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A Brand New Start

School here starts on the first full week of September so this year we started September 7th. It is a big year for two reasons. First, Evie has her first official day of elementary school. Second, both Evie and Naomi will be at a new school. Though both girls are excited about this, for Naomi it is also mixed with a bit of sadness.

Here elementary school starts in first grade and they make a big deal about the first official day. The school day is usually only an hour and the purpose is really to meet the teacher and to celebrate the beginning of the student’s school career. Both parents are usually there. The kids are all dressed up and most importantly they get their school cones. The cones that the receive are a cornucopia filled with school supplies, small presents, and candy. I’m not exactly sure why all of these gifts are in a cone, but they remind me of huge bouquets of flowers. We are very thankful that they were able to have the first day celebration despite the virus. But, masks had to be worn in the school halls and only one parent was allowed in the school. Still it was an exciting day and Evie enjoyed her classroom and her teacher and learning about her classroom mascot Filio, the fox (all elementary classes seem to have a mascot)

For Naomi, she left her old mascot, Leo the lion for her new mascot Erdi the erdmännchen (Meerkat). We had Naomi in one of the public schools, but we felt that this new school would be a better fit for our family, but we had concerns with how Naomi would handle the change. You see, for the first four years of elementary school the students stay with the same teacher and classmates. Naomi will be starting fourth grade with a completely different set of classmates and a brand new teacher. We feel confident that they will grow to love her, but I’m sure that you can imagine how it will be for her leaving behind her old class and starting afresh.

If that weren’t enough there will be a lot of pressure on her to keep her grades up. This year decides whether or not Naomi will be allowed to take the academic track in school. Again, we feel confident that she can do this, yet this is still a lot of pressure to put on her. If you think about it, please keep her in your prayers this month. Pray that God would help Naomi to make new friends quickly and pray that she would draw close to Him as she faces a tremendous amount of stress for a nine-year-old.

So far, we are very pleased with the new school and both girls seem to be making friends and learning a lot. Please keep them and our family in your prayers as we continue to make this transition. Especially pray that God would use us to minister to the kids and the families that we get to know there.

Time for friendships

Time for friendships

Earlier this month, I enjoyed the SERVE missionary women’s retreat in Sinaia, Romania while Matt held down the fort in Vienna. I’m so grateful that the missions office provided this for us! The retreat was an especially sweet time of deepening friendships with these sisters who have a unique understanding of the challenges that go along with this missionary lifestyle. For our long term encouragement and longevity on the mission field, as well as our long-term faithfulness to Christ, cultivating these friendships is a priority. Janis Saville emphasized this point in one of the devotional times on Hebrews 12:1-3. Janis encouraged us to be diligent in continually building spiritually encouraging friendships, especially as we experience cycles of good friends moving away from our different locations.

Along with many of the missionary women serving in Europe, Janis Saville, Rachel Pruett, Linda Hudspeth, and Carolyn Harris traveled from Denton and joined us in the middle of their women’s teaching trip in Romania. The retreat was very intentionally set up by Janis with a minimal schedule so that we could all do what we needed for refreshment. We had lots of time to hike around nature, socialize and pray together, and we even toured a castle! Please pray that all of us would continue to faithfully run the race set before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus!

Celebrating Ten Years

Celebrating Ten Years

God continually has to remind us that this is His kingdom, not ours, and the He is the builder, we are just the tools in His hands. This year we are celebrating two 10 year anniversaries. The first was in June where we celebrated 10 years since Liz and I first moved here to Vienna. Yesterday we celebrate with our church their 10 year anniversary.

The text for the sermon was Psalm 127, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Our pastor, Brad Hunter shared story after story of how if God had not come through, then our church would have been a failure. Even the service itself was a reminder of that truth.

For months now, we had been planning on holding the service in a larger location. Our church has grown and we hold two services in our current building, but for this celebration we wanted the entire congregation to celebrate together along with any guests who were planning on coming. We had asked every larger church that we knew, as well as looked into renting theaters and the like, but could find nothing that could fit our budget and would be big enough to hold so many.  Only one week before, did we finally find a place that was big enough and inexpensive enough for us to use.

