Whatever is Admirable

The sixth virtue in Paul’s Philippians 4:8 list is “whatever is admirable.” When we say that we “admire” something, we are speaking of it as something we aspire to, something we want to be like, and something that is worthy of respect and honor. When we fill our minds with things that are admirable, our thoughts help point us in the right direction of growth towards the Lord. Like the other virtues, God epitomizes everything that is admirable. Admiration also represents the things we ponder and think about all the time (that’s what we do with admirable things – we think about them A LOT).

What is admirable? Virtuous and wise people are admirable. Godly men and women are admirable. Humility, love, compassion, patience – these are all admirable things. So let’s fill our minds with them.

Whatever is Lovely

God is love (1 John 4:8,16). So anything that is of God is lovely. And all things lovely are of God. This includes, but is not limited to, the love we share between one another in various relationships such as friends and family. In fact, all people are God’s creation and we are called to love them. So other people are lovely. And we should think about other people – how they are all beautifully made in God’s image. We should think about them before ourselves (Phil 2:3-4).

What else is lovely? God’s creation. The nature around us. Anything that reflects the image and glory of God. For example, it is a lovely thing to attend a wedding and celebrate the coming together of a husband and wife. On the other hand, it is not lovely to watch a husband and wife hurling insults and hurtful things towards one another. When we think about the wedding and ponder what is going on, our minds and hearts are pointed towards God and His glory. When we ponder hate and hurtfulness, our hearts and minds are pointed away from God.

Whatever is Right

Paul tells us to think about things that are right (Phil 4:8). What is right?

There is right and there is wrong. As Christians, we believe in a divine Creator who is also the moral standard for the universe. Without a moral standard, how can we know right and wrong in the first place? Does a right and wrong exist at all? Humanists will argue that there can be moral standards without God, but unfortunately, there are as many opinions on that as there are humanists. Which one do you listen to? Granted, Christians have divided and disagreed over the centuries about how to interpret God’s moral standards. But at least we all agree that there is one imparted to us from outside this finite universe in the first place.

To think about things that are right is to think about God’s moral standards as opposed to our own selfish desires. Thinking about things that are right means chewing on truth, pondering justice, and seeking to do the right thing as opposed to the wrong thing when faced with a decision. How do we know what is right? By studying God’s Word, by staying close to His heart, by fellowshipping in the body of Christ, by listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and testing our conclusions among “the counsel of many” (wherein plans succeed –  Proverbs 15:22).

 

Finally!

Lots of young people are graduating from something right now. I remember my final month of high school – it was the longest month of my life. It seemed that the teachers were just trying to fill time and space when all of us seniors had already checked out and preparing for college or whatever was next.

Then there was that feeling of “finally” at the end of it all. The relief that the hard work was over. I could move on to what was next.

In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, he also says “finally” towards the end of the letter (Phil 4:8). But he uses a different nuance of it than a graduating senior would. Sure, he is wrapping up his letter and finishing the hard work of composing heart-felt didactic letter.

I believe the nuance Paul has in Phil 4:8 is that of a summarization of most (if not all) of what he has said up to that point in the letter. Here is what he says:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

This is not just a stand-alone endorsement of having good thoughts. This is Paul “bringing it home” by summing up the whole letter and saying “in view of everything I’ve said thus far, think about these things…”

What has Paul discussed in the letter so far? A lot. Here are just a few highlights:

Chapter 1 – Paul writes while in chains (I’m assuming it was tough to always have positive thoughts); Paul’s prayer for the Philippians; “to live is Christ and to die is gain”

Chapter 2 – The humility and emptying of Christ; the exhortation for his readers to also be humble and to “shine like stars

Chapter 3 – “Whatever was to my gain I now consider loss for the sake of Christ”; pressing on towards the heavenly goal of perfection in Christ and becoming like HIm

Chapter 4 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6, 7 NIV)

I am especially struck by the fact that Paul was writing while in prison (or at least while chained up if not physically behind bars). Yet he still encourages the church to think about things that are noble, right, true, and pure. He surely had first hand experience struggling with bad thoughts. But he learned through that process that when we think about God rather than on earthly things, there is a promise – “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9).

