One day when my daughter was about three, I came home, sat on the couch, opened the afternoon newspaper, and buried myself inside its pages. My daughter toddled up with a book in her hand and said, “Daddy, please read me a story.” I sort of grunted and mumbled something about “in a little while” and she said, “Daddy, please read me a story” again and I grunted and mumbled again. Then a small hand pushed the newspaper aside and—no kidding—she said, “Hey, big fella, I’m talking to you. Read me a story!” Of course I picked her up, put her on the couch, and read her a story. You would have too.

I have come to recognize that reading the story was actually the second thing I did. The first thing I did was wake up. I attended to her. I paid attention. I looked at her. I considered her. I recognized her.

I believe in reading. I believe in reading to children. I believe in attending to my family. But until she pushed my newspaper aside and called me “big fella,” I wasn’t doing any of that. I was lost in my fog, deep in my head, blind and deaf to the mysteries and miracles all around me.

Which helps explain why Mister Rogers is having a revival.

We know we should attend to the people that are most important to us, especially children, but there have never been so many distractions in human history. We spend hours looking at screens, checking our news feed, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, all the while implicitly making the claim that whatever is happening on the screen is more significant than whatever and whomever is directly in front of us. And if we aren’t on a screen, we’re plugged into earbuds, cutting ourselves off yet again from the lives of those around us.

Mister Rogers calls us back.

I saw A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood during Thanksgiving break. It’s a great movie and I urge you to go see it. I’m not going to review it here; instead I am going to focus on why Mister Rogers is having a revival sixteen years after his death. Not only is there this movie, but the powerful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was released in 2018. Why do we crave Mister Rogers?

The Presbyterian minister and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary graduate Fred Rogers has become a Protestant saint. But it wasn’t always that way. I remember when Mister Rogers was hopelessly square. I remember when Eddie Murphy made gleeful fun of him on Saturday Night Live. Bill Murray did him for the National Lampoon, hilariously unable to pronounce “Egg McMuffin.” Johnny Carson did him on the Tonight show. Today we have Mister Rogers on the screen again, and now it’s Tom Hanks, our most beloved actor, playing him straight-faced (and ever-so-slightly falling into his Forrest Gump character in the process). There’s no satire or parody involved. We don’t make fun of Mister Rogers anymore.

Why?

Because Mister Rogers is the antithesis of our distracting and distracted, fractured, hate-filled, polarized culture.

He’s calm.

He’s patient.

He’s kind.

He’s loving.

His revival is among adults, not children. We are so hungry for love we simply cannot get enough of it when we see it. We are starved for grace, to know we’re accepted just as we are, and sit transfixed when we hear Mister Rogers tell us he wants us to be his neighbor. And as strongly as we crave love and grace, we crave a public figure that diffuses anxiety instead of creating it. We crave someone whose voice and touch align, someone who authentically lives out her or his values, someone who shows that slowing down is important, and that silence is important, and that our feelings are important.

Mister Rogers, in all his slowness and simplicity, is telling us to wake up. “Hey big person,” he’s saying, “I’m talking to you. Don’t forget what matters most. Don’t forget who matters most.” And here I need to be very careful, lest I stray into some sort of Christian triumphalism . . . but I think the reason Mister Rogers resonates so deeply is his message is the Jesus message, the good news of love and grace and forgiveness, and we are born with an innate hunger for that message. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a Christian movie, focused on the Christian message of forgiveness.

I have shared here before some thoughts I first heard Tom Boogaart articulate about how being human means your heart has been broken and that all we have to give each other are pieces of our broken hearts. As a result our attempts at love are never enough. We never love each other enough. We are never loved enough. Once we sit with that reality for a while, we realize forgiveness is our only hope.

Can we forgive our parents for all the moments when instead of attending to us, they buried themselves in the newspaper or their work or their busyness or their anger or something else? Can we forgive them for not loving us enough? Can we let them off the hook for being human? Can we accept that even though sometimes they messed up they were doing the best they could? Mister Rogers wants us to. Not only that, he wants us to regularly take silent reflection time not just forgiving but remembering and appreciating all those people that have loved us into being.

And can we let ourselves off the hook? Can we forgive ourselves for our failures to love? Can we forgive ourselves for all the times we buried ourselves in our newspaper or screen or whatever and shut ourselves off from those we love? Can we forgive ourselves for never loving our spouses, our children, our friends, and even ourselves enough? Can we forgive ourselves for being human? Mister Rogers wants us to. Along the way, we’ll realize there is a connection between our experience of forgiving ourselves and experiencing God’s forgiveness. This is holy work.

It’s time to wake up.

Wake up and consider the lilies.

Wake up and consider the least of these.

Wake up and love your neighbor as yourself.

Wake up and forgive others and yourself.

Wake up.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is a retired minister in the Reformed Church in America. He resides in Holland, Michigan.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Excellent, thank you.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Mister Rogers was not as much fun as Sesame Street, but my kids and I watched him enough to make me think that he had an impact on their sense of self-worth and the worth of every person in their lives. Mister Rogers was the first televangelist, with sweaters and sneakers instead of jewels and jets; in the moment we did not recognize the message of grace that he was so gently teaching. It seems too bad that he is not here for this recognition of the profound message he brought, but somehow I think he would have been more happy about the message being lived out than the accolades.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Moving and beautiful, Jeff. Thank you for this good gift this morning.

  • Bob VE says:

    I heard someone say the other day that when you read scripture you should read and listen very, very closely. That’s what Mr Roger’s taught me to try to do with all things. He was so filled with the Spirit. Thank you.

