Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church


Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church

By Richard Lischer.

Doubleday, 2001.

239 pages, $22.95.

It was the moment the young pastor had been anticipating for nearly half of his life. As he wound his way through the faded corn and soybean fields of southern Illinois, he was on the lookout for Cana Lutheran Church, where he would soon begin his first pastorate. He drove through the small town nearest the church without even slowing down. Surveying the countryside around it, he began to grow uneasy as he thought of an Ingmar Bergman film: “Swedish winterlight exposing rot and depression in rural Lutherans.”

Trying not to think about his newly acquired Ph.D. in theology and its apparent irrelevance to this place, the young man soon reached the door of his church. It was his moment of truth, “like the first glimpse of a spouse in an arranged marriage.” There he encountered a brick building topped by a steeple with a copper cross from which one arm was missing. Next door was a nondescript parsonage that needed paint, soon to become home for the pastor, his pregnant wife, and young child. He couldn’t help feeling a crushing sense of disappointment. “So this is what has been prepared for me.”

Thus the reader of Richard Lischer’s memoir Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church is swept up into a candid account of the Duke Divinity professor’s first three years of parish ministry. In a story that reveals the inner workings of both parish and pastor, we learn about the joys, the sorrows, and the dilemmas of ministry in this “church of the one-armed cross.” He employs a sharp eye and a keen wit to weave an engaging narrative about the transformation of innocence into wisdom that is often poignant, at times hilarious, and always compassionate. So penetrating are its lessons about theology and life that the book seems destined to become a classic, akin to George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest.

I was fascinated by the author’s description of his years of preparation for ministry. As an adolescent, he left home to attend one of his denomination’s prep schools for aspiring clergy, and there he encountered a strange new world. He and his teenage classmates were trained in Lutheran orthodoxy, a complex set of rules that imparted “the safe spirituality of structure but not of passion or abandonment.” Likening it at times to a penal colony where the boys rebelled by drinking beer and playing “epic poker games,” he encountered a nihilism beyond anything he would ever experience again. The young Lutherans marched through their education in lockstep fashion, putting “one foot ahead of another as if following snowprints through a Wisconsin woods, but with no horizon in view.” As a clergywoman trained only a few years after the author, I found this to be an entirely new perspective on seminary. In the absence of any footprints to follow, I and my female colleagues would have likened our experience to that of skydivers parachuting over uncharted territory.

As the new pastor began his ministry with the people of Cana (for privacy reasons, Lischer obscures the real name of the church), he struggled with disillusionment. He wondered: Would he simply remain a “misshelved book” waiting for someone to discover him? Nevertheless, he immersed himself in his work, and soon realized that he still had a few things to learn.

With disarming honesty, Lischer endears himself to the reader by confessing his frequent mistakes. Regarding his preaching, the man destined to become a homiletics professor, Duke’s James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Preaching, explains that “in those days the gospel lived or died by my personal performance. My preaching was a small cloud of glory that followed me around and hung like a canopy over the pulpit whenever I occupied it.” Mercifully, he got over this deadly preoccupation with himself, a potential pitfall for any preacher.

Over the course of his three-year ministry at Cana, the novice pastor was introduced to the most demanding, the most rewarding, and the most mundane tasks of ministry. He was called to celebrate marriages, baptize dying infants, counsel broken families, and hear confessions. He fearlessly intervened in an attempted suicide, befriended a pregnant teenager, and confronted a greedy mortician. He even maneuvered a wife abuser into his office, where he had him arrested, and then fretted over all the ways the man could retaliate after his release.

Best of all, the sophisticated suburbanite sought simply to be with his rural parishioners, in places as unappealing as a hog-killing in a church member’s backyard or the dingy cafeteria of the local steel mill. Even though his pride seemed to prevent him from ever perfecting this aspect of pastoral care, his efforts were a sign of his genuine affection and regard for his flock and their community.

As Pastor Lischer grew into a seasoned minister, his best teachers proved to be the parishioners themselves. They were exemplified by such faithful disciples as the thirteen-year-old girl stricken with cerebral palsy and those who cared for her, the cemetery committee determined to preserve the dignity of the bereaved, and all those who responded to the needs of an unwed mother. With the help of many others, they offered their pastor a crash course in the practices of their faith—praying, trusting, serving, healing, caring, forgiving, rebuking but still reconciling. Through a determined but sometimes faltering effort to live by these premises of Christianity, pastor and parish together learned to bring the gospel to bear on their imperfect world and formed a community saved not by virtue but by grace.

The story comes to a gracious close as the one-armed cross is repaired in time for the church’s 125th anniversary celebration and the Lischers’ farewell. With an eye to the future, the people of Cana inserted a time capsule in the cornerstone of the church, confident that their faith community would be sustained for generations to come. Another pastor had come and gone, but neither he nor they would ever be the same.

Ferree-Clark '75 is minister to the congregation of Duke Chapel.

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