The Effect of a December Surprise

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.)

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13 thoughts on “The Effect of a December Surprise

  1. Eloquent, as usual, and very timely.

  2. What a lovely memory. Thank you.

  3. Wow! I too claim the book, ‘A Man Called Peter’ as one of the things God used to call me into ordained ministry.

  4. Thanks Jim,…..appreciate all your posts, but especially today’s regarding Hugh Schmidt. I’ll share it will my Hyde Park Clewis cousins.

  5. I too remember the movie “A Man called Peter” and I was so taken by the movie and the man he was depicted to be. I absolutely loved Hugo for the man he was and what he stood for. I can see how Hugo would have taken the sermon to heart and patterned his life to fit. Thank for this memory of both people.

  6. Jim.. Not knowing what the future will bring is a real theme in my life lately. And I daily pray that whoI am I matters in the present moment. Thanks for the reminder . A warning that any mistakes in this email are a product my magnifying glass and a detached retina that surgeon in Yampa will fix tomorrow. May you and your family have wonderful Christmas season. And thanks again for all you are and do. SHALOM, Tom Mc


  7. Beautiful!

    From my iPad Gil Thelen 813-787-3886


  8. Pastor Judy Cramer December 7, 2022 — 2:15 pm

    Loved the movie about Peter Marshall. It saved my lie when I was a young mom and saw it again. His words to the young men in the chapel that day before he went to war will forever remain with me and help me in my ministry. In his sermon he told the young men that many would probably die in the war. “And death would be like when you fall asleep on the couch and your daddy picks you up in his strong arms and Carrie’s you upstairs to your own bed.”

  9. I would really like to comment but I don’t think I can.
    Thank you Jim for your service to us! And thank you to those who came before us!

  10. Carolyn Northridge Linder December 7, 2022 — 9:42 pm

    Thank you , Jim, for another great article. Merry Christmas to you and your whole family.

  11. edpurkeycanyonpastor December 7, 2022 — 10:44 pm

    Loved the movie as a youth as well… THANKS for your personal embellishment RE Hugo Schmidt. Adds to the narrative making it even more real. Blessed Advent & Christmas “to you & yours”

  12. Jim, This column is spectacular! It so well captures our time and needs. Love, Gil

    From my iPad Gil Thelen 813-787-3886

    Begin forwarded message:

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