Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Galilee: The Rest

Well, I am back to the JC and once again behind on my blog. I will be brief, seeing as I have much to do and not much time to do it in.

Day 10 was our trip to Akko and environs in West Galilee. We visited Chorazin and Sepphoris first. In Chorazin we talked about the Savior's teachings about the Pharisees--beams and motes, loving the uppermost rooms and best seats, all that sort of thing. There was a stone "Moses seat" in the synagogue. It was a replica (the real one is at the Israel Museum and I got to see it earlier this month) so we got to take turns sitting in it for a photo shoot. The highlight at Sepphoris was a lot of amazing tile mosaics, including one of a beautiful woman known as "the Mona Lisa of the Galilee." We hiked around there a fair bit, seeing the best of the buildings and mosaics, then had a full group picnic lunch (and I got white chocolate strawberry ice cream from the gift shop--I indulge sometimes). We also took a quick stop by a cistern, where we got out, saw the sights, and got back on in admirable paratrooper style.

Our last stop was the city of Akko--once an Israelite city, then a crusader capitol. We started out by watching a very... interesting... video of an animated bean pole sized knight and rather plump horse going around the crusader ruins and gift shops and tourist attractions and earning medals for it. Also, they called the city "Acre"--as in a piece of land--instead of Akko or even the French name Jean d'Acre (Ak-reh), and I must say this discrepency drove me a little crazy at the time. We then walked through the old crusader passages ourselves (sans crusader era cartoons), which was much better than watching the characters do it. We had free time to wander around the sea side before heading back. I bought some fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, took some great pictures, and climbed around on the rocks and the ancient walls by the Mediterranean sea. Paul busied himself on the rocks taking glamour pictures on the rocks of a few of the girls who wanted them. "You have to choose your own rock. You have to own the rock." We hurried back to Galilee for our last night at Ein Gev, making it back with an hour to spare. Jackson and Bradley, my apartment's home teachers, gave us our lesson there by the sea. Bradley started out by asking us a question about Christmas traditions, which each of us then talked about--but that meant the topic of conversation was more interesting to passers by, it would seem, because we got two add-ons to our group who listened in on our lesson before finally scooting off when they realized we were being home taught.

That night we had our final bonfire, where we all talked and ate smores and and sang songs with Paul's guitar and just had a fantastic time. I sat and talked to Katie while Ashley Wright gave me a shoulder massage, laughed with Mary (including teasing her a little for accidentally missing the home teaching), sat on the sand and listened to Paul's playing, chatted around some, and talked with Aliseea down by the water about more personal and spiritual things. I love the people I am with on this program. I am going to miss them so much.

Day 11 started out with our trip to Mt. Carmel, where we had a devotional near a church commemorating Elijah's contest with the priests of Baal. We sat among the trees and stones in the cool morning air and read the story to ourselves, then had a discussion about it with Brother Schade. We talked about Elijah's faith and courage, standing up for the one true God of Israel, entirely alone against over four hundred priests of Baal. That story is one of my favorites in the Old Testament. We heard a bit of screaming and cheering from somewhere a ways off, which I for one shrugged off as being the other class doing their reenactment of the contest (because Brother Judd has a thing for skits). We then went into the little church and joined to other class in singing a few hymns. It was just after the singing that Katie informed me that the screaming was because Mary and Michael Stallings had kissed in front of the entire class. The last thing I had heard from Mary about the two of them was that she had let him know she wasn't as interested as he was. Therefore, my reaction was something along the lines of: "WHAT?!? Excuse me--WHAT?! Tell me--oh, never mind, I'll make you explain later." Which I did--and I'll get there later. We also enjoyed the beautiful view of the surrounding valleys from a platform atop the church. I can see why prophets from years past have come to mountain tops to be close to God.

Our next stop was Haifa. We paused for a few minutes to overlook the headquarters and temple of Baha'i, an offshoot religion of Islam that I had never heard of until about half an hour before we got there. The grounds we were looking at were gorgeous and the temple was lovely--no Salt Lake Temple, of course, but sort of Dome of the Rock reminiscent.

After that we had a really special stop--the old Templer cemetery in Haifa. Templer refers not to the Knight's Templar, but to a group of German Christians who came to the Holy Land to wait it out until a new temple could be built and the second coming could come about. There we saw not only the graves of the German immigrants, but also the tombstones of several latter day saint converts and two Mormon missionaries, Adolf Hagg and John Clarke. Adolf Hagg was called away from his wife and family in his late twenties to serve German speaking in southern Europe (Instanbul, etc.), then eventually was tranfered to Haifa. Before he arrived there, he saw a vision of a certain street and a man coming out to meet him. As soon as he got to Haifa, he walked thtrough the city, searching. At nightfall, he found the street--and there, out of one of the houses, came a German man rushing out to meet him. The man was a templer immigrant named Georg (last name escapes me--I'll look it up), a blacksmith, and he too had seen a vision in which Elder Hagg came to him and shared with him a message about God. He and his family became the first converts in the holy land since the days of Peter and Paul (and Georg became the first branch president). Elder Hagg succummed to illness while in Haifa and was burried at the cemetery there, not far from the family he baptized. The other missionary was Elder John Clarke, who left all his future plans and college education to answer a call to serve German speaking in Haifa. He was out only a year before also succumbing to illness. He and Elder Hagg are buried near one another, and both graves are marked with a broken collumn, representing a life cut short. We visited each tomb one by one and Brother Judd told us their stories. At his request, we stood near the missionaries' markers and sang "I'll go where you want me to go." I shamelessly admit that I cried--and I wasn't the only one. It was so moving to sing that hymn in honor of two missionaries who had answered Heavenly Father's every call and made every sacrifice--even into the next life. They are heroes to me--shining examples of following the Lord in all things, even to the last.

Our last site of the day and of our Galilee adventure was Caesarea Maritima--the same Caesarea where Paul the apostle was imprisoned and declared the gospel for Felix and Festus and King Agrippa. We watched a significantly better movie than Akko's, which gave a great scope for how the place has changed over the years, especially with the buildling of Herod's great retaining wall out at sea, which essentially created a man-made harbor. The idea was to provide a port for ships so that Caesarea's trade and commerce value would go up (it worked). We toured among the ruins, making a concentrated effort to stay ahead of the Judd class. We talked about Paul's message to King Agrippa and the things that had happened here in this city. We saw our last ancient theatre, a huge hippodrome (including a metal frame style model chariot, in which a couple girls did a picture in a Hunger Games pose), and a smattering of crusader ruins, which I explored with Hannah. We didn't stay long--an hour or so, perhaps--and there wasn't an awful lot to see. What there was, however, was amazing to me, if only because I love the stories of Paul--his testimony, his mission, his love for others, and his unfailing service to God--and it was a special experience to be in the place where some of it happened, as with Ephesus and Assos. It was good today to see the examples of so many missionaries--Adolf Hagg, John Clarke, and the apostle Paul.

After a quick wade in the Mediterranean (as well as seashell collecting and a picture of the nearby Roman aqueduct) we piled into the busses and headed home to Jerusalem. We got home to find a feast waiting for us in the Oasis. Our chef Ahmed and the rest of the JC kitchen crew (bless all their hearts) had made us a Thanksgiving dinner spread. It was rather different from the dinner my Grandma makes, but it was all delicious and all very much appreciated. Turkey is hard to come by in the middle east, so that in itself was a very rare treat indeed. Ahmed had also made potatoes, stuffing, rolls, pitas, hummus, yams, vegetables, and even a whole chilled salmon. There was also a whole variety of desserts--and knowing that it was our favorite, he had included pently of ice cream. It was a true feast for which we were all grateful. The whole group gave Ahmed and company standing ovation after dessert.

Galilee was an incredible experience. I learned so much and came closer to my Savior--though very much in His way and time. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to live where the Savior lived for a little while. It made me see why He loved it so much and how it inspired some of His teachings. Galilee is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and it will always be a treasure to me.

That said, I will say that we were all glad to be home. I was happy to get back to my own beds and my usual roommates that night. Annie and I cornered Mary after dinner and interrogated her about the kiss. We saw the recording (before I tell this story, you should know first that Mary sang a song for the informal talent show called "Let's Give Them Something to Talk About" with words about the JC. That is all). The reenactment involved a parody of the battle of wits from "The Princess Bride," with Jay as Vizzini/the priests of Baal, Michael as Wesley/Elijah, and Mary as Buttercup/the children of Israel ("I have to discern from what I know of Baal--is he the kind of god who would light his own bullock or his enemy's?" and also "Ha ha! You only think I lost! I lit my bullock on fire when your back was turned!"). The skit in itself was hillarious--but the best part was the end, when Michael removed Mary's blindfold and asked, "Well, Mary, what should we do now?" to which she responded, "Let's give them something to talk about, Michael," whereupon he kissed her full on the mouth. Whoever was holding the camera panned the crowd's reactions and it was a scream. Aparently they had gotten together and kissed for the first time in Galilee, and figured rather than keeping things secret or gradually integrating hand holding into their daily activities, they could show everybody their relationship status with a bang. No kidding--was it ever!

Thus ended the Galilee trip--with romantic fireworks and Thanksgiving dinner. What an adventure!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Galilee Day 9: Tels, Fortresses, and Testimony

As long as we’re doing field trip days, I’m just going to tell you the basics from site to site. It’s easier for me and more organized for you, so let’s do it.

Hazor was amazing. I did my site report on it, so I was terribly excited to see it, and it fulfilled my hopes. I was given the opportunity to tell everybody about the site when we first got there. The city is massive. The upper city, on which the citadel sits, encompasses about thirty acres, while the lower city sprawling out into the valley encompasses some 180 acres. Obviously very little of that is excavated, but it’s still amazing to think about. We walked among the ruins, looking at the water system and the watch tower and the six chambered Solomonic gate. I got to see a destruction layer in the citadel that may have been the layer left by the Israelites in their conquest of the north. Hazor then was one of the greatest cities the whole region, known in the Bible as “the head of all those kingdoms.” It was immense, heavily populated (some 25-30,000 people), well fortified, and very wealthy. Not much remains of it now, but what there is remains as a testament to its former glory. It just goes to show, I suppose, that the Lord’s will cannot be stopped by any one wall or city or kingdom, no matter how great.

