Greeks learn in order to comprehend.
Hebrews learn in order to revere.

~ Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Happy Birthday Denyon!

Happy Birthday Denyon! Our little buster bunny turned one on October 18 and what a special day. Since we were out of town on his actual birthday, we celebrated a few days later on October 23. We hosted a party at our apartment. I made white chicken chili and potato soup for the main meal and everyone else brought sides. For desert I made chocolate chip cookies and brownies. The food was all delicious and our guests were even better. We planned it so that family could call in from skype during the time to wish Denyon a Happy Birthday. What a blessing skype is! Denyon was able to chat with his Nana (Cindi…Brad’s mom), JimPapa and Gramma (Jim and Carol…Shallon’s parents), Great Grandma and Great Grandpa Gray (Brad’s dad’s parents), Uncle Blair (Shallon’s youngest brother), and GPa (Gary…Brad’s dad) and Uncle Doug (Brad’s brother) and the whole GIFT community (GIFT is a post-graduate program Gary administers which includes three onsite seminars in Adrian…the final seminar of the year took place during Denyon’s party so as part of the program, they called in on skype and all (nearly 100) sang Happy Birthday to Denyon…they also watched him devour a small piece of his brownie!). We felt so loved with all of our newly acquired and special friends here (including Denyon’s special babysitters Laura and Melissa whom he loves…not to replace any of our special sitters at home) and the privilege of speaking with and video chatting with family from back home.

We had been awaiting a birthday package from both of our parents and they finally arrived on the day of our party. Due to all the holidays in the month of October, the mail was slowed down. Denyon was enamored with all his new books and balls and is loving playing with all of his new goodies. He is definitely one loved little child! He not only charms everyone back home, but he has made his way into the hearts of many here too. It was such a special celebration for Brad and I to see our little Denyon be the life of the party. He loves life thoroughly and is a social bug. We couldn’t have felt more blessed on this special day. Denyon has been such a blessing to us and fills our hearts with so much joy. We just can’t believe how fast the year has gone and how much he has grown and changed. Thank you all for making this day special by keeping us in your hearts. We love you all!

October...a month of Celebration!

Well, the past month has been quite festive because of the many Jewish holidays. The month of October started with Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year. This is basically two days of celebration, time with family and friends, and reflection of what God has done over the last year. It also commences the high holy days leading up to Yom Kippur. For the first ten days of the month, every Jew analyzes and searches their heart to see if they have wronged anyone and still need to ask for forgiveness. It is also a time of great repentance for any personal sins. It is also a time to forgive others that have wronged you.

These ten days are the window of time that each Jew has to make all right in their own heart. For a very righteous person, it is believed that God grants entry into the book of life on the New Year. Likewise, for the very wicked person, God rejects one from the book of life. For everyone in between, it depends on what is done during the ten days before Yom Kippur. On that day, God will judge everyone on what they have done for the year and either grant or reject entry into God’s book of life. (As most of you know, we believe Jesus is the key to entry into God’s kingdom. No matter how righteous or wicked, we all need Christ. What I admire about this season is how seriously the Jews take making amends during this period. Just think of what a better place the world would be if we could all sincerely seek out forgiveness in ourselves and extend it graciously to others. That would be beautiful!)

Literally everything in Israel is closed on Yom Kippur (even the airport) and absolutely no one drives, works, etc. The children love it because they do not yet have to recognize and participate in the rituals so they all love to ride their bikes, scooters, skateboards, etc. right in the middle of the street. It really is a big treat! We all went to a Jewish synagogue service the night of Yom Kippur and overheard this conversation: “(mom)…The kids just can’t wait to get home because they all brought their bikes to ride…(daughter)….Yeah! In the middle of the street!” And as we walked home, there were children of all ages all over the streets! It was cool. We’ve also heard that it’s one of the worst days for children’s accidents and injuries which also makes sense. We saw a young girl crash on her bike just outside our apartment and her friends were consoling her.

After Yom Kippur, another celebration begins. For five days, everyone prepares for the festival of Sukkoth by building sukkoth…aka temporary dwellings outside of their homes. If you read Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29, you will read all about this festival. For the most part, the traditions and sacraments are pretty much the same. It is very interesting for me to read these sections of the Bible and experience people practicing exactly what is commanded. The animal sacrifices are not so much practiced anymore, but most other things are. Many of our neighbors built sukkoth outside and wherever we walked, it was neat to see the various types. All were built from natural elements and outside but the shapes, colors, décor was all different.

