We’re busy planning some Christmas outreaches this week, so we missed out on joining our friends for church at either Missio Dei, Spiritual Revival, or Raul Vietii. We were all a little disappointed, because we enjoy the extra fellowship and encouragement from friends at those churches, but we got to witness a unique Romanian Christmas tradition as a result, the Bear Dance.
Now, I will freely admit that many of our holiday traditions in America are pagan in their roots. The Easter Bunny bringing a basket of eggs during the Spring? Sorry if this is the first time you’ve heard it, but that’s not in the Bible’s account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It clearly has it’s origins in pagan fertility cults. Christmas trees, wreaths, and even Christmas lights? Again, you can trace their roots to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, when finally the death and darkness of winter would be defeated by the life and light of coming spring. And Halloween? There’s nothing better than a little celebration of death, skeletons, goblins, witches, zombies, and ghosts to make pagans happy.
That being said, Romania’s Christmas season Bear Dance was one of the oddest, creepiest, pagan-influenced cultural traditions I’ve seen outside Halloween in America. From a sociological, cultural-interest perspective, I enjoyed watching this very foreign ritual. From a Christian perspective, it felt like this weird combination of European cultural niceties mixed with stone-age spiritism and occultism.
I had a hard time finding information on this custom on the internet, and much of what I did find was written by people who just seemed to want to make Romania look bad, so if you know more, feel free to comment and correct me.
The Bear Dance, according to this site, dates from the pre-Christian Dacians and Romans living in this area over 2000 years ago. The general idea was that men would drape themselves in the skin and fur of a brown bear, so as to look like a giant, walking bear. Other men would dress up in bright costumes and carry makeshift ornamental weapons. Then the men would chase the “bear” around the city, with music and dancing of course, and thereby drive demons (symbolized by the bear-man) out of homes. From what I’ve gathered, after Christianity came to Romania, the Bear Dance continued on but became mixed with Christian tradition. Some say the bear is meant to symbolize demons that came during Jesus’ birth to try to kill him before he could become the Messiah, and the men dressed in bright uniforms are therefore driving the demons away and guaranteeing the Savior’s birth.
Either way, it was really bizarre to see for the first time, caught unawares as we were.
We were busy working on stuff at home, getting cooking, cards, and gifts ready, when we heard the loud bang bang bang bang of a snare drum, followed by the intermittent whistling of horns.
“What on earth is that?” we wondered, and popped our heads out the windows, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of what we assumed was a holiday parade. But we couldn’t see a thing, just kept hearing a loud racket down below.
Finally, about half an hour later, the noise now deafening, we opened the living room windows and saw passing beneath us…
Bucky Badger and the UW Marching Band!
That was our first thought anyway, followed by comments like, “It’s some sort of pagan ritual! That guy’s wearing a bear skin! This is crazy!” I think Ben commented, “It looks like something from Ee-taow.”
I want to know more about this ritual. I doubt most people here in Bucharest treat it seriously as driving demons out of their homes – not any more than the average American believes they’re celebrating fertility goddesses when they hide Easter eggs anyway – but I’d be curious to find out what the general perception is.
From the perspective of a handful of outsiders who didn’t know it was coming, it felt like we were witnessing a European Voodoo ceremony or Buffalo Dance.
After it was all done, the photos were snapped, the procession was passed, and the music had faded, we looked at each other and thought, “This is definitely not America.”
I mean, come on, there wasn’t a single Santa Claus in that whole Christmas procession. 😉 Holiday traditions are so weird.
Picture above taken from Google StreetView. The real photo would have a lot more snow around it this time of year. 🙂
Yesterday, I started posting about the calamity that occurred between Matei and Geta, two new believers who have been coming regularly to our Monday night meetings and growing a ton. Thanks for everyone who has been praying. We don’t know anything more about Matei, but Geta’s situation has improved, and family friends are taking care of the kids. Keep praying, though, because the whole family still needs God to do a lot for them.
We hope to visit Matei in prison soon, but no one seems to know where he’s being held right now, but we were able to visit Geta yesterday at the hospital.
