Wednesday: End of the term review & Open Forum

My end of term review was scheduled for Wednesday morning of eighth week. That’s when I sit down with Dave, my academic advisor, and sign off on the reports submitted by my tutors. Saying how they feel about my work for the term, and how they predict me doing on my final exams (which I won’t take until June of 2012).

It’s not like the American educational system, where you get a letter grade based on your percentage out of a 100. Instead, they rate you on “Achievement” and “Effort” on what I’m guessing must be a five-point scale (Excellent, Very Good, Good, etc.). They also rate you on a numeric scale, where a First class honors (1) represents the top percentage, a 2:1 represents the upper portion of second class honors (which is still seen as quite good), a 2:2 represents the lower portion of second class honors, then there’s Third class honors, and, finally, a Pass (without honors, which is the worst you can do). Clear? That’s okay. It’s a bit confusing.

I locked up my bike outside of Mansfield College Wednesday morning and made my way down the gravel path toward the castle-like building. A few minutes later, I was seated on one of the leather couches in Dave’s office. It was a sunny day, and sunlight was pouring in through the windows as we talked.

Dave greeted me with a warm smile and handed me the report from my Old Testament tutor, Casey. He sat at his desk and worked on something at his computer while I read over my report. It was really positive. Casey said my essays had really improved since my first term, which surprised me, as I was pretty happy with my report at the end of last term. He rated me as “Very Good” for both Effort and Achievement, and predicted me at a 2:1 for the final exam. I was happy with that.

Dave told me my Patristics tutor had yet to submit my report, but that he’d get that to me as soon as he heard back from her. Dave and I talked for a bit after I signed off on my report. About my classes for next term, as well as just how things were going. He asked about Jen, and how she was settling in since returning from the States. I told him about our jobs at The Kilns. He was pretty excited for us about that.

We talked a bit about Dave’s plans, as he’s currently just filling in for another professor here. He’s a young guy, just barely in his thirties, and so this is his first position after wrapping up his Doctoral studies. He told me that he’s applied for several positions here at Oxford, and that, as much as his wife would like to return to the States, that he’s hoping something will work out here.

“I’d love to stay here,” he told me with a smile from his seat on the leather sofa across the room. “This is a dream come true.”

From my seat in this Oxford office, with books stacked on shelves from floor to high-reaching ceiling, with sunlight pouring into the room over the stretching green lawns, I could see why.

A miraculous coincidence at the Open Forum

Wednesday night was the third week of getting together for Oxford Open Forum. Our night of meeting at Puccino’s to discuss different worldviews. Where people from all different backgrounds can come and talk about different questions of the faith.

We had invited Alex to lead this week. The President of the Atheist Society here at Oxford. And he said he was happy to.

His topic for the evening was, “Lost in Translation: Obstacles and Pathways to Dialogue between World Views.” Basically, what we would be discussing are the different words that we sometimes trip up over while talking with people of different faith traditions.

Alex opened up the evening’s conversation with a brief introduction, and then he talked about different words like “spiritual” and “life force,” which are sometimes used by people, without really ever defining what is meant by them.

I piped up and said I agreed with Alex, to a certain extent. That I get frustrated when people say they’re “spiritual,” but not “religious.” How it seems like people who use that line aren’t really saying anything. That it’s far too ambiguous to know what they mean. And that it seems like a bit of a cop out.

One of the guys in the room introduced himself. A guy by the name Tihi (short for Tihomir). Tihomir is from Serbia, and this was his first night joining us. He said people who use this language are likely wanting to distance themselves from religion, as it tends to carry a lot of negative connotations.

Another guy, Peter, said that such language, and the word “spiritual” in particular, speaks to the fact that there is something beyond what we can see in this world, without defining exactly what that is. And this belief in something beyond our world is particularly relevant during times of great pain and loss. When we’re looking for answers in the world. For the way things are.

