If you’re of a certain age — approximately five to fifty — chances are good that a gentle Pennsylvanian named Fred Rogers played a significant role in your formation. He certainly did in mine.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first appeared on American public television (after a precursor ran in Canada on the CBC) in 1968, and reruns continued to air on PBS’ regular schedule until 2008 — five years after Rogers’ death. Apparently it still runs weekly on some stations, though not here in the Twin Cities, so
I don’t expect that my children will grow up watching Mr. Rogers, Mr. McFeely, King Friday
Of course, even as I wrote that sentence, I realized that we live in 2012 and at least a few episodes are probably streaming somewhere… Lo and behold, the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood page at PBS Kids.
My two year old son noticed what I was doing and asked if we could watch an episode. Without any exaggeration, I can say that he didn’t stop smiling for five minutes, when Mr. Rogers left his house and went to the Wagners’ shoe store. While Isaiah found Lady Elaine a little scary (me too — though that was partly because Elaine is my mom’s name, and Lady Elaine looks nothing like my mom), King Friday and the other denizens in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe were big hits, too.
Over breakfast, we talked about the theme of the episode (from 1982): how sharing with your friends was a way of loving them. “Amen!”, said Isaiah.
And while my son is perhaps a bit more theologically-minded than your typical toddler (we were talking about parents last night… when we asked him who Jesus’ parents were — they’re playing with a Nativity set at the moment — he didn’t hesitate: “God”), it’s a response that I think would make Fred Rogers smile. As many know, Rogers was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, after graduating from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1963. Though rarely explicit on the show (at least as I remember it), his faith clearly shaped his work in profound ways.
All this came to mind yesterday when I stumbled across a lengthy 1999 interview with Rogers that was recently made available through the Archive of American Television. I was particularly interested in part 4, since it covers Rogers’ seminary studies briefly. But I was most intrigued by the segment that starts with Rogers telling of writing the song-prayer, “Goodnight God.” He discusses how the very mention of God caused some tension even at the time (and would not be permitted on public television in later days). But what could have become a culture warrior’s mini-sermon against secularization or church-state separation instead heads in this direction:
…you can be an agent of what’s good and not have to be terribly direct about it. We have a song on the Neighborhood that says, “There are many ways to say I love you / There are many ways to say I care about you / Many ways, many ways, many ways / To say I love you.”
And there are. And one of the ways is working as well as you can to bring to others what you feel could be nourishing in their lives. It’s an offering of love what we do….
I’m preparing to write an essay on vocation, what God calls us to do with our lives. Being “an agent of what’s good” and “working as well as you can to bring to others what you feel could be nourishing in their lives” seem like pretty good places to start.
(If it doesn’t cue up automatically, go to 7:25 for the segment on “Goodnight God” and the show being “an offering of love.” I’ll end there, but keep watching the interview. Rogers goes on to share a fine summation of the virtue of simplicity: “My desire is to help children realize that deep and simple are far more important than shallow and complicated and fancy.”)