Saturday: A boys’ choir, dinner at the Turf and a late night conversation

I led a tour around The Kilns on Saturday, before Jen and I made our way into the Oxford city center that evening. We had plans to check out the boys’ choir evensong service in New College before grabbing dinner in town and making a date night out of the evening.

Jen had never been to New College before, and it was fun to be able to show her around. New College has to be one of my favorite college grounds. First, because it’s massive. Second, because it’s so old. Even though it’s called “New” College, it is still more than 600 years old. It’s massive stone walls and high-arching wooden doors make you feel as though you’ve traveled back in time. Back to the middle ages. And I love it.

We took our seats, Jen and I, in a long wooden pew in the college chapel just a few minutes before the evensong service was scheduled to being. The high-ceilinged room was dark, and the only thing illuminating the darkness were candles interspersed throughout the pews where people sat. It was a beautiful setting, with light dancing off the ornately carved walls as the candles flickered, and it was quiet apart from the sound of people’s feet shuffling as they found their seats.

Soon, the boys’ choir had entered, and the service had begun. If we felt as though we had traveled back in time before, now we certainly did. The choral hymns reverberated off the walls in a way that seemed to swallow up the setting and then come chasing into your eardrums, transporting you to a time centuries earlier. The singing was beautiful, and I was so thankful to share it with Jen.

After the service, we followed the train of people leaving the service like a snake escaping into the darkness before we broke off from the group and I led Jen through a shortcut across the College grounds and we passed through the same, high-arching, massive wooden doors that would’ve been used to let in, or keep out, large horse-drawn carriages. We continued along the lane in front of New College and a few minutes later we took a sharp turn down a narrow alley, before passing through a low doorway, through a short tunnel and then entering into the Turf Tavern, which has quickly become of our favorite pubs to frequent.

The only down side of the Turf is that it’s not just one of our favorite pubs, it’s a very popular spot, and it’s regularly completely full of people. We walked around most of the pub, unable to find a seat, and we were about ready to leave for another pub, where we might have better luck, when I stopped dead in my tracks at the sound of a familiar voice. As I turned, I realized we had walked right past Jonathan, our housemate at the Kilns, without even realizing it!

“Hey, Jonathan!” I said, turning as I recognized him.

Apparently he had not noticed us, either, as he looked completely surprised to see us.

“Ryan, Jennifer, hey!” he welcomed us with a smile, and introduced us to the woman he was talking to. “This is Stephanie,” he told us, “An old friend from London.”

Apparently they were just preparing to leave, as Jonathan had a dinner party to make, so they offered us their table. I felt bad taking it, as if we were cutting short their conversation, but they insisted. So we did. Jen took Stephanie’s seat, and I placed our food order at the pub counter. The room is filled with lots of dark wooden beams, and the low-hanging ceiling appears to be held up by the same.

After a very tasty meal at the turf–I’m so thankful my wife loves pub food as much as I do!–we made our way across town, to another pub (the Red Lion), and we continued our conversation over an order of sticky toffee pudding that we shared.

Once the plate that our pudding arrived on was nearly licked clean, and no remnants of the warm caramel dessert were left, we hopped on a bus and headed back to the Kilns. It had been a great night. It seemed like the perfect date, really. And we were still deep in conversation as we made our way on-foot up to the Kilns.

Because of this, I asked Jen if she’d like to continue our conversation up at the pond. Even though it was dark, there was a nice brick bench beside the water that I suggested as a good spot to continue our conversation. After a pause, Jen agreed. So we made our way up the small footpath leading to the pond, we passed through the small metal gate, and then we took our seat at the edge of the pond.

There was a slight wind as we spoke, causing the late fall leaves to blow into the water, as they fell like snowflakes in the dark. Fireworks left over from the Guy Fawkes Day celebration the previous weekend crackled in the distance and lit up the night sky as we talked. And it was like we were dating all over again. Jen talked, while I listened, mostly, and I found myself smiling at the scene of us, seated there together. As I realized that this woman who knows me better than anyone else was now encouraging me in our future together. It was from this spot that we talked for hours, sharing life and prayer requests. And it was from this spot that I realized I simply could not love her more.

