In 1966, Rev. William Youngdahl, son of Minnesota governor Luther Youngdahl and pastor of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, proposed a new ministry that would eventually lead to his removal as pastor of that congregation. What was the outrageous, heretical new program? Animal sacrifice? Water-balloon baptisms? Interpretive dance? No, Pastor Youngdahl proposed that congregants share a series of meals with members of a neighboring black congregation in each other’s homes.
One of the most profoundly Christian acts–sharing food and fellowship–proved to be too much in that time and place. The conversations of Pastor Youngdahl with both white and black people in his community were filmed as part of a documentary, “A Time for Burning”, commissioned by the Lutheran Church in America, nominated for an Academy Award, and since included in the Library of Congress.
Prayer connects us with God, and through prayer God works to connect us more deeply not only to himself, but to our neighbor as well. But are we better neighbors now than the people of Omaha in 1966?
There are many forms of ministry, but one of the oldest and best is to simply plant your butt in a seat in close proximity to your neighbor, share some food, and then do your best to listen at least as much, if not more, than you talk. The specifics can vary. It can be held in a hospital room, a couch in someone’s home, or on a boat out on the lake, but God’s purpose remains constant–to love as we have been loved.
It helps if we actually know a little about whom we pray, but unfortunately our opinions about one another often fly far ahead of our knowledge. Not gossip. Not social media commentary. Actual, in-person, shared experiences. Real conservation, not just waiting for my turn to talk.
Politics being politics, there is often someone who is blamed for all the ills of our country. An easy safeguard, if you feel that pull towards judgment, is to ask of yourself or others, “Am I spending at least as much time listening as I do complaining?” We can still have our opinions and concerns, but have we also taken time to hear, directly from the person we are judging, the story of their life?
We have a God who so loved the world that he sent his Son–sent Jesus–not just had him phone it in from heaven, not just a few divine Facebook posts, but sent his Son to live among us, to share in our joys and our sorrows. To not just pray for us, but to pray with us. In the same room or boat or mountainside… with us. This is our challenge too.
James Muske is pastor at Bethesda Lutheran Church of Malmo.