Tonight, we spent the evening making friends with a community of Gypsies who live near our house. At any given moment, you’ll find anywhere between 5 and 25 people hanging around this plot of land. A friend of ours we met in Bucharest, Jason, has a pretty good relationship with them, so we decided to head over there with some mutual friends, a gypsy family from another part of town, and have an impromptu church service.
Most of the Gypsies in this particular community are Christians, some only recently making the change, but they need way more solid Bible teaching.
So me and Jessie and our four kids, Tiberiu and Sorina and their three kids, Ben, and Jason, all made the 10-minute walk to the corner of Calea Vitan and Mihai Bravu, to build some friendships, share the word of God, spend some time in prayer, and just enjoy the common bond we have as Believers. Tiberiu and Jason both preached in Romanian, Ben and I shared some short messages via translators, and we all prayed and sang some worship songs (in English, Tsiganeasca, and Romanian).
We had a really great time, and, as usually happens when I hang out with Christians in Romania (Gypsy or otherwise), I was once again blown away by their generosity. One of the men, who finally found a job after being without work for a long time, saw our four kids and tried to give me his day’s pay because, as he put it, it’s hard to feed so many mouths, especially when you’re in a new country where you don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone. At first I thought he was asking me for money, but when I finally understood what he was trying to do, I was embarrassed for my misunderstanding and humbled by his generosity.
We’ve had so many people show us so much generosity in this city, and sometimes it really humbles you. It’s sometimes been simple things, like some Gypsies who make almost no money pouring glasses of soda for us. Sometimes, it’s bigger things, like friends we’ve known for less than a week invading our house to make a surprise birthday party for Naomi, complete with balloons, cake, fancy snacks, and gifts.
I think generosity is one of God’s greatest gifts. When you give, it forces you to trust God instead of yourself, and God blesses you incredibly. When you freely receive, if forces you to humble yourself, get rid of your pride that says, “I don’t need others to help me,” and God, again, blesses you for it.
Well, here’s some photos from the evening with the Gypsies along Mihai Bravu:
It all started a few months ago when I opened the kitchen cupboard to get a mug for my morning cup of coffee. I saw crawling through the glasses a small brown bug with wings. When I tried to catch him, he was way too quick for my sleepy morning reflexes. I considered whether it was something more than just a single bug or a sign of a bigger problem, but when I checked out pictures on Google Images, it didn’t really match any of the images of the pest I was fearing. So, I prayed against a bug problem, kept an eye out for more, and then forgot about it.
Fast forward a month or two. I come home from the market with a load of fresh fruits and veggies and begin washing everything and putting it away. I saved the cauliflower for last because the previous week I’d found a snail, spider, and worm in another head of cauliflower, and I wasn’t excited about dealing with that again. As I was about to approach the newest head of cauliflower, I saw a brown bug on top of the microwave nearby. I squished it first, then looked at it later. Always my approach with bugs. Jake and I agreed it did indeed look like a cockroach. Within a couple of minutes, another one was climbing up the side of the microwave. Jake killed that one.
Later that day, we bought roach spray and roach motels, decided to keep everything in the kitchen super clean, and wait watchfully. We didn’t see anymore. Even at night. I’d read that produce markets are one of the “best” places to pick up cockroaches, so I assumed maybe I brought those couple of extra home with me inside the cauliflower or something. Ya know, instead of snails and worms, I get cockroaches. We didn’t see anymore, so we didn’t even bother opening up the roach killers.
Jump ahead to a couple of weeks ago. I’m sleepy again, this time getting ready for bed. I go to the kitchen to fill my water bottle, and something catches my eye. A brown bug crawling across the top of the cupboard. I frantically start trying to rip open the packaging around the roach spray, but it’s taking me a long time. By the time Jake comes, I spot another one crawling down the front of the cabinet going straight into our clean dishes drying on the counter. We bust open the spray and Jake starts warfare.
I quickly get everything off the counters as Jake starts spraying one of the roaches he found. Then–yuck!–more cockroaches of various sizes and stages of life come out of the cracks. One even crawls into the outlet trying to escape the spray. We wake up Jake’s brother Ben and our friend Jake Martin who was staying with us for a couple of weeks to come help. We clear out the food and store most of it in the fridge or airtight containers for the night and then spray down the insides of every cabinet, vacuum, sweep, mop, and basically bomb the kitchen with the most intense aerosol spray I’ve ever smelled. We were all gagging and coughing, and I almost threw up from it. It was not cool.
