An old man and an empty can

I had just turned the corner at the end of the camp this morning when Danilo, my neighbor, came hustling out of his house, waving his Bible in his hand.  I quickly stopped the car and rolled down the window wondering what could be the matter.  Danilo squeezed through the barbed wire fence at the edge of the camp and came jogging up to me.  “Hey, can you give me a ride to church?” he said, “The camp pickup is broken down again.”  “Sure,” I said, “Get in.  What’s wrong with the pickup this time?”  “Oh, I guess there’s too much dirt in the fuel tank.  I tried cleaning the fuel filter twice this morning but it keeps clogging.  I thought I was going to have to walk.  I sure didn’t want to be late for the morning services.”  He slid into the seat and settled back. 

“A dirty tank and a clogged fuel filter, eh?”  I pushed the shift lever into gear and as we started down the dirt road I said, “Well, Danilo my friend, let me tell you a little story about a clogged fuel filter and the lesson it once taught me…”  

It was about twenty years ago that good friend and fellow missionary Grant Ferrer and I took a journey into the isolated region of Central America known as the Mosquitia.   You see, we had a mutual friend who was interested in missions and wanted us to “spy out the land” for him.  Of course, we gladly obliged.  For several days Grant and I walked through the small communities dotting the shores of the sandy barrier islands off the Mosquito Coast as well as visiting door to door in the only real town in the region, Puerto Lempira.   As our time in the Mosquitia was coming to an end, we found ourselves in a remote mission station called Rus Rus, far off in the interior of the region.  

The once-weekly government truck had arrived at Rus Rus and we and a few others were planning on hitching a ride on it back to Lempira.   One by one we loaded into the back of the truck.  There was a woman with a small, sick child whom the mission station hospital was sending to the larger government clinic in Lempira.  There were a couple of men and a lady who hoisted sacks of beans into the bed of the truck—they were planning on selling their crops in town.  And finally, there was an old man, perhaps sixty-five or seventy, who struggled to lift a large silver can of palm oil onto the truck.   We reached down and hauled the can into the bed and then extended a hand to help him up as well.  With a weary chug the old truck started up and we pulled out of the gate of the mission station leaving behind a thick cloud of blue diesel smoke wafting in the gentle breeze. 

As the truck bounced and bucked down the dirt road, Grant and I started chatting with the passengers.  Each had a different story but the most interesting was the old man’s.  It seems that years ago he had planted a few African palms and at last, they had produced nuts from which he had pressed out the oil.  With great care, he had collected the palm oil filtering it into the 20 gallon can we had lifted into the truck.  He was taking the oil to Lempira where he hoped he would get a good price.   I studied the old man for a moment, his sun-wrinkled skin, his threadbare clothes, his worn-out shoes.  I thought to myself, “I hope he gets some decent money for that oil—he sure needs it!” 

The road from Rus Rus to Lempira passes through a very wild and desolate country.   It is not at all like the jungle many imagine it to be but is rather a verdant savannah stretching to the far horizons dotted by the occasional mountain and intermixed with a sprinkling of trees.  Vehicle traffic is almost unknown. 

Soon after we had passed the halfway mark on our journey the old government truck began to sputter and cough.  Then the engine died completely.   The driver and his man got out, lifted the cab forward to expose the engine, and quickly diagnosed the problem—a clogged fuel filter.  A thorough shaking and a hearty blow on the outlet side had the filter cleared and ready to be re-installed.  In less than fifteen minutes we were back on the road again—for another mile or so.  Then the truck once more came to a wheezing halt.  Again the cab was raised, the filter removed, cleaned, and put back in place, and once more we were on our way.   But this time for only a few hundred yards. 

The driver slowly stepped down out of the cab and came around to the back of the truck.   He looked at us all and then said, “I guess you’d better know that we are in a bad way.  The fuel tank is full of dirt and rust and these bumps keep jarring up the sediment.  We’ll never make it as it is now.  We still have a long way to go.  It may be a very long time before another vehicle passes by this way.  We really only have one chance.”  He looked at the woman with the sick child and said, “Señora, we’re going to need your scarf.   We’ll take the fuel tank off the truck and filter the diesel fuel through your scarf.”  Then slowly, very reluctantly, he turned to the old man.  “We have to have something to filter the fuel into—a metal container.  Señor, I’m afraid we’re going to need your can…empty.”   All of us were horrified to hear those words.  We looked at the old man and saw his pained expression.  Then he slowly rose to his feet.  Without a word, he slid the can to the back of the truck, removed the top, and poured the palm oil out on the ground.   It seemed so ironic and perhaps even symbolic, the clean pure oil, the fruit of years of waiting and the symbol of his hope, splashing onto the dusty ground, slowly seeping in and disappearing. 

In less than an hour, the driver and his man had the fuel tank off and had filtered the diesel through the scarf and into the can.  He placed the can on the floor by the passenger seat and then ran a rubber hose from the can into the engine compartment through a gaping hole in the rusty floor of the cab.   The rest of the trip was uneventful.  We sputtered our way into Puerto Lempira just as the sun was setting. 

Grant and I helped the others get their stuff out of the back of the truck and then we went around to thank the driver.  He was just handing the now-empty can back to the old man.   We joined the driver in expressing our gratitude to the man and then Grant and I reached into our pockets to give what we could.  Sadly both Grant and I were pretty poor back in those days and we just barely had enough money to get ourselves back home again.  I’m afraid we couldn’t help him out very much.  How sad was the final image in my mind of the old weary man dejectedly holding the empty can in his hands as the sun was setting into darkness. 

Danilo and I pulled up in front of the church building before I ever got around to the moral of my story.   Soon we were inside the church and our voices joined with the others as we sang praises to God.   The matter of my adventure in the Mosquitia was quickly forgotten by us both.   But maybe I can share with you the moral of my little story—because I think it is important.

Cleaning the fuel FIlter of the Truck
The Village of Rus Rus

About 20 years ago I saw an old man pour out that which was precious to him—a pure, clear oil onto the dusty ground of a forsaken place.  But about 2000 years ago God poured out something far more precious and far purer into this old fallen world.   God’s Son entered the realm of humanity, rejected by man even from the beginning, being born in a stable of animals.  Some 33 years later Jesus would pour out His own blood in the most incredible act of love the world has ever known.  Before going to the cross Jesus told His disciples, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”   Certainly from the human perspective, there could be no greater love.  But from the divine perspective, there was one act of love that would infinitely surpass any other.  It would be God Himself laying down his life for His friends.   The purest, most precious offering ever made.   As we enter the Christmas season and remember the birth of the Savior, may our hearts rise in the worship of the One who poured out His all.