Mr. Rogers, Christianity, and Jordan Peterson

Let us pause a moment and sing in praise of Fred “Mr.” Rogers.   Having now seen the documentary that just came out on his life and his work, I think there can be no hesitation in conferring upon him the mantle of secular sainthood.

What a guy.

Mr. Rogers was a Christian.  In fact, he was an ordained minister.  But he didn’t talk much about Christianity, or the Bible, or Christ.   His was the kind of Christianity that is so desperately needed today, not the holier-than-thou kind, not the in-your-face kind, or the pound-the-pulpit kind, but the human kind that ministers to humankind.   For him it was about making heartfelt connections with children—part of what I call the Sacrament of Birth.  Child rearing is an extension of  that holiest of moments when a new soul enters our world and Mr. Rogers was a man who instinctively knew how to reach out to children in a  way that drew them to him.  He didn’t need to mention Jesus to get the message across.

Critics, among them Jordan Peterson, have castigated those who promote the “everyone’s special” plan of childrearing, finding in it the root of a slacker culture that doesn’t know how to get off its duff and do some real work to earn a living, dammit!   But as his friends in the documentary explain, for Mr. Rogers  “you’re special” simply meant letting a child know that he or she was loved and accepted.  That acceptance would create a secure foundation in children to help them face the challenges and confusion and anxiety of growing up.  I don’t know if Peterson specifically mentions Mr. Rogers in his many hours of video online, but to my thinking their messages are in synch.   A good dose of Mr. Rogers would help you stand up straight and face the world, which is the first rule of Peterson’s Twelve Rules of Life.

I never saw Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, having grown up in the earlier Captain Kangaroo era, but my father-in-law knew Fred Rogers and told us, he was the real deal, a man whose TV persona was exactly the same as who he was day in, day out, at home, or testifying in front of Congress.  Watch that scene in the film of the congressional hearing where the very existence of Public Television is on the line and a belligerent Senator Pastore is about ready to pull the plug on the funding. When Fred Rogers begins to speak, there is an almost immediate change in the atmosphere.  There is a power in him, a power that fills the chamber. It’s awesome in the original sense of the word.

He was a guy who could look you square in the face and talk sincerely about feelings, and problems, and all kinds of important things, and whether you were a child or a hard-boiled politician, you listened and knew you could believe him and trust him.

He was the kind of guy you’d want to have as your neighbor.


Immigration: The Problem That Will Never Go Away

Hey, does it seem like the immigration issue just will not die?  Wow, it keeps coming back into the news over and over again, doesn’t it…. But maybe now with all the outrage about the children snatched from the arms of their parents we’ll get a law that will solve the problem and…

No, sorry–that ain’t gonna happen, folks!  Even if we do get a law of some kind to address the current concerns, that’s not going to address the root of the problem.   If you think migrants are  dominating the airwaves now, wait a few years.  The desire of families to leave their home country and brave the oceans, the deserts, the elements, the brigands along the road, the sentinels at the border, and the xenophobes in the promised land will only grow more desperate—and why? For three main reasons:

1) Ever-increasing numbers of people competing for resources

2) Climate change making it more difficult to grow food and have access to water

3) Civil unrest because of 1 and 2, leading to the violence of gangs, warlords, rebellions

If you were a family living in a region under stress from this unholy triad, you would do whatever it took to get somewhere—anywhere—where you could make a living in peace and have a better chance for your children to survive.  So no one should be surprised that people are on the move and will continue to be.  So, how are we ever going to prevent the heartbreaking scenes of the past weeks, months and years, scenes of refugees fleeing their impoverished, war-torn, gang-dominated countries only to be herded into prisons, tent cities, and shanty towns?

The most difficult challenge is the climate.  Since so many American leaders are unwilling to face the truth about this disaster-in-the-making and pass laws that will wean us of fossil fuels, the best we can do is to start preparing for the lack of water, the rise of sea levels, the desiccation of certain regions of the earth and figure out in advance where these poor people are going to go as their island homes disappear or their aquifers dry up.  Without a plan, it will be chaos, or more like the Apocalypse as people get more and more desperate to simply survive.  The UN should get on this, now.

But the real key has to be population control, which is one of the causes of both the second and third problems listed above.   If you haven’t figured that out yet then you are part of the problem.  You, yes you, in effect, are one of the ones who will be creating those scenes on the borders around the world, of children and their parents risking everything to find a better life.   Unless you think you can prevent births by trusting to male celibacy, then start sending money to Planned Parenthood, Pathfinder International, and other organizations that offer contraceptive advice, and, yes, abortions.  Too many children born today are going to die of starvation or drown on a boat crossing the Mediterranean or be forced into a concentration camp in Texas.  Every birth should be a time of joy, a sacrament, and that means working to ensure that families, communities, and entire nations will have the means to support each child in a healthy way.  Every child should be a wanted child, but more than that, a child who has a chance at a good life.  There is no way to ensure that without limiting the population.


