Wednesday: Jen’s return to Oxford

Jen returned here to Oxford on a Wednesday. Around noon. Which meant I had time to make it to Greek before taking off to meet her at the airport.

Lyndon had offered to drive me to Heathrow again so I could be there when she arrived. I quickly took him up on that offer. I decided not to make a surprise out of it this time, though. I let Jen know we’d be there when she got in, knowing she’d be making the trip by herself and that’d make things a bit easier on her.

It’s a good thing she was expecting us, too, because had I decided to surprise her again we very well may have missed her…

Her flight was scheduled to arrive at noon that day. The same flight as last time. And so we got to the airport at that time. Thinking it’d take her a while to get her bags and get through customs. When we surprised her (and Steve) last fall, we didn’t see them until about 12:50. That was not the case this time.

By the time we parked our car and made it into the airport to meet those arriving, it was 12:15. We took a look at the arrivals monitor and it said something about baggage, which we assumed meant those on the flight were collecting their baggage. Thinking we still had another half hour or so before we’d see Jen, we thought we’d grab a cup of coffee and find a seat where we could spot her coming out through the double doors.

Turning to make our way over to one of the cafes, Lyndon and I were talking when I stopped mid-sentence, spotting Jen standing in the middle of the crowd, right where we had just come from, with her luggage beside her.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Hun, you’re here!”

I quickly wrapped her up in a tight hug and gave her a kiss.

“Hey, we didn’t see you,” Lyndon said.

“Sorry about that, hun,” I said. “You must’ve arrived early, huh? How long have you been waiting?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “We did arrive early, yeah. I’ve been here for about 20 minutes now,” she said.

That’s when my heart sank.

“Oh no, I’m sorry, hun. We thought we still had some time left. We were just going to go grab a cup of coffee. Would you like to join us?” I said with a smile.

“Yeah…” Jen replied, rolling her eyes.

We made our way out of Heathrow with Jen’s luggage in tow and made the hour-long drive back north to Oxford. It was a sunny day, and it made for a welcome return to Oxford for Jen.

Lyndon helped us with getting Jen’s luggage into the house before saying goodbye.

“Hey, thanks again for the ride, Lyndon,” I told him. “I know how valuable that time is for studying and being with your family, so thank you.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” he said with a smile.

I told him we’d love to give them a date night out some time by watching their two boys, Joshua and Joel. He seemed to like that idea and said they’d have to take us up on the offer.

I carried Jen’s large bags upstairs, and she quickly found her way under the covers of our bed. It was close to 2:00 in the afternoon at this point, but Jen hadn’t had much sleep before leaving, having stayed up for several late nights with her new niece Khloe back home, and then just not sleeping much on the plane. She was thankful for the opportunity to get some shut-eye.

“It’s so nice having you back, hun,” I told her, kissing her forehead.

She smiled gently, eyes closed, blankets pulled up tightly beneath her chin.

“I’ll just  be downstairs getting some work done, and I’ll wake you up for dinner if you’re not up before then,” I told her from her bedside.

It wasn’t easy for Jen leaving home. With her new niece recently arriving. And having spent a lot of great time with her family. Coming here was a major sacrifice for her. And I so appreciate her willingness to leave it all behind to support me in this. To continue to encourage me in all of this.

I see God’s selfless love in my wife, and I am so incredibly thankful for her. But I’ll let her tell you about it in her own words. . .Here’s Jen:

My Dad, Leann, and Khloe took me to the airport on Tuesday morning (Feb 15) so I could return to England and be with Ryan again.

The hard part about heading to the airport that morning was knowing just how long it will be until I get to see my sister again. By the time June comes, and I’m back in the States, this will be the longest time I’ve ever been away from my sister.

Over this last year, we’ve become closer than I could ever have imagined. I guess it helped that she was so sick from her pregnancy that she couldn’t get away from me… Just kidding. It was great, though. With me not really working a whole lot this past year, I was able to hangout with Leann and be there for her during her pregnancy, and afterwards as well.

