Tuesday: Nietsche for breakfast and “Think Week”

Tuesdays have been my lecture days this term. Which means I spend a good chunk of each Tuesday in the Exam Schools (where all the lectures are held). I start off with God, Christ & Salvation at 9:00. Then I have Historical Jesus at 11:00. And I wrap things up with Intro to Paul at 12:00.

For the most part, I’ve really been enjoying my lectures this term. Apart from God, Christ & Salvation, I suppose. The lecture is being taught by a Professor from Christ Church. His hair is salt and pepper speckled, and worn short. He has a shortly shaved dark beard and he likes to wear black. A lot of it. Black turtle necks. Black pants. And a black leather jacket. He often stares off into a corner of the large lecture hall as he talks, as if he’s speaking to someone suspended 20-feet off the floor in a chair fastened to the back wall.

His specialty is modern theology, so most of our time is spent focusing on guys like Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietsche. Guys I’m not too excited about. Guys whose writing is just way too dark for a 9:00 lecture. Lots of “God is dead” talk. It’s a bit like starting your day with a bowl full of cereal only to find your cereal has been replaced by nails.

My second lecture of the day, The Historical Jesus, is a bit better. Three professors rotate throughout the term, taking turns to present and pose questions each time. One professor speaks for 45 to 50 minutes or so, and then one of the other professors poses follow-up questions for another five to 10 minutes. The talks are on a wide range of topics, including everything from miracle accounts in the gospels to early church practices, and they’re all centered around the question of what these things tell us about who those in the very early church believed Jesus to be. As well as who He thought Himself to be.

I love the format, where one professor puts another professor on the spot and poses response questions based on the talk that was just given. They’re always incredibly cordial about it (as is the English way), starting off by saying something along the lines of, “Well, I think Professor ________ did a great job of covering this topic, and I’m not sure I’d have much else to add,” before posing their response, which typically includes a lot of points I just wouldn’t have thought of from the lecture. It’s great.

I ran into Dave Lincicum Tuesday morning before the start of the lecture. Dave’s my academic supervisor, and he also taught my Gospels & Jesus tutorial last term. In the castle. Dave’s a great guy. He’s an American, and young. In his early 30’s, I guess. He and his wife had their first daughter last summer. And he’s soft-spoken, in a way that makes it seems like he’s really genuinely a nice guy. He’s a part of this three-person Historical Jesus lecture, as well.

He asked how things were going for me, as we hadn’t talked much since I first arrived back in Oxford. He told me he had just recently ran into my tutor (“Professor”) for my God & Israel in the Old Testament tutorial. Dave told me that my Old Testament tutor was really happy with my work, and that he told Dave it seems I’ve hit my stride in my essays.

I raised my eyebrows a bit.

“Oh wow. Well, that’s good to hear,” I told Dave.

“Yeah, yeah it is,” he said with a smile.

We chatted for a few more minutes. Commenting on the large, 10-foot tall paintings that seem to stare you down from the Exam Schools lecture halls. Dave asked how Jen was settling in. And then we took our seats for the lecture.

Think Week

The week Jennifer returned here to Oxford was the fifth week of the term, which has come to be a big week for Christian Societies on campus. Christian speakers are invited to come and speak during lunch and evening sessions throughout the week. On a wide range of topics.

I went to a lunch-time talk that Monday before Jennifer arrived that was titled, “Happy as I Am: Who needs God anyway?” I thought it was a great topic, and an equally great talk. Michael Ramsden was the speaker. The same guy who spoke at the Christmas Carol service Jen and I attended last term. He does a really good job of approaching these kind of questions in a logical, well thought out way that just makes sense. And he uses analogies well, which goes a long way in my book. I’ve really enjoyed listening to him whenever I have a chance.

Following on the coat-tails of these fifth-week talks, though, is what’s been given the title, “Think Week” (at least, that’s the title used this year). Think Week takes place the following week, during sixth week, and it’s a week’s worth of speakers organized by the Atheist Society. The speakers present on topics of similar nature to the previous week, but from a decidedly different standpoint.

One of the big speakers for the week is Richard Dawkins, a celebrity of sorts for those in the atheist camp. Max and Rich had picked up some tickets for his Tuesday evening talk, and they invited me to go along with them to the event.

Knowing it would be a popular talk, we arrived a bit early and waited in a short line in front of the Exam Schools. It was a cold night, and we could see our breath as we talked while waiting for the doors to open. By the time the doors opened, the front of the line had swelled, and we wondered if it had actually grown wider than it had longer.

