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Togo June 2015

Undisclosed Location May 29 - June 13, 2015

We are collaborating with École Supérieure Baptiste de Théologie de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (ESTABAO). This is a French speaking Baptist seminary.

Follow along as teachers in the field offer their experiences as they share theological training with local church leaders.

Field Notes   Togo June 2015

Jun  11th,  2015Blessed Prosperity

How do we understand the word “Blessed” in the Bible? This was the subject of much debate and many questions yesterday in our class on the Prison Epistles of Paul. As we worked our way through the book of Ephesians, this question naturally arose as we considered Paul’s words “the greedy . . . will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

In a land where the prosperity gospel has effected so many, it was difficult for some of the students to conceive of the blessings of God not being primarily in the form of money. This is so often taught in this land (and sadly, our own as well) that many merely assume it’s truth. Just taking a drive around Lome (the capital of Togo), one will see many posters and billboards with a picture of a preacher selling his product to the people. Even in churches that would be considered in the conservative evangelical camp, these ideas are very influential. 

On Sunday morning, I was able to see first-hand how these ideas have infected even conservative gospel-preaching churches in Lome. While the message was Biblically focused and expositional, the music time prior to the service was interrupted by an individual in the congregation who walked up front and pushed monetary bills (francs) onto the foreheads of the individuals leading us in the singing. More shocking than this action was the fact that no one else seemed shocked. There were other elements of the service that have clearly been effected by this prosperity teaching but this was certainly the most clear. For what it is worth, after the service I did have the thought that it would be rather nice to earn some extra money in church by merely placing myself in the front and hoping someone placed some rather large dollar bills on my forehead. However, I realized that for many of my students, such actions in church would not seem out of place. For many of them, this is not a conscious choice based on the Bible, but rather what they have grown up with. How glad I am that these young men are training for ministry at a school that takes the Bible seriously and seeks to confront those aspects of the culture which are out of step with God’s Word.

Although our class discussion ranged from Matthew 5-7 to Abraham and then back to Ephesians, the question was the same. How do we understand God’s promised blessings to His people? Certainly, it is not wrong for someone to be blessed with money from God. But the Bible seems to clearly emphasize the spiritual side of God’s blessings as being most important. What a wonderful discussion for consideration both in Togo and around the world.

- Nate


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Jun  9th,  2015Gratitude for My Students

You never know what you’ll get. 

Jean sits at the back of the class, incredibly attentive, engaged, and listening. Jean-Baptiste sits to the instructor’s left, brow-furrowed, thoughtful, and full of questions. Whenever I pause to allow student’s to ask a question, one or both of these men will raise their hand. Jean-Baptiste will usually ask a helpful, clarifying questions. He’s older, has ministry experience, and has obviously studied much of the biblical text we’re examining.

Jean, on the other hand, asks the questions I haven’t even thought of. Sitting in the back with his wife and young daughter, I originally assumed he’d have many distractions. I assumed wrong. 

Yesterday, I was moving quickly through the middle sections of Ezekiel in an effort to get back on our syllabus’s schedule. The first half of Ezekiel is filled with various prophecies warning the exiles that their home of Jerusalem would soon be destroyed along with the temple. Ezekiel tells this warning repeatedly, using various God-ordained forms: drama, sermon, song, and in chapter 20, historical survey. In that chapter, he shows Israel’s repeated pattern of rebellion in the wake of God’s gracious actions. The result is judgment at God’s hand, but tempered with mercy as God acts “for the sake of [my] name” (20:9, 14, 22, 44).

I quickly moved through this chapter, intent on finishing yesterday’s course with the siege and fall of Jerusalem in chapters 24 and 33. But there was Jean’s hand, slowly rising as his eyes were fixed on the text. It would be a while before we got to chapters 24 and 33.

Now before I get to Jean’s question, let me celebrate something I’ve noticed in my Togolese students. Despite a day filled with ten hours of classes, at 8 pm they were engaged and when I paused, they didn’t push me toward finishing class early. Their eyes seem to always be in the text. This has always been one of my unstated teaching and preaching goals. I want to see people engaged with the text not with me. Quite often, in my sermons and teaching opportunities back home, a pause means students or listeners look up. In Togo, students look down at the text. This is one of the reasons I love teaching in these environments.

Back to Jean. His question started slow as he was internally wrestling with a verse or two and our class language, French, is his second language. The words came out slowly and my translator leaned forward, trying to hear what Jean was asking. Eventually, I understood he was stuck on Ezekiel 20:25-26. There are 48 chapters in Ezekiel. I didn’t have the time to address every verse and so I had summarized chapter 20. But Jean wasn’t about to let me get away without an explanation.

Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the Lord.

Uh oh. This wouldn’t be easy. These students don’t like it if I don’t have a definitive answer. And quite frankly, I don’t like it if I don’t have a definitive answer. I stumbled through something about God’s judgment showing God’s holiness and glory, which is true, but much more general than Jean was looking for.