Birth and Rebirth: A True Story

Ginny, my former student,  had an amazing story to tell at the recent high school reunion. Ginny is one of the best and the brightest–everyone likes to be around her. She’s funny, a great storyteller, and on the whole, as cheery an individual as you could every hope to meet. But that hasn’t always been the case.   A few years back in the very month she graduated there was a terrible car accident and her best friend, Amy, was killed. Amy and Ginny had been inseparable all senior year.  They had just said goodbye for the summer, and were looking forward to being close to each other in neighboring colleges in the fall.  Then two weeks later, in the blink of an eye, Amy was gone forever.

Ginny told me she was devastated to the point of despair.   How could this be?   What does it mean, when life is so cruel that someone is snatched away in the prime of life? How can we begin to make sense of this?

Then Ginny got some more shocking news. Her mother was going to have a baby. She had been quite young when Ginny was born, and now wanted to start a family with her new husband.   Ginny was really upset. All she could think was, “How can you do this? How can you bring another child into this horrible world of pain and suffering, where you’re doomed to death the minute you are born?” She was so angry she could barely speak to her mother.

She started college but it didn’t work out.  Grief had taken over. Thoughts of Amy haunted her day and night.   She dropped out after a semester and didn’t know what to do with herself.   She was about as deep into the Slough of Despond as a person can get.

Then something happened.   Her baby sister was born. Ginny took one look at her and fell in love. “As soon as I saw this tiny little life, everything changed. My little sister is the joy of my life.   I love her so much, I can’t even find the words. And as she’s gotten older, it just gets better and better.” Here Ginny began to choke up. “ She drew me out of this dark place—I can’t even describe it.”

This is the Sacrament of Birth, that transcendent joy so deeply felt, so beyond words that you don’t even feel like you’re on Planet Earth any more. You’ve found a special connection with another human being and that makes life worth living.   The joy of those first moments can lift you out of the deepest depression, and as the child grows and begins to walk, talk, and laugh, the bonds only grow stronger.

Ginny says the birth of her sister was her salvation…

Is it too much to say that Ginny herself was born again?


A Nation of Ghouls

Folks, we are in a dark place. Exactly how dark came home to me the other night as I sat down to find something to watch  on Netflix. Among the thousands of shows they have on offer is a category called “Netflix Originals” which has been getting a lot of attention for its creativity and success. I’d already watched some episodes of several of them, and as I scrolled through now, I realized that most of them were either murder mysteries or sci-fi heroes fighting evildoers.  The crimes we are watching are no ordinary felonies, they are horrific rapes, tortures, dismemberments, cannibalism….you name it, some writer has come up with a script for our amusement. We are offered deranged cult leaders, serial killers, pedophiles, drooling sadists or megalomaniacs wielding apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, and the murders are the most gruesome, disgusting, horrifying deaths any demented scriptwriter could ever conceive, with the camera often lingering over mangled corpses, caressing them like a lover for our viewing pleasure.

We have become a nation of ghouls.

Never mind worrying about our kids–this is what we’re feeding ourselves a steady diet of night after night. No wonder people are jumpy, paranoid and mistrustful!

It’s not that some of these shows aren’t well written, it’s not that they don’t raise interesting moral questions or illustrate important aspects of our humanity–they often do.  But, I’m telling you, friends, get away from it! Living with these stories day-in, day-out is making us kind of crazy.   It’s a subtle way for the Dark Side to slip into our very beings and turn us all against each other.

There is one show that consistently takes us along the higher road: Call the Midwife.   In this British import we find a paean to the Sacrament of Birth and its extension, childrearing.   In 1950s London the midwives are the heroines, along with the nuns who in their generous, open-hearted spirits remind us why becoming a bride of Christ has been so appealing for so many through the years. It’s all about compassion, something we all have to offer no matter what our place is in the world.   Perhaps the show is a bit saccharine at times, but a taste of sugar feeds the Spirit a lot better than a mouthful of gore.

So get out of that pool of blood you’ve been wallowing in and get back to normal!  You don’t have to become a Catholic nun,  just look around for the sacred in life.   Go play with your children or your grandchildren.  Celebrate life every day.

The Antidote to Skinheads in Brussels

Once again, is nothing sacred?

