Running on Empty
Safety depended on making it to the next gas station.
It was March 1988. My wife, Karen, and I were living in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, where I was pastoring four churches. Karen was to visit family in Cape Town, South Africa, for five weeks, and I was driving her the 535 miles to Johannesburg, where she would catch a plane. Including border crossings, the road trip would take about 10 hours.
We left for Johannesburg Tuesday morning, stopping in Louis Trichardt, 60 miles south of the Zimbabwean border, where we did some shopping. We bought a 32-inch television, a 9' x 12' carpet, a sofa, and groceries. We then stored these at the home of friends before continuing.
I left Karen at the airport at 8:00 the following morning and headed back to Zimbabwe and my commitments. There was plenty of time to make it to a 7:00 p.m. prayer meeting and the church board meeting that would follow.
By noon I had completed the 275-mile return to Louis Trichardt, where I had to load up our purchases before heading for the border. In Africa what cannot be fitted inside one’s car can always be loaded on top. So the sofa, carpet, and television were carefully tied on the roof, while the groceries were packed away in the trunk and on the back seat. It was 2:00 p.m. by the time I reached the border.
The Zimbabwean authorities were painfully slow. At 4:55 I was finally cleared to continue, leaving me with the need to average 100 miles per hour to meet my appointments.
The Zimbabwean border town of Beitbridge boasted two gas stations and a railway junction. Almost everyone traveling north fills up there before proceeding. As I approached the gas stations I saw long lines and realized it would be at least another half hour before I could fill up. I looked at the gas gauge. Between a quarter and a third of a tank of gas remained. If I pressed on to the next gas station at West Nicholson, 90 miles northwest, I believed that I could just make it. After a final look at the gas lines, I headed north.
The region had just emerged from civil war in early 1980, so evening travel between towns remained dangerous. At the outskirts of each town was a white sign with a diagonal black stripe. This indicated that travelers could travel at their chosen speed until reaching the outskirts of the next town, and so I sped up to about 100 miles per hour. The town of West Nicholson was therefore reachable before 6:00 p.m., when gas stations would close for the night.
No attention had been given, however, to the increased wind resistance my roof rack possessions would make, nor to viewing nature’s beauty, nor the evidence of a rainstorm that had stripped many trees of older and weaker branches. Once darkness arrived, my safety became a matter for serious concern. The farther I traveled, the greater grew my concern, for the gas needle was sinking rapidly.
Storm clouds to the north gave the impression that dusk was coming early, and with the gauge touching on the warning red, I pulled into West Nicholson’s only gas station. I had just missed the 6:00 p.m. closing. There was no evidence of anyone anywhere, so I went in search of the gas pump attendant. I soon found him behind the station. Redemption! My pleas for help left the attendant sympathetic but unmoved. Finally I understood that he could not help because the storm had swept through, knocking down trees and electricity lines. Without electricity, the pump would not work!
There was little hope of surviving the night, as armed gangs were known to roam the countryside.
There were no lodging accommodations in West Nicholson, and sleeping in one’s car was not safe. I had to travel on. Gwanda lay 35 miles up the road. Surely I would be able to find help there. With the empty-tank warning light now on, I slowed to 25 miles per hour and pressed on through the darkness. As I entered town I knew people would be arriving at the Trelawney church in Bulawayo for prayer meeting.
“Sorry, but we cannot help you. A storm just came through and knocked out the electricity.” I didn’t actually need to hear this explanation, for there must have been more than a dozen vehicles parked in line at the gas station, and there were no lights on in town.
The gas needle was already resting on the empty pin. I was no longer merely in need of gas, but now also of safety. Again, my only choice was to keep going and keep praying. Maybe I would find help at the Mbalabala railway junction, if only the car could make the next 37 miles. My salvation was now totally up to God. Would He hear the prayers of the foolish?
My little Corolla made it to Mbalabala, and again the darkness welcomed me with open arms. I did not dare stop, afraid that if I took my foot off the gas, the engine would die.
I headed on to the next wide spot in the road; a police outpost named Esigodini, which lay 13 miles to the west. Surely one could count on the empathy of those commissioned to protect and serve. Again, total darkness. So I decided to climb the escarpment from the lowveldt (lowlands) to the highveldt (the plateau) and try to make those last 28 miles to Bulawayo. To stop would be to put myself in extreme physical danger, for there was little hope of surviving the night, as armed gangs were known to roam the countryside.
As I climbed the escarpment in the darkness, I rounded a bend to see a man next to his truck holding a gas can and waving for me to stop and lend assistance. Knowing that I had nothing to offer and that I was driving on fumes and grace, I dared not even adjust my foot on the gas pedal. With empathy for the stranded traveler, I remembered a parable that Jesus told in Matthew 25:1-13.
Ten wedding attendants waited for the bridegroom to arrive. All had lamps and oil, but some did not bring sufficient oil. When the bridegroom delayed, the oil in the lamps of the five foolish women ran out, and they had to go in search for more. During their search the bridegroom came, and those with empty lamps were left in darkness.
Safe at Last!
My Toyota began to cough and splutter as the first filling station came into sight. I was able to coast to the nearest pump. At that moment I did several things. First, I thanked God for His grace that had brought me home. Next, I recognized that He had taught me that the road of life would not be so kind, and that I had to start each day with my spiritual tank topped up. Finally, I knew that the question that needed to be answered was: Do we, as God’s children, have sufficient oil to make it to the wedding feast when the Bridegroom returns?
That night I realized that it’s not the size of the tank but the fullness of it that matters. A day will come when our tanks are either full or not. If full, God will see us home. If not, we will not have sufficient oil to enter God’s kingdom.
The Resultant Flame
The oil in the parable of the 10 wedding attendants represents the Holy Spirit. The resultant flame, however, is little understood. Without oil, a true knowledge of God and His Word is of no avail. This is brought about by one not having yielded self to the Holy Spirit’s working. Such have not fallen upon Christ and permitted their old natures to be broken, for they have not studied His character.
The flame is God’s character that must be developed in the life. His character must be made known to all. Ellen White wrote: “The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love.”1 In our lives and character we are to reveal what the grace of God has done for us.
Again, Ellen White commented: “There is nothing that Christ desires so much as agents who will represent to the world His Spirit and character.”2 This character will be shown by the consistent outflowing of heavenly love and find its greatest value when in crisis.3
By our characters we vindicate God’s character.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 415.
- Ibid., p. 419.
- Ibid., pp. 411-421.