We were a humorous-looking troupe. Ben and I, already identical twins, happened to be both wearing hiking boots, blue jeans, black jackets, and black snow hats, carrying black Romanian Bibles. Jason, with his dark beard, black coat, and gray backpack, looked like a cross between an Orthodox priest and a homeless guy. And we were all three following Teresa and Rita, two short, round Gypsy women dressed in flowery dresses and “Christmas sweaters” as Jason described their outfits. But we were going to see our sister, a member of our church family who had been attacked by the one closest to her. She was hurting and scared and she needed us.
When we got to the hospital, Jason warned us, “They may not let all of us in. Usually they’re pretty strict about only one or maybe two visitors being allowed in at the same time.”
“Let’s pray for favor then,” I suggested, and we all gathered together in front of the hospital to pray for a minute.
We walked into the hospital, went through one corridor after another, and eventually got to the security guard who made sure only one person was going in at a time.
Teresa explained the situation and asked if all of us could go in to pray for Geta, because she was desperately hurt and we were her church family, so she needed us. “Well, I don’t know…” the guard hesitated.
So Teresa reached into her pocket and pulled out 2 lei and flashed it at him. “OK, fine,” said the guard, grabbing the equivalent of 59 cents from her. You can’t get much in Bucharest for 2 lei, so I don’t know what he was thinking. Maybe he just decided to have pity on Teresa and let us pass, realizing that anyone who would offer you a 2 lei bribe was probably really desperate.
Rita looked at Ben, Jason, and I. “Dumnezeu lucrează, frații,” she said with a smile. Indeed, God is working.
We passed the security guard, walked down some more halls, and began the hike up the stairs. One old man passed us and asked Teresa, “Where are you going? Are you here for surgery?”
Finally, we found our way to where they were letting Geta rest and heal. Before entering the large room filled with hospital beds, mostly empty, they handed us hospital gowns to put over our clothes. When we tried to put our arms in the sleeves, the nurses corrected us, grabbed the gowns, and draped them around us like Jewish prayer shawls. Now our humorous troupe was even more bizarre.
As we walked into the room, we felt like Medieval Orthodox priests with our robes hanging about our shoulders.
We found Geta and learned her situation had improved greatly over the previous day. She could move a little, she could talk, and she seemed very awake and aware. Doctors said she would be eating regular food soon and should be fine to leave after she has enough time to rest and recover. She had lost 50% of her blood from the attack, but a blood transfusion was holding well and infections seemed to be held at bay. She said her body hurt everywhere, but at least she was going to live. Praise God. He’s already been answering the prayers of a lot of people.
What broke our hearts the most, though, was to hear her blame herself for everything that had been done to her. The first thing she said to us was, “I need to repent. I have done something terrible. I must have committed some great sin for this to happen to me.” It was awful to hear her blaming herself for what her husband had done to her.
We told her she wasn’t the one to blame, that if she had sin in her life, God would never punish her by doing this, that he simply demands repentance, not torture. We shared the Scriptures with her, encouraged her to believe for healing, prayed for her and commanded her body to be restored, and let her know that we and many others would be praying for her.
As we finished up, we told her that many Gypsies were praying for her, many churches in Bucharest, and that hundreds of people in America, friends of ours, would be praying for her because we would email them and tell them what had happened. As we told her of the literally hundreds of people who would pray for her and her family, her eyes welled up with tears and she began to cry.
Suddenly, a doctor entered the room, scolded the nurses for letting all of us in at once, and told us we had to leave.
Just in time.
Please keep praying for Geta, Matei, and their kids. We praise God for how He’s been healing Geta already, but we want to see God completely restore this family, robbing Satan from any and all glory that he hoped to achieve from this. Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Well, it’s been an emotional couple of days.
We’d been busy working on preparing a Christmas party for our Monday night Gypsy meeting. We spent a few days cooking 10 liters of soup and making up gift bags for all the kids. We bought bread, snacks, drinks, fruit, disposable plates and silverware. We prepared some Christmas songs and a short Christmas message. Then we got everything loaded up in bags, bundled up the kids, and walked / slid through slippery, slushy, cold, potholed sidewalks to get to Lalli and Mandra’s house to hand out gifts, share the love of Jesus, eat some food, and spend Christmas together.
