Peter's Blog

Moderator's Away Day Communion

Sharing Our Stories

Written by Peter Johnston on .

This week the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rt Rev John Chalmers, is in Aberdeen visiting the Presbytery as part of his official duties. This involves visiting many different groups and organisations and churches over the course of the week, getting a flavour of what is going on across the presbytery.

On Thursday evening it also comprises a Presbytery Service (to which anyone is invited) which is being held at Newhills Parish Church at 7 p.m. At this service five elders from Ferryhill Parish Church will be amongst those receiving long service certificates to mark their contributions to the work of the church.

Yesterday, I attended a Minister's Away Day that the Moderator hosted with support from the good folks of Tillydrone Parish Church (super food!). This was one of those things for me that you see in the week and are just not quite sure how it will turn out. However, it was a great opportunity to meet with folks, some of whom I knew well, others who I have only chatted with a few times. One of the most interesting, daunting and yet ultimately fascinating exercises was a period of reflective sharing before we broke into groups for discussion. We had received an email from the Moderator before the meeting asking us to prepare a few words to say about a passage of Scripture that was particularly meaningful to us in our ministries. Aargh... this kind of thing, when you are busy and know that you have a full meeting all morning allowing no time for preparation, usually fills me with dread, so, of course, I had not spent any time thinking about it.

But it turned out to be a very powerful, personal and interesting way to gather together, and, needless to say, as we shared stories, I also added my tuppence worth into the mix. It reminded me that ultimately this is what the gospel is about, it is the authentic sharing of our stories of how God works in our lives, the difference God has made to us as we grow and learn and serve. There must have been around twenty of us there, so you can imagine it would take some time for everyone to add their input, however the time flew past very rapidly as we learnt something about each other, our journeys of faith and where we find ourselves now.

We then broke into groups to discuss some of the challenges of ministry; in our group particularly thinking about the challenges of how we support the ministries of congregations across the city, with awareness of the challenges that smaller congregations with fewer resources face. We also discussed some of the best things that happen in ministry and it was interesting how in our group the subject of funerals came up, all of us reflecting on the privilege of being able to offer our service to support families in times of bereavement as a tremendous blessing.

We did not really have time to discuss some of the other wider issues on the Kirk as a broad church, and how the Kirk can live at peace with itself and with God, though I suspect that this is always going to be a journey we are on - something I was reminded of having preached on Peter's Vision (from Acts 10) last Sunday and the massive shifts of understanding and the resultant tensions it brought in the early church of the book of Acts.

A good afternoon, however, finished for those who were able to stay right to the end of the day with the sharing of communion with each other.

As much as I tend to groan at the thought of a whole afternoon taken out of the diary, and the prospect of earnest discussion about the future of the Kirk, I was reminded that actually I do love to discuss these things and hear other people's opinions and points of view.

So, a thank you from me to the Moderator, John Chalmers, and to the folks of Tillydrone for hosting us, and every blessing on John and Liz and their family this week.


Communion Table with prayers

The National Quagmire

Written by Peter Johnston on .

It is not much more than a fortnight to go until the General Election takes place on 7 May. The rhetoric is building, the possibility of another hung parliament and coalition government is being talked about almost as a matter of course, and everyone wonders what the wild cards of UKIP and the SNP (for those outwith Scotland) will bring to the eventual results. There is little doubt that this is one of the most confusing election cycles to fully grasp with radical shifts in old allegiances.

And amidst all this trauma in the realm of the political parties, one wonders where the actual policies will end up coalescing if we find ourselves with another coalition. Tactical voting has become even more important as a decision making tool for canvassers trying to persuade voters. Which does tend to make something of a mockery of the purpose of voting: I cannae help myself in holding out for more proportional representation in the future, particulatly if we end up with another coalition anyway, despite the first past the post system. However, I will not hold my breath for that one...

