More Grist for the Mill

The Title Says it All...

One Lousy Comma

PLEASE ALLOW ME TO START WITH A CONFESSION this morning: It is one of the supreme marks of irony that I have wound up making a living as a speaker and writer, given that my high school and undergrad transcripts do not provide evidence of a highly motivated English student.

There were, however, two rules that stuck with me almost to the point of militancy – not ending a sentence with a preposition and prodigious & liberal use of the Oxford comma.

Really, when you think about it, why wouldn’t anyone, especially one who take the time to write on a regular basis, take advantage of the Oxford comma, particularly when it, on a consistent basis, provides the reader, whether they know it or not, the chance to, if they choose, have time to consider each point, on their own, within the flow of the sentence.

Some of my friends pick on me from time to time about my, in their view, excessive use of this particular instrument of the English language. “What’s the big deal?” Well, there are times when a casual approach to the Oxford comma could lead to severe and expensive ramifications.

There is currently in the news a $10,000,000 lawsuit in Maine that hinges on the Oxford comma, or lack thereof. Specifically, Maine’s overtime law does not apply to the “‘canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of’ foods.” Due to the lack of the Oxford comma after ‘shipment,’ dairy drivers have won a favorable ruling.

In his seminal work, “The Cost of Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives one of the all-time money quotes concerning Christian discipleship: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

This discussion concerning the Oxford comma is very instructive for our Christian journey in that we can often be lulled into a false sense that some things essential to our faith really aren’t that big of a deal – that we can take or leave as we choose. Bonhoeffer’s reflections on cheap grace is a great way to be reminded that when it comes to matters of divine grace, we leave out what we consider inconsequential at great risk to ourselves and others.

Especially in this season of Lent, let us make sure that we are paying attention to the particulars of the Christian faith, taking nothing for granted, for, as the folks in Maine discovered, the overlooked and/or omitted can have massive consequences not only for yourself, but other as well.

Grace and Peace, Lamar

About Lamar Oliver

I am a Christian, husband, father, and United Methodist pastor who is a graduate of Louisiana Tech University (Accounting) and Asbury Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity) in my 17th year of full-time ministry.

One Reply

  1. Steven Porter

    Hey, Lamar, I note that in your ‘About Lamar Oliver’ segment, you could add an extra comma, or three. I enjoyed the read. I remember very little about taking German in college; but, I do remember that we were encouraged to liberally use commas when we wrote sentences, moreso than I was used to do in English. This practice led me to use commas much more when I did write in English.