We had a visiting pastor at church today to help our church celebrate a big anniversary. It just so happens that it was my hometown pastor and it just so happens that he reiterated many of the truths from his sermon that I posted on here a while back, about remembering God’s faithfulness as a spiritual duty. How we ought to raise our Ebenezer, our stone of remembrance, in those important places. I was thinking today about how God helps us sometimes to see those important moments, by sending us a friend.
I’ve mentioned before that I spent a year studying abroad in France. It was right after I graduated from high school. I was the mature age of 18, and it was my first real experience away from home. You might now think this is going to be a tale of how I went off to sow some wild oats in a foreign country. That after a childhood spent in a conservative Presbyterian atmosphere, I would distance myself as far as possible from such a “repressive” upbringing. But as the French say- au contraire mon frere. I loved the way I was raised- it suited me just fine. By nature a homebody, and afraid of the big wide world, I was content to imagine a life of staying right where I was, serving the church, and maybe someday doing something really crazy, like opening a bakery. It’s hard to explain what my high school experience was like, but for all intents and purposes of this story, all you need to know is that my nickname was “The Nun.”
How I ended up agreeing to go to France was the real wonder. In hindsight of course, I can see God’s hand, but suddenly, and without exactly knowing how, I was living in a seminary dorm room with two friends from my church, in the South of France for two semesters. The intent was to learn the language and broaden my horizons a bit. I’m not sure I was ready.
You see, it’s hard to broaden your horizons when you’re determined to maintain a life as close as possible to the one you left behind. And when you want to show your parents that you can be a responsible adult, even when they aren’t around. It was hard to shake the rigid self discipline I had imposed on myself all through high school. Don’t get me wrong- self discipline is a good thing, but there is such a thing as too much of it, especially when it comes to money.
I had been given a monthly allowance from my parents to cover my expenses- rent, groceries, etc. Every month my friends and I would go to the atm in the centre ville and withdraw what we needed. Rent was split between the three of us, but I decided early on that I would control the food. I picked an amount for groceries that I thought was reasonable, and I made sure that we maintained, or even stayed under that budget. I did most of the shopping and most of the cooking. I’m not sure why that control was so important to me, but it was.
So there we were in the culinary capital of the world, and instead of taking advantage of it, I bypassed the corner boulangeries and bought cheap, dry super market bread. And did we explore the wonderful world of French cheese? Nope- the most inexpensive camembert if you please- and don’t throw the rind away, it’s wasteful. I remember one of the girls asking if we could buy fresh milk instead of the strange tasting boxed milk you could keep indefinitely on the pantry shelf. I refused to spend the few francs more, and don’t even think about asking for ice cream.
I’m not sure why the girls put up with my penny pinching regime for so long. I’m pretty sure one of them kept a secret stash of goodies she could nibble on when I wasn’t looking. I do know that they were increasingly annoyed with me. When someone gave us a box of chocolates at Christmastime, I looked at the box and suggested that instead of eating them, we should save them for later. The girls looked at each other, and then tackled me to the floor, pried open my mouth and shoved a few chocolates in.
Who knows how long I would have continued imposing my miserly system on everyone around me if my friend’s sister hadn’t come to spend the second semester with us. I haven’t asked if I can use her name here, so I’ll call her “Jane.” I distinctly remember one of the first few nights “Jane” was with us. She suggested getting a couple of beers to go with dinner. I quickly let her know that beer, or anything like it, was not in the budget. She looked a little surprised, but said nothing more. The next night however, she bought herself a beer for dinner. I was annoyed.
Not long after that, we were discussing plans for a trip to Italy during one of our school breaks. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money, but the girls finally talked me around.
I would have enjoyed the trip far more if I hadn’t been so worried about the money we were spending on hostels and train tickets. I remember mortifying the girls at a restaurant by stuffing the last piece of our dinner pizza in my pocket so I wouldn’t have to buy lunch the next day.
Things came to a bit of a crisis when we were in Naples. The girls wanted to visit the island of Capri, so I grudgingly called my mom to see if I had enough money on my card to buy a ferry ticket. I know, I know, what the heck was wrong with me? She said she would try to get to the bank and put a little extra in. The next morning, I went to the atm. The machine was acting up and spit my card out a few times before finally eating it. And it wouldn’t give it back. So there I was in the middle of Italy, without any way of getting money, and having a minor panic attack. I went back to the hostel, and the others tried to reassure me that I could borrow money from them until I got a new card, but this was no comfort to me. That feeling of control I had been so carefully hoarding was suddenly gone.
When we got back to France, I felt I needed to redouble my efforts to make up for lost ground, but I couldn’t get much worse without starving us to death. One evening, I was on my bed, literally counting coins and sighing with worry when “Jane” walked in, took one look at me and decided it was time to give me the talking to I needed.
I don’t remember all of the things she said to me that night as we talked about my Scrooge-like tendencies. But amidst all her kind and compassionate admonition, what struck me the most was that without fear, she called my bluff. I’m not sure anyone had ever done that before. I was “The Nun” you remember. All goody-goodiness and self discipline. She tore down all the high sounding arguments I had built up about my ‘good stewardship’ and ‘responsibility’, and revealed them for what they were- a deep selfishness towards others and a lack of faith in the providence of God. It was reproof so gently given, but it felt like a sharp slap in the face, and I’ve never been so grateful. It was the act of a true friend, a friend who was brave enough to help pull me out of that hole and set me on a better path.
I can’t say that I was a completely changed woman overnight, but it was a start. Oh, and I did go out and buy her a beer.