Monday: Lunch at one of Oxford’s oldest colleges & Embarrassed in the library (again)

I started off my third week of the term with lunch at Balliol College. I was meeting Myriam, Secretary for the C.S. Lewis Society, as well as a couple past presidents, Judith and Brendan, who are now back in Oxford after spending some time studying in Germany. We were meeting so they could share some of their advice on running the Society. Advice I was keen to hear.

I had been to Balliol for a lecture before, but never for lunch. As one of the oldest colleges at Oxford (it was established in 1263), its architecture is classic Oxford. Lots of old stone buildings set atop stretching green grounds, with giant wooden and metal doors. Narrow, stone corridors, with cobblestone walkways, lead you from one quad to another. It’s one of those colleges where, if you let yourself, you can really feel as though you’ve just traveled back in time.

And it was while the four of us were making our way across the college grounds, up the large, wide staircase that leads to Balliol’s dining hall, that I found myself thinking, “This really is such an incredible place!” And I love it. I love all of it. I love the people, people who come from all over the world. I love the accents (the British more than any others). And I love the history of this city. The kind of history I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else, and which hits you in the face around every corner.

We made our way into the dining hall for lunch. I took note of the beautiful, dark hardwood floor. The afternoon sun was pouring in through high, arching windows on one side of the room. It was the kind of place where you feel like you’re dining in a really old chapel, with the high-arching windows and the ornate, wood-carved walls.

Following our conversation over lunch (a tasty Indian lamb dish), we made our way out of Balliol College, around the corner and down St Giles Street to St John’s College, where Judith is a member of the faculty. To carry on the conversation over a walk around the college grounds. I had never been inside St John’s college before, so I was excited to see it. St John’s is known for being one of the most well endowed colleges here at Oxford. They own most, if not all, of the city street the college sits on, as well as an enormous amount of property around England.

The college grounds at St John’s include beautiful, stretching gardens. Set behind its high, college walls. And taking it all in on our walk, I couldn’t help but feel so privileged. For being a member of the university and having access to all of this beauty that’s hidden behind the stone walls that line St John’s perimeter, separating all of this from the outside city. Brendan was filling me in on much of the Society’s history as we walked. Brendan is tall, with short, dark hair, and a long, thick beard that he strokes as he talks. As if to help him think. As Brendan was leading the conversation, I noticed Judith taking in individual trees along the trail of our walk. She’d pause for a moment as we passed several along the way, as if she knew them. As if she were checking on the health of an old friend. While Brendan continued on in his deep, monotone voice, stroking his beard in the afternoon sun that washed over the college’s green grounds.

On our way out of the College, we peaked our heads into the small chapel. I always like to see the different chapels around Oxford when I visit a college. They’re always unique, and they tend to reflect a particular college’s character. Inside the St John’s College, I noticed a symbol I had seen before, at the “Lamb & Flag,” a nearby pub. It was of a white lamb carrying a flag over one shoulder. It was unique, and I had never noticed it before coming to Oxford.

“What does this symbol mean?” I asked, turning to Brendan and Judith.

“It comes from St John’s Gospel, and it represents the Christ,” Brendan replied, quoting a passage from Scripture: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Oh yeah… Okay, well that makes sense.”

We said our goodbyes and thanked Brendan and Judith for their time before Myriam and I made our way back to our respective libraries. For more studying.

Embarrassed in the library

I picked up a cell phone charger on the way, as I had somehow misplaced the charger for my UK cell phone over the summer. I plugged it in when I got back to the library at Harris Manchester. Since it had been turned off for several months, apparently the settings had been reset, including the volume… Because of this, when it had enough battery power, it notified me I had several messages in a not-so-subtle fashion. It began in a quiet voice, but then it grew louder: “message… Message… MESSAGE!” finally reaching its crescendo in a shrieking voice, as I frantically punched the buttons, trying to quiet it.