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

I was working on a presentation and essay on Tuesday afternoon, from the library at Harris Manchester, when I received an e-mail from my Dad. At the end of his note, he mentioned the fact that it’s weird to think I’m in England right now, as he had worked in England on occassion when I was growing up. And now the roles were reversed. And it was only when I read his words that I was reminded that we are actually in a foreign country right now. I know it sounds funny, but often times I forget that. I guess it has come to feel so natural, living here (all over again).

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

Tuesday night was a big night at the Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society. I had invited a speaker to join us, a professor from the States by the name of Don King (not that Don King) who is an expert on Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis’s wife, and who had recently been given a collection of Joy’s never-before-seen poems. Apparently they had been stored away in a friend of Joy’s attic, and they had only recently been found, by this woman’s daughter. This was the first time these poems of Joy’s had been shared with a public group, and the room was packed as people came out to hear them.

Don used a projector to display each poem on a large screen so they entire room could see them, and someone was chosen to read each poem aloud as we made our way through her works.

I’m not usually one for poetry, but I was completely taken aback by her writing. It was honest and heartfelt in a way I’ve probably never seen before. It was revealing, in terms of her relationship with Lewis, and her desire for him long before they had even met.

Joy had been introduced to Lewis through his writing. She had always been introduced to Christ through his writing, as she was raised as a Jewish woman, and she went on to spend years involved with the Communist Party. One of things many people don’t realize about Joy, though is that she was quite brilliant in her own right. So brilliant, in fact, that she graduated high school at the age of just 14, and she went on to attend University in New York in the same year.

Apparently Lewis was reluctant to get involved, romantically, with Joy at first, because of her marriage, which ended in divorce after a long-time separation around the time she first visited Lewis in England. It was not known whether she had shared her poems with Lewis or not, but they spoke, deeply, of her love and longing for him. Her words were honest and heavy, and they made your own heart heavy just hearing them.

After we had read through the entirety of her recently found poetry, several of us retired to the Eagle & Child pub, just down the street, to chat a bit more about her poems.

One of the lines that stood out to me most, and which I brought up to the group now huddled around a low, thick-wooden table in the Eagle & Child, was when Joy talked about offering Lewis crimson-colored roses from her wrists, and asked whether he would accept them. It was the kind of word picture that took your breath away.

Dr Michael Ward commented on the fact that these words appeared, to him at least, as something of a premonition. It was only a few short years later, after Joy had penned these words, that she would find herself lying on what was believed to be her deathbed in an Oxford hospital. She was stricken with bone cancer, and none of her medical staff thought she would leave the hospital alive. It was at this point that she and Lewis were married, in a ceremony at her bedside. Miraculously, Joy’s cancer went into a period of remission, and they enjoyed three wonderful years of marriage from the Kilns.

But the thought of all of this, of Joy’s words years earlier, of her offering herself in love to Lewis, even if it meant her death, and then this scene of them marrying at what was supposed to be her deathbed, it was all enough to send a chill shivering down your spine.

It was nearly 11:00 that night when five of us–Jennifer and myself, Debbie, Don King, and Malcom Guite, the self-described “furry little man from Cambridge”–tucked into a cab and made our way back to the Kilns, after talking for an hour or so at the Eagle & Child.

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

I had my tutorial with Dr Kennedy on Wednesday afternoon. I alway enjoy our time together. Our conversations. And, perhaps the best part, is finishing the essay you’ve spent two weeks preparing. There’s nothing better than finishing an essay. But, having it go well helps, too.

After my tutorial, I returned to Harris Manchester to get a bit more reading done when I passed by Sue, the librarian, in the hallway leading to the staircase I would take to the library. She made a large sigh as she walked out of an office door just as I was passing by.

“Yeah?” I asked, in response to the sigh, turning my head to look at her as we were now walking side-by-side.

