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Authors: Philip Gulley

Just Shy of Harmony

BOOK: Just Shy of Harmony
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Just Shy of Harmony
Philip Gulley

To Joan and my sons, Spencer and Sam

S
am Gardner sat on the porch the Monday after Easter. It was early in the morning. The Grant kids were walking past on their way to school.

“Are Levi and Addison ready?” Billy Grant yelled from the sidewalk.

“They’ll be right out,” Sam answered.

The window by the porch swing was propped open. Sam could hear his wife, Barbara, giving their boys last-minute instructions.

“Levi, don’t forget your lunch money. Addison, if you have to go pee-pee, tell the teacher. Please don’t go in your pants. Just raise your hand and ask to use the bathroom. Can you do that, honey?”

The boys walked out the front door with their mother following behind, adjusting their shirt collars and smoothing their hair. “Behave yourselves. Obey your teachers.”

Barbara settled herself on the porch swing next to Sam. She let out a heavy sigh.

“Addison’s kindergarten teacher called yesterday.
Do you know he’s wet his pants twice in the past week?”

“He is an unusually moist child,” Sam agreed.

A pickup truck rattled past their house. Ellis and Miriam Hodge driving Amanda to school. Ellis bumped the truck horn.

“There go the Hodges,” Sam observed.

“I really like them,” Barbara said.

“I wish we had ten more just like them.”

They swung back and forth in a companionable silence.

“I was looking at the calendar,” Barbara said. “I had forgotten this Sunday is Goal-Setting Sunday.”

Sam groaned. “Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten too. I don’t think I’ll go.”

“You have to go. You’re the pastor.”

“Maybe I’ll get lucky and die before then.”

But the Lord didn’t see fit to spare him. Instead, Goal-Setting Sunday gnawed at Sam the entire week.

That Thursday he read the “Twenty-five Years Ago This Week” column in the Harmony Herald. There was a mention of Dale Hinshaw’s long-ago mission trip. Twenty-five years ago, one of their goals had been the development of “Lawn Mower Evangelism.” Compelled by the Almighty, Dale had ridden across the state on his John Deere lawn tractor. Whenever he passed someone in their yard, Dale would give them a Bible tract and witness to them.

“We just have to throw the seed out there,” Dale had told the Herald. “There’s no telling what the Lord can do with it.” Then he was quoted as saying, “Near as I can figure, I averaged eight miles to the gallon.”

This Sunday promised to be another glorious chapter in the goal-setting history of Harmony Friends Meeting.

 

T
he first Goal-Setting Sunday was held in 1970, the year Pastor Taylor came to Harmony fresh from seminary, chock-full of grand ideas. Sam was nine years old and has a vague recollection of Pastor Taylor standing at the chalkboard in the meetinghouse basement, encouraging them to splendid heights.

In 1970, their goals were, one, to spread the gospel to every tribe and person in the world, two, to end world hunger, and, three, to carpet the Sunday school rooms.

They’d carpeted the Sunday school rooms first, donated a box of canned goods to a food pantry, and then lost their enthusiasm to do anything more.

Goal-Setting Sunday had gone downhill from there, each year a stark testimony to the growing apathy of the church.

At the last Goal-Setting Sunday, Dale Hinshaw had proposed painting Jesus Saves on the meetinghouse roof as a witness to people in airplanes. “They’re up there in the wild blue yonder, bucking up and down in the turbulence. The pilot’s telling them to fasten their seat belts. They’ll look out the window and see our roof, and it’ll fix their minds on the eternal. If they’re not open to the Lord then, they never will be.”

That was when Sam had proposed doing away with Goal-Setting Sunday. “Why do we even bother? We set these goals and make a big deal out of it for a month or
so, then we forget all about it. When we do remember it, we feel bad that we didn’t do anything. Why don’t we just skip Goal-Setting Sunday this year?”

That had gone over like a pregnant pole-vaulter.

Dale had quoted from the book of Revelation about lukewarm churches and how God would spew them out of his mouth. “Do you want the Lord to spit us out, Sam? Is that what you want? ’Cause I tell you right now, that’s what He’ll do. You’re leading us down a slippery slope. First, we’ll stop doing the Goal-Setting Sunday, then the next thing you know there’ll be fornication right here in the church. You watch and see.”

