10 Rules of Getting and Keeping Readers’ Attention

Recently, I ran across a volume that I had read years ago, and I paused long enough to flip through its pages, scanning parts that I had underlined and reading the notes I had written in the margins. The book had been written by famed British preacher and writer Charles Spurgeon and was titled Lectures to My Students. One particular chapter especially (and appropriately!) caught my attention: “How to Obtain and Retain the Attention of Our Hearers.” I remembered having read it because much of his advice is applicable to not only ministers but also writers. Perhaps the ten points I summarize below (with supporting quotations from Spurgeon) will prove helpful to your own writing. They’re worth considering.

10 RULES FOR GETTING AND KEEPING READERS’ ATTENTION

  1. HAVE A MESSAGE.  “To get attention, the first golden rule is, always say something worth [reading].”
  2. ORGANIZE YOUR MATERIAL. “Let the good matter . . . be very clearly arranged.”
  3. ENSURE APPROPRIATENESS. “[Write] plainly.”
  4. PRACTICE SUCCINCTNESS. “Do not make the introduction [lead] too long.”
  5. AVOID REDUNDANCY. “Do not repeat yourself.”
  6. STRIVE FOR BREVITY. “Avoid being too long.”
  7. EXHIBIT PASSION. “Be interested [in your topic] yourself.”
  8. USE SUPPORTING TECHNIQUES. “There should be a goodly number of illustrations.”
  9. DEMONSTRATE FRESHNESS. “Cultivate the surprise power. Keep your sentences out of ruts.” Avoid cliches.
  10. BE SINCERE AND GENUINE. “Be yourself clothed with the Spirit of God. . . . Remember, ‘it is not by might, nor by power,’ that men are [blessed], but ‘by my Spirit, saith the Lord’. . . . If you do not touch the heart, you will soon weary the ear.”

Why not join me in running each piece of writing through this checklist. If we apply these rules consistently, we might be surprised by how much more interest our writing will earn.

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Thoughts about Reading in 2019

Well, the new year has barely begun, and I’ve been thinking about and beginning to act on my reading. In fact, I received a magazine in yesterday’s mail that included two thought-provoking articles about books and reading. I got two books as Christmas gifts, both history related. And I’m sure that my writing and researching during 2019 will involve a lot of reading on many different topics, to say nothing of the numerous books I’ll read throughout the year for, well, just the enjoyment of it.

Several years ago at Christmas, my kids got together and bought me a Kindle and then showed their dear old, technologically challenged father how to search for and order books for the gadget. Since that time, I’ve downloaded a little more than 200 books on that thing, most of them freebies. I’ve actually read not a few of them. But I have some problems with that method of reading.

First, I like to write in my books. I underline key points. I started that habit in college, marking my textbooks so I could review main points quickly, and I’ve continued the habit ever since. Second, I found that underlining books made it easier when, after researching a book, I returned to it to write an article about the topic. Third, When I was reviewing books for Provident Book Finder magazine, I underlined possible quotable material to include in the reviews I would write. If I disagreed with the author, I “argued” with him or her in my marginal notations. I can’t do any of that with the Kindle.

More importantly, I just like the feel of a real book in my hands. I love the smell of the ink on the pages. I love the “heft” of a deep and thought-provoking written work. It’s sort of like the “feel” and weight difference between a plastic squirt gun and a 1911 .45 semiautomatic. You know one is just a plaything, but the other means serious business.

The two articles about books that I mentioned earlier said essentially the same thing in a more esoteric way. Books activate the imagination. They take us on journeys to times and places we could never go in reality. They help us see the rest of the world through others’ perspectives and thereby increase our ability to sympathize. Some of them have even been good enough to influence history. They make us think and increase both our vocabulary and our storehouse of knowledge. They help us see ourselves, mankind, as we really are. The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

But can’t an e-book or a magazine article do the same things? you might ask. Sure they can. But then there’s the pesky matters of the “feel” and the lack of permanency. Years from now, you won’t discover an old e-book in a used bookstore and feel the excitement the way you do when you find a rare old tattered hardcover book. If you happen across an old Kindle, by that time the technology will have moved light years ahead of that piece of junk and it will be useless. Not so with a “real” book! And a magazine article’s life span is a mere matter of weeks, not generations like a good book. People flip through a magazine, toss it on their coffee table, where it stays for a few weeks, and then the next person who dusts tosses it into the garbage. Not so with a book.

