When I arrived in Aberdeen in the autumn of 1967, to begin my studies at the School of Architecture, the first thing I did with my student grant, after paying my dig money, was to buy a guitar. It was nylon string bottom of the range Tatra classic from Bruce Millers in George Street. At the same time I became involved in a Friday night coffee bar run from the basement of the Salvation Army Citadel at the west end of Castle street. You entered through a small door on a side street, where the North Sea wind hurled its way up into town, and down a flight of stairs to a brightly painted room with a small stage and mic and a counter at the other end serving hot milky coffee, Coke and Fanta. The café was called “The fishing net” a reference to Jesus’s commission to Peter “I will make you a fisher of men”. It was decorated with paintings of fish, seaweed, brightly colourer nets and fishing tackle. During the evening a small folk trio or solo artist would play and sing and someone would speak with a message. It was run by a number of churches in the city with the aim of making connections with young folk on the streets on a Friday evening. , They were invited in, befriended and engaged in conversation. I had only been going for a few weeks when one of the leaders asked me to play and sing on the following Friday. With foolish naivety, I accepted, completely oblivious to the fact that I had no material and had never sung, far less played guitar, in public before. Hastily I scratched a couple of songs together, one which had a remarkable and not unconscious resemblance to the Kinks “Sunny afternoon” and the other to the Beatles “a day in a life” The third was a spiritual. I practised hard but as the day grew nearer became more and more aware of my foolishness. I remember the night very clearly, walking across to the stage with guitar over shoulder shaking like a leaf, thinking “I can’t do this” and praying “lord if you really want me to do this, let it be you who does it”. It is a prayer I have found myself praying each time I have been asked to sing, since. The noisy room was suddenly stilled and as I ham fistedly clunked my way through the songs I had this strange experience as if standing outside myself looking on as someone else took over, carrying the message to the hearers.
Once finished and with the waves of relief pouring over me I relaxed at a table and fell into a discussion with a slightly inebriated leather clad rocker. He wasn’t interested in the songs but wanted to argue about the existence of God. I was helpless and could offer no good explanation or original thought. We were soon joined by two others, one clutching a battered bible. Suddenly there was clarity and rational in the discussion and I sat back with dropped jaw listening to the discussion amazed at the command of our new friend. (the one doing the talking) He had understanding and ability to communicate the cosmic realities of creation and redemption and the wonder of the gospel in spell bounding clarity. It was only after he left that I learned that he was already well known in student and church groups, the president of the Christian Union in the University and later a significant figure in Reformed Christian circles both in Scotland and the USA, highly regarded for his teaching, writing and editorial work. So it was a surprise, that our lives should cross again some 45+years later, when we both joined with our families, in our new church setting. It was an added and unexpected delight to hear him preach. While some preachers become old and tired and tread well-worn predicable paths and others have spoken for a specific time and place, his preaching carried refreshing timeless authority, vitality and relevance. Now endowed with the richness of truth distilled slowly through the years it was presented with crystal clarity, much as it was, around the table, in the basement café, all these years ago.