Three hymn-writing panelists share practical tips and inspiration Reply

Some three dozen people tuned in via Zoom August 15, 2021, for “When in Our Music God Is Glorified,” a panel presentation on hymn writing, sponsored by the Presbyterian Writers Guild. The panel featured three renowned Presbyterian hymn writers, who talked about their favorite hymns, writing techniques, and sources of inspiration.

David Gambrell said that when he is writing hymns, “the best ideas feel like a gift.” He added, “But then there’s a lot of work.” Gambrell is associate for worship in the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology, Formation and Evangelism, principal writer of the church’s new Directory for Worship and author of several hymns in the Glory to God hymnal.

Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle said hymn writing is a spiritual discipline for her. “I have to have a tune in my head first,” before writing the words, she said. Bringle is chair of the Glory to God hymnal committee and author of several hymns in the book.

Chris Shelton said he finds inspiration in older hymns. “I like to be in conversation with hymnwriters of the past.” Shelton is pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the new book Sing No Empty Alleluias.

Read the Presbyterian News Service story about the hymn-writing panel here.

Grand Prize winner in writing contest Reply

Ruth Linnea Whitney has won the Grand Prize in the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s Ash Wednesday writing contest. Whitney, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Port Townsend, Washington, was awarded first place in the poetry category and the $100 Grand Prize for her poem “Ash Season.” She has given churches permission to reprint or otherwise use her poem with proper attribution.

Judges’ comments:

In her poem Ash Season, Ruth Linnea Whitney takes the reader on a Lenten journey from naïve hope, through death and grief, to a seasoned faith. She anchors the spiritual in rich earthy details—the stone walk, a jaw, slender wrists, sawgrass. And after the grief, the poet quiets herself and listens for an active, tender God: a God who knows, who sees, who gathers. Easter is coming.

Jane Kurtz and Caroline Kurtz


By Ruth Linnea Whitney

Everything was easy then and clear.

The world and I were heady with our holdings.

I sowed my future, breath to breath, cunning

as that lone cock who crowed while they led my Lord

up the stone walk and hoisted him between thieves.

The season turned and ease receded, the world and I

turned gray. My father’s jaw burned to silt in an urn.

My mother’s slender wrists cast over buffalo grass

where she began. My friend saw her boy earn his wings,

his plane and body splinter. Far away, a girl of six knelt

on a land mine she took for saw grass. Hours like these,

the ashes fell.

I kneel now and listen for the fall of ashes.

Listen for the One who knows each spark,

sees each particle alight on earth,

gathers each tiny grave into the enormous dark,

where the return to life is done.  

First Place winner in essay category Reply

Ash Wednesday writing contest

Enough of Dust and Ashes

By Keith Dean Myers

Judge’s comments:

“I very much appreciated all six essays: each was thoughtful, creative, heart-felt and eloquent. I chose Keith Dean Myers’ “Enough of Dust and Ashes” for the way he voices for all of us what we are feeling in the unprecedented experience of pandemic. In place of the traditional Ash Wednesday worship service his church sent him a baggie of ashes to use at home. Remembering the liturgical words that accompany the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday Myers asks, ‘How could I not remember that I am dust in this, our long season of pandemic?’ With an edge of irritation he exclaims, ‘I’ve had enough of…..’ and lists our daily catalog of stress and fear…..death, hospitalizations, climbing positivity rates, economic crisis, schools struggling’ and more. And in one eloquent sentence, I thought Myers captures the essence of it: ‘I have had more than enough of dust and ashes stirred up by a virus that clings, sin-like, so close as to take our breath away, forever.’ ”

“Nevertheless, the imposed cross of ashes on his forehead will bear witness, for Myers and for all of us, that ‘the cross triumphs over dust and ashes, including mine.’ ”

John M. Buchanan 


By Keith Dean Myers

On Ash Wednesday 2020, I knelt before a priest as his thumb inscribed a black-as-death cross on my forehead. His words captioned my rough cross with the ancient admonition, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For Ash Wednesday 2021, my church is offering my wife and me a baggie of blessed ashes for in-home use. We may impose them upon one another while that priest and those words are Zoomed to us. If I lived alone, I could impose them upon myself.

I think, Something about self-imposed ashes, or about a couple imposing ashes upon one another, feels emotionally and liturgically crass.

I also think, How could I possibly not remember that I am dust in this, our long season of pandemic? How could I, denied access to my community of faith, not remember that even the best moments of our one life shall in time return to dust?

