Mind the Ampersand

Jun 6 / Jeff Savage
am·per·sand | \ ˈam-pər-ˌsand \
: a character typically & standing for the word and

Take hope, and give hope, and take hope again. No, it’s not okay . . . and it’s not the end.” So ended the sermon on a recent Sunday. It was a message of hope, delivered with compassion and insight in the midst of a world that seems increasingly out of control.

I received the pastor’s word with gratitude, finding particular encouragement in the word “and.” That’s right, “and.” Though easily passed over as a small and unassuming function word, “and” has become for me a significant source of hope in my unfolding life with God in this world. What’s more, I find “and” to be an inviting and expansive gift in the experience and practice of spiritual direction.

My journey toward “and” began in earnest twenty years ago when, in the wake of grievous loss, I was graced by great love. Try as I did, the disparate parts simply would not fit together in any tidy, “God has a wonderful plan for your life” fashion. Perhaps you’ve been there: this is terrible, but this is beautiful; this is lamentable, yet this is redemptive.

For a time, I wrestled with how to “make sense” of such a theological/spiritual non sequitur. Gradually, I began to question if sense-making was the essential work to which I was being called. Perhaps the Spirit was extending an entirely different invitation.

In time, I found my way forward in minding the ampersand, that quirky little symbol that stands in for “and.” Literally meaning “and per se and,” (and in itself and), in time it mysteriously morphed into “ampersand.” And, here is my beautiful discovery: the ampersand is infinitely more hopeful and full of grace than the more divisive but, yet, and either-or. Yes, speaks ampersand, this is terrible . . . and this other thing is beautiful.

Sorrow & joy, loss & love, lament & hope, death & resurrection, blessed & broken. . . In each moment & every life, both are real, & each is true; a mystery both deep and wide.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). When we mind the ampersand, I find we begin to embrace our lives as human beings created in the image of God with grace and generosity. As we lean into “and,” the Spirit invites us beyond efforts to tidy up and tie bows, and our stories become ever more inviting and expansive.

When I consider the expansive invitation of the ampersand, I am drawn to a statement spoken by Jesus to his closest followers on the night of his betrayal. It was late. It had been a full and eventful day. When instructed to stay awake and pray, Peter, James, and John dropped into sleep. Speaking into this situation, Jesus’ word (as commonly rendered) is, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (The Gospel according to Matthew, 26:42). I have heard this word for a good portion of my life and have, until recently, perceived it as a disappointed sigh spoken by a longsuffering Jesus. From there, it was easy to internalize the message as a sad commentary on my human condition: “Your spirit wants to do what is right. But your body is weak” (International Children’s Bible).

Enter ampersand. In an experience of three-way listening, there stirred in me a dusty memory. Isn’t it true that the Greek word here rendered “but” is also often translated “and?” Indeed, it is. And often.

As I sat with this new possibility - The spirit is willing and the flesh is weak – there grew in me an enlivening confidence in the nature and character of the triune God. An echo began to sound in the words of Jesus. It was the voice of the psalmist declaring that our Creator views us with deep compassion, “for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). He knows . . . He remembers . . . Jesus, the creative and compassionate Word-made-flesh, speaks gently to his friends, remembering how they are made!

The spirit is willing and the flesh is weak
. Both are real and each is true! Ampersand. A word of compassion and grace – for Peter, James, John, and us; an invitation to embrace our whole lives as human beings created in the image of God with grace and generosity.

Beloved companions, we are all a mysterious mix of spirit & flesh, always living out our stories in the context of love & loss. May we encourage each other to mind the ampersand. And, by the indwelling of the Spirit, may it become for us a significant source of hope in our unfolding life with God.

Now, please receive a prayer arising from the Iona Community. Composed by John Bell, I find it a beautiful expression of ampersand spirituality.

Take, O take me as I am;
 Summon out what I shall be;
 Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.
Listen to the prayer sung over you here.

With you in the Mystery both deep and wide,
Jeff Savage
Jeff Savage is a spiritual director, retreat guide, and couples facilitator shaped by over 30 years of pastoral ministry and contemplative practice. He also serves as a spiritual director and faculty advisor for Portland Seminary. After the brutal wildfires, Jeff and his wife, Janet, are rebuilding their vision for retreat space for reflection, rest, and renewal at their home above the McKenzie River at Vida, Oregon. In each expression of his calling, Jeff finds abundant joy in holding space for folks to pay attention to their life in God. The values that center him in his vocation include hopeful trust, hospitality, attentiveness, and integrity. Jeff finds balance in tending the garden, photography, wandering, and being Pop Pop to four grandchildren (photos supplied on request). https://www.sacredspacevida.com