We quarantine the kitchen for the night and go to bed. The next morning, I take all the kids to the park while the guys clean up the carcasses. They find egg sacs in the garbage and under the stove, so who knows how long the problem had been there. As we finish up cleaning, exterminators knock on our door and explain they’re there to spray for “gândacii” as there has been an infestation in our apartment block. They spray the whole place with a much less fatal spray, give us extra spray to reapply in a week and we’re all set, after paying 150 lei, of course.
I felt at peace after that. We’d sprayed. The exterminators sprayed. We sprayed again. Our roach motels were out. Time to get back to life. Oh, wait. What’s this crawling in my sink?! Another cockroach! In the middle of the day! He got sprayed. Later that day, we had a guest for dinner, and I fill up her glass with water and see two brown things floating on top. Two more dead cockroaches! Disgusting! I apologized profusely and wonder at why these critters are not out of our lives yet. Now I prepare myself every time I open the cabinet to get a mug or glass for what might be lurking behind the cabinets.
This is just one thing, and it’s not that huge of a deal. I mean, when we lived in Milwaukee, we saw these cockroaches at the Milwaukee Public Museum the size of our daughter Illiana’s hand, and some of them flew! Some even hissed! So, these little brown German cockroaches with useless wings are not so bad in comparison. But sometimes it feels like life on the mission field in a new place is filled with metaphorical cockroaches. What’s a metaphorical cockroach, you ask? Things that steal your time. Annoying things that you have to deal with that are not on your agenda or vision or plan or even in your mind. Things like having to buy groceries almost every day because we don’t have a car and have to only get what we can carry. Going to the open air market and back is at least an hour ordeal a couple of times a week. Travel to church meetings or meetings with people takes between 30-60 minutes by public transportation. Buying an appliance, or a new cell phone because your got stolen, at Media Galaxy probably will take you about 2 hours. Or maybe your Internet is out for two weeks so you have to go to the mall to work, send emails, or let the world know you’re still alive over here. Or your kids might be getting a little crazy and you have to spend half your day disciplining or correcting or reteaching them things they used to know really well. Oh, and sometimes the crabby neighbor downstairs wants to scold you in high speed Romanian for things your children aren’t doing.
Attitude is huge when it comes to stuff like this. I could choose to get either really annoyed. Or I could get really discouraged. I could also choose to drown it out by watching movies and stuff. I think I’ve been through the whole range since being here. But that’s not my goal. My goal is to be Christlike in the midst of the annoying things, to not let the devil get the best of me, to grow in character.
I like what Oswald Chambers has to say in his devotional My Utmost for His Highest for the day of February 19th:
Drudgery is one of the finest tests to determine the genuineness of our character. Drudgery is work that is far removed from anything we think of as ideal work. It is the utterly hard, menial, tiresome, and dirty work. And when we experience it, our spirituality is instantly tested and we will know whether or not we are spiritually genuine.
I think this is so much of missions work. Not all of it, of course, but a lot of it can be very un-glamorous. Some of my favorite verses have become ingrained in my mind since being here: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
I’m rejoicing and giving thanks now because it’s been over two days since I’ve seen a cockroach, dead or alive!
I have some friends in the States who are amazing singers. The whole family sang in choirs all their lives, taught music, sang on TV, headlined rock bands, that sort of stuff. One time, Jessie and I attended their tweener son’s birthday party. When it came time to sing the Happy Birthday song, I expected the usual chorus of loud, obnoxiously off-key voices that didn’t mesh together but nobody cared because it was all full of joy and fun.
I took a deep breath and Jessie and I both belted out, at the top of our off-key, ill-equipped, misused lungs, “Happy birthday to you, happy birth-” and we stopped abruptly as we realized that we were surrounded by a family of singers and we were most definitely not singers. I felt very out of place and very out-sung, surrounded as we were by these world-class vocal chords.
I get that feeling a lot in Romanian churches. Christians in America, I think, have been trained to sing poorly and quietly, our voices drowned out by loud music. You can’t hear your own voice, so you just sing really loud and glorify God with a “joyful noise” that may not make everyone so joyful if the music were cut out for a moment. All this is an oversimplification, of course. Not all Christians in America are terrible singers. Nor is every Christian in Romania a great singer (yes, you know who you are). But I’ve encountered way more great singers here than I have in American churches.