Sue was walking quickly, throwing her arms back and forth to keep up me. “I keep telling myself, ‘there’s got to be a better way to earn a living!'” she said with a laugh. I laughed in reply as I climbed the stairs and headed back to the library.

The Oxford Open Forum

The Oxford Open Forum meeting was that night, and so, after a bit of reading in Harris Manchester, I packed up my things and headed to Jesus College, where we would be meeting on this particular evening.

Jesus College is a small, old college in the middle of the city center. Its high stone walls are the only thing that separate the sanctity that seems to loom like a thick fog in the college’s inner quads and classrooms from the busyness of the shopping and restaurants and people passing by outside its walls.

I made my way through the college entrance, showing my ID to the porter, and I followed the directions I had been given to find my way to the classroom where we’d be meeting.

There was only one other person there when I arrived. An older Pagan woman who I knew, and he is incredibly kind and soft-spoken. And, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, we would be the only two people making up the Open Forum that evening.

And so we began talking, as we waited for others to show up. She told me about how her mother tried to get her to go to church as a young girl. And how she’d have to go to Sunday school. But she didn’t like it.

“It never stuck,” she said, quite pointedly. “I didn’t like the control,” she continued, now with a distorted face. “You must do this, this and this, or else you go to hell and burn for eternity.”

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

“So, after putting up a fight for all those years, finally she stopped forcing me to go,” she told me, now looking rather triumphant.

“How old were you then?” I asked her. Her brow now lowered as she thought.

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

And I struggled to wrap my mind around this response. Even if I conceded to this understanding of Christianity, that we must obey a body of rules and laws, or else we’ll burn for eternity in hell (which I feel is a misunderstood interpretation of the Scriptures), I still don’t see how I could ever respond this way. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the Bible is pretty clear on the destiny of those who aren’t covered by the grace made possible by Jesus’s sacrifice, I also believe Christianity is about more than following a long list of rules.

But I’m getting off topic… It was this woman’s response to what she thought Christianity was about that puzzled me. I was puzzled by the fact that she simply stopped believing in the Christian God because of the punishment she was told she’d receive if she didn’t obey this long list of rules. And I didn’t understand the logic in that. I’m not about to stop believing in electricity, for example, just because you tell me I’ll get shocked if I stick my finger in an electrical outlet.

Still, there was no one else around, and I was curious, so I asked her to continue, and she did. She told me how it wasn’t until her 50’s before anything “stuck.”

“Why’s that?” I asked her. “Why then?”

“Well, I underwent an incredible change…,” she told me, pausing, somewhat dramatically. She was clearly deep in thought as she spoke. “Everything sort of fell apart and I had the opportunity to start over.”

I told her it seems like, for many of us, that’s the only thing that gets us to the point of asking such questions. She nodded in agreement. And gave an “Mmmm…” to back it up.

But I found it odd, hearing her talk about her search at that point, how she ended up at Paganism. After searching through “all the other religions.” Because that one fit best. Like a t-shirt. Or a pair of jeans. Not because it was what she believed to be most true, but because it fit her.

Again, I struggled to wrap my mind around this response, and I chewed on it as I made my way back home to the Kilns that night, first on the  bus, then on my walk up Kilns Lane and along Lewis Close.

Thursday: Making sense of it all

I was still thinking about this conversation when I was walking down Cornmarket Street late Thursday afternoon, in the cold evening air. It was dark out, and I was running errands.

A man was playing bagpipes on one end of the street, as people carrying shopping bags passed by. The young guy was playing “Amazing Grace,” and a small group of people were gathered around him. He looked like a student, with his bag open in front of him, waiting for donations.

Then, walking a bit further, I came across a young woman who was sitting on the ground on the opposite end of the street. She was covered in a blanket, and she had two dogs by her side. She was playing a recorder, but it was drowned out by the sound of the bagpipes from the young guy playing down the street. She was staring off in his direction as people passed by her. No one stopped to put any change in her hat, which was sitting face up in front of her.

