In the Romanian language, there’s at least three words that refer to dogs. There’s the cute, little puppy that wouldn’t hurt anyone (câțeluș), then there’s the medium-sized dog that’s a little more impressive (câțel), and then there’s the caine, the big, ugly dog that could tear you to pieces.
Bucharest has all three types on its streets, lounging under parked cars, hiding behind garbage bins, sleeping in front of store entryways, chasing bicyclists down the street…
I used to like dogs alright, I even cried at All Dogs Go To Heaven when I was little, but then I moved here and got to weave through packs of them roaming the streets. That ended any sort of desire to ever buy an “I love my lhasa apso” bumper sticker.
Over summer, I was talking with a student, explaining that we don’t have packs of stray dogs on the streets in America. “What?” he asked, barely believing his ears, “then what do you do with strays?”
“Well, we catch them, lock them away, and usually kill them,” I answered matter-of-factly.
“And what about stray cats? With no dogs, surely the cats must be terrible!”
“Nope. No stray cats either. One or two here and there, but not like Bucharest.” The cats are bad here too, but they’re not as scary or as numerous as the dogs, so they don’t really bother me.
“Well what do you do with the cats that get on the streets?” he asked.
“We catch them, lock them away, and usually kill them too.”
“Wow,” he shook his head incredulously. “I don’t know about that.”
In all fairness, Bucharest seems to have way more dogs per square meter than any other city I’ve visited in Romania, and the dogs usually leave you alone, as long as you mind your own business. And, really, there’s only a few deaths every year from strays. It’s not like you’re walking through fields of landmines in Mozambique or something. In fact, up until recently, we’d been barked at but nothing more.
Well, a week ago, the dogs seemed to have noticed that they’d let us off easy, so they started getting more aggressive toward us.
One week, after passing out tracts near a mall, I noticed a dog that lay between me and the subway entrance. I started walking forward cautiously and suddenly, without warning, the dog barked viciously, jumped up, and ran at me, showing its sharp teeth.
I stood my ground for a second, hoping he was bluffing, but he kept running at me looking hungry for American food, so I turned and ran. I saw an overhanging tree branch on the nearest tree, so I jumped, planning on climbing up to safety. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of a fast, so my grip was really weak. I fell back down to the ground, turned around, and saw the dog about 3 feet away and nearing fast.
Then just as quickly as he’d started chasing me, he stopped barking and ran as far away as he could go. Thank you, Jesus.
Apparently a memo went out that I had embarrassed him, because then a warrant went out on the rest of my family. A couple days later, Jessie and the kids were walking when a big dog, out of nowhere again, started chasing after them. Having no trees to climb, Jessie responded quickly. She pulled the kids behind her, stood her ground, pointed at the dog, and fiercely told it, “No. No.”
Apparently the dog understood English, because he then backed away and decided not to mess with Mama.
Every week we visit the drug addicts at Vasilica’s, we never know who’s gonna be there or what they’re gonna say. A few weeks ago, we walked in and were surprised to see a young, well-dressed, bright-eyed man in his 20s. He stood out from the normal wild-eyed street junkies that we normally find there.
And then he spoke in fluent English, something that threw us for even more of a surprise.
Stefan (not his real name) introduced himself and explained his history with heroin addiction. He had been on heroin since he was a teenager, and though he had tried to quit a number of times, he kept returning to it and just couldn’t break free. He then launched into a tirade about how things are hard in Romania, that life is better everywhere else, that if it weren’t for the government or his parents or his friends or his bosses, his life would be good. “God is unjust and doesn’t care,” he concluded. “God has made these problems for us.”
“Well,” I stopped him, “the problem is not God’s fault, it’s ours, it’s the sin we give ourselves to. Until you take responsibility for your own rebellion against God, nothing is going to change. God didn’t create the world with evil, but we continue to allow evil to win, first in our own hearts and then in our families, our cities, and our world. You’re so busy pointing at everyone who’s wronged you, but meanwhile you’ve taken the life God gave you, and you’ve given it to drugs and selfishness. You’re the one to blame for the problems in our world, not God.”