When I came home for Christmas, Leann and I got to spend even more time together. She wasn’t as sick as she had been before (she had been really, really sick before), so we were able to do more together, which was nice. Then, after Christmas, Leann and I were doing all we could to get little Khloe out so Uncle Ryan could meet her before he had to head back to Oxford. And because Leann was just miserable. We did lots of walking and going to Aunt Gwen’s house so Leann could use her treadmill (when it grew too cold to walk outside), drinking raspberry leaf tea (because apparently that’s supposed to get a baby out), bouncing, and anything else that was suggested to her. With such a difficult pregnancy, we thought surely she’d come early, but the joke was on us, because Khloe decided to come nine days late.

From the time Khloe was born, I pretty much moved into Leann and Ben’s house when I was back home. I practically lived there for the first month, before returning here to Oxford. I was able to watch Khloe during the night, which I loved. It was so nice to have that opportunity to bond with her, and it allowed Leann & Ben to get some sleep because they weren’t able to during the days. It was fun to watch my sister be a mom. I know she is going to be a great one.

Saying those goodbyes at the airport, I was a wreck. I think I pretty much cried off and on until I left Chicago (where I had a layover on my way to the UK). Don’t get me wrong, I was so excited to see my husband. It had been so long. But when you have had the year that my family has had, it is just hard to say goodbye.

Being able to Skype with my family from over here really has been a saving grace, though. I get to talk with them almost as if we are in-person, and I get to see Khloe as she grows. Also, I’m really thankful that in a month and a half I will get to see my parents, because they will be coming over for a visit with some close family friends of ours (the McDowell’s). While they’re here, we’re going to visit Rome and Paris, spending four days in each city. I’m so excited for those travels, and to be able to show them the community we’ve been living in here.

On both my flights (first to Chicago, then on to England), I was able to have the full row of seats all to myself. I wish every flight could be like that. I think being able to lay out from Chicago to London was the only way I was able to fall asleep.

My plane was early arriving to London, and going through customs was a breeze, thankfully. I was a little worried about that whole customs process, just because it was my first time doing it by myself. The only bummer about my plane being early, though, is that when I got my luggage and walked out to all the people waiting for their loved ones, mine wasn’t among them…Needless to say, I was a little let down, especially considering it had been so long since I had seen Ryan, and after a full day of travels by myself. I was ready for something familiar.

After twenty minutes or so of sitting on a bench there in the airport, I saw Ryan and Lyndon. I was so excited to see them but it took me a little while to get to them because they didn’t see me and I had two heavy bags, as well as my camera bag, backpack (which was quite heavy, as it was full of books and my laptop) and my purse. With all my luggage, it was a little hard for me to move around.

Ryan and Lyndon were just on their way to grab coffee when they saw me, because they thought they still had to wait for me. So they were very surprised to see me standing there. At that point, I was thankful for their help with all my luggage! After taking my luggage off my hands, Ryan gave me the biggest hug.

Once we arrived safely to our flat, I went straight to bed. Well, after talking with Ryan some. I believe I slept for about three hours, I was so tired. Ryan woke me up for a nice Valentine’s dinner that night, which he had made for me. If it wasn’t for the nice dinner I probably would have kept sleeping.

Thursday: A birthday surprise

Hey, it’s me, Ryan. I’m back. So the day before Jennifer arrived was Valentine’s Day. And since we didn’t get to spend it together, I made her a nice meal that day she arrived. As well as picking up some flowers and a gift. (The one thing I forgot was wrapping paper, which explains the Christmas trees on the wrapped gift…).

It was so great to have that time together again. Dinner at home. Just the two of us. It had been a very long time.

The day after she arrived, that Thursday, was her 25th birthday. So we had a lot to celebrate when she got in.

I told her for her birthday that I had made dinner reservations at Fire & Stone Pizza in the city center. To celebrate. Just the two of us. She looked a bit disappointed.

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that. Pizza for your birthday.”

“Well, yeah, I love pizza, but I guess I just thought we’d do something a little nicer for my birthday.”

Jen didn’t know I had a little surprise waiting for her at Fire & Stone. So I played it up that I just thought she’d really want pizza for her birthday. She didn’t seem to mind too much.

We made our way to the city center that evening. Leaving the house right around 7:00. And made the old familiar walk to town.

