Thursday, December 31, 2009

Have Falafel, Will Travel!

Falafels have become my new staple! They're so much better here than in the US! Some Middle Eastern food I haven't been sold on but as long as I can find a falafel I'm good to go!

We started yesterday visiting the ruins of Bet Shean, a Roman city that would have been here in Christ's time even though there is no mention of it in the New Testament. While Christ's comment to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" is open to many interpretations, seeing the affluence of this Roman city gives added insight.

We drove to Jericho in the West Bank (Palestinian controlled) and saw Old and New Testament sites but the best part of Jericho was visiting Nuwall and her family. In 1985, Garland's family tried to adopt Nuwall when she was a 12 year old Bedouin girl but didn't get government clearance. Nuwall and Garland had not seen each other for 24 years and now she is married with 4 beautiful daughters and 2 darling little sons.

Quite honestly, one of the best parts of this trip was being at the home of this sweet Bedouin family and feeling of the love they had for Garland. It was really tender! It made Garland really happy to see that things had turned out well for Nuwall. Knowing Garland, I'm sure he's been praying for Nuwall daily!

Another big hit of the day was our visit to the Wadi Kelt canyon and the St. George's Monastery! The canyon is steep and winding with Arab boys selling donkey rides down to the monastery. The monastery dates back to the early 5th century and there are still icons and Christian art dating back to the Byzantine empire. It was absolutely amazing. About ten monks are currently living at St. George.

St George's Monastery isn't a big tourist attraction because it's difficult to get to and obviously the visit to Nuwall's Bedouin family isn't something a typical tourist gets to experience. We've decided these are often the best parts of any trip; surprises and meeting people of a completely different culture but finding our hearts still connect!

And last but not least, Paige got her highly anticipated Camel Ride in Jericho! So that was a touristy part of the day! But a fun one!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sojourn in the Holy Land continues....

We leave the Ha'on Kibbutz today and spend our last 3 nights back at the David Citadel (same hotel as the first 3 nights) in Jerusalem. We're excited to get back to a little luxury!

But to be honest the kibbutz experience definitely grows on you. It was character building; not a 5 star Ritz, a little more like a hostel, camp, or, more correctly (what it actually is...) communal living.

The kibbutz location was a gorgeous setting on the Sea of Galilee and as a working ostrich farm we've been enlightened, everything you never knew about ostriches!

Yesterday we traveled to Dan, and went hiking just a stone's throw from Lebanon, Israel's northern border. Dan shows the ruins of the ancient city where Jeroboam instituted idol worship. When "Dan to Beersheba" is referenced in the Old Testament it identifies the territory of the Hebrew kingdom.

In Caesaria Philippia we saw ruins from different layers of historical periods. Fascinating! The Greeks and Romans built pagan temples here to Pan (their god of nature). Caesaria Philippia is also the place where Christ asks his Apostles "Whom do men say that I am?"

A hike in Wadi Banias led us to an impressive waterfall that was the inspiration for the 42nd Psalm! We drove to many great lookouts around the Golan Heights and borders of Syria and Jordan. It feels like every valley here is a site from battles fought or miracles performed. It's all a little overwhelming at times!

By lunchtime yesterday Paige was quite famished; luckily there was a Druze settlement (the Druze are a small sect of Muslims living on the border of the Golan Heights and Syria) that our fearless driver, Jack, knew where to get Druze Tacos! They weren't anything like a taco and we aren't sure what they were but when you are hungry anything works! Jack and Garland make a great team! They must get tired of traveling with our goofy crew 24/7 but they've been wonderful!

Last night it was inspiring to walk down the piers on the kibbutz, read from the New Testament, glance around at the Sea of Galilee and just take in what a special place this is. I feel really lucky to be able to be here and experience the Holy Land.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Scenes surrounding the Sea of Galilee....

One of yesterday's poignant moments was listening to Garland read The Beatitudes as we sat in a caved nook overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Even when we wandered downhill the acoustics on the hillside were impressive; you could imagine Christ addressing a large audience here. Very neat!

Our experiences here run the gamut from tender feelings of the heart as we sat quietly on The Sermon on the Mount while just an a hour earlier we were dancing it up to gospel songs on a boat ride filled with Nigerians on a Christian Pilgrimage! Never a dull moment!

A few of the sites from yesterdays travels include:
Kursi: This location was the likely place where Christ performed the miracle of the man possessed by demons, and the swine casting themselves into the sea.