A couple blocks from the house, we met up with Jason, who informed us, “Hey, guys, I’ve got some bad news. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but it looks like Matei’s in prison and Geta’s in the hospital. They said he got drunk and pulled a knife on her. They’re saying he cut her up so bad they’re not sure she’ll live.”
“What?” we all kind of gasped. Of all the people we’ve met in Romania, Matei was one of the smartest, nicest, and calmest. He prayed to turn from sin and trust Jesus a couple months ago, and he was reading his Bible, praying, and growing every day. When we met Monday nights, he’d come with questions and always ask us to pray for him. He was always smiling and cheerful. When we taught him something from the Bible, he just did it. He didn’t do drugs, never yelled at his wife or kids around us, and was one of the last people I’d expect to be in prison for cutting his wife with a knife.
We had been teaching on baptism the past few weeks, and Matei was one of the most excited about it. We learned later that he had even gone out and bought a new suit specifically to put on for his baptism.
None of this about him attacking his wife made any sense.
So we went to the meeting with mournful, confused hearts, hoping there was a communication problem, hoping it was a different Matei, hoping to find everyone gathered and ready for Christmas celebrations as planned.
When we got there, we were greeted by a mournful sight. Women were in tears, wailing in Țiganeasca, the Romii language. Men walked around looking sullen and dejected. Teresa, the spiritual “mother” of the group, explained what happened. No one could tell us why, which was the question on all of our hearts, but at least we learned some of the details.
Matei, our Matei, Matei who was growing in Jesus and excited to be baptized, who had purchased a new suit to be baptized in, had gotten drunk Sunday and at about 6:30 pm, he and his wife Geta got into a fight outside the Mega Image grocery store near their house. Matei, who apparently has made it a habit to walk around carrying a 6-inch knife, pulled the knife out and violently slashed at his wife. Like a madman, he cut her arm, her back, her shoulder, and then slashed deep into her stomach and chest.
Teresa explained that Matei was quickly arrested and Geta brought to the hospital. By Monday night, news of Geta was bad. She had lost half her blood, her liver and internal organs were severely damaged, she was in serious pain, and she was completely unresponsive and unable to eat. She was in intensive care and doctors were keeping a close watch on her.
Teresa and Rita, who were filling in all the details for us, were pretty sure she wasn’t going to make it.
We all sat there, crammed into the kitchen, covered in sweat, mud, and snow from the walk, in complete shock. No one felt like eating the food we’d prepared. We didn’t even want to hand out the gift bags to the kids. We just sat there dumbfounded and confused, wondering how something so terrible could happen. And how could Matei be the one who did it? None of it made any sense.
All the kids were gathered, so we handed out gifts to them, and though they were really excited about the gift bags, it seemed so fake in the face of what had happened between Matei and Geta.
The rest of the night, we talked about what happened, we encouraged everyone with the Word of God as best we could, we prayed for Matei and Geta and their kids, and we prayed for each other, trusting that God would bring comfort and turn this dark situation into something light.
Things like this can drive you to question how God could possibly be alive and real, or they can bring you to the reality that, in this dark, dark world where people do stupid stuff that doesn’t make any sense, God Himself came to bring a light that would one day extinguish that darkness forever.
Isaiah 9:2 – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
If bad things like this happen while a good, loving God watches over us, can you imagine how evil our world would be without Him?
Pray for Geta – her situation has improved by now (Tuesday night), but she is still in serious trouble physically and emotionally. Pray for Matei – we don’t know why he did what he did, but we want to see him repent and we want to see Jesus glorified in his life all the same. He’s looking at at least a few years in prison for what he did. Pray God protects him from hardening his heart and instead uses the time in prison to give him a soft heart toward Jesus. Pray for their kids, Matei, Maca, and Ștefan, caught in the middle of everything, facing an uncertain future. And pray for the families of Gypsies at Mihai Bravu, that God would use this to draw them closer to Jesus and soften their hearts to His love.
Well, last night was an incredibly strange night ministering with the Gypsies at Mihai Bravu, and while I’m processing everything that happened, I thought I’d put up a simpler, easier post that I wrote earlier this week, and once my brain can process everything that happened, I’ll have a full report for you all. If that seems mysterious and evasive, well it is, but I just don’t want to go into details yet until I know what to say.
