“The people you see running in when everyone else is running out.”
That phrase has become a kind of street-level definition of first responders— firefighters, police officers, paramedics and other emergency personnel.
We might have first heard that description on 9/11, when numerous first responders ran into the burning towers, but as the buildings collapsed, they never had a chance to come back out. They are rightly honored, particularly this Memorial Day weekend, for their sacrifice.
It remains true today that emergency response workers are quick to go into dangerous situations to help others. But in some cases, these traditional first responders are not the only first responders. In some emergencies, that role is filled by whoever happens to be on the spot— sometimes, persons who are not trained professionals in emergency response.
Maybe it’s a driver who witnesses a bad crash on the highway and stops to help.
Or it’s a passerby who sees a house on fire and rushes in to help the residents get out.
Or perhaps it is someone at a mass shooting who directs people to shelter or to a way out of the building.
Or, a person who comforts a gravely-wounded victim who will die before emergency workers arrive.
And in some emergencies, the first responder may be a child.
Following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, a coalition of organizations came together to develop a program called “Stop the Bleed,” which teaches civilians how to administer first aid after a shooting. The program even supplies “bleed kits.”
Regardless of who, where, when, or age, a first responder must have a willingness to step into the role of responding. It’s not an easy one, for sure. But it can be a role and a response that could very well save someone’s life.
Now typically we associate first responders to those who tend to physical needs. But there is also a need for spiritual first responders. And we see just such a thing played out in our text for today with the entry of Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke into the district of Macedonia.
While not summoned by a radio call or siren (as emergency workers usually are) Paul and his team received a 911 call through a nighttime vision in which a man from Macedonia pleaded, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
Paul’s team understood this as a call from God, and they realized the help needed was a proclamation of the Gospel in that region. Thus, they set sail from Troas, and soon they were sharing the Gospel in Macedonia.
They did this because they heard the call, and they willingly responded by running in when others were running out.
So…How do we know when we are being called to be spiritual first responders?
Probably the clearest Macedonian call for us comes when, in normal everyday conversation, someone invites us to be honest about our faith.
Our text says Paul sat down and spoke to some women whom he encountered in a place of prayer near the river. Note he didn’t preach or try to scare people with the terror of hell if they didn’t receive Christ. He just shared with them.
Luke reports that one of those listening was Lydia, and that “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”
“Opened her heart” is a key take away here. What does that mean if not that something was bleeding inside her? And that happens to a lot of people. They are broken inside, bleeding, needing someone to respond to their emergency.
Most of our conversations with colleagues, or friends, or those at the fitness center or golf course deal with routine, everyday things. But as we develop relationships with others, sometimes more serious topics come up—marriage, parenting, health concerns, ageing parents, and so on—and when they do, and the other person asks for our opinion about some ethical matter or wants to talk about a personal problem, they are presenting an opportunity to share a word about our faith—Not preach, not lecture, just share with them.
But what does that even look or sound like? How do we do it?
Consider the following scenario as told by Melanie Silva, contributor to Homiletics Magazine, who paints this picture for us…
Let’s say Mike is having lunch with Jason, a co-worker.
Jason is halfway into a bleu cheese and mushroom double-decker hamburger when he wipes the ketchup off his mouth with a napkin, lays it down, and says, “So, Mike, you go to church. What does your church believe in anyway?”
Mike is about to answer, when Jason goes on to explain, “Our daughter is 4 years old now, and my wife and I are thinking we should get back in the church habit, get her to Sunday school, or something— learn some Bible stories like Moses and the Ark.”
Jason continues to tell his story, sharing how he and his wife both had sporadic religious experiences growing up— never in one church very long, infrequently attending when they did. Jason shares they don’t know much about God, religion or church, but they sense it might be a good thing for their family.
Now Mike could tell Jason it’s “Noah and the Ark”, not Moses. He could tell his coworker a shallow, non-responsive answer— talking in generalities about worship service times. But the questions and statements allow Mike to tell a little about his faith and church experience.
Mike doesn’t need to go into great detail, but he can respond to the level of interest his friend has expressed and say something about what his faith means to him and the role it plays in his family.
Chances are good, Jason will appreciate the feedback. And why not? They are friends. The subject had come up naturally. And Mike didn’t try to beat him with a Bible.
Surely in moments like this, when someone is asking for information and inviting us to be a spiritual first responder, we can be an unembarrassed witnesses for Christ and share our faith in an honest way.
But we need to be ready to respond when the opportunity presents itself.
So how can we be ready? How can we stock our first responder kit, so to speak?
Here are a few ways to be ready.
First, have some statement about what knowing Christ means to you personally. Something like, “Because Jesus is in my life, I no longer _______.”
Or “Because Jesus is in my life, I’ve been able to let go of __________.”
Or “Because Jesus is in my life, my outlook is more positive,” and then tell why. Forethought on this is key.
Next, have a suggestion about where the person might learn more or grow in the new experience. This might include an invitation to accompany you to church. Or, if they are a reader, maybe something to read, such as C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. Give them an opportunity to take their search to another level.
And lastly, be ready with a willingness to coach someone how to pray a beginner’s prayer, such as, “Holy God, come into my life, and help me follow you.” And better yet, be ready and willing to pray with someone if they ask you to keep them in your prayers. Simply say, “How about we pray right now.” And then pray a simple prayer that God continues to be made known to them, and that God blesses them and shows them a path forward.
Again, forethought is key.
I’m not trying to make all this sound simpler than it is or to imply that a few, well-chosen words are all you need.
But the fact is, people in search of meaning or trying to fill an empty place inside themselves often begin by talking to someone they think might be able to point them in the right direction. And if that someone is us, we become their spiritual first responders. And they need us to be ready.
Keep in mind, first responders aren’t usually the ones who provide the whole solution. They’re the ones who do their best to stop the bleeding and then send the person to a place where more help is available.
So what will be your response if you find yourself in the role of first responder in someone’s search for faith?
Will it be, “Who, me? I’m no professional”?
Will you say, “I suggest you talk to my pastor.” Or in your case, “I suggest you talk to a pastor.”
Understandable to want to sidestep, but remember, you’re the one to whom the person addressed their 911 call— that is, the person has some connection to you that caused him or her to speak about the need. And because of that connection, you may be the only one with a spiritual first responder kit to stop the person’s spiritual hemorrhaging.
And while you may not have “formal training”, you can tell the person what your faith means to you.
Depending on your own experience of Christ, you may be able to address a person’s sense of emptiness by saying the Gospel gives meaning to lives that seem to be without purpose.
You may be able to address a person’s loneliness, explaining that Christ is a comforting presence who helps you when you feel alone.
You may be able to help a person face their fears by talking about the calmness and spiritual strength the Gospel fosters.
You may be the one to tell the person how to approach God, sharing the basics of simple prayer.
So if a moment comes where someone within our circle of acquaintances appears to be seeking faith, may God make us willing to be spiritual first responders—because we very well could be the only one running in when everyone else is running out. Amen.