It was like stumbling through the coats and falling into Narnia. That’s how Maryanne McKibben Dana felt when she sent her first blog post out into the world 13 years ago.
Dana, who was awarded the David Steele Distinguished Writer Award at the Presbyterian Writers Guild Luncheon on Thursday at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has been blogging ever since.
She now writes from a site called The Blue Room, ruminating about life, culture, the church and writing itself. She also is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs and has another book in the works, but it is blogging that has changed her writing, and her life.
“We publish books because we want to produce something that will last,” she said. “We want to leave an artifact. We have an eye to longevity and legacy.”
She explained that, in this age of burgeoning social-media platforms, new writers will likely be doing most of their writing online, in short bursts, rather than publishing books designed to last.
“The fact is that we are awash in words, she said. “More ways to deliver words to one another than ever before in time. Words dissolve into the ether, drowned in the noise of 24/7 news and entertainment.
“So we have a choice. We can despair, or we can see every word we write as opportunity. We get to decide whether Twitter is this noisy place, or a place to craft our own carefully written modern day haiku. Facebook can be the den of banality, or the modern day way to write letters to the church.”
Dana told the moving story of Grace Episcopal Church in Randolph, New York, whose congregation discovered one morning that someone had spray-painted a question on the walls of their building: “Can I still get to heaven if I kill myself?”
After some heart-searching, the members of the church spray-painted a response: “God loves you with no exceptions!” They answered in the medium of the message they had received, and the picture went viral all around the world.
“The truth is, writing is never gone,” Dana said. “It goes into the spiritual cells of people who read it and take it to heart. It’s the alchemy of the Holy Spirit working through us.”
The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, which funds the award presented by the Presbyterian Writers Guild, gave its First Book Award to Jeanne Bishop, author Changeof Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer.
“Love is stronger than hate or death,” Bishop said. “Forgiveness is stronger than retribution.”
Bishop’s book tells the story of the brutal murder of her sister, her sister’s husband, and their unborn baby by a teenage assailant in 1990, and the long journey since to mercy and forgiveness.
The Guild also joyfully awarded dual lifetime achievement awards to Houston Hodges and Jerry Van Marter.
Van Marter retired in December 2014 as coordinator and editor of the Presbyterian News Service after a 26-year career in which he flew more than 2 million miles, visited 49 of the 50 states and attended 40 General Assemblies. “Jerry was – and still is – unparalleled in his ability as a writer to make complex issues both understandable and relevant to Presbyterians in the pews,” Emily Enders Odom said in introducing him.
Hodges (who was unable to be present due to health concerns) also had a prolific career, including campus ministry, pastoral leadership and presbytery leadership. He served in the General Assembly newsroom, as editor of Monday Morning magazine and is author of Circle of Years: a Caretaker’s Journal.
Van Marter devoted his time to singing Hodges’ praises. “I was misfit as a pastor,” he said. “Houston nurtured my writing. Houston was the one who encouraged me the most to take on this craft. I am just tickled that the Writer’s Guild has chosen to honor us both at the same time.”
Both Van Marter and Hodges (in the remarks he sent), said together: “It is glorious to be companions in the grand quest to recount the exploits of Almighty God.”