Our meeting happened to fall on Ash Wednesday, and so Peter referred to the charcoal colored cross on his forehead to identify his particular religious beliefs. And how Christianity responds to such pain.

It was at this point that Alex replied by saying that’s one problem he has with Christianity: that Christians create a problem, and then suggest a solution for it.

No one seemed to reply to that point. I’m not sure anyone had a response. And so the conversation quickly moved on.

Tihomir went on to suggest that, no matter what your particular views may be, you must acknowledge that there are things and experiences in this life that we simply cannot explain, apart from the supernatural. Or “spiritual.”

He told us about one seemingly miraculous experience from his own life. He told us about when he first arrived here in Oxford for his Dphil studies last year. And how his sponsor revoked his sponsorship three days before his tuition was due. He told us he didn’t have the money to cover his schooling, nor did his family back home in Serbia. He told us that he knew if he didn’t come up with the money, he’d be heading home. He told us how he remembers returning to him room that evening, distraught, and deciding to just pray, “If you’re there, would you help with this?” Then, with a smile on his face, the first smile I had seen from him, he told us what happened next.

“I went and checked my e-mail, and it was 11:00 on a Friday night. I still remember that quite clearly.”

He told us how, when he opened his e-mail, he was surprised to find between 20 and 30 e-mails in his inbox. From people from all over the world. Some of the people he hadn’t spoken to in years.

“It made no sense that some of these people would be e-mailing me,” he told us.

One after another, each of the people said they had been praying and were told by God that they were supposed to help Tihi with his schooling here at Oxford. Not because Tihi had told anyone about this, but because He had told them.

But that’s not the strangest part about this. He told us how, when all of the money was added up, from all of these people around the world, it was the exact amount he needed for schooling.

“Not a penny more, not a penny less,” he told us with a stunned look on his face, as though he was hearing the story for the first time himself.

“That’s more than a coincidence,” he told us, looking around the room. “Somehow, you have to be able to account for that.”

Alex simply smiled at the story. And referred to it as a coincidence. Before moving on.

Somehow, after a while, the conversation came back to the topic of the pain in this world, and man’s wrongdoing. And Alex made the point that we all make mistakes every now and then, but for the most part, people are generally good.

The room went quiet, seemingly in-between topics, and so I spoke up.

I made the point that Pete had previously brought up the fact that we all have some sort of longing for something beyond this world. How Augustine referred to it as a “God-shaped hole.” And how that leads us to conclude that there must be something beyond simply what we can see. I also referred to Alex’s comment about Christianity “creating” a problem and then providing a solution, before bringing the conversation to focus on his last comment. About people being generally good, but making mistakes every now and then.

I told him I disagreed with that completely. I told him I think people are actually pretty bad through and through. And that we can see the results of that all around us. Certainly in the horrors of the killings of Egypt and Libya. And that such acts aren’t mistakes, that they’re quite intentional.

He replied by saying his comment was actually a facetious one. And that he conceded to my point that we do intentionally do bad things. But that he still held that most people are good people, and that it’s only a minority of the population who do such terrible things.

Again, I told him I disagreed with him on this point. I told him it was easy to compare himself to situations taking place in Libya and Egypt and think himself a pretty decent guy, but that, the truth is, we’re also enjoying an incredible amount of affluence here in Oxford, and that it’s relatively easy to be a pretty decent guy here. But, even here in Oxford, there are terrible things taking place all the time. Like theft, for example.

“Why do you think we have a police force?” I asked him. “Why do people lock their doors at night? Christianity hasn’t “created” this problem. This is real, and it’s all around us.”

“Well, I don’t lock my door at night,” he replied, as if that somehow disproved the fact that the vast majority of people do lock their doors, because of the evil that’s all around us. So central to our lives that we almost don’t notice it.

And with that, one of the cafe’s waitresses entered the room, and told us they were closing up the shop.

