Sitting on the tarmac waiting for take-off, on July 1st as the Lord had said, I ticked off a whole list of unfinished items. Oh well. I settled back in my seat glad to be on my way. Unfinished tasks vanish if left unattended. Mine vanished. If I finished every task undertaken in my life, an encyclopedia would not be big enough to write about them.
I landed in Brussels after having no sleep during the overnight flight. The more I fought for sleep, the more it evaded me. Then in the airport the signs made no sense, and the bus into the city eluded me. I wondered if I would spend my days wandering from panel to panel trying to figure out a way into town. My bags weighed seventy-five pounds each, plus two bulging carry-ons, after all this was moving day. Even with a cart, the sweat poured down my back as I wheeled around the terminal.
Finally, the light dawned, and I rode the bus with self-determination. Then a taxi, not too accommodating to my budget, whisked me to the car dealership where I encountered my purchase, my new car. Here, wrapped in this moment of love at first sight, life changed for the better.
The agent pulled my sleek, shiny, black chariot into the street and parked it while I signed the papers. My bags were too heavy for him to pick up, so I threw them in the trunk. Being a missionary develops muscles, I guess. However, when I couldn’t put my car in reverse, I jumped out of the car to catch him just as he was taking off for lunch, and he showed me all the gizmos on my dash. I should have paid more attention during “Car Maintenance” class in missionary school.
We two, my car and me, headed toward Luxembourg; just before turning south into France, my eyes drooped and like an apparition looming before me, a hotel appeared. For a modest sum I procured a room containing a deep-dish bath, after which it included a tasty meal and ended with a superb bed in which I slept, despite the highway noise, for twelve solid hours. I woke up the next morning with no remembrance of unfinished tasks, only a new, alluring path stretching before me on which I longed to run.
Choosing the national roads, rather than the toll highway, I wound my way through the mountains of eastern France, skirting Grenoble and winding through Gap. If God made earth to resemble heaven, France must be the closest to the original. The depth of the green mounting the hills and converging in valleys made me feel green. The flowers blazoned colors like neon signs. Waterfalls sprayed so lightly they gave the illusion of flowing up. It took me two days to soak up the flavor of my new country and arrive at my new home.
True to their word, Greg and Alice left the house keys with their next-door neighbor, Simone. She had lived in the States for twenty years, working for the World Bank running their Hospitality Department, helping foreign employees settle into the U.S. Simone made a perfect new friend! Unfortunately, the keys didn’t work, and she located a locksmith for me to hire to get into my new house. She called my landlord, who lived in Marseilles, and the landlord agreed to repay me for the locksmith. Some heavy rains occurred, and the door settled between the time my British friends left two weeks ago and the time I arrived on July 4th—my own Independence Day.
When the door finally swung open, I walked into my private palace, which Greg and Alice left completely furnished, even including suntan oil. A scattering of mail lay at my feet, having been dumped through the letter slot cut in the door, some cards from friends wishing me well, and a letter sent to me from one of their friends. Opening the heavy outside shutters let the light fall on the well-appointed room with a half-wall dividing the kitchen from the living room. That half-wall made it an American kitchen. I still haven’t figured that one out. Gossamer curtains fluttered from the breeze floating in from the fountain.
I drug my suitcases up to the first floor, dumping them in the master bedroom. The master bath was spacious by any standard, and the fireplace “worked,” though we never tried it out. The top floor contained the tiny guest bedroom, a bathroom, the washing machine, and a sectioned room for storage, or another guest. Climbing up a ladder I discovered the rooftop deck. Having surveyed it all, I unpacked my bags, taking my things up to the guest room as my friend Nancy would arrive on the 20th to stay for six weeks and I intended to give her the master bedroom.
Satisfied with all my putting, folding, and organizing, I wandered back downstairs. Ten pages of instruction waited for me on the dining room table from Greg and Alice. Enough was written about the washing machine to make me think that it would rear up on its hind legs and roar if I didn’t tame it right away. They left a list of all their contacts, people they had befriended or ministered to over the last four and a half years, all English speaking, with phone numbers, kids’ names, likes and dislikes, all neatly catalogued. That must have been Greg’s work. The suntan oil had to have been Alice’s.
The next obvious thing to do was to fill my cupboards. I mastered driving through all of France only yesterday, and now the thought of driving down the mountain to grocery shop gave me the jitters! What if I did something wrong, and my new neighbors thought me strange? What if I didn’t know where to turn or to park? I felt like a girl attending her first dance. And just like that girl, doing it right filled me with such glee! What pleasure small victories can give!