After the five days of preparation, the festival of Sukkoth began. For eight days, the city celebrated how God was with the Israelites in the desert. It is a time of remembrance that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the promiseland. So, during this time, all sorts of things are happening. People celebrate with family by visiting, talking, and dwelling outside in their sukkoth. Brad and I enjoyed sitting on our balcony and listening to our neighbors visit. There was the parade of nations where people from all around the world marched in a parade through the streets of Jerusalem. The Bible speaks of all the nations coming to Jerusalem for this festival and the parade is a representation of that. There were also concerts, singing and dancing, and even a circus—which we attended.

The circus was more like a big fair with street performers, clowns, acrobats, and of course—cotton candy! We went to a show that was one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen. I’m not going to do it justice by describing it but I’ll try. It was dark outside and performed in a small outdoor theater. There was one male and one female dancer and they used a combination of neon lights, neon ropes, balls, and just each other. They performed a sort of contemporary dance style but used the things I mentioned above as part of the routine. In one section of the dance, the two remained attached almost entirely but went through a series of different lifts, motions, and maneuvers that almost made it seem as though they were a machine with all the pieces churning and working together. At another section, it was as if they were fighting through a wall of ropes and twisting and turning to get free, and as they did, the neon ropes would form different shapes such as a flower, tree, etc. At another section, they danced with the balls in a ways that made them seem as if they were floating. Still another section, the man moved and positioned the woman as if she was robotic or statue-like and she just assumed whatever position he put her in. Like I said, I didn’t do it justice but we all loved it! Denyon was glued in the whole time and it was so cool to watch him watch the dancers. It’s amazing how even at such a young age our minds can be so fascinated.

The festival concluded on the eight day with lots of celebrating, dancing, and reciting Torah at the Western Wall as well as at a park in town. We decided to go to the park conclusion and ended up getting to hear both the president of Israel and the Chief Rabbi of Israel speak briefly. I regret that I don’t remember either of their names, but it was neat to be a part of it. There was lots of loud music and dancing in between the speech sections and it was a great experience for us.

Sounds like quite a month, huh? It was and I’ve definitely never been a part of nearly a month long holiday. There were more days when businesses were closed than open it seemed. We feel blessed to be a part of such a great celebration and thankful to experience this culture firsthand. Like they say, it’s all part of the experience!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Just up the mountain!

So after visiting the location where the prophet Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal and Ashera on Mt. Carmel in northern Israel (I Kings 18), watching a beautiful sunset on top of the mountain overlooking the Jezreel Valley, and telling Denyon the story about how and why we chose the name Elijah (which was indeed an extremely special and cherished moment), we called our hotel to get directions. We knew the address and the general area but neither really helped much. It seems that here in Israel, it is more common for roads to be unmarked and very atypical to have street signs of major road numbers. So, the receptionist's response to our inquiry about how to get to the hotel was, “Just get up the mountain, near Moriah, and go right at the fountain!” After further pressing for better instructions, that’s all we were left with. She didn’t even know what the main road was called to get up the mountain. By some miracle, we did find the hotel (after calling a couple more times), and sure enough we did get “up the mountain and turn right at a fountain!” So for the rest of the weekend the joke when we couldn’t find some place was, “Just get up the mountain!” If any of you have seen the movie Blood Diamond, you’ll understand the phrase that we’ve adopted and modified slightly—TII—this is Israel!

We rented a car and spent two nights in Haifa this past weekend. Haifa is the main industrial port city located along the northern coastal tip of Israel. This central location allowed us to visit Mt. Carmel (much of Haifa is actually located on the Carmel Mountain range); Akko—another city along the coast and known as the most well-preserved crusader city in the world; Caesarea—a large port city built by King Herod along the Mediterranean; Tel Aviv—another large city on the Mediterranean Coast.

