In mid-December, I had a brief visit with my daughter and son-by-marriage, who live in Washington D. C. Our few days were packed, but left me with about three hours on my own in the district. I love walking and visiting old and new sites in our nation’s capital. I set out last Friday morning without any clear plan.
Because I happened to park near New York Ave. Presbyterian Church, that was my first stop. That is where President Lincoln and his family worshiped while he was president. I took just long enough to sit quietly in the Lincoln pew. All the other pews are newer, but the Lincoln family pew is the one the Lincolns sat in—and it is not reserved; anyone can sit there. There was no one else in the sanctuary, so I freely breathed in Lincoln air. In the mid-twentieth century, Peter Marshall was pastor there, the Peter of the classic, “A Man Called Peter” biography and film. I stopped in the lobby to read the plaques mounted in memory of Lincoln and Marshall. Both have touched my life.
Walking a few blocks south put me on the National Mall. I knew that I would try to get in the new African-American Museum. Entrance is still by reservation only, but I stood in line anyway and didn’t get past the checkpoint. I turned to my right and walked along the reflecting pond, now partially frozen, to the Lincoln Memorial, which I think of as the heart of this great city of monuments. It was a cold, gray morning, but plenty of people were there. I mounted the steps, stopping at the tile marking where Martin Luther King, Jr., stood when he shared his dream for the nation in August of 1963. I pictured that vast throng that heard his stirring words. Then I stood before the massive statue of our 16th president. Traveling alone, I was free to take photos of small groups of people, many from other lands, standing before that towering American. Then I walked to my right and read the text of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, which I think is the most significant speech ever made by one of our presidents. I have a copy right next to me in my study, where I am writing this, but reading it in that temple is an unparalleled experience.
As I left the Lincoln Memorial, I felt a tug to walk alongside the Vietnam Wall. Just a few months ago I watched the entire Ken Burns-Lynn Novick Vietnam War series on PBS. That was a sobering experience. Over 50,000 American lives were sacrificed in a war our presidents—a series of them from both parties—knew was unwinnable.
As I walked east I pondered which Smithsonian Museum I would visit in my remaining 75 minutes. I have been in all of them and appreciate each one. The first one on my left was that new African-American Museum. There was a short line, so I gave it one more try. As I reached the checkpoint, I was asked if I had a reservation. No, I said. The two women in front of me turned and handed me an extra one they had. My good fortune!
This newest Smithsonian addition has six floor of exhibits. It is massive and architecturally dazzling, while warmly welcoming and subdued. One should take a whole day to walk through it, but I had only 75 minutes. I made a few quick decisions and visited sections on the faith of black slaves and the breakthroughs of black athletes. Both were wonderful.
Through all these stops I was often at the edge of tears. In three short hours I revisited some of America’s loftiest and lowest moments: Lincoln, King, the Vietnam War, the American black experience.
My walk back to where my daughter works took me right around the White House (her office is just a block or two from the executive mansion). I respect the office of president of the United States. I have been in the White House several times and loved the opportunity to breathe deeply of our heritage. I have been taught to respect the office of president of the United States and whoever occupies it, whether in political agreement or not. My spirit, as I walked by the White House, was as bleak as the ominous gray skies overhead. How can I respect a president who does not respect the office of president? A president who offends and embarrasses me virtually every day? A president who seems bent on governing by insulting, mocking, and bullying others? I cannot respect such a president.
I got to Lisa’s workplace in time to meet some of her co-workers. Then I watched as she moderated a panel of international leaders serving in Columbia, Afghanistan, and Haiti. Lisa’s work is focused on countries in complex political and social environments, working with partner countries and local organizations to create more stable, secure, and thriving societies. The panel members, for whom English is a second language, spoke movingly of progress and struggle and aspiration and partnership. That is the kind of America I want again; one that doesn’t fear the other—the foreigner, the stranger, the one who is different—but America reaching out of our bounty to hear and help and work with the other, the foreigner, the stranger, the one who is different. (Much of that good done where Lisa works is financed by the federal government’s USAID, long a force for good in the world. That is now threatened by the current administration, which is proposing deep cuts in the name of America first. I resist. I will not be silenced.)
If Lincoln’s party is all but dead these days, Lincoln’s spirit and vision live. Lincoln believed that might doesn’t make right, but that right makes might. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural ended with these stirring words, words I read again on a cold Friday in the Lincoln Memorial:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
This might be my last post before Christmas day, so I will wish you a merry Christmas. My hope is in the coming(s)—past, present, and future—and reign of Christ and nothing can deter that hope.