Finding beauty in everyday life is the purpose of a friend of mine. Praising the creative Creator for the arts is the search of my friend's heart. My friend is an artist himself, so he has an eye for all things beautiful and wants to focus on appreciation for such finds. God made us this way. We like pretty thoughts, pretty smiles, pretty sunsets, pretty foods, pretty words. Our students will meet in Amsterdam soon to fly back home to their families. Most will explore a bit of the city before the flight. My family is now among the people who find beauty of all sorts in The Netherlands.
We first find beauty at Keukenhof Garden. The tulips have been on my list, so we schedule the adventure. They are at their peak, and the paths are crowded with spectators. The flowers are showing off today. Their varieties are endless. Their colors are intense. The blue tulips trick my eyes to see a brook. The yellows make me think the sun is on the ground. The whites take me to innocent times and thoughts. The reds remind me of Christmas, even in the springtime. The pinks and corals invite adoration and remind me of my friend whose yard is a purposeful, precious gift to the neighborhood. And the green lawns send me home in my mind. I could spend a lifetime in these gardens with the people I love, never needing a change of scenery. Heaven has myriads of tulips, I'm certain. My eyes are full of color and of God's creation of nature.
Using centuries-old methods, people in Delft, about half an hour outside of Amsterdam, still create Delftware. We tour the factory and showroom. Blue and white pottery is my favorite. I'm in the number one "pretty things" place in existence, as far as I'm concerned. We are educated on how the pieces are fired, painted, and fired again. We see the traditional designs and modern ones. Artists daily paint pieces that will be in homes and cherished through the years. Next month is our twentieth anniversary. China is the traditional gift. We are in The Netherlands, so a tulip vase is the natural choice to commemorate such an occasion. I mention that my mother could spend an eternity here, and we talk about our thankfulness for my daughter' relationship with all of her grandparents. I tell my daughter that I'll likely pass down our new tulip vase from Delft directly to her daughter one of these days and tell her the story of the purchase, thinking already of my future granddaughter that I'll spoil. This earned me a look and a, "Mo-oooom...you're going to skip over me?" You know the tone. "Yes." I smile back. I get my enjoyment of blue and white from my mother. My kitchen at home favors her own. All of a sudden in my mind's eye, I'm in Mississippi chatting with Mother, watching Daddy cook. My memories spill over. I'm full and satisfied. Funny how blue and white beauty can fill me up.
The obvious beauty of Van Gogh's impressionist paintings speaks for itself. In Amsterdam's museum headquarters, people from all over the globe wait in a long line that curves around the entrance to soak in his works. We slowly meander through the museum dedicated to his art and contemplate his mind and his ability. Van Gogh cut off his own ear and eventually took his own life, so we are not assuming when we know his mind was troubled. But despite his struggles, his talent still shines today. We all would paint like Van Gogh if we could claim his gift. And we all have gifts of some sort. My imagination of Van Gogh's life in those years sails from being scared to bring brave. He faced critics and scoffers but his success lasts through time. Ours can, too. Impressionism was a bold new method of expression. My brain is full today of influential people in my history books and in my own life who have made me better along with the world around them.
Anne Frank's hiding place is not beautiful on the eyes. But the courage of her family and the other people who hid is extraordinary. They looked at death straight in the eye and fought. People who aided them by bringing food and supplies were just as courageous, if not more so. Touring this place takes me back in time and makes me pray that I'll have such courage when I feel as if I'm surrounded by giants. Courage and focus on the only One who is absolutely constant is the answer. He gives us glimpses of heaven when we're ready. And one day, our reward will be right before us. Until then, we will face our battles (and they will come) with bravery and confidence that we are in the right team and that warriors are fighting alongside us. My spirit is full today of encouragement from Anne Frank's words and her parents' decision to persist.
Before we leave Amsterdam, we attend a symphony concert. The concert hall is beautiful with boxes lining the walls above us, making me wonder who bought the first class seats. The moldings are significant. I see name plates honoring musical composers throughout time. The lighting is sparkling, waiting to dance. After the musicians enter the stage, they tune their instruments and wait. The maestro enters. His gray flowing hair makes me think he's a young Einstein. He raises his baton and commands attention and takes us all on a ride. Individuals take strings, horns, and flutes and then master their technique to make pretty sounds. But when talented individuals come together, they create an absolute masterpiece that transports the rest of us to a musical place that words can't wrap around. This conductor works with men and women to create and share beauty for our ears. I feel like I'm flying. Music truly is the universal language connecting us all if we choose to hop on the ride. My heart is full of love for my high-school band and the people with whom I worked to create something special; for Mrs. Cindy, my forever piano teacher; for Mrs. Lewis and Kalypsó, Ann-Clayton's piano teachers who are taking her further than I could on my own and who expose her to different types of music; for my friends that I made in the concert choir during that introduction to Harding, giving me an instant family when I moved away from home for the first time to be a freshman at college; for my own mother who first introduced me to music while I sat at her side at the piano keyboard during my growing up years, making me want to be like her in this and every way; and for my present church family in Searcy, Arkansas, where traditional a-cappella four-part harmony fills the air with praise for Him when we worship together. Music turns individual chaos into united, almost indescribable loveliness. Music takes us soaring together.
