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December 24, 2019

“He might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved.”[i]

Those words were written not of Jesus, but of Mr. Rogers, by a journalist named Tom Junod, in the December Atlantic. I read it on an airplane. The article was titled: “What Would Mr. Roger’s Do?”

Personally, I was too old for Mr. Rogers. His show came on the air in 1968, by which time I was thirteen and done with children’s television. Eddie Murphy and Johnny Carson’s late night impersonations of him made me laugh, and that was all I knew.

Along with the rest of the country, I am getting to know him now in hindsight, through last year’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and this year’s movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. In both we learn about this writer Tom Junod, whose life Mr. Rogers changed by being kind. This happened in 1998, when Esquire assigned him a story on Mr. Rogers, a short profile, for a special “American Heroes” issue. 

At the time, Junod was a forty-year old reporter who had built his reputation by knocking big shots off their high horse. Mr. Rogers seemed ripe for exposure. Surely his niceness was an act and Tom was just the reporter to bring that truth to light—capable, he says, “of silken cruelties committed in the name of revelation.” He was assigned the story on Mr. Rogers, he remembers, “because one of the editors at Esquire thought it would be amusing to have me, with my stated determination to ‘say the unsayable,’ write about the nicest man in the world.”

One interesting thing he found out also came as a surprise to me. In Fred Roger’s closet there was . . . a preacher’s gown. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Tom asked him heavy, grown-up questions. In the news, another shooter had attacked a school. If God is love, why this evil? Fred replied with a grown-up, seminary educated reflection that God is constrained in his dealings with the world by some of his own commitments to it: “If there is such a thing as a ‘dark corner’ of God’s nature then I think it is God’s refusal to go back on the promise of ‘the creation’s freedom to love or not.”[ii]

Against his producer’s advice, Mr. Rogers was open to the Esquire interview. He sat for one, then another, and another. Finally the hidden truth came out, unearthed—but the tables had been turned. As Tom had scratched for dirt on Mr. Rogers, Fred was digging for gold in Tom. He knew he would find it. When he did, Tom said his heart, which had felt like an iron spike, “opened like an umbrella.” This happened in a prayer.[iii]

As for Mr. Rogers, his deepest secret was his kindness, born of his belief in children. “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid.”[iv] A child was that treasure. Empty the bank to buy that field. And what Faulkner said about the past, he applied to childhood. No matter our age, our childhood isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

Give me a forecast with a 60 percent chance or more of snow and I feel the truth of this. That night, my nose is pressed to the window, eyes squinting for snowflakes falling through the streetlight. In the middle of the night I wake up because I am almost sixty-five, but it is the child in me that returns to the window to check again. When I see white in the trees and on the streets it might as well be Christmas.

We know that children need our love and that, no questions asked, we owe it to them. Those children we were still live within us and they need our love. Mr. Rogers felt that, no questions asked, we owe it to them.

Tom Junod remembers: “A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him.” Fred Rogers found his way to Tom the man through Tom the child, and what Fred had given Tom was Christmas. 

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

“He might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved. 

Impossible possibility . . .  that rings a bell. Madeline L’Engle called Christmas the “glorious impossible.” Poets love a paradox. For thinkers they can be a problem.

“One can’t believe in impossible things,” protested Alice, in Wonderland. The crazy Queen bragged or tweeted:

Why, when I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. She got many likes for that.

Thomas Aquinas would side with Alice. According to him there are two kinds of constraint on God—the logical and the self-imposed. Logically, a thing is either possible or not, it cannot be both. Even God can’t make it otherwise, any more than God can make one plus one be anything but two.[vi]

Here is an Aquinas counter-tweet:

Faith is reason’s helpful sister, not its crazy cousin.

The Christmas story shines with wondrous occurrences. To Aquinas its wonders are easily believable considering their source. As humans we live with physical constraints; for example, you and I cannot make make anything from nothing, nor raise the dead. According to Aquinas, limits like these do not apply to God. When Gabriel told Mary what was coming, Mary was bewildered. “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” One can’t believe in impossible things! Mary is mindful of Alice’s objection. Gabriel knows this is biology, not logic. “The power of the Highest shall overshadow thee . . . for with God, nothing shall be impossible.”