Finally it went silent, but not before my cheeks began to burn with embarrassment. Memories of the time when I opened my laptop in the Bodleian Library and Barlow Girl’s song “I need you to love me” came blaring out for several seconds, interrupting the otherwise pin-drop silence. What a horrible experience… Fortunately people in HMC are more forgiving; I didn’t feel as though I needed to pack up my things and leave, as I had done in the Bodleian.

Tuesday: When my mind woke up & Lewis Society

I was invited to hear a talk from a guy by the name of William Lane Craig on Tuesday. He’s a philosopher from the States, and he’s also one of the world’s leading Christian apologists. Professor Craig was giving a talk at the Sheldonian Theatre here in Oxford that evening, which I couldn’t attend (because of my commitments with the Lewis Society). Professor Craig regularly travels and debates on the existence of God, and he had given Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most well-known Atheist, an open-invitation for a debate here in Oxford. Unfortunately, Dawkins hadn’t taken him up on the offer.

A while back, a group of Atheists sponsored an advertising campaign where they ran a series of bus ads that said, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” After Dawkins turned down Professor William Lane Craig’s invite for a debate at the Sheldonian Theatre, a series of bus ads began running around Oxford that read, “There’s probably no Dawkins. Now stop worrying and enjoy October 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.” I thought that was pretty clever.

Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to listen to Craig respond to Dawkins’s latest book at the Sheldonian that night, I was happy to get to hear him talk for a bit at this by-invite lunch event. I took a seat by Max, who I hadn’t seen since returning to Oxford, and I pulled out a small notebook to take down some notes while I listened.

I had never heard Professor Craig before, but I was really impressed. He’s clearly a very intelligent guy, but I was impressed by just how articulate and easy to listen to he is. He talked about why he feels Christian Apologetics are important, both for the speaker and for the listener, and then he took about an hour’s worth of questions from those who had come to hear him. And one thing he mentioned that afternoon, in particular, stuck with me in a lasting way. Mostly because it’s one of the things that I took away from reading C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, for the first time. And, in that way, it’s really the reason I’m here. It was in the middle of this particular talk that Professor Craig said, “People need to know the Gospel is a viable option for the thinking person.” And I found myself sitting in the middle of the audience, grinning in agreement.

After the talk, while we were still thanking Professor Craig for his talk with a round of applause, I leaned over to Max and said, “It is so good to be back here. I feel like my soul and my mind are waking up from a bit of hibernation over the summer.”

Max smiled. He agreed. I grabbed a sandwich on our way out of the talk, and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library for a bit of reading before meeting for dinner and the C.S. Lewis Society that evening.

Dinner & C.S. Lewis Society

I had arranged for a small dinner with our speaker for the night, Dr Michael Ward, along with two other people. Dr Michael Ward is Oxford’s resident Lewis expert, and he’s also supervising my extended essay on Lewis & Pagan mythology.

We talked over dinner about Dr Ward’s talk for the night (“Lewis on Tragedy”), and a number of other things. One of the other people joining us for dinner on this particular evening was an American girl who’s currently working on her PhD in London. Somehow or another we got onto the topic of wearing pajamas to class in college back in the States, and she said she never really sees that here in the UK.

Dr Ward wore a look of disgust on his face when she asked if that was something he ever experienced here.

“No, not at all,” he said in his proper British accent, still looking as though he had just tasted something rather sour.

He told us about a story that ran in the paper recently regarding “the horrors” of people at the market in their pajamas.

“That gives you an idea of how people in England feel about others going out in public in their pajamas,” he told us.

That evening, when I got up to make a few announcements before introducing Dr Ward as our speaker for the evening, I made the mistake of saying “dollars” instead of “pounds” when I was mentioning the cost of Society membership. It got a laugh from the crowd, but not the kind of laugh I was hoping for. I tried to shrug it off by saying I had just returned to England and was still working on re-adjusting, clearly, but I found my mind stuck on it, even as I continued with the rest of the announcements. This resulted in me slipping up on my introduction for Dr Ward, and stumbling through the name of his most well-known book, “Planet Narnia.” I quickly finished the introduction and found my seat in the front row. Wanting to bury my head in the hardwood floor, I instead pretended to listen intently.

