How Does a Congregation Pray in a Time of War?

This essay results from a war-long discussion by an ethics class that met during winter and spring 2003, sponsored by the Alaska Lay School of Theology and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, and under the direction of Larry Jorgenson.

A Nation Still at War

[1] Our Vice President predicted that the Iraq war’s duration would be a matter of “weeks, not months.” He was correct. The church’s seven week season of Lent completely surrounded the war, at least the part of it that happened from invasion to fall of Baghdad. The invitation to submit this piece, “How Does a Congregation Pray in Time of War,” came before the shooting started. Many US troops were on their way home before the piece and the peace were negotiated.

[2] During the few weeks of the Iraqi war, congregations responded in helpful, yet predictable ways. In Anchorage, a military town, congregations tried to keep the home fires burning. We opened our sanctuaries to the public for prayer. We let intercessory prayers for soldier safety flow freely. Occasionally, we offered a prayer for innocent Iraqis in harm’s way. Once in a while we startled congregations with prayers for enemies, prompting questions such as, “why is it, again, that we are praying for Saddam Hussein?”

[3] And it was over. Or was it? According to one wit, “war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” So we are left pondering, where will God teach us our next lesson? But then, Americans have not really been at peace for decades, what with hot wars in various places, a cold war connecting hot war dots, and now a war on terrorism. Our Commander in Chief has presented Iraq as one victory in an ongoing war, meaning that our subject-how a congregation prays in time of war-is still, well, timely.

Is It Messianic or Just Plain Messy?

[4] During the run-up to the Iraq invasion, not a few pundits commented on the role of religion in framing Middle East policy. The Commander in Chief, they observed, frequently appealed to Scripture as he led his nation to military intervention. Widely distributed e-mails made people aware of the President’s personal prayer life and invited prayer for him and his advisors. The pundits then disagreed among themselves on possible messianic vision. Did our leaders operate out of the assumption that God had ordained the US to wage war on Iraq? Or did the messianic mask other motives?

[5] Whatever the answer, our leaders presented the war in language of messianic clarity. In the run up to the invasion, they schooled us in the clear warrant for holy war, not holy peace. Following our leaders, large segments of society simply gave up on, or despaired of the possibility of peace. Examples abound of how the word “peace” became a synonym for “fuzzy-minded” or even “disloyal.”

[6] In the midst of this, one congregation raised a banner with the reminder, “it’s always appropriate to pray for peace.” This congregation-a Roman Catholic one-operated in a fashion consistent with what the ELCA social statement, For Peace in God’s World,1 terms “disturbing presence.” In times of great (and false) clarity, God calls the church to disturb, to confront the messianic with the ambiguity of the situation, what we call here “the messy.” How? One way that we explored during the Iraq war, was through prayer.

[7] When the public views war triumphantly, public prayer will likely come across as triumphant, too. Dear God, may our forthcoming victory be swift and total. Amen. Before the shooting started, though, a letter from the ELCA Presiding Bishop gave the disturbing reminder, “any decision for war must be a mournful one.” Triumphant prayers can be very neat (and short). Mournful prayers, uttered by a mournful heart, mess up the messianic with the messy. Why, God? Why do we have wars as monuments to petitions not granted (CS Lewis)? How, God? How can we pray, at once, that you give and forgive? When, God? When will you heal us of the violence lurking in our hearts?

How Does a Congregation Pray, Period?

[8] The distinction between triumphant and mournful conjures up well-known distinctions within the corpus of prayer. Our catechesis teaches the difference between prayers of praise, contrition, thanks, and petition. The literature on prayer also offers for present purposes more useful distinctions between inward prayer, upward prayer, and outwardprayer.2 Inward prayer heeds the biblical mandate, “be still and know that I am God.” Upward prayer accepts the invitation, “in peace, let us pray to the Lord.” Outward prayer follows the directive of Jesus, to list our concerns and to ask for our needs. Of these three, congregations seem most comfortable with, and spend more time on, outward prayer.

