The Gospel According to Fred : I’m Taking Care of You

There’s an innate trouble with humanity.  We run into trouble when we create idols out of one another.   When we idolize or idealize one another, we end up glossing over the fact that each of us make mistakes, that none of us are perfect, and that we’re all haunted by temptation and our struggles with it.  The recent sexual abuse allegations against Jean Vanier, prove it.  Vanier was the founder of L’arche, a group committed to radical compassion and humanity for people of all abilities, and since his death, allegations of inappropriate relationships (not within L’arche) has taken down yet one more “hero.”  And guilt aside, there’s something about our human make-up that needs for us to look up people, that we might have a pattern for our own living.

I say all that with our Lenten theme in mind.  As introduced with our children’s time, we will be exploring the faith and practices of Mister Rogers.  For those that don’t know, Fred McFeely Rogers was a children’s entertainer and educator, and host of his PBS tv show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.    With over 900 episodes and three/four decades of reach, Rogers has been in the public eye for a long time, not just because of the recent documentary (Won’t You Be My Neighbor that we used in Reel Theology) and the more recent It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Rogers.  While this might seem like a bandwagon, I’ve always had great admiration for Rogers. 

There’s much to unpack about his life, and we owe it to ourselves to do the work as the two recent movies play into the aforementioned sainthood that we so easily ascribe to one another.  Behind the sainthood, Rogers struggled with self-confidence, self-image, self-love.  His relationship with his own children was complicated, in spite of having great care for other kids.  The man behind the puppets needs lifting up, lest these next few weeks turns too deeply into hero worship.

Fred had many opportunities in life.  He grew up wanting nothing as his family was considerably well off.  He asked for a piano for one birthday and his grandmother bought him one. But things and possessions weren’t enough.  Fred grew up isolated, lonely, bullied and ostracized.  He carried those childhood wounds deep into his life.  He found expression through his music, eventually pursuing a music degree, and afterwards gaining employment with NBC in helping produce their operas that the network would mount for television.  He saw the potential of the growing medium of tv, one not just for the education of adults, but for children especially.  Circumstances were such that he both became an ordained minister, pursued child development work, and eventually ended up with a children’s tv show in Canada.   Not long after, he moved back to the US, and started his program on PBS in 1968. 

The reason I wanted to look at Rogers’ faith and life, is because the circumstances surrounding his message, and his choice to proclaim it are eerily similar to his time.  His programming began in the midst of the Vietnam war.  It came after JFK’s assassination and during the presidency of Richard Nixon.  Not a year into the PBS program, both Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  It was a divisive, destructive time.  And here comes this soft spoken, slow speaking, man talking about his feelings.  Now as then, I’m sure he came off as naïve at best, and lame/uncool/boring at worst.  And yet, he gave space for people to talk about their feelings.  He spoke about unconditional love, and grace.  He embodied a faith that was more about action than mere preaching.  Just like today’s video, he sang songs about Taking care of you.

I’m taking care of you
Taking good care of you
For once I was very little too
Now I take care of you

Hearing that song, it got me wondering, how does God take care of us?

If we look at the text of the Temptation of Jesus – it fuels those who would describe an absentee God, one who would leave us to the devils both within and without.  The angels only show after the hard work of Jesus facing his own humanity.  (Though looking closer at the text, it’s the Spirit who accompanies Jesus to the wilderness – then quietly takes a backseat as the story plays out).

To explain what I think is happening – I have to tell you a story.  I have a three year old who is deep into three…we’re into full blown tantrums, uncontrolled feelings, and we are at our wit’s end.  But Sam’s most favourite phrase right now is “I can’t” and he uses this phrase so often that he’s convinced himself that he can’t do anything.  The issue as a parent is if I buy into this, I end up doing everything for him.  It would certainly mean fewer fights.  And a quieter house.  But it doesn’t help him through the struggles of self and ability that he’s fighting right now. 

I wonder if God has that same worry.  That if too much is done for us, we grow dependent.  The Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness, but certainly didn’t play an “active” role, or a preventative role.  Jesus had to fight that fight himself.  Jesus had to struggle with the temptations himself.  Jesus had to rest on the faith both in himself, and the Spirit close at hand.  If the Spirit wasn’t present, or the angels show up “afterwards,” then the opposite would happen, and we would end up doubting God’s presence.

There’s so much in this world that dances between in these two extremes.  Doing things for those we love, and allowing them to struggle through.  In response, Fred sang songs like I’m taking care of you, while still preaching a message of encouragement for children learning and growing.

The documentary highlights this fact, and the struggle of our faith in the midst of these problems.  In one poignant scene, they delve into the explosion of the Challenger shuttle. 

video – challenger explosion

Quote from video (in response to Rogers talking about taking care of those we love)

Sometimes I found that a difficult message…sometimes I felt that I was lying…that there were somethings I couldn’t protect them from.

And Fred’s words, held in tension:

Sometimes we need to struggle with the tragedy, to feel the gravity of love.  Love is what keeps us together.  And afloat. 

Fred Rogers’s return to the mainstream comes at a time when the political, ecclesial, and
ethnic schisms in our lives have left us looking for help in navigating divisive days. The solution must be complex enough to address the malformation of our hearts and minds: we no

longer know who our neighbor is, because we’ve forgotten what it means to be a neighbor.[1]

We’ve forgotten what love means.  And what it means to trust in a God, who takes care of us, while still allowing us to face our temptations.


[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/november-web-only/quiet-liturgy-of-fred-rogers-mr-rogers-movie.html

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