Mister Rogers and the domino effect
It is a struggle some days to turn on the TV news or even follow through with my daily routine of hearing the latest headlines from NPR on my way to work. It is not so much because of the content of the news—yes, I am saddened by violence and natural disasters and other heartaches—but I am simply distraught by the new level of shameful discourse that now surrounds our “leaders.” It is indeed disheartening when I hear name calling similar to what I hear on the playground or, worse yet, in a high school locker room. And I wonder, if this is what is said in front of the cameras, how much worse is said behind closed doors.
In my sermon on Sunday, I mentioned that the apostle Paul in his letters to the early church taught that in the kingdom of God the primary language that will be spoken is the language of love. Further he instructs that as the disciples of Christ, we are to learn love’s language and practice it in our daily lives.
Certainly this is not the language that is being spoken in our world today. Even at last week’s national prayer breakfast, it seemed words of hate and anger were the primary words spoken, causing some to call for the breakfast to be canceled in the future. Hearing this suggestion reminded me that I also admitted in my sermon that I struggle with what makes people—including myself at times—act in such a hateful way.
But then on Monday I came across a passage in book I am reading that spoke about this very subject. It is from the book Exactly As You Are – The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers that I received as a Christmas present. In the section I want to share, the author is talking about Fred Rogers taking a class early from the Rev. Dr. Bill Orr in his seminary career. Dr. Orr would become one of Fred’s dear friends. I hope it speaks to you the way it did to me as we all work to love like Jesus.
For Fred, Bill Orr's theology built on the love of his grandfather—"Freddy, you've made this day a special day for me"—and the affirmation of his high school friend Jim Stumbaugh—"l like you just the way you are." Though Orr "didn't talk about evil very much," when he did, he spoke not of demons or Satan but of "the accuser" and of the way evil operates on the self. "Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself," Fred recalled Orr teaching, "because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her." In other words, evil travels, creating a kind of domino effect: "Accuse yourself. Accuse your neighbor. Get your neighbor to accuse somebody else, and the evil spreads and thrives. "
Jesus Christ, by contrast, "way on the other side of evil," is the advocate, for Orr and for Rogers. His work is to remind and assure us "that his Father's creation is good, that we, his brothers and sisters, can look on each other as having real value. Our advocate will do anything to remind us that we are lovable and that our neighbor is lovable too!!" Orr's systematic theology began with the biblical assertion that God's creation, including humanity, is good (Gen. 1:31). Upon that foundation, Orr laid the belief that we are therefore lovable. The reconciling work of Jesus Christ includes reminding us of our God-created goodness, and then the good domino effect can take off: Jesus, as advocate, reminds us that we are God's, which means we are good, which means our neighbor, who is also God's, is also good. Goodness can spread and thrive too.
“My seminary professor, William Orr, who died last year, used to say something like, "Evil would want us to think the worst about who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the worst in our neighbor. Jesus would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her. You can be an accuser or an advocate. Evil would have you be an accuser in this life. Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.”
That statement undergirds all of what I do through the Neighborhood and everything I try to do in living.”
If Fred's grandfather helped him to know that he was special and lovable, and if Jim Stumbaugh showed him that others could accept him just the way he was, Bill Orr taught him that the rejection of the accuser's message and the embrace of the advocate's assurance lead inevitably to the neighbor.
Put another way, if we are lovable and acceptable because we are God's, then our neighbor, who is equally God's, is also lovable and acceptable. And we are called into the work of that loving and accepting. (Exactly As You Are p.58-59)
May those with ears hear. Amen