Won’t you be my neighbor?

It’s weird when you’re watching a documentary with a scene from a puppet show that aired more than 50 years ago to find yourself saying, wow, that sounds like you-know-who. In an early episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, King Friday XIII was very angry because Lady Elaine had rearranged things in The Land of Make-Believe. King Friday didn’t like change. So border guards were put in place to prevent people from coming and going. In a side note in an article about episode two, the author wrote, it’s a scenario that seems almost too real today — a petulant ruler who blames outsiders for making changes to his kingdom so he decides to shut his country’s borders, even though the real problem is WITHIN his kingdom.

The second episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired when I was 4 1/2 years old. I wasn’t aware of the social and political turmoil of the time – ongoing racial divisions, the Vietnam War. I don’t remember how old I was when I first watched the show. I just remember that Mr. Rogers was kind, calm and consistent – and a good neighbor.

In Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I learned that Fred Rogers bravely and lovingly tackled a lot of adult issues in his children’s show. In an episode that aired in 1969 (1065), Mr. Rogers cooled off his feet in a small pool of cold water. When Officer Clemmons, a black man, stopped by to visit, Mr. Rogers invited him to share the pool with him. It was a simple gesture that may not seem like a big deal now, but in the 1960’s, many swimming pools were still segregated. It was, as Hannah Anderson wrote, an act of reconciliation and humility, symbolic of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

In the documentary, I learned that the number 143 was special to Mr. Rogers. In an episode with Mr. McFeely, he explained that 143 was a kind of code. He said, it takes one letter to say I, four letters to say love, and three letters to say you.

One of the things I didn’t know before watching the documentary was that many people blame Mr. Rogers for giving rise to our entitlement culture. They think that because he told kids that you are special just for being you, he was in effect telling them that nothing is expected of you. Don’t blame Mr. Rogers. His critics miss the message he was trying to get across – that we all have inherent value as human beings. And I think Rogers understood that some people really need to hear this. God loves you unconditionally.

I found myself crying when I saw a scene with Daniel the Tiger, a puppet based on Fred Rogers himself. Daniel wonders to Lady Aberlin whether he was a mistake. I’m not like anyone else I know. Lady Aberlin sings to him, You’re not a fake. You’re no mistake. You are my friend. At the end of the scene, the two sing at the same time – Daniel repeating his worry that he is a mistake as she tells him he is not. His self-doubts persist even as she assures him he is fine just as he is. Even as an adult, I know how persistent negative self-talk can be and how important it is to have friends who let you know that you are accepted just as you are.

Fred Rogers was well known for his love for his neighbor. In explaining the song Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Fred Rogers said it is an invitation to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving. Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.

It’s an invitation to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving. Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.

Fred Rogers

Sometimes the real problem is not other people. It is the lack of love within us. You are both loved and capable of loving people who are not like you. Since we’re in this life together we might as well say, would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?

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Sometimes I Wonder If I’m a Mistake

[Daniel Striped Tiger]

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not like anyone else I know
When I’m asleep or even awake
Sometimes I get to dreaming that I’m just a fake
I’m not like anyone else

Others I know are big and are wild
I’m very small and quite tame
Most of the time I’m weak and I’m mild
Do you suppose that’s a shame

Often I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not supposed to be scared am I
Sometimes I cry and sometimes I shake
Wondering isn’t it true that the strong never break
I’m not like anyone else I know
I’m not like anyone else

[Lady Aberlin]

I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping
When you are waking
You are my friend

It’s really true
I like you
Crying or shaking or dreaming or breaking
There’s no one mistaking it
You’re my best friend

I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping
When you are waking
You’re not a fake
You’re no mistake
You are my friend

Where is the hope?

The last time I went to my Bible study, a woman in my group handed me a book, With Her Last Breath, written by the Director of Caring Ministry at our church, Barbara M. Roberts. The book is about the suicide of Roberts’ niece Kathy and includes images of the 26-page journal that Kathy wrote in the last 36 hours or so of her life. Which each page of the journal, Roberts provides advice to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and to those who walk beside them.

Another friend couldn’t bring herself to finish the book because it reminded her too much of a struggling family member. It is hard to read about people who are suicidal, but I wanted to learn how to recognize when someone needs help and how to uplift and support those who have lost all hope as Kathy did.

