Mister Rogers Among the Sages

Awhile back I went away to the St. John’s Abbey for a spiritual retreat. My walks in the woods and other monk-like activities (or non-activity) were lovely, but the real epiphany came when I snuck away to a movie theater one night (lest anybody mistake me for a real monk). For two hours I sat in a theater, wiping tears with sniffling nose, watching the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. More on Mr. Rogers in a moment.

I had a personal agenda and bone to pick when I began my doctoral studies with hopes of recovering the ancient ideals of the teacher/student relationships for pastoral ministry today. My goal was to confront the personality-driven cultures of many influential teaching ministries today—especially within the megachurch movement. I wanted to warn others of the dangers of “Christian celebrity” and draw attention instead to the real pastor-heroes: all the nameless small church pastors quietly shepherding souls in forgotten little towns, off the world’s radar but near and dear to God’s heart. I was going to mine the scriptures and other ancient sources, and offer a more humble, self-effacing ministry style that takes the spotlight off the human teacher and points it at the Teacher of teachers instead, Jesus himself.

When it comes to faithfully and effectively shepherding God’s people and forming souls, I would borrow John the Baptist’s slogan: “[Christ] must become greater and I must become less” (John 3:30). I figured God doesn’t want people focusing on the human teacher/pastor standing up front, but on God instead. Right? Only two obstacles stood in the way of my thesis: first, the biblical evidence and thousands of years of ancient teacher-student practice were against me; and, second, the life and legacy of Mr. Rogers begged to differ.

Jesus and Paul Among the Ancient Sages 

The broader theme of my doctoral studies can be summed up as an attempt to recover the ideals of ancient  “Wisdom Culture” for a 21st century church infected by a consumer-driven entertainment culture. I quickly discovered, however, that you can’t recover wisdom culture without also recovering the place of the wise sage.

My first research essay explored the teaching style and impact of the ancient rabbis and Jesus among them. I had to conclude that central to the rabbinic method was the larger than life personality of the rabbi and the student’s respect and receptivity to their rabbi’s teaching. Neither Jesus nor any other rabbi downplayed the importance of the human teacher, but rather emphasized it. Big time.

Growing in wisdom among the ancient Jewish rabbis required taking up the rabbi’s “yoke” or teaching. Eager disciples were to seek out a Rabbi to attach themselves to, and this relationship came with a high degree of respect and the expectation to humbly submit to their guidance. So much for dismantling the personality-driven ministries of current day megachurch pastors! 

Next I explored the Greco-Roman philosophers and their students, and found a similar dynamic. Classical wisdom training came through a personal relationship and respectful adherence to the philosopher—his teaching and entire way of life (imitatio). This was all sounding a bit unAmerican and an affront to our American ideal of a “democratization of wisdom” in the church. So I tried running to the Apostle Paul for help. Certainly, I thought, Paul’s writings stood behind the Reformation’s rejection of corrupt church hierarchies and are the foundation for the “Priesthood of all believers.” Paul would bail me out, right? Think again.

The guy who celebrates the spiritual gifts of every individual Christian for the building up of the church, also upheld the ancient ideals of teacher/pastor authority and reverence for those specially gifted and called to teach in the church. He not only upheld the significant office and/or gift of teaching, he said something a 21st century pastor could never say to her congregation: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). 

Granted, role models then just as now, often failed to live up to their ideals and all would-be imitators needed to use discernment. Yet, this ever-present risk of hypocrisy and the moral failure in role models doesn’t mean we eliminate the central role imitatio played in education and moral formation for nearly 3,000 years across civilizations and wisdom traditions. 

So, my thesis took another hit. Jesus pointed to himself as the perfect embodiment of the Jewish Scriptures. Paul invited his flock to imitate him as he embodied Christ’s wisdom and example in his own ministry and called other pastors to do the same.

