In October 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia brought Karl Marx’ radical economic and political views to life. Communism went from abstract theory to abject reality, from world view to world power. In the subsequent decades, wherever it has succeeded in dominating a country’s political processes, very dramatic and mostly tragic changes have occurred. It is grown old, yet remains as fresh a threat as the latest headlines about North Korea.

Supporters would say that the utopian ends justify the means of bringing about a better society–that you have to break some eggs to make omelets. The death toll represented by those broken eggs is so staggering, as to be nearly uncountable. The Black Book of Communism gives an estimate of 94 million killed in the 20th century. The gory brutality of this “progress” dwarfs the horrors of fascism and has given even ardent supporters pause on occasion. (Whittaker Chambers was a notable example, and his tell all book Witness remains a chilling bestseller from the Cold War era of the 20th century).

Even in places where it has not fully succeeded, such as in the United States and Western Europe, we still struggle with its insidious influences on institutions such as the Church and academia, and with its cultural legacy, including divorce on demand and abortion.

Communism has been an implacable foe of Christianity since its conception in the mind of Karl Marx, who criticized religion as the “opiate of the masses”. He found it guilty of anesthetizing people against the painful realities of their economic oppression by powerful capitalists. Communism has tried to stamp out faith. Places that were once cultural centers of Christian belief, such as Moscow, were decimated. Beginning in Russia, churches were looted, and then destroyed or turned into museums, while the priests who served in them were shot or deported. This pattern repeated itself in China, Vietnam, Korea–Some may recall that Pyongyang in North Korea was once known as the “Jerusalem of the East”.

Ironically, Communism as a governing force is largely fulfilling what a young Bolshevik once furiously predicted of his opponents. Leon Trotsky could have been speaking of all his own poisonous ilk, radical communists then and yet to come, when on October 25, 1917 he spat to the Mensheviks, “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history!”

The story of David and Goliath has been recently retold in an interesting essay by Malcolm Gladwell. It is still a tale of bravery, of heroic faith, of the small defeating the large against what appears to be insurmountable odds. But there are a couple of under-appreciated aspects to the story.

In the 11th century BCE, the people of Israel under King Saul were struggling for survival against the dread Philistines. These marauders from the sea had conquered their way along the Valley of Elah, and were on the verge of dividing Israel in two. David was a mere shepherd boy, bringing food to his brothers, and was not even officially in the army. Goliath was a giant who had been taunting the Israelites to send a champion to fight him. David, hearing the taunts, and seeing no one rise to the occasion, begged King Saul to allow him to fight Goliath. Even in the secular culture, the outcome of this contest is widely known.

And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
(from 1 Samuel 17, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

Traditionally this has seemed almost like a suicide mission. David looks crazy for wanting to do this, and Saul looks even crazier for entrusting the fate of his country to a crazy boy. However, a couple of interesting features are often overlooked.

1. Goliath was weaker than he appeared.

Though he was enormous, and therefore intimidating, certain features of the story indicate that this warrior had acromegaly, a medical problem brought on by a pituitary gland tumor that secretes excessive growth hormone. The pituitary gland sits in the base of the brain, right at the optic chiasm, where nerves from the eyes cross each other on their way to the vision centers at the back of the brain. A tumor here can cause vision loss and double vision. Other symptoms of acromegaly include headaches, weakness, and joint pains.

Goliath was slow, and apparently could not see well. Terrible vision would be an explanation for why he had an armor bearer with him, to lead him around. It explains why he insisted that the opponent come closer. And it might be why he said “why do you come at me with sticks“, when David had only one stick. A pituitary tumor, again, could cause diplopia, or double vision.

As Gladwell observes,
What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. (Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 2013)

2. Bringing a gun to a knife fight

Assyrian Slingers at Lachish, from a relief at the British Museum. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). Used under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

If Goliath could see better, he might have been a bit more nervous when David approached. Perhaps he would have protested the unfairness of doing battle against a projectile warrior; to twist a line from the old musical “West Side Story”: “Who brings a gun to a knife fight?”

The second major point to consider is to realize that we aren’t talking about a children’s slingshot toy. In fact, the sling David used was a deadly projectile weapon. Sling projectiles could find their target from a distance of 400 meters or more, and strike their target with the force of a bullet. Several ancient sources praise slings and their users for their accuracy and strategic importance.

