Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Remembering Mr. Rogers


15 years ago today, one of the most beloved figures in the United States died. On February 27, 2003, Fred McFeely Rogers died of stomach cancer. If Mr. Rogers were alive today, we'd be preparing to celebrate his 90th birthday on March 20. Instead, we grieve at the ways our world is poorer without him.

This week, PBS stations across the country are playing back-to-back episodes of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Daniel Tiger. Even if we don't have kids, perhaps we should all set our devices to record some of these shows.

I was one of the lucky kids who got to be one of Mr. Rogers' neighbors from the very beginning. I was born in September 1963, so I was four and a half years old when the show debuted on National Educational Television in February 1968. I watched the show from the very first, and it quickly became my favorite. I didn't go to kindergarten, so I got to see lots of episodes before I began first grade. But I didn't stop watching after I started school, either.

I remember clearly one day when I was in second grade. I had been nominated for a small honor at school, and I, along with several other nominees, had to complete an interview with a panel of judges. One of the questions asked of us was "What is your favorite TV show?" There were lots of good shows on the air at that time, but I didn't have to think twice about my favorite. "Mister Rogers," I answered immediately (For whatever reason, I never called the show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood back then.)

All the other nominees laughed at me for that. They named popular nighttime shows like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and called me a baby for still watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I liked those nighttime shows, too, but I wouldn't give up Mister Rogers, not even if other kids thought I was silly for watching it.

When I was in third grade, I asked for three particular items for Christmas: a Crissy doll with hair that grew, Barbie's Country Camper, and Mr. Rogers' Songbook. As you can imagine, Crissy and Barbie didn't last too long, but look what's still on my living room bookshelf, 45 years later:


Maybe by third grade I was older than the intended audience for watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. But I wasn't too old to absorb the lessons I learned there, to soak in the kindness and goodness that Mr. Rogers presented.

So I loved my songbook, singing along with such iconic tunes as "Won't You Be My Neighbor?":


And "It's Such a Good Feeling":


Fred Rogers, who studied music composition as an undergraduate, wrote these songs and many others. My favorite, though, was "Everybody's Fancy." Since I was born with a mild birth defect, I struggled with issues of self-esteem. Hearing Mr. Rogers say "Your body's fancy and so is mine" was balm to my heart.


There was something special about Mr. Rogers, for sure. And people who knew him or had the chance to talk with him personally testify that his television behavior was no act—he really was kind, caring, and wise. You can see a glimpse of that reality by watching this video:



The reality of Mr. Rogers' sterling character shouldn't be surprising, for Fred Rogers was a devoted follower of Jesus. Early in life he considered becoming a pastor, but he became fascinated with television and wanted to do something with that new medium that would be good for people's souls. But after he began working in the television industry, he entered seminary as a part-time student. It took him eight years to complete his degree, but he earned an M.Div. and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In a March 2000 interview with Christianity Today writer Wendy Murray Zoba, Fred Rogers told a story of his most beloved seminary professor, Dr. William S. Orr.

"I studied Greek with him and then I studied New Testament with him. Every Sunday, my wife and I used to go to the nursing home to visit him. One Sunday we had just sung 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God' and I was full of this one verse. I said, 'Dr. Orr, we just sang this hymn and I've got to ask you about part of it.

"'You know where it says—The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. For, lo, his doom is sure. … one little word will fell him? Dr. Orr, what is that one thing that would wipe out evil?'

"He said, 'Evil simply disintegrates in the presence of forgiveness. When you look with accusing eyes at your neighbor, that is what evil would want, because the more the accuser'—which, of course, is the word Satan in Hebrew—'can spread the accusing spirit, the greater evil spreads.' Dr. Orr said, 'On the other hand, if you can look with the eyes of the Advocate on your neighbor, those are the eyes of Jesus.'

"I've never forgotten that. . . ."

"Every time I walk into the studio, I say to myself [as a prayer], 'Let some word that is heard be Yours.' The Holy Spirit translates our best efforts into what needs to be communicated to that person in his or her place of need. The longer I live, the more I know it's true," he says ("Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Christianity Today, March 6, 2000).