Bethsaida: A fishing village and home to Apostles Andrew, Peter, and Phillip. In Bethsaida Jesus healed the blind man with 2 blessings.

Wadi Hammam: The most direct route from Capernaum to Nazareth lies within this canyon. We filled Paige's water bottle at a fresh spring that would have been used by ancient travelers; a place Christ would likely have stopped to rest and drink. Cool!

Ginnosar: A kibbutz where two archaeologists discovered a 2,000 year old fishing vessel. In a painstaking process they removed the boat from the Sea of Galilee so you get an idea of the very look of the boats that the Apostles would have fished from or the boat that Jesus would have calmed the tempest.

Tabgha: The purported site where Christ met the 11 Apostles after his resurrection. This is where he asked Peter 3 times "Do you love me?" and encouraged Peter to "Feed my Sheep."

Yardenit: A tourist stop where Christians can pay a fee for the experience of being baptized in the Jordan River. The likely spot of Jesus' baptism is actually further south near Jericho. But this is an interesting visit just to see the many forms people choose to show their devotion. We saw one man dunk himself multiple times, another couple blessed by their priest but not completely immersed, and sometimes entire groups will hold hands and get baptized altogether.

Tiberius: The largest of the 15 port towns around the Sea of Galilee. We tried the touted St. Peter's fish (tilapia I think) at a restaurant right on the water. Paige was adamant about ordering the fish (head, eye sockets and all) and Webb was adamant about not trying it (too many bones) but the fresh warm pita bread and hummus has become a crowd pleaser for all of us.

Spending time in the Sea of Galilee you really get a sense of why Christ loved to be here. It's a beautiful place; a peaceful place and it would have been a nice change from the congestion of Jerusalem.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Heading up the Israeli Coast....

Every day is another adventure here is Israel! Every day my understanding of stories in the Bible becomes a little more clear.

Sunday (but not the Sabbath) we left Jerusalem and headed north up the coast. We stopped in Caesaria, another fortress built by King Herod. Caesaria is also the place the Apostle Paul baptized the first non-Jewish convert, Cornelius (Acts 10).

Haifi is a large port city where we saw the headquarters of the Bahai faith; incredible terraced gardens and a huge shrine. Mount Carmel overlooks the city of Haifa where Elijah fought the priests of Baal.

When we vistited a necropolis in Beth Shearim you felt like you were in an Indiana Jones movies, walking through the catacombs filled with coffins! Brent hopped in one of the coffins; it was just the right size.

We went to Nazareth (home to the family of Jesus) and visited the spot on the outskirts of town where the men in the synagogue tried to throw Jesus over the cliff for declaring that he was "the one" who had been prophesied of in Isaiah.

Garland Dennett, our tour guide extraordinaire, does a great job of sharing insights and gives you things to ponder! Yesterday I really liked his thoughts on how often people come to the Holy Land expecting to find Christ here but can sometimes leave disappointed. Garland feels like the best chance you have to really find Christ here is when you bring him with you! In terms of opening our hearts, I like Garland's sentiment.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom! The LDS church holds their worship services on Saturday in Israel in keeping with the Jewish Sabbath. So, yesterday we began with Sacrament meeting at the Jerusalem Branch that meets at the BYU Center. The BYU facility is beautiful; a classroom and living space surrounded by gardens.

After church we took gifts to Aya and Assel, 2 young Palestinian girls Rachael Holland met while studying abroad. I was amazed we found their house! And what a darling Arab family!

On our visit to Bethlehem we learned our driver, Jack, an Armenian Christian, has connections! The Church of the Nativity was crowded and the line to visit the grotto below had a huge line! Our driver, Jack, got the Armenian priest to let us in the back way and saved us a 2-3 hour wait! Score! It is touching to see the devout Christians who come from all over the world and wait for hours to pay respects at the cave that is purported to be the site Christ's birth took place.

Shabbat ends at sundown and Garland took us to the Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, the happening spot, where all the Israeli youth come out to party at the end of the Sabbath. Stores and restaurants all reopen, there is music and dancing, and the streets are filled! It's definitely a celebratory feeling, every Saturday night!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Beyond Jerusalem; Discovering the Israeli Wilderness!

One highlight yesterday was Webb's safe arrival! Because of work he flew out a day late and because of a big mid eastern storm we thought he might get stranded in Chicago!

Another highlight was our swim in the Dead Sea! The lake is 1348 feet below sea level; the lowest point on earth! Since's Andie's had a bad cold, we're testing the claims of the Dead Sea's therapeutic healing powers, hoping she'll be miraculously cured! With the salt/mineral content of the water at nearly 30% you can sit back and float with no effort. Very fun!