Back to the mountain top with all my goodies properly stored in appropriate places, I sat at the table and drummed my fingers. Now what? Simone left earlier for an afternoon with friends, I had no means of listening to music or watching TV, and reading required that I sit still, which I couldn’t do on my first day. I picked up Greg and Alice’s list of friends, called each one, told them I had arrived and would love to meet them. To my horror, not one of them expressed any interest in meeting me. Not one!
I sat down, hard. What had I done? What was I doing here? Last April Greg and Alice created a little ceremony in which they handed me the baton, so to speak. I took it then and now, bending to pick it up, it wouldn’t leave the ground. Had I heard from God? Had I come all this way on a lark?
On the verge of tears, I heard a knock on the door. Outside stood two French ladies, one my age, the other ten years younger. The younger one spoke English. “Alice told us you were coming; we’ve been expecting you since July 1st. I’m Sylvie, and this is Jacqueline.” Then she added tentatively, “The real estate agent told us you teach the Bible.”
I smiled. Oh God is so good to me! “Yes, I do.” I invited them in and made tea. Sylvie insisted on speaking English and Jacqueline could not, so I spoke English to one and French to the other, and a headache started right in the middle of my forehead. By the time they left, we had organized a daily prayer meeting (9:00 a.m. at my house) and a weekly Bible study, again gathering at my house. Oh, the joy of the Lord!
Remembering the letter from Greg and Alice’s friend, I opened it. They lived in England, but their daughter lived in Port Grimaud and would I please contact her and have Bible studies with her as she had just come back to the Lord. I called. She seemed delighted to hear from me, and we arranged a meeting in a few days. Satisfied beyond measure, I went to my window to survey my new world.
The sunset turned the picturesque fountain gurgling outside my window into a panoply of color covering the ancient stones. Cars clogged the parking area, but nothing moved except the elderly people, gathered there to discuss whatever village people talk about, as they drifted back to their houses, toting their plastic jars of water. I closed my shutters, fortifying my little house, leaving the windows open for the cooling night breezes, went up to the roof, and sat in one of the white plastic chairs Alice had left. I watched the amazing sky. What a day, I thought, what a day.
I wondered if I would ever grow up enough for my emotions to remain placid. Could I meet the challenge of hiring a locksmith to get into my house without a frantic reaction? Could I tolerate empty space and empty time without panicking, knowing the very next moment could be filled to overflowing? Could I enter new experiences without fear? Could I learn to accept total rejection and not court tears because God has something else in mind?
Then I wondered if I really wanted to eliminate my emotions or even pacify them. Would life be interesting without them? As I sorted through the day and saw the positive next step that followed every negative event, I realized my goal is to have emotions that soar in hope. Emotions that thrive on the excitement of what God is about to dish up for me, instead of dipping into the threat of what appears to be negative. The positive always outweighs the negative.
I decided I had had a lot of moving days in my life, but none had ever matched this one. My heart bobbed up to my neck, and the squeaky sounds I uttered to thank God hopefully sounded like praise to Him because gratitude flowed from every note squeezing through my throttled throat. I could see most of the village from my roof and the distant hills beyond, and I spent some time praying for and blessing every home and person I could see. I hoped they were, or soon would be, as happy as I was.
Then I leaned back and reveled in the stars. How close they seemed. How touchable. Some Greek philosopher said he counted them all, but the Bible says they are uncountable. I’m on the side of the Bible. A distant dog punctuated the night air with his barking, one exclamation point following another, proclaiming a divine night. Then suddenly, without warning, the moon capped the mountain and hovered above my rooftop deck, splashing its splendor all over me. I absorbed all I could, and weary from too much happening in one finite day, I climbed back down the ladder, shutting the trapdoor, trapping the moon outside.
Greg and Alice’s bed in the master bedroom turned out to be a monster rock, annoying, unbending, “unsleepable.” Disgusted, I made up one of the single beds in the guestroom. But when I climbed into bed, I saw I could look directly out the window into the face of the moon, and we were both glad. I fell asleep with moonlight beaming in on me, angels watching over me, and the peace of God welling in my heart. I had moved in, and all was well.
If there was one notable thing that the Lord did for me to help me over the hump of being divorced, being alone, being a stranger in a strange land, it was to send people. Nine groups of visiting firemen descended. Five sets of visitors came from England, and four sets traveled from the States. They were there to put out the fire of loneliness, disorientation, and helplessness. They fortified me, entertained me, helped me, and they got me on my feet. When I no longer needed that kind of support, they simply stopped coming.
