Category: Pastoral Letters 2020

Christmas Celebration?

Christmas Celebration?

Dear Friends
‘How can you celebrate Christmas in a place like this,’ the prisoner asked me? At the time I was a very part- time chaplain in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow. It was the middle of December. It’s a refrain we are hearing just now in a different context as the COVID restrictions remain in place. How can we celebrate Christmas this year with all that is going on?

My answer to the prisoner is still relevant today I think. If you can’t celebrate Christmas in prison then you can’t celebrate it anywhere. The first Christmas was celebrated against a background of an occupying army, high taxes, despotic rulers and random acts of senseless slaughter. The background of Christmas highlights its meaning in sharp relief. The darker and blacker the sky the brighter the star shines.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land asked the Jews in exile in Babylon centuries before? Eventually they realised they could sing with even greater confidence and strength because God was with them. So with Christmas this year we will celebrate, if not in large family gatherings, then rather with the reminder that Christmas means Immanuel-God with us. In these strange times the message of Christmas stands as a wonderful reminder we are not alone and never have been. So it will be that with confidence and strength we will wish people this year a very happy Christmas, and we will mean it.

Our services in advent will take up some of the traditional themes of the second coming and John the Baptist. The on-line services will continue this month. There will be a short service for Christmas Day, but there will be no Watchnight Service this year. There is a special treat on 20 December when the choir will lead us in an on-line service of lessons and carols. It promises to be an uplifting occasion . We also look forward to the return of Rev John Smith as our locum later this month. It will be good to have him back.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas
With best wishes

In the interim . . . .

In the interim . . . .

Dear Friends
During the period of John Smith’s absence as locum I have been asked to lead the on-line worship. I have no idea, however, what you might call a partial locum for a locum; temporary, interim, short-term were all mentioned. No matter what, they all suggest this is not a permanent arrangement, and we all look forward to John returning to his duties once his treatment is completed and I would ask you to continue to remember him in your prayers..
But we do live in a rather interim world at present don’t we? Life as we know it is on hold to some extent or another. We wait with growing frustration for these times to pass, as pass they will, so that life can return to what we once knew, and we can return to church as we used to do as well.
We are in the process of discovering, however, that there is new way of being church. There is another way of having our faith encouraged and our commitment strengthened from that which we once knew. Had anybody suggested a wee while ago, that we could be seated at home sharing in worship, yet still feeling part of an unseen congregation we would have found it hard to comprehend. But it is happening.
A friend of mine for whom I preach on occasion asked me to take a service one Sunday while she had a well-deserved break. From the comfort of my living room I conducted a live Zoom service for a congregation just south of Glasgow.
These are exciting times for the church, exciting times for our congregations as we look forward to working out how the church will look in the new norm we are told to expect. So many good thigs have emerged recently, so much talent rising to the challenge. It would be a shame to lose sight of that.
The story of the Bible is the story of a people on the move from Egypt to the Promised Land, from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon and back again, and in the New Testament the movement of a gospel, and people, from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond. We belong to that tradition of a people who have to keep on the move to keep pace with the God who is out in front leading us.
With best wishes

August Pastoral Letter

August Pastoral Letter

Dear Friends

France is a favourite country of ours. Over the years there have been many excellent holidays in the country. Brittany, Paris, Chartres, Carcassonne, Bourges, Toulouse, Poitiers, Tours, Avignon, Annecy – each has provided (some more than once) the centre for touring surrounding towns and countryside. We have close friends who live in a small town outside Toulouse, so some of our visits have been close to living like locals – which is always a different experience.
Sadly, in many country villages visited, a visit to the local church has proved sad and depressing. The sense of emptiness and abandonment is sometimes very tangible. Like a rose well past its full bloom, gently decaying while still giving glimpses of its former glory, the church will stand in a village square, bypassed and feeling forgotten. An occasional funeral may come to the churchyard, and bring a crowd, but on a Sunday worshippers are few, and the interior seems always dark and musty.

Historians could sketch for us the reason why the Church in rural France has come to this. Why church attendance is dying out.

