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On a misunderstood Mr. Rogers quote (May 26, 2024)

Mr. Rogers famously said to "look for the helpers." Brendan McLean wonders if that's the best instruction for adults and connects his question to Romans 10.

Outlook Standard Lesson for May 26, 2024
Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Romans 10:1-21

I often feel lucky that I was the last age group of children who grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and seeing the loving wisdom of Fred Rogers as it aired on PBS. It’s hard to remember much of my life at four or five, but I remember watching the magical show in the mornings or on a tape after I got picked up from preschool. I remember learning about so many different things, like how crayons are made or what it’s like to play cello in an orchestra. I also remember learning what it means to be kind, to show love, and to say (and mean) “I like you, neighbor” from arguably the most beloved Presbyterian minister of our time.

However, perhaps my most memorable experience of Fred Rogers was part of a 1999 interview I watched in seminary. In this four-and-a-half-hour interview, he talked about the chaos of modern life and how it seems like bad and scary things are happening increasingly nowadays. His answer to this was advice his mother gave him when he was a kid: “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.”

I watched this entire interview because I read an article in The Atlantic by Ian Bogost arguing the advice to “look for the helpers” was bad for adults. I was almost enraged that anyone could suggest anything Mr. Rogers offered us in his television ministry was harmful, problematic, or just plain bad. But as I read the article again this week and watched that one small part of Mr. Rogers’ interview, I found myself not entirely in disagreement with Bogost.

The advice to “look for the helpers” was always meant for small children who were scared by what they saw in the world and unable to do anything to change or even make sense of it. I am no longer a small child, so I have a different responsibility now — to take everything I learned from Mr. Rogers and be the helper these small children need to see. To be an adult who ensures children know they are loved and capable of loving. Anything they feel is mentionable and manageable.

This sentiment of responding to the love shown to us by showing that love to others is echoed in our reading from Romans. Paul reminds us the salvation God gives through Jesus is for everybody. Paul writes that God makes no distinctions between the ways we categorize ourselves and the truth: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13). What’s more, just like our call doesn’t simply end with “look for the helpers,” Paul writes that knowing that knowledge of sanctification isn’t the end.

Receiving the gift of salvation freely given by God does not disassociate us from the world and what is happening in it. Rather, it makes us even more aware of those who suffer…

We are called to respond to salvation with the gift of gratitude, as there are people out in the world who do not know the love of God (vv. 14-15). He even quotes the prophet Isaiah to bolster this response: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom. 10:15; Is. 52:7). Receiving the gift of salvation freely given by God does not disassociate us from the world and what is happening in it. Rather, it makes us even more aware of those who suffer and might not know the love of God or even know what it means to be loved by their neighbor. In this way, to believe and “call on the name of the Lord” extends beyond prayer and our spiritual inner life. It also means sharing the limitless gift of God’s grace and love that exists beyond any boundaries with every neighbor we encounter, so that all may know they are loved.

Mr. Rogers taught his audience, among many things, to “look for the helpers” and always seek out hope in the world. What Paul tells us (and what I imagine Mr. Rogers might have told adults) is to be God’s hope in the world, walking alongside our neighbors and demonstrating God’s grace, solidarity, and love in our being and doing. In other words, be the helpers.

Questions for discussion

  1. Where have you “seen the helpers” in your life or in the world? How do they inspire you to hope?
  2. How do you show your gratitude for the gift of God’s grace and love? How can you show it in other ways?

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