Pastor Appreciation Month continues and I honor another of my mentors. God has been so good to me on this journey. So many paths I could have taken and I bet they would have ended up in disaster. Shortly after I got Holy Spirit baptized (sorry, another Pentecostal term) there were a lot of changes that started taking place in me. It’s like everything went into overdrive. I always wanted to read my Bible, worship, pray, share my faith, etc. The community I was attending at the time started looking at me like I was crazy. The “oh, he’s young and has had an experience, it’ll wear off” look. Week after week, I’d hear their testimonies lifted up from the pit of despair. I kept wondering why anyone would want to follow the God they talked about: aloof, distant, and arbitrary. My problem was, I started reading and rereading the Book of Acts and wondered “When am I going to see the stuff?”
More and more, folks started alienating and patronizing me. Something was happening, something that made me nervous but excited at the same time. My sister kept telling me about a minister she’d been meeting with at DePaul. They’d started a Bible study and she wanted me to meet him. After months of resisting, I finally gave in. He was an associate pastor at a Michigan Avenue church plant. He was formerly a brilliant Med student at Northwestern. But we clicked instantly and the wild journey began. Dean Niforatos has had quite a profound effect on my life. In the very beginning, as I saw my classmates and other teenagers destroying their lives, there was something inside me that said enough is enough! I have to do something about it. But what was I to do? God answered that question when he sent Dean into my life. He met the need I had for…
Somebody to believe in me
I was a punk, West Suburban brat who was used to getting his way. Very rarely did I take no for an answer and was willing to fight for what I wanted and what I believed in. It’s no wonder people backed off from me. Who could blame them? I guess I’ve been known to be a little brash. But instead of walking me through what God was doing in me, folks began to avoid me.
But Dean realized what was going on, regardless of how imperfect a vessel I was. He started seeing what I could become, not who I was. He didn’t see a jerk vying for power and authority but someone who was trying to say yes to God. He saw a rough, impertinent, mouthy, but sincere, hungry, and passionate kid. I had crazy ideas, talked a lot of nonsense, and was sure I was right…about everything. I just needed to hear someone tell me I wasn’t crazy or going through a phase, that God was beginning something new in me. He taught me, I can imagine, in a way much like Paul taught Timothy. By trusting God and knowing when to take risks. He probably had second thoughts about leaving Timothy and Silas in Berea but he did it knowing his young apprentice had the potential to confound the critics.
Someone to pour into me
Hours on the phone, hours walking around Chicago, days, weeks, months, Dean began investing in his new protégé. He was patient, loving, and stern when he had to be. I had fire and passion but I needed wisdom, knowledge, and a good dose of humility. He taught me how to read the Bible and apply, how to pray, how to pray for others, and how to effectively share my faith. “And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity” (1 Timothy 4:12). I started living that passage daily, learning my place, discerning when to shut my mouth and when to open it wide. But, little did either of us know how radical a turn was about to happen in my life as I made the sudden decision to attend the University of Illinois.
Someone to release me
Time was running out. That’s not to say that Dean and I didn’t keep in touch when I went away. But that summer, he gave me his best to get me ready for the next phase of my life. He knew, if I was going to make it through some of the challenges I was facing, he had to teach me to know how to stand alone when I needed to. “And the special gift of ministry you received when I laid hands on you and prayed – keep that ablaze!” (2 Timothy 1:6) Not only did he release me to go away to school, he released me to begin ministering. He started scheduling me to preach at youth groups, retreats, and even several churches. The way I was, that took TRUST. But the investment he made in my life was not in vain. Mistakes? Yes. But I was headed down the right track.
People ask me why I go after the underdogs, the lost causes, the people who have no apparent giftings? Why do I go after the awkward folks who alienate themselves? Isn’t obvious? Because someone did it for me. And that work continues more than 2 decades later.
Incidentally, it was Dean who introduced me to the man who would later become my pastor: Gary Grogan.