Talk about all of life’s experience. Over the past few weeks there has been a cloud of smoke that hovered for many days over the Bay Area and over all of Northern California. And children were delighted that they were able to stay home and not go to school.
During those days I made a foolish choice to go out for a jog. I realized how foolish it was when I couldn’t breathe. Halfway through the jog, my legs completely cramped, so I walked the rest of the way. But it was something to learn from a horrible experience. That cloud of smoke, that didn’t allow the sun to penetrate, to you and me we couldn’t see the sun. Or at least not very well. Not until the rain was sent to us. And it was allowed to clear things out; to clear the air out.
It was as many years ago when I had returned home to my diocese at that time – in Houston – after completing some studies. I was assigned to a parish, and I had been there just a few weeks when there was a major funeral that was celebrated by the pastor, and I knew of the young man who died. I didn’t know him personally. But I had known of him. I had heard of stories about him from many others. Then I met his mother. She was a regular churchgoer. And at the funeral, which I certainly went to, I visited with the mother to extend my condolences for the death of her son on his untimely death. She sat with me because she wanted to tell me the story of her son. I had heard his story like many other people But she wanted to tell me from her perspective the story of her son.
It went something like this. He was born about 40 years prior, with no legs. He was born with a condition where the bones were tremendously brittle, and they would break, seemingly for no reason at all. His body didn’t have the capacity to rejuvenate or to rebuild them.
His arms were truncated. He did have a few fingers and hands. He was able to maneuver around in his wheelchair.
The doctors told the parents when he was born, I will call him John. Today, that, John would not live past a few days or maybe a couple of weeks. And John continued to live and John continued to grow. He continued to be encouraged. He began to speak. He continued to be an artist and to be fed spiritually and physically. He learned to maneuver his truncated body the best he could. He was often going back to the hospital to recover from broken bones. And he was back in his wheelchair and he became rather outspoken and smart.
He never wanted to be lax person. He spoke out for himself. As he began to go to school he noticed that not all of the sidewalks in his neighborhood were pretty and that he was not able to maneuver his wheelchair. And so he himself went and advocated for better pavement and new sidewalks so that he and others could maneuver around in their wheelchairs.
And so as I drove through the neighborhood I saw that all the sidewalks were paved and were accessible. I didn’t know his father, who had died earlier. His mother was a quiet woman. She was tremendously thankful. Some of the stories that I have heard from other priests and seminarians that worked in the parish were that he was always involved and most especially in youth ministry. He would arrive in his wheelchair. And can you even imagine teenagers, many of them, who are awkward and not wanting to be there. Some of them not terribly comfortable with others. And then they see this stranger in a wheelchair with no legs and truncated arms. And he would. pop out of his wheelchair onto the floor and wobble around and tell jokes. And completely disarm them, so that they were no longer concerned that they were having a bad hair day. This man had no legs. They were no longer concerned if they had a pimple on their nose. This man had truncated arms and here he is telling jokes. Wobbling on the floor. They were no longer concerned that they were socially awkward. Here was this young man with a squeaky voice. He never complained about his physical condition, his mother told me that. He had never complained that he didn’t have legs. He didn’t complain that he was often in the hospital recovering from a broken bone or surgeries. He didn’t complain about his arms or his hands. His mother told me that in the past couple of years that his health had declined significantly. Then he was more often than not in the hospitals with broken bones and his internal organs began to shut down. And he got tired of being in the hospital. He got tired of going back and forth to the hospital. It wasn’t until the day before he died that he finally complained to his mother. He said, “I think I’m going to turn this body back in.” It took him 40 years to complain and say that he got a lemon. A man who for 40 years had been making lemonade out of the lemons he got, and handing it out for free to those in need.
I wonder how many of us complained to ourselves. I know I complain every day. I complain about the traffic. I complain of smoky weather. I complain about a lot of things. But how many of us take the opportunity to reach out to those who are thirsty? Take the lemonade and make it sweet, with kindness, with tenderness, with love.
The theme of this conference is “Building Bridges of Hope.” During those several days that the smoke covered Northern California, we struggled to see the sun. I wonder if when the ashes had settled where we struggle to see the presence of God. Wondering if God is really here. Does he even exist? Many of you were in a conference the past couple of days. Listening about the trends and the numbers of young people in the Church. People have been telling us for decades that young people are leaving the Church. We knew about that. And many of them leave once they finish high school and go off to college. Once they move out of the home, they disassociate from their family; from their parents, and from their Church. But new studies are telling us that the average age of young people leaving the church is 13, because there is a certain moral and spiritual cloud that does not allow them to see the presence and the love of Jesus, does not allow them to see or experience the Lord. And we ask ourselves, “What can I do about that? I’m just one person.” John never said “I’m not good. I have no legs and have truncated arms,” and he never asked himself that. He simply threw himself into the middle of the situation and trusted that God would appear.
To trust in the Holy Spirit and to know the Holy Spirit is present. The Holy Spirit is anxious to transform lives and to touch hearts. But he needs you and me to throw ourselves into the fray. And God will do the work. As the Father has said me, so I now pray that they may believe.” That’s why we come in here today to be nourished, to be nourished at this table. To learn what we can about our faith, to experience the local Church the regional Church. We are sent. Jesus needs you and me to be witnesses. It does not have to be perfect. We need not have all the skills, that we think that we need. But we do need this faith, and when we act, that is when we allow open the gates so that the Holy Spirit may rain down and dissipate the clouds of doubt.