Me, Ben, and our friend Jake Martin (visiting from the States) were invited by a church in town to share a word of encouragement and talk about what we’re doing in Bucharest. After we accepted the invitation, the pastor suggested the possibility of us also bringing a song, “like missionaries do when they do missions,” he said.
I told the pastor, firmly but kindly, “Uhh… We don’t sing.”
“OK,” said the pastor, “maybe no song. But maybe a song, OK?”
At that point I realized we would be forced to sing unless I made myself even clearer. “We have terrible voices,” I said as memories of our party with the Tennies family came flooding back, “you will lose half your church if we sing.”
“Don’t worry,” he calmed us, “all our singers are gone tonight. All the rest of us are terrible singers like you. If you don’t sing, there will be no one to sing.” Pastors are terrible liars. But I believed him nonetheless.
At the meeting, the pastor came and explained the order of the service and told me when we would be sharing our word of encouragement. Before he left to open the service, he added the infamous question that was not meant as a question, “And you have a song for us, yes?”
“Yes, of course,” I told him, seduced by his deceptive charm.
As he left, I looked at Ben, “We can’t get out of it. We’re singing tonight.” Ben was moderately fear-struck but positive. He saw a guitar and decided using that would be a good way to mask our voices and make the congregation think we were cool in a Nirvana or Violent Femmes kind of way. Anyone behind a guitar is cool.
Then I turned to Jake, who thought he had simply come along for the ride. “You wanna sing a song with us tonight?”
“We need you, man.”
I don’t know how, but eventually I did convince him to join us, so we were moderately encouraged thinking that surely one of us would sing decently.
Well, that encouragement was very short-lived after the service started and we realized that, much like little David Tennies’ birthday party years ago, we once again found ourselves surrounded by amazing singers, men and women with voices that could shake mountains, strip forests bare, and cause deer to give birth (Psalm 29). That pastor was a liar. All the singers were here.
And then it came our turn. “I like to tell people,” I began from the microphone, “if you have a good voice, sing loud. And if you have a bad voice, sing even louder, ’cause all you’ve got is volume, so you might as well use it.”
We sang even louder. And I think we might have caused some deer to give birth too. Our singing sure sounded like it, at any rate.
Moral of the story is just go for it. We’ve had a ton of opportunities to face some fears here in Romania, step outside our comfort zones, do things we wouldn’t normally want to do. I don’t know if anyone was extremely blessed by our singing that night, but I don’t think we caused anyone to lose their salvation either.
If you’re ever in Bucharest and bored, something interesting you might want to try is popping into an Orthodox Church and scaring some devoted Orthodox women by telling them you’re a “pocait.” I don’t entirely recommend this specific activity, but it will give you interesting stories to tell your friends. Pocait literally means “repentant,” and while Christians in Romania use it to describe each other, because they’ve humbly acknowledged their guilt before God and repented of their sins, it’s used as something of a cuss word to mock and criticize Believers, much like how “saved” and “born-again” are used in America.
One young woman I heard from recently said that after she became a Christian, she asked her Orthodox priest for some advice on a new church she had found. He told her, “Just make sure you don’t go to one of those pocait churches. They think they’re guilty before God and have to turn from their sins. Can you believe it?”
The other day, we went out on the streets to do some evangelism, and at one point, we walked past an Orthodox church. Since Ben (and our friend Jake Martin, who was visiting us for a couple weeks), had never visited an Orthodox church before, we decided to step inside. As in most Orthodox church buildings, the artwork was beautiful, the architecture flawless, and the gold decorations abundant.
We walked around, admired the paintings, decided not to kiss the icons or light any candles for our sins, and then went back outside. The whole time we were looking around, my heart was going out to the only other person inside, an old woman intently staring at a picture of Jesus, bobbing back and forth. I assume she had some sort of caretaker role in the church, because she seemed to fit seamlessly into her surroundings and carried herself in a way that showed she probably spent a lot of time in the building.
Anyway, after leaving, we sat down on a bench outside, waiting to meet with a young man we were going to help in finding a job and a place to live. As we sat, I kept thinking about that woman inside, how she had a semblance of religion but no relationship with God, and short of someone sharing the truth with her, she would remain lost in her religious delusion.
