A White Stone

 

The keynote address for the St. Albans High School Hall of Fame induction ceremony, July 23, 2016.

 

 

Revelation 2: 10b

 

“I will give him a white stone and on it a new name is inscribed, known only to him who receives it.”

 

This passage has intrigued me for a long time.  There is something mysterious and wonderful about it. Something glimpsed but not comprehended.  What can it mean?  And, better yet, what relevance can such an obscure passage have to our ceremony this evening?

Well, maybe we should start by taking a look at something a bit more obvious.

 

The late Pat Conroy started at point guard for the Citadel in the 1966-67 season and went on to become one of this country’s finest novelists.  All of us know his books: The Prince of Tides; The Lords of Discipline; The Great Santini.

 

About a year before his death, Conroy wrote a letter to his 13-year-old grandson who had made his middle-school basketball team.  Here is what Conroy told the boy about the game:

 

Basketball is a sport of inordinate nobility, and you owe it your deepest respect. Your character as a man and a player will be judged by how you comport yourself on the court in victory or defeat. By being gifted in a sport, you become a role model for everyone around you, your teammates, your family, your school, and your community. In sports, you will feel everything…elation, despair, wonder, failure. Sports can teach you everything you need to know about yourself. Carry yourself with immense pride.[1]

 

How is it that this paragraph, written in a letter in 2015, has anything in common with the passage of scripture written 2000 years before?

Here is the first hint:

In the ancient world and in the culture in which Saint John wrote, white stones had a particular significance.  They were a high and formal invitation and may have been small enough to fit comfortably in one’s hand.  They were tickets signifying admission to some celebration, to some honor.

 

We are here tonight to consider the past glory of some nine men who have received invitations of their own.  But tonight, even as we think on their past glory, I want each of you to think of your own.  That’s right, I am asking you to do the very thing that you are usually well advised not to do – to think of your own best days and years:  Your own moments of glory.  We might remember those days as being better than they actually were, but that’s okay tonight.  Go ahead, let yourself remember.

 

One of mine came in the eighth grade.  A year before I had failed to make it onto the St Albans Junior High School seventh-grade basketball team and from the moment of that failure I set my sights on making the team the next year and I devoted time and energy to improving my game so that I would survive next year’s cut.

 

I remember the tryouts very well.  At one point I was in a scrimmage game and I let go with all I had.  I was up and down the court like a mad man.  I may have even scored a basket.  After that scrimmage, we were put into two lines for a layup drill.  I was standing there, anxious as I could be, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned and saw Coach Alford, who was coaching the eighth graders that year.  I was surprised, to say the least, and worried until he asked me a question: Four words that, as far as I was concerned then, changed my destiny:

 

Son, what’s your name?

 

It may not seem like much now, but on that day that question meant everything.   There was only one reason the coach would have asked for my name.  He was going to put me on the team.   Those four words meant that I would get to play ball, but they meant much more than that.  They meant that my year of striving had succeeded.  Those exercises and that effort that I had applied myself to had paid off.

 

I may have thought at the time that my heart’s desire was to play ball for my school, but beneath that was something deeper and more basic and fundamental.  What I wanted more than anything else then was to be inside, to be accepted, and to take on an identity that I had imagined for myself –  the identity of an athlete who was brave and strong and noble.  I knew at some level that inclusion on the team would make others look at me differently – as a person who had ability and ambition and confidence.   Someone who had found his place.

 

I am not the only one who longs for that kind of inclusion and acceptance.  We all do.  That desire is a fundamental and universal human longing: to be inside the inner ring; to be included; to be accepted; to be fully and truly known; to be fully engaged in the expression of our talents and our loves.   That’s what all of us really want.

 

When the coach asked me my name, that primal desire for inclusion was met:  I felt that I had become the person I wanted to be, that I was meant to be.   When coach Alford asked me my name, he in effect gave me a new name.  He said that I was not someone who would be left outside.  He said:

 

“I know you.  I see something others have not.

 

Here is your new name.  This is who you really are.

 

 

For a time after that, my world was a warm and sunny place.   I was a new person.  With my new confidence, I walked a little taller.  I was less self-conscious.   I was, for a little while at least, fulfilled.  I felt accepted and respected and I had been given the opportunity to do what I loved to do.  I was kinder and more generous, because now I was rich.  I had everything I needed.  Life was at the full.