Next Stop: Tel Dan. Dan was another great city, though primarily in its Israelite days. It held a very important position, being one of the strongest cities on the northern border, such that the kingdom of the people of Israel was said to stretch “from Dan to Beer Sheba.” Dan today is more of a wildlife park. Hiking the trails through the trees to get to the top of the tel was almost like hiking in Olympic National Park in Washington. The trails were cool and lush and shady, cris-crossing over a little stream from time to time. At the top we saw a steel outline of a massive altar, meant to give the viewer an idea of how big Jeroboam’s idolatrous altar might have been. It was huge, at least eight feet high—definitely meant for attention and intimidation. We talked about Jeroboam’s sin and Israel’s constant slide into idolatry from then on. Jesus Christ is constantly calling them back to Him all through the Old Testament. He never stopped giving them chances until there was nothing but punishment and consequence left. The way the Bible paints it makes it sound vengeful or angry sometimes, but that’s not how it is at all. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ love their children and who them great mercy in giving them every opportunity to return and try again.

Thanks for letting me wax eloquent, there. Back to Tel Dan. We explored some more ruins (some restored and some not). The best part was seeing a gate that dates back to the days of Abraham. The scriptures say that Abraham came to Dan (which was then called Laish) to rescue his nephew Lot. If Abraham actually entered the city, that gate was the one he entered through. That was a very cool thing to see. It’s probably the most ancient piece of history I have come into contact with.

After we finally got down from the Tel, we had a lunch break with the other class. It was good to have time to sit in the shade and breathe some air and enjoy one another’s company. I talked with Brother and Sister Squires for a bit (the music couple from the center). They are one of the funnest couples I think I’ve ever met. Fifty-six years of marriage lets you get to know your companion very well indeed—and I think the Squires have fun with it.

Our next stop was Caesarea Phillipi (aka Banias), where Jesus promised Peter the keys of the kingdom. We weren't there very long, but the place was beautiful and I really enjoyed it. We saw a few remains of buildings and pagan temples in the area, as well as a beautiful little river that flowed down down through the site to the entrance. We sat in a little river by the river and talked about what had happened here in Caesarea--where, against a backdrop of pagan idol worship, Peter proclaimed to Jesus "Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God." Peter would eventually give his life standing up for that knowledge. He is a powerful example of testimony and of giving your all for the Lord, down to the very last. We sang a couple hymns there and enjoyed the warm day and the beautiful little river gleaming in the sun.

After Caesarea, we drove up many hills to get to the ruins of Nimrod’s Castle, a crusader-turned-Muslim fortress high on a hill. It was awesome. I got to explore secret passages and underground rooms and climb a watchtower to overlook the hill. It was cruel and unusual that we were only given twenty-five minutes there—we could have spent all day. I think my favorite moments were hiking with others who were pretending to be knights. Neil even had Mary make a video of him sprinting down from the tower, halting in front of the camera, and gasping “Dragons! In the East Tower! Couldn’t save them… we lost the entire Schade division…” and then collapsing on the ground. Neil is the best. He makes me laugh all the time.

Our last site was Har Bental, a mountain overlooking the border between Israel and Syria. Obviously we did not enter Syria, but I can now say that I have seen it. We looked at the road to Damascus and talked about Paul's miraculous conversion story. We got to walk at our leisure through the trenches at the top, which have been preserved in memorial of the Six Days War. We also were able to go down through a tunnel and into an underground bunker. I was down there by myself, and the stillness was eerie. It was hard to imagine the place filled with the sound of gunfire or echoing with distant explosions. It was very cold up there on the mountain, and my hands were officially numb for the first time since March, but the view was spectacular and Brother Judd's devotional was wonderful.

That night at Ein Gev, we enjoyed a delicious dinner highlighted by the dessert--chocolate and vanilla ice cream hearts (so yummy). That evening we had two bonfires (even and odd numbers according to your number on the bus count, just to mix things with the two classes) where we had testimony meetings. I have been able to bear my testimony a couple times while here in Israel, so I didn't bear mine on that occasion. It was good to listen to everyone else's, though. The spirit was present and I felt my own testimony confirmed by the experiences and examples of others.

I've been making a goal to read through one of the chapters in the Book of Mormon about Jesus Christ (as recommended by Preach My Gospel) every day. That evening I did some of the end of third Nephi. I love Nephi's testimony of Jesus Christ. He teaches the doctrine of Christ so clearly--in plainness, as he says--and he shows such love for those he is teaching. I love the Book of Mormon--I have come to know the Savior and my Heavenly Father from reading from its pages.

That's all for now--more soon!

Galilee Day 8: Mount Tabor, Meggido, and a Brief Dip

Monday was another field trip day—to Mt. Tabor (traditional site of the Transfiguration), Nain, Megiddo (or what’s left of it), and a good swimming spot.

Mt. Tabor: A beautiful spot, especially in the clear morning air. We talked a little about the Transfiguration, as well as the battle that took place with Barak and the prophetess Deborah somewhere around this area. The story of Barak is one I didn’t know very well, but one that I have come to love. Barak showed great faith in going out to battle against the Canaanites, knowing full well that he was outmatched and outnumbered from the start. Because of his faith, however, the Lord was able to work through him to accomplish His purposes and win the day.

We had a special treat at the Church of the Transfiguration. One of the monks there, Father Anton, gave us a tour of some of the generally unseen areas of the church and grounds. He did this for us because he met one of our students a few years back who served her mission in Poland, where he is from, and she made a good impression on him. I think he was particularly inclined to our group because Brother Schade also served in Poland, so they two were able to converse in Polish and Brother Schade was able to translate for us. Father Anton also says he likes to hear us sing. We sang “The Spirit of God” for him, and then he took us through some normally locked gates to see the area around back and underneath the church, where there were Byzantine and crusader era ruins to see. The area underneath was especially cool. It was cave-like and dim, and there were a few ancient tombs there, carved directly into the stone. At the far end there was a grate leading up to the church above, under which was a great pile of folded pieces of paper containing prayers and blessings scribbled down and pushed through the gaps. Father Anton gave us permission to look at them if we liked, and I did read one myself (the first one I found in English). It felt like touching something sacred, seeing all those prayers hidden away in the ancient caverns below.

We emerged from the depths and went back up into the church to observe the architecture and mosaics. Father Anton also took us to see a small building outside the church that housed relics from the Crusader and Muslim eras, including some clay grenades used by the crusaders (recipe: round clay container, carve with symbols of your cause, fill with gunpowder, insert wick, light ‘er up, and throw in a hurry). There was also an extensive collection of Muslim coinage, some from the days of famous rulers whose names I recognized—Chaliph Abu Bakr, Salah ad-din, and others. It was very neat and we felt extremely privileged to be able to see it. Thank you, Father Anton.

Nain: Here we stayed only briefly. There is a small church there dedicated to the miracle of a widow’s son being raised from the dead by the Savior. The trouble is that the church is in the middle of major renovations—which translated means that the groups who come five years from now may be able to enjoy it, but for us it was rather a lot of plaster. Still, we were allowed to see it, so we counted our blessings—the other group hadn’t got there at all the day before.

Meggido: This is the tel and ruins that remain of a once-great Canaanite city. Meggido was a major city for much of the Old Testament. When it was conquered by the Egyptians, the Pharoh wrote that “The taking of Meggido is as the taking of a thousand cities.” What we saw was the ruins of many buildings, including a large altar and a set of stables. My favorite part of the site, though, was the amazing view. Tel Meggido overlooks the lush green Jezreel valley, and I can honestly say it was one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. There were plains and rolling hills stretching out for miles, all bedecked in more shades of green than I could have imagined. My friend Lindsay from my singles ward told me the Jezreel Valley was one of her favorite places when she visited Israel a couple years back, so I was looking forward to it. It didn’t disappoint.

There also we talked about Jezebel and Ahab and Jehu and prophecies and dogs eating people and all of that (since we wouldn’t be going to Tel Jezreel where it actually happened). When it was time to leave we came down from the tel via the water system tunnels, which was very cool. I have really enjoyed exploring ancient tunnels and secret passageways.

The Swimming Hole: OK, it’s actually called ------, but I think my way sounds better and is frankly more accurate. Our last stop was to a river-like swimming area, complete with caves and waterfalls of various sizes (which we did not slide down or jump over because it would have hurt, but which we did play around and splash in). I swam around some, practiced synchronized swimming with some other girls, stood under the waterfall and let it give me a back massage (it also stole my hair tie—whoops) and stood around with some others and waited for the little fishies to nibble on our toes (they did—and it tickled! You could tell when somebody got a bite because they would squeal or laugh and jump all of a sudden). It was a lot of fun.

Back at Ein Gev: Something else I did today? I finished memorizing the Living Christ! I’ve been at it for two weeks or so, and today I finally did it. I sat on the beach by the Sea of Galilee, memorized the last paragraph, and recited the whole thing for the first time (with Mary checking me for accuracy on my now weather-worn copy). We had FHE that evening (Pictionary with another group. Because of general business and a lack of preparation, my group was doing “hobo FHE”—be homeless or get another group to adopt you). Afterwards I found Katie and we went down to the beach together. She was the one who got me inspired to do this whole project (she’s had it memorized for years from when she did it with her family), so I was very excited to say it for her. I recited it to her, only needing a little correction. We then sat and talked about things for a while, especially about Galilee and testimonies and boys and deciding whether to serve a mission. Katie is one of the few people in the world who I truly feel I can talk to about almost anything. I was so grateful to have a few minutes to confide in her and to hear her feelings as well. We both expressed interest in watching a movie, so we bundled up in blankets and watched “The Court Jester” on my back porch (taking a brief break for Laurann to teach us a quick missionary lesson). It was a perfect evening. What with the classes being so separate and there being so many people to be with, I haven’t had too many opportunities to talk with Katie one on one. I felt very blessed to have had those precious hours that night. There’s nothing like being with a good friend.

