Where is God when bad things happen? Part 2: Responding to emergencies
with Diana Davis Butler
The news coming out of emergency situations often features images of first responders. But for this 9-1-1 dispatcher, a split second of turning to God as she snapped into action proved time and again that there's a place for a spiritual first response—and that God's help really is there in an emergency.
The news these days is heavy; it’s hard to read the headlines or turn on the TV without hearing not just bad news, but devastating and seemingly insurmountable news. And for many, the heartbreaking events worldwide raise the question of where is God when bad things happen? So we’ve decided that question is our focus this month at Sentinel Watch. I’m your host, Jenny Sawyer, and this week I’ll be talking to Diana Davis Butler, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher from Fresno, California, USA. We’ll be tackling the question, Can God help in an emergency?
So, Diana, to start, tell me a little bit about your experience being a 911 dispatcher. What was it that you did?
Yes, I was a 911 dispatcher for well over 25 years. And I dispatched police, fire, medical, and that involved answering 911 and taking calls for service.
OK, so tell me a little bit about like “a day in the life.” What what was that like?
Well, I worked in a medium-sized department. The last 16 years of my career were with the police department and there were two of us on duty at a time. One of us would handle what we call the fire side, and that would be fire dispatch, medical dispatch, answering 911 calls, plus all the business calls for the department. We were a college town. And like when you worked the night shift Friday and Saturday nights, we always laughed and called it Friday night at the fights because when the bars would close, it would be absolutely insane.
So it kept me busy. It was an exciting, fun career, but a lot of pressure.
What was the fun side of it?
The main thing I loved was that it was helping people. I felt like I was doing good. In other words, it mattered. I’ve handled plane crashes, homicides in progress, fires, explosions, you name it, but I’ve probably dealt with it.
And how did it feel to have a call like that come in? I mean, did that feel stressful or did you just snap into action mode or what was it like?
Well, kind of both. It was stressful, but I would always take just a moment and go, “OK, Father, show me what to do.” I knew God is my Father-Mother, my source, your source, the only source there is. And God is infinite good, divine intelligence, infinite Mind. So that’s the only Mind any of us really have. So if I’m listening to hear what the divine is telling me, the all-knowing Mind will let me know what I need to do and say and work through me. That’s kind of my thought process.
I would try to prepare before I got to work because a lot of times once I got there, it was so busy you really didn’t have time to do a whole lot other than function in the job itself.
What did that preparation look like for you most days?
It’s going to sound funny, but to get myself out of the way, to leave human opinions, fear, doubt at the door, and trust that God governs His universe always, every part of it. An experienced Christian Scientist who mentored me for many years once said, “Whenever you hear a siren or see a siren or anything like that, call it good.” And by that, what I think he meant was that God was already there providing all that was needed. So there’s nothing but God going on. And I would really try to get to where that was the reality to me. That was tangible truth.
So that idea of getting yourself out of the way, that might seem kind of counterintuitive, because I think when we think about an emergency situation, the first thing we think of is having to do something, lift a car off of a person or intervene somehow, and obviously you’re at the phone, so that’s not going to be your role. But can you explain a little bit more about how do we “quote” get ourselves out of the way? What does that really look like?
Well, to me, it was learning not to think I have to do this, I’m responsible. You know, I did my homework. In other words, I knew what the protocols of the department were. When a call comes in, there’s certain information that you need to obtain. So I kind of had a sense of that outline of what I needed to find out. And I knew what resources I needed to send. So that’s the human part of it.
But the part that says, “Oh, my gosh, what if I can’t do this? What if I’m not good enough?” Or, “Gosh, I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Either side of that coin. Neither of those is helpful. But that kind of surrender to, OK, divine Love is caring for Her creation. And it’s going to be in a way that I can tangibly understand. I would just seem to be guided to know what questions to ask and what to do.
Can you describe a little bit about what that guidance felt like? Was it kind of an effortlessness where you just found words coming to mind or what was that like?
