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The Day I Saw a Youth Leader Get Beat Up

February 25, 2014

As I prepare my post on Bible teaching today, I thought I’d slip in an excerpt from my previous book, Gas Tank Chronicles, a book you can purchase from Cedar Springs Christian Bookstore (the phone information can be found on the side column).  In this chapter I talk about the time I saw a youth leader learn  – and show – a great lesson in humility during a youth outing I had planned:

Ah, it was to be stupendous.  As the numerous church buses pulled up and my youth staff handed out programs of the day’s events, I straightened my clean striped referee’s shirt and strolled over to each youth group leader, welcoming him and explaining the ground rules for each game.  Tug of War was a pretty simple explanation, as was the mud slide.  It was when I got to the King of the Hill game that I saw a fussing in the group to my left.  I looked over, puzzled.

“Problem?” I asked Lou and his wife Sally.  “The game’s a pretty simple one.  You see that twenty foot high pile of mud?  At the whistle, the guys all scramble for the top, and pull, push and grab to keep that spot up there.  After two minutes I blow the whistle.  Whoever remains at that peak is the winner.”

“That’s my problem,” blurted Sally.

“What could be the problem?” I asked.  “The boys are all wearing old clothes.  We’re only taking volunteers of teens who want to get involved.  Nobody’s being forced to play.  Look, Sally, all the boys who have signed up are 16 and 17 years of age.”

“Like I said, that’s my problem,” she fumed.  “Rather, he’s the problem.”  She jabbed a thumb at her husband.  “He insists on playing that King of the Hill1a game.”

Lou shook his head.  “Yep.  I’m going to.”

I took a look at Lou, who I’d known for almost two years.  He was a likeable guy who came to Tennessee from Indiana, and he’d been working with youth people all his life.  And that was a pretty long time.  Lou was 42 years of age, slightly balding, with a nice coffee-and-doughnut-enhanced paunch.  I knew Lou well enough to know that he hadn’t had any daily exercise beyond going to the church refrigerator every 45 minutes for a bottle of water.  And a handful of nursery animal crackers.  And a slice of leftover cake from the Senior Saints’ “Happy for Autumn” party.

I raised my hands.  “Lou,” I said carefully, “you don’t want to do this.  Some of these boys are varsity high school football players.  The prize is substantial and these guys aim to win.”

He chuckled, shaking his small but noticeable double chin.  He pointed at the huge mud mound.  “Put me at the peak of that mountain to start the game,” he said, “and just watch me.”

“Lou,” I protested, “these boys aren’t going to do you any favors. And that’s twenty feet of mud, my friend.”

“Put me at the top,” he repeated, more sternly.  “And just watch what I can do.”

I looked helplessly at his wife.  She shrugged and threw up her hands.  “If he gets hurt, that’s his problem,” she said, wandering off to the snack table.  “I just don’t want to hear any whining afterwards,’ she yelled over her shoulder.

The afternoon’s activities went without a hitch.  The mud pit was four feet deep and over seven feet long, so the Tug of War was a blast.   Whole teams went into the trench, floundering and sloshing and making a good old mess.  We had a pie-eating contest and a water balloon fight that added to the organized mayhem.  In fact, by the time the mud slide competition was complete, virtually everybody enjoyed the unique sludge-covered camaraderie found in getting dirty.  I looked down and saw that my referee’s shirt was a spotted mess.  I was digging globs of grit out of my hair.  Things were looking good.  Good thing we had the Bible message earlier – nobody would be able to enter any building unless they got completely hosed down.  I checked with our staff.  No injuries.  No fights.

Now it was time for King of the Hill.

The crowd gathered around the large pyramid of muck, ready to watch the fun.  A dozen teenage guys, limbering and stretching, ringed the base of this little mountain.

I was hoping that Lou would forget his idea of participating.  Or at least be counseling a kid so he wouldn’t make it in time.”  I called the group of participants to gather in front of me.

“The rule to this game,” I announced, “is to be the one who is at the peak at the end of two minutes whenever I blow the whistle.  Okay, guys, the limits are kind of obvious.  No biting or scratching.  No gouging.  Pulling and tackling is okay, but punching and temper tantrums are out.  Everybody ready?”

The guys nodded their heads.    “Okay, you can go get your place anywhere along the base,” I said, “and start up the hill at the sound of the whistle.”  I glanced at the top.  This would be fun to watch…

… there sat Lou, wearing a too-tight T-shirt and a huge grin.  He was sitting firmly at the peak of the mountain with his boots dug firmly in the wet mud.

“Lou…” I protested.

“Ready to roll, man,” he called to me.

“Get yourself killed, then,” shouted someone from the thick of the crowd.  It was Sally, glaring and eating a hotdog at the same time.  It was an unattractive combination, because she was chewing in anger.

I looked around at the boys.  They were viewing Lou with a look that Bill O’Reilly gives to a tree-hugger wanting to debate.  I viewed the faces in the crowd.  The mud-spattered faces were eager with anticipation.

I blew the whistle.

Over a dozen teen boys scrambled and slipped up the muddy slope, flopping and sliding to the bottom thanks to the fact that I had three of our workers wet the mound with water hoses for a good half hour before the game started.  Clawing and digging their way up the mountain, the boys heaved themselves toward the pinnacle.  And Lou.

The crowd was screaming.

Lou sat there like a fat Buddha waiting for his adherents.  As the first boy got within reach of the summit, Lou simply leaned forward and shoved the top of the boy’s head.  Without anything to grab, the fellow slid back about seven feet.  Another lanky kid came within arm’s reach, but again, Lou popped the crown of his head with the flat of his palm, and the kid slid backwards halfway down the hill.    The audience cheered lustily.  Lou had this game figured out.

