In Romanian, there are several ways to greet someone and ask how they are doing. For example, to someone older or in an authority position over you, you might say, “Ce mai faceți?” To same-aged folks or friends, you could say, “Ce faci?” or “Cum ești?” The latter literally means, “How are you?” Ok, ok, boring language lessons, I know. But here’s the point of me bringing this up.
In America, often when we ask someone, “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” or “How are you?” we don’t really care. Or if we do care, we only want to hear the truth if it’s something positive. But, one thing I’ve noticed, and really loved, about Romanians is that if you ask them how they are doing, you’re going to get a real answer (unless they are responding with very simple Romanian so that we understand). Now, I don’t mean you’re going to get a long sob story, but just the truth.
If someone is stressed about an exam or work, they’ll tell you–not whining, mind you, but just simply the facts: “I’m okay, just work has been a little stressful lately.” Even at the churches we’ve visited frequently and developed friendships with, there is rarely the “church face” going on. It makes it easy to say, “I’ll pray for you, then.” And anytime I’ve done that, it’s been very welcomed!
In all the frustrations of certain cultural things we don’t fully understand yet (will we ever “fully?”) and the slow-going of language learning, I have a great appreciation for this aspect of Romanian life. Sometimes the straightforwardness of people here throws me off, like when older women scold us for Isaac pants riding up when he’s sitting on my lap on the tram, exposing a couple of inches of bare skin, or their tying Illiana’s winter hat tightly under her chin so that air won’t sneak up there into her ears, or random people questioning me suspiciously about why Naomi is out with us during the day and not in school. But, I’m getting used to it, and some day I will be able to stand my ground more confidently as I learn more of the language and customs. Until then, I can appreciate that when someone at church smiles and tells me they’re doing really well, I can believe it!
I realized tonight that it has been a month and a half since I last wrote anything for the blog and all my ideas for posts are quickly becoming outdated. Since Jake recently shared about some ministry we did over the holidays, I thought I would throw in one more experience.
While Christmas shopping with our family at Cora, which is comparable to Target in the States, Mae, Isaac, and I happened to be looking at a Play-doh display in the store when a young woman walks up and starts speaking to us quickly in Romanian about the things in the display. When I stop her and explain that I don’t speak Romanian well, she switches to English and explains that she’s there as a representative of Hasbro to answer people’s questions about all the new Play-doh products this year.
But, since I had no life-shattering questions about this expensive moldable plastic, she was full of questions about America, where we came from, what it was like there, why was I in Romania, what do I think about Romania and Romanians, etc. (Side note: almost every Romanian I meet asks me what I think of Romania, with a sense of earnestly desiring to know my opinion.)
I answered her questions, and she kept asking me more because she said she loved my accent (who knew American English could sound interesting to anyone?), and she would ask Mae lots of questions, because she loved hearing her cute little girl voice. Finally, she got to asking about what our family was doing in Romania. After explaining that we were Christians and that we wanted to tell people about Jesus, she asked me something like, “So, Christianity…is that like Orthodox or what is it?” I was a little taken aback, because most people here know quite a bit about Romanian Orthodoxy, but she didn’t really even know what that was about beyond the name, and she asked as if she’d never heard of Christianity before.
I felt this love of God for her in my heart, because she didn’t know about the love of Jesus and all that He came to do for her, so I briefly explained about Jesus and how He’s not just a religion but someone you could know. She seemed interested, but then other customers kept coming over asking her questions and interrupting, so she needed to get back to work. I offered to get together with her again, answer any more questions, let her practice English, whatever. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from her again, but I was encouraged that God can take whatever seeds we sow, and He can water them and grow them in people. I pray for her still; her name is Mihaela, and I am excited that God can draw people to us wherever we are, even shopping at a department store.
Heidi from the blog Will Travel With Kids just posted an interview with us about moving here to Romania. If you want to read way too much about the Stimpson family, have been searching for clear evidence that I am an unforgivable rambler, or have been waiting to delve deep into our psyches and discover what makes us tick, head on over here to check it out.
A post from my brother, about our tram ride to Missio Dei Church this past Sunday. I suggest playing “Oooh That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd as you read:
On Sunday, we were on the tramvai on our way to church when a smell which I can only describe as Satan incarnate crept up. And, yes, it was creeping, for this smell was surely something alive. But by “alive,” I mean that life that is in a zombie, not the life that’s in a cute little bunny rabbit.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw what was certainly no cute bunny rabbit. There, taking his seat just a few feet away was the most bedraggled homeless guy I’ve ever witnessed, complete with crazy muttering, scraggly hippy beard, and blood-smeared shirt. But it was the smell that was killing us… perhaps literally…
Click here for the rest.
