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Does E.T. need Jesus? 11-18-09

No doubt many of you read recently that the Vatican was going to explore the possibility that there may be intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos.


This, of course, is quite a different approach than the Vatican took hundreds of years ago when it and much of the world insisted that the Earth was the center of the universe.

But this openly explorative approach also raises questions -- and a Jewish friend of mine asked some of those questions the other day:

So if aliens really exist, do they need Jesus for salvation? And would that be the same Jesus or an alien version?

I gave him what I thought might be one possible Catholic answer, then I gave him a possible Tammeus answer. Here they are:

First, a guess at a Catholic answer: There is no reason to limit God's plan of salvation to Earth. God, being a God of love, also would provide a means of salvation for all thinking living creatures everywhere. At one point in the New Testament Jesus says he has sheep in other flocks about whom we know nothing. Could that mean aliens on Tralfamador? Maybe. But whatever the means by which people may be in eternal relationship with God, God will provide it -- and remember that Christ is one of the three persons of the Godhead. That may (I'm really speculating here without having throught it through thoroughly) mean an incarnation of Christ into an alien life form parallel to Christ's incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth.

Next my own stab at an answer that I think is rooted in my Reformed Tradition of Christianity: God is sovereign. God is gloriously free. If there are thinking living creatures elsewhere in the universe, they would and will and do live within the boundaries of God's saving love. Does that mean they need Jesus for salvation? I am comfortable leaving that question to God.

In some ways, this whole matter raises the question of universalism, the question of whether all people will be saved no matter what.

A recent Christian response to that question is contained in a new book I've written about here recently, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.

He writes this: "The question is an important and vexing one, and it tends to divide the house. While the biblical evidence is mixed, the overall thrust of the biblical witness seems to encourage a hope for the redemption of all humanity. . .On the other hand, a sweet and easy universalism itself infringes on the freedom of God. . .The bad news is that everybody. . .is guilty; the good news is that the judge of the 'quick and the dead' is Jesus Christ."

Long also quotes Jurgen Moltmann, one of the most widely read theologians of our era. Moltmann has written:

"Can some people damn themselves, and others redeem themselves by accepting Christ? If this were so, God's decisions would be dependent upon the will of human beings. God would become the auxiliary who executes the wishes of people who decide their fate for themselves. If I can damn myself, I am my own God and judge. Taken to a logical conclusion, this is atheistic."

There. That should settle all of this. Right?

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Another church-state lawsuit has been filed in Tennessee, this time over a public school that some people charge has been promoting Christianity. The rules about all of this may not be indisputably clear in all cases, but most of these suits could be avoided if everyone would follow the constitutional limits affirmed by case law. It's not that tough, folks.

Messages in a rainbow: 11-17-09

ABIQUIU, N.M. -- So for most of the afternoon the other day I had been sitting at my laptop in the back room of the small Ghost Ranch library here, working away while alternately watching the sun light up the hill out the window to my left and listening to rain dink-dink on the opaque skylight window overhead.


Eventually I needed a stretch. So I went out the front door and ran into a chilly drizzle. So I went up to my room, grabbed my umbrella and wind-breaker and came back out. I walked down the path for about five minutes when the combination of sun and drizzle made me think there must be a rainbow somewhere in sight.

I turned around and saw the brightest, most spectacular rainbow I've ever seen in my life. In terms of brilliance, it even beat the wonderful rainbow I somehow arranged to appear over Honolulu in 1986 for my older daughter's 14th birthday.

But I had left my camera back in my room. So I sprinted through the mist and retrieved it, praying I would not be too late to capture this light show.

As you can see, I made it in time to take these photos.

I am not a biblical literalist. So in the story of Noah and the flood, I look for more allegorical or deeper meaning than the idea that God promised never to destroy Earth by flood again, a promise sealed by the rainbow's occasional appearance.