Hiking around Masada is an incredible history lesson! It was originally build by King Herod as a fortress but in 70 A.D. Jewish rebels took over the mountaintop for 3 years until a major Roman siege.

When the Jewish zealots realized they had no hope but to be captured they chose to commit a mass suicide (almost 1000 men, women & children). Rather than submit to slavery, abuse, and loss of freedom, they felt it was more honorable to die. "Masada shall not fall again," is a swearing-in oath of the modern Israeli army.

Ein Gedi is a beautiful National Park near the Dead Sea where we hiked to David's Waterfall and read the Old Testament story of David fleeing from King Saul, hiding in the caves. Ein Gedi had some unique animals, the Ibex (looks like a moutain goat) and the Hydrax (looks like a big rat).

Qumran was next, the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy. These scrolls were meticulously written on parchment/animal skins by the Essenes, a sect of Judaism.

Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday so it was a perfect evening to visit the Western Wall; the most holy site for Jews. Since they believe that shekhina, (God's presence), dwells within the walls it is a sacred place for them to pray.

With everything closed on the Israeli side of the Old City we found a Palestine restaurant for dinner. We told the owner to bring a little bit of everything, which he did, and we loved, but he charged us three times as much as he should. Since we hadn't agreed on a price we were stuck. It's an expensive way to learn that some will take advantage of tourists! So, we're learning not just history but some important bargaining skills too!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Remembering the Birth of Jesus...


video "Lord, Loving Father, help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men.

Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting. Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake. Amen. - Robert Louis Stevenson

Far, Far Away On Judea's Plains....

"Far, far away on Judea's plains,
Shepherds of old heard the joyous strains:
Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest;
Peace on earth, goodwill to men,
Peace on earth, goodwill to men!" -John Menzies Macfarlane

The Shepherd's Fields outside Bethlehem was our first stop in Israel (on Christmas Eve no less)! It's pretty amazing to be standing in the fields that Bedouin shepherds heard the angels sing of the birth of the newborn Baby Jesus.

And, worth noting that with Jerusalem in the backdrop, many people would have heard the angels chorus but it was the lowly shepherds who heard the voices and went. Many others in the city of Jerusalem would also have heard but not bothered (too busy, not interested, etc.). Do I listen and follow or hear but just carry on? Can I learn something from the shepherds?

We wandered through Jaffa Gate last night, our first venture into Jerusalem's Old City. We happened upon an Armenian Eucharist Mass on Christmas Eve (a cool coincidence) and watched some of their processional, steeped in tradition. After leaving the Old City we found a fancy kosher restaurant with great middle eastern dishes for a delicious Christmas Eve dinner!

It's wonderful to experience the Holy Land, but especially at Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Frohe Weihnachten and Frankfurters in Frankfurt!

We've discovered an airline that Paige will actually eat their food! Lufthansa! Somewhere along the line, Paige became a bit of a "food snob" refusing to eat most airplane meals. This can be a problem for everyone (not just Paige) because when Paige doesn't eat, she gets ornery!

This trip she came prepared with snacks from Trader Joes but they're still untouched! She likes the Lufthansa fare! Whew! Flying "Business Class" might also help (like a lot!). In fact, after any international travel on a Business or 1st class ticket it is really hard to go back to sitting (and eating) in Coach! Trust me, I had to fly Coach to France in October!

We also like Lufthansa because it reminds us of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf! Who is probably the most handsome Apostle (not that we give much notice to those things)! President Uchtdorf was the Senior VP of Flight Operations when he left Lufthansa in 1996 to serve as a full-time General Authority. It's easy to picture President Uchtdorf as a Lufthansa Pilot; he's got the smile, the charisma and the confidence of a Captain Sully type! Yep, when the air travel is worth writing about it's either been really good or really lousy. Luckily for us, it been blog worthy in a good way!

Our initial direct flight from Frankfurt into Tel Aviv was canceled which left us overnighting in Germany. But it gave us a chance for some authentic German fare; dining out on bratwurst, sauerkraut, German potato salad (much different and better than American potato salad) and delicious apple streudel (the best part)! And a chance to sing Silent Night at Christmastime in Germany!

In other good news, Andie is making herself available for Sherpa Duty! Andie seems to like "picking things up" (well, maybe not her room, exactly, ....but people and luggage!) My carry-on bag is missing it's shoulder strap which is annoying but much less so when Andie carries it for me!

