“Liabilities”

Let’s address “liabilities” once and for all.  This is the “good excuse” that happily and quietly kept the first Lubbock’s Parade of Homeless out in the streets.

I will not name the church that used this excuse.  Any of those I spoke with who might read here will recognize the story.  If that is you, SHAME ON YOU!  But I spare you the public humiliation in hopes that you will change.  Your sin can be forgiven.  And this reflection on it might help prompt it.

You can see some of the highlights from that event here, if you want.  In fact, it was a successful event on many fronts anyway.  The one major failure was that the church refused to invite us in because of “liabilities.”  Despite the fact that Fat Beggars previously approached two leaders who both said, “That is a really good idea,” they also said we needed to take it up with higher authorities.  The final authority said, “No.  It’s a good idea, but no… because of liabilities.”

So the Fat Beggars, about 12 in number, stayed the night out at a nearby park.  I recall feeling deeply disappointed by that as we lay down by the basketball court.  One of the street prophets, “Agent Zero” (he wanted to be called) lay his head down a couple of feet away from me and said, “Welcome to my place tonight.”

“Welcome,” he said.  The very word the church had failed to use because instead they used the word “liabilities.”

After an hour of lying on the ground, illegally in the park after dark, the clouds began spitting rain on us.  At that point, I insisted that we move to the church building about 3 blocks away and gather under the shelter it would provide on the porch.  So, in the dark of night, running from the rain, the Fat Beggars School of Prophets assembled at the doorstep of the church we planned to attend the next morning.

What we did not know at the time was that the house across the street had been purchased by the church and was being remodeled into an outreach office.  The man who was doing the work was also sleeping there at night like a night watchman.  And despite the fact that our party was respectfully quiet in the night as we moved to the church building, he saw us and came to investigate.

Fortunately I knew most of the leadership at that church by name.  When the night watchman/carpenter came asking questions, I quickly eased his fears about this night-mob crashing the church house steps.  And I really think that he was filling that position as a poor man with no better work options.  (Most repair men I know don’t sleep at their job site, but this guy did.)  And once he established our purpose, he used the word the church had failed to use, “Welcome.”  He invited us to sleep in the house he was remodeling.

I am posting here to ask you to think more carefully about that word “liabilities.”  Church leadership chose to act with a lock on the door because they uttered the word “liabilities.”  The homeless man in the park and the poor carpenter in the night both used the word “welcome” instead.

I have kids who belong to the youth group that meets in the same church that said “liabilities.”  My kids describe “lock-ins” where kids run wild through the church building in games of hide-n-seek, wrestling and horse-play, and other games.  These things occur in the same building that locked us out because of “liabilities.”

You see, the church has fine property and various assets.  If they allowed homeless people to sleep and pray in there through the night, and if someone got hurt, then the church would be liable.  The church’s nice things are the “liabilities” that constrain her from doing the very things Jesus calls her to do.

I am wondering: On that great day of Judgment that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31-46, when the King declares “You did not take me in…” and the church says, “When did we see you a stranger and not take you in?”  Will there be a special hearing for “liabilities?”

Listen up, you church(es) of Lubbock!  Jesus is at your door tonight.  He says, “Behold! I stand at the door and knock.  If you open up, I will come in and eat with you! (Rev. 3:20).  Don’t let “liabilities” be your liability.

13 comments

  1. Ryan · November 22, 2015

    This is a good post. It should cause those with church buildings to consider the double speak of “liability.” Reminds me of a similar conversation I had with a church up north about giving to those in need. “How would we support our programs if we gave everything to the poor?” It is time we give of ourselves and open our doors to whomever knocks. Casper ten Boom told the Gestapo “If I go home today, tomorrow I will open my door to anyone who knocks for help.” I’ve thought of this so many times, and while it may not be a Jew in Nazi Germany, I should make myself available for anyone. Thanks for another thought provoking post Agent X.

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  3. laceduplutheran · July 19, 2018

    Great post! I wish I could like it 1000 times. “Liabilities” is a sign that the church has lost its way and become a liability to the kingdom.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agent X · July 19, 2018

      I learned from N.T. Wright that “if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not”.

      If that is true, then if Jesus is Lord, then Liabilities is not. And that begs the question: Why is my church answering to liabilities?

      Liabilities… an odd thing for people carrying crosses to worry about. Don’t you think?

      Liked by 2 people

      • laceduplutheran · July 19, 2018

        Very odd. But then again, when the church is more of an institution, rather than a movement, maybe we’ve made an idol for our own benefit – one we can control.

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      • Agent X · July 19, 2018

        I am not defending against language about idolatry in this response. I think that is correct, alright. But more pointedly, we turn the church and our faith into a chaplain of empire. We make Jesus subservient to empire rather than Master of creation. And we do it very subtly so that its hard to see.

