Here are most (a good selection, but alas! Not nearly all!) of the places/things I've done in the last few weeks. This will probably be my last post for the next two weeks as I will be in the Galilee!! However, in addition to the photos and video below, I have uploaded a whole collection of videos from myself and others at the center here http://www.youtube.com/byuj2010#p/u Enjoy!!
Today I had my last test in my Old Testament Class here at BYU-J. At the beginning of the class, I'll admit: I was really worried—though I had read the entire Old Testament before, it still seemed so... distant, archaic, and downright not applicable to me. I thought it was boring. The New Testament and Restoration scripture are the places to go to really feel the love of God and be inspired... But I really wanted to get the most out of this class, so I tried to keep an open mind while going through everything again. Now, I have to say that I'm really surprised: reading in the Old Testament has been not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. Most of it I have thoroughly enjoyed. Being where a lot of it took place has really made it come alive (the field trips were amazing in this regard!). And now that I, for the first time, have paid some real time to know the context better, I think there is actually only a few things that are completely inapplicable. Especially after being reminded of the lessons that one author gleans from the Old Testament in The Peacegiver, I am convinced that we can find life-changing insights in this glorious and inspired book of scripture. And I want to share one that I feel is extremely applicable today.
So, here it goes: Deuteronomy 15. Moses is teaching about the “year of release,” a Jewish tradition that basically means that all debts that people owe us are to be forgiven in full:
“At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbour shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother; because it is called the Lord’s release” (Deut. 15:1-2). When I read it, the first thing I thought was “but wait, just that easy? A clean slate for all debts? How is that fair? Won't people take advantage of that?” And then I read on:
“If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:
But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth” (Deut. 15:7-8, emphasis added).
Ok..., I guess that's fine... I'm for giving to the poor... but what is this word “wide”--and what exactly is God referring to when He commands me not to harden my heart? But then comes the kicker:
“Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee.
Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto” (Deut. 15:9-10).
Doh! Why does God always do that? I can give... but why does he have to say that I can't have any suspicious thoughts in my heart? What if he is actually asking because he knows the “year of release” is coming up soon? Aren't I justified in turning down such evil intent? [(really: that is not a rhetorical question: any thoughts?)] But the verse that just stands out at me is verse 10 where it says “and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest.” I've thought a lot about the application of that phrase... and I keep coming back to one thing: lending money. On my mission, I was notorious for keeping track of every last peso someone owed me. In my mind, that was the only “fair” thing to do—I was perfectly justified. It was my money, after all. In fact, I thought, it was all their fault (really: what kind of a jerk would come up to you, ask for money with that pleading voice and, those it-would-mean-everything-to-me eyes, promise to pay you back... and then act later as if it it didn't mean enough to warrant a second thought?!). A simple board of post-it notes was merely a tactful way of saying that I expected people to keep their word. I mean, a true disciple of God would never have to be reminded that he owed someone money—they should think to pay it back the first change they get.
But a few things made me consider that this was perhaps one of the things that I needed to ask myself the apostle's question. The first thing was one of my companions. He was really... mmm, let's go with “chill” (my opinion of him at the time was that he should not have been given the position of leadership that he had). But he had something that I did not have: people liked him—not just fellow missionaries, but the members, people we met, and all of our investigators. And... I resented it. Why couldn't anyone else see through his facade and notice his glaring flaws? But my policy of getting along with my companions at the time was to keep things cordial and not bring up... unpleasant details. But as our companionship matured, I not only decided that comparing his weaknesses to my strengths was not only unfair but stupid. I had a golden opportunity to observe and learn from one of his greatest strengths—and my most frustrating weakness. My entire life I longed to be someone that everyone liked. I was tired of only being able to feel comfortable with a select few groups that were just like me. That companion taught me a lot of things, and one thing is directly relevant to what I believe Deuteronomy 15 is trying to put into each of our hearts. One day as we were on our way to our weekly leadership meeting (which at the time was early enough in the day to be far away from lunch, but late enough to be noticeably hungry), he said we were stopping by a pastry shop. Not wanting to be difficult by bringing up the applicability of certain lesser rules, I just went along with it. I busied myself choosing a few new baked goods I had never tried, and I assumed my companion got what he always got, and we left. When we got to the meeting, though, he pulled out a bag that was much bigger than his usual. And... he shared it with everyone. One companionship in particular was extremely grateful as they had skipped breakfast. When one of our appointments fell through later in the day, I asked him about it. Truth be told, I began in an accusatory manner: I thought he used leadership money to buy it. But he hadn't. He used his personal money—and he wasn't one of the rich missionaries, either. Perceiving that I was still a little flustered, he took pity on me and decided—instead of rubbing my mistake into my face—to teach me a lesson I have never forgotten, and always tried to apply.
