The Puzzle of Lent
Without much thought, I started a puzzle on the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s a winter snow scene of Gethsemani, the monastic community best known for having Thomas Merton as a member, and a typical winter landscape of barren trees and grey. Lots and lots of grey, with the chapel centered among the snow and ice. I put most of the border together on the first day, less one piece that made me certain the puzzle had come defective.
I found the one edge piece I was missing a week later, nestled among the 500 pieces less the ones that formed the border. Then I started with parts of the picture that seemed easily identifiable. These did not include the barren trees or what looked like 837 pieces of shades of grey and white snow.
And through the days of Lent, I’d stop by my dining room table, half filled with papers and tax documents waiting for me to finish organizing them to take to my accountant and half filled with a puzzle that exists in various stages of incompleteness. Each day of Lent I’ve put a few new pieces in place, survey the entirety of the puzzle, then go off to whatever life holds for the next few hours. On rare occasion I’m able to sit down for a significant amount of time to piece together this puzzle. No matter the length of time, slowly, since Ash Wednesday, I’ve realized putting together this puzzle has been quite the Lenten discipline.
Well-known preacher Joel Gregory says oftentimes, the best sermons find you. This Lent, I’m reminded the best Lenten disciplines find us, as well. God, spread across the dining room table in 500 pieces, nestled in my life in a brilliant Lenten discipline about life and faith. With each piece I’ve put in place, I’ve had time to ponder and reflect on all that is a life of faith, our ministries, and what lessons I always need to remember. So what has the puzzle of Lent put together for me?
1. Find the boundaries– Maybe some people put puzzles together in another way, but for me, finding those border pieces creates a defined space for all the other pieces to come together in a full picture. Our human lives mirror that in an absurdly perfect way. We must define ourselves first to hold all the stuff that is us, the fullness of God in us, together. We can’t depend on other people to define our boundaries, because others are neither responsible for nor capable of defining other’s boundaries. We can't even depend on roles developed by others to define us. We must deeply know in our selves and souls we are beloved of God. In that love, I can fill in with all sorts of things. In that love, I recognize where I begin and someone else ends, and I'm not hoping something or someone will define me. But make no mistake, forming the boundary is work, lifetime work. But worthwhile and necessary work.
2. Sometimes the big picture helps, but don’t forget to notice the small details– I have a friend who loves puzzles. She puts together 10 million piece puzzles that are entirely one color for fun. And she thinks using the picture on the box is cheating. Me? I need to see the big picture to notice where the chapel windows are and which shade of grey I’m working with. And I need to notice the small details – the different types of barren tree branches, for example. As a minister, my life involves knowing the big picture things, the rules, we might say, of pastoral care, of church leadership, of preaching, and of liturgy. But the nuance of knowing the person with whom I’m sitting in grief, the history of the church I’m helping lead, the congregation to whom I’m preaching, and the deep, rich ages of ages story of the liturgy that holds us together helps me see the important detail of the big picture. Too often I see ministers of all types (lay and ordained) frustrated because the approach they learned in seminary falls flat with a certain pastoral situation or the authority they wield in one area of life with success does damage (or at least makes people really aggravated) in another area. Human relationships with each other and with God have some commonalities, and they are not always subject to a neat and tidy checklist. Know the rules and guidelines, and be wise, courageous, and stupidly faithful enough to know when to break them. That only happens because we see the vastness and the minute parts of it all.
3. Do the easy parts first– Really, I’m not too proud to say life in faith is a marathon that can leave us weary. And I’m reminded, before I launch into the meetings that will be challenging, into the pastoral situations that will bend and break my heart, to do the easy parts first in my day or my week. Here’s where I get in my pulpit and say the easy part is almost always prayer. Not easy in that "comfortable and always fun" way, but easy in that my body knows when I light the candle and take three deep breaths, silently saying The Jesus Prayer, my soul knows exactly what to do because I've done this prayer for decades (inching into quarter century time). And, thanks to Brother Lawrence, I also know how to find the easy things as I practice the presence of God. When you see your pastor or congregation leader doing something that seems to be not their job, they might be doing something easy because sometimes (lots of times) we have to face uneasy, difficult, and arduous tasks. Folding bulletins, cleaning the silver, arranging the chairs for Sunday – they are the easy parts we can do in prayerfulness to ready ourselves for the harder tasks that await.
4. Sometimes you simply have to try the pieces until you find one that fits– God knows we all want success right out of the gate, and yet, that’s rarely the way faith works. As I’ve filled in the easier parts of the puzzle, eventually I’m left with the pieces that are all one color, and there’s one way I’m putting them together: I'm going to try a piece in differing places until it fits. Trying different options and approaches until we find one that fits is tedious. tiresome work. We often will opt for something that almost fits and force it. In a puzzle, that throws the whole puzzle off, and I suspect it does the same thing in our lives. Faith is fabulous, and faith is tedious. When it’s tedious, keep working, because eventually something drops into place.
5. Time gives us vision – I know people who would sit down and do this puzzle in a few days, even hours. I’m easing in to the fullness of Lent to put it together. And this is the valuable lesson God has pieced together for me (more of a reminder than a new lesson, but still) – time gives me vision. I may fit a few pieces together, then hit a wall and walk away because life is waiting and the microwave let me know lunch is ready. And then I come back the next day while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil and, without any effort, immediately see the way other pieces fit together. Our absence from a task is as important as our focused presence on it. God works in the fullness of time, even (and I’d even say especially) in the waiting of it, in the moments we’re away from focused attention. We go on with our daily activities, then return to a situation, a prayer, our discernment, and realize we’ve given God enough space to give us a new vision, some new insight, even the ability to hear the new thing God wants to tell us. Ministry is as much allowing things to unfold in their due season as it is working and planning. If we try to control all of faith and ministry, we’ve also controlled God right out of the equation.
I’m down to about 40 more pieces. They are all the same color, so I very well may slide in just under the line of the Saturday before Palm Sunday to get this put together before Holy Week begins. And when I do, I’ll take a photo of the whole puzzle, put together, and leave it on the table for Holy Week, giving thanks for the lessons God reminded me about life in ministry and life in faith through 500 pieces. Then I’ll disassemble it, put it back in the box (hopefully without losing any pieces).
And on Easter Monday, I’ll begin this 1000 piece puzzle I purchase when I visited the Grand Canyon. Because the lessons from God never end.