Sunday, October 25, 2015

Saying Goodbye...again

Send-off at church this morning
I'm not gonna lie...Sometimes, being a missionary is really exhausting. Case in point: We said many many goodbyes at church this morning. As many of you know, we are preparing for a 7-month "home assignment" in the States. We will fly back Thursday morning and spend the time there updating churches, friends and supporters on our ministry here in Austria and what God is doing. We hope to spread the word to more people about the needs here and in western Europe in general. We will also, of course, spend quality time with friends and family and serve in the churches where we are at.

I really dislike saying goodbye. Perhaps that is a universal thing...but I think I especially dislike it. I sometimes avoid goodbyes entirely, which I know is not healthy, but I do it anyways. And sometimes when I'm saying goodbye to someone (especially for a long time), I have no idea what to say so I end up saying weird or awkward things. Not great.

I don't think we, as people, were designed for goodbyes...for parting. We were designed for relationship and connection, made in God's image to be in community with one another. But we are forced, throughout our life, to be painfully separated from others through distance, conflict, death, and a variety of other changes in circumstances. It doesn't feel right - it feels unnatural. And saying lots of goodbyes makes me yearn for Heaven, when we won't have to do this anymore.

It was especially hard to say goodbye to our church community this morning because when we return in June, life will be different. We are preparing for church planting and will eventually move on to start a new church in a different area of Vienna. Just as we have really hit our stride in ministry and community in our church, we must uproot ourselves again to start over. And this, after doing the same thing by leaving our home country, family and friends 3 years ago. It hurts.

And right now, we are preparing to travel back to the States, where we will say many hellos but also many goodbyes. In every place, we will connect with people and then leave them again. As you might expect, we approach this home assignment with many mixed feelings. We are excited to see everyone and be back in our home culture, but we know it will be an emotionally challenging time of many transitions and goodbyes. And all the while we will be missing our home in Austria and everyone there.

All of this is very tiring and challenging. But what has brought me comfort in the last few weeks are the words of a blog post I read recently about this home assignment phenomenon, called "The Far Side of Somewhere". Please read this - it will really help you understand the thoughts and feelings we are missionaries experience in a circumstance like this. This article really preached truth to me when it reminded me that God is present everywhere we go - in Austria, in every location where we will visit in the States, and everywhere else. He goes with us and before us. Amidst transition, that brings me a lot of comfort.

I invite you to meditate on Psalm 139 with me and remember, too, that no matter what transition you are going through right now, God is already there. You cannot escape his presence. Praise the Lord!

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Learning Through Failure

As some of you know, I did a pastoral internship at our church here in Vienna. The experiences were so varied and challenging. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time learning and absorbing information. It was a lot of learning through listening and observing. This is an important first step, but at some point you have to jump into the pool and get wet.

The internship has been a chance to do that. At some point during the internship, I was asked to give a short devotion at the beginning of an all church meeting. These are great chances to share something and engage, without the larger time commitment of preparing a sermon. (Some will argue that shorter time constraints are harder, but that is another blog post.)

Me demonstrating the rubber band 
Up to that point, I had used a full manuscript for speaking engagements, where I wrote every word I wanted to say before hand. I am bad with a manuscript in English, but I felt I needed it in order to speak fluidly in German. This time around, for the devotion, I tried bullet points and I felt so much more fluid. I was able to just talk, instead of needing to read what was on the page. It felt really great.

So everything went well and I was feeling good. I talked about 1 Kings chapter 8 and Solomon's benediction after he build the temple. It is an amazing prayer. I talked about the constant need for repentance in our lives as Christians. I focused on the idea that at this very high point in Israel's history, Solomon talked so much about sin in our lives. Not just sin itself, but the beautiful cycle of recognizing sin in our lives, confessing it to God, repenting and turning away from those missteps and focusing our attention on God.

Or so I thought. The problem was...that wasn't what I was talking about. There is something special in German - prefixes. I talked about the Christian's need to continually "sich bekehren." Unfortunately, this does not mean "to repent" but instead it means repentance in the context of conversion... "to convert". I told them we continually need to convert. The word I was actually looking for is "sich umkehren." That's right, just one prefix changes the meaning from conversion to repentance. I have to be honest, I have made plenty of mistakes in language learning, but this one stung. That was a big difference.