I’d like to explore the different words that Paul uses in this list of virtuous things to think about. I’ll do so over the next few posts.

The Death of Jesus

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus died before the other two men crucified next to him (John 19:33). John explains that the Jews did not want Jesus’ body hanging on the cross during the special Sabbath, which was the day following the crucifixion. So Pilate gave special permission for the bodies of the three men to be removed before the Sabbath.

It is important to note the difference between “crucifixion” and “death” here. Crucifixion is being hung on a cross, which more often than not leads to death. One could conceivably survive a crucifixion (some naysayers of the resurrection suggest Jesus survived it). One way the executioners could speed up the death on a cross (and virtually guarantee it) was to break the legs of the crucified. Without good legs, one cannot hold themselves up on the cross to breath whatever good breaths they can get in while hanging there.

And that is exactly what the Roman soldiers did to finish the job of killing the crucified men next to Jesus. But when they got to Jesus to break his legs, they noticed something remarkable – Jesus was already dead. Instead of breaking his legs, they jabbed his side with a spear – resulting in a spilling of blood and water (John 19:34).

I say remarkable because we could imagine Jesus, who worked many impressive miracles (including raising the dead) outliving the two mortals on either side of him. But they actually outlived Jesus on the cross. There is an old saying (not directly Biblical) that Jesus died of a broken heart. One could make an argument that he did – both physically and spiritually. His physical heart would have burst by the sheer trauma of crucifixion. His spiritual heart was bearing the sin of the world, crying out to His Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34).

This weekend, before the glorious Resurrection Day (which is tomorrow), we remember the death of Jesus and what He went through on our behalf. His suffering was so great and violent that he died before men like you and me in the same situation. He emptied Himself. He lowered Himself (Phil 2). That is the extent of His love for us. And He did it all in obedience to and for the glory of the Father.

I think Jesus dying without having his legs broken speaks to His amazing love for us. Instead of trying so hard to live on the cross – he gave Himself up for us. It also fulfills the prophecy (as reported by John) found in the Old Testament about his bones not being broken (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12; 34:20).

Have a Happy Resurrection Day tomorrow! Picture below is The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio (1602-3)

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Palm Sunday Lesson

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Make a “Palm Sundae” in someone’s palms to open up your Palm Sunday. The kids love it and its a fun way to transition into teaching about the real meaning of Palm Sunday.

Here is a brief activity you can use on Palm Sunday in your Children’s Church service. It is designed to be humorous and then lead into teaching the kids the real meaning of Palm Sunday.

Title: “Palm Sunday”

Scripture:  John 12:12-15 NIV

“The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Supplies:  

  • Ingredients for an ice cream sundae and a serving spoon. No bowl necessary!

  • A large trash bag or tarp (a large trash can will work too).

  • (optional) a palm branch.

Summary: You will energetically create an ice cream sundae in the open palms of another person (either another teacher/volunteer or a brave kid with clean hands). You are so thrilled that today is Palm Sunday and you tell the kids that Palm Sunday is the day you get to make an ice cream sundae in your friend’s palms and then eat it. Finally, a “wise person” (another teacher) interrupts you after your shenanigans and advises that Palm Sunday is not about ice cream in palms; it’s about worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ as King. You then proceed to teach the kids about the real story and meaning of Palm Sunday.

Preparation: Gather ingredients for an ice cream sundae. You can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. At least get the ice cream, some chocolate syrup, and some whipped cream. But if you want to go all out, get cherries, sprinkles, a banana, and anything else you like on sundaes. Avoid any nuts or peanut butter products since there may be a child with a nut allergy.

If you can get your hands on a palm branch, whether real or fake, that will help when you get to the real meaning of the story. Have the palm branch hidden from view.

Call up a volunteer (either an adult or a brave child) and tell them to hold out their palms over your trash bag/tarp/trash can (just something to catch dripping ingredients). Tell them to hold together their palms facing up…..