So when I see rainbows, what I think about is not whether Noah put two of each animal on the ark or whether the flood was planetary or local or just a myth. What I think about instead, as a Christian is God's faithfulness. That means different things to different people. To me it means that I am never beyond the reach of God's love.

What do rainbows say to you?


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When Eboo Patel was in Kansas City last week, he was asked more than once about his reaction to the shootings at Fort Hood. He has encapsulated some of his thinking about this in this entry at the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog site. I think we'll all know better how to think about Fort Hood once we know more about the background and thinking of the man charged in the murders. Until then, a lot of the anti-Islam trash talk is just prejudicial speculation.

Let us spray, said the gardner: 11-16-09

As my old eighth-grade English teacher, Ruth Wilson, used to say when she got exasperated, "People, people."


People, people, we've been serious too long.

We need a laugh break. Or at least a smirk break.

So here for your alleged amusement are some faith-based jokes -- a few from, a few from hither and yon. I notice, by the way, that it's harder and harder to find religious jokes that are both funny and new. Would some of you please get to work on this?

1. Joe one day explained religious life to Bob this way: "When I was young I used to pray for a bicyle. Then I realized that God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness."

2. Maxine was driving down the street in a sweat because she had an important meeting and couldn't find a parking place.

Looking up toward heaven, she said, "Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking place I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life and give up sex and tequila."

Miraculously, a parking place appeared.

She looked up again and said, "Never mind. I found one."


3. While driving in Pennsylvania, a family caught up to an Amish carriage.

The owner of the carriage obviously had a sense of humor, because attached to the back of the carriage was a hand printed sign:

"Energy efficient vehicle. Runs on oats and grass. Caution: Do not step on exhaust."

4. A Hindu devotee asked God, represented by the multi-armed Lord Narayana, this question: "My dear Lord, I understand that you have innumerable inconceivable potencies. But out of all of them the energy of light seems to be the most amazing. Light pervades the spiritual world, it illuminates the material universes, and life is impossible without it." He continued, "I would like to know how you make it work."

"Oh, that's easy," was the reply. "Many hands make light work."

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Can we learn about the origin of religion by looking to Mexico? This story suggests so. Why do we find this kind of stuff so fascinating? I think because we're almost always attracted to mystery.

Patel's interfaith visions: 11-14/15-09

After the visit to Kansas City on Tuesday of Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, I am more convinced than ever that one of the great tasks of Americans in this century is to be models for interfaith cooperation and understanding.


The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in world history, Patel noted. We thus have the chance to show the rest of the world that sectarian violence is unnecessary. We can -- and we must -- live in harmony. But that will not happen without strong and educated leadership.

The good news is that in Kansas City young people have begun to catch Patel's vision and are becoming engaged through the Interfaith Youth Alliance, which is working in partnership with the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

The top picture here today shows Patel speaking to a gymnasium full of students at Notre Dame de Sion High School, with several of the leaders of the Interfaith Youth Alliance on the stage with him. By the way, the girls seated there are, from left to right, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian and Hindu.

(The other photo here shows Patel with some guy he got stuck eating dinner with Tuesday night at Beth Shalom, where he spoke and where I moderated the Q&A after that. That's shown in the bottom photo.)

To hear Patel's half-hour talk to the Sion students, click on this link (the recording begins a few seconds into his talk when he's speaking about Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi):

Download Patel-1

In the next audio clip, Patel takes about two minutes to describe his hopes for what happens in Kansas City to further interfaith understanding and cooperation. He spoke at a luncheon at the home of Gayle and Bruce Krigel:

Download Patel-2

Finally, I want to share with you an audio clip from Patel's Festival of Faiths keynote address. It runs about 48 minutes (and begins a few seconds into his description of a violent incident a few years ago in Jersey City, N.J.:

Download Patel-3

Let me summarize a few of Patel's main points from his three appearances:

* Everyone, especially young people, should be able to cite the sacred writings and the human heroes who inspire you to become engaged in services to others and to interfaith cooperation.

