One of my favorite words is “serendipity.” That has been true since the Hootenanny days of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the Serendipity Singers’ mellow sounds were music to my ears (please forgive the poor pun). It was a couple of decades later when Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a pastor and author from St. Petersburg, Florida, shared much information about the origin and meaning of this strange word in his sermon anthology simply entitled Serendipity that I fell head over hills in love with the word and its meaning. Allow me to share some of those facts.
“Serendipity” came into the English language in 1754, as Sir Horace Walpole used it in a letter he wrote to Horace Mann. He coined the term from an old Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. Serendip was an ancient name for Ceylon. The legend was that every time the Three Princes of Serendip went adventuring, something unexpected always happened. Quite by coincidence they always found valuable things for which they had not been looking. Sir Horace called the event “serendipity,” and history is chock full of serendipities.
One about which we all know is the discovery of America. It was while Columbus was in search of a shorter router route to Asia that he stumbled onto America. Edison, looking for the electric light, discovered the phonograph. A chemist, holding over a fire a test tube with a few grains of rice in it, happened to drop the tube, and when he picked it up, the grains had exploded i.e., serendipity…puffed wheat!
Louis Pasteur, seeking a way to keep wine from turning rancid, found by chance the process of pasteurization. What a lifesaver that has been! William Roentgen, a professor in a Bavarian university, was working one day with the vacuum tube for improved photography, and while leaning wearily on the table, he saw some unusual fluorescent action that started him down a two-year trial toward discovery of the X-ray.
Edward Jenner developed a safe vaccine for smallpox when he recalled that at nineteen he had a sweetheart who told him that she could not get smallpox because she had had cowpox as a child. Do you know how penicillin was discovered? The story is well-known—how an open window and a wind blowing through it contaminated the plated cultures in Alexander Fleming’s laboratory in St. Mary’s Hospital. Through his microscope, Dr. Fleming saw that wonderful blue mold deliver a knockout blow to all kinds of little bugs.
Alexander Graham Bell, trying to improve the telegraph, discovered the telephone. Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanization by sheer accident. He had spent years trying, without success, to take the stickiness out of rubber. One night, without thinking, he left a piece of rubber, which he had smeared with sulfur, near a hot stove. The next morning it was “vulcanized.” He called it that after Vulcan, the god of fire.
I could go on listing serendipities from history, but let’s stop with a sweet one. A chemist forgot to wash his hands before lunch and wondered why his roast beef sandwich tasted sugary. He went back to his lab and out of his soiled hands got saccharin. Serendipity!
Jesus Christ knew all about serendipities. According to Him, the spiritual life is simply full of them. Being humble enough to confess our sinfulness, failure, and needs results is our becoming sons and daughters of God. Willingness to be servants, just as Jesus was a servant finally results in finding true greatness. Those who are truly meek have as an inheritance all that life has to offer. Living with true spiritual hunger and a deep thirst for righteousness will bring completeness and satisfaction. Christ’s joy and blessedness all come as serendipities to those willing to be servants and to bring joy to others. He said it Himself: “He who would become great, let him be a servant to all.” SERENDIPITY!