COVID-19 has imposed dust and ashes upon me forever.

I am wondering what to do this Ash Wednesday. Even if our faith community were meeting in person, would I meet with it? Can I bear yet another Zoom with that congregation that evening?

God! I have had enough of dust and ashes!

I’ve had enough numbers of COVID-19 cases and death, hospitalizations, and ICU capacities. I’ve had enough news of climbing positivity rates, and agonizing, lonely deaths, and symptoms that linger for months.

I’ve had enough of the dust and ashes of economic crisis and emotional trauma and daily family stresses and month-upon-month separations and schools struggling to do their best and masks and controversies and political posturing and the denial that made it all worse.

And, imposing even more upon us than COVID-19 has, are the dust and ashes of our assaults upon ourselves. I have had enough of Black citizens killed by police, of police killed by anarchists, of democracy threatened by self-serving power, of our planet suffocated by greed and indifference, of too many of us captivated by callously-crafted conspiracy theories, and of all of us likely to distrust anyone distanced from us.

Yes, I am encouraged by vaccines and improved treatment methods. But I am angered by their often haphazard and inequitable administration, and I am troubled about what new COVID-19 mutations could portend.

I have had more than enough of dust and ashes stirred up by a virus that clings, sin-like, so close as to take our breath away, forever.

Nevertheless, I confess that I cannot let Ash Wednesday slip by unacknowledged. In the face of the suffering and death COVID-19 and the rest have imposed upon us, my face will bear witness to my trust that the cross triumphs over dust and ashes, including mine. Remembering my dustiness, I will repent of my despair, and trust Jesus. Forever.

First Place winner in litany/prayer category Reply

Ash Wednesday writing contest

Liturgy by Warren Aney for Southminster Presbyterian Church, Beaverton, Oregon

Judges’ comments:

“Warren Aney has crafted a service with powerful components–weaving together his own words with selected poems, songs, and prayers from other wordsmiths–calling us all to seek justice and reconciliation.”—Jane Kurtz and Caroline Kurtz


January 30, 2021Worship Guides


“When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
 Amanda GormanThe Hill We Climb

CALL TO WORSHIP | Warren Aney, “Soon” (2021)

If we continue on the right path, we shall soon say:
All lives matter now: Black and white and brown, Asian and native, Gay and straight, Rich and poor.
We all can now live and love together; Be appreciated and productive.
Creating and sharing, helping and protecting everyone, family, friend and neighbor, stranger and foreigner.  We have overcome.

OPENING HYMN  |  One Voice Children’s Choir, “Memories”

MINUTE FOR MISSION   Responsive Chorus

There are so many exciting ways that God is working through each of us and in this community. As we consider our receiving and our giving to the works of ministry in this place and in the world, may we remember that we belong to God.

Let us sing

Through all our living, we our fruits must give.
Good works of service are for offering.
When we are giving, or when receiving,
We belong to God.
We belong to God.
We belong to God.
We belong to God.

HEBREW READING | 2 Corinthians 5:16-20

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to herself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to herself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making her appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

THEME READING | Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

“I cannot pinpoint a moment when I became politicized, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle. To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicized from the moment of one’s birth, whether one acknowledges it or not…His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential, and stunt his life…I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, From henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

THEME VIDEO | “The Hill We Climb” Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate

TESTIMONY | “Reflection on Reconciliation” By Calvin Taylor


What are some examples or lessons learned that you would like to share?

SPECIAL MUSIC | “His Daughter” By Molly Kate Kestner, performed by Jason Sabino


  • Prayers for the family of long time member Jacqueline (Jacque) French who passed away January 7. Let’s hold Cheryl, her granddaughter, and the entire family in our thoughts and prayers. Visit a memorial page for Jacque here.
  • Karen Wittenburg lost her mother, Catherine Boyd on January 22. Catherine was 92. Karen continues treatment for cancer. She is currently at her home and continues to increase her activity.
  • Bert Schmidt – please keep him and Sue Chandler, daughter, in prayer.
  • Bob Buell continues to be in hospice.
  • Please keep the PNC (Pastor Nominating Committee) in prayer as they discern the future of Southminster.

