It was a typical Saturday night in the dispatch center. An occasional domestic violence call or bar fight punctuated the bevy of loud party calls. I was working the primary radio channel. Due to short-staffing and my regular partner going home sick, my workmates were two police officers who earned some extra cash by working as part-time dispatchers. They manned the phones and the records checks on the secondary radio channel. They were capable of taking over the primary radio when absolutely necessary, but usually only did so in the wee hours of the morning when there was virtually no radio traffic. Although we didn’t work together often, we had nestled into a relatively calm and quiet routine that night.
It was close to midnight when the sound of multiple 9-1-1 calls flooded the center. Within a few seconds I had a call for service ready to dispatch on my screen. It was the report of shots fired at one of the large parties. I had just the address, no further details, but I sent two officers and a sergeant to the call, advising them I’d give them more information as soon as I had it. The calls continued to come in. I could tell by listening to my partners’ phone conversations that many who were calling were simply reporting the sound of gunfire, they hadn’t seen anything. But suddenly, that changed. I could hear the officer sitting at the console across from me, a glass partition between us, speaking to someone with information on the person with the gun, and the type of vehicle in which he was seen leaving. My focus shifted to my computer screen and I refreshed it to relay the pertinent details to the officers who would soon be arriving on scene. I clicked my mouse twice, then a third, then a fourth time. There was no new information being added and yet I continued to hear all the right questions being asked and apparently answered.
As a dispatcher, I knew that one of the most critical times for officers is that initial arrival on scene to an active incident. It is even more critical- like, life and death critical- when a firearm is involved in the incident. It is my job to arm the officers with as much information as I can so that they are able to recognize existing threats and make wise, split-second decisions based on known information. The clock was ticking. I had officers within seconds of arriving to this scene. They were potentially driving directly towards an armed suspect who was now fleeing the scene of his crime. My screen was blank. I had no more information than what I had broadcast to the officers when the call first appeared on my screen. We now had information that could potentially save a life, or prevent another shooting from occurring, but I couldn’t give it out. It wasn’t accessible to me and I couldn’t relay it to my officers.
Well, the end of the story is rather anti-climactic. Nothing happened. The shooter had driven away before officers arrived and there was never an encounter between them. No one at the party was injured from the shots being fired. As for the information my co-worker had received, once the officers were on scene, he came over the radio from his console and provided the suspect information. He explained to me later that he wasn’t confident enough in his typing skills to enter the information into the call as he received it, so he wrote the description on his notepad. He had planned all along to give out the information over the radio himself, once he had it written down. He would type it into the call later, which he did.
Everything about that particular call turned out okay. No one was hurt. Yes, the shooter got away, but I’d like to think a detective or investigator may have tracked him down in the days that followed. Although everything turned out okay, it was one of the last calls for service I ever dispatched. It marked the end of my dispatch career which had lasted about 6 years. Now that may sound a bit harsh and sudden. It certainly did to my boss and co-workers when I announced my resignation the next day. But it was the culmination of many years of stress-filled situations and the slow and steady shift in my perception of responsibility.
One of the most common personality traits amongst public safety dispatchers is their deep sense of responsibility. These are detail-oriented, critical thinkers, smart decision-makers, and adept multi-taskers, who take their jobs very seriously. To do anything less could cost someone their life, whether that be a member of the public who needs help, or an officer in the field. Those who are truly devoted to their profession consider every person they speak to over the radio as one of their own. You’ll notice that even as I relayed this story to you I spoke of the officers as “my officers.” They weren’t just fellow employees, or the men and women I worked with, they were MY officers, MY guys (and gals), my responsibility. It’s almost hard to describe the depth to which this feeling of responsibility goes. It’s not just caring about the officers and their safety, although that is certainly a huge part of it. It’s about being a link in a life saving chain. Being that link for strangers is one thing. Being that link for a co-worker, someone whom you know, whose family you know, and for whom you deeply care for is heavy and, it’s precious.
What led me to the place of submitting my resignation from my role as a dispatcher, was that that responsibility that I held so dear, shifted into a place that became unmanageable and unhealthy. Over time, and as a result of an accumulation of stressors that I hadn’t dealt with properly, I began to believe that nearly every transmission I made over the radio was a matter of life or death. I felt as though I was the sole person whose actions or lack of actions would determine if an officer would go home to his or her family at the end of their shift. I don’t mean to sound so melodramatic, but those were actually the thoughts that flashed through my mind nearly each time I pressed the button of my mic. I left each shift, usually reduced to tears by the time I reached the parking lot, and wondering how I would come back to work another day. What happened on the night of the shots fired call was the last straw. It was my worst nightmare nearly becoming a reality – knowing there was critical, life-saving information and not being able to give it to my officers in time. Even though nothing happened, and that it was actually my co-worker who was responsible for not providing the information as timely as I would have liked it, it was the end for me. The responsibility was crushing me. It had shifted in my mind into something that it wasn’t. I may have been a link in a potentially life-saving chain, but I wasn’t the entire chain, and not every instance was a life or death situation.
