There are no tax-payers in God’s Kingdom

“I’ll be taking care of my health, I’ll be taking care of the people of Etobicoke North, and I’ll be taking care of every taxpayer in this city like I always have.”

Thus spake Rob Ford upon his election to his former Council Seat in Ward 2 (Etobicoke North) on Tuesday night. I suppose it seems unsporting to take shots at Ford these days. I wish him all the best as he undergoes his cancer treatments. And, upon Doug Ford’s defeat by John Tory we can all breathe a sigh of relief that perhaps some semblance of sanity might be restored to Toronto politics, whatever remaining ideological agreements we might have.

However, as a member of city Council, Rob Ford remains a figure in our fair municipality, so it is fair to critique his, for lack of a better word, “rhetoric.” Especially when it is a rhetorical shift I see reflected on many levels of local and federal politics. And that is the shift in our language from talking about “citizens” to talking about “tax-payers.” It is a subtle distinction, but one with profound implications for how with think about others, and how we think about our own obligations to our community.

Amanda PassportIt may seem like these categories of “citizen” and “tax-payers” are simply different terms for the same reality. That is not the case. Let me give you an example. I am a tax-payer. I am not a (Canadian) citizen. My infant daughter who, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet filled out a tax return is a loyal subject of the British crown. These categories matter.

Amanda, simply by virtue of her birth, is entitled to certain rights and privileges of “citizenship” in Canada. Those rights and privileges will remain hers whether she ever pays a penny of income tax or not. The language of politicians and other civil servants serving the interests of “tax-payers”, not citizens, concerns be because it excludes from the social contract those who do not have the economic stability to monetarily contribute to society–the homeless, the working poor, someone on physical disability or unemployment. Are our elected officials not called to serve the public good of all, not just those who pay for the privilege?

To speak of voters as “tax-payers” characterizes our social order as a monetary transaction. I pay my share, I expect my interests to be met by my elected officials! I pay my share to the government … now what is the government going to do for me?

From my perspective, such quid-pro-quo transactional thinking is not only deeply flawed, but it is anathema to the language of “citizenship.” My Canadian citizen daughter is, of course, entitled to certain benefits of citizenship. But citizenship also implies duties, responsibilities, something that we owe to our nation and to one another. According to Canadian Citizenship & Integration such duties include obeying the law, voting in elections, serving on juries, respecting the rights and needs of others in our communities. The reason politicians can get away with the shift to serving only “tax-payers” is that it requires so much less from US. Thinking of ourselves as consumers owed services from our public services as a remittence for our own financial contribution to the government allows us to conveniently ignore the fact that we all share responsibilities for building up the common good. Maybe the government will repay each one of us according to our personal tax contribution. But that’s unlikely. It’s also ok, because that’s not what the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are really about.

On top of all this, what remains to be said is that such transactional, quid-pro-quo thinking is toxic not only to our political well-being, but also to our spiritual well-being. There are no tax-payers in the Kingdom of Heaven. We do not achieve a state of blessing from God by paying our dues of spiritual virtue or good behaviour. Rather, we are made citizens of Heaven through God’s all-encompassing gift of Grace. As citizens of heaven, we are called and challenged to consider not what we are owed from God but what we can give of ourselves back to God and to one another. We are called to give no less than all ourselves. And in giving, we gain more that we can ever ask or imagine.

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Does God chart our Milestones?

Yesterday was Amanda’s first birthday. Celebrated with appropriate fanfare of silly hats, copious Winnie-the-Pooh decorations, and cake smash in her tiny baby hands. Good times were had by all.

IMG_3793With a baby’s first birthday comes the inevitable reflection–where did the time go? My baby’s growing up! I’m getting old! But I will save such over-conventional pondering for another time. No, now I want to take on the scam that is tracking baby milestones. I’m convinced the whole phenomenon is just a conspiracy by the baby product industry to sell baby memory books and other markers of infant nostalgia. Everywhere you look in the baby-rearing world, the same questions appear–when did your baby start sitting up? What were your baby’s first words? And, most relevant to our situation at the moment, when did or will your baby start walking!?