For example, slingers in the army of Artaxerxes II were crucial in beating back a Greek force in 401 BC:

“we were not a whit more able to injure the enemy, while we had considerable difficulty in beating a retreat ourselves. Thank heaven they did not come upon us in any great force, but were only a handful of men; so that the injury they did us was not large, as it might have been; and at least it has served to show us what we need. At present the enemy shoot and sling beyond our range, so that our Cretan archers are no match for them; our hand-throwers cannot reach as far; and when we pursue, it is not possible to push the pursuit to any great distance from the main body, and within the short distance no foot-soldier, however fleet of foot, could overtake another foot-soldier who has a bow-shot the start of him. If, then, we are to exclude them from all possibility of injuring us as we march, we must get slingers as soon as possible and cavalry. I am told there are in the army some Rhodians, most of whom, they say, know how to sling, and their missile will reach even twice as far as the Persian slings (which, on account of their being loaded with stones as big as one’s fist, have a comparatively short range; but the Rhodians are skilled in the use of leaden bullets)”(Xenophon, Anabasis, book III)

Back to young David, it still required a lot of courage and faith to take on the giant. However, the courage wasn’t idiotic, nor the faith blind. This isn’t a crazy loon getting lucky. David’s faith was informed by reason, even cunning. Our faith similarly should be informed by–not divorced from–reason.

As salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once put it: “They looked at Goliath, you know, and figured he was too big to hit. David looked at him and knew he was too big to miss. It’s the way you look at things.” (From Zig Ziglar’s Life Story)

A prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is celebrated today:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and victims of the recent tragic shootings at a country music festival in Las Vegas.

Updates are available at all news outlets. Tales of ordinary people acting in heroic ways are beginning to emerge. Business Insider profiles some of them, and they warm the heart. They include a woman with paramedic experience named Dawn-Marie Gray, who tended to the injured and dying:

Dawn-Marie, who worked as a paramedic for about seven years, knew that local paramedics would not be admitted entry until the area was deemed safe. She and her husband turned to the wounded, providing CPR, making tourniquets, and checking for pulses on lifeless bodies.

The couple worked together to load victims into cars en route to the hospital.

“It had nothing to do with being a hero,” Dawn-Marie said. “That’s being a human being.”

“Only Love can truly save the world.”
(“Wonder Woman” 2017)

“God is Love.”
(1 John 4:8, The Holy Bible)

Let’s turn our attention now from sinner to saint. On this day many churches observe the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, called in England “Michaelmas”. In Christian tradition Michael is the chief of the angels–spiritual beings who act as messengers and agents of God. Michael is especially associated with spiritual warfare and defense against the invisible forces of darkness.

Prayer (Anglican):
O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer (Roman Catholic, short version):
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.

Further reading:
Historic UK
English Book of Common Prayer Online.
Tradition in Action (additional prayers from the Roman Catholic tradition).

Hugh Hefner was a man who unabashedly dredged sexuality out of the private corners of life and into mainstream thought. One person I spoke to today noted, “He won; He remade us into a culture in which the libertarian approach is dominant.” I think there are a lot of others who could share the credit for this, but Hef’s impact is not a small one.

Though Hef didn’t invent hedonism, he has been one of its most famous recent proponents. Hedonism is a philosophy and way of life that is rather at odds with certain aspects of Christian faith, and this is not new–This has been the case since antiquity. But let’s be clear that Christianity also isn’t inherently ascetic. The sensual pleasures are properly seen by the faithful as a gift from God to be enjoyed, as a garden of delights (just go read the “Song of Solomon”, some of the raciest prose ever written, and it’s purely from the Bible). However, it is inside of a covenant relationship, a complete and full giving of two people to each other–not just bodies, but minds and hearts–that sexual pleasure is a garden. Those who pursue sensuality as an end in itself, often find that the fullness of the experience is diminished and twisted. The garden is instead a mire and bog, infested with dark and lonely things. The waiting rooms of psychologists and divorce attorneys are full of the human wreckage of unrestrained sexual appetites. Jail cells are full of perpetrators whose lusts reached into the bathroom windows of strangers, or even the underpants of school children.

Christian publications, such as Christianity Today point out the dark legacy of an explosion of addictive pornography left in the wake of Mr. Hefner’s revolution. They cite surveys such as Barna, which show the destructive impact of porn on Christian life:

…most pastors struggle with porn—57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors. These numbers equal the national average of 64% of men who admit to viewing porn at least monthly, according to a survey done by Proven Men…And it’s impacting all of us. According to a 2011 Lifeway Research survey, when presented with the statement, “Pornography has adversely affected the lives of our church members,” 69 percent of pastors surveyed agree. And an additional 14 percent did not know or preferred not to answer.

