As soon as Fandango told me our town had a viewing, I absconded to the theater to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the new Mister Rogers documentary. It was a moving movie, and even though my husband and I bought our tickets late and had to sit in different rows, it was such an enjoyable theater experience. Stephen Thompson from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast expressed that “the movie feels like you are getting warmly and softly hugged for an hour and a half,” and that’s the best description that could ever be said.
Why was it such a feel-good experience? It is rare for someone to tell you-you are liked. It’s even rarer to be told that you are liked just the way you are. Mister Rogers said it, sang it, believed it, and lived it. Mister Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who attended seminary on his lunch hour over a period of eight years. He believed that God liked him just the way he was and he should, therefore, feel that way about every God-created person. He looked through the screen and openly invited the whole world to be his neighbor, and he believed that everyone who knew they were liked would in-turn like their neighbors also. The world could be a very different place, not because of just one sweater-clad friend, but it could be different because of God who is love, the Holy Spirit that Rogers relied on as translator of this Devine message, and us — his neighbors.
As a little girl, Mister Rogers was my friend. He made me feel safe and heard. He told me things I still need to hear as an adult.
1. Express your feelings.
Mister Rogers frequently and intentionally included the message that we all have feelings and it is good to express those feelings in healthy ways. Last year, I became very discouraged in the ministry. My husband and I had been serving at a very missional church for twenty years, and we were both feeling burnout. We began seeing a therapist to help us work through our tough time, and one of the things he told me was that I was afraid of my feelings. He said to me, “It is like you view your feelings as a dark closet, and if you let one feeling affect you that you will be engulfed in the dark closet and you won’t be able to get out.” As an adult, I’ve had to relearn that lesson that we all have feelings, and I’ve had to allow myself to feel and express those feelings.
2. Slow down.
One of the most countercultural pieces of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was the pace of the show. His slow speech and slow movements were a subtle cue, as was his life-sized traffic light glowing yellow. The show had the ambiance of a Saturday spent at grandma’s house. He would often bring out simple props like paper, instruments, or cups and play with the props in an unstaged, unpracticed way, letting the paper accidentally tear where he didn’t intend or letting the cups fall across the table. He gave his neighbors the nudge to accept that it is good to slow down and try new things. When my husband and I experienced ministry burnout, we went to a week long ministry retreat that was intentionally slow paced and were reminded of the importance that rest has in the kingdom work. As an adult, I need slow. I need permission to try and fail. I need to let the cups fall sometimes and pick them back up again.
3. Be yourself.
Vulnerability became a mantra and catch-phrase to many after Brene´ Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability and shame when viral in 2010, but Mister Rogers was modeling vulnerability every day in his neighborhood in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He sang his easily-poked-fun-of self-composed lyrics, wore his mom-made sweaters, and never tried to be someone he was not. Even when being interviewed on edgy late night talk shows, he spoke slowly and appeared to be the same guy who welcomed me with a song and a shoe-swap as a kid. One scene in the documentary we are shown footage of his neighborhood show where his shares his love of swimming with his neighbors. He is completely at home with himself, even when he is donning a speedo and swimming loops in the pool. We get the feeling that it never even crosses his mind to not be completely himself, and we are told that we made today special by just being ourselves.
4. Invite everyone to be your neighbor.
The genius of Mister Rogers is that he was able to translate the second part of the Great Commandment into simple, secular terms and model loving your neighbor in a practical way. This command is a great struggle for everyone. Loving and liking others doesn’t come naturally, but doing this is essential to Christian life: seeking wholistic ministry, valuing and carrying out the Great Commission, having a healthy family life, confronting racial prejudice and bias, and seeing the image of God and the preciousness of life in each and every neighbor.
5. Remember the invisible.
Posted above Mister Roger’s desk was a saying in French from The Little Prince. It said, ‘What is essential is invisible to the eyes.’ This quote is very much like what Paul penned in Second Corinthians 4:18, “as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” We must always be focused on the unseen, realizing that these things are not just important — but essential.
Can we see the world as our neighborhood? Can we see the good in others and like them just the way they are? Can we recognize our feelings and express them in beautiful ways? Can we remember to keep our eyes on the invisible, unseen Kingdom work? Can we slow down rest, play, and be vulnerable? I think we can. Mister Rogers showed us it could be done.
I still need all these lessons as much at forty-one as I did when I was four.
I think the big question for our soul is this: Can we accept that we are liked by God just the way we are, not the way we’ve decided we need to be to fit in or to try to be liked? Can we accept that God likes the deep down person we are at the soul-level of our creation, with all our faults and feelings? I’m asking myself that question.
Why do I feel the need to question it?
I think I need to recapture the childlike faith that didn’t question Mister Rogers sitting on my living room carpet with my pigtails in front of our console television.
God likes me just the way I am. Can I say it, sing it, believe it, and live it? Can you?
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