Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Cartoon Thanksgiving

I’m not an artist. I’m a cartoonist.”

I’ve said these words more than I can count…and I’m thankful for it.

For as long as I can remember, I have been able to draw cartoons. That’s it. Cartoons. Sure, I can maybe fudge my way around a watercolor when I have to, but in the end…I’m still just a cartoonist.

The first time I remember really realizing this—and garnering the attention you can receive from drawing funny pictures—was in kindergarten. This was in 1966 and the Batman TV series was at the height of its popularity. It was at this time that (during playtime) I would take some crayons and construction paper and draw Batman. After I’d finish one, I’d give it to one of the kids watching over my shoulder. I have to admit; my little 6 year old heart and head loved having that crowd of classmates around me—oooing and aahing as I colored the Caped Crusader.

I was hooked.

I quickly learned the fastest way to break the social ice and make friends in school was to draw funny pictures, and it really helped me when we moved away from my hometown for two years and had to start anew in different schools. Then, it REALLY helped in high school where I honed my ability to do caricatures. Getting sent to Principal Sater’s office for caricaturizing him as Frankenstein’s monster was one of my personal highlights.

And I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world when I got to be a cartoonist for a living. Out of college, I worked my way through a handful of newspapers before landing my dream job: Editorial cartoonist for The Dallas Times Herald—a Pulitzer Prize winning major daily newspaper. Things got a little heady when my cartoons started regularly appearing in Newsweek, The New York Times and, The Washington Post. And just like little 6 year Danny in kindergarten, I loved the attention (and respect) garnered from having my work published nationally.

A little TOO much.

I began obsessing over this—landing in Newsweek. I would run to the nearest newsstand each Monday, rifling through the latest Newsweek—heart pounding—hoping…wishing…even praying that one of my cartoons had made it on to their Perspectives page. And when one of my cartoons did…it was like a drug! A huge rush! I would walk back to the newspaper, head swirling in ego…then pretending like it wasn’t a big deal to everyone else.

But it WAS a big deal to me.

Deep down…in that dark and secret place of my heart…it was a huge deal! It somehow validated me. Getting reprinted nationally became my idol…and I would have done anything to appease it. Which is one of the main reasons why it hurt so badly when The Dallas Times Herald closed its doors in 1991—ending my career as an editorial cartoonist.

I thought it was the end of the world, but in reality…it was the beginning of something new…and healthy…and right. The closing of the Times Herald doors marks the opening of my heart to God.

Since that fateful day in December of 1991, God has continued to pick away at that dark and secret place in my heart…and do a mighty work. He has painstakingly walked me through my own “valley of the shadow of death” and helped me kill that greedy, lusting part of my life that had become an all-consuming, unquenchable fire of ego. Honestly. I wouldn’t have done it on my own. Left up to me, I would still be craving and lusting after that attention.

Which brings me to another school and another time.

Last week I was in Kabul, Afghanistan with a team of men from Flatirons visiting our partner organization. We were asked to paint the walls of the cafeteria at the new school—a haven for the street kids of Kabul. Someone suggested that I draw some cartoons to decorate the walls; fun pictures for the kids to enjoy as they ate their free lunch.

As I worked on these pictures (painting side-by-side with one of the school’s leaders) I was struck by the difference a few years can make. 

I am still able to make friends and break the ice with a funny picture, but God has taken this odd, little gift He’s given me and allowed me to use it for His purposes. He had redeemed the brokenness in my heart and made it new…and healthy…and right.

Paul writes in Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." 

I used to question God about my fatal career as an editorial cartoonist. I doubted His goodness when The Dallas Times Herald closed down, and I often wondered what the heck He was doing (or NOT doing) with this gift He’d given me.

But sitting on that dirty school floor last week in Kabul…next to my fellow Afghan cartoonist…decorating walls for kids who might never see or meet me…I was humbled and grateful. Grateful that all things DO work for the good…according to His purpose.

So, in this week of Thanksgiving, I am grateful that Crayola pictures of Batman in kindergarten led to…caricatures of Mr. Sater in high school…which led to President Bush in The Dallas Times Herald and Newsweek…which eventually led to a school basement in Kabul.

And I love God all the more for it. Happy Thanksgiving!  


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