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.
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.