Saturday, September 16, 2017

When a Whovian Dies

Today would have been my father’s 65th birthday. Instead, he had a heart attack seven weeks ago while on his bike and was gone before he knew what happened. His was a poetic death—exactly what he would have wanted albeit the part about it coming at least a quarter-century too soon.  

The Saturday we gathered at church to celebrate his life was majestic. We stood in the receiving line for five nonstop hours before it had to be cut off for the service to begin. The overflow crowds sat in folding chairs, and the live feed had over 3,000 viewers from around the globe—including Bishop Ntambo and Bishop Mande who were unable to get last minute flights. The tributes we received that day and the days afterward were overwhelming in a wonderful way. If only my father had fully understood that he was loved by so many and so much.  

For me, “Biking Bob” (self-dubbed: The Mad Man on a Bike) was more than my father; he was my mentor, my coach, my co-conspirator, my teammate. He was the only person who could tell me I was wrong about something and I’d accept the correction without question. He was brilliant, and if people thought he didn’t make any sense, it was simply because they weren’t keeping up. 

In addition to being a pastor, missiologist, and retired Marine Corps helicopter pilot, my father was a die-hard Whovian and raised me to be one too.

Death looks different through a Whovian’s eyes. We are acutely aware of the universe and time itself, and we put our sorrows in the context of the bigger picture, yet we also affirm that there are no un-important people--what we do matters. Whovians are used to thinking in terms of everyone being simultaneously dead and alive, depending on when one happens to be at a given moment. We see death as a constant companion, and we find comfort in the idea of regeneration* and a non-linear view of time. We move forward, knowing that pain and loss define us as much as happiness and love. We know that pain is a gift. We know that we are all stories in the end.  My father's was a great one.  


*My mother is currently in the process of regeneration. It is an excruciating transformation; she doesn't want the old her (Bob's wife and beloved traveling companion) to go, but she clings to the faith that the new Teri is about to arise. She is uncertain that she will be fine, but I assure her that she will be amazing.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Life in Algiers: The pastor in a church without a pastor

Worship at Algiers UMC
When we were bidding on Algeria nearly 4 years ago, I knew nothing of the history of Methodism in the country. I didn’t know about the historical link between Methodist mission stations in Algeria and DR Congo; I didn’t know about Hugh and Fritzi Johnson, and I definitely didn’t know there was a United Methodist congregation in Algiers. I was about to experience a steep learning curve.

By the time we arrived in Algiers, I’d done enough research to know that somewhere in the vast city there was a Methodist community, but I didn’t know where they worshipped, if they were in a neighborhood I was allowed to go to, or even what language they worshipped in. They didn’t have a website (preferring to fly below the radar), so I started asking around. What I discovered seemed too amazing to be true: not only did they worship primarily in a language I spoke (French), our embassy-assigned apartment was barely two blocks away from them!

We showed up at church the next Friday (in this part of the word, churches meet on Fridays), and I introduced myself to the lay leader. “Alleluia!” she proclaimed. It turned out that the congregation had been without an ordained pastor for quite some time and praying intensely for one. Their previous missionary pastor had left the country due to health problems, and they had been lay-led since then. Long story shortened, after a flurry of emails, the bishop of the UMC’s France-Swiss-North Africa episcopal area, Patrick Streiff, invited me to serve as the congregation’s new pastor. 

Nothing is simple when you are married to a diplomat, though. Legally, I was under Chief of Mission authority, and so had to get the ambassador’s blessing before doing any public speaking or taking a leadership role in any local organization—even as a volunteer (it is forbidden for spouses of diplomats to work on the local economy in Algiers). She gave her nod provided that the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave their nod. Then came the deafening silence. Finally, the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs gave their nod of approval, and we announced publicly my appointment just in time for a wonderful Easter celebration.

A few months later, though, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came back with a bureaucratic “No.” I couldn’t be a religious leader in Algeria because I was here on a diplomatic visa—not a religious worker’s visa.  Ugh. Now what?  I sought guidance from the embassy and was told that although I wasn’t allowed to be the pastor of my congregation, there were no prohibitions against being an active member. So, that’s how I became a highly active member of a congregation without a pastor which is led by its active members. Let those with ears hear what I’m saying.     

I'm assuming you now can guess why, despite the Algiers UMC being a major part of my life the past few years, I haven’t shared much about it online.  There is so much I have wanted to tell you, though. It is a truly beautiful congregation—multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational.  We’ve been through much during our journey together, and I’m so lucky to have had this opportunity.  One of these days I’ll tell you more about it.  