There are parts of Scotland, where there are similar concerns. Many of our rural Borders churches labour under the same sense of becoming meaningless to the general population. Not all of them by any means, but we do detect signs of disconnect. How many children and grandchildren no longer are to be found in the pews where their grandparents sit?

It’s part of the task ahead of us, looking towards days when Covid-19 is under some degree of control, to encourage people to take up again the habit of church going. After all, several months of no church for some will lead to a breakdown in a life-long habit. And yet, the congregation gathered in worship is a powerful factor in the nurturing of faith. Our religion has always recognised that worship is best done together. The cry of the people of Israel by the waters of Babylon could well be our cry – “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”. In other words, can we really truly worship God in a society where church attendance is falling away?

The answer in ancient Babylon was the emergence of synagogue worship. Although far from the Temple in Jerusalem, the faithful could approach God in prayer and praise.

As you’ll read elsewhere, for the very best of reasons neither the Old Parish Church or Edddleston are likely to open for Sunday worship for a time yet. But as soon as it is wise and careful of the health of our people to reassemble we assuredly will.

If that is going to be a joyful moment, then think on these things. How can each one of you contribute to a good return? Think on that question. Pray about it. What can you say to your friends and neighbours to perhaps get them thinking about it too. We need a feeling of calling, and an intentionality about our return. Just to drift in and think that things will carry on as before, well that may be too weak a response as, together, we seek to reboot church! For the glory of God, and the spiritual sustenance of the people.

Grace and peace,


July Pastoral Letter

July Pastoral Letter

Dear Friends

When I was a student in Geneva in the early 1970’s, I lived in a student college in Celigny, a small village about 20 Kms from the city. Also in the village lived Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Burton spent a lot of time there, and occasionally came to dine with the Principal of our college.

Our pub was the Hotel de Soleil, but Burton favoured the Cafe de la Gare. As was fairly normal, on the day of his death he had spent a convivial evening with the locals and his guest and fellow actor, John Burt. At closing time, they crossed the railway and went home to the Burton house, where he suffered a massive stroke and died.

The next night, le patron of the Cafe had a special offer in place. Here was the very bottle from which the famous man had partaken his last drink. Perhaps the customer would like to sample a glass. Of course, in the circumstances….it would be necessary to charge a little extra- mais oui!

The miraculous thing was the number of subsequent evenings on which the same offer was made to any new face that entered the bar. There were two suspicious circumstances. Firstly, it was inconceivable that Monsieur Richard would leave a glass behind in a bottle of good wine. Secondly, the level of wine in the bottle never dropped. Nor did it seem to go stale with the passing days. Un vrai mystère!

When I think back to that fascinating time, it occurs to me that the bottle of red wine could be referred to as “the gift that kept on giving”.

It’s an interesting phrase. It brings together concepts of giving and receiving for example. There’s no direct biblical quotation that has Jesus saying it is more blessed to give than to receive. But the Apostle Paul is quoted in Acts, as he says farewell to the Ephesians “the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” So it’s a quote by Luke, of a quote by Paul, of a quote by Jesus. But I think we would be happy enough to recognise something that our Lord would be likely to have said. Another Beatitude really.

In the context, Paul was drumming up the Ephesians’ generosity to the weak and poor. Who in the equation would be receivers? And it’s often seemed to me that giving and receiving are both difficult things to do sometimes. In the same way that it is sometimes much harder to be a guest than a host.
In the current Covid 19 crisis – and it IS current no matter what the crowds on Bournemouth beach imagine – there have been many examples of good and bad coming in the form of good and bad behaviour. Vast numbers of people have served their fellow citizens in professional roles or in volunteer positions. And done so uncomplainingly and bravely sometimes. While on Bournemouth beach……..

But speaking to people around the congregation and elsewhere it is obvious that there are huge numbers of quiet acts of care and love that far outweigh the selfish ones.

