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Iraq

Religious leaders ease pains of war

Messages shift to express hope for a short conflict and minimal casualties as area worshipers grapple with war.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003


They spoke from the pulpit for weeks, even months, about how to avoid war and achieve peace.

But as the first bombs fell on Iraq last week, area ministers had to rethink their weekend sermons and devise messages to help their congregations cope with life in a time of war.

Robert Wierenga, pastor of Palm Grove Church in Holiday, was leading a Bible study last Wednesday night when news arrived of air strikes in Baghdad. Suddenly the Bible study became a prayer vigil.

"We just totally threw out what had been planned," Wierenga said. "We just shifted gears."

Wierenga decided to structure his Sunday sermon around a Bible verse in which Jesus tells his followers to take up their own cross and follow him.

He said the "cross" of today is the danger faced by troops in battle and the struggle for those at home to be compassionate and forgiving.

"I think it's important for us as Christians to be mindful of the suffering that all sides will undergo in the coming weeks," he said. "Our own troops, of course, but also the innocent people of Iraq."

Peter Thompson, co-pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Seven Springs, said he would tap into the messages of Lent, the 40-day period of self reflection for Christians as they observe Jesus' death and resurrection.

"We are currently, during Lent, looking at the process of reconciliation," he said. His message will focus on repairing relationships, particularly the relationship with God and parents.

"Before we're at peace with the world, we first need to be at peace with our relationship with God and the people who brought us into the world," Thompson said.

Many churches will open their sanctuaries during the week for people to pray privately. Ministers say they hear opinions about the conflict from both ends of the political spectrum, but peace is the common goal.

"You can have the peace of God even in the midst of conflict and war," said Ken Gruebel, pastor of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church in Hudson. "That peace doesn't change."

Gruebel preached weeks ago about the importance of finding alternatives to armed conflict. Now that war has begun, he will preach and pray for a quick resolution.

"As people of faith, we would want the least amount of bloodshed and the least amount of loss on both sides," Gruebel said.

A recent trip to Israel reminded Rabbi Jeff Zaremsky of his belief that the connection to God is first and foremost. Allegiance to national governments is secondary.

"God tells us to love one another and to share God's love with them," said Zaremsky of Beth-El Shalom in New Port Richey. "We do our job. The government can do their job."

He said he would continue to emphasize the basic tenet of minimizing war and death as much as possible.

"We believe that the love of God is available for everyone, and war kind of cuts that short with death and sorrow," he said.

Carole Yorke, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Odessa who has participated in numerous antiwar rallies, sent a letter to her congregants after fighting broke out.

"Our prayer must now focus on protecting all from harm and encouraging our soldiers to humanely deal with all Iraqis they encounter," she wrote. "May our troops do their jobs with the minimum of bloodshed."

Yorke, pastor at Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalist, changed the topic of her sermon from examining the justice of war to pulling together as a community during difficult times.

"We must be there for each other and continue to spread our message of love," Yorke said. "If we act in love within our community -- whatever community -- we can save ourselves, we can help save each other, we can save the creation."

-- Molly Moorhead can be reached at (352) 521-5757 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 29. Her e-mail address is moorhead@sptimes.com .

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