 

Here tonight, I feel some of that again.  And I suspect that those being inducted this evening feel something of the same.  In one way, we are being given a new name, we are being given an identity that signifies some measure of success and acceptance and respect.

 

As a prosecutor, I have spent my career working and waiting for verdicts.  I know how sweet they sound when they go your way and how bitter and final they are when they don’t.  Being inducted into one’s high-school hall of fame is a verdict of sorts.  It’s a different type of verdict.  It is not passed on one week’s worth of argument in a courtroom; it is a verdict passed on one’s whole life.  And it is not a verdict returned by twelve strangers in a jury box who were allowed to serve because they did not know me, but is pronounced by my peers: by people who have known me all my life.  That is a sweet reward and I am grateful to the hall of fame committee for returning it to me

 

But life returns verdicts for every one of us, every day.   Sometimes they are not so kind.  Sometimes, in fact, they are unjust.   We may apply our best efforts to any situation and get back a verdict of disappointment and frustration. We may feel that we have been left outside of those circles that we desperately want to enter.  We may aim high and labor long and the verdict that comes back to us, at least so far as we can tell, is this: “So what?” or “Close, but no cigar.”

 

Paul Simon said it this way:

 

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered

I don’t have a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

Or driven to its knees

 

Over time, verdicts like that can rob us of the best parts of our personalities.  They can sap us of our energy and diminish our confidence, sometimes even to the point where we are ready to give up trying, even give up hoping.  They may cause us to become resentful or jealous of those around us who seem to prosper.   And after a while we may feel like we are not the same person we were in our best days and years.

 

And that is why I have asked each of you to think back tonight on your glory days, whenever they were – long ago, or just yesterday – on that time of your life when you were fulfilled; when your best efforts had paid off.  When you found yourself inside the circle that mattered to you – fully accepted, fully respected and completely engaged in those things that you excelled at and loved.   That time when our bodies were the perfect instruments of our will, that time when all the songs on the radio were our songs.

 

I want us to think together of those days when we were surrounded by friends who connected us to life:  Those who believed in us, who encouraged us, who shared our dreams and confidences; the kind of friends that we could stay up all night talking to; the kinds of conversations where our thought really sparked and found focus.

 

Because if each of us could do that, even if only for a few hours this evening, our time together tonight will be the best of times.   If we could all for one night be what we were in the day of our brightest glory, what a night we would have together.  We could for the moment forget about disappointment and frustration.  We could, every one of us, walk tall.  We could, every one of us, be generous and gracious.  Tonight would be the best of nights.

 

And that brings me back to our mysterious text this evening.  On the white stone a new name is inscribed and that name is known only to the one who receives it.   When we are talking about names in this context, we don’t mean just the few syllables that are used to greet a person – John Smith or Mary Jones – we’re talking about that person’s character.  When we say that John Smith had a good name in town, we don’t mean that we liked the way his name sounded when said aloud, we mean that John was a good man, a man of honor.

 

So the name on the white stone is known only to the person who receives it because it is his or her true name:  The true representation and summation of that person’s character.   It is not that name that the world knew us by.  It is not that name associated with disappointment and frustration and failure.  It is a name that encompasses every struggle and every desire we have known and brings us fully home. When the Spirit of God gives the white stone, he tells the one who receives it:

 

“I know you

 

Here is your new name.  This is who you really are.

 

 

And this white stone is an invitation – a ticket bought and paid for – into that circle and company that is the perfect fulfillment of heart’s desire.  It is an invitation into everlasting acceptance and love and complete and perfect enjoyment of every talent and strength owned.

 

The very things we celebrate tonight in this induction ceremony – the complete expression of life, the full exercise of our talents, the unstinting recognition of our gifts and our efforts, the deepest acceptance and inclusion – these are the very things that the Gospel promises. Do you doubt that?  Then listen to these words of the Psalmist:

 

Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him and He will do this:

He will bring forth your righteousness as the dawn and the justice of your cause as the noonday sun.

Psalm 37: 4-6

 

If we look back to our past glory, we may be inspired enough to have one great night together, but if we, believing God’s promise, rest in his grace and look forward to the glory that is ours there, we should be filled with courage and confidence, hope and gratitude and thus inspired for great living, not only tonight, but every day of our lives.

 

 

[1] Garden and Gun Magazine

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