Jesus Is No Mr. Rogers: Old First E-pistle 11.28.15

Jesus Is No Mr. Rogers: Old First E-pistle 11.28.15

For the weeks of Advent, I want us to have a series of E-pistles on “who is this Jesus.” If you have a personal story to share, let me know: contributions from guest E-pistlists would make it even more special…)

I recently came across and shared a lovely video about Fred Rogers when he was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame. I have grown immensely in my appreciation of him, his work on television, and how it was ministry (he was after all a Presbyterian minister).

Perhaps this quote from when he accepted the honor has something to do with my respect (though with my general dislike of television, it’s remarkable that I can duck my own cynicism and hear or believe what he suggests!). Rogers said:

”I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants… to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen…

Life isn’t cheap… and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that. To show and tell what the good in life is all about… Through television, we have the choice to encourage others to demean this life or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways.”

(If you listen to the whole thing, it was an acceptance speech as powerful sermon!)

My re-evaluation of him began much earlier, when my sons were young. One day while I was in seminary, I was making Ben and Simon something to eat, and a segment on his show had Mr. Rogers explaining death. I remember stopping what I was doing and watching — almost stunned into stillness — because, I could not believe how effective his words were. I thought to myself: “I hope my kids are listening to what he is saying, because I couldn’t do it that well — honestly talking to kids about the realities, the loss and separation of death, without leaving them feel threatened or scared.”

As a child, I didn’t take Mr. Rogers seriously; his neighborhood “didn’t work for me.” He always said — it was one of the basic premises of his work and lessons of his show — “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”

From my perspective as a child, the world he presented or portrayed seemed entirely phony. It was too quiet, moderated, controlled, reasonable, safe. The disciplined habit of changing out of his street shoes and putting on his cardigan. The patient and calm reassurance of his voice. The whole persona was to me as “faked up” as his lame land of make believe.

Life wasn’t like that. People were more on edge. And lost their tempers. Or themselves. And screamed and said horrible things. Or worse.

And pretending that wasn’t so… well, to me, that didn’t really help anyone deal with the situations they couldn’t help but find themselves in — and needed to figure out how to deal with.

Jesus, on the other hand, made his way through and managed a rougher world. Even after all we know about him had been completely worked over — and potentially polished smooth — by generations of oral transmission, the co-opting institutional needs of the church itself, and benevolent, middle class Sunday School teachers in sensible shoes, you still could not miss the sharp edges and painful brokeneness in Jesus’ world and the people he encountered.

From the threatening cold of manger homelessness to the cruelty of an imperial cross’s execution, he lived alongside of and engaged the unrepentant and the runaways; the outcasts, the ingrates and the oppressors.

He mostly maintained his patience and offered his healing presence — peace that passes all understanding — like Fred Rogers. But he exhibited such traits and performed his ministry in a world hardly as hushed as a library. But rather in situations that were completely rough and tumble, dangerous. Where people lifted up stones to kill, swords that severed ears and shouts to “Crucify.”

And sometimes you could see his edge too — there was something challenging, sneakily in your face about the alternative way Jesus offered.

Jesus took on disciples who were clearly exasperating. And the powers and principalities that could and would crush him. He could help not just people who were clearly out of control (with a legion of demons!), but he could even calm a raging storm that threatened to swamp he and his followers. Jesus moved in a space I knew — where awful things happened to good people and where bad people sometimes got rewarded incomprehensibly. Where life was at times overwhelming.

Early on, it was very real to me that I was glad Jesus was in the neighborhood. In fact, one of the earliest explanations — some Sunday School teacher in sensible shoes’ lesson — I remember of the Incarnation was that “God sent Jesus to live with us, to experience what we experience, to help get us through.” As simple and as incredible as that.

I thought of this years later when I read Marilynn Robinson’s description of another Presbyterian minister:

“…that old father, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his discrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all his handsome and successful children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after the one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If that father could be himself, he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant. And that is a thing I would love to see.”

Already as a child, I saw Jesus as One who, being Himself, not only knew me, but would stay with me no matter how terribly lost I got. Who was able to protect me by only lavishing his extravagant and demanding love on me.

Earlier than I probably remember, I knew I needed Jesus with me for whatever life threw at me. Fred Rogers might be a great neighbor down the block (if you could get past the ways he was like Ned Flanders!). But Jesus was the One to save me — or at least see me through (since I surely had no idea what redemption could mean in this life) …to see me through what I had to figure out how to get through…

See you in church,

Michael