Most adults today have some memory of the gentle neighborhood friend of everyone, Mr. Rogers “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” officially premiered to a national audience in 1967 left a lasting mark on children’s television and millions of people—including myself—who grew up with his timeless simplicity and Godly grace.
Fred Rogers’ quiet demeanor and gentle presence became a incredible manifestation of God’s quiet and unpretentious grace remains a lasting legacy of the TV show.
Part of the genuine quality of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was the incredible sense of God’s grace embodied by Fred Rogers himself. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister and deeply devoted man of quiet, simple, Christian faith. Although he never preached religion on his television show, it radiated Christian principles of love, care, respect, honesty, sincerity, and authenticity in ways that were far greater than many ministers can ever hope to achieve.
In his own words, Fred Rogers choose to use the incredible medium of television for “the broadcasting of grace throughout the land.” When awarded the Lifetime Achievement Emmy award in 1998, the ever-humble Mr. Rogers simply invited the teary-eyed audience to think of the special ones who “have loved us into being,” and dedicated silence during his acceptance speech to honor those people. It was simply another vivid example of God’s grace.
Mr. Rogers once said, “We’ve all been on a journey, each one of us, and if we can be sensitive to the person who happens to be our neighbor that to me the greatest challenge, as well as the greatest pleasure. Because if you are trusted and people will allow you to share their inner garden with them, what greater gift.”
He saw his role as a man of faith who had access to the power of the Television medium as a tremendous responsibility to embody grace, respect, and love. Likewise, he was very intentional about communicating God’s unquenchable love for everyone in genuine and loving terms that were not laden with religious language or ritual.
As Christians, there is a lot we can learn from this simple man of profound and powerful faith who saw God’s grace as something to be freely and lovingly offered rather than dogmatically preached or exclusively withheld from people not like us!
One particular lesson I learned from growing up with Mr. Rogers on my television every day was that every person is valuable, unique, special, and deserving of love! I think of the horrific ways in which many people are excluded by the church because of who they are, what they believe, how they look, how they live life, or with whom they choose to share life.
How many people see the cross, not as an instrument of grace, but as a symbol of exclusion or oppression because of how Christians have used it as a weapon of intolerance and hatred? Gay or straight, black or white, tall or short, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, doesn't matter to God! What matters is love and it is precicely that love that was embodied in Mr. Rogers' message of grace.
Another lesson is in the genuine and unpretentious way Mr. Rogers truly communicated God’s incredible love and grace without ever preaching or reveling in religious language, ritual, or theology. He just related in ways that communicated simple and honest compassion for all of God’s children.
There is a time to stand up and preach a strong message. I'm not advocating that all us preachers take off our shoes, zip up a sweater, and talk real slow. But when the message we proclaim spends more time condeming than it does building up, where is the Christianity in that? When we spend more time shaming people out of God's grace than loving people into God's grace, the One True God is lost in our own presumptive arrogance. Thankfully, Mr. Rogers consistently represented a better way!
Perhaps we all could take a page from the life and legacy of the late Fred Rogers. What if we took a step back from our doctrines, dogmatic sermons, and firmly held reasons why we believe some people are just not welcome in God’s love, and embraced them with the simple grace exemplified in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?
It seems to me that that approach may be a lot more like Jesus than many may be willing to admit! Yet, if we embraced the ministry of Jesus Christ as Fred Rogers did for his entire adult life, wouldn’t it be a much more beautiful day in the neighborhood?
Oh ... and for the record, I grew up with Mr. Rogers on my television every day but I have never had the honor of meeting the Late Fred Rogers, nor is there any family tie of which I am aware. Same name, but not the same clan.