Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas in Austria!

Merry Christmas from the Johnsons! Watch below to learn more about how Austrians celebrate Christmas!

Monday, December 18, 2017

In Defense of Christmas Music

Music is controversial. Partially because it is a question of taste. What you love, what speaks to your soul and makes you want to dance, can mean nothing to me. Or worse, some music we actively dislike. The best way to annoy a roommate is to play their least favorite but all too catchy song and see what happens. All of this applies to Christmas music, as well. 

Some people can't stand it, even after the acceptable "post Thanksgiving" start to the Christmas season. They feel like the songs are just ear worms that stick with us. Or they are old and tired and they struggle to see the value in them. I will say this: many of the modern "Christmas-lite" or "Christmas-ish" songs can be difficult to hear over and over. Songs that ask obvious questions (yes, Mary did know, she knew, she totally knew because an angel came and told her) or don't even really have anything to say can be annoying. But amidst all of the songs talking about lights and good feelings stands a core of Christmas songs that have stood the test of time. They proclaim the core of Christian faith and remind us what we believe.

They Put Truth Center Stage

So many artists do Christmas songs, albums or videos. It seems to be the thing to do. Make a few good records and then do a "holiday" album. It is fun to see the different styles that a traditional Christmas song can take on. But something I've noticed recently is that secular artists often cover Christian Christmas songs. It is great to see solid biblical truth in the greater culture. We see popular musicians singing "Oh Come Oh Come, Emanuel!" or proclaiming "Joy to the world! The Lord is come!" It is easy to forget how little these truths are proclaimed in popular culture, and I find it exciting to see them spoken, even by those that don't believe them to be true. This is a chance for us to think deeply and praise the Lord in unexpected places.

They Connect Us to Historic Christianity

Many of the songs we sing in American churches today are not that old, relatively speaking. I know some bemoan the 80's and 90's praise choruses sung in their church, but many of our Christmas songs are from the 18th and 19th centuries. They were written by some truly great hymn writers, men and women whose songs we should sing a lot more in our congregations. "Joy to the World" was written by Isaac Watts and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (though it misses the fact the angels didn't sing) was written by Charles Wesley. One of my favorite Christmas songs "Of the Father's Love Begotten" was written in the 300s. For those that struggle to find a place in many modern church music settings, the depth and beauty of these old Christmas songs can be a breath of fresh, gospel-infused air. 

They Connect Deeply to the Gospel

Often we think of the gospel as something someone needs at the beginning of their journey with Christ. It is the thing we deeply understand and accept which brings us into a relationship with Him. This is true, but the Christian that has been following Christ for 30 years needs the gospel no less than the man or woman that is just beginning. We need that reminder and the songs of Christmas are that reminder. I love to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful" - especially the third verse. "Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning; / Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv'n! / Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!" or these words "A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morning. / Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices"

If we take a moment to listen to all of our most well-known Christmas songs, we will hear deep truths about Christ waiting for us to reconnect with them. And that is the challenge of Christmas. We must walk down a well-worn path. One that some have been on since they were children. A path that ultimately leads to a manger and the most unique thing about Christianity. The arrival of God himself, in fulfillment of prophecy in the meekest and humblest way possible. A baby like no other who became a king like no other.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Family Photos

We were incredibly blessed by a fellow missionary who is a gifted photographer to get some new family pictures done recently! They turned out great and we're thankful to have some more recent photos to share and hang on the wall. Thank you, Carrie!

Here are a few of our favorites from the shoot...

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reformation History in Vienna

Ask an American about Austria and you probably get a fairly short list. It usually starts with Sound of Music, the Alps and maybe Schwarzenegger. Sometimes Mozart is thrown in there, and don't they speak...German there? I don't blame them, as a mid-westerner I can barely tell the difference between New Hampshire and Vermont. If people have traveled here they talk about the beautiful mountain scenery, the cute villages and the grand cities. We have palaces and castles galore, but we also have churches. A lot of churches. We have many big beautiful churches. We have very old churches and very ornately decorated ones. The next thing you learn is that almost all of them are catholic. Austria is after all a very catholic country. Most of our bank holidays are connected to some saint or someone's ascension. The protestant church is a pretty small percentage of the population, and the free church is an even smaller slice of that slice.

Two large black church doors with a crucifixion scene painted above with Luther and Melanchthon kneelingIn many protestant communities today is Reformation day. This is not just because they want an alternative to Halloween. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. It was one of the definitive acts of the Reformation.