It’s like a little inner voice. You know, I call it spiritual intuition, and we all have it. But we have been so steeped in the idea that everything is material, everything has to come through the five physical senses, that I think a lot of times we’ve shut down that spiritual intuition. And I really tried to develop mine, to open my heart to it. And when I would get an inclination, “Well ask this” or a question would just come out of my mouth. And oftentimes it made no sense as far as what information I was maybe receiving from the person calling in. But I would ask the question and it would bring forth a whole slew of information that was really needed for both my officers’ safety and in order to get the right resources to where they needed to be.
Do you have a specific example of that?
Well, we had a case one night. At that point, I had become supervisor, so I was a supervisor on the shift, so I wasn’t actually working a position, but my other two dispatchers were so busy that a 911 rang and I was the one that had to pick it up and answer it. And I got a call from a young woman who was just beside herself. She had received a phone call from a friend of hers, a friend who was a college student. And he told her he’d taken an overdose and was killing himself and he just called her to say goodbye. And she knew his first name and that he was in a motel in our city.
Well our city was a small city, but it was a tourist town. So we had well over one hundred motels and hotels in it and there was no way I could call them all. So I got as much information as I could out of her, and then we hung up and I told my dispatchers what I had and they said, “Well, there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do to help him.” And I said, “Yeah, there is. We’re not going to let him die.” And I just took a moment, just a beat to say, “All right, Father, this is Your call. And if You want me to help this young man, I need to know where he is. And I know that You know.”
Well, it came to me there’s one side of town where there are some cheaper hotels, and I thought, “OK, this kid is a college student; he’s not going to have a lot of money. So let me check a couple of those Well, I called one of them, and the first one I called did have somebody registered in a group with his first name. So we immediately sent officers over there. And I just kept listening to see if God had anything else to tell me.
Well, the name of a different motel kept coming to me. But because we’d already sent the officers, I hadn’t called it yet. Well, once they got there, they called in over the radio and said that he was not the young man in the group. So at that point, I called the motel where the name had been just kind of tapping me on the shoulder. And they did have somebody with his first name and he’d checked in on his own, which actually made more sense. And they were able to give me a last name and a date of birth, which enabled me to check him in a computer and find his driver’s license, which showed me that his hometown was about ten miles south of where we were. So that all kind of made sense.
Well, about the same time I got this information, my officer called in and he said, “Well, did you get any more information?” And I told him what I had and he said, “OK, that’s him.” My officer had talked to our original reporting party and had been able to get a little bit more information from her. And it matched. So at that point, we dispatched fire, ambulance ,and our officers Code 3, which is your lights and sirens to that particular hotel, and we did find him and were able to save him. The paramedics told me later, if we’d been 20 minutes later, he’d have been gone.
Wow. What did you take forward from that experience? What was the takeaway for you or the lesson?
Just that any time we need to if we just get our human reasoning out of the way and ask God and then listen and expect an answer, we get one. And it doesn’t just bless us, it blesses everybody.
I love that you had such an expectation that you would have exactly what you needed, and to me, that points to a pretty unique perspective on God. And this comes from your study of Christian Science. Have you been a Christian Scientist your whole life?
That was the best gift my mother ever gave me.
And how has your understanding of God kind of developed over the years? And how did your job doing this dispatching help you develop that understanding?
Well, my understanding has grown. But it takes a bit of humility and obedience to trust God and listen to Him and follow Him. And this dispatch job, because, as you say, I’m on the phone, there’s nothing I can physically go and do. It requires complete surrender to that sense of God. You have to trust your partners. You have to trust your team. You have to trust that you’re going to know what to do and how to do it, or you’d go crazy. Nobody would do the job. And by leaning on God, it took just a substantial amount of that pressure away.
And certainly, I’m guessing, as you saw experiences like this take place, your confidence in God and the fact that God is a help in an emergency must have increased, right?