So… last week, we finally got snow here in Bucharest and it’s “beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” We didn’t know they were calling for so much snow, so we planned on bringing the kids out to see the Christmas lights near Universitate. Well, we made it about 5 minutes before the wind and snow became too much for us, and we retreated to the insides of Mall Vitan to warm up.
After a half-hour of wandering around the mall, we were brave enough to head out again, so we took the kids out to walk around in the midst of the storm. They had a lot of fun and got a lot of stares, being the only kids braving the snow and wind.
I wanted to head out for a day of photographing the newly-whitened city streets, but we’ve been busy with everything going on, so instead here’s a few quick snapshots:
We’d heard a number of horror stories about the difficulty foreigners in Bucharest have when they make trips to the Romanian post office, so we’ve been trying to stay away at all costs. People complain about long lines, crabby workers, lack of signs, bribes, mysterious bonus fees, etc. We read blog posts talking about waiting in line for hours, only to get to the front and be told, “You’re in the wrong line,” so then they have to repeat the process all over again. So we’ve been less than excited to visit the post office. I mean, if I wanted to wait in long lines, I’d go pick up bread from the bakery during rush hour. And then at least I’d have fresh bread.
Finally, after living here for 7 months, we got a notice saying our presence was required at the post office in order to pick up a package. A few people have promised Christmas packages in the mail, so we were excited to go see what it was.
We got the notice on Friday, so we figured the best time to go would be early Saturday morning, when everyone else would be staying inside away from the cold. It’s freezing in Bucharest right now. We got about a foot of snow the other day, and while the temperature isn’t so cold in itself (maybe 20s-30s F), there’s been this drizzly, snowy fog clinging to everything ever since. It sneaks down your collar to suck the warmth out of you, wrapping itself around your face like a giant leach from the North Pole. It’s not so cold that the snow cracks and snaps when you step on it, it’s just a clinging, leaching cold that won’t let you go.
So, with the sudden cold snap, we figured this would be an ideal time to head to the post office and pick up our package.
So Saturday morning, we got ready. We made sure we both had our IDs, grabbed the slip from the post office and some extra cash in case it was needed, practiced a few Romanian phrases that would help us out, bundled up for the cold, said a quick prayer, and headed out, ready to spend a couple hours and a lot of frustration at the post office.
Well, after all that, let me just say it was a major letdown. Nothing eventful whatsoever happened. We walked to the post office, which was completely empty except for workers. When we went inside, we found the small, easy-to-miss signs that showed which line we were to stand in, but we couldn’t figure the Romanian out, so someone grabbed our slip, pointed to “Ghiseul Patru” (window four), and told us to stand there. At window four, a cheerful young woman behind the counter smiled at us and talked sweetly to Isaac, handed us a paper to sign, found our package, and joyfully told us to have a nice day
I’ve been to a lot of post offices in the States, but I don’t think I remember anyone smiling or talking sweetly to me or my kids. So to balance out all the negative experiences people have had with the post offices in Bucharest, our experience was perfect. The only way our trip could have been better is if the package we picked up wasn’t a box of bacon-flavored candy canes my dad sent.
In retrospect, I can see how a lot of things lined up perfectly for us:
- We have our Romanian IDs, with our correct address, which is necessary to get packages through the national mail service
- We went early Saturday morning, when most people want to stay home
- We went on a cold day, when even more people want to stay home
- We stared at the signs long enough for someone to realize we didn’t know what we were doing.
- We brought kids, which is always a good thing in Romania. If you have kids, people will give you their seats on the bus, they’ll smile and laugh more, they’ll let you go in the front of the line, etc.
So, despite the horror stories we’d heard from foreigners in Bucharest, our visit couldn’t have been less eventful. If you want some more entertaining stories of less successful trips to the post office, check out Bucharest Life here and here. It’s worth a good laugh.
Way back here, I wrote about an experience we had with the singing of Romanian churches. It’s very funny, so if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
In America, we Christians have forgotten how to sing. We go to church, we listen to a rock-n-roll concert put on by professional musicians who are way better at singing than us so there’s obviously no point in even trying to sing. Besides, even if we did try, we’ve got the music cranked so loud that we’d never be able to hear ourselves anyway, so we’d never quite know if we were singing in key or not. Not that there’s any real reason to sing in key. Were Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Louis Armstrong, or Chuck Berry concerned about singing in key? I think not.
