{character} · {perspective} · {punctuation}

{ punctuate : ampersand living }

Oxford Dictionaries has produced an online quiz that determines what punctuation mark you are. I don’t need to take that quiz, because I already know the answer:

I am an ampersand (&).

Welcome to the world of a grammar nerd. Please keep arms and legs inside the ride at all times, and be sure to buckle up, because things might get a little wild as we progress through a few grammar lessons in the middle of what is, for me anyway, a pretty wicked metaphor for the internal Christian experience and the spaces in our hearts and minds that we are called to inhabit in faith.

First, let me provide a little history. I discovered I was an ampersand during the 2014 Advent season. It was sometime during the first week or so of December that my therapist suggested—in response to frustrations I was expressing about difficulty finding God in the midst of my inner turmoil and crazy work schedule—that I check out the Advent reading plan from the daily devotional blog She Reads Truth. The next day I was texting with one of my friends about that session, and when I mentioned my therapist’s suggestion, she said, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them. They actually have an app.” This perked me up even further, because working 50-60 hours per week meant I didn’t have much in the way of time or useful brain power for dealing with hunting down blog posts or sifting through my email every day. My friend suggested we both download the app and that she would read the plan along with me, so that’s what we did.

Thank you, Wonder Therapist, for speaking one of the most transformative suggestions into my life in our session that December evening. Pops has used She Reads Truth to meet me, even in all the chaos of my schedule, almost every single day since then, and it has been a vehicle for beautiful, soul-encouraging community that has also been a means through which God has poured soothing balm onto my desperately hurting places. All the glory and all the credit goes to Pops alone, but I am thankful for the obedience of so many that directly influenced getting me to the point of utilizing that resource so I could show up to the places where Pops wanted me to be.

Anyway, back to the story. In my effort to learn more about this amazing new-to-me ministry, I went on their website and saw they had a merch shop. While perusing their products, I noticed a t-shirt that had a huge ampersand (&) on the front of it. When I clicked on it, I read the following in the description:

“And if not, He is still good.”

It’s become an anthem among the She Reads Truth community from the story in Daniel 3. Do you have something you are hoping God will show up and do? Do you trust that He is good and able to grant that desire? Do you trust that He is also good in the “And, if not…”? Remember Daniel chapter 3, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to fall down and worship King Nebuchadnzzar’s image of gold? He threatened to throw them into a blazing furnace.

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’” (Daniel 3:16-18, NIV)

The Daniel 3 Ampersand Tee reminds us that our God is able to deliver us from all things. And if not, He is still good.

At the time, I immediately latched on to the idea of there being something that I was hoping God would show up and do, but I also remember telling my friend that I had no idea exactly what that thing was. I think at that point in time I just wanted Him to do something, anything, it didn’t matter what; I just wanted Him to show up in some unmistakable way in the midst of the horrible place in which I found myself, show that horrible place who the boss really was, and just get me out. My beautiful friend had related to me months before this how God had revealed to her that she was a semicolon (a story for another time that maybe I can convince her to tell you herself!), and after reading that description, I texted her and in all caps announced:

YOU ARE A SEMICOLON AND I AM AN AMPERSAND!!

That same beautiful friend bought me that shirt for Christmas, and I wear it gratefully, remembering every time I put it on that even if God doesn’t do what I’m hoping for in the way I’m hoping for it, He is still good.

That statement is even more profoundly true for me now than it was then, mainly because I’ve had the mental space and clarity over the last several months to be able to dig under its surface and reflect on the deeper realities it directs me into.

Cue nerdy grammar lessons:

First, let’s consider that the ampersand stands for the word and. Remember the eight parts of speech you learned in seventh grade English class? Well, the word and is a conjunction.

{ conjunction }

    noun  |  con·junc·tion  |  \kən-ˈjəŋ(k)-shən\

    • a :  the act or an instance of conjoining : the state of being conjoined : combination <working in conjunction with state and local authorities>
    • b :  occurrence together in time or space : concurrence
    • :  in grammar, a word that joins together sentences, clauses, phrases, or words
    •  a complex sentence in logic true if and only if each of its components is true

    credit: merriam-webster dictionary online

    The conjunctions we use the most are usually andbut, and or. Typically, but and or are used to indicate choices or to highlight difference or contrast between the things being joined together in the sentence, whereas and typically serves to unite the ideas or things being connected by highlighting their similarity somehow, even if it’s not explicitly stated. For example, I might tell you that I am going to the grocery store to buy milk, bread, and coffee. Those three items are in and of themselves distinctly different from each other, but they are all available at your local grocery store, and you can go to one single store to find and purchase all three at once. Because this is true, and is an accurate word to use to unite them together as members of the same shopping list. However, I might also tell you that I go to Walmart to buy my milk and coffee, but I shop at Aldi for everything else. In this case, the word but is the appropriate conjunction, because the point of this sentence is that I go to two different stores to buy certain grocery items and therefore need two different shopping lists. That little word but keeps those shopping lists from mingling together.

