The Puzzle

I came across this essay in my files that I wrote on a snowy February day in West Virginia in 2003, and thought it was a good week to share it.

I’ve always liked jigsaw puzzles, especially on snowed-in days like this one. I enjoy the relaxing and invigorating mental exercise they provide. It is prudent to remember, before I take one out of the closet, that once I have started working one, I am driven to finish it.

Even though I may be busy with other chores, every time I pass through the room where it lays, I will have to stop and find a piece or two. I must be willing to make a commitment of time, concentration, and space on the table for its completion.

Jigsaw puzzles remind me of the often puzzling experience of being a part of the body of Christ, and of serving and worshipping in a local church. We come together, week after week, each bringing our own small and unique piece of the picture.

We are drawn back, again and again, by some strange determination and fragile hope that if we keep showing up, keep working hard, keep studying at it, concentrating…if we want it badly enough, the puzzle will one day soon start to look like something that makes sense. Even when frustrated, discouraged and weary, disappointed with our seeming lack of progress, we are irresistibly drawn back to the table. We want to see the thing finished.

Our worship to God seems most of the time piecemeal and scattered. The individual pieces are painted in interesting colors and shapes, but in themselves they have no definition, no recognizable pattern. The random array of pieces seem to us to have no discernable order or beauty when compared with the vision of God we seek.

“Hear O ye people, the LORD is one”—complete in Himself, all One majestic Whole, clothed in a seamless garment of holiness, exalted, perfect; we can only stand in this Presence with speechless awe.

Yet here we come, trying this piece here and that piece there. Prayer, intercession, preaching, teaching, serving, singing, dancing, bowing, lifting hands, tears, laughter, sacrifice, holy romance, surrender, sanctification, and on and on in our religious endeavors.  

Once in a while we find a piece that fits and we shout, “Hallelujah!” (like a miner shouting “Eureka!”, striking gold after months of panning for it). We testify that for a moment, we have located God. We’ve come into contact, the pieces fit. God has heard and answered and has given us a moment of rest in him.

But the divine humor in this is that even when we experience fitting into the picture, we still can’t see the picture. We are not high enough above it. And even if we were, we might be surprised to find that the picture is not coherent, because it is not yet finished. Only God has the power to envision it done. He holds the box top.

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God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to finish the puzzle he’s designed. He wants us to keep coming back, making our feeble efforts toward a vision of him that our limited minds can comprehend. He enjoys our heartfelt songs, our fellowship, our acts of love and compassion. He is moved by them, perhaps in much the same way that we human parents are moved when watching our children perform in a pageant or school play. It is the very fact that the effort is so flawed, yet so sincere, that makes it so charming and endearing.

This puzzle we are working on is not an easy one. It is not the one we would have chosen from the shelf. The pieces are far too many and too small, the patterns far too complex, the level of difficulty deliberately beyond our aptitude on our own. There is mystery. We need help from the manufacturer.

We whine sometimes, “Can’t you at least show us how it will turn out?”

The only answer we receive is to look to the word pictures of one man who lived long ago, in a different time and culture. The only person who has ever been in God’s picture and above the picture at the same time. The biblical portrait of a perfect man keeps drawing us back with his loving encouragement. “Abide in me,” he says, “and I will abide in you. You will bear fruit, I promise. Our joy will be full!”

This piecing-together process of God’s great puzzle seems to us so painstaking and long, requiring every bit of strength we can bring to it. We have to keep paying attention.

And once the picture is complete, what is to become of it?

On this snowy day, once my scene of some houses on a hill with horses and cows feeding on the grass and birds and clouds floating by—is complete, what then?  I may admire it for a little while, feel some satisfaction, but before long it needs to be cleared away to make room for other things (like breakfast).

God, once his workmanship is complete, without spot, without blemish, without wrinkle—plans to sweep it up in himself! No longer itty-bitty pieces, but all of us made one with the perfect completeness of Almighty God.

In the end, there IS satisfaction for all. For us—blessed relief. For the Holy Spirit (who has been whispering clues as we worked away), the honor which is due him. For Jesus Christ, the privilege of putting in the glorious final piece, and for Father God, the joy of declaring, “Well done!”

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