Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church

By Richard Lischer.
Doubleday. 2001. 243 pp. Pb. $$23.95. ISBN 0-385-50217-6

— reviewed by Agnes Norfleet, Decatur, Ga.

Richard Lischer is a Lutheran pastor who teaches preaching at Duke Divinity School. Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church is a wonderfully engaging memoir of his first experience as a parish pastor. It reads like a novel with character development, plot, intrigue, pathos, humor, conflict and sometimes even resolution. And yet it is more than a good story.

For those of us who love the church, serve the church and sometimes even resent the church, this autobiographical sketch of a pastor and his first parish is interwoven with theological reflection about the vocation of ministry and congregational life.

Fresh out of seminary, brimming with enthusiasm and confidently holding a Ph.D. in theology, Lischer — in his own words — ìhad mapped out a distinguished career for myself: a cutting-edge pastoral appointment in a socially conscious but not un-affluent congregation.î However, his first appointment was in a small, conservative Lutheran church in a bleak, economically depressed town in southern Illinois. He describes the community as ìtightly sealed as a jar of home-canned pickles.î

It was in many ways a miserable setting in which he was out-of-place personally and theologically. The symbol that summed up the divide between his idea of church and the congregation to which he was called, was the cross on the steeple that was missing one arm. When he first saw it he couldnít even bring himself to get out of the car, and thereby acquiesce to the reality of having been called to serve in that place among those people.

However, by the grace of God, a ministry is discovered among that mismatched congregation and their pastor. Lischer learned what most new seminary graduates discover, that the parishioners had a lot to teach him about being a pastor and about the grace of the gospel. He weaves together vignettes, funny and sad, all grace-filled, about how ordinary people are the body of Christ for one another and in their community.

It is as if the stories he tells ultimately show how the people themselves became the arm that was missing from the cross on the steeple.