Jesus Calms the Storm

My favorite artist is Rembrandt because of his story, his use of biblical imagery, and the fact he places himself in the paintings he paints. This is what good art does it envelopes you; it swallows you and emerges you into its story. My favorite painting of his is the Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s been the background on my iPhone for four or five years now. I put it on my phone because I wanted to be daily reminded that I am prone to wander like the son, that I growing up in the church and never leaving home left home on my heart, and lastly, I’m called to be the father who loves both those who have wandered far from home and those who have wandered while never leaving home. The gospel points out my sin points me to Christ, and redirects me to run toward sinners.

The Return Of The Prodigal Son

I recently replaced it for the time being with Christ calms the storm. A painting that depicts arguably the best depiction of God’s trust in His Father and our trust in ourselves in all of scripture.

The biblical scene pitches nature against human frailty – both physical and spiritual. The panic-stricken disciples struggle against a sudden storm, and fight to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and drawing the craft perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. One of the disciples succumbs to the sea’s violence by vomiting over the side. Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves. Nature’s upheaval is both cause and metaphor for the terror that grips the disciples, magnifying the emotional turbulence and thus the image’s dramatic impact.

Michael Zell
Jesus Calms The Sea of Galilee

There are many ironic elements of this masterpiece. The first is the fact it was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Gardener Museum in Boston. Most experts believe it to be the work of organized crime to be used as ransom to free jailed crime bosses. The irony is that since it was taken, there has been wave after wave of stolen peace in our lives and in our countries collective experience. I do not believe that the theft precipitated our lack of collective peace. It is only a cultural artifact that points to our loss of peace by righting our ship on our terms.

Why Our Kids Ministries Should be More Like Mr. Rogers and Less Like Disney.

One of the pressures that kids pastors face from parents, leaders, or themselves, and sometimes it’s all three, is to be like Disney. I have often looked at how Disney engages kids as inspiration in engaging the kids I lead. I have had people suggest kindly to me that we take a look at how Disney does things. I even went to Disney and have sent staff members to Disney for inspiration for ministry. The older I get and the longer I do kids ministry, the more I realize that Walt’s idea of child formation was wrong, and Mr. Rogers was right. (Editorial note I am not a Disney hater, I have taken the required pilgrimage to Orlando with my family.)

When you look at the aesthetics of the two kingdoms they both built, they reflect how each saw the world. Walt’s world was a perfect version of what our world should look like. His world is shiny songs playing everywhere. Every restaurant serves chicken strips and hotdogs. Never any dust, never chipped paint. Excellence and creativity abound. Fred’s world was simple, even plain. His puppets showed wear, and his set grew old along with Fred. Two worlds trying to reach the same kids. 

The two kingdoms they built were the result of two visions of the world. Walt created a world that was an escape from the real world. Fred lived in a neighborhood and showed kids how to navigate through the real world. 

Walt built a fantasy world. Fred lived in a neighborhood.

There is nothing wrong with fantasy. Kids need fairy stories. Tolkien and Lewis were both shaped by fairy stories. They have different takes as to the ontological value of stories. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were reflective of God in that they were an example of sub-creation. Lewis thought that you could smuggle truth in fairy stories and steal past the watchful dragons that would not give faith a hearing. In this debate, I side more with Lewis. Fairy tales are more valuable in helping us escape this world, not for the escape alone but to show us what is broken and how to fix our world. Fairy stores should not be only an escape but should contain truth that entertains our minds but be filled with truth that changes our hearts. 

Walt’s world, on the whole, is an escape from reality, sustained by entertainment. You enter the park, and you enter the world as it should be – no trash on the ground, no gum on the sidewalk, and no tears in any eye. It’s perfect. It plays to our right desire for a better world. It reminds us in miniature form that our world, the real world is a shadow, and our heart longs for a perfect world free of sin and pain. 

Fred’s world had fantasy elements in it. But Fred never lied. He said we are going to the land of makebelieve. His fiction was grounded in reality and founded in faith. Fred lived in a neighborhood like you and me. His set was old, his puppets were tired, but he connected with kids in a way few others have. Mr. Rogers had friends come by who struggled with difficult issues like divorce, physical disability, and even race. He didn’t create an alternate universe by which he could escape reality. He lived in a house and told kids when makebelieve was happening. He used fairy stories to smuggle truth.  

Walt Entertained Kids. Fred Empowered Kids.

Walt’s world is all about connecting kids to fun to entertain them. This is a trap I fell into early in my years of children’s ministry. For years I would ask kids if they had fun at the end of the service. I wanted the church to be an escape for kids from the difficulties of home and school. The problem with entertaining kids is you have to out create yourself every week. Kids go to Disney once to a few times a year max. They come to church once to a few times a month. Entertainment may bring them, but we don’t have the budget, creativity, and time to create programs for kids that rival or compete with Disney’s magic. 