* "The most important ethic of the 21st Century is the ethic of pluralism, the ethic of cooperation." Don't categorize radicals by their alleged religious identity. Rather, decide whether people are in favor of pluralism or extremism, regardless of the religion they claim.

* Every religion makes exclusive claims. That's not the problem. Neither is the problem seeking to convert others. The problem is when that's the only conversation people want to have.

* "The extremists of all traditions belong to one tradition, the tradition of extremism."

* Helpful interfaith leaders know their own tradition and they know the religion of others well enough to talk intelligently about it.

* "Deep in our history, our Founding Fathers had a sense of religious diversity and understood the power of interfaith cooperation."

I hope you'll listen to at least some of what I've given you today of Patel. More, I hope you'll engage in interfaith work yourself, whether you're a person of faith or a nobeliever. It almost certainly will deepen your commitment to your own tradition.

And for other still-to-come events in this year's KC Festival of Faiths, click here.

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ABIQUIU, N.M. -- When I taught a class here at Ghost Ranch last summer in which I tried to introduce people of faith to social networking tools, I should have had with me the French bishop quoted in this story. He is telling the Vatican to get out of its cloister and start communicating more in cyberspace. Exactly.

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P.S.: Until Monday, my Internet access may be unreliable. Thanks for your patience in getting your comments published. In fact, any comments left here on Saturday night or Sunday won't get posted until Monday. Bill.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Follow me on Twitter at

Fixing bad funerals: 11-13-09

A few weeks ago in this blog book column I wrote a little about Thomas G. Long's excellent new book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral.


In it, Long argues that Christians have caved into our death-denying culture and have moved away from traditional funerals, with the body present, toward sterile memorial services that lack theological heft and authenticity.

I think Long is absolutely right. Indeed, I'm finishing funeral preparation forms for me at my church that reflect some of his thinking.

So I'm glad to see his book getting some nice acceptance here and there. In this Mercator.Net piece, for instance, the writer says that funerals now often "leave me feeling uneasy about current trends -- not only the multiplication of eulogies with their often excruciating mixture of tragedy and levity, spirituality and banality, but even more the treatment of the body itself. Too often the funeral ends before the end, with the coffin sinking through the floor of the mortuary chapel or being carried off in the hearse with only the funeral director for company, while the assembly departs for refreshments."

As Long properly notes, the task of a Christian community is to accompany the body of one of their number to the edge of the abyss with singing and prayers and hope. It's not to hide the body and whistle a happy tune.

Christianity makes the startling claim that in Jesus Christ God has defeated death and that we may be saved from eternal death by grace. What Long asks us to do is to act like it at funerals.

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Eboo Patel was right when he said in Kansas City this week that extremists and terrorists don't deserve the honor of being labeled as part of a religion. Just as the 9/11 hijackers relinquished the privilege of being called Muslims, so the man in this story from Jerusalem should not be called a "Jewish terrorist." Such people forfeit the right to be considered part of a religion whose tenets they so terribly violate.

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P.S.: Until Monday, my Internet access may be unreliable. Thanks for your patience in getting your comments published. Bill.

An old charge refuted: 11-12-09

In recent days various commenters here have been talking about the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion and raising the question of whether this amounts to cannibalism.


It's an ancient and ridiculous charge, but perhaps it's not surprising that early critics of Christianity -- to say nothing of modern-day critics -- have raised the charge, given the Christian idea that in the Eucharist (another name for the sacrament, as is the Lord's Supper), participants are said to be fed the body and blood of Christ in a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet of reconciliation.

Mostly it's Catholics nowadays against whom the charge of cannibalism is made, so today this Presbyterian is going to defend the Catholics against the accusation and explain in some detail why it's a wrongheaded argument. Much of it has to do with the Aristotelian science on which the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation is based. More on that in a minute.

