Sunday: From Psychology to PR to Theology

I went to a University Sermon and formal dinner at Harris Manchester last week. Sunday night. Jen had planned to go, but she was not feeling well that day. I told her I was happy to stay home with her, but she encouraged me to go. Said she didn’t want me to miss out just because she wasn’t feeling well. My wife is amazing. I felt bad leaving her at home, but she insisted.

The sermon was held in the Harris Manchester Chapel. It was the University Sermon, which is held only once per term, from what I hear. It was a big deal that it was being held at our college, and I hadn’t been to our chapel before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to do so. It’s a great chapel. Not huge, but reasonably sized. Lots of stained glass windows. Lots of dark wood. Tall ceilings. I met up with Cole and Tim beforehand, so we sat together.

The service was very high church. Very formal. Not the kind of sermon you’ll likely see on YouTube anytime soon. There were a lot of grey-haired community members in the Chapel. I was tired, and as much as I had been looking forward to it, I found myself doing the head-bob through most of the sermon. Fighting off the temptation to fall asleep right there in the middle of the service. I felt horrible about it.

The sermon wrapped up with a prayer, and a song from the choir, and those seated at the front of the chapel in their suits made their exit down the aisle and out the chapel doors. After several minutes, we followed suit, and we made our way to the dining hall for dinner. Tim and I. Cole had other plans already.

Dinner was a good mix of students and community members and friends of the university. The students were definitely in the minority, though.

I sat next to a guy by the name of Guy Fielding. He asked what I was studying. I told him Theology. He asked about my background, and what brought me here. I told him my first degree was in Psychology and Business, and how I had been working in PR for the past four years before making this change.

Turns out he was a Social Psychologist who made the leap to PR. So we had a lot to talk about.

He told me about how he had developed the PR curriculum for the universities in the UK. That he had started up his own PR firm after teaching at Oxford, before selling it to a company in the US and then starting another one.

I told him I tied my tie myself…

Not really. I mean, I really did tie my tie, but I didn’t tell him that.

He was curious to hear what brought me from PR to Theology. So I told him. I told him about how I realized I really enjoyed writing, but that I wanted to write about the faith. In a way that’d help others with their faith.

I told him I had a great job back home. I told him we had to say “goodbye” to some amazing friends and family to get here. I told him how this was something that had been on my heart and my mind for years. And how I had fought it for quite a while. How it really didn’t make any sense for someone like me to be here. But that I just felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.

He seemed to appreciate that. He nodded lots and smiled as I spoke.

Then he asked how I planned to make any money at it. He said no one buys books anymore.

It sounds like a painful question, but I didn’t mind. I appreciated his honesty.

I told him I thought that although we seem to be moving away from reading in the traditional sense, with the introduction of the Kindle and iPad, for example, that I didn’t think people were going to become uninterested in the written word anytime soon.

He nodded in agreement. He seemed to agree, but it could have simply been to make nice. To be British.

I had a great time talking with Guy. About the differences between the two cultures. About communications. About past work each of us had done.

I put my fork down after polishing my dessert plate (an amazing caramel bread pudding with vanilla ice cream), thanked Guy for a great conversation, and I made my way out of Arlosh Hall. I was the first one to leave. I had a sick wife at home to return to.

Tuesday: A Walk with Jen

Jen and I walked home from the Oxford CS Lewis Society Lecture Tuesday night. In the cold night air. Walking and talking. As our breath swirled into the black night’s sky.

I had been having a tough time the past day or so. Doubting a lot of things. Losing faith in why we were here. And just not being sure about where we were going. Feeling bad about coming all the way over here with so many uncertainties. Worrying that sooner or later, all of this that has seemed simply too good to be true is going to come crashing down. Finding myself replaying in my mind something Guy had said several days earlier: “No one’s interested in books anymore. . .How are you going to make any money?”

And I have the most amazing wife.