Any deviation from tradition had Dale Hinshaw prophesying an outbreak of fornication in the church pews. It took Sam several years to learn he was better off keeping quiet and not suggesting anything new.

“Just go along with it,” his wife had told him. “It’s only one Sunday a year. Let them do whatever they’re going to do. It’s easier that way.”

So when Dale suggested at the elders meeting that it was time for Goal-Setting Sunday, Sam didn’t argue.

They scheduled it for the first Sunday after Easter, which is when they’ve always held it, lest fornication break out in the church.

 

D
ale came to the meetinghouse on Goal-Setting Sunday clutching a briefcase. An ominous sign. After worship, everyone clumped downstairs. Miriam Hodge, the last bastion of sanity in the congregation and, providentially, the head elder, stood at the blackboard, chalk in hand. She asked Sam to pray, so he
used the opportunity to talk about the importance of tasteful ministry.

“Dear God,” Sam prayed, “may whatever we do bring honor to your name. Let our ministry be proper and reverent, befitting your magnificence.”

He’d no sooner said “Amen” than Dale jumped to his feet. “I’ve been giving this some thought and I’ve come up with some fine ideas.”

He pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and began reading an article from Ripley’s Believe It or Not about a chicken who had swallowed a scrap of paper from a phone book, only to lay an egg with the name and phone number perfectly preserved in the yolk.

“And the amazing thing was, the man who cracked open the egg phoned the number on the scrap of paper. It was a lady in Illinois. He went to meet her and they ended up getting married. Now if that ain’t the Lord working, I don’t know what is,” Dale said.

He suggested feeding chickens Bible passages and passing out the resultant Scripture eggs to unbelievers.

“There’s no telling how the Lord could use that. I tell you right now, if I cracked open an egg and read that the wages of sin was death, I’d straighten up right quick.”

Miriam Hodge thanked Dale for his idea. She wrote Scripture eggs on the blackboard.

“Dale, you’ve certainly given us something to think about. Does anyone else have any ideas?” Miriam asked.

Bill Muldock raised his hand. Bill was coach of the church softball team and had been wanting to expand into basketball.

“Well, here’s my idea,” Bill said. “I was thinking maybe we could start a basketball evangelism program. Maybe start a church basketball league. We could call it Heavenly Hoops. You know what they say in the Bible, ‘All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy.’ At least, I think it says that in the Bible.”

People began to argue about whether it said that in the Bible.

“Enough of this nonsense,” Fern Hampton interrupted. “What this church needs is a vanity table in the women’s rest room.”

Sam sat in his folding chair, thinking of churches that had homeless shelters and soup kitchens and raised money to send doctors to Africa to help lepers. He wished there was a leper in Harmony they could help. There’s nothing like a leper to stir up a church, he thought.

He was lost in the reverie of disease when Miriam Hodge spoke. “I read in the Herald last week that the mental-health center is trying to raise money. I thought we could hold a fund-raiser and help with that.” She turned to Sam. “What do you think, Sam?”

Sam looked at Dale Hinshaw sitting in his chair, poring over his sheaf of papers.

“I suspect there are several people in this town who could benefit from therapy,” Sam told her.

Dale Hinshaw rose to his feet. “I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but the Lord won’t let me keep quiet on this one. That mental-health group is a dangerous bunch, if you ask me. I think some of ’em might even be homosexual. At least they look that way to me. I just don’t think we oughta be giving the Lord’s money to the work of the devil.”

“Well, I think helping the mental-health center is a wonderful idea,” Jessie Peacock said.

Miriam wrote mental health center on the blackboard.

There were other ideas too discouraging to mention. They finally settled on three: Scripture eggs, a vanity for the women’s rest room, and starting a Heavenly Hoops church basketball league.

Sam went home disheartened.

After Sunday dinner, the Gardners’ phone rang. It was Fern Hampton, saying she wanted to be the one to choose the vanity. It made Sam tired, talking with her. He leaned against the kitchen cabinets as she spoke.

“Yeah, sure, Fern. Whatever,” he said, and hung up the phone.

 

T
hat evening he and Barbara put their boys to bed, then sat on the porch swing in the warm spring air. Barbara reached over and took his hand.

“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked. “You’re being awful quiet. Is something wrong?”

