Blessed is Mister Rogers
By Daniel Lee
I’ve always loved that one of the names that the early Quakers gave to themselves was “Children of the Light.” The experiences of our childhood follow us through all the days of our lives. Yet even as adults, we still in many ways remain children – we have the same basic need, to love and to be loved, as children.
In 2016, I went to London on a work trip. The one day I had some free time was Sunday, so I went to Westminster Quaker Meeting for worship. The theme for worship that day was children. At the beginning of the hour long silent worship someone read this following passage from the London Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice book. The passage was written in 1980 by Elizabeth Watson. I found it to be beautiful and power.
I wanted to read it to you this morning to set the tone for today’s message on Mister Rogers. I believe this passage speaks to us as adults who interact with the children around us, but also speaks to us ourselves as children of God:
“Our children are given to us for a time to cherish, to protect, to nurture, and then to salute as they go their separate ways. They too have the light of God within, and a family should be a learning community in which children not only learn skills and values from parents, but in which adults learn new ways of experiencing things and seeing things through young eyes. From their birth on, let us cultivate the habit of dialogue and receptive listening. We should respect their right to grow into their own wholeness, not just the wholeness we may wish for them. If we lead fulfilling lives ourselves, we can avoid overprotecting them or trying to live through them… The family is a place to practice being ‘valiant for the truth’. We can live lives of integrity, letting both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ come out of the depth of truth within us, careful of the truth in all our dealings, so that our words and our lives speak the same message. We cannot expect our children to be honest with us or anyone else if they hear us stretching the truth for convenience or personal gain. They are quick to catch such discrepancies. Moreover, we should trust them enough to be honest with them about family problems – disasters, serious illness, impending death. It is far harder on children not to know what is wrong.”
Back in the 1980s, my dad was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and was a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. He’d go swimming at the Pitt pool and sometimes he’d see Fred Rogers swimming there. Mister Rogers’ TV show originated from WQED in Pittsburgh. As a pediatric endocrinologist, my dad saw very young patients were very complex growth issues, some were extremely small for their age, making them easy targets at school. Others had conditions with how they were developing as boys or girls, issues that made them look different than other children in the most fundamental of ways.
So, my dad asked if he could come to Mister Rogers office and talk with him about his work and about helping to reduce anxiety and stress in young patients. Mister Rogers made time for him, and they had a nice meeting.
At some point during their meeting, my dad asked Fred Rogers about one of the song’s he had sung on his Mister Rogers Neighborhood PBS TV show. The song is entitled, “Everybody’s Fancy.”
The song opens with these lyrics:
“Some are fancy on the outside.
Some are fancy on the inside.
Your body's fancy and so is mine.”
My dad, the pediatrician, asked Mister Rogers if this song was written to help both boys and girls, no matter who they are, to feel good about themselves as they grow and develop.
Mister Rogers said, yes, it was.
Awhile after that, when I was about 20, I was home from college and went in with my dad to work at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. In the parking garage we saw Mister Rogers. My dad introduced us. “It’s very nice to meet you, Daniel,” he said.
He friendly welcoming tone was the exact same in person as it was in TV. He seemed to genuinely happy to see me. I’ll never forget that chance encounter! I was a college student, not a little boy, but Mister Rogers made me feel special.
Actually, it still makes me feel special!
I was born in 1968, the same year Mister Rogers Neighborhood debuted on PBS. That was a pretty scary year, with war, social turmoil, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. These are scary times now, too, aren’t they?
Maybe that’s why now, with the 50th anniversary of the show, Mister Rogers is getting so much attention. I was in a gift store recently and saw a coffee mug with Mister Rogers coffee mug where his cardigan would change colors when you poured in hot tea or coffee. There’s a new documentary about Mister Rogers set for release in June. Tom Hanks is set to play Mister Rogers in another upcoming movie.
Fred McFeely Rogers, born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was a composer, writer, puppeteer, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and an expert in children development. He was a man deeply in touch and deeply influenced by the loving people of his own childhood. His grandfather, Fred McFeely, was the special person in his life who made young Fred Rogers feel loved and special.
People are hungry for this sort of love -- love in its most simple form. They’re so hungry for honesty – honesty in its most simple form. People are also hungry for integrity – integrity in its most simple form.
Mister Rogers lived his life in the spirit of Christ beautiful commandment, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them…” His life’s work reflected a sincere love, compassion, and integrity that it touches the human soul deeply.
Throughout our lives we all have the same basic needs as children – we need to be loved, we need to feel valued, we need a community, and we need to be dealt with honestly.
