Saturday, November 14, 2015

Bethlehem and so much more

It is amazing how we can continue to have weeks that are so, so busy. This one was no exception. It was a wonderful, but exhausting week.

Sabbath was actually the only non-exhausting thing. Church was nice, as always. I love hearing everyone bear their testimonies. We were able to spend some very nice time together as a family. We even went for a walk around the Biblical gardens of the Center and talked about things. We walked down into the nearby neighborhood to visit the family of one of Sabrina’s friends. It was just a bit foggy, and the view of the Jerusalem Center in the fog-enshrouded darkness as it sat like a floating beacon of light was incredible. I can’t believe we get to live here.

The next day was incredibly busy, but wonderful. The first thing we did in the morning was to meet friends from the branch and then drive to Ein Gedi. Ein Gedi is a canyon and spring next to the Dead Sea, about half way along its western shore. It is the canyon where David was hiding from Saul, and Saul, chasing him, slept in a cave not knowing David was there. David cut off a piece of Saul’s cloak and tried to get Saul to repent of his hatred. We were there with Trevor Mickelson, our Young Men’s leader. He is a major in the Canadian army who specializes in wilderness survival skills and orienteering. He is helping Kaleb get his orienteering merit badge, and this hike was part of that. While I have been in Ein Gedi many times before, this we hiked further than I usually have the opportunity to hike. 

Our family looking towards the Dead Sea from the top of Ein Gedi
It was a great hike. Trevor taught the Young Men and Young Women how to navigate using all sorts of things. It was cool! We made it all the way to the Spring of David, the source of water that never stops flowing in that canyon. It was a beautiful place and a beautiful vista. 

Hiking along the Ein Gedi trail
The only downside was that Julianne’s knees started hurting her on the hike. Since we live on the bottom floor of an 8 story building that only has an elevator on the top three floors, this is exceptionally bad. We need to help her take care of that knee.

That evening we spent our time getting ready for the field trip tomorrow and helping the older kids get ready for the trip they will take with their school the next day.

Some of our group at the top of the canyon of Ein Gedi

The youth at the Ein Gedi spring

Then we hosted the leaders of the Anglican School (where our kids go to school) at the Center. We were able to provide for them a small, private, organ concert. Then we had dinner, and took them on a tour of the Center. We talked to them about using our facilities for some of the things they do. They were very excited about a lot of possibilities they saw there. It was a great time for us getting to know them better and for them getting to know us better. Afterwards they went to the concert, which was a great concert. They seemed to really enjoy themselves.

The next day we kept our kids out of school so they could go with us on our field trip.  We first went to the Herodian. This is a fortress that Herod built. At the bottom is an absolutely sumptuous palace, one of the largest in the Roman Empire. The top was built up artificially into a huge tower where he could retreat if there was a revolt. From there we could behold the vistas of many places. We talked about a next door town, Tekoa, where Amos is from. We talked about Lehi’s trail. We went through the water cistern. 

Students and my kids exploring the Herodian
My kids with Spencer Tasso at the Herodian

We ran out of time to do as much as we would have liked down in the palace part, but we had a good time, and I think the students got a feel for Herod’s wealth and lifestyle. We talked about his desire to be remembered for centuries, and the power and prestige he had and the ability to build things that make it so he is still remembered. We looked across the way at Bethlehem, and contrasted the humble circumstances of Christ’s life compared with Herod’s. But I asked them who we remember more, and why.

Running through a quick tour of the Lower Herodian, where the palace was
Here we saw some of the first flowers of winter

From there we went to the Church of the Nativity. 

Tashara in front of the Church of the Nativity

We got a very timid guide there, which was wonderful because I was able to do a lot of teaching. The line to get into the Nativity Grotto, the cave beneath the church that marks the traditional spot of Christ’s birth and the manger, was not too long. We moved through fairly quickly, but a procession began just before we got there, so we had to wait 20 minutes. 

Kaleb in front of our guide while we wait in line at the Church of the Nativity

Still, we were able to go in and see the place. It is so crowded, and they want to move you through so quickly, it is hard to have even a moment to think about the import of the event celebrated there, or to be thoughtful or reverent or prayerful about it. I tried, and had less than 10 seconds of bliss there. It was worth it.

The family at the traditional spot of the birth of Christ in the Church of the Nativity
The spot for the manger at the Church of the Nativity

The Catholic church appended to the Church of the Nativity was surprisingly open (they usually close from 12-2 every day). We went in there and sang Christmas songs. We then went below and talked about Jerome’s translation of the Bible, his appreciation of the land, and also looked at the cave that honors the innocent children Herod slew. We sang and had a wonderful time.