“When are you going to start believing in yourself, Ryan?” She asked me. “When are you going to start believing you’re supposed to be here?”

Jen spent the rest of the walk home explaining to me why I should be more confident in our place here. And for what the future has in store.

And, that may not sound like a big deal to you, but it is. It is incredible. For this is a woman who has literally put her dreams on hold for the sake of mine. Without complaining. Without throwing a tantrum about it. Simply, and humbly, saying, “this is what we’re supposed to be doing, and I’m going to support you in that.”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for my wife. For, when I’m second-guessing what I’m doing, what we’re supposed to be doing, she’s encouraging me. Even when that dream comes at the delay of her own dreams, even when she struggles with this transition, she’s encouraging me. I married up, to be sure.

If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone considering marriage, or to anyone who is yet to be married, it’s this: marry someone who you look up to. Marry someone who you want to be like. That’s the single smartest decision I’ve ever made.

Wednesday: First Names at Oxford and A package from Grandpa

Oxford is interesting. As traditional a place as it is, in terms of formalities, you couldn’t get away with calling your professor by their first name back home. Not in most cases, at least. And yet, that’s the way it is here. It still feels weird, at times. Even inappropriate. But that’s the way it is.

I found myself thinking about that on Wednesday morning. After asking Rhona a question. We started class with an exam. Like most days. Heads down. Writing away.

Rhona made her to the back of the room. To check something with the lights. And she must’ve noticed there were some students missing that morning as she did. She asked if Augustan is rowing this term as she fiddled with the light switch. Augustan, seated at the front of the room, responded, “No.” Laughter. Rhona’s still having a tough time with names, it seems.

Package from Grandpa

We got another package from Grandpa this week. Probably the fourth or fifth since we’ve arrived. He’s been amazing with that…

More food. Some rain suits to keep us dry. Some thick socks to keep our feet warm. And plenty of other goodies.

Thanks so much, Grandpa!

Thursday: Christmas lights going up and our first Thanksgiving Away

I noticed Christmas lights were being put up around Oxford on Thursday morning. As I made my way back home from the gym. I was glad to see that. They looked great when we were in Bath, and I was looking forward to seeing them here.

I noticed a large Christmas tree going up on Broad Street the week before. I was excited to see things start to look a bit more like Christmas.

Our First Thanksgiving Away

We had been told about a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted here in Oxford when we were at our small group last week. Apparently there’s an American professor (or “Tutor”) here who has been putting this on for the past four years, for Americans away from home. And for British students who want to see what it’s all about.

We decided to go, rather than go to small group. Hoping it might make it feel a bit more like Thanksgiving.

It didn’t. Instead, it seemed only like a painful reminder of what we were missing back home. Although it was kind of funny having to explain to people (the English who were there) what goes into stuffing. And watching others experience pumpkin pie for the first time.

It was all familiar, the food, at least, but it was also just different enough to not feel like Thanksgiving. That and the fact that we were eating with 40 strangers. They were nice enough, but it wasn’t home.

We got back in just before 10:00 that night. We Skyped with our family. Aunts and Uncles. Cousins and Grandparents. They were all getting together, so we were able to see a number of people we hadn’t seen or talked to since leaving. It was great to see everyone again. To laugh and catch up. But it was also tough.

I hugged Jen when we were done. I thanked her for doing all of this, for being over here and missing out on holidays back home. For me. I told her I knew that was a big deal, and that it wasn’t easy.

Friday: Breakfast of Champions, Writing and the Value of Home

After staying up until 2:00 Thursday night / Friday morning, Skyping with family and studying for my Greek exam, I was pleasantly surprised to make it through Greek class without falling asleep. I think I may have even done pretty well on my exam, so that’s a plus.

I caught up with a guy from Greek by the name of Fin as we left class that morning. He’s a member of Christ Church here at Harris Manchester. Site of the Great Hall from Harry Potter. I told him I’d love to eat at the Great Hall sometime. He said he’d love to make that happen.

