charge for this resource.

Click here for an Adobe pdf file with more details.

Click here for a zip file containing images that can be used for PowerPoint backgrounds for the theme and for each week.


A Ziggle of Zoes

Written by Peter Johnston on .

What would be the collective noun for a group of Renault Zoes? Answers on a postcard... meanwhile I'm settling on a ziggle of Zoes.

Yesterday was the first planning meeting for Issue 17 of Spill the Beans, the team gathering together in Perth to look at Advent and Christmas... yep, really. This is really scary for me as I am still only halfway through pulling together Issue 16, and already we are planning the following. Ah, the wonderful world of periodicals... no respite!

What made this gathering extra special for three of us was that now three of the team have battery electric vehicles, all Renault Zoes I am delighted to say. While I have had mine for eighteen months, she is the old dame of the trio, the Kerr family have had theirs for near on eight months now and Jonathan Fleming took delivery of his last week.

We all converged on Perth, with extraordinary efficiency, from Aberdeen, Erskine and Lanark, arriving safely at the chargers at South Inch car park for replenishment. Nae muss, nae fuss, nae bother.

Three Zoe Drivers


Pentecost Recommitment

Written by Peter Johnston on .

On Sunday past, 24 May 2015, which was Pentecost Sunday - the day on which we remember how the Holy Spirit envigorated the first followers of Jesus, and the beginnings of church as we know it - we took the opportunity as a congregation to recommit ourselves to the work of the Kirk here in Ferryhill. This marked another point in a series of events over Spring which have encouraged us all to think about our commitments to the work of the church in sharing the love of God within our community and further afield.

I had tried to think of a way to do this, keeping the connection to the church in a more specific way and the idea came to me while watching the General Assembly live streaming. If you have never watched it, when a session closes a holding screen comes on to let you know when the next session begins. That holding screen includes an animated (someone I know created the animation, and I really should ask for a copy of it!) version of the Church of Scotland emblem. The emblem depicts the burning bush that Moses encountered (Exodus 3) when God called Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. The inscription surrounding the emblem is latin for "Yet it was not consumed", a reference to the bush, but also later adopted for the church and the faithful  who are safe within the grace of God.

At Pentecost we also remember that the coming of the Spirit of God was like flames. So, after a bit of Photoshop wizardry I de-flamed the Church of Scotland emblem and prepared it complete with doublesided sticky tape ready...

Later in the service everyone was invited to write their names on a paper flame and bring them forward to re-ignite the burning bush and emblem. The result is brilliant, with the addition of two creations that children made in the Sunday Club.

What I loved most about it is the riot of bright colour and the messiness! When the Spirit of God moves it can be messy, unexpected, out of the ordinary - perfectly captured by the blaze that has obliterated the nice, orderly Church of Scotland emblem.

Now onward we go...


Here we go again...

Written by Peter Johnston on .

As I try to do in the years when I am not a commissioner to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly, when working at the computer (this past week doing a lot of editing of Spill the Beans with an issue I must get out of the door before heading to Malawi in five weeks or so), I had the live stream of the coverage open in a window on one of the computer monitors so I could follow what was being said as I worked. Mostly, as with many who had connected to the live stream during the week, my focus was on two particular debates.

The first of these was the return of the Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships Overture after it had been approved both at the 2014 General Assembly, and by a majority of presbyteries (31 approving, 13 disapproving) under the Barrier Act which seeks the input from presbyteries to a decision of the General Assembly in order to provide a check and balance against a single General Assembly making an innovative decision that would impact the church. I missed the start of that debate, but caught much of it. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the General Assembly voted 309 in favour and 182 against making this overture a Standing Law of the church (the image above being the vote results as shown on the big screens in the Assembly Hall).

What does this mean? It means that Kirk Sessions can decide (through a particularly convuluted process) to instruct the Nominating Committee during a vacancy that they can (the default being that they cannot) consider someone living in a civil partnership as a candidate. This allows congregations who wish to depart from the "historic and current doctrine and practice of the Church" (i.e. no gays in relationships allowed) to do so under certain circumstances: which has been labelled "constrained difference". This mixed economy approach gives space for the variety of different views within the church and recognises that the church is not of one mind over this issue.