Photo with some of my beloved congregants
(I had the honor of being the commencement speaker for the Uganda Student Association this year)
Hanging out with Hugh Johnson at the Swiss-France Annual Conference UMC
Worship at Algiers UMC

Potluck meals at Algiers UMC

Congregants pulling an all-nighter at our place to cook up a feast for Easter

Worship at Algiers UMC 
(We have a number of Algerian members, 
but most do not wish their faith to be publicly known)  

Receiving on behalf of Algiers UMC the grand prize in 2016 from Connexio
for the outreach ministry of the year in the France-Swiss-North Africa conference.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Life in Algiers: Looking Back and Moving On

Easter Sunday in the DCM's garden
It is hard to believe that we are approaching the end of our 3-year posting in Algiers, Algeria. Next stop: a 2-year teaching gig for hubby at the Foreign Service Institute in the DC area.  This will be our first PCS state-side. Foreign Service folks know what this means: Transition mode has begun.  

In a desperate attempt to avoid overweight shipping fees, we have made a mountain in the guest room full of stuff that we’re leaving behind. Even the Christmas tree is going overboard. I’ve been baking up a storm and showing no restraint on using everything left in our pantry and spice rack. We are reviewing our check-lists so we don’t miss key deadlines (permission to sell car, paperwork to take our dog with us, etc.).  At the same time, it is starting to sink in just how much we’ll miss our life here.  When the final day comes, tears will be shed.

A couple years ago, I didn’t expect I’d be able to say that. Our first year in Algiers was rough—really rough.  All three of us were demoralized. Ten months in, it got to the point that we started talking curtailment. Other colleagues had already done so. Ultimately, what stopped us was the promise I had made to the Methodist congregation (and my bishop) here and my theostitious belief that God had placed us here for a task we had not yet completed. (that’s another story in itself)  

When hubby mentioned the ‘c’ word to front office, the response was “You haven’t taken a vacation since you arrived. Why don’t you take a long one and hopefully reconsider?” Although we’d already decided to stay, we jumped at the opportunity for a getaway and booked ourselves on the first cheap cruise we could find on and paired it with a church conference in Versailles (Did you know that Paris Disney tickets are a fraction of the cost for DisneyWorld?!). 

Then, things started to turn around. After the summer turn-over, the embassy became family-friendly. E got off the waitlist for a new preschool. We finally found an evening babysitter. We were moved into a new apartment building with great neighbors, so we now do things like help each other with grocery shopping, carpool, and keep an eye on each other’s kids. I got over my fear of driving in Algiers and learned my way around town. I joined an amazing gym and started making new friends.  Our choir started doing truly meaningful performances. The Algerian government began renovating its public parks and installing playground equipment. We found affordable dance and gymnastics studios for E. I stopped fearing getting PNGed and started leaning into my ministry at the church and outing myself as a pastor--even taking on a de facto chaplain role at the embassy (again, another story). We started taking more trips and discovering more of the beauty and history of the region. And that’s just a partial list. 

I’ve become so spoiled by our life here. Sure, living in a glass cage still gets annoying sometimes. (example: I had to Skype into a Methodist women’s retreat this week because it was being held in region off-limits to us)  But, in all honestly, I’ve been living the dream. From our balcony I can see the Atlas mountains in the distance.  Nora regularly knocks on our door with freshly-baked bread or hot borek as a gesture of friendship. Mahdia comes and cooks us up a pot or two of Algerian cuisine made with the fresh produce I pick up from the road side stand I stop at on the way home from preschool. When we travel, the vet comes to pick up our dog (who adores her) and looks after him for a token fee. I get to hang out with interesting people from all over the world. When we tell our daughter we are going to the ambassador’s house, she asks which one: the one with the playground or the one where we sing?  Not only that, she is getting free coaching from one of the best gymnasts in the country.  I get the honor and fun of serving a multinational multilingual congregation and getting to experiment with preaching and worship styles in ways most clergy can never dare try at their appointments. In short, I’m really going to miss this place.  

But here's the thing I've realized:  What I've loved most about our last year here is the 'normalcy' of it all.  I finally got what so many of my non-nomadic friends take for granted: a community of folks who look after each other. I got my own sit-com life--the kind where the neighbor kid walks through our front door without knocking.  I got to serve a congregation where the treasurer insists she doesn't want to be the lay leader (but, de facto, she clearly is), and where the hospitality committee serves tea and sweets after every service. 

Will we be able to build such a village at our next address? Only time will tell.   

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Real Shame of #TrumpCantRead

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Unless you’ve managed to live off-the-grid this season, you’re probably aware of the hashtag #TrumpCantRead and the evidence various commentators (including the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal) have presented to suggest that Donald Trump has difficulty reading and thus avoids doing so.  I suspect these commentators are onto something, yet this hypothesis has actually made me feel a bit more sympathy for him.*  While I feel strongly about calling out people for destructive behavior, shaming someone for something they can’t control—that crosses the line.  