In Rick Bragg’s words, “It’s not just the stories, but the physical book, the way I feel when I see the spines, when I read the titles, the very feel of the paper under my fingers as I turn the pages. . . . Every book comes alive in my mind. I like to be in that company.”

I’m sure that during 2019, I’ll add to my Kindle library a good number of books. I might even get around to reading a few of them. But it will be the physical, hard copies of books that will arrest and hold my attention. I’ll borrow a few from the library. I’ll no doubt (hopefully) receive some as gifts for various occasions. And I’ll even buy a few, though that number is declining as I struggle to find room for the volumes I already have. But I’ll read them all, assuming that the Lord tarries His coming and the creek don’t rise!

Now let’s see. I have three books in progress at this moment and five stacked on a shelf awaiting my attention. That doesn’t include the unnumbered ones I still haven’t read that are on my Kindle. And I’ll add many others, both real and “virtual,” throughout the year. So many books, so little time! It’s already January 5. I’d better get started!

 

Happy New Year–New Beginnings

Happy New Year to all the readers and followers of this blog.

The start of a new year is a new slate, the beginning of new opportunities. What we do with those opportunities that come our way, however, is up to us. And we can make the most of those opportunities by planning, setting goals, and being ready to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise. I’ve already made my list of goals for 2019. Have you?

A new year is also an opportunity to evaluate what was done in the past and to make adjustments as necessary. Often, however, it’s good to find someone to help us do those evaluations and make the changes that we determine are necessary. I’m doing exactly that with this blog. I need and value your input.

Since I began this blog more than two years ago, I have consistently posted every Tuesday and Friday. Sometimes I noticed that more views occurred on Fridays. Later, however, Tuesday’s posts began to show more views. But that shift in days has not been consistent. So I’m wondering when most readers prefer to receive my posts and how often. Is twice a week really the optimum? Or would less actually be more?

I have considered the possibility of reducing my posts to once a week. If I do that, however, I need to know which day of the week most of my readers prefer. Do you have a preference on either the frequency or the day of the posts? If so, I’d appreciate hearing from you. Just jot a short statement of your preference(s) in the comments section below, and I’ll consider all of those I receive before making any changes to the blog. Also, if you would like to read more (or less) about any particular topic(s) I’ve written about, include that opinion in your comments, too.

Thanks in advance for whatever suggestions you might offer. I know your input will do a lot to improve this blog.

Merry Christmas, 2018!

The message of today’s blog post is simple and straightforward. It is no more and no less than the title indicates: Merry Christmas wishes to all of my readers.

We live in a world that seems to be falling apart at the seams. World leaders say “Peace” but seem determined to undermine their words by their actions. Politicians call for unity while seeming to do everything they can to provoke disunity. People say they want community but then pursue self.

But amid this chaotic, cacophony of confusion and frequent calamity, the message is still heard, “Behold, a child is born.” That child was God come in the flesh; His name was Emmanuel, “God with us.” The angels who announced His birth brought “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” He was offering Himself as the Savior of all who would believe, and He offered “on earth peace, good will toward men.” He is the “reason for the season.”

My wish for all who read this blog is that you may know the peace that He offers. For those who already know Him and the peace that He offers to all who believe, I pray that you will enjoy the blessings of family and friends and enter the New Year ahead with confidence that He has this chaotic world under His control and will, “in the fullness of time,” bring to it the same peace that you enjoy individually.

For those readers who do not yet know the Christ personally, I hope that you will find some time amid the business of the season to contemplate who this “babe in the manger” was and why He was so important and what His proffered gift is. It is for you personally and specifically, not just for mankind generally. Look into His Word, the Bible, and see for yourself why you need Him. Only then can you fully possess and understand firsthand the peace He offers.

Looking ahead to the new year, my wish is that yours will be prosperous and productive. For the writers among the readership, I hope that your new year will witness your production of much publishable and profitable (not only financially but also intellectually and spiritually) material. Keep writing, regardless of obstacles. Persevere. Succeed.