CORPORATE PRAYER | Affirmation of Faith, “Peace and Justice” written by Erica VanEssendelft, Office of Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church

Our Father and Mother in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  We come before you, Lord, crying out in a violent land, crying for peace. Conflict is tearing people apart.  Our brothers and sisters suffer around the world.  We share their pain.  As refugees search for a home in foreign lands, guide them.  As world leaders try to dialogue peacefully, give them wisdom.  As strangers knock on our doors, help us to welcome them.  You are the Almighty, the Prince of Peace! Give us hope for tomorrow.  May your peace flow like a river through a dry land. Amen.

RESPONSIVE HYMN | “God of the Sparrow” by Southminster Choir



Presbyterian Writers Guild announces ‘Ash Wednesday’ writing contest Reply

To support and encourage Presbyterian writers, the Presbyterian Writers Guild is sponsoring a writing contest, with the theme of “Ash Wednesday.”

Winners will be named in three categories: (1) Personal Essay/Reflection, (2) Poem, and (3) Litany/Prayer. There is a 500-word limit for all entries. The deadline for entries is February 5.

One Grand Prize winner of the “Ash Wednesday” contest will receive a $100 cash prize. The winner in each category will receive a complimentary, yearlong membership renewal in the Guild. The PWG will publish all winners on its website and will attempt to place winning entries in other Presbyterian media. 

Entries will be judged by distinguished winners of PWG honors: John Buchanan, moderator of the 208th General Assembly (1996), former editor and publisher of The Christian Century and a winner of the David Steele Distinguished Writer Award; Jane Kurtz, winner of the 2020 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award; and Caroline Kurtz, winner of the Best First Book Award for the best first book by a Presbyterian author written during 2018-2019.

Only electronic submissions will be accepted. Please email submissions no later than Friday, February 5, to Jerry Van Marter, PWG secretary, at Paste your submission into the body of your message or attach it as a separate Word document. Include your name, Presbyterian affiliation, and the category in which you are submitting. There is no entry fee for Guild members. Non-members are asked to remit $25, which entitles you to a year’s membership in the Guild.

For instructions on how to remit the $25 annual membership dues, visit the Guild’s website or contact PWG treasurer, Bill Lancaster, by email for a PayPal invitation.

First-ever Poetry Slam is rousing success Reply

One of the poets, Claudio Carvalhaes, and son, Ike

The Presbyterian Writers Guild’s first-ever “Poetry Slam and Other Jazz” event was a rousing success. Nearly 40 people tuned in via Zoom November 15 for an hour’s worth of poetic and musical inspiration. The event featured readings by four acclaimed Presbyterian poets: Susan Baller-Shepard, Cláudio Carvalhaes (pictured above with his son, Ike), Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, and J. Barrie Shepherd. 

Jazz pianist Bill McConnell provided musical interludes that complemented the spoken words. Emcee Mike Ferguson engaged the poets in conversation about their interests and influences. One of the attendees, Paul Hooker, stepped up to the open mic and shared several of his poems. PWG president Emily Enders Odom closed out the event with an original poem as well.

Watch the recording of “Poetry Slam and Other Jazz” on YouTube:

Coming Nov. 15: ‘Poetry Slam and Other Jazz’ Reply

By Jerry L. Van Marter

On Sunday, November 15, 5:00-6:00 p.m. (Eastern), the Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG) will present an hour of poetry and music entitled “Poetry Slam and Other Jazz.” The program will feature renowned Presbyterian poets J. Barrie Shepherd, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, Cláudio Carvalhaes and Susan Baller-Shepard. Providing musical entertainment will be Presbyterian musician and jazz pianist Bill McConnell.

The free concert will be available at:

“Like so many groups during this unrelenting crisis, the members of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, having missed our opportunity to gather at the General Assembly this year, long to be together,” says Emily Enders Odom, president of the Presbyterian Writers Guild and a mission interpretation strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“Because the program for which the Guild is perhaps best known other than our biennial awards luncheon at GA was a ‘poetry jam’ we offered at the 2013 Big Tent,” Odom added, “we couldn’t think of a more appropriate time to reprise that event with both familiar and fresh voices.”

The slam will be emceed by Mike Ferguson, director of Presbyterian News Service and a member of the PWG board of directors. It will also include a brief “open mic” for attendees who wish to share their poetry. “In encouraging attendees to take advantage of the open mic time,” Odom noted, “we hope to hear what and how people have been thinking and writing during the pandemic.”

Featured participants:

J. Barrie Shepherd, retired pastor and former PWG board member, whose poems are published frequently in the Presbyterian Outlook, the Christian Century, and other venues, has been called by some the poet laureate of the PC(USA).

