Opening Lines … November 20, 2011


Live, outdoors in Ambler, PA

Sitting in my motel room last night in Knoxville, Tennessee, I began to think about what I wanted to share in the three programs I’m going to be conducting at the Colonial Heights United Methodist Church. Unfortunately, every new experience in front of an audience demands an opening line. I say “unfortunately,” because there’s nothing more awkward than introducing oneself to many selves who are not always in the mood for an introduction.

Having done this for about forty years, I have learned certain phrases and ideas which I do NOT like. For instance, I despise, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen…I can’t HEAR you.” (You see, the reason they are not responding to you is that they haven’t decided if they like you or not yet, and asking them to repeat something is not the best way to endear them to you.)
I also hate it when entertainers ask the audience to clap their hands and play some hokey, fast song to get them excited.  I mean, where do you go from there? It’s like having the honeymoon and then leaving the hotel to go on your first date. No–I really don’t like any attempt to force myself on a group of people who are reluctant at best and who at worst could very easily turn into a lynch mob.
I noticed when I set up at the church that there was a table in front of me with all sorts of Thanksgiving and autumn paraphenalia–like corn stalks and pumpkins.  I thought it might be funny if I began with, “Hey, do you agree with me here? It’s not a good idea for a fat guy to sit behind a pumpkin.” But you see–that’s HUMOR.  Humor is dangerous. It demands the intertwining of two conclusions: (a) that the people listening are intelligent enough to UNDERSTAND a clever comment; and (b) that they will actually laugh loudly enough that crickets will not be summoned to the scene.  It’s a big gamble.
My more ornery side considered that since the church is named Colonial Heights, I might begin with: “I see you call the church Colonial Heights? Speaking of colonies and being high…did you ever hear that the forefathers had opium in their snuff?” (You see, that’s what you call a joke to TASTE–and if people don’t have humorous taste buds, they might actually find it tasteLESS.)
But I do like good opening lines. There have been some famous ones.
  • Moses: “Let my people go.”
  • Pharoah: “No.” (Of course, that response ended up plaguing him … )
  • You can’t beat God’s opening line: “Let there be light!” (Of course, he probably was a little surprised when the sun blazed in his face, when all He was looking for was some subtly placed track lighting…)
  •  Then in the 1970’s, folks had opening lines for picking up girls in bars. Since I never picked up girls and really never went to bars, I was not accustomed to using the lines.  What was the common one? Oh, yes: “What is your sign?”–referring to astrology and the zodiac. I was always afraid if I said that to a girl she’d hold up a stop sign. 
  • I like funny ones, too. Abraham Lincoln: “Mary Todd, I need to see a play like I need another hole in the head.”  (Once again, that would be a particular presentation flavored to taste.)  But if you like that one, how about this one?
  •  Judas Iscarios to a local priest: “How much will you give me for a wandering Jew in a garden?”  Too dark?  Too soon?
  • And of course, the infamous one with Julius Caesar to his friend: “Brutus, you’re just a real pain in the chest.”
  • Then there is the simple approach.  “Hi. My name is Johnny Cash.” Just a little piece of trivia here for you who enjoy such matters–most people don’t know that before he became famous and started making lots of money, his original name was Johnny Credit.
  • One of the favorite opening lines that I’ve used is when arriving at the scene of a fire at a motel where I had been staying. The fire had been extinguished by local fire-fighters, but was still smoldering a bit. I strolled up to one of the brave fellows and said, “Excuse me. I’m here to install the smoke alarm.” (That one did not get much laughter, although I thought it was rich with possibility…)
So I ended my evening not really certain how I would launch my ship of conversation with the congregation–because the most effective way to initiate an encounter is to land somewhere between surprise and shock, but still within the realm of understanding. Over the years, I have found that the best for me is something like this: “Well, listen up. Here’s how I see it …”


Here comes Christmas! For your listening pleasure, below is Manger Medley, Jonathan’s arrangement of Away in the Manger, which closes with him singing his gorgeous song, Messiah.  Looking forward to the holidays with you!

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