Jeff Martin, also known as "Jeff the Blond Curly-Haired Magician" had a flattened soda can in the palm of one hand, and the congregation at Grace Episcopal Church in Moreno Valley, California, in the other.
"What can you do with an empty, crushed can?" Martin called out to about 80 adults and children gathered May 31 for a Pentecost potluck meal in the Southern California church's hall.
"Kick it," someone yelled back. "Recycle it," a child piped up, prompting Martin to deliver a message while the can "magically" began inflating, its dents smoothing out. "Anytime we fall into trouble, all we have to do is repent. You've heard that word, right?
"And if we do, God recycles us. The Holy Spirit comes along and gets inside us and starts refilling us again." He popped the flip top of the can, completely restored to original shape and appearance, and took a long swig of cola.
Amid applause, laughter and cheers, he added the punch line: "Remember, God can refill us over and over again."
Martin is an Episcopalian and a magician and like other Christian magicians believes there is no contradiction between the two.
He acknowledged that the impending July 2009 release of the sixth Harry Potter movie ("Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") might renew controversy about scriptural admonitions against magic, such as one found in the book of Deuteronomy: "There shall not be found any among you anyone … that uses divination or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer."
Martin, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians International, said there's just no comparison between his magic and the popular fictional teen wizard's tricks.
"What I'm doing is sleight of hand, using manipulation, special effects to tell a story," said Martin, 53, of Salem, Oregon. Many of his tricks, like linking together metal rings that had no apparent openings, or tearing and then restoring to wholeness a newspaper, lend themselves to such Christian themes as relationship and connection among those who differ, as well as reconciliation, forgiveness and love, he said.
It being Pentecost, he couldn't resist a return appearance of his semi-retired dove, "Princess Ruthie," who arrived suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, to the amazement of the audience. That sense of mystery heightens awareness of faith, Martin said. "Anybody who's ever read the Bible knows miracles are a big part of it."
The Rev. JoAnn Weeks, Grace Church's vicar, said Martin's Pentecost appearance was also a return engagement. "It's fun. We just view it as entertainment," she said.
For Sarah Engel, 11, a parishioner and student at St. Margaret of Scotland Episcopal Church and School in San Juan Capistrano, magic and mystery get right to the heart of faith.
The sixth grader recalled her participation when the Rev. Keith Yamamoto, an Episcopal priest who is also an amateur magician, made her appear from an empty box to illustrate the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones, a lesson often associated with the Easter Vigil service.
"It was the turning box trick," recalled Engel. "It was really fun to have that little air of mystery, because true faith is so full of that. God is not something you can see but that you feel, but when you translate that into something you can see, you think about it in a different way.
"Father Keith really connected it full circle, from Ezekiel finding the dry bones and thinking they had no potential. We're often in a place where we feel hopeless, and the metamorphosis that comes afterwards is what Easter is all about.
"We are sometimes in that place of darkness and can turn it around with God's help and find potential in the dry bones in our own lives," added Engel. "I think it's important for us to know that wherever there are dry bones, there is life. There's life in everything and it's important for us to remember that, whenever we are feeling like there is no hope."
Barry Ferelius, a Southern California engineering manager and self-described "geek by day and magician by night," said he was drawn to magic as a child because of that sense of awe and mystery.
"As an Episcopalian, what I like about magic is the whole paradoxical nature of it," said Ferelius, a parishioner at St. John Chrysostom Church in Rancho Santa Margarita in the Diocese of Los Angeles.
But he added that his performances are "no less Christian than an actor who plays a role. The folks who were practicing magic in the Bible were doing something very, very different."
The International Fellowship of Christian Magicians has 18 chapters and about 135 members, according to its website. It has affiliates in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, and holds an annual convention.
Its website cites biblical support for "Gospel magic," citing "God's own use of the spectacular as an attention-getting device." Scriptural admonitions against magic refer to "witchcraft or sorcery, but the word also means sleight of hand and illusion, the surprising and fascinating modern entertainment medium. Obviously the Bible is talking about the first of these meanings and not the second."
The Rev. Tom Woodward of Santa Fe, New Mexico, agreed that the "phenomenon of witchcraft is contrary to the Christian faith." But he added, "We can use magic as a way of understanding something about the holy. It gives us a sense of astonishment that is necessary for understanding a lot of our faith."
Woodward, 71, retired after more than 40 years as a campus chaplain and parish priest in several states. For 30 years, he also had "a parallel career" as a magician, street mime, juggler, and fire-eater, and performed as Uncle Billy's Pocket Circus in nearly every state in the United States as well as overseas.
"I love the magic that produces an 'Ahhh' or a sense of mystery and astonishment," he said in a recent telephone interview. "That happens best in close-up magic … (which) involves drawing people into the trick, having them lean forward in the anticipation of seeing something very special or of finding me out – and that is also the secret of good preaching."
His favorite trick is "the torn and restored Sunday bulletin" accompanied by a message of reconciliation, love and forgiveness.
"It's a way of looking at the ways we self-destruct as individuals, and church, and the process of healing," said Woodward. "It still leaves you with a bulletin that is creased, bearing the marks of the struggle, even though restored … which is pretty much our human experience."