On Sunday evening in our worship we used the report produced by CTBI (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland) to help focus our thoughts on five particular areas of policy in which the Christian community of faith can speak with clarity. We considered these and then wrote our own prayers which we placed around the table from which we would then share Holy Communion. The five areas the CTBI's report 'A 2020 Vision of the Good Society' highlights are wealth and inequality, home, children and young people, livelihoods, and the environment and climate.

As we come closer to the election and exercising your democratic power, I encourage you to think carefully about those in whom you will place your confidence and to read the CTBI's report which you can download here. In addition, Faith In Politics (from the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church, and United Reformed Church) has a helpful briefing document covering 16 key issues in this election.

Please keep all our candidates in your prayers at this time.

For me... the deed is done as my postal vote arrived today and is now in the wee red box down the road.

Postal Vote


The heart of Christianity?

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Faith and politics make uneasy bedfellows at the best of times (though, I would argue, that they must inform each other), but no more so than during Holy Week as we approach Easter. In an article with Premier Christianity magazine David Cameron gave us an Easter message that ends thus:

I hope everyone can share in the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out. Those values and principles are not the exclusive preserve of one faith or religion. They are something I hope everyone in our country believes.

    That after all is the heart of the Christian message. It’s the principle around which the Easter celebration is built. Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever. 

Much of what Cameron says is pretty inoffensive, talking about how we should support one another and trying to make the case that the policies the Conservatives have been pursuing do that (while acknowledging that many do not agree with that view). Yet it is when Cameron more overtly describes the Easter message that things start to get rather strange and well-meaningly (I have to give him the benefit of the doubt) Orwellian. For the leader of our government to be talking about the nature of the cross and the Easter message in such inoffensive and platitudinous terms certainly led me to pause for thought. The cross was, is and should be utterly offensive. The events of Holy Week, both in Jesus' taunting of the authorities and powers of government; the dreadful fickleness of the crowd (democracy at its worst?) chanting songs of welcome and joy in one moment and then baying for blood in the next; and ultimately the politics and intrigue that led to Golgotha, the cross and the tomb do not speak of 'taking responsibility for your life' as Cameron seems to suggest.

An editorial in the Guardian skewers Cameron for his article:

Jesus did not really preach hard work, responsibility, or family values. He told his followers to consider the lilies of the field, to have no thought for the morrow, and to leave their father and mother to follow him. He came not to bring peace, but revolt. The Easter story makes even democracy look like an instrument of evil. It is the crowd who demand that Jesus be crucified and Pilate who goes along with them.

    What Christianity brought into the world wasn’t compassion, kindness, decency, hard work, or any of the other respectable virtues, real and necessary though they are. It was the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities. That is what is meant by the Christian talk of being saved by grace rather than works, and by the Christian assertion that God loves everyone, the malformed, the poor, the disabled and even the foreigner.

    The idea that humans are valuable just for being human is, many would say, absurd. We assert it in the face of all the facts of history, and arguably even of biology. This idea entered the world with Christianity, and scandalised both Romans and Greeks, but it is now the common currency of western humanism, and of human rights. It underpinned the building of the welfare state, and its maintenance over the years by millions of people of all faiths and none.

    It is also an idea that Mr Cameron’s government has defined itself against. The assaults on social security, on migrants, and even on the teaching of the humanities, are all underpinned by a belief that the essential metric of human worth is their utility, and in practice their usefulness to the rich in particular, because it is the marketplace that provides the only final judgment.

I confess to find it rather galling to be lectured on 'responsibility' by Cameron and to have that explicitly linked to the Easter message. An appeal for votes, no doubt, on Cameron's behalf, but one that falls far, far short for those of us who have been walking with Jesus through the events of Holy Week. Last night in the church we held a Service of Tenebrae, in which we all listened and sang songs that recounted Jesus' story, and certainly for me, thoughts of 'living responsibly' were not the focus. A final reflection from the liturgy we used (courtesy of Spill the Beans) said this:

“Truly this was the Son of God”
proclaimed by a centurion
doing the bidding of an oppressive regime,
believed by the women
who gathered around the cross
unable to leave Jesus
even though witnessing his agony
was killing their soul.