    Enter the ampersand and grammar lesson number two:

    The ampersand is often lumped into lists with punctuation marks and symbols, but it is neither a punctuation mark nor a symbol. It is actually a logogram, which is a sign or character that represents an entire word or phrase (from greek logos ‘word’ + latin and greek gramma ‘drawing, writing, record’). The ampersand represents the latin word et, which means “and.” Originally, when the word et was written, it became fairly common for the ligatures of the two letters to be combined. Over time, and especially in the cursive of the Renaissance era, the union of those two letters became visually recognized as a single unit, rather than simply a word written out. This is especially true for its usage in English. Because et is not an English word, we don’t recognize it in the ampersand; we simply see a single unit that represents the word’s meaning.

    Interestingly, when punctuating two complete sentences joined by the conjunction and, or when punctuating a list of items joined by and, it is necessary to put a comma before the conjunction. However, if the ampersand is used instead of the English word and, you do not insert a comma before the ampersand, because it has the effect of converting the two connected things into a single unit rather than simply highlighting their relationship. Its the difference between a man and a woman who are dating (the conjunction and) and a married couple (ampersand).

    On a side note, it’s really very meta that the uniting of those two distinct and unrelated letter forms has created a single logogram that has the effect of creating a single unit out of things that may very well be contrary and unrelated otherwise. I just love that!

    Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we often find ourselves facing fiery trials. When the trials surface, they often command the majority of our attention because they are uncomfortable, they don’t make sense to us, and we can’t foresee how they will be resolved in the end. For myself at least, and especially over the last year and a half, my sufferings shifted the focus of my prayer life from who God is to what God will do. It is very easy (and perhaps even very common) to read the story of those three men facing their death by incineration and focus only on their statement about God’s power to deliver them from suffering, as if deliverance is the best answer God could give them. And deliverance is certainly the answer we desire the most, because who in their right mind would excitedly choose suffering over deliverance if they were given the choice? While it’s easy to focus on the hope of deliverance that those three men declared to the king, there is something more going on in the text that is super subtle and that I wasn’t able to see until recently.

    Those three men did look that king in the eye and declare their faith in God’s power to do something about their circumstances, but they also stared that king in the eye and declared that God’s doing was beside the point.

    For them, the point was who their God is, and they declared that even if He did nothing on their behalf, He was still the most worthy of their worship and they would not deny Him and worship the king’s golden images instead. Ultimately, they declared that their God is good no matter what He chooses to do, that His goodness is always the same no matter the outcome of our circumstances.

    What I didn’t understand a year and a half ago when I first read the description of that t-shirt was that the reason that phrase And if not, He is still good resonated with me was because it created a space where God’s goodness existed independent of His action within my circumstances. Whether I was experiencing heartache, suffering, trials, or difficulties of any kind or enjoying the blessings of provision and peace in my life, His goodness exists equally the same in both cases. That ampersand suddenly united the suffering and the blessings, turned them into partners holding hands and pointing together to the larger truth of God’s goodness toward me no matter what I was living through. The ampersand reality—the reality that says “these are my circumstances, be they good or bad, AND God is still good no matter what they are or what their resolution may be”—slowly and over time lifted my eyes off of myself and back on to His face. I had to stop trying to fix my circumstances and start focusing on and hiding myself in the promise that He was being good to me somehow in the midst of the circumstances.

    Please note that no matter which way God chose to resolve the circumstance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, deliverance would have still been the outcome, whether through their death and exit from this world of oppression or through the miraculous salvation God did actually grant them that day. Their declaration to the king that day demonstrated clearly that their faith was in the God who IS good, not in the manner in which His goodness toward them would manifest itself.

    In this life, we live in the tension between what is already and what is not yet realized, and that means that we have to have a different framework for how we walk through not only our blessings (seeing them as coming from a loving God for our benefit and His glory) but also our sufferings (also seeing them as coming from a loving God for our benefit and for His glory). God may manifest His goodness differently in each of those circumstances, but that does not make Him somehow less good or less glorious. He is the same good and the same glorious no matter if we are enjoying a season of contentedness and internal or external prosperity or walking through a season of trial and suffering. The difference for us is found in where our focus lies: are we focusing on who God is or on what He does and how He chooses to do it? Are we measuring God’s goodness by how pleasant our lives are, or are we measuring the pleasure in our lives by how deeply hidden in His goodness we are?

    Ampersand living is not easy, but it is definitely where we are called to live as followers of Christ. We don’t have much choice about that. Our only choice is whether we will cooperate with or resist Him as He teaches us to inhabit that space with Him. There are many things that have come out of the last year and a half of struggle, but I truly believe that one of the most important has been coming to the realization that I am meant to be an ampersand in this life—the embodiment of seemingly unrelated and often contrary experiences being united together into a single unit that points to one grand overarching truth, the only truth that matters at all:

    Life is hard & God is good no matter what.

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