Friday, June 09, 2006

Open Secrets

When I was a junior in college, I spent the summer as a youth minister at a small, country independent church in New Castle, Indiana. For a kid who had grown up in upper-middle class suburbia, living in an old farm house, making $125 a week, and relating to retired farmers and factory workers was akin to cross-cultural ministry. It took effort to spend time listening and valuing those believers, who surely looked at me as a pampered 20-year old who never worked hard a day in his life.

What I discovered was that there was a real strength and wisdom that came from these men and women. They had real knowledge, though it was different from the book learning that I had absorbed. And over time, both in Indiana and Kentucky and through my wife who was a country girl (at least, she was more country than I was), I recognized how valuable, how wise, farm people were.

It was this journey of discovery that Richard Lischer described in his memior, Open Secrets. Lischer, the James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Preaching at Duke Divinity School, took little Cana Lutheran Church, at an unmarked crossroads outside of Alton, Illionis, as his first pastoral ministry. A St. Louis native, fresh off doctoral studies at University of London, where he wrote his dissertation on Marx and Telihard (hard to imagine something more irrelevant for rural pastoral ministry than that), he learned the joys and trials of caring for a people and place so different from what he knew previously.

In Open Secrets, we discovered faithful laypeople like Leonard Semanns, who confronted his pastor when Lischer agreed to teach for the renegade and progressive Seminex, the "Concordia Seminary in exile" during the 1970s battle for the Bible in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; the sometimes abusive and despairing family life of people like Buster and Beulah; the unwanted pregancies, the dying and yet faithful members, the loneliness of older men who lose their wives and the tenancity of older women who lose their husbands. We felt the undercurrents of battle between leaders who remain in rural communities and pastors who leave after a time, the challenge of authority and leadership in those situations, and the hurt that can simmer under the surface.

Above all, Lischer opened up both the romance and mundanity of pastoral ministry--to know the struggle of trying to make Christianity relevant to the lives of parishioners and feel the tinge of failure. Until that moment when crisis strikes--and then God allows his pastors to be sacraments of grace to God's own people, confirming and assuring them of God's continuing promise of presence, forgiveness, and mercy. Not only this, but Lischer described a vision of pastoral ministry that also meant straining to see the smallest of signs that God's grace, like a small planting of corn or beans or lettuce, is growing in people's lives. You need eyes to see it, for it shows up in unexpected places and ways--but God's work in his people can serve as God's sacrament of grace to his ministers as well (cf. Romans 1:12).

In doing this and sharing God's open secret in and through ministry to his body, God used Lischer to renew my own sense of pastoral calling once again: to serve as God's agent of Gospel reconcilation to hurting people whom God loves passionately and unreservedly. For every pastor who sometimes struggles with why he is in ministry, this book can't be read soon enough.

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