Trial By Fire Leads to a Radical Life of Faith

“I had seen little boys in the neighborhood playing with fire and gasoline. I assumed if they could do this, so could I. So on a Saturday morning, mom and dad both gone, I walked into the garage, lit a piece of cardboard on fire, came over to a 5-gallon can of gasoline…The plan was to pour a tiny bit of gasoline on top of the flame.”

Before the gas left the container, fumes created a massive explosion, lifting 9 year-old John O’Leary and launching him 20 feet to the other side of the garage.  John was rushed to the emergency room, where his parents met him.

“And I look up at my mom and say, ‘Mom am I going to die?’ And when I asked that question I was looking for hope,” said John.

“I knew what a serious condition this was. I really feel that it was put on my heart, and I said, ‘John, do you want to die?” said Susan O’Leary, John’s mother.

“She looks me in the eyes and says ‘It’s your choice; It’s not mine.’  And I said, ‘Mama, I do not want to die. I want to live.’ And her response was, ‘Good baby, good. Then look at me. You take the hand of Jesus; you walk the journey with Him.”

John has been on that path of faith ever since.  Today he’s a successful speaker and National Best-selling author.  At home, he’s husband to Beth and father of four children.  He’s overcome challenges to live what he calls a “radically inspired life.” He says we can all do the same, and it starts with a decision.  

“This choice of free will that a little boy, even at age 9, had to own himself. I can’t push this off onto somebody else. At some point, you got to choose your path.”

For John, the path wasn’t easy.  

“There was no guarantee that I would survive the fire.  I had burns on 100 percent of my body. 87 percent were third degree. I was on a trach. My lungs had been damaged. My body is broken. It would require dozens of surgeries. It would require amputation. So the path forward is difficult.  It’s painful.  It’s taxing. What made it endurable was my faith in God that He was working through all things, even burns, was the love of my parents, was the community showing up day after day after day.”

John made it home after five months of rehab and surgeries. It was then that he realized his choice to live meant being a victor, not a victim.  At his childhood home, he reflects by this piano where he learned to play Amazing Grace.

“One of the things that I was actually grateful for after being burned was at least I will never, ever have to take another piano lesson again. The doorbell rings. All of a sudden my mom walks into the room, she unhooks my brakes in the kitchen, rolls me into the living room, sits me down next to Mrs. Bortello and says, “It’s your lesson.’ I can’t use being burned, or not having fingers, as an excuse to not do something I did before I was burned.”

And just as he learned tenacity from his mother, he now learns acceptance through his son.

“And my little 4-year-old Jack was shaving next to me. I have a real razor; he has a fake one. My shirt was off and I saw him staring at my stomach. My stomach is full of big, thick, red scars. And then he started tracking his finger along one of the scars. He looks up and says, ‘Dad, your tummy is red, bumpy, and it has ridges and I love it! And I love it.’ He saw within me beauty that I was unable to see within myself. And I think he sees through the lens of a child, which is also the lens that I think Christ sees us all through. The lens of non-judgment, the lens of full grace. The lens of being able to see perfection in brokenness.”

John says living a radically inspired life isn’t about freedom from suffering but seeing pain with perspective.

 “So although part of my prayer is to be healed of my scars, to have fingers grow back, to have no more scars that drip themselves from my neck to my toes, what I’ve realized as an adult is that God has given me these not as evidence of what I went through, but as a reminder of how He makes all things new.”

John lives in St. Louis and travels the country sharing his testimony and encouraging others to choose their path and own their story.  His book is titled On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life.

“When you can take the worst and utilize your faith to let it be transformed into the best, I think it allows you to use a slogan like ‘On Fire,’ not for bad but for good. And so what does a life on fire look like? It means you are grateful for everything. It means you engage actively in the things that matter. It means you show up each day with everything you got.”

And it means faith that ignites a life of purpose.  

“It’s important to recognize the gift that’s in the fire. Yes, it can burn you.  Yes, it can reduce you to ashes, but it’s also true that it can renew your soul.  It can make you and refine you into a better version of yourself.”

“And I have understood now through revelation, through time, through scripture, through the Word, through Jesus, through his relationship with me and mine with Him, what joy looks like. And it’s not always perfection here on earth. It’s the realization that He is working through this thing and that our best days are coming. And when you realize that, it –how can you help but sing and how can you help but smile?”

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