If you saw the documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, you realize he was motivated by the teachings of Christ. In the Summary of the Law from Mark 12:28-34, Mark writes that Jesus’ answer to which is the second most important commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In the documentary Rogers’ son referred to his father as the second Christ. Rogers seemed to hold the commandments of love your neighbor as yourself first and foremost in his mind and actions. In the episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he created a neighborhood and invited his audience to join it.
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?”
In the episodes, Rogers addressed the many issues that face children in our society: death, divorce, assassination, hurt, racism, confusion. With a quiet and sincere demeanor, an even pace, he spoke with children about the issues they were likely facing. He did not suggest that these things could be solved or would go away or even that we could personally change them. He acknowledged what the children were experiencing and feeling with a sense of dignity, relaying to them the message, “You are not alone. You are a good person. Though we are all different, we are in this together.” He recognized that children needed to find a positive outlet for the anger they were going to feel toward the frustrating world they lived in. On the topic of anger he said,
|When you feel that way about something, it helps to talk about your feelings. But sometimes you have to cry before you can talk about them. When you can cry and tell someone that you’re angry, it can help you feel better inside. Being able to talk about important things like feelings with the people you care about means you’re growing. And you’re growing to be freer and freer.|
The song he wrote about dealing with anger was called:
What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong… And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag? Or see how fast you go?
It’s great to be able to stop
When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong, And be able to do something else instead And think this song:
I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.
Watching the documentary, you realize Fred Rogers had a mission to reach out to each child he encountered, whether in person or through the airwaves. He wanted to help those children learn to sublimate their anger so that they didn’t grow up to react with violence when they felt mad. He said when he spoke to the camera, he first imagined one child’s face to whom he was speaking. That focus on the inner emotional life of the individual, that recognition of the feeling, sentient being is what set Mr. Rogers apart from the other fantastical, slapstick, and increasingly violent children’s programs.
In the readings today, the main theme is wisdom. Solomon asked God for “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” So God granted Solomon “a wise and discerning mind.” In Proverbs, we are exhorted to “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” In Psalm 34 “keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” And in the letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
Wisdom is equated with not only the ability to discern between good and evil, but to speak no evil and to do good. Walking with wisdom, with control over our emotions, over our tongues, over the way we interact with each other, is not only the the Judeo-Christian tradition, but the tradition of most religious and spiritual people. Mr. Rogers never spoke about God, nor about Christ on his program. He was not prostelytizing. He would not have been as effective if he were. He was not wearing his cross on his chest and his collar around his neck. He was walking as a Christian in his actions. But it’s not as though he never spoke of his faith. When asked about why he worked with children, he said, “Jesus said to the people around him, ‘Please, let the little children come up here. I want to learn from them.’ He may not have said those words, but I think that’s what he meant. I want to be involved with these innocent people who make up the kingdom of heaven.” He saw in children the best of humanity, the innocent and the most honest and he wanted to nourish them.
Our first hymn “O God, My God” from the Iona community in Scotland is a frank expression of doubt of God’s existence. Does God care that there is not peace on earth? Does God mind that there is pain and suffering? Is God alive? Is God alive. How can one have faith when we are daily confronted with a world full of pain and suffering. In the end the writer says, Set me free. Set me free. Free through death? Free through a renewal of faith? Free through apathy? How is one set free? We are not told. This is not answered. “Why do you seem so far from me O Gracious God?” Is a question in the refrain of the hymn. Is it asking why are you so far from me, or are you Gracious God? Are you gracious? Are you kind? We do not know, and we must acknowledge that for many of us, we may never know, because faith journeys, and we can attest to this, are not easy. But what we do with our doubt, with our confusion, with our anger is illustrated by whom? Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers might suggest that we build something positive from it. He also looked daily for the holy spirit moving in what he called the sacred space—the space between you and me and for him the space between the television set and the child watching it. He believed in that space between us the holy spirit moved to bring each of us the grace that we needed, so that the listener could take what was needed to be nourished. He had many examples where someone heard something completely different than what was said on his program, because that was what they needed to hear at the time. So although we may experience doubt of God’s existence, it may be more useful to spend some time in quiet and pay attention to how the Holy Spirit may be moving amongst us.
The second hymn, “Take My Life, God, Let It Be” asks for God’s intervention. Take my life, my moments, my days, take my spirit, my intellect, take my will, my heart, take my love and take me. Take it and improve it, consecrate or dedicate it, use it, make it one with your love and will. It is a giving up of self to God with the full trust that God will intercede and provide everything needed to survive. For Mr. Rogers, it was the quiet time in daily life that provided guidance. He said, “Real revelation comes through silence.” Every morning, he spent several hours in quiet contemplation, which we may call prayer or meditation, and he created silent times in his t.v. programs and in his interactions with other people, allowing them to express what was important to them, what was real.
As we prepare to sing the final hymn, “We Are Not Our Own,” I would like to share with you the description by Esquire’s Tom Junod of Rogers accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Daytime Emmys. This is what he wrote:
“Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award—and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, “I’ll watch the time.” There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds—and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.”
In his interview with Charlie Rose, Mr. Rogers said, “I want to learn how to be the best receiver that I can ever be. Because I think graceful receiving is one of the most wonderful gifts we can give anybody.”
Through all our doubts, our struggles with who we are and what is going on in our lives, our nation, our world, in the face of hardship and death, we can be a neighbor to each other, speak honestly, speak and listen kindly to each other, and walk softly in the sneakers of Mr. Rogers.