        Liked by 1 person

      • laceduplutheran · July 19, 2018

        Absolutely. Spot on. I’m with you 100% on this. I speak about empire vs. Jesus often. It rattles people, as it should. Some people get really upset, as they should. Because what happens is that once the empire is exposed for what it is, and how we relate to it, it should be upsetting. And convicting. And then we are left with Jesus’ question – “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?” Have you ever read A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd? I think you’d enjoy it. It’s all about empire theology vs. Jesus. Great read.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Agent X · July 19, 2018

        I am not well studied in church history. I only know a few standard high (or low, as the case maybe) points that stand out to pretty much everyone. And even then, you would be surprised how little I know, I think. And by far, most of the rich Christian theological studies I am familiar with, I learned from Wright. (I kicked the tires on a few others, and quickly found nearly all of them to be so poorly satisfying that I just stuck with Wright and a few people he counts as good sources).

        That said… I have read a couple books on Rome, and the fall of Rome etc. So I have some formidable ancient history and theology to work with, but when it comes to church history, I stand at about square two or three, and what I think I know about that stands to be challenged quite easily, I think.

        I am aware that in the time of Paul’s missions, the fastest growing “religion” in the world was the imperial cult. I am aware that Caesar pronounced himself a son of god (Caligula went even further with this and called himself a god and would run over to the temple of Jupiter on sleepless tormented nights to argue about how to run the universe and so forth). Anyway, back to the emperor worship… The cult in Rome was, of course, big, but nothing like the fervor for it we find in Asia Minor (esp around the churches John addresses in Revelation).

        I have the sense that the people were not nearly as hoodwinked as it might appear. I don’t think they REALLY thought of Caesar as divine (probably some, maybe even a lot, did, but most of the real thinkers of the day were not sucked in at that level). But you would play along in the charade so as to suck up to the seat of power. It was a religion of sycophants. By slobbing the imperial nob, you could get a tax break and special favor, and it became something of a competition among provinces to curry the most of that.

        Point being… THIS was the state of religion!

        Hmmm…

        I think we have reversed it these days. We make the state, the secular state government out to serve Jesus despite the fact that the constitution very purposely separates him out from the power and decisions. And we dress out our civic obligations in all manor of ceremonial celebrations of patriotism, hand on heart, parades, songs, symbols of worth-ship and honor and all that … to bring a tear to your eye, to impose obligations, to put people in their place etc… and try to baptize it all in the Holy Name – but that takes the name in vain!

        Hmmm…

        No, I have not read that book. I will look for it.

        Of course I have learned a lot from Wright that teaches me this stuff. But there are a couple other wonderful books I would mention too. The book that destroyed my life for Jesus was COLOSSIANS REMIXED: Subverting The Empire, by Walsh and Keesmaat. But another one I recommend, though it is by a Church of Christ professor it is not strictly and inhouse book, and is heavily influenced by Yoder is Lee Camp’s MERE DISCIPLESHIP which of course the title echoes C. S. Lewis purposely.

        Thanx for the great discussion!

        I will go find that book now…

        X

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  4. Jonathan Erdman · July 19, 2018

    Agent X: “You see, the church has fine property and various assets. If they allowed homeless people to sleep and pray in there through the night, and if someone got hurt, then the church would be liable. The church’s nice things are the “liabilities” that constrain her from doing the very things Jesus calls her to do.”

    Churches, though, are institutions, are they not? Do they not have liabilities? Must they not weight in the balance whether a particular ministry is too great a liability?

    The answer to all of the above questions is “yes.”

    As I understand it, though, you and I differ as to how we see the church’s role in the world. You seem to be in favor of direct aid, following the “give to the one who asks” principle. And I don’t disagree, but at the same time an institution has to play by the rules of the culture that recognizes them as an institution. An institution must play by the legal and financial rules of their society and government — which means that they truly do have liabilities.

    My problem, of course, is that the church as an American institution does almost nothing to question the reason why so many are poor and homeless. The way I see things, America is one big money machine that generates massive sums for the few, produces a decent amount to keep the middle class happy (more or less), and then sh*ts on everyone else. (For example, housing costs are too high because housing is a commodity meant to benefit investors. Housing is part of the money machine rather than a basic human right.)

    My point is that if you are going to be an American church who embraces capitalism and the other MAGA essentials that “Make America Great,” then you’ve got to accept and legitimize all of the ways that the system sh*ts on the poor, because if you question the system (capitalism, etc.), then the system might revoke your status as an institution. The conservative American church idolizes the rich and defends the capitalist system that impoverishes many.