A lot can happen in ten years!

As we looked back in June on our ten years here in Vienna it was a good reminder that God has been with us in all that we have experienced and learned and that we could have done none of it without Him. In this time God has filled our quiver, all three of our children having been born here! He has also grown our team, allowing us to welcome seven teammates. Although He has also taught us how to say good bye too, as we have with four of those teammates.

Liz learned German not knowing a word before she came here. Matt’s picked up a bit of Ukrainian and Farsi. We have learned how to be overseas house hunters, and how to do some minor repairs. We have learned how to shop Vienna style. Liz has learned how to drive a stick-shift, and we’ve both learned how to handle driving in mountains, snow, and even roundabouts.

We are still on the learning curve on getting a residence permits, and how complicated the process of renewal can be. We’ve learned a bit of what refugees have to face to get here and how hard it is for them to stay here.

As we look back on mile marker like these, it is a good thing for all of us to remember that if God does not build the house then we build in vain!

Impressive Teamwork in the Church

Impressive Teamwork in the Church

I doubt that there are many churches who would send their teens 20 miles without a car to a sister church to help them out with a vacation Bible school. But that’s exactly what a group of Ukrainian teenage leaders did for an entire week. Why did they do it? They did it for the love of the church.

Our whole family just got back from Ukraine with a Team from our home church of Denton Bible. One of the pastors who graduated our Bible Training Center for Pastors class invited us to come and help them with a day camp, essentially a vacation Bible school.

This was his fourth year of putting on this day camp. The pastor had built an impressive team of young adults to help stage a week-long VBS. I was even more impressed when I realized that not all of them were from his church. Some had come from other churches in the region to help. How many of us would travel to a sister church to help them out like that? I am so glad we got to see such an examples of churches uniting together, but it took a lot of work to even get there.

One of the most difficult tasks early on was finding a team leader. I started recruiting in January, but for most people, it was too close to the start of school. By March I finally asked an old college friend of mine, Jeremy Pope, if he might lead the team, thinking that he was likely too busy. A few days later, Jeremy wrote me back saying that not only he was interested in going, but also his teenage son, who loved missions and who wanted to go to the former Soviet Union! God came through in a big way.

The Team and our Family in traditional Ukrainian outfits

Also, before any of us even got to Ukraine, things started going wrong logistically. The day that the team was supposed to leave, Pastor Volodymyr told me that he would be unable to pick us up at the airport. We decided it would be best to take the train instead so he bought train tickets for the day after the team was scheduled to arrive.

The next day, as we were getting ready to leave for the airport in Vienna we found out that the team missed their connection to Paris, putting them an entire day behind. They were going to miss the train so we organized another night in Kiev and bought yet another set of train tickets! To add insult to injury, when I finally picked up the team at the airport in Kiev three of the four team members were missing bags!

We finally arrived in Yarmolintsi (yar-MOLE-eent-see) shortly before the church kicked off the VBS with a kids festival event. They put us right to work. Liz helped with face painting and the rest of the team helped out with various events around the church ground. After that, we met with the Ukrainian team and found out what groups we would be helping out with.

During the camp, we all helped with groups of various age ranges and for 45 minutes every day we were responsible to teach an English lesson. There was only one translator and most of the Ukrainian team members didn’t speak much English, but the team did a great job just serving where they could and loving the kids, despite the language barrier.

On a few occasions in the evening Matt would get a chance to visit some other local churches in the area, to learn more about their ministries, get a feeling for the challenges that they face, and hopefully be an encouragement to them. One evening the Team went with Matt and they were recruited to sing for a prayer service. None of us had much business singing in front of an audience, but if you don’t want to be challenged, then don’t go on a short-term missions trip!

We can never be sure of all of the fruit that comes from a trip like this but as we all headed back to Kiev and then on to home, I think we all felt sure that God has used our time in Yarmolintsi to draw many of these children and their families closer to him, and to encourage not only the church there, but in the surrounding cities and villages. 

Click here if you would like to see more pictures from the trip.