We made our way through the twists and turns of the Exam Schools hallways, up the stone stairways, with those large portraits staring down at us, and we found a row of open seats in the large lecture room. The room quickly filled with people being ushered in and those in charge played with the microphones and monitors as they did.

I joked with Max about the name of the week, “Think Week.” It’s a bit pretentious, I thought.

“I go to church,” I joked with him, sarcastically, “so I don’t need to worry about ‘thinking.'”

The evening’s talk was being shared by another professor. A member of the Philosophy department. He had long white hair pulled back, and his eyes looked small behind his glasses. He was very well dressed and held his hands folded in is lap as people took their seats. Dawkins didn’t look quite as careful about his attire as this other man did. In a way, I guess Dawkins looked more Oxford. His tweed jacket a bit more worn, perhaps. Dawkins’ large, high-arching eyebrows almost looked menacing as he looked around at the audience from his chair at the front of the room. And I wondered if that was intentional.

Dawkins used to be a professor. A biologist, I believe. But then he decided to step away from academics to focus on his writing, if I’m not mistaken. His premise is that Science has basically shown that there’s no need for any belief in God, and that anyone who holds to such faith is simply outdated. I recently heard he wanted to get rid of Theology as an area of study at Oxford entirely, which I thought was pretty funny.

The evening’s talk was about whether or not there would be anything that would cause these two men (both devout Atheists) to believe in the supernatural. Whether or not they might deem any experience worthy of being called a miracle. Since they’re both on the same side of the argument, I thought this would be an interesting talk.

“It’s certainly not going to be much of a debate,” I spoke to Max before it began.

Dawkins acted as moderator for the talk, as well as participant, and so he would often play the role of devil’s advocate (or, in this case, God’s advocate?) for the conversation. Interjecting questions at points that seemed to support the view one from a religious background might hold.

“Well, what about this case?” he would ask, turning the conversation over to the Philosophy professor to respond. Setting him up, so to speak. Then Dawkins would agree. Make a point. And they’d move on.

I was a bit underwhelmed, to be honest. They basically concluded that no, there was nothing that would lead either of them to conclude that a supernatural, miraculous event had ever taken place. Not ever.

They jokingly referred to an example of a 50-foot tall Jesus walking over the English countryside, which, even then would not persuade them to believe in the supernatural. If such an act were to occur, not necessarily a 50-feet Jesus but anything that someone might want to label as a miracle, there would simply be a shift in the scientific model and then they would have an explanation for the event, they explained.

I was less than satisfied with the response. Perhaps I’m not giving the argument fair representation. And, if that’s the case, then it’s due merely to my own ability to listen, recall or comprehend what was being said. But I just remember feeling like the discussion was lazy, and not well thought through. Or even discussed, for that matter.

I enjoyed the question and answer period a bit more, though. I thought there were some interesting questions asked. One man, in particular, told a story, rather than a question. He didn’t come right out and say it, but, from the way he began, it didn’t appear that he or his family were believers. He told a story, though, about his father. Who he explicitly said was not a believer.

Speaking into a microphone that had been handed to him, he told the room, and Dawkins in particular, about a time when his father was driving home one evening. He told us how, while driving, his father first saw a man’s face appear to him, and then he heard him speak directly to him. He was so struck by this experience that he had to pull his car over to the side of the road. When this man’s father returned home that night, he told us he didn’t want to talk with anyone. That he appeared really shaken up. Finally, after some coercion, he talked with his wife and son. Explaining to them what had happened.

Someone in the audience asked the man telling the story who his father had seen that night, on his drive home.

“Well,” he said, “it was Jesus.”

There was some muffled laughter in the room. And talking.

He appeared to want to bring this to Dawkins to get his take on it. Almost as if to ask, “Obviously we don’t believe in this stuff, but what do we do with that?”

Dawkins was completely unfazed, though. I had been watching him as the man was telling his story, and Dawkins looked like he thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

After this man finished speaking, Dawkins simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Thanks for the story. Next question?”

That seemed a bit disrespectful to me. That’s not to say I didn’t think this story was pretty far out there. But he had a genuine question, and I really felt like he was a fan of Dawkins, and Dawkins simply brushed him off. He seemed like a rather unhappy man to me. Dawkins, that is.

Several other questions were asked over the next half hour or so. One of those was from a girl in the front of the room. She was asking about the psychological nature of faith, and whether certain people are predisposed to put their faith in such belief systems. Whether they have some innate need to believe such things, whereas others are more critical and do not need such belief systems. She pointed out that she had been raised in a very conservative Christian household. That everyone in her family were Christians. But that she was the first to step out and be an Atheist.