No one who knows me will be surprised that watching those Mr. Rogers films I had to keep my hanky handy. (At movies I tune up.) It is odd because my ministry has been almost the opposite of his. His specialty was feelings; mine is thought. He reached and out touched the child in grown-ups; I draw-out the grown-up in the child. He taught through puppets: Daniel, King Friday. I preach through scholars: Aquinas, Karl Barth. 

We are following the same star.

At the University of Chicago, a student asked Karl Barth if he could summarize his faith in just one sentence. Barth’s book is thirty-one volumes in the German. With a far away look, Barth answered with a memory: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Cradling him in her lap, his mother used to sing it to him.

Jesus loves me!

At Sewanee in the summer, to a roomful of grown-up thinkers, high-school aged, I would ask a question. What kind of claim is “Jesus loves me” ––fact or value? “Fact,” someone will say, and I will agree. What do we need to support a claim? “Evidence,” another one pipes up, correctly. “What evidence has Barth invoked?” Several hands are raised. “The Bible.” That will open lively discussion, and some debate, about the evidence of scripture; the type of book it is, the nature of its truth, and its authority. That is faith at school. Drawing from Aquinas, Barth, and such, I then interpret scripture’s interplay of evocative myth and astonishing fact, its treasury of heavenly truth in human vessels. 

Here we sang that heavenly truth two nights ago, poetically:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine.
Love was born at Christmas.
Star and angels gave the sign.[vi] 

What is love? I ask my teenage thinkers. One who remembers raises her hand. “According to Aquinas, love is a belief, a desire, an act. I love you when I believe your good is as important as my own, when I desire it for you, when I act in such a way that you would have it.” “Yes!” I say, “A perfect answer!”

And it came down at Christmas, all lovely and divine. With God, such things are possible.

I believe it. From childhood on I have felt entirely free to question it. As a scholar, I am familiar with the arguments against it. They don’t persuade me. I believe it and, more than that, I have faith in it. Like love, faith is a belief, a desire, an act. I do believe in Jesus Christ, “Son of God, love’s pure light,” and I desire him––nose to the window, hopeful and expectant, on a cold, cloudy winter night.

Do you want to know the awful truth? At the age of almost sixty-five, with nearly forty years in ministry, it is not the believing, nor the desiring, but the acting on it that for me is still the hard part. I don’t always act the truth that my heart desires and my mind believes in. But I will keep on trying, so help me God, because faith without work evaporates. It is one step, two steps forward, two steps, one step back, wobbling sideways left and right, getting turned round occasionally, but then back on course, following that star.

Won’t you join me?

We don’t walk alone. Particles and waves of starlight also shine within us.

As a theologian put it: 

At the heart of the original creation is that Word (call it love, call it Grace, call it Peace. . . ), that essence which is lodged somewhere within each of us that longs for ultimate expression. If we choose to allow it to grow we will be given help. 

Do you know who said that? It wasn’t Aquinas and it wasn’t Barth. Let’s listen again:

At the heart of the original creation is that Word (call it love, call it Grace, call it Peace. . . ), that essence which is lodged somewhere within each of us that longs for ultimate expression. If we choose to allow it to grow we will be given help.

He wore a red sweater.

I give you one guess.


[i] Tom Junod, “What Would Mr. Rogers Do?,” The Atlantic, December 2019, p. 84

[ii] Letter from Rogers to Junod, Oct. 25, 2998, as reported in the Atlantic article.

[iii] Terry Mattingly, “Focusing on the Reverend in Rev. Fred Rogers,” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, 5B.

[iv] Matt. 13:44

[v] Aquinas, ST 1a 25.3 corpus, though as Aquinas suggests “it is better to say that such things cannot be done than that God cannot do them.”    

[vi] “Love came down at Christmas,” Hymn 84