Hope and despair

Hope and despair are polar opposites so we may think they are mutually exclusive emotions. But as Roberts wrote, hope and despair are often intertwined. We can feel both at the same time. We all experience ups and downs in this life and it can be really hard to hold onto your hope.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40: 31-32

Kathy believed in God but her life on this earth had become so unbearable due to health issues and loneliness that she felt she had no hope – except in the promise of heaven. She believed that killing herself was against God’s will but suicide was the only way she knew to escape her pain and torment. She hoped that God would forgive her.

At the time of her death, Kathy was just a few months older than I am now. She had COPD and was living on disability benefits. She rarely left her apartment. She had lost the one person in her life who was her support system.

In leaving a journal behind, Kathy provided a glimpse into the mind of a suicidal person. She wrote that she couldn’t take it anymore. She was tired of everything being so hard. She felt like she was in a living hell. She had never felt so alone and in the dark. Each day was worse than the one before. It had become hard to just exist. She wished that she could find one good reason to live. She could hardly breathe. She wondered what God wanted of her. She wondered, if God wanted her to live, why her life had been reduced to misery and suffering.

Empathy and understanding

I have not experienced the physical suffering that made Kathy’s life intolerable. But I have been through trying situations that have nearly broken my spirit. I have experienced feelings of despair, anguish, and hopelessness. In my lowest moments, I cried out to God – I begged God – please help me! I can’t take this anymore. And in those dark moments, I even said words to my Maker that I didn’t really mean. I want to die. Thankfully, I knew that God was with me. He lifted my burdens. He pulled me through.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
   the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2

In reading Kathy’s journal, I found myself wondering why she didn’t ask God to help her. I believe that if she had asked, God would have put the right people in her life to ease her loneliness and suffering. But as Roberts wrote, “Sometimes people do not use the way out that God provides but rather choose their own solution.” Kathy didn’t ask God for a way out. She chose her own way out of suffering and knew that she could not ask God to help her commit suicide. It is easy to judge Kathy for the decision she made. But I know from my own experience, when you are really depressed, your thoughts are not the most rational.

Kathy rightly noted that no one else was qualified to judge her. No one else knew what her life, the life she described as a living hell, was doing to her. I can only imagine how hopeless I would have felt in my own struggles if I had not had a social support system, if I had not had people who depended on me, if I had not had reasons to go on.

God redeems our own times of suffering by allowing us to come alongside others in their suffering. This, of course, is based upon the assumption that others are honest about their struggles.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

Helping the hurting

I wrote a bit about my own struggles with despair. I have also struggled to be a good helper of the hurting. A few times in my 32-year marriage, my husband got very depressed and it was really, really hard for me to deal with. He isolated himself. He wouldn’t talk to me or anyone else. I felt ill equipped to help him through it. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I stayed with him and I prayed for him.

Roberts wrote that unlike other obvious injuries, the hurt of a broken heart is hidden. You don’t have to be a skilled healer or gifted counselor to help. Just being available to listen and to walk alongside the person helps the hurting.

It is an amazing gift of God’s grace that the kind of expertise needed for the broken heart comes from those God has placed in our lives whose skill set includes love, availability, listening and just simply being a fellow journeyer willing to travel with us.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

How can you be a supportive fellow journeyer in this thing called life? How can you help others find hope?

  1. Be fully present and attentive.
  2. Listen without interrupting.
  3. Communicate your caring and support.
  4. Take the person’s concerns seriously.
  5. Don’t minimize their suffering.
  6. Don’t be pushy or judgmental.
  7. Keep the person’s confidence but get help, if you are really worried.

Dear Lord, please help those who are struggling right now with feelings of despair and hopelessness. Wrap your loving arms around them. Let them know that they are not alone. Help me to be a light in the darkness. Help me to be available where I am needed, help me to listen, help me to love.

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Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

One Lord, one body, one hope

Sojourners and other faith-based organizations say that Christianity has been co-opted by politics. I have long believed that the pursuit of political power has a corrupting influence on religion. Last year, a group of religious leaders wrote a declaration called: Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis. How should the Church respond in this struggle against the powers of this dark world?

An identity centered on Christ

Today, many believers seem to derive their identity from their political party and from nationalism; the Pew Research Center calls them God-and-country believers. Paul reminded the Ephesian believers that our true identity is centered on Christ. Jesus is the head of the body, and it is by his grace that we were saved. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be born again? What does it mean to be evangelical? Our culture misuses these words so much, it is no wonder that Christianity is misunderstood and it is no wonder that religious hypocrisy is on the rise.

