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.