THE CHANGING SEASONS

The snow is falling again as I write these words.  Another reason for living in the Colorado Rockies.  In fact, the two seasons are slugging it out, as the golden aspens (at peak only a week ago) are clearly reluctant to surrender the field to the forces of winter, but they have no choice in the matter given that each season is as inexorable as incoming and receding tides.

We’ve been waiting almost half a year for this moment: when once again it is safe to build a fire in our moss rock fireplace.  If the truth must be told, when we moved back to Colorado in 1996, the real estate agent had been given a list of 30 priorities (what we valued most in our new home).  At the top were: It should feature serenity, a view we’d never tire of, lots of snow, and a wood-burning fireplace.  Today we get to revel in all four.

OUR BLOG WORLD

Our daughter Michelle and agent, Greg Johnson, joined forces two years ago to drag, kicking and screaming all the way, this dinosaur of the ink and paper age, into the new digital age.  “You must blog!  Thus was born the weekly blog, Wednesdays with Dr. Joe,” which has continued unbroken even during that hellish period when an unscrupulous predator hacked into our world and shut us down.  We have no idea how many readers we lost during that traumatic period.

What I have discovered is that blogging is such a new construct that there are few entrenched norms—unlike tweets where a Procrustean Bed of 140 spaces preclude deviation length-wise.  As you have discovered, I joined the ranks of those who prefer the longer format.  It’s really much like the weekly column I wrote once, “Professor Creakygate,” for the students attending Southwestern Adventist University.  Once you establish a rhythm, it’s just a matter of not breaking it.

Given my penchant for longer blog series (the Northwest National Parks, the Southern Caribbean, the Zane Grey convention in Virginia, the Trembling World, and the upcoming series on the Southwest National Parks), I have discovered that long series where I dwell on a subject for months at a time can put my voice into a straitjacket which precludes me from speaking out on hot current issues.  Because of this, I hereby announce that this time, expect periodic breaks; but rest assured, always I will afterwards resume the series topic.

OUR TWEET WORLD

I held back as long as I possibly could—until my agent held my feet to the fire long enough to risk ignition—on adding the tweet dimension to our lives.  On October 1, I started daily tweets, concentrating on quotations chosen from a half century of collecting (hundreds of thousands).  Not just quotations, but quotations that help make sense of this thing called “life.”  Speaking just for myself, this hectic life we live virtually guarantees that we will break down unless we turn to a Higher Power than ourselves and also seek wisdom from others who have learned much from the batterings of the years.  These hard-earned nuggets of thought and insights end up providing us with just enough strength and courage to face each day.  Changes of pace too, for without changes of pace (such as humor) in our thought-processes, we become warped or petrified.

During my 34 years in the classroom, one aspect was a constant: a thought written with chalk on the blackboard each day.  My students looked forward to something new that greeted them each time they came in the door.  Also, I have since discovered that many of them copied those quotes into their notebooks and have lived with them ever since.

I’m an avid collector of quotation compendiums.  Some few I find worth the price; many, if not most, are not (merely quotations flung onto paper, without regard to their relative power or effectiveness).  I don’t know about you, but what I hunger for most are quotes that make me think, that make me re-evaluate my own habits and inter-relationships, that end up making me a different and better person than I was before.

I also realize that we are each fighting off electronic strangulation; so much so that we try something new with great reluctance.  It is my earnest desire that you will find these tweets worth the time it takes to check them out each day.

MY PERSONA

For years now, my agent has been trying to hammer into my thick head this message:

Our old world (paper and ink-driven) is changing by the nanosecond.  While books are likely to always be with us, they will never reign supreme as they have during the last six centuries.  Like it or not, electronic books will continue to expand their reach.  What this means is that the old templates will no longer work like they once did.  Your persona is no longer captureable just in traditional print.  But rather, you owe it to your “tribe” [people who are kind enough to listen to what you write and what you say] to speak out about life and values multidimensionally: through paper and ink books [75 so far], through public speaking, through media appearances on radio and TV and book-signings, through your blogs, through your tweets, and through all the plethora of new communication technologies.  Only by keeping up with all this as best you can, can your unique voice (your persona) have any chance of remaining alive during coming months and years.

And since I do wish to stay in contact with all of you, I am committed to continuing to create books (traditional and electronic), blogs, and tweets.  Do let me know if all I’ve articulated in this blog makes any kind of sense to you.

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Next week, we will transition through the abstraction of travel toward the Southwest parks and lodges.