The morning of my second day, I heard a pronounced knock at my door and opened it to find two strangers standing on my doorstep, their three adorable children hiding behind their knees. They had met Alice and Greg at a ministerial workshop, learned of my impending move, decided to vacation in the Gulf of St. Tropez, and were even now cocooned in a vacation caravan belonging to Alice and Greg just down the hill. They, however, had expected me to arrive on the first, and so for five days they had been fasting and praying for me.
Never had I encountered such a thing! The Lord had never sent people to me like that! I quickly invited them in, offered tea and cookies, and the children were out the door tumbling over fence and fountain, expending energy I could only dream about while Alistair, Dorothy, and I became acquainted. They pastor a church in the northwest of London, and before they returned, they offered to bring a missions team down to help next summer. We spent the rest of their vacation together (another week) praying, talking, having dinner together, and I baby sat while Sylvie and her husband took them to eat at my future favorite restaurant, Le Chameleon.
The next couple to rent Greg and Alice’s caravan also came to call. They were only there a week, but they involved me in everything they did, which wasn’t expansive, just very calming. We sat under the shade outside the caravan and did watercolors, we threw together meals on the barbecue, and we walked through the grounds of the amusement park. Their teenage daughter took a bungee jump, and we all watched with mixed horror and delight. Her father, I thought, reverted to his adolescence just observing her. His eyes almost burst from their sockets, his face shone, and he giggled uncontrollably. But he survived her jump and so did she. We visited art galleries and strolled the streets of my little village.
Then Nancy arrived, my buddy from Bible School, loaded with videos to watch, music for worship, and books to read. People warned me to rest during my first months in France to grieve over the divorce and emotionally get back on my feet before launching into ministry. The Lord gave me a vision of myself riding on the back of a white horse. The horse scrambled up a rock hill, losing its footing, slipping but eventually making it to the top. From there wings unfolded from the horse’s sides, and he leaped into the air, sweeping back and forth over the Cote d’Azur. I lay down on its back and glided along in complete rest.
After a while, its right hoof struck the ground around Le Lavandou, and a spark flew up and created a flame. A little while later, its left hoof struck the ground at San Raphael, and another spark flew up and created a flame. The horse swooped up, made a turn and went back up the coast. Its hooves came down again, and again creating flames, going up and down the coast between the two cities. Pretty soon its hooves were striking so many times it reminded me of a highly trained dancing horse. Unrequited by it all, I lay placidly on its back.
Nancy came to enforce the vision. The fact that she carted me to every restaurant in the Gulf, extended above and beyond her call to duty, but I now know this region like the proverbial back of my hand. We delighted over discovering Mexican hors d’oeuvres in St. Tropez, but we dismayed to find no tacos! In Grimaud we found English tea, purchased and then ordered in this tea shop, according to the date it was picked. Ste. Maxime provided Mussels in Cream. Crepes from Bretagne surfaced in Port Grimaud, and our favorite ended up being Chickpeas in Garlic Sauce at Michelle’s Ice Cream Parlor right there in La Garde de la Croix. There were fourteen restaurants in my village alone, and we tried them all.
At a particularly stupefying lunch of Mussels in Cream in Ste. Maxime, I sat back stuffed like a clam and said, “Nancy, I can see myself living close to a restaurant like this, writing all night, waking up at noon, walking down to the restaurant, having a nice leisurely meal and going back to write all afternoon, taking a walk around dinner time and then writing all night.”
She asked, “Who could work after a lunch like this?”
“Okay. So maybe I’d like a little siesta first.”
“Writing all night, I can see. But you’d need someone to take care of you.”
“My husband was a writer, and when he was writing, he forgot about everything else. I had to remind him to eat.”
“Hmmm. I don’t think anybody would have to remind me of that.”
Nancy laughed, and then looked at me with a contemplative air. “Seriously, Marty, why don’t you take yourself seriously and do some solid writing.”
I waved her off, but her suggestion disquieted me.
Nancy skipped the morning prayer sessions because we spoke French and she did not. Besides, by 9:00 a.m. Nancy was prayed out, having arisen at 5:00 a.m. to pray, and already having done her prayer walking all over the village. And I must admit, we talked more than prayed, and when we prayed, it concerned the two ladies and their children. That seemed to be my contribution, whereas they contributed highly essential material to me.
Sylvie and Jacqueline became valuable aide-de-camps. They told me where to shop, where to get my car fixed, and where to get my hair cut. I would still be floundering without them. Sylvie had gotten born again in Jaqueline’s living room, their houses adjoined, and even though Jacqueline lived in Dijon, only claiming La Garde de la Croix in the summer, they were inseparable. They knew everyone and gave me a sizable run-down of each personality in the village, both discreetly warning me about the baker.
