Short, sweet, and to the point. Very German, some would say. And I expect they would be right. Mary Catherine was my maternal grandmother, and had been Grandfather Rilling’s helpmate and companion for nearly 30 years at the time of this writing. Not to mention the mother of his three children. Talk about dedicated! Doesn’t she deserve more than a “To Mary Catherine”?
It was his way, and their way. Not effervescent, not ebullient, not over-flowing, but spare. And what they had, they gave first to the church. Not only Dr. Rilling but also his wife. I imagine the life of the wife of a pastor would be spent at functions and entertaining guests, keeping the kids quiet because “father is working” and generally managing the household so he could attend to “bigger” things.
How different those times were 🙂 When women’s rights debates hadn’t set us to quarreling about the harder task, the bigger contribution, the working in or out of the home. But this dedication, to his wife, certainly signifies to whom – apart from God – he felt indebted.
These days, book dedications are generally more than a name; they are accompanied by a description or a reason why this (or these) were foundational or inspirational or set the tone for the writing of this book. Today there is enumeration that books of that day didn’t have, not because it wasn’t deserved, but because it wasn’t the practice. The name was enough.
And so, as I enter this book, I take this under advisement. It is is my tendency to look through the eyes of my own age and evaluate according to the standards of my day. I want to read, “to My Sweet MC” … “who supported me completely” or “whose dedication to our family has ….”.
Looking back through my “today” eyes, I might be dismissive and prone to judge unfairly. I can hardly help myself because, after all, I do bring me with me whenever I read. And with me comes what I know, what I’ve done, whom I’ve met, what I’ve heard and read, what I’ve been taught and the many layers of cultural biases of my day and age. I don’t apologize for this. But I must recognize it and try to suspend it, or at least apply it responsibly.
Was Dr. Rilling being dismissive to dedicate such a book, the collection of his lifelong work, just “To MARY CATHERINE”? I don’t think so. As I look back into his time, through softened lenses, I read the dedication more like the simple card you attach to a beautifully wrapped gift. Dear Mary Catherine, this is for you.
And so it is with gift cards. I just needed to look at this one through the eyes of love, which seek to understand by standing for a moment in the other one’s shoes. Big shoes, these would have been. Plenty of room for me, the little girl trying on Grandpa’s big wingtips, clonking and stumbling about just trying to keep my balance.
That I hope to do as I advance through these pages.
I received a mailed copy of Dr. Rilling’s book, “Have a Good Day,” that appeared to be in quite poor shape. Mildew had stained the inside cover and, while the dust jacket was mostly intact, it was fragile and dusty. Clearly this was a volume that had sat alone for a very long time. My meager attempts to wipe and clean it were of small value and succeeded only in ripping the remnants of the dust cover right in two. Gratefully, the cover had done its work. The book’s innards were quite well kept. Hardly touched. No markings in the margins. No coffee stains. Apart from the wrinkles left by dampness and exposure, all that was left behind was the “Percy R. Morrison, 1958” signed inside the book’s cover.
If anyone thought to judge this book by its cover, they certainly never would have picked it up. But I do, looking to find the man underneath, the one who’s face smiles pleasantly from the back of the book jacket. I want to ask him…Why did you publish this volume? How did you choose just these sermons? For whom? To whom? What for?
I, now the Granddaughter-sleuth, scan inside the front flap. The words there surely were not written by Dr. Rilling. It begins, “Here is an anthology of twenty-three inspirational sermons written by a skilled preacher. They are warm, understandable, down-to-earth. They supply the answers to many of the everyday questions with which the average layman is faced.”
While I didn’t know John W Rilling well, I know he was not a man who would have called himself inspirational or referred to himself as “skilled preacher.” Those accolades would have belonged to the Holy Spirit. So, someone else thought highly of him and penned them for this occasion. A friend in the publishing house, perhaps, or a fellow preacher who had encouraged him to share these in a collection.
Dr. Rilling’s eldest daughter Beth tells me her dad was known in his day as a “preacher’s preacher.” I wonder how you become so elevated when you don’t speak it yourself.