Presentation: With all your energy, tell the kids that you can’t wait for Palm Sunday every year because you get to make an ice cream sundae in your friend’s palms. “That’s what it’s all about kids, right?!” Some will try to interrupt you and correct you, but just keep talking and start making that ice cream sundae. Have fun with it and describe each step as you go. Use your spoon to scoop out some ice cream, then add some syrup, then all your other ingredients. If your friend starts complaining about cold hands, tell them it’s time to eat the sundae! They have to eat the sundae right out of their open palms. The kids will love it!

Finally, a wiser person interrupts you after you’ve milked the moment for all its worth. This other teacher will open up the Bible and read John 12:12-15 to you and explain that Palm Sunday has nothing to do with ice cream. It has everything to do with Jesus as King.*

Proceed to teach a lesson about the real meaning of Palm Sunday, using your Palm Branch as a visual aid. Back then, palms symbolized victory and the fact that Jesus came in on a donkey showed that he was a humble King. Now, we can celebrate Jesus as the one who conquered death and as the King who reigns forever.

*Sources for historical background:

Pat Alexander and David Alexander, Zondervan Handbook to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 634.

L.A. Losie, “Triumphal Entry,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 859.

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Jerusalem IMAX Review

Jerusalem_205x305Yesterday, I saw the IMAX film Jerusalem at the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta. Put out by National Geographic Entertainment, it shows both the bloody history as well as the beautiful peoples and cultures who live there today.

I spent a semester living in the Old City of Jerusalem when I was in college for a study abroad program. I also got to re-visit Israel with my family last May for a few weeks. So this was a film that I was greatly anticipating ever since I heard it was coming out.

The film is a mere 42 minutes long, but it is fully packed with stunning fly-over shots, three-dimensionally moving panoramas, and everyday-life Old City action that really does make you feel like you’re shopping for fresh pita bread just inside of Damascus Gate. The soundtrack is driven by a recurring orchestral riff akin to tracks found in epic action movies (think Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack).  The only sense it was missing was smell (think a mixture of Old City garbage, ferrel cats, incense, and baklava), but I guess IMAX technology hasn’t reached that level of development yet.

I have to admit, there were a few moments when I wanted to shout out loud “Oh Yeah!” when I saw these beautiful arial views of Jerusalem from various angles. But I kept my thoughts to myself out of respect for the other movie patrons. My eyes raced around the wraparound screen to find the spots where I lived, studied, and visited multiple times. It was a real thrill, and I will come back to see it again (and bring others with me).

It opens with a brief overview of the history of Jerusalem (starting with a nice 19th Century David Roberts painting of the city). The narrator explains why the city has been the centerfold of history, religion, and humanity – brutally fought over more so than any other piece of real estate on the planet. The reasons, of course, include being positioned at the crossroads of the world’s major continents, the elevated bedrock which served as a high holy place for worshippers, and the water coming from the Gihon Spring.

Then we learn about the three major monotheistic religions that call Jerusalem home: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (in that chronological order). Each is given equal attention and the unique culture of each is shown in a positive light. Three young women, each one raised in their respective faith community in Jerusalem, tell the story of their faith from their perspective. The film then displays how these women’s lives (and also their entire communities) live so close yet connect so little. The movie closes with the three ladies, well, I won’t spoil it for you. You have to go see it yourself!

I love Jerusalem the city. The main reason is because it holds so much meaning in the story of my faith as a Christian. But I also love it for the architecture, archaeology, the various people groups, the cultures, the politics, the inescapable intense global issues, and the gorgeous scenery (might I say heavenly?).

The Gifts of the Wise Men – Children’s Ministry Lesson

Rembrandt - Adoration of the Magi (Holland, 17th century)
Rembrandt – Adoration of the Magi (Holland, 17th century)

Yesterday, I taught on the wise men from the Christmas story in Matthew 2. I always love teaching on this part of the Christmas story because there is so much more in the text than we usually learn from a simple nativity scene.