I had asked where to buy bread and received more of a raised eyebrow than an answer. In France one never confronts an issue directly like an American would do. Instead you skirt and circle until you are panting for breath, but you never say exactly what you are talking about, even if you constantly interject the word, “Exactement!” Knowing there to be two bakers in this little town, I discerned from their discussion that one chased skirts. Not only that, this one purported to be a born-again Christian and approached women under the pretext of presenting Jesus.
So, I avoided his shop. However, he baked the best bread, so I sent Nancy down to buy. I thought I could smell the spirit of lust when I entered his bakery, but she reported nothing unusual. Wondering if maybe my new friends weren’t swaying me, we decided to become regulars. Nancy stopped on her way home from her prayer walk every day and bought a loaf; she also bought whatever other goodies called to her, like Pains Chocolats, Croissants, Brioches. I smelled the hot butter wafting up to the third floor and came down to investigate her newest find.
To help us indulge ourselves, a new friend, Sally, and her son, Chip, visited in August bringing two suitcases I had left in her care. She had already shipped four boxes for me that eventually arrived in October. I knew Sally only vaguely in the States, having visited a prayer group meeting in her home. To my delight Sally did attend the morning-prayer sessions, nodding in bewilderment and in snatches of comprehension as her school French clicked in.
Sylvie and Jacqueline were still in the process of forming me, but I took exception to another of their warnings, that being the assessment of the church situation in the Gulf. According to them, there was no point in starting a Protestant church as the region was a Catholic stronghold. They attended services in Brignoles (an hour west) because the only Protestant church in the Gulf was one which met once a month, and the pastor lived in St. Raphael (an hour east). When I brightly said, “Yes, but he holds services every Sunday in the summer.”
Sylvie riposted, “And of the ten million people who vacation here every summer, only ten each week ever darken his door.”
Both Sylvie and Jacqueline had been raised in the Catholic Church and considered it to be the anti-Christ personified. Because of my wonderful experiences at St. Benedicts, I couldn’t agree. I had prayed fervently to be able to work with the Catholics, and I believed it was possible. So, I visited the local priest. I took my tracts that I had prepared in the States and approached his house. Sylvie had introduced me on the street, so I knew he knew who I was. He happened to be looking out the window, so there was no way he could avoid answering because I had seen him. I rang the bell, my stomach fluttering, not knowing what on earth to say, my French wadding up inside me like globs of glue. He opened the door, I introduced myself, and he invited me in. He took me to a room with a large conference table, signaling me to sit on one side and he on the other.
I looked into his distant, gray eyes and my heart sank. Sylvie was right. All I encountered there was a heart hardened toward me. How could I reach this aging patriarch, old beyond retirement, steeped in his tradition, sitting across from a woman, no less, and a Protestant to boot? His shock of white hair fell over his forehead, and I found myself wanting to mother him, to push it back out of his eyes. I haltingly explained who I was and what I was doing in La Garde de la Croix, then I showed him the tracts I intended to distribute. He idly fingered them, smiled at me and said in his squeaky voice. “Just call me Emile. I hope we can work together.”
That was not at all what I expected. I looked for a place to hide in that dark, dusty room in case I burst into tears, but there was none, so I took his hand and asked if we could pray, which we did. As I walked back home, I marveled at how big I can make an issue be when there is no issue at all. I felt released to do whatever God asked of me in this village. There would be no opposition from my friend, Emile.
Sally and Nancy were elated to hear my story, and we mapped out our routes for distributing the tracts throughout La Garde de la Croix. In France one can stuff mailboxes without permission, but one cannot put anything under a windshield wiper or pass a tract on the street. It was a “fait accompli” within three days.
The baker told Sylvie people were coming to him with the tract clutched in their hands, waving it at him saying, “There’s a cult in town!” Apparently, tracts are how the cults advertise themselves. Now people turned to look at me on the street, not with looks I would have preferred, but they knew who I was.
Sally left after ten days and Nancy left after the six weeks, overlapping my son, J.J. and his new wife, Vanessa, barely married a year. We whirl-winded through every appealing spot Nancy and I had uncovered and even found some I didn’t know about. They were thrilled to be there, which made me happy as that meant they would come back soon.
