The Pelican in Her Piety - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends, 

  As you know, I grew up in Louisiana, where the state bird is the brown pelican and the state flag has at its center a depiction of the medieval symbol called the "pelican in her piety." It shows the pelican plucking her own breast to feed her starving young with her blood.  From very early in the life of the Church, it has been used as a symbol of the self-sacrificing love of Christ on the Cross—and also of the Eucharist, where we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus.

The Louisiana State Flag

The Louisiana State Flag

  The pelican in her piety has long been an important symbol at Emmanuel Church too. It's on the official seal of the parish, and for many decades the weekly newsletter which was mailed to parishioners was called "The Pelican." It contained news and announcements, and only ceased publication in 2005, when we moved to our current e-news format. The pelican is seen in the splendidly worked green frontal which is on the high altar now as well as in a lovely wood carving in the priests' vesting room. She is found on the head of our verger's wand, and there is even a small depiction of it in the stained glass in the rector's study. There may be other instances at Emmanuel which I have not yet discovered.

The green frontal on Emmanuel’s high altar

The green frontal on Emmanuel’s high altar

  The pelican in her piety is a lovely myth, though ornithologists who have studied pelicans tell us that the birds do not really behave this way at all. It may look like they are piercing their breasts when, in fact, they are reaching into their pouches for food.

  But the myth, like all good myths, leads us to truth. Self-giving and self-sacrifice are pre-eminent Christian virtues. Jesus tells us:  "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)  Most of us are not called to lay down our lives, but we are called to put others first, to offer our lives to Christ's service. In the words of the Geoffrey A.S. Kennedy's stalwart hymn: 

"To give and give, and give again, 

What God hath given thee; 

To spend thyself nor count the cost; 

To serve right gloriously 

The God who gave all worlds that are, 

And all that are to be."

-Jim Holmes

Blessed Memory - Joseph Wood

Dear Friends,

  As some of you know, I did my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, a skilled nursing home in Rockville, Maryland. Two-thirds of the way through my seminary career, I had already realized that interfaith dialogue would be a cornerstone of my ministry, so I sought out the program that would immerse me as fully as possible into the rhythms of Jewish life and community. Perhaps, though, I should back up even further and explain what CPE is. CPE is a requirement for ordination in most denominations, a kind of crash course in pastoral care in which seminarians are called to experience briefly—usually over the course of a single summer—the life of a chaplain and what it means to be present and provide spiritual care for residents of liminal, even crisis-filled, spaces such as hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. While it's certainly challenging, many of us end up describing the process as one of the single most important elements of our formation, of learning what it is to be a clergyperson.

  Now, let's get back to Hebrew Home itself. While I had anticipated and even actively sought out the Judaism of the experience, I can't say that I had really processed the difference in what it means to be a chaplain in a nursing home as opposed to a more typical health care setting. Most of the visits that you make to people in a hospital will be relatively brief, echoing the brevity (if not immensity) of the experience in their overall lives. Occasionally, you might see someone once or twice more, but you go into most rooms knowing that you’ve probably never met this person or people and you are unlikely to interact with them again. Which is not to diminish the experience, but it's a very different one from an environment where you build up relationships with the residents over weeks and even months. Different skills are involved when the visits and interactions are with people who have slowly been woven into the fabric of your daily life. There's a different kind of knowing involved, a different kind of trust when you meet them again and again and are able to share more and more moments together.

  There are innumerable stories I could tell about Hebrew Home, both in regards to the program itself and how I grew from all of the ways that the residents taught me to see them and share those moments in ways that might actually be helpful. I'm not sure that I'll ever fully understand all that they gave me, even as I was striving to pastor them. In short, I'm still learning their lessons. This week, I've particularly had in mind one woman and my last experience with her. Let's call her Sonia. Sonia was a long-term, relatively conversant resident who, like many of her peers, felt a little isolated and cut off from the life that she had known before she came to live in the home. Over our time together, she slowly warmed to me, and we had spent a number of hours talking about her life—how she had survived the Holocaust, meeting her husband after the war, coming to America, raising a family, and the state of her relationships with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She seemed to appreciate my visits, and she'd even try to grandmother me whenever she got the chance. For both our sakes, I tried to keep those chances rare.