Reflections and a Look Ahead

As 2018 winds down to a close and the new year fast approaches, I’ve been doing some reflecting. Some of the reflections have been backward, analyzing the things that I’ve accomplished versus the goal that I set for myself early in 2018. Other reflections are aimed at the goals I’m setting for myself for 2019.

I always seem to set high goals for myself, more than I can realistically accomplish. Perhaps it would be better to set more realistic goals. But I also believe that if one sets goals high, he or she will accomplish more than if the goals are too low. As I look back over my list of goals for 2018, I readily admit that I had some things on the list that I failed to accomplish. For a few, it wasn’t for a lack of trying; things just didn’t work out. For other things, perhaps I didn’t do everything I could to achieve them. I find, however, that I certainly did accomplish more than I would have had I set no goals at all and probably more than I would have had I set lower goals. As someone famously said, “If you aim [your arrow] at the moon, you probably won’t hit it, but you’ll get closer than if you never shot the arrow at all.”

In addition, whenever one has several on-going projects simultaneously, some of them will be completed while others are not. And I acknowledge that not all of my original goals had the same level of priority, so I don’t feel too badly about not achieving some of them. I did achieve my top priority goals, and that’s what counts to me.

As the new year approaches, I again am setting some goals for myself. Some of them will be highly ambitious; perhaps I’ll achieve some of them, I’ll come close to achieving others, and, no doubt, a few projects will end 2019 unfinished, perhaps even unstarted.  I’ll have a goal for the number of articles I want to get published, and to do that, I’ll have to set a number of manuscripts that I must submit. I’m realistic, so I know already that some of those submissions will be rejected for a variety of reasons, from poor writing to “doesn’t meet our current needs” to “we recently ran something similar.” But I also know, based on past history, that some of them will be accepted and published. A few of those might even warrant eventual payment!

Although time and space prevent my sharing all of my goals, I will “let the cat out of the bag” for a few of them, just for the voyeurs among my readers. I have several on-going projects on which I’ve been working, some of which I’ve unsuccessfully bounced off publishers and others that a prospective agent is considering. I have a commission from an editor to write an article on South Carolina’s peaches. There’s no guarantee that the final result will be accepted and published, but at least an editor asked me to do the article. I also have the following book manuscripts (with tentative titles) ready for submission:

  • Evangelism and Eviction: Missionary Work among the Cherokees Until Removal
  • In Camp and Combat: Religious Activities in the Confederate Armies
  • Combat! Spiritual Lessons from Military History
  • Preventing Spiritual Anorexia Nervosa

I’ve been writing for publication long enough to know that rejection is just part of the game. I also am encouraged by the example of other writers before me whose experiences teach that publication comes to those who not only do their best writing of which they’re capable but also those writers who persevere despite rejection. (For example, study how many times Dr. Seuss’s book And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected before a publisher took a chance on him. All of those editors no doubt now wish they had had greater foresight!)

If the good Lord should tarry His coming and grant me life for another year, maybe one or more of my aspirations for the aforementioned manuscripts will be turned into published books. Whether they are or not is in His hands. He will accomplish His will. All I know is that I must do my best in writing and marketing them. If they do not get published, are stillborn, so to speak, at least I’ll have written and tried. If one or more does live to see the light of published day, sola gloria deo!

Thoughts on a Year’s Worth of Reading

Every year about this time, I look back, taking stock of what I’ve accomplished (or not!) throughout the preceding year. One thing I consider is what I’ve read.

I’m a voracious reader and have been since fifth grade, when good ol’ Mrs. George sparked the reader within me, kindled that flame of desire to know, and set me on the Reading Road. Ever since, I’ve tried to keep track of not only how many books I read each year but also what I’ve read. And I hope that all of that reading has, in some way or other, made me a better, more knowledgeable, and wiser person.

Well, looking over this year’s reading list, I notice some things that are no surprise. But I also find some surprises, one in particular.

