Bishop Earl

One Sunday morning in 2002, as I was in the sanctuary at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland, preparing for worship, I saw an elderly African American couple I had not seen before. It was my practice to arrive early, while the choir rehearsed, to greet folks I knew, and to personally welcome people I did not know. When I walked up to Joanne and Earl that morning, they stood, and Joanne spoke first, introducing herself, and then her husband: “this is Earl,” she said. “He’s a Bishop,” she added. I saw the look of pride that moved across his face at that moment.

An African Methodist Episcopal Bishop, Earl had chosen to have a community outside of his denomination to make his home in retirement.

I came to know that every emotion showed in Earl’s face: tears shed, eyes shut tight in laughter, a wandering look when he was wondering. Every emotion showed and was quickly replaced by the next emotion. Sometimes anger and frustration, the next moment, joy, laughter. After a time, Bishop Earl volunteered in the church office, and often as I worked in my study there, I would hear his booming voice as he answered the phone, and laughter – also booming – from the office staff, and from Bishop Earl himself.

My husband has an expression that he saves to describe certain people, and I think it applied to Bishop Earl: “he was helplessly himself.” And for those of us who knew him, his being himself filled our lives with kindness, with sincerity, with happiness.

Over the years I pastored at Lake Merritt Church, Earl and I spent lots of time together. One day, we visited the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, where Earl parked his car and walked to the stone crypt that held his oldest daughter. He cried, and his little dog, who stayed in the car with me, whimpered as she watched him in that sad and lonely place. When he returned to the car, Earl was all words again, and soon we were laughing, enjoying the day. Sometimes, Earl would take me to another of his favorite eating places, and we’d talk and laugh over lunch together. When my mother died, he was one of the first to talk to me, to offer his condolences, and he preached for me that day after she died, on short notice.

I can remember the exact place in Oakland where, stopped at a stoplight, Earl and I were talking about our favorite kinds of music. I told him that I loved the blues. He burst into song, singing the blues – in his deep, resonant voice. We laughed, and laughed again!

My mother-in-law, Betty, was a reserved woman from a small community in Wisconsin. On one of our visits to see her, she answered the phone to hear Bishop Earl asking to speak to “his children.” She handed the phone over to me quickly, not sure what to make of this!

Joanne’s health failed before Bishop Earl’s, and they moved away. On one of his return trips to Oakland, where their daughters still lived, Earl invited me to hear him preach at a small church near my home. That’s the last time I saw Earl; as I walked away, I watched him court the women, speak with respect to the men. Many years have passed, but I still think of him when I pass that little church.

There was no one like Bishop Earl. I miss him.

beauty, Uncategorized, wisdom

Just live your life…

Sometimes, a few words fill a void that has been within for a long, long time. Sometimes, I have heard those few words in a story, real or imagined.

“The Island” is a Russian language movie that tells the story of the sailor Anatoly and his captain, captured by a German vessel during World War 11. To save his own life, the Russians instruct him to kill his captain, Tikhon; afraid of death, Anatoly complies.

The next day Anatoly, who has survived, is saved by monks on the shore. Filled with guilt over his choice to kill his captain, Anatoly becomes the stoker – the keeper of the fire – for the monastery, and as the years pass, he also provides wisdom and healing to people who come to the monastery.

Many years later, an Admiral brings his daughter, possessed by a demon, to the monastery for healing. Anatoly exorcises the demon. Anatoly learns that the father of the girl is Tikhon, the man he thought he had killed to save his own life. Tikhon forgives Anatoly.

Within days, Anatoly prepares for his death. The monks bring him a coffin, and he lies in the coffin, apparently awaiting his death. A monk – a man who has frequently had difficulties with Anatoly, leans into the coffin and asks Anatoly for some words of wisdom, words that he might now have, as he faces imminent death.

Anatoly speaks: “Just live your life, and try not to sin too much.”

photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 10/26/2021, Bahlert Lake, Beaver, WI


For Feodosia

“Yeat! Yeat! Yeat!”

My little Grandma’s arthritic hands, her shuffling feet -
bunions pushing through dime-store slippers - and me -
A little scared girl at the table by the window:
I absorb my Grandma, whole, into my skin.

“Yeat! Yeat! Yeat!”

Old wives’ tales, years of tears, the dead -
not forgotten, but carried, heavy - filling the room -
And sadness, never spoken.
I am in that room, with Grandma - with Ma -
with sunshine, old curtains, a dirty oilcloth:
silent, watching:
I sense the yearning to be set free.

“Yeat! Yeat! Yeat!”

Cabbage, tomatoes, sour salts and Slavic sounds
sizzling into Old World Soup
and me - sipping in the New World -
I absorb my Grandma, whole,into my heart.

“Yeat!” “Yeat!” “Yeat!”

Love is not spoken here;
still, I hear:
a whisper,in foreign tongue -
“I love you.”
Quiet, inside the words.



You are Shining…

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. – Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”

“… if only everybody could realize this…” Merton writes. “If only…”


I am more and more taken with the light around me, the light of day, as it creeps into the sky, moment to moment. I often reflect on earlier days of my life, when I was busy, busy with important meetings, busy with preoccupations as I drove from one important meeting to another important meeting, all the time missing, not seeing, the light all around and in me, and in others. Now, I think of my inability to see the obvious all those years as a loss, a loss I can never recover. And now, I want to remember.

Like Merton, I am silently saying: “If only…”

Across from the bedroom window of the home that I live in in Oakland, there is a crimson maple tree.  I love that tree.   I love it, especially, because for just a couple of days, every autumn, and just for a couple of minutes, as the sun sets over San Francisco Bay, the light shines just so on that crimson maple.  And it is lit then, lit with a light that it has at no other time, at no other moment.  I wait for those few moments. sometimes I come out the back door and onto the stoop to wait for the light to hit that tree, just so.

The crimson maple reminds me of the light that is within us. Like the crimson maple, you and I are light. As children, we are that light, but the wounds and frailties of our care-givers, our parents and others, force that light inward – unseen by others – little by little. They do this because their own light has been extinguished. It is our task to use our lives to wipe away all the debris that has hidden that light.

This is not an easy work in life. It’s hard. It hurts. It brings tears, and memories, and losses to our consciousness. You will need courage to embark on this work. If you choose to do this work, you will need a witness, some large and compassionate presence, to give space to the bringing forth of your wounds. There are many paths that allow this work, and you must find yours. That is your mission, if you choose to take it…

I am convinced that it is because we have forgotten the light that is us, that allows for all the hatred and fear in the world. When we look at someone who is not like us in some way – in any way – we see only the outer shell of that person, that person who is suffering, just like us. Murder and war and racism and poverty and greed are only some of the wounds that cover the light. The media is filled with shallow and brittle – and murderous – witnesses to this forgetting.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” – “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint Exupéry