There’s just one problem. When I sit down to try to be a dutiful mother and fill out the details of Amanda’s baby book so that, presumably, she can look back one day and track her development … I find myself unable to provide sufficient answers to those questions. I don’t really know when Amanda started standing on her own. What counts as standing? Pulling herself up on her activity table? Or up on the bookshelf where she can then proceed to fling all the books off the shelves? Standing for half a second on her own before falling over? Does standing for 9 seconds make the cut, or do we have to wait a full count of 10? Amanda’s been saying “Mama” consistently for weeks now. Sometimes it seems to refer to me, but sometimes it also seems directed at the dog? I don’t know exactly when those phonemes manifested themselves as her first official “words.” Don’t even get me started on the question of walking. What constitutes “walking”? Walking independently? Taking one step or two … or three? Walking while holding on to mommy or daddy’s finger? It’s pretty clear when a baby has passed from one stage into another. Amanda crawling all over the house and learning how to torment the poor dog is clearly a very different tiny human creature from the version of Amanda that could for whom it was a great accomplishment to be able to turn her head from side to side when she was placed on her tummy at 6 weeks old. But the precise moments that mark the transitions between these various stages are often fuzzy and quite challenging to note.

My point is this–babies are complicated. A shocking point I know. And yet it seems to be something we collectively forget as we try to track and monitor our children’s development. The transition from newborn to “baby” isn’t clear cut. The transition from baby to toddler? When exactly does that happen? In my more cynical moments, I would suggest that this emphasis on needing to track those precise moments of change and transition in an infant’s life are just one more thing that society as a whole can smugly conspire to make parents feel guilty about. But, ultimately, I think it’s a lot less malicious than that.

As often broken, mixed up, fallible, complicated human beings, we are always trying to avoid dealing with how broken, mixed up, fallible, and complicated we inevitably are. It is so much easier to fabricate clear boundaries and classifications and to try to fit both ourselves and others into those rigid boxes. This is particularly insidious when we apply such language to our spiritual lives when it comes to issues like religious conversion or demarcating who is “in” and “out” of God’s kingdom. If we’re really honest about it though, passing those “milestones” on our personal journey to become more like the image of Christ are just as difficult to pinpoint as determining what exactly constitutes a baby’s first word or a first step. I am reminded of the passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader describing the days and weeks following the spoiled Eustace’s “conversion”:

“It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of these I shall not note. The cure had begun.”

It is fair to say that, like Eustace, we are all on a spiritual trajectory. Some days we will do a better job of reflecting the perfect image of God’s self-giving love in our lives than we will do on others. One day, by the grace of God, we may be fully perfected into God’s likeness (a helpful reminder as we approach the celebration of All Saints’). But getting there will be a messy, ambiguous process full of false starts and incremental transformation. Fortunately, I think God is much more interested in looking at that process than in meticulously tracking our progress along the way.

Are Sri Lankans Human?

As I’ve been preparing my presentation on the incomparable Dorothy L. Sayers for our upcoming education series at the church, I have had the opportunity to re-discover her insightful lecture “Are Women Human.” In it, she hits the nail on the head of the challenge of female empowerment in a patriarchal society: Women are not viewed as fully human. Males are human. Women are … something else entirely. As she notes:

“Women are not human. They lie when they say they have human needs: warm and decent clothing [as opposed to merely attractive clothing]; interests directed immediately to God and his universe, not immediately through any child of man. They are far above man to inspire him, far beneath him to corrupt him; they have feminine minds and feminine natures, but their mind is not one with their nature like the minds of men; they have no human mind and no human nature.”

Sayers’ point is very simple. The culture of mid-20th century Britain she inhabited was decidedly masculine. Women were truly the “opposite” sex. To be fully human is to be male.

It hardly needs to be said that Sayers was decidedly ahead of her time in this manner of thinking. Still today, we see evidence all the time that males are normative. Female is the other. My friends are probably sick of me railing against toy stores marketing what I would see as purely gender-neutral items to boys and clearly “gendered” items to my daughter. (Seriously, does she need *pink* stacking rings? She’s just going to chew on them anyway.) On a more serious note, I have been watching the video game industry explode in recent weeks, as male games launch violent, sadistic threats against female game designers and commentators who threaten their erstwhile boys’ club.