So, thanks to good food, Paige's disposition is pleasant, Andie is earning her keep baggage handling, and we meet up with Webb tomorrow on Christmas Day! At this point of the journey, we're glad we brought the kids along!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Who's in Charge Here?

Last night we flew out of San Francisco bound for Tel Aviv on our family trek to Israel! It's a long haul of a plane ride from SFO to Munich to Frankfurt to Tel Aviv!

Garland Dennett (pictured at left) is going to meet us at the airport in Israel. He's our resident expert; the man at the helm! We're hoping to kick back and soak up some of his vast knowledge of all-things-Middle-Eastern!

Most vacations require massive amounts of planning; figuring out all the logistics and trip details ahead so everything goes smoothly! This time we figured we'd try a new approach and hire Garland. He's the perfect combination of a brilliant scholar of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and an ardent student of religion, especially LDS theology.

The last time I was in Israel was 30 years ago in March of 1979. I was the same age that Paige is now! That's a funny thought! Jimmy Carter was the US President and he happened to come to Jerusalem the same week I was there to sign The Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty with Anwar Sadat. Imagine that! ....And no surprise, but, our paths never crossed!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Finding our Heart on Mount Crumpit!

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" should be mandatory reading for Anthropology 101! What a classic commentary of man's emotions! First, when the Grinch hates Christmas (since his heart was 2 sizes too small) his desire is simply to sabotage the happiness for others!

After collecting the presents, tinsel, trees, ribbons and bows, the Grinch loads it all 3000 feet up to the top of Mount Crumpit (...to dump it!). But, when he stops to listen to the Who's wails when they learn that Christmas is not coming that year he hears singing! The Grinch realizes that he hasn't stopped Christmas from coming at all! Ha! - ...can't get revenge after all!

"And what happened then...?
Well...in Who-ville they say
That the Grinch's small heart
Grew three sizes that day!"

So, atop Mount Crumpit it appears that the Grinch's heart went from 2 sizes too small to growing 3 sizes (which leaves him with a swelling heart - 1 size larger than normal/average!) I love the times/moments in my life when my heart feels enlarged (emotionally not literally)!

I have a tendency to get caught up in the hustle, rush, and crazy parts of the holiday season and often need to stop myself, ...pause... and listen for the sounds of the Who's!

After a wild week of the typical commercial aspects of Christmas: shopping malls with crowded parking lots, cookie exchanges, etc., I think my Mount Crumpit moment finally came on Sunday! The Christmas program at church reopened my heart to the good, the wonder, and the delight of the season! Back to the simplicity of honoring the birth of the baby Jesus!

"Every Who Down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot...
But the Grinch, who lived just North of Who-ville
Did NOT!"

So, if I catch myself ever not liking Christmas (getting a little "Grinch," "Scrooge," or "Bah, Humbug," about the holidays), I just need to seek out the places that speak to the heart!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas!

I knew it! I've suspected it for years and have finally confirmed my gut feeling! Since moving to Los Gatos I noticed a man in our ward who looks so much like Santa Claus I thought they could be brothers! Well, lo and behold, it turns out... they are!

If I didn't know that Santa lives in the North Pole I would have thought this man was Mr. Claus himself!

So, Santa's bro is this great guy named Jack Hedricks. The reason I was convinced he had to be related? Well, besides the strong "lookalike" factor, Jack shares many Santa-like traits. For example, His eyes twinkle, His dimples are merry! He shakes when he laughs, and he has a friendly wink that completely disarms you. The similarities are uncanny!

But, the final straw came a few days ago on a visit to the Hedricks home! Sheila Lugaresi and I have been visit teaching Jack's wife, Barbara, for a couple of months. Barbara is always kind and gracious to us and she also resembles a cute little Mrs. Claus!

So, on our December visit it quickly became clear that Jack & Santa are siblings for sure!
Here is the reasoning (information I learned while visiting) to back up my theory:
1. Jack LOVES Christmas; he loves absolutely everything about Christmas!
2. Jack does all their decorating, inside and out! Seriously, Brent always puts up the outdoor lights but the indoor holiday "stuff" is pretty much my job! Barbara said Jack is like a little kid during at Christmas time spending weeks tinkering with tiny trees, constructing sleigh villages, making snow globes, etc.!
3. The Hedricks have a real (taxidermy style )stuffed reindeer (Rudolph no less) hanging on their wall!
4. Jack wrote a poem/story called "Down with a Thistle" that is all about Santa!
5. The Hedricks lived in Alaska before they moved to Los Gatos! You know, you can pretty much see the North Pole (and Russia too) from Alaska! Just ask Sarah Palin.
6. The Hedricks are really into Genealogy! And if Santa was my brother, I'd want to learn more about my roots too!