That’s all for now! More to come! Shalom and lots of love!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Galilee Days 5,6,&7: "And the Rain Was Upon The Earth..."

On Record: We’re not having a Great Flood here. It has been rainy, however, and it has been quite the adventure. Allow me to elaborate:

Friday dawned clear and wet. I went out to join my Hawaiian friends for the last time, as they would be heading to Jerusalem later that day (home sweet home!). As I approached, a little old oriental-like gentleman with whom I had conversed previously looked up at me from across the beach and called out “Oh, look! The Mormon’s here!” I think I like that label quite a bit. I stayed for the songs, then slipped away between music and Bible class to get ready for the day. The best part, however, was that a huge, bright, beautiful rainbow (with a faint double) had appeared in the sky, spanning all the lake that we could see. It was magnificent. I read the scriptures in Genesis regarding the rainbow and remembered the covenants Heavenly Father gave me.

Friday was a field trip day. The day had looked threatening when we left, and by the time to Gamla (which means Camel, because the hill looks like a camel’s hump) it was pouring. We all tumbled off of the bus and ran to a nearby picnic table shelter, where we huddled together to keep warm while we listened to Brother Schade tell us about the city. When he finished his devotional, we all stalwartly sang “There is Sunshine in My Soul Today” before charging out into the rain.

We hiked down the hill we were on and up the next hill to the ruins—in the rain. It was muddy and slippery and very, very cold. I only took an involuntary slide once, but my pants and once-white jacket did not survive unscathed. Gamla was still cool, though, despite the rain. I wandered about the ruins with Hannah and Stephen mostly, though we blended in and out with other groups. We saw a huge gap in the Eastern wall where Roman soldiers breached the Jewish fortifications after months of siege. We walked along the edges of the cliffs where hundreds of Jewish defenders had thrown themselves to their deaths rather than be slain by the Romans (earning Gamla the very appropriate title, “the Masada of the North”). We looked at a mikva (ritual bath) and took bathing/showering pictures in it—with wet hair and everything. We also sang a few hymns, since Hannah and Stephen also like to sing. The highlight, however, was the remains of a first century synagogue. The scriptures say that Jesus taught in the synagogues of Galilee. Gamla is not part of what was formally known in the Roman Empire as the Galilee, but it has always been considered part of the Galilee area. Conclusion: this may be our best bet for a synagogue that Jesus Christ taught in.

Our next two stops were shorter and less wet, though still cold since we were all now officially soaked. We stopped in at Kursi, where we saw the remains of a church dedicated to the miracle of Jesus casting the legion of devils into the swine (consequently we also took a class picture of everybody making pig faces, but we’ll leave that for another day). Brother Schade gave us a great devotional, and we wandered around a bit to see the lovely mosaics (many of which were conveniently defaced by the Muslim conquerors, who would not abide animal or human images in holy spots) and looking for frogs and tadpoles in one of the deeper puddles (they really were there). After that we also visited , where we walked through an old army tunnel from the Six Days War and saw many Roman remains—from columns fallen together in an earthquake to old dwelling places to the ruins of Byzantine churches.

When we got back we were very cold and very wet. Each of us girls in my apartment took it in turns to take a hot shower. A good lunch also did much to improve everyone’s spirits. Although we had the option to swim that afternoon and a group did invite me along to see the kibbutz, I ended up curling up in a warm blanket and joining Ellen and Katie and Abby and a few others in Ellen’s apartment to watch one of my favorite song-and-dance type shows, “Newsies”—a warm, wonderful way to spend a chilly afternoon. After that I did some homework, all the while wrapped in a blanket and attempting to maintain my coziness level. I know I sound like a complete wimp, and maybe it’s true. Maybe I’m downright spoiled and accustomed to being warm and should think of such amazing figures as the Martin handcart company and the Shackleton expedition and count my blessings—but darn it all, I was cold. So there.

Saturday was Sabbath, and the two classes took it in turns to bus over to the chapel in Tiberias for church services. My group was in the afternoon, so I spent most of the morning pouring over my scriptures and Preach My Gospel and enjoying the significantly improving weather. Stephen made me teach him street contact style with him playing and interested Catholic, and we made an appointment for Sunday night (I guess with the non-proselytizing agreement being what it is, this may be as good a practice run as I’m going to get).

Church was amazing, too, there in the little Tiberias chapel—we got there just as it started to rain again. The chapel was the top floor of a building overlooking the sea, the lower floors being used for classrooms and such. I got to see Katie’s great Aunt and Uncle, who are serving a mission in Galilee (Brother Graham presided over the meeting). The service was wonderful, featuring some really good talks about gratitude and one of my favorite hymns, “A Prayer of Thanksgiving.” Afterwards we stood on the balcony outside the chapel and enjoyed what I am convinced is the most beautiful view in all of Christendom. The storm had made the sky clear and the air sweet, and the sun was going down, bathing the Sea of Galilee in soft pink and gold light. I could have stood there looking forever. Unfortunately, though, we had places to be. We stopped off at the Jordan River on the way back, at a spot used as a baptismal site for anybody who wants to be baptized in the Jordan. There we took some great pictures and observed the tile copies of Jesus’ baptism story lining the walls in at least fifty different languages (Paul read aloud to us from the one in Hawaiian Pidgin—yes, they had it, true story) before going home to dinner. I also went to mission prep that evening, then went over to the Judds’ afterwards to tell a bedtime story to the girls (The Smile of a Rose, Lydia). Sister Judd gave me a bag of marshmallows and a water bottle-turned-vase containing three gerbera daisies as a thank you. Sister Judd is the best.

Sunday was once again a class day for us lucky Schades—though happily for us, from here on out our field trips are to be combined, so we will actually see something of each other. Hooray! I woke up very early to finish my paper for New Testament (handwritten—ugh. It made me very grateful for my fantastic word processor). I had good intentions about getting in some of my homework between class, but one look at the beach put all of that on the back burner. I spent the next two hours wading in the water, playing with the Judd and Stratford children, collecting sea shells, learning to skip rocks (thank you, Andrew) and making a turtle out of sand and shells with Lisa Judd. I did not want class to start again—but, dutiful student that I am, I managed to tear myself away from the sunshine and surf to go learn about Jesus’ teachings before the Last Supper.

I went out that afternoon as well and played some more. It was a swim day, and although it had become a wee bit cloudy I wanted to participate—but there was one small problem. No bathing suit. Yep—Rachel managed to be extremely intelligent once again and hand her swimming suit to the cleaning lady along with the dirty towels on Sabbath morning by accident. Brilliant, no? I did check in with housekeeping, but it hasn’t turned up yet, so instead I wade. Fortunately, however, Sister Judd had a spare swimming suit just in case, so I borrowed her spare (which fit very well, thank heaven) to use for our swimming time on the field trip the next day (about which I will write more later). In the meantime, however, I wore a skirt and t-shirt to play shallow water ultimate Frisbee and got thoroughly soaked and had a great time. 

That afternoon I caught up on a little homework and prepared for the lesson that Laurann and I were going to teach to our new “investigator,” Stephen. The session went quite well, I thought, and Stephen and McKay gave us really good feedback afterwards. Conclusions reached: I need to talk less, ask more questions, and make sure I’m checking for understanding. Additional conclusion: Companionships are awesome. Where I wasn’t very good at remembering to ask questions, Laurann had one handy almost every time she took a turn talking. Thank you, Laurann.

That night we had ANE in the basement of the main Ein Gev resort building, our second class this trip. I learned much about Constantine and Justinian and the Byzantine Emperor and early Christianity. I also learned that it is dangerous for me to sit with Katie on one side and Mary on the other because it means that 
I get very pleasantly distracted very quickly. I have some fun notes and messages to and from both of them written on a spare page in my notebook, right beside my surprisingly comprehensive notes on the Byzantine Empire.

All is well. Galilee continues to be one of the most (if not the most) beautiful place I have ever been. I love every minute, whether with my group or on my own. I have more adventures to tell about, so I will write again very soon. Love you all!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Galilee Day 4: Thanksgiving in Galilee

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Admittedly, at least half our group forgot that today was a holiday back in the states at all. In Utah all the leaves have changed and fallen and the snow is coming down. Mom is making cranberry jell-o, the thankful turkeys hang in the window, and in the department stores “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” Here, though, things look pretty much the same. The sun shines, the weather (though growing cooler and rainier as we go) is still fair and balmy. The sun shines, the sea rolls gently within its borders, the wind breathes, the grass is green… although it doesn't look like Thanksgiving at all, it is absolutely beautiful.

I started the day on a happy note with an email from my Grandma Pullan, wishing me a happy Thanksgiving and assuring me that I would be missed at the turkey dinner. It made me smile especially to hear that she had just finished making her orange “never fail” (except for that one time with a certain granddaughter) rolls and that she was now getting “the Big Bird all cozy in the oven.” I also heard from Grandma Molen that day, as it happens. I can’t wait to be able to talk to her in person about all the adventures I’ve had here. She responded to my earlier email to her, then added a note at the bottom: “When we sang ‘Master the Tempest is Raging’ on the Sea of Galilee, it was.’” I think I need to hear more about her adventures. I love my Grandmas so much. I also got emails from my mother and Aunt Melody. I was feeling very blessed and very loved indeed.

That day was a class day, so we spent several hours in the classroom before lunch. During the two hour break the weather was pleasant, so I sat outside with some others and we all reminisced about our favorite Thanksgiving traditions, most of which seemed to center around pie of many varieties (we actually started up a small debate—berry pies vs. pumpkin. I was stalwartly in favor of pumpkin.) We all said something we were grateful for while Alyssa filmed us, also pausing to snag interviews with innocent passersby (“Hannah! Quick! What are you grateful for?”)