In our training, we talked about a "rubber band" principle. Imagine that you have a giant rubber band around your waist. On one side, there is my expectations and on the other is what actually happens. When the distance between the two is small, the "snap" of a negative situation is minimal. But when I expect something, and something completely different happens, the "snap" hurts more because the two ends are farther apart.

Being at the stage in language learning where we are right now, these "snaps" happen less often than they used to. But when they do come, they can hurt more. We are required to continually put ourselves out there and take risks. When it works, it works really well! But when it doesn't, it can hurt.

One other thing that has been important for me to remember is that this is still actually learning! As frustrated as I can be with myself at a mistake like this, I will never make that mistake again. Language learning is tied to experiences. It takes humility to constantly place yourself in the position of learner. It is not easy to accept critique and input from others, but it is worth it because it is the only way to develop the language skills that we desire and need.

Failure in general is often considered wrong. In principle, we laud people like Edison who took so many tries before discovering the proper material to put in a light bulb, but it is different to personally put ourselves in a situation where failure is possible. I am noticing more and more that the longer I speak German, the less inclined I am to dive back into that role of "learner" or someone who doesn't know all the answers.

There is value in admitting ignorance and asking for help...spending time listening or asking good questions instead of just jumping in with our own knowledge or experience. There is value in being a learner and a disciple.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Crisis Becomes Personal

Some of you know that the refugee crisis has been going strong here in Europe. Thousands of people have been streaming in from Syria and many middle eastern countries trying to reach western Europe. The response here has been mixed. Many fear terrorism or the importation of these conflicts. Others have pushed back against this with things like the #refugeeswelcome hashtag, demonstrations, and volunteers at the main train station here. We have seen really cool uses of social media with Facebook groups, set up to provide real time information about what is needed and what they already have enough of.

This whole issue is incredibly complicated, and I am no politician or a person with an answer to every question. We knew that there were people suffering and needing immediate help. We donated a few things like medicine and clothes based on the needs that were communicated. We also had some friends here that talked about an opportunity to give refugees a warm place to stay for a night or two as they are in transit or waiting for more permanent housing. We jumped at the idea to practically show the love of Christ like in Matthew 25. We put our names on a list while we were donating and and then didn't hear anything for a while.

Two weeks ago, we got a call asking if we would be available for two young guys. We picked them up on Tuesday and they were with us until Friday. It was an intense few days, but fun as well. We were able to use google translate to communicate (though it did not always work). They had also met another guy that had been here longer that could speak English and a bit of German, as well, and he met up with us sometimes to translate (he also met the guys during the day to help them get around). We were able to offer a warm place to sleep and do laundry. It took up some time, but we didn't have to put our lives completely on hold while they were with us.

One of the hardest things about this whole process, was recognizing how small our impact was in all of this. We can offer a few nights in a warm room, but that is far less than most of these people need. They need short term or long term housing. They need help learning German and navigating in this new culture and the massive bureaucracy through which they may be able to get asylum. On top of this, many people have come out of war situations and are dealing with real trauma. Spending time with these two guys and seeing how massive their needs are made me see how big this whole issue is. By no means should we give up or stop helping, but my vision of the need has exploded. There is a real feeling of helplessness when faced with challenges of this magnitude.

Spending time with these guys has also humanized the issue for me. It is important to talk about laws, systems and policies when dealing with issues like this, but we need to remember that these are real people. People for whom it was so bad where they lived, that they risked everything to escape and start over. I can't imagine that kind of personal calculus. Our reasons for coming here were so different, I can't imagine a war raging so bad or a government so oppressive that I decide to leave and create a better life. But millions have made or were forced to make that decision. Most sources are saying that 50% of the population of Syria is currently displaced. Many have said this is the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II.

Numbers are important to understand issues, but for me it is the people behind the numbers. The individuals that are affected. Meeting these two guys made this crisis not just about numbers of people displaced or the magnitude of the need, but people, image bearers of God, that are hurting and hungry. People that God desperately loves are in need. We can debate politics and legality, and we should. But let us not forget that the love of God compels us to help others not based on their passport, but based on their worth before a holy and loving God.

I want to write more about this in the future, but these are my thoughts for now. Throw me a comment below if you have experience with this crisis and others.