One our favorite shows is the West Wing, a brilliant political drama that follows the president of the United States and his staff through the ups and downs of being the “leader of the free world”. Often times, President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, can be found moving from one crisis to another, in conversation with His staff in the oval office and darting from place to place in the West Wing of the White House. In this job, the president faces a plethora of different challenges, one right after another, every single day. In ten minutes, he faces a nuclear crisis, a political confrontation, addresses child poverty and then poses for a ceremonial photo. And with each task—all of which are quite daunting—he simply asks his staff, “What’s next?”
I like to think I am up for it. I am ready for whatever God has on my life list to do. When we ask God that question, “What’s next?” He answers, “I know the plans I have for you…”
My own process in coming to the point where my husband and I felt ‘called’ to France began by simply asking God that question, “What’s next?”. He started to show us that we are wired to do the work of Jesus in Europe, and more specifically in France. I’m not sure why I chose to study French in middle school and continue in college, and live there for a year. I never thought I would really use my B.A. in French, EVER. But here we are, looking at another transAtlantic move to a country that has been on my heart ever since I can remember. God knows what he is doing!
You might be thinking, “Well hey, I’d love to live in France and drink the fine wine and eat the bread and cheese every day. I’d like a long vacation there!”—I’m sure you would, me too! But there is a lot of sacrifice involved with living abroad, away from family, away from familiar culture, being foreigners in a strange land.
France is beautiful full of rich history and AMAZING things to eat and drink. It is not impoverished by any worldly means, but spiritually, it is far from God. There is a spiritual void, so much that it is no longer post-christian but pre-christian, meaning, people don’t even know who Jesus is or what he is about. Less than 1% of the total population identify themselves as evangelical Christians.
When Tom and I look back over the past ten years or so, we see what God has been doing to prepare us, to lay the groundwork for this time. I want to share one story with you that is about God doing a cool thing in our hearts before we even knew we would ever be called to minister in France.
We took a two-week holiday to France when we were living in the UK. Our plan was to stay near Angers for a week—where I studied for a year, in the Loire Valley—and then the second week, explore the rest of the country in a more spontaneous way, day-to-day driving from place-to-place. During the first week, our hearts were stirred by the number of beautiful, old, churches that were dotted religiously throughout the towns. We stopped in one church on the side of the road, which was no where in particular. The church was built in the 1100’s and its structure was made up of creamy white stones, almost the color of bones. We had to walk down several steps to get to the ground level of the sanctuary, the cobblestones were worn from the footprints of pilgrims past. The church was beautiful, and empty. The walls called out silently for worship with every echo of our grainy footsteps on the uneven floor. We walked up to the altar, looking for a living soul who would be guarding such a treasured space, and there was no one. It was like being in a skeleton that longed to have flesh and blood, and a heart beat again. We felt the walls aching to hear the sound of worship to the God it was built to glorify. So we decided to sing a song of praise to God. Our voices echoed throughout the church, the song bouncing joyfully the way it was meant to.
It was then that we decided we would stop at every church we passed and go in and sing a worship song. It was easy to do when we were in a small country churches with no people around, but we also sang in the cathedral in Angers, the Abbey Fonteneau, and the protestant church in La Rochelle in front of numerous tourists. We felt obliged to keep our commitment under the gaze of stoney saints and bewildered visitors alike. It may sound like a silly thing to do, sing in every church, but I believe that God was opening our eyes to the need, breaking our hearts for the people of France who had abandoned the church or simply didn’t know why it was there in the first place.
Isaiah 61 is an amazing chapter in the Bible that describes the work of Jesus, which Jesus himself reveals that it is His work to do in the book of Matthew. It is our work also through Him, to preach the good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted and set the captives free. If you continue to read past these most amazing and fundamental verses about the Christian calling, there are these words:
“They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards and you will be called priests of the Lord and you will be named ministers of our God.”
And this is our calling to France. Rebuild. Restore. Renew. With these lovely people, where hope has been lost, where faith is in shambles, and Jesus has been forgotten.
Many people are asking us the ‘West Wing question’: What’s next for the Appels?
Well, we are moving towards simplified living for the next year or so while we raise support to sustain a long-term ministry in France. In a little less than a month we will be moving from Colorado to Texas to live with Tom’s parents for a period of time. We have sold our house and Tom is finishing his work as youth pastor at our church in mid-August. We are taking a trip to France in October to meet with key leaders around the country and find out more specifically what God is calling us to do and where. We don’t know when exactly we will be able to move to France, but we are trusting God to provide a way for us to be there before the twins start kindergarten in the fall of 2017. With each step, we rely on Him to lead us. We are confident that He knows what’s next.