The Playing Field

Sometimes life just isn’t fair, right? Seems like sometimes no matter where you go, someone’s right around the corner waiting to get over on you. Sometimes it feels like you’re not even safe from this right in your own neighborhood. I learned this firsthand a few months ago. It was a beautiful, bright June morning. It was actually King Kamehameha Day, when I arrived home from coffee with some friends. And I felt pretty lucky that morning because I found a parking space close to my house. Usually there were temporary signs on little sawhorses posted by this spot restricting parking there for construction vehicles, but it was a Kamehameha Day miracle: there were no signs up this morning.

And I thought, “Wow, I like how seriously people take this holiday.” But then on the way to my apartment, I noticed that the signs that used to be up werethere, but they were face down by the curb. And when I saw this, there was a little, tiny twinge in the reason portion of my brain that wondered if those signs were taken down by the construction company with the license to use them, or by some enthusiastic revelers who knew that the next day was a holiday, and not a workday. But the sure and abiding faith I had in this holiday and what I understood to be the lifting of the parking restrictions on this day, overrode any twinge of worry. And besides, if someone saw my car there, and saw the signs were down, they wouldn’t dream of putting the signs back up next to my car…and then be monster enough to have my car ticketed or towed, right?

And so it was a few hours later, into this blissful holiday mood in my apartment, maybe enjoying some iced coffee, that the faint call of tiny trumpets intruded, tiny trumpets better known as a car alarm, but the brief protest of the alarm ended quickly, and besides, I didn’t recognize it as my own. But again, for an instant, I had the fleeting sense that it might be my Malibu’s call of distress, but again I rested confident in the idea that this holiday meant my car was safe from attack.

So it was when I went to my car to meet a friend for coffee, when that sinking, awful feeling, lurched in my belly, as all the tiny twinges I ignored all came to be, when there was no car in the spot. But there they were. Along the curb, someone, a monster, replaced the “No Parking” signs that were down, including one right next to where my car used to be. It was just sitting there, silently mocking me, scorning me, one of the sawhorses of the apocalypse.

Maybe it was fitting that this occurred in June, when the earth is at its maximum tilt toward the sun, when there is the least amount of balance between the night and the day, when the Earth is at one of two of the most precarious angles of the year spinning through space. It was far from the time of year we celebrate today, the time of year when we are called again to consider balance between the night and the day, between the faces of the earth and the faces of our own community.

This is my favorite kind of holiday. There are many kinds of holidays or celebrations we enjoy together. Some like King Kamehameha Day might be a fixed date, but it is celebrated on a particular day so it can be most effectively commemorated with parades, or feasts, or with the well-known and well-loved tradition of tipping over “No Parking” signs. These are the kind of holidays that are very human. They are attached to a date in a calendar created by humans and have some wiggle room in when they’re really celebrated.

But an equinox is not like that. Neither is a solstice. These are events that happen at a fixed point in time and space. The equinox happens to us. We don’t pick the day or the hour to commemorate it. It just happens to us at a fixed instant. There is an astrophysical certainty to the moment, down to the atomic second when the equinox happens. Google tells us it was 3:54 pm yesterday, here in Hawaii. And no matter where else you were in the universe at that time, that is the instant it happened. Isn’t that kind of relaxing—the same event happening to all the people at exactly the same time?

Maybe it’s so relaxing or maybe it stands out a little because this kind of treatment, the same thing happening to all the people of the earth at the same time, seems somehow only to be possible by things as powerful as the star at the center of our solar system or the forces that fling our earth, wobbling from axis to axis, around this system at mind bending speed. Only things this powerful, it seems, can accomplish the feat of impacting all the world in exactly the same way.

Because the world, most of us know, the world we think of as part of what humans are doing on it and to it is not living into this lesson of balance. Taking questionable towing practices out of the discussion for the moment, there are vastly more painful and pronounced examples of this imbalance surrounding us every day. But let’s look at just one that was in the news this week.

