The Presbyterian Writers Guild is sponsoring a new writing contest. Try your hand at writing a 4,000-word short story, and receive some valuable guidance along the way. Deadline for entering the contest is September 30, 2016.
By Jerry L. Van Marter
Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop has been named winner of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s 2014-2015 Best First Book Award.
The award–with a $500 cash prize funded by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation–is given at each General Assembly to the best first book by a Presbyterian writer during the previous two years. Bishop will receive her award at the Writers Guild’s General Assembly Luncheon June 23 in Portland, Oregon.
Bishop’s story begins on the night before Palm Sunday in 1990 when, after returning home from dinner with family, her sister, Nancy, and husband, Richard, and their unborn child were all brutally murdered by an intruder. The book then takes the reader through a gut-wrenching but ultimately heart-warming journey as Jeanne Bishop’s life is transformed from revenge seeking to restorative justice.
The Best First Book Award judges noted: “Many of us see a violent news story and if it doesn¹t impact us personally, we move on, not considering the long-term impact that violence has on the community and the family. The author is honest about the awful actions of the man who murdered her family members, her own struggles, and the ways in which her faith pushed her beyond the usual platitudes and commitments into advocating for a new way to see and seek justice, personally as well as legally. Transformation is hard, and this story disturbs and challenges every reader’s belief systems and commitments as a Christian.”
Bishop, who still lives in Winnetka, Illinois, in suburban Chicago, where her sister and family were murdered, is a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
The Writers Guild’s Best First Book Award committee also awarded an Honorable Mention to Scott Dannemiller, a former PC(USA) missionary in Guatemala who now lives with his family in Franklin, Tennessee, for his first book, The Year Without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting.
While acknowledging that money is important, Dannemiller writes that “preoccupation with money is a symptom of something larger lurking just beneath the surface.” Through often hilarious anecdotes, he chronicles his family’s exploration of what’s wrong with a life overly influenced by consumerism.
One judge noted: “This book is fun, funny, and faithful–sharing both the moral quandaries of consumerism in the U.S. and practical stumbling blocks for those of us seeking to live differently. I found myself laughing at the stories, finding great meaning in the insightful observations made by the author’s children, and thinking of ways I could get out of the frantic cycle of buying stuff.”
Winning entries to be published in a book
The winners of the final phase of the Presbyterian Writers Guild three-phase writing contest have been selected.
In the first phase of the contest–inspired by Jesus’ practice of teaching with parables–authors were invited to submit an opening hook for a story. In the second phase, they were asked to compose a flash fiction piece of about 1,000 words. The third phase called for a short story of under 4,000 words.
For the short story phase, the winners are:
- First Place–Melissa Bane Sevier (Versailles, Kentucky), “Awareness”
- Second Place–Lori Herter (Santa Ana, California), “The Outsider”
- Third Place–Henry Brinton (Fairfax, Virginia), “Resolution”
- Fourth Place–Lara MacGregor (Old Mill Creek, Illinois), “The River”
“These modern-day parables addressed a variety of concerns and, like the parables of Jesus, force the reader to think more deeply about the issues,” says PWG board member, Stephen McCutchan, who coordinated the contest on behalf of the Guild. “Issues like spouse abuse, hunger, hospitality to strangers, vampires, and the wisdom of children are fleshed out in these stories.”
The top eight opening hooks, four flash fiction stories, and eight short stories, plus a children’s story and a poem, are being published by the Guild in the book An Experiment in Modern Parables, which will be available for sale at the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, and on Amazon. The Guild will celebrate the winners at its GA luncheon on June 23.
“We celebrate the creativity within the Presbyterian community,” McCutchan says.
By Cathy Chisholm
Two veteran church communicators have been named recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG). Houston Hodges and Jerry Van Marter will be recognized for “distinguished service to the church through writing/communication” at the Guild’s General Assembly luncheon June 23 in Portland, Oregon.