Last week the citizens of Brussels wanted to hold a memorial for the victims of the bombings and express their desire for unity.  They gathered at the Place de la Bourse, a central square in the city. They lit candles. They laid flowers. They prayed. They left messages for the victims. About 500 people were present from all backgrounds, including Muslims.   It was a time to mourn. When tragedy strikes, the need to come together is overwhelming.   We feel a deep yearning to reach out to those around us, even strangers.   It’s the Sacrament of the Group, bringing us some measure of solace. Peace was in the air at the Place de la Bourse.

Then into this scene of solidarity and compassion, hundreds of right-wing skinheads appeared. They marched into the square, row upon row of them. Some wore hoods. Some masks. All were in black and many were holding cans of beer. They trampled down the carpet of flowers, they chanted anti-immigrant slogans, and “Death to Arabs.” They gave the Nazi salute. They leered at the news cameras. They had come from football (soccer) clubs from all over Belgium, perhaps 500 to 1000 of them. Some proudly called themselves “hooligans”. These are the men who are drawn to sports because of the possibility of fights, on the field or in the stands. There’s nothing they like better than a brawl.

Those who had gathered for the vigil were horrified. “They’re worse than the terrorists!” one older woman cried. “No, this isn’t possible! Tell me it isn’t true that they’re here!” sobbed one man.

The riot police stood by for a while, but as the situation deteriorated, they moved in. After some extremely tense confrontations, using water cannon, shields and batons, the police managed to isolate the invaders and they were eventually herded out of the area. Some arrests were made.  It was over. “We won!” said one young woman as the vigil resumed. “No we didn’t,” her friend said, “It’s a mess.”

The world is a mess. We thought it was bad in the 60s, now we’re back in the 30s with groups of proto-stormtroopers throwing their weigh around wherever you look. They also are motivated by the Sacrament of the Group, drawing their strength from their comrades-in-arms, but have turned it into something dark, the antithesis of what is sacred.

As we confront terrorism on a daily basis, what do we do about this, the inevitable reaction that many will experience: the hate, the desire to fight back, to lash out at whoever or whatever seems the cause of the problem…?

An excellent article in the Christian Science Monitor shows us the way. A neo-nazi skinhead from Vancouver left all the hate behind him when his daughter was born. “What happened in that moment is that I became connected to another human being for the first time since I could remember.” This is the Sacrament of Birth. It’s a transformative moment that brings out the best in all of us. We’re blown away by the miracle of it all, by the mother’s courage, by the need to take care of that helpless child. That’s the stuff from which to build a new world.

There are seven universal sacraments that bind us to each other by virtue of our humanity.  If we can only make each other aware of what unites us, we’ll have a chance.  The reformed father from Vancouver puts it this way:  “It’s very important for everybody to keep their sense of compassion. If society responds with fear and clamps down, it’s not a nice place to be.”

The reporting from Brussels was translated from Le Monde

Response to the Migrant Crisis: Save the Children

The Völkerwanderung continues in Europe and the powers-that-be have shown themselves to be the powers-that-ain’t.   The leaders seem as flummoxed and as ineffectual as ever–they just can’t figure out what to do, and the people just keep coming. Yes, there is a lull in the war in eastern Syria, but none in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the lull makes it easier to head for the coast.   The result: boatloads of migrants still risking their lives to escape war, camps full of desperate people stranded on closed borders, cities and towns with an exploding new underclass of refugees, and surging xenophobic parties ripe for demagoguery, just like here in the United States.

But amidst the wrangling and wringing of hands at the summits as they search for a solution, there is one thing that has brought everyone together.   That unforgettable photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, drowned on the beach, slices through the confusion and pierces our hearts, no matter which side we’re on.

This is the Sacrament of Birth speaking to us, that sacred place in our hearts where we pledge unconditional love for our newborns, and the extension of that holy moment is the love we feel for children as they grow.   This is a universal: you don’t have to belong to a particular tribe or religion to experience this love, or the sorrow that comes when that young life, so full of potential, is lost.

If there is any hope for the future, it must be built on this common ground, a solid foundation of the compassionate feelings that make us who we are: human beings.     Compassion is the unifying force of our humanity, the glue that will hold the world together.  Religion at its best teaches us compassion but at its worst, it is a dividing force.   Its prescriptions and proscriptions, its prejudices and power plays are what is dividing the world into warring camps and driving one half of the world to invade the other.

There is only one answer for Syria: partition.  Until each side can have their slice of land to call their own, they’ll fight to the death.

There is only one answer for the world: compassion.  Until all sides in all conflicts can put a desire to help those in need  above the desire for domination, we’re all in danger.

If you liked this try: “The Migrants of Europe and the Barbarian Invasions”

“Partition Syria!”