Oh, my gosh. Yeah. You see, it proved over and over and you get for it’s first nature instead of second nature. I could share one other example if there’s time.
Yeah, I’d love to hear it.
I was working police radio at this particular time. This young woman called and my partner answered on 911, and she was absolutely distraught. A friend of hers had called her and told her he had a gun and he was going to kill himself. And I guess he had fired one shot in his apartment. He was living in student housing. She did know his location and his full name, but she didn’t know if there was anybody else in the apartment with him. But she knew he had a gun.
So we go into hyperdrive when this happens, because at that point, you don’t know if you’ve got what we would call a barricaded subject; we didn’t know if he had a hostage. Clearly, if he’s got a gun and he’s trying to kill himself, he’s not mentally stable. So you just don’t know what you have. So it requires what we would call a SWAT callout, which is our special response team.
Well, as a police dispatcher, that made me totally busy. I’ve got to get all these officers en route to the location and get everything set up and communicate. So basically, all I had time to do was turn to God. The thought came to me so strongly. I thought, “This young man is a beloved son of God and God is caring for him and He’s caring for all of us and He’s governing this entire situation.” That’s really about all I had time to pray. That was my prayer and it was simple and direct. And then I just did my job, what I’d been trained to do.
Well, a few minutes later, my partner got a 911 call from the young man and he was upset. He was absolutely furious. He’d fired the gun and it wouldn’t fire. He’d had it up to his head, pulled the trigger, and it jammed. And he wanted us to tell him how to unjam it, which, of course, wasn’t really going to happen. But we did send officers. And the way the rest of the call unfolded, it worked out very harmoniously. Nobody was hurt.
Later, the officer that was handling the call came into my dispatch center and sat down with me. This was after things had calmed down probably around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. And he sat down and he said, “You’re not going to believe this.” He said, “I got to show you this gun and how it jammed.”
Well, he knew that I used to shoot competitively, so I was very familiar with firearms. And he said this bullet . . . the kid had put the gun to his head, pulled the trigger. The bullet jammed in the barrel.
Now, if you know anything about firearms, that just doesn’t happen. And it took tools to unjam the gun once we got it back to the department. The officer looked at me and said this was like divine intervention. I had to laugh.
You said, “Yes, it was.”
That’s exactly what I said. I said, “Yeah, I think it was.” But you see, that had nothing to do with anything I did. That was all God.
You have this wonderful, like I said, confidence and expectation and God’s help. And it seemed like you were able to turn pretty instinctively to that. And thinking about situations either I’ve been in or people I know have been in that are more like an intense emergency situation where you always think to yourself, I think especially if you’re a praying person, like, oh, you know, turning to God would be my first response. And then you find yourself in the moment and you’re actually just completely frozen.
So what would you say to someone, your sort of average listener who thinks to themselves, “Well, gee, I would either freeze or I wouldn’t know what to do.” How can we kind of get ourselves more in that mode of having it be an instinctive thing to turn to God?
Don’t wait until it’s an emergency. In other words, get your dialog with God going on everything. You open your thought to God and expect an answer. I know when I first started doing this, and it was later in my life, I had been a Christian Scientist all my life, but when I really had some serious challenges and started what I would call practicing, really praying without ceasing and constantly listening to what God was telling me, I found myself with everything thinking, “OK, Father, what do You want me to do now?” I didn’t just wait until something went wrong and I needed to respond.
And a little example of that: I was driving in the mountains where we used to live, and I came around a curve on a two-lane road on a busy highway. And the traffic in front of me was stopped, which was no problem. Somebody was making a left-hand turn and I stopped. No problem. But the thought came to me very clearly, “Look in your rearview mirror.” Well, I did, and there wasn’t anything there. And it just came to me again, “The person behind you is not going to stop.” Well, I looked up and there was still nobody there, but I started looking around. I listened. I had learned at this point that this is what I would call an angel message, a kind of a gentle nudging from God. And I saw that there was like a pullout on the right-hand side of me that I could easily pull into.