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Easter, Lent, and “Easter in My Heart”

Once again we celebrate Easter, commemorating our Lord’s resurrection on April 7, A.D. 30. Given that Easter is one of the two holiest days in the Christian Church, it is surprising that there is such widespread confusion about what Easter is and is not. Indeed this recent question was addressed to me on Facebook: “Please tell me what Lent is.” In this blog, I am answering that question.

First of all, however, let’s find out how Easter began in the first place. It almost didn’t because the idea that special times might be considered sacred in themselves did not even exist in Post Apostolic Christianity. Instead, they continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though with a different emphasis: for instance, for Passover, Christ was considered to be the true Paschal Lamb.

As time passed and more and more Christians observed Easter, pitched battles were continually fought over when the Resurrection should be celebrated, the Gentile Christians espousing one time and Jewish Christians another. Not until the Council of Nicaea in 325 was there a consensus: that Easter was to be kept on Sunday, and the same Sunday around the world.

Lent, quite simply, is a period of fasting during the 40 days preceding Easter. For instance, in the 2011 calendar, Lent (Ash Wednesday) began on March 9, and Easter Sunday (at the conclusion of Easter Week), will be celebrated on April 24.

Initially Lent was considered to be a season of preparation for baptism, of absolution for penitents, or of retreat or recollection, but there was little uniformity in practice. During the medieval period Lent fasting was vigorously enforced among the faithful; that consensus, however, broke down during the Reformation. By the eighteenth century, strict observance of the Lenten fast was generally abandoned.

Today, many devout Christians are returning to the earlier strong emphasis on fasting during the forty days leading up to Easter Week.

EASTER IN MY HEART

As an anthologizer of Christmas stories for nineteen years now, I never cease to be amazed at two realities: Where Christmas stories are concerned, I have untold thousands of stories to choose from; but where Easter stories are concerned, I have almost none! Why is it that Christians respond so differently to the two equally high days?

I really became aware of this discrepancy in 1999 when I signed a contract with WaterBrook/Random House to put together a collection of spiritually-based Easter stories for the Christian community. I was staggered to discover that they just plain didn’t exist! In fact, I seriously wondered if I’d have to tell my publisher that the book was impossible to produce. Finally, I took the matter to the Lord, asking that if it be His will that such a book ought to be, He’d open doors I knew not of.

I now quote from this precious book of Easter stories that almost wasn’t: “I never cease to be amazed by God’s incredible choreography. A number of years ago, when Christmas in My Heart was in its infancy, a friend of mine, the Reverend Dr. Darrell Richardson, called me up and told me that he was in town for a convention and had brought me a present. It turned out to be a large box of old (most over half a century old) inspirational magazines, all filled with stories. As the years passed by, I looked into the box once, picked out a Christmas story or two, then forgot all about it.”

Now, after earnestly praying to God, reminding Him that my final book deadline was almost upon me, and to “please help me find such stories—and quickly! . . . , one morning, the conviction came, Find that box of old magazines! In due time, I found it then searched through the entire collection. In the process, I found more great Easter stories than I had encountered all through the years! How incredible, and humbling, to realize that years ago, God knew the day was coming when those stories would be needed—and had them sent to me ahead of time! I no longer believe in coincidence: I have experienced far too many instances of divine scripting and choreography. But only recently did I find a biblical base for that assumption (Psalm 139:1-5, 15-16), one of the most life-changing passages in all Scripture.” (Easter in My Heart, 12-16).

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Easter in My Heart

Sadly, Easter in My Heart is no longer in print, but we still have copies available for those who seek stories that will reveal the deeper spiritual meaning of Easter for their children or for incorporating into Easter services in their churches.

For information on how to order, log in at and if you let us know right away, we’ll fire off a copy to you in time for Easter week.

Do let me know your thoughts, reactions, and responses to this blog.

ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS: THE NEXT STEP

Again and again in life, I’ve seen it happen: God never does anything by halves! And I was about to experience the second half of a plan I knew nothing about. I took my creative writing class on a field trip to Maryland’s largest publishing house, Review and Herald Publishing Association, in Hagerstown. Once the guide had my students safely in tow, I escaped. As I wandered around, I chanced to peer into the doorway of then Acquisitions Editor Penny Estes Wheeler (I figured that with a last name of Wheeler she couldn’t be all bad).

We small-talked for some time. Turned out she was already familiar with my writing in magazines and liked what she’d read. After a time she said, “Well, what have you been writing lately?”

“A couple of Christmas stories.”

“What kind?”

