Our guide was saying goodbye in the lobby of Le Meridien hotel in Nice, France. As she accepted tips, Marie said something rather off-hand. “If you look down the Promenade des Anglais pedestrianized walkway, to the barricade at the start of our block, you will see where the terrorist’s lorry finally came to a stop.” After an awkward silence, one by one, everyone walked away. But I couldn’t go.
“I wonder, if it’s not too difficult for you to talk about, if you could tell me what you did that night?” My sons are always telling me I ask too many questions—nosey questions. They may be right, but it led to a remarkable story.
Marie recalled how two years earlier she had just released her evening tour group, about 11:00 P.M. on Bastille Day, into the massive river of people partying on the promenade. But then she heard the screams, growing in volume and proximity, and she knew something horrible was happening outside. Instead of running away, however, she ran towards it. Her young adult daughter had accompanied Marie into Nice that afternoon, but this daughter had departed to join friends.
The memory wrapped up quickly at that point. Mother and daughter reunited, safe from harm, and they returned home. But then, Marie told me the part she wanted me to know.
“Nice changed.” She described her church’s normally minuscule congregation and how they existed struggling to survive. “But the next Sunday, we were packed, overflowing.”
The second Sunday, it was the same. Then, the third Sunday there was a nice-sized group, but the number had fallen off. And, in fact, in just two more Sundays, attendance was back to the same small cluster of devoted believers.
Marie said she was at first dismayed at how quickly things went “back to normal.” But God had touched her with hope. “I realize that most French people live their lives without thinking about the church or our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, they have a seed inside them that tells them what the truth is. That day, it told them where to go for real help. The Church is hurting, yes, but it is not dead. I am not without hope for France.”
In America, I’ve been reading “experts” who say we will never be the same, after the pandemic. However, my eyes tell me people are ready to return to normal, like nothing ever happened. Masks be gone! Open the restaurants! Pack out the sports arenas! There’s no need to get vaccinated! Perhaps we are returning to the old normal!
Meanwhile, church pundits are warning that many churches won’t recover. They will close. Some say surviving congregations should prepare for 20% of their congregants to not return at all. Perhaps the church will have to adjust to a new normal.
What will really happen? I don’t know. I’m doubtful anyone really does.
But I think of Marie’s hopeful confidence.
And because I got the chance to experience a little of France, I have joined a prayer initiative for two years. It has guided participants to pray for three weeks, for the Church in France.
But as if the COVID-19 wasn’t trouble enough, another challenge emerged for the church in France during 2020. A cluster of laws were proposed that included radical ideas like:
- Restricting how much money individuals could give to their local congregations
- Forbidding French houses of worship from accepting all foreign donations
- Closing all privately operated, church-related schools (our K-12), as well as home schools
All these proposals were meant to target Islamic terrorism, but they were going to impact all religious communities in the same way.
I understand these biggest threats did not get passed (yet?). And I was very impressed with the attitude of this prayer ministry. Basically, they said, “We cannot react to these challenges with anger and threats of our own. We must build relationships. We must pray for our government. We must love those with whom we disagree. We must keep our heads, even if the laws are passed. We must guard our Christian witness.” One writer added, “Remember, how we respond will model a response for our Christian friends in America, when they go through these same challenges.”
Will that ever happen here? I don’t know. I’m doubtful anyone really does. But a sense of quiet calm resides in my heart: God established His Church. It’s not going anywhere.
I think of Marie’s hopeful confidence.