April 1, 2018 was an exciting day for me. I was on-call for work, because of capitalism, which stopped me from going to my parents’ house for Easter. My father loved April Fools Day and I could picture him offering the snapping gum to people in church. He’d reach out, offer a piece, and WHAM, the spring would get their hand. The spring was only newtons away from lethal mouse trap force.
Or maybe he’d pull out the faux dog poop, strategically placing it across the room. He’d yell, “What’s that?!” and shove people to prevent them from ‘stepping in it’. He had a disc of fake vomit that he’d sometimes puke into his hands. Overall, the most effective was his insects: he’d tuck plastic roaches in hymnals and bulletins, lying in wait to hear church-ladies shriek.
All of that was embarrassing. As a twenty-five year old, I had hoped to have come out the other side of parental embarrassment. But either I was underdeveloped or my dad was the most embarrassing adult in the world - it was hard to decide.
Instead, I was taking my maternal grandmother to church.
When I got to her moth-ball smelling home, she had on a pale blue Easter dress with a white cardigan. She also had on her Medicare-purchased shoes and two black-elastic knee braces, but she always had those on, so it didn’t really register. At one point, probably ten years ago, she had looked into knee surgeries. The doctors had told her that she was too old and it wasn’t a good idea.
“It’s hell to get old,” she told me once, I think after she listed all of her deceased friends.
She got to the car with her home-walker, which was black with big, thick wheels like it was ready to go off-roading. This was her favorite because it had a seat between the two handles and therefore a place to rest.
I dropped her off at the back of the church. She had mapped what entrance had the shortest distance to the pews and this route had a bonus bench in between the embarkation and destination points. She was used her ‘go-cart’ walker, which kind of looked like a fold out of an accordion. Between the two handles was a piece of leather that kept them together but also was the location she kept her purse. Her purse was the size, shape, and weight of a brick, albeit a black leather one.
We were twenty minutes early and sitting in the very back row. Grandma pulled out her checkbook and took the pen from the back of the pew in front of us. She wrote out her check for ten dollars, like she had done every Sunday, and then attempted to put the pen back into the small hole of the pew back.
I don’t know if it was the dim lighting, but she missed it three times. I took the pen and placed it in the hole, wondering if this was a good sign for her still maintaining her driver’s license.
People filed in and the ones that knew her stopped to chat:
‘Jeanie is in the hospital again. Please pray for her.’
‘Linda is moving in with her daughter, so she’s leaving Sunday school.’
‘Erma got out of the hospital. Prayers would still be appreciated.’
After each one, Grandma leaned over and passed her commentary:
‘Jeanie has cancer and three little girls. They’re in high school’
‘Linda is only seventy.’
‘Erma was in a car accident.’
The organist played some jovial bars and I stood up to sing the first hymn. Grandma sat beside me. When ‘Christ the Lord has Risen Today’ played, both of us nodded our heads to count the beat of the hallelujah.
Her pastor got to the pulpit. He had sandy hair, looked about forty-five, and had energy. This was the Super Bowl of the church year: the pews were packed. The choir had jazzed us up and in my estimation, he was about to give a service to convert all of those Christmas-Easter Christians into weekly attendees. Would it be some prosperity gospel: through God you will achieve riches? Would it be a simplification of the theology: lean on Jesus clearing our guilt but skip that you have to try to stop sinning? Would it be an offering of community and ignore the theology?
April Fools Day is one of my favorite holidays. The last time Easter was on April Fools Day was in 1956.
Ah, yes, the anecdote to lead us into the boring part of the sermon.
April Fools Day is thought to have started in 1563 when some people switched to the calendar we used today. It was confusing, so when people were confused, they were called, ‘April Fools.’
I wasn’t following, but I was curious about how this would tie into the whole Christianity business.
Every year people post things online as pranks. Example: that there is an April Fools Day parade in New York City.