For help in this task, I am indebted to the late Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, a great Presbyterian, who once wrote this:

"Perhaps the situation may be clarified by an illustration taken from the life of one of Scotland's greatest preachers, Dr. Alexander Whyte, of Edinburgh. Dr. Whyte had a sincere admiration for Cardinal (John Henry) Newman and sent him his "Commentary on The Shorter Catechism." In that handbook, Dr. Whyte, in commenting on the words, 'Not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood,' said, 'This is directed against the Popish doctrine of transubstantiation. According to that doctrine the bread and wine are changed into the very flesh and blood of Christ, so that all communicants literally and physically eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ.'

"Cardinal Newman was not satisfied with this statement, and wrote a most interesting letter: 'December 15, 1883. My dear Dr. Whyte -- I thank you for your Commentary. . .it rejoices me to meet with so much in it which I can sympathise and concur in, and I thank you heartily for the kind references you make to me in the course of it and for the words you have written in its first page.

"But it pains me that so large a heart as yours should so little enter into the teaching fo the Catholic Church, let alone agreeing to it. Thus you say that we consider that we physically eat our Lord's flesh and drink His blood in the Holy Eucharist. We consider the substance of His body and blood to be in the Sacrament, and thereby to be given to us. Excuse this outbreak of controversy, and believe me to be, Most truly yours, John Card. H. Newman.'

"In the second edition of the Commentary, Dr. Whyte substituted for his former statement these words: 'According to this doctrine, the substance of the bread and wine is converted into the substance of the very flesh and blood of Christ, so that all communicants literally and substantially partake of His flesh and blood.'"

One might take issue still with Whyte's use of the term "literally," but at least he got the right focus on substance.

As I said, this goes back to science that grew out of Aristotle, who divided the world into "accidents" and "substance." By accidents he meant the texture, color, taste and appearance of a thing. So some bread is spongy and white and has a rough feel. By substance, he meant the core essence of something -- for bread, it would be its "breadness." Thus in the Eucharist, the substance of bread and white is changed into the substance of Christ's body and blood even though the accidents of bread and wine remain the same.

So one physically eats bread and drinks wine even while consuming the substance of the body and blood of Christ. And since substance is not a physical attribute, the charge of cannibalism is unfounded.

All of this may seem like theological dancing on the head of a pin, but it has caused a long split in the church -- and it's a split I believe must be healed if the church ever is to live up to Jesus' desire "that we all may be one."

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In the aftermath of the Fort Hood murders, a Washington Post writer has done this good piece about Muslims in the U.S. military. I will have more to say here this weekend about this week's visit to Kansas City by Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, but I liked his answer when he was asked about what happened at Fort Hood. In part he said: "The extremists of all traditions belong to one tradition, the tradition of extremism." He said those extremists should thus not be honored by being included as a member of any religion. And if they try to tell you they are acting in the name of Islam or Christianity or Judaism or any faith, simply say you don't believe them because people of those faiths don't act that way.

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P.S.: After mid-morning today, I almost certainly will have no chance to post your comments until tomorrow. And then until Monday my Internet access may be unreliable. Thanks for your patience. Bill.

A time for requiems: 11-11-09

For this Veterans Day, colored by the sadness of yesterday's services at Fort Hood, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you a bit of music I recorded the other evening at the "Requiem and Remembrance 2009" event at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City.


What you will hear is about five minutes of the opening of the world premier of "Requiem for Peace," by Mario Pearson, director of music at the Catholic cathedral. The clip opens with about 20 seconds of silence. I didn't know it at the time, but I should have kept the recorder going for about another minute and a half and you could have heard all of the opening piece, "Introit and Requiem Aeternam."

I was sitting in the next to the last row and the orchestra and chorus were directly over our heads in a balcony section that contains the organ keyboard.

To hear a five-minute clip, click on this link:

Download Requiem-09

The Pearson piece was spectacular, as I hope you can tell from this small audio taste, and the acoustics in the cathedral are excellent.

