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Lessons From a Stand-Up Routine

When I think about the ‘fiery tongues’ of Pentecost, I also think about a friend of mine named Sully.

When I think about the ‘fiery tongues’ of Pentecost, I also think about a friend of mine named Sully. Sully does stand-up comedy at a local nightclub called Dr. Grins. Strange as it sounds, we met because a good friend of mine (Pastor Chad) decided he would try his hand at a new profession—stand-up comedy. Chad heard about an upcoming open-mic night and he thought to himself, “What could be funnier than a straight-laced conservative evangelical trying to pull laughs at a local comedy club?”  Turns out, not much.

So I tagged along one night, with my pastor, to the nightclub and it was there that he introduced me to Sully. In many ways, they couldn’t have been more different. Yet it was obvious that the two had struck up a friendship.

I should say at this point that Sully isn’t a Christian. So you can imagine my surprise when Chad told me he had invited his pagan friend to do stand-up at an upcoming event for local pastors.

Naturally, I tagged along this time too. We rode to the event together in the pastoral minivan, and on the way we discussed with Sully what jokes were and were not appropriate. Most of Sully’s material landed firmly in the “not appropriate” category, but in the end he assured us that he could sterilize a set list that would pass the “Christian” inspection.

And surprisingly, it worked. For about fifteen seconds.

Then it happened.

As I looked up at the stage I could see him perspiring heavily as he looked out on a room that was practically brimming with non-alcoholic beverages. I could read his mind–‘Why did I say yes to this?’

Then somewhere amid the nervousness, a word slipped out. And then another. It was all happening in slow motion and I could hear the air being sucked out of the room. This was not going to end well. Mentally, I started preparing the minivan. Unfortunately, it wasn’t over yet.

Further into his routine Sully got more nervous and a couple more words slipped. People weren’t laughing now. Not even a little, and Sully didn’t look so good. After all, these were his tame jokes–they always worked.  But not tonight. At some point toward the end it was as if he just said “forget it!”

Afterward most of the people were surprisingly polite as they shuffled out. One lady even tried to pay Sully a compliment by telling him that when she was an unbeliever she would have never had the courage to come to an event like this. Sully didn’t think of himself as an unbeliever. He believed in lots of things, just not Jesus. He was clearly offended by the comment.

When we were leaving, we alternated between fits of nervous laughter and feelings of embarrassment for Sully. I hate watching people bomb, because I’ve bombed—and it stinks.  Then later when I was all alone, I thought strangely about something that happened at Pentecost with the fiery tongues.

The Scriptures say that when Jesus’ breath blew into the lives of his followers, a crowd of people gathered to see what had happened. And it wasn’t just a crowd of locals. They were people from various cultures and ethnic backgrounds. They were foreigners. Yet they came because they began to hear the disciples speaking to them in their own language.

These tongues were foreign languages that made sense to the people there that day. They made so much sense in fact, that the foreigners began to wonder aloud how a bunch of backwater hicks from Galilee could communicate the Jesus story so clearly.

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For most of us, it isn’t long after being converted that we lose our ability to communicate the Jesus story to people like Sully. We no longer speak the same language, and before long, we simply stop hanging out with people who aren’t “in” like us. That’s the way it usually goes, and it’s tragic, because somewhere along the line even our compliments start to sound offensive.

And people like Sully have just as much trouble communicating with us. They don’t know our rules about what is acceptable and what is offensive. And if they do, the rules just seem arbitrary. Sully didn’t get it. And for the pastors at the tables, the feeling was mutual.

The Scriptures say that when Jesus’ breath blew into the lives of his followers, a crowd of people gathered to see what had happened. And it wasn’t just a crowd of locals. They were people from various cultures and ethnic backgrounds. They were foreigners. Yet they came because they began to hear the disciples speaking to them in their own language
.

The Bible calls this cross-cultural communication “speaking in tongues.” Apparently these were real languages with real words that made sense to the people there that day. They made so much sense in fact, that the foreigners began to wonder aloud how a bunch of backwater hicks from Galilee could communicate the Jesus story so clearly.

After the dinner, for the first time in my non-Charismatic existence, I prayed that God would allow me to speak in tongues. But not like the big-haired preachers on TV. I prayed to communicate like they did at Pentecost. I prayed that Jesus would breathe his breath into me and grant me the ability to communicate His story in ways that make sense to Cretans, Arabs, mechanics, and stand-up comedians. I prayed for a language that outsiders could understand. And even as I prayed this, I had to admit that if it does happen, it will be a miracle.

But then again … I believe in those.

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