Wherever we are in these first weeks of the new year, we are also in the Persian Gulf. As we wait in line to check out our groceries, get a haircut, complain about the weather -- to do all the ordinary things that make up our days -- we are also in the Gulf. As we cope with whatever our lot may be, and celebrate the blessings we are wise enough to apprehend, all the while we are poised in the far-off desert with young men and women who prepare for combat and think about those they left behind.

We are there with the refugees who throng the dusty camps and with the frightened people of the Gulf countries who are trying to go about the business of their lives. Perhaps as we realize at the core of our beings that our lot is cast with theirs, we will throw off our unexplored belief that "experts must know better" and rouse ourselves from the soporific of mixed panic and helplessness. Perhaps we will speak out -- before it is too late.

The march toward war in the Persian Gulf has been paralleled by an intensification of efforts on the part of church leaders to have the situation looked at in fresh ways, ways that go beyond simple reckonings of presumed short-term national interests -- interests that may, in fact, leave legacies to this nation that will hideously disfigure our national life.

For a week in December -- along with 18 other church leaders, most of them heads of denominations -- I participated in the "Church Leaders' Peace Pilgrimage to the Middle East." We went at the invitation of religious leaders there to stand in solidarity with them at this perilous time. After meeting with religious and government leaders in Beirut, Cyprus, Amman, Damascus, Jerusalem and Baghdad, we returned home with an unshakable conviction that, whatever else, war is not the answer.

The unspeakable loss of lives, especially innocent civilians, would be unacceptable on moral grounds, our delegation declared. With the nations in conflict holding in their hands weapons of mass destruction, war in the region could well escalate to horrific proportions. Will any cause be served by such carnage? Will justice be secured?

The church leaders are convinced: war will not liberate Kuwait, it will destroy it. War will not save us from weapons of mass destruction, it will unleash them. War will not establish regional stability, it will inflame the Middle East. War will not solve longstanding conflicts, it will explode them wider and deeper.

If not war, what? Shall nothing be done and Iraq's aggression be rewarded? We believe there is an alternative that, in concert with the sanctions applied by the United Nations, will produce a result conducive to a peace based on justice -- the only lasting peace possible in this region of tangled histories and acute rivalries. That alternative is negotiations -- serious and substantive negotiations in which the Arab countries themselves take a major part.

If the United Nations can be mobilized to impose sanctions and approve the use of further measures, can it not also be mobilized to provide a forum to settle the disputes among the nations of the Middle East? We emphatically believe it can; only the will to do so is lacking.

When I visited President Bush and Secretary of State Baker immediately upon my return from the peace pilgrimage, I spoke to the president of my strong belief that we were at a moment of kairos. Kairos is an important concept in the New Testament. It can be defined as "the appointed time in the purpose of God." It is a time of crisis in history, a turning point demanding a decision so that a particular opportunity is not lost.

Our nation has the opportunity to act to bring about the new world order our president has spoken of and, before it is too late, to act out of the deepest sense of global good and to secure that justice which will alone result in lasting peace.

The writer is presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.