Permission and Expectation

I hated math when I was a kid. Who’s with me? It was tedious having to practice the same problems over and over again. I remember making up all kinds of excuses not to do my math homework. It was no surprise, then, to find out that our oldest daughter was having trouble in the subject. In addition to that, (pun intended-always intend your puns) she’s learning all of this in her second language and it made sense that she needed more help in this subject than in her others.
Kids in Austrian elementary school finish their day before lunchtime. Which means that they are sent home with a bit more homework than elementary kids in the U.S. might be. Early on, N.’s teacher told us that they should not take much more than an hour to do homework. However, with N’s math difficulties, she was spending at least double that, if not more. So when she came home with a permission slip that she needed tutoring, we were not shocked. However, what the permission slip communicated did cause me a little bit of what I like to call culture stress.
The permission slip N. came home with simply stated that she needed tutoring, the tutoring class was in the afternoon, and please sign here to give your permission. Now, this may not sound like a big deal to you, but what was missing for me was an explanation.  There was no note from the teacher saying why she thought N. needed tutoring, what she thought the problem might be, the steps that they might take to help solve the problem- just, “your child needs tutoring, please give us your consent.” Granted, all of that other stuff might have been a bit much to note on the form, but some kind of explanation, any kind of explanation, would have been nice.
Looking back, I think my reaction was partly due to cultural differences. As an American, I want control. I want to know what my options are and to feel that I am the one in the drivers’ seat. If I have to give my consent to something, I want to know what I am getting into (unless I’m downloading an app (who has time to read the terms and agreements on Candy Crush Saga anyway?). However, my point is that this notice went against the grain of my cultural expectations.
Well, I eventually got more information, signed the notice and N. got the tutoring that she needed. I also got a glimpse into my own expectations of control. So what kinds of things challenge your expectations of control?
If you would like to hear more about what Liz and I learned during N.’s first year of school, check out our podcast episode:

The Circle of Second Hand and the Practice of Living with Less

Our church here in Vienna is home to a seemingly never-ending circle of hand-me-downs. Moms are constantly bringing outgrown clothes and other items to church to be passed on to the other kids. We’ve been blessed by this time and again, and we enjoy blessing others with hand-me-downs as well.

The sentiments of one mom express how committed people are to decluttering and re-purposing: “Somebody take it because it’s not coming back home with me! I’ll put it in the Goodwill box before that happens!” Decluttering is such a way of life here. The work of it is ongoing, given the limited amount of living and storage space. People here are good at using it up, giving it away, or recycling.

I remember being anxious about how Naomi and Evie would handle not having their toys with them during the year we were on “home service assignment” in the States. We packed a small amount of favorites, but it was just not possible to bring more than a few toys. Once we got settled into the apartment in Texas, we found some Duplo blocks at a thrift store, friends let us borrow their supply of baby toys, and we bought some coloring books, bubbles, and sidewalk chalk. We borrowed dvds from the library. And you know what? The girls were fine! Even bigger kids have fun with baby toys when that’s what is available!
We also ended up taking a huge road trip across the southwest U.S., all the way to San Diego, and then on to Indiana with our toddler and baby in a 4-door Toyota. There were a few toys in the back seat and a couple of cds with kids songs. One of them had kids songs in German, and by the end of the trip all of us were singing them together. Not that we would want to repeat that kind of roadtripping ever again, but the point is, the kids were fine and learned to make due with the minimalism.

So that was really freeing, realizing the kids didn’t need a lot of stuff, especially as we had to de-clutter in preparation for moving into a new apartment after returning to Vienna. Our current apartment is bigger than our old one, but the basement space is smaller. Once that is used up (which it pretty much already is), everything else we’re storing fits under our full size bed, and after that everything else has to go! In fact, when my parents were here, Dad helped me clean out our basement space and take some items to the dump/recycling place.

The neighborhood dump has big dumpsters designated for recycling different items, and a person can walk right up and throw stuff in, self-service style. Dad had so much fun throwing a broken, standing floor fan up into a huge dumpster (although there were stairs he could have used to gently drop it in)!

