Fr. John Oliver returns to Holy Assumption
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By Barbara Mudrak
“My heart and my history go back here,” Father John Oliver said of Holy Assumption Orthodox Church, where he was baptized 20 years ago. “This will always be my touchstone.”
Now the priest at St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Fr. John returned to
Holy Assumption in Canton courtesy of the St. Jacob of Alaska Speaker Series, funded by the church. A graduate of Heritage Christian School and Malone University, the Canton native has written two books, “Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam,” and “Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition.” His podcast, “Hearts and Minds,” airs on Ancient Faith Radio.
As part of the speaker series, Fr. John spoke about biblical worship and the Orthodox Church at a Malone University convocation. The following evening, he joined worshippers at Holy Assumption for Great Vespers and a potluck dinner. Afterward, he spoke on “Orthodoxy: The Life of Desire,” asking listeners to consider “how Orthodox life is, at its heart, a life of desire - a desire for God, a desire for each other, a desire for all that is good and true and beautiful.”
“There is a reality more real than everything of which we feel certain,” Fr. John said. “The reality is that God desires us. It is the one steady current beneath all creation, all history. Once we accept this truth, all life changes.” To accept that God desires us is to undergo a shift in our understanding of who God is, he said. Gone is the “wrathful killjoy,” he said. In its place is a God who is “always near to ravishing us, like the lover in the Song of Solomon;” who is “at the window, like the father waiting for the prodigal son;” who is “always calling for us, like the good shepherd who will leave the 99.” He is like “the bridegroom, always wooing his bride, who often resists him.”
Fr. John asked listeners to think about how Satan, in the form of a serpent, “totally disoriented us. We were made to reach for the transcendent, but instead we grab t little packages of the accessible.”
Our hearts are restless until we realize the true nature of God, and rest in him.
“Our first truth, our surest law, is that God is a God of desire,” he said. “He desires to embrace us and all his creation, and to draw us to himself. That is why his arms were outstretched on the cross.”
Fr. John spoke of a woman he knew who grew up in a home where she learned that “love is based on performance: No performance, no love.” She converted to Orthodoxy, but could only hear the Divine Liturgy through the ears of that damaged child. Words like “sinner,” “wretched” and “condemnation” were the only ones that reverberated, and she felt that old disapproval, though she wasn’t sure where it was coming from.
“She stopped attending (church) for awhile,” he said. “She was crippled with guilt when she didn’t come, and was filled with anxiety when she did.” Knowing that her struggle was with what she perceived as the negativity of the liturgy, Fr. John got an idea. Using an online search engine, he did a word study of the text of the Divine Liturgy. He counted the times certain words appeared - or did not - and came up with this list:
Mercy 86 - Judgement 3
And the list went on. “At the risk of overanalyzing,” he said, there were 445 words with a positive connotation to 26 with negative connotation. “Those negatives have to be in there because we have to work to shed our carnal natures,” he said. But, we must remember that “God made his kingdom desirable. We are invited to somewhere so overwhelmingly beautiful, so good, because he desires for us to live there with him.”He told the story of a priest friend who knew Lynnette Hoppe, a missionary to Albania who had visited Holy Assumption in the past. After she was diagnosed with liver cancer, the priest received a letter from her that said: “Father, I’d like you to come to Albania and help me die.” Lynnette told the priest that when she first received the diagnosis, she thought she should do some important, “final” ministry, but decided: “What I have done up till now is what I have done. I’m allowing myself to relax in the love of Jesus. All I can do is throw myself into his arms.” Fr. John related how Lynette wrote of her struggles in her journal.
“I want to love God not for his consolation or gifts, but for himself,” she wrote. “Some days when I feel spiritual dryness, I choose to believe God is near because he has said so.” His priest friend told Fr. John that “on the night her soul was required of her, she did not fight death.” He said he “encouraged her not to let the memory of the sufferings of our Lord depart from her.” When she died, the priest said, he recited this prayer: “Go forth, Christian soul, out of this world.” He then recalled that “about 30 minutes later, she began to smile. Everyone saw it. She was buried with that smile.”
Finally, Fr. John then asked listeners to imagine that “as a parent, your child gives you a crayon drawing and says it’s a picture of you. But it’s the wrong color hair, there are mismatched colors, and there are lots of scribbles - scribbles with a martyred crayon, a crayon that has obviously given its life - outside the lines.”
“What is your reaction?” he asked. “Is it, ‘Shame on you, this is far from what it could be or should be! Leave my presence and don’t come back till it’s perfect!’” “No,” he continued. “You see the desire to please. You affirm that child, who goes off happily to martyr more crayons.”
That is how God reacts to us, Fr. John said. “We all have things that we could do much better,” he said. “God accepts them like a father who sees our desire to please.” “And we, the children, run off to color outside the lines again.”