The last time Sonia and I spoke was in one of the final hours of my CPE program. Excited to have made it through CPE and even picked up a skill or two, I was making my final rounds to check on my residents and say a last good-bye to them. As bittersweet as those visits were, I couldn’t help but feel a certain restless excitement to be off and on to the the next stage of my seminary journey. For whatever reason, Sonia ended up being one of my very last interactions as I found myself less and less able to practice the presence and mindfulness that I had spent all summer cultivating. Even as I tried to honor her and the dynamic we had shared, my mind kept wandering back to the final supervision session that I, the rabbi, and the other program members would be having shortly. Sonia, on the other hand, was tearfully and utterly present in the moment. Even as my thoughts wandered, I noticed that her farewells were entangled with stories that she had never mentioned before. She spoke of the experiments that Dr. Mengele had performed on her and her sister; about escaping through the woods; and about those hours were she and her companions had no idea (nor particular concern) whether they would actually be able to enjoy the freedom they had wrestled for themselves. Shamed by her final, loving gift to me and all that we had shared, I mentally shook myself and tried to listen close. I was late for supervision.

We didn’t particular talk about it at the time, but last Sunday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I know firsthand that it can be all too easy to let those stories become background noise, to miss the incredible vulnerability and gift in the stories of those who survived—and those who didn’t. It’s a simply fact of our world that there will be fewer and fewer survivors to tell those histories as the years go on. Let’s listen while we can. Let’s pay attention to the horrific realities of the Holocaust, of the anti-Semitism present in our world today (and statistically on the rise), and let’s remember that, though the mirror may be dim, we must ever strive to know each other more and more fully. In the reading from First Corinthians this week, Paul opens by talking about what it means to speak with or without love (1 Cor 13:1), which is certainly vitally important in bringing the Kingdom. But if CPE taught me anything, it’s that first we must simply listen.

—Joseph Wood

The Dance of Carla Blair - Tom Culbertson

Walking with Carla
is to dance
compelling one’s feet
to get in sync. 

Her eyes are full of care
a smile embraces you
warmth engulfs you
love dances around you.

Let the children come to me,
quickly they come to know
heaven’s touch is close
God’s care is like this.

A broken heart knows
where pain resides,
knows too the balm
of ancient Gilead.

When horizon bears news
of the last dance
Martha of Bethany will
greet with warm embrace.

Our Lord stands close;
this is the one who
watched my children;
sit at table with me.

The Bishop Is Coming! - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

This Sunday, Emmanuel will have an “Episcopal Visitation.”  In more current parlance: “The Bishop is coming!  The Bishop is coming!”   It’s customary in the Diocese of Maryland that either the Bishop, the Assistant Bishop, or the Canon to the Ordinary (the Bishop’s right-hand person) visit each parish yearly.   This week, the Right Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of Maryland, visits us.

Perhaps a note on church polity—church governance—is appropriate at this time.  Generally speaking, there are three types of polity:  episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational.   

The episcopal model—from the Greek word episkopos, meaning overseer—involves having bishops at the top of a hierarchical ladder, though there are variations in how this works.  The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, the Anglican churches, the Scandinavian Lutherans (though not until recently the German and some American Lutherans) and the United Methodist Church in the United States (but not in England), are all episcopal churches.  In the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, the Pope or Metropolitan bishops have the final say on matters of church governance.

In Anglican churches such as ours, the bishop of a diocese or the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has a great deal of authority, but the final authority in a diocese is the diocesan convention and in the national church is the General Convention.  For instance, a bishop alone or bishops acting in concert could not have ordained women or approved recognizing the sacramentality  of same-sex marriage by themselves.  It required the action of conventions—and where the diocesan convention and the General Convention are at odds, the General Convention’s actions prevail. 

The presbyterian model—from a Greek word for elder, presbus—is another form of polity.  In it authority rests with a body of elders, not with a single individual.  In some presbyterian churches, there is a hierarchy of boards of elders stretching to a national General Assembly.  In others, the elders govern the local church but are not connected to other churches or congregations.  In the United States, there are a wide variety of Presbyterian churches which have split from other Presbyterian churches over the interpretation of Scripture or the role of women in the church.  The Reformed churches in this country are also often governed by presbyters.

Congregational churches are exactly what they sound like.  The decision-making authority rests with the individual congregation in matters as important as calling a minister to less important ones, though no less contentious, such as what color to paint the doors.  Some congregational church unite with others, such as the Southern Baptists or American Baptists conventions, but the larger denomination cannot dictate to the congregation.  The United Church of Christ, which includes congregationalists from the time of the pilgrims, states: “Our covenanting emphasizes trustful relationships rather than legal agreements.”

In our time, so-called ”megachurches” defy categorization.  They are congregational in that they stand alone, but they are often tightly controlled by the minister (sometimes called a bishop), and when he or she either dies or retires or, alas, leaves amid a scandal, the church sometimes collapses.