Now that this piece of church law is in place anyone who is in a civil partnership can be considered for selection as a candidate for ministry (either as a minister or deacon) and enter training for the same, it also means that congregations can appoint a minister provided they have gone through the required process. So far, so good, and while, personally, I think the resultant law is something of a mess, it is so because it was the result of a desperate desire to seek a compromise led by Rt Rev Albert Bogle and Rev Alan Hamilton at a previous General Assembly in order to maintain some peace within the Kirk. I suppose it did so, by annoying everyone equally. Nonetheless, for those of us who have long sought to see the Kirk reform itself in a further step towards greater inclusion (Acts 10-11), this was an important and historic step forward.

Then came Thursday's Joint Report of the Theological Forum and the Legal Questions Committee to the Committee on Returns to Overtures (GA14 LQC DEL 6) - I promise I did not make that up. And as the afternoon unfolded I could not shake a Whitesnake song from my mind, the song begins:

I don't know where I'm goin'
But I sure know where I've been
Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday
An' I've made up my mind, I ain't wasting no more time
Here I go again
Here I go again

For it felt somewhat like Groundhog Day, the same arguments that had been aired at huge length last year starting to be rehearsed again. What was the issue? While the church had been deliberating whether to allow people living in civil partnerships whether they could play a full part in the life of the Kirk, the country in which we serve had moved on to allow marriage both of people of opposite sex and of the same sex. The church law approved on Saturday was thus immediately out-of-date and the church was left in the very awkward position of saying that people living in a civil partnership could become ministers (or deacons) but that those who had either converted their civil partnership to a marriage or who had sought to commit themselves through a same sex marriage are not. Thus leading to a discrimination between those in civil partnerships and those who have married.

The ammendment to the new law brought to the General Assembly sought to remedy this anomaly by adding where required in the new law "or a same sex marriage" where it previously just said civil partnership. The purpose of this ammendment was thus to clean-up the new legislation, affording the same benefits of status to someone living in a same sex marriage as the church had already agreed for those living in a civil partnership. Rt Rev Dr Iain Torrance explained this with great grace and patience during his report and in the questions and debate that followed. However, the use of the term "same sex marriage", as used by the State to signify the Scottish legal institution of marriage of people of same sex, provided a red flag to many who felt that this legislation was saying that the Kirk affirms same sex marriages. This was not what was happening, and Iain Torrance repeatedly confirmed that the Theological Commission was going to be preparing a report on Same Sex Marriage for a future General Assembly, however this red herring was what many opposed to expanding full rights of inclusion to the lgbt community within the Kirk eagerly grasped.

They were assisted by an utterly confusing countermotion in the name of Rt Rev Albert Bogle, the self-professed "simple parish minister" who also happens to be an ex-Moderator and one of the most persuasive speakers within the Kirk's ranks, someone I have worked with on various projects in the past and greatly appeciate. From what I have heard, the providence of this countermotion was the result of some, no doubt, well-meaning but misguided hand-wringing from a few progressives and evangelicals at the General Assembly who wanted to provide the General Assembly with a further opportunity to procrastinate for fear of the General Assembly either saying yes or no (depending on their position) to the ammendment. The countermotion, which was so hastily put together that it did not even appear in the Daily Papers, proposed that the General Assembly remit the matter of Same Sex Marriage to the Theological Forum and report back in 2017. This was ammended by the clerks to add that the Joint Report's motion should be parked until the Theological Forum had reported, otherwise the original ammendment proposed in the Joint Report would have been left completely stranded in the process.

I could not buy into the argument Albert Bogle made: that church members would get confused about what the General Assembly was doing if it approved the ammendment, because us "simple parish ministers" (a phrase repeated during the afternoon almost comically - remember that most ministers have two degrees and are trained in theology to degree standard) would not be able to explain adequately to our church members what had taken place at the General Assembly. I found the argument pretty insulting, if I am honest. To my mind, the countermotion actually exacerbated the false equivalence between using a phrase of the Scottish State's, i.e. "same sex marriage" as it is used by the state to denote people who have entered into marriage with someone of the same sex (a current reality), with a Christian understanding of same sex marriage from the Kirk, which is work still to be done.

Some of the comments made in the debate that followed were nakedly threatening towards the Kirk, particularly from the commissioner representing the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, others were filled with emotion speaking of the hurt and pain that Saturday's decision had already brought with an appeal not to make that hurt and pain worse. Whenever I hear those words, I think of the gay and lesbian people I know who have felt the hurt and pain of the church's stance over the years and my compassion finds an equilibrium between those hurt because of having to accomodate people who have different theologies and those hurt because the church has rejected them. Actually, that is not true, I want to scream, "are you kidding me?"