Charles V
While many people know about the German and Swiss history connected to the Reformation, it is not well known how much of a role Austria played on both sides of the Reformation story. For example, if you've seen the 2003 Luther film you may remember that Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor that called Luther to the Diet of Worms in 1521. There Luther makes his famous statement "Here I stand, I can do no other." What we often fail to remember is that Charles V was from the Hapsburg family. They were the ones to build up the Austro-Hungarian empire. They were kinda a big deal.

On the other side of it, you have the example of a young Catholic monk that moves to Waldshut in present day Germany in 1521. In the 1500s Waldshut belonged to Austria, because in the 1500s a lot belonged to Austria. His name was Balthasar Hubmaier. He was influenced by the Swiss reformers and reads the writings of Martin Luther and comes to faith in 1523. Five years later he has planted two Anabaptist churches and baptized thousands before being martyred in Vienna. His wife is killed 3 days later. At a point in the 1500s it is said that 90% of Austria was protestant. The gospel had exploded in Austria. "Winkelprediger" - literally corner preachers would preach in the streets, in the mines, and on farms across the country. It was a truly transformational time. Even after the counter Reformation, there are villages in the mountains that remain Protestant to this day. They trace their roots back to this time.

Balthasar Hubmaier
All this to say there is an amazing tradition here in our country which we are excited to celebrate. We also pray that it will help Austrians understand that the free church is not some American splinter group. We want people to see that the values of the Reformation - Faith alone, Grace alone, the Scriptures alone - give us the chance to connect with the creator of the universe!

As we learn more about this and continue to celebrate milestones of the reformation (2021 will be the Diet of Worms, 2028 is Hubmaier's martyrdom and so on) we will continue to share with you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Power Up

Downtown Vilnius
A few weeks, I had the opportunity to attend a WorldVenture training conference in Lithuania offered for all missionaries in Europe and the Middle East. Nate attended this conference in the spring and they offered it twice in the year so couples like us with little kids could take turns. I was so thankful for the chance to attend.

Sessions in the hotel
It was a really refreshing week for me, not only because it was a break from the everyday and a chance to get away and relax a little, but especially because of all the great training content and conversations with other missionaries. There is something special about missionaries getting together, even if they have never met, because we all understand each other and the experiences we've gone through integrating into a new culture and learning a language. The worship and prayer times were also incredibly refreshing, since on most Sunday mornings here I miss part or all of the service because of the kids.

The main thrust of the conference was about skills in interpersonal relationships. It sounds like such a basic topic, but all of us need to constantly be striving to improve how we relate with others. This affects everything we do - our ministry in the church, how we care for others outside the church, how we have healthy marriages and family relationships, and everything in between. We discussed topics like encouragement, trust, listening, healthy rest, moral purity and conflict resolution. It was especially interesting to discuss how these topics each play out uniquely in our culture where we live, in comparison to American culture where we may be most comfortable.

We visited a Lithuanian Castle midway through the week

New friends!
The leadership of Europe and the Middle East for WorldVenture was there at the conference teaching the content. Informally, though, at meal times and in between times, they were also there to discuss how we are doing and questions we may have about things at the mission. Having these conversations in person is so valuable, and I was really thankful to get some questions answered about some recent financial changes and to get to know some people in leadership positions that I hadn't met before.

I'm so thankful for WorldVenture and that it makes it a priority to offer conferences like these, where we can come away with practical learning and new relationships and connections. And I'm thankful for Nate, who stayed home with the kids so I could attend!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Seeing the Need for the Gospel

I had an interesting conversation in the baby room at church recently. To be honest, any sort of conversation with little kids around is challenging...Both parents spend most of their time redirecting and parenting their small children through a maze of things that they can play with or injure themselves with, depending on the context. I didn't know the other Dad in the room, and we chatted for a bit. At one point, one child did something selfish, and I made a comment about how children are inherently selfish, and it isn't something that we have to teach them. His response surprised me. He defended a sort of morally neutral viewpoint that the reason a child is selfish isn't because they are naturally that way; it is a learned behavior. It is because they hear "no" from us when they grab at our mobile phone (or in our case, the dog's water dish, to which Maya makes a bee-line ever chance she gets). When they hear "no", they learn our own selfishness.

To be honest, I was pretty fascinated by this line of thinking. I find this here every once in a while. I try to make comments that lift up the hood on my worldview every now and again. I understand that my worldview is fundamentally different than many of the people I encounter here in Austria, but it is often something that lies under the surface. Aspects of worldview are things that aren't normally addressed. They are hidden around every corner, but don't always come all the way up to the surface. It is important to be able to talk about and dialogue about worldview perspectives. I don't think we think enough or discuss enough these sorts of fundamental questions.

