Through the lense of a former 90s youth group kid.

If you're a long time reader you probably know I grew up in a conservative evangelical church. I was also a teenager in the Seattle suburbs during the grunge era. Those years were the Wild West of youth ministry. Youth pastors today want to be relatable and relevant. Youth leaders back then wanted to know how much crazy shit they could get teens to do before the kids revolted. If youth pastors were mad scientists, we were the guinea pigs.

One of the most predominant highlights of any church youth event during the 90s is what I’ve lovingly (and regrettably) described as pudding through the nose games. They didn’t actually consist of slurping pudding through your nose, but the nasal consumption of a Snack Pack was always a possibility. These games were designed to induce a gag factor, inspire PG-13 levels of comedic violence, or encourage what modern youth leaders call “purple.” No idea what I’m talking about? Allow me to provide some examples.

The Toothpick Lifesaver relay. Teams lined up boy/girl/boy/girl with toothpicks in our mouths. Without using our hands, a package of Lifesavers had to be passed toothpick to toothpick from one end of the line to the other. And we had to start over if the candied fruit flavored ring was dropped. First team to pass along all 14 candies through every member wins.
image courtesy of Sterling College

Or The Chip Race. In this game, a boy and girl held a potato chip between their lips while trying to reach the finish line before the other couples. If the chip broke or was dropped, the pair had to start over.

Or Wink’em Blink’em. Everyone of one gender stood in a circle while kids of the other gender sat in front of them with one empty seat. The person behind the empty chair winked at someone who tried to escape the grasp of the person standing behind them to sit in the empty seat. Originally, the rules stated the fleeing player would be stopped with a tap on the shoulder but my generation never liked rules. When we played this game (it was a favorite at Marysville Naz) we played it like a full contact sport. The standing player could use any means necessary to stop the runner. Nights with Wink’em Blink’em on the itinerary usually ended with pulled hair, scratches down the back, torn t-shirts, and rug burns on the knees and elbows. Ironically, the popular kids were more likely to be tackled or dragged than the uncool kids like me.

Or the Caterpillar Relay. Teams laid face down and shoulder to shoulder on the beach to form a human caterpillar. (Note: I said caterpillar, not centipede. That's something wildly different.) The person at the end of the end of their team's line rolled over all of their teammates to the front of the line where they resumed the face down position as other players rolled over the top of them. New competitors began rolling as soon as they were the last in line. First team to get their whole caterpillar across the finish line won.

Or Eat That Food. This was played like Name That Tune but with food. Teen versus adult volunteer took turns claiming they could eat a food item in a certain number of bites, each challenge lower than the previous. If that number reached a point where one player couldn't eat the food in fewer bites than the other, they dared the other player to "Eat it." If a player scarfed the item within the promised number of bites, they won. They would lose by failing to complete the challenge or throwing up. I saw people eat a whole can of spam in one chipmunk-cheeked bite, pour an entire tin of Altoids into their open maw, chomp a foot long raw carrot with a diameter of their in three bites, cram a king size Snickers in their mouth while drinking a can of Pepsi, and chug a large jar of applesauce in a single gulp. There was always a garbage bin on stage for vomit.

And Shaving Cream Wars. A section of the football field was cordoned off to separate spectators and warriors. Teenaged campers and adult leaders purchased hundreds of cans of shaving cream to battle each other in a one vs all battle royale. Combatants ran around with aerosol cans of shaving cream, filling their hands with foam, and smearing it into the faces and onto the bodies of other willing participants. Extreme players Duct taped their shaving cream cans into their hands with fingers hovering above the spray triggers.
image courtesy of Baltimore Sun

Between the inappropriate entertainment, the purity culture teachings, and attempts to dictate what kinds of movies we could watch or music we could listen to, my generation was subjected to an ongoing clash of contradictions and double standards. It is no surprise why so many of my peers have left the church in the decades since then.

Youth group was weird enough bit summer camps is where it got really awkward. Teen camp had a different theme every year and games were tailored to match the theme. One year our theme was “The Doctor is In.” Bed pans (if you couldn’t already tell where this was going) were used in a majority of the games that year. One of those bedpan games was a root beer relay. Teams lined up 20 yards away from a bedpan filled with root beer. Everyone was given a straw to hold with their mouth. First person in their team’s line ran to the bedpan, laid face down with hands behind their back, and drank through their straw. As soon as they sucked up as much root beer as they could, they ran back to their team and the next person sprinted to lie down and chug through their straw, then repeat until their team drank all of the root beer. First team to finish a half dozen 2 liters won.

