Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Just Catching Up

We truly have been blessed over these last several months by all the events, people, and grace the Lord has shown us. We enjoyed 3 whirlwind weeks in the states with countless highlights. We were able to meet with many friends and enjoy sweet fellowship. We had the joy of being with our children and grandchildren. We were especially blessed to be able to give a report to our home church.

Many of you know that we went to the states primarily to attend the MTW Missions Conference. We know that God touched many hearts during this event. We set up a table, put out brochures and had many visitors stop by, ask questions, or just visit for a while. We were encouraged by the preaching and the seminars we were able to attend. Please continue to pray with us that God would bring others to His work here.

Our Weekend Retreat~
We returned to Zlín and the next weekend attended the church retreat. It just so happened that the retreat fell on Thanksgiving — the American Thanksgiving, as the Czechs do not observe the holiday. The Czechs were gracious enough to allow the MTW team to serve several traditional Thanksgiving foods. So, we prepared good ol’ Southern cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole, and apple crisp to go along with the dinner meal. Renata created some beautiful paper leaves with Scriptures written on them, like 1 Chronicles 16:8-12:
Give thanks to the LORD, call on His name; make known among the nations what He has done. Sing to Him, sing praise to Him; tell of all His wonderful acts. Glory in His holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice. Look to the LORD and His strength; seek His face always. Remember the wonders He has done, His miracles, and the judgments He pronounced.

After the meal the church gathered to sing, read the Scriptures, and give thanks to God for His many blessings over the past year. Some later told us of the impact this had upon them and how God used it in their lives.

We shared one of our family traditions with our church friends and neighbors last Saturday when we invited them to our tree decorating party. We were delighted when 25 or 30 people showed up, including several of our neighbors whom we had never previously met. Many of them stayed for quite a long time, not just the obligatory ten minutes. Everyone seemed to have a great time. One of our neighbors even expressed an interest in visiting the church. Our church members expressed a desire for more of these events. Please pray with us that we will open the doors of our flat and our hearts on a more regular basis. Pray also that the gospel would not only be heard, but seen.
Zlín Town Square
We were walking through the town square recently and saw a manger scene and next to it a pošta. The pošta is a box for mailing letters to baby Jesus. How interesting we thought. I asked Renata, our pastor’s wife, about it. She said the children here write letters to the baby Jesus asking for their Christmas gifts. It is baby Jesus who brings the gifts, not Santa Claus. He often comes in the late afternoon on December 24th. We don‘t see people dressed up a baby Jesus, since no one knows what He looks like, or so we have been told. All of this is very interesting in light of the extremely athestic culture in the Czech Republic. Only a very small percentage of the population would even consider that there is a God. Baby Jesus, it seems, has been minimalized and turned into a myth. How tragic it is that the true, great gift of Christmas is present in the culture and yet not seen at all because of blindness and unbelief.

The Baby Jesus Pošta

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Winter In Zlin

 Nearby are some recent pictures from our little city.  In the past week or so, winter has delivered about 12 inches of snow and lows in the single digits (fahrenheit).  We are very thankful to have warm clothes and a very cozy flat.  We read in the news last week that 30 homeless men died in Poland due to the harsh onset of winter.  The days are pretty short now.  The sun doesn't rise until after 7:00 a.m. and it sets before 4:00 p.m.  Even at noon, the sun doesn't make it to 45 degrees above the horizon.
Almost everyone goes around bundled up in heavy coats, scarves, gloves, hats, and boots, but some of the Czechs will brave the weather with bare heads.  We saw a man run into the post office last week in shorts and a T-shirt!  Surely he wasn't planning on staying out too long! 

Another of the photos in this post shows something new to us.  The traditional manger scene is accompanied by a small post box so children can send letters to Baby Jesus requesting the gifts they want for Christmas.  Czechs tell their children that little Jesus brings the presents at Christmas.  The role of St. Nick (Svatý Mikulaš) is to visit children on his special day (the eve of Dec. 6th) and talk to them about their behavior during the previous year.  He is accompanied by an angel who rewards good children with a small gift and a demon who warns children and gives a lump of coal or a potato to those who have misbehaved; especially bad children might be bound up in a sack and carried away by the demon, although I understand this rarely happens today.  Parents here usually find someone known to the family to play the roles of these traditional characters.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


A fellow missionary and friend buried his infant son earlier this week.  I can't imagine a more debilitating event.  Undoubtedly, this sucked all the emotional oxygen out of his life, making it almost impossible to breathe.  This set me to thinking about our weaknesses.