In the meantime, I glanced back up in my rearview mirror, and this kid came around the curve, probably going 60 miles an hour, and he hadn’t seen that the traffic in front of him was stopped yet. So I very quickly was able to ease my car over parallel with the car in front of me to the side of the road. About that time, this kid saw us slammed on his brakes, skidded to a stop right where my car had been.
And I’d been there. He would have whammed into the back of me, and we would have had one of those multicar accordion crashes. And that comes from having a dialog with God; from just kind of constantly saying, “OK, Father, what do You want me to know?”
I mean, it doesn’t matter if you get up in the morning and think, “What should I wear today?” Stop a moment and go, “OK, Father, what would You have me wear today?
I mean, it sounds trivial and it sounds silly, but it’s good practice. That’s why they call it Christian Science practice. It’s a spiritual intuition that we have to be aware of and use. And the more we use it, just like a muscle, the more control we have over it and the stronger it gets.
How would you describe, when you’re hearing these thoughts, what’s the difference between when you’re hearing God versus just what would seem like a random thought that would come to mind?
Well, generally, when it’s from God, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a human logic standpoint. And I’ve learned to follow those instructions anyhow. And sometimes that, to me, is the trick in learning to tell the difference. And it comes with time. You listen or maybe sometimes you get that random thought and you don’t listen, and then later you realize why you should have listened and you go, “Oh, Father, that was You. I’m sorry.”
Well, you do that two or three times and the next time you hear it, you follow it and then you go, “Oh, I did it and it worked. Thank you!” It’s just a matter of jumping out there and doing it.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it seems like by the time you became a Christian Science practitioner then—and you can help listeners understand a little bit more about what that job is like—you were really prepared to deal with emergencies in a slightly different way.
Well, my kids joke with me. They go, “Mom, you didn’t retire. You changed professions.” And in a way, they’re correct. I didn’t retire. I just changed jobs. And I’m doing the same doggone thing. I still get emergency calls and I still send help. The difference is the help now is so much more effective than anything I could do as a dispatcher. And that help is the recognition that God is already there, already caring for His creation with love and absolute, unfailing perfection. So that’s kind of where I work. Can I share one more story?
Oh, I’d love to hear it.
This is a more recent one. And this happened since I became a practitioner. Actually, it was since I was a Christian Science teacher. One of my students called me just distraught one day because her mother, who was also a Christian Scientist and I had prayed for her previously so I knew this woman. But her mother had become really deathly ill, and her sisters, who were not Christian Scientists, had called the ambulance. And by the time they got there, the mother was unconscious.
In the meanwhile, she had been taken to the hospital and was in a coma on life support. And the doctors had come out and told the family that there was no way she was going to recover. And if she did come to by some miracle, she would be mentally damaged to the point that she wouldn’t be able to function. And they wanted them to pull the plug. They felt it would be better to just let her die.
Well, the family was in anguish and my student was in anguish and she said, “Is there anything you can do to help us?” And I said, “Well, give me a minute. Let me pray about it for a moment.”
We hung up and I just got still. And it came to me so clearly: This is not true about God’s idea and it’s not true about God. And I mean, I knew it. I knew it just as much as I know when I watch the sunset into the ocean that the ocean isn’t going to put it out. It was just that clear. And so I went on with my day.
A little bit later, my student called me back and she said, “You’re not going to believe what happened.” And I said, “Really?”
She said, “Yeah, my mother had been unconscious for at least two days. And all of a sudden she came to, motioned that she wanted to write because they had all that stuff down her throat, she couldn’t talk. So they gave her a pen and a pencil and she wrote, ‘I want to live.’ ”
Well, that totally took the decision-making away from the family. And within a very few days, she was off life support. She’s home now and she’s fine. There’s been none of the dire side effects that were predicted. She came out of it just beautifully. And that’s God.