Van Marter, who currently serves as stated clerk of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery and alumni relations advisor for San Francisco Theological Seminary, retired in 2014 from the Presbyterian News Service (PNS) after more than 26 years of reporting and editing. His byline has appeared on stories covering the work of the various councils, committees, and task forces of the church and its ecumenical partners, including 39 General Assemblies. Van Marter says that during his career, he traveled to almost every state and all over the world to “see first-hand the life-changing mission and ministry being done in the name of our beloved denomination.”
Ordained by Olympia Presbytery in 1971, Van Marter served as pastor of several congregations in California prior to his ministry with PNS.
Van Marter credits Hodges with giving him his start as a church journalist in San Francisco Presbytery. “Without his encouragement, I never would have even considered a career in church journalism.”
Hodges also cited his friendship with Van Marter in his response to news of the award. “The communicator is short on words,” said Hodges. “Oh, my. The thing that just keeps flooding over me is that I get to share it with Van Marter, and we’ve done so much of it together.”
Hodges’ first experience in journalism was helping his parents publish a semi-weekly newspaper in West Texas. Ordained in 1954, he has served in campus ministry and as a pastor in Texas and California, as well as in Winnipeg with the United Church of Canada. Prior to retirement in 1995, he served as executive presbyter of North Alabama Presbytery.
His writing career has included serving as a volunteer in the General Assembly newsroom, editor of Monday Morning magazine, and author of Circle of Years: a Caretaker’s Journal, the story of his mother’s battle against dementia. With Matt Cooney, he co-authored Faith Alive, describing the development of a congregation’s interactive and intergenerational worship.
A pioneer in the use of computers and the internet for church communications, Hodges recognized early the potential to “be in touch anytime, anywhere.” For the last decade, he has been heard on WLRH Huntsville Public Radio as a contributor to The Sundial Writers’ Corner.
Previous Lifetime Achievement Award winners include the renowned poets Ann Weems and J. Barrie Shepherd.
By Emily Enders Odom
MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a writer, pastor, conference leader, and highly sought-after speaker, has been named the recipient of the 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award by the Presbyterian Writers Guild.
Dana—author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, a Chalice Press bestseller for two years running—has a robust presence on social media, and has been commenting on life, ministry, theology, and culture on her blog, The Blue Room, for more than 12 years. She will receive the prestigious award at the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s General Assembly luncheon June 23 in Portland, Oregon.
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 has blessed the church with his or her writing over the course of a career.
“[MaryAnn] is a voice that speaks to our modern situation and does so with grace and dignity, a love for the church and its people, and a prophetic word for those with ears to hear,” wrote Rebecca Page Lesley, pastor of Green Acres Presbyterian Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, in nominating her for the honor.
Dana, who most recently served as pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, Virginia, was featured on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly for her work on Sabbath. Her writing has appeared in TIME.com, The Washington Post, Religion Dispatches, Journal for Preachers, and The Christian Century, and for three years in a monthly column for Presbyterians Today. Her next book, tentatively titled Improvising with God, is under contract with Eerdmans and will be published in 2017.
“We are especially thrilled to honor MaryAnn with this award named for the late David Steele, who also delighted in experimenting with new forms of writing and modes of communication,” said William Lancaster, who, with Emily Enders Odom, co-chaired the selection committee.
Dana, who lives with her family in Reston, Virginia, also served as co-chair of NEXT Church for two years, a movement within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that “seeks to call forth vital ministry for our changing cultural context.” She is a mother of three, a “haphazard knitter,” and an occasional marathoner.
“For once, the writer is at a loss for words,” said Dana upon being informed of the honor. “I couldn’t be more honored and humbled to be in the company of other Distinguished Writer Award recipients—people whose work I’ve read and admired for much of my adult life. I am especially touched that my colleague and fellow Columbia Seminary alum, Becca Page Lesley, took time out of her busy life and ministry to nominate me for this honor. I’m surprised, touched and grateful.”
Previous winners include Kathy Bostrom, Katherine Paterson, Fredrick Buechner, Ann Weems, Eugene H. Peterson, Gustav Niebuhr, Marj Carpenter, Gayraud Wilmore, Eva Stimson, Kathleen Norris, Bill Tammeus, John Buchanan, Doris Betts, and the late Vic Jameson.
