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!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Langham Austria

I was able to get some fresh air during a break and hike a bit.

A few weeks ago, I headed off to Schloss Klaus for a great week of training and learning. If you read this blog really carefully you may remember me (Nate) attending a Simeon Trust workshop at my brother-in-law's church in Atlanta while we were on home assignment. Well Langham Preaching is a sister organization to the Simeon Trust through All Souls church in London.
the main session room overlooking the mountains

What is Langham? It is an interdenominational group focused on increasing the quality of preaching and teaching in the church. They focus on expository preaching - which means focusing on a specific text in a sermon/teaching versus a topical framework. Over 100 church leaders from all over Austria met at a beautiful castle retreat center called Schloss Klaus to focus on the way we interpret and teach the four gospels. It was a very special time of sharpening and encouragement. These leaders came from a pretty broad spectrum of backgrounds. We had BEG (our church association), Lutheran, Brethren, and non-denominational International churches represented. Just like my time at Simeon, I think it is tough to call this JUST a preaching conference. Ultimately, these conferences focus on the fundamentals of good teaching and preaching. We focus on good hermaneutics. 
Stairs were every where at the Schloss
staying there is a good workout - if only the
cooking didn't taste so good!
For many that is a scary or technical word. Who needs "hermaneutics"!? I just study the bible, they say. That word just means the "science and art of biblical interpretation."  If understanding the bible is a football game (to borrow a metaphor from some of my college text books), and the game itself is the act of studying the text, preaching would be the color commentary - the explanation of the game. Hermaneutics is just the rules of the game. When can I throw a forward pass? When do I score a first down? The rules tell us these things. 
The main speaker and his translator
For the bible the questions are things like, "how do I read this poetic text?" and "how is that different than how I should read a historical account?" 

These ideas aren't just important for preaching - though they can make or break a sermon. They filter down into how someone teaches in a youth group setting, with middle-schoolers or even how you teach Sunday school. It goes into the very core of how we communicate the scriptures.

Here are a few ideas I took away from our time there:
1. When we teach the gospels we have to avoid some key dangers. The stories are familiar to us, which is dangerous, and we have to key into the specific details of the story and how the gospel writer tells the story. We have to continually ask the question, "what is the gospel writer trying to emphasize here?" We can often give brief summaries of the stories but every time we study them we can unearth details that we may have missed before - details that are key to really truly understanding the text. Another danger is moralizing the stories. Jesus quotes scripture in the face of temptation in the desert and so should you. Except Jesus only quotes from one book in the Old Testament, and really just a few chapters. So is it possible that there is more going on there? It forces us to focus on the text and understand it, instead of making a list of rules. 

2. The New Testament is saturated in the Old. If our New Testament text refers to the Old, and we don't go back to that reference, we can't possibly hope to understand our text. So often the nuance of what Jesus is doing in a specific story is lost, because we don't go back and understand the Old Testament context. In a recent sermon, I wrote on Luke 7 the Old Testament context was the key to the passage. Without the Old Testament context the story is just Jesus healing a widow's dead son. That's pretty amazing, until you realize that they story parallels a story in 1 Kings 17 where Elijah also heals a widows dead son. The core of the text is then "The prophet Elijah needed to cry out to God for healing, Jesus is the prophet who proves his deity by healing with a word." The first statement isn't wrong but it is incomplete.

 3. Lastly, the gospels are not primarily a list of propositional truths; they are stories. We must learn how to tell those stories with all of their twists and surprises. Jesus often does unexpected things and we need to learn how to communicate that.

These conferences (and the concepts that undergird them) are really important and will lead to more faithful and relevant proclamation of the scriptures in our churches. Please continue to pray for all of those that faithfully teach God's word from the Sunday school children's hour to the pulpit.

Special Time with Family

Last week, we were blessed to be visited by my brother and his family. It was so special to have them visit us here in Austria and get to share a bit of our life with them! They combined the visit with some touring in Germany and the Czech Republic, visiting some Reformation sites (in honor of the 500 anniversary) and a concentration camp. They spent 3 days with us here in Vienna and then we enjoyed 5 days together in the Alps.

Ellie LOVED playing with her cousins and it was so special to watch them spend time together. One of the hardest things about living overseas is missing out on time with family. Saying goodbye was hard, but we are so thankful for the memories we were able to share together.

Here are a few photos from our time last week!

The cousins together at Schönbrunn

Eating traditional Austrian food together

Hiking above Hallstatt

Touring the salt mines

The cousins together! 

Above Hoher Dachstein, one of the highest peaks in Europe!

