“When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” Psalms 94:19 ESV
When our children entered their teens, Terry and I were looking for new ways to connect with them. They were no longer content reading stacks of picture books or gluing pompoms on construction paper. So, one year, we bought a one-thousand-piece puzzle as a family gift. During the Christmas season, we set out a tray of cookies, made homemade hot chocolate for the four of us, attempted the Herculean task of putting together this puzzle, and created a new Christmas tradition! Typically, Terry and Ethan would conquer the frame, while Maggie and I would jump to whatever spot of the picture inspired us. It might only take an evening, or a few days, but eventually we would finish the puzzle.
Along with yeast and toilet paper, ordinary cardboard puzzles have been flying off the shelves during the quarantine. According to some articles, sales of puzzles have increased 370% across the industry, forcing companies to boost production to meet the demand. Ravensburger, a prominent German puzzle company, was selling seven puzzles per minute in April 2019. A year later, this had increased to twenty puzzles per minute. Some companies became more innovative, appealing to a more diverse public by creating puzzles featuring minority groups. On a personal level, my Facebook and Instagram feeds were blown up with friends and influencers showing off pictures of completed puzzles!
Terry and I jumped on the 2020 puzzle bandwagon a little late. In November, we started breaking out a new puzzle on Saturday evenings. While listening to radio dramas, we would start sorting pieces. A few hours later, with our middle-aged eyes buggy from straining at patterns, we would set the puzzle aside, hoping to complete it the following afternoon. For Christmas, we even bought a boxed set of four puzzles, 200 pieces each, all shaped like snow globes. As a family, we competed to see who could put theirs together the fastest, with Terry taking first place, and Maggie coming in a close second!
What is it about puzzles that has captured the world’s attention during the pandemic and subsequent quarantine? Putting a puzzle together takes time, commitment, mental effort, and money. With modern technology, it would be easier to numb ourselves by binging on Netflix or scrolling through endless Facebook feeds. So why were families choosing to put puzzles together over watching YouTube videos?
The answer to this question might be related to the physical act of putting a puzzle together. Whether it is 500 or 1,000 pieces, every single piece has a specific place. Through trial and error, eventually you place it in the right position. The individual pieces, despite what looks like random patterns and colors, make a complete picture whether it is an outdoor scene, assorted vintage breakfast cereals, or cats.
It has been said repeatedly that the pandemic has thrown the world off kilter. Like all news, we get immune to the pandemic and have now accepted it as status quo. We wear masks, making them stylish accessories to our wardrobe. We accept that restaurants will have social distancing guidelines, we no longer expect to try on clothes in a store, and we have adapted to working from home.
These are all surface-level adaptations that do not deal with how our bodies and minds have changed during this crisis. All reports indicate that depression and anxiety have increased. Suicide, domestic abuse and drug/alcohol abuse numbers have risen. Some mental health professionals have argued that the mental response to the pandemic is mimicking post-traumatic stress disorder!
The Gallup Poll, with its annual mental health survey, reported a nine-point decline in the number of people who rated their mental health positively from 2019 to 2020. One group that stayed the same or, in some cases, made slight improvements in their mental health, were those who attended religious services regularly. This might indicate that being a regular part of a church community has helped people successfully cope with the pandemic!
For Christians, the ability to worship together is an important part of the Christian experience. Corporate worship helps affirm our faith, the preaching challenges us to grow in our understanding of God, and the individual believers encourage and minister to one another. Amid the pandemic, corporate worship has not only provided stability in our Christian walk but has also provided a safe place to voice questions and find answers to the chaos around us.
I believe we are using puzzles for the same reason. As we look for the edge pieces, we are trying to provide a stable framework for the confusion around us. As we fit individual pieces into the puzzle, we are trying to make sense of our world as we navigate new COVID-19 strains and vaccines. Finally, we desperately want to finish the puzzle, with all the pieces intact, completing a beautiful picture. We all want our world to be back to the pre-COVID normal, or at least the new normal, with a measure of consistency and no new global challenges.
Recently, I donated a puzzle to Goodwill. I carefully taped the sides of the box, so that no pieces would fall out. I wanted to ensure that the buyer would get a complete puzzle. I have always been skeptical about buying used puzzles. I imagined spending a few hours of my life putting it together only to come to the end and find that a piece was missing. The potential frustration prevented me from ever purchasing a used puzzle.
But just maybe, this post-COVID-19 world is a bit like buying a used puzzle with some missing pieces. This may sound depressing and hopeless, but I really believe it is an opportunity for God to do His greatest work. If we look at some of the biggest miracles in the Bible, they all happened when a piece of the puzzle seemed to be missing! Think about the destruction of the world after the flood, the Egyptians in chariots on the banks of the Red Sea, and Jesus’ death on the cross. At these moments, everything seemed hopeless. Yet soon after these major trials, God stepped in with rainbows, a dry seabed, and a miraculous resurrection that forever changed our world, dropping that last missing piece into place! Dear friends, be encouraged! Even if it feels like we are still missing some pieces, God is doing a good work!