After a lengthy debate, the motion and countermotion were placed to a vote. It was very close, but the motion passed by 213 votes to 205. This meant that the words "and same sex marriage" would be added to the new legislation where required. However, that was still not the end... for then it was proposed that this change should go down to presbyteries under the Barrier Act so that it would all have to be rehearsed again within each presbytery and then again at next year's General Assembly before the ammendment would be finalised (or rejected). Can you see why the song "here I go again" was rattling through my noggin? We have just done this, and we are about to do it again, in order to tidy up the legislation to fit the new reality within Scottish society. There is nothing innovative about this, it is just making an addition to what is now an existing piece of church law, something that is done all the time at each General Assembly without recourse to the Barrier Act.

It seemed completely overkill to send this down to presbyteries once more, and indeed likely to cause more disunity within the church than unity to my mind, though I think that for many that was an important consideration. Having spoken so well to support the ammendment, and stating frequently that this was but a matter of extending the benefits already existing with the enactment of the new law to people in same sex marriages, Iain Torrance appeared to capitulate and accepted that the Barrier Act should be used. When the moderator then suggested that the proposal go ahead without debate as the Convener agreed to it there were cries from the floor of the Assembly from those who could not see why this change had to go down to presbyteries again. I must admit, I was flabberghasted by Iain Torrance's decision not to reject the motion. It forces the church into another year of confusion and a year in which to be in a same sex marriage is to be in a position where you cannot serve in the church whereas it is fine if you are in a civil partnership. However, 215 votes to 195 the motion to send the legislation down to presbyteries was carried.

Realising that this left the church in a right pickle because we already have a number of ministers serving who have entered same sex marriage, a hasty further motion sought to protect those already in positions within the church. Oh my, two steps forward, one step back.

We'll get there, I have no doubt. But the path sure is convoluted.

A take-away comment from Iain Torrance during one of his responses to a question that I found very helpful was to say to those of us who have very different positions and understandings over whether or not gay people in committed relationships should find full inclusion within the Kirk was that this was a debate "amongst those who love the Scriptures" (my paraphrase), it was not a debate between those who love the Scriptures and those who reject the Scrptures. This is very important for us all to remember.

For a bit of light entertainment when the business at the Church of Scotland's General Assembly was quieter, I switched to the live stream from the Free Church of Scotland's Assembly. What struck me most about one of the sessions I watched there was how often the issue of homosexuality was mentioned by different speakers, led this year by a Moderator who takes every opportunity to speak out in the press against the inclusion of gay people iwithin the church and to knock the Church of Scotland, indeed he is quoted in today's Press & Journal as finding it "astonishing" that a serving minister is in a same sex marriage, and that the General Assembly has been "hoodwinked". What struck me about the repeated mentions of homosexuality by different speakers (and this was not in a session where the focus was on sexuality) is that it is used in the Free Kirk as a declaration of one's faithfulness, it appears to be a matter of the "substance of faith" to Free Kirkers, in other words that you have to believe a certain way about homosexuality in order to be acceptable within that faith community. Indeed, this is confirmed from those whom I know who have experience of being gay within the Free Kirk, and what happens to you when the Free Kirk finds out. In the Church of Scotland we have explicitly said that one's particular position with regard to the acceptability to God of same sex relationships or civil partnerships is not of the "substance of faith".

For me this is one of the great strengths and mysteries of this denomination of which I am a part, this broad church where we recognise that we collectively are faithful yet seeking understanding each and every day. A church of Pentecost, in other words: a church in which the Spirit of God is moving. And I offer my thanks to God for that.

Now, if you have got all the way to the bottom of this, I salute you, dear reader. 


Orkney: leading the way

Written by Peter Johnston on .

In March I had a week in Orkney. It was beautiful. It was educational. It was restful. It was also extremely windy. We had a couple of days of 80-90 mph winds. So, with that almost constant wind it was no surprise to see wind turbines dotting the landscape. Some were large wind farm type turbines, but most were smaller and serving a very local need. The cottage we stayed in got most of its power from a wind turbine, which in the week we were there was only still for a brief period. The heating for the cottage came from a ground source heat pump extracting heat energy from the field next to the cottage in order to heat the house.