It was at this point that a man seated just a few rows to my right shouted out, “Congratulations!” The room filled with applause. And Dawkins and the philosopher in the front of the room joined in. It was one of the few times I remember seeing Dawkins smile that night.

I said goodbye to Max and Rich as we walked out of the Exam Schools that night, hopped on my bike and rode home in the cool night air. Jennifer had stayed home that night, not caring to go and listen to the talk. When I got in, I shared a bit about the evening with her. I shared the story of this man whose father had claimed to see Jesus on his drive home, and I shared the story about this girl who was the first to become an atheist from her family. And how the room had congratulated her with a long round of applause.

And it was only after sharing this with Jen that I realized the depth of what had just happened. And it struck me.

“If we really believe this stuff,” I told Jen, “and if this girl really is saying she doesn’t want anything to do with God or with His Son, then that room was celebrating something that could have eternal consequences for this girl’s soul.”

“Yep,” Jen said, seated on the couch across the living room from me, while I heated up some leftovers in the kitchen.

Jen’s so black-and-white. This was a no-brainer for her. But for me, things like that take a bit longer to compute. And I was left in painful awe of the “celebration” I had sat in that evening. It was an incredibly dark and sad experience. And the only thing that brought me comfort, at that moment, was to pray for that girl.

Wednesday: A humbling quiz and helping a Brit

I started Wednesday off with a Greek vocab quiz. As I often do. And it kicked my butt. Flat out. I’ve been doing well on grammar this term, but vocab is another matter. We’re being tested on vocab at random at this point, from all of the vocab we’ve learned so far (something over 300 words), and I’ve just been neglecting my vocab, focusing more on translation of our Greek text (some from John’s Gospel, some from Mark). So, when it comes to our vocab quizzes, I’ve been getting my teeth kicked in.

I was a bit humbled by the experience Wednesday morning. Staring down the list of 30 or so Greek terms and only being able to translate a handful from the top of my head. But I think it’s good to be humbled like that every once in a while. I think it’s good to light the fire under us a bit. I left class that morning knowing I needed to spend some more time on my vocab.

I was walking with a young guy after Greek that morning. By the name of Tim. He’s been feeling pretty overwhelmed by the Greek. Everyone is, at this point, I think, but he was feeling particularly so. He was telling me he’s jealous I don’t have to take the Preliminary Exams everyone else (apart from Lyndon) had to take, since I’m a Senior Status student (starting in year two of the three year program). Everyone else has to pass this exam before they can move on, so they’re feeling a bit stressed out at the moment.

He asked me a bit about my background as we walked through the Exam Schools hallways. And why I was studying theology.

I told him how I had been working in business before. In marketing and public relations. For about four years. And how, at the time, I was also reading and writing about theology. And how I finally came to the realization that I didn’t know many people in my field who were doing that. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who was doing that.

He laughed.

“And so,” I told him, “I figured, it probably makes more sense for me to be studying theology. And so here I am.”

It was a wet morning that day. Not necessarily because of heavy rain, but more because it seemed like there was just a heavy mist lingering in the city. Biking through the city center after picking up a book from the Theology Faculty Library, it felt like one of those mornings where you wake up after camping and everything and everyone is just wet.

I was planning on getting some reading done that day. For my two essays that were due later in the week. From the library at Harris Manchester. Two women were standing at the foot of the stone staircase leading up to the library, speaking  french to one another as I passed by.

There was something I needed to print off for the week, and so I took a seat at one of the PCs in the middle of the library. Jamie, one of the other students here at Harris Manchester, the guy who went rock climbing across the US years ago, and who made a stop over in Port Angeles, was working across from me. He seemed to be stuck on something, as he asked how familiar I was with Word Processor.

Having a look over his shoulder, he told me he was trying to put a line over a title on the page, but he didn’t know how.

“Ah, okay. Well, let’s see if this does the trick,” I said, holding down shift and using the underscore key several times. “Does that work?”

“Yeah, that’s great,” he said, turning to me with a smile. “Thanks!”

It was good to actually be able to help a native Brit with something here. To feel like I actually know something and can be of help. I feel like 99.9% of the time it’s the other way around.

Thursday: A sundrenched lunch and our “interview” at the Kilns

While Wedesday was a damp day in Oxford, Thursday more than made up for it. We woke up to a sunny, blue sky day. And not just a cold, dry, winter kind of sunny day. But the warm kind. The kind that seems to say, “Spring is coming. It’s not quite here, but it is coming.”

