One of the quieter pleasures of life is the working of jigsaw puzzles. I don't know how many of you like to do that, but for those of you who do, you know how it can be that sometimes you find one piece that seems to allow all the others to fall into place - or at least a good chunk of them. You'll be struggling to make some sense out of the shapes or colors, and then that one piece makes the pattern come clear, and one after another piece fits right in, just where you thought they would, but until that one piece got in, you couldn't quite do it.
Sometimes life seems like that kind of jigsaw puzzle with one major difference. The piece seems to be missing. You have the feeling that if you could just find it, the pattern would be made clear, but without it life is just a jumble of disconnected events, places, people, relationships, days and years. If you could just find the piece, you could finally recognize the picture, the meaning, the thrust of what life is all about. If I could just discover who really built Stonehenge and how they got the knowledge to do it....
I suspect that the search for the missing puzzle piece is a big part of the religious quest. We call it the search for truth or meaning or connectedness or, of late, spirituality. The search is a good thing. While you're doing it, you frequently find other pieces of the puzzle that fit, although they don't have that sort of transcendent effectiveness that gets the rest of the puzzle together. The problem arises, it seems to me, when you think you've found it. I'm sure most of you have seen that bumper sticker that says, "I've found it!" Someone told me the other day of one that I think is much more profound. It says, "I've lost it!" Amen, brothers and sisters! If you think you've found it, you'd better look again. Sometimes the fit is so close you have to pick a couple of pieces up and look through the back to see the light shining through the spot where the fit isn't right, but I'm sorry to say that it's probably never going to be quite right if you think you've found the one piece that puts it all together. Life just isn't simple enough to be put together with the finding of one structure of meaning.
We keep trying though. There seems to be a deep human need for a pattern to things, an explanation for the great mystery of our lives and our finiteness. That is what is said to be the religious quest: to find a solution for the twin mystery that we live and that we are going to die. Even those who argue that we are merely self-conscious animals with the same purpose as other animals: survival of the individual and of the species, have found a pattern. Everything we experience can be put into that one shape of existence.
Many years ago I was talking to a chemist by profession, a scientist by calling, who said that you can set up a perfectly consistent model which argues that the motivating power of everything in the universe is tiny invisible men. He convinced me! Not of that, but of what he intended to convince me, that you can set up a pattern with the complete interior consistency which makes it believable, that has absolutely no basis in fact. Sometimes in our eagerness to find a pattern, to find meaning for our lives, we disregard that, and seize on what appears to be a consistent ex-planation, and its consistency seems to be sufficient to explain it. The missing puzzle piece, at last!
For years human beings had a very useful and comprehensive explanation for the way life was. It was so useful that many still believe it even though you can clearly see the light through the mismatched pieces. They believed in a three-tiered universe - heaven above, hell below, us in the middle - ruled by a heavenly, if somewhat arbitrary, king or pantheon of sovereigns. That king made life the way it was, and you just fit into those heavenly plans, and were an important part of them. You might like it or not, but that was the pattern, and it explained and gave mean-ing to the bludgeonings of chance and luck. Unluckily, however, scientific discoveries of the nature of the universe reduced human significance so thoroughly that that model no longer was able to assign meaning to life for most of us. Not only were heaven and hell removed from the physical plane, it became hard to believe in our spiritual necessity to a God who would be ruling an infinity of galaxies. Why are we born and why do we die, but most especially, given that we will die and be forgotten, what is the point of our living at all? That puzzle piece that's going to make all the others fit is still missing.
We look for it in all kinds of places. Sometimes we try to force it in, even carve one into a differ-ent shape. That's happened to that first one. Theologians have tried to keep the general shape while changing or abstracting the details. Others have kept looking for other ideas, other beliefs, other patterns.
One of the most popular has been the idea I mentioned before, of a kind of naturalistic explanation. There is no more need for our lives to mean anything than the life of a mayfly, and in the light of eternity we are nearly as transient. We are born, we live our short, unnecessary lives, and we die. There is no more meaning or pattern than that. Our thoughts, our emotions, our quests, our faiths are merely survival characteristics, and so far very successful ones. Unless we kill ourselves off with our tendencies toward violence, greed, pollution and over-reproduction, there is nothing except the destruction of the earth billions of years hence that can destroy us. We've out-evolved our natural enemies, and at least science fictionists believe that we can even leave the earth before it falls into the sun and populate other planets in the galaxies. If that is true, only the destruction of the universe itself can get rid of us. That's pretty successful evolution. Almost as good as cockroaches. However, it doesn't explain everything we experience. It doesn't explain our sense of transcendence, our appreciation of beauty, or a moral sense which goes beyond survival not only of the individual but even of the human race. It is not the missing piece either.