September started with a group of Americans coming to visit whom I didn’t know. The first thing they wanted to do was go to the beach. Nancy didn’t do beaches, so after sweating through two months in this non-air-conditioned country, I looked forward to swimming in the Mediterranean. The next day we did the beach. The plucky leader led the way across the sand. We trekked behind her as she hunted like a ferret for the perfect spot to perch, and when she found it, she spread out her towel, and we followed suit. Uncomfortable amid such nudity, I wondered why she hadn’t chosen a place with more modest bathers. Then I saw why.
I had removed my shift and while concentrating on applying suntan oil, I glanced up to see her whip off the top of her bathing suit. Horrified, I didn’t know what to do. What could I say without offending the nudes around us, or her friends in the group? I sat for a while contemplating my options and finally said, “You’ll have to excuse me. This is just too hot. I’ll meet you at the Jolly Roger for lunch.” They mildly thought that to be too bad. I put on my shift, picked up my towel and left.
I sat at the Jolly Roger for two hours, sipping coffee and reading my Bible before they strolled up and sat down. The plucky one said, “Somebody told us about a nude beach over by Ramatuelle. We thought we’d go there tomorrow.”
Oh, for pacified emotions! What I did next, I still regret. I said, “Well, that’s right up your alley.”
She thought I was teasing in an encouraging way and smiled, “Well, not quite.”
I said, “Excuse me, but Christians do not go topless. The world goes topless but not Christians.”
She paled, and fury filled her face but with forced calm she asked, “Why is that?”
“When Adam and eve sinned, God covered their nakedness with animal’s fur, and throughout the Bible He disdains nakedness. It is a flaunting of oneself, a showing off, if you will.”
“Well, I don’t agree!” She tossed her head as if to end the subject.
But I continued, “If people see you on the beach naked and connect you with me, my ministry will be ruined here.”
She gave me a steady look. “That I can understand. Why didn’t you say that before we came to the beach?”
“Because it never occurred to me you would go topless. You’re American. No one in the States goes topless.”
“This is France, Marty.”
“Just because the French do it doesn’t make it right. I’m sorry. I just never considered the possibility that I needed to say anything.”
They didn’t invite me to the beach after that; I had to wait for my swim in the Med until later in September, nor did I ever hear from them again when they returned to the States. That incident, however, taught me to look for rebellion. They say that since the French Revolution, a spirit of rebellion hangs over France, and now I believe it. Unless one is tightly hooked up to Jesus, that spirit will pervade, even overtaking visitors. A good way to start a heated debate in this country is to mention the word “sin” or “obedience,” and you will have a fight to the death. To a rebellious spirit those two words are obsolete.
I had about two weeks after that group left before the next group arrived in October. Three important events took place. The first one was that I moved; the second one was that I had time to meditate. And three, having now started five little Bible studies, against the staggering odds stacked against me, as presented by Sylvie and Jacqueline, I merged all the groups and had the beginnings of a church.
Our little number grew. A young man named Ivan moved into La Garde de la Croix and joined us with his guitar. He said the Lord told him to come and be our Praise and Worship leader. I wondered why the Lord hadn’t told me he was coming, but I wrote it off as my not listening very well. Having been raised up under the Seventh Day Adventists in Marseilles, Ivan turned out to be an excellent guitarist with a love for the old hymns and a solid repertoire of the new choruses. I allowed myself to be very excited that God sent me such a gifted man.
The Lord told me I would not be moving into the apartment offered to me by the Bible School, where I was now teaching, that I would indeed be staying in La Garde de la Croix. So, I asked my prayer group to pray about where I would stay after the lease ended, as I had no money for rent. The woman who was a summer resident of La Garde de la Croix offered me her summer home for the winter. The day before she offered it, the Lord told me she would; therefore, I accepted. Then I saw why. The ministry gave my apartment to someone else.
Relieved to have time to meditate and visit with the Lord, I asked Him, “What do You want me to do?”
Clearly, as if the desire of my heart had always been this, I heard, “Go make friends with Marcel and create an event together.” Marcel was that baker! And I could see the event as if it had already happened. But his reputation disturbed me, so I took it to my prayer group.
Sylvie adamantly warned against it. She acknowledged his ability to mobilize people as every year he organized a Festival of Peace in the village and always attracted big names in the Catholic Church. She acknowledged his devotion to Christ as Marcel was in the process of studying to become a Catholic Deacon. But she felt he was the enemy, period. However, I knew what I had heard.
Writing has been in my blood, so to speak, but when I surren-dered my life to Jesus Christ and He told me to write, all my trepidations rolled away and I began in earnest! After all, if God Almighty says it was His idea that I be a writer, who am I to stand in His way? My hope is that you not only like what I write, but that your life is moved by it, and that your party to Jesus and with Jesus turns your life into days of Heaven on Earth.