Life without a car really shrinks your world, especially in a crowded big city. The other day, Ben was talking about some people who attended his church in the States. “They lived really close,” he said, “so I don’t know why they didn’t come every week. They were only ten miles away.”
I did a quick calculation in my head. Ten miles, that’s like 17 kilometers! “What! Well no wonder they didn’t come,” I exclaimed, not shifting my mind properly back to life with a car in small-town America, “that’d take forever! That’s like trying to get to the airport from here!”
In America, we were traveling all the time. We drove between Milwaukee and Oconomowoc a few times a week, we popped into all the small towns around Milwaukee all the time for all sorts of stuff, we visited family in Green Bay every few months, we drove all over Wisconsin for support-raising meetings, we made a big trek out West or down to Jessie’s parents in Virginia every few years. Nothing glamorous or anything, but just a constant exploration beyond our front door, outside the city limits. The world seems big, exciting, and adventurous when you get out a little.
It’d been months since we’d been outside Bucharest, and life seemed really small and boring. We were busy, stuck with our nose to the grindstone, down in the trenches of routine weekly meetings, learning the language, and surviving in a new city. I hadn’t left the city in three months. For Jessie, it’d been five. That’s the longest stretch of time we’ve ever spent in one city our whole adult lives.
We needed to escape, if for no other reason than to keep our sanity and remind ourselves that there’s a big wide world out there beyond the apartment blocs of the city.
So this past Saturday we took the train to Brașov, a city called by one guidebook, “The city all others in Romania secretly wish they could be.” According to friends of ours who live there, the city slogan is “Probably the nicest place on earth.” I like it.
Not to turn this blog post into a travel guide, but we loved Brașov and we’re really glad we popped in for a visit. It’s a beautiful medium-sized city (260,000 people) tucked in the mountains, full of friendly people who speak Romanian slow and clear and keep complementing you on your pronunciation. It’s got the cutest, cleanest old city center I’ve ever seen, and, always a plus for me, I didn’t see a single stray dog the whole time. I’ve heard they exist even in Brașov, but they must keep them hidden from tourists like us.
When we got off the train, Jessie and I were looking forward to a day away just to enjoy each other and not worry about ministry, planting a church, evangelism, or anything else. We just wanted to disappear and be tourists. In Bucharest, we had to uphold the illusion that we were missionaries, but here in Brașov, no one would tell on us if we just sank into the background and disappeared as tourists. We wouldn’t even have to speak Romanian, and I didn’t want to and wasn’t planning to. No one would think anything of it if we just acted like dumb American tourists.
Well that was our plan, but God had something better in store. Even while escaping for the day, God opened up opportunities to share the Gospel and be a light to that city. Nothing amazingly dramatic happened, but a few minutes out of the train station, we were approached by an old man in rough shape asking for money. God, I’m off-duty, I thought to myself. I’m a tourist today. I’ll minister to the poor when we get back to Bucharest.
So I tried to take the easy way out. “Sorry,” I told him, in Romanian too. Gosh, this “dumb American tourist” thing wasn’t working in my favor. “I don’t want to give money, but I can buy food.” He’ll say he doesn’t want food, just money, I thought, and then I’m off the hook, because I don’t know who he is and I’m not supplying his liquor fund.
“No, just give me the money and I’ll buy food at the store,” he returned, refusing to back down.
Aaah, so it’s hardball, eh? “No, come with us to the store. We’ll go together. It’s over there, to the left” Surely he’ll decide we’re not worth his trouble now and leave me to my day off.
“OK,” he said, and we were drafted. So we bought him groceries, prayed with him, shared the Gospel as best we could, and gave him a tract with my personal testimony.
After having our plans to just blend in ruined, we decided to surrender and let God direct our day as He saw fit. The woman working at the grocery store told me I was very kind and generous to buy groceries for that man ($5 worth of bread and oranges – I’m so generous), which opened a door for me to share about God with her. A young couple who sat near us at a Chinese restaurant struck up a conversation with us. In the course of things, they told us we seemed full of joy, life, and a “Bohemian spirit,” whatever that meant. Again, we directed it back toward Jesus and how we’ve prayed for His life to be evident in us, that the joy on us was from Him. We exchanged phone numbers and plan on getting together again with Alex and Dalina, who live in Bucharest not far from us.
Lesson of the day? Be ready in season and out of season (2 Timonty 4:2), let all your speech be seasoned with salt, pointing men toward salvation at all times (Colossians 4:6). Whether you’re a full-time cross-cultural missionary overseas, a pastor in Germany, a student at Politehnica, or a housewife in Atlanta, your job is the same, to shine as a light for Jesus and let people see it (Matthew 5:16).