Weakness is defined as a lack of strength, a frailty that could give way under pressure. Weakness is not something we would recognize as a viable strategy. We would surely not pursue it as a means of victory. Yet it is precisely the strategy that Jesus used to conquer his and our enemies. Jesus’ disciples and his enemies both expected that he would seek to employ the “ordinary” means of gaining victory for his cause – connecting with the wealthy and powerful people, gathering a large following, leading an insurrection, overthrowing the cruel Roman oppressors. Satan, in his temptation of Christ, tried to lure Jesus into showing off his power by making bread to relieve his suffering and to show off his connection to God by jumping off the temple building; he also offered him the opportunity to rule over the earth; these offers display a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus’ plan to use weakness as the means to achieve victory. Paul says in II Cor. 13:4 that Jesus was crucified in weakness.

We would never think to employ weakness as a route to victory, but our leader did exactly that. If Jesus is our example, should we not at least consider how our weaknesses might become the strategy and the means of our victory and God’s victory through us?  In II Cor. 12: 9,10 Paul says: “But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This seems to me to say that God is better seen in our weakness and frailty than he is in our strength and power.

I don’t know about you, but I normally don’t go around thinking about how my struggles with sin, my difficulties in life, how my infirmities might be the very thing God would use most in my life to show his power to others - at least not until recently.  As of today, weakness is about all I’ve got to offer.  I once had (or at least I thought I had) some skill, some facility in teaching and training people, some place of power in God’s service that he might be able to use.  That’s all gone.  I am standing at the threshold of a new understanding: my weaknesses and struggles are not something to be managed and to get beyond as soon as possible, they are the essence of God’s strategic plan – first in Jesus, now in me.  If God can use a bumbling weakling and struggler like me to help break down the gates of hell, it will be to the eternal frustration and defeat of our enemy and to the eternal praise and glory of our God. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Town That Baťa Built

The 21 Building

View of Baťa Housing Development

Although Zlín has been in existence since the early 14th century, it was a sleepy little village until the Baťa (pronounced Batya) family shoe business began to thrive around 1900. Like many European families, the Baťa family had a trade they had practiced for many generations – they were cobblers. Tomáš Baťa was born in Zlín in 1876 and started his own shoe manufacturing shop in 1894. The population of Zlín was around 3,000 in those days.

Typical Baťa House

Baťa traveled to America and studied the manufacturing methods of Henry Ford and other mass manufacturers. He returned to his home town and applied these principles to his shoemaking factory. From very humble beginnings, he built a worldwide empire that still employs over 50,000 people in 70 countries. Baťa was also far ahead of his time in his concern for his employees and the environment in which they lived and worked. He built over 2,000 modern houses for his workers, a large hospital, a technical college, and an award winning factory (see nearby pictures). He paid wages that were around 50% higher than the prevailing wage at the time. When Tomáš Baťa died in a tragic airplane accident in 1932, the population of Zlín had soared to over 26,000, almost entirely due to the employment offered by his company. Sadly, during the communist rule of this city, the factory declined and the Baťa company has only a small presence here today.

The views we enjoy from our front windows are of the well-known 21 bulding, one of the first central European skyscrapers. We are growing to love this city, so we appreciate the excellent things that Mr. Baťa built. So far, we have found no record of his spiritual life – perhaps that will be another story.

A Nearby Street with Baťa Houses

Changes in Latitude

We awoke this morning to the first light frost of the fall season - just another reminder that we're in a very different place!  I checked the weather for Birmingham and the predicted high for this afternoon is 90° F; we'll make it to 56° F here, if the sun stays out all day.  On the street, we already see heavy coats, scarves, hats, and boots.  It looks like most folks here have closets full - ummmm.... make that wardrobes full, there's no such thing as a closet here - of serious winter gear.  There are a few homeless people living in Zlín.  We see them hanging around the bus terminal and in the parks.  The winters here must be very harsh for them.