The weakness in his view is two-fold. First of all, I have less and less moral agency in my own life if I am purely a product of my environment and learned behavior. I can say, "its not my fault, I was raised like this", but our parents and their parents can make the same argument. I can give up responsibility for my own choices. It also doesn't explain the foundation of this all. If it just runs up the generations, where is the genesis for it all? It all remains subjective and disconnected from a reality outside of the material world.

The second weakness is it feels awfully hopeless. If this spiral is bread into us and permeates society, what hope do I have to break out? Do you really trust yourself to have the shear force of will to pull yourself out of this? Maybe others are able to bear that, but it feels too heavy for me.

The world is fundamentally broken, there is something wrong, and we can feel it. If we are honest with ourselves, the sickness is not just outside ourselves in society or just in other people, it is in our own hearts, as well. It is in my heart. I think this is the first step to understanding our need for the gospel. We need to understand that all that darkness is in our own hearts, too.

But that is not the end of the story. It is into our darkness that Jesus arrives and gives us the chance to change; he makes us new. It isn't my white-knuckled fingers on the steering wheel that change the direction of my life. It is his transformation and his power.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Getting Away

Last Friday, we returned home from our first two week vacation in Austria. We were so thankful for the chance to explore this beautiful country we live in and see some areas we had never visited. The more we visit various new parts of Austria, the deeper our understanding grows for the Austrian culture and values. After a busy year we were also very thankful for the chance to rest and get away (although travelling with little kids is not always very did have it's moments).

Here are a few photos highlights from our trip:

The first week was spent in the province of Tirol in the Alps, near the Swiss and Italian borders. We rented a house with another family from Vienna. The kids had a blast playing together and we enjoyed exploring the local area.

Our second week was spent at a "Vacation Farm", where we had an apartment on property. We got to cuddle cats, feed the animals, do crafts and ride ponies. We also loved riding the gondola to the top of the local mountain, where there were lots of great views and adventurous activities.

After two weeks away, it was nice to return home and get back into a normal routine. With September's arrival comes the start of kindergarten again for Ellie and the kick-off of ministries at church. We are excited to jump back in and see what new things God has in store for us this fall!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Frame of Reference

A few weeks ago, Ellie and I went on our first Austrian camp out. We went with 3 other dads from our colleague's church in the city. All four families are at a similar stage in life. Each family has an oldest daughter with in a one and a half year span. Even though we don't go to their church or see them really often, we have stayed connected with these families throughout our time here in Vienna.

So we all packed up and headed to Neusiedlersee which is on the southern border of Austria and Hungary. Austria is not that big of a country and so it took us about an hour and a half to get there.

We had a really great time. It was Ellie's first time sleeping in a tent and in a sleeping bag. We got to go swimming in the lake, eat some ice cream and relax in the shade. Despite a light case of heat exhaustion (for me) and some car trouble, we had a ton of fun. All the girls did a great job playing together.

One thing I found really interesting after spending the weekend with the guys was how much our up-bringing affects our frame of reference. The first and most obvious example of this was what camping actually means. For me this is camping, and this and this. Camping is calm in the woods, it is cooking out on a fire, it is ready-made adventure. For me growing up, camping was vacation. But here camping is a little more communal. We were all together on a big grassy area with very little shade. It is just a different experience.

Another side of it was spending that much time with the guys and seeing how we each worked with daughters. I think every family is different in how the discipline and help their children. Culture isn't the only thing influencing these decisions. We were also a bunch of Dads that all didn't have to do the rhythms that our wives set up for our families...but that is a different post. It was a small window into these families and how we handle daily chores and tasks.

I was at a small get together recently where they had a cold buffet laid out. One food here that isn't in the U.S. is something called Topfen. It is a form of farmer's cheese similar to the cheese you would have if you took cottage cheese and blended it. They make all kinds of dips and spreads out of it, and I like it very much. I turned to someone in line I was chatting with and mentioned, "You know in the States, we don't have this. I think I would really miss it." He looked at me confused and said something along the lines of "really?" For most of us in the U.S. that sort of spread on bread just isn't a category. It's not something normally put out for cold sandwiches.

I think it is valuable to set aside our frame of reference and seek to see things from someone else's perspective. It gives me the chance to evaluate my preconceived notions about the world; it helps me to see myself more clearly. It holds a mirror up to me as I see different ways of doing things. We continue to unearth small things in this culture that are like that, simply a different way of solving the same sets of problems.

