The story that follows involves an Adventist academy and a heating system now in its fifth decade of life. Principally, though, it is a story about God: about a God of love and power beyond anything our resources can generate either in the worst of times or in the best of times. And it is a story of the privilege we His children may embrace, to trust in His care for us, and to personally experience the miracle of creation a widow woman at Zarephath once saw (see 1 Kings 17:7-16), as did 5,000 men, besides their womenfolk and children, one ev ning in “a desert place” (see Matt. 14:13-21).
We never ran out of coal.
Eric Garrett, Dakota Adventist Academy’s plant manager, came into my office one day and asked me to pray with him. He said that our coal producers had stopped production because of mechanical problems. When a huge industrial plant like this shuts down, it is often a result of something large and unexpected. Our mine is the only coal producer in the region, and many people depend on it, especially when it gets as cold as it had been for days.
Wednesday morning: Eric in my office again, for prayer—this time asking to pray “the Elijah prayer.” At my mystified expres- sion he clarified, “You know, the prayer that the oil keeps on being enough” (see, again, 1 Kings 17:8-16). The coal plant had started back up, and their consumers would begin to be resupplied, but we were not at the top of the list; we would receive our coal on Thursday. But things were grim, he said. We would likely run out some- time Wednesday night. I sent a note to my staff asking everyone to pray.
That night, after tossing and turning for quite a while, I headed to my office. I took a heavy vest so I could keep my core warm in case we had run out as predicted. The school’s propane backup would keep us from freezing, but it is not large enough to keep up with our subzero temperatures.
I arrived at the school sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 that morning. My office was warm: we still had coal! I began to work, fully expecting that at any point we would switch to propane and rapidly chill. But as I said, we never ran out. The coal truck arrived around 11:00 that morning. The crisis had passed.
I am by nature skeptical, and now that this crisis was over I was tempted to imagine that everything had happened as it should—to believe that we’d done everything right and that it all had worked out. I reasoned that I hadn’t actually seen the coal for myself. Had I really just witnessed a miracle, or was this just another day at the office?
The truth, and our God, are so much bigger. As I prayed that God would deal with my unbelief, I became more and more certain that I had experi- enced the miracle we’d been praying for.
Eric, our plant manager/maintenance guy, is a very private man. He seldom asks for help, and doesn’t like to put anyone out. If there’s a job to do, he does it. He isn’t unfriendly, but he doesn’t easily volunteer to tell his story. As a rule, he avoids the spotlight.
I wanted to press Eric on how serious he thought the situation really had been. “Bad enough,” I asked, “that if we prayed through this, it would be a miracle?”
“That bad,” he said, his face grim.
“Bad enough,” I continued to press, knowing how much Eric avoids the spotlight, “that if we prayed through this and witnessed a miracle that you would lead out in a worship with the students, telling all of us about this miracle?”
“Yes! That bad! I would tell the story.”
“With all of the financial and enrollment concerns,” I followed up, “our staff could really be lifted up by knowing we’d lived through a miracle.”
He grinned, we prayed together, and he left my office. A short time later I wrote to the rest of the staff, explaining the situation and asking for their “Elijah prayers.” I have come to know Eric well enough to know that he’s a doer, not a worrier. Even when things are tough, he tackles problems and solves them. Providing coal, however, wasn’t one of those things he could “just do.” He couldn’t just create more coal. For coal that night, he had no choice but to depend on God.
Eric never stopped doing whatever he could to milk every last lump of coal out of the system. From early Wednesday evening, each hour, Eric would move the remnant of coal around, trying to make sure that every last piece was being put to work. Around “lights out” that evening, one of the senior students went with him to shovel, and witnessed the low supply. Miraculously, every hour, there was still some coal that could be fed to the flames.
Eric is always “on”; he never misses an appointment, and he never sleeps in. At 4:30 that morning he either slept through the alarm or he decided not to go in that hour. The latter would mean that he had given up. At 5:30 a.m. he was back with his shovel. The fact that he had allowed two hours to pass between checks, exhaustion aside, tells me that he’d started to believe we were seeing the miracle we’d prayed for.
I cannot help dropping to my knees and thanking God for this experience. Many students and staff were inconvenienced by the cooler temps in the building for a few days. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank them for creatively rising to the occasion—moving classes into warmer spaces, wearing boots and heavy jackets to teach and learn. For me, however, I know that I needed to see that God still keeps “oil” from running out. I’m convinced that God has a purpose and a mission for Dakota Adventist Academy. He who has begun the good work here at this school will be faithful to complete it.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matt. 6:34, NIV).
Anthony Oucharek is the principal of Dakota Adventist Academy in Bismark, North Dakota.