In God's good providence, we have some pretty serious winter gear ourselves.  From the looks of things, we'll get to use it soon.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Uherské Hradiště


The tiny city of Uherské Hradiště is a little gem with a very long history. Located in southern Moravia, about 25 km southwest of Zlín, it was settled several millenia before Christ.  The oldest remaining structures date from the 15th century A.D.  It was officially founded as a Czech city in 1257, although it had served as an important fortress in the great Moravian Empire (9th and 10th centuries A.D.)  Like many places in Eastern and Central Europe, it has a beautiful Jewish Synagogue that now serves a different purpose than its builders had originally intended; sadly, there aren’t enough Jews left here to maintain a synagogue. The pink building in a nearby picture was once the town's synagogue, but is now a lovely library.  There are hundreds of beautiful towns and cities like this one all over the Czech Republic.

We spent a day earlier this month exploring this city. It provides a cameo of Czech history and culture; it is a beautiful place with a long history of struggle and oppression. It’s people are intimately connected to this history, making them strugglers, too.

Ancient City Wall

Monday, September 13, 2010

And the Czech goes on….

Well, we passed a tiny milestone last week: we have completed eight full weeks of Czech language study. A typical weekday for us includes two hours with our teacher and two to four hours of study at home. The learning process has been slow, but we can see definite progress. We like to compare it to having a large glass vase filled with clear water and a heavy layer of silt at the bottom.  As long as you leave this arrangement as is, the water is clear and there is something pretty solid at the bottom.  However, when you add more stuff to the vase, the silt quickly clouds the water with the result that nothing is clear and the solid layer at the bottom is all stirred up. This process of clarity followed by confusion is a pretty good description of our learning progress.  There have been some humorous moments.  Our favorite one is a recurring statement from our dear teacher that, “... well we don’t say it that way because it would be too hard.” To illustrate how funny that is, we have a simple example. There are many Czech words that end in the letter “d”, like “bod” and “had”, their words for point and snake. They don’t like to pronounce the “d” at the end of words, so they de-voice it to “t”.  Our teacher insists that it would be too hard, or wouldn’t sound right to say the “d”. That goes over like a pregnant pole-vaulter when you realize they say things like “chtvrt” or “shtvaachsky” or “przhetrzheekat” (don’t forget to roll all the r’s and pronounce EVERY letter).

Czech is a beautiful, but complex, language and we are still in the very early stages of learning it.  We still marvel at the fluency of most three year olds.  Many of you have written to say that you are praying for us to learn Czech. We need and appreciate that.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Visa Hallelujah!

We received news this week that our Visa applications had been approved and our visas were ready to be picked up in Bratislava, Slovakia. We had an appointment today at 1:30 p.m. to pick them up. There is a limited time for Visa pick up — 30 minutes. So, early this morning we headed to the train station to catch the train to Bratislava. We wanted to be sure that we had plenty of time, allowing for late trains, bus waits, and any other hindrances. The good news is that God has been so gracious to us and, as you can see, we have visas in hand! We give thanks to our great God for all He has done in opening so many doors for us, and to Sid for all of his hard work and help.

Thank you so much for all of your prayers for us and this visa. Our hearts just want to sing Hallelujah to the King!

We are including a few other pictures of Bratislava for you to see. The city is filled with lovely squares, statues, and embassies.   


Monday, August 16, 2010

The Blessing of our first Czech Wedding

Having only been living in Zlín for only 10 weeks now, it is actually quite amazing that we would be invited to a join a Czech wedding celebration. Usually only the closest friends and family are invited to attend. The wedding was to take place about two hours from Zlín. Saturday morning we were up early and on the way. We were very excited, as we had been told that these events are so special. The day promised to be especially wonderful for us as the couple to be married are new believers and sweet new friends. We were privileged to be invited to join them.

