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First Responder

By Brent Stainer

I am sitting on the couch — trying not to get any dirt on it. I am dressed in my firefighter turnout gear, which isn’t very clean. The effort seems pointless. The thought crosses my mind that the owner of the couch no longer cares how it looks. We just placed a sheet over her lifeless body in the next room. I much prefer life-saving efforts, but we had no opportunity in this instance. The elderly woman, living alone, had expired sometime in the night, several hours earlier.

As my crew and I wait patiently for the medical examiner, we seldom speak. When we do, it is in hushed tones. I suppose it’s out of respect. We have been to countless deaths, and this is just another to add to the list.

I am fortunate to have a fellow believer on my crew. *Jason has a good heart that seeks the Lord. He is standing in the hallway looking at family pictures. The lady had a big family. A happy family. Of course, no one is here to provide the interpretation that accompanies such photos. In this instance, none is necessary. There are a dozen pictures of her and (I assume) her late husband surrounded by grown children and their spouses and their grandchildren. It is enough to make you smile.

Also on the wall is a plaque with the common poem “Footprints in the Sand.” I briefly ponder if this woman had such a relationship with the Lord. My engineer, Mark, is in the living room observing a delicate needlepoint pattern. Mark isn’t one I would consider an aficionado of embroidery. Nevertheless, there he is. He is intently reading the embroidery, then, as is his way, he challenges me, “All right, Bible man … what is Joshua 24:15?” I don’t know. He is kind enough to quote it for me: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Again, it makes me smile.

Jason speaks up. “Looks like she might have been a believer.” We begin to look around for clues. A church directory is next to the phone … literature from Latin America Childcare … and next to her recliner is a well-worn Bible with papers and bookmarks out every side.

Quite a difference from our last call. We normally don’t arrive at medical calls in our firefighting gear, but we were on our way back from a house fire. The fire had a fatality. A man in his late 50s succumbed to smoke inhalation. The investigation is ongoing, but it appears he was smoking in bed and fell asleep.

At that fire, my crew was responsible for overhauling the fire, that is, ensuring complete extinguishment. We used our tools in his bedroom — pulling the ceiling down and removing debris. There were ashtrays and cigarette butts everywhere. Cans of beer strewn about the room — some only half empty. Pornography on the walls. I couldn’t imagine this man having much pride in what we were witnessing.

It was depressing.

Back in the woman’s living room, Jason and I compare the differences. One was a loss, and one was a victory. Mark argues there was no difference. They are both dead. From the world’s viewpoint he is correct. They are the same. However, we are not as concerned about life on this earth as we are eternity. The brief wisp of life is insignificant compared to that.

Only the Lord knows the hearts of these two individuals. We can’t pretend to know. But, there are indications of whom they served and what they felt was important. With the woman’s death, I find a degree of comfort in that. Clues are present that cause me to believe that she is now with her Creator. The man in the fire, however, caused me a degree of sorrow. I pray he had made a decision for the Lord, because the opportunities to do so are now over.

Firefighters are an odd breed. We are used to stepping into situations that are not directly our problems and bringing about a resolution. The public loves firefighters. We have the reputation of solving catastrophic problems — whether it’s a medical crisis, fire, car accident or hazardous materials spill.

I enjoy being one of the team members whom the public calls when there is a problem; however, looking on this day with these two deaths I realize I was not an effective tool for them. I could not save either of these lives. The comfort I have concerning the woman’s death is the result of work done for eternity, and nothing that I had done. It gives me a new perspective on my job. I enjoy saving lives. There is a real rush when you pull someone out of a fire, or extricate them from a crushed automobile. But it is all for naught if they don’t make the decision to follow Christ.

So why don’t I take my efforts to evangelize those around me as seriously as I do my attempts to save earthly lives? Is one more important than the other? Of course. But I often have them reversed. I need to learn to keep things in their proper perspective.

Many people, even in our own church, cloud this issue as well. We readily applaud and extol police, firefighters and members of the military — and there is a place for that. However, none of it is of any real value unless an individual comes to the Lord.

I’m amazed at the number of believers who learn CPR yet don’t take the time to learn how to share their faith effectively. Or the people who ensure that their friends on their boat wear a life jacket yet haven’t taken the time to ask about their eternity.

Please don’t misunderstand. Anyone who knows me knows of my passion for CPR and life jacket use — I actually teach classes on both. It isn’t that those topics are not important. It is just that our friends’ and neighbors’ salvation is more important. We must keep it in the proper perspective.

In the firehouse, we continue to expand our knowledge and education within the fire service. I want more knowledge on fire suppression, emergency medicine and the dozens of other topics on which the public expects me to be an expert. But I am changing my priorities off the job. The Lord has taught me that I can make a difference for eternity.

Jason, Mark and I have sat down over dinner at the fire station and had a good talk about the need for a relationship with Jesus Christ. Mark hasn’t yet made that decision, but he is a thinker and I can see the Lord working on him. I continue to pray for him, and I hope the Lord can use me again in Mark’s life. 

*Names have been changed.

Brent Stainer is a fire captain with the Everett Fire Department in the state of Washington. He attends Shoreline Community Church (Assemblies of God) in Shoreline, Wash. (Kevin Weaver, pastor).

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