I shook Alex’s hand and thanked him for chairing the evening. I told him I really appreciated him allowing the focus to fall on Atheism for the evening. And, as I walked out into the night air after the Forum that night, I felt even more confident of Christianity’s ability to make sense of the world we find ourselves in.

A number of the guys, including Rich, Max, Pete and Alex were heading to a pub after the Open Forum. To grab a pint and talk a bit more. I told them I’d love to join them, but that I hadn’t seen Jen all day, and that I should be getting home.

I caught up with Tihi as we left, though. He was walking the same way I was heading, and so I introduced myself and I thanked him for sharing his story with us.

“That blew me away,” I told him. “Your story of how all that money came in for you at the last minute. That was incredible!”

“Yes, but it’s happened time and time again,” he said to me.

He told me about another time he’s been provided for financially. More recently.

He told me about how, on another occasion, he found he had come up short in being able to pay for school. And so he decided to spend some time in prayer. Again. By himself. And his journal.

He told me the next day, after praying, he was approached by a family who had traveled here to Oxford from Africa. To find him. To help with his school finances. Apparently, they had money returned to them time after time, after paying for several things, and, after praying and asking what God wanted them to do with this money, they were told the money was to be used to help a student with his finances at Oxford.

“I didn’t even know them,” he told me with a look of complete surprise on his face. “So I asked them, ‘How do you know I’m the one you’re supposed to be helping?’ And they asked me, ‘You really want to know how we knew?’ And I told them I did, and that’s when they began repeating to me the prayer I had prayed the night before, word for word, and what I had written in my journal… There’s no way anyone could have known that!”

I was stunned. That was an incredible story. He went on to tell me he’s had several of these experiences. Not just with money, but with other ways in which things have lined up for him to be here. Ways that don’t make sense to simply call coincidences.

“Just three hours ago, I was on national television, talking about all of these incredible experiences that have happened to me since being here at Oxford,” he said to me.

He told me how he was raised in the church, but then how he had fallen away. Spending a number of years as an Agnostic, and then an Atheist. He told me he feels like he’s on a journey now. Searching for answers for these incredible experiences. And how he has told God that he is going to keep telling others about all of these experiences.

“I came from a poor town in Serbia,” he told me. “People laughed at me when I told them I wanted to go to Oxford.”

I told him I really appreciated hearing his story. And that I had a similar story. How I really didn’t feel like it made any sense for me to be here, apart from Him. And I loved hearing how He was doing that in someone else’s life.

Tihi took my e-mail and said he’d like to have us to his college for a meal sometime. Jennifer and I. When he returns from his 10-day trip around Europe. Telling others about all that has happened since arriving here in Oxford. I told him we’d really enjoy that, before hopping on my bike and heading home.

Thursday: Dinner and Games with the St. Andrews group

Last term, we were quite involved with a small group that met at the church just down the street from us. At St. Andrew’s Church. The group meets on Thursday nights. For dinner. And to read through and discuss a particular book of the Bible. It’s a great group of people, and we’ve really enjoyed getting to know them each Thursday night.

But this term had been different. With Friday deadlines this term, I found myself working on essays most Thursday nights, and unable to go to group. But this Thursday, with a bit of a break on my last essay (my Patristics tutor asked me just to put together an outline of what I had covered for the term), we were excited to go and catch up with everyone again.

This particular Thursday night was a social night, hosted at Chloe and Vanda’s house (two girls from our group). They were making dinner, and invited the group over for food and games. It was great to see everyone again, seated around the dining room table in Chloe and Vanda’s place. We had a great time catching up on what everyone had been up to since we saw them last. They asked about our new niece, Khloe, and how the term had treated me.

