Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The VineLine 1:1

RPM Ministries: The VineLine

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the first “edition” of The VineLine: the e-newsletter of RPM Ministries.

The VineLine is not your normal ministry mailer that says, “Pray for me and send me money!” It’s not wrong to ask for prayer and financial support, and I will ask for prayer (see below), but I want The VineLine to be different. I want to connect and give.


I’m wanting The VineLine to connect you to each other. If you have a prayer request that you want me to pray for privately or that you want me to share publicly in the next emailing of The VineLine, then please send me your request (rpm.ministries@gmail.com).


I’m wanting The VineLine to give—to provide you with resources. So, each email “issue” I will highlight a link to my free resources and a link to one of my Truth for Life blogs.

What Is RPM Ministries?

You’ll see those links just below. But first, some of you may be wondering, “What in the world is RPM Ministries?” Well, for the “full version,” go to www.rpmbooks.org (we’re in the process of changing the address to www.rpmministries.org).

Here’s the Readers’ Digest version: RPM is an acrostic for Resurrection Power Multipliers, based 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.”

RPM Ministries exists to equip you “to change lives with Christ’s changeless truth” through the ministries of soul care and spiritual direction.

I seek to fulfill this calling through my writing (books, articles, free resources, book reviews, and my blog) and speaking (seminars, conferences, preaching, and teaching) ministries.

Links to Free Resources:

Now, for your free resources:

1. To read about Olympias—truly a champion in the “spiritual Olympics,” go to: http://www.rpmbooks.org/2008/03/spiritual-sister-to-church-father-much.html.

2. To enjoy four detailed PowerPoint presentations on Beyond the Suffering go to: http://www.rpmbooks.org/free_resources.html. Then move down to Beyond the Suffering documents and look under “All-Day Seminar PowerPoints.”

Prayer Partners and Spiritual Friends

Once again, if you have prayer requests, either public or private, please email me at rpm.ministries@gmail.com.

Here are a few ministry prayer requests and updates.

1. Please pray for tonight’s broadcast on CDR Radio of my radio interview about Soul Physicians—that people would be excited and encouraged about biblical counseling.

2. Please pray for the March 31 radio interview with KGFT Radio about Soul Physicians—that people would be excited and encouraged about biblical counseling.

3. Please pray for my April 10 American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) Pre-Conference (Three Hour) Presentation on “What Makes Biblical Counseling Biblical?”

4. Please pray for my April 12 AACC Presentation on “Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.”

5. Please pray for my April 20 Sunday message (three services) at Faith Baptist Church in Lafayette, IN on 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 on “Biblical Sufferology.”

6. Please pray for my April 27 Sunday message at New Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Gary, Indiana on Psalm 1:1-6 on “Blessed Is
the Man.” This is the sixth anniversary service for Pastor Charles Floyd, II.

7. Please pray for Susan Ellis and me as we are co-authoring Sacred Friendships: Listening to the Voices of Feminine Soul Care-Givers and Spiritual Directors. Our research is complete, and the first three (of thirteen) chapters have been written.

Thanks for being my spiritual friend.

If you know of others who you think would enjoy The VineLine, please forward it to them and/or ask them to email me to be placed on the group email list.

If you would, for any reason, prefer not to receive The VineLine, I understand. Please simply email me back with a subject line of “Please Remove.”

In Christ’s Grace,


Monday, March 10, 2008

A Spiritual Sister to a Church Father

A Spiritual Sister to a Church Father

Much of our knowledge of Olympias comes from an anonymous fifth-century document composed by someone who knew her well (The Life of Olympias) and from the Church father John Chrysostom, who poured out his heart to her in seventeen letters he wrote from his exile. Olympias’ grandfather, Ablabius, was a Christian and a senator in Constantine’s Roman government. He had a daughter who married Secundus, one of the emperor’s “companions,” a noble order created by Constantine. Olympias was born to this pair between 360 and 370 AD. She was orphaned early in life, after which Procopius, the prefect of Constantinople, served as her guardian.[i]

