Friday, March 7, 2014
A Lady in France
Every great story is a love story.
And every story of conversion is the greatest love story of all.
Today I was talking to one of my dearest friends, Camille, and during the course of our conversation about life, faith, work and family, I found myself alluding to various things I had read in Jennie Goutet's memoir, A Lady in France.
Have you ever read a book and thought, Oh! So-and-so would just love this story! Once finished with a tale, the urge to share it with friends or loved ones or pure strangers is an obvious sign of its value to inspire or entertain. That's why I have a Kelven's Riddle page on this blog, even though the latest book broke my heart (and I relished it). That's why my friend Holly and I bond over Jane Austen novels and Downton Abbey episodes. That's why I've passed Dad's books on to friends and why I told Camille today I would be sending her A Lady in France.
When I think of Jennie Goutet's story, I think of a prayer that I have been praying lately, trying to build trust and courage, Cast me to the wind, Lord Jesus. Of course, I then immediately add, But keep me in the palm of your hand!
I believe Jesus is able to do these seemingly contradictory things, and Jennie's story feels like proof. If anyone has said yes to being cast on the wind, it is she! Yet, if anyone has found herself being sheltered and pulled by God while in strange places and unusual circumstances, it is also Jennie.
I recently commented on her blog, on one of her Monday faith posts which I love, that I have to struggle daily to some degree with my personal fears. In her reply she confessed that she is also a fearful person. You would not know it to read of the many adventures she embarked upon before settling with her growing family in France. The woman said yes to studying abroad in France during college. She said yes to teaching in Taiwan - twice - immediately after graduation. She said yes to ministry in Africa just a few months into marriage with her wonderful French husband.
Of course, willingness to be cast to the wind doesn't consist in being fearless but in being courageous despite fear. Because Jennie said yes to all these challenging and sometimes frightening opportunities and experiences, she is able to take us with her on an exotic journey in her memoir, and she has the great privilege of sharing the compelling stories of those with whom she built community for a time. We connect with these people through her eyes.
We're righteously angry with her first French boyfriend, sometimes appalled by his words and actions and her desire to stick by him. We're surprised by the generosity of her good friends as they all pitch in to pay for her wedding dress when she finally finds a good man who was, as she put it, "not her type". We admire her husband Matthieu, once an atheist, as he walks seven times around Lower Manhattan and prays for a job in fearless imitation of Joshua's march around the walls of Jericho. We mourn for her brother Mark, shocked and deeply saddened by his choice, and ache for Jennie as she recovers from a serious car accident and from her emotionally and physically devastating miscarriage. We love the babies Khadra and Moguay, orphans in Somaliland, whom Jennie tries to nourish back to health. We are inspired by the difficult but blessed work of her friends Malinda, Hannah and Edna for the poor in Africa.
Often people talk about whether a piece of writing is honest - brutally honest - as a way to gage the depth of the piece. Heck, we even recognize it as a way to rate humor. And, of course, we are absolutely right to do so. Only when a writer is heart-rendingly honest can readers say, I've been there!, or I thought I was the only one who felt like that!, or Oh my gosh, I can't believe she is telling me this! Wow...
And, after all, what is a memoir for if not to lay your heart bare to your readers, if not to share the saddest, most desperate periods of your life and the grandest, most joyful triumphs? Jennie does this with humor and humility and with superb storytelling. I knew Jennie could write from reading her blog, but I was astounded by the elegance of her writing in this book, and, I'll confess, at times I was amazed by what she revealed. Things that she had hinted at in pieces on her blog are absolutely exposed here, and we appreciate being admitted to her world even if it makes us cringe, weep, almost faint or want to yell, "Stop wasting your time on that man!"
What do I love most about this book? It is a story of conversion, of spiritual awakening. I eat up faith stories, and the best ones are often told by those who tried very hard to eschew God for some time. In the end they are the best witnesses, I believe. He calls and keeps dialing no matter how many times they hang up, but what happens when they finally answer, like St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis, is always extraordinary and encouraging, miraculous. Jennie found God in an appreciation of Scripture, and though the words "the Living Word" may seem foolish to those who do not have such an appreciation, Jennie illustrates just how God's Word speaks to us throughout the ever-changing circumstances of our lives as she opens each chapter with a beautiful verse that shines light on her personal revelations.
So how does Jennie go from a little girl who feels God's presence and invites Jesus to lay down on her pillow beside her to a young woman who can't bear the idea of religion to a wife and mother who, once settled in France (the place she felt she was destined to be), hosts weekly Bible studies and monthly home church? Well, you must read A Lady in France to find out, and I hope you will be inspired and amazed by Jennie's story - just as I was.