Monday, August 11, 2014

The Importance of Status

We are constantly learning about cultural difference between the U.S. and Austria. Sure, there are obvious things; traditional dress and food are the easiest ones to spot. But it's the subtle differences that involve cultural values and ways of thinking that are more difficult to learn and that take time to understand deeply. The longer we live here, the more we learn to recognize cultural values that affect multiple areas of Austrian life and culture.

One of those values is respect and status. In Austria, respecting your elders and those "above you" is highly valued. The most obvious way this is demonstrated is through the language. When you are speaking to someone and you want to show respect, you use the formal "you", rather than the informal. (I wrote more about this here.) But the importance of status comes out in many other ways in the culture. For example, if you have earned a university degree or certificate of any kind, you often communicate this after your name in emails you write, documents you sign, etc. It demonstrates to others the status you have and the respect you should receive. In the U.S., there are many people who have masters degrees but never put "MA" after their name. However, here, this would be common and accepted.

Another place I noticed this cultural difference recently was, of all places, at the card store. Closely connected to this concept of status is achievement. When someone achieves a new level of status, this is celebrated and highly respected. I was walking past the greeting cards the other day and happened to look through the different categories of cards available to purchase. They were definitely different than what I have seen in the U.S. and reflect this cultural difference. The cards you could purchase related to status and achievement (pictured to the left in purple) included:
  • Master's degree
  • Promotion at work
  • Passing an exam
  • Getting your driver's license
  • Passing your final high school comprehensive exams
Many of these cards were for things that might hardly be celebrated in the U.S.! But here, achieving these things is praised and earns you the respect of your family, friends and colleagues. They give you one more "notch in your belt".

Noticing this difference encourages me to keep my eyes and ears open. Subtle cultural difference can sometimes be difficult to spot. But if we are aware and observant, we can notice how cultural values impact nearly every aspect of daily life in a foreign culture. It's these little things that we will slowly come to understand and internalize as we acclimate to the culture here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Cultivating Thankfulness

This past week, I started reading Ann Voskamp's book 1,000 Gifts. I had heard good things about this book, but hadn't picked it up yet because it had been so wildly popular over the past few years. For some reason, I tend to be a bit skeptical of popular things...or perhaps I just don't want to feel like a lemming, going with the crowd. Either way, I finally got over that.

It was truly God's timing that I began reading this book last week. I was having a rough week with Ellie - I think she was teething or constipated or learning a new skill or something (I'm not 100% sure which one and she can't tell me!) and was in a difficult mood many days in a row. I was struggling to be patient and was having trouble sleeping, both because she was waking up in the night and I couldn't always go back to sleep. I was becoming resentful of her moodiness and how difficult it was to get through each day. I was just trying to survive, but I was doing so without a good attitude.

Simultaneously, I remembered that I wanted to read this book and decided to download it to my kindle. I started the book during Ellie's morning nap, after a particularly bad night, and the first chapter hit me square in the face. Right off the bat, Ann tells the traumatic and heart-wrenching story of her baby sister being hit by a car and dying when Ann was only a few years old. Ann describes the grief of her and her parents in such amazing detail and also in a way that really affected me. I was instantly moved to tears.

After I had spent the week harboring resentfulness toward my daughter, I was instantly convicted of my ungratefulness. How could I dare to take her for granted, when there are families who have lost children and families who can't have children? I have a beautiful, healthy little girl! She is a precious gift from God and I need to cherish her. Yes, there are hard days...that will always be true. But I have so much to be thankful for, and I cannot even imagine the thought of losing her.  It would break me.

God has an amazing way of pinpointing our areas of sin and speaking truth to us, doesn't he? As long as we're listening, I believe God is constantly wanting to speak to us and convict us, in order to spur us on to be more like Christ. Christ, who on the night he was betrayed, "...took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you.'" Christ was about to suffer and die and he displayed thankfulness. How much more so should we be thankful to God. 

What area of your life are you struggling to be thankful for this week? How can you thank God in the midst of that struggle?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Processing My First Sermon

...or "2 Corinthians 12:9 Lived out"

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

I have had a week and a half to process through preaching my first sermon in German. It was a huge honor and a great learning experience. This is one of those milestones that we can point to along the road. It is a stone of remembrance at which we can say, "up till now, the Lord has helped us."  Now that it is over, I am starting to get some perspective on what God taught me through the entire process.

1. Preaching in German Highlights my Weaknesses

At Moody, I was able to take a preaching class and learn the basic nuts and bolts of preparing and delivering a message. Also in our preparation to move to Vienna, I had the privilege of speaking in various contexts, as well as preaching. Through all this, I have become acquainted with my weaknesses as a speaker. While I am generally not very nervous when speaking in front of groups, I am also a verbal processor. This means I can verbally chew on an idea (too long) while I am speaking until I craft it the way I like it. The big way to work on this is two-fold. The first is spending more time in preparation, crafting specific statements to make them just right. The second is practicing a sermon once it is prepared.
The great thing for me about preaching in German has been that crutch of being able to "verbally chew" an idea in English is greatly diminished in my German. If I tried to do that, we'd be there for a long time and many words would just not come to mind. Because of that, I had to manuscript the sermon and practice it far more than I have in the past. I had to stick to my notes because they were my lifeline!

2. Encouragement is Legit

Austrian culture is not always known as an encouragement-oriented culture. We Americans often get lovingly made fun of for how we are so positive and exuberant about things (eg. what awesome hair do you have there! or It was the best night ever!). There is a phrase in German that you hear all the time here, which is "schau mal mal." It basically translates, "eh, we'll see." Neither response is 100% correct. Americans can be too flippant. In a world where everything is "awesome" or "legendary", do those words lose all meaning?
In this respect, our church is very counter-cultural. After my sermon, I received emails, facebook notes, and in person encouragements that were so wonderful. In all the ways that we try to put ourselves out there, we are consistently met with encouragement and love from our church community. For me, this shows how the body of Christ can be counter-cultural and display the gospel to one another. It has even more impact when we see it countering deeply-held or automatic cultural responses and to see it as a natural outflow and not something forced. 

3. I am far more weak, broken and frail than I usually am willing to admit to myself or others

During the preparation process, I had a few moments of shear doubt and fear. That feeling of dread, like when you are really caught, came over me. The source of this doubt was, "What happens when Sunday comes and I am not ready? What happens when I get to that point and it is just not there?" To be honest, there is a twinge in me just writing it out again. But it is in those moments of desperation that we are able to cry out to God. It means trusting him to supply our needs and taking steps of faith forward.
Don't be discouraged if you have moments like this. If we take no risks or never put ourselves in a position where we can fail, we are also missing the chance for God to do something through us.