October 23, 2009

Sacred Friendships

The early Christians lived in a society that produced more questions than answers, more persecution than peace, and more discouragement then encouragement. As a result they were in desperate need of godly input. Mindful of this the author of Hebrews provided them with strong counsel and also reminded them of the many inspirational examples who had gone on before them. Pointing them to a “great cloud of witnesses” whose lives testified to “the validity and veracity of faith” he made it possible for them to both see and hear these great heroes of the faith cheering them on in unison as they ran their “race of faith” despite overwhelming exhaustion and hurdles of unbelievable proportions.

Times have changed yet much remains the same. The need for spiritual inspiration, encouragement, and empowerment is as real now as it was then. But where is our “great cloud of witnesses?” In our search to find “relevant” solutions to all of life’s ills we have had a tendency to allow “today’s crying needs to drown out yesterday’s relevant answers.” Why? Because in our striving for relevance we have neglected the wisdom it is possible to glean from the many historical voices of the church. These voices of the past are deep wells from which we could quench our thirst for spiritual wisdom—if only we could hear them.
Fortunately authors Robert Kellemen and Susan Ellis, in their book “Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith” have taken a walk down the ancient paths in search of “voices from the past.” Not just any voices but particularly the voices of Christian women who were persecuted, maligned, and misunderstood yet overcame allowing their experiences to equip them with a spiritual root system that made it possible for them to “withstand high winds and parching drought” so that we can find nourishment for our souls, by their life stories, that will help us to spiritually flourish.

Historically they have provided a profile of spiritual care that consists of two basic themes: soul care, and spiritual direction. These two themes are broken down into four tasks: sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding. Throughout the course of the book over and over again this “model” of spiritual care can be clearly seen.

The authors’ passion “to be a voice of the voiceless” and to provide encouragement by sharing the stories of others who have gone before us is clearly seen. Together they share the untold stories of over 50 previously voiceless women, of all races and nationalities, spanning 2,000 years and five continents. A “great cloud of witnesses” emerges from which we can learn much and be empowered by. This “mighty company of gallant women believers” have modeled soul care & spiritual direction down through the annals of time.

Vibia Perpetua heads up this company of witnesses. Her manuscript provides one of the oldest and most descriptive accounts of martyrdom. Possibly the earliest document written by a Christian woman, it reflects a “riveting testimony to Christ’s power at work in the lives of Christian women whose spirit could never be overpowered.”

She is one of many, many more amazing mothers, sisters, and friends who proved to be “ammas” or church mothers who were loved and respected by all their spiritual children. It’s not just hearing their voices, which the authors make so clear, but listening to what they say that is important. Each brings a message from their era that is relevant to us today.

For instance, Monica the mother of Augustine and her contemporaries were women to which the church fathers owe a tremendous spiritual debt. As “church mothers” empowered by God they brightly reflected His light. While reading their stories one can’t help but wonder what the outcome of the early church would have been without the influence of these women.

Gorgonia, Macrina, and Olympia taught life lessons as “spiritual sisters” and upon reflection were considered to be heroines, invincible athletes, and mighty warriors who lived lives of inspiration that made them spiritual friends to spiritual giants.

Ammas like Theodora, Syncletica, and Marcella focused on “soul geography” not “soil geography” by sampling the inner person rather than the exterior. Their view of biblical discipleship was that changed hearts made changed lives and they were not willing to settle for anything less.

Spiritual athletes, like Melania the Elder, Tetta, Leoba & Dhuoda understood that they must first be “world-champions” for Christ before spiritually coaching others. Training by example that focused on both the head and the heart their impact on others was enormous.

Heloise and Claire of Assisi lived in an era of extremes. They provided a message that mingled truth and live as part of the belief that true biblical soul care and direction combined “an unremitting concern for changing lives with Christ’s changeless truth—integrating head and heart, Scripture, and soul.”

Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena along with others of their time were voices that unchained us from Satan’s lies by revealing the truth that we are not prodigal children unable to return to the Father but rather recipients of His loving and forgiving embrace.