And get out of the trenches once in a while! You can get so busy working, gutting it out, slogging away, that you miss the big picture of what God is doing. Get out of the fight, see a new city, explore something different, have some fun, and be ready for God to use you all the same. Sometimes I think we actually become more useful for the Kingdom of God when we’re trying to be “off-duty” and not stressing about all the stuff we “have” to get done.
I’ve been listening to veteran old-guy missionary Otto Koning’s series The Pineapple Stories lately. Really good stuff, and I highly recommend it. Koning and his wife and children were missionaries in New Guinea, where they saw God bring hope and life to scores of head-hunting cannibals who had known nothing but a life of paganism, idolatry, and fear. The series is half cool testimonies of what God did and half humorously painful stories of God dealing with Otto on his own stinginess, frustration, and selfishness while on the mission field. He’s a great speaker, really funny, honest and fun to listen to.
Anyway, in one of the sermons, Otto mentions the very real power of God that was present in their services, despite the fact that he wasn’t seeking dramatic supernatural manifestations or even aware that stuff like that could happen. Last week, I just finished listening to him tell stories of how God began killing people who defiantly mocked the Gospel. Witch doctors who cast spells on the Christians, natives who came to the services only to disrupt and mock, preachers he raised up who took the name of Jesus only to abuse and mistreat their churches… God was killing so many people that Otto joked all he had to do to quiet a mocker in any village was to tell them, “Remember what happened to Ojombwai? Don’t mock God.” Instantly, the remembrance of God’s dramatic power to take away life would silence the opposition.
Now, it’s possible to have an unhealthy fear of God, where you’re convinced He’s out to get you and is just waiting for the chance to sneak up and send you into Hell, but I think most of us don’t have enough fear of God. The Biblical reality is that God has the power to give life and take it away, and we see Him even in the New Testament killing people who treat Him too lightly (Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5, Herod in Acts 12). It’s only through the blood of Jesus that we have any hope in God’s presence. Without Jesus’ blood covering us, we’ve got no right to expect anything but death when God shows up.
Regardless of your theology on all that, the evidence in the Bible and history is clear – God kills people.
We go every week to visit Vasilica, a Gypsy woman Jason knows. Vasilica loves Jesus, and every week we meet with her she invites along different people she’s been ministering to. A couple weeks ago it was Dumitru, a homeless guy with no legs who sleeps at the tram stop nearby. It’s freezing this time of year, so Vasilica has invited Dumitru into her home, giving him the couch to sleep on, cooking him food, and telling him about Jesus. We shared the Gospel with him and prayed with him that Jesus would deliver him from drunkenness, because he loved his alcohol and didn’t want to give it up. We encouraged him to follow after Jesus and come next week because we would talk more.
Well, there was no “next week” for Dumitru. I was sick with a cold, so Ben and Jason went to meet with Vasilica on their own. When they got there, they asked about Dumitru and she tearfully told what happened. A few days previous, Dumitru, drunk and ranting at God, wheeled his wheelchair out into the alley with a bottle of liquor in hand. Vasilica followed and told him to leave the alcohol and let Jesus set him free. He shouted back at her, mocked her faith, laughed at Jesus, leaned back, tipped over, cracked his head on the cement, and died. All in about 30 seconds’ time.
Did God kill Dumitru or did he die of the natural consequences of his sin and unwillingness to repent? I don’t know, but it didn’t really matter when I heard the news. It broke my heart. Not the fact that God could allow this to happen. He’s good and never makes a bad decision, even if it looks like that from our side of things. What hurt was that Jesus was so close, so easy to grab ahold of, yet Dumitru didn’t care, persisted in his mocking, and died within arms reach of the one who was ready to rescue him.
So where do we go from here? Well, for starters, I’m not gonna mock God. He’s good, too good to allow us to mock Him and defiantly rebel against Him. He’s so patient, so good, so merciful, but He will not endlessly endure our mocking (Galatians 6:7). God is not safe. He’s an unquenchable fire. We can’t control him, manipulate him, use him, or fool him.
My prayer has been that God would use Dumitru’s death for His glory, which I know He’s eager to do – that He would deepen a Biblical fear of God in my life, that He’d open up Vasilica’s neighbors and family with the reality of His presence and the urgency to grab ahold of Jesus, and that He would burn in my heart a zeal to declare the Gospel in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2), to all He brings my way. Dumitru didn’t need handouts, a couple of lei, or a roof over his head as much as he needed Jesus, and if we don’t reach guys like him, who do you think is gonna do it?