After the death of comic genius Robin Williams, someone was reminiscing about the time he preceded Bob Hope on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.
For some reason, Bob Hope was late arriving at the studio that night. So, instead of Robin Williams following him, which had been the plan, Williams went on stage first and did his hilarious knock-em-dead routine. People were beside themselves with laughter.
The great Bob Hope arrived and had to follow that.
Robin Williams said, “I don’t think he was angry, but he was not pleased.”
As Bob Hope walked out onto the stage and settled into the chair, Johnny Carson said, “Robin Williams. Isn’t he funny?” Hope said, “Yeah. He’s wild. But you know, Johnny, it’s great to be back here with you.”
Let’s talk about me. I smile. Even the great Bob Hope could not handle that.
No right-thinking person would voluntarily follow Robin Williams on the program.
Sometimes we preachers find ourselves scheduled to speak on a big program. Woe to the one who has to follow the most popular preacher in the land.
As a college student, I participated in a speakers tournament against six or eight outstanding young people with a great deal to offer. The young man who preceded me, however, had an unfortunate thing to happen. In the middle of his five-to-seven minute piece, a train went by. The building shook and the noise drowned out his voice. Not knowing what else to do, he kept talking. Clearly, one of the judges should have stopped it and allowed him to start from the beginning after quiet was restored. But that did not happen. No one was hearing a thing he said.
The train went by and the fellow finished his little speech. Then, as though nothing had happened, the leader introduced me.
I hit it out of the park.
It was hard not to do a great job because of what I was following.
(And, yes, I do recall the name of that unfortunate young man. We became seminary classmates and some years later, I stayed in his home while preaching a revival for him. We never mentioned the time the train plowed through the middle of his speech.)
A generation ago, Houston’s John Bisagno and E. V. Hill of Los Angeles were featured speakers at a conference I was attending. Hill, an eloquent fiery preacher in the best tradition of African-American stemwinders, blew the windows out of the church with his message and left the congregation of a thousand on their feet cheering and shouting. As order settled in on the auditorium, our host introduced Bisagno.
Brother John–a great and eloquent preacher in his own right–walked to the pulpit and softly related a little story that was ideal for that situation.
“Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus were lying in the grass gazing at the puffy white clouds. Lucy says, ‘If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formation…What do you think you see, Linus?’
“Linus said, ‘Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras in the Caribbean….That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor…and that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen…I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side….’”
“Lucy says, ‘Uh huh…That’s very good… What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?’ And Charlie Brown answers, ‘Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.’”
Bisagno looked out at his audience and said, “I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but after that sermon from Dr. Hill, I don’t think I’ll say anything now!’”
The audience erupted with laughter and applause–and, may I add–complete understanding. Not one preacher in the house would have wanted to follow E. V. Hill that day.
If anyone could do it, however, John Bisagno was the man.
When a preacher is slated to speak on a program along with others, he would do well to get there early and listen to the fellow who precedes him. He might discover, for instance, that the speaker uses the same story he had been planning as his piece de resistance! That has happened before, and has caused some mighty fast reconfiguring of the planned sermon!
Question: What is the preacher to do when the fellow just before him hits a home run and leaves the audience standing on their feet, calling for more?
What you do not do is try to top that speaker.
What you do not do is try to imitate that speaker.
Neither do you try to address the situation you find yourself in.
What you do do is…
…You send up a quick prayer to the Father to help you do your best in sharing what He has given you for this moment.
…You hope for a song or a choir special in between you and the eloquent one.
…You should not be surprised if a number of people leave during that little break. The previous speaker has left them wrung out and some are deciding their cup is full and cannot take any more. It’s not about you, so don’t take it personally.
…Just be yourself.
…Speak softly and naturally at first. If you acknowledge the outstanding job the previous guy did, plan your words. If you have a nice little story that fits here, this would be a good time for it.
…You must not apologize for your limited abilities or try to display a false modesty. You and that brother are not in competition for anything, but are fellow team members. His success will almost guarantee that you will be effective if you know your business and do this right. After all, someone thought you could preach well or you’d never have been put on this program.
…Just ease into your message while giving the audience time to adjust to your more subdued style.
Soon, you will be doing what you do best and love most: proclaiming the good news of the glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If, when it’s all over and as you leave the building everyone is still talking about the preacher who preceded you, do not take that personally either. God used you, just as He did that fellow, but in different ways.
When you recover from the experience, you might decide the program committee paid you a high compliment by scheduling you back-to-back with such a powerful preacher. They knew if anyone could handle it, you could.
So, give yourself a little pat on the back. Now, go take a nap. You need one.