The other class had our half-day Golan field trip that day, so we actually got to see them at lunch (YAY! We love you Judd class!). We were supposed to have a swimming day with them that afternoon. I played down at the beach with the little kids—fun activities like digging canals and burying little Emily Judd in the sand. I tried my hand at slack lining for the first time, with severely limited success (Jed and Jordan brought their slack line to Galilee, and we have been grateful indeed). I sat with Katie and Annie and some others on the grass as we made our thankful lists. President Schafer encouraged everyone to make a list of one hundred things they are grateful for in order to cultivate (as President Monson says) and “attitude of Gratitude.” I have been working on my list all month, as it happens. My personal tradition since the beginning of my college years has been to list four things I was grateful for every day starting on November 1st. Ideally, this adds up to 100 by Thanksgiving. This year, however, when Thanksgiving fell on the 22nd, I had some catching up to do (being only to #88 by that time). I actually ended up liking it better that way—it meant that in the end the last ten items constituted my testimony.

That evening it was the Schade class’s turn to go to dinner at the local fish restaurant. We all piled into the bus at 5:45 and motored off to the restaurant on a nearby part of the kibbutz. There I sat at the end of the table with Paul and Bradley and Jordan and Sophie and Lizzie (I know you don’t know any of these people, but I want to remember their names), and once again we went around saying things we were grateful for. I also had a stimulating discussion with Paul and Bradley about good movies and listened to Paul tell the story about why he decided study social work (which was really neat. Paul is just amazing). I enjoyed a highly unusual Thanksgiving dinner of pitas with hummus, various Eastern salads, St. Peter Fish (which I took a picture of with a one-shekel piece in its mouth just to be corny), French fries, and a few samplings from the people who decided to get pizza instead of fish. Desert was little sherbet cups that we also get every day at lunch in the cafeteria here in Galilee (same kibbutz, same sherbet I suppose). It was no turkey and stuffing, and there certainly was a part of me missing that dinner a bit, but it was still a fantastic meal.

After that we drove a few miles to Tiberias, where we were given free reign for about an hour to walk along the boardwalk and do what we would. Most people bought ice cream, but in the end I just wasn’t all that hungry. I did, however, buy a new skirt. It’s a layered, wrap-around style that I’ve seen all over the place here in Israel and that a lot of girls at the center have picked up on. I hadn’t got one yet because I couldn’t find one I like—most of the skirts I’ve seen in the old city have top and bottom layers that just plain don’t match in color or pattern. The ones on the boardwalk or a dollar or so more, but they did match and were very cute, so I got one I really liked and was thrilled with my purchase. I wore it to church yesterday, actually—but there will be more on that later. My roommate Cassie helped me pick it out because I was being indecisive (I tagged along with her and Dallin as we meandered back along the boardwalk towards the bus). I was quite proud of myself—the guy at the stand said it was seven dollars, then when I asked for the price in shekels he said thirty. I argued back that it absolutely was not thirty and made him check, and I was right—it was twenty-five. That only takes about a dollar off the total, but I was happy. No taking in this tourist—that’s right, buddy, I live here.

When we got home, we raced down to the beach to watch a splendid lightening storm flashing and crackling over the lake. Walking down the way some I came upon a group sitting behind the apartments to watch, singing “Master the Tempest is Raging.” I stopped and sang with them, finding the group to consist of Katie, Stephen, McKay, Kate, Mary, and a couple others. When we had finished the song, we stayed there another half hour at least, talking and singing songs and giving each other back massages and gasping with awe every time another lightening bolt crackled across the night sky. Eventually, though Mother Nature decided to rain on our parade—literally. The storm reached us and the sky began to pour torrents on our little set up. Katie and Stephen and I ran to the nearest porch for shelter. A few people came around the corner and started dancing on the lawn, so I took off my jacket and kicked off my shoes and joined them for a little while. By the time I got back to my apartment I was nearly soaked through—including my shoes and jacket, despite my valiant efforts to keep them dry. A hot shower and dry pajamas were a welcome comfort, and thereafter I got to enjoy the coziness of being warm and comfortable while hearing the rain pound on the window and the wind howling its way thought the palm trees outside.

It was surely the most unique Thanksgiving I have ever experienced. One thing is very much the same between here at Utah, however. I still have more blessings to be grateful for than I could possibly count, and 

I still thanked my Heavenly Father for all of them. I missed my family very much, but I know I will see them again soon. For now I get to enjoy living for a while in what I truly believe to be one of the most beautiful places on earth and to learn about my Savior Jesus Christ, who loves me more than anyone and who has brought all mankind the greatest blessings they will ever know. I truly am blessed beyond measure.

I want you to know that I am grateful for each and every one of you. One of my greatest blessings is the tremendous amount of love I feel in my life—both in the sense of the love my family and friends give to me, and in the love I feel for them and so many others, including my friends here in Galilee. I don’t think there is any greater blessing than that.

Shalom, my friends! Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Galilee Day 3: Walking Where the Savior Walked

Wednesday was our first field trip. The Judd class went on the same trip the day before, and we Schades spent all evening listening to them sing its praise. It made me very excited indeed.

We began the day by crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat. Our little vessel was called the -----. We piled all forty of us on and chugged our way across the water. It was still fairly early in the morning--just barely eight o'clock--and the sun was shining bright and clear, casting gleaming sunbeams along the water behind is. A crisp breeze was blowing--not a tempest, just a cool little gust. Partway across, our captains cut the motor and gave us a few minutes to have a devotional. It was completely silent out there in the middle of the lake, and I wondered what it would have felt like for those long-ago disciples to go from battling a raging, roaring, blowing storm straight into complete, silent, shining calm in the space of the words "peace, be still." We read about the miracles that had happened on the Sea--Christ calming the storm on one occasion and walking on water to the ship on another. We sang "Master the Tempest is Raging" out there, as well as "Brightly Beams Our Father's Mercy" and "Be Still My Soul." I could just picture the words of the former as we glided over the lack: "Master the tempest is over / the elements sweetly rest. / The sky in the calm lake is mirrored / and Heaven's within my breast!" That's just what it looked like.

When we reached the opposite shore we stepped directly into our first stop--the Ginosaur Boat  Museum (yes, very nearly rhyming with "dinosaur" except for the first vowel, which is "i" as in "fiddle"). This museum displays a 1st century boat discovered a few years back during a drought year when the water line was receding. It is jokingly known as the "Jesus Boat," it being very much the sort of ship the Savior would have traveled in. It is old a weather-beaten and incomplete now, but it was still fascinating to see and learn about it.

We then drove to the Mount of Beautitudes. It was a beautiful place. Green flowered gardens and walkways surrounded a lovely little church, all overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We had a small devotional in a private, shaded spot, in which Brother Schade talked to us about the Sermon on the Mount (with emphasis on the Beatitudes). He gave us a quote by ---- that I've heard a couple times before: "                . He encouraged us to look for areas we needed to work on as we worked our way towards that commandment of perfection. We were then given an hour to ourselves. I did not look at things I needed to work on--partially because I already know some of those, but also because I had other areas of interest. Instead I found a quiet spot and read through "the Living Christ." My goal in my head was to learn more about the Savior--but I have realized in hindsight that that wasn't actually what I wanted. I know a lot about Jesus--more than most people, actually (thank you modern revelation). The questions I really wanted answers to were more along these lines: What does Jesus Christ mean to me personally? What is my purpose or motivation in following Him? Why does it matter to me? I think I got some answers--but I'll save those for more personal circumstances. I also walked about some, looked inside the church, perused my journal for past spiritual experiences, and talked with my friend Alyssa for a bit. I had wanted to visit with others that day and hear their thoughts, and looking over all my class mates sitting about I felt I ought to talk with her. She shared with me the things she had been looking at--particularly how in every prayer the Savior prays (the recorded ones, anyway) he says something along the lines of "Thy will and not mine me done." It's yet another way that they Savior is an example to me--He was always submitting His will to that of the Father. I'm not very good at that. I like to be in control and feel like I have a handle on things. Really, though, the only person who is in any position to direct my life for good is Heavenly Father, because only He knows what I am capable of becoming and what I need to do to get there.

Our next stop was the church of St. Peter's Primacy. It was a slightly weathered, gray-stoned church on a beach of gray pebbles. It commemorated the place where Jesus sat with Peter and the other apostles at the little fire He had made for them and asked Peter three times if Peter loved Him. Again, Brother Schade gave us a small devotional. We talked about how the work of Jesus Christ did not cease with His death, but lived on through missionaries and apostles. Their calling was to feed Christ's sheep--and they did. During our free time, I looked into the church, waded in the water a touch, and spoke some Arabic with Andrew and an Arab gentleman who was also on the beach. I also reread the story in the New Testament and also a copy of Elder Holland's most recent conference talk about the same story: "The First and Great Commandment." Please read it. It was amazing. I was taught so much as I read it through and received spiritual confirmations anew of things my heart already knows to be true but that my head takes time catching up with.

We walked down to the church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, a colorful little place with some beautiful courtyards and some nice mosaics inside the church. We talked there about the story the church commemorates--the apostles bringing a lad's five loaves and two small fishes to the Savior, only to be stunned as they multiplied to feed thousands. I loved the application we found in this story. The apostles didn't need to have enough to feed 5000 people--they just had to bring all they had and the Savior made it go around. Just like that, I don't need to bring my Savior perfection in order to be an instrument in His hands or to receive repentance. If I bring all that I am and all that I have, He is ready and able to make me more than I ever could have been on my own.

