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Authors: Philip Gulley

Home to Harmony

BOOK: Home to Harmony
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Home to Harmony
Philip Gulley

This book is dedicated to my wife Joan, who,
after two children and sixteen years of marriage,
delights me still.

It is dedicated also to the memory of Nancy Mullen,
whose strong Quaker spirit was a blessing to all who knew her.

W
hen I was in the second grade, my teacher, Miss Maxwell, read from the
Harmony Herald
that one in every four children lived in China. I remember looking over the room, guessing which children they might be. I wasn't sure where China was, but suspected it was on bus route three. I recall being grateful I didn't live in China because I didn't care for Chinese food and couldn't speak the language.

I liked living where I did, in Harmony. I liked that the Dairy Queen sold ice cream cones for a dime. I liked that I could ride my Schwinn Typhoon there without crossing Main Street, which my mother didn't allow.

I liked that I lived four blocks from the Kroger grocery store, where every spring they stacked bags of peat moss out front. My brother and I would climb on the bags and vault from stack to stack. Once, on a particularly high leap, my brother hit the
K
in
KROGER
with his head, causing the neon tube to shatter. For the
next year, the sign flashed
ROGER,
which we considered an amazing coincidence since that was my brother's name. He liked to pass by at night and see his name in lights.

I liked that we had no curfew and after a certain age could wander anywhere in town we pleased. My parents were not lax; this was the usual order of things in our town. Harmony presented so few temptations that it took a resourceful person to find trouble, and we were not that clever. This was a burden to us. We wanted to wreak havoc and be feared as hoodlums, but the town would not cooperate.

Most of all, I liked that Harmony sat on Highway 36, which began in Roanoke, Ohio, near the Cy Young Memorial and ran west through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas to Commanche Crossing, Colorado. There was a map at the Rexall drugstore that showed all the towns along Highway 36 with a gold star stuck on Harmony. Most folks don't know about us because, when you open the Rand McNally map to our state, we're hidden underneath the left staple. That's fine with us. We're modest people, inclined to shun attention.

 

O
n summer days I would sit on the bench in front of the Rexall and eat Milk Duds and watch the license plates. Then I would pedal home and eat Sugar Pops cereal down to the bottom of the box, to the
free license plate in every box!
I would reach down, pluck out that license plate, blow the sugar off, then hang it from my bicycle seat and pretend I was from Rhode Island or Arizona or wherever the license plate dictated.

But pretending was as far as it went. I never wanted to live anywhere but Harmony. When I went away to college and other students asked me where I wanted to live after school, I would tell them Harmony. They said I lacked ambition, which wasn't true. They confused contentment for stagnation, a common mistake. Even at that young age I knew contentment was a rare gift and saw no need to seek it elsewhere when I had found it in Harmony.

On my first Sunday back after college, Dale Hinshaw, an elder of the Harmony Friends Meeting, asked me what I was going to do with my life. I had given considerable thought to that question but hadn't reached any conclusions. I told Dale I wasn't sure, but when I found out I'd be sure to let him know.

That was when Dale prophesied that God was calling me to the ministry.

“Sam Gardner,” he declared, “the fields are ripe for harvest. Go ye into the fields.”

I took him seriously, for Dale Hinshaw was rumored to be wise, though I would learn later that rumors of his wisdom were circulated only by persons who did not know him well.

I went to seminary, despite Dale's warning that theological training would be my undoing. He said, “You don't want to go there. That's a nest of atheists at that school. They talk about God being dead. Boy, won't they be surprised.”

According to Dale, God was going to surprise a lot of people.

But I went to seminary anyway, graduated after four years, then took a church in the next state over, where
I pastored twelve years before leaving for health reasons: I was sick of them and they were sick of me.

I had met my wife in college. Her name was Barbara, and she was the first woman besides my mother to show the faintest interest in me. It took six years to persuade her to marry me. What I lacked in charm I made up for in persistence, and I finally wore her down. We had two sons, Levi and Addison.

Now I was taking my family to live with my parents in Harmony. I was sorely depressed. Thirty-eight years old, married with two children, and living with my parents.

I began praying God would provide a job. I prayed every day. I wasn't picky—any job would do. In the thick of my prayers, Pastor Taylor of Harmony Friends Meeting died. Both his parents had died of heart problems, which he feared would happen to him, so he'd begun to jog and was hit by a truck. This was not the answer to prayer I had envisioned, and I went to Pastor Taylor's funeral burdened with guilt.

He was buried the week before Easter. The church held a meeting to decide what to do. Fern Hampton, president of the Friendly Women's Circle, seemed less concerned with Pastor Taylor's death and more concerned with his poor timing.

“For a minister, that was pretty inconsiderate of him to go and get killed during Lent,” she said.

Then she suggested I bring the Easter message. “You can do it, Sam,” she said. “Besides, we're desperate.”