Stained Glass celebrating Christ's birth at the St. Catherine Church, appended to the Church of the Nativity

Singing in St. Catherine's Church, appended to the Church of the Nativity

Jacob singing in Jerome's Grotto
A statue of Saint Jerome

Then we gave them a while to shop and buy some things from Bethlehem. A number of them purchased baby blankets from a man named Mohammed, who is a member of the Church. My wife bought several little things from the stores as well. Then we went to the Milk Grotto, where Dr. Whitchurch taught them about Mary and the importance of motherhood. Sister Whitchurch also did a wonderful job speaking about that. We sang, and gave them a moment to contemplate. It was a nice time.

From there we had a great lunch at a traditional Bedouin restaurant called the tent. 

Lunch at the Tent

Then we went to a field that is still a place for shepherds that overlooks Bethlehem. We showed them a little sheepcote there that I once found, and talked about shepherds. As we walked further Kaleb found the remains of an ancient oil press. That was cool.
Jacob and Sabrina next to the Sheep Cote
The Sheep Cote

Both classes outside the sheep cote with Bethlehem behind them

The oil press Kaleb found at Shepherd's field

Then we sat down and one of my students, Lauren, played a Christmas song on the flute. We sang, and I taught about the birth of the Savior for about half an hour. It got dark during that time. Then we opened it up for testimonies. For about 40 minutes the students bore their testimonies, and it was wonderful. Then we gave them about 25 minutes to read their scriptures, or to write in their journals, or to pray or to just ponder. It was a perfect, wonderful evening. We sang Christmas songs all the way home. What a great day!

Bethlehem from the Shepherd's Field we were in. The Church of the Nativity is the square tower just below the crane. Its bells rang as we began our service

Students thinking and studying at Shepherd's Field
A close up of the tower of the Church of the Nativity from Shepherd's Field as dusk

The next day Kaleb, Tashara and Alexia left for their trip with the school to Eilat. I taught class (which I thought went well), and then I got work done. I am trying to take care of any business Julianne might normally do that would make her go up and down stairs so that her knees can recuperate a bit. They seem to be getting better.

Jacob and Sabrina came home without the other kids, and it was just the four of us together that night, so we tried to make it special. We went out for falafels, then toured a luxurious hotel, then we played games together in the student commons. We had a fun night.

Then I took the students on a night field trip. We went to the Kotel Tunnel, which is a tunnel dug along the bottom of the Western Wall, exposing the entire length of the wall. We had a great guide, a man who is a rabbi who grew up in Chicago. He was so funny, and was a great teacher, and was impressed with what our students knew, and with whom we had a great time. He was enjoying his time with us so much that he took us to a few places that aren’t part of the normal tour. It was a nice time. I got to bed later than I would have liked, but it was a very nice tour.

I am standing at one end of the longest Herodian stone found along the Western Wall. The furthest student from me is at the other end

Students touching the longest Kotel (Western Wall) stone while our rabbi guide taught them

Me and our guide
We spent a few minutes observing the Western Wall at night.

Prayer at the Western Wall at night
The next day I taught again, which I love and which went well. I had about an hour to exercise and get ready, and then we took off to do a field trip prep for two field trips. We went to a bunch of Christian churches to which we will take the students next week. We went to Terra Sancta, Saint Mark’s, The Church of the Redeemer, St. John’s, Alexander Nevsky’s, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a great time, and I really enjoyed it. We were moving very fast, and covered a lot of ground. I don’t think I learned anything new this time, but I was able to help the others gain a greater appreciation for what was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because of the time I spent there on the Albright tour. I think it was really productive.

Then we went to the Jewish Quarter. We quickly looked through the Wohl museum, and the Burnt House and then went over to the Davidson Archaeological Park. This is the area that goes along the southern and south-western corners of the Temple Mount. Here we talked about the Huldah gates, and the steps to and from the temple and about the ruins that are left from the destruction of the temple. It was super fast, but I think it was helpful for Phil. The tough thing is that we do this field trip the very next day, and it isn’t much time for him to get ready. He has a really tough job this semester as the only person who hasn’t done this before. I am sure this is turning out to be a really hard semester for him, but he is doing so well and is so enjoyable. I really love being with him.

Jeff Chadwick teaching about the Herodian Masonry around the temple

When I got home I found that Sabrina had had a friend over to play ever since school got out. I am always so glad when they can play with a friend. This is a girl from the branch whose family we really like. Just as I got home I got a call from Kaleb letting me know they would be arriving at the Anglican School soon. So I loaded Sabrina and her friend in the car, and drove to get our kids (not Tashara, who is staying several days longer to do scuba diving at the Red Sea, lucky girl!). I dropped off Sabrina’s friend, and with some difficult work found Kaleb and Alexia, and we got home for dinner. It was nice to have most of our family home again, though a bit strange to only have four kids.