Here are three things that might help as you assemble your lesson if you’re teaching this story…..

First of all, the wise men probably arrived in Bethlehem sometime between when Jesus was two months old and two years old. The text says that they came from the East (probably anywhere from Iraq to India) after the baby was born, first to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1). The travel time alone is at least two months. So the idea that they came at the same time as the angels and the shepherds (like most nativity scenes show) is a faulty amalgamation of the Matthew narrative and the Luke narrative with no regard to the historical timeline. Jesus was probably two years or younger at this time because Herod wanted to kill all baby boys two and under when he found out he had been outwitted by the wise men, who never reported back to Herod about the whereabouts of the child (Matthew 2:16).

Secondly, we don’t know how many wise men there were. The text simply says that there were wise men from the East (Matthew 2:1). So there could have been two or five hundred (or thousands). We get the number three from the number of gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Thirdly, I love showing the kids some modern day examples of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were practical baby shower gifts. The gold was simply money that they could use for travel, lodging, baby needs, etc. The frankincense was a type of incense one could burn as an act of worship/offering at the temple – something Mary and Joseph would certainly want to do upon the birth of their new baby. And the myrrh was a healing aloe – perfect for baby rashes, cuts, and bruises.

So as modern day examples, I show the kids some gold colored coins (the US presidential dollar coins are perfect for this), candles for the frankincense, and aloe/lotion for the myrrh. Then I juggle all three things (naturally). After all, Mary and Joseph did have a lot to juggle as new parents 🙂

Merry Christmas.

Children’s Ministry Lesson: The Ten Plagues

red waterI have taught Children’s Church lessons for over a decade and I think yesterday’s lesson on the ten plagues was one of my favorite lessons to ever teach.

Please don’t think that I love dark and dismal things like plagues. They really are pretty negative. Biblically speaking, they were real judgements carried out on lots of people, ultimately leading to death for many.

Thankfully, we are separated by centuries from these ten plagues described in the book of Exodus. That is enough separation of time for me to feel free to use some creative object lessons to help kids remember the story and ultimately – the main point (which has to do with Jesus Christ).

So we had a little fun in re-telling the story. Here’s what I did with each of the plagues to help the kids learn and remember them:

  1. Blood (the Nile turned to blood): I lined the kids up behind a trash can. They each came up with a popsicle stick and a small cup of water. They then dipped the stick (representing Aaron’s staff) into a bottle of red food coloring and transferred the stick to the water. And whahlah: the water turns to blood. We did it right over the trash can so they could throw it all away immediately since red food coloring tends to make some serious stains (like blood 🙂
  2. Frogs – I juggled some stuffed frogs and then threw them at the kids. If you don’t know how to juggle, that’s fine. You can just toss stuffed animal frogs at them!
  3. Gnats – I sprinkled pepper on a child’s arm.
  4. Flies – I brought out my fly swatter and pretended to swat all the flies around me.
  5. Livestock – I juggled some stuffed animals (cow, sheep, horse) and then threw them at the kids. Feel free to skip the juggling part again.
  6. Boils – I put dozens of stickers all over the skin of a volunteer kid (face, arms, neck, etc.).
  7. Hail – I threw marshmallows at the kids: first small ones, then jumbo ones; this was by far their favorite plague.
  8. Locusts – no object lesson here, I just told the story (I guess I needed an object lesson break 🙂
  9. Darkness – I gave all the kids blindfolds and they blindfolded themselves; then I gave them simple commands like waving their hands in front of their faces; from that we discussed how difficult life can be when you can’t see anything (and pitch darkness over a whole city can cause a great deal of havoc).
  10. Firstborn/Passover – I painted some red paint on a piece of wood and spoke about the angel of darkness passing over the homes of the people with the lamb’s blood over their doorstep; I also had all the kids lay down and pretend like they were sleeping – then we pretended it was morning and all the first-born children had to stay down while the others could wake up; it was a good visual of how some kids made it and others did not; I also gave them some unleavened bread to eat.

