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The inspiring example of Fred Rogers

Here’s my December column for the Holland Sentinel…

Applications to Presbyterian seminaries have surged in the last week, following the release of “A Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood,” a new movie about Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian pastor best known for his popular PBS television series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Admissions offices at several Presbyterian seminaries have reported that they are struggling to keep up with a record number of inquiries. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Anthony Rivera, long-time director of admissions at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Presbyterian school where Fred Rogers received his master of divinity degree.

Just kidding. I’m making this up. The last I heard, applications are trending down at most seminaries, not just the Presbyterian ones.

But I have a good imagination, the kind Fred Rogers would have encouraged in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I can easily imagine that Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers would lead some young men and women to consider Presbyterian ministry—just as the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post, back in the 1970s, led to a surge of applications to schools of journalism. Just as the soaring stock market in the 1990s led to a surge of applications to business schools.

Woodward and Bernstein were inspiring because they showed us how someone could make a difference in the world through, well, dogged reporting about a corrupt presidency. A decade or so later, getting an MBA seemed like just the ticket for creating substantial personal wealth in an ever-expanding national economy. Remember the beloved words of Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street”? “Greed, for lack of a better word,” he said, “is good.” Very inspiring.

The essential humanity of Fred Rogers was also inspiring, but for a different reason. I would like to think that his life and example would lead others to pursue lives of ministry. I wept last year when I saw the Fred Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” And I can’t wait to see the new movie with Tom Hanks. Fred Rogers made me proud, for about 94 minutes, to be a Presbyterian pastor.

But I wonder if anyone will be inspired to be like him, to model their lives after his, to adopt his values as their own.

What the documentary—and, more recently, the movie—show us about Fred Rogers is how unfailingly nice he was. Nice by itself is okay, but not all that inspiring. Fred Rogers was also good, decent, compassionate, and caring. Maybe most compelling, he was authentic. When a reporter asked him if he thought of himself as “a star,” and then asked if he thought the Mister Rogers character was “a star,” he seemed confused by the questions. He and the character he played on television were the same person. He was the same person at home and in the TV studio and everywhere else. Authenticity is not a trait we see much anymore, and the world needs more authentic people.

Of course, you don’t go to seminary to learn how to be authentic. You go to learn what is true, the truths that Fred Rogers demonstrated both in private and on camera. Truths like every person is a child of God and deserves to be treated that way.

Fred Rogers never shied away from difficult subjects. He talked to children about death and divorce, trauma and grief. He was able to do that not only because he had an extraordinary gift for talking to children, but also because he knew what he believed. If you don’t know what you believe about death, for example, how can you talk about it to children, or anyone one else, with clarity and confidence?

In one episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers sat at a kitchen table, looked straight into the camera and began talking about divorce: ”Did you ever know any grown-ups who got married and then later they got a divorce?” he asked. He paused briefly, and then said, ”Well, it is something people can talk about, and it’s something important.” You want to listen when someone talks like that, don’t you?

Another time, Fred Rogers said, ”The world is not always a kind place.” That wasn’t just his opinion. That was a profound theological claim, a way of looking at the world, a belief system that helps us to make sense of life. Fred Rogers was a theologian—and, to me, the very best kind. He told the truth in ways children can understand, in ways that still make me weep with joy.

Before every broadcast, according to one story, Fred Rogers would recite a short prayer: “Let some word that is heard be thine.” This is the prayer that every preacher—Presbyterian and every other kind—prays before preaching.

(Photo: Along the Camino Frances in northern Spain are hundreds of these yellow arrows, often with the distinctive Camino scallop shell, indicating the way to Santiago de Compostela.)

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The annual Christmas letter

Advent 2019

Dear family and friends,

No one who knows me will be surprised to learn that I crammed an entire retirement’s worth of activity into my first full year. It’s hard to imagine that there will still be one or two things left to do.

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Reading the comment section in online news

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for November. If you do not live near the Great Lakes, you may not know that lake levels are near or at record highs. The Army Corps of Engineers is predicting that lake levels will continue to increase into next year. Together with powerful storms, lake levels have caused dramatic erosion along the coast line, with many lakefront homes now in danger of falling into the lake. My column reflects on readers’ reactions to newspaper articles about this situation.

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Letter from Lucerne, Switzerland

Here’s my October column for the Holland Sentinel…

The Swiss like to shake hands. They like a firm handshake with lots of eye contact. In Switzerland, it’s considered rude not to shake hands with everyone before leaving a social gathering, even if doing so requires a considerable amount of time.

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“How are you enjoying Holland?”

Here’s my September column for the Holland Sentinel…

“How are you enjoying Holland?” my dentist wanted to know last week at my annual checkup.

I had been a new patient only a year ago, so the question was an appropriate one. However, with his fingers exploring my mouth, I couldn’t do much more than nod and give a thumbs up. I want to give a fuller answer here: I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you for asking.

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The moral urgency of “plastic or paper?”

Here’s my August column for the Holland Sentinel:

“Paper or plastic?” the person at the grocery cash register asked, without looking up (or saying hello).

“I brought my own bags,” I said, proudly, holding them up for her to see. And with that, of course, she looked up—to get a good look at the tree-hugging Green Panther standing in front of her.

I’ll never know if I fit her image of an environmentalist, because she quickly looked down again and began to scan my items before placing them in my reusable bags.

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Living with meaning and purpose

Here is my July column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m still not sure how it happened, but one day I woke up and, curiously, I was retired. Of course I had planned for it, as much as it’s possible to plan for something like retirement. And I recognize that not everyone gets to choose the actual date and get ready for it. So, I am grateful for that.

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Not going to church anymore

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for June:

I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, with my parents and my sisters, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

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Dachau and the Result of Hatred, Racism and Bigotry

Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:

Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.

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My Camino de Santiago

Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:

A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.

Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.

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