You see, lately I’ve been working on learning more about the psychology of shame.  After seeing BrenĂ© Brown’s TedTalk “Listening to Shame,”  I bought one of her audio books that delves deeper into the subject. Shame is a powerful emotion that drives so many destructive behaviors (chauvinism, perfectionism, bullying, etc.).  Like the fight-flight-freeze response, humans respond to shame by either puffing up, shrinking, or appeasing. Shame often manifests in violent ways: from suicide to cruelty to others.  As psychologist Mary C Lamia points out, “Narcissistic personalities often have the emotion of shame at their core.” 

Let’s imagine for a moment that Trump really does have trouble reading.  Perhaps it is dyslexia; perhaps it has something to do with his attention span or countless other issues that ideally would have been identified in childhood. According to a Frontline documentary I saw, his father was a man who praised toughness and mocked weakness. Perhaps little Trump was deeply ashamed by his struggles in school and developed coping mechanisms to mask his struggles and deflect these feelings. Perhaps his coping response was to puff up—to lash out at others.  Jessi Sholl writes thatTo compensate [for our shame], we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding out.”   

Hmm… sound familiar?
Here’s the thing about shame:  When someone’s toxic behaviors are in response to their shame, trying to shame them into changing only makes them more ashamed—and thus even less likely to change. (this especially applies when trying to intervene with loved one who has an addiction problem)

Here’s the other thing: Shame is highly contagious. While the intention of the #trumpcantread conversation may be to suggest that Trump isn’t well educated on key issues, all the other people out there with reading difficulties get the message loud and clear that their struggles are shameful and their adaptations (getting news from t.v. instead of newspapers or enjoying movies over novels or having someone type their Tweets for them, for example) merit ridicule.

And that, is a real shame.


P.S. I recently met a pastor who shared how, despite his severe dyslexia and previous beliefs that college wasn't for him and his only career options were manual labor jobs, he courageously went back to school and had just completed seminary.  Bravo. 

*That is, in the same way I feel more sympathy for a school bully after hearing about her horrid home life.    

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Stress, Superpowers and Sanctification

image source:

My stress levels have been toxically high lately, and I suspect you can guess why.  Part of this is because of current events and the context I’m living in, and part is because I’m what Glennon Doyle Melton calls a canary. 

My family tree is full of canaries spanning at least five generations.* Canaries are the people who feel, fear and ponder more intensely than the average person. Like the canaries that were used in coal mines, we are the first ones to to show signs of illness in a poisonous environment. Some may label this as a genetic mental defect, but I’ve come to embrace it as our superpower. 

As with all superpowers, we must learn to control it—to wield it for good—to not let the power drive us insane. This takes training and dedication. Just as great tales of heroes involve a period of getting their minds in an advanced state of wisdom (Luke Skywalker with Yoda, Jesus Christ with the Tempter, Paul Atreides with the Fremen, etc.**), we canaries need to strive for all out sanctification to not only survive but to lead our people out of this mess.         

[“Wait a sec.” Taylor, “What did you just write? Sanctification?”]   

Would you have understood that last sentence better if I’d written instead all out zen master?  Whenever I want to describe a person having reached the pinnacle of the human capacity for self-awareness, inner-peace, understanding of their interconnectedness with the universe, and wisdom, all the words that pop instantly into my mind come from other faith traditions. And yet, my faith tradition has a word for it too: sanctification.  That is, having become perfected in love for the Creator and for all of creation. Just as Buddhists seek enlightenment, Methodism teaches that sanctification is what Christians should have as their goal in life.    

Last year I decided to start getting hardcore serious about striving for sanctification--training my mind like olympians train their bodies. I’m taking a holistic approach: physical exercise, healthy meals, discipline in prayer and scripture study, and enlisting mental health experts to coach me on how to not simply manage stress and negative thoughts but to develop exceptional levels of emotional intelligence so that I can effectively serve on the front lines of any crisis with love, grace and stamina. I'm still a work in progress, but progress is being made.

So here’s my advice to all my fellow canaries: Now more than ever, your country and your world needs you and your sacred gift. This is a “such a time as this” moment. It is time to step up. If you are struggling to control your powers of sensitivity, seek out help. This might mean meeting with a mental health expert to design a mind-training program that is right for you. It might mean joining a support group, and/or it might mean finding a medicine that enhances your ability to think calmly and clearly.***  Please, I beg of you, do whatever it takes to get out of the fetal position and into action.     

Much love from Algeria,


*Fittingly, my ancestors were coal miners, and the family homestead is built over an abandoned mine.  
** Dang--Why am I having so much trouble coming up with female examples that don't have an after-school-special/Disney girl-power vibe? Help me out here folks. 

***And in so doing you get to give “taking my big-girl/boy pill” a new meaning.  ;)