Fred Rogers, Judgement & the Holy Spirit
Three weeks after the celebration of Pentecost, we continue to hear scriptural stories and references about the Holy Spirit. Today’s Gospel is no different. Following Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven, the apostles continue to grapple with what it means to accept God’s gift of the Holy Spirit into their lives. Others continue to wrestle with who Jesus is and what He has come to accomplish. As a universal church, for the past 2000 years, we’ve been wrestling with what that means for us corporately and individually.
About a month ago, leading up to the celebration of Pentecost, one of our wonderful parishioners, Bridget Flaaen, shared that she and her family were hoping to attend church that next Sunday. I shared that I was getting ready for the homily and Bridget asked about the topic for the day. I shared that it was Pentecost Sunday and that I was working on how to describe the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives today. Later that night Bridget remembered she had read an excerpt about the Holy Spirit in a book about Fred Rogers (aka: Mr. Rogers, from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.) Bridget shared that excerpt with me and I’d like to share it with you today.
The book is written by Amy Hollingsworth and is titled, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights From The World’s Most Beloved Neighbor. Amy shares:
I’ve only heard Fred Rogers describe himself as judgmental once.
It wasn’t a word typically associated with him; in fact, his character was more likely to be depicted by judgmental’s antonyms: merciful, accepting, tolerant.
But at least one time he felt the word fit, and its sting changed his life.
He was in the seminary at the time, during the eight years he juggled classes and his first program for kids, The Children’s Corner. As part of his studies, he would visit different churches to see how the various ministers preached. While in New England one weekend, Fred and some friends decided to visit the church of a well-known and well-respected preacher. But after the service began, they discovered the presiding minister was away and a supply preacher – a rather aged one at that – would be speaking in his place.
That was, of course, a disappointment, but Fred had heard good supply preachers before, as well as meaningful messages from older preachers. Unfortunately, this man was neither good nor meaningful. Fred suffered through the sermon, mentally checking off every homiletic rule the man was bending, breaking, or completely disregarding. The sermon went against everything Fred was learning in the seminary. When it ended (“mercifully,” he later said), Fred turned to the friend beside him to commiserate. But before he could say anything, his words were muted by the tears he saw streaming down her face.
The friend turned toward Fred and said, “The preacher said exactly what I needed to hear today.” Fred thought to himself, “That bungle of a sermon was exactly what she needed to hear today?” Fred didn’t know what to say; but, as he began to ponder the gulf between their reactions, Fred realized that the essential difference lay within: his friend had come in need and he had come in judgement. And because of her need, and the sincerity of the old preacher, the Holy Spirit was able to translate the words – poorly constructed as they were – into exactly what she needed to hear. Through the Holy Spirit, God met that woman there, in that little New England church.
The author, Hollingsworth, shares further that that experience changed Fred Roger’s life. And it changed his Neighborhood as well. Fred not only committed to reserving judgement, he also opened himself up to the mystery of holy ground.
In the book interview Fred Roger’s shared, “I’m convinced that the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground.” He shared further, “What we put on the television can, by the Holy Spirit, be translated into what this person needs to hear and see, and without that translation it’s all rubbish, as far as I am concerned!”
To think it was an old supply preacher who taught Fred that lesson many years before: What is offered in faith by one person can be translated by the Holy Spirit into what the other person needs to see and hear. The space between them is holy ground, and the Holy Spirit uses that space in ways that not only translate, but transcend.
During the interview Fred shared that “there had been many times when people have said, ‘You know that program in which you did such and such and said such and such,’ and I’ll look back at the script, I hadn’t said that at all – but that person would say to me, ‘That meant so much to me.’ And I’d think to myself, ‘Well, happily, you got the words that you needed to hear at just that moment.’ ”
I’ve had a couple of weeks now to mull over this life lesson from Mr. Rogers. Throughout the weeks since I’ve been carrying the Holy Spirit around with me a lot more intentionally these days. Carrying the Holy Sprit into difficult conversations when I knew I could use an extra measure of grace.
I’m also reminded how forgiving Fred’s lesson is about the preacher and the listener. It’s comforting as a preacher to know that through the Holy Spirit God is doing God’s work in the hearts and minds of listeners while I bungle my way through a theological message I am trying to share.
By way of application [this week] I invite you to tuck this story away inside your heart and mind. Mull it over. Wrestle with it. Examine your conscience. Ask yourself what your life might look and feel like if you, if WE, like Fred, parked our judgement … and rather, entered into relationships and conversations this week with an open heart, ready to receive whatever the other person brings into our lives … all, without judgement.
Please know I am praying for each of you.
Please keep me in your prayers as well.
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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog
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