As usual, Catalina caught the brunt of her nasty behavior, and it was clear that Catalina was really struggling with this major stress, too. Providentially, Elin's worst meltdown yet happened the night before Catalina was set to leave for our organization's Europe Women's Retreat. While there, she sought prayer from the more veteran missionary ladies. She went in, saying that she didn't really even know what to ask for per se. She knew she needed prayer about the anger she was struggling with, and then she began slowly telling the struggles that we've faced with Elin ever since arriving on the field - how her personality has done a complete 180 from when we were in the States. Without hesitation, the other women immediately declared that our experiences sounded like spiritual warfare. I'm not talking about the metaphoric spiritual warfare we always mention and don't really believe. I mean real warfare. They prayed fervently with hands over Catalina, praying for and declaring the Lord's victory over our situation - praying like they were doing battle.When Catalina got home we began to pray over our children each night - not simply for peaceful sleep - but that God would sanctify us and our house, that he would post angels around us to guard us, and that he would drive away any demonic forces which surrounded us. We rebuked the evil forces and declared God's victory.
Her first night back, Catalina slept with Elin after praying over the room. It was the first night Elin didn't have a nightmare, but Catalina had the worst, very vivid, very demonic nightmare she can remember. And after all this time of not really even knowing if Elin was telling the truth, the second night after Catalina's return, our daughter opened up to my wife and told her that in her dreams, there were dark monsters chasing and trying to eat her. She said she couldn't speak at all in her dreams and always wanted to find her sword. We were heartbroken for her. The next day - a Sunday - we taught our children the Armor of God for the first time. We acted it out and reviewed it over and over. We prayed it again before she went to bed.
The nightmares immediately stopped. Elin has only had one nightmare in the last seven weeks, and that was on the only night in that time span we broke our discipline of praying over our children before we went to bed.
Catalina and I had a pretty easy life together. But things changed soon after we were invited to come to Romania in September 2015. A little over a month later, our first son was born, but spent a week in the ICU for breathing issues. Six months later, the first of my four living grandparents died. A month later, Catalina's last living grandparent died. Four months later, Catalina had her first miscarriage - an event which spiraled her into a nosedive that would develop into depression, a nervous breakdown, and a deep questioning of God. Six months later my second grandparent would die, and six months after that my third grandparent died. Our family experienced the deaths of four close relatives and one unborn child within a two year period after moving forward with our pursuit of missions.
After we landed in Romania, our daughter also began to develop some very unhealthy behaviors. She developed severe anxiety, especially as it related to socializing. That's not a great thing to develop right before moving into a new community. As she grew older, she also began to question the love of God and the love of her parents. When Catalina would ask, "you know that we love you, right, Elin?" Elin would say "no." She also began to ask some pretty complex questions about God's benevolence and the problem of evil. If God was so good, why did we have to avoid dangerous situations? Wouldn't he protect us if he loved us? Maybe we couldn't count on God to protect us because God doesn't really love us. Elin also began to burst into rages when disciplined. When I say "rages," I do mean rages. I do not mean tantrums. She would scream at the top of her lungs, throw objects, grunt, hit, wet her pants, flail, strip naked, and scream a very guttural sound. Not for fifteen minutes. Not for forty-five minutes. Often times, she did this for over an hour and a half, until her little body was so tired she just passed out. We were so outside of our ken we hired a psychologist to help us out. While that experience was awesome and helped us to become better parents, there was still so much that remained under the surface in Elin.
Not only did we experience emotional and behavioral problems, we also experienced a plethora of physical problems. Before even leaving for Romania we had an ER visit each for Elin and Atticus, one for a head injury and the other for breathing issues. When we were still in our pre-field training in Belgium, Atticus spiked a very high fever for several days, and the team prayed over us there. After we arrived in Romania, we had to make an ER trip for Atticus within the first two months because he had a 104.5 fever and began drooling. We were plagued by constant sicknesses which often kept one of us out of church and one or both of the kids out of school. It felt like death by a thousand cuts! And of course we know that kids get sick, but we started to notice a nefarious pattern. At least one kid was almost always sick on Sunday. And while our kids could be well throughout the week, most of the times we invited Romanians to our house, and every - I mean absolutely every time we planned a date, our kids would get sick the night before or the day of so we couldn't go out. I kid you not when I say that the only dates we were able to go on were when our teammates would say to us, "hey, our kids are free to babysit in a few hours if you want to go out." We were only ever able to go out on a date if it was spontaneous and unstated until a few hours beforehand.