A requiem is a widely used type of music designed to plead for the repose of the dead. Perhaps my favorite is by John Rutter -- but only because I've been part of a choir that has sung it. For a video taste of the Rutter piece, click here.

The Catholic cathedral was full the other night, and when it was over, we walked, carrying candles, a block and a half or so through the downtown streets to a reception at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Episcopal church that works with the Catholic cathedral to put on this annual event.

Msgr. Robert Gregory of Immaculate Conception and Dean Terry White of Grace & Holy work well together and present an excellent model of ecumenical cooperation. After the event, both Terry and Robert told me of some joking e-mail they shared recently in which Terry told Robert he was not among the Anglicans who would be joining the Catholic Church (in response to a recent and controversial Vatican overture), though Terry did tell Robert that he'd think about it if he could start as a monsignor. Everyone had a good laugh at that.

On Veterans Day we remember our military dead. We give thanks for their service on our behalf. And those of us who are people of faith pray that they are safely in God's eternal company. A requiem of the quality of Pearson's or Rutter's is a perfect way to say all that.

And if you'd like to hear and see the whole Rutter requiem by an Episcopal choir in Alabama, click here.

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A federal judge in South Carolina has ruled that the state cannot issue a license plate that contains a cross, a stained glass window and the words "I believe." Good heavens. Yes, there are some difficult church-state cases that involve careful judgment, but how do such obviously unconstitutional practices as this ever get to the courts?

Saving the children: 11-10-09

Sister Berta Sailer (pictured below), a founder of Operation Breakthrough, is standing at the end of a long table in a conference room at the center's headquarters at 31st and Troost, asking us to use our prophetic voices.

"Be their voice," she says to 15 or 20 of us who have gathered for a tour of this fabulous facility that provides day care and so much more for more than 600 poverty-stricken children each day.


"Many state legislators," she says, "don't like our mothers."

So when Sister Berta goes to Jefferson City with mothers of the children her agency serves so they can plead for better state support for people struggling to get out of poverty, she runs into hostility. She finds legislators who don't understand why these mothers can't pull themselves out of poverty without so much public assistance.

Sister Berta needs the help of people who -- often motivated by their religious tradition, as is she -- feel compelled to use their influence to help these little children, who are incapable of fixing the system themselves.

Operation Breakthrough started in 1971 with just a few kids, but today it is the largest single-site childcare center in Missouri. At any given time, about a quarter of the children are homeless and a quarter are in foster care. The center now has about 120 full-time employees but also relies on some 300 volunteers. It annual budget approaches $7 million, half of which is raised from private contributions.

As we walk through the center, we see dozens and dozens of beautiful children being nurtured in various ways. It is easy to think of Jesus saying, "let the little children come unto me" and to remember him saying that it's not possible to enter the kingdom of God without first becoming like a child -- which to me has always meant being open to awe.

Sister Berta says that despite efforts such as those by the Operation Breakthrough staff, on the whole "children are poorer" than when Breakthrough began nearly four decades ago: "Utilities are getting to be a luxury. Food is getting to be a luxury."

And yet many of us who live in comfort and comparative wealth never think about the children who come to Operation Breakthrough every day looking for comfort and hope. Religion that doesn't call us to stand with such children is essentially worthless. Look around the Operation Breakthrough Web site and see if maybe there's a way for you or your congregation, if you have one, to help.

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The ways in which religion gets dragged into court can be fascinating. In this case, an attorney defending the man accused in Utah of abducting Elizabeth Smart has objected to bringing religion experts in to testify about whether the man is delusional. One person's religion sometimes is another's delustion.

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P.S.: I wrote here yesterday about two events in this year's Kansas City Festival of Faiths, but I want to highlight another upcoming event that's part of the festival -- "The Hindu and the Cowboy," a play to be presented at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 23, at the auditorium in the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. I've seen the show. It's well worth your seeing it, too. For a list of all the festival events, click here.

