Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church

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9780385502177: Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church
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Open Secrets is Richard Lischer's story of his early career as a Lutheran minister. Fresh out of divinity school and full of enthusiasm, Lischer found himself assigned to a small conservative church in an economically depressed town in southern Illinois. This was far from what this overly enthusiastic and optimistic young man expected. The town was bleak, poor, and clearly not a step on his path to a brilliant career.

It's an awkward marriage at best, a young man with a Ph.D. in theology, full of ideas and ambitions, determined to improve his parish and bring them into the twenty-first century, and a community that is "as tightly sealed as a jar of home-canned pickles." In their own way, they welcome him and his family, even though they think he's "got bigger fish to fry." Thus begins Richard Lischer's first year as a pastor: bringing communion to the sick (but forgetting to bring the wafers); marrying two unlikely couples--a pregnant teenager and her boyfriend, and two people who can't stop fighting.

Often he doesn't understand his congregation, and sometimes they don't understand him; for instance, why does his wife hire a baby-sitter and instead of leaving, put on her bathing suit, grab a stack of novels, and hide from the kids? Or why can't Pastor Lischer see how important it is for a woman with little money to buy an elaborate coffin to bury her husband in?

There are also the moments of grace, when pastor and parishioner unite for a common goal: when he asks for prayers for his infant son, and can feel everyone in the congregation ministering to him; when old hurts are put aside to help a desperate young woman finish college and raise her baby; or when he helps save a woman from dying of a drug overdose.

In Open Secrets Lischer tells not only his own story but also the story of New Cana and all of its inhabitants--lovable, deeply flawed, imperfect people that stick together. With his sharp eye and keen wit, Lischer perfectly captures the comedy of small town life with all of its feuds, rumors, scandals, and friendships. In the end he learns to appreciate not only the life New Cana has to offer, but also the people who have accepted him, at last, as part of themselves.

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Review:

At the age of 28, Richard Lischer, a smart, ambitious Lutheran pastor with a freshly minted Ph.D. in theology, was sent to his first parish, in the small town of New Cana, Illinois, where he would serve for almost three years. Open Secrets is Lischer's memoir of that time, and it opens with a sharply detailed evocation of New Cana as he first saw it:

It lacked the traditional accessories that make a town picturesque--no courthouse, town square, or ivy-covered cottages. The few white picket fences I saw were in disrepair and were obviously placed to keep the chickens in the yard ... Nothing was awakened in me when I saw the place for the first time. No Grovers Corners in Our Town or folksy Mayberry beckoned to me. My first look at the town reminded me that I was from a city and probably belonged in a city.
As this passage indicates, Open Secrets demystifies the often-idealized experience of small-town ministry. Lischer (now a professor at Duke University's divinity school) was often disappointed by his parish, and by his own resentment of his calling: the town never quite warmed to him, and he never quite cottoned to the town. But he did pay close attention to everything he experienced, and his anecdotes (what happens when, taking communion to a sick man, you forget to bring the Host to the hospital?) and observations (75 percent of his congregation had the same last name) are occasionally reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's stories of Lake Wobegone, or J.F. Powers's more astringent comedies of priestly life. --Michael Joseph Gross

From the Back Cover:

"Out of the unlikeliest material, Richard Lischer has produced a genuinely exciting book. Again and again I was amused, enlivened, nourished, and deeply moved by the truth of the tale he tells with such authenticity and wit."
--Frederick Buechner, author of The Sacred Journey, The Hungry Dark, and The Eyes of the Heart

"Beautifully written, Open Secrets is a personal story that draws readers more deeply into the abiding human story. Gentle, humorous, and poignant by turns, Lischer is an excellent storyteller who helps us see the drama of faith that so often unfolds in undramatic settings. In the faces and foibles of the people in this book, we glimpse the extraordinary gift of Christian community taking shape in the ordinary times and places of life."
--Craig Koester, Professor at Lutheran North Western Seminary
"Richard Lischer's memoir of the early years of his ministry is beautifully candid, funny, merciful, and surprising. With a novelist's sense of the shape of a good scene and the power of true dialogue, he builds a compelling picture of widely different human beings in spiritual crisis and in dull daily life. I learned a lot."
--Reynolds Price

"The ministry used to be called 'The Cure of the Souls,' and that is what comes to mind in this candid, compassionate, and at times quite funny account of a young pastor's first church. Part Garrison Keillor and part Reinhold Niebuhr, this memoir of innocence and experience is destined for classic status."
--Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Harvard University, and author of The Good Book

"There may be secrets in this book, but there are no lies. With his clear eye and deft touch, Lischer tells the truth about everyday life on earth: how love is hardest among those who are bound together by it, how faith in God offers no protection from loss, and how ordinary people regularly save each other's lives by their simple willingness to be human. In this memoir that reads more like a novel, Lischer gives us reason to hope in the transforming power of a community that survives not by virtue but by grace."
--Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, Professor of Religion at Piedmont College, author of When God Is Silent

"It might seem trite to call Open Secrets true, but that is its rare and sparkling virtue. The book's honesty about ministry and mistakes, parables and the presence of God is also provocative and moving. Along the fields of this country church narrative, Lischer's humble storytelling plants in us seeds of wisdom that will grow in prayer, passion, good gossip, the 'real presence,' healthy tradition, sound community, genuine authority, rebuke and reconciliation, grace, healing, faithful pastoral care, and the glory of God. Give this book to everyone you know! Its characters are recognizable in our own lives, and the accounts will profoundly change us."
--Dr. Marva J. Dawn, Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, Vancouver

"Richard Lischer's Open Secrets is an inspired use of humor, observation of small town life in rural Illinois, and subtle theologizing about the 'miracle of community.' He tells the story of his first parish--a conservative Lutheran enclave--with honesty and empathy, exposing the ambitions and pretensions of its twenty-eight-year-old pastor, who is gradually educated by his unprepossessing congregation. Open Secrets is as funny as the best of Garrison Keillor, but goes deeper because it is more self-critical."
--Sally Cunneen, author of In Search of Mary and cofounder, Cross Currents

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