I started to zone, figuring that if I needed this information, the top hit of the ‘April Fools Day Facts’ Google search probably had these exact points listed in this exact order. After church, I was going to pick up lunch and have it with Grandma at her house. She claimed she wanted fried chicken, but I thought we could at least splurge for a fast-casual place. Maybe somewhere with rolls. She had something she called pre-diabetes but insisted rolls with honey were OK. And we were celebrating! Christ has risen - hallelujah!
The pastor reached his finale:
You know, God pulled a big prank on us.
Perking up, I searched my theological knowledge for what the prank could be.
The greatest prank ever pulled, in the history of mankind, is Jesus. That God would become a man and let himself die on the cross for us.
Over our chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, I googled the definition of prank. From Oxford Language, it said that a prank was ‘a practical joke or mischievous act.’ I googled mischievous to make sure the word meant what I thought. It did.
“Grandma, I don’t think your pastor understands what a prank is.”
“What?” she was reaching for her first roll. Her arm had one of those runny bruises she got from taking blood thinners. Her skin was thin like paper and covered in little scars.
My arms looked bloated with fat and naïve in scarless youth. “He said that the greatest prank God ever pulled is Jesus, but I don’t think sacrificing your-son-slash-self counts as mischievous.”
“Oh, he likely wrote that sermon last minute.”
“Grandma! An hour of my time is precious. I have to try to gain wisdom.”
She slowly buttered her roll, the fat still cold from the refrigerator. “You need to learn how to tune people out. Most people don’t have wisdom.”
“What about you?”
“I’m an exception, constantly offering pearls.”
We chewed the meat in silence for a few beats. I asked the wise-one: “What do you think God’s greatest prank is?”
The honey was being spread on the butter, warm from the kinetic energy. “Our God isn’t a trickster. He doesn’t pull pranks.”
“What about putting the tree of knowledge next to Adam and Eve?”
She shook her head. “He gave us free will, which meant we had to have the choice.”
“What about what happened to Job, where everything he loved got taken away?”
“That was Satan, not God.”
“What about Jonah being swallowed by a whale?”
“The most efficient means of transportation.” She smiled.
“Grandma, you are like my own personnel theologian.”
The smile turned to a hearty laugh. “Maybe you need to branch out.”
“You go to three different Bible studies for three different denominations. You know everything.”
“When you get old, you’ll be looking for things to do, too.” Her face lit up with her first bite of the roll. “You remembered all of those Old Testament stories: you might be a theologian yourself.”
“All of those stories were wrong answers. Grandma, I feel like you’re my only chance at truly answering what’s God's greatest prank. I already tried googling it.” Sometimes flattery was necessary to get to people into vulnerable, creative thought.
She chewed slowly, her eyes not focused on anything in particular. “Sometimes foolish questions don’t have right answers.” She made a pensive hum. “Your guesses were big ideas and not very nice pranks. What if it was something humble, like the anatomy of an anteater? Or the poison in a platypus’ foot.”
“Is that the greatest prank ever, though?” I thought about television prank shows from my younger days: a true prank involved a bit of lying.
“A platypus looks like a prank. I watched a PBS documentary and they have a bill as well.”
“There are probably evolutionary advantages that led to a platypus looking like that. I don’t know what they are, but for some reason a bill is helpful. Maybe they eat the same stuff ducks do.”
We chewed a bit, working through the fried steak. Grandma set down her silverware and pressed the napkin to her lips. The air was still until she did a few low throat clears. “My daughter wanted me to ask you something. She’s a very attentive mother, but as a daughter she has established you can ignore your mother’s advice.” She cleared her throat again. “Are you having a crisis of faith?”
‘Crisis of faith’ had to be the clunkiest phrase, so melodramatic that faith was so important it could cause a crisis. That feelings were a crisis. I wanted to gag at it, like I did when people said ‘making love’ instead of having sex.
But this was Grandma and I knew the risk when I decided to take her to church. Taking her to church was the right thing to do: she clearly shouldn’t be driving. But it did have the peril of my passive aggressive mother’s boobytraps. Mom got wind of my shifting feelings when I didn’t want to do Easter at their house. I tried to cover it up by getting the on-call shift for the lab, but Mom had poked and prodded and didn’t believe that I was ‘just kidding’ about the whole Easter thing.