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is a pastor and prolific writer of contemporary hymns that are sung in churches around the world. Several of her hymns are in Glory to God, the new Presbyterian hymnal.

Cláudio Carvalhaes is a renowned poet, professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York,  and author of the new book, Liturgies from Below: Praying with People at the Ends of the World.

Susan Baller-Shepard was runner-up in this year’s Best First Book Award — given by Presbyterian Writers Guild and funded by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation — for her poetry collection titled Doe. She lives and writes in Bloomington, Illinois, where she is a pastor.

Bill McConnell is widely known in Presbyterian circles for his musical accompaniment and jazz stylings. Former director of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, McConnell currently serves in the Mission Engagement and Support office of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Kurtz sisters say Presbyterian Writers Guild awards are ‘extra special’ Reply

Jane and me with awards

Caroline and Jane Kurtz

When a worldwide pandemic upended plans for an in-person General Assembly, the Presbyterian Writers Guild had to postpone its biennial awards luncheon until 2022. But the two award-winners, Jane and Caroline Kurtz, were able to receive their awards this year, thanks to the U.S. postal service.

The sisters, who grew up in Ethiopia and are spending the COVID-19 lockdown together in Portland, Oregon, took a picture of themselves proudly holding their award plaques.

Jane Kurtz is winner of winner of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s David Steele Distinguished Writer Award for her cumulative body of work. She has published more than 35 children’s books, many of them about Ethiopian folklore and culture.

Caroline Kurtz, is winner of the Guild’s Best First Book Award for the best first book by a Presbyterian author written during 2018-2019. Her book is a memoir titled A Road Called Down on Both Sides: Growing Up in Ethiopia and America. The First Book Award is jointly sponsored by PWG and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

The Kurtz sisters are daughters of former Presbyterian mission workers Harold and Polly Kurtz, who served in Ethiopia from 1955 to 1977. This is the first time the Writers Guild’s two biennial awards have been given to siblings.

Caroline and Jane Kurtz’s awards will be presented formally and in person at a luncheon in their honor at the 2022 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. But the two did not want to wait two years to express their gratitude for the awards. Here are excerpts from the statements they sent to the Presbyterian Writers Guild:

From Jane Kurtz:

“My books have won a lot of awards over the years, but this one is extra special to me because I don’t know that I would ever have become an author if it weren’t for my Presbyterian heritage. When my mom and dad made the decision to serve the Presbyterian Church in Ethiopia, I was only two years old, but their response to the call meant I grew up surrounded by stories, experiences that have made great story material, and rich language diversity. Some of my published books have an Ethiopia connection. I also published a novel for young readers, Anna Was Here (Greenwillow/HarperCollins), where the protagonist is a preacher’s kid. (To be fair, many of the details for that book are a result of also marrying a Presbyterian minister.) Recently, my books have focused on what ordinary humans can do to try to serve God’s gorgeous Earth, a passion that was planted in me during my childhood spent outside in Maji, Ethiopia. I’m still writing and also (with Caroline) volunteering my time to create Ready Set Go Books to give Ethiopians creative books to read. Thank you for celebrating this amazing artistic and global life I’ve been lucky enough to have.”

From Caroline Kurtz:

“What an extra honor it is to be recognized in the same year as my sister! I kept my writing dream secret for many years, and Jane was a generous mentor, encouraging me to dare.

I grew up with my parents and siblings in remote Ethiopia, outside the town of Maji. It was a lush, mountainous area, and we children enjoyed nine years of isolated but idyllic childhood there. Jane and I learned to read and write in Maji and became bookworms, as our mother taught us at home in early childhood.

I went back to Ethiopia to teach young Ethiopian girls English in my 40s, with my husband and three children. The deeper reason I went back was to continue my education in how to live in conditions of great diversity, how to find the oneness of our humanity under our Creator.

I have now started a nonprofit, the Maji Development Coalition, to bring development and electricity to Maji (solar is the lowest-cost option for this district, lying beyond the end of the national electric grid). Now that the pandemic has stopped my quarterly trips to Ethiopia, I am watching with delight as local leaders step up to make crucial decisions for their own future.

I am working on a sequel to my memoir, this one set in Kenya and South Sudan, where I worked for four years during the Sudanese civil war.