The Bible tells us that God is equal to every emergency. And in Psalms, it says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” [46:1]. And I have found that to be literally true.
So let’s go back to that moment when you heard that message from God in the face of what seemed like very unsettling and upsetting information. Can you help listeners understand what your role was in that?
I think a lot of people might think, well, I mean, I could think that God is all and those bad circumstances are not true about God’s idea and not true about God, but nothing would happen. So what do you think made the difference in this case?
I think the fact that I wasn’t just saying it with hope. I knew it. I was really trusting it. You know, God was there. It’s kind of like there’s a fog that keeps us from seeing the good reality that God is giving us at all times. And the way I’ve explained it, and I don’t know if this will make sense, but if you’re going to start a fire in the forest with a magnifying glass, you hold the magnifying glass over a pile of dry leaves and let the sun shine through it. Now the magnifying glass focuses that sunlight, but the magnifying glass isn’t the source of the sunlight. And the sun starts the fire.
Well, that’s basically what a practitioner is doing. It’s like a magnifying glass, allowing the truth that God is constantly giving us to shine through on our human thought and basically start the fire or correct whatever needs to be corrected to make His presence and His power visible to us.
That’s a great analogy. And can you, just in case somebody listening doesn’t know what a Christian Science teacher is, can you just explain what that is and what that relationship is with a student then?
Well, after you’ve had some experience in healing and some success, you can apply to become a teacher. And what that means is you teach a two-week class every year for students to study the chapter on “Recapitulation” out of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, our textbook by Mary Baker Eddy. And it prepares them to become healers, to understand how the Science of Christianity works.
In other words, it’s not a magic wand, it’s not just a feel-good philosophy. It is the law of God and it’s kind of like the law of gravity. You don’t have to understand it for it to hold you on the earth. But if you want to build a rocket, you’ve got to know something about that law.
Well, that’s the law of God. You don’t have to understand it for it to help you and heal you and apply to you. But if you want to help others and consistently see it in action, you have to understand it. And that’s what the two-week class does. It gives students the tools to go forward and practice on their own.
That’s great. And so let’s then take that and expand that outward. So for those who have maybe a little experience praying or a lot and they really want to help when they see news of emergencies in other places in the world or maybe in their own community, what would you suggest that they do? How can they help?
Don’t start with the problem. In other words, don’t get so wrapped up in what the problem is screaming at you that you can’t see anything else. Put the problem aside for a moment and start with God.
All right. If I know that God is good, infinite, ever-present, omnipotent good, what is God knowing and seeing right where that ugly picture is trying to appear? And you stay there regardless of what the material picture is saying. You cling to what God is knowing, what God is giving His good creation. And then don’t forget to listen. Listening should be like 90 percent of prayer.
Diana, this has just been a wonderful conversation. I wonder if there’s anything that you want to be sure to add before we wrap up.
Just that Mrs. Eddy has a wonderful quote that I love in Science and Health. She says, “Love [which would be another word for God because the Bible tells us God is love] is impartial and universal in its adaptation and bestowals” [p. 13]. And I just love that statement because to me, it’s like a big giant hug for everybody. Love is wherever God is and God is everywhere. And there is just no place we can go or no emergency so dire that Love isn’t there, comforting, guarding, guiding. And we can hear it.
That’s beautiful. Thank you, Diana, so much for talking with us today.
Well, thank you. I’m so grateful to be here today and I hope this blesses everyone.
I know it will. I’ve been speaking with Diana Davis Butler, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher from Fresno, California, USA. As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, we’re spending this month focusing on one big question “Where is God when bad things happen?” We have two more programs in the series. Check back next week when Tony Lobl will be talking to Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen. They’ll be talking about hope and whether it’s possible to have hope in these troubling times. You’ve been listening to Sentinel Watch, a weekly production of the Christian Science Sentinel. I’m Jenny Sawyer.