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Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church Hardcover – May 15, 2001

4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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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 Publishers Weekly

This memoir explores themes of secrecy and privacy as Lischer tells two stories. The first chronicles his childhood and peculiar, sectarian preparation for Lutheran ministry that began when he was sent from his suburban St. Louis home to a Milwaukee boarding school at age 14. The second takes up years later, in 1970, when, with a newly minted University of London Ph.D., he accepted his first call to ministry in a troubled farming community in southern Illinois. Throughout, Lischer suggests that secrets need to be told and that "privacy is a smoke screen for a therapeutic model of ministry." Lischer's project involves the airing of these problems, whether he is unveiling the nihilism of his fellow seminarians or sordid and painful events in the lives of his parishioners. While his portraits of these events and people are masterfully drawn, Lischer's tendency to make himself the hero of his narratives (despite earnest attempts at self-deprecation) grows tiresome. Moreover, his willingness to vividly recount every humiliating detail of his parishioners' bouts with sexual sin, domestic violence and mental illness seems exploitative, especially when compared to his quick, vague, tidily resolved summary of his own marital problems at that time. Despite these flaws, Lischer's book is satisfying and worthwhile. Not only does he write beautifully, but he also tells the unvarnished truth about both tragedy and redemption in a Christian community.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (May 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385502176
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385502177
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,126,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Tom Hinkle on July 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Bored with the Mitford series (as I was)? Unsatisfied by "Velma Still Cooks in Leeway" (ditto)? Truth can often be much more interesting and engaging than fiction, as it is in this case. As a person who takes a great deal of interest in the ministerial life, I found it hard to put this book down. A young, beginning pastor with a PhD in Theology is called to a rural parish in New Cana, Illinois, where most of the church members, whose lives revolve around farming, are related to one another. It's the typical clash of cultures, the educated, citified parson attempting to relate to a largely uneducated congregation of country folks. As they grudgingly learn to accept one another, there are many eventful occurrences, from unwanted pregnancies, open adultery by a young couple whom the pastor offends by using a cuss word, the arrest of an abusive parishoner in the church building, the battle for power with an unscrupulous undertaker, to a rather comic attempt to varnish the sanctuary floor. The final event in Pastor Lischer's ministry at New Cana, the church anniversary picnic which doubles as his farewell, is rather poignant. As he says while watching his little girl ride a pony for the first time that afternoon, "My wife and I each felt a twinge of regret as we watched her and realized that she was losing the sort of community she would not remember and never know again". May we all experience that sort of community some time in our lives.
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By A Customer on November 30, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This memoir deserves much more circulation than it is receiving. (My entire state-- Rhode Island-- has bought only one copy!) It is a beautifully written, intelligent and touching look back nearly 30 years to a Lutheran pastor's youth and the small town church he led. How much more profound is this account of a pastor baptizing babies who are about to die than an account of one more celebrity. Lischer's memoir also describes an America that once was. I have no idea if "community" still exists in Illinois as it did in the early '70s, but somehow many scenes in this book, such as the final picnic, made me weep. At the same time, Lischer is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. A truly great book by a phenomenal pastor.
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Format: Hardcover
This was another one of those books that I really couldn't put down. I'm about to enter the seminary and a pastor loaned this book to me because it accurately reflected the life of a minister--especially a minister in a small town. It was fascinating to say the least. One aspect of this book which I found particularly interesing was the bredth of the problems that Rev. Lischer had to deal with: a teenager who is pregnant and fears telling her father because he'll beat her; a seventeen-year-old girl who's having an affair with a thirty-five-year-old man and doesn't understand why people are against it; advice to the man who is considering quitting his job at a factory to concentrate on farming full time; should contemporary songs be introduced to an extremely traditional congregation?; a young, frightened woman who is about to undergo emergency surgeory and her husband. I found myself asking myself what I would say in these situations as I may very well be facing them some day soon.
One piece of advice that Lischer points out once, but occurs more that he realizes is that reflecting the love and compassion that God has for you in your dealing with others tends to work. When Lischer treated people with respect and love, as God would have us treat others, things turned out pretty good for him; when he attempted to impose his own personal political feelings, things tended not to work out as well. Lischer does attempt to impose his own views quite often in the book--from the time he tried to have the American flag removed from the sanctuary of the church to his own biases concerning against "restrictive" tradition in the modern Lutheran church.
In sum, this has been an incredibly helpful book for me as I went about making my decision to enter the ministry.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is good for a laid back look at a small country church in the "sticks". The reading is easy, entertaining and informative.
Although the author's religious background (Lutheran) is different from mine (Reformed, Christian Reformed Church), I never felt slighted (well, except for the one time he referred to us "Calvinists").
I was a little nervous about the lack of his references to God and God's leading. However, I gave the benefit of the doubt that it was the intent of the author to not throw "religion" in the face of the reader. That has pros and cons. I would have liked to have read more about his personal religious journey with God, not just with other people.
Overall, an enjoyable book, especially for someone like me who is usually more heavily into non-fiction.
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By MJC on September 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful book and was hard to put down. It is about the life of a pastor's preparation for and then active work with his congregation. He tells his story with humor and gives the reader insight into the life of a pastor.
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Format: Hardcover
Unlike Richard Lischer, my preparation for ministry did not include Lutheran prep school. Like him, I came under the influence of some distinguished teachers. One of them recommended I read Reinhold Niebuhr's Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic yearly. At least that frequently, I pick up the diary this late pastor-turned-professor kept during his thirteen-year pastorate in Detroit early in the last century. Though Lischer's book will not inspire similar devotion, it is valuable. For one thing, genuinely good explorations of parish dynamics are rare and usually fairly technical. For instance, though Edwin Friedman's Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue is excellent, a degree in sociology would help one benefit from it most fully. For another thing, reflections on ministry tend to be so spiritual as to ignore the persistence of long-standing patterns of behavior and relationships. Reading Chuck Swindoll or Lloyd John Ogilvie, you'd think neither one ever forgot the Host for hospital Communion or got crossways with a funeral director. Lischer picks a middle way, which is also ultimately unsatisfying. Lischer's approach is to tell the stories, largely unadorned, of his three years in a Lutheran congregation in rural Illinois. The stories are good ones: a hopeless young woman whose life is redeemed through the congregation's love, an adulterous young couple who actually clean up their act, a disastrous funeral redeemed by the sweet notes of a trumpet. Every pastor could chime in. Lischer has been criticized for making himself the hero of his stories, and unfairly: He is as often knave as knight. A better criticism acknowledges that the stories need interpretation. What is their significance in Lischer's formation as a pastor, and ultimately as a professor?Read more ›
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