I love puzzles. Crosswords, brainteasers, and search-a-words to be sure, but nothing beats an old fashioned jigsaw puzzle with about gazillion pieces spilling out of the box. Right now there is a monster-sized puzzle strewn across our family’s dining room table. I have been persistently working on it for so long that I can’t remember the last evening we ate dinner at the table.
My family has learned not to monkey around with me while I am hip-deep in puzzle solving. Yes, assist me — I’ll take all that I can get — but don’t walk by and offer advice or a litany of critiques unless you are willing to give the pieces a try yourself. Time, patience, and the right kind of help: These are the requirements for solving puzzles, even puzzles of faith.
Sometimes when I lead retreats my love for puzzles spills over into the program. I divide the participants into small groups and give each group a children’s puzzle to complete. The only catch is this: While most puzzles are brand new in the box, I have tampered with one of the puzzles.
The puzzle in question will have a handful of wrong pieces mixed in, or if I am feeling sinister, I will have replaced the puzzle altogether, the pieces not matching the picture on the box at all. The group with the jacked-up puzzle will pour the pieces out, start working the edges, looking at the picture on the box, and after a few minutes, they will be completely bamboozled.
“Everybody else is almost finished,” I hear them say. “What is wrong with us? Why won’t the pieces fit together? How is that we can’t make the puzzle look like the picture?” When I reveal the dirty truth, they wail and protest, complaining that the assignment was unfair. “Ah,” I say. “Such is life and faith. Sometimes the puzzle doesn’t match the box we were given. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit together at all.”
I’ve met a legion of people who begin their walk of faith and everything goes as it “should.” They go to church, learn stuff from the Bible, volunteer, serve, give, and become “productive, committed, faithful, Christians” — whatever that is supposed to mean. But then these good soldiers go through a divorce; or they are mistreated by a religious organization, or lose their career. Maybe their child gets sick or their spouse dies.
The result is much more than the proverbial “crisis of faith” — I have one of those every Monday morning. No, it is much deeper, more life-altering and foundation-shaking than that. The answers they used to rely upon, the faith that formerly sustained them, no longer works. The fitly-paired pieces of the puzzle go scattering in the wind.
Often the only thing others can say in those moments is, “Well, pray longer! Try harder! Read this book I found. Clean up the sin in your life.” Such advice, beyond being asinine, will not work, because once one discovers that the puzzle of life no longer matches the picture they had imagined, it is impossible to pretend otherwise.
What is the answer to these miss-fitted and missing pieces puzzles of life and faith? Time, patience, and a little help. Time and patience to keep working it out and to sift through the prefabricated pictures of what life once promised. Time and patience to ask dangerous questions and to listen for unexpected responses. Time and patience to curse, pray, cry, heal, and hopefully come through on the other side whole — even if a few pieces to the puzzle are never found.
So, if a friend is stuck trying to solve their puzzle, offer the right kind of help. Don’t lend the latest book on puzzle-solving. Don’t shout advice from the other room. Don’t walk by as they stand and sweat over the mystery that is their life and lob out bombs of critique. Rather, quietly sit down with them and dig in. Patiently sort through the pieces, and help put it together, whatever “it” turns out to be.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” If you'd like to have a look, visit Ronnie's page at Amazon.