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It’s that season again when, out back whacking weeds, I’m accosted by Sunday School melodies that seep into my consciousness from some obscure memory tank spilling ne’er forgotten ditties we sang every morning of those eight years I spent in a little Christian school a block from home. I don’t call them up. They’re just there.
They sneak out in all shapes and sizes, often in full regalia–“Give me oil in my lamp,” “The Ninety and Nine.” “Dare to be a Daniel.” Unbidden as dreams, old tunes amble in and stay all day, sticky with rhyme. I’m not transported to some grade school classroom; there are no visuals. For some odd reason, suddenly I’m singing something ancient.
Last week’s featured selection came from post-WWII era–“Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Stand Up for Jesus,” old favorites Sunday School kids like me adored, kids whose dads were just home from war. This morning’s has an ungainly title–“Conquering Now and Still to Conquer” –all about combat troops and advancing battle lines. (Feel free to sing along.)
Conquering now and still to conquer,
Rideth a King in His might;
Leading the host of all the faithful
Into the midst of the fight;
The idea that the Christian life is a battle is hardly old hat, but most Sunday School teachers today wouldn’t choose that old hymn right about now. Lord knows we’ve already got too many guns and far too many enemies.
Anyway, that old kid-song emerged from some primal ooze in my memory. It’s an old Fanny Crosby tune, whose flighty arpeggios–two each in the first and third lines–must have made “Conquering” a favorite of old piano teachers like my mom. A couple of mornings ago, those war-like lyrics aboard its jumpy air tuned itself in, no cause or reason. For a time, unconsciously, I sang along–
See them with courage advancing,
Clad in their brilliant array,
Shouting the Name of their Leader,
Hear them exultingly say:
–and then that determined chorus too, first time in years:
Not to the strong is the battle,
Not to the swift is the race,
Yet to the true and the faithful
Vict’ry is promised through grace.
Muscles flex. Youth strives for a comeback. I’m capable of another half-hour on my knees in the hot sun. Fanny Crosby plays over and over again. I’m caught in the march she created, just as once upon a time I must have been.
So there I am, blackened fingernails grabbing at Mexican thistles, singing, in my head at least, when what came to mind, strangely enough, was a hide drawing in our local museum, a bloody landscape portrait some Lakota storyteller put down in a hide, the story of a surprise cavalry attack on a village. The unsparing pictures are grisly, women and children bleeding and dying.
“Who won?” some kid asked me when he and his classmates were on a tour a year or so ago.
The fight the hide painting commemorates, “the Battle of Slim Buttes,” was the U. S. Cavalry’s first engagement with hostiles post-Little Big Horn. It took place in far, far northwest South Dakota. I tried to reverence things and told the kids the battle could by no means be judged a Lakota victory.
He pointed to the bottom of the painting. “All these ones are winning,” he said. In four pictures of hand-to-hand combat, Lakota warriors are most definitely getting the best of the attacking cavalry. That’s not what happened.
The fight as pictured on the hide features horrific carnage, bloody death in a cavalry unit’s surprise attack. Still, individually at least, defiant warriors show their mettle. In those hand-to-hand struggles, the white men are bloodied, dying. The kid was right. Fourth grade maybe.
Why show the Native guys winning? Kid looks at me for an answer. Didn’t make sense.
Because who’s telling the story makes a difference, I told him. The cavalry would assess what happened by the numbers of fatalities on both sides, but the Lakota, I tried to explain, were a warrior society, where men and women placed great emphasis on valor, courage, and dignity, ultimately the true value to the community. Victory was not assessed by tallying casualties, but by the spiritual fortitude of those who fought the good fight. (I’m sure I didn’t say it that way, but retired teachers can’t let a sparkling teaching moment get by.)
Not to the strong is the battle,
Not to the swift is the race;
But to the true and the faithful
Victory is promised through grace.
Amazing, or so it seemed to me as I was out there picking weeds. The old Fanny Crosby hymn that spun in out of nowhere bespeaks a spiritual victory, a moral that is, oddly enough, as Native as it is Christian: to the true and the faithful victory is promised through grace. It’s not about bodies; it’s about character. I should have had those kids break into a verse or two of “Conquering Now.” They probably wouldn’t have known it.
Heresy? I suppose. But I couldn’t help thinking the comparison was worth noting. You want to understand the obvious discrepancies in that hide painting’s storytelling? –think “Conquering Now and Still to Conquer.” You with me here? –think Fanny Crosby.
That’s reason enough to smile, even picking weeds.