I assumed that the amount of electricity being consumed in Orkney would be met in large part by these renewable sources. It turns out that in 2014 Orkney produced 105% of the energy it consumed from renewables, contributing more back into the grid than it took from the grid. There is much to be learnt from Orkney's example.

In his latest episode of Fully Charged released a couple of days ago, Robert Llewellyn, actor and presenter, takes a trip to Orkney to find out more. It is 18 minutes well spent.

Releasing the Bottom Billion

Written by Peter Johnston on .

In this morning's service marking the end of Christian Aid Week we spent time thinking about two women that Christian Aid highlighted as part of their campaign, Loko and Adi, from Ethiopia and the struggles and possible ways of release from crippling poverty that their lives reveal to us.

I mentioned in the sermon two books by Paul Collier that speak directly to the challenges the whole world faces in dealing with the bottom billion people within the world living in the 60 most impoverished countries in the world. These are the countries that have become stuck for almost fifty years with no or little economic growth, and are becoming increasingly left behind. It is a tragedy. The rest of the world - the developed and developing world, as we call it - is in the process of developing, something a glance at India and China make abundantly clear. Collier talks about the massive problem this is going to be creating for future generations if more than a billion people are left in a situation where the best they can aspire to is a peasant life-style.

The radical inequality that exists at the moment will, inevitably, cause massive problems for the world as the divide grows. Collier argues that it is not just compassion that should drive us to making changes to the way the world functions in order to lift up the bottom billion, though that is a huge driver, it is also a sense of enlightened self-interest - we must work for a credible way to release the bottom billion because it is better for us all to do so.

The first book is "The Bottom Billion: Why the poorest counties are failing and what can be done about it" and having just recently read it (on the recommendation of Very Rev John Chalmers, no less), it is a profoundly helpful book in allowing a better grasp of some of the very complicated and difficult aspects of dealing with the poverty of whole nations and regions. The book highlights four particular "traps" that are at the root of the problems suffered by the nations caught in the bottom billion: the conflict trap, the natural resources trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbours, and the trap of bad governance in a small country.

As Collier unpacks these traps and explores ways to counter them, much of what he says makes sense (and is backed up by data), but some of it runs counter to what your intuition says. For instance, you might expect the discovery of huge natural resources (oil in Uganda for instance) to be a blessing, offering the possibility for that country to break out of poverty. However there is often a resource curse that comes with such a discovery (known as Dutch disease because of the work done to understand the negative effects North Sea gas had on the Dutch economy). Exporting those wonderful resources causes a country's currency value to increase. That, in turn, makes every other export from that country uncompetitive with other countries and often the businesses that may have had the best chance of leading progress for that country through rapidly growing exports collapse. It is the same process that can work when huge amounts of aid are pumped into a country - it can have a destabilising affect on a country's economy unless it is matched with other changes to support the export of other goods. Not what you might think, but very important to understand if we are to seriously make a difference.

I cannot encourage you enough to read this book. It is truly enlightening.

Collier ends his book with these three propositions that summarise what he proposes:

The first [proposition] is that the development problem we now face is not that of the past forty years: it is not the five billion people of the developing world and the Millennium Development Goals that track their progress. It is a much more focused problem of around a billion people in countries that are stuck. This is the problem we are going to have to tackle, and if we stick with present efforts, it is likely to be intractable even as the dashboard indicators of world poverty get better and better.

The second is that within the societies of the bottom billion there is an intense struggle between brave people who are trying to achieve change and powerful groups who oppose them. The politics of the bottom billion is not the bland and sedate process of the rich democracies but rather a dangerous contest beween moral extremes. The struggle for the future of the bottom billion is not a contest between an evil rich world and a noble poor world. It is within the societies of the bottom billion, and to date we have largely been bystanders.

The third is that we do not need to be bystanders. Our support for change can be decisive. But we will need not just a more intelligent approach to aid but complementary actions using instruments that have not conventionally been part of the development armory: trade policies, security strategies, changes in our laws, and new international charters.

In short, we need to narrow the target and broaden the instruments. That should be the agenda for the G8.

Here is Paul Collier speaking back in 2008 after the publication of "The Bottom Billion" at a TED Talk.