So, who do you think is in the photo? Is it Santa? Is it Jack dressed up like Santa? Or is it an Imposter? Ho, Ho, Ho!

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy." -Francis P.Church

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Long Standing Holiday Tradition...BROKEN!

Every Year! Every Year Without Fail! There is one holiday tradition that I never fail to keep! My break-an-ornament, diminishing-our-supply-ritual! I don't think I've missed a season yet! Until this year!

Since we are leaving to spend the holidays in Israel, we decided not to put up our Christmas tree. Which means I won't even have a 2009 opportunity to break a holiday ornament.

We found the ornaments on our current tree at this cool store, Molbaks, in Seattle. The ornament's colors are unique and they're made in Germany so they are difficult to replace. And, apparently, they are also very fragile!

So, every year when we decorate the tree I pronounce the "Be Very Careful Lecture" to my kids; reminding them that Haste makes Waste! If they get in a rush and get sloppy, ornaments will surely crash and burn!

Shortly after my eloquent speech it's rarely the kids and usually the efficient-but-a-bit-klutzy one (that would be moi) that drops the first ornament! Ah, famous last words!

Our German ornaments are becoming an endangered species! And dang it anyway, I like them! But this year their risk of extinction is low; we aren't even bringing them out of the box! So, instead of breaking ornaments this holiday season, we'll be breaking other long standing traditions by traveling on Christmas Day! A first!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Five Golden Rings!

It's probably just me but I have been singing The 12 Days of Christmas for a hundred years (okay, half that) but I can still mess up the song after the "five golden rings." On the countdown, I'm good to go after five: "fo-ur calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and.....a partridge in a pear tree!" No problems there!

But, for the 6th to 12th days, it's like my peabrain needs a little refresher course after 11 months without Christmas Carols! Let see, were there 12 lords-a-leaping, or was 12 the milk maidens? Wait, how many geese were laying?

So, sometimes I get the wrong day (9?, 11? 7?) with the wrong noun (swans?, drummers?, ladies?) with the wrong verb (dancing?, piping?, swimming?)!

Then, just when I've remastered the song, some enthusiastic caroler throws a curve ball.....aka "actions." Hand motions that look cute and clever! But, for me (the non-multi-tasker), singing with hand motions is like trying to rub my tummy and pat my head at the same time!

Well, enough about me. Here's a quick checklist of the hidden meaning/symbolism behind the song. At least the version I've heard is that when the Roman Catholics in England weren't able to openly practice religion (in the 16th & 17th centuries) someone wrote the 12 Days carol to teach their children their faith in a disguised manner.
1 Partridge in a Pear Tree = Jesus Christ
2 Turtle Doves = Old & New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope & Love
4 Calling Birds = 4 Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John)
5 Golden Rings = Torah, the Law - First 5 books of the Old Testament
6 Geese-a-Laying= the 6 Days of Creation
7 Swans-a-Swimming = 7 Gifts of the Spirit.
8 Maid-a-Milking = the 8 Beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = 9 Fruits of the Spirit.
10 Lords-a-Leaping = 10 Commandments
11 Pipers Piping = 11 Faithful Disciples
12 Drummer's Drumming = 12 Points in the Apostles' Creed

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Unlimited Hot Chocolate" and other Broken Promises!

It's a miracle that Paige snowboards! Because the history of getting Paige on the slopes is filled with broken promises! Enough to turn anyone away from the lure of majestic mountains.

Luckily, Paige is resilient! She weathered disappointment and deceit and is old enough (I think) to look back and laugh at two stories that were once quite traumatic for her!

Broken Promise Story 1: Paige would have been about 5 when the rest of our family could ski with some competence so we decided to put Paige in Kid Care/Beginner Ski Lessons. Paige was reluctant about getting left behind so we raved about the fun she'd have in the ski lesson and pointed out the PROMISE in the brochure for "Unlimited Hot Chocolate" when the tots came in after their ski instruction. The thought of ALL the hot chocolate she wanted sealed the deal and Paige went happily into Kid Care and the rest of us enjoyed the day skiing.

When we picked up Paige after a great day of skiing, she did not look happy! She announced that when she went to get her 3rd cup of hot chocolate, a MEAN lady told her she'd had enough to drink! What? No more hot chocolate? The selling point to get Paige to agree to stay at the Kiddie Ski School....and she was denied all-the-hot-chocolate-she wanted? The day lives in infamy in Paige's memory!

