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The Genius of Mister Rogers

(a Steve Orr scripture reflection)


I must confess: The first time I saw “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” I was... "Underwhelmed" just doesn't go far enough.  


As I strolled through the living room that day, on my way I'm sure to something of great importance to me, I saw my young daughter watching the show. As I always did in those days, I slowed down to be sure I approved of what she was watching. I was never one to place too many limits on her (I was more of a "Let's discuss what you just watched" kind of dad), but I drew the line at gore, extreme violence and the like. 


Well, if you've ever seen “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” you know there is nothing remotely objectionable in its content. I was able to conclude, without stopping, that she was in no danger. In fact, so little was happening on the screen, I recall thinking something along the lines: "This guy has no future in TV. No child will sit still for a show that moves at such a glacial pace."


Then, as I was about to exit the room, I saw my daughter’s face. She was mesmerized.


I stopped. For the next several minutes my eyes moved back and forth between her face and the TV. I realized I had seen this guy before, singing what I had thought was a stupid song about being neighbors. It was only later that I learned this song opened every show. As I watched her watch him, I just marveled. What was it, I wondered, that she saw that I didn't see?


There is a lot written about the genius of Mister Rogers. I invite you to do your own googling. Suffice to say: I learned to value his laid-back approach to children, not least because it made my daughter happy.


For this week's reflection, I want to zero in on just one aspect of Mr. Rogers' genius. Fred Rogers knew something that I did not. It was decades before I encountered a name for it. In his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey called it “your sphere of influence.” 


If you haven't read Covey's book, you should. It gets my highest rating: worth your time and your money. A foundational concept he promotes is concentrating your attention, gifts, concerns, resources, etc., on those matters within your sphere of influence (as opposed to the universe of things outside your control). It sounds so simple when you read it. And yet most of us don’t apply that bit of wisdom in our lives.


Fred understood it and applied it. What he understood was that the reach of television allowed him to extend his sphere of influence. There was nothing impractical about him asking his young viewers, "Won't you be my neighbor?" TV brought him close to them. He really wanted to be neighbors—neighbors as the term is used in the Bible. And in his way, he became a neighbor to a generation of children.


Most of us are not going to have such a broad sphere of influence. To be neighbors, we're going to need to focus on those we go to church with, those we work with, those we go to school with, those who have homes near ours, etc. In short, our neighbors are those people within our sphere of influence.


Don't misread me. I am not saying anything negative about supporting international missions, charitable organizations, et al. I am all for them. What I'm advocating is: In our desire to serve, we must not skip over the needs of the people near us.


Consider this week's Acts passage. As new brothers and sisters in Christ, they chose to help out those of their number who were in need. Psalm 133 sums it up well: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” They acted within their sphere of influence. 

We, like those early followers of Jesus, must find our sphere of influence and act within it.


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