Saturday, April 30, 2016

Such Good Things, almost, but never too much of Good Things. Also, saying Goodbye so we can say Hello

The arrival of our guests went spectacularly well. Both flights got in slightly early. We had planned on them taking a shared taxi, called a sheroot (or sherut), from the airport. Both groups got through passport control, customs, and luggage collection with no problem, and found a sherut immediately, and got here with no hitch. It took them between an hour and a half and two hours from the time their planes touched down and when they got here, which is faster than anyone I have heard of, even with a private car sent to get them. By just a bit after midnight we had everyone here and they were happy and it was a wonderful reunion with them.

The next morning was Alexia’s birthday. Our guests had, of course, been woken up by our loud neighbor who does his call to prayer so very loud as part of his efforts to disrupt the Jews who have moved in next to us. That worked out well so that everyone was able to wish Alexia a happy birthday. They had even brought a little bit of bacon, which made it so that we could have that as part of her birthday breakfast.

We went on a branch activity today. We met the larger group, and off we went to Jericho. On the way we stopped at Wadi Qelt. As they looked down at St. George Monastery, Julianne taught them about Elijah and the ravens, which traditionally fed Elijah at that site. She also taught them about the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho, since that is the literal ancient road to Jericho.

The group hiking along Wadi Qelt
At Jericho I think we had a very nice time going through the story of the taking of the city and how it is similar to how God can overcome any obstacle in our lives. The manager recognized us as Mormons, and since a Mormon helped the owner once, he took good care of us. He had us go up to their new tower, where we could get an incredible view of the place and how it all worked. He also gave us some gifts. They took good care of us and it made it all nice. I think everyone had a great experience there.

The seminary class with their shofars at Jericho

Then we went to Qumran. It was hot, the most crowded I have ever seen it, and not everyone was excited to pay to enter. So we sat outside and I gave a brief overview of the site, pointed out some of the caves, and then we left. We went to the Dead Sea and floated. All the kids of the branch had a great time with each other. Alexia thought it was a great way to spend her birthday.

When we got home we were able to make her some of her favorite treats, including macaroni and cheese, which Keith and Kristen had brought with them from the U.S. We did presents and she was so happy with all the things she got, which were primarily items that had her favorite mosaic, of the loaves and fishes, on them. On the whole I think she had a great birthday and it was a great first day in the country from Julianne’s parents and brother and his wife.

Alexia's birthday
The next day the kids went to school, I went on a field trip, and Julianne’s family went to Bethlehem. We paid a member of the church there to take them around and show them various things and teach them about the place. I think they had a great experience. They saw several things I have never seen before. I think they really enjoyed it.

In the meantime I began the “Last Week Walk” field trip with my students. This is the field trip that lasts two days and in which we cover the events of the last week of the Savior’s life. We began by going to Bethany. There we went to the separation wall and I taught them about the complexities of the wall. I think they understood a bit.
Students at the Bethany Garden
Afterwards David Whitchurch taught them about Mary and Martha and Lazarus, going over several scenes from Bethany with them, including the tomb and the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. He did a nice job. It was a nice time.
Then we came back through the wall and went to Bethphage. Because this is the traditional site of the beginning of the Triumphal Entry, I talked to them there about that story, and about how Jesus is our king, and how we should see him that way and look forward to his return. I think we had some very nice and touching moments there together.

We got a bit behind as we dealt with trying to go to some places that were normally open but were closed right then. Thus, when we got to Pater Noster we had to rush. David taught them there, and did a good job of teaching and yet staying within the time constraints. We had a quick but nice time there. Then we walked down to Dominus Flevit. Our issue there was that the church closed at noon, and we were getting there at 11:50. We were hoping they would let us stay a little longer, as they did last time.

At Pater Noster
So, when we got there, I asked the groundskeeper, who has helped us in the past, if we could stay. He said yes, but suggested we go talk to the father who was running the church at the moment. Father Mateo was very nice, and said we could. This seemed like a good thing, to involve him. I hoped it would avoid the problem we had the last time when that crazy, mean hippy-looking guy came up and kicked us out, turning his dogs loose on us. Father Mateo was even going to come visit with us a bit. Then he came over and told us that there was a small technicality we needed to deal with. The Father Superior, Father Sebastion, wanted us to ask him if we could stay, not anyone else. I could tell this was a power issue, and could feel that good Father Mateo was in a tough situation here where he had stepped on someone’s toes who was very power conscious. It reminded me of my life.