  • Helen P says:

    I too saw this with nieces Edie and Jen over Thanksgiving. Both of them grew up with Mister Rogers and were greatly moved by the movie enough that all three of us sat in the back row crying during parts of it.
    What struck me was his intense reasonableness, his extreme and sincere kindness, and his complete lack of motive…he had nothing to gain by this relationship, something SO missing in our world today, particularly in this country. People are longing to see just a shred of that sort of decency and caring that sadly no longer seems to exist, particularly among our national leaders.

  • Jim S says:

    How easy it is to forget to remember what you’re so movingly telling us. Thanks for saying it again. Lord help me try to remember.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    “Hey, big fella, I’m talking to you.” – you got it right- thanks.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for directing our attention to a fine man with a fine message. But lest you get distracted by your own understanding of Mr. Rogers, his message is a human message, a cultural message of goodness, not necessarily a Christian message. The series of “Mr. Rogers” and this latest movie was produced by our cultural movie industry, not a Christian organization. And it sends a message that has been appreciated by a broad spectrum of our society, not just Christians. It may well represent what the world sees as an ideal world view, even though not easily accomplished, but which is well worth working toward. There is no message of repentance and surrender of one’s life to Jesus for salvation and acceptance with God. There is no message of Jesus anywhere. And of course, Jesus Christ is the central figure of Christianity. No, this is a message of what we can do to find acceptance with God and our fellow humans, especially those who surround us . It’s a human message of salvation. It’s a message that appeals to people of many religions. So when you suggest that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a Christian movie, I think you are buying into a cultural message of redemption and turning it into something not intended by the producers of this movie. And indeed it is a fine movie with a fine message that all should aspire to. Thanks, Jeff, for your thoughts.

  • J. Kramer says:

    My Dutch-american RCA Dad, Who had an 8th grade education from ME Iowa, I believe, looked like Mr. Rogers, thought like Mr. Rogers, and talked like Mr. Rogers. He had a strong private personal relationship with Jesus. He worked for an RCA Family that had a moving and storage company at 1414 Madison, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, right across the street from a Presbyterian Church, which later became the Madisdon Square CRC, where I have been a member for 28 Years. In 1968, people Who were justified in being angry at the shooting death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., threw gasoline bombs into the little blue collar RCA Family Moving and Storage Company, and it burned very well, and left the brick building an empty shell for decades, and It was recently torn down. My RCA Dad was “Simply American, Simply Religious, and Privately Simply and Deeply Christian. We went to a Faith Reformed Church in Wyoming after moving with the RCA Company to Wyoming. Later We moved to Cutlerville, because My Mom was CRC, and the Christian Schools, and I was 1 of 9, and We were still blue collar and upper lower class. My Mom was at Pine Rest often with post-partum depression. I loved Christian School, and Every Church Program I was a part of in either Calvin Reformed or Covenant CRC. We watched the Rev. Billy Graham whenever He was on TV, and I asked Jesus into My Heart, and then did it daily. I do not remember watching the Rev. Fred Rogers/”Mr. Rogers”. That was much later after doing a Church History Major at Cadlvin College, and became a 40 Year Inner City Urban Missionary in the U.S., with the Mennonite Church, the RCA, at Servants Community RCA, and The Other Way, and later Feeding America Cleaners Food Bank. I am an FDA Certified Feeding America Food Banker. I began the Reclamation Program at Gleaners West Michigan Food Bank. Later I did In Home Senior Care Work with My In-laws in Boston. From the late Rev. Fred Rogers I became One Who believes in a Moderate Christian Personalism. I am more like a Hutterite, or a Mennonite Reformed type Person, like the Mennonite Presbyterian Rev. Fred Rogers. The primary emphasis is on a private personal relationship with the One, Risen From The Dead Jesus the Christ the Lord, in One’s Heart and Soul, Simply and Deeply, and Privately. My Father-in-law, Who had a Ph.d in Chemistry, and worked as a Vice-president of Food Container Research, asnd designed the Pringle Potato Chip Can, and made water based Food Can Sealants, was also a Sunday School Teacher, and dressed in Suit, and Oxford Shirt, and a Tie, but sometimes wore a Cardigan Sweater. When the Rev. Fred Rogers was “Called To Heaven” on February 27, 2003, I started to wear a Cardigan Sweater, and an Oxford Shirt, and a Clip-on Tie, and I daily do this, and wish to just be like My Father and Father-in-law. On July 25, 2018, I lost My Amazing 40 Year Church Artist and Entreprenuer Missionary-minded Wife, Liz Holdsworth Kramer. Our Hope is the One Risen From The Dead Jesus the Christ the Lord, Who can Use Each One of Us Uniquely, and give Us The Forgiveness Of Sins, the Resurrection Of The Body, and Life Everlasting. Only Jesus can be Jesus, only YOU can be YOU. Simply keep the main thing the main thing – The One Kind Risen Jesus using Each One Of Us Uniquely, what I call a Moderate Christian Personalism. “My Heart, I Offer, You Lord, Promptly (Today), And Sincerely”. May You feel Jesus warmly in Your Heart. Recall “Away In A Manger” and “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” – O Come To My Heart, Lord Jesus, There Is Room In My Heart For Thee”. Simply and Deeply, With A Moderate Christian Personalism, With Kind (Hesed) Regards.

  • Mike Ritsema says:

    Fred Rogers taught the fundamental Christian message of unconditional love and grace. Apparently it can be further understood as unconditional positive regard for others.

    A great article with a great reminder to live life as a Christian, like Jesus Christ, like Fred Rogers.

    Oh, that I would leave such a legacy.

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