He put his arm around me and said (to the best of my memory), “Elder Christensen, let me tell you a story about something my trainer taught me: My first month in the country, my trainer had been promising me that we would go to the best ice cream place in the zone and introduce me to what he claimed to be the best flavors in the country. The transfer was almost over, and we still hadn't gone. One day, though, our schedule was such that we were close enough to the shop that we stopped and got two entire kilos (over 4 pounds). The only problem—that is, besides using the last of my expendable money—was that we had another appointment to get to, and it was lunch. We decided to stop by our apartment which was close to the lunch appointment and put in our freezer for later that day. The rest of the day didn't give the opportunity to go back, however, until that night. I was dying. I was only looking forward to one thing: that ice cream. The moment we got home, though, we got a call from another missionary apartment and my companion had to go to their apartment. Without telling me, he packed the ice cream in his bag, and the first thing he did when we got to the other apartment was give it to the other missionaries! Of course we all shared it, but I really resented having to share it among six instead of relishing my own. My companion, however, saw things completely differently. He tried to talk me out of my resentment by pointing out how happy it made the other elders, how one of the missionaries in particular never bought treats like ice cream, and how we had made four good friends because of it.”
There is a little more to that story, but I've never forgotten what I learned from his relating that story. I think it gets at what President Kimball was teaching in his admonition to 'love people, not things.' What if we lived life such that we only cared about things like money in terms of its use in helping other people? Of course we should always keep in mind our primary financial responsibilities (which, I think, include only the basics such as food, housing, and clothing—not luxuries that we only think are needs), but really, I think we can “afford” to use money to go out of our way to help people a lot more than we tend to. Again, perhaps this is being too idealistic—of course if we get to be known to being overly giving, we will be taken advantage of and come to financial problems of our own, right? Well, though this makes perfect logical sense, I happen to know a multimillionaire who lives with precisely this philosophy and believes it to be one of the secrets to his success. I talked with my stake president the month before leaving for Jerusalem to talk to him about what I should do with my life. We talked for over an hour (he thinks I should get an MBA and go into business... mmm, not convinced), and in between the lines he deeply impressed me with how he approaches life and money. Even before he made it big, he decided that he would not let money control his mind, heart, and happiness. During the times in his life that he was basically in poverty, he would always give generously to good causes and other people. And he is convinced it is the only way to live. He tries to judge wisely each person and situation, but he has come to view money as merely another tool to be used to help people. If he gets it back, great. But most of the money he gives out with the explicit promise that they are only borrowing it, he doesn't expect back. To this day, he has given out large sums to friends (to friends, he does not charge interest)—including one who was serving in the stake with him—who promised to give it back ... and haven't. We are dealing with millions of dollars, and it has no effect on him. It is a non-issue for him. In contrast to the natural tendency (speaking from personal experience) to have the owed money festering in the back of my mind as a screaming-to-be-resolved issue, he is genuinely self-forgetful about it.
And you know what? It works. Since being with my companion, I have adopted that as one of my mantras: view money in terms of its value to help others. And it has changed my life. I go out of my way to do things like making treats to share with people, buying things for no other reason than to distribute it later to other people at opportune moments, picking up the tab during outings saying “I'll take this one, you can pay for the next one,” and keeping candy bars and such close at hand to give away during moments when such things aren't accessible and meals are uncomfortably too far away; to a smaller degree, too, I don't resent it when people ask to “borrow” a little money—it usually isn't that much, and I try to remember that that person is infinitely more important than the amount of money I could “lose” on them (how many governmental and other causes devote huge resources to help people, with little results—when our personalized kindnesses are worth so much more?). I don't mention these things to boast or pat myself on the back, only to testify that it has brought me an immeasurable amount of pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness. The cynic may argue that I'm not making any real friends by these actions. There is probably a lot of truth to that. But there are enough people who are genuinely grateful, whose days are unexpectedly lifted, who are inspired to do likewise, that is more than worth it to me. Even if there weren't those people, I don't think that would be my problem at all, that is completely their choice. Besides, the scriptures make it clear, and Deuteronomy 15: 7 not coincidentally repeats, that everything I own is that “which the Lord thy God giveth.” Nothing is really mine. It all belongs to God, I am merely a steward. What's more, if the Gospel is true, God will repay us manifold what we give away for His glory. How much will He likely give if He knows we can be counted on to use money for that purpose! This, too, may be completely counter-intuitive, but there is actually a lot of research that backs it up!
According to research done by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute,
“If you have two families that are exactly identical—in other words, same religion, same race, same number of kids, same town, same level of education, and everything’s the same—except that one family gives a hundred dollars more to charity than the second family, then the giving family will earn on average $375 more in income than the nongiving family—and that’s statistically attributable to the gift...Statistically what we find is that if we were to increase our private charitable donations by just 1 percent, which is about $2 billion a year—$2 billion a year from people like you and me writing checks for our favorite causes: our churches and our favorite charities—if we just did that, that would translate into a gross domestic product of about 39 billion new dollars. That’s a great multiplier.” And it gets better: “People who give to charity are 43 percent more likely than people who don’t give to say they’re very happy people.” His conclusion is the same as mine, and what I believe we all knew from the beginning, we just try to talk ourselves out of it: “When people give more money away, they tend to prosper.”