Today I was to focus on three areas in which we can learn from and be inspired by Mister Rogers. These also happen to be three areas at the core of the Quaker way of living:
1. Mister Rogers’ speech was plain and honest
2. Mister Rogers’ inner life was disciplined and consistent with his outer life
3. Mister Rogers’ life shined the love of Christ
First, Mister Rogers’ speech was plain and honest.
He told children that it was a natural thing to be sad or to be angry just as it was natural to be happy and joyful. We must learn to accept and handle all emotions and situations in life.
Mister Rogers talked with children about how he coped with the death of his dog Mitzi and talk with children whose parents were going through divorce. He would have on his show people with disabilities and in a straight forward and sensitive way ask them about their wheelchair and about their lives. The children could see they too were special people with challenges but also with great talents and abilities.
As I began work on this message several weeks ago my wife, Jennifer, gave me this book, “The World According to Mister Rogers.” It’s a collection of short quotes, essays, and song lyrics. I want to read several to you today.
This first excerpt illustrates Mister Rogers ability to talk plainly to adults as well as children:
“I received a letter from a parent who wrote: ‘Mister Rogers, how do you do it? I wish I were like you. I want to be patient and quiet and even-tempered, and always speak respectfully to my children. But that just isn’t my personality. I often lose my patience and even scream at my children. I want to change from an impatient person into a patient person, from an angry person into a gentle one.’
Responding to this, Mister Rogers wrote: “Just as it takes time for children to understand what real love is, it takes time for parents to understand that being always patient, quiet, even-tempered, and respectful isn’t necessarily what ‘good’ parents are. In fact, parents help children by expressing a wide range of feelings – including appropriate anger. All children need to see that the adults in their lives can feel anger and not hurt themselves or anyone else when they feel that way.”
Mister Rogers’ speech was plain and honest.
Second, Mister Rogers’ inner life was disciplined and consistent with his outer life.
I once told someone I know about meeting Mister Rogers. That person then told me that he had heard that Mister Rogers had been a military sniper before starting his children’s TV show. Of course, this was a complete lie. If you look on the Internet, you will find that Mister Rogers is the subject to numerous Urban legends and lies.
There’s another image around the Internet of Mister Rogers appearing to give the middle finger to the camera. They think it’s funny. In reality, Mister Rogers was singing Where is Thumpkin… There’s Thumkin the thumb, pointer the first finger, and “tall man,” the middle figure.
We live in a cynical world in which all too often we see that prominent people have very real flaws and do great harm to others. But from everything we know, Mister Rogers was exactly who he purported to be. His inner life was consistent with his outer life.
Mister Rogers shows us we can be that same way! Mister Rogers constructed this consistent inner and outer world through a life of faith and discipline.
Writing about her husband, Joanne Rogers said this: “If I were asked for three words to describe him, I think those words would be courage, love, and discipline – perhaps in that very order.”
I mentioned earlier that my dad used to see Mister Rogers on his daily swim. Mister Rogers wrote this of his daily workout:
“I live to swim, but there are some days I just don’t feel much like doing it – but I do it anyway! I know it’s good for me and I promised myself I’d do it every day, and I like to keep my promises. That’s one of my disciplines. And it’s a good feeling after you’ve tried and done something well. Inside you think, ‘I’ve kept at this and I’ve really learned it – not by magic, but by my own work.”
A life of love is a life of discipline.
In his song, “You’ve Got to Do It,” Mister Rogers wrote these words:
“You can make believe it happens.
Or you can pretend that something’s true.
You can wish or hope or contemplate
A thing you’d like to do.
But until you start to do it,
You will never see it through
‘Cause that make-believe pretending
Just won’t do it for you.
Mister Rogers’ inner life was disciplined and consistent with his outer life.
Third, Mister Rogers’ life shined the love of Christ.
Mister Rogers found so many ways to tell people they were special. On the front of my autographed photo of Mister Rogers I received all those years ago in Pittsburgh he wrote, “For Dan – with kindest personal regards I’ve glad to have met you.” On the back of the photo, he wrote a second short note that simply read: “Kindness of your dad.” He wanted us both to feel special.
On his TV show in 1969, amid racial tensions and strife, he invited the character Officer Clemmons, an African American, on his show. It was a hot summer day and Mister Rogers was resting his feet in a plastic pool of water. He invited Officer Clemmons to join him, helping him to dry his feet.
This was Mister Rogers humble and world changing ministry. This ministry is a good feeling, and it’s open to all of us, in the smallest of ways every day.
I want to send us into silent worship by reading these words from Fred McFeely Rogers:
“The purpose of life is to listen – to yourself, to your neighbor, to your world, and to God and, when the time comes, to respond in as helpful a way as you can find… from within and without.”
Blessed is Mister Rogers!