I once had a friend who told me that cardigans were my trademark. Not my strawberry-red hair, my very pale skin, the way I laugh, or a repeated phrase I use- but cardigans. Before I had time to question if he thought I dressed like an uptight librarian, I took it as a compliment.
You see there is a man that I truly believe may be the greatest American hero. In fact, during my junior year of high school, for a history assignment, I called him just that. While students around me debated between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, I closed my history book and delved a little deeper. In the background, silly girls debated if they could convince the class that a musician or actor could be crowned such a title. I had a hard time believing any celebrity could really be given such a valiant honor. And as I sat there a little longer, it came to me. Mr. Rogers, everyone’s friendly neighbor, was truly the greatest American Hero.
Now before you go thinking that I spent a little too much time in front of the television as a child or that Mr. Rogers doesn’t fit the quintessential mold of a hero, hear me out. I believe that he was more than a man that appeared on our screens every morning, meant to distract children and allow mothers to sneak away for a quiet cup of coffee. Here was a man, who dedicated his life to instilling love and worth in the lives of little children. His goal was to not only show us how to love one another, but most importantly how to love ourselves. If I could have known at the age of five, the battle I would face in loving myself, I would have been taking notes. He once stated that his entire goal in broadcasting was for the viewer to know that, “you are an important person just the way you are.” What a mantra for such a young target audience.
I remember watching “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” as a child and while it wasn’t my favorite, I know I enjoyed it. Something about it I found comforting, much like resting my head on a cool pillowcase before falling asleep. Here was a man, a very simple man, who had no interest in being flashy or famous. He wanted no business in bombarding his audience with typical media messages. Messages that at a very young age begin to tell us of what we are lacking or what we desperately need in order to be of value. Mr. Rogers’ messages were quite the contrary. He whispered through our television screens, and reminded us time and time again, that we are special just the way we are. He literally embodied the unconditional love of Christ in his mission to build healthy self-esteems in America’s youth.
Later on in life, after my high school report had been turned in and graded, my respect for Mr. Rogers crept on. I began to learn more about his life outside of television. I read books and interviews and discovered that who he was on camera was just a small glimpse of the greatness he was off camera. I learned of a man, who found value in every interaction he ever had. He did more than just exchange pleasantries to his fans and friends. He invested in the lives of others.
Mr. Rogers was best friends with a man named Henri Nouwen. He was a man who was an internationally renowned professor and beloved pastor, who wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life and dedicated his life to serving the social outcasts and underprivileged. Nouwen was a very great man, to say the least. But if you should know one thing about Henri Nouwen for the sake of his friendship with Mr. Rogers it is this: Nouwen was a man who felt very alone, who struggled with his identity, and often found that his greatest challenge was loving himself and believing that God loved him.
I don’t find it ironic that God placed these two together as kindred spirits. Henri was a man who needed to know of his worth and Fred was the man, whom God knew would know just how to speak value into his heart. I imagine there times together, hunched over tables, holding napkins of spilled tears, praying together and reminding each other that in Christ they are so dearly and completely loved.
The scriptures are filled with the promises that God loves us. And not only does He love us but He loves us without us having to do a single thing. We don’t have to tap dance our way into His heart or spill a cup of coffee to grab His attention. He simply loves us. In Psalm 117:2 it says, “For great is His love towards us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.”
There’s no catch. He just has love and when He looks at us, we are worthy of His love just as is. I don’t need a nose job, a Bentley, a well stocked fridge, or a clean bathroom sink. I can wake up, decide not to make the bed and great is His love towards me. Towards you.
The hard part is that sometimes it is impossible to see. We look around us and in a life and in a world that demands more and more of us-we can’t possibly believe that His love for us endures forever. But I have to believe that our God cloaks us in cardigans. He shields our bare shoulders and with His hands, He fastens each button, speaking the truth of how vast and how high, how rich and how deep His love for us is.
When I say that having a cardigan trademark is a compliment, I mean that I hope in some way I resemble Mr. Rogers, the way in which he resembles Christ. With each sleeve, he was a man who taught me more about grace. In looking at his life, I wonder if each day, while changing into his cardigan, he was preparing for battle. As he zipped into the knitted yarns of his sweater, he raised up the shield of Christ. Through every interaction, he fought against the devil’s schemes and abolished the lies we so often believe. The lies that tell us we aren’t lovable, desirable, or precious. And in the comfort of his cardigan, he extended to us the truth that we are special just the way we are.
In looking at my closet I can see why that old friend believed it to be my trademark. It certainly is my wardrobe staple. But these days, it’s more than just a layer of clothing. I strap on a cardigan every day, much like a bulletproof vest, to defend myself from the mixed messages I receive about not being enough. I button it to remind myself that He loves me just the way I am, and I hope and pray that there are moments where God can use me to extend it around the shoulders of a stranger or a friend, who is hunched over a table, clenching a napkin filled with spilled tears- to whisper the truth of how greatly they are loved, just the way they are.