The Presbyterian Writers Guild award will help me promote my books to audiences newly aware of the need to do what I have dedicated my life to learning: to work in warm collaboration with people who are different from myself. It also adds credibility to my status as the leader of a nonprofit attempting to right some of the global inequities that countries like Ethiopia struggle against. This is in addition to the delight I feel at having been recognized by the church that has been home to three generations of my family. I do not expect to find fame or fortune in my writing life, but the rewards of the writing come first in the act itself, and then in finding warm readers like you, who resonate with the stories I tell.”



Caroline Kurtz wins Best First Book Award Reply

Sisters win top two awards from Presbyterian Writers Guild

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Kurtz bookCaroline Kurtz, a missionary kid who from age 5 grew up in Ethiopia with her parents and siblings, has been named winner of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s biennial Best First Book Award for the best first book by a Presbyterian author written during 2018-2019. The Best First Book Award is co-sponsored by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and comes with a $500 cash prize.

Ironically, Caroline Kurtz’s sister, Jane, is this year’s winner of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s David Steele Distinguished Writer Award for her cumulative body of work–mostly children’s books about Ethiopian folklore and culture. This is the first time the Writers Guild’s two biennial awards have been given to siblings.

Kurtz’s book, A Road Called Down on Both Sides: Growing Up in Ethiopia and America, delightfully chronicles her upbringing in Ethiopia by her parents, Harold and Polly Kurtz, who served in that country from 1955 to 1977. The family returned to Portland, Oregon, where Harold Kurtz founded the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. He died of brain cancer in 2009.

Caroline Kurtz, the oldest of four siblings, left Ethiopia to attend college in Illinois and says she “felt like I’d been exiled to a foreign country.” After finishing school, she immediately returned to Ethiopia, where she continues to live, spearheading development in that country’s Maji District.

A Road Called Down on Both Sides is described by Ethiopian official Woubeshet Ayenew as “introspective and light-hearted. … I was elated to find that her colorful journey and deliberation afforded her the best possible conclusion–Ethiopia and America are indeed different, but they may be the yin and yang that we all seek.”

Doe bookIn an unusual move due to the closeness of the competition, the Presbyterian Writers Guild board of directors has awarded an Honorable Mention to Susan Baller-Shepard, an Illinois pastor, for her book of poetry entitled Doe. Best First Book committee member Skip Dunford of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, said, “We found Susan’s poems to be deeply moving.”

Caroline and Jane Kurtz’s awards will be presented at a luncheon in their honor at the 2022 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio.

Jane Kurtz to receive 2020 distinguished writer award Reply

Jane KurtzJane Kurtz, a prolific author, artist, and literacy advocate and a child of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission workers, has been named the recipient of the 2020 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award by the Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG).

Kurtz, a ruling elder in the PC(USA), has published more than 35 children’s books, from picture books and easy-readers to middle-grade novels. Her most recent picture book won the 2019 Oregon Spirit Book Award for nonfiction from the Oregon Council of Teachers of English. What Do They Do with All That Poo? is full of fun and serious facts about what zoos do with the poo generated every day by their animal residents.

“Jane has modeled a life dedicated to sharing her passion for creativity, writing, and teaching,” wrote Caroline Kurtz, founder and executive director of the Maji Development Coalition, in nominating her sister for the honor. “Jane and I are daughters of Presbyterian missionaries in Ethiopia for 23 years, Harold and Polly Kurtz. I am not totally objective, but I believe Jane’s lifetime of literary accomplishment deserves to be celebrated!”

Named for the late David Steele, Presbyterian poet and essayist best known for his “Tuesday Morning” column in the Presbyterian Outlook, the distinguished writer award is given biennially to a Presbyterian writer who blessed the church with his or her writing over the course of a career.

As an artist and author, Kurtz has spoken in schools all over the U.S. and the world, encouraging children to write what is in their hearts. She co-founded Ethiopia Reads, a non-profit in Ethiopia dedicated to literacy and the developing of children’s libraries.

“Having had the great honor and joy of working with David Steele in the 1990s, I am convinced that Jane’s newest book would tickle Dave’s funny bone,” said Emily Enders Odom, president of the PWG and chair of its award selection committee. “Her most recent book would also resonate with John Calvin, whose fixation with the accumulated animal droppings on Noah’s Ark was documented by William J. Bouwsma in his unique portrait of the 16th century reformer.”

“My life as a writer began with passionate reading,” said Kurtz upon being informed of her selection for the biennial award. “No one has more doubt and needs more faith than an artist, so my spiritual path and my writing path are closely entwined. I’m deeply honored to have this award from a community that welcomed my quirky self and gave me a robust life of the mind and imagination.”