The second of the books I mentioned deals more specifically with the challenges of balancing our use of nature's resources with continued growth. It is called "The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature". I am reading that book at the moment, but judging from Collier's earlier book and from what I have read already it is going to be another very helpful book.


Tomorrow's Calling

Written by Peter Johnston on .

A sense of calling, an awareness that you are being nudged by God to serve in some particular way, and a realisation that you are not going to be completely fulfilled without following a certain lead has been on my mind recently as I have been involved in the new process of discernment for people thinking about a sense of calling in their lives. It is a great privilege to be able to mentor someone through that process.

It is something that the wider Kirk is always developing, and that is a good thing.

As part of that, the Ministries Council has just released this video particularly encouraging younger folks to think about ministry.

I'm glad to see this encouragement. It is an extraordinary "job" to take on, and the more it is talked about, the better. Though a couple of caveats... one is the tension of full-time Ministry of Word and Sacrament and the increasing push towards equipping all the people of God to serve (which I also wholeheartedly support), and the other is that I have heard a number of older folks who have just entered ministry feeling that the video's message is perhaps too youth-oriented and leaves them feeling a little disenfranchised.

Perhaps, however, the video might nudge you, dear reader, to think about where God might be leading you...

A Big Day Out

Written by Peter Johnston on .

It has been a long day today mostly spent down in Arbroath where Angus Presbytery were holding their annual "Big Day Out" - a conference for church folks with a multitude of different seminars on a wide variety of topics. The day started with worship led by Rev Peter Gardner from Glasgow's Renfield St Stephen's Church and then a key note talk given by Very Rev Lorna Hood, both of them talking on the theme of pilgrimage and journeying with God, finding God in the every day places, sometimes the most unexpected places. The image above shows Lorna talking to us in St Andrew's Parish Church, Arbroath.

I was there to lead two seminars on Spill the Beans, introducing this resource and how the Spill the Beans team produce it. This seminar was held a short distance away, cutting through the old Abbey at Arbroath Old and Abbey Church. As always with this kind of thing, it is great to meet folks and catch up with old friends and meet some new folks, hearing their stories.

When I arrived at Old and Abbey Church I was greeted by Rev Dolly Purnell, the minister there, who said she knew me from somewhere. Quickly we connected that it was through a picture in The Easter Code books! I was delighted when Dolly showed me one of the crosses the children at the local primary school had created as a part of that programme. We did not manage to run The Easter Code this year, but definitely next year we will introduce it to Ferryhill Primary and Broomhill Primary 7s. This all just confirmed to me what a small world it is in church circles!

easter code cross

After I had completed the second seminar I dashed away to head down to Dobbies Garden World at Monifieth to meet a family for a funeral taking place next week. This is not the usual place for funeral visits, it has to be said, but after retreating to a nearby Brewer's Fayre restaurant where the family's younger ones could entertain themselves in the play area we had a lovely chat about the life of the deceased. It was a happy turn of events that allowed us to meet up prior to the funeral which, if it had not been for speaking at the conference, I would not have been able to do. Providential, one might say.

Now to turn thoughts back to tomorrow which is looking to be another very busy day... morning worship, stewardship event, mentoring meeting and then the Cosy House.


The Time You Have

Written by Peter Johnston on .

As many of you will know I have a particular penchant for jelly beans having used them as the signature graphical theme for "Spill the Beans", which I edit. Someone else posted this wee video on the Spill the Beans facebook group, and I could not resist posting it here as it is a very helpful reflective introduction to what we are going to be thinking about on Sunday afternoon as part of our "Come with me: Connect & Commit" event. At this event we will be thinking about how we resource the mission and ministries of the church through our use of time and financial commitments.

So, sit back, grab a packet of jelly beans, and think about how you use the time you have.

Hat tip: Bryan Kerr


Eva Kor

Forgiving and Forgetting

Written by Peter Johnston on .

This evening at Café Connect we had a fascinating and challenging discussion on the nature of forgiveness. The challenges and difficulties that forgiving someone for some wrong they have done were honestly raised, as was the positive outcome that forgiveness brings to the person doing the forgiving, freeing them from the burden that seeking comeuppance or revenge always brings. We recognised too how costly forgiveness can be, and that it can also bring division between those who find a way to forgive and those who cannot.

In the past week this was made very clear by the actions of Eva Kor, an Auschwitz survivor, who has publicly forgiven former SS guard Oskar Gröning. The Guardian had an excellent article yesterday written by Marina Cantacuzino, founder of The Forgiveness Project, on this very subject: Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting.