I’m joking of course, but I think, as a culture, we as Americans have mostly given up our ability to sing. We’re so used to being sung to and entertained that, on the whole, we don’t know how to sing well and we generally don’t care to try. Sure, there are groups where singing is a huge part of the community, but that seems more the exception than the rule.
Tonight, Jessie and I attended a Christmas production at Biserica Sfânta Treime (Holy Trinity Church). Our friend Daniel was singing in the choir and invited us to come for the show. And, yes, once again, we were reminded that Romanian churches know how to sing.
So for the next hour we sat, crammed into a pew next to a cheerful old Baptist woman with bad breath, mesmerized by the interwoven harmonies coming from this choir of some of the best singers in the world.
I really like rock-n-roll. I’ve always admired guys like Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes or Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou for writing and performing some incredible music despite their voices that wouldn’t make it on American Idol. I like the raw energy that sometimes comes with a growly, scratchy, straining voice. I like the passion and “realness” that can come from a less-than-perfect vocalist.
But as we sat mesmerized by the singing tonight, I couldn’t help but fall in love again with these people who really know how to use their voices. I know bad singers exist in Romania – I’ve heard some on the radio 😉 – but I’m pretty convinced that they’re not allowed into the churches. 🙂
So things have been going kinda’ nuts meeting with Vasilica, an older Gypsy woman who recently became a Christian. Our friend Jason shared the Gospel with her and baptized her last year, and we all started meeting together just recently. She’s the only Christian in her little Gypsy community, and you can read more about her here and here.
Recently, things have been nuts because her husband, Mircea, who dropped heroin cold turkey for a few months and let us use their house as a base for a church meeting, is now back into the drugs, which means he doesn’t want us to meet in his house anymore. So while he and his friends smoke heroine inside, “chasing the dragon” as they say, we meet outside in the alleyway, talk about the Bible, and pray for Mircea and his friends to wake up and cry out to Jesus for help. It’s cold out in the alley, it’s dark, not that many people want to join us, but it’s all for Jesus and Vasilica relishes the encouragement.
Last week, while we were talking with Vasilica, a young man of maybe 20 or 25 ran over rubbing his red eyes and angrily yelling about something. When we asked him his name, I couldn’t make out what he said, but it was something like an Italian form of Jeremy. I’ve been calling him Geronimo whenever I pray for him or tell people about him, so that’s what I’m naming him here.
“Are you OK,” Vasilica asked.
“No, my eyes are burning. Some police just pepper-sprayed me,” Geronimo told her.
Geronimo is homeless. He showed us his couch in the alley that he’s been sleeping on. He’s got no blanket, no pillow, no protection from the cold. Just a couch to sleep on.
We prayed for his eyes, explained the Gospel to him, and asked God to free him from the drugs he’s become addicted to recently. They’re mild “natural” drugs that used to be legal in Bucharest but now are simply sold black market.
When we asked him why he was pepper-sprayed by the police, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of teeth. Then he reached into another pocket and pulled out a lower jaw with some teeth still in it, more teeth from another pocket, and finally he pulled out a small tube, opened the top, and poured out another handful of teeth to show us.
Aaaah, I thought to myself, so he must be a dentist. Not.
He held the teeth up to us proudly, so we could see the specks of metal glittering in the dim glow of moonlight. “I had to dig up four bodies to get these.”
Yes, clearly a dentist, I thought. Not.
Then he laughed and smiled at us. “No, I’m joking,” he said. “I was digging in the garbage behind a dentist’s office when they came and just started spraying me in the face. But at least I got these. Do you think I can sell the metal? It might be silver.”
Please pray for Vasilica to remain steadfast in her faith. Pray for Mircea and his friends to get fed-up with the drugs. Pray for Vasilica’s kids and grandkids living in the drug house. And pray for Geronimo the dentist. We headed back to his couch a few days later with a sleeping bag, some food, and winter clothes, but he wasn’t there, so pray we’d be able to find him again.