Even some of those who would be his natural allies on the left, have been critical. A CNN article which praised Mr. Hefner for bringing sexuality into the open, and for hiring blacks when others wouldn’t, still faulted his objectification of women, treating them as second class citizens whose main role is to sexually satisfy men:

His legacy is full of evidence of the exploitation of women for professional gain. In creating Playboy, and maintaining its brand over six decades, Hef championed a world in which women serve to delight and entertain men, where their bodies are objects, where modification to appeal to male senses often took precedence over comfort (because who really wants DDDs?).

Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, asserts that “Hugh Hefner Did Not Live The Good Life”:

We can’t, though, with his obituaries, call his life “success” or “a dream.” Hefner did not create, but marketed ingeniously the idea that a man’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions and of his orgasms. To women, he marketed frenetically the idea that a woman’s value consists in her sexual availability and attractiveness to men.

Only God knows the ultimate state of his soul, of course.

September 14 marks an interesting and ancient feast in the Church, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” or “Holy Cross Day.” The day is observed in some fashion by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Red vestments are traditionally worn on Holy Cross Day.

The history behind this is fascinating, as it marks a time when Christianity was becoming ascendant within the Roman Empire. The story displays also something of the shift toward what we might identify as a medieval mindset within the faith. After all, this is a tale of magic, of a questing empress, and the veneration of relics that are thought to provide divine protection.

The empress in question is Helena (also known as Saint Helena in some circles), a woman of obscure birth who became the wife of Constantius, one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; Though he divorced her, their only son was Constantine I, destined to become the supreme ruler in the year 306. She never remarried, but remained close with her son. She was a devout Christian, and did much to promote Christianity within a Roman Empire that had previously tried to squash it.

The emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as “Augusta Imperatrix” and authorized her to go on a quest to the Holy Land to investigate Christian sites. She tore down pagan shrines which had been deliberately placed at Christian sites by an earlier emperor, and she began the building of magnificent churches at the sites of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, she is said to have found the “true cross” upon which Jesus was executed. According to legend the cross of Jesus had been buried in a cistern, along with crosses of the other two prisoners executed with him. She supposedly also recovered the nails and a part of the sign that had hung above his head (a wooden plaque inscribed with Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum). The “true Cross” was identified among the three based on observation of its healing powers.

The subsequent tale of the cross could fill a large book. Much of it was carried to Constantinople, and part of it went to Rome, where it is kept to this day at the Basilica Santa Croce. The portion left in Jerusalem was stolen in 614 by the Persian emperor Khosrau II, and returned after his defeat by Byzantine emperor Heraclitus. In the 12th century, when the Crusaders reconquered Jerusalem, it came into the possession of Arnulf Malecorne, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who carried it aloft during battles. It was later captured by Saladin and lost to history.

Tiny fragments of the “true cross” were prized among the faithful; they became popular as amulets for kings and nobles to wear as a sign of faith and for personal protection, and for churches to keep as relics. The proliferation of relics accelerated at sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1124. Bits of the “true cross” can be found across the globe, from Greece’s Mount Athos to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, to Shaftesbury, England to Galveston, Texas. By the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin remarked, “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

Saint Ambrose, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, recounted the legend surrounding the discovery of the true cross, and said this of Helena: “she worshiped not the wood, but the King, him who hung upon the cross.”

May we do the same.

For more information:
As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a long and interesting article about the True Cross. More details about these stories are also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, and at New Advent.

In the wake of Harvey’s devastation comes the even more powerful Irma. Our hopes and prayers go out to those affected by this monster of a storm, and those who are yet in its path.

A prayer for protection against storms and floods (Roman Catholic):

Graciously hear us, O Lord, when we call upon You,
and grant unto our supplications a calm atmosphere,
that we, who are justly afflicted for our sins,
may, by Your protecting mercy, experience pardon.
Through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Prayer in time of storm (Anglican):

O MOST glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below: Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is ready now to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds, and the roaring sea; that we, being delivered from this distress, may live to serve thee, and to glorify thy Name all the days of our life. Hear, Lord, and save us, for the infinite merits of our blessed Saviour, thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In consideration of Labor Day, I am reminded of the old hymn “Come Labor On” (Ora Labora). The hymn tune was composed by T. Tertius Noble (1867 – 1953). Below is a recording of the late Gerre Hancock (1934-2012) giving a farewell improvisation on this hymn in 2004, as he was retiring from his post as organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. The performance was recorded by Dr. Alan van Poznak, and posted to YouTube by a YouTube community member named “contratromba858”. The words to the hymn are below.

Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain,
while all around us waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
“Go work today.”

Come, labor on.
The enemy is watching night and day,
to sow the tares, to snatch the seed away;
while we in sleep our duty have forgot,
he slumbered not.

Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here:
by feeblest agents may our God fulfill
his righteous will.

Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share–
to young and old the Gospel gladness bear;
redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun.
“Servants, well done.”