Plus, going to church on April Fools Day was kismet.
“It seems like love and God are less and less compatible,” I finally said, trying to answer the unspoken second question of why.
“What do you mean by that?”
I didn’t understand my feelings well enough to rephrase them. “I don’t know - what I said.”
“You do know.” Grandma gave me a look. “I remember when you were four years old and declared that you were in love with the neighbor boy. You had a list a mile long of all the reasons why.”
“Maybe I can show you.” I fumbled in my head for how I got here. I then fumbled for how to hide some of my emotions around it. “What’s your relationship with God? Does he talk to you?”
“He doesn’t talk directly to me, but He shows me what I need when I read the Bible.”
“You don’t just read the Bible - you interpret it. That’s how you get God talking to you. And interpretations can be used to justify anything. Did you know slaveholders said that God was on their side? They had specific chapters memorized. And the Bible is still used today to oppress women.”
Grandma sighed and gave a small offering: “Mankind has always struggled with sin.”
“But what is worse: the normal sin or the sin of using God’s word to justify your bigotry?”
My question hung in the air. Grandma checked my eyes to make sure I'd stopped speaking, then gave her thoughts: “First, it is a slippery and unproductive slope to rank sin. You should move past that,” she pointed a fork lightly covered in mashed potatoes at me. “Second, I was right when I said you knew what you meant about love and God. But really, you meant love and religion.”
“What do you mean?”
“You will wrestle with God like Jacob in the desert. Something unimaginable will happen to you in your life and, especially with your personality, you will demand the reason why. But this - what you have been describing - you’re not mad at God, you’re mad at people.”
“They’re God’s people.”
“You know the Old Testament, God’s people could be just as bad as the Canaanites and all the other baddies. Find a new church or take a break from church. You’ll be OK.” She paused. “Well, you need to be more convincing with your mother. She may need some sort of comfort or distraction.”
“Why couldn’t you have raised her less paranoid? It would’ve solved a lot of my problems.” Like when she read through my text messages that one time.
She laughed, “I wish I knew.” Sitting up, she remembered: “I have a holiday present for you; let me go get it.” She pulled up her weight with her hands pressed against the table. Then she scooted out of the room with her walker. The carpet muffled her steps, but it sounded like she was heading towards her bedroom.
I grabbed another roll and mopped up some gravy. Was Grandma right about the nuance between God and religion? Did I still want to worship him if I didn’t agree with his loudest people? Those people would say no. They had drawn quite clear boundaries about what a ‘good Christian’ believed. If acting in love made me a bad Christian, then it was easier to just stop.
I tore the last roll in half to finish sopping up the gravy. Grandma was taking her sweet time.
But really, her point was that others didn’t get to decide my relationship with God. That made sense, it was my relationship. It was a little ominous though, that bit about wrestling. I wondered what she had wrestled with.
She rolled back into the room with a rainbow colored gift bag. On the front was a cartoon bunny wearing sunglasses. “Thank you for coming to church.”
“Of course! You didn’t have to get me anything.” I took the bag and started to gently pull the tissue paper out and throw it on the chair beside me. First piece was green, second piece was blue. When I looked over as I placed the third piece - purple - SNAKE! Right there on the carpet.
“Grandma, you need to get away! There's a snake in here!” The snake could slither faster than she could walk. I jumped on to my chair, away from its reach but able to block if it came for Grandma. “Do you have a shovel or something?!”
I looked over at her. She was laughing so hard she’d gone silent. You could only see the movement in her shoulders, going up and down towards her ears. Her right hand daintily covered her mouth, which was in an open smile, and tears ran down her cheeks.
When she finally spoke, she had the hiccups, “I never - hic - told you - hic - what holiday - hic - the gift was - hic - for!” She recovered enough to laugh audibly. “You should have heard yourself yelp!”
“I didn’t yelp: I was laser-focused on keeping you safe.”
“We may never know what’s God’s greatest prank, but this was my greatest.”