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.
Funny, when the book needed an author photo, I thought, really, who would want to see me on the cover of this thing? But it’s a coaching and fitness book, and don’t you want to know who you’re taking advice from? Does she look like she practices what she preaches? Can you trust her? Would you want to get to know her?
So, there I am, with the high intensity lights shining on me, the background screen fixed just so. Tilt your head this way, says Mark the photographer. Look that way. Cross your arms. Now, that did it, because give me a defiant posture and I’m on.
All the while I’m thinking, this photo will go on the work You are doing in me, Lord. How can I possibly say that in how I look? Will your light shine when all I see now are spotlights and all I’m hearing is instructions?
It was a nice day so we moved outside. And wouldn’t you know there was a soccer field just down the hill, so we traipsed over there, past the middle-aged guy playing his guitar in the parking lot, by himself, to an empty soccer field. Now, we have a new source of light, the sun. But instead of au naturel, we will be using a large reflective screen that looks very much like the one I put in my car window on very hot days. My photographer’s assistant positions herself to reflect the light of the sun onto me, standing alone on an old soccer field, and Mark clicks away.
I worry out loud. You know my eyes tend to close when I smile, especially the right one. Try not to get my pants, they don’t match my shirt. And sneakers! Why didn’t I didn’t think to bring my turf shoes? Or a ball? Thank goodness they have a ball.
I don’t actually see what the photographer sees. I see me, the me who really doesn’t belong on a book jacket, who can’t believe she has hired a professional to take her photo and is right now at a photo shoot like some kind of movie star.
“Oh, I can open up your eyes later,” Mark tells me, “and air brush out the pants.”
Really? He can take away the imperfections?
It’s amazing how just knowing that takes away your reluctance and shelves your inhibitions. This guy is going to make me look just right! No external assurances, no ‘oh, you look fine’s’ or ‘don’t worry about it, people won’t notice’s’ or ‘you’re just being silly’s’ would have done to me in that moment what his words did. His ‘I will perfect you’ released what was inside of me to be just me. Nothing else would have done it and yet, it’s the promise we all have and the gift we are all offered.
I’ll touch up later what’s not quite perfect yet. Trusting that is what gets us ever so close to what He intends for our now.