We arrived at the restaurant about 15 minutes late, but I found the hostess and gave her my name.

“Sorry we’re late, but I have reservations for ‘Ryan.’ There should be people waiting at our table already,” I said in a hushed voice, so that Jen couldn’t hear me.

“Oh yes, just down the stairs, the last table on the left,” she said, pointing down the stairs.

“Great, thanks,” I said, passing by and leading the way toward our table.

Jen had no idea what was coming, and her face showed it. It wasn’t until we got right next to our table that she realized, “Wait a minute, I know you guys!”

A handful of our good friends had arrived there before us and were waiting on Jen to arrive.

“Surprise!” Vanessa shouted from the far end of the table with her hands thrown high into the air.

Jen was surprised, all right, and it was great to see that huge smile wash over her face. It was great for her to see just how many people were waiting for her to arrive back here in Oxford. To see just how many people were excited to see her. And to have them join us in celebrating her birthday.

(From left to right: Max, Christine & Rich, Rob & Vanessa, Minhee, Jen (of course), and Cole).

Cole grabbed the camera from me and told me to sit by my wife so we could have one with me in it, as well.

We had a great time celebrating Jen’s birthday together. The girls loved hearing about Jen’s time back home with her new niece, commenting on the photos they had seen of her online. And Jen loved telling them all about it, while the guys on the other side of the table talked Theology. And I had my wife by my side again. It was a win-win on all accounts.

I’ll let Jen tell you a bit about her birthday, in her own words… Here’s Jen:

For my 25th Birthday, I gave myself the gift of sleeping in. It was great. I got out of bed around 3:00 or 3:30 that day. I had told Ryan to be prepared for me to sleep a lot the first couple of days, while I caught up on my sleep. And that’s exactly what I did!

Ryan had made dinner plans for us at Fire & Stone for that night. As we were walking there, I quickly remembered how warm you can get with all the walking. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, I felt like I could take another shower.

We went downstairs to our table and there sat a bunch of our friends: Vanessa & Rob, Minhee, Rich & Christine, Cole, and Max. And to top if off, Vanessa made me my favorite cake: rainbow chip with rainbow chip frosting. Apparently Steve had shipped the cake mix and frosting out so that I would be able to have it for my birthday. I really do have some great friends. It was so nice to be able to catch up and see how everyone was doing.

When Ryan and I got home that night, I got to open up my present from him. It was a very nice white frame, and he got it so I could frame a photo of Khloe in and have here.

I absolutely loved it! The rest of  my birthday present is our trip to Paris and Rome.

Hey again. It’s me, Ryan. Yeah, so we talked and laughed for a long time with everyone that night. At Fire & Stone Pizza. And after we all finished off our pizza, we asked for some smaller plates and some more forks. For birthday cake.

Vanessa had e-mailed me a couple days before Jen arrived and said she was wanting to make a birthday cake for Jen and bring it along. I told her I thought that was a great idea, and I knew Jen would appreciate it.

The day Jen arrived, literally just before I left the house to head to the airport with Lyndon, a package arrived from back home. It was from Steve.

Steve had been saying how he felt bad he wouldn’t be able to be there with us to celebrate Jen’s birthday. He’s always been really great about helping make that a special time. The first year he celebrated Jen’s birthday with us, he stayed up all night making her cake. I turned in around 2:00 that night, after helping Steve for a while. But he stayed up, to put the finishing touches on it. For anyone who has ever seen Steve’s work, you know it’s amazing. And it was.

The next morning when I woke up, I told Steve Jen was going to love it. And that she’d be totally blown away. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned. We celebrated Jen’s birthday on Lummi Island that year. At this amazing home right on the water. And, on the way there, someone pulled out in front of Steve, causing him to slam on his brakes, and sending the cake smashing against the side of the box it was being carried in. It pretty much completely destroyed the work he had stayed up all night working on.

When he first told me, I thought he was joking, knowing how hard he had worked on it. He wasn’t. Fortunately, it still tasted great, and so we still used it to celebrate Jen’s birthday that night. Jen didn’t mind.

