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On Petrol, Providence and Prayer

I was a missionary in Africa once. In Botswana, to be specific. One summer, my very best friend brought her Sunday School class from Texas for a mission trip/safari. We spent the first week of their trip doing children’s camps in the villages where I worked. For the second week, we were off to Chobe National Park in northern Botswana and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Early on the morning of our departure the nine of us made our way to the airport with our oversized piles of luggage and supplies. We arrived to discover that our nine-seater rental van didn’t come equipped with a trailer hitch as we’d assumed, so American ingenuity married the folly of youth and we crammed all our supplies plus nine people (three of whom were great, strapping lads) into the van: three in the front seat which was made for two, four in the middle seat which was made for three, and two valiant souls who volunteered to ride, flat on their backs in the 45cm space between the luggage and the roof. (Incidentally, those two heroes—who hadn’t met before the trip—have now been happily married for nearly 20 years!)

With our fearless leader—that was me—behind the wheel, we set off for the bush, eager to taste the delights of rural Africa. The journey was meant to take 13 hours, which to us Americans was a perfectly reasonable one-day drive. We travelled, happy and carefree along the A1 toward Francistown, breezing through villages and small towns along the way. At Francistown, we turned left and followed the less populated A3 toward Nata. At Nata we had a little lunch and carried on, now into the 200 miles of unbroken “proper bush” between Nata and Kasane at the northern tip of Botswana. What a delight for my passengers to be hurtling through this barren landscape, ever on the lookout for elephants and giraffes, even here, outside the national parks! What a delight to be so isolated, so alone, so empowered by youth and ambition and ignorance of the dangers that could so easily overtake us if not for the petrol in the tank and the water in our jerrycans.

And what a moment of fear and trembling for me when, over two hours from our destination, with nothing but empty bush for 100 miles in every direction, the petrol light came on. Somehow in my youthful enthusiasm, I had neglected to fill the tank in either Francistown or Nata. We had about 45 minutes of petrol left for a 2-hour drive. My best friend, who was sandwiched next to me, shot me a look. I gave her one back. We said nothing to the others, but both started praying silently. Suddenly, our carefree adventure had become very, very real.

We flew on toward our destination: seven of us enjoying the scenery, two of us growing our first grey hairs. The minutes passed, the miles slipped by, the petrol levels dropped. We had been below empty for about an hour when I became convinced that we were driving on the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, at the two-hour mark, joy! The outskirts of the town loomed, and at the crossroads, the promise of petrol and salvation. Just as I spied the petrol station about 300 meters ahead at the top of an incline, the engine sputtered and I rolled to a stop. We were out of petrol.

“Alright, everybody out!” I said, and told them the story of how far we’d come on no petrol. My big Texas lads (and my little but hearty Texas ladies) weren’t daunted in the slightest. “Let’s get this thing up the hill!” they shouted, and with me at the wheel, the eight of them pushed that heavily laden metal miracle up the hill and into the petrol station. We’d made it. Only just.

It was just a matter of fuel. I didn’t have enough. I didn’t get it when I should have. I didn’t respect the bush and the dangers it possessed, and I didn’t take with me what I needed to get myself and my friends safely to our destination.

It has long been known that prayer is the fuel of mission. Paul knew that his mission was sustained by prayer, and urged the Philippians (1:9), the Colossians (4:3), the Thessalonians (1 Th 5:25) and the Ephesians (6:19) to pray for him. If he knew he needed prayer, how much more the rest of us?

The mission field is a dangerous place, and our missionaries aren’t just in danger from those who would oppose their message and cause them harm. They’re in danger from spiritual forces, from disease, from natural disasters, from temptation, from car accidents, from burnout, from relationship breakdown, and even from running out of petrol in the middle of the African bush in the dead of summer.

Is it possible that we’re sending our field workers out without the fuel they need? We expect them to have hardships, yes. The Bible promises that things won’t always be easy. But if we who stay home are claiming to be obedient to the Great Commission, but are not praying for those who Go, we’re kidding ourselves. Prayer is the fuel for mission, and it is our job to make sure our missionaries have the fuel they need. Otherwise, they may end up having to push their ministry up a hill in harsh and dusty conditions. Or worse, they may end up stranded and in real danger.

God was very good to us that day in the bush of Botswana. It’s never been more than a funny story about a silly 25-year-old American and a miraculous self-filling petrol tank. But it could have been a very, very different story. All for lack of fuel.

Let’s not risk our missionaries’ lives and ministries because of a lack of fuel. We have a responsibility and a call to pray. Let’s commit to pray for them and give them the fuel they need, not just to make it from day to day, but to flourish in even the most barren of places.

Photo by Jacques Bopp.