Every night, I get the chance to learn from these students. They don’t know it, but they’ve driven me deeper into the text than I’ve been in some time. It's a joy to teach and be taught in an environment like this. Now I need to go re-study Ezekiel 20 thanks to Jean.

- Josh

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Jun  4th,  2015Citizens and Foreigners

One of the aims of training pastors is to help the national pastors in the ministries in which they are already involved. In many fields, the Lord is causing a transition from foreigners to nationals in various mission enterprises. What a privilege to see that transition in action here in Togo. Students from several countries in Africa are training for pastoral ministries. Some are already pastoring churches in the area while others will soon be leaving to plant new churches in the surrounding areas. It is an exciting opportunity to come alongside of our brothers in Christ and help them in this small way.

On Tuesday evening, while Josh was teaching on Ezekiel, I (Nate) had the opportunity to attend an international Bible Study. This Bible study is a meeting of Christians who have moved to Lome, Togo for various reasons. Some are political representatives of their home countries while others are teachers who are here for a few years.  It was a joy to meet with these citizens of other countries who all gathered together to study the Bible and fellowship. What do these national pastors and these international citizens have in common? More than we might think.

In this morning’s sessions, we finished the book of Philippians. In that book, Paul says that Christians are citizens of heaven. So too, in Ephesians, Paul says that Christians were once foreigners and strangers from God but now we have been brought near to Christ. How strange that Christians can so often place such significant emphasis on their national citizenship. While certainly our citizenship is important in this world, I have had a new realization in these last few days. 

It seems that we ultimately have much more in common with foreigners who are citizens of heaven than we do with citizens of our own countries who are foreigners to the Kingdom of God. For myself, I often speak of the place that I call home, but in many respects, perhaps I am closer to my ultimate home whenever I am with other believers even if they might have a foreign passport. Whether with national pastors or internationals in Togo, these are fellow-citizens with us in the most important citizenship we will ever have. It seems that the Bible redefines these terms with a more ultimate sense.

- Nate

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Jun  3rd,  2015Rhythm and Rain

By the third day of a teaching trip, the TLI team has usually fully-engaged with a rhythm. Our day usually goes like this. 

7:30 - breakfast
8-11 - Nate teaches Pauline Epistles
12 - lunch
afternoon - nap, prep for classes
5:30 - dinner
6-9 - Josh teaches Ezekiel
9 - prayer

For the next week and a half, this will be our routine. We’ll have some time on Saturday to spend in Lome with the missionary family stationed here. On Sunday we’ll preach in local churches.

But we’re here to teach the Bible and our days are structured with that as the primary emphasis. After the first few days, there’s not just a rhythm to our schedule, but we’ve also grown more comfortable teaching through a translator. We’ve gotten to know some of the students and are adjusting our teaching according to what we’ve learned.

It’s the rainy season here in west Africa. Yesterday, Nate’s class was taught during a deluge in the morning. It meant students had to gather close to the front of the classroom so Nate could be heard above the hammering sound of rain on the metal rooftop. 

This is my (Josh’s) second teaching trip to this school in Togo. The students here know their Bibles and have a strong grasp of the Scriptures. I was not surprised, however, to find that less than half of my class had ever read Ezekiel. Due to its strange visions and confusing imagery, Ezekiel is often ignored by Christians around the world. As these men and women read this strange prophet and wonder at its meaning, there’s a danger of the imagery in the text overshadowing the central message of a holy God, righteous in judgment, but merciful in salvation. Just as Nate’s class had to gather close to hear the word to avoid the pounding sound of the rain, we have to gather our thoughts to focus on the message of the text.

So often in global theological education, the central task is one of focus. There are so many questions that divert our attention from the central interpretive question of "What does the text say?" As you pray for us while we teach here in Togo, pray that the central message of Ezekiel, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon is brought out clearly through our teaching and that the myriad questions the students are asking of the text are answered in a biblically-faithful, culturally-sensitive, Christ-exalting way.

- Josh


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May  30th,  2015It Begins

In a few hours, Nate and I will board a regional jet for a short hop from Madison, WI to Chicago. After a few hours at O’Hare, it’s a long flight to Brussels, a long layover, and then another long flight to Lome, Togo, with a brief touch-and-go stop in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Thirty-six hours or so after leaving Madison, we’ll disembark in Lome. Nine hours after we land, Nate starts his class on Paul’s Prison Epistles. My class on Ezekiel starts twelve hours after Nate’s. Let’s just say he took one for the team.

There are many things to pray for on this trip, not the least of which concerns the above paragraph. Please also be in prayer for our translators. No matter the brilliance of our teaching, if the translation isn’t clear and understandable, communication will be a struggle. The forecast has the normal high heat and high humidity. Pray for endurance for both the teachers and the students.

Most of all, pray that our efforts to teach God’s Word to these West African pastors and church planters result in great fruit as they, in turn, teach throughout multiple countries in this region.

- Josh

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