By Emily Enders Odom
The Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG) is accepting nominations for its 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award. Deadline for nominations is February 1, 2016.
The award is given biennially in even-numbered years to recognize the cumulative work and influence—regardless of genre or subject matter—of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) writer. The award will be presented at the PWG luncheon at this summer’s 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Oregon.
Previous winners include The Message author Eugene H. Peterson, The Christian Century editor/publisher John M. Buchanan, former Presbyterian News Service director Marj Carpenter, former Presbyterians Today editor Eva Stimson, children’s author Kathleen Bostrom, novelists Doris Betts and Katherine Paterson, poet Ann Weems, Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus, African-American religious historian Gayraud Wilmore, essayists Kathleen Norris and Frederick Buechner, and journalists Gustav Niebuhr and the late Vic Jameson.
The award is named for R. David Steele, a Presbyterian pastor best known for his whimsical books of poetry and thought-provoking column, “Tuesday Morning,” in The Presbyterian Outlook.
Nominations for the award should include the writer’s PC(USA) affiliation, list of published work, and a 100-word essay describing why the nominee is deserving of the award. Contact information for both the nominator and the nominee must be included with each submission.
Send nominations by February 1 to Bill Lancaster, co-chair of the selection committee, by email or by mail to 105 Rapid River Trail, Greenville, SC 29615.
Practice Thinking Like Jesus
By Stephen McCutchan
Jesus wrote parables that confronted major issues in society. You can too. Submissions are coming in for the second phase of the Presbyterian Writers Guild An Experiment in Modern Parables contest. You are invited to submit Flash Fiction (1000 words or less) that lifts up some of the major issues that confront both the faith community and society. Deadline is November 30.
If you want examples of artful flash fiction, review some of Jesus’ parables. In less than 320 words (English version), Jesus engaged his listeners in probing our response to violence, bigotry, and hypocrisy in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In approximately 200 words, Jesus probed the destructive impact of materialism in the parable of the Rich Fool. In just a little over 100 words, Jesus paints a picture of the effort to which God will go in recovering those who have lost their way in this world (Luke 15:3-7.)
Whether or not you participated in the first phase of the PWG three-phase contest, you are invited to participate in the Flash Fiction phase. Please send your entry by November 30 to email@example.com.
The contest is open to all members of the Presbyterian Writers Guild. Join or renew your membership for $25 at https://presbyterianwritersguild.org/join-the-presbyterian-writers-guild/
The top three winners will be published in future issues of The Writer. Also, the winning stories will be shared with editors of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the Presbyterian Outlook, and the PC(USA) Communications Network. (The editors have no commitment to act on these winners, but it does introduce them to skilled writers within the Presbyterian community.)
If you feel the 1,000-word limit is too restrictive, consider entering the Short Story phase (under 4,000 words, due by February 15). Remember that the Bible takes on the whole issue of nationalism, bigotry, and religious narrowness in around 1,500 words in the book of Jonah. Ruth and Esther are other examples of short stories that examine complex issues.
Those who write the stories will be involved in judging them. We will ask all of you to read the stories and evaluate them according to some suggested criteria: Did the story grab your attention and hold your interest? Can you picture the main characters—how they look, feel, interact with others? Do you know what the tension or conflict was at the center of the story? Did reading the story expand your thinking?
The opening paragraph of the top eight short stories will be published in The Writer. The winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift certificate. Second, third, and fourth place will receive $50. In addition, the winner will be published in subsequent issues of the Presbyterian Outlook in serial form, and the second place story will be published on the PWG web page.
The winners of phase 1 of the Presbyterian Writers Guild writing contest have been announced! Here are the top 10 Opening Hooks, in order of votes received:
#1 Melissa Bane Sevier
The bedroom felt oppressive at 3:30 a.m. His arm around her, though relaxed in sleep, bound her to time and place, to anxiety and despair. She longed for the dim stripes of sunrise to seep through the partially open blinds, bringing the dawn of yet another pretense of normalcy. Then she would slip from his grasp, wearing the night’s fear into the day as if it were an invisible shroud.