Chloe and Jen filled plates with a beef and red wine stew, and we passed them around the table until everyone had been served. We rounded out our plates with potatoes and carrots, and Rachel, our small group leader, asked Will if he’d bless the food for us. Will is training to be a Vicar (pastor) in the Anglican Church here in England. Eleanor, one of the girls in our group, a boisterous, witty gal from Scotland who is probably among the top 10 funniest people I’ve ever met, interjected, saying that Will’s always asked to pray and she didn’t think he should have to. Just because he’s training to work in a church. That someone else should. Half-jokingly. Half-serious. So we all said she should say grace in his place, which, from the look on her face, is not quite what she was going for.

We shared a lot of laughs over dinner, and dessert. Everyone brought ice cream and / or a topping. By the time everything was brought in from the kitchen, the table was covered in several different flavors of ice cream and toppings. Everything from M&M’s and malt balls to bananas and marshmallows.

Vanda made the comment that she felt like she was at the Ice Cream Factory at Pizza Hut.

Somehow we got on the topic of baptism while enjoying our ice cream. A few people thought it was funny that the Vicar at St. Andrew’s wears waders during the baptism service. Before entering the Baptismal pool. I suggested that maybe he was just an avid fisherman, and that he was looking for any opportunity he could to get in his waders.

Will told a funny story about a Vicar at a church he once visited. It was a baptism service when he visited, and he said he was shocked when the Vicar began stripping down right there on stage when it came time to enter the wading pool. Removing his shirt and pants to reveal a speedo…

We all erupted into shocked laughter at Will’s story.

Will said he couldn’t believe it, sitting there in that church when it happened. He said he remembers looking around to see other people’s reactions, but that everyone looked like this was perfectly normal. Like it was just part of the routine.

I asked Will if this Vicar was married. Eleanor looked at me with big eyes and a head nod, as if to say she was thinking the same thing.

“Because that’s when your wife is supposed to step in and say, ‘Actually, this is a really terrible idea’,” I told him.

I went on to tell about the time a boy at our church took our pastor up on a joke he’s known for using. That of betting the kids $10 to do a cannonball into the baptismal pool. And how, after years and years of using this joke, one kid finally took him up on it, shocking the entire congregation, and taking second place on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

After cleaning up from dinner and dessert, we moved into the living room. Sinking heavily into the cozy couches and pillows on the floor after a great meal. Settling in for some games.

We played a game called Articulate, which seems pretty close to a British version of the game Taboo. We split into three groups, and Jen and I were teamed up with Will. I apologized to Will in advance. For what I was sure was going to be a pretty sad performance. And I was right.

It sounds funny, as England is obviously an English-speaking country, but it’s really tough to understand the British accent sometimes. Especially when people are talking as fast as possible to beat the clock. And, there are just a lot of words in the British language that are foreign to us. All this added up to us doing horribly. And feeling bad that Will had to suffer with us.

There was one point where Will was trying to get us to guess the word, “Beaker.” Not like the kind you might find in a Chemistry lab, but used to describe what we would call a sippy cup. That’s right, in the UK, sippy cups are known as “Beakers.” Who knew. Needless to say, we didn’t get that one.

I was pretty excited when I got “Jack Nicholson” as a word in the People category.

“He’s an actor. He starred in The Shining and As Good as It Gets. He sits courtside at every Laker’s game…”

Nothing. Will had no idea. Nor did Jennifer. And that’s when I knew we were in serious trouble.

We ended up getting it handed to us that night. Will, Jennifer and I. Only making it about a quarter of the way around the board in the time it took Eleanor’s team to finish. But we had a great time.

It was the first time in a long time we’ve been in a room full of Brits where we’re the only Americans. Typically we’re either with other Americans, or with only Americans. But not this time. And it was great. Surrounded by Brits.Hearing completely candid British slang and humor. It felt a bit like how it should be.