Over time I’ve tried to develop a habit of decluttering on a regular basis. At first it was overwhelming, but with practice it has become easier. Now it’s kind of fun and simplifies life.

How about you? Do you enjoy decluttering? Do you have any tips that have been helpful for you to make this a habit in your life?

Biking

I was a very unlikely runner. I was lazy and wasn’t a natural with good form. I only got into it because of a positive kind of peer pressure in junior high and high school. My friends were doing it so I did too and grew to enjoy it.

Biking, however, was my first love. No, not the serious, sporty, spandex-wearing kind. The banana bars, spoke beads, little plastic license plate, ride around and around my block on the sidewalk kind of biking. I was a late bloomer with the bike so I was probably 8 or so when I really got the hang of it. I would pretend I was driving my car as I made the loop around the neighborhood, coasting back into our driveway and pretending I was pulling into the bank or restaurant drive through.

This past year I rediscovered my love of biking when a knee injury forced me to stop running. I rented a “City Bike” and felt like a kid again! I also realized that I had stopped making time for things that I simply enjoy doing, or hadn’t yet learned how to do as a mom of three kids. In this season of life where my stress and exhaustion levels can get out of control if I’m not being a good steward of myself, I’m learning to take “having fun” very seriously. And the exercise type of having fun really does help my mood!
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The Family Small Group Riddle

We are so thankful to be a part of a small group for families in our local church. It is amazing to think that this is our second year of being involved with it, especially because for the longest time, we had no idea how to solve the riddle of being in a small group.
Sure, we had led a Bible study in our home, but we had been the only family with kids in that group. So we hosted it in our home after the kids went to bed. But when more than one family with small kids wants to be in a small group, then what?
The elders of our church came up with a great solution: having a twice-a-month meeting on a Saturday afternoon for the whole family. Two families of the group take turns hosting It, and all the kids can play together in a separate room, with older kids looking out for the littler ones.
The concept has been so successful that this year the group birthed a second group to make more room for everyone. Our family hosts the group once a month, with our co-leader leading, while the second meeting of the month is at their place, with Matt being prepared to lead the discussion.
This has been a great way for us and our children to form deeper friendships in the church. Maybe it would be an idea to try where you live! Does your church have a different way of solving this Riddle?

Kid Business

Swings

One thing about apartment living, especially during the summer, is that going to the park most mornings is part of our regular schedule. Much of the time I’m happy to do this (after we get through the ordeal of three kids getting ready to leave the house: put on clothes, maybe comb hair, take turns using the bathroom), because I know it’s good for them to run around and play outside. Sometimes I can even steal away moments to do things I enjoy, like sending text messages to friends to plan play dates or working on my “mom photography” (taking quick, multiple shots) skills.
But sometimes, there are things happening every other minute that require my attention. Often I get  frustrated when “my” moments are interrupted by the needs or wants of my kids; when I think of the shopping that will have to be squeezed in just before making dinner; or all of the other projects or chores that are just piling up because of the morning spent at the park. Combine that with the stressful, packed-full summer we’ve had, along with the normal level of stress present when living in a different culture, and I can get pretty worked up grasping for moments of fleeting fun or productivity on my terms.
During our last week before vacation, I took the kids to what they call, “Our Park”, which is right across the street, so really pretty convenient. Opening the gate, Naomi announced, “the park is open for business!”
“Psssh, maybe KID business,” I said. Naomi then proceeded to run in, yelling with all her might, “KID BUSINESS!” What a fun, silly moment!
The next day we were at another one of the playgrounds within walking distance and Naomi asked me to swing with her. I reluctantly agreed, putting away the grocery list I was trying to write. As we got to swinging, she exclaimed, “This is fun, right Mommy?”
Silent tears started streaming down my face as I kind of remembered what it used to feel like to swing at her age, how easy it was to have fun. Nowadays it takes real work for me to have fun and I realized that she (and her siblings) can help me with the serious “kid business” of playing and living in the moment that I desperately need. I pray that God would help me to see the value of and to enjoy each moment and to be fully present in it.