So I convinced our friend Sorin, a Gypsy pocait who has been coming with us to do evangelism, to come inside with me and ask the woman if we could put my personal testimony tract on a table with other literature about church events and the like. My tract is the story of how God took me from addiction to pornography, anger, depression, rejection, and bitterness and forgave me, cleaned me, gave me a new heart, and called me to spread the good news to others. It’s good stuff. I am a bit biased, though. 🙂
Sorin explained that I was a friend from America, and he said that God had changed my life dramatically, so I wanted to put my story of what happened on the table of literature. He asked if it would be OK.
The woman’s face looked horrified. “He is not Orthodox. Whatever he has to say, we do not need it.”
Sorin: “God changed his life. People need to hear this story.”
Woman: “He is not Orthodox. He is American.”
I was ready to leave at this point, being the nice, PC American that I am, but Sorin was getting bolder and bolder, so he asked her: “Do you think when you die and stand before God, is He going to care whether you were Orthodox or not? Or American or Romanian? Or will He care about how you lived your life?”
The woman looked at him with her mouth agape and frantically began making the sign of the cross over and over again. I looked over my shoulder expecting there to be a vampire behind us or something.
Sorin kept telling her about Jesus dying for her sins, and she did the sign of the cross faster and faster, hoping to drive him away with her Bruce Lee meets Orthodoxy hand movements. Finally, I think once Sorin was satisfied he had terrified her enough, he thanked her, said he meant no offense but loved her and respected her devotion, and then we both turned around and left.
I think I might make a version of my tract that has a nice Orthodox church building on the front and try to hand it out in front of some Orthodox churches in town. Biblical Christianity, the faith of us pocaits, is after all more orthodox than Orthodoxy. It annoys me that this whole church stream that has very little to do with Jesus can just call itself “Right Belief” (ortho + doxy) and announce that all others are wrong.
The reality is that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. 😉 Sarcasm warning.
I’ve been thinking of some of the funny / frustrating aspects of living in Romania lately, so I present to you a tongue-in-cheek list of 25 ways you can tell you’re in this country. You know, just in case you wake up some morning in a drugged state, in some foreign country, and you’re not sure where you are.
You know you’re in Romania when…
1) nasty-looking stray dogs surround you outside the mall, but no one seems worried
2) a gas station worker wearing stilettos and a miniskirt is standing precariously high on the dairy shelf, reaching for the top shelf of milk
3) you see a man sitting at a bus stop with his shirt rolled halfway up his chest
4) you can buy a bottle of beer for less than a bottle of water (this is not a guarantee; you might also be in Bulgaria)
5) the milk expires a week early, but you can still eat Communist snacks (pufuleti) that expired five months ago
6) women dress up to go grocery shopping
7) people complain about it being too hot and seriously ask, “Was it even close to this hot when you were in Africa?”
8) people seem really surprised that you’d want to live here
9) cars speed around you and drive so close they almost hit you, but you don’t feel nervous because you know they’re actually paying attention
10) you see a ticked off woman glare at a busy road and just walk right into traffic, forcing everyone to stop and let her cross
11) you can’t find a single pickup truck (OK, I’ve seen 2)
12) the old woman who lives down the hall does her Saturday cleaning to the sounds of techno and jungle music
13) random men in blue suits load box after box onto the subway, and no one assumes it’s a terrorist attack
14) in a crowd of walkers, one man pulls to the side, unzips, and pees against a wall, without anyone batting an eye
15) a random stranger asks you how much money you make
16) you see more men than women wearing pink
17) you’d swear the “faux-hawk” was the national symbol of the country, judging by how many guys sport one
18) your cabbie comments that it’s too expensive to have more than one kid because he can’t afford Nike and Addidas for all of them
19) you can buy stolen electronics at most intersections, for very reasonable prices
20) you see two guys get in an argument at the mall over something trivial, soon they’re yelling, then they’re punching, then they hug, kiss each others’ cheeks, and sit down for some drinks
21) 10 in the morning seems like a perfectly normal time to see drunk guys stumbling around Lipscani
22) political campaigns consist primarily of falsified statistics, giant billboards of candidates’ faces, and allegations that the other candidate routinely hires prostitutes for 1000 euros a night
23) the power goes out while you’re at the immigration office, but everyone just keeps on working
24) a mom with 2 kids walks confidently through the middle of a construction zone, men with blowtorches and jackhammers working busily around her
25) no one speaks Romanian to you
There you have it, 25 ways you can tell if you’re in Romania. I love this country. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it, but I love it. Life is anything but boring here. 🙂