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Having Reserves on Hand

by Ronald R Johnson (

At the beginning of Douglas’s first career scrapbook is a newspaper clipping about the earliest sermon I can find. It’s undated, but it was sometime during 1902, when he was serving as Assistant Pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, during his last year of seminary.

Already at this stage in his preparation for ministry, he is drawing on examples from the technology of the time to make commonsense observations about both spiritual life and psychology. This sermon also demonstrates his powerful use of language and his ability to recognize objections that people might have about the text, and to answer them well.

His subject was the Parable of the Virgins, and his text was Matthew 25:4, “But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.”

The newspaper clipping states that he “showed how the parable ends in a dissatisfying way to those who do not read what precedes and what follows. The apparent selfishness of the five who entered into the wedding feast allowing their less fortunate sisters to stand outside vanishes when the lesson is applied which the Teacher wished to present.”

Commenting on the phrase, “He shall come like a thief in the night,” Douglas said, “Like the swift agony of fire in a sleeping city. Like the spring of a wild thing as you walk through the quiet glades of a forest. Like all great trials, now and forever, exactly when you least expect them. Then [Christ] foresees how there will be a division of them that spring up to meet the demands of the new day. How some of them will have the reserves of light and life – and the power to hold right on to the end; while others, not having these reserves, will be obliged to give up and lose their place – to submit to the loss and stand outside. . . .  We must have something to fall back on when the trial comes or we can never spring forward to any great purpose.”

He continued: “The physician insists that the best thing possible is to keep on hand a supply of reserve power to assist when he comes to help you through your battle between life and death. Here then is the first meaning of oil in my vessel with my lamp. It lies in my very life.” But Douglas said that the oil can also represent reserves of character.

“Character, like the flywheel to the engine, by its sheer weight carries its possessor through otherwise impossible strains. It may be heavy. In the initial revolutions of this great life cycle, it may seem like an impediment, but when the pulleys of adversity and trouble are coupled on by the belts which lie waiting to bind them to the motor of every human life, then character, the flywheel, carries the reserve power within itself necessary to withstand the strain.

“I wonder if there are not many of us here who have neglected this matter of attaching a flywheel to the engine we strive to keep running. The adversities to which we are coupled – the sorrows we are obliged to have belted to us, the temptations that seem so heavy – all grind the very bearings out of our lives, because we have not made provision for them. There is no great wheel, by whose giant weight the heavy, dragging machinery of human events may be kept in motion. The power required comes direct from the primal force: no assistance, no reserve.”

“Faith, hope and love,” Douglas said, “are the most powerful allies to employ in this reservation, this conservation of force.” Those without faith, he said, cannot be given it when needed, any more than the wise virgins could give their reserves of oil to the foolish ones. But: “Millions have met the same troubles, but have risen through their reserves into the very light and life of God.

“No disaster has overcome them utterly; no trial broken them clear down; no matter that the heavens were black as midnight, except for the pain of it, the reserves were there, and they drew on them till the last and went in to the joy of the Lord.

“Now is the time to store away reserve power! Not when the herald announces the coming of the bridegroom; not after the shopkeepers have closed their stores and gone home to bed; not when the storms of adversity have concentrated their forces for a sudden attack, and come sweeping along the cold and barren crag of an empty life, leaving grief and desolation in their wake; not when the sands of life have run to their last grain, and the blinds are drawn to prepare for death—now is the accepted time.

“Oh, for some new added function of the conscience which could strike the hours as do the clocks, warning us that time is drawing shorter and urging the necessity of preparation.

“Oh! for some indicator attached to the soul that would point to burning figures of fire and show how low or how high was the reserve force. Reserve power! And then, when it is yours to go, when the trials of life have been passed successfully, when the adversities to which men are subject no longer claim you for their victim, then only one more earthly act remains for you, and that, the glorious pilgrimage out of this world and into the Courts on High you will go with lamp trimmed and burning.

“And it will abide! As it lighted your pathway here; as it was the lode star in the firmament of your life; so it will illumine your voyage across the Dark Stream, shining brighter and brighter until it is eclipsed by the glorious rays of the Sun of Righteousness.”

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