This then led to the most important part of all – the fact that Jesus is the Lamb of God. And his blood was shed so that we can be set free (as Moses and the Israelites were set free after the Passover). I explained to the kids that I do not think it was a coincidence that Jesus died on the cross at the end of Passover week the year he died. That was the week that Jewish people celebrated the exodus into the wilderness and the angel “passing over” any homes with the lamb’s blood. So also should we have the lamb’s blood (i.e. a relationship with Jesus Christ) and that is the only way we believe we can be free from the judgement of God due to sin.

Want more lesson ideas for Children’s Ministry? Sign up for my free newsletter here and I’ll keep you in the loop for my best free resource ideas and materials!

Visiting Israel with a Toddler

My wife and I celebrated our 10 years of marriage this past May by visiting Israel and the West Bank. It was a two and a half week trip and we have a daughter who is two. We decided that we did not want to be away from her for that long of a trip, so we brought her along.

We’re so glad we did, because visiting Israel with a toddler is an adventure that is memorable and well worth it. There are some unique challenges, but we would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

First of all, this was a self-made trip/tour. We did not go with a large tour group. We bought our tickets from IAD to TLV, stayed the first week in Jerusalem and the rest of the trip driving around the country in a rental car.

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On the roof of our first accommodation for the trip: the Ecce Homo Convent and Guest House in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
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A lion statue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
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Dressing up at The Citadel (David’s Tower) next to Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.
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At the beach in Haifa.
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Reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

So here are some tips/things we learned about traveling half-way across the world with a toddler (some of these are specific to Israel sites and others are general travel-with-a-toddler things):

1. In-flight movies are your best friend on long-haul flights. We try not to let our toddler watch too much media (we don’t even own a television). But those little monitors on the transatlantic flights are a dream. Our daughter watched Lady and the Tramp three times in a row.

The flight attendants also gave her a little bag of toys and crayons. Of course, we also brought toys and books, but the movies were the real winner. It kept us sane and prevented an already uncomfortable situation from turning chaotic.

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ahh, an entertained child
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“I really think the rice and chicken pairs well with the apple juice, would you agree?”

2. Bring a stroller AND an ergo carrier/sling/wrap. That’s what we did – and it worked. We also have a frame hiker backpack, but that is a little bulky, so we left that at home in the States. The Ergo carrier did the same trick (our daughter is on the lighter weight of her age) and was a lot easier to travel with. That way, when we went out for the day on foot (often in Jerusalem), we had the choice of using the carrier when the terrain was bumpy (as it is in the Old City and around the valleys) and the stroller when we walked around the New City. We just planned out our days so that we left the stroller in our room when we knew we were going to do mostly Old City and archaeological sites for the day.

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At Dulles airport before checking in for a long trip!
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Bethlehem.
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“Can I take a nap yet?”
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“Please don’t fall, Daddy.”

3. The financial cost of bringing along a toddler is next to nothing (after paying for the plane ticket, of course). She was over two, so we paid for her plane ticket. But after that, she cost us about zero dollars or shekels. She was free at all museums, tourist sites, public transport, and even most restaurants (because the food comes out Mediterranean style – lots of generous plates for the table to share). She was also no extra charge at all of our lodging situations (which were convents, guest houses, and a bed and breakfast).

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Caesarea.

 

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Standing guard at Nimrod’s Fortress in the Golan Heights.

4. Speaking of lodging, we stayed at five different places over the course of the trip (Ecce Homo Convent in Jerusalem, The Bridgittine Sisters in East Jerusalem, The Masada Guest House at Masada, The Quiet Place B&B in Tiberias, and Stella Maris in Haifa). All five had something comfortable for our daughter, whether a folding crib or a spare mattress that we could lay on the floor – all for no extra cost. We simply checked ahead of time and made sure they had the crib or mattress available.

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On the front lawn of the Bridgittine Sisters Monastery on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.