Father Mateo told me where I should go to find Father Sebastion. So up I went, and I found the place, and called in, and Father Sebastion called out that he would be right there. Imagine my surprise when the man who came to greet me was the very same crazy, mean, hippy-looking guy who had turned his dogs loose on us last time. He was pleasant, but made it clear he was in charge. He was willing to come visit with us, and after a while did so, giving a bit of a message, mostly about himself, but pleasant enough. It turned out to be a nice situation and it all worked out well, but he reminded me so very, very much of people I work with.

Students listening to David Whitchurch at Dominus Flevit
David did a nice job of teaching there, dealing well with the ups and downs of our being moved around and continually waiting for someone to come talk with us and various people having mass in the church and it being very busy. He really did a nice job.

After a while we finished there. We walked down to the Kidron Valley and caught the bus and went up to Mount Zion. There we went to the Dormition Abbey. We had some very nice moments there talking about Christ coming to earth and about Mary and about women and motherhood in general. We sang Silent Night down below, and it was beautiful. We had some very nice moments.
Singing at the Dormition Abbey
Then we went to the Upper Room. It was crowded, but we found a way to have our own little time there. I taught from the Intercessory Prayer in John 17 about how much the Savior wants us to join him in his special relationship with the Father. We talked about becoming Christlike, and thus being with the Father in the same way the Son is. We talked about the power of the atonement making that possible. It was a nice time.

From there we went to Saint Peter in Gallicantu. We went to the overlook and went through various stories and geographical points you can see from there. Then we went to the model of the city in the Byzantine era and helped them understand what things looked like at that time. Then we went through the church, singing in each chapel. We stopped in the pit, and talked about the Savior being put on trial by the Sanhedrin. I bore testimony there for a while, speaking of how indignant I feel that they mocked the Savior in that way, and of the irony of the high priest, who was to represent Jehovah, instead mocking Jehovah. I also spoke of how all of this was necessary, and how Christ did it because of his loving kindness and long suffering towards the children of men. I don’t know how others felt, but I was deeply touched by the Spirit there.

We went outside and saw the stairs which the Savior probably walked as he went to and from Gethsemane. It is always so touching to picture Jesus going down those stairs with such a heavy heart, and then coming back up in a blood red robe, bound and captive. Again, he was willing to do it because of his love for us.
We sat in the plaza by the statue of Peter denying Christ, and spoke of Peter there. I think that Peter’s primary characteristic is that he wants to be with Christ. He would walk on water, leap into water, and cut the ear off of people to be with Christ. I think he even denied knowing Christ so that he could be with Christ. We spoke of needing to develop that characteristic within ourselves, wanting to be with Christ. Again, I felt touched.

It was a good day.

That night we talked with BJ. He told us that he and some friends that day had all simultaneously guessed that he would go to Africa on his mission. Then that night he had the most vivid dream he had ever had. In the dream he received his call and it was to Botswana. When he woke up he got a text from his Bishop letting him know that his call had been issued and was in the mail. He is convinced that this is all inspiration, and that his call will be to Botswana. Could be right. I am anxious to see.

The next day Julianne went with her family to do the story of David and Goliath and Samson and other cool biblical sites. In the meantime I went with the students again on the last field trip. Today I had no other teacher to help me, and it was absolutely wonderful. I love doing this field trip on my own. We started out by walking to the Orson Hyde Garden. There I told them the story of Orson Hyde coming to dedicate the land for the return of the Jews. We also spoke of other dedicatory prayers, and of President Kimball dedicating the garden and saying that we in turn dedicate ourselves to God.
Students at the Orson Hyde Garden
From there we walked to Gethsemane. We went into the church and talked about it and had some nice moments. I think the students were touched by the place. We sang “I Stand all Amazed” there. Then I learned that our appointment for the private garden was made incorrectly, and that we didn’t have much time there. So we went over right away. In that nice little area I bore testimony for a while of the atonement. I spoke of how all that Christ suffered, from being betrayed, to being abandoned, to being denied, to being mocked, to being scourged, to suffering for sins and sorrows, to the horrible pains of the cross, to being abandoned by the Father, were all part of how he paid a price for us and made it possible for us to both be forgiven and succored. I spoke of the deep, changing and redeeming power of the atonement, and how Christ’s love for his Father saw him through his darkest hour. I learned from the Spirit while I taught. I enjoyed my time there. 

