Anabaptists and Christmas

First the Anabaptists.  Last week at this time I was traveling back from Ghana where I met with a group of pastors who are participating in a distance education course on Anabaptist History and Theology.  In Ghana we also relate to the Good News Theological College and Seminary and normally would refer people there for theological education needs.  In this case Ghana Mennonite Church pastors asked for additional guided instruction on Anabaptist history and hence this initiative.  As Mennonite missionaries we believe we have something unique to offer on the subject!

This particular course is offered through the PSDE program of AMBS and looks at a number of the 16th century Anabaptist leaders,  some of their writings and other reflections on what it means to be Mennonite today.  It is meant to be a self-directed study though I correct the homework assignments and provide input and encouragement along the way.  When I  met with the group of 7 pastors this time we talked about Conrad Grebel and discussed how applying Jesus’ teaching in Matt 18:15-17 is or isn’t possible in Ghana today.  There were differences of opinion in the group, but all  agreed that the biggest impediment to practicing discipline in the church is the large number of churches people have to choose from.  Instead of accepting discipline people are more apt to simply leave for another church!

Christmas was special this year because Grandma Frey made the long trip from Waterloo, Ontario to be with us over the holidays.  Jeremiah and Deborah are thrilled to have her here.  Christmas morning brought the usual gift giving activities, though it seemed that there were more gifts under the tree than in other years.  Jeremiah was thrilled to get a new Calvin and Hobbes book and Deborah has been playing with her new Poly Pockets paraphernalia since Christmas morning.

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December Happenings

December is turning out to be full of activity, though we are hoping to get out of Cotonou to the beach for a couple of days over the holidays.  Last week Nancy finished a 7 days seminar on Systematic Theology at IBB.  It was the December class for the part-time program.  This group has just 5 more seminars left to finish their three years of study and will graduate in June.

Last Saturday Antoine Codjo, IBB teacher, led a day-long seminar on Christmas for the 150 part-time program participants.  Here in Benin there are different opinions in the church community about how, or even if, to celebrate Christmas.  When Antoine asked the students representing churches that celebrate Christmas to identify themselves, about 1/2 to 2/3 of the participants stood.  There is a significant number of churches that  believe it is wrong to celebrate Christmas because of its  pagan roots.  The fear is that by celebrating on December 25 the churches are indirectly participating in pagan worship.  Antoine did not take sides in the argument but encouraged those who do recognize Christmas to focus on the true meaning of the holiday.

I’m currently preparing a course on the history of the Church in West Africa to be taught at IBB  in February.  I’ve taught a similar course twice but this time there will more more of a focus on Benin.  The roots of Christianity here stretch way back to the 17th century when European traders were active along the coast and brought with them chaplains to minister to them and later to the indigenous peoples.

We wish everyone a very merry Christmas as we celebrate the miracle of God dwelling  among us.

Man Proposes, God Disposes

A popular Beninese proverb says: Man proposes, God disposes.  It basically means that even with our best-laid plans, things don’t always work out as planned.  That certainly seems to be the case at the Benin Bible Institute (BBI).  At the same time, we find that if we don’t insist on doing things our way, but leave ourselves open to the moving of the Spirit, things work out – maybe even better than we had planned!

Man Proposes

The original vision for the leadership training at BBI was to add to the basic seminar program, a more intensive full time program for pastors.  The seminar program which has been running since 1994 is a general program of 27 classes that teach biblical and theological knowledge in order to better equip pastors and lay leaders to build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12).  Every three years we begin a new class and every time we have to cut off enrollment at 250 students!  It is a very popular program.

A full time program that ran over 9 months following the Beninese school year began in 2004.  The first year we began with 7 students, but one withdrew for health reasons.  The second year we began with 5 students, but 2 did not finish the program.  The third year we did not have any students.  The fourth year we had one student, not enough to justify running the program!  On Nov 1, 2008 we graduated all 9 students who had finished the program and received a Baccalaureate in Theology.  Was this the end of the program?  The lack of students forced us to rethink what we were doing.  What were the obstacles preventing students from enrolling at BBI?  Why was the seminar program so popular, while the full time program suffered from lack of students?

The graduates front and center

At the same time, BBI had plans to offer training in pastoral counseling.  The program would enable people who felt called to that form of ministry to obtain specialized training over 1 or 2 years.  Such a program does not currently exist in Benin.  To that end, BBI sent a young couple off to the United States to pursue training in the field.  When the couple did not return as planned in 2005, it provoked a lot of reflection.  What should be done?  We still wanted to offer a specialized training, but how should we go about it?

God Disposes

After much reflection and discussion between the administration and the teaching staff, the decision was made to try a new format for the “full time program.”  We decided that a more flexible program, similar to our seminar program, would better meet the needs of our potential students.  Since they did not feel able to abandon their ministries for 3 years while studying, we needed to create a format that would enable them to study and still carry out their responsibilities.  So we changed the format from full time classes over nine months to two six week intensive sessions.  The students attend class for nine hours a day (yikes!) for six weeks.  Then they return to their regular activities, but we send them off with some research projects to complete before they return for the next six week session.  This change, along with a reduction in the cost of the program (we reduced the cost by one third) has led to the enrollment of five students.  We are very satisfied both with the number and the quality of the students we have before us.

Abel and Timothé, two of the new students

Abel and Timothé, two of the new students

Last April, when the administrator of the Benin Bible Institute and Nancy traveled to Canada, they met Richard Ouillette in Montreal.  Richard has begun a ministry called Reseau Compassion International (International Compassion Network).  He teaches seminars that help people overcome their hurts and address their problems in order to overcome them or to live with them without being overwhelmed by them.  Richard came and taught a weekend seminar at BBI in October.  The seminar was entitled “Living my life to the fullest: healed of my past, happy with my present and confident about my future.”  It was very well received by the students.  In further discussion we have outlined a potential return for Richard in Sept 2009 at which time he will lead a three week seminar that will be the beginnings of a program in pastoral councelsing.  How this will happen and what it will look like needs to be worked out in fuller detail, but we see already the hand of God as we move forward toward this goal.

Prayer and Praise

  1. Praise God for the graduation of nine pastors who now have a Baccalaureate in Theology.  Pray that they will be effective instuments in the hands of God.
  2. Thank God for the five students who have enrolled in the new BAC in Theology program.  Pray that God will encourage them and strengthen them as they pursue their studies.  Pray that nothing will hinder them from completing the program.
  3. Thank God for the seminar led by Richard Ouillette in October.  His teaching brought healing and comfort to many.  Pray that God will continue to guide Richard, Reseau Compassion International and BBI as they seek to provide training and counseling in Benin.
  4. Pray for Ina Fray, Nancy’s mom, who will be spending the month of December in Benin.  Pray that she will remain healthy, tolerate the heat and experience special bonding with her grandchildren.
  5. Pray for Nancy as she teaches “Foundational Biblical Teachings” December 5-12.  This is the first time she will teach this seminar.
  6. Pray for the students (they are 5 in number) in the distance education course in Anabaptist History and Theology that Bruce is directing with Ghana Mennonite Church leaders.  He will meet with participants Dec. 18-19 to assess their progress thus far and introduce the new assignements.