And I found myself overwhelmed at this sight. Thinking about how cold the night air was. And how I simply couldn’t imagine having to spend the night outside in this weather. I found myself overwhelmed by the brokenness of this scene. And not only of this scene, but by all of this. By everything around us. I found myself thinking, “Whatever you believe, somehow you have to deal with this brokenness.”

Somehow, whatever you believe as to make sense of the fact that some of us go hungry and sleep on the cold, wintry sidewalk each night, while others pass by on their way to a warm meal and a warm home. And it just doesn’t make sense to me.

“This isn’t right,” I found myself thinking as I made my way past this young girl. This can’t possibly be how it was supposed to be. And whatever you believe, somehow you have to deal with this.

I think the Christian story is not only the most beautiful response to this problem–that a God who is both hurt by how we’ve wronged Him, in our disobedience, is also hurt, heartbroken, at the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, and so He’s sent His only Son to make it right–I think it’s also grounded in history. That’s why I believe the Christian account of reality. Not just because it appeals to my heart, but because it appeals to my head, as well.

And I found myself thinking, as I walked, “I don’t want to believe this halfway. Either all the way or nothing at all.” And I prayed that that would always be the case for me. That I would believe this story with my whole heart. With my whole being. And that I would live it out. And that it would always be that way.

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

After running a few errands, I met up with Jen that night, who was working from Starbucks, and we made our way to St Aldate’s Church together. A guy by the name of Ravi Zacharias was speaking from St Aldates that evening, and I was excited to hear from him. I had heard of his name, and I had several friends who worked for the missions organization named after him, but I had never actually heard him speak in-person.

I was instantly taken aback by just how easy this man was to listen to, as he took the stage to a loud round of applause that evening. He was soft spoken, in a way that made him seem inviting to listen to, and personable, but he also managed to be very serious and intentional with each word, at the same time.

He shared with us how he had come to the Christian faith when he was just 19 years old, after having attempted suicide. He told us about how he was from India, and how none of his family were Christians, but how, when no one was there for him, except his mother, when he was lying in bed in a cold hospital after attempting to starve himself, a stranger visited and gave him a Bible, and told him there was hope, and that life was worth living.

He told us about how this experience changed the rest of his life, and how he has spent nearly the past 40 years traveling the world sharing with others who Christ is and why His life matters to us, here and now.

Ravi talked, as those in the old, stone church listened, about how those who hold to a secular worldview have a problem when it comes to how we are able to distinguish between what is good and what is evil. He talked about how, ultimately, those who hold to such a belief system are only able to distinguish good from evil based on what is practical for us. Based on what we want to call “good,” and what we want to call “evil.”

As he spoke, I was reminded of an article I had read recently. It was from an interview with the well-known Atheist Richard Dawkins, and he was being asked about this very issue. Dawkins had just made the point that our concepts of good and evil are simply a product of our culture, and he went on to say that we could imagine, if we tried, a culture that disagrees completely with our concept of good and evil.

In response, the interviewer brought the conversation to a point when he asked Dawkins if he thought this included rape. He asked Dawkins if he could, theoretically, imagine a culture that believed the practice of rape was not wrong, but good. His response, after some thought, was yes, yes he could envision such a culture.

My thoughts returned to the conversation at-hand as Ravi Zacharias began sharing a story about a trip he once took to Taiwan. He told us how he was sitting on an airplane, waiting for it to take off, when a woman sat down beside him. He told us how he asked her what she did, and she told him how she was involved in rescuing those enslaved by the sex trade.

Ravi asked this woman whether her trip to Taipei had been successful, and she told him it had. With a look of excitement, she told him about the infant she had rescued the night before.

And it was then that Ravi’s voice turned more serious than I had heard it all night. He told us how this woman had, the night before, found herself in Snake Alley, rescuing an infant from the hands of a man who had just fried his brains with a shot of snake blood, and who was about to have his way with this young child.

Ravi stopped talking at this point, and he looked out at the people gathered in St Aldates that evening, to hear from him. My eyes were misted over and it was all I could do to hold back my tears.

“You cannot tell me that this man’s intentions were anything other than evil,” Ravi spoke up once again, breaking the silence.