 

I
t being Easter, I preached on the Resurrection. I told how in the resurrection of Jesus, God rejected
our rejection. In the Crucifixion we said no to God, but in the Resurrection God said yes to us. I told them that God covets every lost soul.

“It's not God's will that any should perish,” I declared. Then I told of the good shepherd who searched until every sheep was found, of the forgiving father who ran to embrace his straying son.

It was grace-full preaching. I even pounded the pulpit. Twice. Many pulpits have been pounded in the name of hellfire; I thought it was time to pound one in the name of grace.

Fern Hampton sat in the sixth row, her face pruned up. This was not the gospel she had learned as a child. She was not a big believer in grace. As theories go, grace was good, but in reality it lacked satisfaction. Fern was a disciple of retribution. In her opinion, Jesus was a bit too quick to forgive. She wanted God to punish sinners and had strong opinions about with whom He should start.

After worship, I stood at the meetinghouse door greeting people and shaking hands. Men with shirts buttoned to the top, neck fat spilling over their collars. Ladies in flowered dresses, bathed in perfume and heavy with Easter corsages. Children running amongst their tree-trunk legs, just as I had when I was their age. Fern Hampton was the last person through. She eyed me up and down for a moment, then asked, “Wherever did you learn such foolishness?”

This is how foreign grace was to her, that when she heard it she mistook it for heresy. There are some people, I am sorry to say, who wouldn't recognize grace if it stood at their door wearing a name tag.

That night the phone rang at my parents' house. It was Harvey Muldock, who sold cars for a living and was in charge of the pastoral search committee. Harvey got the job because he was on vacation when the committee was formed and wasn't there to defend himself. His first Sunday back, he opened the bulletin and there was the announcement thanking him for volunteering:
Harvey Muldock will lead our search for a new pastor. Thank you, Harvey, for your willingness to serve.
This was how many of the church jobs were filled, causing some members to swear off vacations altogether.

Harvey asked if I would serve as the new pastor of Harmony Friends Meeting.

I told him I would need to pray about it. Harvey, being a car dealer, thought I was merely driving a hard bargain. He offered to throw in two weeks' vacation and a new Plymouth at invoice price.

During the next week I prayed for a sign, preferably a dramatic one—words in the sky or a voice in my dreams. Once I even closed my eyes, opened my Bible, and dropped my finger onto a passage to see if it might hold God's answer. I had read stories of people doing this and finding just the answer they needed. I know a man, who, when faced with the question of whether he should be a pastor, landed his finger directly on Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”

Hoping for a similar affirmation, I closed my eyes, opened my Bible, and plunked my finger down on Romans 4:11—a verse concerning Abraham's circumcision. It made me wince, but offered little insight.

I called Harvey to tell him I was still praying. He offered a free automatic transmission and three weeks' vacation. Then he mentioned that the job would pay enough for me to buy my own house, and at that moment God's will for my life became abundantly clear. I confess I also felt somewhat responsible for Pastor Taylor's demise and felt obligated to fill the void his passing created.

I told Harvey I would be pleased to speak God's grace to the people of Harmony Friends.

Looking back, I'm not sure that's what they had in mind. I think they were wanting someone to open the church doors, shovel the walk, and mow the grass. I did all those things, then threw in grace for good measure.

Sometimes what we think we need isn't what we need at all, and what gets thrown in for good measure is that which fills our hearts.

 

T
he bench still sits in front of the Rexall. Sometimes I eat my lunch there and watch the license plates and wonder about the passing people—where they've been and where they're headed. I thought I knew them, but now that I'm their pastor it occurs to me that I don't know them at all. Perhaps I never did. Never knew their desolations, their pinings, their hunger for grace in a grace-starved world. The only things I know of them are the things they want me to know.

We share this corner of the world, huddled together on Highway 36—the Rexall, Harvey Muldock's car
dealership, the meetinghouse, the Grant Hardware Emporium, and the Dairy Queen under whose lights the moths still dance on July evenings. This is the stage where our dappled lives unfold.

When I was away at college, a sociology professor talked to us about “anomie.” He said anomie is when you lack roots, when you feel you don't belong.

In this anomie world, Harmony is a strong comfort to me. I sit on the Rexall bench and my roots grow down and hold me fast. Some folks find their joy in wandering, but I found mine in coming home.

At Pastor Taylor's funeral we sang his favorite hymn, “Softly and Tenderly.” We reached the chorus. The women sang high, the men low.

Come home, come home,

ye who are weary, come home.

We sang that song and wept and then settled Pastor Taylor in Johnny Mackey's hearse for the procession to Mill Creek Cemetery. It was a beautiful spring morning. A fine day for travel, for going home. Visibility good with the wind to his back. We took up the ropes, lowered him in the grave, and prayed him Godspeed.

And that is how Pastor Taylor went home to his harmony, and I came home to mine.

BOOK: Home to Harmony
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