"No Brown M&M's: On Being Faithful in Small Things"

May 8, 2011
Stuart Twite, Pulpit Guest

by Stephen Dunn

My friend the pessimist thinks I'm optimistic
because I seem to believe in the next good thing.
But I see rueful shadows almost everywhere.
When the sun rises I think of collisions and AK-47s.
It's my mother's fault, who praised and loved me,
sent me into the dreadful world as if
it would tell me a story I'd understand. The fact is
optimism is the enemy of happiness.
I've learned to live for the next good thing
because lifelong friends write good-bye letters,
because regret follows every timidity.
I'm glad I know that all great romances are fleshed
with failure. I'll take a day of bitterness and rain
to placate gods, to get it over with.
My mother told me I could be a great pianist
because I had long fingers. My fingers are small.

It's my mother's fault, every undeserved sweetness.


My usual method, such as it is, of preparing a sermon is to start with a story, or an idea or event that I can't get out of my head.  Usually, therefore I have a title before I have a fully formed idea of where I plan to go with it. The same was true this week. But events in the world set my mind in other directions and, what began as a pretty straightforward sermon about paying attention to the details has become a Mother's Day / Osama bin Laden / where are we as Americans / finding character and safety in the simple things sermon, and it is my somewhat desperate hope that by the end some essential unity will be found.

My original starting point was a story that I heard on the radio about the band Van Halen. Like many (or even most) adolescent boys, I passed through a rock and roll fantasy phase. I played guitar, and while I had saved up the wages and tips I made as a waiter at the Oxbow Restaurant to buy a Fender Stratocaster guitar, I couldn't afford much of an amplifier. So for a time I had a home-made amp that crackled with distortion and emitted an electronic hum that I can still hear in the back of my head. As it is Mother's Day, let me take a moment to apologize to mine for the hours she spent with that amplifier in the background noise of her life.

When I was about 13 or 14, my favorite band was Van Halen, and their guitar player, Eddie Van Halen, was my guitar hero. They were loud and fast and personified the rock and roll life (I was going to ask Gingy and the choir to sing "Running with the Devil" or "Ain't Talking ‘bout Love" today but decoded at the last minute not to). It was, for example, reported that in their contracts that they would send out to concert venues, amidst all the technical requirements, was a clause that required, in their backstage rooms a bowl of M&M's with all the brown ones removed. This story was often used by critics as an example of arrogant rock diva-ness.

According to this story, however, diva-ness was not at all the point of the M&M clause. Van Halen concerts were huge events. They traveled with seven semi trucks full of sound, light and stage equipment which all together weighed tons. In the late 70's, they often found themselves playing venues that were used for bands with maybe one truck full of equipment. These places were not necessarily capable of structurally sustaining Van Halen's huge show, and therefore safety was a huge concern. Because promoters and venue owners wanted a Van Halen show no matter what, they were notorious for not reading contracts carefully. When Van Halen showed up for a concert and saw bowls of M&M's with brown ones removed, they could be assured that the contract had been read carefully and that the concert would be safe for them and the audience.  If not…

For me, this story illustrates a deeply profound idea- maybe amongst the most profound of ideas for our lives as individuals and together as cultural, political and religious beings. It is that our safety and security, contentment and even our joy, lies in paying deep attention to the basic details of life- the small bits often obscured by the noise and pervasiveness of what surrounds us. A big part of living a religious life is the search for a brown M&M clause. This truth was further brought home for me this week with the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs on the order of President Obama and, especially by the human and media response to that momentous event. I am not going to talk today about the morality of the actual action because I am a bundle of ambiguous feelings.  In theory, I am opposed to government-sanctioned killing but can muster not even theoretical sympathy for Osama bin Laden. It was the reaction of the population and the media that made the biggest impact on me, for good but mostly for the ill. I offer, for example, the following two small vignettes. The first comes from a news comment on a major network this past Monday. "The fact", said this commentator, "that this wasn't a drone but an actual American soldier shooting him right in the face, just like in a Hollywood move, was great for Brand America". The second was one of those Facebook "status" quotes that make the rounds. It went like this and I quote: "So, bin Laden is standing before God waiting to hear his punishment. God gets a tap on his shoulder. There behind Him stand 343 firemen, 72 police officers, one K-9 officer, 3000 American citizens and over 5000 soldiers. They say "Don't worry God – we've got this".  

On some level I can comprehend both of these reactions. After all, what Osama bin Laden did on 9/11 was to take away a certain baseline of safety and security that most Americans felt before that horrendous day. America as America, our swagger, our confidence was, perhaps, irreparably shaken. And that, of course, is the very definition of terrorism. So for many who ask "How can we get that bedrock confidence back?", the answer is to take it back, John Wayne-style, Hollywood-style, thus preserving "Brand America".