Cantacuzino writes:

I have known Kor for a number of years. I first encountered her at a conference in Germany in 2006. She is a tough, resilient, passionate woman who explains logically and convincingly how forgiving the Nazis has saved her life. I was particularly moved when she told me: “The day I forgave the Nazis, privately I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them; mine couldn’t. And then I forgave myself for hating my parents.” Her statement sums up the intricate nature of forgiveness: it can ensure the pain of the past does not dictate the path of the future. For many it is an act of self-healing: as Kor herself has said, “I forgave the Nazis not because they deserve it but because I deserve it.”

Hat tip to Graeme Roberts.

Auto Express Driver Power

10,000 miles on Electric Avenue

Written by Peter Johnston on .

It has been quite a long time since I have had an update on my ongoing journey with an electric vehicle, though I have been keeping my video blog going throughout the year and have many regular viewers on YouTube - with regular correspondence as a result (my Youtube channel is Indeed, if I look back at all that correspondence I am heading to around 20 people who have bought a Renault ZOE influenced by my video blog and realising that an electric vehicle could fit easily into their routine and normal driving. So much so that more than a few folks think I should be on commission by Renault!

For many, many years I have been receiving a weekly copy of Auto Express in the post (one of those birthday presents from over 15 years ago that just keeps giving!) who annually carry out a Driver Power Survey. I have never been able to complete one of these as one of the restrictions to completing it is that your car needs to be less than three years old and our cars were always older. However, I did complete the extensive questionnaire for the 2015 survey for the first time giving my input as a driver of the electric Renault ZOE.

A week ago the results came out and I was blown away to see my wee Renault come out in 5th place out of 200 cars. It was the highest rated electric vehicle, though the Nissan Leaf was just three places behind - a good showing from these two electric cars. It was no surprise to see the Renault come out in first place for running costs (what running costs?), and in second place for ease of driving. This is a survey from data of real life users (rather than reviewers who may have a car for a day or two on which to base their review) and so much more representative of actual user satisfaction. Of course, I think this wee Renault is a great car. It is not perfect, but for our uses it works brilliantly and extraordinarily efficiently. As the survey reveals, I am not alone in thinking this.

This is important for people to know as I hear over and over again, "that is great, but..." Hearing the stories of people who have made the jump and how straightforward it turns out to be (and this will only become increasingly the case as the charging network grows and as cars with longer ranges as a result of improving battery technology and increased efficiency grow).

ZOE at 10,000 miles

A few weeks ago I tipped over 10,000 miles in the car. The car has behaved faultlessly during that time. The only slight ripples along the way have related to the public charging infrastructure though I have never been left stranded as a result. The only time I ran out of battery juice completely I did intentionally to see what the car would do (I like to know these things!). ZOE finally drifted to a halt after more than 128 miles completed on a single charge - really very impressive when you think about it.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Indeed, though it will be a couple more years before we can afford to replace the other much larger diesel car, I am already wishing there were some 6 or 7 seater electric cars on the market now so that by the time we are looking for a replacement for the second car we would have some second-hand affordable options available. I wish Citroën had a plug-in hybrid version of the C4 Picasso in the market.

It is becoming increasingly important to see more diversity in powertrains for cars as it looks as though diesel power will be coming under increasing pressure as a result of pollution constraints for cities and towns where diesel engines are a large source of nitrous oxide emissions which are linked to poor health. The rush to diesel to combat carbon dioxide emissions (they are generally more efficient than petrol motors) to aid global climate has had a nasty side effect in raised nitrous oxide levels in built-up areas. No such problems with electric vehicles, of course, which produce no emissions from the car.

This week Tesla (which produce the most aspirational electric cars) announced that they are going to be selling large batteries for the home which allow you to store energy (10 or 15kWh sizes). These would be fantastic in areas where energy supply can be interrupted, though this is not really an issue for us here. However, where these batteries would head into no-brainer territory is for homes that have solar arrays on their roofs. At the moment solar power is either used by the house or fed back into the power grid (for which you receive some money back). These batteries would add a whole lot more flexibility. You could draw on them during times of peak power draw when the power utilities have to fire up extra gas plants to meet the demand, or use that power to charge your electric car overnight, then letting the sun top up the household batteries during the day.