[9] The war, though, encouraged inward prayer. At the beginning of Lent, one congregation introduced inward prayer, termed “wilderness prayer,” to its Sunday services. When war came, the wilderness prayer segment was already positioned to provide an opportunity, in the din of war, for stillness and listening. The congregation learned, from the story of an old monk confined to a wheelchair, how to focus the wilderness time. According to the story, the monk began each painful day with the question, “Lord, what do you want of me?”3 From him parishioners learned that prayer need not revolve around our wants. Inward prayer involves openness to change in ways we cannot imagine. It broaches the question, “who, God, are you calling us to be?”

[10] Amazing, in the din that surrounded us, that a congregation could learn the arts and skills of stillness! Asking God who God wants us to be, and listening for the answer, all of this lends itself not to the messianic but to the messy. In the midst of war and rumors of war, but also in the stillness of prayer, the voice comes, bidding us to become peacemakers. The implications are messy, not just for those who marched in protests and those who stayed home. Implications were felt locally, in towns like this one, where people happily used the word, “moron,” to describe those who disagreed with them about the war. We long for understanding-common ground-for people on several sides of an issue; peacemaking may eventually provide that. In the short term, though, how could the prospects look anything but messy?

Prayer and Ethics

[11] When we mate the thoroughbred of grace with the donkey of ethics, many people fear a sad hybrid (Robert Capon). What about prayer and ethics? The recitation of intercessions can have a tenuous relationship with ethics. An example comes from the World War I poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who recalls a priest sending troops off with the prayer, God be with you as you go to the trenches-I myself will go with you as far as the train station. On the other hand, when we consider ethics as the process of figuring out the right thing to do, it can connect haphazardly with prayer. Dear God, we have figured out what’s right, here. Give us the energy to do it. Amen.

[12] When we take a closer look at both prayer and ethics, however, we find that they should ask the same question, “who, God, are you calling us to be?” Prayer then relates to action by shaping action; action in turn shapes prayer. The still small voice calling us to be peacemakers leads to peacemaking; furtive efforts at peacemaking lead back to prayer. And things happen. Martha Stortz says that prayer succeeds in rearranging our horizons.4 “We can only act in the world we see,” she writes. Prayer that tells us what we are looking at and what we are looking for.

[13] What are we looking at? A simple example comes from the sample list of intercessions that appeared earlier in this essay. While intercessions flowed freely for our troops during the war, intercessions for the Iraqi innocent and even the Iraqi enemy helped to rearrange our horizons. While the Fox network informed us on war with Iraq, prayer told us of war in Iraq. A tent, hung in one of our sanctuaries, invited prayer for all living in tents-people in US uniforms and people who were refugees.

[14] What we are looking for? The Iraq war was a Lenten war, waged at a time when the church particularly pursues the way of the cross. While the Fox network showed us the triumph and glory, prayer told us to looking for something else. Prayer told us, adapting phrases originally used about money, to follow the cross, to show us the cross. Where was the cross in Iraq? On crusader shields? Or in the Baghdad hospitals? For prayerful Lutherans, trained in the theology of the cross, the answer is obvious.

Where from Here?

[15] The question, “how does a congregation pray in time of war?” retains relevance and evokes questions as to how a congregation prays at any time. The Lenten season’s theme verse, “create in me a clean heart, O Lord,” calls us to inward prayer and to repentance. It puts the messy into the messianic. It corrects and enhances our vision and summons us to action. What was true for the Lenten war is true for the ongoing war, and will be true up to that day when we at last know the peace that passes all understanding.

End Notes

1 For Peace in God’s World. A social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted in 1995.

2 Richard Foster makes these distinctions in his Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: Harper), 1992.

3 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead), 1998, p.60.

4 Martha Stortz, “Practicing Christians: Prayer as Formation,” in Karen Bloomquist and John Stumme (eds), The Promise of Lutheran Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress), 1998, 55-73, p.71.