Rev. Stu Smith talks about two Freds that have had an affect on his life at CCU in Anaheim.
After I mentioned last week about wanting to remain reasonably brief, Doreen shared a story with me about two older ladies sitting through a particularly long church service. One of the ladies leaned over and said, “My butt is going to sleep,” to which the other replied, “I know. I’ve heard it snore 3 times.”
Hopefully, I won’t induce any snoring this morning.
The song we used for centering this morning, It’s You I Like, was written by Fred Rogers, who is one of the two Freds I want to talk about today. I guess I should give full exposure here and now: I am a shameless Mr. Rogers fanboy. In fact, I have an almost fanatical affinity for Mr. Rogers that borders on idolatry.
I’m telling you this now so that you don’t by any means thinks that this is the last time I’ll be talking about Mr. Rogers.
I wasn’t one of Mr. Rogers’ ‘television neighbors’. I was eleven or twelve before I ever saw Mr. Rogers on TV. I was well above the age of his target audience. Plus, I was already conditioned by and into the watch-and-buy, cartoon superhero mentality of the times. In the early seventies, public television was hard to get anyway because it was on the low-quality UHF stations.
I’m not sure when I first started appreciating Mr. Rogers, but my affection has only grown with time. It’s difficult to summarize why I am so enamored of Mr. Rogers partly because so much of his message was unspoken.
Let me back up and give you a little bit of background. Fred was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1928. He was interested in music from a very early age; he was singing and playing the piano at the age of five. He earned his BA in music composition from Rollin College, then later went on to graduate from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where he was ordained a Presbyterian minister.
He had already been working in television while he studied for the ministry.
In an interview with CNN, he said, “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”
So when Fred graduated from seminary and was ordained as a minister, he chose children’s programing as his pulpit.
In conjunction with his television programing, he worked closely with the University of Pittsburgh’s child development program. The Classic television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began broadcasting in February of 1968. It was an immediate success.
MARGIE WHITMER, the show’s producer, later said, “You take all the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Low Production values. Simple set. Unlikely star. Yet, it worked.” In very little time, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood would stretch coast to coast and beyond.
Little more than a year after the Neighborhood first broadcast, in May of 1969, congress was reconsidering its funding for public television. After two days of testimony, the senate committee sat stone-faced as Mr. Rogers, little-known at the time, was given the opportunity to testify. Like Dorothy from Kansas standing before the Great and Powerful Oz, Mr. Rogers sat dutifully before the Almighty Senator Pastore of the fine state of Rhode Island.
True to his unassuming nature, Fred quietly spoke about the importance of providing all children with sense of self-worth. He said, “This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”
To fully appreciate the impact of Mr. Rogers testimony, you have to watch the video. At the beginning, Senator Pastore comes off like sort of a mob boss, ‘So’s tell Mr. Puppetman why me and da’ boys should float you 20 big.’ By the end he’s cuddled up in Mr. Rogers’ lap. ‘Are you sure you only need twenty million?’ BTW, they ended up giving $22 million.
As truthful and eloquent as Mr. Roger’ arguments were, he connected with Senator Pastore beyond words, at the heart level. That was part of his magic. Part of my amazement with Mr. Rogers is how he could look into a child’s eyes and know exactly what they needed to hear.
During those early years of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, America was in a certain amount of turmoil. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution had the nation questioning old values and new ideas. Fred Rogers’, wanting to steer clear of social controversy, hired a gay black man to play the policeman on his children’s show.
As I said, so much of his message was unspoken.
When Mr. Rogers saw the ugliness and violence that was being committed against blacks at public swimming pools, he responded with a demonstration of love. Children who tuned in to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood one hot afternoon were greeted by Mr. Rogers soaking his feet in a kiddy pool to cool off. When black Officer Clemmons happened by, Mr. Rogers convinced him to join him in the foot bath, assuring his friend that they could share his towel to dry their feet.
On a daily basis, Mr. Rogers demonstrated his Christ nature. Without ever mentioning God, he was the youth pastor for a generation. A secular Sunday school teacher for the weekdays. His doctrine was acceptance and inclusion. Not only is it okay to be you exactly as you are, but I like you exactly as you are.
Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” That’s what Mr. Rogers did. Remember his words to Senator Pastore, “This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique.”
I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique.
There is so much gold in that statement. To begin with, he acknowledges the importance and effectiveness of a simple expression of care on a daily basis. It doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference. Mr. Rogers understood the value of doing small things with great love.
It’s also worth noting that Mr. Rogers says he gives his daily expression of care to ‘each child’—not ‘every child’, not ‘all the children’—‘each child’. When he looked into the camera and said ‘I like you just the way you are’, he was talking to each child who was looking back. He knew that there were thousands of different faces looking back into his eyes, and he was able to say, with all sincerity and integrity, ‘I like YOU just the way you are.’ Sight unseen. I value you.
No matter who you are. It doesn’t matter whatever other messages you may be getting. You are loved. You are lovable.
But that’s not all. He explains to the Senator that he gives that daily expression of care to each child “to help him realize that he is unique”. Not only do I love you just the way you are, but it is your uniqueness that makes you special to me. Don’t allow your differences to make you feel ashamed. Our differences are not just to be accepted, they are to be celebrated. They put the ‘you’ in ‘you’.
Mr. Rogers passed away in February of 2003. Rogers received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 40 honorary degrees, and a Peabody Award. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and was recognized in two congressional resolutions. He was ranked number 35 of the TV Guide‘s Fifty Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Several buildings and artworks in Pennsylvania are dedicated to his memory, and the Smithsonian Institution displays one of his trademark sweaters as a “Treasure of American History”. On June 25, 2016, the Fred Rogers Historical Marker was placed near Latrobe, Pennsylvania in his memory.
Upon his death, the Presbyterian church approved what they call an overture, that included this proclamation: “The Reverend Fred Rogers, a member of the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, as host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood since 1968, had a profound effect on the lives of millions of people across the country through his ministry to children and families. Mister Rogers promoted and supported Christian values in the public media with his demonstration of unconditional love. His ability to communicate with children and to help them understand and deal with difficult questions in their lives will be greatly missed.”
Clara and I recently went to see the documentary about Mr. Rogers called ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ A major part of Mr. Rogers’ life message was inclusion, and the documentary presented person after person detailing how he had affected their lives and given them an enhanced sense of self-worth.
But not everyone held such a high opinion of the man. At one point in the documentary, they showed footage of the Westboro Baptist Church protesting his funeral. Westboro Baptist Church, in case you are fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with them, is a group who celebrate the funerals of celebrities, fallen soldiers and children killed in mass shootings. The purpose of their protests is to preach their doctrine of hatred, primarily toward homosexuals. Their official web address is actually godhatesfags.com.
At Mr. Rogers’ funeral one of Mr. Rogers’ friends engaged the protesters, asking “Why are you here? Do you think Mr. Rogers was gay?” One of the protesters replied, “No, but he tolerated gays.”
The Westboro Baptist Church was founded by our other Fred, Fred Phelps—also a minister. Phelps was born less than a year after Rogers, in a small Mississippi town. He excelled in high school to the point of being an over-achiever; he graduated at 16. At 17, he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.
While he was attending John Muir College in 1951, Time Magazine printed an article on Phelps, who lectured fellow students about “sins committed on campus by students and teachers”, including “promiscuous petting, evil language, profanity, cheating, teachers’ filthy jokes in classrooms, and pandering to the lusts of the flesh.” Basically, all of the reasons people go to college.
Phelps founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955, where he preached a harsh doctrine of judgement and damnation. Unable to attract a following sufficient to support his family, any of his children were required to sell candy door-to-door for hours a day. In 1963, Phelps earned a law degree. He practiced law for much of the sixties and seventies, until he was disbarred for his lack of ethics and common decency.
Phelps appears to have been consumed by hatred most of his life, but starting in the 70s, he directed the bulk of his ugliness toward the LGBTQ community. I don’t want to contaminate this sacred gathering by spending a lot of time laying out a case against Fred Phelps.
My commentary could add very little to his own words and actions. Fred Phelps was about spreading God’s wrath. In his own words, ‘It is the obligation of Westboro Baptist Church to put the cup of God’s fury to America’s lips, and cause America to drink it. And you will drink it!’