Students pondering at Gethsemane
Students inside the Church of All Nations
Then I gave them time to ponder. They went to various little parts of the garden and read and wrote and pondered and had a wonderful time. I read some of the hymns about Gethsemane and thought about the suffering, and learned and repented. We had a very nice time. I would like to have had more time, but we had nice time. From there we went back over to the church and learned about olive trees. Then we went to the Gethsemane Grotto, where a mass was being held. We looked at the place where the press was, and spoke about it quietly and briefly.
Then we walked over to St. Anne’s. On the way we stopped at the Church of the Flagellation, and talked about Christ being scourged. We had a nice time, but we had talked about that enough we didn’t belabor the point a lot. So we went to St. Anne’s.

We met Phil’s class there. For whatever reason David really didn’t want to stay with us there. So I arranged to meet with Father Peter, who visited with us and gave us permission to stay after they did their noon closure. David wanted to teach first and then leave while we sang, but Father Peter wanted to listen to us sing then. So we sang one song, and let Father Peter teach. Then we separated, so that David could do his teaching and then do his shopping. My class stayed and sang and we had a wonderful time. It is such an amazing place to sing, and we absolutely loved it. After quite a while Phil came back in with his class, David was done teaching. I stopped the singing, and asked Phil to come up with me.

His children are here visiting, like our family is. I know he and Jennifer were looking forward to his children coming to memories night where they could see something of what their father has done for these students and how much they love him and have made a difference in their lives. It turns out they are not allowed to attend. So Phil and Jennifer will stay with their children rather than go to that night. And their children won’t get to see how much their father means to the students. I was sad about this for them.

Another sad aspect of that is that it means the students won’t be able to hear from Phil there. His Old Testament students have not heard from him for such a long time, they really needed the chance to hear from him again. So I asked him to come up in front of all the students there and talk to them one last time. I think they were so very grateful for the chance to hear from him, and he did a wonderful job. It was nice. Then we sang one more song together, and my class left.

We went out to the pool and I showed them how the Pool of Bethesda was in the Savior’s day. Then we read the story of the invalid being healed there, and I testified of how the Savior will heal us when we have no man to help us.
From there we went to the Garden Tomb. I taught them about the various possible sites for the crucifixion and resurrection. Then I bore testimony of the resurrection, speaking of how Julie would be able to see her mother again, and Caleb his cousin again, and how my father would be able to do things again. Then I opened it up for them to bear testimonies, and they did for over an hour. I think it was a great time, I think it was a wonderful ending.
My students just before the testimony meeting at the Garden Tomb
I got back to the JC and immediately took Tashara to her school, where she listened to some of her friends play in a band. I stayed there and then took her back. We went to the farewell dinner with the students. We had a nice time visiting with them about their experience here. It really was a touching and nice dinner.
Then we went to the auditorium. It took them a while to get the computer system working. Finally they were ready. They asked me to speak to the students first. I talked to them about how Christ can exalt them. I talked to them about how they have felt the Spirit here, and can be changed. I talked to them about how to maintain that change. I talked to them about how we love them and want to always be with them. I felt it went well. As I returned to my chair they gave me a standing ovation. I was surprised, and touched.

Then we watched a slide show. It was a great slide show. Then we watched a video that Weston Hutchison had put together. It was professional in quality, it was amazing. It was touching and wonderful and should be made into a promo for the JC. I could not believe how great it was.

I stayed up for a long time, having students sign my hymn book and visiting with them. It was a fun night. It was also a hard night.

The next day the kids went to school and Julianne and I went with her family to Gibeah, Nebi Samwil, Kiryant Ye’arim, and to an absolutely wonderful biblical garden at Yad Hashmone. It was a great time. Then we went shopping, which took way too long and was not fun.