5. In terms of safety and security, we had no problems. Like any large city around the world, you need to keep an aware head on your shoulders after dark, but we weren’t out after dark with our daughter much anyway. We felt extremely safe the entire time we were in Israel AND the West Bank. The vast majority of people on both sides of that 1967-border are very friendly and look out for guests and visitors. It helps if you smile and don’t look scared all the time. Israel has some of the best defense and security systems in the world. And though you wouldn’t think it, Israel’s murder rate is LESS THAN HALF that of the USA.

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“Mommy and Daddy want to see archaeological remains at Tel Dan, but I just want to play in this huge tree!”

6. Our daughter also scored lots of bonus trinkets from friendly shopkeepers or restauranteurs. Locals loved meeting her and interacting with her (more so than in the USA). That made us feel very welcome and comfortable in the country.

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A yarn doll from “Mary” at the Nazareth Village.

7. One of the most meaningful aspects of bringing her along was watching her take in the entire experience. I don’t think this will escape her memory as she grows older. We have pictures and videos, and she even talks about things she did in Israel (3 months later). Some friends of ours gave us some kids books about Israel as a welcome home gift. She loves reading those and recalling her trips to Masada, The Dead Sea, The Sea of Galilee, Haifa, and Jerusalem.

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On the Sea of Galilee.
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The gardens at the Ba’hai Temple in Haifa.
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The Israel Museum.

8. We did go through Hezekiah’s tunnel with her (in the Ergo carrier). It was a little nerve-racking at first (the water came up to my waist at one point and the walls of the tunnel are VERY narrow – not to mention pitch darkness). But we finally got her a working flashlight and that calmed everyone down. We used the flashlights on our phones since we didn’t bring our own battery flashlights. It was an adventure, but if I did it again, I’d probably pass on the toddler-on-your-belly-through-Hezekiah’s-tunnel thing.

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Hezekiah’s tunnel with a toddler.

9. We also hiked the snake path to the top of Masasda at 4:30 in the morning with our daughter on my back in the Ergo. That was a wonderful experience – especially when I was passing other hikers and they made comments to me like, “show off….” What I do regret is taking the snake path back down after 2 hours on top of Masada. We should have just splurged and rode the cable car down. Either way, there is a huge complimentary brunch waiting for you at the Masada Guest House if you stayed there the night before.

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“I got up at 4:30am for that.”
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Masada at sunrise was well worth it.

10. Naps. So we were bad parents and didn’t always lay her down for a nap every afternoon. Hey, we were on the other side of the world and wanted to make the most of our time. Of course we were attune to her needs and made sure she was happy and healthy. But on our last full day in Haifa (towards the end of the trip), we laid her down for a nap in the convent around 2pm. We thought we could have a nice family outing that night after her nap. But that didn’t happen. Our daughter didn’t wake up until 8am the next day! That was her way of saying, “If you’re not going to give me a full daily nap on this trip, I’m just going to make up for it by sleeping for 18 straight hours!” She was bushed – and so were we. We just chilled in the room that evening and rested up before heading to a big day in Caesarea the next day.

11. Car seat. We rented from Eldan Car Rental, which was a great choice in my opinion (except returning the car to the Eldan lot at TLV was a little confusing due to some detour signage). We were able to add a car seat to the rental for some $30 extra, which was well worth not lugging a car seat with us halfway around the world.

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The car seat was only about $30 extra on the whole week of a car rental.

12. Sun and Water. We brought plenty of water and water bottles with us everywhere. One of the shopkeepers in Jerusalem told us that a trick some people use with toddlers who don’t drink enough water is to mix in some juice or powder drink mixes. We indeed tried that and I think it helped her stay hydrated! As for the sun, we made sure she had sunblock and a head covering or a wrap for her body or the stroller when the sun was too much.

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The wrap helped in the heat at Herodian.
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Our tour guide at Qumran.

I hope this helps anyone out there considering taking a toddler to Israel. I say “do it!” We made lots of fun family memories and it was well worth every penny and every pound of weight on my back.

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One happy camper.
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One of my favorite pics from the trip. Looking at candles together in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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