The dining table in the rectory has extensions at each end that can be pulled out from under the top to double the size and seating capacity. Last week, Gay and I were setting up for guests and positioning the extensions so we could seat twelve at the dining table. After we pulled the extensions out, we noticed that they would not sit flush with the central tabletop because the tongue and slot on each end were not aligned. We immediately decided that at some point the two extensions had been reversed and that, by removing them and putting them in the original positions, we could make the tongues and slots align properly so the top and the extensions would fit perfectly.
We tried that. It didn’t work because the rails attached to the extensions have to bypass each other under the table and they had to glide through channels that were positioned differently on each side.
Obviously, we thought, someone had screwed the extensions to the wrong rails. To correct the problem, we would need to remove the screws and return the extensions to the proper rails. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that the screw holes in the table extensions were not in the same locations on the two rails. So that wouldn’t work either.
We felt completely defeated, but were not going to be outsmarted by a wooden table.
Finally, we saw that the tabletop was not fastened to anything. We picked it up, turned it 180º, sat it back down, and moved the extensions into place. With the tongues and slots now in perfect alignment, everything fitted together perfectly. Problem solved!
There is an epiphany in this incident; Effective problem solving depends upon a reliable understanding of the situation. And, sometimes the challenges in our lives are not so much problems to be solved, as they are situations to be understood. The Bible is full of examples. Here are some examples from the ministry of Jesus.
There was a man who was born blind. Some Pharisees saw the problem and concluded that his blindness was the result of someone’s sin – either his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus’ response was to say, “His blindness is not the result of sin.” They didn’t understand the situation and that led them to a solution that wrote the blind man off. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the situation from a different point of view. The man needed healing, not condemnation. His problem was an opportunity for God’s compassion to be revealed. So Jesus healed him.
When Jesus was teaching a huge crowd of people and mealtime was approaching, his disciples decided that the solution to the problem was to send them into the village so they could find some food. They didn’t understand the situation. Jesus did. He said, “You feed them.” They protested that there were only five loaves of bread and two fish. Again, they didn’t understand the situation. Jesus did. He told them to distribute the food. It was another opportunity for divine compassion to be displayed. After everyone was full, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. Jesus understood that the solution to hunger was to feed people.
King Herod was threatened when he heard that a new King of the Jews had been born. This new King might try to supplant him. So he ordered his soldiers to kill all the male babies they could find. Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt with the infant Jesus. When Jesus grew up and began his public ministry, there were those who wanted him to be their king. He tried to tell them that his kingdom would be of a different kind. Still, he continued to be a problem for those in positions of power and they tried to solve the problem by putting him to death. They didn’t understand the situation. God understood and the Resurrection was the result.
We’ve just come through an election season when every candidate had all the solutions to all the problems. In some cases, I had to wonder if what I was hearing was in fact a solution in search of a problem. However, as we will see in the days ahead, few actually understood the situation and, because of that, many problems will remain unsolved. I would have been more inclined to vote for a candidate who admitted being stumped but was honestly committed to seeking understanding before trying to solve a problem.
Seeking to understand before trying to solve problems is supposed to be a specialty of people of faith. The King James Version puts it this way, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7).