If you want to know what it means to be a Christian, read the gospel. Jesus said that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again, that is born of the Spirit (John 3:3-7). The Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. Jesus said that the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus made it clear that he will judge us based on how we treat those in need (Matthew 25:31-46).

Spiritual battles

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote that the first believers were “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming (Eph. 4:14).” Today, many believers have been led astray by the cunning and deceitfulness of those with wealth and political power who are willing to do whatever they can to keep it.

There is a spiritual battle going on today even if we cannot see it. I tend to think of the enemy as the people who practice deceitful scheming. But Paul said that the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil. It is a battle between truth and deception. As Jesus said, the devil is the father of all lies. Jesus came to testify to the truth and everyone on the side of truth listens to Jesus (John 18:37).

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 

Ephesians 6:13-14

If Christ’s followers keep our eyes on the head of the Church – Christ – we will be equipped to do the work he has called us to do and to be strong as we face these spiritual battles.

Unity in the body of Christ

Paul wanted the believers to remember that they were called to one purpose. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:3-6).

When Jesus prayed for future believers, he prayed that we would be one just as the Father and Son are one.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus, John 17:20-23

Unity of faith is not blind, tribal unity. We must guard our hearts and minds against deception. We should not be partners with those who are immoral, greedy and dishonest. No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them (Eph. 5:5-7).

I struggled with the concept of unity in the body of Christ after the 2016 election. I looked at the people in the pews around me and wondered, how can so many of you not see what I see? But when I walk through the doors of my church, I know that I will hear the word of God preached. I know that God’s name will be praised. We pray to one God. God is working in in ways that I cannot see.

A couple of weeks ago, my pastor told us about a dream he has had more than a dozed times since he became the pastor of our church. In the recurring dream, he sees a wood-framed church somewhere on the coast. Huge waves rise up and tear down the church. After the waves came and destroyed the physical walls of the church, my pastor saw the people, hands joined together, standing on a rock. I loved hearing about this dream because it reminds me that there is a body of believers who will stand strong in the spiritual battles of our time.

It is hard to see people of faith being tossed about by the waves, aligning themselves with those who deceive with empty words. The right response is to be humble, gentle and patient. The right response is to speak the truth in love. The right response is to stand strong in the Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. The right response is to pray for God’s people. The right response is to keep on imitating Christ so that the world will know that God sent him and that God loves them.

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Prison walls started falling

On Tuesday, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone in preparation for giving up social media for Lent. Now my phone is just a phone and not a time-wasting distraction. This morning as I drove to the gym, I listened to a beautiful song that not only expresses how I feel about the “sacrifice” I’m making, it reminds me of the real reason for the season of Lent.

Red Letters is a song written by David Crowder and Ed Cash about the life-changing impact of the red letter words of Jesus.

Then I read the red letters
And the ground began to shake
The prison walls started falling
And I became a free man that day

Red Letters – David Crowder Band

The phrase, prison walls started falling describes how I feel about being freed from the addictive hold of social media. Over time, I have become a slave to Facebook, depending on it to keep myself entertained, looking to it for social affirmation, and ridiculously fearing that I will miss out on something important if I don’t read my news feed everyday. It’s only been a couple of days since I gave it up, but the prison walls are already falling.

Red Letters also reminded me of the real sacrifice that Jesus made.

For God so loved the whole wide world
Sent His only Son to die for me
Arms spread wide for the whole wide world
His arms spread wide where mine should be
Jesus changed my destiny

Thank You, God, for red letters
When the ground began to shake
The grace of God started falling
And I became a free man that day
The prison walls started falling
And I am a free man today

Red Letters – David Crowder Band

Thank you, God, for red letters. Thank you, God, for Jesus!

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Photo by Denis Oliveira on Unsplash

Giving up social media for Lent

This year, my pastor encouraged us to give up social media for Lent. As a Presbyterian, I have never been asked to give up anything for Lent. I have decided to take my pastor’s advice because I am addicted to Facebook and I know that I waste a lot of time on it.

I did not tell anyone that I’m going to stay off of Facebook for Lent. Will anyone even notice that I’m not posting anything?

It will be interesting to see how my life changes in the next 40 days. Will I miss out on anything important if I don’t use social media everyday? How will I use the time that I would have wasted scrolling down my news feed? Will I have a more positive outlook on life?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash