Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Numbers 17) transports me to the home of professor James Dodding in Garstang, UK, where Kim and I were visiting two years ago. Mr. Dodding is Kim’s mentor in theatre work; he retired back to his home town after a storied career teaching and acting and directing at Wake Forest, NC School of the Arts, and in major theatre companies around the world. We were settled in one evening for a bit of telly, because a friend and a former student were both going to be on Penn and Teller’s Fool Us show. Mr. Dodding has many theatrical gifts and abilities, performing magic tricks being one of them. The famous duo of the talkative Penn and the silent Teller had a weekly tv show that summer in England, in which magicians of promise would come on and try to fool them, to do a trick that they couldn’t figure out. Mr. Dodding’s former student did some basic magic show tricks, sawing a girl in half, pulling rabbits out of the hat, etc, and while he did them very well and was quite entertaining, he didn’t fool the veteran magicians, who had obviously seen and done versions of this act before. Mr. Dodding’s friend, Graham Jolley, did fool the pair, which earned him a trip to Las Vegas to perform as their opening act in one of their Rio Casino shows. He, too, was quite entertaining as he performed a simple card trick, deceptively simple, because they couldn’t figure it out. He had Penn cut the deck and take a peek at the card he cut to, and then had Teller cut the remaining cards and peek at which card he cut to. Then Graham Jolley put the stacks back together, and spread them out, revealing that there were two jokers in the stack facing in the opposite direction of the rest of the stack. He pulled these jokers out, and said they would tell him which cards the two had chosen. He put the first joker up to his ear and pretended to hear it tell him that Penn’s card was the 18th in the deck. He counted out 18 cards, and sure enough, it was Penn’s card. The other joker told him that the other card was 43rd in the deck, so Graham Jolley counted on to 43, and sure enough, it was the card. Ooohs and aaahs rose from the amazed audience. How did he do that?
People in the early Hebrew community of ex-slaves might have been oohing and aahing and asking how did he do that? when it came time for a priestly leader to publicly receive a divine appointment. Leading up to this big show, a faction of the people had become insolent and rebellious against Moses, questioning his and Aaron’s leadership. Who do you think you are, setting yourselves above the rest of us? The whole community is as holy as you two, and you have no right to lord it over us like you’re doing. God took care of the grumblers in a pretty harsh way, and then gathered the people for a show they would not soon forget, to reveal to them once and for all who among them had been given authority, a divine right to preside as high priest. God instructed each of the 12 tribes to bring one staff representing their leader. Aaron’s name was written on the staff from the tribe of Levi. All the staffs were brought to the tent of meeting, and God told them to watch closely; the staff of the chosen priestly leader would soon sprout and blossom. Magic! The people waited in anticipation. I can imagine God working the crowd like Penn Gillette, showing them there was nothing up his sleeve, letting people touch the staffs to see that they were nothing but ordinary, simple sticks, maybe even entertaining them with some witty one-liners while building up suspense. It took a full day for the trick to reach its climax, but sure enough, Aaron’s staff magically sprouted, blossomed, and to top it off even produced some almonds. Ta da! Quite a show, and quite a memorable way to confirm authority and leadership, and to put an end to the rebellious grumbling of the audience.
It is just one of those quirky coincidences that this story came up on my calendar of passages today, on the day when another fantastic show has started for all the world to see. This one, like the one in Moses’ day, is designed to show the grumbling world who the next high priestly leader will be, with the authority of St. Peter. For the non-catholic world, the fantastic pomp and circumstance of this procedure, accentuated by the bright red vestments of 115 cardinals marching into the Sistine Chapel, surely looks and feels as mysterious and perplexing as any Rio Casino magic act. The actual proceedings of the conclave of cardinals is top secret, so we are not privvy to the exact manner in which God reveals the identity of the next Pope. Maybe there’s some sleight of hand involved, I don’t know. Maybe staffs are involved, maybe nuts of some kind will magically sprout. All we know is that when the secret is ready to be revealed, white smoke will billow from the chapel chimney. The decision will undoubtedly be met with a chorus of ooohs and aaahs from around the world, and we in the audience will still be left with the question, how did they do that?
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.