The day I quit cartooning and gave it to the Lord.

I’m not sure exactly when this was, perhaps sometime around the late 1970s.  I would have been in my late 30s.  I’d recently been to Singapore to draw a full-length comic book for the missionaries and was doing a regular cartoon feature for our foreign mission magazine out of Richmond, Virginia.  Cartooning was getting to be a big thing in my life, even if it didn’t always fit in with my work as pastor of a Southern Baptist church in a county seat town in Mississippi.

At some point, it began mattering too much.

That’s when I quit.

I recall giving it back to the Lord–literally laying it on His altar–and saying, “This is yours, Father. If I never draw again, it’s fine. Thy will be done.”

Now, I had started drawing as a preschooler.  Mom put my little sister Carolyn and me at the kitchen table with pencil and paper and told us to sit there and “Draw!”  Her intent was not to teach us to do anything other than stay out of her way as she cleaned the house.  But I made the discovery that day.

I loved to draw.

If it didn’t sound so melodramatic, I’d say I was born to draw, the way I took to it.

In the first grade, the other students would gather around and watch. When I was 8, dad would sit in front of the radio after a hard day in the coal mines, and before falling asleep would tell me to “get your pencil and paper and draw me.”  He knew I enjoyed drawing, and I suppose it was a tangible way he could encourage his non-athletic, bookish third son.  I would sit there drawing and he would wake up after a bit and say, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” He had a good eye for this and would say,”You need to move the ear up” or “make the eye bigger,” that sort of thing. I would erase and he’d go back to sleep.

When I was 16, my sister Patricia paid for the correspondence course from Art Instruction Company out of Minneapolis.  The full course was meant to last three years, at 10 dollars a month.  I stayed with the program through the lettering and cartooning sessions, but dropped it when they wanted to teach me to design draperies.

In the mid-1960s as a seminary student, classmates discovered that I was the culprit sneaking into the empty classroom and drawing caricatures of the professor. They invited me to draw a cartoon for the monthly school paper. A short time later, I asked the editor of the local parish newsweekly if he would be interested in running some religious cartoons.  He never answered, but printed the three I submitted. Thereafter, I kept sending him cartoons to print alongside the weekly devotional of mine he was also running. I was delighted. It was incredible publicity for my little church, and didn’t cost us a dime. We began to see visitors every Sunday as a result.

To this day, I encourage beginning cartoonists to give their stuff away. Seeing it in print is reward enough at first.

I’m not sure exactly when–the late 1960s or around 1970–I was asked to draw a few things for the Mississippi Baptist Record (we were in our first post-seminary church in Greenville).  Then the Alabama Baptist (Hudson Baggett. editor) invited me to send them one cartoon per week (at the grand rate of $1.50 each).  So, I was on my way.  In 1972, one of our denominational magazines, Outreach, ran a two-page display of cartoons on witnessing.

Then, during the 1970s Copley News Services out of San Diego syndicated my religious cartoons and marketed them to papers across the country. The pay wasn’t much but I was more than pleased.

Now I was finished.  I had given it back to the Lord.

For reasons that now seem silly, the drawing seems to have become an ego thing for me. Wherever I went to preach–in revivals, banquets, etc–I felt I “had” to draw people. In fact, I began to wonder if people would invite me to preach if they knew I was not going to be drawing.

The tail had begun wagging the dog.

So, I quit.

Until the Lord gave it back.

Sometime around 1980, my fortieth year, I had gone through a crisis of personal identity and vocational calling (“mid-life crisis?” Okay. We’ll call it that.). As I emerged into the daylight, God renewed my commitment to our marriage, to pastoring His churches, and, in a secondary sense, to the ministry of cartooning.

That didn’t come out exactly right. I was committed to my marriage and committed to pastoring the Lord’s church, and as for the cartooning, it was more like the Lord handed it back to me with the stipulation that this was merely a tool in His hands and I should not get too attached to it.

I took it as something He gave me to do and have seen it that way ever since. Thereafter, as far as I can tell, the ego had very little to do with any of it.

You would have to know my heart to know the ego has almost nothing to do with this any more.

I am aware that cartooning is not fine art.  No one knows better than I that some of the drawings we send out have flaws and could have been made better with a little more time and effort.  (I remind myself that I’m not drawing for Architectural Digest and technological precision is not a requirement in an effective cartoon.  As I sometimes remind critics who raise doctrinal issues regarding a drawing, “It’s just a cartoon and nothing more!”)

Well, I suppose this is the place for me to tell you all the things God has done with my cartoons since He gave this ministry back to me.  At the point I could tell of the books of cartoons we’ve published, the books of others which I’ve illustrated, all the newspapers that run our stuff, that sort of thing.

Do you mind if I don’t?

There is no way to do that without it sounding like bragging and frankly, that sickens me as much as it does readers. It’s also boring.

God knows, and that’s all that counts.

Sending a cartoon out into cyberspace is almost as much an act of faith as giving an offering or saying a prayer.  Only God knows where it will go and what it will accomplish.

If anything.  (And that too is in His hands.)

At one point some years ago, I threw out boxes of newspapers I’d collected because each page contained a cartoon of mine some editor had run. What a clutter that was, and so pointless.  No one but me would ever care about that, and I didn’t care all that much. So, I saved my children the problem of deciding what to do with that stuff and tossed it out with the trash.

There are, however, boxes of original cartoons in filing cabinets and sealed boxes in the garage. There must be thousands of them.

I have no idea what to do with all that.  This decision is one I gladly leave with my sons and daughter to be dealt with after I’m in Heaven.

After all, the real point of a cartoon is the momentary response that takes place in the mind and heart of the viewer. When it’s gone, it’s over, and we’re left with just so much paper.

“Glory be to Thee, O Lord. May I serve you in every aspect of what’s left of these earthly years: the preaching, the study, the writing, the counseling, the notes to friends, and yes, these little drawings. When the time comes any of this no longer brings pleasure to Thy heart, Father, please withdraw them and do with me as You please. For Jesus’ sake, by Jesus’ blood, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”


2 thoughts on “The day I quit cartooning and gave it to the Lord.

  1. Loved reading this JOE….so thankful, TOO, that GOD is still using these drawings today as he has for many many years…you are a unique vessel of GOD…and I am privileged to know you….IF I LAUGH IN RESTAURANT IN HEAVEN…come find me…HA!

    • Thanks, Kay. Those who know you will understand your reference, but for those who might not, Kay Forrester Barnes has a laugh like no one else’s. One day in Columbus MS I was in the restaurant of the Holiday Inn and heard that laugh coming from a private dining room. I stuck my head in and sure enough, there she was. Kay had brought a group of young women over from Birmingham to our annual pilgrimage. We had a nice visit, and neither has ever forgotten that little visit.

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