Take 5 for Cello Music al fresco

It is always a pleasure to take a stroll in Vancouver when we are having weather as lovely as we have this past week has been.

Today I took time out from my task of absorbing and adapting new Balkan and Klezmer tunes on my Oboe and English Horn to get some fresh air.

To my delight, the sidewalks near my home were chalked with happy notes pointing to ‘Cello Music’, some with whimsical musical notes in pretty colours. I knew right away who it would be at the end of the trail: Clara Shandler, Canada’s Sidewalk Cellist!

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara is a treat to watch and listen to with her carbon-fiber cello and fusion of new and classical music.

It is also a treat to perform with her and I have had the pleasure of joining her on Oboe to offer liturgical music, particularly Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’, for the opening minutes before the Kol Nidrei service begins on the evening of Yom Kippur. I can attest to the melding of music and sacred time when we have played this piece together, notes intertwining as they ascend up to the heights, transforming players and listeners for the ascent back to earth. A wonderful opening to this Day of At-one-ment.

Today, Clara played solo in the park, a mix of Debussy, Fauré, live Gypsy and heavy metal riffs, with loops assisted by her electronica.

The important thing Clara does is to explain her music: its history, her history, her selection, and how it is blended. And, expect a quiz—listening for themed passages. The audience becomes fully engaged. It was a pleasure to sit on a blanket with adults and children, everyone engaged with the music, some crayoning her fun posters, and allowing the final chords to fade before applause. How refreshing! How al fresco!

The other thing about Clara’s music is that she shares it locally and abroad. She teaches music in Asia as well as touring Canada coast to coast.

For me, today’s neighbourhood stroll brought an unexpected treat. No one had to dress up or buy an expensive ticket or commute to a theatre. Music as no-big-deal made it a Very Big Deal.

The pleasure today was in the surprise of this found music; under a tree on a blanket; in the neighbourhood, simple and soft, complex and rustic.

That so many were attracted and attentive to this unexpected music-in-the-park reminded me of the Psalms.

You may have noticed a cryptic phrase opening many of these saying, ‘to the conductor of instruments’. This is no accident: the psalmist used their knowledge that music bypasses the complex thoughts that confound our lives. We find ourselves unwinding from those entanglements as music engages our non-verbal inner selves.

The Psalms were meant to have a music and rhythm, and for good reason.

artnet.com

artnet.com

Their words of comfort and healing were meant by the composer to be matched with the non-verbal sounds of sacred music. Need and example? look at the list of instruments in Psalm 150.

Next time you are strolling by a musician, Take 5 and allow the sounds to move your inner thoughts from words to music. And remember how special all of our musicians are at creating that charged elixir, including the Sidewalk Cellist!

sidewalkcellist.com

sidewalkcellist.com

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Remembering Orlando: Sacred Words and Music

My previous post spoke about crossing the narrow bridges over the narrow places of our lives, without our fears…

The post also referred to Shavuot as the time when Jewish people refresh our collective memory of standing together after seven weeks of wandering and chaos, as one people at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

The tragedy at the Pulse Club in Orlando has created another time of wandering in chaos for so many people: the shooting victims, their families and friends, the United States, LGBTQ people everywhere, and the world.

Today, before beginning to chant the haftarah portion from the book of Habakkuk during our Shavuot services, I read aloud to the congregation from the letter below, sent by Idit Klein, Executive Director of Keshet, the national Jewish LGBTQ organization:

“…It is sickening that the deadliest mass shooting in American history targeted LGBTQ people during Pride month. When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai. So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.

May the memory of all who lost their lives in last night’s attack be for a blessing.

L’Shalom, with prayers for peace…”

Her message is one of comfort and community. The message in the chapter of Habakkuk also brings comfort.

