“Jesus promised the disciples who would follow him only three things: “that they should be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.”
—Douglas Steere quoting William Russell Maltby

On the surface the West Texas landscape can seem inhospitable and unwelcoming at best. The white chalky caliche pits, formed during the Permian geological period, are now full of rattlesnakes and scorpions. Nearly every living thing struggles for water, from the moisture-seeking, deep-rooted mesquite tree to the ever-resourceful prickly pear. This scarcity of landscape can shape the people, too.

Tall cinderblock fences keep the West Texas wind from blowing your yard to Oklahoma, but it also keeps the neighbors out. It serves to separate what’s mine from yours, the haves from the have nots. I have been formed by a few West Texans who learned to dig deep where springs of generosity flow freely.

When I was a child, my parents scraped together just enough cash to purchase an old house on the rougher side of town. This house had been converted into a convenience store. Think 7-Eleven, but without all the formality. We (my parents, myself, and my younger brother) lived and slept in the single car garage and the rest of the house was gutted and then transformed into a corner store.

Mom made breakfast burritos and sandwiches and sold them out of the kitchen. Dad kept the shelves stocked and ran the cash register. We even had a pool table in what was the dining room for neighborhood folks to play pool and hang out.

The ample backyard was fenced in cinderblock. It was a bit of safe sanctuary for us. As in many communities there are those who have no place to lay their head, not even a single car garage. There are those whose pain is so loud and their mental health so fragile that self-medication is a way of life. This was true of Joe. We would often find him in the backyard. He scaled our cinderblock fence in the middle of the night and slept in the back corner. My mom would fix a paper plate of beans and cornbread, our supper on many nights, and send me out to offer it to Joe.

Being in the fifth grade and rather mouthy, I usually put up quite a protest around his smell and having to shake him and wake him up to eat, but eventually did as I was told. This is what my mother did—she fed and tended to those who could not feed or tend to themselves. In resistance to the scarcity surrounding her, she made a plate of generosity and shared it with Joe.

We loved to play in our outside sanctuary, climbing the Live Oak trees and pretending we were on secret adventure missions. One afternoon while playing, we heard screaming and crying coming from the store. We ran to see Dad carrying a woman whose backside was torn raw, bloodied and bruised. He carefully laid her on the pool table while Mom opened up packages of antiseptic and cotton balls. My brother and I watched our parents tenderly wash and tend her wounds. Her boyfriend had pushed her out of his moving car onto the road in front of the store. In resistance to the brutality of scarcity, they tended the wounds of another with their own limited resources.

Quaker teacher Douglas Steere calls this “unlimited liability.” In a wonderful little set of mediations on prayer titled Prayer in the Contemporary World, Steere unpacks how prayer and social justice are one and the same. He writes,

If there is one phrase than can sweep together the whole ethical message of the Gospels, it might well be “unlimited liability” which we hear for our fellow human beings in this world. To be sure, this is grounded on the Gospel message that each person, no matter what his weakness, is of equal worth in the sight of God, but it goes further and lays this unlimited liability upon us. Jesus’s reply in that critical chapter of Matthew 25 to the one who asks when they might have seen him sick, or naked, or hungry, or a prisoner, rings down through the ages: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.[1]

Unlimited liability begins in the stillness of prayer which is “… awakeness, attention, intense inward openness.” Within this awakeness we touch the life of another and when we do —we touch the heart of God.[2] Cultivating prayer through sustained attentiveness to God doesn’t insulate or inoculate us against the pain in the world, but it heightens our awareness and breaks our heart for that which breaks the heart of God. Steere reminds us that prayer is “an alternative and legitimate approach to the real….”[3] For my family “the real” was the actual terra firma where we lived, it was the people who wandered in and out of our little store.

Being present to God is prayer and through prayer we are awakened to the real wounds of our neighbor; and when we reach out to connect with our neighbor in their wounds, this also is prayer! The most formidable obstacle to this kind of prayer is the lie of scarcity.

When resources are scarce, human beings tend to “baton down the hatches.” We disconnect and conserve. We save what we have for me and mine. These surface desires adhere to simple logic and mathematics. In our past, this scarcity mindset may even have provided us with short-term solutions. My grandparents tell those Depression Era stories.

However, the economy of the Kingdom of God doesn’t adhere to simple mathematics. In the economy of the Kingdom, thousands are fed with only a few loaves and fishes, those who limp extend healing to the wounded, and imperfect community welcomes the broken. Certainly, this is our deepest desire, our deepest knowing. At our center, where the spark of hope still lives, we want everyone to have what they need. The better angels of our nature whisper the truth of God’s generosity for all of humanity.

