Monday, October 28, 2013

The Viennese and Death

Zentral Friedhof - Central Cemetery of Vienna
Yes, the title of this post is morbid. But in honor of Halloween, I thought it appropriate to write this post after attending a language school lecture with the same title. Halloween is hardly celebrated here, but there is still a focus on death this time of year due to this coming Friday's holiday "All Saints Day".

Here are a few interesting tidbits about the relationship between the people of Vienna and death:

  • On "All Saints Day" (this Friday), all businesses will be closed so that Catholic families can visit the graves of dead loved ones, leaving flowers and lighting candles to remember them.
  • Many Viennese these days are leaving the Catholic church (giving up their official membership) to avoid paying the mandatory church tax. However, many of them rejoin the church late in life so that when they die, they can have a "proper" Catholic funeral and appease their families
  • Everyone here is automatically an organ donor when they die, unless they specifically ask not to be (the opposite of the American system)
  • There were a few famous cases in Vienna's history (1800s and earlier) of someone being buried alive. Out of these came a fear of being buried alive. Still today, some Viennese have it written in their will to have a knife stabbed through their heart  before being buried, to ensure they are truly dead.
  • For most Catholics, the funeral ceremony with the body takes place at the cemetery and then the church service (Requiem) takes place a few days later, after the body has already been buried. Therefore, the body is never actually in the church for the funeral (with the exception of very prominent or wealthy figures).
  • It is illegal to bury a pet (or a person, for that matter) in your yard or garden when they die, because of sanitary reasons. Pets must be cremated or buried in a pet cemetery.
  • Several centuries ago, all cemeteries in Vienna were next to the Catholic churches in the city. However, the bodies were contaminating the soil and water, so it was decided to move all graves to a central cemetery "far out of the city". Unfortunately, the city kept growing and soon this new cemetery location was right in the middle of bustling Vienna! So the bodies were moved again, further outside of Vienna, to the location known today as the "Central Cemetery".

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What's the difference?

When we meet someone new, one of the first questions we are asked is why we are in Austria. And naturally, after we explain our role with the "free church" and our hopes of starting new churches in Vienna, the question follows: What are some of the differences between what you believe and the Catholic church beliefs?

Austria is a predominantly Catholic country, so when many Austrians hear the word "church", they think of a well-established institution with large cathedrals and a long-standing history. When we say Nate went to school to be a pastor, they often think of the priestly role of the Catholic church. So it has been important for us to learn to articulate what makes us different. 

In explaining these differences, though, there is a fine line we walk. On the one hand, we have met Catholic Christians here who have a deep, abiding faith in Christ, and we believe God is working in the Catholic church. However, we also hear over and over again about the barriers that exist today to hearing and understanding the gospel in the Catholic church in Austria. We constantly struggle with wanting to separate ourselves from the Catholic church and some of the negative associations we have heard, while also affirming the positives.

Two stories highlight this well. First story: There is a new believer attending our church who also just joined our bible study. She has a wonderful heart, and we are enjoying getting to know her. I had the chance to talk with her after church last Sunday and hear a bit more of her story. She shared about how she grew up in the Catholic church and used to participate in prayer groups as a teenager. However, it wasn't until recently that she heard the gospel message from a co-worker and heard the concept of a "personal relationship" with God - one that goes deeper than church tradition and prayer. She also shared that she was never encouraged to read or study the Bible on her own and this is the first time in her life that she has begun to do that. Despite many years in the church, she is on a brand new journey.

Second story: During our mid-morning break at language school last week, a Polish classmate asked us about the difference between our beliefs and those of the Catholic church. Coming from another predominantly-Catholic country, this was an important distinction for her to understand. Although she does not share a belief in God (as far as we know), two things we shared resonated with her: the idea of going directly to God in prayer and in relationship, as opposed to through a priest, and making a faith decision for yourself, apart from tradition. She listened as we also talked about the importance of scripture and understanding the meaning behind God's words in the Bible.