Broken Promise Story 2: Just a season or two later, Paige was skiing pretty well and she seemed to have put the hot chocolate incident behind her. We were in Tahoe and Brent decided that if we put Paige in a Semi-Private Ski Lesson (just 2 students) for the morning, we could probably get her skills up to par so she could keep up with the rest of us by the afternoon. The Semi-Private Lesson versus a Group Ski School was a splurge but the resort brochure PROMISED that more individualized instruction was well worth the extra cost.

Unfortunately, instead of a getting an instructor who was interested in teaching; Paige was paired with the instructor whose sole interest turned out to be the other student in Paige's class! Picture a ski instructor who looks like a college frat boy, a teen girl who looks like Vanessa Hudgens and a 7 year old Paige.

On their 2nd run of the day, the teacher and teenager abandoned Paige at the top of the hill. Unfortunately, Paige didn't know her way back down! Eventually one of us spotted Paige sitting in a snowbank; wet, cold, and miserable! I think Brent made sure the flaky ski instructor was fired so he couldn't leave other youngsters on the mountain while he ran off with teenage girls!

With Paige's snowboard skills today you'd never guess she got off to such a rough start and once had such harrowing times on the slopes! Which just proves the Friedrich Nietzsche quote: "That which does not destroy, strengthens."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Goes UP Must come DOWN! (er, switch that)


Shopping to rent a big crane was not on my Christmas wish list and it was not on my "to do" list until 2 days ago!

While there is never a "good time" for a gargantuan oak tree to fall from our property and land on our neighbor's oak tree; 1 week before Christmas and our trip to Israel was definitely a lousy time for the random occurrence!

So, while gravity and Blood, Sweat & Tears suggest that "What Goes Up, Must Come Down" ...in our debacle in appears that "What Goes Down (Tree), Must Come Up (via Crane)!" Or more precisely, that in order to access the down/fallen tree we needed a crane to lift it up/out of the neighbor's yard!

The "backyard" of our Alpine Avenue home provides excellent privacy with all the large trees but you pay a price to live with undeveloped terrain! Just like in any forest, Mother Nature Rules! With bad storms and high winds this fall we've already had 2 major disasters! Just over a month ago a massive oak branch demolished our master bedroom deck which is still getting rebuilt!

So, our lovely private open space has come to feel like a big black hole! Brent has dreams of terracing the back, putting in a bocce ball court, maybe even a gazebo that doubles as a weight room. But I'm just not sure the land out back wants to be developed! The trees certainly seem to have a mind of their own!

Watching the crane and tree cutters yesterday was fascinating! And since it happened on a Wednesday the "little people" (children of the runners) got to watch the excitement! Loud, noisy, messy! A definite crowd pleaser for 2, 3, and 4 year olds!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Gift of FAMILY!

My paternal grandmother passed away before I was born, even before my parents were married. She died of a freak brain aneurysm when my Dad was graduating from college.

Because my Dad was an only child we had no aunts, no uncles, & no cousins on his side of the family. My grandmother's sister, Lucille, must have felt that something was amiss for us without any extended family from my Dad's side. A situation like this was pretty much unheard of living in Utah where everyone had dozens of aunts/uncles and hundreds of cousins!

My Dad's Aunt Lucille decided to include us in her immediate family's annual Christmas Party. I'm sure she did this in part as a tribute to her sister. I don't know if she ever knew what a special gift that invitation was for our family!

Whenever we recall the most meaningful gifts we've received they usually aren't the lavish, extravagant gifts. The Gift of Extended Family that my Dad's Aunt Lucille gave us was a great blessing for our family. Aunt Lucille showed us that we did have aunts, uncles, and cousins related to us on my Dad's side! Even if they were second cousins, or once removed, or whatever it would be called.

Aunt Lucille's gift was more than a simple invitation to their holiday parties. Her invitation made us a part of their clan! It was a memorable and generous gift!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Gift of Heart!

Christina Rossetti's poems are delightful. The last (5th) stanza of the poem, In the Bleak Midwinter, has been put to music and is frequently used in childrens books for the holiday season. It's a wonderful sentiment...

"What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part,
Yet what I can give Him,
Give my heart."

Figuring out how I might "give my heart" is a good reflective exercise!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Legacy of President E. Dale LeBaron....

I think President LeBaron deserves a lot of credit for Brent's spiritual foundation. President LeBaron was more than just his mission president when Brent served in South Africa. He continued to be a role model and great example to Brent all these years post-mission too!