    The Son of God
who had spoken of his impending suffering and death
breathed his last
and died.

    And the truth was revealed:
truly this was the Son of God.

So, what is the heart of Christianity? What is the story of Easter? Giles Fraser gives us a different perspective from Cameron's, and the shocking reality of a faith that acknowledges and indeed necessitates failure. His takeaway for me:

The Christian story, like the best sort of terrifying psychoanalysis, strips you down to nothing in order for you to face yourself anew. For it turns out that losers are not despised or rejected, not ultimately. In fact, losers can discover something about themselves that winners cannot ever appreciate – that they are loved and wanted simply because of who they are and not because of what they achieve. That despite it all, raw humanity is glorious and wonderful, entirely worthy of love. This is revealed precisely at the greatest point of dejection. The resurrection is not a conjuring trick with bones. It is a revelation that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success.

Easter cannot be reduced to inoffensive platitudes, whatever a vote hungry politician, however well-meaning, might hope.


We are back!

Written by Peter Johnston on .

It has been a long break since I was last able to add to my blog. Very frustrating those months have been for us as the website had to be taken down after some malicious folks had managed to embed some code that meant the site was being used to send out spam email. That is not the kind of "spreading the word" we are about! It meant the site had to be taken down until we could resolve the problem.

After some attempts to find the errant code, I decided it was best to bite the bullet and try a complete reinstall so that we start again with a completely clean site. Thankfully, with a few issues along the way and no doubt a few gremlins that will rear there heads from missing content files, we seem to be back in business.

I have had so many different things that have happened over the past months that at the time I kept thinking 'I wish I could add a blog post about that', so I hope to get back into some sharing of thoughts here.

Anyway, glad to be back! More to come...


Keeping things in perspective

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Amongst the tense conversations and debate prior to the referendum, sometimes we need to keep some perspective. Here is Carl Sagan's monologue on "The Pale Blue Dot", the distant image of earth captured from Voyager 1 as it passed Saturn, with modern images accompanying. Humbling.


Yes or No?

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Some of us love bipolar questions that require only a simple Yes or No answer. Others of us become mired in a muddy valley of uncertainty inbetween the two poles when confronted with a question like that which is even now being addressed to residents in Scotland: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

While the question is posed in the most simple terms, the issues that are raised in this simple question are undoubtedly complex. As much as one wants to educate oneself about the issues that are involved, whether in terms of the econony, the currency, social equity, defense, nuclear arms, EU membership, taxes, businesses, and so on, there is a limit to that understanding. Even professional economists give different opinions, so what hope for us mere mortals?

As many a psychologist will tell you, when you reach the limit of what is knowable or understandable (deciding with the head) then the heart takes over. And when that happens we tend to only seek out and absorb information that substantiates our previously held convictions - 'confirmation bias', as it is known. And, rather alarmingly, we tend to make decisions based on our heart much more frequently than we realise.

This is, undoubtedly, playing a major part in the run up to the referendum next week.

So what do I think and feel about it all?

Malawi Visit

Written by Peter Johnston on .

The Presbytery of Hamilton is currently hosting five visitors from Blantyre City Presbytery in Malawi who arrived on Friday 29 August and are staying until the middle of September. Last Saturday night a welcome dinner was held in Rubislaw Church Centre to properly welcome Rev Baxton Maulidi, Fanuel Blessings Mota, Christina Chirwa, Rev James Sande Makuleya and Wilson Chipumphula, pictured above with the Moderator of Aberdeen Presbytery, Rev Hugh Wallace, Councillor Martin Greig, and Convenor of the Blantyre Partnership Committee, Rev Dr Robert Smith.