Those are two of the most enduring descriptions of meaning, but when they are found not quite satisfactory, our human need searches for others, and somehow we always seem to think that each piece we find is the only one that can ever makes the pattern clear. Perhaps our vision is limited to one thing at a time. The problem with that is that we become enchanted with one piece, insist that it fits, look at it completely uncritically, and then when it doesn't actually answer all the questions of our lives we become equally disenchanted and completely discard it, even though it may have its place in the puzzle too.
We pick them up, one after another: Social justice, self-improvement, 12-step programs, spirituality, new-age Gnosticism or environmentalism become the full focus of our attention for awhile, and then sooner or later we let them drop. They haven't quite answered everything we need to know about life, and no matter how valuable they are in their finite ways, we go on to the next thing. In the late 1800s the Universalists noticed that their message of universal salvation had been picked up by other mainline religions and took up Spiritualism. Then they took up world religion, and then in despair they merged with the Unitarians who carried on the tradition of trendiness. We even take things like The Course in Miracles and The Celestine Prophecies or The Da Vinci Code seriously.
I was lent a book by a member of my old church that someone had given her called the Urantia Book. It seemingly quite seriously lays out a world-view based on the rule of great beings in the universe who are watching over and controlling events on all the populated planets. Jesus was one of these beings, as, I believe, were other great philosophical and religious leaders. There are, I understand, large numbers of people who accept this as true, but I don't know why I'm surprised. A lot of people accepted Joseph Smith's teaching that the American Indians are the lost ten tribes of Israel. Maybe my scientist/chemist friend was right. The universe is actually worked by an infinite number of little men.
Have you seen those bumper stickers that say, "Visualize Peace"? Visualizing is one of the new things. Psychologists have discovered that visualizing success makes people more likely to achieve it. Professional football players who spend a certain amount of time visualizing the way in which they will manage to win a game are more likely to win than those that don't. Instead of being a perfectly normal, natural and useful way of preparing yourself to do what will bring you success, it's become a supernatural trick. Visualize world peace, and it will happen. Visualize your straying and divorced husband leaving his new wife and coming back to you and it will happen. Visualize all the hungry being fed and there will be an end to world hunger. You don't need to work for it, just visualize it. Visualize Peace. Tell that to the Israelis and the Palestinians.
There must be, it seems to me, a better way to structure meaning than to go from fad to fad, em-bracing and discarding, hanging onto the pendulum which swings back and forth between cultural activism and pietism, scientism and belief in magic, self-absorption and avoidance of self-knowledge. Sometimes I get so tired of watching it, that it almost seems better to pick one answer and stick with it no matter how poorly it matches our experience. But I think there's a better answer.
I am reminded that a few years ago I bought a jigsaw puzzle at a church garage sale. I advise against doing that, by the way, particularly if it has been contributed by anyone under the age of twenty-one. I knew it wasn't going to be an easy one. It was a giant silver/grey Liberty head dime on a greyish brown background. After I had managed with great difficulty to work about half of it, it became clear that there were a great many missing pieces. About 25, in fact, although I didn't know that until I had finished working the puzzle. There were also some pieces in the box that didn't belong to it at all - some with different colors on them. I'm not suggesting that it was either necessary or even particularly bright of me to stubbornly continue with the puzzle until I had finished it as best I could, even though it would never be complete, but I think that may actually be a good metaphor for our search for meaning in our lives. We probably are never going to find the magic missing piece that makes it all make sense. Even if I knew all about the people who built Stonehenge, I suspect the pieces would still not all fall into place. None of these things we've tried has the whole answer, and some of them are downright dangerous. However, we can do our best to fit in what we can find and keep working at it. The picture may never be complete, but it can emerge. We need to keep our critical sense, accept and use what has meaning and validity without imagining that it is the only or even the most important thing in the world, and refuse those things that affect to explain the pattern while merely leading us into a false one.
However, as we struggle with the puzzle, even though many pieces are and will remain missing, a picture does sometimes emerge. It may not be clear - it is certainly unfinished. The pieces that connect with one another are those that make connections: Connections with those things which make our lives worthwhile - with all the things of beauty and grace to which we can commit ourselves, all the deeds of kindness which give us knowledge of our own connectedness to what is good, all those hints of truth and of meaning which may not solve the problem of our living but make a lovely pattern for our lives.