So what's the difference? There are distinctions between the evangelical church here and the Catholic church. Important ones. But we want to speak to those carefully as we encounter Austrians from a variety of church backgrounds and experiences, while also affirming where and how God is working in the church in Austria today. Please pray for us - for wisdom as we navigate these waters, especially in a new language, and for sensitivity as we invite people into a deeper relationship with God.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Our First Bible Study

Bible study in our living room last Thursday
Last Thursday evening was our first official bible study meeting in our home. Up until the moment the evening began, we didn't know who would join us, what kind of a group would come together and what the dynamic would be. All we know is we had drinks, snacks and a clean living room ready for whatever would take place that night. But God answered all of those questions and blessed us with a great discussion, a good-sized group of people and an encouraging beginning to our study through the book of John.

We had four young adults join us, and we are already hearing of more who want to come when they are available. In fact, one of the participants has already invited an unbelieving friend to come this Thursday who is open to reading the bible and has questions about faith! This is exactly our goal - to create an environment open to dialogue about God, Jesus, scripture and faith. God is already working to answer our prayers and bring just the right people to join us.

Outside of Sunday morning church services, this is our first experience studying scripture in German. Please pray for us! It is definitely a stretch for us to discuss deeper topics in our new language, as well as find the time to prepare well for each week's discussion. It can be frustrating to want to share something with the group, but not be able to find the right words (or think of them too late, after the conversation has already moved on to a new topic). Please pray for clarity of thought when we participate and that God would give us humility as we make mistakes and step out of our comfort zones.

Please also pray for the new people that will be joining us in the coming weeks. Pray for them to gain a deeper understanding of who Jesus is through the gospel of John and through our discussions. Pray that they would see the sincere faith of the other people in the room and desire to experience that personal relationship with Jesus for themselves.

Monday, October 7, 2013

One Year Reflections

Arriving at the Vienna airport on October 6, 2012.
Yesterday, we went out to dinner to celebrate one year since landing in Austria. ONE YEAR! We can't believe a year has already passed since we got on a plane, left the States and began this new adventure and new life.

Like many things in life, we experience a paradox when we think of the last year - so much has happened since we left and being in the U.S. feels like a long time ago, so it seems this year has been full and gone by slowly. But at the same time, it feels like it has flown by!

Tiredly posing with teammates at the airport last fall.
Here are some of the amazing things that God has done in the last year:
  • He got us here, with 100% support, all of our luggage and a readiness to jump in!
  • He enabled us to get acclimated to life here quickly and pass our A1 language exam last fall, required for our visas.
  • He answered many prayers and got us us visas to stay in Austria- in record time!
  • He healed our German teacher Renate, after she was in a coma and nearly died. She has since revealed that she is going to catholic mass more regularly, and we believe she has encountered God in a new way.
  • He opened the door to partner with the Fry family in England AND found us a German tutor while we were there, so that our time across the water was productive and used well while we waited for our visas to return.
  • He helped us find the perfect apartment in only TWO DAYS of looking, and we were able to move in just TWO DAYS after we arrived back in Vienna.
  • He provided us with many friends and teammates here who helped us paint and put together Ikea furniture, helping our move-in process go more quickly.
  • He's given us favor with learning German, and we're amazed at how far we've progressed, when we look back at the last year. We've also had great classroom and tutor experiences across the board, which is truly a gift. Not everyone has had such a great experience as we've had.
  • He led us to a great church community in Vienna, where we've been able to plug in, be welcomed and grow in our German. We've met many patient people willing to help us learn.
  • He blessed us with our little girl who will be arriving in January, ss well as excellent medical care from our doctor and midwife, helping us feel great about having our first child here in Vienna.
  • He also blessed us with our sweet dog, who has already given us MANY opportunities to meet our neighbors and practice German in the park and at puppy class.
  • He led us to start a bible study with a few folks from church, which will be a wonderful outreach opportunity and a chance to grow in our ability to discuss deeper topics in German.
  • He has blessed us with a community here - a supportive team and friends who have helped us feel at home. This is a huge blessing and one we do not take for granted (or try not to!).
We could go on and on. Suffice it to say, God has opened doors, given us favor, and confirmed his presence with us every step of the way. We are blown away by his blessings, even in the times that have been challenging, tiring and downright difficult. We are still confident that He is working and that He will use us to impact people here, despite our frailty, sin and failures. For this, we are the most grateful.

"It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed."

- Deuteronomy 31:8