“Oh, they’re Christ-centered rather than Santa Claus-centered.”

“What else?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“Try me.”

“Well, you can’t read them without crying.”

“Just what we need. But you’ve only written two?” She replied.

“Yes. But I’ve been collecting others all my life – in fact, I was raised on them,” was my response.

That’s all it took. Being very good at what she did, she leaned back and said, in just as deceptively casual a tone as Naomi had used a couple of years before, “You know, there’s a real vacuum for that kind of story today in the market today. Why don’t you just package up your favorite stories and send them to us? We’ll do the rest. Piece of cake.”

Although it sounded easy, I suspected I had a lot of work to do. Penny bulldogged me by mail and by phone until I assembled a big stack of Christmas stories and sent them to Hagerstown.  Then, happy to be done with my part, I all but forgot about it.

Several months later, I was jolted back to reality with a phone call. She said, “Joe, the committee has cried its way through your manuscript. We’d very much like to publish it.”

From there on, events moved quickly – but no thanks to me. From the title of the book to the Currier and Ives winter scene on the cover to the woodcut illustrations inside, my good editor pushed the book through.

The finished book was beautiful. People loved it.  But most of all they loved the deeply-moving stories inside. The collection was called Christmas in My Heart, and it was intended to be a stand-alone book

But gradually sales began to build. People realized that the collection was different from anything else available. When it went through two printings before Christmas, my editor got me on the phone and said, “Joe, can you put together another collection right away so we can rush it into print before next Christmas?”

“Sure, no problem,” I answered.

So it came to pass that our second collection bravely bore a “2” on its cover. It would not be a one-shot book after all; it would be a two-book series.

Right after Christmas in My Heart came out in 1992, I became convicted that I ought to send a copy to Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I knew him to be as sentimental about deeply-moving stories as I was.  I inscribed a copy to Dobson and sent it off. He didn’t respond, but one of his vice presidents did – she loved it! When Number 2 came out, I sent him another. Dobson didn’t respond, but the same vice president did.

Late in ’93, I came to my personal Rubicon – on the phone was my remorseless editor: “Joe, Number Two is selling so well, we’re wondering if it’s possible for you to put together a third collection of Christmas stories?”

The ball was now in my court. I was out of stories as well as illustrations for the covers. If the series was to go to three, I would have to seriously dig in and find the stories that would grace it. Fortunately, by now readers had begun sending me their favorite stories, their way of letting me know they wanted another collection. So I was able to put together a third collection. As for the illustrations, I began buying old books illustrated with woodcuts (most of these books were at least a hundred years old).

So it was that I belatedly moved from a passive role into an active one. For the first time I began to realize that I was part of something big. That it was big enough to commandeer the rest of our lives, however, was mercifully withheld from us.

In the fall of ’94, Christmas in My Heart 3 came out, and I once again sent a copy to Dr. Dobson. In my naiveté I assumed that all you had to do was address a book to Dobson, mail it off, and he’d get it and read it. The reality was that Focus had thirteen hundred employees; that over eighty Christian publishers barraged the ministry with their books; and that it took almost six hundred employees to answer mail and phone calls from people like me. The chances of getting through to the great man himself were almost nil. Yet, in spite of those facts, now came the third life-changing day. The telephone rang and a voice I’d never heard before was on the line. The voice turned out to be my correspondence friend at Focus on the Family, Diane Passno.

My relationship with Focus on the Family ministry really began that day when they asked to use one of my stories called “The Tiny Foot” by Frederick Loomis. They called again later and asked if the story could also be used on the air. Again I agreed. But I still had no idea of what those two requests would really mean for me. I did remember that Diane Passno had warned me, “Joe, if Dr. Dobson ever really uses you, your life will never be the same again.”

Truer words were never spoken. By the time that story had gone out to about three million homes and it had been read on the air around the world, life as I had known it was over. The series was a Gold Medallion finalist the next year.

Twelve publishing houses, and 73 books after inception, here we are in December of 2010. Christmas in My Heart®, now the longest-running Christmas story series in America, has been made so by seven publishers: Review and Herald, Pacific Press, Focus on the Family, Tyndale House, Doubleday/RandomHouse, Howard/Simon and Schuster, and RiverOak/David C. Cook. I’ve never taken credit for any of it, for it is not a Joe Wheeler-thing, but rather a God-thing. What a joy to be given the privilege of co-partnering with the Divine.