Then, for those of you who have followed us, there is the crown jewel of our experience. Our third child was born here in Romania and our delivery experience was fantastic. However, three weeks into his life he developed severe breathing issues. He spent ten days in the hospital. There were a thousand variables that could have done our son in during this time, but God was gracious. But after Denton was released from the hospital it was only a matter of time before his breathing deteriorated again. In the next five months we had one more lengthy hospital stay and four ER visits - all of which came at the most inopportune times. They came the day before my parents left Romania, the day before Catalina's parents left Romania, the day before I was supposed to fly to Greece for a conference, and the day before our first planned (and much needed) family vacation to the beach. Not only was each hospitalization nerve wracking, but each one was demoralizing for our family as it interfered with plans, prevented the growth of relationships, and exacerbated the difficulty of already difficult situations. Each hospitalization or ER visit was challenging, and the only reason we weren't in the hospital more is because we found a place that gave us some strong medicine we could administer from home. We still had to drive into the hospital twice a day where they would monitor Denton for us, but it was less stressful than the alternative. Over those five months, Denton's baseline oxygen level just kept deteriorating. Finally, in June of 2018, with his normal blood-oxygen level in the low 80's, we decided we had to do something drastic. We flew back to the States to regroup.
Interestingly, when we got back to the States we quickly saw improvement - not just in Denton, but in all of our kids. Retreating from Romania seemed to abate the struggles which had begun soon after we started moving towards a life in Romania. We finally experienced peace. But while we basked in this season of peace, our hearts were still where God was calling us. We wanted to return to Romania. God was gracious to heal us and bring us back. While we could chalk all that up to being around our family, being able to speak in English, or a host of other things, it seems that the momentous turnaround required more explanation than this. How is it that in an instant, our tumultuous lives turned into lives which finally knew peace? In retrospect, we wonder if a part of the peace we experienced while Stateside was the part of evil's assault on us. Was Satan backing off in an attempt to encourage us to leave Romania?
When we returned to Romania, things started to go downhill again pretty immediately. It wasn't nearly as bad as it was before, but there was still a noticeable difference from the time we had just spent in the States. Our kids had some minor illnesses here and there, but it was manageable. As soon as we returned, however, Elin started experiencing problems with her friends at school. They didn't really want to play with her anymore. Maybe it was because her Romanian needed some work, maybe it was because she was weird to them, maybe it's because she had been gone for a few months. I don't know. But Elin was absolutely miserable and felt unloved and her anxiety returned with a vengeance. And in this time of turmoil her nightmares began. She was a tortured soul, and she was breaking down.
Through this whole journey we understandably looked for normal attributions. Perhaps our sicknesses were largely due to mold. Maybe our sicknesses were due to experiencing new strains of viruses and bacteria after our move to a different country. Maybe there is a good bit of coincidence at play. Perhaps yes to all of these things. We also accepted the idea that there was some spiritual warfare going on. We believed that spiritual warfare existed and we acknowledged it. Yet while we did everything we could to fix the mold, call a psychologist, get vaccinations, see doctors, implement parenting strategies, etc - we never truly did anything serious to face spiritual evil head on. Yes, we did family devotions and learned a lot about God, but that is defensive. We never attacked and pursued the darkness head on until a few weeks ago, with the encouragement of other embattled missionaries.