Grape vines at Yad Hashmone
We got back just as the students were staring their last dinner. I went from table to table, visiting with them and saying goodbye. Soon it was time for real goodbyes. I hate that part. My heart was so full, and I hate to see them go. They mean so much to me, each person saying goodbye was ripping out a piece of my heart. I try so hard to make sure each one can feel how much I love them and how highly I think of them. But I know I never can convey it the way I feel it. We took pictures and said goodbye and hugged each other for over an hour.  I just sat there dying and bye’ing for a long time. So did my kids. We all hate to see them go. These are amazing students.

Finally they left. Two were still there, waiting for their parents to come pick them up. So I stayed with them a bit. One of them was Julie, the girl whose mother died early in the semester. Her dad was coming to get her. She told me it was her mother’s birthday. It was hard for her. We went aside for just a while and started to talk, and then her dad got there. It was great to see her run to her dad. I was glad they had each other on that day. I was very glad.

Finally we said goodbye to both of them. I came down and in an exhausted way went to bed, but not before reading the notes that they had given me.

The next morning we got the kids off to school. Then we packed up and went to Galilee. We stopped at Beth Sha’an, then Ein Harod, then Megiddo, then Mount Tabor, then Nazareth, then had dinner, then went to our hotel. It was the most delightful little place, I absolutely loved it. It was a long and exhausting day, but great.

The women in front of the Mary statue at the Church of the Annunciation

Tel Megiddo
The church on top of Mount Tabor
While there we got a text message from Doug Earl. BJ’s mission call had arrived. But BJ is off camping at Escalante. So I got in touch with BJ to work out when he would be back and how we would work it out to open it with him. Then he told me that he was in my parent’s truck and had gotten it stuck in the sand. So we talked through things he could do. After quite a while he got it unstuck. He is learning and growing.

I wish he could open his call now. Ah well.

The next morning we went on our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. It was very nice. Then we went to the Mount of Beattitudes, and then to Tabgha, then to St. Peter’s Primacy, then to Capernaum. At every site we had a wonderful time. Julianne is a magnificent teacher and makes it all work out, and we are having a great time. Julianne is really so good. She really could be a tour guide. She is magnificent. We had a great time.

On the Sea of Galilee
We also went to Kursi, then we went to Magdala, which is such an incredible site. We had an amazing time there. Finally it was time to come home. It took us a long time to get here, but we did. We got to see the kids, visit with them for just a while, and then we got to go to sleep. Everyone was so very tired. It has been an amazingly full, draining, emotionally exhausting, but rich week.

Sabbath was wonderful. We had some nice church services, and then a little pot-luck social afterwards. It was nice to be able to visit with some of the members of the branch. I wish I had been able to better visit with more, but I enjoyed what I was able to do.

Then we went had a taxi take us all to Bethany. We had a nice experience there. It was a bit crowded, yet we still were able to find a little time to be in the tomb and read from the account. Our kids seem to be paying attention and learning. I hope so, I hope this is meaningful for them.

Jacob and Alexia coming in Lazarus' Tomb
We came back from Bethany, which is on the other side of the separation wall, and started going through the last week of the Savior’s life. We looked down on Bethphage and talked about the Triumphal Entry. We went into Pater Noster, and talked about the Savior teaching his Apostles as they went back and forth on that last week. We read a little bit from Matthew 24, the sermon on the Signs of the Times, which he taught his disciples during that continual walk from the Temple to Bethany. We walked down the Mount of Olives, speaking of how he made that walk so many times. We stopped at the Gethsemane, and spent some time talking about he suffered for us. We had some nice moments in the Church of All Nations. Then we began walking home. We stopped in the Orson Hyde Garden, and spoke more of how the Savior suffered for us on the Mount of Olives. It was a very nice time, and I think my children learned. It was a lot of walking, but I think it was a nice day.

To be honest, the next several days are all a blur. We went to the Dome of the Rock. We went and helped Sister Holyoak play the Carillon bells in the YMCA tower. We went to Saint Peter in Gallicantu and spoke of the Savior on trial. We went to the Upper Room and read from the accounts of his washing feet, administering the sacrament, and teaching about being with the Father. I think my kids were touched. We went to the Dormition Abbey and talked about Mary and the women of the scriptures. We went to the City of David and also went through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. We went through the Holy Sepulchre. We went to so many places, and my kids were part of it and I think they learned. I am happy about that, very happy. Julianne took her family to some places when I couldn’t go, and she did a fantastic job then and when we were all together. She knows these places, and the history, and the doctrine so well. She could easily be a tour guide. She was fantastic.

