By Phil Vischer
Walt Disney had a rough life. His father, Elias, was emotionally distant and occasionally abusive. His first attempt at an animation company failed in bankruptcy. His first successful character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was snatched from him by an unscrupulous distributor along with most of Walt’s early employees. Even after the success of Snow White, the Disney Studios spent nearly two decades teetering on the brink of failure. Walt suffered two nervous breakdowns from the stress of his work. He took up polo at the advise of doctors hoping he would find an escape, but instead acquired a back injury in a fall that would plague him the rest of his life. The man America knew as the perpetually smiling “uncle” on TV, was in fact so often sour and gloomy that the studio guards had a code word to tip off the staff when Walt arrived at work in one of his moods. “Walt’s wearing his wounded bear suit,” they would report, and the animators knew to steer clear of their famous boss on those days.
And yet, near the end of his life, Walt was quoted by a journalist saying, “I have never had an unhappy day in my life.”
Huh? Was Walt Disney delusional? Had he forgotten about the painful bankruptcy? The bitter strike of 1941 that broke his heart? The years of stress that had eroded his health?
Had Walt found some secret to happiness in the midst of life’s turmoil?
Yes and no. Walt, one can only conclude after reading any of his detailed biographies, was in denial. He so badly wanted his life to have been one long unbroken string of sunny days that he decided to pretend it was so. The bad days were simply ripped from his journal.
If you’ve heard my story, you know that I wanted to be just like Walt. So I built an animation studio and began working tirelessly for the benefit of the world’s children. I dreamed of sunny days and happy workers and amusement parks and meaningful, world-changing ministry. But like Walt and, I believe, many children’s ministry workers today, I discovered that changing the world is difficult, stressful business. At age 30 I found myself in the emergency room from an assumed heart attack. (It turned out, instead, to be a viral infection in the lining of my heart.) The next year I was felled by strep throat, the year after that, shingles. All stress related.
For a while I soldiered on, using the technique Walt had used so valiantly before me. I simply tried to pretend I was happy. I was doing God’s work, after all, and what could be better than that? Of COURSE I was happy! My health continued to decline. Relationships were strained. But whenever a reporter turned up, I smiled. We’re changing the world! It’s rewarding work! Look how happy I am!
And then everything began to collapse. My company and ministry fell into bankruptcy. My characters, songs and stories were all carried away by strangers. I was left exhausted, in a heap on the floor. A few reporters came around to poke at me amidst the wreckage, but now I couldn’t even pretend I was happy. The charade was over.
And then God showed up. To be honest, of course, he had been there all along, but I had been too busy “saving the world” to notice him. He pointed out to me that only one person has ever walked the Earth who actually had the ability to “save the world.” And his name wasn’t “Walt” or “Phil.” His name was Jesus. And 2000 years ago, this Jesus looked out at a crowd of overworked, stressed people – people who looked a lot like you and me – and said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
And I thought, “Yes! That’s why I’m killing myself! So kids everywhere can meet you and find rest!”
And I heard Christ say to me, “No, Phil. The ‘rest’ I’m talking about is for you, too.” And I was shocked. How could I find rest? The world needs saving! Hollywood is devouring our kids! I’ve got to do something about it! Now!
Then, while reading through Paul’s letters, I noticed something interesting. “Stressed” and “cranky” aren’t in any of the lists of the fruit of the Spirit. If I have given my life to Christ – if I have been filled with the Spirit – my life will be marked with peace, joy, and love. Peace. Joy. Love. Not just for the people in the pews or the kids in our Sunday School classes. For us. For you. For me.
I’m going to say something bold. If your life isn’t marked by peace, joy and love, something is wrong. Maybe your kids ministry is growing. Maybe all the numbers are going up. But if you’re stressed and cranky, something is wrong. Perhaps you’ve fallen for the lie that you can save the world – if only you work hard enough. Perhaps you’re living in Walt-like denial that you really are happy. “No, really. I’m happy. How could I not be happy? I’m doing God’s work!”
Here’s the deal – none of us can save the world. But that’s okay, because Jesus can. He isn’t inviting you to run yourself ragged building the perfect kids ministry. He’s inviting you to walk with him and rest in him. He’s asking us to let him fill us so full of his love that it overflows and splashes all over those around us. THAT is ministry. When the joy of the Lord overflows out of you and splashes onto the faces of the kids around you. The first step for me, frankly, was to admit that I was miserable. That I was stressed. Cranky. Exhausted. To say, “Jesus – I can’t do this. I’m failing.” And then to hear him say, “That’s okay. Come. Walk with me. Rest in me.”
I have had many miserable days. Many of them of my own making. But today I’m smiling. Today I am walking in peace – knowing how truly incapable I am of saving anyone from anything. Knowing, for the first time, that this is okay. And I’m writing new stories and creating new characters – not out of stress or anxiety – but out of the joy of the Lord and his love for kids. How far will my new stories go? How many kids will they reach? That, I now know, is none of my business. And that’s just fine with me.
God has a plan for your ministry, and it doesn’t start with a budget or a conference or a giant list of things to do. It starts with his love. For you. Can you feel that love? Can you slow down long enough to let it fill you – until you can’t help but smile? This – not a big budget or an impressive plan, not the “perfect” curriculum or a whole bank of X-boxes – is the beginning of ministry.
Phil made his first animated film when he was nine years old. After a brief stint at a Bible college, Phil struck out on his own. This quest led him to a tomato and a cucumber. Today, almost 50 million VeggieTales videos have been purchased. Phil’s latest Jellyfish Labs project is JellyTelly – an interactive, online “mini-network” for children. Phil lives with his wife Lisa (aka Junior Asparagus) and their three kids in Wheaton, Illinois.