#2 Elsie Gilmore
Whoever had that light on in the attic window has it on no more. It was like a beacon, like a dim city set on a hill of household happenings. It guided me from work to home each night. So dependent was I on its steadfastness that I drove past my own gate the first night it was missing. Its absence haunted me like a missing key to my own existence.
#3 Cary Speaker
In the spring of 1963 my best friend, Barry, and I were standing on the toilet in one bathroom stall looking down on our friend Roger who was sitting on the toilet in the other stall, with his pants on. We were all three in the eighth grade. Barry and I had searched all over the school for Roger. We were angry and looking for a fight. When we found him we changed our minds.
#4 Ariel Lenarduzzi
What do you look like in color? Your photo is in black and white.
A picture in the back of the bulletin. Square. Like a picture from a passport for a foreign traveler who has long been forgotten by the passing of time.
The last time you spoke; the last time you preached. I was sitting too far to see you. I heard you. Your voice, your message, your call to action, your forgiveness.
#5 Alan Cutter
I woke up about 0430, buckled up my .45, grabbed a bottle of Johnnie Walker, and went outside to wait. The early air was already hot, a still humid haze hanging on the bay, morning light lifting the darkness, hinting at the tantalizing possibility of a beautiful day in Vietnam. Pouring three fingers, taking the day’s first sip, I said aloud, letting the words challenge the oppressive humidity, “It’s a good day to die.”
# 6 Matthew Rich
“It is fine,” he had said. Last year a few more new members joined the church than saints entered life eternal; steady giving with the expected December bump; a preschool full of laughing toddlers; programs every night of the week; no significant conflict. Yes, everything was “fine.” And yet . . .
Looking out the window, he wondered if fine was faithful, as someone slid behind the green dumpster. Who was she? What was she doing?
#7 Susan Baller-Shepherd
The vicodin settled in nicely as Stephanie pulled into the church parking lot for second service.
“Where in the world could I have put those? Have you seen them, Steph?” Joan asked at home, guessing her Rheumatoid Arthritis meds weren’t actually lost at all.
“Mom, you’re so forgetful, I swear!” Stephanie protested.
Getting out of the car, Stephanie held onto the door for support, nauseous and lightheaded, she felt herself going down for the count.
#8 Andrew Taylor-Troutman
On the morning her preacher promised that God would annihilate the world by fire, she awoke and crept outside, only to watch the pagan squirrels in her backyard scolding one another as they raced headlong around the ancient trees. By the time dust bit into the far horizon, she was unable to pray. But, damn it, could she ever curse!
#9 Lara MacGregor
I turned 40 that summer and I was between churches (an ironic way of saying “unemployed,” since “between” implies something on either side). Turns out, circulating a résumé when you are married with a toddler isn’t the same as looking for a new job when you’re single. Mobility becomes an issue. Money is more of an issue. And then there is your spouse’s job to consider. Where does God’s call fit in all of this?
#10 Deb Hadachek
The day she made three little boys and one mother cry during Sunday school, God made clear she was trying to claim a gift she did not possess.
An interview with Kathy Bostrom
Kathy Bostrom, recipient of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s 2014 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award and other prestigious writing awards, has published numerous articles and more than three dozen books, most for children. Her books have sold several million copies and have been translated into 17 languages. Bostrom served as pastor of Wildwood Presbyterian Church in Chicago Presbytery for 22 years and now lives and writes full-time in Carlsbad, California. She responds to 3 questions asked by the Presbyterian Writers Guild:
- Whose writing has most influenced your work?
Frederick Buechner’s elegant and eloquent storytelling and his imaginative way of sharing biblical stories and concepts captivates me. I’ve read nearly everything he’s written, attended his lectures, and even had the audacity to hand him one of my early essays and ask him to read it. He sent it back to me with comments. I cringe to think how nervy I was, but he was so gracious and kind that I have resolved to always treat writers who approach me for help with the same spirit.