As usual, most of the 35 books I read (at least that’s how many titles I remembered to record; there might have been others), 17 of them were histories or biographies. Of those 17, many of them were on topics about which I was doing research for my writing of articles and/or books. Seven of the 35 were Bible studies or about personal spiritual growth. Five of them were about the craft of writing, and heaven knows I need continual help in improving my writing. Three other books were on topics that didn’t fit into any of the other major categories. No surprises so far.

The big surprise came when I realized how much fiction I had read this year. Fiction?! Peterson reading fiction?! Isn’t that like cold heat or wet dryness? An oxymoron? A near impossibility? A dream (or nightmare)?

That inconsistency of character prompted me to do a bit of self-analysis! The fictional books I read ranged from “the old masters” (e.g., William Gilmore Simms, a famed Southern writer for all you Yankees) to a couple of modern authors. Their styles and subject matter varied widely. I read one novel in the course of doing some historical research. Another I read because I had won the book at a writer’s conference, sort of necessitating that I read it lest the awarder someday ask me what I thought of the book. The other two I read simply because I liked the author’s writing style (though not some of his content and organizational style). Be those factors what they are, I nonetheless read five fictional book-length works this year! And, for me, that’s a major milestone considering that most years I read none.

But the bigger issue here is what I gained from all those 35 books I read. Did they make any difference in who I am, how I live, or how I go about my work? I’m sure that in some way they did. Perhaps it was only that I learned better what I enjoy or don’t enjoy reading. Or which authors I like or don’t like, agree with or disagree with. Perhaps it was simply the discipline I learned from persevering and stretching myself beyond my comfort zone and venturing deeper (it’s a relative term, I know) into fiction. Or maybe I grew a little more spiritually, something that might be seen only by my Maker. Or others around me?

As I read, I’m always looking for interesting ways of saying things, new words, new combinations of words, new analogies, etc. As I close out this year’s reading (oh, I’m sure I’ll still read a lot more and begin several more books between now and December 31), I’d like to share just a few of the words that struck me (many of them from my more recent reading because I can’t remember too far back!).

“The secret of all good writing: Have something worth saying, and say it simply. Good writing is ‘the natural expression of an organized mind.'” (Inman)

“. . . as colorless as a used tea bag.” (Inman) (I especially like that image. It’s almost as good as “He had the personality of a cactus.”)

“He could repair anything from a broken heart to the crack of dawn.” (Can’t remember author)

“If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”(Auden)

“Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.” (Montgomery)

“Beware of forming fanciful theories of your own, and then trying to make the Bible square with them. Beware of making selections from your Bible to suit your taste. . . .” (Ryle)

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (Wilde)

“One must be careful of books, and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.” (Clare)

So here’s to the reading of good books. May next year be filled with many more and better ones. For me and you.

 

So Much for Predictions

A lot of things (more than we like to admit) are out of man’s hands, beyond his control. One of those things is the weather. Yet, we continue trying to predict or anticipate it. Short of that, we complain about it.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that when your local TV meteorologist starts giving the five- or seven-day forecast on Monday, the prediction is one thing, but by Friday the forecast has changed, sometimes a little but often a lot. The farther out the forecast extends, the less accurate it proves to be. And whenever the outlook is for a whole year, it’s really just a shot in the dark, anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s.

A couple of months ago, I made an impulse purchase, something I seldom do (wink, wink). I picked up a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. (I’ve never been able to decide whether old in that title refers to the farmer or to the almanac.) When I got home, I immediately turned to the weather forecast for the Southeast (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) for December 2018, since we all have so many activities and travel plans that can be affected by the weather during that month.

For December 10 to 12, it stated confidently, “Rain and snow, then sunny, cold.” As a writer who studies the market listings of a lot of publications, I know that the lead time for the almanac, that annual compilation of “new, useful, & entertaining matter,” is at least a year, perhaps even longer (as much as two years) for some parts of it. So I reacted to that prediction: “Aw, how can they know so far in advance?” and moved on. Other people, “experts,” were saying, “We have never had snow here [in South Carolina] before Christmas.” Even a “white Christmas” here is extremely rare. The average date for a first snowfall is usually sometime in January.

