Friday, December 13, 2019

It's You That I Like

We are living in particularly divided and fractious times. As I am writing this, Congress is entering for an epic impeachment battle. People are lining up sides in particularly ugly ways. Right now in our culture, the preferred way to get ahead, it seems, is to see people as binary—either as supporters or opponents—and they are only there to hurt me or be on my side. Ethics has been reduced to “what I can get away with.” Disruption is often mistaken for leadership, and instead of building teams that cooperate, those in authority bully and belittle each other and call people names. We live in an environment where people are encouraged to fight each other tooth and nail for every scrap of advantage.
I don’t know about you, but I find all of this very tiring. I fear for us as a nation. I grieve the spiritual harm that is being done to all of us in this era of e-bickering and twitter tantrums.
And then, like a light in the darkness, came a movie about Fred Rogers! You know… Mr. Rogers, the nice man who hosted a little show called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (with Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers)! Peg and I went to go see it, and while the movie theater was not packed, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the lights came up.
In our fractious, divided times, we are starving for healing, we are thirsty for affirmation, and we long for real, substantial hope…that faith that always looks forward! This film came at exactly the right moment.
Fred Rogers gave many commencement speeches, and in 2003 he gave his last one at Dartmouth College. He said:
“Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.
“Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics? Well, for the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying; they slowed down, turned around and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, ‘This'll make it better.’ And the little boy got up and he the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long, time.
“People who were there are still telling the story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”
When my kids were small, we’d watch Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The show was really very old-fashioned television. A guy with puppets and various friends who’d drop in. The special effects were rarely glitzy and certainly not computer generated. Sometimes my kids would get bored and change the channel to something more colorful, more busy and louder. But often we’d get hooked by his quiet, gentle manner.
I remember one particular show. It was when Mr. Rogers went to a construction site and was shown how to operate a back hoe. The look of absolute delight on Mr. Rogers’ face as he got to dig a ditch with this big machine was wonderful and something I will never forget. I understood. And my kids understood. One is never too old for delight.
You may not know this, and the movie did not dwell on this fact, but Mr. Rogers was ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA and assigned to the special ministry of broadcasting and reaching out to children. The Reverend Fred McFeely Rogers (1928-2003) grew up in western Pennsylvania in the town of Latrobe, where he attended Latrobe Presbyterian Church. He attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, majoring in music composition. It was there that he had his first encounter with television, and was appalled by the children’s programs he saw. He thought, “Children deserve better.”
Through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he gave them better. Through the show, he taught generations of children the importance of Jesus’ second commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Not by preaching. By demonstration.
In 2000, Mr. Rogers hung up his cardigan for good. Over the course of 30 years, the show won four Emmy awards. Fred Rogers received a Peabody and countless other awards and honorary degrees for his work as creator, host, songwriter, scriptwriter and principal puppeteer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He and his wife, with whom he had two sons, worshiped at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh for many years, until his death in 2003.
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus and enter into a new year, especially in such fractious and divided times, I invite you to meditate upon, or sing, this little song by the Rev. Mr. Rogers
"It's you I like.
It's not the things you wear.
It's not the way you do your hair
But it's you I like.
The way you are right now
The way down deep inside you.
Not the things that hide you.
Not your caps and gowns,
They're just beside you.
But it's you I like.
Every part of you.
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you remember
Even when you're feeling blue.
That it's you I like,
It's you, yourself
It's you.
It's you I like."

The song reminds us that God loves us because that’s what God does and who God is. 
And the song reminds us that we are loved exactly as who and how we are. 
Finally, the song reminds us we are built to love. 
You don't ever have to do anything sensational to receive that love. So when, after Mr. Rogers, I say "it's you I like," I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far greater than anything you can ever see or hear or touch-- that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive.
God loves us exactly for who we are. We are called to love each exactly for who we are. In these fractious times, we need that love more than ever. Mr. Rogers reminded us that we are invited into, and called to live out, practical, daily, useful, over-flowing love. It is this kind of love that conquers hate, this kind of peace that rises triumphant over division, and that kind of justice that proves more powerful than greed.

This is my Rector's column for the December, 2019 issue of Glad Tiding, the e-newsletter of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania.

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