Won't You Be My Neighbor? Guest Post by Keith Waddle

Keith Waddle is a librarian at McMurry University, member of First Baptist Church, pianist for City Light Sunday worship service, and a good friend. These are his notes from a sermon preached recently at City Light, an outreach of First Baptist Church.  I am a great admirer of Keith and the way he thinks and the way he shares his thoughts, and I wanted to share them with you.  Thanks for reading. - Janet

For we fix our attention, not on things that are seen, but on things that are unseen. What can be seen lasts only for a time, but what cannot be seen lasts forever.  2 Corinthians 4:18 (Good News Translation)

How many of you know the source of today’s sermon title? It’s from the opening song Fred Rogers would sing on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

So let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Mr. Rogers talked to children about things that concerned them or worried them, or even frightened them, things like whether they would go down the drain in the bathtub, or whether Santa Clause would really be nice to them if they weren’t good all time (Linn 94). Mr. Rogers would also talk about subjects like the death of a pet, or about children who were in wheelchairs, or about parents who separated and divorced (Madigan 6).

For the past few weeks, I’ve been wondering what Mr. Rogers would say about some serious topics that have been in the news lately. You may have heard about a fashion designer, Kate Spade, who committed suicide about 3 weeks ago (Reddy). Then a week later, a popular TV celebrity, Anthony Bourdain, committed suicide. My wife and I were astonished. Why would they take their lives like that? They lived glamorous lives, traveled all over the world, had lots of money; they had family and friends who liked them. Why? But it’s not just famous people who think about suicide. That happens here in Abilene, such as the man who took his life at Hendrick Medical Center just a month ago (Zelisko). I’m sure most of us in this room knows someone whose life has been affected by suicide.

I wanted some insight into people who felt such despair, so I tried to think of the worst circumstances anyone could possibly be in. Some of the worst places I’ve ever read about were the German concentration camps during World War II. I read a story about one American soldier named Norm Fellman who was captured after the Battle of the Bulge and sent to a German prisoner of war camp. He said, “any time that you felt like you weren’t going to make it, those guys didn’t make it” (Hirsh 17). The men who quit trying to live were the ones who often died. Victor Frankl was a Jew in one of the German concentration camps; after the war he became a psychiatrist. He observed a similar thing as Norm Fellman. Despite the horror of their circumstances, those who discovered “a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom…seemed to survive camp life better than those” who were physically stronger (35).

Victor Frankl said one time he and some fellow prisoners were on a forced march during the winter. He started thinking about his wife and imagined talking to her, even though he didn’t know whether she was alive. He said, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw… [t]he truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire…The salvation of man is through love and in love” (36).  

Suicide is a complicated issue, and no one really knows what goes on inside the head of someone who takes his own life (Jamison 73)—which brings us back to Fred Rogers. What would Mr. Rogers say about suicide? He might point out that many people who commit suicide or think about it suffer from mental illnesses such as depression disorders (Lester). He would say that there are trained helpers who want to help people thinking about suicide (“How” 780). Or he might talk about how people can express their negative feelings without hurting themselves or others (Madigan 16). In any case, I do know that he would have agreed with Victor Frankl. He wanted the children who watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to “know that they [were] loved and capable of loving” themselves and their neighbors (52).

The world’s leading expert on how to love is the Jesus we read about in our Bibles. Most of you know what Jesus said is the second most important commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Jesus is quoting a verse from the Hebrew Bible (Lev. 19:18). The Hebrew word for love is ahav. Ahav means “to provide and protect what is given as a privileged gift” (Benner). In other words, imagine that I give one of you a priceless, delicate present. It’s now your job to watch over and take care of it.

So when Jesus says to love ourselves, our very existence—the fact that we are alive and can think and feel—is a great gift that God gives us (Hart 286). We are “to provide [for] and protect” ourselves because God has gifted us with our lives. Likewise, when Jesus says to love our neighbors as we do ourselves, each one of you is a priceless treasure that God has given to each other. Because we are God’s gifts, it’s our job to watch over and take care of one another.

How can we love—ahav—each other? Fred Rogers said that “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbor” (93). You’ll find a list of questions on the back of your Order of Worship, What I want you to do is pair up with someone so you’re facing each other. Then take turns asking each other any of the questions on this list. You can go in any order. There’s no rush; you don’t need to get through all ten. I want you to listen carefully to what the other person says; listen as if your life depended on it. Because it does! After several minutes, we’ll gather back together, and I’ll ask you a final important question and see who can answer it.

1. Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?

2. What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

3. Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?

4. Who has been the kindest to you in your life?

5. What are the most important lessons you've learned in life?

6. What is your earliest memory?

7. Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?

8. Are there any funny stories or memories or characters from your life that you want to tell me about?

9. When in life have you felt most alone? 

10. What was the most meaningful spiritual moment in your life? (“Great Questions”)

Now here’s my question. How is this activity—listening to each other’s stories—related to our scripture passage, “For we fix our attention, not on things that are seen, but on things that are unseen. What can be seen lasts only for a time, but what cannot be seen lasts forever”? One of Fred Rogers’ favorite quotes was from a children’s story: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” (Laskas 17, Saint-Exupéry 70). The things that we judge people on—their reputation, the clothes they wear, how much money they make, the cars they drive, where they went to school—those things really don’t matter. It’s who we are inside that’s important, our dreams, hopes, memories, our feelings. And sharing who we are with someone else is a gift of love. It is a gift from God. Watch over and take care of it.

Let us end with a simple prayer by Fred Rogers: “Dear God, encircle us with thy love wherever we may be” (67). Amen.

References

Benner, Jeff A. “Love.” Ancient Hebrew Research Center. 2017. Web.

Collins, Mark, and Margaret Mary Kimmel, editors. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers. U of Pittsburgh P, 1996.

 “How You Can Play a Role in Preventing Suicide.” Encyclopedia of Suicide, edited by Oliver B. Torres. Nova Science, 2016. eBook.

Frankl, Viktor. From Death-Camp to Existentialism: A Psychiatrist’s Path to a New Therapy. Translated by Ilse Lasch. Beacon Press, 1959.

“Great Questions Lead to Great Conversations.” Story Corps, 2017.

Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Yale UP, 2013.

Hirsh, Michael. The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust. Bantam, 2010.

Jamison, Kay Redfield. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of a life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete” (73).

Laskas, Jeanne Marie. “What Is Essential Is Invisible to the Eye.” Collins and Kimmel, pp. 15-34.

Lester, David. “Suicide.” Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health and Medicine, 2nd ed., edited by Susan Ayers, et al, Cambridge UP, 2007. Credo Reference.

Linn, Susan. “With an Open Hand: Puppetry on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Collins and Kimmel, pp. 89-99. 

Madigan, Tim. I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers. Ubuntu Press, 2012.

Reddy, Sumathi. “The Mystery Around Middle-Age Suicides.” The Wall Street Journal. 14 June 14 2018. Web.

Rogers, Fred. The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. Hyperion, 2003.

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. The Little Prince. Translated by Katherine Woods. Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943.

Zelisko, Larry, Brian Bethel. “Man shoots himself Wednesday at Hendrick Health System’s ER in Abilene.” Abilene Reporter News. 24 May 2018. Web.