But on December 9, it snowed here. Surprisingly, the almanac was only one day off. Not bad for predicting a year or more in advance. And it snowed a lot. For here. I measured 8 to 9 inches on the hood of my truck, and that wasn’t in a drift. (The accompanying photo was taken early during the snowfall.) Only a 25-minute drive north of us, they had 17 to 20 inches. That’s a lot at any time during the winter down here. And it’s unprecedented this early in December. Technically, it isn’t even winter yet.

That set me to thinking about what the Bible says about the weather. Its statements on weather are perhaps more broad and general but nonetheless accurate and true. It says that as long as the world exists, we will always have distinct seasons, each with its own unique and defining characteristics. (See Genesis 8:22.)

We will always have summer, when it’s hot, and winter, when it’s cold, and periods of transition in between: spring, when things revive and grow, and fall, when things bear fruit and proceed toward dormancy. The various degrees of temperature for each season may vary, but each will retain its unique qualities. Summers will always tend toward hotter temperatures, winters toward colder temps. They might seem shorter or longer.

A few summers in a row that are warmer than normal will make us wonder if we’ll ever have fall. A few colder-than-normal winters will shift our wonderment to the idea of eternal winters. But over the long haul, everything will balance out. The distinct seasons will always be with us. One year will have alarmists crying, “Global warming!” but the next year will have them predicting another catastrophic millennial ice age.

Truth be told, they don’t know. They can only collect historical data. We can’t control the weather. It will be what it will be.

I’m reminded of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem “Wet-Weather Talk,” which tells us what our mindset should be, especially considering our utter inability to dictate (or predict) the weather. He wrote, in part,

It hain’t no use to grumble and complane;
It’s jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.—
When God sorts out the weather and sends rain,
W’y, rain’s my choice.

In short, take whatever weather God gives you and be happy and thankful for it. If it gets a little colder than you like, or it snows more than predicted, don’t complain or worry yourself trying to alter Nature. Put on another layer. If it gets a littler warmer or rains more, or less, than historical records indicate is normal, take off a layer or turn the AC to a cooler setting.

And writers, pay attention to your target market’s lead time.

Interruptions Bring Potential for Adventure

The difference between minor surgery and major surgery is determined by whether you are having it. That’s sort of the way it often is with interruptions. They can be incidents (if they happen to others) or potential adventures (if they happen to you). And such things are what provide the grist for a writer’s mill.

Such interruptions happened to me over this past weekend. Without going into great detail, allow me to offer a summary. I’m sure that something from the interruptions that I experienced will manage to find its way into my writing at some point.

It all began on Saturday with a “wintry mix”–rain, sleet, freezing rain, and snow. A heavy, wet accumulation occurred during the night. I knew it had when I woke up around 1 a.m. and thought my wife had left a light on. It was bright in our otherwise dark bedroom. That accumulation continued throughout the night. We rose at the regular time on Sunday and, church services having been canceled, we went about having a leisurely breakfast.

And then, about 12:40 p.m. it happened. After having the lights flicker throughout the morning, the power finally went out. We gathered flashlights, storm lamps, and candles in case it remained out into the night. With Duke Energy, one never knows.

The in-house temperature slowly dropped. We donned sweaters. It continued to drop. We donned more sweaters and sweatshirts. Layer upon layer. Soon we were in coats and gloves. I set up our propane camp stove in the garage, where there was plenty of ventilation and the temperature was about the same as inside the house, and boiled water so we had cups of instant coffee. I’d done this dozens of times before when we were camping and during power outages. The result is never as good as brewed coffee, but at least it’s hot. And I’d never had a hint of a problem.

And then darkness descended. There’s no darkness like that which occurs at night during a snowstorm, when the skies are dark and filled with precipitation and there’s no power. We stumbled through the house, flipping light switches as we entered closets and bathrooms and then laughing at ourselves for doing so.

The adventure, the interruption of our normal routine, had only begun. By candlelight, my wife tried unsuccessfully to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. We reenacted the days of our youth by reading by flashlight. The night dragged on. Time stands still when it’s pitch black and you’re without power. We roasted mini-marshmallows on skewers over the candle.

