Fred Rogers’ uncommon calling

38656999._SY475_.jpgWhen Fred Rogers was about halfway through his studies at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the faculty asked him what sort of ministry he envisioned. Rogers, who was already doing children’s television work, said he hoped to make that a ministry.

“Nothing like that had ever been fashioned from Presbyterian fabric,” relates Maxwell King in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams Press, 2018), “and Fred’s teachers were somewhat at a loss to guide him.”

Fortunately, one of them suggested Rogers also study child development with Dr. Margaret McFarland at Pittsburgh’s Arsenal Family & Children’s Center, which he did. He and McFarland would work together for the rest of their lives. Rogers also took graduate-level child development courses at the University of Pittsburgh.

But Pittsburgh Presbytery’s elders felt Rogers should become an assistant pastor, then senior pastor of a church, and stand up in a black robe and preach on Sundays. They refused to ordain him.

A friend from seminary, the Rev. Bill Barker, risked his own position to advocate for Rogers’ non-traditional ministry. Rogers’ television audience — kids from about 2 to 8 — was a congregation of thousands if not millions, he said at a presbytery meeting. “‘And this is a man who has been authentically called by the Lord as much as any of you guys sitting out there,'” Barker recalled telling those gathered.

The elders somewhat reluctantly relented, and Rogers was ordained in 1963.

A few years later, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood popped up on the television landscape. The show contained no Bible verses, prayers, or mention of God. It was just this quiet, sensitive guy and his neighborhood of people, puppets, and stories. Yet the core messages of kindness, courage, and respect for self and others could not have been clearer.

As a young child, I watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when it first aired (in black and white) on a bulky Magnavox that was more furniture than appliance. His approach spoke to a kid who didn’t like a lot of noise and flash, but appreciated a reasoned, encouraging word. The fact that Mister Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister didn’t really surprise me. I figured he was where God wanted him to be. Rogers just had that vibe of someone who pointed the way to a bigger, better reality.

There are many more layers to this comprehensive biography by King, a journalist and now CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation. What struck me was the way Rogers, with God and the people who entered his orbit, co-created a ministry. And he did so despite the church not knowing quite what to do with him.

Rogers probably would have continued with his television ministry with or without the presbytery’s endorsement via ordination. The fact that he persisted, a friend backed him up, and the church body changed its position testifies to our ability to learn even when we don’t especially want to.

Answering a call to serve God doesn’t always take the form we expect, and sometimes the best career move is to drop our expectations and listen.

The payoff for our world could be significant.







When we listen to everyone but the donkey

Field geologist and college professor Margaret Winslow tried to do all the right things after answering a for-sale ad for a donkey. She read the books and the magazines and found a donkey trainer. It took years of near-fruitless efforts and a couple of horrific experiences before Winslow figured out how to listen to Caleb, the large white donkey — and herself.

smart-ass-bordered_09211139The journey she describes in Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature & Rediscover My Own (New World Library, 2018) is both engaging and frustrating. Overall, it underscores what I know about presence and connection with animals. However, there are a few points at which I wondered what on earth the author was thinking.

This is where I admit up front that while I work with equines as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner, I’m not a rider or owner. My only donkey experience is with two at Summit Equestrian Center: Rosie (former resident), a mini donkey who is probably part border collie; and Diego, a quiet soul who came from southern Arizona by way of the Bureau of Land Management.

I appreciate Winslow’s love, humor, and persistence and can identify with so many of her ups and downs. We don’t know what we don’t know about the particularities of donkey training or whatever else. Animals are our teachers, but like the best teachers, they’re learning too.

Winslow’s near-constant frustration at work is often weighing on her as she arrives at Caleb’s barn and begins grooming him. He feels it and mirrors it, though it takes a while for her to understand this. I, too, have to consistently practice being fully present with whatever animal I’m working with in the moment. This is especially true with horses and donkeys.