“Me?” he gasped. “What have I done? I’ve done nothing!”
“Yes, you,” I continued. “God created you to bring peace and love and healing to this world, but you’ve abandoned Him and instead given yourself to selfishness and rebellion.”
“Oh, because I’m a junkie, huh?” he asked.
“No, I’m not just talking about the drugs, but everything. For you, it’s drugs. For me, it was hatred and lust in my heart.” Then I shared my testimony with him, about how God convicted me of sin, forgave me, and set me free from anger, lust, and addiction to pornography. “We’ve all rebelled against God. Though He intended for us to bring good to the world, we bring evil. So if you see evil, it’s your fault for not repenting and turning away from it.”
Then he asked me more about what God was like, and I explained to him that, unlike the picture we often have of a stern father ready to pounce on us, God is loving and kind, merciful and compassionate, waiting for us to repent and run to Him to be forgiven.
“Is your father alive?” I asked him.
“Yeah, and he’s a great father. He doesn’t like what I do, but he understands. He lets me do the drugs and doesn’t say much.”
“Well, God is the best father ever,” I explained. “He’s a father who understands us perfectly and constantly gives us everything we need. He’s got the best in store for us. Yet we’ve taken a look at what He has for us and told Him, ‘I don’t want that. I want to do my own thing.’ Time and again, we disrespect our father, even though He’s so good, way better than any earthly father.”
“You would never dishonor your own father, right?”
“No,” he answered, listening intently.
“But you’ve dishonored God. You’d never tell your own father, ‘Get lost, Dad. I don’t care what you want,’ yet that’s exactly what you do to God. He died for you, but you don’t even care.”
In all, we talked for about 45 minutes, most of the time focusing on how God is a good father we’d never want to dishonor. Then we prayed together, that God would reveal Himself to Stefan as the good, loving Father He really is.
After he left, Vasilica, who didn’t understand anything Stefan and I were talking about, told us some of his background. She knows all the junkies in her “parish” very well, and prays for them constantly.
Listening to Vasilica, it became clear that God had set up this encounter on purpose. “His parents are politicians,” she explained, “high up in the government.” She told us what offices they held, but I won’t put it here out of respect for confidentiality. “He comes here often, but they’re embarrassed by him. There’s a clinic where he can go to break the heroin addiction, and he really wants to go because he’s tired of the drugs, but they won’t let him register because they’re too ashamed. They don’t want anyone to know they’re son is a heroin junky. He could get help, he could get medication to make withdrawals easier, but they’re just too concerned with their own reputations.” Essentially, his parents were willing to sacrifice their son to maintain their images.
“But he loves them so much,” Vasilica went on. “He would never dishonor his father, so he respects their desires and stays away from the clinics.” Like a good son who wouldn’t dream of bringing hurt or dishonor to his earthly father, Stefan stayed away from those who could help him kick the heroin, so he wouldn’t shame his family.
The reality is that Stefan doesn’t really want to be free yet. I don’t doubt that his parents are resisting his attempts to get help, but if he really wanted to be free, he would be. He’s not at Vasilica’s every time we visit, but when he is, he doesn’t looked good. Pray that God stirs a holy hunger for freedom inside him, a fire that won’t let up until he’s completely freed from the addiction, a fire that’ll burn even without access to clinics, medications, or programs. And pray his parents wake up and get their son some help.
Friday nights, we head over to Vasilica’s house to share the Gospel with the drug addicts and junkies who gather there. You never know what’s going to happen, but it always ends up good.
