Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery
New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
My wife stumbled onto this book almost providentially at a bookstore just a few weeks prior to starting our first preaching position in the rural town of Junction, Texas. Open Secrets tracks the life of a young Lutheran pastor at his first parish in even more rural Illinois, so it seemed like reading this would be a convenient way of starting off our own ministry to read this together. This is a book that one reads and thinks, “Why on earth is this the first time I’ve heard of this book!?”
In case you didn’t read the opening segment here, Open Secrets follows a young Lutheran pastor in his first parish in middle-of-nowhere Illinois. Lischer began his ministry training in the Lutheran system where he engaged in high-level theological education—mastering Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and reading everything from the church Fathers and Mothers to Karl Marx—culminating in a doctoral degree. When it was time to do something with all that pent-up wisdom Lischer resisted the call to obscurity, holding out for more glamorous and glorious parishes until he finally gave in and made the leap into a world that was nothing like anything he was used to or expected.
The rest of the book tracks his first years in ministry as he struggles to learn how to exist in his ministerial vocation in a place he’d never thought he’d be, a place almost existentially unfamiliar. The memoir dovetails through episodes in his first years that always yield to the way in which the grace of God works deeply and powerfully in the community’s life.
The biggest thing that stands out about this book is the way in which Lischer makes plain the ways in which the Gospel gets worked out daily in the contours of life. It is the corporality of his memoirs, the tedious details of persons and places, that makes the harmonizing work of Christ stand out all the more. Lischer’s book is a glimpse into someone who is able to see Christ, if only in retrospect, in the midst of ordinary life.
What perhaps makes this stand out is that these glimpses of Christ are never worked out in unbelievable, triumphalistic, or trivial ways. It is easy to impose Christ upon the events of our lives in such a way that it feels more like a pledge of allegiance than an insight into the work of God. Lischer traces the divine touch, all but imperceptible, and brings the reader into a profound encounter, albeit indirect.
The city was where the action was, not in the suburbs such as the one I grew up in, and certainly not in country churches like this one, with its broken cross and flourishing graveyard. Two minutes on this lonely road was a clarifying experience. The spiritual heroics of the secular city had passed me by. . . . Of course I knew Christendom needed unstrategic little churches like this one, but I bitterly resented the bureaucrats who had misfiled my gifts, misjudged y obvious promise, and were about to place me in rural confinement. Whoever they were, they hadn’t even bothered to get to know me. That’s the way I felt, and my resentment came quick and fully formed. (10-11)
With ten years of theology under my belt, and a passing acquaintance with many mysteries and much knowledge, I had scrambled awkwardly to produce a scrap of God’s body for a dying man. (58)
Before I could talk about Jesus, I apparently found it necessary to give my farmers a crash course in the angst-ridden plight of modern man. With the help of cliches from Joyce, Heidegger, Camus, and even Walker Percy, I first converted them to existential ennui so that later in the sermon I ould rescue them with carefully crafted assurances of “meaning” in a meaningless world. Along the way I defiantly refuted Marx’s view of religion as an opiate that permits us to escape the hard realities of existence. IT didn’t concern me that the problem of meaninglessness had not occurred to my audience or that Marx’s critique of religion rarely came up for discussion at the post office. . . .But then I did not bother to engage their world either. It did not occur to me that I needed a new education. I treated the rural life as an eccentric experience in ministry. I was a spectator once again, as I had been in college watching a slideshow of interesting scenes and odd characters. And since I was the viewer and they were the viewees, I was in control. When I preached, I always stood above my parishioners and looked down upon them.. . . Whatever lay closest to the soul of the congregation I unfailingly omitted from my sermons. I didn’t despise these practices. I simply didn’t see them. (73-75)
Although my own audience remained as quiet as ever, I came to realize that their silence was not the equivalent of unresponsiveness. Among Lutherans, ecstasy may take the form of a slight twitch of the eyebrow or the pursing of lips in order to suppress a smile. Sometimes a knowing glance between farmers must pass for the “Hallelujah! Preach, brother!” that is in there all right, but will never come out in this life. (77)
Any cultural anthropologist would have warned me not to rearrange the furniture in our church. Of course, there were no cultural anthropologists in New Cana. Had there been, they would have reminded me that the physical focus of worship symbolically “freezes” the community’s story into a sacred universe. Therefore, to shuffler the furniture in the chancel or to alter the ritual, say, by moving the flag or changing the music, is to offend against the stories and derange the universe itself. (89)
Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses. In our town all desires were known, no secrets were hid, and every heart was an open book. Every life was gossiped by all and all were gossips.
The continuous reworking of the community’s stories, characters, and themes served two purposes. Gossip helps soften the edges of people who are simply too accessible to one another, who irritate one another to death, but who can’t escape one another or their common history. Gossip also explains peculiarities, such as Ferdie’s and tells how they came to be. (96)
“Confessing takes you considerably farther than a feeling of remorse. You have to know yourself and your sins so well that you can find words to express them. We’ve buried them.” (172)
“Don’t’ ask me if I believe in the forgiveness of sins; just let me put my arms around you, don’t you see, and forgive you. Don’t press me on the composition of the body and blood of Jesus, but lets just meet at the table toe at and a drink, and figure on meeting him there, too.” (178)
When all was lost, Moriah and her mom had recomposed the scene and completed what none of us could resolve. As they disappeared from view, I heard myself whisper, “Thanks be to God.” All of Lent lay before us, but now, for the first time, I could stand in the lumpy mud of our cemetery and see Easter. (196)
I wouldn’t say my own experience is just like Lischer’s, but some of the general features are very much alike. I don’t live and work in the middle of nowhere, just farther from “somewhere” than I’m used to. My congregation, I have been blessed to find out, is much more full of grace and maturity, surpassing my own, than Lischer’s seems to be. But what I most identified with was a phenomenon that I have taken to call “Theological Whiplash” that Lischer works through in his first couple of chapters.
In essence, theological whiplash is what happens when trained ministers enter their first ministry position. In seminary or grad school we are trained and formed. We learn to think in a certain critical demeanor, we even adopt the values of our institution and learn to rely, in our conversations with friends and professors, on a certain set of presuppositions not often typical of church contexts. In short, we learn to exist naturally in a certain context that is unnatural outside of the university. Then we are sent into church contexts filled to the brim with people who think and talk in a different way than we have been trained. We come out of seminary going 80 mph in one direction and then have to hit the brakes and reorient ourselves. Theological whiplash.
This is as difficult to navigate as it is alienating to new ministers. The first couple of years in ministry is lonely, frustrating, numbing, and for many, defeating. Many either succumb to defeat altogether, or even worse, disavow themselves of their education and just adopt the status quo theology and habits of the church they enter.
Without good friends, facebook connections, mentors, spouses, etc. this transition is impossible; ministry becomes impossible. Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets is a faithful companion to ministers as much as it is to any church member who wants to get glimpses into the ways in which God appears in the midst of ordinary, mundane life. This book teaches us to see the sacred and sanctifying work of God in the daily. It teaches us the vitality and power of the Gospel on the theological margins, and thus in it’s most natural and powerful expression.