Emmanuel is an Episcopal Church.  We pray for our bishop at every service, and we consult with him—and he with us—about the needs of the parish and the diocese.  We send voting delegates to the annual diocesan convention.  We support the work of the diocese, and through the diocese the national church, with a contribution of over $100,000 each year.  Members of Emmanuel serve on various diocesan committees, and the diocesan transitions officer is working closely with our Vestry through the process of calling a new rector.  Though there is sometimes tension between this parish (or any other parish for that matter) and the diocese, we remain closely tied together.

We welcome Bishop Sutton this Sunday. 

—Jim Holmes

A Message from Bishop Sutton from the Holy Land

On January 8, Bishop Sutton wrote the following letter to the diocese as he continues his pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine.  We commend it to you as timely, especially as our nation faces its own difficult decisions around issues of immigration.  Please remember that he will be visiting Emmanuel next Sunday, January 20, and will have a time for questions and answers at the end of the 10:30 service.  -Jim Holmes & Joseph Wood

This is not the way we’re meant to live. Walls won’t get us what we really want.

Everyone wants to live in secure communities, free from violence, and free from terror. We want to live in peace, enjoying good and healthy relationships with neighbors who want the same things as we do. This is how we were meant to be in community: living in harmony with each other, with God, and with all creation.

But walls of separation, based in fear and mistrust, do not get us there.

As I write this, I’m looking out over Jerusalem from my window, this divided city on the border between Israel and (a hoped for) future Palestine. I’m leading a pilgrimage from the Diocese of Maryland to the Holy Land, as I have been doing about every two years since becoming bishop. Bringing pilgrims to a foreign land is one of the best ways to get us to gaze into a mirror at ourselves, our own lives in our own land.  And when I take a long look into that mirror, what do I increasingly see?


The pilgrims and I were blessed to be in Bethlehem, the City of David, celebrating Christmas with our Palestinian Arab Christian brothers and sisters on January 6 (which is Christmas in the Eastern liturgical calendar, and the Feast of the Epiphany in our Western church year.)

We celebrated the birth of Christ there, and were thrilled to be able to prayerfully kneel and touch the stone manger in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity where 2,000 years of Christian tradition holds that the Son of God was born into the human family.

But the Prince of Peace was born into a city that is now walled off by ethnicity and religion, preventing its inhabitants from being able to travel freely to other parts of the nation. A wall that was erected in fear to keep some populations from others painfully divides the city of Jesus’ birth, who himself was born into a poor family who would quickly become refugees.

Whether or not intended to provide security for Israel’s Jewish inhabitants, or a way to justify and protect an illegal land grab by settlers, the effect is the same:  economic desperation, deprivation, anger, and daily humiliation for the Arab inhabitants of Bethlehem. This is not the way they should have to live.

Nor is it the way that the Jewish citizens Israel should live. The Wall dehumanizes both them and their Arab neighbors, causing both sides to become less than they were intended to be by God – and how they themselves want to be. Who among us wants to be an oppressor? And who among us wants to live as a perpetual victim?

And yet, as I gaze into that mirror to look at what is happening halfway around the globe, I see the same moral conflict in my own country that I see in the Holy Land. We as Americans imagine ourselves to be a generous, welcoming people for those who want to make a new life here, but we are also afraid that these newcomers will cause us harm. Whether from fear or racism – or both – we don’t want them here.

So, let’s build a wall.  Even if that wall causes hostility, suspicion, violence and hatred between peoples. Even if that wall sacrifices our core values, and causes us to act in ways contrary to a free, egalitarian and democratic society.

Every nation needs and deserves secure borders, but building massive, fortified, concrete or steel walls do not get us there. They foster more anger and violence, not security and peace.

And who cares that history shows that walls of separation, fear and mistrust do not work, and eventually are all dismantled or destroyed either violently or by popular demand? (Or they become tourist attractions for later generations.). If they make us feel safe, then isn’t that good enough? Well, not to God.

Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

This summary of all of Jesus’ teachings is based on love, which casts out all fear. But how can we love God and our neighbor if we turn away from God and try to prevent ourselves from knowing or even meeting our neighbors?

Let me be clear. Walls – either psychological or physical – that are intended to keep individuals or nations from encountering and engaging with the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, refugees, and other marginalized persons are inherently immoral, unjust and unworthy of people of faith. They make a mockery of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of God’s vision for a just, loving and harmonious world. The are deeply offensive to those on the other side of that racial, ethnic and economic divide, serving as a daily reminder that they are seen as threats and not fellow human beings.