Barbara Brown Taylor was a later addition to my repertoire, but I poured through her sermons when I served as a pastor. As I now focus on my vocation as a writer, I’ve been drawn to the honesty and depth of her memoirs. I read Leaving Church for the second time when I found myself struggling with leaving ministry to devote myself to writing.
Katherine Paterson, as a writer and a person, has been my muse for writing children’s books. I interviewed her for a book I wrote on Newbery Medal authors and will never forget her willingness to give her time to a newbie author. We’ve kept in touch sporadically over the years and she is consistently gracious. Her love for children and for writing about tough and painful issues, even in the face of criticism, inspires me and makes me proud to be an author of children’s books, too.
Even though I’ve given up the dream of being The Next Frederick Buechner or Barbara Brown Taylor or Katherine Paterson, they have all inspired me to be Kathleen Long Bostrom, writer in her own right.
- In what ways has writing for children inspired your own faith?
I love the spiritual depth of children. They have an awareness of the divine that leaves me in awe. They aren’t yet jaded by the world, nor are they afraid to ask questions. My Little Blessings series with Tyndale began with a question a little girl at church asked me one Sunday morning: “Is God a boy or a girl?” I put a lot of thought into that answer, which became my first accepted book, What Is God Like? It’s been a great exercise for me as a pastor and writer to try to convey theological and spiritual truths for 6-year-olds. It’s made me think through my own understanding of faith.
We have much to learn from children. They are so resilient! They accept the traumas of the world far better than adults. They recognize death as part of life. They ask questions. They embrace the moment. Children embrace God, and the world, with open arms. They are my greatest inspiration in writing and in my faith journey.
- Do you have a vision for the Presbyterian Writers Guild?
The Guild has been a major part of my life as a writer, from introducing me to my first editor and my current agent, to encouraging me along the way, to honoring me with the David Steele Distinguished Writer Award in 2014. I count many of the Guild board members as my friends.
Vic Jameson, one of our deeply beloved Guild members, honored us with a bequest in his will that truly saved us as an organization. We are in a healthy place now. Our work continues to unfold as society changes and we are trying to stay current and viable. We seek ways to connect with new writers and encourage those who seek publication. Conferences are valuable but expensive to run and to attend, so we are trying to discover other ways to be a visible presence. We need to keep coloring outside the lines and trying new ventures. My vision is that in decades to come, the PWG will be strong and vital and visible. It’s up to all of us who are members to make this happen for future generations of writers.
An interview with Eugene Peterson
Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor, scholar, author, and poet, has written more than 30 books. He is perhaps best known for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, written to make the original meaning of the Scriptures more accessible for today’s readers.
- Whose writing has most influenced your work?
Dostoevsky. I observed and immersed myself in his writings in my early years of formation as a pastor; he gave me the imagination to discern the complexities of the spiritual life in a culture that does not affirm it.
Karl Barth. He gave me a theology that was both simple and profound, gathering Scripture into a cohesive interaction with the life of faith. He has seemed to me a well that never goes dry.
Both writers have been companions with me for 50 years.
- In what ways did your work on The Message impact your faith?
In the 20 years that I was doing the work of translating, it both confirmed and clarified my relation with the Scriptures. The clarification came through finding an American equivalent that kept the original Hebrew and Greek alive in my culture. The confirmation came as I recognized how congruent my life had become with what I had been reading and living for 40 years.
3. Which of Jesus’ parables do you think the Presbyterian Church most needs to listen to today?
As I was translating the parables, with a kind of shock of recognition, I recognized the fig tree parable (Luke 13:6–9) as my favorite. I renamed it “Manure.” Mostly, I think, because so much of the Presbyterian Church’s conversation has become so cantankerous, combative, and schismatic. And manure seemed the most effective and least contentious way to build up the soil and return civility to our church. (My reflections on this parable are in Tell It Slant, pages 65–74.)