He and his followers carried signs to funerals that read, “God Hates America”, “Fags Die, God Laughs”, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates You”.
So those are our two Freds. Born within a year of one another, both in small towns. Each one excelled academically, and each married their college sweetheart in 1952. And each one became an ordained minister. And the two men could not have been more different.
What a juxtaposition to see the two of them represented side-by-side at Mr. Rogers’ funeral. What strikes me is how both were so passionate about doing God’s work as they saw it, and what different forms that passion took. Their behaviors were 180 from one another, yet they were both seeking to please the same God.
I can’t help but think of it in the context of Luke 11:9-10. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Asking, seeking and knocking are all different ways of finding what we want and need. In this case, I have to ask what were each of these men seeking. The scripture says that every one that seek finds.
Both men leaned heavily on their own faith. Both sought God for guidance. But one looked in the bible and found a God of love and compassion, a God of forgiveness. The other found a God of wrath who hates much of his own creation. Isn’t it amazing that they both found what they were looking for in the Bible?
Fred Rogers, message of acceptance and inclusion can most certainly be found in the Bible. The story of the woman caught in adultery, the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ interactions with lepers and the other outcasts of society.
But Fred Phelps’ message can also be found in the Bible. There are plenty of stories of callous judgement and rigid condemnation in scripture, particularly in the old testament.
It just depends what you’re looking for—what you’re seeking.
Luke 11 says everyone who seeks finds. Fred Rogers found what he was looking for in the Bible: compassion, love, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance, inclusion. And true to scripture, Fred Phelps also found what he was looking for: condemnation, judgement, hatred, punishment, violence, wrath.
It’s important to remember that they are equally sincere and passionate about doing God’s work. Phelps provides us with the perfect villain. But Phelps really sees himself as God’s champion. His hatred is righteous hatred. Based on principle, as laid out in God’s word.
Leviticus 20:13 ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.’
Scripture has been used to justify war, slavery, misogyny, anti-Semitism, murder, and of course homophobia. You name your prejudice, and I’ll find you a scripture to back it up. All that matters is what you’re seeking.
As I was contemplating the way these two ministers could both find justification for their beliefs in the Bible, it occurred to me that what they seek from scripture is the same thing they seek from the rest of the world. They each view the world and the people in it through the filter of what they’re seeking.
Why would they view God’s creatures any differently than they view God’s word? When Fred Rogers meets someone new, he’s looking for reasons to love and accept that person. When Fred Phelps encounters a stranger, he’s seeking justification for his hatred and condemnation.
But that’s not true only for our Freds. It’s true for all of us, too. We’re all Freds. We’re all seeking something. What are we finding?
When we encounter someone new, what we find is in large part filtered by what we’re looking for.
I used to look at abstract paintings like someone by Picasso and be totally baffled. I always thought, I could do that. Add an extra breast or two, maybe one on top of the head, flip the mouth sideways, put all three arms in some awkward impossible position
Then I realized that Picasso wasn’t making it up. He was painting what he actually saw. Abstract is just random, it’s a way of interpreting what he was looking at.
The same is true about the Freds and about us. We view the world through a lens. And what we find is in large part what we’re looking for.
When we look at another person, can we find justification for condemnation, judgement, wrath and punishment? Of course, we can. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Can we find reason for love, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness? Yes. It all depends on what we’re seeking.
It’s all there. Seek and ye shall find.
A psychologist friend of mine used to have a bumper sticker on her car that was a play on the old adage, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” It said “I’ll see it when I believe it.”
Our perspectives and opinions are greatly influenced by our beliefs going into a circumstance. The scepter of hatred and anger that Fred Phelps saw in the Bible was the date he brought to the party.
It’s time for me wrap all of this up.
This was on the surface a tale of two Freds. It was the best of Freds, it was the worst of Freds… but in reality, it’s a tale of two Stus. Every time I encounter a new person or circumstance, I have a choice to decide what I’m seeking.
Am I seeking love or am I seeking wrath? Am I seeking compassion or am I seeking condemnation? Am I seeking forgiveness or am I seeking judgement?
And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
The good is there if we seek it. What are you seeking?