As much pleasure as we all know I get from railing against the patriarchy, I do think the same question can very rightly be turned to all of us in the west (both male and female) as it concerns the plight of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. At this point, we have probably all heard the cries from various individuals calling for Canada (or the US) to close its borders to any travelers coming from West Africa. Yes, we know that it will just make the problem worse *over there.* But that’s *over there.* Our responsibility, and the responsibility of our government, but be to keep *our* people safe, no matter what the cost. The implication is that the people of the developing world are, ever so slightly, less than human for not being affluent, educated, predominantly white North Americans. This image making the social media rounds sums the situation up nicely.

dhiloAdmittedly, most of us are not going to be so heartless as to put up a giant wall around West African and leave its inhabitants to their unfortunate fate. Yet I wonder how often we grasp the full humanity of people on the other side of the world. It is all too easy to write off those who live in different cultures, whom we encounter only superficially (if at all) in the media, as not quite as fully human as ourselves. We see them as statistics, as headlines, but not always as complicated, joyful, suffering, faithful, broken people.

We were very fortunate this past week to have Bishop Dhilo Canagasabey of Columbo, Sri Lanka visiting us at Grace Church this week. He is a fascinating, inspiring Christian leader, and he put a very human face on the tumultuous situation between the Nationalist and the Militants that continues to this day in Sri Lanka. I was particularly touched by his meditation on the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Christian Church in his country, as Sinhalese and Tamils drink together from the same cup of Christ’s blood. There is no division in the Body of Christ.

I think that, in our own context, we can expand the application of his words. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we are made one not just with our brothers and sisters in Christ in our own community (though that is a powerful enough image). We are also united with those sharing the body and blood of Christ around the world, whether that means a family suffering from Ebola in Liberia, a community living under the threat of ISIS in Iraq, or a disenfranchised Christian living in Palestine. Our faith gives us no room to view their experience as somehow less human than our own. Once we grasp our connection with our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world, we might remember as well that all people, regardless of race or religion are made in the image of God. We have a responsibility to seek our their stories and put a face to their experiences. We cannot always wait for them to come to us.

Creation, Thanksgiving and Bilbo

I spend a lot of time here lately talking about my rambunctious little goblin of a baby. Awesome as she is, I would hate for you to think I have taken to neglecting Bilbo.

For those of you who have never met him, I have a ridiculous dog named Bilbo. Bilbo wants to be friends with everyone he meets, but he chooses to express this by howling at them as if they were a violent intruder. He needs to work on his social skills. When I took Amanda over to meet Sam the self-assured cat, our intrepid baby intrepidly approached her potential feline friend with delight and determination. Fifty-five pound Bilbo, on the other hand, leapt into my lap in fear and did not stop trembling until we were well on our way back home. He looks at the gate we have half-heartedly leaned up against the doorway between the living room and the dining room as if it were an impenetrable fortress. I am not sure if his border collie genes failed to bestow proper intelligence upon him, or if he just is so obedient that he never tries to knock it over.

Bilbo is very stylish.

Bilbo is very stylish.

At any rate, as I sit here on a beautiful fall afternoon, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of Starbucks with a coffee and a pumpkin scone it occurs to me that we are almost exactly half-way between two not unrelated celebrations: St Francis Day and Thanksgiving. (Even if the American in me can’t quite bring myself to justify the legitimacy of Thanksgiving celebrated in October.)

If you think about it, thanksgiving and the Feast of St. Francis do have rather a lot in common. It is rather unfortunate that we all too easily fall into the practice of treating Thanksgiving as if the spiritual impetus for the holiday were merely sitting down and enumerating the various things we are thankful for: I am thankful for a happy, healthy daughter, for a husband who’s willing to be an awesome stay at home dad, and for Farscape. Never forget Farscape. But lets be honest. We can never really, fully articulate all those things that we are (or ought to be) thankful for. For many of us, the scope of God’s blessing is just too vast for our comprehension. Not only that, but that attitude of treating thanksgiving as a time merely to “count our blessings” is also troublingly self-focused. Thanksgiving becomes a celebration about what God has done for ME, not what God has done for the whole world. Perhaps we are better off if our sense of Thanksgiving is less about trying to count all the specific things God we believe that God has given US and more about the goodness and bounty in all of God’s creation.