She married Nebridius in 384, but was widowed just days later around age 20. Pressured to remarry, she instead chose a single life, explaining her position to the emperor Theodosius. “If my King, the Lord Jesus Christ, wanted me to be joined with a man, he would not have taken away my first husband immediately”

The Loving Deaconess: Providing Spiritual Direction through Spiritual Example

By now a rich, pious widow, Olympias gave of her immense wealth to those in need and to many religious leaders. By age 30 she was named a deaconess, which usually did not occur until age 60. The Didascalia of the Apostles mentions deaconesses assisting at baptisms, discipling new believers in the faith, teaching women, visiting unbelievers and believers in their homes, and serving the sick.

During this time she took on the task of spiritual leadership for fifty young single women in Constantinople. Of them, Olympias’ biographer noted, “One was struck with amazement at seeing certain things in the holy chorus and angelic institution of these holy women: their incessant continence and sleeplessness, the constancy of their praise and thanksgiving to God, their ‘charity which is the bond of perfection,’ their stillness.”
[iv] As spiritual directors of these female spiritual friends, Olympias led them in the consistent practice of life-changing spiritual disciplines.

Summarizing her life and ministry among them, Olympias’ biographer poetically recalled her Christlike character. “She had a life without vanity, an appearance without pretence, character without affection . . . a mind without vainglory, intelligence without conceit, an untroubled heart, an artless spirit, charity without limits, unbounded generosity . . . immeasurable self-control, rectitude of thought, undying hope in God, ineffable almsgiving; she was the ornament of all the humble.”

She was so humble that she readily invited Chrysostom to take over the spiritual leadership of her small community when he arrived in Constantinople in 398 after having been appointed Bishop. He and Olympias became close spiritual friends and he became spiritual director for these women. He “visited them continuously and sustained them with his most wise teachings. Thus fortified each day by his divinely-inspired instruction, they kindled in themselves the divine love so that their great and holy love steamed forth to him.”

The Spiritual Warrior with Spiritual Courage: Standing Strong against Wrong

One could assume, falsely, that such a humble, servant-hearted woman might lack commensurate courage and conviction. History tells a markedly different story. Olympias’ loyalty to her spiritual leaders caused her great persecution and immense suffering. “And due to her sympathy for them, she endured many trails by the actions of a willfully evil and vulgar person; contending eagerly not in a few contests on behalf of the truth of God, she lived faultlessly in unmeasured tears night and day.”
[vii] In fact, her biographer, in one breath, spoke both of what he called “her manly courage,” and of how “she cultivated in herself a gentleness so that she surpassed even the simplicity of children themselves.”[viii]

Throughout Sacred Friendships you will find this theme saturated everywhere. Godly women of old integrated into their Christlike character both humble care and bold courage. They saw no dichotomy between the two; they experienced no contradiction between tender soul care and tough spiritual direction.

Olympias faced the greatest test of her courage when Chrysostom’s enemies slandered him in respect to his relationship to her. Chrysostom sent into exile, one might expect an accused woman in this time period to meekly retreat. Not Olympias. Forced to appear before the city prefect for interrogation, she refused to recant her innocence and her defense of Chrysostom. Sent into exile herself, “she, strengthened by the divine grace, nobly and courageously, for the sake of the love of God, bore the storms of trials and diverse tribulations which came upon her.”

Chrysostom, using the language of spiritual warfare, extolled the virtues of her steadfastness. “You are like a tower, a haven, and a wall of defense, speaking in the eloquent voice of example, and through your sufferings instructing either sex to strip readily for these contests, and descend into the lists with all courage, and cheerfully bear the toils which such contests involve.”

He then contrasts Olympias’ resilience with the weakness of others. He notes that she deserves “superlative admiration” because “so many men” when facing trails “have been turned to flight” but “you on the contrary after so many battles and such a large muster of the enemy are so far from being unstrung, or dismayed by the number of your adversities, that you are all the more vigorous, and the increase of the contest gives you an increase of strength.”

