Restoration and Glorious Goodbyes

I am grateful for the Church, the Body of Christ.

I am grateful for my church, The Village Church.

I am grateful for the reminder today, “Never once did I ever walk alone — God, you are faithful.”

That sentence describes my first moment with Michael Bleeker, outside of serving him coffee years ago when he worked at Prestonwood Baptist Church, across the street from my Starbucks. It was August 14, 2011, and I went to The Village Church for the first time. When I discovered it was formerly a grocery store, my immediate response was that if there was one silk plant in this entire building, I was out. I grew up in charismatic churches and somehow I equate silk plants with what I call “creepy church.” Anywho, I walked up the second row of stadium seating on the left, chose the third row from the back in the first seat. I immediately felt welcomed — like I was in someone’s living room. Then came this song, Never Once.

It was the first Christian song to wreck me. I stood there in my seat I chose specifically because despite the spotlights, that seat and row were dark. Tears streamed uncontrollably down my face because I remembered all the nights I sat in my room as a teenager, cutting up my arms in rage and sadness, wanting nothing more than to die. And in the same moment I remembered that, I also saw Jesus. Right there in the corner of my room. He was always there, and he wept with me for the pain that clouded every bit of my being, all the while knowing the fear laced joy that would come on July 14, 2011, when he lifted the veil from my eyes.

I have never found it to be a coincidence that my first day at The Village Church was on a day when Matt shared that a staff member had committed suicide, especially in light of just singing that song and the memories it took me to. Add the fact he was preaching on Psalm 23. This particular psalm was a defining blow in my refusal to have any likeness to the Christianity I saw around me. One day as a kid, as a form of punishment for something I had done, I was made to stay in my room until I memorized Psalm 23. No explanation as to why or what it meant that I can remember. Just told to memorize it and I couldn’t do anything else until I did. Instead I tore up several Bibles that day. It was so ugly to me; it fed my desire to have nothing to do with this Christianity, whatever that was.

Today was Michael Bleeker’s last day on staff at The Village Church after sixteen faithful and fruitful years. It was so beautiful, being together, singing all the songs that were sung as this church went from 168 people to thousands. It was such a breath of fresh air to see and remember all God has done - even before I came to TVC, but to have a moment to remember how he has used Michael Bleeker in my life… as a barista at Starbucks when he would come in for coffee from Prestonwood, to hear the stories of his transition to TVC through today, to remembering my first time at church and knowing so many people — hundreds, if not thousands — share that testimony because Michael’s gift of having a song always on his heart, to bring glory to the name and fame of Jesus.

What an unexpected gift to be reminded of the joy of my salvation, to be so tender to the Spirit, as he makes well what has been hurt and weighed down in my soul over the last few years. He did that by reminding me today with that first song — never once have I ever walked alone. Never once did he leave me on my own, because he is faithful.

He is faithful, and he continued to show me his faithfulness today in so many ways. Even my writing today is evidence of that because I cannot remember the last time I have had the clarity of thought to write three times in one week! When I was first saved, I had to write, all the time. I felt I would go crazy if I didn’t.

He brings restoration, friends (we sang that song today, too, and it reminded me of my first time to Recovery, a ministry of The Village I long to bring to Italy.)

When Matt said, “If Bleeker was going to a random church…he’s not. He’s going to us. He is bringing his gifts, his authority and power…” something happened in my heart that allowed me to see in my local body what the Lord allowed me to catch a glimpse of this week through my bible study and prayer: we are going from us to us, too. Acts 29 to Acts 29.

Before, our plan was to go from the the Village to another local church in Florence, who is now flourishing. Their planting pastor left Florence the day before we did to pastor an A29 church in Rochester, NY, leaving Mosaico in the capable hands of his team. A few weeks after our return, Pietro Ciavarella was approved to plant an A29 church in Florence - a direct answer to the longing of my heart the last eight years.

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The first day I came to The Village, it was the first sermon in the series Village Identity, and it was called “The Mission of God.” Today as I remember all God has done and is doing as he builds his church, I marvel at our waiting. I see how identity is woven all the way through, and how it brought to my attention where my fear has been placed: in man, not of the LORD. For me, I can see my gifts, and sort of limp in them. Walking in my gifts hasn’t been the hardest part, it has been walking with the authority and power granted to me in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, which fuels those gifts and allows them flourish.

That first day so many years ago at TVC was no coincidence — I have been (and will continue to be) on a journey to walk in the identity Christ purchased for me, so I may play my part in the mission of God. That sermon series laid out what The Village was becoming, and walked the church through eleven sermons outlining what that was to be.

Just this morning, I met with Lauren Chandler, my longtime friend and advocate. During our meeting she said, “I was just talking about you the other day, and we were saying it was like you are this puzzle piece. You are this puzzle piece that keeps trying to fit, but you can’t — it’s the wrong puzzle. Your puzzle isn’t here. It’s over there (Italy).”

My identity cannot be in The Village Church or how it sends it’s missionaries. I had no idea thats where I was before, but God, being so rich in mercy, allowed me to see this. My identity is in Christ and the call God has placed on my life.

Lauren and I have been trying to meet since we came back from Florence in August. And it didn’t happen until today. As a matter of fact, we just planned this two days ago. I am so grateful for it. I am grateful for my church — for the wrestle, for their investment in me, their love of Christ; and to see today the stunning beauty of seeing Michael leave this body to go to another, was such a gift to my spirit.

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Today we said goodbye to Michael Bleeker in our huge building with a great sound system, screen, and stadium seating. We remembered as a church from where we came to this day. He is going to one of our campuses that has become it’s own, autonomous church — from us and to us.

And today, 5,473 miles away in a living room, Pietro’s church- the church I am going to — just celebrated having worship for the first time with a team of two and one guitar.

Man. I melted.

We are ready and God is so, so good.