I met Jennifer at the Alternative Tuck Shop for lunch, after reading in the Harris Manchester Library for a while. We grabbed two paninis and walked around the corner to Harris Manchester. It was a beautiful day, and so we decided to enjoy our sandwiches from just inside the college gate. On the benches that sit beneath a large oak tree just outside the college chapel. It was wonderful, sitting there, talking with Jen, enjoying a hot from the grill chicken pesto panini in the sun.

After lunch, we made the short walk to High Street and waited for the bus. The number nine. Which would take us out to the Kilns. Deb had a tour scheduled, and so she thought that would be the perfect opportunity for me to shadow her before leading my own tours, as well as for us to talk a bit about getting Jen’s help there at the Kilns. She invited us to stay after the tour to talk a bit about the jobs over tea. The Pembertons aren’t ones to turn down tea at the Kilns.

It’s a short bus ride from the Oxford city center to the Kilns. Maybe 15 minutes. And just a short walk once the bus arrives at the end of the lane that leads to the Kilns: Lewis Close.

As we approached the house, we could hear Deb’s voice from the entrance. She was standing in front of the house with a couple from America. He was taller, and he had long hair. He wore a black t-shirt that read, “Over the Rhine,” along with a picture I don’t quite remember. I laughed to myself at the funny coincidence.

Over Christmas break, while we were home for the holidays, one of my good friends from back home, David, had written to an author of a book he was reading, “Hipster Christianity” (a book I highly recommend, by the way). Apparently the author was a big fan of Lewis, and he had written a portion of his book while living at the Kilns (as a scholar in residence). David wrote to this author, a guy by the name of Brett McCracken, to tell him a bit about my story. About what I was up to. And to see if he might sign a copy of his book so David could give it to me as a gift. I thought that was awesome, and I was blown away when I received this from David in December. Brett had not only signed the book, but he had written me a note. Encouraging me on this journey, and saying he was enjoying reading along. I had been in touch with Brett, after returning here to Oxford, off and on. Thanking him for the gift. And talking a bit about my thoughts on the book. And it was through meeting Brett that I was introduced to a band by the name of Over the Rhine, a favorite of his. I had never heard of them before, and I had certainly never noticed anyone in an Over the Rhine t-shirt, and so I thought that was a pretty funny coincidence.

Deb introduced us to the couple and told us they were on their wedding anniversary. I thought that was a great way to celebrate. I also thought there’s no way I’d ever be able to talk my way into celebrating that way, though.

“I’m a librarian,” she told us, introducing herself.

“Ahh…,” I thought to myself. “Well that explains it, then.”

I had been on a tour of the Kilns before. A couple of times before, actually. Both times with Walter and Deb. But I had never taken the time to write down notes along the way. Of important dates and names. And so I did that, this time, knowing I’d need to be able to remember the many details for my first tour in just two days.

Deb started us in the common room. The room with books stacked from floor to ceiling on one side of the room. The room where Lewis used to sit with this guests. Smoking his pipe and telling stories. It was a beautiful day. And the light from outside was pouring into the room as Deb spoke from her chair in the far corner, while I frantically jotted down notes in short hand.

The couple on the tour were quite familiar with Lewis’ works. Both of them were. And they asked great questions. Which made me more than a little worried for when it was my turn to lead.

One of the scholars in residence at the Kilns, Stephanie, joined us for the tour. An American. She’s currently studying in Edinburgh, but she’s living at the Kilns for a month while writing her dissertation on Lewis. She’s from the South. And she had a bit of a southern draw. Which always sounds particularly out of place when you’re in England.

Deb did a great job with the tour. Even though I had heard it all before, I really enjoyed it. And I made sure to jot down all the things I knew I wouldn’t remember otherwise. It was great seeing the couple’s reaction around the house, seeing different things for the first time.

Afterwards, we said goodbye to the group and then we made our way into the dining room for tea.

I had received a text-message just as the tour was beginning, but I wasn’t able to get to it as I was doing my best to stay on top of my notes. It wasn’t until we sat down after the tour that I was able to check it. It was from Cole, and he was letting me know he had heard back from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland about his application. He had gotten in. He had been accepted for the PhD program with a scholarship. That was big news, and definitely worth a phone call. I excused myself from the room, making my way to the back of the house before calling him.

“Hey, congratulations” I said over the phone after Cole had answered on the other end. “That’s great news!”

After talking for a few minutes about the good news, I made my way back to the front of the house. I told Deb Cole was wanting to talk with her, and that she should give him a call.

She looked concerned.

“Is something wrong?” she asked me.

