Well, last weekend, as many of you know, I had planned to brave the January cold and make my first attempt at kayaking in the beautiful new kayak my kids gave me for Christmas. But it turns out that the winter weather—with ice and 40 mile per hour wind gusts—proved to be too much for even the experienced kayakers to take on, so the event was cancelled. I must say, I was more relieved than disappointed. And that left me with an entire weekend full of time to do with as I wished. And it turns out I chose to fill it with a lot of Mister Rogers.
On Friday, the kids and I went to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the new movie with Tom Hanks that’s in the theaters now. It tells the story of a cynical and hard-hitting journalist, known for his ruthless exposés of prominent people and how he heals and changes because of the kindness Mister Rogers brings into his life. The movie was based on an actual story, first told by the journalist in a profile published in Esquire magazine in 1998. As the story opens, we understand that the journalist is irritated he’s been assigned such a silly profile to write, thinking the babyish simplicity of Mister Roger’s message was beneath his award-winning journalistic efforts. We see him struggle and flounder and react—first with disbelief, then with resistance, then with anger, and finally, acceptance—to the unconditional positive regard he finds reflected back in the kind face and welcoming demeanor of Fred Rogers.
Curious after watching the movie, I wanted to read the profile that started it all. We learn, in the movie, that this article was unlike anything the writer had ever done before. Mister Roger’s impact on him shines off of every page. You hear his heart. And his faith. In his voice, mingled with Mister Roger’s, you hear hope and meaning and care. Here is the opening to that article, which was entitled, “Can You Say….Hero?” The writer’s real name is Tom Junod:
“Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”
The connections we make in the course of a life, so many of them. We come together on Sunday mornings for a time, we smile and talk, we pray together, and then we go back out into the world, bringing whatever light we have, whatever kindness we have, whatever compassion we have, and we share that with others. We invest those gifts of ours—love, light, kindness, and compassion—in other lives. We give it all away, that’s God’s idea. We invest in who others are and will be and are becoming—that’s the intention of sharing the light of Christ within us. Why? Because we choose to see that of God in others. And because we are equally—equally, all—in need of grace.
This is precisely what I think the psalmist was writing about when he told us we have something to praise and something to do. “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.” He continues, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Our task is two-fold: to live thankfully, aware of God’s ongoing and constant graciousness to us, and to share that graciousness with others in hopes that our God-inspired efforts can help in some small way to mend hearts and, through them, the world around us.
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, God does in fact build up a grieving writer, and gather the outcast in his arms, wrapping him in grace and kindness. He heals his heart and binds his wounds, through the gentle, persistent, insistent presence of Fred Rogers.
And the whole story—the writer’s story, Fred’s story, your story, my story, God’s story—is all about the mending, healing, transforming power of divine love—and how none of us, not one of us—nor anyone we’ll ever meet, read about, or think about–is beyond its reach.
As so often happens during the week as I’m gathering resources for my messages, a lovely little article called, “Mending Clothes as an Act of Rebellion” came to my attention. The writer starts out by saying,
“I have often wondered when it was that Western society collectively decided that visibly mended clothes were a mark of reduced status. Or a life worth less.”
She goes on to say that once upon a time, we valued our things and the effort required to make them. Back when we knew what darning needles were and weren’t at a loss when knees needed patching or buttons reattached. She goes on to make a case for a mindful return to caring tenderly for what we use and consume, to choose mending—to preserve the relationship and honor the craft—instead of tossing something out with the trash and starting again with something new.
As our consumerism has grown and our drive toward efficiency has mushroomed, it’s no secret that we have gotten comfortable with the idea of disposability. Use it once, toss it in the trash. Chip a coffee cup? No worries—Meijer has hundreds, maybe hundreds of hundreds—and if we don’t like any of the ones we see, we can shop online for the perfect cup.
But what would it take to mend the one we have? And what spiritual practice of valuing do we miss out on when we don’t even try? When we examine the chip and look for the glue, when we prepare the site and squeeze the tube to get just the right amount on the broken place. And then hold the detached piece delicately in place until things begin to feel whole again. Restoration takes attention and acceptance, gentleness, care, focus. The whole process is a work of grace, the act of choosing to honor something’s value and making room for God, whether we’re talking about cups or cultures or human beings.