I have been spending a lot of time in the book of John lately. I am savoring every morsel of John’s unique perspective as a close friend and follower of Jesus. As I read some of Jesus’ last instructions to His precious co-workers, the disciples, I was struck by the clarity of the responsibility that He gave them. John records these words soon after Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem just before His death:
“Then Jesus told them, ‘You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.'” John 12:35-56a
Then later in the same chapter he records these words:
Then Jesus cried out, ‘Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.’” John 12:44-50
Jesus instructs His followers to believe in Him, the Light, so that they can be children of the Light. He was getting ready to return to heaven, and although they were not yet understanding that fact, He was telling them what they were to do once He was no longer with them. They were to not only recognize Him as the Light, but to continue to be the light. The darkness wasn’t going away after His death and resurrection, the Light was. They were to be the ones to continue to shine His Light in the dark world after He left it.
Jesus continued by talking about the purpose of His mission. He states plainly that He did not come to judge people. He came instead to save them. There will be a time of judgment that is coming, but until then, it’s the message of salvation – light shining in darkness – that is to be shared. That was the mantle He was passing on to His disciples, and to us.
Throughout the chapters that follow, John records the last words of Jesus to His disciples. Over and over again Jesus says that those who love Him will show that love by following His commands, by being obedient to Him, and by remaining in His love (John 14:15, 14:21, 14:23, 15:10). And what is His command? John tells us that too.
“‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. …This is my command: Love each other.” John 15:12-14, 17
Those words to the disciples are for us too. Our responsibility as believers in Jesus is to be light, as He was Light, and we do that by loving others – loving people as Jesus loved people. He has even assured our success by giving us His very Spirit to live inside of us. We don’t have the ability to love like He loved UNLESS we have His Spirit flowing through us and into the lives of others. The responsibility is clear. Our mission is clear. BE LIGHT and LOVE.
One might say that the responsibility we carry is a weighty one. We are a link in a life-giving chain. The eternal destination of those whom God puts in our path hangs in the balance. Yet Jesus made the boundaries of our responsibility clear. We are not the chain, merely a link. We do not carry the responsibility of another’s choices, nor do we have the power to convict another’s heart. We simply have the great privilege of being a link in His grace-filled, Holy Spirit powered, everlasting life-giving chain.
With so much division and darkness in the world, we have many opportunities to exercise this precious responsibility. Yet, I think at times, this responsibility gets distorted in our minds. We have perhaps slowly and over time shifted into an unmanageable and unhealthy place. We are so discouraged in the lawlessness of our culture, or in the love for darkness that we see in others, that we leave our encounters with the world on the verge of tears, and wonder how much worse it can get. We perhaps have come to believe that our efforts, or lack of efforts, are what stands between this world and its downward trajectory towards destruction. This can lead us to a place of resignation, a place where we are no longer effective lights in the world. We become so discouraged and disgusted by the darkness that our own light has grown dim. Our compassion for those in the darkness becomes instead a bitter judgment on their life’s choices.
But here’s the thing: Nothing that is happening in our world today is a surprise to God. Our sinful world is hurtling towards a catastrophic end, and – spoiler alert – God wins! In the meantime, His desire for us is to be engaged with Him in this world, partnering with Him in His ministry by being obedient disciples, and shining His light to those in darkness. If Jesus, the Son of God, who is the only person with the authority to judge the world, didn’t do so while He was here, what makes us think we should? He wasn’t discouraged and disgusted by the darkness He witnessed. Instead, He overcame that darkness by defeating it once and for all through His resurrection. He has imparted that victory to us so that we can continue to be Light on His behalf! If we are overcome by the bleakness of the darkness ourselves, how much of His light can we possibly transmit?
I left my career as a dispatcher because my twisted sense of responsibility got the best of me. I took myself out of the profession completely because I began to believe I had a role that I really didn’t have. As believers, we cannot fall into that same trap. Bitterness, disappointment, vitriol, and disgust in the hearts of believers is a resignation. It takes us out of our calling as believers. But we don’t have to stay there. I am grateful that just two years later, the Lord brought me back to the same police department, in a different role, where I finished out my career of more than 25 years. God can do the same for any believer who has gotten off track. We can rescind our resignation when we refocus on our true responsibility and carry out His command to: Be light and love.
Father, thank you for sending your Son into this world to overcome the darkness. Thank you for allowing us to remain in this world a little longer to be your light shining in the darkness so that more may come into your glorious and saving light. Father, help us, by your Holy Spirit, to keep us focused on our mission to love others. May we not get swept up, discouraged, or overcome by the darkness we see, but instead recognize our responsibility for what it is. Empower us to love others, as Jesus loved others. May more and more souls be drawn to you in these dark days. Thank you for your love, your grace, your patience with us, and your everlasting love. May we always be your light and love in the world until you return. In Jesus’ name, amen.