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Seeking to See – Glimmer or Grand Illumination?

IMG_9870Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and rich. He sought to see who Jesus was, but could not on account of the crowd. ~ Luke 19:1-3

“The thing that Zacchaeus wanted to do more than anything else that day was to see Jesus. He failed, partly because he was small of stature but mainly because the people around Jesus prevented his coming near.” (JWRilling)

***

I am walking through the darkening streets of Williamsburg, VA which is swimming with thousands of people who’ve come to celebrate the season’s Grand Illumination. The periphery of the street is punctuated by torches set ablaze, and each has people gathered around to warm their hands and faces as the temperatures drop. A friend and I make our way down the middle of DOG (Duke of Gloucester) street. We are strolling down memory lane, having been roommates here at the college some years back, and have agreed to watch for horse droppings that were liberally distributed earlier in the day which are becoming increasingly hard to avoid in the dim light.

But one thing people do avoid are the “street preachers.” These, as did those in colonial days, stand elevated above the crowd by stools or steps, proclaiming scripture verses and Bible teaching. Not offensive. Not, you’re gonna rot in hell. Not, repent or die. Compared to John the Baptist at the Jordan, these guys are tame! They just speak words of the truth as they know it. And all the people give them wide berth.

Who, on this festive night, amid the splendid decorations and colonial costumes and fabulous fireworks, wants to listen to all that?!

My companion and I take note of this. In a sea of people crowding the street, there is a broad empty space left for these voices to have their say without ringing in the ears. She and I, both of short stature, did not have any difficulty seeing or hearing. We sped on by.

Full of hot cider and good cheer and with the booms of fireworks ringing in our ears, we retrace our steps along DOG street, retreating to the car parked several blocks away. Most of the other visitors are doing the same, some pushing wheelchairs, some holding the hands, some wheeling wagons, some are very, very merry. Many, it seems to me, are likely students at the college, taking a break from their studies before final exams.

As the crowd starts to thin we see a lone figure ahead, clad in long sleeve t-shirt and loose fitting, lightweight pants. “He looks cold,” says my friend. And that does make us both take notice. A very tall, lean, young man is standing, still and silent in the center of the road at the barricade to street traffic. He stares straight ahead. Is he looking for someone? waiting to meet a companion? Is he stationed there as security? None of these guesses seems quite right.

We draw closer, but his expression doesn’t change. The look on his face is neither bored nor amused. He doesn’t smile or frown. He does not pull out a cell phone. That, in itself, distinguishes him from nearly every other pedestrian. When I get close enough, I see that his t-shirt has handwritten letters across the front.

“SEEK

                    HIM”

is scrawled in all caps on the front of his plain white t-shirt. He, as a silent sentry has drawn my attention and piqued my curiosity. How, on a very cold nearly winter’s night, could he be standing there like that? Stock still. Expressionless. I can’t help glancing back in mute amazement at the figure as we pass. On the back, in the same handwriting, the shirt reads:

“AND

                  LIVE.”

What do we do, in the name of Jesus, that prevents others’ coming near?

What might we do, in His name, to draw them near so they might truly live?

Grand Illumination, indeed.

Maybe we should judge a book by its cover

FullSizeRender-008 IMG_9890You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can start there. In fact, I must.

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.

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