Friday night we watched the sunset on Mt. Carmel as I mentioned above. It was a very special moment for us because this is the location that inspired us to use the name Elijah for Denyon’s middle name. We learned the story and experienced it here two years ago and the passion of Elijah stuck with us. It was very cool to tell Denyon the story too, although he just wanted to cruise around on the rocks. He’s already wanting to rock climb!

Saturday was Denyon’s first birthday! He was so excited to celebrate that he woke up early 6 a.m.! He briefly fell back asleep then and some books and toys were able to hold him off until about 7 a.m. until we got him up to sing Happy Birthday! It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year already and yet it also seems that it was so long ago the day I gave birth. Funny how time works, isn’t it? He is doing great and growing strong. He has eight teeth now and is moving fast all over the place. He’s not walking yet but cruising, climbing, and crawling freely. He loves to play chase with his dad (he will get into crawling position, look back in anticipation, then take off panting with excitement as he tries to escape his dad’s reach…it’s great fun!). So, he enjoyed some playtime with dad before getting the day started.

We spent most of the day in the present day city of Akko (Acre). The city is now an Arab port city but was once a thriving port crusader city. At one point it was the most important port city in the country. In the city are the impressive remains of the crusader citadel with numerous great halls, courtyards, underground tunnel systems, palaces, city walls, moats, and more. It is so amazing that people could build these structures hundreds of years ago. Napoleon and his army tried to conquer the city in the 1700s I believe (don’t quote me on my history, dad) and the city changed leadership often. Its decline was much a result of the great city of Caesarea flourishing (the city we visited on Sunday).

We ended our day at the beach in Haifa watching the sunset. It was beautiful and so peaceful. You can never get tired of beach sunsets, can you? We ate at a delicious pub in downtown Haifa and indulged in one of the best crème brulees that we’ve ever had. We figured it was Denyon’s birthday so we should have some dessert! Denyon will have his special dessert when we have a small party next week!

Sunday morning we drove down the coast about an hour to Caesarea. This city was built by King Herod as the main harbor of the day. The stones used to build the city were brought from all over including southern Egypt, Syria, Greece, Rome, and beyond. Many of the structures were inlayed with a scintillating white marble which made the city sparkle in the sun from a distance. Even today, you can find pieces of the stone that washes up onto the shores as you walk along the site. Brad and I found and kept several pieces of the sparkly stone. Herod built the harbor out into the sea and under the water. Today, it is possible to scuba dive at the harbor and see much of the remains of the harbor (we of course did not do that but Brad would really like to some day if he ever gets certified to scuba dive). The city includes a large amphitheater where all sorts of athletic events and competitions took place, a performance theater, palaces, an extensive Roman bathhouse where people would just relax or even conduct meetings and business, and a fresh water swimming pool built right in the middle of the sea (that is no longer standing). Also at the site, is a large aqueduct that brought fresh water to the city that came all the way from Mt. Carmel. Herod’s building projects were always extraordinary and this is no exception.

To end the day, we headed down to Tel Aviv for one last indulgence. When we were here two years ago, we stayed at a hotel in Tel Aviv for a couple nights in between the two study trips that we participated in. During that short stay, we found an amazing restaurant called the Manta Ray where we had the most delicious fried calamari we’d ever had. The restaurant sat right on the beach and was amazing. So, we took our chances in finding the place on the way home and we actually succeeded. It took longer than we’d expected, but nevertheless, we made it. We arrived just in time to enjoy another sunset on the beach and even did a little swimming this time. Denyon loves to swim and splash so he had a blast. After drying off and changing, we enjoyed our delicious calamari and one of the best salads we’ve ever had. Yum!

The only downfall of the evening was a big scare from the little guy…he dropped his cup and we looked down to get it…before we knew it he had pushed his feet against the table and flipped his chair completely back. The booster seat attached to the chair stayed completely in tact and he stayed attached to the chair, but it was so scary. He cried and cried but eventually was okay. I think we were more scared than anything and he recovered quickly. I can’t believe he was strong enough to push himself back. Bless God he was okay!