One of the amaaaazing things about Jerusalem is that you literally can just walk down the streets and pass a dozen historical sites—and not just recent history. So yesterday, we went out to look for a few sites, but on the way there, we passed a place that claimed to be the birthplace of the virgin Mary! It was a Greek church, with lots of beautiful paintings on the main floor. The lower floors were these cool, natural caves. And then today, I was walking to the Garden of Gethsemane and we walked next door to another church dedicated to the Virgin Mary! Both times we really weren't looking for them, but there we were! Add to that the fact that we watched a special documentary series tonight that hasn't been released yet, Messiah: Behold the Lamb of God, (Produced by Bro. Kent Brown himself!), and the section he let us see was on the birth of Christ... I decided to read some things about the Mother of God, and I'm really glad I did!
As I re-read Luke chapter 1, I remembered a life-changing insight that my mission president gave our zone in a zone conference about faith. First, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias and explains to him what God is going to do in his life and he responds, “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18). And is heartily rebuked for his question. Gabriel responds, “behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season” (Luke 1:20). When the same angel appears to Mary and gives her almost the same news... she is still fearful and even “troubled at his saying” (Luke 1:29). She, too, asks a question of the angelic messenger which, at first glance, I thought was identical to the question Zacharias posed to the angel: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). In essence, it is the same question, but there is a huge difference in their attitudes, their fath. Zacharias' question was outright incredulity. Mary's question is completely different. She does not ask for proof of the angel's claims—which would be proof of doubt—but rather, her question is “how shall this be”: she takes it as a given that it will happen... she is merely confused as to the method of its coming to pass. In contrast to the stubborness of Zacharias, Mary submits completely to God with a humble, submissive attitude: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Humility and submissive to the will of God... I am hard-pressed to think of more rare virtues that would make her so “blessed among women” (Luke 1:28). I give full credit to God for the type of women He chose to raise His Only Begotten.
I think these two virtues hold the key as to how to be highly favored of the Lord. It caused me to think about all the times that I doubt or am at least impatient with the promises of God. I do it a lot. I know what promises the gospel offers, yet I want things to happen in the way I expect in the timetable I desire...or I get FRUSTRATED. I honestly don't think it is unrighteous of me to want to see God's promises fulfilled, but perhaps it is precisely my zeal and overly-eager expectation to see and know with proof of their fulfillment that are the keeping me from the knowledge that the completely submissive Mary was privileged with...
I went to a Passover dinner last semester hosted by Dr. Ludlow of the Religion Department and in a lot of ways that was a bit better from my point of view. Dr. Ludlow has studied things like this for years, had way cool teaching insights, and never forgot anything... ours at the JC was hosted by our Judaism professor, who brought his 4 year old daughter as a guest--so cute. It was really cool, because he himself is an orthodox Jew, and sang portions of the service in Hebrew for us... But at the same time, it felt like he was just winging it--and he left out some minor things. But the main things were there... and hey, we were in JERUSALEM! There's about an hour and a half of reviewing the history of the exodus (10 plagues, etc.), praising God, and rituals before dinner. This is when we take the parsley leaf (a symbol of spring/rebirth) and dip it in salt water (a symbol of tears), eat the bitter herbs (for the trials they passed), look at the lamb bone (representing the lamb blood over the doors), etc. We also have two ritual cups of "wine" before dinner--we had this really awesome grape juice that is bottled here and it tasted way different (good, but really on the sweet side--best if diluted) than any other grape juice I've ever had--and two glasses after dinner. Then after the rituals and singing, we eat a big dinner (fried fish, THEN the soup, then the salad, then the meal, then fruit, then dessert---huge!). Then we have the redeeming of the matzah bread (matzah is unleavened bread symbolizing the haste with which the people fled Egypt)
The favorite part: the symbolism of the matzah. We didn't talk about this during our Passover, but my friend told me about it before, and it is soooo cool! So, at the beginning of the ritual, the head of the house puts three loaves of matzah inside a cloth, symbolizing the Godhead. He takes the middle piece of matzah (Christ) and breaks it in half. The larger of the two halves he puts inside a different cloth. It is needed to conclude the Passover--you can't end without that last, set apart piece of matzah (given the special name of afikomen), so it is very important that it doesn't disappear. ...but it always does. When I was at the religion department's Passover, we just passed it around under the table throughout the whole dinner. Last night someone hid it somewhere in the building. At the end of the dinner when we need the matzah in order to end, the head of the house offers a price to "redeem" the matzah (note symbolism of the atonement--so cool!). Generally the person who has the matzah names his price, but last night our professor just offered something--chocolate--outright for it. After he redeems the matzah, they eat it as the last thing in the Passover dinner (this is after dessert). And this is the best part! THIS is the bread that Jesus likely broke and gave to his apostles as the very first sacrament of the Lord's Supper!!! It's a symbol of himself, that he already paid the price for, which redeems us. The Atonement. I LOVE BEING HERE AND HAVING SOOOOOOOO MANY TEACHINGS COME TO LIFE!!!!