A Metaphor in the Stars

Jen and I hopped on a bus and made our way back to the Kilns together that evening, discussing the talk at St Aldates as we traveled. The bus dropped us off at the end of Lewis Close, and we walked the 100 feet or so up to the house.

As we walked, I found myself staring up into the dark, night sky. At the stars glimmering in the darkness. And I spoke up to Jen as I did.

“Does it blow you away to think that the same constellations you can pick out back home in the States you find halfway around the world, here in England?”

Jen paused, for a moment. To think about my question. Before replying, “No, because I don’t look for them in the States, and I don’t look for them here. I look where I’m going, rather than staring up at the stars.”

“Hmmm… Is that a metaphor?” I asked Jen, as she used her keys to open the front door.

“No, it’s just what I do,” she replied.

“I think it’s a metaphor,” I said, as I followed her into the house, cleaning the wet leaves from the bottom of my shoes, before stepping inside.

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

I finished my weekly essay on John Calvin early this week, which meant I had some extra time to work on the essay I was writing on CS Lewis, Pagan mythology and Christianity. I don’t often find time for this, so I was thankful for the extra time to read from the Rad Cam.

I spent the morning reading several articles for my essay before heading to the Mitre Pub, to listen to a talk on the topic of Hell, and whether a Good God could actually allow such a thing.

I found a seat by my friend Tom, who works for the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and I told him how much I enjoyed the talk the night before. Tom was happy to hear it. He smiled, and nodded, as I talked.

“The thing that’s so great about Ravi,” Tom said, matter-of-factly, “Is that he removes the cultural argument against Christianity. He’s an Indian man from an Indian family, and he loves Jesus Christ as Lord.”

After the talk, I made my way back to the Kilns, as I had a tour to give that afternoon. The group were all Americans, and they all really seemed to enjoy the tour. As I made my way around the house, pointing out different pictures along the way, and telling stories about C.S. Lewis and his time at the house, I kept thinking, “I get paid to do this…” I was still waiting for the catch as I finished the tour and then spent some time getting caught up on e-mails over hot English tea and cucumber sandwiches from Lewis’s brother’s old study.

That evening, I told Jen I’d take care of dinner, and so I made a trip to the market and came back with fixings for tacos. It was while I was browning the hamburger and listening to music from C.S. Lewis’s old kitchen when it struck me, “I really do not feel like I could be any happier!”

But that’s when things changed. That’s when I received some surprising news that brought me from feeling like I was walking on clouds to feeling as though I was struggling to find my way in the dark, all over again.

A couple weeks earlier, I had a call with a publishing company back in the States. They had read a manuscript I had finished over the summer, and they were really excited about the idea of working with me to publish it. Wanting to get to know me a little bit better, after reading my words, we arranged a time for a Skype call. Even though it was the end of a rather long day for me here in Oxford, and even though we didn’t start talking until 10:30 that night, it went great. They basically started the call by saying, “We don’t know how long this will take, maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20 minutes. We just want to get to know you a little bit better.” Over an hour later, we were saying “goodbye” and they told me I could expect to hear back in a couple weeks with their decision. Because of how well the call went, I had began to believe that this was really going to go through.

But that’s when I heard back from them, on this particular Friday night, as I was preparing dinner. I received an e-mail letting me know that, as much as they loved my writing, and as much as they enjoyed getting to know me, they didn’t think now was the right time, largely because of the questions about what I would be doing after my time here in Oxford.

I was crushed.

I read the e-mail jut as we were sitting down to eat, and Jen could see the look of pain on my face as I did.

“What,” Jen said, looking over the top of my laptop. “What is it?”

I turned the computer around, so Jen could read it for herself, and all of a sudden I was no longer hungry.

We talked for a bit, Jen and I, from the kitchen. She told me this didn’t change anything. That she still thought this would go through, someday, but maybe just not with this particular publisher. She told me she still believed in me, and in my writing, and not to get too down about it.

I thanked her for her encouragement, and then I excused myself. I threw on my coat, and I grabbed my hat, before stepping outside, into the cool night air, and making my way the short walk up to the pond that sits just behind the house.