Our daughters and friends and neighbors texted, and we watched our phone batteries get weaker and wondered if the power would come back on so we could recharged them before they died. Finally, we went to bed. We added more layers to our clothing and blankets on top of blankets. My wife bemoaned the absence of her beloved electric blanket. We discovered that it’s hard to roll in one’s sleep when wearing multiple layers and weighed down by multiple blankets. And one has a tendency to keep waking, wondering if the power has somehow miraculously returned while he slept.

Morning finally arrived, and I rose, shivering, and fumbled to shave by the dimming light of a flashlight beam. It wasn’t the greatest or closest shave, but at least I no longer resembled Grizzly Adams. Although the electricity was out, we did have warm water supplied by natural gas. Unable to hold the flashlight while showering, I resorted to showering by candlelight. Not my idea of romantic. But I got the worst of the dirt off.

And then the neighbor texted to check on the old folks. He asked what we were planning to do. I replied that we were thinking of going out somewhere to eat breakfast and asked if they wanted to join us. They agreed, so we went to the place that is always open in times of natural disasters, Waffle House. It was our first ever visit to that fine dining establishment. It was crowded. Not a parking place in the lot. We parked alongside the building, almost in the fire zone. Everyone inside was talking about where they were and what they were doing when the power went out and how long it might be before it came back on.

From there, we took our neighbor to work so his wife wouldn’t have to drive in the mess. And we saw trees down all over the place. Traffic lights out. Cars in the ditch. Drivers who didn’t know how to navigate a four-way stop. A typical Southern snow storm.

Shortly after we returned home, I began to prepare a mid-morning cup of coffee for each of us. I again attached the propane bottle, lit the flame, and, leaning on the hood of the car, read my book while the water struggled to reach the boiling point. I knew better than to watch the pan on the stove. A watched pot never boils. Instead, I read, glancing over at the pot occasionally to see if the water was warm enough to approximate coffee water.

After several pages, I glanced again and noticed, to my alarm, flames shooting in all directions from the top of the propane bottle. I jerked the propane connection from the burner, but the bottle continued to spew flames. I couldn’t remove the connection from the bottle without getting burned, and obviously a leak there was allowing the flame to continue. Water! I needed to douse the bottle in water! (Sorry, I have no photo of this. I was a bit too busy to think of taking a shot.)

I grabbed the bottom of the bottle and dashed toward the door into the house, then I thought, Boy! That’s stupid! If I drop it, the whole house goes up in flames! Instead, I returned and set the blazing bottle down between the wall and the car and then dashed inside to get the fire extinguisher that is in the pantry. (I never thought about how close the flaming bottle was to the car’s gas tank.) As I did so, I ran right past the extinguisher hanging on the garage wall. When panicked, one sometimes ignores the obvious and does stupid things.

Returning to the garage, I pulled the pin on the extinguisher, squeezed the handle, and gave the flames a one-second blast of the extinguisher. Dust flew everywhere. Everywhere. But the flame died immediately. Disaster was averted. But there was still the problem of the dust everywhere, so thick I couldn’t breathe. I ran through the cloud and manually opened the electric garage door opener. I could breathe once again. We never got that cup of coffee.

But I certainly learned a lesson. Next time the power goes out, I’ll go to Waffle House for my coffee, maybe a whole pot of it, rather than using the propane stove. And maybe I’ll find another way to get writing ideas. It’s safer that way.

The power returned almost 24 hours after it died. The temperature climbed back to normal inside the house. And I’m brewing Keurig cups like I never have before.

Today is another day. My wife returns to her regular teaching schedule. Well, somewhat. Her school is operating on a two-hour delay although the temperatures are well below freezing and all the snow that melted yesterday has frozen on the roads, making it even more hazardous than before. Snow Southerners can deal with; ice no one can deal with. Perhaps the morning ice drive will present further adventures as I take her to work and hopefully without hitting someone or getting hit by someone or sliding off the road and into the ditch. Who knows what further grist for the writing mill may result from the waning hours of this adventure.

Thoughts While Posting Christmas Cards

As I sat engaged in the various tasks of readying Christmas cards for mailing, I began to muse. I weighed how the practice has changed over the years. I noted the number of people I had to cross off my list because they had died. I considered the rising costs of cards and postage. And as my arthritic wrists and fingers protested, I even questioned why we exchange Christmas cards at all.