We arrived at the bride’s house in Karolinka and were welcomed by family and friends to a breakfast of goulash, sausages, bread, chips, chai, and kava and other assorted food and drinks. And yes, the famous Czech liquid was available too. Around 11:00 a.m. it seemed that all the wedding party had arrived, the bride and groom were dressed, and it was time to leave. The wedding procession was about to begin. Little did we know at this point that we would be held hostage until we paid a ransom of sorts, to get out of the apartment building. It seems that one Czech wedding tradition is for friends of the bride to dress up as the groom’s ex-wives. The exit to the house or apartment is blocked, and money is demanded to support all the poor children of the groom, since they are being left destitute. All of the money collected is later given as a gift to the bride.

Before the procession, all of the cars are decorated with simple ribbons across the front of the car. The bride’s car follows all the others and is decorated with a big bouquet on the hood of the car. So, with the cars all decorated and lined up we set off for another drive, this one up to the Beskydy Mountains, approximately an hour away.

Decorations for the cars in the wedding procession ~ and the bride’s car

The wedding itself was beautiful, the setting glorious, Eva and Michal, radiant. It was such a sweet joy to see her walk down the aisle to the song, “I Trust In You.” This is the English translation.

My times are in Your hands, I trust in You.
Your love will never fail, I trust in You.
Even though the mountains fall into the sea, I trust in You
Even if the stars should start to fall
And all the world is shaken.

When I can't see the way, I trust in You.
I believe the things You say, I trust in You.

Even when I'm sinking down beneath the waves, I trust in You.
I know that You will lift me up And put my feet on solid ground
Every day you're faithful, new mercies from above,
Like a tree in your temple, surrounded by the strong walls
Of Your love.

A beautiful setting for an outdoor wedding.

The couple had asked Rene to preach about the marriage covenant; we were told he did a beautiful job. We pray that God will use the message to change hearts and lives.

We were truly encouraged by the some of the comments by the bride’s friends. They said they noticed a difference in Eva and her brother, Roman. They said they wanted to have what they have. (Roman and his wife, Martina also are believers and attend the church in Zlin.) Others showed an interest in coming to visit the church. Pray with us that God will not let them go and that the difference they saw will draw them to Jesus.

After the beautiful wedding, we headed up to the dinner meal. But first the proprietor of the hotel came out to the front steps and handed the bride and groom a broom and dust pan. Then he threw down and broke a plate for them to clean up—together. Some of the wedding party did not think that the plate had been broken into enough little pieces, therefore “extra” help was given in breaking the plate. There was more than one interpretation regarding the broken pieces. Czechs say that the working together in the clean up process—or not, is a precursor of how well a couple will work together in the marriage.

With the steps swept and clean we went in to lunch. I’ve included a few pictures so that you can see the beauty and even the simplicity of the meal. Another of the interesting Czech tradition is feeding each other soup. The couple is tied together and each may only use one hand to feed the other one the soup. This is much more difficult than our feeding each other cake. We have even been told that sometimes the task is made even more difficult by giving the bride and groom a spoon that has a hole in it.

An hour or two after the meal, we gathered again to cut and eat the cake. The rest of the afternoon was spent simply visiting, talking, dancing and enjoying one another. All the guests were invited to spend the night. This also seems to be a standard Czech wedding tradition. As you can see, it was a glorious day.

Friday, July 30, 2010

English Camp ~ Week 2

Wow! It is hard to believe that the second week of English Camp is drawing to a close. The days of camp are always so full. We are up every morning by 6:00. Team devotionals are held at 7:15, they are a sweet time of singing and praying together. It is always a joy to have some of our Czech friends join us for this time together. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to only have Christian fellowship during one week in the year. It causes my heart to rejoice when I see that they come, listen and watch attentively. How we pray that God will cause them to see the light of Christ through words and actions.

It is hard, once again to think of these dear friends driving off. I gather that it is just as difficult for them. As we began packing up today, many asked, “Are you leaving now?” Often on Saturday morning, many linger until the last moment, before saying not good-bye, but see you next year or see you later. It seems that this year I came thinking about the long conversations I would be able to have with so many, and yet here on this last day of camp I am wondering where all the time for those conversations went. Fleeting are the moments.

