Thursday, February 10, 2011

Just Shy of Harmony / by Philip Gulley

Things could be better for Sam Gardner. The pastor of the Harmony Friends Church in Harmony, Indiana, Sam is tired of writing sermons that seem to fall on deaf ears. The success of the burgeoning megachurch down the road, which can't fail to win members with message series like "Ten Mutual Funds Jesus Would Die For", has him stressing as well. He has faith that things will go better. But so do certain quirky elders of his congregation who have their own ideas about how to run things. Dale Hinshaw for instance, who's never shy about mentioning Sam's salary or reminding people of how he "felt the call" toward ministry once upon a time himself, just knows that his idea for scripture egg project (in which bible verses would literally be implanted in the yokes of hatched eggs) could help win back Sam's diminishing congregation.
Another idea, to plant lottery tickets in the church hymnals, this notion reluctantly agreed upon by everyone a while back, has actually born fruit. Lifelong member Jessie Peacock has hit the jackpot after her pew's hymn book was found to contain the winning ticket. Now if she could only be persuaded to accept the money. Elsewhere in Harmony, mechanic Wayne Fleming has recently been deserted by his wife of ten years for reasons unknown to him or anyone else. He and his three children are alone but things seem to be looking up at the moment with his new friendship with local single lawyer Deena Morrison who's had her own issues with caring for her ailing mother. The pair, having met at Harmony Friends Church where special things seem to happen in spite of adversity, share a growing fondness for each other and for Sam's gospel-based preaching.
Much like Jan Karon's Mitford series, Philip Gulley's Harmony is a cozy small town where the church is the center of the action. Of course nobody's perfect, even among church folk, and there are those Dale Hinshaws of the world who maintain spectacularly self-centered viewpoints. Gulley is good at humorously depicting scenes of narrow-minded squabbling about petty grievances and untethered ideas, but he's also adept at showing the compassion of those who graciously suffer the fool and reach out in unexpected ways to help others. Sam's honest struggles with life and faith (i.e., bemoaning the fact that his most commonly communicated words to his two sons are "can't afford it") are well laid out and readers will appreciate the book's subtle message of generosity, kindness and constancy of faith. Plus there's a genuinely good-hearted humor which can't fail to interject comic relief into the mutliple character narrative. (FIC GULLEY)

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