If you’re thinking it would have been funnier for the camp organizers to use Mountain Dew, I agree. However, despite the shades of violence and confusing sexual boundaries, there were still lines that Nazarenes were not brave enough to cross.

I thought this game would be easy. I could guzzle a can of Dr Pepper in one shot - proved it a couple times before. Drinking soda should be easier with a straw, right? Wrong, so very wrong.

When my turn came, I ran the 20 yards as fast as my scrawny teenaged legs would carry me. I laid down in the prone position, hands clasped behind my back, dunked my straw into the warm brown liquid, and began to sip. Then I discovered something: I couldn’t drink. I could barely breathe. Gravity pulled my body weight down onto my lungs and I lacked any alternative to support that weight because my hands were clasped behind my back. The position of my hands also stretched out my chest cavity and tightened my pectoral muscles making it difficult to expand my rib cage. My ability to draw a breath was smothered.

Instinctively, my brain knew breathing was more important than drinking soda. My desire to live outweighed my hopes to win a pudding through the nose game. I couldn't drink even if I wanted to. I got up, ran back to my line, and hoped everyone else on my team had better luck than me.

To be clear, while I was scrawny weakling, I was also healthy. I kept fit by spending summers hiking all over the Northern Cascades and walking/biking everywhere during the school year. I didn’t have asthma, didn’t smoke, didn’t suffer any underlying health issues. I was a normal (even if socially awkward) teenager, spry and energetic. Yet despite everything in my respiratory favor, I still struggled to breath when laying prone with my hands behind my back. I can’t imagine doing the same thing with a police officer kneeling on my neck.

I have frequently pondered this story from my youth while watching the Derek Chauvin trial over the last couple weeks. It’s been heavy on my mind. Watching the videos, listening to testimony and cross examination, I keep imagining myself in George Floyd’s place.
image courtesy of Dazed & Confused Magazine

Laying prone with your hands behind your back isn’t like getting a back massage as Chauvin’s lawyer claimed during closing arguments. If it was difficult for me to breathe in that position as a healthy teenager with no weight on my neck, logic leads me to believe it would impossible for George Floyd to do the same under the weight of Derek Chauvin.

That is a conclusion any reasonable person should be able to understand. Thankfully, the jury agreed.


Coffee & Road Trips

Dad’s stories used to be one of my kids favorite things but they make the request less frequently these days. Listening to me reminisce about my wonder years isn’t as interesting to teenagers. I’ve also reached the age or reruns. “I’ve heard this one before, Dad.” Still, when they request me to entertain them with tales of my youth, I oblige. I won’t be able to do this for much longer.

Last weekend, they wanted crazy driving stories. Most of tales I have to tell about diving wild involve my brother, Aaron. I told them about the time he picked me up from school and we scared a student driver by head banging to some metal music turned up to full volume while heading down the long driveway from the MPHS campus. Story time ended with an anecdote from a road trip we took to Cheyenne in the summer of 96.

It was an ill fated trip. The original plan was a non-stop drive straight through from Seattle to Cheyenne, but it was nearly midnight when we reached Billings and Aaron was too tired to continue. He got us a hotel room and we slept hard. In the morning, we discovered I had accidentally locked his keys in the car and we had to wait for a police officer to pick the lock for us. On the way back home, we spent the night with one of our dad’s college friends in Meridian. After they woke us up for breakfast, news broke about the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. Then Aaron’s car broke down on the freeway after we passed Caldwell. He took the next exit and his Ford Lemon sputtered to a stop on front of a gas pump in Sand Hollow. There was a mechanic there who took a look at the car. He didn’t have the parts to fix it and it would take a week to get it if he placed an order. Instead, he duct taped some hoses together so it would hold long enough to get to a fancier mechanic in Ontario. After the car was fully repaired, we got lost trying to get out of Ontario. Attempting to make up time, Aaron got caught speeding by a flying radar trap somewhere north of Umatilla. The ticket was for driving 15 mph over the limit.

I didn’t tell the kids about any of that though. Instead I focused on our arrival in Cheyenne.

Aaron and I agreed it would be funny if we were blasting west coast rap while driving through the city of cowboys. I selected our entrance music as we rolled into town: Gospel Gangstaz. Windows down, volume up. The bass bumped and thumped the whole way to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

There was one necessity visibly absent during our hip-hop ride: coffee shops. Growing up in the Seattle suburbs, America’s coffee Mecca, we were accustomed to seeing drive-thru coffee stands in parking lots at every major intersection. It felt weird driving through Wyoming’s biggest city and not seeing a coffee shop. Or any big city without seeing a single latte stand.

