Sunday: Tacos and laughs at Rob & Vanessa’s

I’ve been meaning to catch up with Rob & Vanessa since returning to Oxford from the holidays. But things have been busy. For me and for them.

But they sent out an e-mail this week. Asking a group of friends over for mexican food. On Sunday night. I wasn’t doing anything, and I’m not one to turn down a free Mexican dinner. So I wrote back, telling them I was looking forward to it.

After a full day of studies, I grabbed my jacket and hopped on my bike, racing through the city center in the cool, black night air on my way to Rob & Vanessa’s. It’s about a 10-minute bike ride from our place.

I locked up my bike out front and made my way to their apartment. Rob’s doing his MBA here at Oxford, and so they live right across from the Business school. In student accomodations. Which is basically an apartment complex full of business students. And usually spouses. Seems like everyone I’ve met in the MBA program is married.

Another couple was making their way up the stairs just ahead of me.

“Going to Rob & Vanessa’s place?” I asked.

“Yeah, you too?” the wife asked.

“Yep. Hi, I’m Ryan,” I said, holding shaking the guy’s hand first, then then his wife’s.

“Tyler,” he said.

“Hi, I’m Lauren,” she said.

“Good to meet you guys.”

Rob and Vanessa’s apartment was full by the time we got there. Several other couples were talking in the living room, while Vanessa finished preparations for dinner with a few other people crammed into their tiny kitchen.

Most of the people there that night were from the MBA program. And by “most” I mean, I wasn’t.

I talked with Tyler and another guy in the living room while the final touches were being put on the dinner. Tyler was telling us about a trip to London they just returned from. For a Business school dinner. At the Oxford & Cambridge Club.

I had never heard of such a place. But apparently it’s where Oxford & Cambridge alumni can spend loads of money on a membership so they have a place to book a room from or eat dinner at when they’re in London. Seemed like a pretty good deal to me.

Apparently it was an alumni dinner, which current MBA students were invited to. Tyler told us how they had interpreted that as an opportunity to go have dinner with alumni who have been in business for a while, and talk about job opportunities. But apparently that’s not what happened.

“It was a very high table event,” Tyler explained. “You had the big guys at their table, all the alumni on one side of the room, and then all of us current students off in our own corner, to ourselves.”

Apparently they were asked not even to talk to the alumni, which I thought was pretty funny.

Vanessa let us all know dinner was now being served a few minutes after that. Everyone’s conversations quieted. Heads bowed. And Rob blessed the food for us.

Vanessa warned us about the salsa Tyler and Lauren had brought. To be careful. As it was quite hot. The fact that it was orange was a good sign of that, I thought.

“That’s how we like it in Texas,” Lauren said. “I’m used to it. I eat this stuff on my cereal.”

I told them I had been born in Texas, before moving to the Northwest.

“Oh yeah? Where abouts?” Lauren asked.

“Just outside of Dallas,” I told her. “Grand Prairie.”

“Oh yeah. All right.”

I always say “just outside of Dallas” whenever I’m asked where I was born. Out of habit. Because no one from outside of Texas has any idea where Grand Prairie is.

We dished up our plates. Chicken tacos (with gluten-free chicken, Vanessa informed us). Rice. Beans. Chips and salsa. And took our seats around Rob & Vanessa’s living room to eat and talk.

I dipped a chip into the orange salsa, just to give it a test ride. Vanessa wasn’t joking. It was ridiculous.

We got onto the topic of TV shows. A conversation I’m always lost in. Lots of laughs were had about this or that episode of The Office. People gave their thoughts on how Lost had ended. And whether they thought it resolved or not. I kept waiting for Friday Night Lights to come up. But it never did. So I enjoyed my taco and pretended to know what was being talked about.

After a while, the conversation changed to travel. As one of the couples there that night had literally arrived with their luggage in-tow from their trip to Paris.

Lauren and Tyler told us about the trip they had taken to a museum while in London. And how Lauren had her picture taken hugging the Rosetta Stone. And how she went back the next day with someone else and took her to see it. After pointing to a large stone behind a piece of glass, Lauren insisted that wasn’t actually the Rosetta Stone, and that she had gotten her picture with it the day before. And how she had been able to touch it. But, sure enough, there was the plaque, showing pretty clearly this was the Rosetta Stone.