“No, no. Nothing’s wrong. But you should give him a call.”

Still looking concerned, and a bit confused, she made her way back to her room. I whispered the good news to Jen, so that Deb couldn’t hear. And a few minutes later, we heard a scream from Deb’s room.

“Oh, Cole! That’s great news!” came Deb’s voice.

Stephanie peeked her head into the dining room, where Jennifer and I were waiting for Deb, and she asked if we’d like some tea.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I told her.

“What kind would you like?”

“Oh… Well, I don’t know. I guess the normal English kind?” I had never been asked what kind of tea I wanted in England. Usually I just take what’s served to me. And it always tastes the same to me.

Deb joined us in the dining room a few minutes later. Still smiling from the good news. And Stephanie wasn’t far behind her. With a pot of tea in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other.

“Oh, thank you, Stephanie,” Deb said as she entered the room.

We talked for several minutes over tea and cookies. Oatmeal raisin and ginger. Stephanie asked what I was up to here in Oxford. And I shared with her how I was studying Theology. After working in Public Relations for several years. And how I was hoping to one day write.

She asked a bit about what I was interested in writing, and so I told her a bit about hands&feet, and what I had been up to there. How I was interested in writing on theology using everyday experiences. Using stories that people could relate to. But that they also got something out of. And that would ultimately help them see Him more clearly.

After she explained a bit about what her own work was on, Stephanie excused herself so that we could talk about our work at the Kilns.

Deb made sure I felt okay about leading the tours, which I did. And we got the schedule for Saturday’s tours all settled out. I told her I was really looking forward to it.

We talked a bit about Jen’s job. About how many hours Deb might need from her (about 15 per week). About what she’d be doing (responding to e-mails, scheduling tours, organizing the office and helping prepare for tours). And about pay. Deb said she was really looking forward to having Jen’s help, and that she’d have her start tomorrow if she could.

“What I’ll do is I’ll call Stan at the Foundation back in the States tonight, and I’ll make sure he’s okay with everything we’ve talked about,” she told us. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t plan on you starting on Monday next week.”

If that was an interview, it was the easiest interview I’ve ever been a part of, I thought to myself as we helped Deb clean up after the tea.

We had a great time at the Kilns that afternoon, and, walking down the lane and back to the bus stop with Jen afterward, I still couldn’t believe we were going to be working there. Amazing.

Friday: Returning home rejoicing

I went to the morning prayer service at Harris Manchester this week. It’s held every week. Just a short, 10-minute service at 8:40 on Friday mornings in the chapel. I’ve been meaning to go for some time, but I’m usually spending that time on some last minute studying for my Greek quizzes. So I’ve never been before. I was glad I went that morning, though.

I was in a hurry to get there. Riding my bike at a frantic pace to make it on-time. I slipped into the chapel shortly after the service began. Breathing heavily as I took my seat in a pew behind one of only four other people in the audience.

I recognized Ken Wilson a few rows ahead of me. The hand surgeon turned Theologian from Oregon. And Principal Waller sat across the aisle from him. In his suit.

A man in the front of the chapel was reading a story from the Old Testament book of Exodus. The story of God’s conversation with Moses. When God came to Moses and told him He was going to use Moses to rescue His people from captivity. To lead them out of Egypt. And how Moses responded in confusion and fear, not knowing why in the world God would use him of all people for such an incredible mission. And feeling totally unworthy.

It was a great service. Short, but incredibly peaceful. And it was a welcome break from the frantic pace I’m used to most mornings.

After the reading, we sang a hymn. I don’t often sing hymns, but in this chapel, it seemed like a perfect fit.

At the conclusion of the service, the man who had been reading returned to the front of the room. And, with a hint of a smile on his face, he gave a short concluding message before we left.

And the words seemed so perfect. As if they were meant just for me. Almost as if He were speaking these words just for me that morning. Through this man. And through his words.

And I was speechless, seated there in that hard, wooden chapel pew. Staring up into the tall stained glass windows that fill the end wall of the room. I found myself filled with an incredible amount of joy. And thankfulness. For all He has done.

For guiding us through all of this. For bringing so many amazing people into our lives. For lining up jobs for us; the kind of jobs I never dreamt of. For keeping us safe and well fed. And for the incredible things He has shown us along the way.

I was filled with great joy as I replayed the words over again in my head, seated there from the pew that morning.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,

wherever He may send you.

May He guide you through the wilderness,

protect you through the storm.

May He bring you home rejoicing

at the wonders He has shown you.

May He bring you home rejoicing

once again into our doors.

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