Oh, we hit the beauty-jackpot when we decided to search for it in The Netherlands. Beauty takes many forms here. I'm certain there's more to uncover. Amsterdam and the surrounding area gives us layer after layer of beautiful life and experiences. We will come back here in our hearts for a long, long time.
It's tough to assign words to describing an Israel experience. This is my attempt.
Walking on the Mount of Beatitudes
First, it's much more than a trip. It's an institute of learning, reflection, challenge, and growth. I've been in my position here long enough to view the Israel excursion as a pivotal point in the HUG semester where one has the opportunity to make long strides in one's own journey of faith and in one's interactions with the Father. No, one doesn't particularly need an Israel experience to grow as a Christian, but the experience can be nothing but beneficial. From my point of view, it's big. It's a turning point in many students' lives and continues to be in my own.
Garden on Gethsemane, Temple Mount
Secondly, our time here is strongly academic. We attend lectures all day on site with a college professor and archeologist who has become our friend for whom we pray. He's meant much to Harding over the years, and we are fortunate to know and admire him. Our brains are full. Childhood Bible stories have come to life because we now have places in which to file the facts in our brains. Our eyes take in the maps, our nose takes in the smells, our ears take in the sounds, our feet walk the path, and we are now able to categorize in our brains the facts of the past about which our parents and teachers have told us. And we're learning about the current politics and modern culture that shapes the thoughts and interactions of the people here - the secular people, the Muslims, the Jewish orthodox, and the Christians. It's complicated like layers of an onion. Much like our own country's citizens, Israelis wear their scars like we wear ours. There's hurt, frustration, joy, pride, and variation in thought and practice. We are definitely in the present as well as the past. Our guide says that the logic of faith is more convincing than secular logic, which is special if you know him and his story. Christians choose to take the faith jump even before coming here, but it's here that I've seen students' minds and hearts explode with something like joyous proof.
Eating St. Peter's Fish, Sea of Galilee
Thirdly, we are having fun. We rub Dead Sea mud on ourselves getting a one hundred dollar spa treatment and then go ease back to float in the thirty-three percent salt water. We take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and visit the surrounding towns in the region. We hike down to underground water cisterns and also up to panoramic views, taking in the varying landscapes of this place - some the green of the Galilee region, some the brown of the desert, some the turquoise of the Sea. We read Jesus' sermon on the Mount in the place where He said the words, feeling that the Bible stopped five minutes ago when our eyes share the experience with our ears and hearts. We wander the confusing streets in the Old City of Jerusalem, shopping for souvenirs. We bravely eat new foods such as falafel and shawarma and appreciate new tastes. Diving into a new culture is fun and exciting, and we love our time here!
"My father's faith is becoming my own," a student told me yesterday. And today another student said to me, "I was expecting God to be bigger here than He was before, but I'm realizing that's He's been with me all along waiting for me to more fully see Him--just like He was and still is for His chosen people. He's always been constant." That's the joyous proof. That's the goal of all parents, teachers, and mentors. That's what HUG is all about. My family and the faculty here with us consider it an honor to be part of this particular chapter in our students' lives.
SEC T-shirts with Hebrew Writing, Girls in Crazy Pants
Guest blogger - HUGer Morgan
We don’t really have anything like the Porto Rafti Market back home in Decatur. I mean there are places to buy local produce, but it’s doesn’t have the pop up shop feel where it comes once a week on a specific day and that's when everyone goes out to purchase the food items they need. I loved the environment of the market, and the fact that we had to buy an item of food really helped give me a true experience of what it is like to interact with locals in this way. They were all so helpful and kind, which is something I really appreciated as I was nervous trying to buy oranges in Greek.
While we were at the market, I was thinking about how cool it was and how it was so different from back home, and I realized that this is just another way that Greeks develop community with one another. They grow these products and catch these fish and set up stalls for their products that line this one specified street, and they all do this together as a community. They share with each other and talk together, waiting to sell their products but are also ready to recommend the strawberries or oranges that the vendor two stalls down from them has brought to the market this week. They know each other and work together to sell their produce. They are a community.
When I am back in the states, I just go to WalMart, grab what I need, go to the self checkout, and leave as quickly as possible. It is not an experience filled with a lot of social interaction, and I don’t really give any thought to where the food that I am purchasing came from or the hands that tended to it while it grew. That isn’t an option here at the market in Porto Rafti. I was face-to-face with the people that grew these oranges and had the opportunity to show them that I appreciated their work through purchasing 2 kilos of the oranges they had picked from their own trees that very morning. Even though they probably didn’t think anything of it, the interaction we shared was important to me, and it is an experience that I will remember for years to come.
Guest blogger for HUG is my daughter, Ann-Clayton, whose blog is here.
