My dad is the king of unusual and clever t-shirts. I’m not exactly sure when and how it all began, but as he and my mom began to travel more extensively around the world, a t-shirt was often purchased at nearly each destination they visited. Over the years, my dad’s wardrobe has boasted shirts from Norway, Greece, Panama, Hong Kong, and Egypt just to name a few. But as my parents’ travels have slowed down, the creativity of my dad’s t-shirts have not. My sister has taken t-shirt gift giving to a new level, often scouring the internet for just the right “dad shirt” for his birthday or Father’s Day. One of my all-time favorite shirts to this day was one she purchased for him a few years ago. (It was arguably my son Joe’s favorite as well, as it never failed to elicit a laugh from him.) There’s nothing particularly fancy about the shirt – it’s a plain white tee with simplistic black lettering that reads,
“Let’s eat grandpa.”
“Let’s eat, grandpa.”
Punctuation saves lives.
Now, the shirt’s message is funny in and of itself, but even moreso if you know my dad’s affinity for precise grammar – a trait I have no doubt inherited myself.
It’s interesting how one little minute stroke of the pen, such as the comma, can completely change the meaning of a sentence, isn’t it? And ironically, I have been discovering the difference a comma (or rather, the lack of a comma) has had upon my relationship with God.
I’ll confess that I have been struggling lately with the upcoming first anniversary of my son’s death. And perhaps not for the reasons that would seem obvious. You see, God has been and is doing an amazing new thing in a particular area of my life that I have been intentionally praying about. While this is new and exciting and wonderful, my heart feels overwhelmingly guilty for having all these emotions when I think I should be feeling sadness and loss and pain. These conflicting feelings became so burdensome to me lately that I brought up the issue to my counselor. I said, “I feel like I should be more overwhelmed with sorrow at this particular point in my grief journey. But yet, I can’t stop feeling gratitude and joy over what God is doing in my life. How do I reconcile having these conflicting emotions?”
After acknowledging my feelings about both issues, he said two very generic words that put everything into a new perspective. Those two words brought tears to my eyes and a deep understanding of the grace of God to my soul. He simply smiled and said,
I’ve thought a lot about those two words and how I’ve frequently them over the years in my conversations with God. They’ve sounded something like this:
“But God, I didn’t cause this!”
“But God, I feel so broken!”
“But God, I’m lonely!”
“But God, I’m tired of waiting!”
“But God, I didn’t choose this!”
“But God, I can’t lose my boy. I’ve already lost so much!”
“But God, I won’t survive this!”
The list could go on and on. And every time I used a “But God” phrase, that little comma would sneak right in and put the focus on myself and my own personal sense of injustice in my life. It was almost as if I was saying, “Listen, God. You don’t seem to understand my plight and can’t possibly know what I’m walking through. Let me lay it out for you.” As if God didn’t see or know my heart better than I did. So when my counselor said those two words, “But God”, it took me a second to realize there was no comma after it. And when there was no comma, I began to figure out that the phrase “But God” had nothing to with me at all. Instead, it had everything to do with God’s character and His action toward me.
I decided to scour Scriptures that used the “But God…” phrase and to my amazement, found more than 30 examples of those two words side by side that clearly describe who God is and what He’s done. Here are some of my favorites:
“…but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” ~Genesis 50:20
“…but God has surely listened and heard my prayer.” ~Psalm 66:19
“…but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” ~Psalm 73:26
“But God made the earth by his power…” ~Jeremiah 10:12
“But God raised him from the dead…” ~ Acts 2:24
“But God was with him…” ~ Acts 7:9
“But God has helped me to this very day…” ~ Acts 26:22
“But God demonstrates His own love for us in this…” ~ Romans 5:8
“But God had mercy on him…to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.” ~ Philippians 2:27
“But (that) God loved us and sent His son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. ” ~ 1 John 4:10
Did you notice that none of those passages contained a single comma after the name of God? Because the comma’s purpose is to separate. And when we continually interject the comma, we begin to separate ourselves from what God is doing in and lose trust in His plan for our lives. But when we delete the comma, the focus is no longer on ourselves. In grammatical terms, God is the subject and the rest of the sentence becomes the predicate – the action the subject did. God becomes the focus and who He is and what He has done is what remains. He makes. He listens. He helps. He demonstrates. He has mercy. He loves. He sent. He raises.
Perhaps the most meaningful passage for me today, as I reflect upon remember the day my son went home to heaven, is this:
BUT because of his great love for us, GOD, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions— it is by grace you have been saved. ~ Ephesians 2:4-5
It is that love, that mercy, and that grace that even a year later, I cling to and am overwhelmingly grateful for. It is why there can be joy in the midst of sorrow. Peace in the midst of sadness. Hope in the midst of despair. And happiness in new beginnings, even while acknowledging the pain of the past.
Happy heavenly birthday, my sweet boy. I love you forever.
Joseph Alan Brinkman
April 23, 2002- September 5, 2016