    I tend to see the role of the church in the world, today, as easing the burden on the poor, yes. I agree with you that the church should not send anyone away, but the church must question the system that produces so much poverty and must confront the ideology that blames poor people for being poor, that blames homeless people for being homeless, and that blames desperate immigrant families for trying to get to a better place.

    “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” ~Hélder Câmara

    The conservative church in the U.S. has drifted so far from the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth that they tend to call you a communist even when all you are doing is trying to give food to the poor. I grew up in the church, and yet after nearly 30 years, I knew jack sh*t about what Jesus was really talking about. When I realized where Jesus was coming from and really looked at his life and teachings, I knew that the conservative church would absolutely never go there.

    This is why I am a little hesitant to get on board with any kind of “lordship” theology. (You mentioned N. T. Wright.) The conservative American church DOES call Jesus Lord. They worship Jesus, they just don’t do what Jesus did, nor do they really have much interest in that sort of thing. So, to me the real prophetic question for the conservative church is not whether they call Jesus Lord with their lips or whether they call Jesus Lord in their doctrines and theological formulations — the real question is whether they will do what Jesus did and listen to what Jesus taught. Jesus himself anticipated this, i.e., “many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord!'”

    I don’t have a beef with you being inspired by Lordship theology, btw. I just think that the real prophetic question of the day is whether those who claim the “Christian” label will question the context that creates the chaos and brokenness of our world. This brokenness is deep, and as terrible as poverty and homelessness is, that’s only one part of the wider chaos that our capitalist culture creates.

    [This comment edited only to sanitize “cuss words” which should still be easily detectable despite this. No other editing to the comment.]

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  5. Lisa Fenwick · July 19, 2018

    Some books that I think are good especially on church history are, Everett Ferguson’s church history volume one. Also his book called early christians speak it has a lot of the church fathers and what thought about certain doctrines. He also has a book on early background of Christianity. A book that is also good is a book by Frank Viola and George Barna called pagan Christianity which shows how Christianity changed over the years. Frank and George do have an agenda but I do think it has a lot of good stuff in it about church history. Hope some of those books would help.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lisa Fenwick · July 19, 2018

    I agree with some of the things
    Jonathan said, but I don’t agree that the church is an in Institution. The American church and most of the world has made it that way, but thats not God purpose with the church. The church are the people of God. Now the hard part is getting people to be the church instead of being pew sitters. The problem is that most American “Christians” just want to go to a sevice for an hour and thats it because that is what we have made “church” and they are not changed new creations!! God said that you are new with christ . you are part of the new humanity!! You have the spirit of Christ in you. I think most America Christians don’t realize that. And to be honest probably don’t care. They said a pray and now im saved thats all i have to do. But if you read your bible Jesus says if you love me you will do my commands.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agent X · July 19, 2018

      Daniel,

      You jumped in with that before I had a chance to respond to Jonathan. Ha.

      I am still working out my response. But like you I don’t want to settle for the word institution. In fact, it might be useful for our conversation here (and elsewhere too) to carefully define some of these terms.

      I will get to that later.

      You ended saying, “They said a prayer and now I’m saved and that’s all I have to do.”

      I don’t actually have a problem with the “said a prayer and now I’m saved” part. And actually the “all I have to do part is not as tidy as it would seem – at least not to my mind. I will get into that another time too, but for me the troubling part at present is that when you put your sentence all together with another idea – that being that I prayed, I’m in, and I don’t have any more to do… – with the idea that now I am politically entitled! We must honor God the way I say! And that is a real issue even though practically no one would own up to it in those terms. And I think that gets closer to Jonathans issues… maybe. I tread carefully into that mist. I should take care not to speak for him. But at least as I see it, that gets a bit more into his point.

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    • Jonathan Erdman · July 19, 2018

      Hi Lisa,

      To clarify, I don’t think the church is an institution either, or at least I don’t think it should be. The church is an institution, now, at this point in time, 2,000+ years later, but (as you doubtless know) the original church was simply a “fellowship” or “assembly” or believers who sold their possessions and lived together communally, praying, studying the life/teachings of Jesus, and enjoying the fullness of the Spirit. On this count, they were simply following Jesus, who was also a non-institutional kinda dude.

      I don’t want to be a hater, because I think that the institutional church can work, but as it exists in America today, the church is wedded to a pro-American/pro-capitalist ideology and under that influence they’ve tried to serve both God and money. So for me personally, I’ve dropped the label “Christian” and pretty much given up on the American church. That’s where I’m at now, anyway. I feel like I’m of more use in following the life and teachings of Jesus is I work as an activist and focus on my own spiritual growth and purification. That’s just me, though. If I could find a small group of anti-capitalist Jesus freaks who preached good news to the poor, I might change my mind and join their ranks.

      Liked by 1 person

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