Introducing The Audiocast

Welcome everyone I want to introduce you to my new podcast called “The AudioCast” I am excited to be launching this new format. I have dabbled in podcasts a bit here and there. But in the past several years podcasts have only grown in reach and popularity. It seems that podcasts are the new blog. I hesitated to get into the podcast space because there were so many podcasts already.

I have to admit I’m not a huge podcast listener. I am more of an audiobook listener, but my wife and I were talking about me potentially doing a podcast, and together we touched on something that I found interesting. I always want to try and do things that have never been done before sometimes, that’s a good thing, and other times it doesn’t work out so well. This is one of those things. It may be good it may not. But I definitely think it will be different.

My wife thought that since I love audiobooks so much. What if I turned my blog into an audiobook in the form of a podcast. That idea intrigued me. I liked it because it seems unique. I liked it because I still prefer blogging, but know that so many people don’t read blogs but do listen to podcasts.

So what would this look like?

Each podcast episode would be anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the length of the post. I would then add some additional comments that I had when I was working on my blog post and may mix in a few surprises from time to time.

So there you go—the birth of The AudioCast (half audiobook half podcast). I hope you find it helpful.

Anxiety and Digital Minimalism

Why Digital Minimalism

This year was one of the more challenging years for me and many I know. In twenty-plus years of ministry, I have never had to meet with a therapist. I am not against them; I just have never felt the need. I never feel lonely, rarely get upset, and have never been depressed. I have experienced loss and have walked others through loss, but none of it has ever brought me to a place of anxiety. This year all that changed.

This year I felt like I failed. I felt like I was unable to protect the people God by his providence place in my care. That feeling started as a panic attack and grew into anxiety in a way I have never experienced in my life. I wasn’t prepared for how it made me feel and for how it affected me on an emotional level. It got to the point I had to see a professional counselor. We talked through it. He told me that what I had been through was traumatic. We talked about boundaries relationally and interestingly enough electronically. I took some steps to minimize my exposure to certain groups on social media, and I was surprised by how much it helped.

I didn’t realize why limiting my exposure to social media helped until I picked up a book I had heard a lot about called Digital Minimalism. In his book Cal Newport describes Digital Minimalism this way:

“Digital Minimalism A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Cal Newport

Studies show that I’m not alone. In the Preventative Medicine Reports, they have done studies that have shown associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents. High users of screens were also significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Fourteen to 17-year-olds spending 7+ h/day with screens (vs. 1 h/day) were more than twice as likely ever to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety. High users of screens were also more likely to have seen or needed to have been seen by a mental health professional, and more likely to have taken medication for a psychological issue in the last 12 months.

The problem with most young people and many of us not so young people is that we fill every spare moment digesting digital information. The cracks in our lives are filled in, we have lost the art of solitude. We no longer remember how to be alone with ourselves. We fill our lives with the airbrushed curated moments of the lives of our digital friends and wonder why we are filled with anxiety.

It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life. Thoreau and Storr worried about people enjoying less solitude. We must now wonder if people might forget this state of being altogether.

Cal Newport

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,”

Blase Pascal

Over the years, I have taken some steps towards Digital minimalism. I rarely post pictures of my kids online; if I do, I never use their names. I also frequently delete the iPhone apps for social media sites off of my phone. This year however I plan to try and take more drastic steps to be a lifelong digital minimalist.

I have to regain the ability to be present with myself and those I love. I have to allow my mind to wander to process the truly painful things in my life rather than stuff them by mindlessly scrolling Instagram. When I am off screens, I come up with new ideas new thoughts. When I am on screens, I see what others are doing and say why didn’t I think of that. Envy replaces wonder.

I need to minimize the hold that my phone in general and social media, in particular, has on my life. Am I going to become a digital hermit? No. The ship has sailed on that. I have come up with a plan to minimize the hold that social media has on me. So that I am freer to enjoy the world around me, create more, and have hobbies, I appreciate that I can look at later and say, “I made that.”

My Plan

  1. Delete all social media apps and games on my phone. Block all access to social media even though the browser on my phone.
  2. No longer click likes or post comments on other people’s posts. I have had several “Facebook fights,” and at the end of the day, they are still wrong (lol), and I’m upset over what they said or how I said something.
  3. I still plan on using social media to post blog posts (which I hope to post more of not being on Instagram so much) and to pass on information and posts I found helpful.
  4. Use my phone to listen to books on my commute, text, call, and write blog posts and start working on a book remotely.
  5. Use my computer exclusively to check social media a few times a week.
  6. I will still use social media for work-related issues just not as an anesthetic for the boredom that makes life….life.
  7. I am going to remove the news app from my phone and all notifications. I will now get my news from Allsides.com free of ads and partisan nonsense.

A foundational theme in digital minimalism is that new technology, when used with care and intention, creates a better life than either Luddism or mindless adoption.

