I wanted to take the time to share my love and appreciation for the people in my life who have mentored me, and given me a greater understanding of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. If it weren’t for your influences, I wouldn’t be who I am today!
My relationship with my first worship pastor, Bill Kirkwood, has impacted me in many ways. I have to admit that Bill and I had a very tumultuous relationship at first when I worked as his intern of worship at the age of 24. We didn’t get along during many moments. It’s because we were opposites in so many ways. Bill was more reserved, tactful, administrative, consistent and technical. I was more extroverted, blunt, relational, inconsistent and spontaneous. It’s obvious that we sharpened each other like the clanging together of an axe and a broadsword. We had many disagreements while we worked in worship ministry together. I was young, idealistic, and more impetuous than ever, and was convinced that Bill ought to sell his possessions and hang out with the poor. Bill was trying to teach me how to lead worship for a congregation with a degree of humility, and teach me how to have greater compassion for the larger Body of Christ (and not just the geeks, freaks and misfits!). In the end, I believe he developed a greater heart for the lost, and I became less prideful and a better worship leader (well… for the most part! :). He helped me to be careful about how I word things, and not just shoot from the hip all the time. He helped me to gain greater control over my emotions. He crystallized in me the importance of worship as well. He showed me that this is the ultimate offering of music to God. My wife and I will always be songwriters, and we’re willing to go to earthy places in our hearts without sinning in order to create a connection with people outside of the church. However, it will always lead back to worship of the Creator for us, and this is because of Bill’s influence on us. No matter how creative we are in our music as a tool for evangelism, it will always end in worship for us, and no set of music, whether played at a church, a bar or a coffee shop, would be complete without worshipping God in the midst of it. Bill showed us this, and we are grateful for him.
My relationship with Noelle Beck, from First Glance Youth Center in Akron, OH, has also impacted me in many ways. Again, like Bill, Noelle and I were opposites and didn’t have a natural understanding for one another! According to the Myers-Briggs test, I am an ENFP, and Noelle is an ISTJ. Noelle was the most organized, strategic, intentional, steadfast person that I have ever encountered. I of course can tend to be messy, random, and inconsistent. I can’t explain what it does to the soul of a person to be around someone that challenges you in every fiber of your being. Noelle made me realize all of my weaknesses at once. It was almost a complete over-load. I suppose I may have done the same for her (though she might not admit it… haha just kidding). But ultimately, Noelle and I shared a number of passions. We had a passion for youth and a passion for the poor. In the end we both realized that the Body of Christ is larger than what we create it to be in our limited minds. She also encouraged me after my short stint of working at First Glance that I should pursue my passion for worship and music. She challenged me that I need to be content with where I’m at, and quit trying to quench my insatiable wanderlust.
Doug Ley was a missionary in the Middle East for 12 years, and risked his life for the gospel. My wife, Sarah and I got to spend a blessed year under the discipleship of him and his wife, Paula. We also led a house ministry on Sunday nights that targeted agnostics and cynics, where we drank coffee and discussed philosophy and theology. Doug challenged me in ways that stick with me to this day and beyond. He taught me how to live the radical Christian life and reject the “American dream” in favor of a greater Kingdom dream. He identified with my impulsive nature and gave me advice on how to tame it, though he never demeaned me or talked down to me. He always treated me as a friend, and wasn’t afraid to speak hard truths into my life, but it was always done with love.
Duane Crabbs lives in the roughest ghetto of Akron, Ohio, the Summit Lake Area, where Lebron James grew up. He’s had guns held to him, and both confronted as well as befriended crack dealers, pimps and gang members. He’s seen ex-convicts, the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and transvestites attend his church, called “South Street”. He is a man that emobodies the dangerous nature of what it means to follow Jesus. Unfortunately many believers have marginalized Duane because of his rough edges and widespread influence, much like the Pharisees marginalized Jesus for associating with the most broken and hurting members of society. To many, including me, he’s a hero for Christ. I had the privilege of spending many evenings with Duane over strong hot coffee, and sometimes in walking the streets and ministering in the hood. He challenged me to live more faithfully and dangerously for Jesus.
Ralph Gatti now lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he is the director of Eastern European Navigators. Ralph was once a wealthy CEO of a truck cap company. But his faith always led him to generously fund and support urban ministries in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Many of the people who work on the front lines and ghettoes of Akron would pay their homage to Ralph, for without his support and discipleship, it wouldn’t have been possible. Ralph also supported my wife and I, even when times were tough and we didn’t know where we fit in the church. He funded an entire trip to Bulgaria for missions for us, which we could have never afforded. He instilled a passion for the people of post-communist Eastern Europe in us as well.
And there are so many more I need to mention, though I won’t remember them all. I thank God for Paul Sartarelli for showing me how to navigate the chasm between liberal and conservative values, and intelligently proposing the truths of Jesus to a skeptical world. I thank God for Jim Mitchell, who taught me the value of empowering others and the beautiful synchronicity of being on a “leadership team”. Jim, without your influence, it would be a greater desire of mine to see my own name advanced. Because of you, God has given me a desire to see others succeed beyond myself. I thank God for Greg Bryan, who discipled me and taught me to have a lifelong commitment to the Word of God in daily study- and Greg- I am grateful that you put up with my argumentative nature when I was a rowdy 22-year old loudmouth! I am grateful to God for Jon Marko- who taught me the more weighty things of theology and challenged me to love God with my mind. I am thankful to the Lord for Scott Budzar, who taught me that Jesus has a radical life-giving love for the poor and marginalized, and as followers of Jesus we need to recklessly embody those traits. I am grateful to God for Drew Belden, who simply taught me that living a life of joy and encouragement is the greatest blessing to God, others and ourselves. I am thankful to God for Brian Bales, who taught me that one can be a down to earth and normal guy as well as a pastor, and who also taught me the power of empowering others to do the work of the gospel. Brian- you were an important friend and believed in me as a leader when I felt that no one did. I am grateful to God for Trevor Skalberg, who has taught me that a life of holiness and unswerving commitment to God’s precepts is a powerful influence on a world of both followers and non-followers of Jesus. I am grateful to Gary White, my Father, for being a friend and partner in crime… I love that we understand each other Dad, and would never give up that friendship for anything! I wouldn’t have wanted to be an apple that fell far from your tree!
We all need Jesus most of all, but we also need people who embody who Jesus is to us in our lives. All of us should take the time to say thank you to those who have made a big impact for Jesus on us today.