Will Scott: Neighbor

I hear my children talking to the TV but that's OK. They're responding to Daniel Tiger, the animation of an old "Mister Rogers" puppet who carries on his creator's legacy in children's television -- cardigan included. Daniel teaches children things like compassion and kindness, and also how to deal with frustration or anger. It's not too different from what Mister (Fred) Rogers tried to do on his show from 1968-2001.

Mister Rogers' legacy is enjoying some nostalgic reexamination right now, thanks partly to the recent documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" The movie explores the origin of Fred Rogers' television career, interest in children, the show's challenges and impact. This Mister Rogers renaissance is so popular that Tom Hanks is doing his own tribute in an upcoming movie.

Usual stories surrounding Mister Rogers bring out his well-known characteristics -- his playfulness, disarming sincerity and special gift for listening to children. Beyond mere interviews, however, other commentators have collected tales that border on the miraculous. James Hamblin of The Atlantic reported on the story of a young girl's seizure disorder. It seemed incurable, except that it always abated while she was watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." In a similar vein, Tom Junod of Esquire magazine told the story of the family whose child with autism formed his first words in response to the show, and who first looked his father in the eye to say, "Would you like to go to the land of make believe?"

Others simply remember chance encounters that brought them to tears. A young man once remembered being startled finding himself with Mister Rogers in an elevator while having a bad day. Fred Rogers saw his surprise and distress and asked, "Were you one of my neighbors?" He always had the right thing to say.

Sometimes less well-known is the story of Mister Rogers' religious background. Intending to go to seminary and enter the ministry, Rogers became diverted by the power of television -- both its misuse, as he perceived it, and its great potential for good in the lives of children. He returned to seminary and became ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Not known for creativity, it took the Presbyterian church a while to figure out how to ordain Mister Rogers. He was not going to serve any church they knew of. They figured he could be a kind of roving evangelist. The television audience became his congregation.

This was not an explicitly religious show, but it evoked biblical concepts like love, kindness and, of course, neighborliness. That's how Fred Rogers preached the gospel. He sang at the beginning of every show, "Won't you be my neighbor?"

Neighbor is an important word in the Bible. A lawyer once tested Jesus by asking the way to eternal life. Jesus asked what the law said. The lawyer, paraphrasing, said love God, and "love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27).

The lawyer wasn't satisfied in the story since he wanted to make himself seem smart or important or righteous. So he asked, "Who is my neighbor?"

This is where Jesus tells the famous story of "The Good Samaritan." A man is beaten by robbers and left for dead. And the people who should take care of him, religious leaders, do nothing to help. Only a Samaritan, an outsider to the faith, shows the compassion of God in caring for the man, despite difference in background, culture and religion. Jesus concludes the story with a question: "Which of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The lawyer, now quieted, responds, "The one who showed him mercy." That's what it means to be a neighbor.

For all of the praise of Fred Rogers, maybe we overestimate what he did. He wasn't a hero, or a saint. He didn't advocate for great change or loud gestures. He was a neighbor. Sometimes that's enough. Jesus says, "Go, and do likewise."

Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.

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