A couple weeks ago, we were invited to preach at a church in the town of Barbulești. Barbulești is a small, cramped and dirty Gypsy village of about 5,000 people. Half the buildings stand unfinished with dirty cement exteriors like the church above. The other half are either little ramshackle huts or giant Gypsy mansions decorated with gold, silver, and gaudy regalia, like the one here near Cluj. Barbulești is a strange little town. It used to be one of the worst areas of Romania, home to Gypsy crime lords, gang leaders, and murderers, but about 15 years ago, everything started changing – some of the most notorious criminals were locked up, others died, and others repented and became good, God-fearing citizens. Now, the little town is known more for poverty than crime. A few years ago, it made news when France kicked a bunch of Gypsies out and sent them back here. You can read about that and some of the current predicaments of living in this town here.
Anyway, we were invited to preach at a Pentecostal church in town. The first thing I noticed when we came through the doors was that all the women were on one side, with head-coverings of course, and the men were on the other, like a lot of the older, more traditional churches in the country. Side note: when we were done with the service, we all thought it was funny that the women’s side was substantially dirtier than the men’s. Candy wrappers, clods of dirt, tissues, and plastic cups littered the women’s side, but the men’s was left virtually spotless.
We had three of us preaching that day, and I closed the service up, preaching a message about Jesus coming to destroy the works of the devil, which means we can be set free from bondage to sin, sickness, addiction, demonic torment, or any other bondage of the enemy. Jesus defeated all that stuff, so we could live in freedom!
After my message, we called people forward for prayer, if they needed anything from God, physical healing, release from demonic torment, victory over sin, whatever.
No one moved.
Dang, I started thinking, did I even make sense? Maybe they didn’t understand what I was saying…
Then suddenly one man boldly walked forward, then another, and then this whole swarm of people came forward for prayer. We were surrounded by maybe 75 or 100 people all wanting prayer. So we split into two teams and got to work, praying for God to move in this church, praying with all our hearts for people to be set free from the power of the enemy, praying until our throats hurt and we had no more strength left.
Honestly, I don’t know if we saw any miraculous healings or deliverances that day, and it broke my heart. We prayed for so many people, and I know God promises to answer and bring healing, but it sure seemed like nothing was happening. One person after another came forward asking for freedom from addictions, demonic torment, nightmares, insanity, ongoing headaches, stomach diseases, diabetes, deafness, blindness… on and on the list goes.
I want to see God move here. I want to see people delivered from sin and demons and sickness and torment, just like the Bible promises. A lot of people I’ve met in Romania’s churches (Pentecostal or otherwise) say they believe God can do it, but they don’t think He’ll do it here in Romania. Like people in America, they say things like, “That’s what God does in Africa or China or India, but He doesn’t do that here.”
That might be a nice excuse, but it’s just not Biblical thinking. Nowhere in the Bible does it say God can only heal in Third World nations or really poor places. God is the same everywhere, and I’m sure if Jesus were walking the streets of Barbulești, he wouldn’t tell all the sick and demon-oppressed, “Dang, guys, sorry. If you were Africans I might heal you, but since you’re Europeans, I just don’t know if I’ve got it in me.”
When Jesus went to a town, he routinely healed all who were sick and oppressed. Even in Nazareth, where people were full of unbelief, it says in Matthew 13:58 that Jesus, “did not do many mighty works there.” He did mighty works, just not many. Jesus heals the sick and releases those oppressed by sin and demonic torment, even in the face of unbelief. That’s just what He does.
Lord, help us! Move in Romania like you did in Judea! Heal the sick, deliver the tormented, free the captives, comfort the oppressed!
Jesus said that if we want to see the kingdom of God, we need to become born a second time. When he told this to Nicodemus in John 3, he was confused and asked facetiously, “How can someone crawl back into his mother’s womb?!” Translation: “What on earth are you talking about, Jesus? That doesn’t make any sense.”
A few weeks ago, a new person showed up at our meeting with the Gypsy communities along Mihai Bravu. 78-year-old George, from Transylvania, had just come to town and moved into one of the free rooms at the house where we meet. I think we all honestly assumed he was already a Christian. He seemed really nice and normal, and I guess I figured that by the age of 78, he surely had run out of reasons to resist God and given in. Or if not, surely no amount of preaching by us young guys would convince him otherwise.
I tried to get a picture with George that night, but people kept getting in front of him or pushing him out of the way. In the photo above, he’s just to the right of the man with the leather jacket.
Anyway, when Andrei, a high school student from Elim Church, shared his testimony of how God had changed his life, forgiven him, and freed him from drug and alcohol addiction, he began to ask if anyone wanted to turn from sin and trust in Jesus. My first thought, to my shame, wasn’t, “Awesome, I can’t wait to see people get right with God,” but something more like, “Well, everyone here is either already saved, so clouded by sin and religiosity that they think they’re saved, or too old to care anymore, so I hope Andrei doesn’t get disappointed when no one responds.” Ouch. Yeah, that bad.
Thankfully, God chose to go with what He wanted and not what I expected.
George came forward for prayer and explained, to my surprise and embarrassment, that he wanted to finally, once and for all, repent of his sin and trust in Jesus. He was tired of living for himself and was finally ready to become a new man, born all over again.
Well, OK, then. I like when God proves me wrong and does something amazing despite the fact that I’m expecting so little.
So we prayed with George, who refused to stand during prayer, despite his bad knees. He preferred to come to God on his knees in humility rather than standing in the presence of his King. As we prayed, we asked that God would fill him with power to live the Christian life and to be a witness to those around him. We prayed for healing and strengthening of his worn body.
When we were done praying, he got up, saying he had felt an intense amount of heat coming off our hands, and now all the pain was gone from his legs. Praise God! He restored George’s heart and his body.
Every week, we pray for George to get healed – he’s always got some new sort of pain or ailment that comes up, sometimes an old pain or ailment that’s returned. And every week, God heals him of whatever new pain has come on his body.
Be praying for George. He’s made a commitment to follow after Jesus, and we want to see him finish strong. He may only have a year or two left on this earth, or he may have a few decades – either way, our prayer is that he’s prepared on that final day to walk boldly into the throne room, knowing who it is he’s lived for these last years of his life.
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.
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?
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.
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.