This is why we need each other. This is one of the values of cross-cultural relationships. It is a mirror held up to you where you can see the weaknesses of your decisions, the places where the light of God's glory doesn't shine as bright. This shows us places where others do things better, and it is up to us under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to act on those things.

The great thing about this is you don't have to live 4,700 miles away from home. You have neighbors and friends close by where that same feeling is available. I want to encourage our American friends to seek out a neighbor or co-worker from a different culture and learn something about yourself.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Visit to the States

I (Bethany) just returned last week from a special 10-day trip to the U.S. to celebrate the wedding of my sister, Crista and her new husband John. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to be there for her special day. Maya came along, and it was quite the exhausting adventure for the two of us. We flew to Atlanta and spent two days at my brother's house. My parents picked us up and we drove 4 hours to their new house in South Carolina. 4 days later we got in the car again and drove to Virginia (6 hours). The day after we drove 9 hours up to Connecticut and were there for 4 days for the wedding. All of this travel was tiring and unfortunately, Maya got sick just after getting over jet lag. It was rough, but also full of many special times with family. I am thankful to be back home where Maya is recovered and sleeping well again, but I miss my family.

While I was gone, Nate held down the fort with Ellie. We had a babysitter come each day so Nate could work (he's been prepping a sunday school class for the fall and he was working on a sermon) and in the afternoons, Nate and Ellie went on many fun adventures together including rock climbing, camping, visiting a favorite museum, hiking and swimming. Their time was full like ours!

Here are some photo highlights from our time the last two weeks:

How can my niece be 15 already??

Beautiful ceremony by the water

Fun at the reception

The happy couple

Grammy and Maya

All the cousins who were there

Fun at home - ice cream!
Ellie in her sleeping bag on her first camping trip

Sunset on Neusiedlersee - Nate and three other dads took four toddler girls camping!

Climbing excursion

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Foreigner's Advantage?

An Austrian friend stopped by recently to meet with Nate for prayer. As we were discussing with him our efforts to get to know neighbors, we had an interesting discussion about the potential benefits of trying to share the gospel as a foreigner as opposed to an Austrian.

Here in Austria, most people are private and like to keep to themselves. It is uncommon, especially in the Vienna area, for strangers to converse in public places or for friendliness to go beyond your basic gestures (saying hello or thank you, for example). Our friend said that if an Austrian makes an effort to be especially friendly with those he meets, it is often met with skepticism. If, for example, a Christian tries to be friendly with his neighbors and is outgoing in a way that is counter-cultural, most Austrians would ask themselves, "why is he being so friendly? What does he want from me? What's the catch?" They assume that there is some motivating factor behind his behavior and are skeptical about his motives. They might then close themselves off or write him off as being weird.

On the other hand, when Austrians meet a foreigner, they automatically expect them to behave differently than an Austrian would. Americans are known here for being boisterous, outgoing and very friendly (sometimes overly so!). If we reach out to neighbors and are friendly in an atypical way, we are often given a pass. This can open up more doors for us to be open about sharing the gospel with those we meet! 

In many ways, being a foreigner in this culture brings difficulties and challenges. But it was encouraging to hear that it can also be something unique about us that can be a special ministry advantage. Pray with us that God blesses our efforts to reach out to those around us!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Better is the End

Today in my (Nate) Bible reading I finished up Ecclesiastes. Solomon's words rang true in my heart as I read, "Better is the end of a thing than its beginning." Today we closed the first chapter of our interns' summer here with us in Austria. This afternoon they got on a train with one of our former interns and her sister and headed to the Salzburg area to start the second half of their ministry.

suitcases packed and ready to meet their next challenge!These times are always bittersweet. We know that God has been working in their hearts. It is fun to see their understanding of the culture grow and to see how their questions change as they learn and experience more and more. We are blessed and honored to be able to build into these gals and serve them through their time here. 

As we sent them off, we prayed for the students that were going to be in their cabins, that they would continue to seek them out, that they would work hard to build relationships with their campers despite low language confidence and busy schedules. We prayed that they would have energy and push through when times are challenging. 

We are excited to go and visit them after their first full week of camp. We know that this will be a great debrief time to process with them the things they are learning.

Will you pray with us and for them in this season of ministry? Thanks for lifting them up!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Gospel Reality or Cultural Expectations?

