Thanksgiving is the least commercialized holiday in America. It is a wonderful time to pause for a moment and give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received across the years personally, as a family, and as a nation. This year I felt God leading me to an additional dimension of Thanksgiving that is related to a phrase that has come to my mind in recent times: “Ships passing in the night.”
SHIPS PASSING IN THE NIGHT
The phrase is actually “over 150 years old. It is written in ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn,’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, where it reads: ‘Ships that pass in the night, and speak [to] each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence’ “ (knowyourphrase.com).
The phrase “ships passing in the night” refers to two people whose paths cross for only a short time. Then they separate and go their own ways, perhaps never to see each other again.
Now, I value long term relationships with friends that God has used to enrich my life across the years. Some of them go back over many decades. However, I have come to realize, looking back on the years of my life, there are also some brief encounters that God has used to impact my life in unforgettable ways. Some of these relationships have been very brief; others just for a short period of time. Each has been for a reason, each was a part of a season, and they were all significant.
Let me share a few of these instances of “ships passing in the night.”
After high school, I went to university to study to become an architect. In my class was another student called Bruce. He belonged to the Salvation Army, and he realized that although I considered myself a Christian, having grown up in a Christian church, I did not know Jesus in a personal way. So he invited me to some evangelistic ministries in downtown Sydney, Australia. On the second occasion, one Saturday night, a Scottish evangelist, whose name, if I remember correctly, was Gavin Hamilton, preached the hottest hellfire sermon I had ever heard. That night, I responded to the altar call and gave my life to Jesus. That was the most important moment of my life, and it came about as a result of Bruce inviting me to go to an evangelistic service.
The interesting thing was that soon after that, Bruce dropped out of his studies and left the university. I never saw him again. In many ways, we were “ships passing in the night,” never to see each other again in this life.
I responded to the call to enter the ministry. In 1963, I began as a student minister in a 4 point parish of a Methodist church in a suburb of Sydney, Australia. In one of those churches, there was a lady. I’ll call Mrs. K. She taught Sunday school and attended the morning service but at night went to a newly started Four Square Pentecostal church. This church met in a garage. She began giving me booklets to read and tapes to listen to. She shared with me about the Holy Spirit and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
I read the booklets, listened to the tapes, did what I thought was a study on the subject of the Holy Spirit, and ended up with a typical evangelical dispensational point of view. So I rejected what she had to say and figuratively threw cold water on her testimony. It was no surprise that she ended up leaving the church and going to the Pentecostal church. Yet, looking back, I realized that she was one of those “ships passing in the night.” God used her to sow seeds in my life about the baptism of the Holy Spirit that would later be harvested. I did not see her for a long time.
Then in 2011, when I was back in Australia visiting my brother, I discovered that Mrs. K. lived nearby. I met her again and expressed my thanks for what she had shared with me nearly 60 years ago.
Before I went into the ministry, I worked at the University of Sydney as an architect in the works department. The boss’s secretary was a lady named Maureen. Maureen was a Christian who belonged to a Baptist Church. When I left to go into the ministry, I was sent back by my church to convert my diploma in architecture to a degree. She volunteered to help me. My major project was to write a thesis entitled “The Theological Basis of Methodist Church Architecture.” Back then, IBM, in pre-computer days, had just brought out the first automatic electronic typewriter. Maureen offered to type up my thesis on this new typewriter, and consequently, she did a beautiful job. I don’t know if her presentation helped or not, but I received the highest marks possible for my thesis and soon after received my Bachelor of Architecture degree.
I lost contact with her and never saw her again. However, for me, she represents the people that God brings into your life that help you in practical ways along life’s way.
A LUTHERAN COUPLE
In early 1980, I spoke at a leadership conference at North Heights Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the afternoon session, I shared about the place of delegation in leadership. In the middle of the message, I felt God speak, and in my mind heard the words, “You are to delegate the ministry in Australia and move to America.” I was startled by the words. At the end of the session, a young Lutheran couple, who had been sitting at the back of the church, came up to me. They said that as I was preaching, they felt called to pray for me. The Lord had given them a word, “God wants to replace you; you are to have someone to take your place.” It was like God gave me an immediate confirmation of the word He had just spoken to me.
Interestingly enough, I never met them again until well over 20 years later when I was speaking at a pastors conference in South Dakota. But at the time, in 1980, we were “ships passing in the night,” and their words were so confirming.
AN EXAMPLE FROM THE LIFE OF JESUS
Scripture has many examples of “ships passing in the night,” episodes in the life of Jesus. Let’s look at one – Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled to carry the cross of Jesus.
Willian Bradley, in his commentary, writes about this when he states, “Into the city, from one of the surrounding villages, there had come a man from far off Cyrene in North Africa, called Simon. It may be that for years he had scraped and saved to attend this one Passover–and now this terrible indignity and shame fell upon him; for he was compelled to carry the Cross of Jesus. When Mark tells the story, he identifies Simon as ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (Mark 15:21). Such an identification can only mean that Alexander and Rufus were well known in the Church. And it must be that on that terrible day Jesus laid hold on Simon’s heart. That which to Simon had seemed his day of shame became his day of glory” (studylight.org).
A “ships passing in the night” kind of experience. The unexpected happened and it seems probable it changed his life forever.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR THANKSGIVING
Let me give you something to do. Why don’t you stop for a moment, or two, and let the Holy Spirit take you back and remind you of the ships in your life that have passed in the night. Let Him remind you of the people who made a significant impact on your life at that time. It may have been very brief and may not have had anything more to do with them across the years, but your time with them impacted your life.
Then turn it into prayer and give thanks to God for those people who were “ships passing in the night.’