Sometimes, all we do is get to encourage Vasilica, who is the only Christian in the drug house. She refuses to eat the food they steal, sometimes going days without eating. The junkies mock her, criticize her, and sometimes even beat her physically. We’ve attempted to get her out of the house and into a better living situation, for her own comfort and safety, but she refuses to leave, telling us that this is her ministry, to shine as a light to these people who have no other way of seeing Jesus
Other nights, we get invited into the midst of the drugs, cheap beer, and cigarettes, addicts asking us to pray for them, asking us about Jesus and Heaven and Hell. It’s dirty, messy, and uncomfortable, and we always leave smelling like an old biker bar, but the whole experience makes you feel a little more like Jesus hanging around with the prostitutes and tax-collectors, telling them about the Kingdom of God.
Vasilica is committed to shining for Jesus in the midst of this darkness. Rather than leave for more apparent safety or comfort, she feels the presence and power of God on her to minister, and she doesn’t wanna leave that safety. She’s planted her feet here, and she’s not going to leave until the light vanquishes the darkness.
One night, we met a young man who asked us to pray for him to receive more of God’s power in his life. We prayed and then he shared his story. Some time ago, he was addicted to ethnobotanicals, legalized narcotics that used to be sold at neighborhood “spice shops.” The government closed the spice shops to clean up the city a little bit, but they never did anything about the drug dealers or their stores of drugs they were selling. So while the shops were closed, the deals went underground. And now free from taxes and regulations, sales increased. Thank you, government.
So this young man was addicted to drugs, frequenting the drug house that Vasilica’s husband runs, and one day he had a really bad trip. He dramatically explained how he felt snakes start to crawl up from Hell and enter his body, he felt the ground opening up and begin to swallow him, he felt flames start to devour him. As most of us would do, he freaked out, running around the streets screaming and writhing in pain until Vasilica found him.
As he describes it, Vasilica walked up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. Instantly, the hallucinations stopped and he had no more desire for drugs. From that moment, he was free, and he’s never gone back.
Amazingly, this young man has somehow been able to resist surrendering to Jesus. Even though he was dramatically delivered from drug addiction and probably death, he treats Vasilica and religion with a huge amount of respect and awe, but he hasn’t surrendered to Jesus Himself yet.
Pray for Vasilica to keep shining as a light. Pray for the drug addicts who come to her house to encounter Jesus and be changed forever.
You could probably do a whole series of blog posts about making the sign of the cross. But since I’m no expert, I offer you just this one tongue-in-cheek, completely irreverent post about something I saw recently that made me want to laugh and cry at the same.
In case you’re not aware, many people in traditional liturgical churches (Eastern Orthodoxy included) attribute supernatural power to the act of making the sign of the cross with your fingers moving swiftly across your abdomen. Some say it wards off evil spirits, others that it brings blessing and good luck, still others that it earns God’s forgiveness or that it helps purify your heart as you meditate on Jesus with your whole being (but especially your fingers I guess).
I need to say all this carefully, because I don’t mean any disrespect toward Orthodoxy or any other liturgical church, and, really, I want to win people to Jesus, not necessarily away from the Orthodox Church. I’ll bring ’em to Jesus, and He can decide if they’ll leave Orthodoxy or bring revival to the system that has become corrupted. And, yes, it has been corrupted. The hypocrisy, greed, corruption, heresy, and immorality in the Orthodox Church can’t be what Jesus had in mind when He said, “I will build My church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”
But I’m not here to pick a fight with Orthodoxy. Not yet anyway. 😉
People everywhere in Bucharest make the sign of the cross. It’s always the approved Eastern version (forehead, belly, right shoulder, left shoulder), because apparently the evil spirits here aren’t as afraid of the Western cross, so you gotta stick with what they know. You can check out a really nice guide to doing it yourself here, in case you want a little more instruction before trying it out yourself.
You’ll see people on the trams making the sign of the cross, people walking down the street, people in the parks, everywhere! At first, it stood out a lot, but now we’ve mostly grown used to it. It’s still funny when suddenly a whole bus full of people stops what they’re doing and they all start making the sign of the cross simultaneously. Jessie and I look up and start looking for a church building or cemetery whenever we’re caught in the middle of a vigorous synchronized crossing procedure.