If it’s not your thing to live according to what God wants, and you believe that the Bible is merely a collection of folk tales that do not have to be taken seriously, then please just take it from those who have to live and work on either side of walled hostile borders: you really don’t want to live that way.

From the Holy Land
January 2019

The Greatest Resolution - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends -

Once again it is time for New Year's resolutions, though there seems to be less talk about them than I remember in earlier years—maybe they seem trivial in the face of such difficulties facing our world. 

Resolving to lose weight, to be nicer to in-laws, to read more and watch TV less, are good things, but they do not seem to address the overwhelming issues of global warming, of starving children, of refugees stuck in squalid camps, of increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots, of dishonesty and incompetence at the highest levels.  And on and on.  Taking up our comfy blanket and retreating to some supposed safe place rather than taking action seems much more attractive.

But that is not who we are.  We have been given two resolutions which should be ours each day:  to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds; and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We hear these great commandments of Jesus again and again—and we resolve to keep them—but then the realities of life in this world cause us to turn from God, wondering where  God might be in the midst of such horrors.  We turn from love to perhaps hatred, but more often to indifference, rationalizing that there is nothing we can do.

We are a people who believe that God is in fact in our midst, that God dwells with us, no matter the outward circumstances.  We are a people who hope that we may come to understand more and more what God would have us do.  We are a people who trust that in the end God will bring us and all of creation to completion.

With those things in mind, let us resolve again today and tomorrow and the next day to love God and to love our neighbors, to think lovingly and to work kindly, for in so doing we witness to the fact that light conquers darkness in our world, in our country, in our church, in our families, in every corner of life.

May the new year bring that resolve into our hearts and into our actions.

-Jim Holmes

O Little Town of Bethlehem - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

I don’t need to tell people who have been coming to Emmanuel for some time what a treasure trove of art and architecture are to be found in and around the church. I see new things each time I enter the building. From the Daniel Chester French font to the exquisitely carved pulpit to the small statues over the doors to the narthex, there are amazing and affecting works of beauty to be seen.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the audience for the Peabody Brass concert, and I noticed for the first time on the bottom-right of the Great East Window a man vested as an Episcopal bishop. It is the figure of Phillips Brooks, one of the great preachers of the late nineteenth century. He served as rector of Holy Trinity in Philadelphia and then, for many years, as rector of Trinity Church in Boston—where one of his successors was Theodore Parker Ferris, rector of Emmanuel in the late 1930’s. Brooks later served for a time as Bishop of Massachusetts.

While he was widely renowned for his sermons, his most lasting impact may well be that he was the lyricist of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which we will sing this weekend. He wrote the hymn for his church’s Sunday school while he was in Philadelphia. The composer of the tune that accompanies his words, “St. Louis,” said: “neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

Happily, they were wrong. It’s now part of the Christmas tradition for countless people, though we sometimes sing it to various tunes. The reference to Bethlehem in the words “how still we see thee lie” is a vision of a time long ago, for Bethlehem is now caught up in the seemingly endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The “hopes and fears of all the years” resound there, yet they are not resolved.

This is a time when we proclaim with the angels, “peace to people of good will.” Let us be the people who pray and work for stillness in Bethlehem, peace around the world, and the turning of hearts so that the promise of Christmas—Emmanuel, God-with-us—will resound throughout creation.

— Jim Holmes

The Feast of St. Thomas Merton - Joseph Wood

Dear Friends,

This last Monday, December 10, marked the 50th anniversary of the death of St. Thomas Merton, OCSO. (He was added to the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in 2006.) Perhaps the most influential American spiritual writer of the 20th century, it seems especially appropriate to mark the occasion by sharing with you one of his most famous prayers:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.

As this Advent season edges closer and closer to Christmas once more, may your journey be defined by the desire to please God--even in the midst of uncertainty. After all, there is no spiritual life without uncertainty. May your road lead you home rejoicing, accompanied by the breath of the Spirit in all those that travel the way with you. And may you know the trust which is not the absence of darkness but a quiet shining of light out of what means to be yourself.

-Joseph Wood

Thomas Merton.jpg

The Way of the Lord - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

Andy Warhol said we each get fifteen minutes of fame.  I do not believe it, but I did have my fifteen seconds of fame on the Second Sunday of Advent in, I think, 1990.  I was the associate rector of St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square in Washington, and it was my turn to preside at the 8:00 a.m. eucharist.  It was always a relatively brief service with only the priest and the chalice-bearer vested, but it was often attended by the President of the United States.
  The gospel lesson then, as now, was about John the Baptist.  In my homily I spoke about how John’s message of repentance was often dismissed by people who mocked his strange dress of a camel’s hair cloak (not from Brooks Brothers) and his diet of locusts and wild honey.  How could one pay attention to someone so peculiar, so jarring?  Rejecting John’s dress and diet was an excuse for rejecting his challenging message.

