Just the way you are
Adults are not often captivated by talking puppets, 60 seconds of silence, and the simple act of tying one’s shoe, but those at the St. Paul Movie Night were mesmerized. A couple of weeks ago, some St. Paul folks gathered in the sanctuary with bags of buttery goodness from Popcorn Charlie’s and enjoyed a screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood—the movie about the iconic children’s television host, Mister Fred Rogers, and his unlikely friendship with journalist Lloyd Vogel. This biographical drama is just one of hundreds of pieces of content shared about the life, work, and legacy of Mister Rogers since the 50th anniversary of his show in 2018. Much of this content focuses on the simple, encouraging messages Mister Rogers shared with us when we were much younger, like “You make today a special day, just by being you,” “I like you just the way you are,” and “Anything mentionable is manageable.” These memorable phrases are just as effective at warming our hearts and soothing our spirits today as they were in our childhood.
But if the warm fuzzies are all we as adults take from Mister Rogers’ words, then we are missing the point. According to Neighborhood producer Betsy Siemens, Mister Rogers may have “acknowledged all of our inner children and his own” with his loving mantras, but he ultimately “understood that there comes a time in life when we also have to be the adult.” We are the grown-ups raising, teaching, supporting, and protecting the kids in our midst. As such, we are called to not just appreciate Mister Rogers’ ministry but to continue it ourselves.
For example, you may have seen a minute-long PSA from Mister Rogers circulating on social media. It was originally recorded and aired after 9/11, but it often pops up on the internet after current tragedies like the war in Ukraine. In the clip, Mister Rogers leans against his trusty piano in front of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and, looking us right in the eye, he says with that unparalleled warmth of his “I know how hard it is to look with hope and confidence in the months and years ahead…but I like you just the way you are.” It is a pointed, captivating moment of compassion that catches us off-guard and touches us at a depth we never thought possible.
Unfortunately, that is also where most stop listening. We focus inward and may miss the next critical part of his message. It is a gentle but firm nudge toward action—an invitation to partnership in ministry. Still looking us in the eye, he says:
“I’m so grateful for you helping the children in your life to know that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will help them bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”
Mister Rogers, in this final television appearance, thanks us in advance for carrying on his work and loving the children around us. He empowers us to not just accept his words of love, grace, and hope for ourselves but to pass them on and build others up, especially young people, in a world that seems to constantly tear people down.
In much the same way, Jesus, in his last appearance on earth, asks his friends to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and be [his] witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Those who hear the Word of God and who come to know God’s love, grace, and goodness are called by Christ to not simply absorb the Word for ourselves but to share it in ways that bring healing to many different neighborhoods. Otherwise, if the warm fuzzies are all we take away from Jesus’ life and ministry, then we are missing a key point of the Christian life. Hearing God’s Word means becoming God’s witnesses. How we live into that call is, of course, unique to each of us. Sometimes, though, I wonder if being a witness is as simple as looking our neighbors in the eye and saying to one another, “I know how hard it is to look with hope and confidence in the months and years ahead…but I like you just the way you are. It is such a good feeling to know that we are lifelong friends.”