Following Dr Ward’s talk, and a brief time of Q&A, I took my seat at the head of the long table on one side of the room. It was the evening of our Annual General Meeting (AGM), and several of the Society’s longest-standing members, as well as a handful of newer members, stuck around to discuss details of the Society. Plans for the rest of the year, transitions in the role of our Treasurer, etc. And it was only a few moments into our meeting that I realized there was an understood structure to the AGM, I had never actually sat through one, and now I was responsible to lead this one… I did my best to pretend as though I had everything under control and knew exactly what I was doing, but my disguise quickly wore off, and people were interjecting to make points on items I had overlooked. Clearly, this was not how I had hoped the evening would go.

As different people spoke, I found my eyes wandering to the second story window, and my mind wandering to the question of how long it would be before the group decided to grab me by the ankles and toss me out. Then I looked down the length of the long table we were all seated at, and at the other head of the table, I saw Walter. He was wearing his yellow coat, which he tends to wear, over his tweed jacket. And he was listening intently to the conversation at hand. And that’s when I found myself thinking, “If things get out of hand, if it becomes clear I am in over my head and this group decides to throw me out of this second-story window, then surely Walter will stick up for me.” And with that thought I began to feel more at ease, and I was able to close up the meeting with more confidence than I had before.

But after my failed introduction and after not knowing the formalities of the AGM, I made my way back to the Kilns feeling rather incompetent and inadequate for my role. And the worst part was I had a long bus ride / walk home to think about it.

It was 11:30 by the time I made it home that night. After a 17-hr day, I was exhausted. But it wasn’t over yet. I still had some reading to get done. Before I got to my reading, though, I greeted Jen in our room and talked with her a bit about the meeting. And then I made my way to get a cup of tea to accompany my reading. And it was there, in the kitchen, that I found a note on the fridge. A note that seemed to speak to me exactly where I was, with with the precise words I needed to hear.

It was a passage from Matthew 6, but in a translation I did not recognize. And as I stood there in the middle of this kitchen just before midnight, these are the words I found myself reading:

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers, most of which are never even seen, don’t you think He’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do His best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. Steep your life in God . . . Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your concerns will be met.”

It was a translation that would’ve given my Greek Tutor cold sweats, as it was clearly modernized, but these words met me exactly where I needed to be met. And I was glad it was so late, and that the kitchen was empty, because the words put a tear in my eye. And then another. And I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that I am feeling so overwhelmed and inadequate because I am placing my confidence in myself, rather than in Him. And once I realized that, or, more appropriately, once I was reminded of that, I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that the same God who brought us here, to Oxford and to all of this, is still the same God looking out for us now that we’re here. And He’s not about to forget about us, even when I feel inadequate and overwhelmed. It was a good reminder that I need to place my confidence in myself. Or else I will always feel inadequate for the challenges we will find in this life.

Wednesday: 1st Formal Dinner

I signed Jen and I up for Wednesday night’s formal dinner at my college. It was the first formal guest night of the term, so I was excited to experience that again.

I woke up Wednesday morning, got ready, and then grabbed my suit and threw it on my bike before heading to town. I’d need it for dinner that evening, and I didn’t feel like wearing it all day, so I figured I’d bring it to college and then change before dinner that night.

The bike Rob gave me when the Gareys left has a hand basket from a grocery store tied down behind the seat for storage. The metal hand baskets you see in grocery stores, with blue plastic handles. I laughed the first time I saw it. It looks ridiculously tacky. But I decided to leave it on, thinking it might come in handy. Sure enough, I was thankful to have it this Wednesday when I threw my suit in it and made my way into town.