In exile, she maintained both her care for those under her direction and the courage of her convictions. “Victorious in the good fight, she crowned herself with the crown of patience, having turned over the flock to Marina, who was her relative and spiritual daughter. . . . Having done this, she escaped from the storm of human woes and crossed over to the calm haven of our souls, Christ the God.”

The Soul Physician’s Soul Physician: Vulnerably Receiving Spiritual Care

One might also falsely think that a woman of this era such as Olympias was so pious, or perhaps even so pretentious, that she never felt deeply the pangs of despair. Again, history paints a truer, more humane portrait. We learn of this human, vulnerable, real and raw side of Olympias from the letters of spiritual consolation Chrysostom penned to her. While we only have his side of the correspondence, his words give us a glimpse into her soul. In his first letter to her, he responds to her previous correspondence with him by saying, “Come now let me relieve the wound of thy despondency, and disperse the thoughts which gather this cloud of care around thee.”

Chrysostom precedes to sketch a lengthy litany of “fierce black storm” clouds engulfing Olympias. Yet he realizes that words do not suffice. “But how much further shall I pursue the unattainable? For whatever image of our present evils I may seek, speech shrinks baffled from the attempt.”
[xiv] He shifts instead to worthier imagery—the imagery of Christ—to offer his hurting spiritual friend hope. “Nevertheless even when I look at these calamities I do not abandon the hope of better things, considering as I do who the pilot is in all this—not one who gets the better of the storm by his art, but calms the raging waters by his rod.”[xv]

In his second letter, we learn again of her humanness. He refers to Olympias having received his letter of consolation and yet having “sunk so deeply under the tyranny of despondency as even to desire to depart out of this world.”
[xvi] He responds with a prolonged second attempt to comfort her. Finally, in his third letter, he rejoices that her spirits are lifted. “And now I am exceedingly glad and delighted to hear, not only that you have been released from your infirmity, but above all that you bear the things which befell you so bravely . . .”[xvii]

Though in Chrysostom’s words we do not hear the soul physician ministry of Olympias, we do learn about Olympias the soul physician. Her lesson is a lesson that every soul physician must heed. While some quote the proverb, “Physician, heal thyself!” Olympias applied the proverbial wisdom that in much counsel there is great wisdom. She understood what all soul care-givers and spiritual directors must understand: soul physicians need soul physicians! Though a skilled, mature spiritual director herself, she humbled herself to receive soul care and spiritual direction from Chrysostom. She did not feel the modern/post-modern need to be a “super woman,” independent, self-sufficient. She understood that she could be strong and simultaneously admit her need. Women, and men, in leadership today, would be wise to follow her example.

[i]The Life of Olympias, in Elizabeth Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends,127-128.
[ii]Ibid., 128-129.
[iii]Swan, 107.
[iv]The Life of Olympias, 132-133.
[v]Ibid., 137.
[vi]Ibid., 133.
[vii]Ibid., 139.
[ix]Ibid., 134.
[x]Saint Chrysostom, Letters, 9:297.
[xi]Ibid., 9:298.
[xii]The Life of Olympias, 134-135.
[xiii]Saint Chrysostom, Letters, 9:289.
[xvi]Ibid., 9:293.
[xvii]Ibid., 9:297.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

An Amazing Sister in an Amazing Family

An Amazing Sister in an Amazing Family

Macrina the Younger (327-379 AD) came from one of the most amazing families in all of Church history. Her paternal grandmother was Macrina the Elder, her mother was Emmelia, and her brothers were Peter, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. It is from Gregory’s work The Life of St. Macrina that we learn of her skill as a soul physician.

