Strangers into Neighbors

I was sitting outside a room full of ministers, waiting for my turn to be examined for my fitness to enter the long process of maybe one day becoming one myself.

My wise friend and mentor, Michael, who had accompanied me to the meeting, pulled out his early generation smartphone and slowly loaded a YouTube video. He held out the phone in front of me.

It was of Mr. Rogers.

Michael said, “Watch carefully. If you can channel your inner Mr. Rogers, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Not just in front of these people, but with all people. He’s a Zen master.”

This half-joke meant something special coming from Michael, who had spent several years studying to become a Buddhist monk before deciding to return to the path of Christian ministry, which he had started and left when he was younger.

“It’s not about what he’s saying, it’s about how present he is when he’s saying it,” my mentor said, with what I suddenly noticed was a great deal of presence. 

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was actually an ordained Presbyterian minister. When he asks us to be his neighbor, even across the distance of time and multiple technological barriers, you can tell he means it. 

What is this quality of presence that is capable of making neighbors out of strangers and how might we cultivate it?

I think it comes from waking up to the fact that deep down we are strangers to ourselves, and to life itself. There is a stranger-like quality to our existence. Only when we see that can we begin the work of becoming a neighbor, maybe even a friend, to ourselves and to life. Then it’s hard not to want to be neighbors with even the strangest people. If this all sounds not only strange but also nonsensical, come to Root and Branch this Sunday, August 3, and listen to my sermon!