It was just starting to rain when I left the house, so I biked to the pelting of sporadic, cold rain drops against my cheeks. As I approached Headington Hill, which is a steady, long hill that drops just as you approach the city center, I reaching behind to make sure my suit was still there. In the metal handbasket. Fortunately it was. I made it to Harris Manchester Handing with my suit still intact and I handed it off to Amanda in the office when I arrived–she’d keep it for me until I needed it–before heading to the library for a day’s worth of reading.

I was getting ready to take a test on Friday, which I had missed while I was back in the States. It was on the European Reformation, which I studied in the Spring. I had a lot of reading to get ready for it.

I printed off a bunch of my old notes to study, as well as several of John Ash’s old essays (was we had taken the course together, and we exchanged essays each week). And all of a sudden, I felt as though my essay should be written in color crayons, when compared to his work…

In reading John’s essay to myself, I noticed that I found myself thinking in a British accent. It was a weird feeling, and I had never noticed it before.

Lewis Essay & A Formal Dinner

At 5:00, I made my way across town to St Peter’s College, as I had a meeting with Dr Michael Ward on an essay I was preparing on the topic of Lewis & Pagan mythology. I had been working on it all summer, and this was our first time going over my draft together.

He welcomed me into his office with a “Hello, Ryan Jehosafat Pemberton,” in his proper, posh British accent. Dr Ward didn’t know my middle name for the longest time, but he knew my middle initial, so he still makes up middle names for me, from time to time. It always puts a smile on my face.

We talked about my paper for a while. He was very helpful with his feedback. Giving me ideas on where to cut back, and where to add more. Giving me ideas of which books to look into.

And I found myself sitting there, in Dr Ward’s office with him, with this guy who is both a friend and a supervisor, and one of the world’s leading experts on CS Lewis, and just thinking how unreal all of this (still) is to me.

After our meeting, I hurried back to Harris Manchester and threw on my suit and gown for dinner. Jen was on her way from the Kilns when she missed her bus, as she called to let me know. She grabbed another, but she ended up being a few minutes late. I was standing at the stone gate leading into college when she arrived. She had run to make it on time, after being dropped off by the bus several blocks away. In her high heels, no less. She looked so beautiful. And I told her that, before entering the dining hall, through the large, arched wooden doors.

We took our seat at the end of the long middle table. The three tables, as well as the head table, were all packed when we arrived. Filled with men in their suits and gowns, and women in their dresses. Everyone all done up for the formal meal.

And the dinner was amazing. Salmon for appetizers, followed by a wonderful beef roast for dinner. We were seated next to a girl from Shanghai, and another from San Francisco. I told them we were from Seattle, and the girl from Shanghai said, “Oh, Starbucks!”

“That’s right,” I said with a laugh. Before thinking to myself, “That’s better than ‘Sleepless in Seattle’,” a reference I tend to get here more than I ever thought I would when people here hear where we’re from.

Most of the evening was spent to ourselves in conversation. Just Jen and I. Which was nice. It was almost as though we had gotten all dressed up and gone out for a really nice meal together. As busy as things have been here, it was much needed.

And as the evening carried on, I found myself sitting back on my chair and taking it all in. This enormous, beautiful, old dining hall, that looks a bit like a scene out of Harry Potter. Filled with the voices of Oxford students and friends and family. Filled with laughter and the sounds of dishes coming and going. Filled with the sounds of, in my case, dreams coming true.

I turned to Jen, with these thoughts floating through my head, and I said, “Our life looks so incredibly different now. Just think, we wouldn’t have had any of these experiences if we hadn’t decided to ever go after this.”

And I thanked Jen. Not only for being willing to leave all she knew back home to move here so I could study, and to put her own dreams of settling down and starting a family on hold, but for being the first person to encourage me to go after this. Long before I ever said the words “Oxford University” to anyone else, I told Jen about this dream. It was shortly after we were married, while we were still living in our first apartment. It was there I shared this dream of one day studying at Oxford with her. And from the very first, she had always encouraged me to go after this.

