Beyond the Broken Lights

by Glenn on October 21, 2020

You never know what’s going to happen when someone hands you a book to read. One thing is true for me: there’s always a little bit of anxiety. Will it feel like a duty or will it bring pleasure? What does the person say when they hand you the book? Is it, “I loved this book and I thought you might, too”? Or is it, “You really need to read this book!” (What does that mean? Is it that good or are you trying to fix me?)

Someone handed me a book a little while ago and said they really enjoyed this particular author because he “thinks outside the box.” That was as gracious as it was intriguing to me. The author is Charles E. Poole, who is senior minister at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and the book is called, Beyond the Broken Lights: Simple words at sacred edges (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2000).

It’s not a long book, so I took some time on Monday to read it through in a few sittings over cups of coffee.

Some books are entertaining. Some books challenge you to think differently. Some books inspire you (and/or make you feel self-conscious) because they are so artfully done. This particular book put voice to some vague ideas that lay unformed and unexpressed inside of me. Over and over again in this book I found myself saying, “That’s what I think,” to things I had never been able to put into words or ever thought through.

In his prologue, Poole talks about the central problem we have when we talk about God. We use words to explain the gospel of God. We “stack [them] high into doctrines, creeds, and confessions.” And we need to do this. Words are what we have.

But those words are inadequate. The reality of who God is goes far beyond our ability to capture God in words. Quoting the poet Tennyson, Poole says our words “are but broken lights of Thee / And Thou, O Lord, are more than they.” But then he says, “Broken lights are certainly better than no lights at all.”

Broken lights is, of course, the central metaphor of the book and the way Poole thinks about the things he thinks. There is something so refreshing about Poole’s humility as he approaches the subject of God. He says, in effect, “I’m going to tell you some things about God, but at best these words will be inadequate. I’m going to do my best, but the truth of God exists apart from what I write.”

And so Poole invites us along on a thinking journey. He’s had to change his mind about some things over the years. That’s something there. Do you give yourself permission to change your mind? For some of us, our theology is so rigid that I sometimes wonder if it will break.

My favorite chapter was called, “Why Doesn’t God Do More?” The question came out of the story of Lazarus. Jesus shows up and his friend is dead. People around whisper, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37) For many of us this is the question we have about God: Why doesn’t “God’s abiding love combined with God’s enduring power . . . equal God’s constant protection”?

Poole says there are “familiar” answers that have never been that satisfying for him. “One answer is that God may have already spared us from many things of which we are not aware. Who of us can know from what terrible problems we have been spared by the gentle providence of God?” That’s true. We can’t know. We don’t know. “Maybe God has been busy doing more than we have noticed.”

The problem is that this doesn’t exactly address “all the tragedies from which people are not spared.” As Poole asks, “If God spares some of God’s children from some awful things, why doesn’t God spare all of God’s children from all terrible things?”

The answer to that, “the most popular answer,” says “that all the terrible things from which God does not spare people are a part of God’s plan.” For some this is a comforting thought because “It imposes a sense of order on the world and defends the sovereignty of God.” Poole says this “sounds good . . . but it raises as many questions as it answers.”

We have to be careful here, though. “[O]nce we say that everything is not a part of God’s will, we open up the prospect that some of life is random. That is a troubling idea to those of us who yearn for a more orderly, cause-and-effect world, but I find it less troubling than the notion that everything that happens is a part of God’s plan because that would mean that God was planning things like Hurricane Mitch for Honduran children and drive-by bullets for urban toddlers. I choose to believe that such things are against the will of God and outside the plan of God, though I find that hard to say because I am also certain that there is a gentle providence of God at work in our world.”

The next answer to the question, “Why doesn’t God do more?”, centers around prayer. Those who “pray harder and have more faith” get answers and those who don’t do not. And here Poole corrects a misunderstanding about prayer. Prayer is not “transactional.” It “is not the leverage we use to convince God to do our will. Prayer is not something we do so we can change God and get God to go along with what we want.” And the fact of the matter is that some people who pray hard do not always get what they pray for.

There is a simplicity in assigning all tragedy to the will of God or to insufficient prayer and faith. But Poole is not satisfied with those answers. He writes, “I’m not sure that such answers are true to the best that we know of God.”

Here is Poole’s confession of faith: “God sometimes does less than we hope, but God always does more than we know.” How does that resonate with you?

Because Poole is a pastor, his heart is for those “who have given up on God altogether because they were ‘over-promised.’ They were taught a version of the faith that left them believing that if they would be good, do right, and have faith, God would protect them from the worst of life’s awful tragedies. They expected God to do more. They were holding God to promises God never made, and when life fell apart, God did too, in their minds.”

Quoting Barbara Brown Taylor, Poole says, “We must let go of the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is.”

We need “clear-eyed realism” that acknowledges “God sometimes does less than we hope.” But equally we need “wide-eyed faith” that “nudges us to say that God always does more than we know.”

The final words of the chapter are the last word this morning (I think it’s a good one.):

“Think of this: God has already done for us things we did not know; otherwise we would not have been able to live through the things God did not do. But here we are, alive, having lived through things we would have sworn we could not have endured. But we have lived. We have made it through, by the grace and goodness of the One who is always up to more than we know. All those times when God was doing less than we hoped, God must have been doing more than we knew. Amen.”