Spiritual Friend to Her Physical Family: Drawing Her Family to Christ

Although Macrina had no desire for marriage, she acceded to her father’s wishes, who arranged for her to marry a noted lawyer. But before the wedding ceremony, her fiancé died unexpectedly. Soon thereafter, her father also died, leaving her mother Emmelia with ten children. Macrina, as the eldest, took over the care of the youngest, the infant Peter. Even more, she became her mother’s soul care-giver and spiritual director. “In all these matters she shared her mother’s toil, dividing the cares with her, and lightening her heavy load of sorrow. . . . By her own life she instructed her mother greatly, leading her to the same mark, that of philosophy [Christian theology] I mean, and gradually drawing her on to the immaterial and more perfect life.”

Macrina’s brother, Basil, returned to the family home after a long period of education, already a practiced rhetorician. “He was puffed up beyond measure with the pride of oratory and looked down on the local dignitaries, excelling in his own estimation all the men of leading and position.”
[ii] Macrina would have none of that. “Nevertheless Macrina took him in hand, and with such speed did she draw him also toward the mark of philosophy [Christian theology] that he forsook the glories of this world and despised fame gained by speaking.”[iii] With deft guiding, Macrina changed the course of Basil’s entire life, swaying him from the torrents of self to the current of Christ.

Sustaining and healing care were also a major focus of Macrina’s ministry to her family. The second of her four brothers, Naucratius, died unexpectedly in an accident. Grieving herself because her “natural affection was making her suffer as well. For it was a brother, and a favorite brother, who had been snatched away.” Yet now Macrina displayed her selflessness. Facing the disaster, “she both preserved herself from collapse and becoming the prop of her mother’s weakness, raised her up from the abyss of grief, and by her own steadfastness . . . taught her mother’s soul to be brave. . . . She so sustained her mother by her arguments that she, too, rose superior to her sorrow.”

Here we view Macrina practicing classic historical Christian sustaining. She allowed grief, and even embraced it. However, her sustaining drew a line in the sand of retreat. Through it, she forestalls despair by the infusion of hope and by the sharing of sorrow.

An Invincible Athlete: Coaching Others in the Spiritual Olympics

Approximately a decade later, Macrina’s brother Basil also “departed from men to live with God.” When Macrina heard the news of the calamity in her distant retreat, “she was distressed indeed in soul at so great a loss—for how could she not be distressed at a calamity, which was felt even by the enemies of the truth?” Though grieving greatly, she never surrendered hope. “So she remained, like an invincible athlete in no wise broken by the assaults of troubles.”

Her brother Gregory, pained by his own sorrows, traveled to Annesi where Macrina led a spiritual community of women. Upon his arrival, he discovered that Macrina herself is on her deathbed. Yet once again, her focus is on the pain of others. “I journeyed to her yearning for an interchange of sympathy over the loss of her brother. My soul was right sorrow-stricken by this grievous blow, and I sought for one who could feel it equally, to mingle my tears with. . . . Well, she gave in to me for a little while, like a skillful driver, in the ungovernable violence of my grief.”

After engaging in sustaining through this skillful interchange of sympathy, Macrina slowly shifted their focus to healing hope. “And in every way she tried to be cheerful, both taking the lead herself in friendly talk, and giving us an opportunity by asking questions. When in the course of conversation mention was made of the great Basil, my soul was saddened and my face fell dejectedly. But so far was she from sharing in my affliction that, treating the mention of the saint as an occasion for yet loftier philosophy, she discussed various subjects, inquiring into human affairs and revealing in her conversation the divine purpose concealed in disasters. Besides this, she discussed the future life, as if inspired by the Holy spirit, so that it almost seemed as if my soul were lifted by the help of her words away from mortal nature and placed within the heavenly sanctuary.”

Macrina is dying, yet she is consoling her brother. How? She seamlessly moved from sustaining empathy to healing encouragement. She drew him out by giving him a chance to talk, and then used his human emotions as a starting point for erecting a biblical way of thinking about loss. In classic healing fashion, she unfolded God’s eternal plan in the midst of sad human events, focusing on heavenly hope. The result? Gregory’s spirit soared because he now could view this life through the lens of the life to come.

