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A fellow parent at my children’s school was telling me about the older Italian woman who was her landlord when she lived in Boston’s North End about twenty years ago.

“So she invited me in for lemonade one day and we had a nice chat. And then she said, ‘You know, I realize you’re just getting started in your career, and so I’m sorry about this but I’m afraid I’m going to have to raise the rent.’ So I thought for a minute and remembered the elderly couple below me and my roommate. They were on a fixed income and this would be really tough on them.

“I asked my landlord about them. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I’ve been worried about what will happen when I raise their rent, but I don’t know what else I can do.’ The man who lived below me was a fixture in our community; everyone knew him. He would even save my parking place by sitting in a chair out front, and nobody ever bothered him. He’d been very kind, you know? So I said to my landlord, ‘Why don’t you just add the difference in their rent to our new rent. We can cover it. We’ll just drink less beer.’”

My friend had absorbed the cost.

I had two takeaways from her story. The first was that true generosity is cheerfully paying for something that someone else owes, but cannot afford, especially when it is a hardship to do so. Jesus did this for us, and he did it for those who had not ‘been kind’ but rather for those who were estranged, like lost sheep. Disobedient. Clueless. He cheerfully gave to us out of love, though it cost him everything.

The second takeaway was how powerful a strong community can be, both positively and negatively. My friend’s landlord, she recounted with laughter, would stop her on the street and say, “I didn’t see you at church this week!” And her landlord and others from the neighborhood, which was racially quite homogenous, would also look askance at her when she brought overseas friends from a different culture to visit. They’d ask her about it and she’d explain that she was showing them what a great place it was to live.

Within the church, there can be both loving accountability and also sanctimonious judgmentalism. In the community that Jesus has redeemed and which the Spirit is making holy, there is no room for fear of the ‘other.’ Rather, there is a generosity of spirit, which has a concern for others before ourselves (Philippians 2:3). And there is a generosity of self, which makes us vulnerable, even as Jesus himself was when he asked his disciples at Gesthemane to ‘stay here and keep watch with me’ (Matthew 26:38b). This redeemed community generously and boldly carries others’ burdens and also fearlessly and humbly lets others help carry our own.

What can we each be doing in our neighborhoods to demonstrate both generosity and community?

+ In your circle of friends think creatively and proactively about individuals’ needs that you hear about. Pool funds or resources to meet them.

+ If you are a Christian, during Lent plan to give something up and give that something to another.

+ Let your friends know when you need help—be specific.

+ Be aware of your neighbors’ needs in your building. Surprise an elderly or poor neighbor with a gift that they couldn’t afford. Or an intangible one they can’t reciprocate.

+ Stop and talk with people on your street. Meet the business owners or workers. Greet and thank the local firefighters or police officers.

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You may not realize that Central Park is teeming with ‘biological seed dispersal agents,’ as Wikipedia refers to squirrels.

When a squirrel takes an acorn and buries it at a distance from the tree for future use, the acorn effectively ‘dies.’ If the squirrel doesn’t remember to come back and eat the acorn, it will germinate and become an oak tree in time. After twenty years, the tree will be mature enough to produce acorns of its own, although oaks must sometimes be 40-50 years old before producing a successful seed crop.

A gift is like a seed.

We give these gifts, like acorns, and we die to their alternate use. A gift of money—by way of its transformative death, a metamorphosis—converts the cash from potential to kinetic energy. A group of hedge fund managers give millions each spring to fund New York City nonprofits. An elderly lady gives $100 each month from her social security check to the Bowery Mission to help the poor on the Lower East Side. A widow of a fast food chain bequeaths her billions, a portion of which is donated to the Salvation Army in inner city Boston to build a community center. Acts like these are the trunk, branches and leaves of a new oak tree in New York and cities like it.

A zen koan reads, ‘What the caterpillar calls “the end,” the Master calls “a butterfly.”’ Jesus said shortly before his death, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’ (John 12:24).

When we live for the sake of others, we find true life, which the Greeks called zoë.

photo: andy laing

Wealth that is stored up on earth ‘where moth and vermin destroy and where [Ponzi schemers] break in and steal’ (to paraphrase a passage in the Bible) doesn’t stay wealth for long. This, in the Christian tradition, is the notion that temporal things disappear. Whether one’s wealth is grain in the silo or money in the bank, it will go away if not used.

In fact, storing up wealth out of greed or fear not only hurts us spiritually, but also human institutions can wage war against this behavior. Put your money today in a CD for a year, and the best interest rate you can find is 1.34%. Even inflation of 3% will leave you twelve months from now with a net loss.

Or take an extreme case from the early 20th century, when German theoretical economist Silvio Gesell proposed something called ‘stamp scrip.’ Essentially a tax on currency that was determined by the government to be hoarded, and designed to encourage its ‘velocity’ in the system, stamp scrip would assign a stamp to a currency note each month that cost 1% of the note’s value. If the note did not carry the proper stamps when spent, it was invalid. Therefore, if you didn’t spend your money in a reasonable time, adding ‘velocity,’ it eventually would turn to valueless paper. In German, this was called schwund geld, or shrinking money. (My mother used to tell me as a child that ‘money was burning a hole in my pocket’ because I spent it so quickly. Had I lived in Germany in 1919, I would have been vindicated!)

Christians believe that the gospel, on the other hand, rejects my hoarding what I think are my scarce resources (an individual behavior resulting from Capitalism), and rejects the State’s forcibly distributing abundance (an organizational behavior resulting from Fascism). This position maintains that we should manage the abundance that God gives us (Genesis 1:28) and give out of the scarcity that we sometimes feel we have (II Corinthians 8:2). When Christians stop and look at Jesus Christ, they see a God who distributed himself and his life for others’ gain. They view this gain as abundant life now in terms of spiritual fullness, and in everlasting life in the world to come.

In view of the eternal life we now enjoy and anticipate more of, even what seems scarce to us is not really so. With this assurance, we can distribute ourselves generously to those around us: our families and friends, our neighbors and coworkers, and the poor and oppressed among us.

We are the ‘seed for the city.’