Thus the connection between this autumnal celebration of gratitude and the Feast of St. Francis. What more do we celebrate when we commemorate St Francis than the goodness of God which is made manifest in the whole of creation? Francis reminds us, in a way, that God’s creation is something glorious and wonderful in its own right, not just in terms of what it bestows upon us. We hold services of blessing for our pets because we recognize that God loves all his creation—including our fuzzy, furry, scaly, or slimy critters. And we are reminded that in caring for them, we care for one of God’s believed creatures.

And so we return to my peculiar pup. I am thankful for Bilbo. Some days, I’m not sure why. He doesn’t really do anything for me. He barks at all the wrong times, and he has a tendency to lick the baby far more often than I’d like. When I want to get something done, he insists on getting all up in my personal space. But when I’m home alone and just want to cuddle on the couch, he will have nothing to do with me. He is, in other words, weird and wonderful, just like God’s delightful creation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Oy with the Poodles Already!

Recently, I came to a very important self-realization. As much as I may stay somewhat aware of what’s happening in pop culture (harder to do with a baby in hand, it has to be said) the world is moving further and further away from what was clearly the peak pop culture era of the late 90s-late 2000s. I will never love TV shows the way I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pushing Daisies, or Farscape. And while it might not seem to fit in the same genre, I have to add to the list — the Gilmore Girls.

I love the Gilmore Girls. And clearly I am not the only one, as it seems the internet has risen up in cry of collective delight to celebrate the fact that as of today, October 1, all seven seasons of the series are now available on Netflix. Sure, I already have the whole show on either DVD or downloaded from i-tunes. But now my love of the Gilmore Girls and my love of laziness meet in one convenient package as I no longer have to go through the arduous process of putting in a DVD to revisit the antics of the lovely people of Stars Hollow. It is a happy day, indeed.

On somewhat deeper reflection, however, it has been incredibly fascinating to note the diverse sources online expressing so much delight at the addition of Gilmore Girls to the Netflix line up. It’s is clear that the Gilmore Girls have been this quiet fan-favourite show ticking along quietly underneath the main stream of popular culture for well over a decade now. And yet, everyone seems compelled to offer their apology for why they like this quirky, crazy little show.

And I get it. I was a “closet” Gilmore Girls fan for years. Any time I mentioned the goings-on of Lorelai or Rory, I would always sheepishly admit … “Oh, you know, Gilmore Girls. It’s my little guilty pleasure.” I even teased Leeman several years ago when I discovered he had started watching the series on his own. After all, a GUY isn’t supposed to watch a show about GIRLS!

That is when it hit me that I was sheepishly ashamed of the Gilmore Girls … because it is a show about “girls.” Who cares if it has an ensemble cast with great chemistry, some of the most clever dialogue on TV, and a refreshingly honest way of depicting the complex webs that are human relationships? Girls are dumb, ergo, a show like this could never really be more that a guilty pleasure. It is a subtle, but telling, example of the way in which we are conditioned by society to view things pertaining to women as somehow “lesser” than things pertaining to men. I think about this quite a lot lately now that I have a daughter of my own. It is ok for girls to play with boy toys, but somehow we look askance at boys who would choose to play with girl toys. In fact, we cannot even ask boys to condescend to include female super heroes in their merchandize — even when the female heroes are part of whatever franchise is being marketed at the moment. No Wonder Woman in the Justice League. No Black Widow in the Avengers, No Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Amanda is deeply distressed that there are no female action heroes at the Disney store.

Amanda is deeply distressed that there are no female action heroes at the Disney store.

My somewhat sheepish reluctance to admit how much I enjoy the Gilmore Girls illustrates how insidious prejudicial thoughts that privilege the stories of one group of people over another can infect our unconscious attitudes to the world we encounter. As “enlightened” or “progressive” as I was trying to be, I was selling my gender short by dismissing a clever, moving show (one FULL of fascinating, dynamic, and diverse women) … just because it was about women. If I could let those unspoken assumptions impact my attitude towards something as nominally trivial as a TV show, consider how such prejudices and dangerous assumptions manifest themselves in our attitudes and behaviours towards actual people we encounter in our actual lives. That is a potentially disturbing thought and one we must be conscious of within the church as we fight for justice and equality for all people. How much are we ourselves still subject to problematic attitudes?

I have no easy answers to these questions. So, for now, I will merely leave them here for us to ponder. And go binge watch some Gilmore Girls. Oy with the poodles already!