Because that is today’s way in the publishing business. (Or, at least, that has been my experience, thus far.) I was asked to write my own cover copy, in third person. ‘Go ahead, tell us how great you are and what a remarkable contribution this book is to the sea of knowledge you set it adrift on. Be glowing!’
This surely was not JWR’s way. Thank goodness. But he did know the cover text was being written, and he must have approved it for print. He was interviewed by its scribe who, on the back of the jacket writes, “Asked why he had the sermons in HAVE A GOOD DAY published in book form, Dr. Rilling replied: “Many years ago Thackeray expressed his decided preference of the gentle, pagan Hagar to “bitter old virtuous Sarah.”
“Thackeray! Who reads Thackeray?!” my sister in law cried, upon reading this. “Wow, he was well read!”
Yes, he was. But not only of the Bible and Biblical commentaries and Biblical experts of his day. He even read detractors like Thackeray, who expressed their preference for a different way, a seemingly kinder and more logical lineage through Abraham’s (actual) firstborn son, Ishmael, born to Sarah’s servant Hagar. The Muslim tradition traces its ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael.
Dr. Rilling read widely, both for and against what he knew and believed, so that he could address the objections of his day in their best representations and speak into them, with gentleness and respect. How we do need such an approach today. A humble, learned, clear-mindedness to speak confidently and boldly for what we believe which is first borne out of a willingness to know and understand those who disagree and a desire to address them in love.
The book jacket’s text continues, “Perhaps his (Thackeray’s) experience with Christians was a bit grim but such an idea which many moderns share is really a libelous caricature. The beauty of “holiness” is real, winsome and altogether attractive. To show its source, its secret and its manifestation is the purpose of this book.”
Many moderns still have a grim view of Christians, for sure. We don’t want a sermon! they say. Give us answers, explanations, proof!
John W Rilling doesn’t set out to prove. He means to share, and even to put into print, so that not only his congregation but those beyond it can receive the benefit of his steady, dedicated, studied approach, collected in 23 stories meant for 23 Sundays. He sets out not to win us over but to engage us in the almighty struggle and set us on the road to discovering the truth for ourselves.
A very modern man, indeed.
My bookshelves are piled high with titles from the past. Books I purchased because they were assigned. Books I used for reference. Books I consulted. Books that taught me how. Books that showed me where. Books, books, books, books!
So many, in fact, that I couldn’t read many of the spines, because we were long past setting them neatly side by side. They were piled in front and slipped in between and laid on top. It had been a long time since we had visited these old friends. Couldn’t we dispense with a few?
In fact, we could. After sorting and sifting, the girls and I filled several boxes with the books whose time had come and gone. They were entertaining back then, but now they could belong to someone else. Except a few.
As I looked on, my girls set a aside a few of the books, a very select bunch. Some hard cover, some soft copy, some thick and tall and some thin and flimsy. The reflection of each of these shone in their eyes, a recollection, a fond memory, or a connection to the characters, I’m not sure.
“Oh Mom, we have to save Angelina Ballerina,” my nearly 25 year old daughter said.
“And Tacky, we have to keep him,” said my 18 year old, recalling the protagonist penguin who was the hero of her second grade classroom.
Somehow, over these many years, the impact of the stories has remained. Just picking up the book stirs feeling and memories they don’t want to give away. That feeling is theirs and not meant for another. These are keepers, these few. We must save them.
I must confess, there were a few I set in the keep pile as well. A Light in the Attic, Winnie the Pooh, Make Way for Ducklings, and a few others. Upstairs in her room, my middle daughter has sequestered many titles that are too precious even to risk to the basement shelves. Among them, The Pokey Little Puppy, I know this without even looking. That was the book she pretended to read to me because she had memorized all the words. It’s value is but memory and yet it’s alive and well twenty plus years later.
Now there is plenty of space on our shelves to see the scant collection of titles that remain. I scan the remnants and smile. What treasures these are.
I’m sure that their authors didn’t set out to write a “classic” or “great literature.” They just started with an idea and a page. And a love for children. Surely, that’s so, because they are loving them still, in a way still so tangible that simply hefting the book brings it back.
I want to love like that.
I want to write the book my kids want to keep.