My wife, Jo, is a jigsaw puzzle aficionado. Every Christmas she receives at least one. Some contain a formidable number of pieces, 2000 in one instance. She appears to begin working puzzles from the outside; assembling pieces that have straight edges and are easier to identify. Then, having created a frame, she works toward the center, those pieces having uneven configurations, many looking almost alike, harder to tell where they fit.
In a general way, she works the puzzle from its periphery inward and towards the center. Completing a puzzle is very satisfying but it is a hit and miss affair.
Right now, I am working on a puzzle, but not a jigsaw puzzle; I’m the puzzle. I’m working this puzzle from my center to my periphery, from my heart out into my circumstances. I’m puzzling whether I have the heart and the strength to face what my future will demand of me. Will my center hold and get me through? Can I find where all the required pieces needed will fit?
Where to find what it takes, the missing piece that will offer me some closure to what remains puzzling and uncertain; how to face diminishments and death wisely? I have an inkling that this piece exists somewhere within me but I’m anxious that when I need it most, I won’t be able to find it.
I am taking a second look at my past experiences. I’m looking for that piece somewhere lodged in my own history. If I could find it I’m sure it would help guide and strengthen me as I confront my future.
My problem is that I often don’t recognize what I’m looking at and can’t see what’s there, the whole picture. Invariably it will take me at least a second look to fully comprehend what I’d seen first time around.
As a seminarian, I studied Christian and Jewish scripture. They are rich narratives of people contending with themselves, wondering about God and engaging the trials their lives are visiting on them. The parables and stories are both instructive and inspiring, but often subtle, the way what often matters most in life is always elusive to the naked eye. It takes deliberate looking, a conscious awareness and a bit of luck or providence to find.
I studied biblical narratives the first time in 1956, and like a dutiful student, I understood enough of what I studied to get passing grades. In my circumstances now, I think about revisiting those narratives looking for something I’d missed initially. As I see it now, I looking for the things that matter.
A favorite biblical story of mine is the Feeding of the Four Thousand or the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The story is more than a miracle. Miracles are dramatic exceptions, somebody else’s good fortune but not everyone’s. This is a story about finding the resources within us we didn’t know we had. It’s a message all of us can access. Or, in the narrative, Jesus speaks to a crowd of four thousand people gathered in a wilderness place to hear him. By the time Jesus he’d finished speaking, it was getting dark, the crowd was fatigued and hungry and any food available was miles away.
Jesus told his disciples, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.
His disciples answered: “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus responded.
“Seven,” they replied.
Not a lot when you consider the size of the crowd.
In short, the disciples were being asked to do something they thought beyond their abilities. They grew anxious and overwhelmed. Still, they did as Jesus wished. The miracle I see it in this story isn’t about all the food that finally showed up to feed everyone, but how Jesus addresses the disciples doubts of not being able to deliver, not having enough. He asks them only what they have at that moment: “How many loaves do you have?” He asks them to trust that they will have enough. And somehow, they made it work and fed everyone.
My ‘second look’ at Mark’s account of this story revealed something very different from what I’d originally understood. The story offers an inspiring possibility for everyone. Deep within me, lies the hidden strength needed to meet challenges I fear will overwhelm me. I think that’s a common concern.
Where my wife and I are in at this junction of our lives, I find the message credible and encouraging. Being a caregiver for long periods, I feel Jo has to carry most of the burden, in the practical realm but also emotionally. I’m always scrambling in my mind for what I might contribute in helping her; I can never think of enough. This is my problem, as it turns out. I’m not an easy receiver.
One of the amusing ironies of the epic story is how the disciples fretted so about being unable to meet the challenge of feeding the crowd; once they had at it, they even wound up with leftovers. Getting started is often where things stall.
At the end of the day, the problem is often less about abundance, it is how much. It’s more in believing that what may be required of me I already have. And then, too, little goes a long way.
I’ll hear Jo complain sometimes how after having put an entire puzzle together she finds that a piece is missing. It’s frustrating. We assume the piece must have fallen to the floor. We search under the table. It’s nowhere to be seen.
After a while, and quite accidently, one of us sees the piece lying alongside a table leg. It was there all the while, right under foot . . . just out of sight.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.