A few months ago, as I opened my laptop to check the news and Facebook (as is my masochistic routine every day), I did so with a feeling of despair and hopelessness.
SOCIAL MEDIA SUCK FEST
I’d just finished a grasp for sanity with a few minutes of silence and solitude and honesty before God (also my routine) and in it had identified I was feeling sad, overwhelmed, discouraged – alone. The world sucks. People suck. Religion and indoctrination, political posturing and power mongering sucks. I am weak and powerless and suck.
Technology/social media just seems a massive, clamoring, conflicting life and hope sucking vortex – a bullhorn for anyone and everyone to scream about how everybody and everything (besides themselves) is wrong and a threat to humanity and/or God.
I inhaled a large slurp of coffee then exhaled an equally large sigh along with this prayer –
“God, I want out. I want to quit. What a relief it would be if you released me from this.” — *This* being all ministry and using my voice and my life to share what I see.
I’ve prayed that a lot lately.
Another sigh, another shot of liquid stimulus and I steeled myself to enter the toxic cesspool. “I wonder whose political diatribe or trite christian meme will be the first to suck a little of my soul and will to live this morning?”
The first post on my newsfeed utterly destroyed my cynical pessimism in 1 minute and 26 seconds. Please watch this lovely message from Fred Rogers that aired on PBS to mark the one-year anniversary of 9/11, about five months before he died.
I immediately broke down sobbing, something I do a lot these days whenever the purity and power of genuine love breaks through and silences the clamor of repression and discouragement. Love’s message:
I love you just the way you are. Life is scary and difficult, but I’m so proud of you for uniquely expressing yourself and growing in love and for passing that love and encouragement on to the children in your life.
Another 5 minutes and a few more video clips later, I was in full-blown epiphany.
For 33 years, in plain sight of millions of television viewers spanning multiple generations, Mister Rogers was the greatest theologian and pastor of our time – communicating and modeling the simple, unadulterated Gospel and giving children and families encouragement and tools to grow in love and share that love. He was a master at his craft and mission.
Part of that epiphany was realizing our vision and approach to Four Creeks Church was the exact same as Mister Rogers’ ministry – An exclusive focus on the Gospel (the good news that you are accepted by God just the way you are) and fostering emotional/spiritual health and growth (EHS) through spiritual disciplines (Power4Life).
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Fred Rogers gave his daily invitation to be his neighbor based on what Jesus confirmed as the greatest command:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind AND Love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
The hypocrite then, and very much today, looks for the loophole and a way to justify not loving people while maintaining religious standing and superiority. “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Jesus, through the Parable of the Good Samaritan, makes it abundantly clear that our neighbor includes all the “wrong” people, not just those who comfortably fit our profile.
Day after day, week after week, decade after decade, Mister Rogers invited, without condition, anyone who was watching to be his neighbor. You could not miss that he genuinely felt his neighborhood wasn’t complete without you, the individual, and there was a longing that you be a part of it.
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you…Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”
This was consistently, predictably followed by a warm and cheerful, “Hello neighbor.” If you were tuning in, you were his beloved, cherished, welcome neighbor…period.
I LIKE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE
Gospel literally means “good news.” So what is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus?
God’s ultimate good will toward mankind – all conditions for being worthy of love have been annihilated through Jesus. We are completely accepted, cherished and loved exactly as we are without condition simply because we are. We were loved into existence apart from our own will or choice or reason or performance or even our ability to understand and accept it. The great I AM became one of us to enable us to see that we are…and that alone is the condition for His love…simply that we exist and we exist at his good pleasure.
Our sins are not counted against us by God, even as we continue throughout all history to deny Him and eat each other – all of us.
American Evangelicalism has been trained to knee jerk react, “No! That’s universalism and you must be silenced! A person must be convicted of sin and repent and recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior before being accepted by us God.” To which Jesus, The Gospels, Fred, I and a growing chorus of Christ followers call bullshit.
EMOTIONAL/SPIRITUAL HEALTH WARRIOR
Mister Rogers’ honest voice (the only voice he ever used whether in private or public) would never say “bullshit” – nor would he waste precious energy in an attempt to inhibit or control the damaging and distorted messages he saw being broadcast through the powerful new medium of television. He focused all energy on being and broadcasting light in the darkness. An integral component to that light was fostering emotional/spiritual health grounded in a profound knowledge of an individual’s inherent importance and worth. Without distraction, Mister Rogers poured his entire life up until the very last to:
1). Encourage honest, individual, creative expression of emotions – all of them. Not only was it safe to admit we were scared, sad, or angry, but Mister Rogers gave us somewhere to go with those difficult feelings.
2). Teach us we are supposed to grow and the process of growing is what life was all about and it is wonderful! Mister Rogers consistently, gently, persistently guided us toward growing deeper in our understanding and expression of love – towards ourselves and others.
3). Demonstrate faithfulness. Fred Rogers offered himself as a constant, reassuring presence to generations of children as they painfully came to terms with the cruel and uncertain realities of life, as we all must. As our families, governments, religious institutions and even friends inevitably let us down, Mister Rogers never deviated from the message. You always knew you were welcome and important in the neighborhood, and you knew, come what may after he closed the door behind him, he’d be there to welcome you just as warmly and genuinely tomorrow. “I’ll be back when the day is new, and I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about, and I…will…too.”