The prophet says that it was a mistake to criticize God for allowing the weak to suffer while the powerful, such as the Babylonian captor Nebuchadnezzar, flourish. However, soon after Habakkuk observed that the Jews were gaining in strength and resolve; as they reconciled their own fears and weakness they began to engage once again. Their enemies were now succumbing to the wrath of God and Nature and fleeing from before the Jews.

musicsaleclassical.com

musicsaleclassical.com

This evening I went to the closing concert for our Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It was a night of farewells to a couple of beloved musicians. Amidst the adieus and accolades, Maestro Tovey also spoke the comforting power of music, of music healing sorrows in ways beyond words. He spoke about the composer Samuel Barber whose Violin Concerto was to be played. Samuel Barber was gay. Tovey asked the audience and players to dedicate the second movement to the victims of the Orlando shootings, followed by some time for silence. I have never experienced the Orpheum Theatre so engaged with the music, which was so strongly emotive and fulfilling.

I want to affirm my message to keep moving forward on that narrow bridge. Find the source of your fears.

In the case of the massacre in Orlando, yes an individual committed that tragedy. How are you doing with the fear that may arise in you? Do you feel weakened? Are you believing your fear is caused by others whom you feel a victim to? Or do you feel strengthened in your faith and resolve to keep moving over that narrow bridge, knowing you will find both challenges and rewards?

pinterest.com

pinterest.com

Can you remember that once the Jewish people began to see themselves as a people united with their resolve and faith, they could face their captors and prevail.

Please recall the victims and your sources of meaning, strength and resolve.

Zichronam l’Vracha  לברכה זכרונם

May the memory of all who lost their lives in Sunday’s attack be for a blessing.

L’Shalom, with prayers for peace within yourself and toward others

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/

http://www.myjewishlearning.com

 

 

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Narrow Bridges and Narrow Places

The 50 days between Passover and Shavuoth to mark the Biblical journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. Egypt is called Mitzrayim in Hebrew, meaning ‘narrow place’. This year, the retelling of the journey of my ancestors from out of the Narrow Place of bondage to receiving the Torah (Law), brought to mind a saying of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ‘“The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”

agerbak.com

agerbak.com

This year has been a turbulent one worldwide. There are refugees streaming away from crises in their homeland, there are reversals of progressive gender equality legislation, there are demands by college students to be provided with a safe environment, terrorism is on the rise, and at least one American Presidential candidate is running on a platform of backlash against any progressive racial, cultural or gender policies. What is driving this? Fear.

Fear from all quarters is headlining the news these days. People are afraid. Some are afraid of losing their familiar way of life, some of losing their long battle for hard-won rights; some are expecting their path to be free of obstacles, others are creating obstacles to draw attention.

It seems they are all walking across narrow bridges, or wandering lost in the desert, while schlepping (carrying) along their old fears.

In the case of the Exodus story, as soon as there was any hardship in the desert, the people demanded to go back to the Narrow Place of Egypt where things were familiar, where they even fantasized they had dined on fish and leeks.

frenchrevolutionfood.com

frenchrevolutionfood.com

The wandering in the desert was scary; the best thing to do was blame someone, Moses their leader, for their scary predicament. It was much like crossing a narrow bridge: you are in an unrecognizable place, neither here nor there and can only go forward.

commons.wikimedia.org

commons.wikimedia.org

Fear of changes such as these arise in part due to a lack of structure or guidebook. The Hebrews escaped the Narrow Place knowing only that 400 years of slavery was enough, and they could not stand being slaves any longer.

They did not know where they were going; and that was scary. The narrow bridge they were crossing was certainly taking them away from a very bad place. If they could endure the chaos that resulted from a new and unfamiliar freedom things would certainly be better. They did not have a structure for this mass exodus; instead they just had to stay the course and keep walking, fear and all.

artsia.com

artsia.com

After many mishaps and building their own source of guidance with the Golden Calf, they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. I like this Biblical example of how treacherous it is to cross from places of chaos into those of order. I believe the model can be applied to ease our modern maelstrom of push-and-shove over newfound cultural, racial and gender paradigms and events.

 

firstwefeast.com

firstwefeast.com

I will share a recent personal experience. I was walking home from synagogue one Shabbat. As I passed the outdoor patio of a coffee house, I overheard a very loud conversation that was overtly using expletives against both Israel and Jews. I thought about what to do about this rather brash conversation and decided to turn the situation into an opportunity to ask what the basis was for the loud and offending remarks. First, I approached the loud group of young people seated at a table and simply identified myself as one of the Jews they were deriding. As I walked away, the young people beckoned me to stay and speak with them. Through these actions, we all set aside fear and embarked upon a walk over that narrow bridge together.

