The Upper Room writing competition 2020: the winners

The Upper Room writing competition 2020: the winners

We are delighted to announce the results of this year’s Upper Room writing competition. With well over 70 entries, there were many of an exceptionally high standard. After long and short-listing by Eley McAinsh, Editor of Bible Reflections for Older People, the final decisions were made by BRF’s Head of Content Creation, Olivia Warburton. Olivia selected an outright winner and two equal runners-up. All three winning reflections will be published in a future issue of The Upper Room and the winners also receive a year’s subscription to The Upper Room.

Winner: Andrew Dutton: Called by name
Runner-up: Clare O’Driscoll: Slow swim
Runner-up: Valerie Eker: Finishing the race

Highly commended
In addition to the winner and runners-up, Olivia highly commended six entries. These reflections will be passed to the UK editor of The Upper Room, Daniele Och, for possible future selection.

Amy Turner (You can), Caroline Mansell (The divine eagle), Catherine Hardcastle (Keep it simple!), Helen Vincent (Musée des beaux arts), Matt McChlery (When the music fades) and Mercia Flanagan (More than conquerors).

Special mention
One further entrant impressed the judges with a series of reflections. Technically disqualified because only one entry per writer was invited, Derek Morgan submitted four reflections, each one of which was of a sufficiently high standard to attract our attention.

Andrew Dutton

Introducing the winner, Andrew Dutton
Andrew grew up in South London but has lived in Northamptonshire for the last thirty years. Now seventy years old, he taught science in comprehensive schools and, after training to be a self-supporting minister in the Church of England, he combined his role as a teacher with that of school chaplain in a Church of England school. After leaving teaching, he spent seven years in parish ministry, retiring four years ago. He now serves as a Borough Councillor and is a trustee for a local charity.

Andrew has used The Upper Room for several years. He told us why he values the notes, and how he came to enter the competition: ‘It reminds me that I am part of a world-wide Church. The Father has gifted the members of the Body of Christ in so many diverse ways through His Holy Spirit. I have found so many contributions from people far away which spoke to me, personally, of the things of God. I have often wondered how the writers were selected and so I just had to try the competition when I found out about it in the mailing that accompanied the latest issue.’

‘I also wrote the piece for my father who died some years ago. He fought in Burma during World War II and could never forgive the Japanese for the terrible things he experienced. I thought of him when I made the prayer focus for my reflection 'those whose lives are blighted by war.'

‘The thing that I will never forget was that I felt compelled to kneel beside the communal grave which was so densely covered in oak leaves that the inscription was completely obscured. Was this some sort of atonement? There were no spaces between the words in the Gothic Script and so I had to write it down and puzzle it out on the coach as we went back to where we were staying.

‘I would very much like to write more. This is the first time I have entered a competition of this sort although I have given a 'thought for the day' on local radio on a few occasions.’

Read Andrew's entry

Clare O'Driscoll

Introducing runner-up, Clare O’Driscoll
Clare lives in West Sussex with her family and works as a part-time language tutor, teaching Spanish and French. She also does some voluntary editing work.

‘Both these things hint at how much I love language!’, she says. ‘As such, I have written informally since childhood, and do occasionally write articles, but it’s not always easy to find outlets for my work. Therefore getting to this stage in the competition was a huge encouragement, particularly as I’d never really written a devotional piece before.

‘Slowing down and waiting for God’s timing has been a fairly constant theme in my life, often testing my patience excruciatingly. As a friend passed on the competition details when I had just started open water swimming and was raving about it to everyone who would listen, the ideas coupled up very naturally in my head.

‘I wanted to write for Upper Room because I love its range, variety and the personal touch of having readers as contributors. I have always found Bible reading notes invaluable, though I’m a little inconsistent, hopping between various publications including New Daylight, Upper Room and my trusty book of Celtic Daily Prayer.’