  I then went on to compare John to Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader whose message of equality and justice was often delivered in strident terms.  “He is so arrogant,” people would say, “and he is so angry,” why would we listen to him?  Others accused him of being a “womanizer,” thus lacking any moral authority.  Rejecting Jackson’s tone and his personal behavior was an excuse for rejecting his challenging message.

  Paying attention to both of them is what I charged the congregation with doing, repenting of our sins, our destructive behaviors, and embracing the movement for justice and equality.
  After communion, as they were leaving the service, Mrs. Bush said to me, “That was very interesting, Mr. Holmes.”  The president wished me a good day.

  Alas, there were also reporters there.  The news of my remarks spread around the country, even to Baton Rouge, where my Republican mother was chagrined.  I got a couple of “how dare you?” notes, but the issue never gained traction and soon faded.  The Bushes were back in church the next Sunday, and they even invited Tim and me to a White House Christmas party the next year.
  This all came back to mind on the occasion of President Bush’s death last week.  The messages of repentance, of embracing justice and equality, are ones I have repeated many times since then, including here at Emmanuel.  I believe, in fact, that they were virtues held by George H.W. Bush as well.

Requiescas in pace, Mr. President.

-Jim Holmes

Holding the Gyre - Joseph Wood

            Gyre is a somewhat antiquated word these days. From Ancient Greek (guros, γῦρος) originally, it finally made its way into Late Middle English through Latin (gyrus). It means moving in a swirl, a spiral, or a vortex, but it has proven more of a stumbling block for many an English student as they wrestle with W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Indeed, it is generally Yeats’ famous opening lines to that poem which introduce gyre to those of us who have some faint recollection of the word: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre /The falcon cannot hear the falconer; /Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” As we stand, poised to enter into yet another cycle of the church year, I cannot help but be reminded of gyre and ponder what it means for the centre to hold.

             After all, the Christian liturgical life is one defined by ever widening circles. Each day might be marked off by the perpetual cadence of Morning Prayer, Noonday, and Evening Prayer as we travel from first light into night and back again. Each week is an echo of Holy Week. Each Sunday is illuminated by the reflected brilliance of the Resurrection, even as each Friday bears something of the soberness of Golgotha. (That’s actually why Roman Catholics and others use to, traditionally, keep a partial fast by abstaining from meat on Fridays.) In the same way, we move each year from Advent through Epiphany into Lent, culminating in Easter and surging forth from there ever outwards again into the work of Pentecost—to say nothing about the procession of other feasts, saintly and otherwise, that again and again mark our way. With the advent (see what I did there) of the Revised Common Lectionary, yet another circle enfolds us through the three years of the appointed lectionary readings. Thus, even our experience of the Gospel is marked by a spiral-shaped journey from Matthew to Mark to Luke, with the Gospel of John filling in as needed. This Sunday, we will set aside the sparseness of the Gospel of Mark that so defines “Year B” and return once more to “Year C” and the societal concern of the Gospel of Luke.  

            In “The Second Coming,” Yeats expresses clear pessimism about our ability to continue to maintain this pattern. Surveying the state of post-war Europe in 1919, it is little wonder that he questions if a “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi,” out of the spirit of the world, has upset the motion first felt through “a rocking cradle” in Bethlehem. Is there even a centre anymore around which to orientate ourselves? Or are things falling apart as we slowly spin out of orbit from what once held our communities close together? 

            I believe there is. While that centre has certainly been complicated—or, at least, our assumptions about what that centre is have been complicated as we acknowledge the multifarious extents of our world. Yet I cannot imagine that the God-given complexity of our Creation is inherently unbalanced. The challenge is to set aside the idea that the motion of history is towards a particular end and try to embrace the idea a little more wholly that it is a movement around, is a movement with. The questions remain, though: What are we gathering around? Who do we recognize as moving with us? In the first moments of this holiday season, I think we can all benefit by holding those questions within us. Notice where you and the people in your life congregate, notice what is setting the course of your rhythms, and notice which individuals draw close to your path again and again. Whether the answers to those questions look more like gentle rocking or something slouching, we are left with the glorious promise of the cycle. We are left to, as best we can, prepare ourselves to welcome Christ into our lives again.