If you have a soul, you’ll need some tissues as you watch these videos.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Many Ways To Say I Love You
Food for Thought
Without fail, over 33 years and 895 episodes, he donned and doffed those sneakers and his mother’s hand-made sweaters, sang the same songs in his honest voice and style to deliver the message that you, the viewer, are his neighbor and that he delights in you just the way you are; delights to have you join him in discovering something new and wonderful about our world and each other; delights in your ideas and unique creative expression. And the miracle is how personally this transcends through a taped television show and now even his death! It doesn’t matter who you are, you know it’s genuine and he really is speaking to you. Some of us even begin to believe it and hear that message from within ourselves and work to foster it in others.
COUNTER CULTURAL REBEL
Fred Rogers was radical in his gentleness, faithfulness and wisdom. He was able to live, breathe, and promote these things against which there is no law (Galatians 5:23) on public television because he never insisted there be an exclusive God stamp placed on the show, though he had a very personal and deep Christian faith. Doing so would have only invited restriction and obstruction from all sides. He simply and masterfully went straight to the meat of being the Gospel and let God’s love speak and work for itself.
I’ve well documented how we got the boot and cold shoulder from Church World when we set out to plant a church that operated on the radical inclusiveness and emotional health of the Gospel. Yowza, have the last 4 years been quite the undoing and rewiring of me as a Christian…as a human. I would have saved myself a lot of time and angst while coming to the same vision for ministry had I just paid more attention to Mister Rogers.
Jimmy and I determined from the very beginning that the message you would receive at Four Creeks Church would be you are genuinely welcome and valued exactly as you are right now whatever you believe right now. We long for you to be part of our family, to make the neighborhood, this church of Christian believers, your home. We are delighted to have you join us as we grow together and figure out better and better ways to understand and express love. We do, quite boldly, put a specific stamp of Jesus on this love as we believe he is its source and personification. Jimmy and I do not consider it our duty or even that it’s possible for us to make anyone believe anything or do what we think is right with what we give, we’re just responsible for broadcasting the message, providing the structure and the tools, sharing freely from our experience and constantly inviting whoever will to follow. If you “tune in” to what we are broadcasting, you are our neighbor…period…and as pastors we will (and do) go to hell and back with anyone willing to honestly walk the path we’re on.
We welcome your honest, unique, creative, one-of-a-kind expression of all your feelings and experiences. Life is scary and uncertain. We have all been traumatized and at times feel sad and frightened and angry…some of us a lot. Allowing people that freedom comes with some really heavy burdens as pastors. Some people are like spiritual foster children coming out of years of abuse who don’t know how to trust love and have a hard time believing this message that they are wanted and accepted and have inherent value. Sometimes they lash out at our love and test it before they can begin to accept it. We are willing to patiently repeat the message as many times as we need to, even over decades, even for just one person.
Still others who grew up in “good church homes” have a warped view of God wrapped up in many thick layers of repression and dysfunction due to indoctrination. Jimmy and I are very much in the trenches with you there. Again, we’ll keep consistently reinforcing the message, first to ourselves, “You are accepted exactly where you are, as you are. Express yourself honestly. Here’s a path to grow in healthy ways. Won’t you please be my neighbor and walk with me?”
The brilliance of Mister Rogers was that he understood the vital investment of love in children and its impact on future generations. When I came to the realization that I was going to have to be responsible for children’s ministry at Four Creeks, I freaked a little…ok a LOT. I didn’t have the help, I didn’t have the structure, I didn’t have the resources to pull off any kind of program church people have come to expect for their kids. I still freak out a little every morning I wake up and realize it’s Sunday. I am still, in many ways, a frightened and insecure child, desperate for reassurance of my worth and acceptance and worried about my performance and whether or not it will be good enough. That discomfort is a stark reminder of the only thing I’m supposed to do and why – provide a consistent, safe, free place where kids know they are loved, they are wanted, they are welcome and in that context encourage them to express their true feelings and guide them down constructive, healthy paths. To show them the real deal, I must BE the real deal.
Yes, I teach them about Jesus and the stories from the Bible, but I don’t indoctrinate them with my preferred list of “right” words and ideas to explain or apply any of it. I simply tell the stories and then ask them what they see…and it never ceases to blow me away what they are capable of grasping way better than us damaged and distorted adults. They teach me. There is simply no greater investment of my time and thinking/teaching talents than those precious, unfiltered, free souls. They recognize and respond to love with natural ease while being keenly aware of injustice and bullshit…that is until invariably that innocence and honesty gets stripped from them through intimidation and manipulation from the adults in their life.
Lord, forgive us as we’ve squandered, crushed and inhibited your love, especially towards these little ones; replacing it with rules and conditions and lies masked as absolute truth and certainty; particularly those of us who have claimed to own that light. In our zeal for rightness and control, may we never be responsible for extinguishing the inherent light and worth placed in each of your children, for it would seem for such a person there can be no mercy (Mark 9:24). Have mercy on us, your damaged, frightened, sad and angry children. We do not understand what we do or what we feel.
Thank you for your Word become flesh, the Light that drives out darkness – your Servant and Son, Jesus; your servant and son, Fred Rogers; your servant and daughter, Carrie Murphy; your servant and son, John Pavlovitz and on and on and on….
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
As long as the world spins and there are people living on it, this Gospel message will be found and demonstrated by “helpers.” It may not be the loudest, hippest, most popular voice. It may even be largely ignored and even despised, especially if it comes from outside the traditional or socially acceptable box, but for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it will stand out in radical gentleness and graciousness. Look for it and you will find it. Desire it, and it will freely be yours, and through you a gift passed on to many others.