Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Recently, my wife and I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — a sympathetic look at Mr Rogers, the man and his medium. Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, along with Sesame Street and the Electric Co, played a role in our childhood experience.

As many other reviews point out, there is much to commend in this well-made documovie. However, as a fellow Presbyterian minister, I must say the story left me with a few gnawing concerns.

Mr Rogers was a televangelist of common grace — not saving grace. His mission and purpose was to make the neighborhood a nicer, kinder, gentler place. He wanted the world to be softer not harder.

Both on-screen and off, his message was one of tolerance and acceptance — not repentance.

“I like you as you are
Without a doubt or question
Or even a suggestion
Cause I like you as you are
I like you as you are
I wouldn’t want to change you
Or even rearrange you
Not by far”

And yet, as an ordained Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Mr Rogers must have known that not even God, who is Love, accepts us just as we are — period. No, in his divine love, God calls us to repent — to change and be conformed to the image of Christ.

According to the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions, an ordained minister such as Mr Rogers vows to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church, to be instructed and led by those confessions as he leads the people of God, and to fulfill his office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions.” One of those confessions says this about repentance:

Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ. (WCF XV.1).

Furthermore, repentance is of such necessity to all sinners that none may expect pardon without it. (WCF XV.3)

Granted, a PBS show for children might not have been the appropriate medium for such a message. But the congregation Mr Rogers attended and the communities he inhabited certainly were the right places to speak the truth in love. “As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation, so there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.” (WCF XV.4)

By all accounts, both on TV and in real life, Mr Rogers’ message was centered on what he preferred and deemed to be the right values for his viewers. The message he promoted was good morals — not good news. It was an everyman niceness creed — not the ecumenical Nicene Creed.

The Lord Jesus Christ shall come again,
with glory,
to judge the quick and the dead.

As Paul proclaimed to the movers and shakers of culture on Mars Hill, “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Why? “Because God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” — namely, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

At the end of his life, Mr Rogers acknowledged this sobering reality. Contemplating his own fate and appointment to appear before God, he wondered aloud, “Am I a sheep?”

Not a bad question to ask at any moment.

A better one is: Do I repent and believe the good news that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior?

As Mr Rogers acknowledged with fear and trembling, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account for our life and deeds. Trying to be nice will not save you, nor assure you of salvation. But turning from your sins and trusting in the Savior alone will.

In the meantime, how shall we live? What shall we do with the life we’ve been given?

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you?
To do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

And, if you have time, go see the documovie.