Cal Newport

My Hope

I don’t think everyone should do this. I am telling you all this, so you know why I may not like your pictures or posts. It’s not that I don’t want to connect with you that I want to try and regain the time to really connect with you, not just pretend that I am. Please text me or call me but know that if you send me things through Instagram or Facebook, it may be a while before I get back to you.

I don’t know if this will work, but from what I have seen from the electronic boundaries I have set already, I think it will be okay. This isn’t “goodbye” it’s just “I’ll get back to you just not really quickly.”

My Kid Got a Phone For Christmas! Now What?

One common question I get from parents is around cell phones and screens. Parents want to know how much time is too much. They want to know how to filter content and protect their kids from harm. Their concerns are valid. In fact, parents who are concerned about the onslaught of social media and wired devices are the exception. Most parents today did not grow up as digital natives; they remember what the world was like before it became digitized.

The concerns around screen time are not only valid but are more severe than first realized. The empty streets that used to be filled with kids playing sports and riding bikes to stave off boredom are apparent all around us. The evidence of our kids sitting in front of screens is seen in the rise of childhood obesity. What is a newer revelation for parents is the connection between social media usage, screen time and mental health. A recent study has shown that “High users of screens were also significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Fourteen to 17-year-olds spending 7+ h/day with screens (vs. 1 h/day) were more than twice as likely ever to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety. High users are also twice as likely to have been seen by a mental health professional and to have taken medication for a psychological issue.”

So what do we do? In this ever-connected age, we feel helpless to fight this wave of connectedness. That, in reality, is producing a generation of kids who are more connected than ever but filled with more anxiety and loneliness than ever.

What do we do?
Delay, Filter, and Monitor.

Delay – giving them a phone

You should delay giving your kids a cell phone for a bit longer than you feel comfortable. The benefits of waiting outweigh the convenience of being able to reach your kids whenever you want to reach them. I initially thought we would wait until sixteen when they start to drive. We ended up changing to 13 when they began taking long bus rides to sporting games for school. I didn’t want our kids looking on with other kids watching whatever their neighbor was watching. I wanted to be about to filter and monitor what they were consuming digitally.

Delay – letting them on social media

Kids who have a cell phone have texting and calling at their disposal. In the study I referenced earlier, the majority of the anxiety and depression seem to be linked to the use of social media. Kids need to be kids. Kids don’t need the anxiety of knowing they have been left out. Or be on the receiving end of comments on their Facebook or Insta that are hurtful. They don’t have the maturity to know that what they post is not private, and it survives forever even when they “delete” it from their wall. 

Filter using iPhone settings. 

Anything that requires a plug to a wall has a backdoor to the internet. Apple has made some excellent improvements to keep your kids safe. From the “Screen Time” section of your child’s phone, you can control who they talk to, set limits for apps, set downtimes when phone access and app access is limited. You can also share their settings to your phone. From your phone, you can then control the restrictions of your child’s phone from anywhere. 

Adding restrictions to an iPhone a brief guide

1. Click on settings
2. Click on Screen Time

3. Once in screen time, you will see options for each of the ways you can restrict your child’s phone.
1. Downtime – allows you to set bedtimes for your child’s apps and Phone access.
2. App Limits – will enable you to limit a particular app or family of apps like “games” to a set time of use. 3. Communication limits – limits who they can talk or text and when they can do so.
4. Always Allowed this allows certain apps to be accessible at all times.
5. Content & Privacy – This section limits adult sites, language thresholds, and as well as what level of movies you would like your kids to watch on their devices. It also allows you to keep them from making changes to the password of their phones. This means that they can’t remove your thumbprint of face recognition without putting a password you create.
For a more in-depth guide to iPhone parental controls click here.

Filter using My Circle

With My Circle, you can choose appropriate (or block inappropriate) content by age. Customize settings to filter for individual family members and then apply to social media, videos, and games for both apps and websites. You can also make the internet stop for every family member (or just one). Tap Pause when it’s time to get going on homework, or if someone hasn’t cleaned their room. Hit unpause when you’re good to go. Lastly, you can check out sites visited and filtered throughout the day. Or go back as far as you like. And even set a Filter directly from the History view.

Monitor – Your Kids’ phone manually.
Have access to their phones and check their text messages and other activities on their phones by looking through their phones randomly on a regular basis. This is not an invasion of privacy this is responsible parenting. If your kids object to this or give you any reason not to trust them with the phone you provide. TAKE THE PHONE AWAY.

Monitor – Your Kids’ phone automatically.
If you want to monitor your kids’ text messaging automatically you can use Bark.us. Or if you didn’t head my advice and you caved and let your kids get social media you MUST get Bark. Bark connects to 24 platforms to monitor text messages, emails, and social activity for signs of harmful interactions and content. Click here for an overview of what Bark monitors. You get automatic alerts via email and text when Bark’s algorithms detect potential risks, so you don’t have to comb through every post and text.

Bottom line: Parenting isn’t easy don’t give up because the digital problem is so overwhelming. Fight for your kids they need you now more than ever.