How do we tend the fire of our deepest wisdom, God’s generosity for humanity? How do we speak gently to the haunting voice of scarcity? Steere advises to “begin by laying aside self-hate or the wish to be someone else as a major act of disobedience and a taking back of myself as the vehicle, in all of its inadequacy and frailty… ”[4] Unlimited liability begins in self-acceptance. We learn that God’s generosity for humanity begins with our own humanness. Our finite bodies and capabilities aren’t limitation, but invitation. Finitude is a gift. It invites us to accept who we are, because God has accepted us. Deep calls to deep—therefore, the more deeply we accept ourselves the more deeply we can accept another. Finitude also invites us to be fully present where we are. Unlimited liability means that we open our eyes and awaken to our neighbors, to those who are wounded right in front of us.

The movement of generosity must have an outlet, it must flow through us and into ever widening contexts. Like water, generosity is most healing when it moves. When the movement ceases it is a clue that generosity may have shifted to scarcity. The nature of unlimited liability is outward. It doesn’t only apply to the self and to our present communities, but also to our nation and to the world. Steere again helps us with this,

“For the state is only the arbitrary limitation, what happens to the sister or brother who is outside its boundaries is of primary concern for the Christian. God is always revising our boundaries outwards.”[5]

While God certainly meets us in the generous acceptance of our finite self, God is not willing to let generosity stagnate within us. We are instead invited to let generosity flow through us and into the world. Generosity is both our deepest desire and an act of defiance against our cultural landscape that pulses with messages of scarcity. Those who seek power have learned that it is easy to manipulate and control people with scarcity. Movements of generosity are naturally unwieldy, bursting with a messy freedom.

I have the honor of meeting with children in spiritual direction at Haven House, a transitional facility for homeless families. These beloved children of God have every reason to believe that scarcity is the only system going—but they don’t. One of the hallmarks of children new to Haven House is their immense gratitude around having a place to live and food to eat. The second hallmark is their incredible generosity.

For these children, God is revising their boundaries outwards to include me, an affluent middle-aged woman who comes to spend two hours once a week with them. I do not come to Haven House to be Jesus, necessarily. I come to Haven House to meet Jesus. The light and tenderness of Jesus sustains and centers through tear stained faces, in stories of profound loss and deep love, and in simple gestures of sharing. In their stories I am invited to hear my own deeper longing for the generous way of life.

“It is conceivable that Jesus saw that the way to touch any society was at its Achilles heel, by serving the group whom it wanted to hide from its sight not only because it hurt to look at these people but also because of the reproach which their condition cast on its own smug life?…Yet to serve these rejected ones is to reach straight to the quick of the very society and to touch it and open it to its own condition.”[6]

It is in these spaces at the margins of the society where justice is damaged that followers of Christ are invited to meet God. We are set free by unlimited liability, not bound by it. What would it look like for you to experience the freedom of unlimited liability? Notice your own desires stirring in the following invitations:

  • Perhaps self-acceptance is a real struggle for you. Notice when you use words like “should” or “ought.” These words can be indicators of self-rejection. Enter into a conversation with Jesus asking him to help you to see yourself as he does.
  • Ask the Spirit to open your eyes to the suffering surrounding your own terra firma. In your neighborhood, at work, at church, or at school intentionally begin to notice those who are alone, who express pain, or who take up little space. Notice even how the land suffers. (Hint: If we will first practice the discipline of slowing down, it will help us to see people.) How can you meet Jesus in the suffering?
  • Move your body to the margins. Notice those who live on the margins in your community. Is there a migrant worker center, soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or prison? Go there, bring a gift, and get to know the people.

Perhaps, you are already aware of the weight of the suffering in the world. You watch the news. You hear the stories of the broken and the wounded and you notice in yourself “a drying up of compassion.” May I encourage you to withdraw into silence and stillness? Invite the Spirit to come alongside as you allow yourself to “feel hopeless about the sufferings and needs of human beings in distant places.”[7] Ask the Spirit to stir in you attentiveness, an awakeness that will break the bondage of scarcity and restore the water of generosity that leads to freedom for all of us.

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[1] Steere, Douglas, Prayer in the Contemporary World, (Pendle Hill Publications: Wallingford, PA, 1990) “Befriending Other in Prayer,”7.

[2] ibid.“The Case Against Prayer in the Contemporary World,” 3.

[3] ibid. “Unlimited Liability and Self-Acceptance,” 17.

[4] ibid. “Unlimited Liability and My Nation,” 21.

[5] ibid. “God Speaks in the Poor,” 16

[6] ibid. “Unlimited Liability and My World,” 22.