Returning the next day, Gregory opened up about his troubles. “First there was my exile at the hands of the Emperor Valens on account of the faith, and then the confusion in the Church that summoned me to conflicts and trials.” Perhaps expecting sympathy, he instead received reconciling confrontation. “Will you not cease to be insensible to the divine blessings? Will you not remedy the ingratitude of your soul? . . . Churches summon you as an ally and director, and do you not see the grace of God in it all? Do you fail to recognize the cause of such great blessings, that it is your parents, prayers that are lifting you up on high, you that have little or no equipment within yourself for such success?” Rather than being floored by her chastisement, he “longed for the length of the day to be further extended, that she might never cease delighting our ears with sweetness.”
[viii] Her capacity to exude love while speaking truth enabled Gregory to hear her words as the faithful wounds of a friend.

The next day would be her last . . . on earth. She had her couch turned toward the East, facing the sun and symbolically facing the Son. She then prayed her own benediction. “Thou, O Lord, hast freed us from the fear of death. Thou hast made the end of this life the beginning to us of true life. . . . Thou hast shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the gates of hell, and brought to naught him who had the power of death—the devil. . . . But when she had finished the thanksgiving, and her hand brought to her face to make the sign had signified the end of the prayer, she drew a great deep breath and closed her life and her prayer together.”
[ix] As with Gorgonia, even in death, Macrina speaks words of life to those yet living.

[i]Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Saint Macrina, paragraph 966b.
[ii]Ibid., paragraph 966c.
[iv]Ibid., paragraph 970b.
[v]Ibid., paragraph 974c.
[vi]Oden, In Her Own Words, 48.
[vii]Gregory of Nyssa, paragraphs 978a-c.
[viii]Ibid., paragraphs 982a-c
[ix]Ibid., paragraphs 984c-986b.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Spiritual Friend to Her Physical Family: Gorgonia

Spiritual Friend to Her Physical Family: Gorgonia

Nonna and her husband Gregory the Elder were the parents of Gregory of Nazianzus and Gorgonia (325-375 AD). Gorgonia and her husband Alypius lived in Iconium where they raised two sons who became bishops and three godly daughters.

All that we known of Gorgonia we derive from her brother Gregory of Nazianzus’ funeral oration on her life. Gregory went to great extremes to convey the historical accuracy of his eulogy of Gorgonia. “In praising my sister, I shall pay honour to one of my own family; yet my praise will not be false, because it is given to a relation, but, because it is true, will be worthy of commendation, and its truth is based not only upon its justice, but upon well-known facts. For, even if I wished, I should not be permitted to be partial; since everyone who hears me stands, like a skilful critic, between my oration and the truth, to discountenance exaggeration”[i]

An Empowering Heroic Narrative: Applying the Life Lessons of the Great Cloud of Witnesses

Gregory is practiced in the soul physician art of producing a heroic narrative for the purpose of empowering others. “Come, let me proceed with my eulogy . . . performing, as a most indispensable debt, all those funeral rites which are her due, and further instructing everyone in a zealous imitation of the same virtue, since it is my object in every word and action to promote the perfection of those committed to my charge.”[ii] Like the author of Hebrews in chapters 11 and 12, Gregory shepherds his living flock by reminding them of the faithfulness of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before them. Though dead, their lives still speak.

Gorgonia’s life spoke from heaven because while on earth she was so heavenly minded that she was of great earthly good. “Gorgonia’s native land was Jerusalem above, the object, not of sight but of contemplation, wherein is our commonwealth, and whereto we are pressing on: whose citizen Christ is, and whose fellow-citizens are the assembly and church of the first born who are written in heaven, and feast around its great Founder in contemplation of His glory, and take part in the endless festival . . . which is produced by reason and virtue and pure desire, ever more and more conforming, in things pertaining to God, to those truly initiated into the heavenly mysteries; and in knowing whence, and of what character, and for what end we came into being.”[iii]

Gorgonia lived with spiritual eyes focused on her native land—heaven. Her life teaches us how to find our where, what, who, and why. By focusing on eternity, we learn our origin, our identity, and our purpose. We do not find the answers to the great philosophical, existential questions of life by focusing exclusively on this life, but rather by focusing intensely on the next life.