Which is all a way of saying that things are changing and our old presumptions about how we use energy and produce energy are slowly beginning to change. They need to.


The Inner Heights

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Ever wondered what the inside of that huge spire we have as part of the church - and such a landmark in Ferryhill - might look like? Me too. So I jumped at the chance to join members of the Property Team with our architect Sholto Humphries to take a tour right up to the top of the interior to check how it is doing after all that work to it in 2012/13. I can happily report that everything is in good shape and the previous pools of water within the interior were no where to be seen, all was dry with a good healthy draft of air letting the whole structure breathe naturally.

Some six years ago waterproof landings were added in order to try to prevent some of the water ingress that was taking place at that time running all the way down to the base of the spire, and these continue to provide landing levels within the spire, but on this inspection they were bone dry. A few years ago there would have been a couple of inches of water in them. Good news.

I was fascinated to see the clock mechanism that extends out to all four faces from the centre of the spire, and also to see the bell held within a huge wooden framework, albeit we were mighty glad that it was not ringing as we climbed! This level has the open baffles directing the bell's sound downward and as a result it was pretty windy there, but the pigeon netting was holding and no evidence of birds inside were found.

In the picture at the top of this post you can see a view from the top landing level looking straight up through some of the interior cross bracing all the way to the pinnacle of the spire. The cross brace and bolt right at the top is what holds the cross on the spire's exterior in place.

We did joke that guided tours with a cup of tea halfway up should be arranged, but in lieu of this perhaps some of these images will suffice in showing you what it is like.

Thanks to Jim, Sandy, Ian, Linda and Sholto for letting me join you all!


A Chance to Meet the Mod

Written by Peter Johnston on .

I just got back in to the house having braved the snow and sleet driving back down Polmuir Road from the church. Well, last week's lovely weather was nice while it lasted!

At Ferryhill Parish Church we were hosting the final event for the Moderator's visit with Aberdeen Presbytery. Rt Rev John Chalmers and Liz spent time this afternoon meeting with young people and youth leaders from a number of churches across the presbytery from ourselves and South Holburn all the way to Bridge of Don St Columba's with folks from Craigiebuckler, Queen's Cross, Midstocket and Trinity Church in-between.

This was a great opportunity for John and Liz to meet with some of the young people and leaders and hear their stories and concerns, and also some of the very positive and creative ways in which churches are responding to the needs of young people. It also gave us a chance to hear from John some of the things he has picked up from other churches across Scotland on his travels and some of the challenges that the church must face as far as communicating with young people using the technology now available to enhance how we encourage young people in their own spiritual journey. As always, it was remarked how much young people today are as much seeking a spiritual dimension in life, but that the organised and institutionalised church as we know it (and love it?!) often does not seem like the place in which young people will find a place to help that spiritual journey. Great challenges here as we try to find ways to reach out and enable that journey for others.

Some of the ideas that came up included offering places of sanctuary and peace, perhaps for young people to come and study away from the loud busy-ness of many homes or as a place for quiet self-guided reflection (something akin to the labyrinths we have offered on a few occasions), to larger gatherings of young people for special events, and more joint working between churches in order to encourage young people.

Bethlehem DoveAfter some nibbles, pizza and juice (thanks to Lorna Glen and Cheryl Watt), John presented us with a gift. This is one of a trail of doves that he has left in his wake as he and Liz have visited places across the country. We will find a home for it in the coffee shop in the foyer so that you can see it if you are passing, but there is more to it than the simple beauty of a stained glass dove. John shared the story of these doves with us, and this is what is says in the wee leaflet that accompanies the dove:

These art pieces are made out of glass, fragments of broken bottles thrown away or glass destroyed during the Israeli invasion of Bethlehem. Human hands pick them from among the rubble then assembly them together by some of the poorest of the poor in the Bethlehem region at the ICB art workshops. These art pieces tell all about "the hopes and fears of all the years" that people have in Bethlehem today. The broken glass pieces are a sign of the brokenness of our world, and it is also the reason for God to incarnate. Through His incarnation he brought the divine and the human back together, He picked what seems to be worthless and hopeless and transformed it into a beautiful and whole creation. It is this incarnation, which took place here in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, which gives us the strength to continue to look for broken lives and hopes and tro transform them through art into angels and doves and different art pieces, messengers of justice, peace and dignity.