Our last stop (after a little detour to pick up Alex's scriptures that had been left back at the Ginosaur boat) was Capurnaum. Brother Schade talked to us there about the Bread of Life sermon (side note: Brother Schade let us loose for free time with the statement "I can see some heads nodding, so I'll wrap it up." I am terribly embarrassed to say that one of those heads was mine. Sorry, Brother Schade). I looked in the church again--a high-raised, octagonal, modern-like structure  built over the ruin said to be Peter's house. I looked over the old foundations, then found a spot to sit in the ruins of the Byzantine-era church and read over some of the stories and miracles that took place in Capurmaum. There are so many--the centurion with the sick servant, the woman with the issue of blood, Jarius's little daughter, the Bread of Life sermon... I love so many of those stories and teachings.

We left as the sun was going down. When we got back to Ein Gev, we all beat fast path for the beach, where Erin and Mikele were waiting with their mission calls. They read their calls aloud to us: Mikele is going to Guatamala, and Erin is going to New York, New York North Spanish Speaking. We were all thrilled for them, and they were very thrilled for themselves. It was a great conclusion to the evening. I went off to sit by the sea shore for a while, thinking a lot about the question of my own mission--whether it is to happen now, or in years to come. It's a question I've been wrestling with for some months and that I still don't have a good answer to. I can say for certain that I have felt at peace about it, however--and with my usual anxiety-ridden worrywart tendencies, that is something very special. Right now I am trying to content myself to let things come in the Lord's time--because Heaven knows He knows better than I do.

More tomorrow! Please keep commenting if you've got a second--it makes my day every time to hear from one of you. Of course, I'll be back in less than three weeks (GASP!) so I suppose I'll hear from you soon enough. Love you all!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Galilee Day 2: Studies, Swimming, and Walking on Water

Our first day at Ein Gev--which, by the way, is technically part of a Kibbutz, which I find cool--was spent mostly in studies. Next week both classes will do our field trips together, but this week we have only one bus so we must take turns. The Judd class went off to boat across the Sea of Galilee and do other fun things which I will describe in the next post, while the Schade class stayed behind to pursue our studies.

Ein Gev is beautiful. We are staying in little hotel rooms clumped together in threes and fours in small buildings. Palm trees grow all over, and I have never seen the sky without birds in it. We have the mountains at our backs and the Sea of Galilee ahead, accessed by a beautiful little beach. High on the beach, in a grassy area, there are over a dozen hammocks and banana chair swings (so-called) in which anyone can relax but which seem to always contain a JC student. The meals are fabulous every time, which is good because we are going to be eating them for over a week. I live with three other girls--McKenzie Davis (my visiting teacher), Cassie (the one who's engaged), and Jenessa (my visiting teachee--I guess we'll all get our visiting teaching done this month).

I got up at 5:30 in the morning (I technically woke up a little after 4:30 but was too lazy to get out of bed). By 6:00 I was out on the beach, sitting in a hammock, reading from the New Testament, and watching the beautiful rosy sunrise come to life over the hilltops. The lake was clear and still, and the morning air was crisp and cool. When I had very nearly finished my reading, I put my quad down and went for a walk along the shore. There I met up with some protestant Christians from Hawaii who are sharing the kibbutz resort with us for a few days, and they invited me to join their devotional and Bible class. I ran to fetch my quad and did just that. It was a very happy, "we thank you Jesus" sort of arrangement. We sang several songs, accompanied by a guitar and small bongo drums, interspersed with a couple prayers. One of the ministers in the group then gave us what we Mormons would call a spiritual thought (or maybe a mini-sermon) based on Mark 2, in which Jesus Christ teaches that they that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. The minister posed the question, why do we decide not to go to a doctor? His reasons were thus: 1) We don't know we're sick, 2) We think we can get well on our own or think the doctor won't help, 3) We don't want to hear what the doctor is going to tell us, or 4) We feel we can't afford a doctor (very applicable in this economy). He then proceeded to say how Jesus Christ transcends all those problems. He knows that is wrong with us, He knows exactly how to help (and that we can't do it on our own), He has a perfect treatment plan for each individual, and He's paid the whole bill. It was a good thought, I felt, and a good note to start out the day with.

We spent two hours in class learning about many of the miracles and teachings of Jesus ("help thou mine unbelief," "If thine eye offend thee," Mary and Martha, etc.), then two on break, which most of us spent falling asleep on the hammocks outside. I finished my scripture reading, enjoyed an Agatha Christie short story, and ate/shared my package of sesame cookies (attracting a few birds to my immediate vicinity). We had another hour of learning about the Savior before lunch. I cannot say how much I love these stories and teachings. We have a lot of homework and a lot of class time, but I am glad--it means that I am immersed in the New Testament all the time here in Galilee, which I think is just as it should be.

After lunch we all went swimming in the sea. We played frisbee and catch, and a few of the guys made sport of running around trying to dunk any girls that still had dry hair. My favorite was when Kayla managed to dunk or splash Brandon somehow, then he chased her halfway around the beach, cornered her by the water, scooped her up into his arms, and held her squirming as he walked out into the deep water until she was soaked. The highlight of swimming time was when Jed and Jordan (two brothers) brought their slack line into the water. We all pulled on either end tug-of-war style to keep it taught, then took turns standing on it to get our "walking on water" pictures. It was fantastic.

That evening after dinner we had a bonfire. It was perfect timing, too--the two classes hadn't seen each other all day, so it was great to have some free time on the beach together. I chatted and visited with a lot of people, including Katie and Hailey and Mary, and just enjoyed the warmth of the fire. Ashley came over and started giving me a back massage for a while, and that was lovely. Several students were taking turns with a guitar and playing songs for everyone to listen to, and still others were having fun playing with sparklers they had brought and getting pictures with slow shutter speed cameras. It was a great evening. I was getting tired by then and, to tell the truth, had been feeling a touch homesick that evening. Being in friendly company like that was just what I needed.

I turned in and did some more scripture study before heading to bed early again (though not as early as the night before). It was a great day.

Galilee Day 1: Beth-Shean, Nazareth, and the Sea

Yesterday was amazing but long. I went to bed at 11:20 and was woken up by the call to prayer at 4:45. Enough said?

Nope. Of course not, you say. We need details! I know it--so here we go.

Departure time was 6:30, which meant a hasty breakfast and last minute paper-printing rush for me. I managed to shower, finish packing, get food in my stomach, print off everything my grade depended upon, and pick up my phone from security--all in a little over an hour. Special thanks to Laurann, who hauled my suitcase upstairs for me so I could do other things. She's an angel--that's all.

We drove a couple hours to Beth-Shean, during which I did a little homework but mostly slept (aka, crashed). I woke up a little before we got there--just in time to finish my field trip readings. Lucky me! The trip was amazing, though. It was more of one of my favorite things in  Israel  (or anywhere, really)--wandering among amazing ancient ruins. Beth Shean was once a Roman city (called Scythopolis), so it had pretty much every Roman necessity--gymnasium (with calderium, frigidarium, tepidarium, sports courtyard, and ancient latrines if you would believe it), theatre, cardo, public fountain, mosaics, columns, and so on. We toured through the lower city, then hiked to the top of the tel that overlooked it (and actually housed a city before the Romans moved in). There we read about the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle with the Philistines, as this was the place where their bodies were displayed afterwards. We also made a quick reference to the Decapolis (the ten great Roman cities in the middle east) from Jesus' time as well. The scriptures mention him coming into the coasts of the Decapolis, so it may well be that he visited there. We were then let loose for free time. I took some pictures of me and other people with the view, then went off and found a quiet spot near the edge of the tel, where I read again about Saul and Jonathan and watched a huge flock of geese soar and circle together in the early morning sky. Neil (a friend who was actually in my Arabic class last semester) found me, got my camera from me, and took some great pictures of me sitting there. We explored the top of the tel together, including the replicas of ancient Egyptian inscriptions found there about which we both got excited. We hooked up with another group on the way down and went in and out of other JC packs below the tel. We got some great pictures of Neil posing like an Egyptian pharoh and pretending to be crushed beneath a fallen column.

After a relaxing little tram ride back to the bus, we were shipped off to Nazareth. It doesn't look anything now like it did in Jesus' day, but it's not a bad looking town and still has the thriving bustle and beat of a place well lived in. We visited three churches there--the Synagogue Church (an old crusader place said to be built over a 1st century synagogue where Jesus might have gone to church), the Church of the Ascension (where Mary traditionally was visited by the angel) and the Church of St. Joseph. The former was fairly unadorned, but not Ascension and Joseph. The Church of the Ascension had big courtyard lined on all sides with framed pictures of the virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Each church was beautiful, but in its own unique way. St. Joseph's was probably my favorite. Pretty, but not too overtly so.

After that we made our last stop--Mount Arbal, a high hill and set of cliffs overlooking the Galilee area. The view was unbelievable. It was our first real look at the Sea of Galilee (besides a little side view of the far tip from the bus--something like: What is that? That's water, isn't it? That's water! Is that it? Brother Schade, is that the Sea of Galilee? It is?!? Look, everyone--that's it!). Anyway--Mt. Arbal was our first real view, and it was spectacular. The setting sun glistened on the water and bathed the hills and fields below with golden light. Brother Schade gave us a few thoughts and oriented us to the landscape some, then asked us how long we wanted to stay. Someone said twenty minutes, and we all agreed. Forty-five minutes later we finally got on the bus. Thanks, Brother Schade, for being so patient. The time was well spent, though. We got some great pictures, and even better we all had time to ponder about the landscape and about what we hoped to accomplish while we are here. I talked to my friend Kayla for a time as well and we shared our thoughts (I have thus far found great benefit in asking other people what they are thinking about). It was peaceful and beautiful up there, and I think we were all regretted our departure when the time came.