Lauren was pretty confused, but on the way out, she passed by the hallway she had been before, with “the Rosetta Stone” she had gotten her picture taken with. And that’s when she noticed the sign above the door of this hallway, which read, “Hall of Replicas.”

We all laughed. Wondering how many people took their picture with “the Rosetta Stone” or other ancient artifacts and then went home never knowing any better.

“Why would they even have that at the museum?” I asked, in-between laughs. “That must just be for the Americans who they know are going to want to touch everything and not know any better.”

Monday: Two for two on the headlight

I was talking with Steve on Monday from Harris Manchester’s library. On Skype. It was good to catch up with him.

I told him my bike headlight had been stolen at the end of the last week. And that I was glad my Grandpa had sent me an extra so I didn’t have to go out and buy a new one.

I told him I figured if this one got stolen too, that I’d just duct tape one of the many flashlights my Grandpa had sent us to the front of my bike as a substitute. He told me he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

I worked late into the evening that night. And at one point I swore I heard snoring. Even with music playing in my earphones. I turned around to find the guy behind me with his head down on his desk snoring away. It was the same guy who several days earlier started singing to the music playing in his earphones, without realizing. It was the second time in a week this guy made me laugh out loud in the library.

I left the library late that night. After reading all day. To head home and fix something for dinner.

And I was less than impressed when I found my bike where I left it that night. Minus the headlight.

“Well, it’s a good thing I have plenty of flashlights at home, I guess,” I thought to myself while unlocking my bike and riding away.

Tuesday: A beautiful day in Oxford

Tuesday was a beautiful sunny day here in Oxford. It wasn’t the first sunny day we’ve had this term, but this day was just beautiful. And actually warm.

I grabbed a panini for lunch and decided to eat outside. It was the first time I’ve been able to do so since arriving. I sat beside a tree across the street from Harris Manchester. Squinting my eyes as I ate my panini, staring up at the college in front of me.

“It really does look like a castle,” I thought to myself while enjoying my sandwich, as if suddenly seeing the college for the first time, in the sun.

The clouds overhead were shot through by the trails of airplanes, and it was a gorgeous day to be enjoying a panini outside, under the bright blue sky.

Wednesday: Apologetics & Talking Lewis over medium rare beef

I recently joined a Christian Apologetics group here in Oxford. The idea is to get together and give talks on different questions people might have about the faith. “How can we believe in God if pain and evil and suffering exist?” “Are all religions basically the same thing?” “Has science disproved God?”

The idea being that this will be good practice for us to go out and give such talks elsewhere, after we’ve given each other feedback. I loved the idea. Where better to find people to shoot holes through your talk than here in Oxford, I figured.

I talked this Wednesday on the topic of pain and suffering. And how we can believe in God, even in the midst of such evil. And it went really well. Particularly since I hadn’t had a chance to really put my talk together until around 11:45 the night before.

One of the guys there is basically in charge of training and organizing people to do these kind of talks here in Oxford. He told me afterward that he listens to a lot of speakers. That’s all he does, actually. And that I was in the top percentage of those he’s heard.

“Easily in the top 50%, but pushing into that Champion Level,” he said, motioning his hand up as if to make his point.

“Oh wow,” I said. “Well thank you.”

I really enjoy getting together with those guys. For these talks. This was just my second time, but each time I feel more and more that this is something I’d love to do more of.

Dinner with Michael Ward

From there, I raced off to meet up with Michael Ward. Michael is the Chaplain at one of the colleges here in Oxford. And he’s also on the Theology Faculty. He’s most well-known here for being the resident C.S. Lewis Scholar. And for writing a couple books on Lewis that have done really well, especially back in the States. He’s the same author who was interviewed by my cousin KC on the radio last term when the new Chronicles of Narnia came out in theatres.

I had met Michael pretty early on last term at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society events. Really nice guy. Incredibly bright. And after hearing Jen was going to be back in the States for a bit yet, he asked if I’d like to grab dinner one night. So we did.