Fred Rogers never talked about his faith on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Instead, he did something far more powerful: he lived by faith, and he treated every person with the kindness and compassion of Christ. 

The gospels tell us that when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, He answered: 
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (see Matthew 22 and Mark 12). 

In his new book (published posthumously), Life Without Lack, Dallas Willard talks about love of neighbor. Surprisingly, Dallas writes:

"First we must realize that we are not called to love everybody. We are called to love people, but 'everybody' is not a living, flesh-and-blood person (which is one of the things that makes the thought of loving 'everybody' so delightful!). If you are going to love at all, you hare going to love 'somebody,' not 'everybody.' To be sure, love is inclusive. God's embrace is meant for all people. God loves everybody, but God has bigger arms and a bigger heart than we do. . . we are called to love our neighbor." (Life Without Lack, p. 176)

At first I was taken aback by these words, but as I've reflected on them, I've realized that Dallas is talking about real love, an actual will to good, not a vague feeling of goodwill that we sometimes call love. This real love is exactly what Jesus demonstrated when he talked with people, allowed them to interrupt him, ate with them, and healed them. Jesus allowed real people into His life and loved them.

What made Mr. Rogers so special? He learned from Jesus to love his neighbors. Then, through the medium of television, he made hundreds of thousands of us his neighbors.


Fred Rogers was passionate about using technology for good. If he'd lived in the era of radio, no doubt he would have hosted a radio program. If he were alive today, he might have a Twitter account or a Facebook page. He might have a podcast or a blog, or he might post photos on Instagram. But one thing's for sure: he would do those things with the same spirit of neighbor love he demonstrated so freely on his television show.

What if we followed Mr. Rogers' example? Since the internet has brought so many more people to our doorsteps, what if we took the opportunity to consider them our neighbors, those whom we now have the chance to love? With the internet our neighborhood may now span the globe, but the wisdom of Fred Rogers—the wisdom of Jesus—is needed now more than ever, don't you think?

Jesus is alive today, ready to teach us to be good neighbors. I want to learn. Maybe we can learn together to make our online world a vast, loving neighborhood.

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?
Won't you please, won't you please?
Please won't you be my neighbor?

9 comments:

  1. Oh this is such a lovely tribute and I agree, I loved this show so much. Such a wonderful man who lived shared his faith with love.

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  2. Thank you for this post. To have more inspirational leaders today who practiced as Mr. Rodgers did. I gave my 34 year old son a Mr. Rogers mug for Christmas, his favorite TV mentor. He is currently watching the above mentioned episodes, but his little ones now watch Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood
    which is very sweet and speaks of kindness and patience. God Bless you Mr. R.

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  3. I love this so much. I remember watching Mr. Rogers when I was a little girl too. Whenever he was on TV it was like I could breathe a sigh of relief and settle in. There was such peace and calmness when that show was on--I've never experienced it with any other television show. Thanks for the sweet reminder of a very special man.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your memories of growing up as one of Mr. Rogers neighbors. I was also a TV neighbor and found my time watching his show so comforting. His gentle voice, friendly smile and kind words were like a breath of fresh air to my soul. The lessons I learned on how to value and treat people stayed with me well into adulthood. Thank you, Richella and thank you Mr. Rogers.

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  5. Oh my gosh what a beautiful tribute! Thank you so much for sharing! I learned so much today!

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  6. What a great post! I love the thought of Mr. Rogers on Twitter or Instagram!

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  7. I'm so thankful my children got to grow up with Mr. Rogers, and I watched along with them. It became such a calming part of the day....the chaos of children just home from school, along with a frazzled mom after a day of whatever I had been doing. It was a time for milk and homemade cookies and Mr. Rogers.
    Hugs, Carol

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  8. I love this Richella, thank you. I didn't realize his birthday is the same date my daughter #1 was born. He had the purest soul that was obviously transparent in his programs. The world needs more of his kind.

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  9. Oh my gosh what a beautiful tribute to a kind soul. I've always loved him, his gentleness came through the TV screen, maybe that's why so many children connected to him and his world. Thank you this Richella.

    xo
    Leslie

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