We arrived at Ein Gev around around 5:00--too late to see the sun set, but just in time to see the beautiful pink and gold clouds still hanging over the lake. We had a quick security briefing before dinner so that we would know where the bomb shelter was if we needed it, though no one expects that we will. Dinner was fantastic and included chocolate cake at the end, which of course made me very happy indeed (I am my father's daughter--what can I say?). I made a valiant effort to finish my New Testament homework, but I was exhausted still from my lack of sleep, so I gave it up after about halfway. I went to bed at 9 o'clock--the earliest I've done in a very long time. Sleep was a beautiful thing--with the breeze blowing outside and a bit of the window showing through the curtains so I could fall asleep beneath the stars shining down on the sea of Galilee.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Prom was the Bomb!

OK, OK, it wasn't a bomb, it was a missile--but the rhyme has caught on at the Center and we all think it's funny. So work with me.

 Friday was exciting, as you will soon see--but it didn't start that way. It started with me feeling great relief as I took my New Testament midterm and did well (though it took me two hours to finish, seeing as Brother Schade’s tests are all short answer and essay). We all got through at about 10, hung around for two hours (in which time I worked on my site report and Katie performed on her harp for a service benefit), then after lunch I and a sizable group hired up a bus to take us to Ein Karem. Ein Karem is a cute little village area about twenty miles from the center where Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was said to have lived. It has many churches, a few art galleries, a couple ice cream places, and a great view of the green hills it sits in. We visited the churches, crawled through a tiny tunnel in which “Mary’s spring” ran (and I got very wet and muddy indeed, while Katie remained miraculously flawless and dry), got some gelato, and visited an artist’s workshop. As we were walking back to the main street, the missile sirens went off.

We didn’t know what they were at first. I thought they sounded like WWII air raid sirens, but at the time didn’t think of it as a real possibility. They stopped as we went on our way, so I didn’t think on it much. Others in our group heard a boom as the missile hit some miles away, but I didn’t—or maybe just didn’t register the sound for what it was. It wasn’t until we stepped into an art gallery and asked a lady there about the sounds, who responded that the sirens mean “take cover.” 

Oh. Right. 

We hurried to where the bus was waiting and started to get on—but then Sophie got a call from security on her cell phone telling us all to exit the vehicle, find a building, and stay low. We got out again and meandered in the direction of a nearby wall, none of us feeling all that worried. After another minute or so, another call came giving us the all-clear to come back. We loaded up again, picked up a few other wayward students from their shelter at the American Consulate and beat a path for the center. 

We were given a quick security briefing in the forum the minute we got back. Turns out a couple missiles were sent from Gaza aiming at Jerusalem. They landed in an open field south of Bethlehem, missing by a long shot their supposedly intended target, the Knesset (Israeli senate). The students and faculty at the center had been evacuated to the bomb shelters for about half an hour, then were let out again. Turns out we’re the first student group EVER to use the bomb shelters in the history of the Center. Andrew wanted to know if we would get to sign a picture or something to be put up in the bomb shelter (Brother Kerl seemed to find this remark only semi-amusing). However, there was plenty of good news. The missiles were far away, our security team was awesome, the Galilee trip was still going to happen (in fact, Brother Kerl expressed great eagerness to get us up north where it was calmer). Oh--and of course....

Prom was still on!

Yes, Jerusalem Center prom. That's right. We didn't have the means for a full-blown formal dance, but if Halloween taught me anything it's that this group can get creative in a pinch. The girls all dressed out in Sunday dress (most of us making ourselves feel a little nicer by borrowing somebody else's clothes) and the guys did suits. Oh, and the best part--since we have severely uneaven numbers of boys and girls, we spent the evening practicing "polyga-dating." My date was Alex Larson and my sister date was Laurann Beard, my roommate in Jordan. All the groups were assigned to keep things even, but some of the boys went all out with it anyway. The invitations varied from a simple question in the Oasis (as it was for me) to a full-out Phantom of the Opera setup in the Auditorium with Brother Squires playing one of the themes on the organ. We ladies got creative, too, though. Laurann managed to find a flower to be a boutonniere for Alex, for example. One group came dressed as the nerdy prom date (Annie included, which was very funny). A couple of girls managed to find a jackpot under the counter in the Shekel Shack--wedding dresses. Don't ask me what they were doing there--I don't know--but they wore them and it was great. There were more down there, I found out afterwards, and I wish I could have worn one myself--but I looked nice anyway, so no complaints.

Alex picked me and Laurann up from our next-door apartments and took us upstairs to dinner in the Oasis. He did everything for us, from handing us our trays to pulling out our chairs to refilling our water glasses. Andrew had gone the extra mile with his table by placing a reservation card and candles on it ahead of time. Paul came to his group and serenaded them on his guitar. Every now and then we saw one group (Jay, Rachel, Ashley, etc.) running in and out pretending to be an FBI extraction team, arresting the people McKenzie (who was in charge of the dance) needed to talk to.

Alex escorted us to the gym, where the three of us did pictures and danced. Laurann and I took turns on the slow songs, but some groups decided to jump from mere polygadating to all-out polygadancing. Everyone looked great and had a fantastic time. Best part of the night? When they announced the prom royalty, I was shocked to hear my own name read! I was Prom Duchess (under Princess but above Joker and Jokeress). I was so thrilled that my peers had voted for me I could hardly stand it. When I went over to Katie wearing my brown paper sash, she took one look at my face, happily declared "you're excited!" and gave me a hug. Brother and Sister Bench were chosen as Prom King and Queen, which made everyone happy. I got to dance with the Prom Duke (McKay) and, later on, the Prom King (Brother Bench is a surprisingly good dancer). I got to do some swing with Neil and Stephen as well (the later flipped me over my head).

I left the dance a touch early to call my parents and assure them that I was safe and well. Mom hadn't heard about the missiles in Bethlehem yet, so I gave her details and told her to tell dad that I truly was safe (I love my dad--he worries about me). Then I went up to the Shekel Shack, where I was on duty for Paul's post-Prom performance. While I sat back there I straightened and cleaned everything, as well as tying the three-hole-punched tab sheets together and putting in alphabetical sticky note tabs. Tom (Shekel Shack general manager) was very impressed. He said the Shack probably hadn't looked that good.... ever. I was pleased.

Other Updates:

I got to bed in time to feel good for Sabbath the next day. I got to go down to St. Anne's at Bethesda with Mary and Hannah, where we sang for a long time--much to the delight of the passing by tour groups, which pleased me very much. As we sang "I'll Go Where You Want Me To Go," we noticed that a man in the back was singing with us. We talked to him afterward and discovered that he had once been a Methodist minister and that that hymn was the one that was playing when he "came to Jesus" and was saved. He listened with his wife for a while and gave us twenty dollars before he left (which he refused to take back). We donated it to the church for upkeep, feeling we ought to put it to a good cause.

Sunday I got up early and booked it through two pages of my three-page site report, then went out with a group to play the Carillon bells at the YMCA tower. Brother and Sister Squires have taken groups there to play all semester. I played "Frere Jaque" with Holly and "Reverently, Quietly" with Lo (Sister Squires: "Well, they don't know they're primary songs"). It was an amazing experience. Here I am, with no carillon experience, playing for thousands of people in Jerusalem! I stayed out in the city thereafter with Ellen and Lo and Erin. We did a picnic lunch, looked at the names of famous people on the floor of the King David Hotel, got delicious treats from Sam Booki bakery in West Jerusalem (the others got donuts, while I tried Israel's version of warm chocolate cake. AMAZING.) We went by the post office to see if Erin's mission call had arrived (it hadn't--Sister Judd is going to bring it to Galilee when she comes with the girls in a day or two). We also went by Omars, where I found a nice little Nativity for Grandma and Grandpa Pullan (Grandpa told me to look for one a while back, so there you have it--mission accomplished). I still haven't figured out my own nativity, but I think I know which one I want. I will get it when we get back. 

We got back in good time and I was able to finish my site report before dinner (Hallelujah! Hallelujah!). I spent the evening telling a story to the Judd girls, as I do every week (Lydia: I did Maria Wood this time), taking presents to me and Staisha's visiting teaching girls, doing my laundry, and packing for Galilee.

It was a great weekend--I guess that's the short version. I will write more about Galilee ASAP. Shalom!

Goings In and Out

I think it has hit all of us like a ton of bricks that we go home in (hushed tone: less than four weeks). Four weeks, you say—but that’s still quite a bit of time! Well, you would think so—except that two weeks of that time will be spent in Galilee (we depart hence on Monday). Galilee will be amazing of course, but you see the problem: that leaves only about a week and a half of Jerusalem time. And some of that is taken over by finals. My feelings when I think of these things? Something like “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!! THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!!!!” I think that’s everybody’s internal reaction. The external reaction, as a result, is more along the lines of “Shhh—we’re not talking about that.” I guess the theory is that if we avoid talking about it long enough it might not happen. I guess we can hope, right?

Anyway—this becomes a problem because we are all trying to get out and drink in the sights and sounds of the Old City and its environs as much as possible before December. And we have to go everywhere in groups of three. Why is that a problem, you ask? Because it’s harder than it sounds to find a group of three that is 1) Not going somewhere you’ve already been, 2) Going somewhere you want to go, and 3) Coming back by the time you want to be back. It’s not always easy. Just the same, we make things work and have been going in and out a whole lot this week. This post will be me describing some of our ins and outs.
Katie and Jacqe and I went to the Israel Museum again (by taxi this time—we did walk an awfully long way the first time) on our free day to finish our assignment, which we did. Highlights included the Sennacherib Cylinder, an ancient archway from Hazor (which I am studying about for my site report), the oldest piece of biblical text ever found (two amulets of beaten gold about the sizes of postage stamps), a cloth shirt that had survived nearly two thousand years, some lovely ancient jewelry and other amazing ancient wonders. We ate our sack lunches at a cafĂ© inside the museum and talked about architecture. We then took a taxi back to the center rather than walking into West Jerusalem because Jacqe was having some tendon inflammation or something that was hurting one of her feet pretty badly. Katie and I wanted to go out again, but when we got back the place had cleared out. There was almost nobody in that building. Going out was not in the cards, it would seem—and that ended up being alright because it was very cold and very wet. Instead we sat upstairs and watched the Princess Diaries and cut out paper snowflakes which now adorn the bulletin boards of our apartment. It was a good day.

