I always thought Mr. Rogers was fine. A little awkward, perhaps, but okay. His neighborhood wasn’t as entertaining and smart as New York’s Sesame Street, but I knew he tackled some tough topics and that my five children liked him. Once they grew up I pretty much forgot about him.
Until now. With so many others I was humbled by the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? and by Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Fred Roger’s quiet strength, courage and persistent kindness are especially compelling against the backdrop of our anxious and contentious era.
I was particularly touched as I watched the scene in Beautiful Day when Mr. Rogers lowers himself into a pool, adjusts his goggles, and sets out on his daily swim. With each stroke he remembers the name of a person he has promised to pray for, a list that’s impressively long.
Many of us grew up with the nightly ritual of asking, “God bless Mommy and Daddy and…” As the oldest of eight I was always slightly annoyed when my rhythm was thrown off by a new arrival. I, like so many others, lost that nightly habit about the same time I quit calling my mother "Mommy." It again became a daily ritual when my own children were small, and more haphazard as they “outgrew” it.
ASKING BLESSING 101
Asking blessing for others is always important, especially in these days that are marked by so much distance and danger. At the moment we are physically distant from so many we care about, sometimes even if they live down the street from us. We are not even allowed to visit our loved ones in the hospital to be with them in their suffering. And we have so little control over the economic and physical danger that surrounds us all.
But we can pray. We can pray for peace and safety for those we love and those we are grateful for. We can ask blessing on those who are suffering loss, danger, fear. Asking blessing can seem futile in the face of a global pandemic, and it is certainly no guarantee of physical survival. But we ask anyway. Our asking is a moment of trust, of remembering and reasserting our belief in a loving God. When we ask blessing in the midst of tragedy we expand our view beyond the moment to the larger trajectory of eternity.
WHEN BLESSING IS FRANTIC
When my son Dan was seven years old he developed a seizure disorder. His seizures affected the sensory part of his brain, causing him to hear and see things that weren’t there. When our family doctor suggested schizophrenia as a possible diagnosis I was horrified. My prayer for him careened between grabbing God by the lapels, screaming for help, and desperately trying to find the trust to more calmly put my son’s welfare in God’s hands. After a few agonizing months Dan was correctly diagnosed, given appropriate medication and gradually outgrew his condition.
I have never forgotten the terror and helplessness of that moment.
I think God is big enough to manage our attempts to shake a blessing out of Him, and certainly many of the psalms have a frantic tone. I also know that a more calm, humble approach, when I can manage it, gives me perspective and helps me cope. A regular habit of focused prayer and learning how to directly calm my physical reactions can help me move in that direction.
ASKING BLESSING 901
Asking blessing for those we love isn’t hard, but Jesus didn’t stop there. He told us also to pray for our enemies and bless those who curse us. Now that is a tall order. Asking blessing on those who have harmed us is tough.
On the border between St. Paul and Minneapolis is a distinctive water tower nicknamed the Witch’s Cap. I travel the highway between the cities often and for the last twenty years whenever I pass that water tower I ask a blessing on specific people in my life who are difficult. As I round the bend and catch sight of the tower I often brace myself, because a big part of me doesn’t want to be generous. But I’ve promised, and Jesus wasn’t kidding.
I need to not only discipline myself to begin the prayer, but also to mind how I pray. Praying that someone will see the light, or do things our way, or get what’s coming to them isn’t asking blessing. So often when we think we’re praying we’re just giving God advice, much of it faulty.
Asking blessing on those who create harm is simply that - asking blessing. We ask God to bless them. We ask in a respectful tone of voice. And then we quit talking. We may stay with the request for a while, but we stop the commentary. Or at least we try to redirect our attention when our old thought loop shows up.
RESEARCH ON RESILIENCE
To my knowledge the beneficial impact of this kind of prayer on the pray-er has not been researched, but a similar secular lovingkindness meditation has mountains of research attesting to its positive impact on meditators. See here for a few examples.
Lovingkindness meditation has a clear four-step format that invites us to consciously move from easy to hard blessing.
1) We ask blessing for ourselves.
2) We repeat the positive intention for someone we love.
3) We ask blessing for someone who is neutral—perhaps a familiar face at the grocery store checkout lane. These three blessing moments prime our hearts and our brains for the next, very hard step.
4) We ask the same blessing for someone who has harmed us or others. This can be someone we know personally, a political figure, a stranger who harmed someone we love, etc.
Research clearly demonstrates that people who regularly engage in this kind of meditation are more compassionate and behave differently. The results can be seen in brain scans and in positive interactions with others.
This is an especially good time to begin or strengthen a regular habit of asking blessing. Blessing those we care about can be transformative. In our current contentious climate, asking blessing on dangerous people can be a step toward healing not just us but also our world. Imagine if everyone truly asked a blessing before every difficult negotiation, every decision that impacted others, every conversation about how to best move forward in our private and public lives.
Asking blessing on our enemies is hard. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Or perhaps, with God’s help, it is.
Click here for a quick downloadable summary of the lesson and a place to make a personal commitment. A commitment to a buddy or a group, if possible, is even more helpful.