by Will Searcy
This weekend, when flipping through the channels looking for something to watch, I stumbled upon a documentary entitled “Mr. Rogers and Me.” Admittedly, I do not recall watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a child, though I’m sure I did, but I recalled having heard good things about the documentary, so we decided to watch it. About halfway through, Mr. Rogers explained why he gave his famous sign off, “I like you just the way you are.” He lamented how our society seemed to be so quick to demean others, especially through television, and that there might not be anyone else telling that person watching his show that simple message, not that they have no need to improve or change, but that the unique person that they are was valuable and good.
At first, I found myself nodding along with the accusations against media and television, but then I began considering my own behavior, and almost instantly I was convicted. I realized that my work as a father involved a lot more “no,” “don’t,” and “shouldn’t” than Mr. Rogers-like affirmation. In other words, I began to see the log in my own eye rather than the speck in my neighbor’s (Matthew 7:3-5). While Mr. Rogers has valid points about media and entertainment, especially with the rise of the internet and social media, I had forgotten to give my own son the simple daily reminder that I loved him unconditionally amidst all my correction and discipline. What kind of a parent was I being?
And it was more than just my work in teaching my son how to navigate this world. In our evening prayers, I try to model how to pray for Tripp so that one day he hopefully will be able to have a meaningful prayer life of his own. After praying the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary, we begin by giving thanks for the people and fun activities he got to experience that day, and then the next thing we do before petitioning on his family and friends’ behalves is to seek forgiveness for our wrongs. Since Tripp is too young to have a fully formed conscience and be capable of understanding his wrongs and have the wherewithal to ask forgiveness for them, I would give an example or two. Often, it would be something simple and concrete like some poor behavior with his little brother or not listening to his parents.
Repentance is at the heart of the Christian life, so I don’t regret trying to teach him this valuable aspect of a relationship with God, but I realized as I watched Mr. Rogers give his simple message of love and acceptance to so many children, that Tripp was likely taking each thing I said as something that was wrong with him. Or some way he didn’t quite measure up. Or something he had to correct or improve if he were ever to be accepted. I realized my good intention might have been having the unintended consequence of making my son feel judged and unloved. So more than failing as a parent, I felt I was failing in my Christian vocation as a father as well.
It is probably safe to say we have all been on both ends of this exchange, whether we realize it or not. So often, we give good-natured advice in an attempt to help a friend or family member when all he really wants to hear from us is, “I like you just the way you are.” In our attempts to fix all the problems in the lives of those around us, how often do we lose the forest amongst the trees and fail to offer love, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness first?
On the other hand, don’t we also feel sometimes like we have to live up to others’ expectations in order to “earn” their love? Do we sometimes feel the same way with God? That we don’t measure up and never could, and so we allow ourselves to be discouraged when we know that God sent His only begotten Son because we couldn’t measure up and because He loved us so much, even “just the way we are,” that He was willing to offer that precious gift to reconcile us to Him?
In short, I had lost just a small portion of the essence of what it meant to be a parent, or a Christian, or a friend, and while that portion might seem small, it might also have the largest implications. Put simply, we are meant to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)
The next morning when Tripp woke up and came out to the kitchen for breakfast, I pulled him aside and sat him down on the couch. I asked him to look me in the eye, which is a tall task for any toddler. When I finally got his attention, I told him, “I want you to know that your Mommy and your Daddy love you just the way you are.” The smile that came across his face was so genuine that I cannot put it into words other than to say it was confirmation of just how desperately he wanted to hear those words from me. They’re words I intend to speak to him every day, not just because of that smile that they put on his face, but because they’re true, and they’re how we are meant to treat each other.
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14)