He told me he realized this morning, while grabbing a Twix and soda for breakfast, that he hadn’t had a true meal from Tuesday to Thursday. “Breakfast of Champions,” I said, eyeing his first meal of the day. Then I realized I hadn’t seen a box of Wheaties since arriving, and that my joke was probably lost on him.

Fin’s a cool guy. Very European. Very much what you think of when you picture a European guy in his early twenties. Large, unkept hair. Unshaven. Very trendy clothes (boots, skinny jeans, scarf, cardigan / sweater). Very chill, and laid back. Quite smart, with a witty humor. With a raspy voice. Like he’s been up all night sharing laughs and stories with friends over an entire pack of cigarettes. The kind of guy who’s probably only here because his parents want him to be. And who likely straightens up when they’re around.

He’s quite kind. The kind of guy who comes off as too cool to care, but still intelligent enough to do quite well, and kind enough to get me into the Hogwarts Great Hall for a meal.

The Greatest Evil…Second only to Religion

I made a cup of tea after Greek. In the JCR back at Harris Manchester. A woman came in after me. She was probably a good 15-20 years older than me. I had overheard her speaking with another student several days earlier in the same room. Discussing nationalism, and its evils. “It’s the greatest evil in the world,” she had said. “Second only to religion.”

I listened to a talk that afternoon. A guy by the name of Dr Peter Williams from Cambridge. Or “Pete,” as he introduced himself to me afterward. Easily one of the brightest guys I’ve ever heard. He talked about the violence in the Bible. And people’s questions about it, such as “How could God command the killing we see in the Old Testament (including children, etc.)?”

His argument was basically that God hates evil, and that He chose to put up with such outright evil and disobedience for only so long (400 years, in the case of the Canaanites), before using a specific people group to wipe out this widespread evil. Evil that included the sacrificing of their own children to their gods. He said that this situation was for a specific time and period, though, and that God no longer  acts in this manner (“to judicially carry out his judgement”).

I caught up with him afterward, to ask him if this point suggested that the God of the Bible is inconsistent. As we’ve obviously had some pretty incredible acts of evil since the Canaanites, and we don’t have other examples of God acting in this way to stop it. He said he didn’t think so, in-between bites of his lunch. Answering my question with little effort.

He pointed toward the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The one where the vineyard Owner decides to pay everyone equally, no matter whether they worked all day or only for an hour or so. He said, “In the case of the Canaanites, their evil deserved their punishment. If God is choosing not to punish such evil at this point, but instead to be more merciful, who are we to complain about His mercy?”

The tea kettle stopped a minute or two after this woman arrived in the JCR. I filled her cup first, before moving to mine.

“Oh, you can fill yours first,” she spoke up.

“It’s no problem,” I said with a smile.

And her words came to my mind, replaying themselves in my mind. “Nationalism is the greatest evil in the world…Second only to religion.”

Religion has its evils, to be sure. And I would have no problem agreeing with this woman, in many ways. But there’s also something quite beautiful about a religion that says: “You deserve this (death), but I am giving you this (life).”

There’s something incredibly humbling and wonderful about a religion that says, “You’ve chosen to make yourself an enemy of God, yet He’s chosen to call you His child.”

A religion that says, “Consider others better than yourself. In humility, serve them.”

This faith is beautiful, when it’s lived out. And it’s a far different life than I’d ever live left to my own devices.

I was thinking about it in class earlier that morning. My faith, while sitting in Greek. As Rhona told a story about a poem written by a homesick man in Russia, while others looked at each other as if to ask, “How does this apply to Greek?…”

I was thinking about the fact that this wasn’t something I chose for myself. My faith, I mean. Nor was it handed to me by my family. They may have introduced it to me years ago, certainly, but that does not mean they were any more responsible for its current role in my life than is someone who first told me about The Alternative Tuck responsible that I return their almost every day for a chicken pesto panini.