Steve knew how much Jen loved rainbow chip cake for her birthday, and that we wouldn’t be able to find that here, so he had taken the time to pack that up and send it over. So that Jen could have it for her birthday.

While Jen was sleeping that afternoon after the long journey from home, I ran the cake mix supplies to Vanessa’s work, so she’d have them for the next night when we celebrated Jen’s birthday together.

And it turned out great. We all sang “happy birthday” to Jen, and we enjoyed the birthday cake, compliments of Vanessa and Steve. It was great to celebrate Jen’s big day with friends, even though we were so far from home.

Sunday: Pub-Thai & baptisms

We met up with Max & his wife Michelle and Rich & Christine at a Thai place Sunday night. For dinner. Before church. The six of us hadn’t gotten together before, and we had been looking forward to Jen arriving so we could do that.

The place we met is an old pub that was bought not too long ago by a family who have made it into a Thai restaurant. It’s pretty funny, actually, because it was clearly built as a pub, but it has hints of Thai decor scattered throughout. It’s the most pub-like Thai restaurant you’ll ever find, but the food is great. Jen ordered the phad thai (her staple when we go out for Thai food), and I ordered a cashew dish. With pork.

We had a really good time catching up with everyone over dinner, and it was a nice chance for Jen to get to know Michelle and Christine a bit better.

St. Aldate’s, the church I’ve been attending since returning, is right next door, so it made things convenient that night. Rich & Christine and Max & Michelle also attend St. Aldate’s, so we all went to the 6:00 service after we finished up our pub-Thai dinner.

I’ve really loved it here at St. Aldate’s. I told a friend back home I really feel like my soul comes alive when I’m worshipping here, leaping for joy inside of me during the songs. And the people have been really great, too. Several times I’ve had people introduce themselves and ask to hear about what brought me there, having not recognized me before. I really do love it there. Jen had been with me to St. Aldate’s once before we returned home, and I was excited for her to return so we could attend together again.

The church is right in the heart of the city, so you’ll often see a homeless person sitting side-by-side with an Oxford student. And I think that’s great. I think it’s a good reminder heaven isn’t going to be quite as homogenous as we’d imagine.

The evening’s service was a baptism service, which I always love. The former owner of the marketing firm I used to work at back home is fond of saying, “You can do everything right, but if you never tell anyone about it, they may never know.” In a roundabout way, I guess that’s what baptism is about. It’s about telling others, “I believe Jesus did this really great thing. For me. For you. And I want to be a part of that. I want others to know about it.”

I always get excited seeing people take that step. To share what this faith means to them with others.

And the service was great. There were two gals and one guy being baptized that night. The two girls were students here at Oxford. And the guy was a little bit older. Maybe in his mid-30’s. And he worked nearby.

The one girl student and guy who went first shared about their backgrounds. And about why they wanted to take this step to become baptized. They both seemed super comfortable speaking in front of everyone. Even with the church packed full of people. Neither one of them seemed to mind. They both did great, not appearing nervous in the least. I assumed it was just an English thing. That perhaps the British are just natural-born public speakers.

But that wasn’t the case with the next girl. The last one to be baptized that evening. She was incredibly nervous. And it was clear to everyone.

Her hands were shaking, and she was breathing deep as she took the microphone on-stage. She started briefly and then had to turn her back to the audience to collect herself. The Vicar of the church (pastor) smiled at the crowd as she did. My heart went out to her.

She turned around, facing the audience again, and she still looked quite nervous. But she turned her eyes to her paper and began reading. Quite quickly. About what had brought her here.

She told us, while reading her notes, how she had grown up in a family of devout Atheists. And how her parents were quite proud when, on one occasion very early on in school, she was removed from her private school classroom for asking how dinosaurs fit in with the story of creation. She told us how her parents must’ve proudly thought she’d be the next Richard Dawkins at that point.

She told us about how she had come here to Oxford. Proud of herself for the accomplishment, and excited for her studies. But then, how she had surprisingly found God in all of this. How she had come to realize His love for her, and how she had formed a deep faith in Him. How she wanted to hand her life over to Him, and how she wanted others to know about it. It was an incredible story. Hearing about the amazing change in her life and her attitude toward Him. I really just don’t understand how that works, apart from His work in one’s life.

