Ron at his drawing board during his earlier cartooning days.
Kansas City, MO.--Getting fired from his first jobs and even the failure to syndicate a cartoon series from a Christian perspective have been significant interventions of God in the life of cartoonist Ron Wheeler.
Wheeler's cartoons grace publications of the Nazarene Publishing House, American Tract Society, and Fulness magazine. A major newspaper publishing syndicate has even seriously considered syndicating his series from the perspective of the moral-political Christian right. Despite his unusual success as a full-time Christian cartoonist, Wheeler thanks God for delivering him from his own ambitions at strategic points in his life.
"God has moved in my life through firing me," the artist told Fulness recently. "At critical times it was His only way of moving me to where He wants me to be. Through a significant portion of my life my own ambitions were getting in the way of what I could be."
Wheeler sees God's hand in the job frustrations and terminations that initially caused him to turn to find in God someone who really cared and later helped him refine his absolute commitment to Christ rather than career as Lord of his life. Now active in a Presbyterian congregation in Kansas City, Wheeler began drawing cartoons "from the moment I first picked up a pencil."
"When I was a kid in church and I was given a pencil and pad to pacify me, I would draw cartoons," he recalled. "I was geared to cartooning."
Wheeler made a profession of faith in Christ and was baptized at age eleven. But the Christ who died for his sins he did not yet know as the Christ who wanted to meet the needs of his everyday existence.
With his cartooning skill, the young artist thought he had found himself during college. The creator of the comic strip "Ralph" run in the school paper was a popular presence on the 22,000-student University of Nebraska campus. The almost overnight change in his social life was not for the better.
"It went to my head and was extremely detrimental. I developed an inflated sense of my worth and began to think I was better than other people. I lost some real friends and gained some I shouldn't have. I didn't realize most of my new friends were using my notoriety to springboard them in their relationships."
In fact, it would take several years and a few hard knocks to open Wheeler's eyes. His popularity and visibility on campus led to a unique job opportunity. Through the assistance of a campus administrator Wheeler got a rare opportunity in the executive training program of a major corporation.
Ron and Cindy Wheeler share a common interest in soccer. . .and each other.
"He was a big cartoon fan and helped set up the interview," the cartoonist said. "It was with a huge, wonderful corporation. But I did not fit in. None of the departments really wanted me because I really had nothing to offer the business environment. They kept me in the training program because they didn't want to offend the person who had recommended me, but I saw the handwriting on the wall."
Leaving the corporation, Wheeler landed an administrative position over-seeing creation of materials to develop sales incentive. But that, too, was a dead end.
"They hired me because I was perceived as a real achiever," he said. "They were aware that I had a job with a big company at a relatively young age and that I had creative skills."
Paranoia began to set in as the young businessman began to realize that not only had he not been able to trust the motives of his campus friends, but in the business world he was surviving based on perceptions of what he was rather than reality.
Of no help was the lifestyle the artist had accepted. During the time of his campus popularity, he accepted the philosophy that to find truth he must experience as much of life as he could. "I tried everything from living on a horse ranch to sky diving," he said. "Eventually I got into areas that I didn't belong in."
Wheeler did not know how to react when the initial acceptance and excitement of his popularity and ability wore off in each new situation. His paranoia carried over into job settings. When the initial clamor for his talents and potential ebbed in each new setting, he would move on. Drugs and immorality increasingly characterized what became a very painful two years. His ambitions further complicated the situations.
"I was perceived as not so much a team player as one with a lot of enthusiasm in a different direction," Wheeler said. "When I was fired from my job I began for the first time to look beyond my personal strengths. I knew I needed help. I was not the fair-haired achiever I thought I was. I started searching for who God really was."
The unemployed cartoonist moved to Kansas City where he rented the first apartment he found in the older, less-expensive Plaza area of downtown. After spending eight months trying to syndicate a comic strip Wheeler had exhausted his savings and unemployment benefits. Finally he gave up and "totally cried out to God."
The following day while standing at his mailbox the former junior executive looked once again across the street at an audio-visual firm that operated out of three small houses in that older, declining section of town. Wheeler was not even sure what an audio-visual firm did.
"I went in looking for any kind of work--sweeping floors or anything--just to get by," he said. "They had been looking three months for a cartoonist. They sent me home with a test drawing, and the next day I had my first full-time job as a cartoonist!"
Finding skills-related employment is hard at times in almost every profession. Finding a full-time, salaried opening as a cartoonist is rare.
"I had never even seen any other job that existed for a full-time cartoonist. I remember looking at a wall-size street map of Kansas City with the Plaza area in the middle. I looked at that one-sixteenth inch area where I had chosen to live and thought of the rarity of that job occurring across the street. God was just waiting for me to turn to Him so He could open my eyes."
Ron's art often reflects
the idiosyncrasies of our society.
The lesson, in Wheeler's value system, was more important than the job, which lasted nearly eighteen months. In his desperate search for God, Wheeler had found in a local Presbyterian church "people who accepted me for what I was with my unique personality and I realized it must have been Jesus who was helping them love me." His increasing convictions, and sometimes not knowing how to communicate them adequately ("I must have come across a battering ram at times") accompanied increasing job pressures and the decision to seek the next step in his career.
Wheeler began to freelance and work for a Christian friend who owned a graphic arts studio. Seeking work in which he could glorify God and assist Christian ministry, he visited a nearby Nazarene bookstore to find addresses of Christian publishing companies beginning in the Kansas City area. He was pleasantly surprised to find Beacon Hill, a publishing arm of the Nazarenes not only in Kansas City but on the same block with the bookstore.
When he walked into the office of the youth materials editor, he noted considerable excitement. The staff had been praying for a cartoon strip to complement a magazine for teenagers.
"They call me their gift from God," Wheeler said. "I am able to reflect some of the things I've learned in my own life through the strips and hopefully set forth through a humorous way how kids can walk with the Lord during that time of their lives."
It is a mutual blessing. Work for the Nazarene Publishing House provides, on an average, a steady one-third of Wheeler's free lance business, enabling him to continue as a free-lance cartoonist. Contacts with a variety of other Christian publications, such as Fulness, complete his schedule.
Before he became a "victim of success" Wheeler tried to market a series of cartoons for a nationwide syndication through a major newspaper and magazine publisher. His dream of breaking down barriers to the gospel in the secular media through use of humor was encouraged by the syndicate, which though not in theological agreement, expressed awareness of a growing market for material from the perspective of the Christian moral and political right. Even rejection by the syndicate of his initial proposal has been used by God in Wheeler's life.
"As I left the publisher, I drove outside of town, climbed a big rock and asked God, 'Why did You put this in my heart if You were not going to come through?' But He warned me of the danger of placing gods of ministry ahead of my relationship with Him. He opens the doors. All I have to do is be obedient. If I had syndicated at a point in time and been successful, I would have placed my acceptability on my abilities as a cartoonist and not on the blood of Christ."
Wheeler now watches for God to do the unexpected. Two days before leaving on a recent Youth With A Mission trip to Guatamala, his group learned of a Bible shortage there. Dropping off some cartoons at the Nazarene Publishing House that day, Ron found a lobby filled with Spanish Bibles originally intended for another purpose. The publisher willingly allowed the twelve YWAM missionaries to distribute the 2,000 Bibles in their new destinations.
For Wheeler, there are no failures in the life willing to recognize God's purposes.
"The thing that helped save me was that everything finally fell apart. There was a lot of things--things like love and fulfillment--I could have never experienced otherwise. . . .I've been through the rough times and it is easier now to see the truth as Joseph saw it when he said, 'You guys meant it for bad, but God meant it for good.'"