We talked. When asked, they could not provide any facts about Jews and Israel; they only knew their negative views from friends’ opinions and the abundance of left-wing popup news media on the street. They wanted me to give an overview of Judaism and I gave them some dates for important events in the formation of the modern country of Israel. I invited them to Google these and see what else they could learn.

Contrary to what fear might have said about this conversation, they thanked me profusely.

agerbak.com

agerbak.com

By taking those steps toward them a journey began, away from the enslaving ideas we had on both sides, toward a way of understanding how this chaos of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism came to be.

I also learned that diplomacy happens in direct 1:1 conversations: not through online polemics, international political gestures, grandiose political swaggering, or biased news media.

I have told this story about the coffee house conversation to others. Usually the first response is, with all that pressure to conform to the status quo of the neighbourhood, wasn’t I afraid to approach these young people? My reply has been that my only fear was that because I was peacefully walking home from synagogue when I overheard them, I might be violating Shabbat (the Sabbath) by potentially creating a conflict. However, the wisdom of faith told me that the honest way to create and perpetuate Shabbat peace was to take that walk on that narrow bridge and engage these people, without fear.

We observe the passage of 50 days from Passover to Shavuoth as an opportunity to take steps away from things that we are unsafely bonded to and find an order in our lives that matters.

There are still a few days left before Shavuouth begins, on the evening of June 11th. Find time over these days to leave behind something that holds you back—a habit, an addiction, a prejudice, a hurt—and move ahead with faith rather than fear, that something good lies ahead.

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pinterest.com

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Road Trip Rainbow

A few days ago I set out in my car on a road trip. I had my iPod set on shuffle. As I left the border crossing behind and hit the open highway, The Mighty Clouds of Joy came on, singing ‘He’s My Saviour in the Storm’: and from the bottom right of my view, the most remarkable rainbow arced fully over the highway; it remained in my forward view for a full hour and a half, until the sun set. IMG_0434
How so the passage of time keeps us treading in the same spot while simultaneously providing new frames of reference. In particular, I recall those decades of fantabulous mind-bending alternative reality discoveries most of us we Boomers survived, during the ‘1960’s-’80’s.
Those fantasmagoric new realities included the reflective internal arts of the Far East: meditation, Buddhism, the martial arts, and Taoism.

What I am discovering is that although they are sound and powerful tools to self-knowledge, their applications back in those turbulent days of change in North America were less so. In fact, the fashionable gravitation towards anything novel and unlike what our parents did ultimately led to accepting ersatz versions of the original practices. Despite this we still ingested digested and distilled versions of practices which by their very nature required patient, slow, disciplined commitment and engagement. In other words, we were engaging with these foreign practices and yet remaining just as we were; always looking for a quick fix for ourselves.

The disillusionment is palpable for most Boomers I meet with. We live in a new era of people long disenfranchised from organized religions and faith practices; and worse, have witnessed the unveiled, mundane wizards behind the curtains who manipulated the counterculture’s ‘sacred practices’ for their own commercialized success. Examples include the proliferation of entrepreneurism in yoga wear, their requisite slogans to encourage you to go to class (and look good at the same time), or the exposure of the empty teachings of Transcendental Meditation, and the leadership of the Bikram yoga franchise. The irony of this is our ongoing belief in instant fixes through these practices. Now, every mainstream medical and healthcare clinician is prescribing meditation, yoga, and tai chi as exercises for body and mind, fuelling an open and unregulated market of teachers and gurus.

