Last year the Old South Congregational Church in Boston began to unravel itself from a quandary. They had been the longtime owners of an exceptional church hymnal, one of the first books produced in North America, printed in 1640. After years of deliberation, study groups, and business meetings, the church finally voted to sell the hymnal.
Because of the age and historical importance attached to this hymnal, selling it was much more than jettisoning a tiny sliver of American nostalgia. The hymnal has incredible value for collectors, and those collectors were salivating to sink their teeth into this ancient book. Thus, when Sotheby’s auctioned the hymnal last month, it brought a hammer price of $14.2 million, a record for a single printed book.
The sale price, with that long string of zeros, did not free the church from controversy. On one side were the church historians and those members of the congregation who felt they had been called to preserve the church’s history and legacy. On the other side were Pastor Nancy Taylor, the majority of the leadership, and those who felt that faithful stewardship demanded that the resources of the church not be preserved but repurposed to continue mission and ministry.
One side said it was about symbolism, while the other side said it was about service. One side said it was about the past, while the other side pointed to the future. One side said it was about greed on the behalf of the church’s leadership, and the church leadership said the dissenters were moored to traditionalism.
I watched this story unfold for over a year, and was sympathetic to both sides until I heard the church historian say that the church had two of these exceptional books and if this one was sold, “You would never be able to hold one in each hand ever again.” Of course, he had to admit that holding them was not really practical – they are much too fragile for that.
Then he further revealed that the hymnals weren’t even in the church’s possession! They were stored in the rare books department of the Boston Public Library. Most church members – and certainly 99% of the community – have never even laid eyes on these items. Are they ancient? Yes. Significant? Absolutely. Do they remain instruments of worship and service? No, they haven’t served that purpose for a long time, and they will never do so again.
That these hymnals are a part of the past, not the future, appeared to be the final motivation in the sale. One thoughtful woman in the church said, “I have two young sons, and looking forward I want my sons to learn that it’s not about objects. We can take those objects from the past and turn them into fuel for tomorrow.”
What a fantastic perspective, and what an applicable lesson for us all. As one year ends and another begins, a profound choice is put before every person: Will we hold on to the past – preserving, protecting, and perpetuating it – even when doing so becomes much more work than it is worth? Or will we use the past, its gore and its glory, as fuel for the future? Will we take all we have learned, all we have been blessed with, and yes, even all that has hurt us, as the means to continue moving forward?
I am certain that a church older than the Constitution, old enough to have baptized the infant Benjamin Franklin, and solid enough to withstand everything three centuries has thrown at it, will indeed weather this current situation. I just hope that the resources from the past will get put to today’s use, and not be locked away in a vault or collect interest in some obscene-sized endowment.
I hope the same for all of us. Let’s not make life a museum built to what used to be, but a mission to bring about what can be, for life is not so much about preserving the past as it is living with power and purpose today.