Jigsaw Puzzle Theology

In this past year’s sermon series on world religions, my concluding message was on Unitarian Universalism, and I spoke about the core convictions that unite us as a people. One of them is that the sources of truth are many, and about this I said,

Even though no single religion or way captures the whole truth about sacred reality, still, each one has a piece of it. It’s just like a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces we have, the more of the whole we can experience.

I want to expand on my “jigsaw puzzle” comment. What positive things can jigsaw puzzle play suggest about our collective journey as a congregation as well as our individual spiritual journeys?

Here’s a Top Ten list for you:

10. Be sure the table you are working on is big enough.

Ever started your thousand-piece puzzle, and realized only too late that there wasn’t enough room for the whole operation?

One of the ways we’re making sure, as a congregation, that we have a big enough table is by engaging in our Long Range Planning process. I’m thinking in particular of one of the four Aspirations that the congregation approved this past May—the one that addresses the issue of resources. Are we supporting our big vision of changing lives with adequate resources of space and volunteers and financial generosity? Do we have enough staff, and are we compensating the ones we have fairly? These and more questions about resources. Are we feeding the larger vision, or are we starving it?

The table we’re working on must be big enough.

That’s number 10. Now:

9. An extra pair of eyes is immensely helpful.

Ever had that experience of being completely stuck, and then someone comes along and almost instantly, they see the missing piece?

Reminds me of a song we sing at the close of our Flower Celebration and at other times during the year:

From you I receive to you I give
Together we share and from this we live

Leads right to number 8:

8. Puzzles as a team sport: dump the pieces on the coffee table, and everyone who wanders by fiddles with a few pieces, sometimes finding a match before they wander off again. By the end of the week, it’s done.

A congregant suggested this particular idea to me as we talked about “puzzle theology” together. Puzzles as a team sport—love it!

Starting in the fall, the Volunteer Program Team will begin its work of envisioning and planning for how people can more easily find ways of bringing their gifts of leadership and service to the table. When each of us is able to serve out of our strengths, our personal experience of UUCA is deepened incredibly, and we get so much back for ourselves. Collectively, UUCA becomes an even more stronger force for peace and justice in Atlanta.

We want this!

But now let’s turn to how puzzle theology can illuminate some aspects of the individual journey….

7. Sometimes we can look at the pieces too intensely and lose perspective. At such times, our eyes need to be soft.

Does that metaphor make sense, “soft eyes” vs. ”hard eyes”?

It reminds me of a social-science article I encountered a while ago, about how to be lucky. It says, “Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected. In one experiment, people were asked to watch a moving dot in the centre of a computer screen. Without warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed at the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants noticed these large dots. The experiment was then repeated with a second group of people, who were offered a large financial reward for accurately watching the centre dot, creating more anxiety. They became focused on the centre dot and more than a third of them missed the large dots when they appeared on the screen. The harder they looked, the less they saw.”

The suggestion here is that tension and anxiety make it harder to see what’s right before a person’s eyes. What’s tricky about this is that people often regard tension and anxiety as indicators of commitment and intentionality. If we’re not feeling tense and anxious, then we must be slacking off!

But it’s not so. The more we are able to reduce anxiety and tension—to see with SOFT eyes—the more lucky we become!

6. Depending on what part of the puzzle you are working on, only certain pieces are going to get your attention, and the others will remain in the heap.

Priorities! Can’t do everything all at once—but what are the main things we can do now?

It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the world’s problems. We can so easily find ourselves asking, “How should I begin? How will I ever succeed?” And I love this answer, which comes to us from the Passover Seder liturgy that we celebrate, thanks to our wonderful L’ Chaim group: “It is not up to you to complete the task, but you can begin it where you see the need. If not now, when?”

5. So many times we try to force the wrong pieces together, hoping against hope that they WILL fit. CERTAIN that they will. Only when we acknowledge and name the reality that they don’t fit, do we make progress.

Ever been there, done that?

Writer Gail Sheehy once said that “Creativity can be described as letting go of certainties.” In order to be effective in the present moment, often we have to surface assumptions and expectations that come to us from past experiences, or different contexts.

What assumptions and expectations might you be bringing into the present moment, leading you to try to force the wrong pieces of a personal relationship together, or the pieces of a job, or of something else?

Learning that some puzzle pieces don’t fit together (even though we REALLY want this) is positive progress too….

And now the remaining four items of the Top Ten list—each one emphasizing a helpful attitude to bring to the journey:

4. The jigsaw puzzle process is fast, other times it’s slow.

Hanging on the office wall of a therapist friend of mine is a poster with these words on it: “What is, is. What ain’t, ain’t. The only way through it is through it. And it takes as long as it takes.”

My personal prayer around this is, “Lord, help!”

3. Doesn’t matter how many times you’ve searched for a certain piece and not found it. Keep looking—it’s there.

The attitude here is abundance and faith. Everything essential that we need is already, in some sense, within reach. A guy by the name of Jesus once put it like this: “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.”

What would our lives be like if this was our everyday, every moment attitude?

2. Puzzles are about playfulness.

The truth here is that we can be serious without being solemn. It means allowing ourselves to get carried away by the work, and before you know it, the time has flown.

Playfulness reduces stress, and brightens the atmosphere. It engages people to do things that make them more connected with other people. It makes people happy in a deep sense.

Playfulness is serious business!

Finally, number 1:

1. The completed puzzle won’t fit into the box the pieces came in. To put it away, you’ve got to break it up.

Doesn’t this speak to the huge irony of putting all that time and effort into putting the puzzle together, only in the end to break it apart?

Fact is, before you know it, this journey you’re on (or whatever phase of it you happen to be in right now) will be over…. So enjoy—learn as much as you can. Make new friends and deepen the ones you already have. Be generous. Make this journey count, because, as much as you will accomplish, in the end, the old saying remains true: It’s ultimately about the journey, not the destination.

May the way before you be wonderful, and free.


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