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 our family’s favorite books when the kids were young was the 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 every 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 unimaginative adults, however, were doubters from the start, because this tree didn’t fit into their perception of reality, or lack thereof. 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 in their mind. During all this hubbub, the children were encircling the tree, enraptured with the silver bark, the sun-drenched leaves, the glossy brown cookies.

While the village people with stunted imaginations 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 of any Christian or Christian institution, is that it evolve into a village of Owlgate, where there is a failure of the imagination, where the Person of Jesus and the mystery of grace is neatly packaged, wrapped in its likely box, and placed on a dusty shelf where it won’t surprise anyone.

While the unimaginative adults are arguing over likely formulas for spiritual success, the children are gazing at an unlikely but true Jesus, surprised and thrilled, tasting of His goodness by allowing His mercies, new every morning, to enter their lives and create newness for them. I’ll wager that the amount of enjoyment and excitement which we experience in the Faith, in our relationship with the Lord, is dependent upon how open we are to surprises, to His newness, how secure we are with a sense of anticipation, and how resistant we are to the need to have everything pegged, in order, and thoroughly expected.

Maybe one of the chief attributes of being child-like is having a faithful imagination, being open to aspects of the truth that come from unlikely sources, open to being surprised 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 the likely suspects, for fool-proof recipes for spiritual victory? Wouldn’t life with God be more adventuresome, more stimulating, if we were open to surprise? When dealing with fathomless mysteries, which the Personhood of the Trinity and the deep truths of Scripture certainly are, I recommend opening a window in our minds, our imaginations, letting in some fresh air, as long as one remains consistent with orthodox Christian faith. Sometimes Christians are smug in the Faith, and close the spirit’s window before unlikely, holy surprise can enlighten and freshen up the room.

As in the Village of Owlgage, it seems the child-like are most open to holy surprises. While some believers focus on the ten steps to happiness, the child-like open up their imaginations, gazing at an unlikely Jesus, a surprising truth, thrilled to be tasting of His goodness by allowing Him to create newness and wonder. I agree with G.K. Chesterton when he said that “surprise is mankind’s chief pleasure.”

My hope is that the following whimsical dictionary will provide fresh insight from unlikely sources, some unexpected truths from surprising people, places, ideas, events. Open your window and breathe some fresh air. God wants to capture our imaginations, for He is so full of holy surprises.