It was a lovely night in which to meet our visitors and get to know them. I sat with James over dinner and he told those of us at our table that he had done some research into the history of the Blantyre Mission Station and had written a paper about it. I was delighted on Tuesday night at our presbytery meeting when James passed me a copy of his paper titled: "Blantyre Mission Station: A Wonderful Place To Reckon With". Needless to say, we had a great conversation about the two different Blantyres we each know so well. The strong connections between Malawi and Scotland are very evident in the paper.

An EV Update

Written by Peter Johnston on .

It's been a few months since my last update here on the blog about life as the driver of a purely electric vehicle, though I have added a couple of videos to YouTube over the summer which are proving helpful to people. Indeed, I have heard from a couple of folks who have contacted me to say the videos have helped sway them to go and purchase an electric vehicle themselves. Great stuff!

Last week we also had a couple of newspaper articles in the Evening Express and in the free Citizen paper about the plans to have a charging point installed at the church. This is currently going through the planning process with Aberdeen City Council, which has proven to be rather a complicated process. In the middle of that process I received communication from the Energy Saving Trust (who are funding the installation of the charger) with notice of updated legislation from the Scottish Government that was passed at the end of June that relaxes the planning rules on charging points to enable them to be installed without planning permission being required, however one of the remaining exceptions to this relaxation is in the case of conservation areas which would still apply to us. Good news, however, for other organisations or businesses who want to install charging points on their property.

Circus Capers

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Custard Pies

An extrememly busy week came to a close today for all the Summer Club Team as our "Roll Up For The Circus" holiday club came to an end in the service this morning in which we celebrated the week and gave thanks to God for all the fun and learning we had enjoyed over the week.

The culminatuion of the week, and indeed what we had been preparing for all week was a show for the Queen (thank you Rae Leslie!). We talked about the week that had been, letting everyone into some of what we had been doing and learning. Having been custard-pied on the first day of the holiday club, I was able after the end of the service to return the favour to Flingo the Juggler (Billy Pirrie) alas he did get his defence in first!

A huge thank you, pat on the back and three cheers to everyone in the team, coordinated and led by Fiona Firth. What a brilliant bunch you all are.

Narrative Embarkation

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Spill the Beans Issue 13 Cover

I have been desperately trying to get Issue 13 of Spill the Beans finished and published before we take some family time off, and so that I can turn to writing some extra bits and bobs for our Summer Holiday Club which is only a few weeks away. We had a very tight turnaround for the Spill the Beans Resource Team in order to make that happen, so a big thank you to everyone who got their contributions in by the deadlines!

We have actually taken a couple of steps back to the beginning of September with this issue, so that we can embark on a new journey with the Narrative Lectionary as our guide through the Scriptures for the next years. I have already written a bit about this change from the Revised Common Lectionary here and you can find more about why we have made this change here. Suffice to say, as a team we are excited about a new challenge with a lectionary plan that fits the general ethos of Spill the Beans, which has always been focussed on story.

Both to help me get a holiday, and for folks who are seeking to get a head start on the changes, a new look Spill the Beans Issue 13 is now available. 

Sunday Club LifeStraws

Written by Peter Johnston on .

This Sunday our service for the end of session for the Sunday Club focussed on two of the projects that the children have been thinking about and working on. The first being their fundraising initiative to support the Aberdeen Presbytery LifeStraws Project. The children told us about what they had been doing to learn about the shortage of clean water in many parts of the world and how a simple filtration system like a LifeStraw can make all the different for a family. To check how the LifeStraw worked, the children tried it themselves. See the video below.

The children of the Sunday Club had raised £140, and with a retiring collection into a mega Smarties tube after the service today this total swelled to £365. This is a fantastic contribution to the £10,000 that has been raised by churches and friends of the project across Aberdeen. This will provide around 200 family LifeStraw filters for families in Malawi.

Well done everyone!

We also presented the beautiful mosaic cross that the children have created over the past five weeks from old tiles. They have done a superb job and we are looking for a prominent place to put this.