Looking over at her from across this table in Harris Manchester, this long table filled with talks of studies and travel and life, I realized how incredibly blessed I am to have this woman in my life. I could not have asked for a better companion to travel through this life with. She is far better than I could ever deserve.

As we made our way out of the dining hall that evening, we heard a voice from behind us call out, “Aha, I knew I’d spot you here, Jennifer!”

The voice came from an older woman who’s studying here with her husband. They’re both from Wales. She taught English and he had his own law firm before they moved here last year. She’s a short, petite, sweetheart of a woman. With a hair full of curly hair and a squinty smile that’s always beaming. He’s tall and wears glasses. He usually hangs in the background, like a tree, and lets her carry the conversation, only interjecting to make a witty comment here and there. She always makes a point to say “Hi” to Jen when she sees her, and she makes us both feel at home in a place that feels so very much unlike our home.

“And look at this,” she said, pointing out the ruffles on Jen’s dress. “With a black coat… I like that!” Jen smiled. And thanked her.

“So wonderful to see you both,” she said matter of factly, wearing her squinty smile as she exited the large, arched door into the dark night, with her tall husband looming behind her. He turned to offer us a soft smile and a head nod as he followed her to their room in the college.

Thursday: Breakfast with the guys & A thankful tour

I began Thursday by meeting a group of guys over breakfast. Rich, Max and I are all studying theology here, and we got together regularly last year. Usually weekly. To talk life and faith and studies. And another guy, by the name of Britton, was joining us this morning. Britton’s also studying theology here. He and his wife are from Hawaii. And they’re also in their second year here. It was nice to have him join us.

We met at Giraffe. An eclectic place with brightly colored walls. And a menu that is heavy on organic options. I ordered the breakfast burrito. And Max ordered the stack of pancakes. Max always orders the stack of pancakes. The restaurant’s eccentric decor and tasty food provided the perfect accent to our conversation, and I found myself thankful for the opportunity to share life with these guys.

A Thankful Tour

I had a tour that afternoon back at the Kilns, so after a bit of studying, I made my way back to the bus stop and back to the Kilns. I arrived early enough to grab a quick lunch with Jen before the group arrived, a rare treat. Soon the doorbell was ringing to let us know the tour had arrived and Jen was slipping into a room to get some work done. And to evade the guests.

This particular tour was from a group of elderly British women. They had a name for themselves, too. “Aging with Grace,” or something along those lines. They were a wonderful group. Very kind and attentive. And I think since they were older, and British, they could relate to a lot of the things I shared with them about Lewis. Things that younger, American tourists might be able to appreciate as much (such as living in war-time England and the like, things that largely influenced his writing).

Interestingly, only one of the women really seemed to have read much of Lewis’s books. The rest only seemed to know bits and pieces about him. Which I thought was great, as I got to answer a lot of great questions.

Halfway through the tour, one of the women who wasn’t very familiar with C.S. Lewis said, “He really sounds like a wonderful man,” with her eyebrows low, revealing a sense of seriousness.

“Yeah, I think he was, from all that I know about him, and from what others have told me,” I replied.

As I wrapped up the tour that afternoon, that same older woman thanked me for the tour, and then she asked me for the person in charge. I clarified who she might be looking to reach, and then I tracked down Dr Stan Matson‘s contact information (Dr Matson is Founder and President of the CS Lewis Foundation). When I asked her why she was interested in getting in touch with him, she said it was because she was wanting to let him know what a wonderful job I had done.

“I wasn’t very excited to come today, but now I just want to go home and read C.S. Lewis,” she told me as she was preparing to leave.

“Oh, good,” I said with a wide smile. “Well, mission accomplished, then.”

As soon as the group was gone, Jen popped up from around the corner with a cookie in one hand and a hot cup of tea in the other.

“Oh, wow!” I said with a look of surprise. “Thank you hun!”