When I was a kid, I loved to get the mail in the weeks before Christmas to see who had sent us a greeting, what the cards said, and who had to money to send family photos in or as their cards. After everyone in the family had read the cards, Mother placed them along the mantle top over the fireplace in the living room so that any visitors could enjoy them as well. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, taped them around the door frames in her living room. When that space ran out, she moved to the coffee table and a sideboard along the living room wall and from there to the mantle. (I always assumed that the mantle was the place of last resort because of the dangers inherent in having paper products so close to the always hot Warm Morning coal stove that was in front of it. She kept the room so hot that whenever one stood up, he was in danger of passing out from the heat. Indeed, had a Christmas card fallen onto that stove, it no doubt would have been incinerated in mere moments.)

When I got married and my wife and I began receiving Christmas cards of our own, I instituted Nannie’s practice of taping them around the door jambs. We had neither a mantle nor a stove. But over the years, I’ve noticed that the number of cards we receive has steadily declined. To be perfectly blunt about it, we’re losing friends through Death. In looking through our college alumni newsletter, we now know fewer and fewer people in the “Class Notes” section and more and more in the “With the Lord” column. That’s a sobering thought.

But another reason for the decline in the number of cards we receive is that fewer and fewer people are bothering to send out Christmas cards. Have you seen the price of cards today? I’m not talking about the fancy Hallmark variety that you might buy for a spouse but the common, mass-produced, boxed kinds of cards. Knowing that the price gets higher with each passing year, we tried to “stock up” for this year by buying after-season cards right after Christmas a couple of years ago. But then the store went out of business, and there are no other Christian bookstores in the area. Even buying them online is getting outrageously expensive nowadays. And then you have to add the cost of postage. At 50 cents a card, that adds up really quickly even if your Christmas card list isn’t a mile long!

Some churches have begun providing a “mailing” service within their congregations. Some smaller churches have built banks of “mail boxes,” with every member or regular visitor having a designated slot. Friends bring their cards to church and stick them in the appropriate slots. Other churches provide a large, communal mail box. After everyone has deposited their cards, members of the youth groups sort and deliver them to the appropriate families. This definitely helps defray at least the postal expense of sending cards.

I can foresee that in a few years, when both my wife and I are retired and living on a fixed income that is a fraction of what we’ve become accustomed to living on, we’ll have to cut corners everywhere we can. Although in the big scheme of things financially Christmas card costs aren’t a major item, every little expense counts. When that day comes, I hope all of our friends don’t think we’ve forsaken them. Or that we’ve died and they didn’t know it. When that time comes, I guess we’ll just have to pick up our cell phones (if we can still afford a cell phone!) and call our friends to wish them a Merry Christmas. Actually, that’s not a bad idea! Sort of like telling friends, “Don’t come to my funeral to visit me; visit me while I’m still alive!”

But the thought that really bothers me most is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find cards that actually say something. Most of the cards on the market are so generic today, the age of political correctness when everyone is so afraid of offending someone by saying something that might be construed as overtly religious, that they don’t really say anything.

  • “Happy Holidays.” (What holidays are we celebrating? We might as well substitute a blank line and let the recipient fill in the holiday of choice for the word holiday for all that sentiment says.)
  • “May you feel the magic of the season.” (It’s not about feelings; it’s about a Person! And it was a miracle, not magic!)
  • “Peace on earth.” (Great. But you can’t have any real peace without the Person that everyone seems afraid to name!)

That’s why, whenever I find a card with an honest-to-goodness message, I buy it in bulk. If Sam’s sold bulk cards with a real message, I, skinflint though I am, would even be tempted to fork over money for a membership!

Despite the cloudy, troubled thoughts I had while getting my Christmas cards out this year, I’ll still send them with the hope that they, as weak as their message might be, coupled with the few words of my own that I’ve added, will convey the real meaning of Christmas and friendship to those who receive them. And I’ll look forward to receiving those that do come to my own mailbox. And I’ll dutifully tape them to our door jambs. Some traditions are worth keeping, even if it is getting harder to do so.