One of the questions we are constantly confronted with here is the interaction between Gospel and Culture. What do I mean by that? There is some percentage of my expectations for "what church is" that is dictated by my cultural background. This can be practical things like, "should we stand up during our singing time?" or "How long is our service?" or "how planned out or spontaneous is our service?". There are theological points to be made as well, but we wouldn't be telling the truth if we said churches express cultural preferences and expectations only in small and subtle ways.

This also moves over into leadership decisions or styles. Many church leaders (and this can be good or bad) take on the leadership values of the culture in which they find themselves. It isn't surprising that many American churches have a CEO-style pastor that manages the ministry. I am not necessarily criticizing this model, but more making the observation: there seems to be a correlation between American cultural leadership values and structures and the churches that exist within that culture. This comes out in how leaders behave, what we expect of leaders, and even churches' attitudes towards larger authority structures like denominations.

This all leads us to an interesting conversation I had with an American church leader here in Austria. He was talking about the many of the young American pastors he has seen coming to Europe, who often see no need for denominational connections. They bring with them their American individualism, but also the recent history of the American church moving away from denominations and towards independent non-denominational churches. Because of that, many of these young pastors arrive in Europe and don't think much of the denomination to which their church belongs.

My friend explained that many of the national pastors he encounters, on the other hand, are so thankful for their denominational support. Many of these leaders grew up in countries and cultures where they were one of the only believers they knew outside of their local church or maybe a local youth event. They often feel isolated or on the margin. In the States, there are many different conference options - smaller local conferences, camping ministries, big national conferences with big name authors and speakers. In the German speaking world, we are blessed with a great deal of opportunities for fellowship and encouragement, but much less than in America. There are many other places in the world where those denominational structures that many Americans have moved away from are a critical lifeline for the local church to stay connected and find accountability.

I found a few things fascinating about this conversation. I often encounter situations living and working cross-culturally that I could have never expected or seen beforehand. This is one of those things. I am not sure I could have ever expected such a tension to exist. Now that I see it, I completely understand how it could come to be, but before moving here I would have had no idea.

The second thing is the continual push back that some of these American pastors give towards something that is a positive thing for their national colleagues. This is a key point here: there are many times in cross-cultural ministry when we have to set aside our personal cultural preferences or expectations for the sake of someone else. I have to ask myself, "is this a gospel reality or a cultural expectation?" This question is key in helping me understand a situation. Another key question is, "what are the cultural values undergirding this decision?" Often with enough patience and the right line of questions, it is possible to acquire the cultural value behind a decision.

Can you think of an example of something in your church has primarily cultural roots? 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Summer 2017 Video Update

And this month...a video update! We put this together for a supporting church (hence the introduction at the beginning), but we felt it was a good overview of what's been going on and how you can pray. Take a look!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Our Summer Internship is in Full Swing!

The interns having lunch with our colleagues, Peter and Celeste
 Our summer interns, Dani and Kyla, arrived on June 1st, and they've been going non-stop ever since! We are truly blessed to have them join us this summer, and we really have enjoyed watching them learn and process their experiences as they are experience missions in Austria for the first time.

Visiting the Oasis Refugee Center

Our overall goal for the internship is to expose our interns to a variety of different ministries and needs in Austria, as well as give them a "taste" of missionary life. They are taking German classes, navigating public transportation in a foreign city and handling their own grocery shopping, among other things.  Their weekly schedule also includes the following ministry opportunities:

  • Volunteering weekly at a refugee center, helping with a women and kids' group
  • Prayer walking around the local refugee camp and in the neighborhood where we will be church planting
  • Visiting a local anti-sex trafficking/trade ministry and helping them with organizing clothing donations and childcare during an African womens' bible study
  • Attending German class and looking for opportunities to talk about their faith with their classmates
  • Meeting with Bethany for weekly discipleship & discussion time
  • Meeting up with other missionaries in Vienna to learn about how God led them here and what they do
With other volunteers at the Oasis
Their schedule has been full! In between activities, they manage their own time, deciding how to prioritize rest, German study and reaching out to people they've met to meet up. In just 2 weeks, they hop on a train and head west to the Salzburg area to serve as counselors as a Christian English camp ministry, returning to Vienna afterwards to debrief on their time here this summer. 

This is our second year having summer interns and we are so thankful and blessing that God has led Kyla and Dani to serve here with us. We are learning many new things, too, as we walk with them through this significant cross-cultural and ministry experience. God is shaping us into better leaders and disciplers through this experience, and we know God will use this journey to better equip us for our new role as Team Austria field leaders. Praise God for how He is working!