Two of my youth group boys, twins named Jared and Justin, both approached the top at the same time, and Lou met them with a head-shove that sent them tumbling and sliding to the very bottom.  They splashed in the goo for a moment before gathering themselves together for a huddle.  I watched as they gestured toward the top, watching briefly as two other boys were sent spinning down the slope.  Then Justin sprinted to the back of the mountain while Jared clambered up the front, shouting and pointing at Lou.  Lou saw him coming and grinned.  Another easy kill.

But Jared was a decoy.

While he scrambled up and made a feint at attacking Lou, Justin had slithered up the back of the mountain unnoticed.  Just as Jared came within reach of Lou’s waiting strike, he rolled quickly to the right.  Lou had completely fallen for the ruse.

The next part of the story I will relay to you in slow motion for better detail, for it’s one of the things ingrained into a youth leader’s mind during the course of his ministry.  For a moment – as in virtually every youth leader’s memory – there are certain incidents that teeter on the fine line between career-ending disaster or a beautifully hilarious story to be retold by firesides for decades to come.

This was a fireside story.

From behind, in a superhuman effort, Justin leaped up in the air over the top of Lou’s head – I am not making this up – and fell into his lap, headfirst. He clutched whatever he could, which was Lou’s legs.  Specifically, he clamped his arms behind Lou’s knees and clutched them to his chest.

For whatever reason, in a split second of time, Lou in his confusion did exactly the same thing.  As he saw Justin’s legs in front of his face, he grabbed them and pulled them toward his chest.

This made for an interesting picture, if you can visualize it:  Two bodies are facing each other with one’s head clamped against the other’s knees and visa versa.  Gravity is coming into play at the top of a wet muddy hill.  The two bodies are teetering due to the inertia of the previously-mentioned leap.

So help me, Justin was fully upside down.  And Lou was falling forward.

The best analogy I can give you in what then occurred is if you can imagine a Slinky bounding its way down the steps of your home.  Justin and Lou flipped end-over-end down the twenty-foot mountain, whacking the side of the hill with each flip.

Flip whack. Flip whack.  Flip whack.

That in itself could have made a good story.  But the truth of the whole incident was that Justin was able to safely tuck his face hard against his own shoulder, saving himself from the shock of each Slinky-smack all the way down.

Lou, however, had not planned on this indignity, and his face was pressed loosely against Justin’s knees.  That’s right.  His face was open toward the bony whaps that each somersault gave.   The effect was not unlike getting elbowed in the mouth every time you tried a forward roll.

Flip whack.  Flip whack. Flip whack.

I would say that Lou took about a good ten shots to the face.  More specifically to the mouth.  Even more specifically, to the front teeth.

By the time the two landed in a heap at the base of the hill, Lou’s mouth was a bloody mess (think of pre-cooked hamburger prior to a Fourth of July grilling).  Jared stood at the top, waving and flexing just as I blew the whistle to signal that two minutes had elapsed.  The game was over.  Jared had won.  The Strategy had worked.  Lou had lost.

And he came up swinging.

His first murderous punch went wild, causing him to sprawl face-first into the side of the hill,  and now I saw a mingling of blood and mud, which for reasons I can’t explain, reminded me of a caramel and cherry Sundae.  Perhaps I hadn’t eaten lunch.

The crowd, thinking it was a good-natured gag, cheered appreciatively.  Justin, however, sense that Lou was thinking otherwise, and he danced backwards carefully.  Lou made another lunge and fell forward, where youth worker Kerry and I caught him and pinned his arms to his side while smiling to the hundreds who were now clapping.

“Lemme go, lemme go,” he was muttering through battered teeth.

“Lou,” I whispered while still smiling and struggling with him.  “You took the chance.  You paid the price.  You lost the fight.”

“Yeah, man,“  Kerry whispered while waving to the crowd.  “Don’t lose your kids.  Lou, they’re watching how you eat crow, dude.  Don’t lose your kids.”

Lou looked at me through muddy eyes and stopped struggling.

He shook loose and licked those bloody lips.  He turned towards the hundreds of kids.

“I told you,” shouted Sally.

“Way to go, Lou,” yelled one of the kids from his youth group.

“Smooth moves, Superman,” yelled another.

The place fell quiet.

Lou turned slowly and reached for Justin.  He grabbed his shirt.

And pulled him towards him and gave him a bear hug.

“You got me, man,” he laughed as he pounded on his back.  “You got me.”  Everyone cheered again.

Justin returned the pounding, and I stood back, listening to the all-male whump-whump of back-pounding and realizing a valuable lesson.

Lou had been made a complete fool in front of scores of teens.  A complete bloody idiot.  I know he was in extreme pain, for I believe both his front teeth were cracked if my memory serves me right.  Yet for the sake of his kids, and all the teens in that meeting that day, he allowed himself to be abased and swallowed his pride so that the day wouldn’t be ruined.

I recall in the book of James the reminder that our Lord gives grace to the humble, and I saw it that day when Lou needed a truckload of grace to keep from ruining his testimony.  I thought of the many parents of teens I had known through the years, and the examples they had shown.  The twenty-third chapter of Matthew is a narrative from Jesus Himself in telling us that the ones who choose to be abased will be the ones who finds themselves exalted by Christ.

In seeing Lou, who took a beating but laughed it off because of the young kids in his group – many who had not yet become Christians – who needed to see an example of a Christian who could keep the ideals of Jesus.

And at the end of that day as I looked at the many kids who escorted Lou toward their church bus, cheering for him, patting him on the back and offering him Cokes and burgers, I knew that this was another practical display of Godly humility.

Lou had his Godly reactions down pat.

What an example.

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