Godly Character Leading to Godly Counsel

Her godly character provided the firm foundation necessary for her godly counsel. In fact, Gregory directly links her “prudence and piety” when speaking of her fame as a wise counselor. “What could be keener than the intellect of her who was recognized as a common adviser not only by those of her family, those of the same people and of the one fold, but even by all men round about, who treated her counsels and advice as a law not to be broken? What more sagacious than her words? What more prudent than her silence? . . . Who had a fuller knowledge of the things of God, both from the Divine oracles, and from her own understanding? . . . Who so presented herself to God as a living temple?”[iv]

Gorgonia, like all biblical counselors, based her counsel upon the Word of God filtered through the discernment that develops from a lifelong commitment to God. She practiced the competency of using her human reason redeemed by grace to prudently listen to the specific situations of each unique individual in order to provide a timely, insightful word fit seamlessly for the exact occasion.

Gorgonia’s soul care was not of the “professional/office variety,” but earthly, real, and practical. “Who opened her house to those who live according to God with a more graceful and bountiful welcome? . . . Whose soul was more sympathetic to those in trouble? Whose hand more liberal to those in want? I should not hesitate to honour her with the words of Job: Her door was opened to all comers; the stranger did not lodge in the street. She was eyes to the blind, feet to the lame, a mother to the orphan. Why should I say more of her compassion to widows, than that its fruit which she obtained was, never to be called a widow herself? Her house was a common abode to all the needy of her family; and her goods no less common to all in need than their own belonged to each.”[v]

In the spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Gorgonia practiced holistic ministry. “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” In the spirit of James 1:27, she practiced true spirituality. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” In the spirit of Acts 2:44-45, she practiced sacrificial giving. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”

Her counsel and care rang true and pure because she walked the talk. Her maddened mules ran away with her carriage, overturning it, and dragging her along, causing serious injuries to her bones and limbs. Gregory records her response to her suffering, a response that teaches us much about biblical sufferology. “. . . the suffering being human, the recovery superhuman, and giving a lesson to those who come after, exhibiting in a high degree faith in the midst of suffering, and patience under calamity, but in a still higher degree the kindness of God to them that are such as she. For to the beautiful promise to the righteous ‘though he fall, he shall not be utterly broken,’ has been added one more recent, ‘though he be utterly broken, he shall speedily be raised up and glorified.’[vi] Reflecting back upon her silence during the recovery period, Gregory concludes, “. . that was the time to be silent, this is the time to manifest it, not only for the glory of God, but also for the consolation of those in affliction.”[vii]

Gregonia’s sufferology provides a lasting lesson for all to learn: we must mingle enduring patience with deep faith in the goodness of God during the badness of life. Such faith not only brings God glory, it also offers comfort to those now facing hardships.

As she lived; she died. On her deathbed, she offered words of healing hope and guiding direction as she spoke God’s truth in love. “After many injunctions to her husband, her children, and her friends, as was to be expected from one who was full of conjugal, maternal, and brotherly love, and after making her last day a day of solemn festival with brilliant discourse upon the things above, she fell asleep, full not of the days of man, for which she had no desire, knowing them to be evil for her, and mainly occupied with our dust and wanderings, but more exceedingly full of the days of God.”[viii] In serene calmness she whispered her final benediction, “I will lay me down in peace, and take my rest.”[ix]

[i]Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations, Sermons, Letters; Dogmatic Treatises, translated in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955, Vol. 7, p. 238.
[ii]Ibid, p. 239.
[iii]Ibid., pp. 239-240.
[iv]Ibid., p. 241.
[vi]Ibid., p. 242.
[vii]Ibid., p. 243.
[viii]Ibid., p. 244.