Sitting there, in Greek, as Rhona talked about this poem, I found myself thinking about the roots of my faith, and how deep they go. I found myself thinking about the fact that those roots are a gift. For, even if I wanted, I couldn’t believe and desire this faith as I do now. Not of my own accord. I could not force myself to desire this as I do anymore than I could force myself to fall in love with my wife. It’s simply the result of being face-to-face with something so beautiful that the only natural response is to fall head-over-heels in love. And the rest of your life pursuing it.

Lighting of the Christmas Lights

Jen spent the day at a Christmas fair at Oxford Castle with some of her girlfriends on Friday. And helping bake at Vanessa’s place for a Thanksgiving party they were putting on this weekend. Pumpkin pies and pumpkin bars. She had a great time, from the sounds of it. And she’s definitely meeting some gals she can connect with. Makes me happy to know that.

We were meeting up with Cole for dinner and a movie that night. So I met Jen in the city center beforehand. After studying all day.
Apparently there was a Christmas festival of some sort going on. As the streets were packed with people. And vendors. Selling food and crafts. Carnival games and rides had been set up, seemingly overnight.

A reporter from the BBC was doing an interview, and we found ourselves just behind her. So if you saw us on BBC, that’s why.

We found ourselves square in the middle of a Christmas Lighting celebration, complete with a countdown and everything. It was pretty great, and people were certainly in the Christmas spirit. Made it feel a bit more like the holidays.

We fought our way through the crowds to meet up with Cole after counting down for the lighting of the Christmas lights and tree. It felt like standing in the ocean and being pushed back and forth by the tossing waves.

I ended up being separated from Jen, as the crowds leaned this way and that, standing shoulder to shoulder in a sea of people, everyone fighting to make their way either out or in. To see the lights. To ride the rides. To see the parade.

Yep, it definitely felt like the holidays.

Unfinished Writing

I’ve been writing a lot lately. More so than I probably have time for. Journaling, mostly. Little thoughts. On fear. On love. On the change that happens within us when faced with the Good News. Ideas I would normally expound upon at hands&feet at a different time, choosing instead to let them remain unfinished. Like a gift left to open at a later day.

And it’s wonderful. I love writing. And the more I do it, the more I realize this is what I want to do, more than anything else. And this whole experience is revealing that to me.

I love digging through those ideas and putting them to paper, allowing them to breathe and live a life of their own. Seeing where they go. If I can somehow figure out a way to do that the rest of my life, to help others see Him clearly, well, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.

The Value of Home

This is such a blessing. All of this. I am so blessed. Studying at Oxford. Reading, writing and discussing my greatest passion. Living out my dream. Every day. Here in this beautiful city. With my wife.

Once you’ve got a routine down. Once you’re able to cram 30 Greek vocab terms the night before an exam. Or memorize several charts’ worth of Grammar rules. Or become adjusted to sitting down for seven, eight hours straight and punching out an essay. Once you’ve got all that down, this is really a wonderful place to be. The people. The buildings. On a sunny day like this, it hardly seems fair to want to be anywhere else.

And yet, it has its difficulties, certainly. For it is not home. No matter how wonderful the people may be, they are not family. They are not the friends you’ve known for ages. And the places, no matter how breathtaking they are, are not the places you turned to to escape the pains of life. To find Him. Those old comfortable spots. And holidays here are not holidays there. For, no matter how great the food and company may be, it is simply not the same when you’re not surrounded by those you love.

I’m learning so much being here. About Theology. About other cultures. About myself. But I’m also learning so much about the value of home. And about what makes a place home. Your thirst for home is something that not even the very presence of your dreams can satisfy. For home is something greater altogether. It is people. It is places. It is relationships and food and smells and feelings and emotions and memories. All woven together into this incredible thing we call home. And there’s nothing else like it.

Thanks for reading. We love and miss you all.

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