Recently, while we were on the tram (light inner-city rail), I was watching a woman talking on the phone out of the corner of my eye. The conversation was getting really heated and she was almost yelling into the phone. Suddenly, we must have passed a church building because everyone started doing the sign of the cross. Without skipping a beat, the angry phone-caller told the person on the other end of the line, “Hold on,” methodically proceeded to cross herself a few times, cell phone in hand, then got back on the line yelling, as if nothing had happened.
I wanted to laugh at the comedy of it all and cry because her concept of Jesus wasn’t even big enough to bring peace to her phone conversation.
One of these days, I want to start doing the sign of the cross randomly, in front of a grocery store or something, just to see if I can get everyone else doing it along with me without thinking.
I love Romanians. I don’t always understand them, sometimes their cultural habits make me laugh, but I sure do love ’em and want ’em to know Jesus.
I haven’t blogged in forever. Let me offer a lame excuse. We’ve been so busy with regular meetings, unannounced events, language learning, and simple survival as a big family in an even bigger foreign city that by the time I sit down to write a blog post, a million other things seem way more important. It happens every time.
I’ve got tons to say, as always. I just haven’t made the time to sit down and say it.
Today we visited Elim Pentecostal Church with our friend Andrei who’s known as Kaze. Before he met Jesus, everyone called him Kamikaze because he was, well, a little bit crazed. Now that he’s mellowed out, the shortened version has stuck with him. I’ll have him tell his whole story on here sometime, but as we were talking and he was sharing some of his testimony, it reminded me of the dangers of repenting in an Orthdox-dominated society.
In America, when someone becomes a Christian, we’ve got all sorts of terms we use. We say, “I was born-again,” or “I got saved,” or “I became a Christian,” or “I found Jesus,” or “I asked Jesus to come into my heart.” Or, conjuring up disturbing images of Freddy Krueger and Jason, “I’ve been washed in the Blood.” You can argue forever which one you like better, but each comes with an amount of baggage.
Here, the loaded term is “Repentant” or “Repenter.” Pocait, in the Romanian language. Christians bear the name proudly because, yes, they’ve repented of their sins and been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. Non-Christians and Orthodox churchgoers cast it around as an insult, mocking the Christians for thinking they need to repent. “We’re Orthodox,” I’ve heard so many people say, “We don’t need to repent. We were born Christians.” Trusting for their salvation in their Orthodox heritage (which is rich indeed) and in their infant baptism, they mock the very truth that could set them free.
I’m sure there are genuine Believers in the Orthodox church, but I have not yet met one, and from what I’ve witnessed, I don’t think the Orthodox church would suffer to share communion with a dreaded Pocait for very long.
I’ve heard stories that remind me of what’s coming out of the Muslim world when someone turns to Jesus. Not every story is as sinister, but I’ve heard of fathers beating their daughters for repenting of their sins, mothers driving their children out of the house, extended families holding secret meetings to pressure new converts to give up their hopes of repentance… When a friend of mine repented, he was told by his mother, “You are not my son. You are dead to me if you become a Pocait.” Another was told that he was an embarrassment to his entire family, that his dead relatives were shamed because he had abandoned their faith. Another that she was wasting her life and would amount to nothing because she had chosen superstition and rebellion over conforming to the family’s desires.
When another friend of ours was first considering going to a Christian church, she asked her Orthodox priest for advice. “Be careful,” he told her. “They’ll turn off the lights during the service and have wild orgies.”
This is one of the main rumors I’ve heard spread about Pocait Believers, and not just from a couple of people. Whether they’re talking about Baptists, Pentecostals, or some other flavor of Christian, Orthodox churchgoers seem to genuinely believe we have mass orgies at every service. Now, I can’t vouch for every church in Bucharest, but I’ve visited quite a few, and though I may have missed something, I don’t think I’ve noticed any mass orgies going on. Heck, not even small ones.
And, for the record, we do not currently have and will not in the future be having any mass orgies at any churches we’re planting. But we are Pocaits.