By JOHN FORTMEYER, CNNW publisher
PORTLAND — The circumstances were hugely different between what John O’Leary experienced as a boy and what a breakfast crowd here was asked to consider.
But the fundamental question applies in both cases, he said.
“Do you want to live?” asked O’Leary.
That, he explained, was the choice given to him at age 9 in the hospital when he lay dying — given only a 1 percent chance to live by doctors — following a massive explosion in his Midwest home. In response to a question from his mother, O’Leary affirmed his desire to survive.
“Good,” she responded. “you take the hand of God, and fight like you never have before.”
O’Leary captivated an audience of nearly 1,000 on April 19 at the 13th annual Portland Good Friday Breakfast at the Oregon Convention Center. Originally launched by the locally based ministry Open Arms International, the event is now sponsored yearly by the YMCA of Columbia-Willamette. It promotes to the community Jesus Christ and the significance of His death and resurrection.
The explosion occurred when, out of curiosity, O’Leary was playing with fire and gasoline. He was burned on 100 percent of his body. The story was outlined in his parents’ book, Overwhelming Odds, in 2006. O’Leary also authored his own book, On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life. Today he tells his story nationally at more than 100 events each year.
For the breakfast crowd, O’Leary’s account of making it through the worst that life could throw at a person seemed well timed for the Easter weekend, when people worldwide contemplate on Good Friday Christ’s conquering of death and sin for all mankind.
“We are Easter people, but we have go through ‘Friday’ to get free,” O’Leary said.
He focused on faith in God as the source of true and meaningful life.
“What ultimately allows us to recognize how good it is, is when it is taken from us, and we go through our own version of ‘Friday’ ’’ he said.
With his eyes swollen shut from the severe burns on his face as well as his entire body, the young boy could only listen when loved ones and friends came by to encourage him in his fight for life.
“The challenge we face as seekers and believers is that we really take the time to listen,” he said. “I had a couple of months to listen.”
One voice that he heard repeatedly in the hospital had a huge impact on O’Leary. A big fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, O’Leary was stunned one day to hear a familiar voice he knew from broadcasts, but never before in person. Jack Buck, famed radio voice of the Cardinals had heard about the boy’s critical injuries and came to the hospital many times simply to tell him, “Kid… You are going to live.”
“He just kept coming back — just like God’s love,” O’Leary recalled.
Even though Buck saw everything that was wrong with O’Leary’s critical plight, he showed love and compassion to the boy just with his frequent visits.
Similarly, God sees what’s wrong with people’s lives because of their sinfulness and brokenness, “but He doesn’t stop there,” said O’Leary. For that reason, he said, divine love motivated Jesus to pay a debt no one else could pay.
“The good and bad came together on Good Friday as one on the Cross,” said O’Leary.
O’Leary said Buck became a dear friend for many years to come.
“That’s what Jesus Christ does and will continue to do for eternity — love you where you are,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary urged his listeners to make sure they have themselves chosen a path for true, vibrant living by committing to follow Jesus.
“Use this moment to change, to surrender, to ultimately let go, and say “God, your will be done.’ ’’ “Your life is a miracle. Act like it,” he added.
For more on O’Leary, go to johnolearyinspires.com