Who Are We, Really?

Have you ever heard of the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”?

Well, curse or not, we are certainly living in interesting times. Tensions are high. Tempers are short. Our trust—in our leaders, our media, our businesses, our neighbors—feels shakier than ever. Constantly breaking news, as well as tragedies, world crises, natural disasters, and more seem to hit us relentlessly, wave after wave. All the unrest and emotion is hard to tune out. It seeps into our homes, it influences our moods, it’s a factor in the plans we make—some people no longer feel safe going to public places. It changes how we see the world, how we see each other, even how we see ourselves.

This is a time when we need, more than ever, the gentle, clear-sighted, non-negotiable goodness of Mister Rogers.

This week I was listening to the show Fresh Air on NPR and I heard a bit of Terry Gross’s 1984 interview with Fred Rogers. They were rebroadcasting the show because February 19th was the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As I listened, I was struck by how radically gentle Fred Rogers sounded on the radio—how much space there was between his phrases, how he made such an effort to fine-tune Terry’s word choice—and his own—to make certain that what he was saying was as true, as accurate, as he could get it.

I could also hear that Mister Rogers Neighborhood had the impact it had—and was loved by so many children all over the world—because Fred Rogers was still awake and still tending to his own inner life. Some of his most popular shows were about childhood fears and anxieties—questions adults may laugh off, like, will I get sucked down the bathtub drain? Or Will I wake up after I get my tonsils out? Mister Rogers understood fears like those because he’d had them too and remembered the feelings well. With his show, he reached out to kids and helped them feel understood, believed in, and cared for. It was love in action. For the next 30 years, he shared gentleness, compassion, patience, honesty, kindness, and respect with generations of children. Those are fruits of the spirit we’re all hungry for today.

The success of the show is remarkable when you think about the turbulent time in which it began. Peace was nowhere to be found. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired one month after the Tet Offensive, one of the largest campaigns of the Vietnam War and a pivotal point in American attitudes about it. The country was in uproar, protests were everywhere. Soon after that came the devastating assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In the midst of such great upheaval, pain, and anger, Mister Rogers chose each day to calmly contribute what he could, to go faithfully into his studio set living room, take off his jacket, put on his red cardigan and his sneakers, and do his best to bring kindness, encouragement, and comfort to the small friends who tuned in.

Our Old Testament reading today clearly spells out the choice we need to make if we want to live a life that contributes goodness to the world. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.” These folks, the Psalmist says, “delight in the Lord,” and “they are like trees planted by streams of water.” They yield fruit at the right time. They flourish. And the blessing grows. Because that’s what God does.

Richard Foster writes that this section of the first Psalm challenges us to make a choice about how we’ll show up in the world. Will we choose to do our best to find and share the good in our days, or will we join in the negativity and division swirling around us? I’m not saying there aren’t things to legitimately scoff at in our world right now, but the choice, Foster says, “is boldly stated in both habit and result, pointing to sharp, not subtle differences in intentions and outcome.”

That phrase sharp, not subtle differences really jumped out at me. The choice of these two paths isn’t murky or hidden. We will have different intentions with each one. We know when we’re looking toward God and we can learn to notice when we’re being mesmerized by a turbulent world. We don’t have to wonder which path is better. When our intention is to turn toward God, we’ll feel a sense of peace, a calm, an ease. When our intention is to get outraged at the news, to lament with a neighbor, or argue with someone on social media, we may feel excited, worked up, or powerful for a time. But the outcomes of those two intentions are worlds apart. Only one of those paths leads to peace. The question becomes, What do I want to contribute to the world just now?

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he talks about the struggle between his two selves—the part of him that wants to do good, and the part that sabotages his good intentions. Our reading follows the verse where Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” He goes on to say he delights in the law of God in his inmost self, but he recognizes that there is another force at work in him—arising from his strong ego—that wants what it wants when it wants it. He ends the passage by asking who will rescue him and then he answers that question with, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ Our Lord!”

The Light of God is the antidote to our inner struggle, capable of illumining the truth of who we are at our deepest center. We Friends place great importance on the living Light within and when we settle into silence we are waiting for the Light to speak. Our experience tells us it can happen. The Light comes to each of us privately, quietly, and in different ways—maybe feeling like a warmed heart to one, coming as ideas or images to another. Some of us feel a sense of calm, or a comforting peace, like a burden has been lifted. There are probably as many ways of experiencing the presence of God as there are people—and that’s as it should be. Each of our relationships with the divine is precious and unique and true.

The Light, if we allow it, will show us what’s getting in our way as we try to live with love. It’s part of the nature of the Light to illumine everything it touches—so obstacles and fears, old hurts and limitations—get revealed as the hindrances they are. Soon those old ideas dissolve and fall away, and God’s love can shine out clearly through us as we choose the good, moment by moment, circumstance by circumstance.

Often when we talk about trying to see the good in ourselves and others, we Friends use George Fox’s phrase, “that of God in everyone.” This is an important concept that is at the heart of the Quaker tradition—it has been the seed of our faithful action toward social justice for hundreds of years. The full context of Fox’s quote doesn’t get used very often—probably because he wrote in 17th century language, so it’s a bit hard to follow. But it says something valuable about how we grow into living a life of love.

First Fox writes, “Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh and get out the corn; that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn.” He’s talking here not about agriculture, but about our own souls. Do the work, he says. Get to know your own being, your own life. Recognize the good at work in you. He continues by saying that as we learn about ourselves, we begin to understand what holds us back and where we still have healing work to do. We can now see “a difference between the precious and the vile, can pick out the wheat from the tares.” This discernment is important in helping us recognize and nurture that of God within.

Next, Fox writes, “None worship God but who come to the principle of God, which they have transgressed. None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed.” We all lose sight of the principle of God within us—how many times a day? Dozens? Hundreds? To be human is to be distracted. George Fox suggests we need to recognize that and see it as part of our common humanity. Gradually we begin to feel more in touch with God and soon, with each other.

As all our inner work is being done, Fox says, our loving efforts begin to bear fruit. The blossoming happens because we’ve connected with the Light within, the source of our deepest self, and the barriers that covered it have dissolved. Now the goodness we bring to the world can shine naturally from that revealed point of God’s love in us.

I’m sure you’ll recognize the rest of George Fox’s beloved quote:

“This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savor, and a blessing.”

Which of course takes us back to Fred Rogers. A Presbyterian minister, an introvert, fascinated with the new medium of television, bothered that people were using it to do disrespectful things like throwing pies in each other’s faces. He wanted to use this new outlet to bring good to children everywhere. He gave the world an example of lovingkindness, a pattern of gentleness, a sense that everyone matters, that all life has value. His life has left a sweet savor and a blessing.

In the midst of our own unsettled time, we too are a force for good. Drawing from the light at the center of our souls, we can shine calm and compassion and peace wherever those qualities are needed. And we can do it with intention, looking for that of God in others, letting gentleness and compassion be our response to suspicion and distrust. As Fred Rogers said in a commencement speech to the graduating class at Middlebury College years ago: “”I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.”

Amen.

 

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