In recent months I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the presence of Fred Rogers. Through his television programs, his writings, and the stories of those who knew him best, Mr. Roger’s has come to life, inspiring me anew.
I grew up with Fred in my living room, calmly teaching me about friendship, or peace, or the magic of how crayons were made. He spoke gently and with intentionality. Every word and moment were meticulously crafted for the audience of children. Mr. Roger’s felt like my neighbor, my relative, and most importantly, he felt like my friend. He captivated me. He captivates me still.
Between Mr. Roger’s living room and his kitchen was a stoplight. The flash of yellow would signal to viewers that it was time to slow down, to exhale, and to be calm. We were children and we loved to be active, but Mr. Roger’s could lull us into a state of peace and contentment. Here in this quite place, we had been gathered before screens across the country to do one very important thing. Listen.
Fred Rogers called us to listen. The scriptures call us to listen. Jesus called to us, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery…” Neighbors and strangers and friends all about us ask us to listen. Our children beg for us to put down our phones and listen. When was the last time we really listened? Listened to hear the soul of the person speaking rather than listen to respond? Listened for the still small voice of God comforting us and reassuring us? Listened for correction, for grace, for instruction?
Fred and Jesus both knew that in order for someone to truly listen, they needed to slow down. Fred was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Faith was pivotal to his life, his formation as a husband and father, as well as television evangelist in his own right. Faith led Fred to embrace the discipline of sacred pause, something Jesus teaches us through his times away for prayer.
Sacred pause, a holy slowing down and being still, teaches us to grow in our awareness of God with us. Holy hearing teaches us that the Word of God is alive to us in the present and not just in its historical context. Listening in worship, in song, in prayer, helps us discover a new word through the ancient words.
As a Christian minister, I feel compelled to preach about grace and love quite frequently. These are things our world is so desperately in need of. In my time with Fred, I’ve considered the notion that the very first duty of love is to listen. If I love someone, their stories and thoughts should matter to me. If I desire healing and wholeness in community, I must be silent in community so that I can hear its heartbeat. I must recognize there is a time for my voice and a time for my silence. If I want to help my neighbors, I must ask where the hurt is and listen, rather than tell my neighbors where they hurt or why. I must listen.
The fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes speaks of reverence, humility, and contentment. This particular passage addresses our fondness for many words and the folly it brings to us. The writer of this text preaches boldly to our modern age as well as they did the ancient. It seems humanity has always been plagued by our need to listen more than speak.
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore, let your words be few. For dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.” Ecclesiastes 5:1-3, NRSV
The altar of your ears is the holy place where God speaks to you, where the ancient Words of scripture find new meaning, and where the melodies of worship enter the soul. The altar of your ears is where sacred pause becomes sacred presence, where sacred pause becomes sacred peace.
Fred Rogers used to say and sing that you can grow ideas in the garden of your mind. I believe you can grow compassion, kindness, and empathy at the altar of your ears. Whether it be compassion or dreams God is calling you to grow, it will start with listening. The fruit that listening bears looks a lot like healed relationships, service to neighbors, understanding of differences, expressions of grace, and contentment of spirit.
At some point we all got very busy trying to control this world. In the process, we stopped listening to the still small voice of God through others. We stopped valuing the mind and heart of our neighbors. We stopped recognizing the value of being truly heard. We started losing ourselves in work, in the glorification of busy, and in our phones.
God is calling us once again to return to the altar of our ears. Fred’s yellow stoplight is flashing. Let’s sit awhile on a porch with a neighbor, ask questions that help us know them better, and care to truly listen. Let’s put down our foolish distractions and seek to hear the holy around us. It’s time we take a holy time out. It’s time for sacred pause.