We had been planning on bringing the kids with us on the next field trip, but they were so exhausted after all they had done over the last four days, that Julianne decided to stay home with them and let them relax. I was paired with Jeff Chadwick on this trip, which is always fun. We had a great time together. We first went to the Broad Wall, where Jeff taught them about Hezekiah’s expanding city and the various walls.

The students while Jeff Chadwick taught them about the Broad Wall

One of my students (Kandra, who was also a student of mine in Provo) with the Broad Wall behind her

My class in front of the Hurva Synagogue
Then we went to the Burnt House. The video there does a fair job teaching the students, but we helped them understand even more about the factions that led to the Jewish Revolt, and about what happened there. Then we went to the Wohl Museum, where you can see the remains of some lavish houses which almost certainly belonged to priests. It is a great chance to see items of everyday life that help you picture how things were in the time of the Savior. There are foot washing basins, and wine decanters and the kinds of plates that were used for Passover meals and jars for ritual washing (akin to what the Savior would have used when he turned the water to wine). You can help them understand plaster, frescoes, mosaic carpets, etc. there. By the end the goal is to help them picture the scriptures so well that they become so very real to them. When they are that real they have more power and they can better apply them to their own lives. It was a wonderful time.

Jeff Chadwick teaching inside the Wohl Museum

A set of plates in the Wohl Museum, contemporary with the Last Supper

Then we took a short break and ate our lunch. We also were fortunate enough to see a Bar Mitzvah procession coming into the city, and we joined it. It was wonderful. 

The Bar Mitzvah celebration as seen through the Crusader Dung Gate
The Bar Mitzvah as they entered through the crusader Dung Gate

From there we went inside the Davidson park. David Whitchurch had to leave, so Jeff went with Phil and I took the students on my own. We had a wonderful time. We talked about being in places where the Savior really walked. We talked about Mary coming to the temple and being cleansed as we looked at the ritual cleansing pools (mikvah or makva’ot in plural) there. We spoke of Peter healing someone as he went into the temple at the doors for going in, and of Christ healing the man born blind as he went out next to the doors where you leave the temple. We looked at the place that may have been the pinnacle of the temple, we looked at evidence of the destruction of the temple and talked about how much the Savior loved the temple. We talked about cleaning out the money changers and about sacredness. We had a wonderful time, and I could tell that they were often very touched. So was I.

My class on the steps coming down from the Double Gate of the Huldah Gates at the Temple Mount

The edge of the Herodian Triple Gate
Julianne and Tana Hunter joined us for the end of it. Then I let the students go, and gave Tana a quick tour of the places she had missed. Then we went around the old city, exploring and getting more familiar with it. Tana showed us a little place I had never known about that has a cool little museum, a cultural teaching center, and an incredible view. It would be a wonderful place to bring people on a private tour.

From there we walked to the Albright, were Julianne and Tana drove home. I stayed for a lecture. It was on the tombs of the crusader kings that had been in the Holy Sepulchre. I had never known that. It was a very interesting lecture, and I am excited to understand one more thing about that important place. What a happy boy I am.

When I got back I learned that Elder Holland and his party had arrived. They are here for district conference. They made a brief appearance at dinner, and the students were very excited about that. We ate dinner at the Oasis, and then we went to a forum. Elder Holland sat right in front of me. The forum speaker was a security advisor for the state of Israel. He had a great insight into the long term plans that must be in place if Israel, or any of us, are to survive terrorist groups and groups or countries that have totalitarian plans wrapped in the robes of extremist Islam. He was very, very insightful. It was a great evening, though it didn’t end until after 9 pm. What exciting, but long days we are having.
On Friday I taught class again. I so love being with these students and covering these things. What wonderful times we are having. What wonderful students we have, and how exciting it is to study these things together. Afterwards I exercised, and then as a family we packed up and went out to the city. We went to some little market places. There local artists and artisans were showing their stuff and selling it. We had a great time walking around and looking. Then we wanted to buy a treat, but it was hard because just when we were ready to do it all the shops were closing up for Sabbath. Everything here closes down early Friday afternoon. We finally found a little place and had a nice little snack. Then we found a really fun playground and had a great time playing there. 

Jacob, Sabrina and Alexia playing on the playground
Julianne and Kaleb playing at the playground

When we got home we cleaned up our patio and had a delightful dinner outside, looking at the Dome of the Rock and listening to the call to prayer. We also talked about becoming more holy while we are here, using a sign from the Church of the Nativity as a talking point for that. Then we played family games, watched a movie, and went to bed.

The week has been so full of wonderful things. How can we be so blessed?

The sign from St. Catherine's Church, appended to the Church of the Nativity, which we used as a teaching point at dinner.

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