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War brings congregations together in prayer

3/24/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

A UMNS Report By Linda Green* By Linda Green*

While United Methodists hold differing views about the war in Iraq, church pastors transcended those differences by offering common words of comfort and pleas for prayer March 23, the first Sunday after the U.S.-led invasion began.

The Rev. Jacquetta Chambers focused on "Where Is God in the Middle of this War" in her sermon at McMillan United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Several families in the 247-member congregation have been affected by the mobilization and deployment of troops to Iraq. One mother has not heard from her son in weeks. Those families were invited to the altar to pray, and the congregation was asked to stand with them.

"God is standing by that soldier that did not know God until this time," Chambers said. "Although it seems that this conflict may get worse, we are required by Scripture to hold on and know that God is in the midst. God is in our president's head and mind, and God is even in the confusing way that Saddam believes in Jehovah God."

The attack on Iraq, which began March 19, led United Methodist Bishop Felton May to send a letter to the churches of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. Despite the circumstances, "we stand in need of God's steadfast grace and the peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding," he said. He urged the conference members to be "vigilant in prayer, fasting, the study of Scripture, and active witnessing for a peaceful resolution to this war and for eventual healing in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

"I further call upon all of us to engage in self-examination and soul-searching as a nation," May said, "for we must seek to understand the root causes of the anti-American sentiment - felt by friends and foes alike - and the terrorism that threatens our security here and around the world."

The Rev. David Cassidy told the congregations of the Springfield (Tenn.) Parish to be mindful that as they were praising God, many people involved in the conflict were "going into eternity. Lives on both sides of the conflict will be lost." He urged the members of his four churches to pray that God's grace will limit the war's duration and that peace will occur.

Christians have a role in bringing about that peace, he said. "If the church would step up to the plate and preach the gospel as Jesus would have us preach it, there would be more people turning to Christ than to weapons."

The Rev. Taka Ishii of Metropolitan Duane United Methodist Church in New York told his congregation that Christians are called to a difficult proclamation. Although the war is raging, they are called to "speak prophetic words (as) God's ambassadors to the world," words that offer hope and healing, he said. He specifically asked the congregation to speak words of encouragement to the men and women who "defend our interest."

At Canton (S.D.) United Methodist Church, the Rev. Ronald Johnson urged his 400-member congregation to pray that the war ends quickly. He asked members to pray that those involved in the conflict would return to their families, that few lives would be lost and that Iraq would find a new beginning.

Likewise, the Rev. Celestyne Devance in Des Moines, Iowa, urged prayer for the military and for a swift resolution. Devance, pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church, asked the 250-member congregation to "support the troops who are our sons, daughters, neighbors and friends."

At Poultney (Vt.) United Methodist Church, the Rev. Marion Moore-Colgan based her sermon on the lectionary text about Jesus becoming angry with the people in the temple who weren't following God's call. As a minister, she said, she is called to follow God first and to "be in the foxhole with the soldier fighting injustice, but also with the soldier who cannot lift the gun and point it at a brother or sister." She told her 60 listeners of her dream that a soldier could enter the church and stand beside a person seeking peace, and that both could worship together while seeking God's help through the current situation.

The Rev. Debbie Pitney, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Eugene, Ore., used the passage from Philippians 4:4-9 that starts with "Rejoice in the Lord always" and ends with "the God of peace will be with you" to address the 400-member congregation.

"I acknowledged we are not all of one mind and one voice, that good and compassionate people in the congregation are not in agreement," she recalled. "I felt we could agree on one thing, that we could pray for peace, pray for all - our enemies, those in harm's way, our military, families left behind, refugees (and) all leaders," she said.

She incorporated the recent letter from the Council of Bishops' president, Sharon Brown Christopher, into her sermon, which she titled, "Help Me Find My Voice." She talked personally about not knowing what to say to people as they came into her office. She had already let the congregation know that she is against the war and "I didn't feel I needed to say that again."

"I noticed others who generally don't come up and speak to me after my sermons did," she said. They "wanted to engage in conversation because they find themselves in support of the war, and while they felt included in my words, they needed me to hear why. Others thanked me for being inclusive."

The Rev. John Campbell of Fairbanks, Alaska, is one of many pastors whose congregation includes people in the military. First United Methodist Church, with 200 members, is close to two large military bases, and a number of its members have been deployed.

"One of things we did was cut the sermon short and had an extended time to invite people to pray for the situation," Campbell said of the Sunday service. "We lifted up the need for peace as well as the need to support the people who are there." Using the first commandment ("you shall have no other god before me"), Campbell discussed how the failure to put God first lies at the root of so many problems.

"People were appreciative of the fact that we tried to address the issue (of the war) not in a political way but from a theological perspective," he said. The congregation appreciated the expressions of concern for people who are risking their lives in the armed services as well as for those involved in the peace movement.

Said Campbell: "I think regardless of the perspective that people came from about the war, they felt like their needs were addressed."
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*Green is news director of the Nashville, Tenn.,-based office of United Methodist News Service.

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