Argula von Grumbach, Katherine Zell and their counterparts were voices of the reformation. They heralded the importance of the priesthood for all believers rather than one gospel for men and another for women. Arguing that every believer is a new creation able to and responsible for coming directly to the Bible for truth and also ministering that truth in love to others they brought radical change to the world.

Teresa of Avila and Jane de Chantal “pursued the twin tasks of an intimate spiritual life with God and a deeply relational ministry of spiritual direction”, according to the authors. Margaret Baxter and Susannah Wesley were wise spiritual guides who provided feminine soul care and spiritual direction. We become acquainted with consolers of souls like Sarah Edwards and Susannah Spurgeon who encouraged their husbands as they encouraged many others during the course of their ministries.

The authors also introduced the reader to great African American women who stood in the background as voices of healing during and after the Civil War. Among them were Elizabeth Keckley who became a spiritual confidante to President Lincoln’s wife Mary after his assassination and Octavia Albert who became a voice of the voiceless with her chronicle of African American history, The House of Bondage.

Some women challenged societal norms like Ann Judson and Amelia Wilhelmina while others, including nurturers, like Catharine Brown, Sarah Jackson and Elisabeth Leseur through their humility pointed others to God. Others like Laura Haviland who said no to slavery during the Civil War and Bessie ten Boom in the Nazi prison camps who led many to Christ displayed incredible courage despite facing constant grave danger. Their total reliance on God and unshakeable faith in His Word spoke volumes as they passed on their vision of healing and reconciliation to others before departing from this world.

As I read this book I was deeply inspired by the stories of each of these women. Whether shared in the first person, retold by others, or reflected in journal writings I personally gained strength from their lives and testimonies. They are true heroes of the faith whose voices have had a profound impact on my life. As a believer, counselor, woman, and minister I have drawn encouragement from “Sacred Friendships” as well as been challenged.

As I was preparing to write this review, which differs from the norm, in that I have more liberally shared from the content of this book, I began to ponder further the accounts of these “voiceless women heroes of the faith.” Having always dreamed of leaving a legacy of faith I began to consider the cost. The price is expensive and the stakes incredibly high. Yet I could not help but ask another question “who will be the “Ammas” of our day?”

I highly recommend that you purchase this book and read it in its entirety.  Allow it to challenge and change you. It was an honor for me to read it and my life has forever been changed by the experience. The authors have done an masterful job of researching and presenting compelling and inspiring information on women in ministry. They have also provided a study guide that allows for reflection and discussion. This makes it is a wonderful addition to any believer’s Christian library.

Here are a few answers to questions from Robert W. Kellemen, Ph.D.:

Tell us about your speaking, writing, and consulting through RPM Ministries.

Bob: I believe that most Christians care deeply, but struggle to speak the truth in love. RPM Ministries exists to equip lay people, pastors, educators, students, and Christian counselors to change lives with Christ’s changeless truth. We do so by speaking, writing, and consulting about Christ-centered, comprehensive, compassionate, and culturally-informed biblical counseling and spiritual formation.

Our passion is to empower the church and para-church to care like Christ. As a result, God’s people enter deeply into one another’s lives and make a significant different in the lives of hurting and hardened people.

RPM is our acrostic for Resurrection Power Multipliers. We based the concept upon Paul’s prayer in Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering.”

We want to raise up a new generation of biblical counselors and spiritual friends who live out 1 Thessalonians 2:8. “I loved you so much that I gave you not only the Scriptures, but my own soul, because you were dear to me.”

To learn more about RPM Ministries, please visit www.rpmministries.org/

How can people get in touch with you and how can they learn more about your ministry and about Sacred Friendships?

I can be contacted by email at: rpm.ministries@gmail.com

A free sample chapter of Sacred Friendships is available at: http://bit.ly/1S1haj%20

Sacred Friendships is on sale at 40% off for $12.99 at:  http://bit.ly/MG115

To learn more about RPM Ministries please visit: http://www.rpmministries.org/

As part of a contest to win a free copy of "Sacred Friends" please visit the links of blogs featuring the book and leave a comment. 5 winners will be randomly selected. For a list of blogs click here: http://bit.ly/1GT4z6

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