Last weekend, we went to the famous Greek island of Santorini. It was so relaxing, with our group having no set schedule. The first day, my family and some students hiked from Oia to Fira, taking in picturesque views. At one point, I was wondering if I would ever arrive in Fira. The uphill trek was exhausting, so we took what my mom called, "nature appreciation stops." Crazy winds made me discombobulated! Finally, we saw the golden arches in Fira. Not kidding - we ALL ate and sat for a long time at McDonald's.
I loved exploring the hilly, stair-stepped streets of Oia, our home base for the weekend. Several places that I recognized from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants stood out to me. The house that Lena stayed in, the port where she met Costas, and the blue domed churches all made me excited to be right where Lena was in the movies!
Also in Oia, listed as number two on the "Europe's 10 Most Beautiful Bookstores" list, Atlantis Books is packed with first-editions of classics and books normal people can buy haha! It's easy to spend a lot of time in the cute little shop.
Since we were on Santorini in February, work crews were busy getting the town ready for the summer tourists. Painting houses and repairing tiled pathways, the men worked into the night. These guys use donkeys to haul tools and supplies to and from their projects, and the donkeys leave their evidence, to say the least. It was cool to see this behind-the-scenes action that tourists don't typically see.
Santorini is amazing, and I would recommend this island to anyone who travels to Greece for sure. Put Santorini on your travel list!
Near Athens is the most important land to the Greeks - the location of the battle at Marathon and the tomb of 192 soldiers who perished there when the Athenians beat the Persians. Standing around the model if the grounds where the war was fought, we hear of the protective armor and warfare of the day, the ships that were use in the Greek navy, and the story of the battle strategy itself considering that specific geography. We consider that if this battle had gone the opposite way, the course of history would have been changed.
The drive to Marathon Lake is pretty. Olive trees' silver shimmers on the roadside hills, and the cypress dark green shoots up into today's cloudy sky. We fill the restaurant quickly because the day is chilly. Students order cappuccinos and catch up on journaling. Someone pulls out a deck of cards. Fun chatter and laughs fill the air. A handful even catch a quick shut-eye.
Silas plans relays for us at the Marathon Stadium. We complete like we mean business and then take a lap around the track.
There's a special restaurant outside of the city that's owned by a cousin of a friend of ours. This traditional Greek taverna has tables lined up, set beautifully with bread baskets waiting for us. The salad might be the best I've ever had with feta and dill added to the greens, tomatoes, olives, capers, and homemade croutons. The tzatziki is definitely the best I've eaten loaded with chunks of cucumber, making it taste fresher than ever. Sausage is also brought to us. The potatoes taste like Grandmother's, and the main course choices are pork, chicken, or beef. A band begins playing and the locals begin arriving around 10:00PM, and that's when the party gets cranking. One student remarks that this is in his top five meals of his life. We're getting a good, healthy dose of family here at HUG. Family is what HUG is all about.
Students take classes designed to overlap each other throughout our HUG semester. Including the study of historical humanities, modern cultures, Bible, and communication, our classes are designed to run together. We present them as a plate of spaghetti and contrast that image with one of steak and potatoes; steak and potatoes go well together, but they are entirely separate things. Instead, our classes are purposefully molded together inside at the classroom lectures and during our experiential learning when we're out and about.
On our current Northern Greece tour, we make stops in ancient Philippi, Basilica of Saint Lydia, Aristotle Square and the agora and the Fair Gate and the Holocaust Memorial in Thessaloniki, the Tribute to Paul and the Jewish synagogue in Berea, and the tomb of Philip II in Vergina. At each site and during the bus rides in between, our favorite Greek guide, James, fills our ears and heads with information and images of ancient times. On top of our classroom time on campus, James explains the writings of the Bible in its original language and in its cultural setting. Opportunities for learning are abundant. We hear about a few language issues that have been mistaken in translation. There are Greek and Roman and Jewish nuances that we simply don't know because of our own distance from that world. The audience to whom Luke writes Acts is different from the 21st century American individual. Those people would have known these language and cultural customs and understandings that we must be taught. Sticking out to me today is the discussion of the Roman centurions in Jesus' time. These aren't just common Roman soldiers. There were leaders among the strongest army and government of the day. Their men were loyal to them. During mid-day, if a centurion said, "It's midnight," then his followers loyally reply, "The sun must be wrong." The centurions were highly respected and their word was held as truth. Therefore, a centurion who wanted Jesus to heal his daughter or a centurion who stated, "Surely this was the Son of God" carried a bit of weight in those times. I wonder how many people were influenced by Cornelius. I wonder how God uses those who, at times, think they are unworthy or incapable of being used to do His will because of their own sin or their own self-doubt. We need to refocus - not on ourselves - but on Him.
This semester is about stretching, learning, being open, being exposed to differences, challenging each other, and becoming sharper and more aware - of different people, different thoughts, different ways of living and loving those around us. May we all focus outward as we enter our semester studies and adventure around this world together, expanding our minds and hearts along the way.
Harding University in Greece