I sat on the brick bench alone in the dark, the same brick bench Jen and I had talked from a few days before, when the leaves fell like snowflakes, and I allowed my thoughts to race at this news.

“I really have no idea what I’m doing,” I thought to myself, “If this doesn’t go through.”

All of the excitement I had felt about life and where we were going, just an hour earlier, now seemed to be long gone. It felt as though it had run off with someone else, and that I was left alone, sickened by its absence.

And so I prayed. I called out to God, wondering what I was supposed to do with all of this. Wondering how He was going to work through all of this. And wondering, ultimately, where I was supposed to be heading.

It was there, in the cold, late-night air, beside this pond where Lewis used to sit and think, that I found myself now calling out to God. With many tears, I sat there and listened to the nearly-silent air that passed through the trees. And, even though I was all alone, and even though if someone were there, seated beside me, they wouldn’t have seen anything change, or hear any voices, I suddenly felt God encouraging me. I suddenly felt a peace of mind about the whole situation. I remembered Jen’s words she had spoken to me from this same spot just a few days before, and I felt Him reminding me that He still has plans for all of this, even when I cannot see them.

And suddently, even though nothing had changed, it was though things had. I was still hurt by this news, sure. And I was still struggling to figure out where that left us, but I no longer felt overwhelmed by it. Suddenly, in a way I can’t completely explain, I knew He was going to work through all of this in an incredible way. In a way I would never have believed were someone to tell me about it when we first set out for Oxford.

I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my jacket and smiled a bit as I stared out across the pond into the darkness. I thanked God for never leaving me alone, even when I feel so alone. And scared. And I made my way back toward the house. And back to my wife.

Saturday: Our trip to Blenheim Palace, and the Reason for Hayley’s Words

We woke up Saturday morning, Jen and I, and we made our way across town and caught a bus outside of the city to Blenheim Palace, an incredibly large, beautiful building that sits on more than 100 acres in the English countryside just outside of Oxford.

The palace was hosting a Christmas-themed fair this weekend. With crafts and food. And we decided to spend the day there, taking it in.

We had both been to Blenheim Palace before, but it’s still enough to take your breath away.

As you walk along the footpath leading up the palace, you’re welcomed by a stretching scene of a slow-moving river and a large bridge, with the palace sitting on a hill in the background. It’s beautiful, and it feels a bit like you’ve just been transported into a Jane Austen novel.

It was a beautiful day when we visited Blenheim. It was cold, but the sky was blue and only interspersed with white clouds, slowly gliding by in the horizon.

We enjoyed looking through the different craft booths that day, stopping to pick up a few Christmas gifts for our family. We enjoyed hot roast pork sandwhiches for lunch, and, for dessert, we shared a cup of hot cocoa.

When our stomachs were full and warm, we walked to the edge of the palace courtyard and took photos. Of the palace. Of ourselves in front of it. Sometimes jumping or making funny faces, to crack each other up. Other times just smiling, or taking in the scene.

I had so much fun with my wife that day. And it helped to take my mind off the news we had received the night before.

It was dark by the time we took the bus home that night. And we talked as we did, as the bus pulled around corners, maneuvering its way through the tight Oxford lanes.

And we continued talking as we walked the short distance from our bus stop to the Kilns. We talked about Jen’s sister Hayley. And this news. And something Hayley had said to me, before we left home. And before she passed away.

“Hayley believed in this, you know?” Jen reminded me in a serious tone as we walked. She paused, as her eyes became glossy from holding back her tears. As did mine.

“She believed in you and your writing,” Jen continued. “It made a difference in her life. And even though I don’t think that’s why she’s gone, I do think that maybe God knew you’d need that, as motivation.”

The tears fell slowly as her words came, warming my cheeks in the cold night air as we walked. And it was then I knew that no matter how bad this news hurt, I couldn’t let it stop me from doing what we came here to do.

Hayley believed in this, Jen reminded me. So did Jen. I had to, too.