The Marbles Sermon

On June 28th, 2015, I delivered a sermon entitled ‘Marbles’ to Arlington Street Church (Unitarian Universalist, “Gathered in Love and Service for Justice and Peace”, kickin’ it from the new pad by Boston’s Public Gardens since 1861). I believe it was a rainy Sunday, a couple of days after the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples could marry nationwide. I share this here because I managed to fit describing an aspect of Agility into a sermon. Also you’ll find some words in all-caps: I’m doin’ this live, so I’ll take all tactics to not mess up, which included printing this out in size 24 font. Take no parishioners prisoners.

My close friends will recognize the first third, a.k.a. ‘the marbles story’.

by Merrill B. Lamont III

When I was 6 years old, there was this freckled red-head named Gemma from Australia, and I asked her to marry me. Here’s the setup.

It’s recess. It’s 1988. Ponytails were flying sideways NOT because it’s windy, but because it’s 1988. Kids surrounded an impromptu arena of 12 slabs of concrete, all in a row. On one end was Gemma. On the other was a girl 3 years older. In the middle was a King-sized Dragon Egg. Passed back and forth between the 2 gladiators… was a God-sized Steelie. Historians and economists will agree: these were two of the most VALUABLE MARBLES on the local market, and they were BOTH up for grabs. All you had to do, was roll your marble, kind of like bowling, and knock the marble in the middle OFF of its crack in the concrete. You walk in with 1 marble, and the first to get to 3 hits, walks away with both. Ladies and gentlemen, for a 6-year-old, THIS was a high-stakes game!

I’ll cut to the chase: THIS was a high-stakes game… that Gemma won. As she walked towards the middle to rightfully claim both her prizes, the other girl, the older girl, the taller girl, the girl… with a larger stride, got to the middle before Gemma could, grabbed both marbles, and walked away, parting through an onslaught of “boo”s. Ladies and gentlemen, for a 6-year-old, THIS was scandal!

And this… made Gemma cry.

And this… made me turn on auto-pilot. I marched up to Gemma, who at this point was by her lunch box positioned where you would line up to be led back inside, and I gave her a hug. And she hugged back. And it felt right. And because I was still on auto-pilot, I did the next logical thing – I asked her to marry me. She said, “No”. I asked, “Why”? She said… a bunch of things that I couldn’t fully make out because she was still crying in a think Australian accent. So I gave her another hug. And she hugged me back. And it felt right.

That’s when I looked up, and across the heat streaming off of the baking concrete, I saw Meher from Pakistan, Sabah from India, and Sangeetha from Bangladesh. They were looking in our direction, and it no longer felt right. In that moment, I realized that I was acting against a societal norm, because I was in Saudi Arabia, and although I was born there, I am not Saudi, so I was not home. NONE of the kids on that playground were home, and one day, we would ALL go home… some of us, to a land where a guy hugging a girl, could feel right.

This shaping of my world view is what I think about when someone mentions ‘marbles’.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing the word ‘marble’, or, in its plural and I would argue its more common form, ‘marbles’, is NOT a word you would encounter on a daily, nay, a weekly basis – no.

But for me, I have marbles prominently displayed on my desk at work. They sit in this bowl, where, drinking from it, is a zebra – all made from the same piece of wood. Imagine the zebra’s head, submerged in the marbles, all next to a sign that reads, “Do not feed the Zebra. Thank you. signed, the management”. I’m describing this in some detail because NOW I want you to imagine somebody walking up to me to talk about something work-related, and without hesitation, running a hand through the marbles. Imagine the clickity-clack sound. That rustling calm in combination with that tactile sensation is one of the TWO purposes that THING is there. Through our day we live in our HEADS… MUCH more than we live in our BODIES, so I offer this opportunity to bring one back into the present, while activating other areas of the brain as we think through something together. The OTHER purpose, of that THING, is to signify that this is a PLAY SAFE ZONE. WE TAKE BEING SILLY… VERY SERIOUSLY. (Sometimes with an attempt at a British accent.)

Lately, ‘marbles’ to me represent how laughing together is to be encouraged in the workplace, for happy teams get more done. My role in all this is the culmination of self-discovery that I can proudly say has been significantly guided by Tricia, my wife. Growing up a skinny kid… with acne… and a funny name, to a skinny adult… with acne… and a funny name, being comfortable in my own skin, literally, has been a challenge. And now because of heightened self-expression, I can relate to the marble. I see a thing that is colorful, playful, smooth. I see… myself?
Aaaaand I have just compared myself to a glass choking hazard. Surely, I have lost… my… say it with me ON 3… 1, 2, MARBLES!

(That was the audience participation piece. Thanks for playing.)

Jokes aside, ‘marbles’ now represent the type of FATHER I hope to be – Tricia is due mid-July.

When I see children play, I view it as them discovering their world, sometimes by pushing the limits of SOMETHING (…or …someone), answering the question, “What happens if…”. These are essentially experiments, rooted in an innate curiosity. The type of father I want to be is one who fosters that sense of play, for this is a way to LIVE, let alone work. In the tech industry, this is a relatively new paradigm, and gaining traction. Instead of directing lots of time and treasure towards building out a big idea, then putting it out there and hoping it sticks, why not experiment with less time and less treasure, building out a small version of the big idea, and putting THAT out there and see if THAT sticks? This is how you get feedback quickly to see if the rest of your big idea is even worth it. So besides trying new things more often, experimenting like this also means FAILING more often.

THIS is what I want to impart upon my little one. Failing is OK, and it is to be expected, because it means you’re trying – it means you’re experimenting – it means you’re pushing the limits – it means you’re discovering your world – you are playing – you are truly living. What you DO with “failure”, informs your next step towards ALLLLL your big ideas.

So yeah – exemplifying a sense of play as a model for living, and sharing that notion as a father – is what comes to me when I look at a marble now.

Folks, let me come clean: I don’t actually care about marbles. I care about what that word stands for, and specifically, how that has changed through my life so DRASTICALLY. Take my life story, shove it in a box, tilt that box on its edge, then tilt it again, now onto a corner, and NOW slice awkwardly through that to reveal how the meaning of ‘marbles’ has evolved. From shaping a world view, to embracing self-discovery, to raising a kid, THIS is the MEANDERING JOURNEY of a WORD as a SYMBOL.

THIS is PECULIAR, and, folks, it is THIS FASCINATION that I wanted to share with y’all. Whether it is a tale of how you will grow a person you are yet to meet, or how you met yourself, or how you learned to play with others in your local sandbox, I AM ADVOCATING for YOUR random slice of life, and what uniquely colorful little stories will spill out. I am sure they are all… MARBLOUS.