Continuing history

WASHINGTON D.C. – It was late on a recent Friday afternoon when I slipped into New York Avenue Presbyterian Church here to check out something I was alerted to by a fellow member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, meeting here in annual conference.

The woman at the reception desk said the Lincoln Parlor, containing an early emancipation document that Abraham Lincoln signed on July 14, 1862, was closed — but because it was just my wife and me, she’d allow us to have a look.

So we entered the parlor with its red and gold wallpaper and its large wooden dining room table with 10 chairs at its center and found a display about the Emancipation Proclamation on a wall. The document there is one Lincoln drafted a week before he presented the proclamation to his cabinet.

In the formal language of the period, the document begins, “Herewith is the draft of a Bill to compensate any State which may abolish slavery within its limits, the passage of which, substantially as presented, I respectfully, and earnestly recommend.”

The church, which Lincoln regularly attended when he lived in Washington, received the document in 1953 and has preserved it since then.

I love history and I love the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), though I quarrel at times with both. But I’m glad that the Presbyterian Historical Society and local church historians all over the country work to preserve the story of how we got here.

That said, I worry that because we are a denomination with lots of retirement-age members, we sometimes tend to focus more on our past than on our present and future. We are obliged, of course, to understand our history and to honor what we got right and repent of what we didn’t.

But eventually our focus must be on the road ahead, not on the rearview mirror. That’s what I tried to remember when I chaired a visioning task force for my congregation. We issued a report two years ago. And one reason I’m confident we did a good job is that a successor task force already is working to update our work.

In fact, we insisted in our report that a group be appointed to make regular reports to the congregation about whether the recommendations we made were being adopted, adapted, ignored or trashed. And we acknowledged that this report would have a fairly short half-life given the rapid pace of change in our denomination, our neighborhood and our congregation. So we said the congregation would need another go at this in a few years.

In the sanctuary of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church there is a “Lincoln pew” that visitors are allowed to sit in. But Presbyterians who sit there have a choice: Think only about the rich history of Lincoln and the church … or think about that along with where and how Presbyterians today can make sacred history by proclaiming the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ through word and deed now and well into the future.

I may be in the minority, but I vote for the second choice.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book . E-mail him at