And after we did face the darkness directly with the Sword of the Spirit - after we called Satan out and rebuked the demonic - what happened? Elin's anxiety subsided. Her nightmares immediately stopped. Her old friends began to accept her. She started answering "yes" when Catalina asked if she knew that we loved her. She began to see God as good. She started saying "yes ma'am" and "yes sir" without us asking her to. She began to accept discipline (though she didn't need it as much anymore). She was clearly more calm and kind and compassionate with her siblings. And the list could go on. Even other adults began to notice her changed behavior. They saw that she was more upbeat and noticed how she would actually look people in the eyes when talking, something we didn't even realize she hadn't done for our whole time in Romania up to this point. All of these night and day changes immediately after facing and rebuking spiritual oppression.
We by no means believe that winning a battle means we're out of the war. In fact, literally ten minutes after writing this first draft, Catalina called me and said that Atticus has to be admitted to the hospital for five days to receive IV antibiotics for two strains of drug resistant bacteria he has. The doctor in Romania and our doctor in the States said they've never seen the combination of bacterias he had and couldn't explain how it happened. Not surprisingly, Atticus's hospitalization was going to fall on the week that we have our big Lent activity scheduled for our church. Catalina, the mastermind of the program, was to be in the hospital with Atticus. "Coincidentally," another one of the individuals who was supposed to help was seriously sidelined because her friend was hit by a car and was in an induced coma. On top of this, I - who almost never get sick - came down with something, Denton got a 102 fever, and one of the other families who was supposed to help also got sick. God miraculously answered prayer and resolved everything so that all of us could be in attendance, but only fifteen minutes into our event our two brand new griddles both failed. With around 100 people coming to the event and expecting to be fed, our community pulled together and we turned the situation around into a beautiful success, but it was a hard fought battle just to pull off a relatively simple event. We have learned to expect these kinds of onslaughts when we are planning ministry and outreach events. Such things always seem to be accompanied by strings of tragic "coincidences."
I am a cumulative case sort of person. As I look at all that has transpired in our lives over the past few years, and as I look at how things changed as we neared to or retreated from Romania, and how things have changed since attacking the darkness directly, I can't help but attribute the vast majority of our experiences to spiritual warfare. Sure, old grandparents die. Cancer occurs in lots of people. Kids get sick. Accidents happen. People have nightmares. Electronics fail. Plans go awry. Individuals experience seasons of hardship. I understand that. I also understand that a religious routine of praying over our children and attacking the darkness isn't a remedy for preventing all harm or for ensuring a perfectly peaceful life. But if you believe that a Christian's battle is not with flesh and blood, but with the powers of darkness who serve the prince of this world, then surely you can recognize the difference between a series of hardships and a series of battles.
As I reflect on this experience, I think about how hypocritical and faithless I was. I said I believed in spiritual warfare, but I obviously only believed it was metaphorical. At best, I thought spiritual warfare happened "out there," but not in my realm. I know some may caution us not to find the demonic behind every rock now, but I'm not so sure I see a problem with that. What harm does it do to assume that evil abounds in this world? If Satan is the prince of this world and has much power, and if Satan loves to steal, kill, and destroy, why wouldn't I assume he is behind all that is antithetical to my God - a God of love, life, light, and order? Why wouldn't I expect his involvement in illness, chaos, fear, and relational interruptions? I have come to realize that it is a far greater danger to underestimate the darkness than it is to realize that it pervades this world in great measure.
God has opened our eyes to see that we are daily fighting the powers of darkness. I don't at all think this truth is unique to us, unique to missionaries, or unique to others in "ministry" positions. We are all ministering - we are a kingdom of priests. This is a truth we all need to acknowledge. I don't think our life has been harder than the lives of many others we know, but we have been put in a position to realize the spiritual significance of our battles. That's something many in the West never get to experience, as our culture does such a good job of partitioning the sacred from the secular and the physical from the spiritual. Our family has been fortunate enough to have a clear cut string of experiences which have opened our eyes to the true face of the war we are fighting, and we have a platform to share that with many believers who need to understand the forces at work in their lives. God has graciously blessed us with a plethora of evidence because he knows how great is our unbelief. We hope that our story can encourage you to put on your armor as well.