So that’s our weekend. It was a wonderful time and we are so grateful for all of the places we’re getting to see and all of the things we’re able to do. It’s been a great adventure!
The Gray’s

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Three days of Travel

The last three days have been full of adventure. Brad had only one morning class Thursday, we had a class together Friday morning, and then nothing all day on Saturday; so, we decided to rent a car for the three days and do some day trips. Thursday, we started out into the Judea wilderness to Wadi Qilt. The landscape is amazing and can only be done justice through pictures (so hopefully we’ll get some up from the weekend soon). It’s endless desert hills that are astounding. From the lookout point where we were, you could see the Dead Sea and Jordan to Jericho to Jerusalem. It’s amazing the viewpoints you can get here.
From there we went on to Jericho, and after driving around for what seemed like hours, asking for help that turned out to be no help at all, and having lunch in our car on the side of the road because we couldn’t wait any longer to find a picnic spot, we finally found the New Testament King Herod palace that sat along the edge of Wadi Qilt. The ruins are not well marked and we actually drove by them three times before Brad was able to get a hold of his professor for more clarification on where they were. We had to park our car and walk down into the wadi, then back up to get to the site. It was not the most impressive Herod building we’ve seen, but it was impressive. Typical to Herod, there were numerous baths and pools and it was in the desert. Brad had a sketch of the location in his study manual for class so that helped us to get a layout of the site.
After Jericho we headed to Qumran—the site known as the dwelling place of the group called the Essenes. These were devout followers of God in Biblical times who believed there was no better place to remain focused in their devotion to God than out in the middle of the desert. It is amazing what they were able to build including cisterns and an aqueduct system that brought water from springs in the surrounding hills. The place is just on the western border of the Dead Sea, about 40 kilometers north of the desert oasis “En Gedi.” Most famously, Qumran is the location of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s. The cave where they were found is clearly marked and visible, although not accessible. Brad and I were here together two summers ago and did an incredible climb to the top of the mountain range where Qumran is located. There was not enough time and too difficult to do with Denyon on our back to do that climb this time.
On Friday, we started with several lookout points from the top of Mt. Scopus. Mt. Scopus is the location of the main hospital here in Jerusalem and the Hebrew University. From here, you can see nearly the whole city of Jerusalem (old and new), the Kidron Valley, the city of David, the Dead Sea, Jericho, the mountains of Moab, the Herodian, the foothills of Jerusalem, and the Judea wilderness. It’s amazing what you can see.
We then headed out to Maresha. This is a location about half way between Jerusalem and the coast in an area called the “shepela.” The location comprises the ancient biblical city of Maresha, but most importantly an ancient city where numerous caves and dwellings were dug underground. The caves were extensive with water cisterns, olive presses, hiding places, columbariums (storehouses for pigeons), and common dwelling areas. The caves were carved out of the soft limestone that is common to that geographical area. Some of the cisterns were nearly 70 feet high! We are continually amazed at what people were able to build without the conveniences of modern technology.
After Maresha, we wondered around trying to find Tel Yarmut…a location we discussed extensively earlier that day in class. It was not marked again and this time we were unsuccessful at finding it. Maybe another day.
We ended our day at the Western Wall. This is the holiday season for the Jews and just last Monday was the Jewish New Year. From then until Yom Kippur, which is Thursday October 9, is considered the high holy days. So going to the wall this night was particularly crowded because it was the evening of Sabbath and the holiday. The area was filled with men and women worshipping, praising, singing, and dancing at or near the wall. To look upon is astounding and everyone is dressed their best…the men in black suits and top hats and the women in long dresses and scarves. It truly is a remarkable site to see and makes us reflect on our own faith. These Jews are so faithful and devout to the same God we serve although they do not accept Jesus as their Messiah. And sometimes we don’t even have time or make the time to pray! It is easy to learn a lesson of commitment from them.
To end our weekend we spent Saturday at the beach. We went to a beach called Nizzanim Beach just south of Tel Aviv about 40 kilometers on the Mediterranean Sea. It was beautiful and very much needed. Denyon loved playing in the sand as usual and enjoyed the water very much. The salt water didn’t seem to bother him at all. It was so nice not having to get brave enough to go into the water like we do when we’re at the beach in Holland entering Lake Michigan. The temperature was perfect and the air was just right with the breeze from the sea. The beach offered a nice umbrella for shade and beach chairs as well. We couldn’t have imagined a better way to finish off a wonderful weekend of travel.
Until next time…shalom!