Wednesday, May 6, 2020

We Are All First Responders

A neighbor's retaining wall.
While expressing appropriate gratitude for the work of professional first responders, it is helpful to remember we are—each and every one of us—a “first responder.” If we learn nothing else from Jesus, his life and ministry and spirituality, we are “the nearest neighbor” to our families, friends, colleagues, fellow responders, neighbors, clients, customers, service providers, as well as the numerous strangers, even “opponents” we encounter, including all those we meet through our social networks and the internet.

“Love your neighbor,” Jesus said, which may be expanded: “If you don’t love your neighbor whom you can see, how can you claim to love God whom you cannot see?” (See 1 John 4:20). When challenged as to who the neighbor might be, Jesus told the parable of a first responder, the Good Samaritan.

In this time of social distancing and sheltering in place, we might add the counsel of musician Billy Preston borrowed for lyrics by Stephen Stills, “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the ones you’re with.” That includes you, by the way.

A reader of last week’s blogpost quoting Henri Nouwen wrote me a story of Nouwen racing to teach his class at Harvard, dropping his usual ten-dollar gift in the hands of the homeless man he regularly encountered en route. That night, however, in his spiritual self examen at the close of day, he realized that, in his hurry to get to class, he had failed to take the time to look the man in the eye or call him by name.

With another reader who describes himself as a “staid old Scot,” we batted around new, safer ways to greet one another, and we came up with looking one another straight in the eyes. I suggest “namaste” as a verbal component, “the sacred in me greets the sacred in you.” I hear that is becoming more common in these days of social distancing. The traditional namaste greeting is accompanied by a slight reverential bow to the person with hands prayerfully clasped.

A folk singer friend, Don Eaton, wrote a refrain that has stayed with me for half-a-century, “I could be the best friend you ever had, but you always look down when we meet.” This is especially true in these days when people are looking down at their devices rather than regarding passers-by or paying attention to the dogs they are walking. The Netherlands has installed traffic signals in the sidewalk pavement because pedestrians are not looking up!

In my view, to really “regard” someone, something, or our environment, we need to look up, metaphorically if unable to do so literally.

Nouwen loved to play with word contrasts. We tend to react to things and people, he said, keeping them at arm’s length and simply trying to “fix” or arrange things, when we would do better to respond. Lest we become mere reactionaries, our better selves may take things and people to heart so that we are able to respond from a place deep within us. Speaking of healers (as well, we could say, of first responders like ourselves), Henri wrote:

Just as we like to reach our own destination through by-passes, we also like to offer advice, counsel and treatment to others without having really known fully the wounds that need healing. (Reaching Out, 67)

Our most important question as healers is not, “What to say or to do?” but, “How to develop enough inner space where the story can be received?” (Reaching Out, 68)

One of the most memorable things Henri said of the place of prayer in our troubling and troubled world fits our experience in the current global pandemic, “Though things may seem to be out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts.”

Helpful posts in this pandemic:

Atlanta Beltline art.
You may support this blog by clicking here. Please scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.


  1. In considering your first Nouwen quote (67), while it is true that we feel we are doing something "good" by counseling, advising, etc., it came to me that perhaps the best gift to the other is to make space for their wound, sitting with it and honoring them by listening to the whole story to help them hold and carry that wound. Am I my neighbors keeper? With love, I am asked to be.

    Thank you once again for your words of wisdom, Chris


    1. Yes, Mary, I think that's what Henri is trying to say, and I agree with you both! Thank you!