Granted, this was 1996. The concept of espressos were still an American novelty abundant on the urban coasts but foreign in the heartlands. Small town USA had yet to discover the joys of breves and americanos. In mid-90s Cheyenne, if you wanted coffee, you brewed it at home with the ground Folgers you purchased at the grocery store, or you bought a cup with unlimited refills at 24 hour diners like Sheri’s.

Still, Aaron was a coffee addict and I was coffee curious. We wanted to get some real good caffeinated brew, The first question we asked when we arrived at The Budd house: where can we find a coffee stand? Of the many aunts and uncles gathered, only one knew where we could seek our treasure. There was only one drive-thru shop and it was located on the other side of town. Aaron got the directions and we jumped back into his car for the cross town drive in hopes to find the glorious java.

It was there. As promised. No other vehicles were in line when we arrived so we drove up to the window without a wait. My order was simple, a single shot mint latte. Aaron placed an order for his usual: a quad shot mocha mint. Unfortunately, what was a normal drink in the Seattle suburbs was unusual in Cheyenne. How unusual? Well, they had never heard of it.

“What’s that?” The barista asked.

Aaron asked if she knew how to make a mocha. She did. Then if she knew what a double shot was. She did. By this time, he had the attention of both baristas.

“Well,” he said, “if it takes two shots to make a double shot, then it would take four shots to make a quad shot.”

“Four shots?” said one barista. “Can you do that?” asked the other.

Aaron nodded and instructed the ladies at Cheyenne’s only drive through coffee shop how to assemble his quad shot mocha mint.

Today, there are at least seven Starbucks in Cheyenne (more if you include those located inside of grocery stores) and a couple dozen other cafes, drive-thru stands, and boutique shops offering a variety of fancy espressos. If you’re ever in Chy-Town, I’d recommend stopping by Rail Yard Coffee Haus.

It’s a new age where coffee is holy water and every caffeine craving American has their favorite spot to get their fix. 25 years ago was a different time, we were not quite so obsessed. The plentiful options available now were once nonexistent.

I’ve told this story dozens of times. My Seattle friends don’t believe it ever happened because coffee shops have been a fixture of our culture since the grunge era. Younger kids don’t believe me because they can’t remember anything before the ubiquitous latte stand. As I relayed this tale one more time with my kids, I had a revelation.

The first quad shot mocha ever made in the city of Cheyenne was made for my brother. This as an indisputable fact.

The baristas working at the coffee stand we visited had never made a quad shot before. They didn’t even know it was possible which means such a strong coffee had never been brewed in their shop. Since that lone latte stand was the only coffee shop in Cheyenne, there was nowhere anyone else could have previously ordered such a monstrosity. Therefore, it is only logical to deduct my brother’s order was the first time a quad shot had been made in the entire city of Cheyenne.

In previous iterations of this story, I never considered the monumental implications of what my brother accomplished the sunny July day in the summer of 96. To be the first patron to order a quad shot mocha in the entire city makes him a legend.

There should be an award for such feats.

Four years after our trip, Aaron and his wife became residents of Cheyenne. They’ve made the city their home. And it’s become easier for Aaron to find espressos with more than two shots.


Not your typical Easter post

Elvis died a couple weeks ago. Not the Blue Suede Shoes Elvis, he left the building a long time ago. Elvis was a fluffy black feathered bird, a silkie with a pompadour, the first rooster to live at Heartsong Meadow. He was everyone’s favorite chicken, practically our farm’s mascot. The girls loved him most and together we grieved. Then the next day, one of our mama goats gave birth to quadruplets. From mourning fatality one day to celebrating life the next. It’s like we were living God’s promise to make all things new.

Inspired by events on our farm, I posted the following on facebook.

Seemed fitting as we entered the Easter season to experience death and birth in quick succession, as if we could explain the crucifixion and resurrection through barnyard animals.

I had a plan, much like I do around major holidays, to compose a blog post in honor of Easter. I had great ideas to speak of the jaded cynicism living in a world where everyone is quick to shout “crucify him” at the littlest provocation, while confronted with the relentless optimism of Palm Sunday. I thought about the devastation of Good Friday and the hope of resurrection and how I could tie it all together through the cycle of human emotions we all experience. Joy, sorrow, expectation, disappointment, surprise, and relief.

To be honest though, I just don’t have it in me this year. Instead, you’re getting an unedited, first draft, random stream of consciousness, screaming into the universe at 4am jumble of raw emotional pain spewed out in the form of words on a screen.