We also worked on getting Tashara ready to take the students on the orientation walk. She practiced a bit on her grandparents, taking them around the city and teaching them. She really knows her stuff.

In the meantime, BJ opened his mission call. We were able to be online with him while he did it. He is going to Billings Montana, reporting about six weeks from now. Wow! None of us saw that one coming. It will be a good mission for him. He didn't want to go somewhere cold, but it will be cold. I think he is pretty excited about it. We have started planning how to get him all ready, we have gotten tickets for Julianne to go be with him, etc., etc. I can't believe it is time. I can't believe he is already going. He will be great, it is just hard to digest all of this. I am so happy for him though, he will be a great missionary. 

Finally it was time to go get the students. Tashara came to help out. I have never seen the airport like it was. There were so, so, so many people there to greet arriving passengers. They looked like they were all Ethiopian Christians on pilgrimage for Orthodox Easter. It was a zoo like I have never seen, but it was fun. The students got in fairly quickly, and we gathered them. Tashara helped the process go well. When we had them all gathered we went out to get on the busses. This proved to be tricky, there were so many busses there they wouldn’t let ours in until others had cleared out. We waited over half an hour, but we eventually got everyone on and started home. This seems like a really friendly, engaged group. I think we are in for a good semester.

I tried to keep them awake on the drive home. I also tried to teach them some things and get them thinking about how our group can come together and work together. Then we got them back to the Center. Julianne wasn’t there, she was taking her parents and some of the Skinners to the airport. But Kristen was still there, and she was up with the kids to help them greet the students as they arrived. This was also nice for her since it allowed her to see her cousin who was just getting in. It was fun to see them have a little reunion right there.

Later that night we had a 20 minute meeting as a class, and I tried to impress upon them how important it was to be trying to become more holy during their time here. I feel like we had a very good meeting. After that, more meetings, a tour of the building, etc., finally I was able to come home. I tried to stay up late enough to say goodbye to Keith and Kristen, but I fell asleep on the couch. I heard them as they were walking out, and said a brief goodbye to them. I was half awake for it. I hope that they and Julianne’s parents had a good experience. I hope it was all they wanted it to be.

The next morning we had some orientation meetings, and then we took students on the walk where we show them the Old City and how to get around and teach them just a bit about it. I had the first group, and Tashara led one right behind me. I was so proud of her that she was doing this. I watched her and listened and she did a fantastic job. She knew so much and knew everything to do and say and just absolutely rocked. She did a fantastic job. She is so amazing. I think she is blowing the students away with how amazing she is.

The group I took on the tour of the Old City
The  rest of the day was spent in meetings, etc. That evening we had dinner with the students. I enjoyed myself, but some of my kids didn’t find people they felt comfortable sitting with, so they ended up sitting alone. You would think after all this time they would get this down, but it is still hard for them to meet new people and get things going. I will have to watch more carefully and help them. This is an amazingly friendly and outgoing group of students.

After dinner we had some get to know you games, and it was really enjoyable. I really like this group, I think it will be a great semester.

The next day was the first day of class. It was about the Abrahamic Covenant. It is a great day to start out with, there are so many important things associated with it, the lesson always goes well. I tried to help them understand that the covenant established with Abraham was the same one established with Adam. I tried to help them understand why God covenants with us, and how he loves us, and how much he wants to bind us to him so that he can carry us to places we cannot go on our own. I tried to help them understand the blessings that are inherent in the covenant, especially how God wants to take care of us and exalt us. I also tried to help them understand how God asks us to worship him only, to spread knowledge of him and associated ordinances and covenants, and to be obedient. We get such a good deal when we covenant with God. He asks so little, and gives so much. By the end I think they felt empowered and felt like they were coming to understand some things they had never understood before.

We also spent a lot of time answering questions .When we do this we always end up talking about the importance of symbols and symbolic action. On the whole I feel like it was a great class, and it went super well.

The rest of the day was spent in meetings and in getting good things done. I felt like it was a nice day. Our family spent some nice time together. 

There is so much of good, we are so blessed, and I hope we can just take it all in and remain grateful.

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