Nearly 365 candles flickered in the sanctuary of First Lutheran Church in downtown Brainerd as 322 people gathered Wednesday night for a special prayers for peace service.
"We light candles of the light of Christ that outshines the darkness and brings the hope of peace as we pray to the God of our salvation, the God of this world and God of all Creation." -- the first prayer for peace.
The service started at 7 p.m. just as the 48-hour ultimatum given two nights earlier to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by U.S. President George Bush expired.
"Let us pray that God will hasten the day when swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks and people will learn war no more."
"We're in history's moment right now," senior Pastor Andy Smith said in his Lenten meditation. "This is a very surreal time. Here we are to worship the Savior of the world at the very moment the 48-hour deadline is expiring between peace and war."
What was called a surgical strike was made on Iraq less than an hour after the service ended. The world remains braced for what happens next.
"Let us pray for the United States service men and women in and around Iraq, including our own Dan Hofer, Ronnie Schultz and Jeff Fuchs, that they will be preserved in health and safety."
Prayers for peace followed the meditation. And those gathered at the church on South Eighth Street sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth." One line in the hymn says, "Let there be peace on earth ... and let it begin with me."
The service, said Smith, was designed to provide a focus on hope and peace in the midst of war.
"Let's continue the prayers for peace in the world," he said in an interview this week as he prepared the service.
"Let us pray for U.S. military chaplains, especially ordained ministers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, thanking God for their courage and asking God to bless their ministry among our nation's military forces."
The bulletin for the service said, "Let your own light of peace and hope shine now, too."
The prayers for peace service was planned shortly after Christmas as part of the church's Lenten series. Smith noted in an interview that organizers decided on the peace theme knowing of the general turmoil in the world. But there was no inkling it would come on such a momentous night.
"Let us pray for President George Bush and the leaders of our nation, that God will give them wisdom and compassion, enabling them to preserve the security of our nation while also sparing the people of Iraq from war."
First Lutheran is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA has indicated it is against war but urges members to support American troops who may be called into action.
Luke Macey lighted one of 365 candles during a special peace prayer service Wednesday night at First Lutheran Church in Brainerd.
"Let us pray for Saddam Hussein and the leaders of Iraq, that they will choose peace, comply with the international mandate to destroy weapons of mass destruction and end the oppression under which their people are forced to live."
Smith, 38, has no military service of his own. And he can recall no family member ever being in a war. He said he did remember a neighbor friend returning home from the Vietnam War.
"I would lean toward peace, toward holding off on conflict right now," he said when asked his personal feelings about the war.
Smith sends a daily e-mail devotional to about 600 online worshippers. In Tuesday's e-devotion he wrote, "It's a funny feeling in our stomachs to be awaiting the next 48 hours, isn't it?"
"Let us pray for the community of Brainerd, that we will choose the path of peace in all of our relationships, families, organizations and workplaces. Strengthen us to repent of anger and help us to reconcile with those among whom we are now unreconciled."
Noting in the online devotional Americans' earthly loyalty to the president and pointing to loyal dissenters, Smith added, "But our true authority is God. It is He who calls us into life and redeems us from the imperfection of being sinful humans."
"Let us pray for the faith communities in our area, that the power and hope of the cross of Jesus Christ will be proclaimed boldly in the face of fear and communities of faith will be places of hope, compassion, prayer and love."
A week ago Smith and his family visited relatives in Alabama. There, the Brainerd pastor noted, there was plenty of support for the military with many bases in the area. Closer to home he has noticed more caution when it comes to American involvement.
As for the feeling of his congregation, Smith said, "I don't know. I've received a lot of feedback from people who want to avoid war right now."
Smith commented in his online devotion Wednesday: "On this difficult day when war will likely break out, we, God's church, have the responsibility of being a community of hope, blessing, safety and peace in our world."
Smith said he believes churches must be identified and brightly identifiable as places where hope prevails and peace is boldly sought. Thus, the candles and the prayers for peace.
And in the meditation Wednesday night he said someone must shine light so people will see that "people at war can become people of peace. Being people at war is being people we really aren't. People naturally want to be at peace."
Noting that only love can drive out hate, Smith said Jesus' love, such as in peacemaking, is found in things that shed light on the darkness in the world.
Candles were lighted as Smith and associate Pastor Linda Roal read the prayers for peace.
"Your light, O Christ, is burning brightly, outshining any darkness that surrounds or fills our world. Let your will be done in all things. Let us live with faith in you as we sing together for peace for your world. Amen."
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