The Lord has been at work here. Hearts have been softened toward the gospel. Those who are hurting, broken, full of sorrow and pain have been encouraged, strengthened and helped through the ministry of camp. One of the sweetest things that happened last week at camp was that on Friday evening after all of the closing activities, skits, songs and acknowledgments one of the struggling campers asked us to sing “In Christ Alone.” It was the absolutely best way to close out a week of camp with our dear friends.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Monday

This week's team is made up of folks from several different churches~
David and Stacy and their daughters,  
Eric and Denisa and their children are from North Shore in Chattanooga.
Dean, Leigh and Tina from StoneBridge in Charlotte,
Sandy from King's Chapel in Carrollton,
Pattie, Ruth, Jared and Robbie from our home church Faith in Birmingham.
It is a blessing to pray and worship with them as we see their labor of love for our dear Czech friends. 

We can tell you guys are praying for us! We are excited to wake up on Monday morning!! We have had several encouraging discussions with the campers who are attending the second week of camp. Many of the campers who are here this week have been attending MTW-sponsored English camps for eight or nine years. Some of them have made a lot of progress toward Christ. The most amazing thing to us (and to the Czechs as well) is the transparency and love that characterize the conversations.

Last night, we had a two hour discussion of forgiveness and the problem of evil. Even though our opinions about these things differed sharply, the discussion concluded with expressions of respect and concern for everyone. This morning, Johnny greeted one man who had brought some of the most difficult questions into the discussion last night; he expressed great delight in the openness and respect he was shown. We think he is seeking answers to some of life’s most troubling issues – and that he purposefully came to this Christian sponsored camp to continue his search.

It is such a privilege for us to be able to be your hands and feet.

Friday, July 23, 2010

First Week at Camp

It is hard to believe that it is Friday already. The shortest week of the year made up of the longest days of the year is now drawing to a close. It has been wonderful, challenging and heart rending. We are thankful for God’s great and all sufficient grace and His Spirit which have permeated our time with our dear friends. (Thank you so much for praying.)

Once again, Johnny and I spent the week teaching the little ones, the 2’s and 3’s. It seems most of our time was spent simply keeping them happy. Vendi, our dear friend helped to teach, entertain and translate. It all would have been impossible with her. This evening for the evening program we will be singing our song, The Wheels on the Bus. The parents will be singing and children watching. Our best student was a little girl who would often repeat everything.

We are so thankful for Alan’s talks each evening. They have been sweet soul food. After his first evening talk on finding rest for our souls, one lady asked us “How can I find this rest?” Please pray with us that she will find it soon. Another dear Christian friend told us during camp that she has cancer. Please ask the Lord to bring healing.

Thank you to all who have so faithfully prayed. We know the Lord was present in this camp.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bratislava Here I Come

Bratislava is the capital city of Slovakia, about 25 miles east of Vienna and about 90 miles south of our new home town of Zlín.  One part of the complex new rules that govern visas for the European Union countries is that one must apply for a visa at an embassy of the host country and NOT within the country itself.  So, we had to travel to an embassy of the Czech Republic to file our application.  Bratislava happens to be the closest city in which the Czech Republic has an embassy; so, off we went.  A photo nearby shows one of the beautiful squares we had to traverse on our way to the embassy.

Since our appointment was at 9:00 a.m., we left our flat at 4:15 a.m. to catch the bus to the train station.  The trains in the Czech Republic are a mixture of modern and communist era equipment; the train schedules include express trains (usually between major cities) that only stop once or twice, regional trains that only stop a few more times, and Osobní (personal) trains that stop every 15 feet to allow farmers and their small goats on board. 

We were accompanied by Sid Anderson who has worked very diligently on our visas and work permits.  In a nearby photo, Sid is sporting his Czech sack; virtually all Czechs carry some sort of sack/bag/backpack/purse/large wallet when they're in public, men and women alike, so Sid is just "going native" here.

In one photo, you can see the front of the Czech embassy in Bratislava.  God was gracious to us in this encounter.  The lady with whom we had our appointment was kind and spoke good English.  Although she threw us a few curve balls by asking for documents that we did not have, in the end, she stamped our passports to reserve a place for our long term visas!  She told us we would hear from them in about 60 days.  Thanks to all who have prayed for this process!  Please continue to ask the Lord to see us through the final steps.