The other answer is, of course, the human desire for revenge. The image of all those lost on 9/11, after almost ten years in heaven, petitioning God to let them loose on bin Laden provides some visceral relief but, when fleshed out is so deeply… my first thought was disturbing, but really the better word is sad. But you know what? Revenge and the protection of "Brand America" at least seem like something. And without something, the fear and uncertainty is intolerable. The whole point becomes about from where do we get our feeling of safety and security. From where comes the brown M&M clause in our great contract with ourselves, each other and God, the clause that we can point to and say "Look, there is evidence of our safety; someone is paying attention. All will be well."

The idea of a swaggering "Brand America" or of bloody revenge cannot, despite our fondest hopes, provide us with this sense of ultimate safety and security because both, of course, have quite the opposite long-term effect. Revenge, famously, is sweet, but its sweetness inevitably becomes the gall and wormwood of a never-ending cycle. And a "Brand America" based on might and Hollywood-like power only feeds discontent.

For me, America's brown M&M clause comes from a very simple source. Unitarian Universalism's first principle proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all people and America at its best is a place where that principle is lived out everyday. In red states and blue, liberal and conservative houses, Tea Party rallies, in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, people get up, do the best they can for their families, try to help out others where they can, and try to do the right as they see it. All that is done despite our fears, our prejudices and our political ideologies. We as individual human beings are better than out ideologies or our politics. We are bombarded with images in the media of how we fail to do these things, and those failures are real. Yet, the better angels of our natures are on constant quiet display. That is what makes America string. That is what makes fear tolerable.

Nowhere is that strength more demonstrated than amongst the people we celebrate today. Mothers. I remember all too well before our first daughter Molly born. I was pretty sure I was ready for it. After all, I have a sister 13 years younger than me. My brothers and I changed her diapers, babysat and watched over her. It can't be too much different than that, I told myself. A friend of mine told me that once you have a daughter, you never have a good night's sleep again. While that is an exaggeration, it's not by so much.  It is also a cliché that you don't really appreciate your parents until you become one. Truer words, however, were never spoken. For a big part of parenting is fear. Nothing reveals our natures more than parenting. The good, the bad and the ugly are all exposed everyday.  Uncertainty and feelings of ultimate powerlessness and inadequacy are the constant companions of parents. The contract that we make with our children is huge and the clauses often seem endless and undoable. Like Van Halen, it seems like we are dragging with us seven semi trucks full of stuff in a world that can only hold one or two. When you think you have one thing covered, another one emerges.

We long for a brown M&M clause that will prove us and our children safe, that makes it possible to go onstage everyday without feeling that a ton of equipment is going to fall on our heads. You may argue that that would be love. Love is what makes it all possible. Of course, that is true. I would argue, however, that love is why we sign the contract. In itself it causes as much anxiety as relief. After all, we fear losing that which we love.

Beyond that, is turn out, love is not what the Hallmark people and the Hollywood people say it is. Love, it turns out, is complicated.  It is what happens after the final scene in the movie, after the sentiment on the greeting card. It is doing what you need to do when no part of you wants to do it. Love is work.

Again, the question arises- what is the M&M clause in our contract with the people of this country, and of this world, and of this church, and of our neighborhoods, and, most profoundly, with our children. What is it that provides us a measure of safety? What is it that tells us that our seven semi trucks of stuff are going to fit into this venue we call daily life?

Believe it or not, it just might be that our M&M clause is… optimism. That's right, optimism. The word itself is fraught with abuse which, for me, is captured in my favorite Far Side cartoon. It pictures a scene from hell. A man, pushing a wheelbarrow, is whistling a happy tune as one devil attendant says to another, "We just are not reaching that guy". This false optimism tells us that the life we are living now is not our real life. Needless to say, that is not the optimism of which I speak. That kind of optimism is as Stephen Dunn writes, the "enemy of happiness". No, I speak of the optimism in our reading this morning. The optimism of "living for the next good thing" despite the "rueful shadows that are everywhere". It's the optimism that squarely looks at the world as it is and still gets you up in the morning to do the next right thing. 

It is the optimism of the great majority of Americans that I mentioned earlier. It is the optimism of my mother, who had to clean the bathroom after four young boys. That could not have been pleasant. It's the optimism of my mother-in-law Judy, who died just about one year ago. No matter what was going on in her own life, she would sit you down, look into your eyes with earnest caring and ask you how you were doing. Our flowers this morning are in her honor.

I close this morning with wisdom from three of my teachers. This is my bowl of M&Ms. First, the Roman poet Virgil wrote "Commend large fields, but cultivate small ones". Second, brother Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote "My whole philosophy, and it is very real, teaches acquiescence and optimism". Finally, Jesus of Nazareth said "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much". We have control over so very little. Our fears come from an inability to accept this. It is for us to do the nearest duty, cultivate the field in which we live and be faithful day by day. It may not be glamorous but it is everything else.  Amen.