The Dash and the Comma

Have you noticed that for each person you know, each of them has a favorite topic for discussion? One wants to talk about politics. Another is deeply moved by personal finance. Some need to talk about family relationships. Other things do come up during the discussion, but it always feels like we’re circling around what it is they really care about.



For my friend “Clare” the topic is religion. Fortunately, I love talking religion, especially with her. I am a novice. She’s a pro. There is so much for me to learn, especially when I’m trying to explain how I feel. At our last meeting, for her father’s funeral, we talked about “the dash.” The summary of a person’s life chiseled into a tombstone. You’ve seen it.


That’s more than eighty years reduced to a single mark in a stone. It’s up to us to fill in that tiny space with our understanding of a lifetime.

As the talk moved on I related that every time I recite the Creed during a church service, I am reminded of “the dash.” Except that it’s a comma. An entire life reduced to a comma. A life that changed my life, and the life of the world. Where’s that comma, you ask?

“… born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” (Apostles’ Creed)

Did you catch the comma? That little mark? Thirty three years represented by a simple comma.  The comma wasn’t even invented until hundreds of years after the person in question lived his life between birth and death. Yet a comma represents everything but the first day and the last days of that life.

How is it that we can attempt to tell the story of a life that has had such influence on us, condensing all of his words and deeds into something so insignificant as a comma? Just look at this comma:


I can’t see your computer screen from here, but that comma is only a half-dozen pixels on my screen. Sometimes when Judy and I are editing a blog post we don’t even see the comma. Worse yet, we might not even realize that an important one is missing. Yet we have reduced a whole career of teaching and preaching to the flick of a pen on paper, to a few pixels on a computer screen, one hammer stroke on a tombstone.

There are several versions of the Christian Creed, indeed Jaroslav Pelikan collected hundreds in his pivotal work “Credo.” It seems that every one of them reduces the teaching of Christ to a comma. Everything I care about, the part I want to talk about, gone. A pinpoint of darkness in a sea of light.

That comma is where the discussion starts for me. I don’t much care about the stuff in the creed before or after the comma. Those points are there to convince others that what’s behind the comma is important. I’m bought into the story that it’s important, but the message is in the comma. Let’s talk about that. Are we supposed to love one another, or are we supposed to follow the rules as told by the church hierarchy? Do we follow the traditions handed down over the centuries, or should we listen to the teachings of a rebel? Which of those lessons are important? When they conflict (and they do!) how do we resolve the conflict? Should we fall back on the sclerotic wisdom of old men? Or should we attempt to understand what a thirty year old upstart was trying to tell those old men?

I’m drawn back to the funeral service now. For a time that morning the hundreds of people in the room are focused. Focused in song, word and actions. Focused on a dash, which represents the life of a dear friend, husband and father. Many there are reminded of another life, represented by the comma in the Creed.

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to dash through life. Perhaps the comma needs a little more focus?

Grandpa Guy Havelick