Reunions at St Andrew's

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Lunch with Old Friends

Today we had a bit of a reunion in St Andrew's as Karen Harbison, David Burt, Jonathan Fleming and I with our families got together for a day on a showery beach and then some lovely grub at Zizzi's. We spent many years working together in Lanarkshire and had a blast while, we hope, doing some good too through numerous joint ministries and events. Everything is changing however. Jonathan is now in Erskine, Karen is in Greenock, we are up in Aberdeen and David was letting his congregation know on Sunday that he is in discussions to be moving on too.

It is great to have opportunities to get back together, it is not quite the same on facebook or catching up at meetings for other business, so I look forward to the next gathering.

Celebrating with God

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Celebrating Creation

It was different this morning, but in a good way. During the service everyone had the opportunity, if they wished, to travel around the seven focal points we had created last night. At each people had the chance to reflect on that "day" of the Genesis 1 creation story and what aspect of creation was being celebrated, whether it was light, water, earth, seasons and time, birds and fish, animals or humanity.

Doing something like this is always a bit of a step into the unknown, but it was heartening to hear how many people had found the experience one that enabled them to feel more engaged and involved in the act of worship. That was the intent, so it was good to hear people had experienced it in that way.

I was asked afterwards whether the guidance sheets we used would be available. Click here to download them.

We will be making up a smaller display which we'll keep for the next weeks to remind us of this journey of celebration we undertook today.

This evening we have our evening service and we are going to go to the other extreme... still dealing with sevens, however. A look at the seven deadly sins as opposed to the seven days of creative goodness. It will be interesting!

Celebrating Creation 2

Celebrating Creation

Written by Peter Johnston on .

In the service tomorrow we are focussing on the creation hymn found in Genesis 1, an outpouring of praise in thanks for all that we see around us in the universe and world. It would be hard to celebrate that by simply sitting in the pews... The story is one of action, creativity, movement, so we will be doing the same tomorrow as we explore the 'days of creation' from the first dawn onwards. 

The Worship Task Group and Sunday Club team were hard at work this afternoon after the wedding we had to prepare the church. It looks great and all is ready for the morning.

Thanks to Gwen, Hazel, Linda, Cecilia, Diane, Fiona, Ian and Billy for all the preparations.

We will also be singing a new hymn written by Diane Cumming for this Sunday. Words below the jump:

The Overspill

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Overspill Header Image

The last issue of Spill the Beans saw the creative team work the whole way through three years of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). It has been a good journey.

We felt it might be helpful if these were made available as a single pack for those who either came to Spill the Beans late and want the back issues or for those who want further resources that are based around the RCL. Indeed some of you have asked if the earlier issues would be made available. Here they are.

These are presented as is, however, which does mean that if used in the future you may find, depending on when Easter falls, that there is a gap in the cycle. You have been warned! We would love to be able to go back and fill in those holes, but time does not allow for looking back as the Team are already now in the process of creating Issue 13 and embarking on a new chapter for Spill the Beans as we have decided to experiment with a move to the Narrative Lectionary as our scriptural plan.

Within this overspill pack you will, however, find a collective 1,536 pages of resources (okay, there are a few blank pages in there to help with printing the booklets) covering worship ideas, age group ideas, special events during the liturgical calendar, and a whole pile of beany goodness. And all this for a mere £50.


A Last Reflection

Written by Peter Johnston on .

This morning in the sermon I will be quoting a section from the last reflection given by Rt Rev John Chalmers on the final day of the General Assembly when he talks about ecclesiology (our understanding of the church).

It is worth reading his reflection in its entirety but it is a little difficult to find on the Church of Scotland website. Click here and it should open up for you (it is an Adobe pdf file).

