Thursday, February 27, 2003

Thank You, Mr. Rogers!

Life in our neighborhood was made poorer today when Fred Rogers, televison's "Mister Rogers," died from stomach cancer. Rogers' passing saddens me and tonight when my eighteen year old daughter and I watched a PBS-replay of a 1990 documentary about the children's television host, there were tears in our family room.

Rogers, an ordained pastor of the Presbyterian Church, was a genuinely gentle soul whose life and work ennobled us all. His soft-spoken manner made him an easy target for comedic parodies. But at the core of the man was a fiery passion and a mission to which he remained faithful from the day when, as a newly graduated college student headed for seminary, he abruptly changed career directions to "work in television," helping kids love themselves and others.

On February 27, 1999, four years before his death, Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. His acceptance speech that night makes for interesting and inspiring reading. (You can find it at

One passage from the speech really struck me as I read it last night. "I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants," Rogers said. "...we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen day and night."

Anyone who observed Fred Rogers on television or listened to those who knew him best, could see that there was a real joy in the man. He was happy with who he was and happy about helping children in important ways. Rogers' servanthood confirmed the truth of Albert Schweitzer's words that, ""Every person I have known who has been truly happy, has learned to serve others." Rogers knew Jesus' words about the last being first and the first being last. He was willing to be a servant to kids because he knew that Jesus had secured his place in eternity. He lived with the happy abandonment of a Jesus follower!

Fred Rogers learned to serve. He spent a lifetime serving the weakest and neediest among us, our children. I hope that before my time is done on this planet, I will be half the servant of God and neighbor that he was.

Iraq, the Church, and "Christian" Political Commentary

Here are a few thoughts I've been stewing about over the past several days...

I'm deeply concerned about the potential for war in Iraq. But, whether in sermons, my columns, or here, I'm likely to keep my specific views on the subject to myself. (My poor family and friends will unfortunately, be subjected to hearing my opinions though. Pray for them!)

I generally think that pastors and church leaders should keep their traps shut when it comes to making political pronouncements. That's because, except in the rarest of circumstances, there is no clear-cut "Christian" position to be taken on political issues.

To prove my point: In the past few days, I've received correspondence from two different pastors. One used the pages of his church's newsletter to say that he was sure that Jesus is opposed to an American attack on Iraq. The other pastor sent an e-mail in which he argued equally vehemently that of course, being opposed to tyrants, mass murderers, and other such thugs, Jesus wants America to go to war.

Both of these pastors are ardent followers of Christ, people of passionate faith in Jesus. But I don't think that either of them have any warrant to present their personal political judgments with the authority of Jesus.

Of course, Christian leaders are called upon to share what they think Jesus Christ wants them to say about what's going on in the world. Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century founder of the Reformation movement, said, "If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all."

But apart from the fact that there can be no clear-cut "Christian" position on how to handle Iraq, or the marriage tax penalty, or a potential Central American Free Trade Agreement, or a Palestinian state, or national health care policy, or a whole host of other political issues, there is another good reason for Christian leaders to be reticent about expressing their political judgments. For preachers to engage in political commentary shows a marked distrust toward God's Word and the power of God's Holy Spirit.

You see, I have this quaint notion that if we share the Good News that God gives new life to all who believe in Jesus Christ, some people will come to believe just that. When we share Christ, I believe people's lives will be changed.

From their changed perspective as followers of Christ, those new believers live differently. I believe this because time and again I have seen how people who come to follow Christ do live and make decisions in their lives differently. Good things happen when people come to faith in Jesus Christ. I am convinced that if the Church will take on the same project that Saint Paul embraced back in the first century--to only know Christ and Him crucified, people's lives and the life of this planet will be revolutionized!

When people respond positively to the wonderfully simple and simply wonderful Good News about Jesus, new generations of political and military leaders will emerge and new legions of good citizens will arise. And these folks whose lives, hearts, and wills have been changed for the better by Christ, will make good political decisions.

Trusting that God will honor our faithful sharing of Jesus and that people who follow Jesus will make good political decisions without coaching or coercion from preachers is an old-fashioned idea, I'll grant. It requires a deep trust in Jesus that I sometimes struggle to keep. But I pray each day that God will help me to keep just that kind of faith!

Preachers who make political pronouncements, whether they come at them from the ideological right or the ideological left, seem to share something in common, as far as I can see. They lack patience for doing things God's way. They don't trust in the power of God's Word to change people's hearts. They don't trust that God will hear the prayers His followers offer in Jesus' Name. They don't trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to break people of their addictions to violence and hatred and other sins. In a sense, preachers bent on making political pronouncements are functional atheists, feeling the need to micromanage the actions, sentiments, and votes of others. Jesus lashed out at such religious bullies in first-century Palestine, people who were known as Pharisees.

Now, don't misunderstand me. There are times when Christian preachers and other leaders must speak up. In my years as a pastor, I've spoken up about things like prejudice of any kind. I've expressed godly over a society which has become so coarse in its views of humanity that abortion has become a form of birth control, a shameful situation. Whenever political authorities misuse that authority to abuse or to sanction the abuse of human beings, the Church needs to press Jesus' call that we love our neighbors. But pressing that case cannot lift up a specific political agenda. We're to push God's agenda. Period. Jesus is neither liberal or conservative, neither Democrat or Republican.

Don't misunderstand me either, thinking that I've decided that as a preacher, I should be above ever really forming views on the political issues of the day. I believe that every follower of Jesus is obligated to know what's going on in the world and to be a good citizen. I often write e-mails to the President and other political leaders on many issues. But I would never presume to call my political views the right views for Christians to have. That would be presumptuous...and I'm already being presumptuous enough when I write these "blogs" and expect that others would read it or care what I have to say.

But I will be presumptuous to make the same claim for Jesus that He made for Himself, that He is "the way, the truth, and the life."