Introduction to the Whimsical Dictionary

Introduction to the Whimsical Dictionary

“If you listen carefully you can hear the truth from the unlikeliest sources, especially from the unlikeliest sources, from an enemy, from a stranger, from children, from nuts, from overheard conversations, from stupid preachers… Are not great discoveries also made at the unlikeliest moments?” (Walker Percy, The Second Coming, p.181)

One of my family’s favorite books when the kids were young was a story entitled, The Cookie Tree, by Jay Williams. It starts with these words: “The Village of Owlgate was quiet and tidy, and nothing surprising ever happened there. Everything had a place, and everything was in its place. Everybody knew why things happened and everything happened just as it was supposed to. Nothing surprising ever happened, because nothing surprising was allowed to happen. ‘That way,’ said the people of Owlgate with satisfaction, ‘you always know where you are.'”

The story continues with the magical appearance of a tree laden with chocolate cookies, smack dab in the middle of the village square. The children were the first to notice it, and the first to appreciate it for what it was: a present from a friendly magician. The adults, however, with stunted imaginations, were doubters from the start, because this tree didn’t fit into their perception of reality. Some laughed in derision, some fretted over its edibility, some shook with fear, believing it to be a dark warning of impending disaster. The mayor claimed the tree wasn’t really there, because no mention of it was made in the Town Records. It was new, it was unlikely, it was out of their control, and so they didn’t allow it to exist. During all this hubbub, the children were encircling the tree, enraptured with the silver bark, the sun-drenched leaves, and the glossy brown cookies.

While the village people were saying things like, “It’s witchcraft, cut it down,” and “I don’t believe in it, therefore I will not discuss it,” and argument followed argument, the children were shaking the tree, rattling the cookies down to the cobblestones, and joyously stuffing the cookies into their appreciative little mouths. And before the mayor could fulfill his plan of felling the tree before it hurt anyone, the tree quietly folded up smaller and smaller until it disappeared. The closing line is, “Somewhere, a magician smiled with satisfaction.”

Why do I go to this length to describe a children’s story? Because one of the greatest dangers facing any Christian or Christian institution is that it evolve into a village of Owlgate, where the unpredictable Person of Jesus and the surprising mystery of grace is somehow neatly packaged, wrapped in a plain box, and placed on a dusty shelf where it won’t throw anyone off balance. While the unimaginative adults are arguing over likely formulas for spiritual success, the children are gazing at the wonderful gift of Jesus, surprised and thrilled, tasting of His goodness. While some are leaving nothing to divine chance, to sacred whimsy, others are open to new truths, to the Lord whose mercies are new every morning.

Maybe one of the chief qualities of being child-like is being open to aspects of the truth that come from unlikely sources, open to surprises in the Faith. Maybe we miss out on important ingredients in discipleship when we close ourselves off from unlikely influences that put “ants in the pants of faith,” as Frederick Buechner once said. Do we spend too much time searching for likely suspects, for fool-proof recipes for a victorious life? Are we sometimes too intentional? Is our God becoming predictable in our faith? Wouldn’t a life with an amazing God be more adventuresome, more stimulating, if we were open to surprise, accepting the fact that this God was outside of our control? When dealing with fathomless mysteries like the Trinity and the deep truths of Scripture, it seems wise to open a window in your imagination and let in some fresh air, as long as one remains consistent with the orthodox Faith. I agree with G. K. Chesterton, who went from saying, “He who has the Faith has the fun!” to “Surprise is the chief pleasure of mankind.” We Christians are too often smug in the faith, missing out on the adventure, and we shut down the Spirit’s whimsy before unlikely, holy surprise can put a fresh breeze into the room.

Let us make sure we don’t individually or collectively become like the Village of Owlgate, where “Nothing surprising ever happened because nothing surprising was allowed to happen.” Instead let us remain open to allowing God’s unexpected newness and wonder to enter our biblical imagination. My hope is that the following dictionary will provide fresh insight from unlikely sources, unexpected truths from surprising people, places, ideas, events. Open up your window and breathe some fresh air. God is a Person who is so full of surprises that He makes all things new.

One Reply to “Introduction to the Whimsical Dictionary”

  1. Steve, this is great. “God is a Person Who is so full of surprises that He makes all things new.”
    I, for one, am ready for “God’s unexpected newness.”

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