So the gift that keeps on giving, what of that? In the turmoil of these times we could think of several words on which to alight. So I offer you this thought. In every act of picking up the phone, extending an offer to bring shopping, or go to the chemist. In every time spent listening to someone struggling with the loneliness which has often been the companion of lockdown. In these things there is love – the gift that keeps on giving. And the First Letter of John reveals to us the Christian response to Covid19, and the myriad woes of this world.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”

Grace and Peace


June Pastoral Letter

June Pastoral Letter

Dear Friends
I need a barber! And a dentist! (Those who follow will have noticed that I have lost a crown.) And a chiropodist, and someone who can operate on my mobile phone). Such are the ongoing frustrations of the coronavirus. On the positive side. I’ve used hardy any petrol, and I haven’t been to an ATM in ages.

Of course, these things are utterly trivial compared to the heartbreak, suffering and loss that COVID-19 has wreaked on our lives. I was pondering this morning. I was born and brought up in Dumfries, a busy traditional Scottish county and market town. The UK death toll from the virus has now exceeded the population of Dumfries. A whole town wiped out and more!

Some of the deaths have affected us even more closely and deeply. And when we take into account the many who have been ill and recovered, the majority of us will know folk who have had to fight the virus.
Add to all that the worries about jobs, unemployment, schools, the economy generally it is a heavy burden our society is having to deal with. What surprises most is the speed with which our ways of life have been comprehensively changed. We all wonder, I think, will the old ways return? Perhaps not all of them will. Perhaps some of them should not.
Which of us wholeheartedly embraces change? Very few. It’s part of the human condition to be wary of disturbance around us. And yet our survival as specks on the panorama of the universe depends on gradual restoration and transformation.

Our Scriptural record shows it. Jeremiah stood at the Temple gate and said: “Look for the ancient paths”! Restoration! The same prophet also warned the people not to think that by chanting “This is the temple of the Lord…the temple of the Lord….the temple of the Lord” that they would be saved. Transformation! That’s where we are. Perhaps where we have always been.

Finlay Macdonald, elsewhere in the magazine, will be saying something about the current thinking of the Church of Scotland – which had begun a process of deep self-examination when Covid-19 came along.

Here in the Old Parish and in Eddleston we are following the rules carefully. We do not want to put anyone in any kind of danger. So many things in our corporate life have been put on hold. In worship terms, we produce a new set of worship resources every week. What we are doing is fairly unique. We are not streaming a church service. But ministers, organist, and church members (oh, not forgetting the bell ringers!) are coming together to provide tools to bring worship into your own homes.

We recognise that not everyone has access to the internet. So now
you can listen to the material, too, by dialling 0113 467 8156. Anytime, 24/7. If you have a calls package from your telephone provider, this should be free. Otherwise you just pay your standard rate. The call will last approximately 20 minutes.

The choir continues to meet on a Thursday evening, courtesy of Zoom. I popped in to say hello, (online of course), and I can assure you that they are all in exuberant mood.

Pastoral contact has to be by phone. I’ve been phoning round folk, basically to introduce myself and to enquire how things are going for them. Thank you for so many hearty, warm welcomes. And look forward to the day when we can meet face to face.
Rev Pamela Strachan has been able to join the ministry team again after an enforced overstay in New Zealand. We are delighted to see her back, and she will be contributing to worship from time to time. She is now serving as Locum Minister in Upper Tweeddale, where she lives, but is able to offer us a day each week as part of the new arrangement. The ministry team has identified the fact that after the sore loss of Lorraine Mulholland the Eddleston Kirk folk will need support and pastoral accompaniment in particular ways, and to begin with at least Pamela will make that healing process the focus of her work. This is not to say
that either Finlay or I will not be available to Eddleston in our respective roles, but we are very grateful that Pamela brings her sensitivity and pastoral kindness to the folk there in this time of need.

Grace and peace to each one of you


Revd John R Smith
Locum Minister

Peebles Old letter May 2020

Peebles Old letter May 2020

Dear Friends

This is my first pastoral letter for the Newsletter since taking over as Locum Minister on 1st April!  Now I don’t attach any importance whatsoever to the date myself, but you can arrive at your own judgement! In the three weeks since I started, I have been building pictures in my head of the congregations and how they work.

