“One man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars; and the world will be better for this.” Miguel de Cervantes
The U.S. Midwest may be the only place on the planet where you can get a sunburn and frostbite all in the same week. In a place like that, remarkably strong and resilient people often surface and give new meaning to the depth of character one can reach. These moments occur daily and all around us, but we may be living such a fast-paced and frenetic life that we miss them. And this is to our detriment. This is why we must, from time to time, move about in our thoughts, and open the doors to the limitless possibilities of the wide spectrum of being human and maybe, just maybe, begin to make soft and tender changes in our daily demeanors.
Take for instance what happened during a powerful snowstorm outside of Wichita, Kansas around the first week of December in 2007. After an unusually fierce and protracted freezing rainfall, some parts of the surrounding areas were coated with two to four inches of ice. In addition to extensive damage to trees, power lines, and poles, travel was understandably treacherous and nearly came to a complete standstill, save for emergency vehicles. Massive power outages affected more than 250,000 people, most of whom were without power for up to two weeks. The long-term damage to the electrical infrastructure alone was later estimated at $136M, making this the costliest ice storm in all of Kansas. As amazing and simultaneously miraculous as this may sound, there were no fatalities, but there was an astounding event that happened late one night in the very thick of the storm and likely during the darkest of all nights.
We start with a small, regional hospital located about twenty miles west of the city. Emergency power generators were in full force keeping all the life-saving equipment up and running, especially for those most critically in need of medical care. A small staff of medical professionals was on duty with some of them being allowed to place their families into some of the vacant hospital rooms in order to avoid what could be literally a killer cold. The most seriously ill patients were situated in the Intensive Care Unit where nurses kept struggling to keep everything working in order and medications administered in a timely fashion. While most patients, their families, and the courageous medical staff were outstandingly kind and cooperative, in the west end of the ICU, there were serious problems emerging with frayed nerves and listless depraved people at their wits’ end.
The man in Bed 8 was totally incorrigible, which was more than problematic, because, in addition to being horribly rude and disgusting with the nurses, he was literally at death’s door. He was not even expected to survive another twenty-four hours, but it seemed that the closer he got to Judgment Day, the more abhorrent he became. Close to one o’clock in the morning, the nurses huddled in the nearby breakroom, totally exasperated. All their options of action seemed to be either out of reach or just not feasible. Perhaps the most tested of all the staff there came forward with an amazing solution.
“I believe I know who could help us right now. He may be our only hope,” she said calmly but seriously.
“But who in the world is going to come out here in the middle of the night during this mini Ice Age?” came the immediate reaction from one of the younger nurses.
“It’s my parish priest and I know if we call him, he will come,” came the wondrous retort. “I will contact him now,” said the head nurse, and with that, she went for the phone.
Father Terry was indeed a truly profound man with a comforting and peaceful spirit about him. His words always settled the restless heart, and his Masses were both uplifting and healing. If anyone could help them in this difficult situation, it would be him. His response to the nurse on the phone was both predictable and quick:
“I’ll be right there. Just give me some time to brave through this storm,” came the words of this respected and deeply loved cleric.
The storm was fierce but no match for the determination of this priest who slowly started his car carefully pulled out of the rectory and made his way at a snail’s pace toward the medical facility. Once there, he was met warmly and even offered something hot to drink to warm his shivering body. However, he wanted to go straight to the bedside of this apparently lost, hateful, suffering man and do what he was put on the earth to do, to hopefully save a soul.
Their first and last encounter was immediately brutal. As soon as the priest walked into the ICU stall, the angry patient hurled a bedpan at him. The priest, perhaps in his mid-thirties who also used to run marathons, was agile enough to dodge the incoming metal container and very calmly stand his ground.
“I am not leaving until you talk to me. Besides, there’s nowhere else to go. Talk to me. What is wrong with you? Let me help you!” said Father Terry.
“I am beyond help!” yelled the man in bed now obviously losing strength and color, “just leave me alone and let me die!”
The priest continued, “No one is beyond saving. Every soul is precious in God’s eyes. Talk to me. Offer me your confession and die in peace.”
It was at this moment when most likely the presence of the Holy Spirit filled not only that ICU area, but maybe even the entire hospital and beyond. This is where the tide was about to turn. And this was when that extremely sick and dying man may have delivered the most important speech of his life, which was coming quickly to a tragic and atrocious end.
“Look at me! Do you know who I am, Father? he started.
The priest remained silent, still, and focused on the words of this tormented shell of a man.
“Over twenty-five years ago, Father, I worked on the railroad there at the station downtown. You know the place.”
The priest nodded.
“Well, I was the one who was supposed to throw and redirect the tracks as different trains came in and out. It was my job to make sure that the right trains were on the right tracks. I was also a drunk, Father, and one night, I came to the station completely wasted. But there I was, pretending I knew what I was doing, and that is when it happened. I steered one very full and fast train into the wrong lane, and my mistake killed a father, mother, baby girl, and injured a young boy who only survived because he was thrown from the car upon impact. After that, I lost everything. I lost my job, my family, my home and most importantly, I lost complete respect for myself. I have been trying to die for nearly three decades now. Get out and let me die. Keep your sympathy and your sacraments and your caring eyes for someone else!”
Father Terry just remained as calm and as quiet as the falling snow outside. He took a long, deep-cleansing breath and then answered this phenomenal life story with this:
“Look at me! Do you know who I am? Look carefully. Those people you killed that night were my parents and my baby sister. I lost them all in one night. And if I can forgive you, you can certainly forgive yourself! Offer me your confession, while there is still time.”
And he did. And he died.
Never, ever underestimate the power of God’s love and forgiveness. In the end, it will be all we have and if we have lived a life that has fully embraced and welcomed such a wondrous love, it will change the way we look at life, death, friendship, and eternity.
What are you waiting for? Give the Lord your heart right now, wherever you are, forgiving all the ones you need to forgive. Please, do this now, while there is still time.
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“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5:17