Today we had more classes, I organized my photos and studied for finals coming up... not a lot worth writing about, but for the weekly forum, we had an excellent forum speaker who talked to us about the role of media in this conflict... and how it falls short of what it could be in a lot of ways. It was very insightful. He was a very good storyteller. My favorite story can be downloaded here. Enjoy!
I uploaded tons of new pictures and new youtube videos!
Today we had 7 hours of class (1 hour of Old Testament, two sets of 2 hours of Judaism, and two hours of Palestinian). It was quiiiiiite the gauntlet. It was kinda frustrating, because it was really interesting stuff (we finally got the “founding of the state of Israel” war from the Israeli view in any sort of extended form), as well as the origins of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda... and I was SO tired—it was just too much class (plus I got to bed last pretty late...). But the best part was definitely the end of the day: we had a holocaust survivor come, Elias Feinzlberg. It was so awesome. It gave me such a better feeling than other holocaust learning experiences.
It was still genuinely tragic: he broke down a little bit when he said that his entire family was killed by the Nazis... but that was the only time he became emotional. The rest of the time... he was genuinely animated and happy. He didn't sound resentful or angry. He was retelling near-death experiences like they were... youthful adventures. He would tell his starvation in the ghettos, the grueling work in the mines, and concentration camp life with just as much bravado as a campfire story. One of the first questions we asked him was how he could retain his optimism throughout the ordeal. He replied that he just couldn't believe that he was still alive. He felt that only when he stopped working would his life be in danger... and he never stopped working. There was one time that he was so skinny and pale that they told him that he couldn't work... and he had the idea to pinch and slap himself a bit until he got a little red. He got back in line, and they accepted him. It made me realize that not only is there an entire range of holocaust experiences (not all the stories are as bad as the ones highlighted in Yad Vashem), but also that... something that I always felt was true has been confirmed by someone who has actually lived through the worst that life has to offer: you can always remain hopeful and positive.
Today I got my first and (hopefully) only package from home! I say hopefully because not only does it take a long time to get packages, but Israeli mail has an extremely frustrating tax law on all incoming packages: they have set up a list of all the things that they deem should be taxed in order to "protect the economy." The list is basically... everything that isn't homemade food items (even clothes carry a 100% tax on their value!). Electronics are especially expensive to send because the government scans everything and is known for opening any packages that beep (add to that, the fact that if it has a tax imposed on it, even if it is small, you can't have it delivered--you have to pick it up yourself!). Luckily, I only had to pay a small tax (I had my parents send me a phone accessory so I can plug my headphones in). It was really great to get a real backpack and some Sweedish fish!! When I was there, though, they asked if I wanted to pick up the center's other two packages for my fellow students, and they cost 200 shekels (~$54) just to pick up!! When we got back, I picked up the two cameras that I broke from the security desk. Boy, am I glad to have that headache over with!
Later in the day, I went to an Ethiopian Church with my friends Danielle, Katie, and Lindsey. It was a Christian church, but the style was with more... colorful with rugs and paintings and candles and incenses. It was probably the most colorful church I've ever seen. There was nobody else inside but a sleeping guard, so we actually hung out there for a while because it was really cool inside, temperature wise, and a peaceful place to talk--we had a great gospel conversation about the Kingdoms of Glory. It also had this really amazing painted dome ceiling, with saints and angels all around it.
Then, we went down the street from the church there is this street called Me'a She'arim. It is a Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. They had up all these signs that tell you that you have to be super modest and that they don't like groups to come through and disrupt their neighborhood. A few people who have gone there told us that they got some dirty looks if the girls were wearing pants or if there were a lot of them, but my friends were all in skirts, so we were fine (except I felt a little self-conscious for not having my kippa with me...) and since there were only 4 of us people were pretty nice. We stopped at a bookstore to look for a journal for Katie, and it was cool to see all the books they had- 100% of them were in Hebrew. There were also a lot of little stores and fruit stands, and we even saw a shoe-maker's store, where this guy was sitting at this intense sewing-machine stitching a black leather shoe. All of the little kids' sidelocks were longer, thicker, and curlier than any I have seen anywhere else in the city.
At night, I watched a concert put on by Palestinian children in a special music initiative. It was pretty good!
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