Mister Rogers and the Hunger for God

Sue Bohlin's picture

Mister Rogers Neighborhood"You've made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are." —Mister Rogers, to every person as we watched his show.

With the news that a documentary about Fred Rogers (Public Television's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood") will be released this summer, and a movie about him starring Tom Hanks will be in production soon, there has been a good bit of buzz in social media recently. I keep coming across articles about him and links to videos that often move me to grateful tears for this amazing man.

"Mister Rogers" had a heart for children that is unlike anything I've ever seen. His TV program ran for 33 years, from 1968 to 2001. My children grew up watching Mister Rogers, and I often sat with them, equally enthralled by his gentleness, his predictable routines (such as changing out of his jacket into a cardigan sweater and a different pair of shoes every single show), and his ability to speak straight to the heart of the audience. Except it wasn't that we were part of his audience; Mister Rogers communicated in such a powerfully personal way, with such soothing, calm tranquility, that we knew he was speaking to US. Individually.

Even before I learned he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, I sensed there was something deeply spiritual about his message and the way he communicated respect, genuine caring, and encouragement to his "neighbors." As Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Atlantic,

"Fred's faith surfaced in subtle, indirect ways that most viewers might miss, but it infused all he did. He believed 'the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground,' but he trusted God to do the heavy lifting. The wall of his office featured a framed picture of the Greek word for 'grace,' a constant reminder of his belief that he could use television 'for the broadcasting of grace through the land.' Before entering that office each day, Rogers would pray, "Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours."{{1}

I once heard a wise man say that since we are made in the image of God, everything we do and say either tells the truth about God, or it tells a lie about God. It seems to me that Fred Rogers showed millions of children what Father God is like. I am especially reminded of God's own statement about Himself in Exodus 34:6:

The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth . . .

For decades, Mister Rogers demonstrated compassion: for people with different skin than his, for people with disabilities, for people going through hard times, and especially by showing unrelenting respect for children—their fears (such as haircuts and being sucked down the bathtub drain) and their pains (like divorce), and their celebrations.

Grace was a huge part of Mister Rogers' worldview. He bestowed dignity and value on everyone because of his belief that all people deserve dignity and appreciation as God's creations, made in His image. Who know how many little hearts God healed through the song "It's You I Like"? In fact, when Joan Rivers had him as a guest on the Tonight Show, you can see grace wash over her like the warm blessing that it was:

God is slow to anger, and His servant Mister Rogers showed an amazing degree of patience and self-control in his shows. He always moved and spoke slowly and deliberately, as an antidote to the barrage of "Hurry up, hurry up!" children often hear from their frazzled, impatient caregivers.

God abounds in lovingkindness and truth, and apparently so did Mister Rogers. One of his quotes:

"There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind."

This is a great quote, but countless people report that Fred Rogers lived it. He was the epitome of kindness—to everyone. One journalist reported a typical scene when he walked on the streets of New York:

". . .but every time [the show's producer Margy Whitmer] turned around, there was Mister Rogers putting his arms around someone, or wiping the tears off someone's cheek, or passing around the picture of someone's child, or getting on his knees to talk to a child. Margy couldn't stop them, and she couldn't stop him. "Oh, Mister Rogers, thank you for my childhood." "Oh, Mister Rogers, you're the father I never had." "Oh, Mister Rogers, would you please just hug me?" {{2}

In the wake of the #metoo movement, ugly truths are emerging about certain celebrities. It's good to be able to highlight one of the good guys, who shone his light to the glory of God as he nourished the souls of millions of children and anyone else who watched his TV show.

I think we are all hungry to know that we are loved, especially by God. I look forward to meeting him in heaven one day. I will close with this story I found on Facebook that powerfully expresses Mister Rogers' legacy:

"A good portion of my pro-bono work is defending abused children. It's a cause close to my heart. In the course of my work I met a man who was an adult survivor. You wouldn't have known it looking at him. He was this gigantic Polynesian guy. Wild curly hair. I think of him every time I see Khal Drogo on GoT. He was counseling some of the little kids, and doing a fantastic job of it.

"I visited his home to get his opinion on something and I noticed a little toy on his desk. It was Trolley. Naturally curious, I asked him about it. This is what he told me:

"'The most dangerous time for me was in the afternoon when my mother got tired and irritable. Like clockwork. Now, she liked to beat me in discreet places so my father wouldn't see the bruises. That particular day she went for the legs. Not uncommon for her. I was knocked down and couldn't get back up. Also not uncommon. She gave me one last kick, the one I had come to learn meant 'I'm done now'. Then she left me there upstairs, face in the carpet, alone. I tried to get up, but couldn't. So I dragged myself, arm over arm, to the television, climbed up the tv cabinet and turned on the TV.

"'And there was Mr. Rogers. It was the end of the show and he was having a quiet, calm conversation with those hundreds of kids. In that moment, he seemed to look me in the eye when he said 'And I like you just for being you'. In that moment, it was like he was reaching across time and space to say these words to me when I needed them most.

"'It was like the hand of God, if you're into that kind of thing. It hit me in the soul. I was a miserable little kid. I was sure I was a horrible person. I was sure I deserved every last moment of abuse, every blow, every bad name. I was sure I earned it, sure I didn't deserve better. I *knew* all of these things … until that moment. If this man, who I hadn't even met, liked me just for being me, then I couldn't be all bad. Then maybe someone could love me, even if it wasn't my mom.

"'It gave me hope. If that nice man liked me, then I wasn't a monster. I was worth fighting for. From that day on, his words were like a secret fortress in my heart. No matter how broken I was, no matter how much it hurt or what was done to me, I could remember his words, get back on my feet, and go on for another day.

"'That's why I keep Trolley there. To remind me that, no matter how terrible things look, someone who had never met me liked me just for being me, and that makes even the worst day worth it to me. I know how stupid it sounds, but Mr. Rogers saved my life.'

"The next time I saw him, he was talking to one of my little clients. When they were done with their session, he helped her out of her chair, took both of her hands, looked her in the eyes and said: 'And remember, I like you just for being you.'

"That, to me, is Mr. Rogers' most powerful legacy. All of the little lives he changed and made better with simple and sincere words of love and kindness."

1. www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/mister-rogers-saint/416838/
2. www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

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