In each of these settings, nothing new is being gained. The value of these ancient Eastern arts is that they are arts. They are not the equivalent of circuit training, riding an exercise bike, or doing a set of calisthenics with a qualified trainer. The oriental arts are not primarily meant to develop the body; they are meant to develop the mind through engagement with the body. This takes more than a prescription for lessons and not only repeating physical movements, but also understanding them.
Why would a Jewish Chaplain be writing about this? And why now?
I am noticing a trend in both the public media and in my practice that people are really stressed in general, which is nothing new. What is new is that we have lost our way as a society; we have lost or eschewed a reliable source to turn to when the going goes from everyday stressful into crisis.
How does it look when you are navigating a full time salaried day job or being a full time homemaker with all the work and busy-ness these require, and now you have a cancer diagnosis? Or your beloved father dies unexpectedly, or your child. Or your spouse tells you over dinner they are leaving and want a divorce. Now what?

People in general do not live in standby mode, ready and prepared for these things, unless they have some fear-based drives to live that way. In times of trust in faith, we grew up knowing, because everyone believed it so, that going to church or temple would provide a framework for navigating these rough times. Unfortunately, even these places succumbed to the lightness of empty experience. Boomers have created alternative rituals in yoga studios, the gym to be buff, to karate to earn a black belt, or doing drugs with friends and we got lost in Transcendental Meditation. These activities certainly have their value, but will they provide a source to turn to when the ordinary becomes unbearable?
I recall sitting with a friend many years ago. I was always impressed at how she had the wherewithal to be self-sustaining in her own private healthcare clinical practice. Yet, as we talked, she told me about her husband’s long history of drinking and how she no longer came home to find him adorably rummy; he was now impossible to be around. She and her adult children were in a crisis: there was no where to go for answers, for comfort, for directions out of this mess. She thought about closing her practice and just leaving the country altogether on her own. But what she really wanted to tell me was how much she regretted not having been part of a religion and having instead brought up her children without any sort of religious practice; no Sunday school, no weekly worship, no way of sorting out the deep questions and suffering they were all going through. She wanted to talk to me because my family did do those things and had built a spiritual foundation to turn to should we need it. For her and her family, it was a long road to embark upon on top of trying to cope on a daily basis. I encouraged her to invest herself and take the first steps anyway, acknowledging that it was certainly simpler  to just escape.
Other manifestations of the ’60-’80’s indulgences of the Boomers include the continued belief that change can be instantaneous. We still want instant nirvana or enlightenment. And, being proud North Americans, someone will assure us that if we desire it, we can create it. We have moved somewhat beyond Timothy Leary and the promise of instant knowledge of the universe in a single tab of LSD; we now know that won’t happen. In fact what we have gained from that belief is a serious national problem with intravenous drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.

IMG_0436
Back to that sunset with rainbow and gospel song. Not to parallel my new-found rainbow in the sky with the strawberry-fields-forever of the rock ‘n’ roll era, but to say that there are important and life-altering convergences that go on in our lives all the time.
We are too busy looking for a quick fix to see them. Even the experiencing of these ephemeral convergences has been co-opted. Synchronicities, the unbidden and mundane convergences that are life altering moments, ironically have lost their effect toward change by becoming something we actively seek. What the Eastern arts were originally designed for was to train ourselves through various practices to be able to notice those convergences. These moments of grace are natural occurrences that we observe only in the subtlety of quiet availability, developed over time, the same way that learning to play a piano gracefully and with satisfaction takes time and engagement.
Or in navigating the features of a computer, or learning to speak as an infant, or learning a new language. Do you remember your first steps as an infant? Probably not, but you have likely watched a baby taking first steps, and then the months and years to learn coordination and mastery of physical movements.
It is the same with our spiritual growth. There is no quick fix or quick lesson for that. If anyone tries to sell you that, fire them. And certainly don’t seek it, or you will find yourself with that familiar pastey taste in your mouth, disillusioned and empty after investing in a shortcut lesson in enlightenment.