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NOTE: Because much of my time today is committed to events related to the Kansas City Festival of Faiths, it may be hours and hours and hours before I can publish your comments. Also: In recent days some of you are drifting back to off-topic attacks of each other. I will either edit that trash out or not publish your comments if that continues. Thanks for your patience today. Bill.

An interfaith week in KC: 11-9-09

All right, let's go over this just one more time.


The annual Kansas City Festival of Faiths is on, and two major events are happening this week.

Should you go to them? Of course. Will I? You bet.

So I'm going to tell you again what they are:

* Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago, will be the keynote speaker tomorrow night at Beth Shalom at 9400 Wornall. The link I've given you to the Festival of Faiths above will tell you how to attend, though I hope by now you have tickets for you and everyone you know. I'll be moderating the Q&A after Eboo speaks, so come with some good questions.

* The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council's annual Table of Faiths luncheon will be Thursday. Click here for details and a way to get tickets. This year the luncheon will honor youth involved in interfaith work, which I wrote about in the Faith section of The Star a week ago Saturday.

There are other events on the Festival of Faiths schedule, too, but for sure you shouldn't miss these two this week.

* * *


And speaking of things interfaith, Peter Steinfels, a great religion writer, has done this piece for The New York Times about two books that draw on various religions. I frankly don't understand the fear some people have about interfaith relations and even learning about other religious traditions. Failing to learn means staying ignorant, which is the breeding ground of fear.

Remembering our pasts: 11-7/8-09

It astonishes me in some ways to realize that, had he lived past 1992, my father would have turned 100 on Saturday.


Born Nov. 7, 1909, in Delavan, Ill., W.H. (for Wilber Harold) Tammeus, also known as Bill, lived through the bulk of a remarkable century. The grandson of German immigrants and farmers, he grew up on a farm -- the same farm his younger (87) brother still lives on today. And he had a degree in agriculture from the University of Illinois, where he met my mother, both of whom are pictured above. He spent some of his life in the ag field but not all, later becoming a financial advisor and a map company owner.

Dad grew up a Methodist but became a Presbyterian when he married a Presbyterian. (The photo at the left here shows Mom and Dad on their wedding day, Aug. 15, 1937. Eventually Dad grew into his ears, and so did I.) Both my parents served the church faithfully as elders, but I wouldn't call either of them profound theologians. Rather, both of them tended to live according to some words found in the New Testament book of James, "Faith without works is dead."

I used to joke that later in his life my father survived on all the dollar-a-year jobs he acquired in doing his civic and religious duties.

I mention my father's centennial this weekend not because any (well, many) of you knew him but because I want to make the point that again that we lose our way if we lose our memories. Our personal history creates the story that shapes us. But, in the end, we also can shape that story. We can change the future of the story, even if we can't change the past.


One of the thing faith communities help people do is to reimagine their futures, to see that better, brighter, more productive and beautiful futures are possible. But those futures should honor what was good in our past. My father -- a funny, dedicated, hard-working, trusting, honest man -- is part of what is good about my own past. So as I continue to imagine my future, I will do what I can to remember that and to bring that with me.

(The photo at the bottom right may be my favorite of Dad. My nephew Mark took it one day while Dad was busy hauling nothing, apparently, in our old wheelbarrow from a small storage shed at the back of the house in which I grew up. Dad often laughed, but not in this picture. And, no, my mother did not -- repeat, not -- buy him those overalls or that hat.)

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When a catastrophe like the shootings at Ford Hood occurs, one of my first thoughts if for the on-duty clergy who must help people get through all the associated trauma. Catholic News Service has done this intriguing story about one priest at Fort Hood and what he experienced on that awful day on Thursday. Army chaplains receive lots of training, but probably nothing really can prepare someone for a massacre. Still, I'm glad the military has chaplains.

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