She asked me how the tour had gone, and I shared the woman’s comments with her. But I didn’t have long to elaborate, or to enjoy my tea, for that matter, as I had a meeting back at Harris Manchester that I was supposed to be at. With the Principal and Senior Tutor. A meeting I could not be late for.

Meeting with the Principal & Senior Tutor

I made it back to Harris Manchester just in time for my meeting. Or so I thought. I ran to the flight of stairs leading up to the Principal’s office, where we’d be meeting, only to find that there were still several people ahead of me, and that things were running late. And so, after waiting for 20 minutes or so, and talking with several other students, I was called into Principal Waller’s office, by the Principal himself. He greeted me with his old familiar warm smile as he welcomed him into the room. Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated in her old familiar spot, by the window.

All of the Finalists (final year students) at Harris Manchester were required to sit in on these meetings. To discuss their plans for the final year, and to make sure each Finalist felt like they were doing okay leading up to final exams.

“Frankly, a lot of Finalists like to forget about the fact that they will soon be taking their finals,” Lesley said with a bit of a smirk, “but that doesn’t make the reality of finals go away.”

I told them I did, in fact, realize that I’d be finishing that year, and that I felt like I had a good idea of what I needed to do in the mean-time.

Principal Waller asked what I was taking this term, and what I had left to take before starting on preparations for my finals. And so I told them.

“Well, it certainly sounds like you’re going to be busy,” he said in response, in that voice that always sounds a bit sympathetic, no matter what he’s saying. And then, as if to show he really was concerned, his eyebrows pushed together in the middle of his forehead, and they lowered to just over his eyes as he spoke again, “Do make sure you use the vacation. Get away from studies and get caught up on rest. You will need it.”

It actually surprised me to hear Principal Waller say this. Most of my tutors give me a stack of books they’d like me to use to work on revisions over the holidays, which always makes it seem a bit less like vacation. But here was Principal Waller telling me to make sure I get caught up on rest. I’ve always knew I liked this guy.

I thanked Lesley and Principal Waller for their time as we shook hands and I let myself out of his office. It’s funny how nervous I was the first time I had a meeting with the Principal and Senior Tutor, and how incredibly comfortable I am with them now. It’s funny how much that’s changed, in such a short period of time.

Coming home to a smile

I followed up my meeting with some studies in the library. A couple hours’ worth, before gathering up my things and making my way home for dinner. I hopped on a bus on High Street and continued reading while the bus carried us through the dark Oxford roads that lead to the Kilns, stopping only for a moment to let passengers off. And others on.

20 minutes later I was getting off at the end of Lewis Close, and walking the 100 yards or so to the Kilns. Passing through the gate in the front hedges, I made my way around to the front of the house, on the pebbled walking path, and as I did, I stepped into the light that was pouring out through the kitchen windows. And it was there I caught a scene that made me stop in my tracks and take it in.

It was Jen, in the kitchen, standing side by side with Debbie at the AGA stove. They were making dinner together. And they were both smiling. And I found myself frozen by this scene. I found myself stopped dead in my tracks, thinking “She looks so happy.” And the smile on Jen’s face took me back. To the first time I saw it. More than 10 years ago now. When she was being crowned Homecoming royalty in our high school auditorium. I was just a Junior in high school at the time. Jen was a freshman. And it wasn’t long after that that I went home and told my Mom I believed God created that smile just for me. And now, more than 10 years later, it was still stopping me dead in my tracks.

As I stood outside the Kilns on this particular night. Outside of C.S. Lewis’s old home. And as the light from the kitchen and this scene poured out of the kitchen onto the walking path where I now stood in the darkness, I found myself in awe of all God has done. In giving me this beautiful, incredible woman as my wife. In allowing me to enjoy all of this journey with my high school sweetheart. And for all of the blessings He has poured out on our lives along the way. It’s all more than I could ever hope for or dream of. And yet, and yet it’s exactly what He’s given us. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

Thanks for reading.

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