Of the four baby goats, the kids found one cold and motionless but barely hanging on to life. We spent a week tube and bottle feeding the kid, trying to nurse her back to health. Unfortunately, she failed to thrive. At the same time, we had to grieve the loss of one of Annie’s childhood friends and two extended family members. Then yesterday, we had to put down our buck (and my second favorite goat) after he was attacked by an animal, and my parents left for a two day drive to Oklahoma City to visit my Grandma who was rushed to the hospital on Thursday. Barring any miracles, this will probably be the last time my dad will get to see and talk to his mom.

Sure, I could try to be eloquent and compose something inspiring. Just not today. Not tomorrow either. While Christians will be filling church pews tomorrow (or watching online because COVID), I’ll join them. We’ll partake in the traditions and rituals of Easter – the holiday to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Over the past few weeks, my family has seen enough death. It’s too much. We need a little more life, resurrection, hope, and second chances.


What It’s Like to Be Me: Begin Again Pt 1, Solace

These days, when I talk to friends about divorce, I try to take a balanced approach. I still encourage people to fight for their marriages. I still believe there is something beautiful into two people whose commitment, companionship, and intimacy binds them together through the darkest of times. I still believe divorce sucks. However, in hindsight, divorce was the best gift Bekah ever gave me. It allowed me to become a better man. I discovered health and happiness greater post separation than anytime during our marriage.

It wasn’t easy though. The aftermath of divorce was a season of loss. Personally, financially, and emotionally, it took a toll. However, it was also a time of physical and spiritual renewal. I started eating healthier and exercising, found my way back into church, connected with a group of new friends who supported me where I was while pushing me to grow, and began helping in ministry. As a member of the worship arts team, I found healing and solace in music, much like I once did as a teenager trying to survive the perils of high school.

Matt Redman: “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” 
Shortly after Bekah and I separated, my grandmother passed away. My cousin Kat, friend Tim, and their kids picked me up on their way to Cheyenne and the five of us road tripped through the night to get there for Grandma’s funeral. During her memorial service, we sang this song and I couldn’t get through it without choking up. “And on that day when my strength is failing, The end draws near and my time has come, Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, Ten thousand years and then forevermore.” Seven years later, I still get a little teary when I hear this song.

All Sons & Daughters: “Reason to Sing” 
When Pastor Gary introduced me to this song, it hit me at a deep emotional level. Opening with words like “When the pieces seem too shattered to gather off the floor,” it seemed to speak where my life was at the moment. I felt the lyrics “When I'm overcome by fear and I hate everything I know,” because that was my daily reality. This song became my prayer, “Will there be a victory? Will You sing it over me now?”

Jimmy Needham: “The Only One” 
It’s easy to focus on things that do not matter. Jimmy called them lovers and lower case gods in this song, “all of my lovers are found in my billfold, they rest on my mantel,” and “all of my gods they have @ signs and hash tags.” I found myself praying along with this song as I knew my tendency to stress over money and social media. “If you're the bread then fill me up. If you're the water fill my cup, 'Til lesser loves are washed out to sea. Why can't I see, you're the only one who satisfies me?” After the losses I endured, I needed my cup filled more than ever.

Sixpence None The Richer: “Amazing Grace (Give It Back)” 
Evangelical culture had always played a central role in my life. It seemed like weekly church attendance would always be my constant. Yet, when my marriage started falling apart my Sunday routine revolved around whether or not I could get my wife out of bed. My dedication started to waiver. Not because I had lost faith, but because I didn’t want to take the kids to church by myself. The opening lyrics of this song remind me what it felt like walking back into my church after the divorce and months of absence. “I knew a song that played in me. It seems I’ve lost the melody. So please, lord, give it back to me.” At the same time, I had to rediscover who I was as a newly minted single father and the religious implications of being a divorcee. I found solace hearing Leigh Nash singing, “You’re everywhere at every time and yet You’re so damn hard to find.” It felt like I wasn’t so alone.

Sanctus Real: “Sanctuary” 
In the long dark night of the soul, we tend to ask the existential questions. This song asked them too. “Why can it be so hard to find peace for my soul, rest in this life, a moment where all seems right?” I returned to Lake City Church in the middle of a season feeling (much like this song suggests) weary, weak, and burdened. I needed sanctuary and I found it. Weekend after weekend, entering through the backstage door, listening to the band rehearse, hanging out in the greenroom with some of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known, listening to the wisdom of the pastoral staff, and engaging in deep reaffirming conversations. Occasionally, I’d find myself on stage, arranging microphone cables or blowing out candles. I’d stand there for a few extra moments, staring into the empty auditorium, and just breathe. Slowly, thanks to the relationships I discovered there, I found healing. I found peace for my soul.