Worship In Zlín

Sunday morning about 10:00 we walk from our flat through town to the office building where the Církev Reformovaná Zlín gathers. It is our third official Sunday here. Greetings of “Dobry Den” and “Ahoy” meet us as we arrive. We give similar greeting to others as they arrive. Hugs, smiles and questions about the week are exchanged. A fairly normal Sunday morning, except that it is in Czech.

Tables and chairs are arranged, the projector set up, and instruments tuned, the Lord’s Supper set out as preparations are made for Worship. As everyone settles into their seats, we begin with a call to Worship. I must say that other than knowing that it comes from Scripture and recognizing a word here and there, it is mostly unintelligible to my mind. We sing several songs. All lovely, and sweet harmony and praise fills the air. One of the songs we sing in Czech first and then in English. (We are fortunate that so many of the church members speak some English, though not all. I think that otherwise, we would feel shut out and very isolated.) As we sing several of the little girls come up to the front and dance, smiles wreath their faces and many in the congregation smile as they watch.

There are many here that we have met before through summer English camp or at the Sunday services held at camp. Some we have met for the first time. Michal and Eva -- new believers, they are a great encouragement to the church that God is continuing to open eyes and hearts to see the beauty of Christ. Their lives have been and continue to be changed - radically and dramatically - by our glorious Christ. Another young man who has been attending English Plus (the English Language School) has attended church the last two Sundays. We are encouraged by that.

We all come –looking –seeking to see and be filled with the Spirit of Christ. His presence is among us. Attention is given to the Word. (The church has two Sunday school classes for the little ones.) This morning Rene preaches using the text from John 4. When I ask one of the members what he talked about, she said it was about finding our joy not in our circumstances but in our Savior. That is our ever present struggle, finding our joy in God alone and nothing or no one else.

Each Sunday after the preaching, there is a time for the giving of offerings. Sometimes I think that we most clearly display God’s character and grace through giving—giving joyfully. For surely He Himself gave His very own life for the joy set before Him. It was in His giving (or loosing) that He gained—a glory—a crown—a throne—a kingdom and a people. After the offering, the Lord’s Supper is served; the simple passing of the bread and the wine, partaking together as one body of believers, a visible representation of the great, incredible mercy of our Lord. We sing “Králi Můj” (My King) taken from Zalm 42,6. The worship is closed with the Lord’s Prayer or a confession of faith, and a pronounced blessing. Many here hold their hands out as they receive the blessing.

Fellowship after Church

As the service concludes people begin to talk. Some greet the visitors who slipped in toward the end of Rene’s sermon to sit on the sofa. The tables and chairs are re-arranged, this time for a light snack or meal. Each week one volunteer brings some sort of spread or pomazanka for bread and another some sort of sweet. It is not unusual for the visiting to last for two or more hours. It is good to see this desire for fellowship with one another. Because of schedules and distance of travel, this is the only time that the church gathers during the week. When it is time to go, tables are put up, chairs lined up for the next week, all the dishes washed in the kitchen area. (There is no sink, only dishpans of hot water that are carried to the kitchen.) One is used to wash and another two are used to rinse the plates, cups and silverware.) Everyone pitches in to help. At last, with everything in order, goodbyes are said; hugs and handshakes are given as the church leaves the small rooms that serve as the place of worship in downtown Zlín to go to the greater, wider field of communities in Moriava.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Exploring Zlín

We ventured out to the street market this week.  It is only about 2 blocks from the flat.  We have found several local post offices at which we can mail letters, met with our new Czech language teacher Janá (class starts Monday at 9:00), experienced several trips to the grocery store, shopped for a pračha and sušička (that’s a washer and a dryer) and we have been to the Lékárna (pharmacy to buy sunscreen) and the Nábytek (to look for wardrobes, there are no closets in any apartment here for holding and hiding stuff.)

After a visit with our landlords, we have decided that our mailing address is Březnická 5565/ 41, 76001 Zlin CR. We are now the Johnsonoví. Johnny is still Johnny Johnson (actually they call him Johnnyho), and I am now Annette Johnsonová.

Today we are going back to the market for more fresh veggies, to the bank to open a Czech checking account, and to the Obchodní Dům later this afternoon to purchase the pračha and sušička, with the help of Šarka and Honsa.