I once took a meditation class at my local community centre. The instructor talked constantly for over an hour, and even after we finally got 10 minutes to sit quietly to try meditation, she gabbed at us about how marvellous serenity was. Instead of relaxing, all I wanted to do was shout at her, “You need to take a meditation class to learn to be quiet!”
These arts require knowledge as well as practice. On the outside we may look right with the right clothes, cushions, prayer books and garb, gee and slippers, but the deepening of the art comes from understanding what the path or process is and matching that information with how you do it. For example, tai chi is actually tai chi ch’uan, a martial art, and as such is meant as a means of cultivating focus for your inner strength. It may appear to be a lovely free flowing improvisational dance because of the gracefulness of one who is fully engaged in the movements, but each movement is actually the review of a lesson in focusing a neutralizing or deadly defensive move against an attacker.
When you have found your practice, whether it is prayer at a conventional religious community, meditation, martial art, creating music or a garden, you will have developed a sensitivity that invites meaningful moments that seem like nirvana. The moment I heard the gospel song and saw the rainbow appear as I sped onto the highway of a new country, the world shifted. I no longer worried about anything; I let go of everything because suddenly everything made sense. I felt a rush of gratitude for this unbidden moment of grace or deliverance at just the moment the song beckoned the listener to thank God. I was grateful that I had allowed myself the faculties to sensitivity to recognize the moment. I thought of the Beatles’ song, ‘The Fool on the Hill’, and felt how glad I was to have been that fool, regularly setting foot in my spiritual practices and studies knowing there is no instant fix.

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galleryhip.com

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My Chaplain’s View of ‘Hail Caesar!’

 

*God is nigh in the new Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Hail Caesar!’.

readthespirit.com

readthespirit.com

From the opening moment when the main character, Mannix (Josh Brolin), is seen in the confessional at 4am, until the film’s end when we see him stride confidently in his purpose as head of operations of a large Los Angeles movie studio, we are gifted with the inside scoop on how God works.

telegraph.co.uk

telegraph.co.uk

What better venue to teach us about faith and God than a 1960’s Hollywood studio? The themes of adultery, kidnapping, extortion, forbidden homosexuality, McCarthyism, Communism, bribery, and graft run freely as we watch the studio in production of a film about the life of Christ.

We are at first amused with the opening scene of a man in the confessional asking forgiveness for having smoked a couple of cigarettes outside of his promise to his wife that he will quit. It seems petty and small. Although he desires absolution from the sin of lying, this montage sets up a notion that he is led by the nose of guilt and sin to confess, and not by any great intellect.

 

vulture.com

vulture.com

As the film progresses though, we learn more about Mannix. Several films are being  shot simultaneously in various sets and locations. His job is to oversee and trouble shoot them all, and to keep the studio schedules and bottom line on track. He has his hands full: the star of the studio’s blockbuster, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped from the set; the Esther Williams knockoff (Scarlett Johansson) is single and now pregnant; the cow-brained heart throb Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) of their latest Western can’t act unless he is sitting on a horse or twirling a rope; the Gene Kelley-style hoofer, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is about to be outed by the gossip journals for having had gay sex with one of the studio’s star directors; and Mannix is being courted by the aerospace industry to sign on with them to head their nuclear weapons program for a guarantee of lifetime income. Meanwhile his wife phones to ask him to negotiate a better spot for their son on the Little League team.

At first it is all goofy and a bit reminiscent of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’.

straitstimes.com

straitstimes.com

On set, Baird is drugged and then hauled off unconscious to a hideout in Malibu. After awaking in a chaise lounge still dressed in his Roman togs, the maid shows him into a room full of nerds eating cucumber sandwiches—otherwise known as Communists. He becomes intrigued, is swayed by their passion to have the Caesars of the world give all back unto the workers, whilst being photographed by his new comrades with the unspoken purpose of blackmailing the studio for a ransom.

Meanwhile, back at the studio, in desperation, Hobie becomes the fill in for a swishy high society film to replace the Clark Gable type who did not show. He looks the part in his tux, but with his cow pie vocabulary can’t please the director.

In order to make the Christ film sell, Mannix brings in clergy from Christianity and Judaism for their feedback and approval. As they sit politely around the table, the clergy begin with criticism of some technical aspects of the film. Mannix redirects them back toward giving their theological considerations. At first gracious and polite, the men of faith quickly evolve into a theological wrestling match about who is God, who is Jesus, and which of these can star in a movie. We observe that the only one in the room with any faith at all is Mannix; he presses them to attest that the film at least is not offensive.

Back in his office, a troubled Hobie walks in just as Mannix is trying to close the briefcase with the $100,000 ransom money for Baird.

Enter God, stage left.

