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Pastor Spreads Word With Sleight of Hand : Religion: Methodist uses magic tricks to deliver a message that 'what we see is only a tiny part of reality.'


WOODLAND HILLS — Unzipping his ministerial robe to reveal a black tuxedo underneath, a Methodist pastor preached a pre-Halloween sermon Sunday on magicians and mystics with the aid of cards, multiplying money and willing volunteers in the pews.

The Rev. Gilbert Stones, a member of Hollywood's Magic Castle for 10 years, even pulled a rabbit out of a black box near the altar at Woodland Hills United Methodist Church.

The day before Halloween seemed an appropriate occasion to use his semiprofessional talents, said the 39-year-old preacher with handlebar mustache and Vandyke beard.

"We are open to the idea (around Halloween) that the world out there is a little wider and maybe more frightening than we usually think," Stones told a congregation of about 50 adults and children. "What we see is only a tiny part of reality."

The point of his sermon was that magicians, in the broad sense, are auto mechanics, doctors, scientists, occult practitioners or pastors whom people seek out to handle and perhaps control life's problems. They are not always trusted--and in the case of an illusionist, shouldn't be, he said.

"We don't lack for magicians, but we lack for mystics--people who recognize that sometimes things just happen," Stones said. "Magicians don't like surprises. Mystics delight in them.

"The essence of religion is letting God break through rather than scrambling around trying to control everything," said the minister, who has pastored the church for a year.

The hymns and prayers in the service focused on the mystery and majesty of the divine. The New Testament reading was the Book of Acts account of the conversion of Simon the magician.

Despite the serious themes in the service, the people in the pews applauded and laughed as Stones used sleight of hand, familiar magician props and bantering comedy.

Church member Jack Smeltzer, who held the playing card he thought he had chosen from a deck, was told that the rabbit (which Stones earlier produced from an apparently empty box) was going to read his mind and indicate what the card is.

"Make your mind a blank," Stones said, then adding quickly, "That was fast."

The pastor noted that rabbits can't talk, "but he's going to do something that rabbits can do--no, not that." After the laughter subsided, the minister-magus pulled the rabbit from a box with a newspaper page that had three diamond shapes "chewed" out of it.

Another man from the pews supplied a $5 bill that the pastor seemed to change into a $1 bill. "That's my $4 trick," Stones said. "Would anyone like to see my $9 trick?"

Later, he repeatedly dropped two or three dollars into a box, and yet continued to count seven $1 bills still in his left hand.

"Now, if you could do that, you'd probably give a little more to the church," he quipped.

Returning to his message on mystics and magicians, Stones said that the magician, regardless of his or her occupation, claims special knowledge and methods to obtain information about certain mysteries, and perhaps to change situations.

They often wear special clothing and use special devices--thus, he said, he wore his black tuxedo and used typical magician's props.

By contrast, he said, mystics "simply seek to contact, to touch and commune with the mysteries beyond," not necessarily hoping for full understanding.

Some use of "magic" is fine, even in church, the minister said.

"When we pray and ask God to do something, we are doing 'OK magic,' " Stone said. But because magicians of various kinds can't always make everything work as predicted, excuses are often offered--the conditions were not right, the supplicant did not believe enough.

"Sometimes people get prayed for and they don't get cured," he said. Look to the mystic for insights, he advised.

"The mystic knows that if you pray for healing, you may not be cured, but you will be healed," he said. "Your life will be touched and transformed--you'll never be the same."

In closing the service with prayer, Stones said, "Forgive our arrogance in those times when we think we know fully your mind and that we have all the answers."

The congregation appeared pleased with the mixture of magic and message.

"I was pleasantly surprised how he weaved the ideas in and out," said choir member Judy Vanderbock. Charlotte Johnston said she expected that Stones would not "trivialize the service or the church place we were in, and he didn't."

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