Read Clare's entry

Valerie Eker

Introducing runner-up, Valerie Eker
Valerie lives in Camberley, Surrey, with her husband Michael. They met four years ago on a silent retreat at Lee Abbey. ‘It is a second marriage for us both,' she told us, ‘and one that temporarily knocked our adult children off their feet with surprise!’ They both have two children and between them they have five grandchildren.

Valerie taught throughout her working life, but when her children were young she ‘loved being a home based mum’. After she retired, she trained to be a spiritual director and felt greatly fulfilled through accompanying other people along the path of their individual relationships with God.

Her own path changed quite dramatically after she met Michael: ‘My whole way of life now is so totally different to the one I led before we met. It's as if God put up a diversion sign on my very familiar previous route and completely changed my course. Now, only my final destination remains the same. He certainly is the God of surprises!

‘I found out about the competition by browsing through the BRF website, which I do from time to time. I entered the competition almost as a challenge to myself to discover if I should be giving more time to writing now or not. It was a kind of fleece to see how to move forward from where I am.

‘I have always enjoyed reading other people who are very honest about their own shortcomings yet who have an insightful understanding of the ways God has been at work with them. So, I went back through my journals to see if there were any occasions which might highlight something universal about God through one small, specific illustration from my own life.

‘At different times through my life I have turned my hand to writing. Many years ago I wrote lesson plans for Scripture Union and had some articles published in the magazine ‘Christian Woman’. Later I wrote and edited a double page broadsheet which my then church in Bristol circulated around the parish. It aimed to tell human stories of members of the congregation which might connect to the experiences of local people and show how Christian faith was relevant and real to them.

‘I have to admit that at the beginning of my Christian life I tried to use Bible study notes but could never stay within their confines. I always wanted to rush ahead of them or stay still when they moved on. Although I read the Bible every morning I no longer use study notes for my own devotions but like to read them freely, like chapters in a book, at other times.

‘I could not have been more excited to learn I've become a runner up in the BRF competition and I have to accept it as a little nudge to go forward and do some more writing (although, as yet, I don't know what).’

Read Valerie's entry

A note from the judges
Olivia Warburton
What a rewarding task it was, judging the entries for this year’s Upper Room writing competition! Although it wasn’t completely straightforward to make the final selection from such a strong field of thoughtful, inspiring reflections…

Andrew Dutton’s winning ‘Called by name’ offered a message of love and forgiveness that we all need to hear time and again. Clare O’Driscoll’s ‘Slow swim’ made me smile and nod, relating to what she said about feeling the pressure to keep up with other people’s achievements, and I loved Valerie Eker's wise words in ‘Finishing the race’ about placing our trust in Jesus and not our own ‘stickability’.

A very big thank you to all who participated this year – you are all stars!

Eley McAinsh, editor of Bible Reflections for Older People
We were delighted with the response to this year’s Upper Room writing competition. Whether lockdown-related or not, we had more than double the number of entries we had the last time we ran the competition in 2017.

Long-listing is relatively easy – overall, the standard was very high. A first reading of every entry resulted in an initial cull and an immediate recognition of the stand out pieces. Two further readings of all the entries either confirmed or challenged first impressions, but eventually the long list was whittled down to a long short list.

After that it became much harder. There were a number of moving personal stories of illness, loss and bereavement, and a number of testimonies to the guidance, provision and protection of God in moments of extremis. When these failed to reach the later rounds it was because, however powerful, they didn’t quite manage to universalise the experience in a relatable way for the reader.

The reflections which made it through successive rounds had different themes but all shared the qualities of good writing: clarity, originality, personality and a way of seeing that reaches beneath the surface. They were rich with vivid anecdote and image, inviting response and connection from the reader. Above all, they combined skilled writing with spiritual authenticity and insight.

Andrew Dutton’s entry stood out from the beginning, but after that it became very difficult to draw lines between the other finalists. I was glad to pass responsibility for the final decisions to our Head of Content Creation, Olivia Warburton. Her fresh eye, and keen editorial judgement resulted in a final selection that I am more than happy to endorse.

We are grateful to everyone who took the time to enter this competition and look forward to working with a number of writers to encourage further contributions to BRF resources.

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