Early in the book, Winslow asks herself: “When had I become such a conciliatory, conflict-averse wimp of a college professor who shrank from controversy?” Sadly, the behavior she tolerates from Caleb’s trainers is the best example.

The husband and wife, with their adult daughter, are the only donkey trainers within a day’s drive. They may legitimately know their stuff, and glimmers of insight and kindheartedness surface. But when they drink on the job and ridicule clients, it’s hard to imagine a better choice couldn’t have been made. Winslow just keeps going back for more.

She does eventually board Caleb closer to home, where working with the stable owner yields slightly better results. Lessons with a specialized trainer fail when the trainer beats Caleb. To her credit, Winslow grabs the stick away and yells at the trainer to stop.

The donkey trainers come back into play when, after a horrible injury, Winslow is ready to have them sell him. Or to board him there permanently — even though she believes the daughter capable of shooting Caleb in anger or having him put down without telling her.

At this point, Caleb could have been shuttled from one ill-prepared owner to another or consigned to a kill pen. The story could have ended with Winslow investing tons of money, time, and energy only to miss an authentic connection with Caleb.

Fortunately, Caleb’s truth-to-power influence sneaks up on Winslow during a tiresome faculty meeting. She surprises herself by speaking up for the students and the love of learning, even though she recognizes the consequences may be negative.

Then, in the donkey trainer’s ring, she looks the perpetually angry daughter in the eye and says, “No.”

That day, Winslow and Caleb ride not into the sunset but into a new understanding. The human realizes the power of her heretofore negative expectations of the donkey’s behavior, and the donkey recognizes that the human trusts him and has his back.

Here Winslow wisely relates the story of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:21-38), who spoke to her owner. It wasn’t just because the donkey was being mistreated by him, but because she could see and hear the angel and he could not.

It’s worth our time and effort to listen to the donkey. We might learn something about ourselves, too.

Bees make sense when life does not

When your mom hauls you across the country to live with your grandparents, then takes to her bed, not a lot in life makes sense. Fortunately, Meredith May’s eccentric and wise grandfather introduced her to a world that did: his honeybee hives.

img_0109San Francisco journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May weaves these worlds together in The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees (Park Row Books, 2019).

May arrived at her grandparents’ Carmel Valley, California home with her mother and younger brother at age five after her parents’ abrupt separation in the 1970s. From the moment they arrived, the honey bus — a rusty old military bus where Grandpa made honey — was an object of fascination, then solace and inspiration for young Meredith. The more she learned about bees, the more she admired their social intelligence.

Bees could see a problem coming and start making a change before it became serious and they perished. If their hive became overcrowded or unsafe, they took initiative to move to someplace better. … Bees had enough brainpower to envision a better life, and then go out and get it.

As the months turned into years, Mom remained in bed, emerging just long enough to rain generations’ worth of emotional and physical abuse on her daughter. Grandma and Grandpa took up the slack of raising two children. As far as the reader knows, Grandma rarely held Mom accountable for anything and never encouraged her to get treatment for what was obviously crippling mental illness. (Granted, a doctor in the 1970s may have prescribed tranquilizers and called it a day.)

Grandpa, who seemed to see the situation more accurately than anyone else in the house, advised May to stay out of her mother’s way and forge her own path. This she did, helping her grandfather tend his many hives and make honey while excelling in school and discovering what she could do. Only as May was about to leave for college did her mother offer a glimpse of context for what she had endured.

While I couldn’t help feeling sad and frustrated about the behavior of many of the adults, May’s journalistic acumen and the bees keep this from being just another dysfunctional family memoir. Grandpa used the bees as examples of a more constructive way to behave — through caring, shared decision making, and commitment to community.

He reminded us that bees live for a purpose far grander than themselves, each of their small contributions combining to create collective strength. Rather than withdrawing from the daunting task of living, as our mother had done, honeybees make themselves essential through their generosity.

This worthwhile memoir sheds a personal and cultural light on honeybees today as we consider how to treat them, and one another, with more generosity.