It put tears in the corners of my eyes, hearing her describe the change that had taken place since arriving here.

“I still have questions about dinosaurs,” she spoke into the microphone from the church stage, less nervous now, “But I want to follow Him.” Everyone laughed, and the sound of clapping echoed off the church’s stone walls as she made her way into the baptismal pool.

Monday: A surprise phone call

Since Jennifer had returned to Oxford, I had been working from home. Not wanting to leave her to spend those first few days back here in Oxford at home all on her own. On Monday, though, I made my way to Harris Manchester after Greek. To the library. To get some reading done.

I was still thinking about something Rhona had said that morning in Greek as I rode my bike to college after class. She had asked one of the girls in class to read aloud her translation of John to the class. As we had all been taking turns doing. But this girl had said she’d rather not. Not today.

Rhona didn’t press her. She said she was welcome to take a pass if she’d prefer, but she encouraged her to not get in the habit of doing so.

“You ought not hide your light under a bushel,” Rhona told her, speaking in that soft English accent with her familiar Grandmother-like voice. “You’ll regret it when you’re 55 or 60.” She smiled at this girl from the front of the room after saying so.

I liked how Rhona put that. And it made me think of this girl who had been baptized at St. Aldate’s the night before. It made me think about how easy it would have been for her not to do so. Particularly in light of her parents’ beliefs. I was glad she hadn’t decided to hide her light under a bushel, though, as Rhona put it.

Entering the library at Harris Manchester, I was greeted by Katrina. The assistant librarian. Katrina’s great. She always has a smile on. And she always greets you by name in a soft-whisper as you enter through the large, wooden double doors of the library.

And it was nice coming back to the library. It felt a bit like returning home. Being greeted by name. And returning to my old familiar spot. I love it there, at the Harris Manchester Library, seated from my familiar spot beside the window on the second floor.

I got a good amount of reading done that afternoon. And, checking my phone later on, I realized I had a missed call at some point during the day. I stepped out of the library to check my messages, and I was surprised to hear the voice of Deb on the message. Deb’s the Warden at the Kilns. The former home of C.S. Lewis. I had met her before, on my trips out to the Kilns, and at the C.S. Lewis Society dinners and meetings, but we really hadn’t talked too much before. I was surprised to hear from her.

She said she had something she wanted to run by me in her message. To see if she might be able to get my help with something. And she asked me to give her a call when I had a free moment. I had no idea what that might be, but I gave her a call back, and I heard her voice on the other end a few seconds later.

She sounded happy to hear from me, and, after a bit of small talk, she asked if I might be interested in giving tours out at the Kilns at some point.

I was stunned. She explained that they needed a bit of extra help, and she thought I might be interested, knowing my interest in Lewis.

“Really?” I asked. “Well, yeah, that’d be great. When were you thinking?”

“This Saturday?” she said, almost hesitantly.

“Oh wow… Yeah, that’s quick. Well, I’d love to help you, but I should check with Jen first and make sure that’s okay.”

Deb was fine with that, and I told her I’d get back to her either later that night or the next day.

Then she asked what Jen was up to. And if she might be looking for any work.

I laughed, and then I told her Jen had actually planned to start looking for work that day.

“Oh really?” she said. “Well, I was wondering if she might be interested in some administrative work here at the Kilns. I could certainly use her help!”

I told Deb I had been praying Jen would be able to find a job when she returned to Oxford without too much trouble. And one that would be a good fit for her. I told her this sounded great, and I was sure Jen would love the idea.

“Well, yeah, I don’t know why I was calling you other than the fact I was praying about it and your guys’ names came to me,” her voice said on the other line.

And it put a smile on my face, thinking about how incredible everything has lined up for us through all of this. Since arriving here in Oxford.

From great friends and community to job opportunities. It’s all so much more than I ever could have imagined. And I am so thankful for what He is doing here.

I am so thankful for being the recipient of His blessings. I am so thankful for the opportunity to be able to sit back and say, “Look, look at what He is doing here.”

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