The story is told that years ago when comedienne Gracie Allen was close to dying, her husband, George Burns, was in such grief and sorrow that he could barely speak or function. They had been together since their 20s and had spent nearly their entire adult lives together. Burns told her that not only did he not want her to die, but that he also did not want to stay here without her. It was the end of everything he had loved and trusted in life.
Gracie was a devout Catholic but George was a doubting Jew. He had lost his faith in his teens when his father, who was a cantor at the synagogue, died in the flu epidemic of 1903. But just before she died, after a long illness culminating in a heart attack, Gracie, the believer, wrote a note of comfort to her theologically suspicious husband. In it she said simply, "George, never put a period where God has put a comma." He would later share those profound little words with numerous friends throughout the rest of his life. Because of that they have traveled around the world and my own church denomination has even recently adopted them as its national vision.
Notice that she didn't say, "don't worry, George, God will not let me die." She didn't say, "God will do a magic trick and make all of this right again." That would have been a lie. What she did say, I think, was that we should not close the book, throw in the towel, and give up living when something awful happens, even if that something is the loss of a spouse or friend or even the pending loss of our own lives. When we are living in the midst of our grief, we tend to believe that life itself is broken and can never be mended. We tend to put a period at the end of those events and say that sorrow and loss are the conclusion of living itself. But they aren't. God sees those events as commas, not periods. Hard times, tough times, but not end times.
I think of her simple words now and then when I see someone who has gone through incredible suffering and loss, yet manages to go forward in life and experience some of the real possibilities for joy that are in life. I think to myself that that person has really "got it."
When I was growing up in Oklahoma City, there was an "old" woman in my church (probably in her 50s) who was involved in the Civil Rights campaign. She worked to integrate our local church, she lobbied our congressional delegation for the Civil Rights Act, and she participated in "sit-ins" and marched in demonstrations. She did more than any other white person who I ever knew to make Oklahoma City a more equal and more humane place.
But at the same time she was someone who had gone through some incredible personal pain. She had lost her husband to lung cancer and two sons to the war in Vietnam. And she also spent a great deal of her time caring for a daughter who had moved home at age 30 with some kind of congenital disease that was slowly draining her life away.
A few years ago I was back home again and someone asked me to participate in the annual "CROP Walk," which is a walk to raise money to alleviate world hunger sponsored by Church World Service.
I said sure.
We seldom have those up in New England, so I was glad to join in. Sure enough, on that bright sunny Saturday afternoon I happened to see my old friend walking along regally in the crowd. She was now looking almost ancient and she had a cane, but I still recognized her. I joined her for a while as she limped and occasionally winced, but still beamed with pride that she was able to be out there at all. It was so good to see her again and I told her so, but I knew that this had to be painful.
"Why are you even out here? What keeps you coming out for things like this?" I asked her.
I'll never forget what she said.
She first laughed, a big face-crinkling laugh. "I don't really know," she said. "But maybe when you've been through hell yourself you learn to identify and sympathize with the hell of someone else."
I don't know if George Burns ever participated in a protest march after the pain he endured from the slow death of his beloved wife. Or if he joined in a crusade to end war and racism and poverty, though I would like to think he did. What I do know is that after Gracie had died he often would tell his friends that her words, that God never gives us periods, only commas, was the one true thing that allowed him to keep his faith - or perhaps rejuvenate his faith - for all of the years after she left.
God doesn't cause the sufferings that we experience in our lives. Just being alive creates most of those. But God does give us the gift of presence and support, of companionship and care. God gives us the ability to know that bumps on the road are not walls, and that on the other side of the bumps are the possibilities of years of love, beauty and peace.