Martha, we imagine, would have been so irritated, so frustrated by her sister’s refusal to help, that she wouldn’t have had the patience or presence needed to mend anything in the moments we heard about this morning. She was rushing around the house that day, wanting to make everything perfect for Jesus and his companions. She had dinner to prepare, linens to press, a table to set, the floor to sweep—who has time for a broken cup? Just toss it out. And that sister of hers, Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet listening like she hadn’t a care in the world. Finally, Martha had had enough. “Don’t you see how hard I’m working here?” she asked Jesus, exasperated. “Tell Mary to help me!”
Jesus, who understood it all—the hard work and the rest, the outer effort and the inward yearning for peace—looked at Martha with what must have been the kindest eyes you can imagine. His voice was probably soft and maybe he put his hand on hers as he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus was gentle with Martha because he understood that she was loving him right then in the best way she knew how. She wanted to prepare a perfect dinner for him, and perhaps that was her gift. But whatever she might contribute to the outer world, her inner world was what Jesus was most concerned about in that moment. “Grace is right here with you,” Jesus is pointing out. “Don’t miss it.” If she would just slow down a second and let her heart really take in what was being offered, right there in her home, she would experience the one thing—the one thing—that really mattered: The presence of God.
And that’s what Mister Rogers was so good at. That one thing. He had the power to create moments of belonging that healed hearts and bound up the wounds of the suffering of all ages. He embodied and worked at living out his understanding of God’s deep welcome and tender love for every one of us, just the way we are.
In an especially poignant scene in the movie, the writer, looking haggard and beaten but beginning to feel a change of heart, says to Mister Rogers, “You like people like me…broken people.” And there is a long silence with the camera focused on Mister Rogers’ kind face. And then he says, “I don’t think you’re broken.”
This is also the idea at the heart of our Friends tradition. We don’t think people are broken; we are looking for that of God in them—there is divinity in there somewhere and we will see it if we choose. When we follow the counsel of George Fox to “walk cheerful over the world, answering that of God in everyone,” we aren’t looking for what others are doing wrong, or counting their flaws, or comparing them to ourselves in an effort to see how their beliefs don’t measure up or what they need to change in order to be more acceptable to us. We accept them as they are. We do our best, sometimes limited by our own blind spots, to love that of God in them. It’s part of our two-fold task, extending God’s graciousness to others in hopes of doing our part to reveal the kingdom of heaven—connection by connection—here on earth.
“I don’t think you’re broken” was also Jesus’ message to the people he healed and taught, to those like Martha, who were all caught up in the lesser things in life. He saw their value, their truth as a child of God, and whatever heartbreak had imprisoned them, stunted their growth, curved their limbs, or robbed their sight just fell away. When Jesus looked at them with God’s eyes and heart, full of their preciousness to God, they began to see it too.
Mister Rogers and Tom Junod stayed in touch through the last several years of Mister Roger’s life. They wrote back and forth, or sometimes called, and often Tom talked about the stories he was working on or new things his small daughter had learned to do. Describing what turned out to be Tom’s last conversation with Fred Rogers, he wrote,
“Once when I called to tell him the story of five people stopping their cars to help an ancient and enormous snapping turtle across a highway exit ramp in Atlanta, he asked if I was going to write about it. I said no and asked him why he thought it might make a good story. And this was his response: “Because whenever people come together to help either another person or another creature, something has happened, and everyone wants to know about it—because we all long to know that there’s a graciousness at the heart of creation.”
We do, don’t we? We long to know there’s a graciousness at the heart of creation. Our faith—our hearts—our experience tells us it is so.
But Marthas like us need to slow down long enough to feel it, to look for the beauty, the wholeness, the value in the still mostly whole cup. And we need to be willing—be militantly and stubbornly willing—to look for and trust in and intentionally connect with that of God in our fellow humans, everywhere we go.
Everything broken can be mended. Hearts now in pieces can be made whole. Those who are blind to the value right in front of them will see. The lame will walk and begin to make their way. The hurting will have joy again. The struggling will find peace. Those connections that we’re making right now, today, this evening, this week—maybe that is our chance to help create heaven on Earth. We can be grateful for that. And we can do our part to extend the grace that does the mending, one heart, one cup, one human at a time.
- OT Psalm 147: 1-3
- NT Luke 10: 38-42
- Junod, Tom. Can You Say…Hero? Accessed at: http://esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-her-esq1198/
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (movie): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Beautiful_Day_in_the_Neighborhood
- Also good (Mister Roger’s documentary): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Won%27t_You_Be_My_Neighbor%3F_(film)
- “Mending Clothes as an Act of Rebellion.” https://thephoenixgreenstore.org/2019/11/26/mending-clothes-as-an-act-of-rebellion/