Embodied Wisdom Then and Now

As much as I sought a pastoral approach that pointed people away from one’s own life and person, and onto Jesus “out there” somewhere, I was confronted with this hard and cold fact: the Jewish Rabbis and great sages of antiquity, Jesus and the apostles, and all the great Fathers of the Church down through the centuries up until the 18th century Enlightenment era and rise of individualism: they all believed wisdom and formation come most powerfully through the embodied teaching of a flesh-and-blood teacher with whom they are in a meaningful personal relationship.  

I had no choice but to admit that God seems to take great joy and care in using human vessels to carry his life changing message. Words were ultimately inadequate, and so the final Word of God put on human skin and a personality to get the most important message across. Embodied teaching. Embodied wisdom. Embodied healing. Embodied salvation dripping down from a bloody cross and embodied hope standing outside the empty tomb. 

We keep trying to “get out of the way” and point others to Jesus and his wisdom out there in the abstract—his teachings distilled into moral principles on Power Point slides or into countless small group Bible studies. Meanwhile, God is trying to take up residence in our very person and transform us from the inside-out into the most effective flesh-and-blood displays of God’s wisdom and truth and saving power. Paul says, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Cor 3:2). The message we proclaim is not ourselves, but the life and wisdom of Christ shining through us—even through the cracks. Again Paul:

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:5-7).

God used all the crooked contours of Paul’s life. God worked around all the shadows of Moses’ shady past. God slowly hardened David’s feet of clay and made him a man after God’s own heart. God fashioned out of impetuous Peter a solid enough rock for future generations to build upon. God is the incarnating God. First, his saving truth was incarnated in Jesus the Messiah. Now, his gospel-announcing truth incarnate in every believer. “As the Father has sent me into the world, now I am sending you” (John 20:21).

Mr. Rogers Among the Great Sages

Back to Mr. Rogers and grown adults weeping in theaters across the nation. Mr. Rogers wasn’t revered for his ivory-tower wisdom or loud outspoken social critiques. Mr. Rogers wasn’t known for bestselling books peddling the latest child psychology. What then explains the peerless appeal and impact of this gentle educational giant? I suggest his greatest pedagogical advantage wasn’t a teaching strategy, or the content of his message (which was quite basic), or even his groundbreaking use of the medium of television for teaching children. 

No, we are brought to tears when we hear his reassuring voice and look into his friendly eyes, because we fell in love with the teacher himself. His legacy lives on in our hearts because his teaching and wisdom were so beautifully and consistently embodied in his very life and character. He didn’t just teach us; he befriended us. He didn’t just speak wise words to a screen; he spoke personal words into our shy and fragile souls. 

For 31 years, Mr. Rogers embodied and broadcasted the heart of Jesus’ most well-known teaching, and we never even knew he was doing it! When asked to sum up the entire faith, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Another man asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

Mr. Rogers answered this million dollar question every day for children looking for a place to belong and a loving teacher they could trust. And it isn’t hard to imagine these simple words on Jesus’ lips as well—as I see echoes of John’s Gospel hidden throughout: 

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,

I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,

Since we’re together, we might as well say,

Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Won’t you please, won’t you please,

Please won’t you be my neighbor?

So, pastors and teachers of both megachurch and mini-church influence: you don’t need to run from the platform God has given you, or make your God-given charisma and personal influence an enemy. Instead, with the humble spirit of Fred Rogers, keep asking Christ to keep molding you into a more faithful and accurate embodiment of his grace and truth, love and wisdom.

John the Baptist knew that Jesus was the only Messiah, and therefore he needed to “decrease” in order for Christ to “increase” in his singular task. But when it comes to teachers and pastors letting their light shine for others to see, let us “increase” our glow, that the darkness might “decrease” that much more swiftly. It was later said of John the Baptist that he “was a lamp that burned and gave light, and [others] chose for a time to enjoy his light” (John 5:35). 

All the red eyes walking out of theaters after Won’t You Be My Neighbor were feeling grateful for all the years Fred Rogers “was a lamp that burned brightly and gave light” on public television. He was perhaps the most Christlike neighbor we’ve ever had. Therefore, echoing Paul, let us “Imitate Mr. Rogers as he imitated Christ.” 

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