Friday night I went to church. I usually don’t take Kleenex to church. Turns out I needed it.
The congregation of receptive and appreciative islanders gathered at the Vashon Theater. Our opening hymn, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” brought smiles and evoked memories from years long ago.
Our minister? Mr. Rogers. His vestments, a sweater.
One thing is undeniable. We are, all of us, thirsty for kindness. Gentleness. Meekness. And compassion.
After, I walked out into the night air, my heart and soul gratifyingly full.
These days, something is taking a toll. And it is not helpful to pretend otherwise. And it is not surprising that we gathered there, undone by a twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight and continued messages of fragmentation, thirsty for a time of healing from intolerance and small-mindedness.
“I wanted to remind people about the value of radical kindness,” said director Morgan Neville when asked about the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor. “Fred’s message, when I distill it, he talked about grace. It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen: It is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”
And I say, Amen.
Fred Rogers began his TV career, in his own words, with a desire to “help children through difficult modulations of life.”
And in 1969, sitting in front of Sen. John Pastore (the chairman of the subcommittee holding hearings about slashing PBS funding by 20 million dollars), Rogers didn’t get bogged down in budgetary minutia, but instead gave voice to his calling. “Could I tell you the words of one of the songs, which I feel is very important?” he asked. “This has to do with that good feeling of control which I feel that children need to know is there.” He then recited its words:
“What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead ― and think this song ― I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime … And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.”
Pastore, who had never seen Rogers’ show, was visibly touched by the speech.
“I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goose bumps for the last two days,” he said. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
But these are not just questions for kids. Plan or pray as we wish, modulations of life get in the way. (Remembering a classic line from Mike Tyson, “Plans are good until you get punched in the mouth.”)
However, Mr. Rogers knew the power of sanctuary. You see, if you’ve got someone to help you (“Won’t you be my neighbor”) you learn that the “neighborhood” is a place that can take care of you when you are scared, and life is uncertain and you don’t know how to name what swirls inside.
This sanctuary is a place where love is at the root, Mr. Rogers said.
A place where we can practice the spiritual work of inclusion.
What made his show so very different, you realize that this sanctuary is a place where there is room for a lot of slow space.
So. Why did I need the Kleenex? Like any child who watched Mr. Rogers on TV, this past Friday night I believe that he was talking just to me. That the relationship is real.
I sat in a large audience. But he saw me. And talked to my heart. Affirming the reality that the space between two people is holy ground. Where vulnerability is not a weakness but a strength.
And that it is okay to set down my armor just for a spell, and not run from the reality that I am okay even though I am deeply conflicted, fighting urges to be bitter or disheartened or resentful or incensed. Of course, I exacerbate the conflict by shaming myself because I should know better. All the while, I miss the beauty that is being covered up.
Fred Rogers did not shy away from such truths about himself, channeling his most vulnerable uncertainties through his puppet, Daniel.
You see, sanctuary is grounded in grace. This is not something we manufacture. Sanctuary can open my eyes to what I could not or would not see. What is easily buried in the mire of sadness, distrust and discouragement.
“Goodbye,” said the fox to the Little Prince. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Of course, we’re all growed up now, and stories like this are too good to be true.
As it turns out, Mr. Rogers is for real. An ordained minister, conservative Republican, who read the Bible every day, radiates empathy and kindness.
No… “He doesn’t wear a cape. He wears a cardigan.” Richard Stellar writes. “And he didn’t fly into my heart — he meekly walked into my life and the lives of millions of kids when we learned that there was strength in empathy and that being a good neighbor was the most powerful level of vigilante-ism that one can achieve.”
Blessed are the meek indeed…
Even so, I continue to marvel at the power of hatred, like toxic chemical attacks without connection to reason. When Rogers died in 2003, Fred Phelps, then the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, picketed his funeral, declaring that Rogers’s “syrupy teachings led millions astray. He was a wuss and he was an enabler of wusses.”
Last night, I joined a group of islanders to witness vows under a cloud dappled sky. In my belief system marriage is a sacrament. And an important social and communal ritual. And more than ever, a statement necessary in the face of cynicism and depletion. A sign that hope is still alive. So, another Kleenex moment. Open the spigot. Damn. But I don’t apologize. I am grateful to know my heart still works. In fact, I feel empowered, invited to choose to be a steward in a world where care matters, to create neighborhoods, to be on the lookout for anyone who is on the outside or left out, needing home or sanctuary.
A Wise Physician said, “The best medicine for humans is love.” Someone asked, “What if it doesn’t work?” He smiled and answered, “Increase the dose.”
Orca whales are sacred here in the PNW, in part because they awaken awe and gladness. I continue to follow the story of Tahlequah, visibly grieving, still carrying the corpse of her calf more than one week after it died. We grieve with her.
My summer garden is vibrant. Black eyed Susan. Japanese anemone. White Hydrangea. Effervescent sunflowers begin each morning facing east for sunrise. By late afternoon they turn toward the west for sundown.
And if I haven’t said so already, Go check out the Mr. Rogers movie.
Quote for your week…
Wherever you are, whatever you do, be in love. Rumi
POEMS AND PRAYERS
This is a special love song
for all the young people in the world,
here’s hoping someone kind
watches over each and every one,
because in every young face,
no matter how angry or sad,
lies the blossom of a pure heart,
not evil wrong or bad.
Misty River (Heather’s Song)
No one lives outside the walls of this sacred place, existence.
The holy water, I need it upon my eyes: it is you, dear, you—each form.
What mother would lose her infant—and we are that to God,
never lost from [Her] gaze are we? Every cry of the heart
is attended by light’s own arms.
You cannot wander anywhere that will not aid you.
Anything you can touch—God brought it into
the classroom of your mind.
Differences exist, but not in the city of love.
Thus my vows and yours, I know they are the same…
The holy water my soul’s brow needs is unity.
Love opened my eye and I was cleansed
by the purity of each
Daniel Ladinsky (inspired by St. Francis of Assisi)
Let us be aware of the source of being That is common to us all
And to all living creatures.
Let us be filled with the presence of the great compassion Towards ourselves and towards all living beings.
Realising that we are all nourished
From the same source of life,
May we so live that others be not deprived
Of air, food, water, shelter, or the chance to live.
The Anglican Church, Aotearoa, New Zealand, Polynesia