The Prevenient Grace of Mr. Rogers by Andy Stoddard
Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian pastor, but I believe that actually he was a Methodist deep down inside. Why do I say that? From my understanding of how he lived, I don’t know anyone who more fully lived out the concept of “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us, the grace that calls us into conversion. In our Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace, it is also the grace that goes to all people. It is the grace that embodies God’s love to all persons. You can reject conversion, you can reject sanctification, but you can’t undo God’s love for you. All people receive God’s love, whether we accept it or not.
Mr. Rogers understood that. He sought to live out a life in which he treated all people with kindness; he treated everyone according to their worth. That is the essence of prevenient grace, the essence of the image of God that is placed upon all people. All are made in the image of God, all are in need of salvation, all can be saved, all can be saved to the uttermost. All persons are called to receive grace, and all persons should be treated with the kindness to which this theology calls us.
After my family and I watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I did a lot of reading about the original article that forms the foundational narrative of the movie. That led to another article that is a postscript about the original piece and the movie on which it’s based. It is a really powerful follow-up, but as I read it, this line got me the most: “He lost, because the great conceit of the internet is that it has unveiled and unmasked us, that it shows us as we really are and our neighbors as they really are, and that hate is more viral than love.”
To think about Mr. Rogers “losing” a fight that is unwinnable – the temptation to hate and to belittle – is painful. But it is also true. We are tempted to belittle those with different political beliefs (or at least think the worst of them). We are tempted to belittle those with different religious ideas and ideals (or at least think the worst of them). I don’t want to do that; I don’t want to fight; I don’t want to live in a “scorched earth” reality. But the culture is pulling us all that way.
Our moment puts us on different sides of so many issues, pitting us against each other. Everything seems to be colored by our personal perspectives and realities. Some things are powerful and so very important: world views and religion, for instance. Others are of great value: religion and social matters. Some are of no particular importance: iPhone vs Android or sports teams. Everything seems to make each of us angry, and while some things are worthy of our passions, we can’t be angry about everything. If everything arouses passion, then what is truly worthy of passion?
These passions and divisions seem to be tearing our nation, culture, and even churches apart. And we each, deep down within our heart, have to be asking ourselves, “isn’t there a better way? We can’t continue in this cycle forever, can we?”
This is not a liberal vs conservative ideology or Christian vs non-Christian thing that is unique to America in 2019. It is an age-old human thing. In light of these passions, we have to ask ourselves a question, especially those of us who value Wesleyan Methodist theology. Do we believe in prevenient grace?
I mean, do we really believe that preparing grace goes out to all people, the righteous and the unrighteous? Do we believe that all persons, not just those who are with me, are made in the image of God? Do we really think they are of sacred worth?
Here’s the thing.
He treated everyone that he met as a person with worth. From the rich young man (who he looked at with love) who walked away, to the Samaritan woman, to the ones who nailed him to the cross.
He treated each of these people as a person with worth. And if he did, as one who follows him, I have to as well. I don’t always want to. It would be so much easier sometimes to give into the viral nature of hate. It feels like everyone else is. And what if I really disagree with “them,” whoever “they” are? I don’t ever want to pretend that our differences aren’t real: they are. It would be so easy to walk down that path of the world and culture.
But I don’t want to walk down that other path. I want to be like Mr. Rogers and as best I can, through God’s grace, live our God’s grace. I believe that is the only path that leads to peace. Maybe it makes me naive, or foolish, or less than those who want to pick up the battle. I’m learning to be okay with that. We all have to do what we think is right.
I think of another who, like the journalist believes Mr. Rogers did, “lost.”
He lost in the sight of the world, in the sight of the religious leaders of the day, in the sight of Rome.
But he didn’t lose. Because he lived and died, showing God’s heart of love, and rose again to triumph over sin, death, and the grave. Hate is not the most viral after all.
To win isn’t always to win. And to lose isn’t always to lose.
In the end, Mr. Rogers didn’t lose if he still inspires us to show kindness and treat people as though their lives have worth. And Jesus, through his life, death, resurrection, and soon return, shows us our worth and the great love of the Father for us all.
Featured image by Lacey Terrell – © Sony Pictures Entertainment