Being a parental example was so much easier when the kids were little. I remember the early years of parenthood, when our new home was alive with cute little spectators waddling around, gasping in awe whenever I flexed a muscle or juggled some oranges. Man, it was simple to make a lasting impression.
Then the teen years came, and jaded looks started appearing. The juggling no longer held their attention, and the kids could decipher my moods quicker than they could grow bored of a game of Pictionary. I adjusted, though, as we all do when we are put out into the glare of the adolescent spotlight. And for the most part, we can do a fairly decent job of learning to perform the proper action.
It’s the reaction that tends to be a problem.
Which takes me back to my years in youth ministry, when a man was tested in his reaction. Brutally tested.
Let me set the scene:
About 12 years ago, I looked out our church auditorium window and saw an opportunity rarely afforded Christian teen groups. It was a beautiful site, let me tell you. Trucks moving about and men digging. Poetry in motion. We had construction going on behind our church complex, and to my delight I saw heavy machinery moving mounds of dirt back and forth in preparation for a new subdivision. A lot of earth was being shoved about, and that excited me. This construction meant tractors, plywood and mud. Plenty of mud. Lots of mud. And a good bit of it was on our property.
To a youth pastor, this presented some real opportunities. Tug-of-war pits. Run and launch yourself face-first belly slides. War games.
My mind started whirring. And what an opportunity as our church was to host a county-wide jamboree of area youth groups.
On the day of the big jamboree, I was ready. 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 straighforward, 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 20-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 Hill game.”
Lou shook his head. “Yep. I’m going to.”
I took a look at Lou, whom 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 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 perhaps a slice of leftover cake.
I raised my hands. “Lou,” I said carefully, “you don’t want to do this. Some of these boys are varsity 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.”
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.
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. 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 was digging globs of grit out of my hair. Things were looking good. 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 as 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. OK, 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. I glanced at the top of the hill. There sat Lou, wearing a tight T-shirt and a huge grin, firmly at the peak of the mountain with his boots entrenched firmly in the wet mud.
“Lou . . .” I protested.
“Ready to roll, man,” he called to me.
“Get yourself killed, then,” shouted someone from 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 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’d had three of our workers soak 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 crowd cheered lustily.
Two of my youth group boys, twins named Jared and Justin, approached the top and Lou met them with head shoves that sent them tumbling to the very bottom. They splashed in the goo for a moment before huddling to regroup. Then Justin sprinted to the back of the mountain while Jared charged up the front, shouting and pointing at Lou. Lou saw him coming and grinned. Another easy kill, he thought.
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.
From behind, in a superhuman effort, Justin leaped up in the air over the top of Lou’s head and fell into his lap, headfirst. He clutched whatever he could, which was Lou’s legs.
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.
Justin was upside down and Lou was falling forward.
Justin and Lou flipped end-over-end like a Slinky down the 20-foot mountain, whacking the side of the hill with each flip. Flip whack. Flip whack. Flip whack.
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, did not fare as well. 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.
By the time the two landed in a heap at the base of the hill, Lou’s mouth was a bloody mess. 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, covered with blood and mud, came up swinging. His first punch went wild, causing him to sprawl face-first into the side of the hill. The crowd, thinking it was a good-natured gag, cheered appreciatively. Justin, however, sensed that Lou was thinking otherwise, and he danced backwards carefully. Lou made another lunge and fell forward, where youthworker 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 muttered 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 gathered around.
“I told you,” shouted Sally.
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.
Everyone cheered again.
Justin returned the hug, and I stood back, realizing a valuable lesson.
Lou looked like a bloody idiot in front of scores of teens. Not only that, he was in severe pain and had two cracked teeth. Yet for the sake of his kids, and all the teens in that meeting that day, he 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. In Matthew 23, Jesus tells us that the ones who choose to be abased will be the ones who find themselves exalted by Christ.
But I especially remember Lou, who took a beating and laughed it off because of the young kids in his group–many who had not yet become Christians.
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 reactions down pat. What an example.