Many of us saw stories this week about where we are as an economy ten years after the great economic meltdown of 2008. That meltdown might have been one of the more disgusting human-created events, born of the unholy union of unquenchable greed and unconscionable morals. And on its anniversary recognized this week, many outlets ran stories with sort of a then vs. now spin. But the bulk of what I read had one message that kept coming through: people on the whole did not recover from that collapse as well as many economic indicators might tell us. Yes, the stock market has roared back, but the lives of the people who live in this country did not. And it is no mystery why this is the case.

We have seen, we have felt, we have lived, for an entire decade, in the reason why this disparity exists. The stock market is roaring back because the lives of many people are not getting better. See, the ways that more employers began treating more employees after 2008 was with the very clear message that “You should just be happy you have a job. Look around you. People are out of work everywhere.” Many employers used this as a chance to cut payrolls, cynically, even when their company was not affected directly by the downturn, and companies heaped more and more responsibilities on employees who stayed, sometimes combining two jobs into one, and expecting those “lucky enough” to have their jobs to do both jobs. Many businesses were remade in this way in 2008, and many have not changed much, aside from being more profitable and more of an awful place to work. And when you add the erosion in many states of any kind of public option of healthcare, employers continue to gain power and advantage not only over employees, but over the very health of employees’ families. And so it remains out of balance. And sometimes, individuals react in funny ways to the imbalances we feel. And I am not immune.

See, since King Kamehameha Day, I have to own up to doing a little bit of backsliding. For those of you unfamiliar with the more evangelical strands of the tapestry of faith in this country, “backsliding” means returning to some of our old ways we used to take part in before we found a new way. See, after my car was towed I sent a very nice letter to the construction company suggesting there was a misunderstanding and that they might consider reimbursing me for the cost of the tow. They didn’t answer.

So I sent a second letter to the company, all beginning with “Aloha” and ending with “Mahalo,” all only one page, just a few well-reasoned paragraphs, maintaining that I believe this might have been an oversight that can easily be corrected. They didn’t answer again.

So 1, 2, skip a few, let’s flash forward to this past Thursday morning, when I walked into Courtroom 10A at 1111 Alakea street to plead my case before a judge. But when I walked into court Thursday, I was not alone. The clerk was there in her spot by the bench. And there was another person there, earlier than I was to court.

I sat toward the back of the courtroom. He was seated almost in front. And I watched as he took out his cellphone. He took pictures of the legal papers he had with him, and I could tell he was smiling when he did. Not something you see every day in court. Then he raised his cell phone to eye level, switched the phone to “selfie” mode, and he made sure to get as much of the courtroom and the entrance to the courtroom in the shot as he could before he smiled real big and took his selfie.

And something quiet in my mind, not unlike what told me I might reconsider my parking job said, “That’s my guy.” And when the clerk asked him what case he was there for it became clear we were on opposing sides of the case. This was the guy I’d hauled into court. This was my monster. And when he realized who I was, he came right over to me, he put out his hand, and he smiled and grinned like a kid, like the kid we are all inside, and he said, “I’m sorry about all if this. And I’m sorry about not responding to your letters.”

And then we talked for about fifteen minutes about pretty much everything other than this case: what it’s like being a commercial contractor in Honolulu, what it was like to go from lawyer to minister, real stuff. And in the end he confessed that he knew skipping the court date would have been the wiser strategy, but he really came down to the courthouse for the fun of it.

I wish I could tell you all of what happened after that, but the mediation process we both agreed to enter requires confidentiality for all that went on during the mediation. But I can tell you that outside of the mediation, after getting to know each other a little bit, and even after tangling a little with me over arguments and numbers and how things would go for him at trial, my adversary, my faceless monster and I settled the case…but not before he tried to hire me as his lawyer.

One of the things that can get confusing in our daily work together, in the challenges we face, the imbalances we experience, the seeming forces that oppose us at times, is the challenge of asking whether it is other people, individuals, who present opposition to what it is we want to do, or whether the very field of play we are on is skewed or unfair, pitched against us somehow.