One of the tasks has been producing a new way of providing online resources for use in weekly worship. The aim is to do something which is very strongly our own. And so, to date, we have introduced the bells of the Old Parish welcoming Easter, and the Organ contributing music to the site. There is a lot of future development in mind for this resource, which is statistically very successful with regular viewers at home and abroad. But let me make no overblown claims. The production of the special site – – needs the patience and skill of Willie Nicoll, and I’m grateful to him in his role as webmaster. I would encourage you to visit. The worship is updated weekly and available fresh each Sunday morning and then remains there to return to as often as you wish.

My other main enterprise has also been made somewhat essential by the present pandemic restrictions. It is simply not allowed to meet people in the traditional way. As a substitute, I am making telephone calls to members to introduce myself, to find out a little about them and how they are coping. I’m enjoying many warm welcomes and starting relationships that I look forward to nourishing in person when the time comes for relaxation of the rules.

One pastoral relationship that is greatly changed is centred round bereavement and funerals. Sadly there have been four funerals of members in the last four weeks. Visits to homes by ministers and funeral directors are not allowed, numbers at crematorium or cemetery are strictly limited to immediate family, the churches may not be used for services, and all the work of preparation has to be done by telephone. This can only make the stress and pain of bereavement worse. We understand that, and look forward to the time when better support can be reintroduced.

It is the strangest of times. Well outside the experience of any one of us, I fear. The sad stories increase daily. Our own moods probably rise and fall with the news. And you don’t need me to rehearse all the troubles of separation from friends and family, health concerns, shopping concerns, and economic woes that now surround us. The Psalmist who wrote in Psalm 119 “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” was proclaiming a truth about our reliance on our God who supremely knows suffering in all its darkness and despair. Often we hear the question “where is God in all this”. At every bedside. At the side of every exhausted health and care worker. That is the strength for which we pray.

In this settling period, as you will not be surprised to read, the guidance and collegiality of Finlay Macdonald has been unfailing. He will still be appearing regularly in the Newsletter – especially on vacancy matters, but also providing the pastoral letter from time to time. When next I write to you – next month – I hope and pray that we will be seeing better times.

With every blessing

John R Smith

PS. I had just completed this letter when I heard the devastating news of the unexpected death of Mrs Lorraine Mulholland. This is a tremendous loss in our church community. Elsewhere in this Newsletter there will appear an appreciation by our friend Revd Calum Macdougall. In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers are with Lorraine’s husband, Peter, and their son. 

April Newsletter

April Newsletter

Dear Friends
It is a privilege to be able to serve Peebles Old Parish and Eddleston as locum, taking over from the great work done by Jim Cutler. I hope that I will be able to contribute to the worship and pastoral work of the churches through the months to come.

Our Interim Moderator, Dr Macdonald, has asked me to provide a brief biography.

Born and brought up in Dumfries, I studied Arts and then Divinity at Edinburgh University, followed by a post-graduate year in Geneva on a World Council of Churches scholarship. In my time, I served as a local minister in Paisley and in Edinburgh, retiring from Morningside United Church seven years ago and moving to Peebles. Out of many enriching experiences I would mention that I became the first non-Church of Scotland minister ever to be called to serve as a Presbytery Moderator in the Church of Scotland, and went on from there to convene the Presbytery Plan Group for Edinburgh at a challenging time.
Latterly, I worked as an Examiner in Communication Skills for the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, examining all over the UK, South-East Asia, South Asia, and North Africa. I also served the four British surgical colleges on the Inter-Collegiate Committee for Basic Surgical Examinations, working in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin.
After six years in that role, I was delighted to work as Locum in two situations – firstly, in East Lothian (at Humbie linked with Yester, Bolton and Saltoun), and then in the Parishes of Upper
Tweeddale (Broughton, Tweedsmuir, Stobo, and Skirling.) Where I have just finished.

I am married to Jean, who is involved in a number of Peebles organisations, and we have three daughters – in Ilkley, Edinburgh and the youngest just relocating from New Zealand to the UK.
We have three lovely grandsons, aged 7, 4, and 6 months. Oh, and a six month old black Labrador puppy called Finbar.

I greatly welcome this new venture. And to getting to know you in church, in your homes, and in the street! (Just stop me!)

Every blessing,


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