Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, September 30, 2016

"A Separate Place" (ii)

I'd like to know Mrs. Arie Franken, at least more about her than Google can discover, why she sat down and wrote this passionate poem, stuck it in an envelope, and sent it to the newspaper. What made her the kind of disciple she had to have been? Why did she map out the depth of her commitment and try to make all sing?

She was twice married. Her first husband lost his first wife and a child in a tornado that swept through Sioux County in 1895. When sickness took him, she married again, and had children with both husbands. She must have written other poems, but it's unlikely they exist. This one was filed away in the scrapbooks of an aged aunt who died a year ago. 

But there's more to Mrs. Franken's poem. We're only now arriving at its vital destination.

"Therefore," she says. We've come to the heart of things.

Therefore her covenant youth must be
In truth instructed separately.
This carnal world in which we live
Can never true instruction give.
Like home and church our schools must be
Free from all world conformity.

It's all been foundation for an argument for a Christian school--a place where "covenant children" receive a Christian education, "free from all world conformity."

The Lord commands us: 'Teach thy youth
The unvarnished truth'.
Yes, teach it, though that very Word
Strikes always as a two-edged sword.
Teach it in home and church and school
For your entire life a rule.

Mrs. Arie Franken is looking to nail down the argument for a Christian school once and for all. Her next stanza can't be contained in six lines as most of them are. It requires an extra couplet but stays steadfastly driven by the command form. Why? "Because 'tis a Divine decree."

Instruct, then, and instructed be,
Because 'tis a Divine decree.
Teach them that they may be as youth
Securely founded in the truth.
And thus learn to evaluate
All things of home, and church and state
Intelligently to take their place
Tho' in this world, a separate race.

The task of the Christian school, she claims, is to evaluate, to learn to be critical of "the world," as she herself has piously been. 

She knew what she was advocating was no calk walk. For a moment at least, she seems to acknowledge that is not so simple. She wants Christian scholars "to take their place" in the world, but be biblically sure they remain "a separate race." That has to be said. "In, but not of"--hard as balancing those two is. Maybe that's why it took her an extra two lines.

The party of the living God;
Their feet with preparation shod
Against all wickedness arrayed.
The armor of our God displayed
And thus ascend to Zion's hill,
According to his sovereign will.

"Ascend to Zion's hill." Amazing language, isn't it? I've been a graduation speaker at a dozen Christian school commencements and never once got anywhere near to telling students to "ascend to Zion's hill." 

Maybe I should have. How we once said what we used to say can seem shocking, even though it wasn't to the pioneer Mrs. Arie Franken less than a century ago. I wonder if my never using that language would have been more shocking to her.

Oh, youth, if ye be truly wise,
And keep this goal before your eyes,
The world shall give you no real name,
You will not see her halls of fame,
Nor share her culture and renown;
But you shall wear the victor's crown.

The paradigms that underlie all of this, as traditionally hefty as they are, sound museum-like, even a bit silly--"halls of fame," "victor's crown." I know very well what she's saying, but it's expressed in words and phrases so strange that it could just as well be written in Dutch.

If I were a Christian high school teacher, an English teacher, I'd give my students this assignment: read Mrs. Franken's poem and put its meaning in your own words. I wonder how tough that assignment might be. I'd love to know.

But there's one more eight-liner, the final stanza of her plea, the poem's own doxology:

Oh Lord, our Lord, enthroned above,
Look down in faithfulness and love.
Let shame and death o'erwhelm our foes
Who would Thy servant's way oppose.
Let us of all thy good partake.
We ask it, Lord, for Thy Name's sake.
To Thee all praise and glory be,
Now and to all eternity.

This expansive grasp of the Christian faith is cosmic. That she even feels the necessity of addressing the Creator of all things and bowing before him at poem's end seems, well, almost medieval, doesn't it? In a time when piety is all about "personal relationships," the sense of God as king seems ancient, even standoff-ish.  

My parents made Christian schools into litmus paper. I spent just about all of my professional life in a Christian college. My kids attended Christian schools, as do theirs today. Still, I find this old poem, probably written 75 years ago by a farm wife, amazing.

But then, I'm guessing there's probably a lot more wisdom in the attic.

Thanks to a reader for pointing out yesterday that the photograph is not Mrs. Franken, but belongs to Dorthea Lange, who was shooting photographs for the government during the Great Depression. 

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