Songs of Freedom

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Maya Angelou

I just heard that Maya Angelou, the American author, poet, dramatist, essayist, civil-rights activist, producer, and more for she was an astonishingly prophetic and powerful voice over many decades, died today at the age of 86. She leaves a huge body of work that will not be forgotten, and a lasting legacy for generations who listened to her and read her.

I have been trying to remember the first time I came across Angelou. I know it was as a teenager and I was blown away by what she said, and perhaps even more by how she said it during a TV interview. It is strange that I cannot remember the reason for her speaking (though I think it may have been around the time of Artists United Against Apartheid in the 80s), but I sure remember the impact it had.

Rest in Peace, Maya, and thank you for all that you have given the world.

One of my favourite poems or hers below:

A big step forward

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Desktop prepared for GA

Last night I drove down to Edinburgh to meet with folks from the OneKirk Network for dinner, something of a tradition during the General Assembly week. I didn't think I would be able to make it but a meeting here in Aberdeen was cancelled and the evening freed up. It was an uneventful drive down, and I was very chuffed to make it all the way down to Kinross on one charge in the car (95 miles) though there was not a lot of electrical magic left in the battery when I got to the charger. Alas, the Edinburgh University charger was hopeless, but I had enough charge to get back to Kinross on my way home, so no great loss, though it did prove a late night by the time I got home after 3 a.m. It was a lovely night, however, and of course cost me £0 to get down there! Had to rub that in...

It was also good to talk to those who were commissioners at the GA. I have watched on and off, earlier in the week, the online coverage from the Assembly, but you don't always get a proper feel for the mood of the Assembly when watching from afar.

This was ahead of today's big debate taking place over the Theological Forum's report on the church operating as a 'mixed economy' and the Legal Questions Committee's 'Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships Overture".

Unity and/or Justice

Written by Peter Johnston on .


A good number of years ago, indeed it was a scary seven years ago, some friends and I organised a panel discussion during the 2007 General Assembly at which a report titled "A Challenge to Unity" was presented that related to sexuality. The evening discussion was titled "The Cost of Unity". Since the beginnings of the current debate about sexuality and the church - which the press often relate back to 2009, but that really goes further back than that - I have always been interested in this line of tension between a broad church which allows room for different views within its body and a sense of Christian unity.

Right from the start of this debate it was clear in my mind that while unity is something to be treasured, it is not to be treasured at all costs. And if the lofty goal of unity means doing hurt to others, discriminating against others, or denying others from being able to serve God as God calls, then unity as an end in itself is no longer a blessing for the Christian community. It has become a shackle by which to control others, rather than an ennervating and joyful expression of unified purpose. I see similarities here to the debates over the Sabbath that Jesus had with the law makers in his own time. The Sabbath is not an end in itself, it is good and holy only in so much as it enhances life and relationship with God for all.

STB Issue 12: The Final Cycle

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Spill the Beans Issue 12

And breathe... this issue, for some reason, has been a bit of a challenge to get finalised. We stretched it out to the middle of September as this fit with the themes we were following in Matthew's gospel and that seems to have made a bit of a difference. But... it is now here, resplendent in multi-flavoured creativity as befits an issue that begins with a Bang! A Big Bang! Or something like that...

Beyond Issue 12...

The mathematicians amongst you will have realised that this is now a full three years of the official Spill the Beans books (now that we are regularly 150 pages, it is hard to call these publications booklets any longer), not counting the pilot issues we also produced in the previous two years. So some of the Spill the Beans Team have been playing at this particular experiment in sharing resources and ideas for five years, and over these past 12 issues we have worked through a complete cycle of the three-year Revised Common Lectionary that we have used to source the Bible readings for each Sunday.

We are now at the point of deciding what we do for the next year. Do we do something different, perhaps using some form of homegrown lectionary plan (which has been an idea we have been toying with for the past 18 months), investigate other lectionary plans that are available or carry on with another cycle through the RCL. Whatever we decide to do does not just have implications for the next issue, but will set us on a trajectory for the next three or four years, so we have not rushed a decision.