PLAGIARISM—WHY AMERICANS CANNOT NOT CHEAT

Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is but the latest reminder that, in the Internet Age, one can run but cannot hide from one’s words: Plagiarism is getting increasingly difficult to hide—as McInnis has discovered to his chagrin. Former University of Colorado regent Jim Martin, in his “Dishonesty in the Internet Age” (The Denver Post, July 15, 2010), notes that “A story several years ago on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ profiled a University of Virginia professor’s new innovation to catch Internet cheaters—a search engine that can locate patterns of phrasing and match them to other works. The device has already turned up a number of cheaters not only in academia, but also in other areas of our lives.”

As a long-time English and writing professor I can testify that it is incredibly easy to spot cheating in term papers, for once I get a feel for an individual’s style of writing (in controlled writing assignments in classrooms), any significant stylistic deviance from the norm jumps out at me. The difficulty heretofore has been to track down the source the student copied from. No longer: my teaching colleagues tell me that it’s amazing how quickly they can track down an original source thanks to Google et al.

Which brings us to the core issue: Why do we cheat?

Increasingly, we cheat because we cannot not cheat. Permit me to explain why. Before I wrote my book, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993), I first researched the subject of the impact of television on the American people for over 30 years. One of the key resulting epiphanies of that research was this: the ability to think, write, and create is not a given; it is extremely difficult to achieve because it can only come into being by having an inquiring mind; a sense of wonder; by questions that never stop; by voracious reading in books, magazines, and newspapers; by daily journaling. Where writing is concerned, we are all works in progress—we never arrive, because knowledge is increasing by the nanosecond. That’s why the Chinese have a proverb: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Staying in tune with the Zeitgeist has never been more difficult than it is today.

Nor is it easy to be a researcher (the job Scott McInnis was paid $300,000 for). I tell my students, “It’s not easy to write a good term paper. Unless you so immerse yourself into reading about your chosen subject, and writing notes from all those sources, you’ll never experience that mysterious breakthrough marathon runners talk about: when you literally break through a mental or physical barrier into a new dimension—you’ll know you’re there when you start dreaming about it. When that happens, you can write your paper in your own style. Otherwise, you’ll only be capable of a String of Pearls term paper: one quotation followed by insipid words leading to another quotation—on and on and on. Because the subject never became part of you.”

And that’s the tragedy of our age. We encourage our children to follow the path of least resistance—they faithfully follow our suggestion. How? By staring zombie-like into electronic screens hour after hour. But virtually none of that imagery can ever be their own: it was all created by someone else, and thus it was blasted straight into their mental archives without any involvement of the receiver’s brain. That’s why, when I tell a class of Freshman Composition students to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write, the reader (having many stylistic templates to draw from) can hardly wait to begin writing; the non-reader, however, can only stare at the piece of paper, being incapable of writing a coherent sentence or paragraph.

That’s why millions who grow up plagiarizing cannot not cheat: because of years of mental laziness, there is nothing original (unique to them alone) in their brains to draw from. So they have only two alternatives: fail the course—or cheat.

But when they grow up and enter the workaday world, sooner or later there will come a day of reckoning, when the boss will discover that this particular employee is incapable of original thought. Fortune 500 CEOs have developed a test for prospective employees that involves a series of interlocking steps leading to a solution. When the prospects take the test, they discover that a step was left out (such as A, B, D, E); the reader, having developed a part of the brain scholars call “the library,” where the brain talks to itself, is able to bridge the gulf, or synapse, en route to a solution. The non-reader can only stare at the gulf till Doomsday, unable to move on.

Which brings us back to Jim Martin, who concludes his insightful commentary with these sober words:

Our age of instant information offers in nearly every aspect of business, academia and media the temptation to exalt outcome over process, to value doing something quickly over doing it effectively and honestly.

Somehow, our citizens have come to believe that money or pride matters more than integrity. And we have allowed this to happen.

Our lessons about achieving excellence, getting into the “best” schools and colleges, getting elected to public office and the general opulence and promise offered of e-business have sent a dangerous message to our citizens people: you can have it all and have it now.

Maybe public exposure will put an end to this character defect, but I doubt it. In the long run, society at large will have to re-establish the values of effort and process, rather than simply holding up too high the rewards of success, power, being elected, or money.

All in all, this will be a difficult task, but the message must go out loud and clear—that there is no such thing as instantaneous writing, and that those shortcuts shortchange.

That message may sound old and familiar, but that’s because it is lifted from the familiar lessons of life, not some site on the Internet.

SPECIAL NOTE

Next week, we begin a four-month series of blogs on our historic national park lodges in the Northwest (we just returned from visiting each one).