Monday was the great West Jerusalem Adventure. That morning I was stressed and worried about when I was going to finish my homework, but in the end I put school on the shelf I joined a group on a mission—to make a tour not-yet-seen and/or favorite sites in West Jerusalem. The Game Plan was this: Walk through the Hassidic Jewish neighborhood, cut down to the Shuk for browsing and donut eating, then go see the Great Synagogue. And also get back to the Jerusalem Center by sundown, allowing time for any detours we may desire. We did it all, and it was awesome. It was another cold and rainy day, but I stayed toasty warm in my sweat jacket and scarf. The Hassidic neighborhood was interesting to see, though we realized partway from the “prevent people from walking through our neighborhood” signs that they might not want us there. We finished the walk, however, and zipped on over to the Shuk for heavenly deliciousness—fruit leather, dried mangoes, divinity, and donuts (most of which I sampled from other people, save the first and last). I also got a miniature Chala bread at the bakery with the donuts. Delicious. We did get to the Great Synagogue at last, but it had closed. The curator was nice to us (probably because we addressed him with “Shalom!” leading him to believe we spoke Hebrew) and let us into the front foyer for a while. We were allowed to wander about the lobby and see the displays of Mezzuzot (the doorframe Torah holders) and also to look inside a mini synagogue with a big tapestry menorah. We raced back to the center (my group staying a few minutes longer and taking the “shortcut” way) and got there by sundown. Whew!

This week we had two field trips on Tuesday and Wednesday instead of one on Monday like usual. The first was the Jewish Quarter field trip, in which we saw the Whol Museum (built over the remains of a second temple period house) the Davidson Archeological Park (with an ancient city street, many old archways, and the steps that once led to the temple and on which Jesus might have walked) and the Burnt House (another second temple house plus slightly cheesy movie—added  bonus!). Jerusalem never ceases to amaze me. 
Everywhere we go we can step off the street and into history. My favorite parts were probably the temple steps and seeing the burnt artifacts in the two houses from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. I read about all these things before I came, so I find it extremely exciting to see them in person. Another exciting moment was when we walked out of the Burnt House and right into a group of European deaf people, all signing. I stopped and happily signed with them for a while. When I put on my application that I could sign, my thought process was something like “I’m never going to use this in Jerusalem.” Ha. I love irony. I finally attached myself to a group heading back to the center so I could catch up on my homework. We did stop for felafels on the way back, though. Yummy….

Field Trip #2 was Christian Quarter. We visited many churches, including the Franciscan Terra Sancta church (where we sang St. Francis’s “All Creatures of Our God and King”), the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox church (with many paintings and an archway to Herod’s palace that isn’t) and the Church of the Holy Seplechure. My favorite was the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Mark’s—supposedly built over the house of John Mark and his mother, including a traditional upper room site. There we met Yustina, a faithful and enthusiastic worshiper of God and also one of few native Aramaic (pronounced by her as “ara-my-ic”) speakers in the world. She told us a story about the “Holy Spirit” working upon her to speak in tongues, and recited for us the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic. Afterwards I asked her about some Arabic words on a picture on the wall. She said “You speak Arabic?” I said “a little.” She proceeded to tell me about the painting. When I said “it’s beautiful!” she laughed and said “Not as beautiful as you!” and gave me a hug. She just made me happy all over.
We all went back to the center for lunch. Our “staying in” activity that day was amazing. We made olive oil! After all that picking, it was finally time. We crushed them with the giant stone wheel, then pressed them in a couple different presses. A film team was there recording us for a new hosting video they’re coming out with. The pressing experience was more dramatic for me at Neot Kdumim, but it was still amazing at the center.

I am going to publish further in a new post. Both for your sake and because I have a great name for it. Hooray!

Nobody Panic!

I know most of you know this already, but for any of you who don't please know that I and everyone in the Jerusalem program are safe and well. As you already know, a missile (or missiles) sent from Gaza hit the Jerusalem area last week. This did affect us. We heard warning sirens and went though some fast and furious security procedures, but the missiles didn't hit anywhere near us and everything was fine. The Jerusalem Center is situated in one of the safest places possible--in Jerusalem, within sight of the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. Nobody in their right mind would but a missile anywhere near us. Besides even that, I am now up in Galilee with my peers enjoying the sea and learning about the Savior. The Galilee is the safest area in Jerusalem simply because there is no strategic interest in it whatsoever.

So nobody panic! I am safe. Efforts are being made for a cease-fire (we'll see how it goes), but the hope is that things are going to simmer down. Of course, one never knows how things will go in the Middle East, but I have never felt unsafe here for a moment. Not only are our administration and security teams amazing, but also everyone in Jersualem knows who the Mormons are. We have a good reputation and are generally well-liked--so in short, were I to get caught in hard straights in Jerusalem, I feel complete confidence that I could get help from almost anyone I asked. Most importantly, we are in Heavenly Father's hands--and that, as my Auntie Sharla said, "that is a very safe, peaceful, and amazing place to be." I couldn't agree more.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Day-to-day Play by Play

This blog is behind. I need to catch up. So here's how this is going down. I am going to briefly outline the ins and outs of each day this week until the present day. Then I will be ready to move on. OK? Cool. Let's do this thing.

Monday: Bethlehem! See previous post.

Tuesday: Mostly an indoors sort of day. Study study study... The evening, however, was something else. We had a great adventure in the Old City walking through the Kotel Tunnel. "Kotel" is the Hebrew word for supporting platform around the temple. Herod built the massive platform for the temple to stand on. Later, the Muslims came in and built their houses right up next to the walls, leaving only a little bit exposed--the Western Wall. The Kotel Tunnel runs under all those Muslim houses, running beside the entire length of the Temple Mount. That's where we went. We had a fantastic guide from Philadelphia who walked us through, telling us all about the excavations that have gone on down there. We saw an enormous stone thirteen feet long that weighed around 250-300 tons (the little stones, three by three foot, weigh in at two tons apiece). We also saw the spot along the wall that is closest to where the ancient Holy of Hollies once stood and where Jews sometimes come to pray. I ran my hand along almost the entire length of the temple platform, touching stones laid in place over 2000 years ago. It was an amazing adventure. My travel buddy was Lisa Judd (10 years old) with whom I have become friends here at the ol' JC. She and I are kindred spirits, often to be found with our noses in books. We have a good time.

Wednesday: Also a day of much study. The afternoon was unusual, though. A gentleman (a lawyer by trade) named Danny Seidmunn took us on a tour in the vicinity of the Mt. of Olives, showing us the places of conflict in Jerusalem and giving us the facts about the tensions and troubles here. He said that Jerusalem is not necessarily a bomb waiting to explode, but it could be described as a small nuclear device--things combining or clashing just the wrong way could set off a chain reaction that would lead to a huge explosion. Thus, Jerusalem requires constant crisis management maintenance to keep it calm and quiet and safe. It was fascinating to hear from Mr. Seidmunn and to understand so much more about the city I live in. We were even taken right to the separation wall itself. It was covered with graffiti, mostly of the civil rights, freedom for all, stop all oppression, if not you why us sort of nature. On the way there we passed by several fences topped with barbed wire and stone walls topped with broken glass, as well as the ruins of a house that had been randomly selected for demolition. Mr. Seidmunn gave a clean, concise, not-to-heavy version of things, but it was still a humbling experience.
That night we had Israeli folk dancing in the gym. I asked Aleesia to bind my shins with medical tape before hand so I could dance properly. It was a fun evening--we learned five or six dances in one go and just had a good time. Our instructor was hilarious, my shins didn't hurt too bad, and afterwards Katie and I danced one of our Israeli dances from our class last semester. It was a good time. :)

Thursday: I started out today going somewhere I had never been before--the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene (called by us JC students the Golden Onion Church--look it upon google and you'll see what I mean). It's just across from the Garden of Gethsemane, so I've been close before, but the church is only open to visitors on Tuesdays and Thursdays from ten to two, so it's been a while in coming. We wandered about the beautiful grounds a little before going into the church itself. It was smaller inside than it looked, but it had beautiful paintings and some nice relics and several kind Russian nuns with whom Calahan could converse because he served his mission in Ukraine. I was feeling stressed that morning when I left and just was not in good spirits, but the group I was with noticed that I wasn't too chipper as we sat and waited our turn to look at the relics, and they cheered me up in no time.
Thereafter I joined a group with Katie and Annie and Jackie and a few others to go see some carved stone tombs down in the Kidron--one of which is allegedly the Tomb of Absalom. We got some great pictures there and enjoyed exploring a little before heading home for lunch. At lunch I found out that a group was going to go play soccer with Roget and the others again, so I joined up with them. The game didn't last long because we were kicked off the field by a neighboring school, but I did score once (VICTORY!). Roget and her friend Mohammad then gave us a brief tour of the Mount of Olives, including introductions to a few of our neighbors in the nearby homes. We visited two little hosues, and in each we were welcomed into the living room to sit and talk for a while. I got to hold little six-month-old Khalid (whose mother is no older than me) and be introduced to eight-year-old Nor (with a sparkling smile and big eyes to match her name, which means "light"), as well as a whole bunch of boys and a couple moms. It was really neat.
On our way out we came upon a couple boys trying to carry a metal bedstead (the head and foot boards) up the hill to the Old City, so we came along to help out. It was probably a strange sight--two little Palestinian boys and four tall Americans carrying a pair of metal bedstands down the middle of the street past Herod's gate. Around Salah Ad-deen street we ran into a group heading off to the Shuk--the open air market in West Jerusalem--so I latched on with them. I had no money, but it was still fun to walk around the vendors and smell the smells and see the sights and snack on some of the dried strawberries Katie bought. A big thing at the Shuk is donuts. I resolved to come back and buy one at the first opportunity. We got home just in time for dinner.
That evening was the center's formal talent show. I recited "The Man from Snowy River" (with introduction written by my own self). It went great--everyone loved it. Confession: I ran it through for the first time with the introduction down in the bomb shelter twenty minutes before the show was supposed to start. I also said many prayers that I would be able to remember it all. I did and I am grateful--the spirit really does bring all things to your remembrance. There were some other great numbers, too--Katie on the harp, several AMAZING pianists, a guitar and cello duet from Michael Stallings and McKay AhPing, a few vocal numbers (including one from Phantom). I was also part of a small ensemble group that sang "The Holy City"--right there in the auditorium overlooking Jerusalem through the tall glass windows. It was amazing and we sounded awesome. Problem: I was singing high soprano and definitely strained my already tired voice trying to get to some of those Gs. Darn it. Mostly it was amazing, though. Everyone here is so richly talented--especially in those beautiful, wonderful talents that never see a stage but that are an even greater blessing.