Mannix then begins to perform his real work through inspired decision-making. He sees the gift of natural simplicity in the cowhand and in an act of inspired faith confides with him about the kidnapping and ransom. Hobie’s natural simplicity and goodness allow him to help out just as willingly any good and honest western cowpoke would.

jmmnewaov2.wordpress.com

jmmnewaov2.wordpress.com

I was fascinated by the Hollywood Communist subplot. Growing up as a child of the 1950’s-‘70’s, I knew that Hollywood blacklisted wonderful talent because of its fear that Communism would take over America through occupying its media, particularly films. Ghastly apparitions of these Communists were made bigger than life: scary, smart, intellectuals and geniuses from the Soviet Union. What we see in this film is a living room in a luxury hideaway filled with ectomorphs and endomorphs eating crust-less cucumber sandwiches, espousing ideas they barely understand, and arguing with each other about them. They call upon their sage Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), a thinly disguised avatar of Herbert Marcuse, who espouses in oblique terms about alienation from an increasingly totalitarian universe that trumpets its freedom at every moment.

The whole notion of a Communist takeover, dubious as it was during the height of the McCarthy flare up, is now turned on its head and portrayed as nothing more than a living room full of cranks. The final blow to any notion that the ideologies of these living room Communists had any social integrity comes when these intrepid Marxists row a dingy to rendezvous a Russian submarine. They beg Gurney, who leaps Hollywood-style from the dingy to board the sub, to take the ransom money from them, the lowly Workers, and give it to ‘The Cause’. So much for dispersing Wealth amongst the Workers of the World. Gurney takes his pet pooch instead, and the valise of money hurled toward him falls to the bottom of the sea. So much for The Cause.

The Coens have also hurled our beliefs in God, our religious institutions, Clergy, ideologies, and popular heroes down the drink…

thetimes.co.uk

thetimes.co.uk

But we are not left adrift for long:

The Coens bring us back to Mannix, once again in the confessional, same reason. But now, we understand his need for prayer. He is not a man draped in dogma, far from it. He deals with the fallout from religious dogma all day: protecting his gay director, his unmarried pregnant star; seeking ecclesiastic approval for the blockbuster film.

He is also wrestling what his own purpose is. Does he continue with this pivotal role in protecting Americans from their idols, despite his long overtime hours and mediocre pay? does he take the offer from the aerospace industry and gain monetary security while enabling the birth of the atomic bomb?

We watch him in fervent prayer. He then returns to the confessional to be forgiven about the cigarette lie again. This time though, he has a question for the confessor: what is one’s purpose in life, to do what brings security, or to do what feels right? the answer he is given is of course to do what is right. How will he know when that is?

we can feel when we are doing right, and when we do what feels right to us, we are doing God’s work.

When Mannix returns to work the next morning, he is light as a colt. He strides along the studio as his secretary follows him with the morning list of tasks. Each of the insurmountable problems of the day before is resolved: the pregnant star marries the stooge who was hired to temporarily adopt her child so she could then legitimately adopt it; the cowboy says his lines perfectly, because the director has made the words simpler; Mannix instructs his secretary to tell the aerospace rep No Thank You; the gossip columnist who had threatened to expose the homosexual liaisons of their star is told her witness to the scandal is a known Communist. Everything is in its place.

The penultimate piece is Mannix grabbing a loose-minded Baird by the scruff and telling him that as the star, his only job is to convince everyone in the audience that the actor on the cross is Christ, and nothing less.

We are cut to a marvelous scene: the Roman Clooney at the foot of the cross of the Jewish thief. And with a beatific countenance he expounds to the Roman beside him on the majesty of the teacher before them, and of his teachings about a new way for humanity. The Coens’ cameras are panning the set: handlers, script boys, costumers; all are awash in the glory of Clooney’s words. That is…until he stumbles for the last word of the script. We all fall off Mount Calvary and are back in Hollywood.

What was that last word? His co-star prompts him; “Faith“.

Oh well, in Hollywood there’s always time for one more take.

images

  • A version of this article is also available in PlainViews March 16, 2016 Volume 13 No. 3, for professional Chaplains.
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