I met him at St. Peter’s College that evening. It was my first time there. It’s a beautiful college. More modern than many here in Oxford. And on the small side. But I really liked it. He showed me into their chapel for a quick look. And he bragged a bit about their choir, which is apparently one of the best in Oxford. He told me he would have shown me around the chapel a bit more, but there was a cellist practicing on the far end, and he didn’t want to disturb him.

We walked to a restaurant around the corner from St. Peter’s. A french place. I didn’t catch the name, but I had noticed it before. It looked really nice, from the street. And it looked really nice from inside, too.

Very modern, with smiley waitstaff.

We found a seat by the window and began looking over the menu. I asked Michael if he had any recommendations. He did. He recommended the prime rib dinner for two, which gave him 10 extra respect points in my book.

“But it’s a bit on the spendy side,” he said. “Particularly for students without any money.”

He asked me how much I was planning on spending. And then he said he’d take care of the rest if that sounded good to me. I told him that sounded great to me.

The waitress came a few minutes later and took our order. When she asked how we wanted it prepared, Michael told her medium rare. Another 10 respect points in my book.

I had a great time getting to talk with Michael. I had only talked to him in short conversations before. I enjoyed hearing a bit more about his interests in Lewis. About his own work. About why he thought Lewis was more popular in the States than here in the UK (“He’s English, through and through, but he’s also quite direct and pointed in his writing, and I think the American audience appreciates that,” he said. “I think people forget Lewis was born in Ireland, and that certainly plays a role in his tone.”)

He told me how this idea for his books had come to him while he was working on his PhD. How he had been planning on writing something totally different, but then this thought just came to him one night. Totally unrelated to what he had been working on. Not even close to what he had been thinking about. And how it had completely changed his life. How he had been given the opportunity to travel all over the world to talk about it. And how he saw it as a gift from God, rather than a reflection of his own clever mind.

I told him I really appreciated hearing that. There are far too many people who want to take all the credit for how clever they are. Particularly when it comes to their work.

He asked me about my own interests in Lewis. And so I told him. I told him about reading “Mere Christianity” for the first time as a sophomore in college. And how that had literally changed my life. How I realized you don’t have to sacrifice your intellect to approach this faith, and how Lewis had shown me that. I told him about the crazy journey that brought us here, and how I was in Oxford because of Lewis.

Michael seemed to appreciate hearing about that story, as he smiled a lot while listening. And nodded in agreement.

He then asked me if I had realized the Oxford CS Lewis Society was losing its President to graduation after this year, and if I had put any thought to that.

I was taken aback by his question, but I told him I had realized that, yeah.

“Well, I wanted you to know your name has been discussed for that role,” he told me from across the table, wearing a slight smile.”

“Really?” I said, with big eyes. “Wow… Well that’s, that’s great.”

“Well, what do you think?” he asked me.

“I think it’s an honor to even be considered for that role,” I told him. “And I think I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything else I’d rather get behind here in Oxford.”

Again, I think he was happy to hear that, as his slight smile had now grown into a full-blown smile.

He told me it wasn’t his decision. That it was the current President’s decision. But that he thought I’d make a great fit, and that he’d be talking with him.

I was blown away. It wasn’t that long ago I was dreaming about coming to Oxford because of this man. Because of C.S. Lewis. And now I was being considered for the role of President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. It was at that point that I felt my chair lift off the ground a little bit.

Friday: A scene from Harry Potter at New College

I was on my way to Harris Manchester on Friday afternoon to punch out my Patristics essay when Emily asked me if I had taken a look around New College yet.

“No, I haven’t,” I told her.

New College isn’t actually very new. It was established in 1379. So, apparently it was new around that time.

It’s on a street I walk by after Greek every day on my way to Harris Manchester, but I’ve never actually been in to walk around. Emily asked if I had five minutes to check it out. She said she had just walked through it the other day and it was pretty amazing. Realizing I really haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities to see so many of these amazing buildings, I took her up on it.