Friday: Reflecting by C.S. Lewis’ old pond

I had a tour scheduled at the Kilns the next morning. And I arrived a bit early. About a half hour before things were supposed to kick off. So I decided to wander up to the pond.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the pond was like a bit of an oasis amongst the otherwise frantic pace of life in Oxford. Ducks were scooting smoothly across the water. Causing subtle ripples to chase them along the top of the water. The sun was shining through the trees and upon the emerald surface of the pond, causing the otherwise murky water to become translucent, revealing the algae covered rocks below. Light danced across the water in a spectrum of bright greens that shone across the surface.

I wandered over to the far edge of the pond and took a seat on the brick bench. The sound of wild birds singing was the only noise I heard that morning, singing as if just for me. And I imagined Lewis going for his morning dip, as I sat there. Or rowing his punt across the water. Completely removed from all the demands of life as an Oxford Don. From the teaching and speaking engagements. And responding to the thousands of letters he received from fans around the world.

“Lewis had it it figured out,” I thought to myself as I sat there.

And it ended up being an incredible time of reflection. Seated there on the brick bench beside the water. When I’m back home, one of my favorite spots to get away and catch my breath is beside the water. To pray and seek His presence. By the bay. On a spot at the waterfront that juts out into the ocean. Where I can sit and watch sailboats float gently across the water in front of the backdrop of the San Juan Islands.

And it was funny, for even though I was so far from home, I was amazed at how much this spot felt like home. And how close His presence felt at that moment. I hadn’t felt that way in a long, long time. Perhaps since I last sat in front of the ocean back home last summer. And I laughed at the thought that this was the view Lewis escaped to so often. Shaking my head at the thought that I now get to enjoy it.

I had woken up that morning to the news of the massive 8.9 earthquake that rocked Japan. And all the devastation of the resulting tsunamis and flooding. It was so painful to see. My heart went out to these people. To all those dealing with this loss and destruction. To all those now without a home. And to those who lost friends and family members in this scene.

That’s where I found my thoughts wandering while seated there beside the pond that morning. And it was when I got up to make my way down the hill toward the Kilns for the morning’s tour that I noticed, for the first time, the reflection of the blue and white speckled sky overhead on the water’s surface. As I walked along the water’s edge, something dropped from one of the trees just in front of me, onto the surface of the water, casting the reflection of the sky into a million little pieces as the rippled went out. The image of the sky had been shattered by whatever it was that had dropped from the tree, but the sky itself had not changed. The sky is still there, of course. Just as it has always been. And, somehow, that thought was reassuring to me. In light of the horrific scenes I had watched on my laptop that morning. With the earthquake in Japan still heavy on my mind. This picture encouraged me.

Even though I might not know how this all works. Even though really horrible things happen all around the world. Even in incredible suffering and loss. I was encouraged to think that God is still good. That He still reigns. And that He still loves us and calls us to love others in very real ways. I was encouraged to think that, even in this horrible situation, that hasn’t changed. And, in the end, He’s going to work this all out for good.

That picture helped me as I made my way down the hill and toward the Kilns for the morning tour.

Would our parents believe it?

Jen and I stayed in Friday night. After I handed in my last essay for the term. An outline more than an essay, really. We stayed in and enjoyed a nice dinner together, and then we played a board game our good friends David & Monika got us as a going-away gift called Ticket to Ride. We’ve really enjoyed playing this game since returning to Oxford, and I love that time. Seated in our living room playing a board game and sharing laughs. Just the two of us.

About halfway through the second game of the night, I found myself thinking about all we were doing here in England. About this huge change that the past six months have brought our lives.

I spoke up to Jen as she stared down at the cards in her hand.

“This is kind of a weird thought,” I said to Jen, “But what do you think our parents would have thought if someone would’ve told them, when we were still really young kids running around, that the two of us would one day become best friends, get married and then move to Oxford? What do you think they’d say if someone told them, while we were still just kids, that twenty some years later we’d be sitting here, playing a board game together in England?”

Jen looked up from her cards, across the table at me.

“Yeah, that is a weird thought. . .Now play.”

I smiled. That’s my wife: Tough as nails. And I love her.

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