Last week Dale LeBaron was killed when he was on a morning walk with his wife and they were struck by a car. He was just 75 years old. I'm so glad Brent was able to fly out to Utah for the funeral on Saturday.

In an article for Mormon Times, his daughter, Debbie St. Jeor, talked about her father's devotion to his 6 children and 34 grandchildren saying: "His main passion in life was the gospel and his family. What my Dad taught is what he lived."

President LeBaron was serving in South Africa in 1978 when President Kimball revealed that the time had come to allow all worthy males to be ordained to priesthood callings. It was a wonderful day in the church! I think the church takes a lot of heat for waiting as long as it did to embrace people of every gender but I've learned that it is hard to judge history because we always bring contemporary philosophy to time periods that we only understand in retrospect. The evolution of ideas, fairness, and equality has changed dramatically for good in my lifetime (thankfully). But I digress!

Back to President LeBaron. He published a book of the conversion stories of many great black African members of the church living in Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The stories are touching and you can feel the great love President LeBaron has for the African people.

I love the story President LeBaron tells of Jude Inmpey, a church member in Nigeria: "Jude had a dream he was at a social gathering with many people. Someone was playing an organ, but the sound was terrible. People were shouting, "What is wrong with your music?" Finally someone investigated the problem. "He's only playing the white keys!" he reported.

Then Brother Inmpey observed: "For many, many years the Church has been playing only the white keys, but now we are playing on the white and the black keys, and the music is much, much sweeter."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gramps the Birthday Boy!

"The first and best victory is to conquer self." -Plato

Yesterday was my Dad's 81st birthday! And since my Dad is fastidious about his health I'll probably be writing posts about him for many years to come.... so I'll just focus on one attribute I admire for this birthday!

My Dad is incredibly disciplined! Almost to a fault! But, I really do like how consistent he is and always has been! He is a bit of a neat freak but it's all part of that same disciplined approach to every aspect of his life.

Many years ago a doctor touted mixing Metamucil fiber into a glass of water for good health. That drink concoction became his nightly ritual! Even on vacations he packs a ziplog bag with Metamucil to whip up that elixir anywhere!

I once met a man who had been a fraternity brother with my Dad in college. He remembered (fondly) my Dad picking the lint off the sweaters of the other Sigma Chi's in chapter meetings. That image had stuck with him all those years, he'd never met anyone quite that meticulous!

I can relate to how it left an impression on him. In my childhood, two places showcased my Dad's discipline and I admired both. His closet and his office. I loved looking at his neat closet; he was a master at closet organization before it became big business. Suits, shirts, pants and ties were nicely arranged by colors and type. I thought it was beautiful sight!

His office was similarly immaculate! Open any desk drawer and supplies were always exactly where they'd appeared on my last visit; pens lined in a row, a book of stamps, a small container of vitamin C. Another sight to behold! Especially for a little kid who kind of took after her Dad in his appreciation for orderliness!

My Mom would show off my Dad's clockwork behavior! She used to tell us that he was never without a handkerchief. So, we'd request tissues at random moments to test her theory and sure enough, he could always pull one out of his back pocket. I was wondering the other day if he still carries them 24/7. If I had to bet on it, my money is safest guessing that he does! Because that is the thing about disciplined people, you can pretty much always count on them!

To my Dad: the Disciplined Birthday Boy! I've always been able to count on him!

"We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit." -Aristotle

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hanukkah: Festival of Lights!

One of the best things about Webb attending Beth El, a Jewish preschool, years ago was the opportunity for us to understand more about Judaism. I've got to find the video of the holiday performance showing Webb belting out songs about spinning dreidels, cooking Latkes, and hoping for Hanukkah gelt (coins/money)! It was quite adorable!

The 1st night of Hanukkah starts tonight! When I was teaching the Old Testament I bought a Menorah and Liz Walton & I celebrated several of the Jewish holidays throughout the year with the Seminary kids! Very fun!

The Hanukkah story reminds me of David and Goliath. Like David, the Maccabees were a small group of soldiers fighting for religious freedom against Antiochus's behemoth army of Syrians. The Maccabee's victory was a miracle!

Then, when they returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the temple was filthy and only a tiny drop of oil was left for the menorah. But the small drop continued to burn not just for one day, but eight days, giving the Maccabees a chance to restore/rededicate the temple! Another miracle!

