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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.

The Life of a Book

My paternal grandfather didn’t set out to be a writer. In fact, I’m told he wanted to be an opera singer. These aspirations took him traveling across Germany where he learned to speak the language fluently and, as it turns out, fell in love with the life and writings of Martin Luther. So much so that he translated many from the original German because he felt existing translations had missed the mark.

FullSizeRender (6)-001In his diligence and with study and devotion, John W. Rilling eventually became a Lutheran minister, pastor, and preacher. He also, as it turns out, became a writer. Today, I am privileged to have possession of a “first edition,” hard back copy entitled, “Have a Good Day”… Sermons by John W. Rilling. Inscribed on the inside cover:

“To John, my son,

Tolle Lege! Tolle lege!

Dum vivimus, vivamus!!

Dad

11/20/58″

I, not knowing the Latin which would have been the language of the Learned and the Church in Dr. Rilling’s day, happily used my modern day technology to attempt translation:

“To John, my son,” …. not, to my son John, which would have sounded trite and diminishing, but to John, my son, which echos a voice from heaven which speaks, this is my Son, whom I love, my only son. As my father was to his father.

“Tolle Lege! Tolle lege!”… Take up and read! Apparently from the account of Augustine’s conversion to Christ in his spiritual autobiography ‘Confessions’. My grandfather read widely. His home office and study was filled floor to ceiling with books of the great thinkers of the day and of history. These were his plea to his son, who did not take much to books but rather to fixing and tinkering, to go himself to Word and words and find the truth for himself.

“Dum vivimus, vivamus!!” … While we live, let us live. Don’t wait. Don’t waste a moment. Do it now!! Grandfather’s hand has corrected the spelling of the first “vivimus” which he originally wrote “vivamus, vivamus.” He edited himself, in pen, in inscription, because the proper tense was essential for understanding.

It is amazing what meaning travels down across generations. I am not sure my father, John F. Rilling, ever read this book, though it kept its place on a bookshelf spanning many moves, many jobs, many travels. It came to him 5 months after the birth of his first child, a son. And remained through life’s changes, including the last. My father died a year ago and his beloved wife saved the book for me.

Today, as I read it, sermon by sermon, it shows me who my grandfather was. I had an inkling but must confess I did not know him. The book literally speaks across generations. The phrasing and the storytelling, the meaning so subtle and profound, the message as true today as it was in the 1950’s when it was spoken to a dear congregation. It begs me to read it out loud. So powerful are its thoughts, I have to take a day or two between readings to digest what he’s written.  Who knew the old could be made so new again?

Such is the power of words, carefully culled and selected, so they might be collected in a book to be published and shared. And signed. What a treasure. What a trust. What a miracle.

If today we communicate wirelessly by an internet we can’t see, is it so impossible that words may speak across generations and even, perhaps, across the veil?

My grandfather could not have known when he wrote them that I would ever read his words. They were published before I was born. Yet, they have landed on me and touched me deeply. Gone straight to the heart of another one who didn’t set out to be a writer, rather a thinker and a doer. But something in me kept nagging…you’ve got to write that book so others can know and do for themselves…you can write that book.

“While we live, let us live!

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