And I’m glad I did. It’s an incredible place. It’s enormous, for one…

…but it’s also really, really old. And it shows it, in spots. One of the older, inner walls still has slots for archers, for example.

Emily told me that one of the scenes from Harry Potter had apparently been filmed here (the’ ferret scene’ in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). In the courtyard. What they call “cloisters.”

It’s a pretty cool spot. The cloisters. Old, arched stone hallways, with a stone floor underfoot, surround a large, grassy courtyard. And a large tree sits off in a corner of the square. With a bench underneath it.

It really was an incredible spot. And no one was around on this morning. No one except a handful of birds chirping in the tree overhead.

As we left New College, and made our way back to Harris Manchester, I couldn’t help but feel in awe. Of this incredible place. And all the buildings I walk by on a daily basis without checking them out. Without taking them in. The colleges aren’t open to the public, but all I have to do is show my card if I’m asked.

I really need to do a better job of taking advantage of all there is to see here.

Saturday: In Lewis old Chapel

Michael sent me an e-mail at the end of the week. Asking if I’d like to join him and David (the current Oxford Lewis Society President) for a chapel service at Magdelene College (pronounced “Maw-delene”) that Saturday night. At the college where Lewis used to teach.

I told him that sounded great. And that I had been looking for an excuse to visit Magdelene.

It was a beautiful night Saturday. It had been a clear day, so the stars seemed to be shining even brighter than normal in the dark night sky overhead. David arrived just as I did, so we entered the grounds at Magdalene College at the same time. And instantly I was taken aback.

The square courtyard was surrounded by these gigantic stone walls that reached high into the sky. It was amazing. Michael crossed the square and greeted David and I shortly after we arrived.

“Hello gentleman,” he said in his deep voice, wearing a smile.

“This really is your first time visiting the old hallowed halls, huh Ryan?” he asked me.

“Yeah, it is.”

“Well, you are in for a treat,” he told me.

He was right. The chapel and the service were both amazing.

Entering the candlelit room, I felt like I was going back in time. The wooden ceiling loomed high overhead. The walls are ornately carved wood. And candles lined the rows and rows of seats. With their high backs. The seats are tiered, and they look toward the center of the room, so that you’re looking at those seated on the opposite side of the room as you. The choir entered in their white robes shortly after we arrived. And they delivered an incredible performance.

They have this service every night, apparently. But Saturday nights are particularly good, Michael told us. I kept thinking how much I wanted to bring Jennifer there with me, to see and experience all of this.

“Next week,” I thought to myself. “Next week.”

After the service, Michael pointed toward a plaque on the wall, behind one of the seats at the end of the room.

“C.S. Lewis,” it read. Amazing. I was sitting in the same chapel Lewis sat in for all those years he taught here at Oxford. Amazing.

As we made our way out of the chapel that evening, Michael introduced me to the Bishop who had given the message that evening.

“This is Ryan Pemberton,” Michael said to him as we shook hands. “And he’s going to be our newest President for the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society.”

“Really? Well that’s wonderful,” he said to me with a smile. Apparently he’s a former President of the Society himself.

It was news to me, as we hadn’t talked about it anymore since dinner earlier in the week. And so I was taken aback. But also elated. Incredibly excited. I’m sure I was grinning from ear to ear like a little boy. But I didn’t care. I was in Magdalene College, and I had just been named the next Oxford C.S. Lewis Society President. I was ecstatic.

Tuesday Night: Even more excited

I was so excited getting that news Saturday night. I shared the news with Jen when I got back in. And she was incredibly excited for me as well, knowing how much that’d mean to me.

But, as exciting as that news was, I have even more exciting news… In about 10 hours, I will be greeting my wife at the London Heathrow Airport. With the biggest hug I can manage.

I haven’t seen her in more than five weeks at this point. The last time we went that long without seeing each other, I was a freshman in college. My first time around. Around eight years ago.

I’m terribly excited to see her again. And to be together. It’s been an incredible time being back here in Oxford, but it’s just not the same without my other half. I’m looking forward to enjoying this time together as the Pembertons again. And the next time I wake up, I’m looking forward to doing just that.

Thanks for reading.

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