Friday: Mostly indoors today, as is always the case with Fridays (because it's the Muslim day of prayer we have to stay in until three, so we only have about two hours of outside time). We usually have a humanitarian activity on Friday afternoon, but this week it was cancelled so everybody could participate in the olive harvest. We all spread out everywhere on the grounds--balconies, gardens, you name it--and picked for hours. I found myself in some good spots--up a ladder with Mikele, under a tree with little Emily Judd on my shoulders, on the patios outside the student bedrooms (including my own) with Jacob and Eliesha and Sarah and Liz, right by the Benches' door picking olives as long as my thumb and twice as fat (as compared to the shrivley things everywhere else), and even underneath the patio awning, yelling up at Katie to "for Heavens' sake be careful up there." We picked several gallons of olives that afternoon to be turned into oil the next week."

Saturday: The Sabbath once more. I sang in church--"Savior Redeemer of My Soul." My friend Hannah accompanied me, and had been practicing to do so all semester (she heard me practicing the vocals and asked if she could play the accompaniment. She later told me that she almost never volunteers to play for these sorts of things, so I feel honored). My voice was tired from the talent show and wasn't doing what I wanted it to, so I was a little worried. I sang alright, though, albeit with not much vibrato. Everyone said it sounded great, though, and (more importantly) that it brought the spirit. The district president spoke after my number, and he expressed his love for that song and said he had listened to it three times on the way here. No pressure, right? :) Anyway, the short version is that everyone like it but me--and I was happier about it towards the end of the day.
I went to the Garden Tomb that afternoon. I didn't get in with the earlier group I had hoped to go with, so I only had about twenty minutes there. It was enough, though. I wandered the pathways through the trees and flowers, thinking about covenants and baptism and the atonement and eternal life, glad to be out in the sweet afternoon air. I went again to see the tomb, and smiled at the truth of the words on the door: "He is not here, but is risen." I don't think I've ever heard more wonderful words.
That evening was a CES devotional followed by choir practice followed by Mission prep. I would like to acknowledge briefly how amazing my mission prep teachers are. This week I have been trying to be more invested in my scripture study--do it longer, make it more meaningful, study harder, etc. It was great, but the end result was that I was feeling emotionally and spiritually burnt out by the end of the week, and (as a result) I was feeling overwhelmed again at the prospect of being a missionary (something like "if this is what missionaries are supposed to do and I am falling short of it already, how will I be a good missionary?"). Fortunately for me, I have Will and Bethany. I came up to Will after class and said simply "Will, I am feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. Help." He spent the next twenty minutes with me, with Bethany coming in a little later, and between the two of them I was re-energized and motivated and comforted and felt ready to start anew. Thank Heaven for the council of friends and leaders.

A note from my friend Alyssa, which she typed on my blog while I was working on something else: "Once upon a time there was a chica named Raquel. She was an amazing story-teller and way awesome person. She could tell a much better story than this. The end."

Sorry that all took so long, folks--I promise to be more diligent in the future. I love you all! Shalom!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

Sunday, our free day, was great. I spent most of the day painting a homeless shelter for teens who need a refuge from troubled homes or the streets. A group of about twenty of us went, including Katie and Will and Abby and Annie and Jackie, to name a few. We painted the bedrooms upstairs while singing along to Abby's iPod and painting one another almost as much as the walls. The directors of the shelter fed us lunch part way through, which we enjoyed down in a colorful reading/lounch area (where we all admired the Hebrew books, including Harry Potter 3--Katie and I read enough to find words like "Lupin" and "Lumos"). The inhabitants of the shelter came home from school shortly thereafter, before we were quite finished. While the cleaning up took place, a few of us went downstairs and talked with some of the teenagers. I had pictured them younger. Although I am older than the majority of them, they seemed like adults to me. They have seen much more hardship and lived far more on their own than I ever have. It made me so grateful that I have never had to experience living without the presence of a loving family and never will.

So Sunday was great--but Monday was better by a long shot. Why? Because went to Bethlehem.

We loaded the buses at 8am and set off. We had our devotional, for which we sang "Jesus Once of Humble Birth" by Annie's request. After that, it was all Christmas hymns. We started at "Joy to the World" and sang all the way through in numerical order to "Away in a Manger" by the time we reached our first stop--the Herodion.

 The Herodion was yet another of Herod's palaces. In his earlier years of leadership he was attacked by a coalition of Jews and Persians, which made him paranoid thereafter of further revolts. Throughout his life he built seven fortresses in and around Jerusalem, including the Herodion--right on the very mountain where he made his last stand against the Jews years earlier. He hand picked the spot for his seplechure as well, which was discovered only a couple years ago. The builders piled earth from the neighboring hills into a volcano-like structure on which it was built. We didn't stay there long, but it was very cool. We even got to descend the hill via underground tunnels and caverns used by the zealots and Bar Kokbah rebels during their use of the fortress later on. I got to talk to a friend I've got to know quite well the last few weeks--Sophie Hoffman. She is a wonderful person and I have been so grateful to her for talking to me and being my friend on field trips and the buss. We've had fun.

The rest of the day we spent in Bethlehem. We went to a Greek Orthodox church for the shepherds of the nativity that smelled of sweet incense and looked like a rainbow, the walls were so covered with beautiful paintings. We also visited a small Catholic church for the same shepherds a couple miles away--round and little and sunlit. After that we had lunch at an awesome restaurant--The Tent. The main course of meat and french fries and tomatoes was good, but the best part was the appetizer--hot, whole-wheat pita bread with a dozen different toppings, from variations on hummus to tomatoes and cucumbers with cilantro to a sweet, coleslaw-like mix that I ended up really liking. I also got to taste some of the first Sprite I've had since we came here, which was actually really wonderful. Dessert was baklava. Official declaration: I love baklava.

We visited the church of the Nativity after that. It is beautiful and very old, and it was a great experience to join with the crowds of pilgrims thronging through to see the place where Empress Helena declared the birth had taken place. The best part of the church was that the inside was strung with bright red and green and gold balls and lights, possibly getting ready for the next month. As such, the church of the Nativity will now and forever be "the Christmas Tree Church" in my mind. We waited in long lines to see the alleged spot of the birth and a replica of the manger. After that we sang more Christmas hymns in a small room beneath the new wing of the church where St. Jerome is said to have translated the Bible from Hebrew/Aramaic into Latin. Brother Schade gave us a brief devotional, talking about Nephi seeing the love of God in vision--or in other words, the birth of Jesus Christ. We didn't know until we went topside and the other class came in to sing that there was a metal grill above our heads through which everyone in the outer courtyard could hear us. Whoops--hope they liked it. :) I got a beautiful white Bethlehem baby blanket from a local member of the church (Bethlehem group) outside the church. Cliche? Maybe. But I like it.

Our final stop was by far the humblest, but also by far the best. We drove to a rocky field on a hillside just outside Bethlehem. We sat in our separate classes among the rocks and scrub and sang a couple hymns together. Brother Schade gave us some brief thoughts and then let us to ourselves for some quiet time to read the Christmas story and do our own thinking and pondering. I have the account from Luke memorized, so I recited it to myself while looking out at the lights of Bethlehem, gleaming from the top of the hill opposite us. The sun was setting, turning the sky dusky pink and purple, the bells of a Christian church pealed in the distance, and from a local minaret we could hear the call to prayer. The spirit was so strong there. I can't adequately describe the feeling, but if you've ever felt the peace and warmth that comes from being in the temple or having Heavenly Father give you assurance or peace, you know what I felt like.

We had a brief testimony meeting there on the hill. I went first--I wasn't planning to, but somebody had to relieve Brother Schade from standing there waiting for somebody to take the little clip on mic for the headsets. I didn't say much--mostly just my thoughts from our quiet time. I said that I don't always understand everything about the Atonement. I am sometimes skeptical or over analytic and want to know specifically why or how that kind of thing is possible. My brain wants to be able to put it all together and have everything add up in a logical sense. The things of God aren't always like that, though. I said that although my brain doesn't logically understand everything, I know I how I felt then. I was being told that what happened here was important and real and part of God's plan. I think there are many things my heart knows that my brain hasn't caught up to yet. I feel I can say much the same thing Nephi did as he saw Jesus Christ in vision centuries prior: "I know that [God] loveth His children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." I don't know the meaning of all things, but if there is one thing I know more than anything else it is that Heavenly Father loves His children--and He showed us no greater love than when He sent His son to be born as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. Even though I don't understand everything, I want to be able to join my voice with the angels and shepherds, praising and glorifying God and Jesus Christ--because I know that no one has ever shown me greater love.

When all had born testimony that wanted to, we sang a couple more hymns and got a quick class picture while a little light remained to us. As we wandered through the fields back to the buses, the sky was dark and turning starry, while the lights of Bethlehem shone softly from the hills. I will always treasure that image in my heart and will think of it every time I sing the words of one of my favorite hymns:

Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light--
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given
as God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, yet in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Lord enters in.

Merry Christmas, everyone. More soon!