Our First Prayer Meeting

Church planting can be an undefined, uncertain ministry. Each day is different and the way God works to plant each new church is also different. Many questions arise at every stage...What does each day look like? How should we start? How do we take tangible steps, while also relying on God? How do we remain culturally relevant, while also "pushing the envelope" and taking risks? When do we ask people to join the team and when do we communicate more indirectly, as is common in this culture? I've found there are more and more questions, as we move further along in the journey.

So far, we have relocated to our target geographic area and started making intentional connections with Christians in this area. We are attending a local church and serving there, with the hopes that we will soon have a team of believers ready to step out and join us. In the fall, we hope to start a bible study of people who want to reach out local area.

Two weeks ago, we took another important step and started hosting prayer evenings for this church planting project. We invited local pastors, Christians nearby who have expressed interest in the church plant, those from our former church who want to pray for us, other missionaries, and anyone else who we thought might want to pray. We did not ask people to commit to joining the church planting team - these evenings will primarily be about praying for this new church plant and for our efforts to reach this region. We know God works through prayer, and we also believe He will use these times of prayer to start forming a team of people who will join us.

We were so encouraged by all of those who attended our first prayer evening! There were about 13 people in attendance (including us) and it was a diverse group of people - potential team members, local pastors and church leaders and others who want to pray for this area. We took time to pray in segment for the region, the project, and the team. Nate also gave a devotional at the start and took time to explain some of the reason why we are targeting this region of Vienna.

We are excited for this start and will be hosting a prayer evening every 3 - 4 weeks to build momentum. Please pray with us for this church planting project - for God to work through us, for people to be reached and for a thriving, gospel-preaching community to be established!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Power Up Conference

Every few years WorldVenture, our missions organization, plans a regional conference for everyone working in Europe. We missed the last one, because it was just a few days before Ellie was born. That conference took place over New Years with child care so that families could attend without school issues and bring their kids along. This time around, they chose a different model that we are really excited about. They are putting the exact same conference on twice, once in the spring and again in the fall so that families with small kids can attend, with the parents taking turns. Bethany is looking forward to having Maya weaned and having a new gal arrive on our field so that they can go together in the fall, so the spring time was my turn.

The conference was called Power Up and took place in Vilnus, Lithuania. For those that think this sounds like a really exotic location, remember that A) This is still EU, which means easier travel for most of us who already have EU visas and B) it is a lot cheaper than having something like this in a place like Switzerland or France, where everything would be more expensive from food to lodging. It was a really pretty city and a place that would be fun to go back and visit. There was an interesting mix of old world monarchical history and the recent soviet influences. It is still a country stuck between and influenced by both Moscow and Europe. The old city was a great place to just wander around and find little corners and shops.
the view of the city from our hotel
evening wandering in the city

The conference itself was on interpersonal communication. This is a topic near and dear to my heart and something I find very important. Here were a few key takeaways that I gleaned from our time.

1. The first thing I wanted to share was from a session called "Loving Listening." They talked about how we can show people we love them by making them feel truly heard. There was a quote from David Augsberger: "Being heard is so close to being loved, that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable." We often don't realize the power that we hold, simply by listening to people. Life can be so hectic and full of running from thing to thing, that there is a huge relational power in stopping what we are doing and truly listening to what another person has to say. Not just hearing them, or trying to break in and make our point, but listening to them and understanding where they are coming from. This can help all of our relationships from casual acquaintances all the way to the people that are dearest to us. How can we show the people around us we care for them by listening to them?

2.  Another key group of sessions was about the book Crucial Conversations. They defined a "crucial conversation" not necessarily as conflict, but just like the subtitle of the book says "when things are at stake." When we disagree and decisions need to be made, we get into the realm of a crucial conversation. One of my main take-aways was a pretty simple observation. It is the idea that when we are in a conversation and someone says something we don't understand or it seems to be negative or critical, we create a narrative in our own minds about what that could mean. We set their statement in a context which answers the question "why would someone say something like that?" Often the answer can be something like: "They think I am stupid" or "they don't believe I am capable of succeeding here." We then go forward with that internal story and begin to believe it is true. But what happens if that isn't true? Do we really take time to expose those underlying stories to the light of day and check if that person really believes that? There are often totally reasonable explanations that also fit the facts of a situation, and it is our personal fears or insecurities that drive it forward.

There were many other key takeaways from the time there from personal soul care and rest, building trust in relationships, and personal moral purity; just to name a few. I am very excited for Bethany to be able to go to the same conference in the fall so that we can debrief and compare notes.