When Wayne Hunt served on our church staff, he was forever looking for opportunities to pull a practical joke. One day he phoned Deena Boyd, the preschool children’s director, and faking a middle-eastern accent, told her he was an Arabian prince or something in the process of moving to New Orleans. With his three wives and eight children, he would be needing the facilities of our church’s children’s program and she had been highly recommended. About the time Deena got all swimmy-headed thinking of eight new children in the program and a parent who could pay cash, Wayne burst into laughter. Deena took it well, but said, “I’ll get you.”
A few weeks later, Wayne had found a special golf club on the internet, at e-bay or somewhere, and with his wife Anita’s acquiescence, had ordered it. “It’s my birthday present,” he assured us. After a couple of weeks, he began calling the church office from the seminary where he was enrolled to see if the club had come in. “Not yet,” the secretaries would assure him. And then one day, it arrived.
I think he cut class that day to drive across the city just to get that new golf club. He rushed into the office, grabbed up the box, and tore into it. He gently pulled the wrapping paper from around the club and fell back into his chair, unable to believe his eyes. The club was absolutely the sorriest thing he had ever seen–old, battered, dirty, rusty, and bent.
“I’ve been cheated!” You could hear him all over the office area. “Wait til I report this guy to e-bay. I’ll sue him!”
The secretaries and others in the office walked down the hall and looked in to see what the commotion was all about. “I ordered this special club, it cost hundreds of dollars, it’s the club of my dreams. And look what that guy sent me. I am not believing this!”
Just then, Deena walked up and stood in the doorway. As Wayne fumed and ranted, she caught his eye and smiled. “Gotcha!” she said, and handed him the real club.
The first time I saw a practical joke pulled on a minister was over 30 years ago when I was the newest member of the ministerial staff of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi. It was the preacher’s birthday, and the teenagers invited him to join them in the youth center following the evening worship service. Someone brought out this beautiful pan cake and they all sang to him. He was surprised and impressed–until he cut into the cake. There was no birthday cake. It was an aluminum pan, turned upside down and decorated with icing and candles. Even worse, there was no other cake or refreshments of any kind. Just that build-up followed by a massive let-down and then we all went home.
I prefer the way my friend Patsy Wilson did it. Now Patsy and I had a history together. We had been colleagues on the Jackson church staff, and then a few years later, when I went as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, John and Patsy had moved to nearby Mississippi State University where he would earn a doctorate, so we invited her to join our staff as children’s director. Now, Patsy was a good cook, but what she excelled in was fresh coconut cakes. Large cakes of several layers. Made from scratch. Soft, moist, delicious. A full inch of white icing with fresh coconut all over it and in between layers. Eat a slice and you would meet your caloric quota for the day and remember it for a year. So when my day came around, Patsy made me a birthday cake.
We had just finished staff meeting that Monday. It must have been 11 o’clock. The minister of music said, “Just a minute, Joe. We’re not through yet.” Then Patsy walked in with this massive, lovely, yummy-looking coconut cake. I drool just remembering how it looked. She went to all this trouble for my birthday; I was most impressed. Then I cut into it.
It wasn’t cake. It was a pone of cornbread, decorated with icing and store-bought coconut from a can. I had been had. They laughed, I laughed, and then something good happened. Patsy brought in another cake, the real one. It was a perfect practical joke, one that surprised its target (me) and gave us all a laugh, but was followed by joy without the slightest disappointment.
It must have been fifteen years later. I was down here in the swamps by then, pastoring the First Baptist Church of Kenner, across the street from the New Orleans airport. Our minister of education, Dionne Williams, told me he was participating in a conference at the First Baptist Church of Starkville where Patsy Wilson was then the children’s weekday school director. I sent greetings to her and John and thought nothing more about it.
A few days later, Dionne walked into my office bearing a gift from Patsy Wilson. There in a little round tin was a lovely chocolate cake, big enough for perhaps six people. I gently lifted it out and summoned someone to bring a kitchen knife. It was so lovely. This was going to be great. I was completely unsuspecting.
Cornbread. After we laughed and I told the office staff about Patsy, Dionne brought out her real gift–a ball of Edam cheese from the dairy at Mississippi State University. That’s the thing about my friend Patsy. She knows how to zing a friend, but knows also how to keep it from smarting. A true talent for friendship.
Jesus was doing something rather unusual for Him. He was defending God. Somehow people had gotten the idea that God was a practical joker and got His kicks out of playing cosmic pranks on poor suffering vulnerable humanity. We go to Him with our hurts and our childlike faith and give Him our needs and wants and He pulls the rug from under us. Like Lucy yanking the football from Charlie Brown at the last minute.
“You fathers,” Jesus said. “You don’t play tricks on your children. If your child comes to you hungry, you don’t throw him a snake, do you? Of course not.”
“If your child wants an egg, do you give her a scorpion? You do not. That would be cruel.”
He continued, “As bad as you are, you do not do hurtful things like that. You don’t play practical jokes on your children just to watch them cry.”
Then He got to the point. “Then give God credit for being at least as loving as you are. If you know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him.” (Two variations of this teaching are found in Matthew 7:9-11 and Luke 11:11-13.)
Two things impress me most about this. (1) If anyone knew God the Father, it was the Lord Jesus. They knew each other as intimately as it is possible to do. Some will recall that Jesus once said no one knows who He Himself is except the Father, and no one knows the Father except Jesus and those to whom He reveals Him. That’s quite an incredible statement, the kind we are used to finding in the Gospel of John, but in this case it’s located in Matthew 11:27.
(2) The source of faulty God concepts is the enemy. Jesus said he was a liar and the father of lies. It is in Satan’s interest to tell lies on God the Father in order to discourage people from trusting Him. In fact, Bible students know he has been engaged in this activity from the beginning, all the way back to the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:1ff.)
What each of us has to decide is whom we are going to believe. Who to trust. The consequences are enormous.
When our children were in school it was frequently my job to prepare the lunches. I actually enjoyed it, and would sometimes slip in a love note or a cartoon. But let’s just suppose, to make a point, that today I intended to play a little trick on them. Today, I was preparing peanut-butter-and-rock sandwiches. I would layer a liberal coating of peanut butter on each slice of bread, then step out to the driveway and pick up a handful of tiny pebbles. Sprinkling them over the peanut butter, I silently laugh to myself, anticipating the joy of watching their faces when they bite into these sandwiches. It’s going to be so much fun.
At noontime, I get to the lunchroom early and hide in the corner. My children walk in with their friends and sit at the long tables. Some are eating cafeteria food and others have brought their lunches. My kids open the lunches which dad has prepared this morning. Everything looks right–sandwich, apple, chips, cake. One by one, they unwrap the peanut-butter-and-pebble sandwiches and trustingly bite down on them. Oh, it would be hilarious, wouldn’t it. What fun I would have.
No, it would be the cruelest thing imaginable. So much so that it pains me just to think about doing it.
Loving parents do not do such things. And the Heavenly Father is a loving Parent. Jesus said so and He ought to know. In one of the greatest revelations in all Scripture and in all history, Jesus taught us that when we come to pray, we may begin with these incredible words: “Our Father….” Religious historians have often pointed out that this was a brand-new revelation, that there exists no record of anyone before Jesus teaching us that we may look to the Heavens and call God “Our Father.”
As a child of Earth and a citizen of Heaven, I have two fathers. And I’m happy to tell you that neither one has ever, ever played a practical joke on me. I trust my Father.