The Guild’s first-ever Ash Wednesday writing contest attracts 20 entries
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
Ruth Linnea Whitney won the grand prize, $100, for her poem, “Ash Season.” Whitney is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Port Townsend, Washington. 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, judged both the poetry and liturgy entries.
“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,” the sisters said of the grand prize winner. “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.”
Whitney grants churches permission to use her poem so long as they attribute the work to her.
“Enough of Dust and Ashes,” an essay by Dean Myers of Willoughby, Ohio, was judged the top entry in its class by the Rev. 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.
“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,” Buchanan said. “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.’”
The liturgy that Warren Aney wrote for Jan. 31 worship at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, was named top liturgy entry in the contest, according to Jane Kurtz and Caroline Kurtz. “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,” the Kurtz sisters said.
To honor their contributions, Myers and Aney will receive a complimentary yearlong membership renewal in the Guild.
“The contest more than met our board’s hopes and expectations in that it not only kept the mission of the Presbyterian Writers Guild in front of the PC(USA) during the pandemic but also encouraged creativity among Presbyterian writers,” said the Rev. Emily Enders Odom, president of the PWG. “Because we had also intended that the winning entries might become part of the fabric of our churches’ Ash Wednesday observances, we are grateful for this opportunity to publish the contributions of these three gifted writers and to express the board’s gratitude to all of our talented contest entrants.”
Whitney’s poem is reproduced in its entirety below. The works of Myers and Aney are excerpted.
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.
Enough of Dust and Ashes
by 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.
… 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 ….
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.
Liturgy for Jan. 31 worship at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Beaverton, Oregon
by Warren Aney
PAUSE FOR REFLECTION
“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 Gorman, “The 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. …
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.” …
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. …
Reach each winning entry in its entirety by visiting the website of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, found here.
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