The Unitarian Universalist movement has been focused for some time on the question of this field. We have been asked nationally, and here at this church, to look intensely at systemic racism and the oppressive forces of white supremacy culture at work, in play, on this soil. Sure, we can look at the lingering effects of the past ten years, but that is really like looking at a few of a team’s seasons rather than the entire history of a sport. Theologians, economists, and more than a few scholars of history suggest that America’s soil, the fields where the worst, the perhaps unredeemable actions, of a capitalist regime played out, might never be healed without wholesale, massive acts of reconciliation and even reparation. They suggest that we need to change entirely the game that has been stacked against members of our society, and in particular those members whose forebears were subjected to the institution of slavery, in real and tangible ways—not in ways that can be defunded, overturned, or turned to a political game.

And the reason they say this is not only to try to right one of the most horrific wrongs in history. They suggest that the impact this work will have on the soul of the entire nation, the entire capital system we live in, would be hugely beneficial for everyone in the system. The entire field of play would be altered for everyone forever, approaching the balance once again this day reminds us is possible.

In our shared belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and its twin belief that we are part of an interconnected whole, there lies a very hard proposition to accept. Even those who take advantage of others, who misuse power to gain advantage over others, who want things out of balance, some Unitarian Universalists would argue, our First Principle to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all, suggests to me that I have to include those people, all  people, in this belief.

And there are times I can see that, when I can get there, when I can love their inner child grinning back at me in delight, but I assure you the moments when I can do this are not those moments when I’m staring at an empty parking space where my car used to be, or when a group of eleven men whom one political party has seen fit to place on a Judiciary Committee, plans publicly to question a woman who dares to unearth and share publicly a trauma she experienced at the hands of a person who could well enjoy a lifetime appointment to one of the most influential posts in the nation. It’s hard to get there sometimes friends.

But in the balance we celebrate today, taking on the energy of new members in this community, greeting new members yesterday over food, fellowship, and fun, or even meeting someone face to face who I thought was picking a fight but was really just busy, there is a bright shining gleam of that dignity, and the suggestion of this principle does yet again find a balance on a personal level.

But the history of systematic oppression, where the playing field is not even at all, where the power wielded over the individual is not the mere whim, caprice, or thoughtless word or deed, it is a stacked deck and a fixed game. Where that is the case, we must do more than shake hands or shake it off. Our Seventh Principle, that we are part of an interconnected whole, suggests that actions we take to heal a hurting world can be felt beyond our interpersonal relationships. And so it is fitting that we unveil officially the display of the 7 Unitarian Universalist principles, and the 8thprinciple, adopted here by this congregation, devoted to dismantling oppression and systematic racism in our world. It is a beautiful and a fitting reminder of so much of the work this congregation has done already. And even the way the 8thPrinciple came to be displayed involved a decision by your Board of Directors to find a place of prominence. Your Gallery Team and Aesthetics Team took significant time and consideration both to find just the right spot and to provide some comments about the look and feel of the presentation. Individual members devoted time and resources to its creation. And even friends of the congregation, children, spouses, some of whom are not even members, lent their talents and expertise to this project. And your new 8thPrinciple Task Force saw to its completion.

We now unveil this marvel of cooperation and hope. And as we do let us be reminded not of words on a page, creeds of old, or rules to follow. Rather let us acknowledge the imperfections of language that yet help point us to the perfect balance our wobbling world tells us today is possible, the balance between the compassion for individuals that comes with embracing new souls, and the compassion we carry to our wider world from doing so, the balance of the justice that starts as it always should at home, in this, ourhome, the justice that might ring out in the world from the start we make here together, and most important, the balance of the joy that comes when what was lost is found here for so many, and the joy our work together might stitch into the fabric of this interconnected, wobbling world, strengthening it for those who will come after us.

And may the dreams we know waking, and the dreams we know sleeping, come at last into harmony with all we sense in this world to be right, and just and true. And most of all, may we give life to these dreams together. And may it always be so.

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