He sighed. “I’m not sure how much longer I can take this. Children are starving to death, and Bill Muldock wants to start a church basketball league.” He snorted. “Heavenly Hoops. For crying out loud.”

“It was like this last year, honey. Remember how tired you were after last year’s Goal-Setting Sunday? Maybe you just need to take a few days off.”

“I don’t know. Every time I do that, I get all rested up, then go back to church and get discouraged all over again.”

“Maybe talking with the other pastors in town would help,” Barbara suggested.

Sam thought for a moment.

“No, I don’t think so. The Baptist minister just quotes from the Psalms and the Catholic priest is practically deaf. You can’t even talk with him.”

“How about the minister at that new church? He seems like a nice enough guy.”

“Pastor Jimmy at the Harmony Worship Center? You’ve got to be kidding. All he does is rub my nose in it.” Sam mimicked the pastor. “‘Two hundred and sixty-two folks at church this week! A new record! The Lord is really blessing us. How’s your church growing, Sam?’

“He knows we’re not growing. How could we be? Half our members are going to his church. It’s all a game to him. Last week he preached a sermon called ‘Ten Mutual Funds Jesus Would Die For.’ What on earth is the church coming to? I might as well be selling cars for Harvey Muldock for all the good it does. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have become a pastor in the first place.”

Sam had been thinking of quitting the ministry, but wasn’t sure it was allowed. Being a pastor was like a life sentence with no parole. The year before, at the Quaker ministers’ conference, he’d stayed up late one night and talked with another minister about how frustrated he was.

“Yeah, I used to get that way,” the other minister said. “Then I learned the secret of lasting in the pastoral ministry.”

“What’s that?” Sam asked.

“You got to stop caring. If you care about what happens in the church and what other people do, it’ll break your heart every time. Put in your office hours, preach your sermons, make your hospital visits, go to the meetings, but don’t get all wrapped up in it.”

Sam frowned. “I don’t know. That sounds pretty cynical.”

“Cynicism is just another word for realism,” the pastor said. He looked at Sam. “I know your type. You probably expect people in your church to act like Christians, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, I guess I do.”

“There’s your problem, right there. Don’t expect anything. That way, when they blow it, you’re not caught off guard, and if they get something right, it’s a pleasant surprise. See what I mean?”

“I’m not sure I can do that.”

“I tell you, Sam, it’s the only way to go. You don’t expect anything from them, and after a while they won’t expect anything from you, and everybody’s happy. Oh, one or two of them will want something more, but if you’re lucky, they won’t stick around.”

Sometimes Sam wondered if coming back to his hometown church had been a mistake. A big church in North Carolina had written last year to see if he wanted to be their pastor. He had thought about it for a few days, then turned them down. Now he wishes he’d given it more thought. Maybe that church would have been different.

The next week during the elders meeting, after he proposed an idea, Fern Hampton looked at him sideways and said, “Sam, why aren’t you ever happy with
the way things are? Your parents aren’t like that. They don’t go around agitating for change and getting folks all stirred up. Why are you always after us to try something new? Don’t you like us the way we are?”

Sam explained it was his responsibility to encourage the congregation to grow in their faith.

“If we want to grow in our faith, we’ll let you know,” she said. “Otherwise, maybe you should just keep your opinion to yourself.”

He wished he’d kept the letter from North Carolina.

Fern had apologized later, kind of. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said it quite like that, but I just don’t think you oughta rush in here and make all these changes.”

“Fern, I’ve been a member of this church most of my life, and the only thing I proposed was moving the pencil sharpener so the office door doesn’t bang into it.”

“My father put that pencil sharpener there, and he must have had a good reason.” She began to weep, thinking of her father. “Now you’ve gotten me all upset again. See, that’s just what I was talking about. You start in with your agitating, and now I’m all upset again. Why do you treat me this way?”

Sam had gone home and called the church in North Carolina, but by then they’d found a new pastor.

It was probably for the best. He’d have gone there, and for the first year everything would have been fine and they’d all have been happy. Then he’d have suggested a change, maybe starting a new Sunday school class or moving the pencil sharpener, and there’d have been wailing and gnashing of teeth. Probably better to stick with the devil he knew. Besides, his parents lived
here, his kids liked their school, and Miriam and Ellis Hodge were supportive.

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