The Start of Something Big                      [ Main Story]
How God blessed the
Christmas in my Heart project
Joe Wheeler described, in a handwritten letter to me, the events surrounding his decision to write and edit full-time. The following is an excerpt from that letter, which was written in story format.—Kimberly Luste Maran.
Just after the publishing of Christmas in My Heart 3, I became aware that I really needed an agent. Upshot: Greg Johnson, then with Alive Communications, Inc., became that agent. Today, he’s president of WordServe Literary Group, and we are still together.
I will never forget one particular day in Annapolis. Greg had flown in from Denver, and we were discussing our books. At one point in the conversation, Greg leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, Joe, what do you plan to do with the rest of your life?”

I thought a few moments, then said, “Well, I thought I’d always stay in teaching until senility.  I love teaching . . . not term papers, but the daily interaction with students. Never any two days the same. But lately—”

“Lately?” he prodded.

“Well, these books are commandeering our lives! I work all week trying to keep up with my classes. And the only way I can keep up with publishing deadlines is to stay up late each night and also work weekends. I commute two hours a day, and Connie commutes three. Quite candidly, we’re both about ready to crack.”

There was a long silence as he tried to digest all that I’d said. Finally, he replied, “What would it take financially to enable you to write full- time—keeping in mind the reality that very, very few people ever make enough money to write full-time and even fewer for the Christian market?”

I thought for a while, then named a “safe” figure (high enough so that I saw little likelihood that he’d be able to make it happen—this way I wouldn’t have to hang up my professional hat). Greg gulped, we talked of other things—including whether I was interested in putting together story collections in genres other than Christmas. Then we bade our adieus.

Greg began to make things happen. Contract after contract came our way. The editorial director for Focus on the Family flew out, and thus began Great Stories Remembered I, II, III; Great Stories Classic Books (12 of them); and Heart to Heart Stories—for moms, dads, friends, love, sisters, grandparents, and teachers. The next time Greg and I met, He said, “Well, Joe, I’ve more than met your conditions. Did you plan to remain here in the D.C. area?”

 “No,” I replied. “During the mid-eighties we lived in Colorado for a year. We’d like to return to the Rockies. And our kids have asked us to consider that—so they can mooch our house on the way to the ski slopes.”

“So you’re ready to make the big decision?”

“W-e-l-l, not quite. We don’t dare go it alone without medical.”

Greg looked at me rather coldly, clearly disturbed at my lack of faith in God’s continuing blessings to us and our story ministry. Finally, disappointed in me, he said, “Well, I can’t do anything about that!” and departed.

Within that same week I received a letter from a man I’d never heard of. In the letter he said he’d chanced to pick up a copy of Christmas in My Heart, and read on the back cover that the editor/compiler of this collection of tear-jerky Christmas stories was both a Maryland English professor and executive director of the Zane Grey’s West Society. He wanted to meet for dinner.

Turns out the man also lived in Annapolis. We discovered we had much in common, and bonded. Almost unbelievably, he asked me, just before he left the exact same question my agent had: “Well, Joe, so what are you going to do with the rest of your life?”

I told him the same story I’d told Greg, and the reason we didn’t feel we could step out from a full-time job with medical. He made no comment—and we parted.

About three days later I received another letter from him. He said that as of the day he wrote the letter (and he included a signed contract), Connie and I were now on full-time contract with the Denver-based Center for the New West, headquartered in Denver’s World Trade Center. I’d have an office there with no specific duties. My portfolio? Senior Fellow for Western Studies. Both of us would now have full-coverage medical insurance. In the letter, he ended with this clincher: “Now, what’s keeping you from answering God’s call to this ministry of stories?”

What could I say? The Lord had boxed in His “of little faith” child. So we moved, in September of 1996.

These are the reasons I don’t feel this story ministry (58 books of stories so far) is mine at all—but God’s. In recent years, we had one close call, and I had two more. I really shouldn’t be here. God clearly isn’t through with me yet!

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