A Last Minute Change
Peter Marshall (1902-1949), was the firey, young, Presbyterian preacher who emigrated from Scotland and became the nationally recognized Chaplain of the United States Senate. I was eight years old when his story became the 1955 Academy Award winning movie, A Man Called Peter. It was one of those early experiences that planted the seeds of my call to be a preacher.
Marshall was on his way to Annapolis preach in the Naval Academy Chapel when he felt led to make a last minute change to preach on the text, “You do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14 NRSV) He spoke directly about the tenuous nature of life, the reality of death and the promise of eternal life.
It was Sunday, December 7, 1941. No one knew that while the midshipmen were in worship, the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor. It was the last Chapel sermon some of them would hear before serving in a war from which many of them would not return.
He Never Forgot
Hugo Schmidt was in the chapel that day and never forgot Marshall’s words. A picture-perfect representative of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” he served with distinction in the Navy, returned to Tampa where he met the woman with whom he shared 70 years of marriage, built a successful business, raised a strong family and became a leader in the community. He led the Hillsborough County School Board during the integration of the public schools.
No one loved his church more deeply or served more effectively than Hugo. He was faithful in worship, even when he had to watch the service by live stream from his bed. Every pastor who served Hyde Park United Methodist was blessed by his wisdom, honesty, laughter and friendship.
When he died at 98, we celebrated a life that demonstrated what Marshall preached in the Academy chapel. Hugo knew the tenuous nature of life and made the most of every day. Even in his final days, Hugo was still looking toward the future. He died in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection” and requested that his memorial service include his favorite hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
C. S. Lewis could have been describing Hugo when he wrote, “The Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next … Aim for Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Touchstone, 1996, p. 119)
Remembering what happened on this day eighty-one years ago can also be the reminder that we “do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” But we do know that we can be among those people who make the most difference in the present because we aim for the future.
Grace and peace,
(This is adapted from my book Extraordinary Ministry in Ordinary Time.)