Each night of Hanukkah when the candle is lit, two blessings are recited. The first is a blessing over the candles and the second gives thanks for miracles. The blessing in Hebrew: "Baruh atah adonai, eloheinu meleh ha-olam, she-asah nissim lavotanu ba-yamim hahem bazman hazeh." Or in English: "You abound in blessings, Source of All, Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this time."

Even though we don't officially celebrate Hanukkah (unless I can sneak it in - like teaching Old Testament); I like the symbolism behind the festival. The miracle of people triumphing over tremendous odds in a struggle for the right to practice their religious beliefs is inspiring! I admire the Maccabees dedication to their beliefs; their spirit to fight for what they believed in, no matter how difficult or dangerous!

Okay, and I have to admit, I also like all the interesting and unique menorahs! They have some incredible menorahs!

"I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay.
And when it's dry and ready, with dreidel I shall play." -The Dreidel song

Friday, December 11, 2009

Big Football Jocks with Big Hearts!

Our darling nephew, Alex Olsen, and five of his buddies were featured in a Deseret News article in November. Oakley Hansen (center of photo), who was born with spinal bifida and hydrocephalus is visited on Thursday nights by these Highland High School Football Players.

Oakley is passionate about sports and loves to trade facts and stories with the boys. Oakley's mom says that "A lot of things have changed since the boys started to come visit. An excitement, looking forward to something. It has been phenomenal."

Oakley's risks of infection are too high to leave his home for much besides doctor's appointments but he convinced his parents to take him to Highland's Friday night football games. Oakley watches the games from a special van that former Utah Jazz star Karl Malone bought for Oakley several years ago.

What started as an unlikely friendship has blossomed into something really meaningful for the football stars! Or, as Alex is quoted in the article: "I think we get more out of the visits than Oakley does." All the boys agree that while they started the visits to help Oakley, it turns out that Oakley's positive attitude inspires and uplifts them.

Oakley's mother, Melissa Hansen, says that "Oakley's had a lifetime void filled by these boys." She realizes these boys have given Oakley something he was missing - real friends. Before the boy's visits Oakley's circle had consisted of mostly doctors, nurses, and medical technicians.

"They're young," Oakley's father, Van Hansen said of the football players. "But they are very sincere with big hearts. I am totally impressed with each and every one of them. Their parents should be proud."

Heck, I'm just Alex's Aunt and I'm proud! What a great thing these boys have done! And yet, like most service, acts of kindness have a way of coming back and benefitting the giver as well as the receiver! The miraculous principle of "The More you Give, The More you Have!"

"Keep doing good deeds long enough, and you'll probably turn out a good man in spite of yourself." - Louis Auchincloss

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"You Can Be Scared and Brave at the Same Time"

Leukemia Lessons! Ashley Barth's Leukemia Diagnosis at age 3 was a tough blow! A long treatment schedule of chemotherapy, a regimen of steroids, meds, and spinals was a harsh new reality for the Barth family to adjust to!

Initially, Ashley struggled with all the poking and pain but very quickly figured out something that worked and helped Ashley endure (like a real champ) some tough stuff that had to happen at the hospital.

What was Ashley's secret? With a little guidance from a children's book about a hospitalized stuffed animal, Ashley developed a motto for coping. Ashley's mantra: "You Can Be Scared and Brave at the Same Time."

Andie (who is kind of a wimp when it comes to needles, blood, and shots of any sort) was so impressed with Ashley's bravery that she adopted the slogan! Then, our group of friends running the Nike Women's Marathon (dubbed "The A Team" for Ashley and Aiden) made T-shirts with our logo stating: "You Can Be Scared and Brave at the Same Time."

The quote took on a life of it's own for friends and family of Ashley! We all realized that even if/when something scares or frightens us that despite our fear we CAN STILL BE BRAVE! And that's not a bad thought to embrace in this "scary" world out there!

*And best of all, three years later, Ashley just celebrated her 6th birthday, is in remission and doing great!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Linus knows The True Meaning of Christmas!

Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas is an mandatory part of the holidays for me! Charles Schulz is one of my favorite cartoonists ever and I adore the whole Peanuts gang!

The best moment of the show is when Charlie Brown's frustration peaks; he can't stand the commercialization of the holiday and screams out: "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

"Sure, Charlie Brown," Linus calmly answers, and takes the stage: "I can tell you what Christmas is all about: ...And there were in the same country, shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night, and lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them. And the glory of the Lord shone round about them. And they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and saying "Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth; Peace, Goodwill Toward Man."

That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown!" (ah! ...from the mouths of babes!)