The  Start of Trinity Term

After several dark, dark months that stretched from the end of Hilary (winter) term through the two months of spring break, months filled with valleys and challenges of the sort I have rarely experienced, things began to suddenly feel brighter at the start of Trinity term. Though it involved collections preparations (preparing for exams on papers from the previous term), and loads of revisions (preparations for final exams), and though I still had no idea what the next year looked like for us, in light of my recent disappointing news, the start of Trinity term was also an encouraging time.

It was encouraging because I suddenly found myself filled with reminders of how much I had to be thankful for: for my incredible wife, who loved and supported me in the valleys; for the fact that I would soon be completing my studies at Oxford, something I had only dreamt of doing for so long; and for the quickly approaching arrival of our first child, Emma.

I was working on collections preparations several days before the start of Trinity term from my second-story desk in the Harris Manchester college library one afternoon when a rather massive rainstorm rolled through Oxford. It was the kind of rainstorm that rolls in quick and comes down hard, beating the pavement with pellet-sized blows. Dark clouds covered the sky and, for a moment, it looked as though it might not ever let up.

But it didn’t last long, and soon, the clouds broke, once again revealing the bright blue background beneath.

And while I didn’t realize it at the time, the transition from that terrible storm to the bright blue sky painted something of a picture of how things would soon be unfolding for us.

A Bit of Good News

I was work on revisions the following week, on the other side of collections, when I received a note from the Oxford Graduate Studies office. And I knew, immediately, it was the news of their decision.

Hesitantly, I opened the e-mail, which confirmed my suspicion, and which directed me to open an attached letter to know whether I had been offered a spot or not. It all seemed so repetitive, and anti-climactic, like a set of russian nesting dolls.

My heart sank as I opened the attachment, even before I had read the first sentence. I had an overwhelming feeling I had not been offered a position, and the return of the guilt and feelings of inadequacy were too much for me to bear.

But then I read on, and I was shocked by what I read…

“Dear Mr Ryan Pemberton,

I am delighted to inform you that your application for admission to the University of Oxford as a graduate student has been successful. . . . Our admissions round is incredibly competitive, and we would like to congratulate you most warmly on your success.”

A smile enveloped my face as read these words. I really could not believe it, and I was still in awe when I forwarded the letter to Jennifer.

I quickly returned to my studies, with what felt like a newfound excitement and motivation for my work. My offer had been a conditional one; all MSt offers for current Oxford students are, I had been told. Knowing I had to get a certain mark on my finals was certainly good motivation to keep at it, particularly when revisions prep seemed to go on and on, with no end in sight.

Several minutes had gone by before I paused from my work and sat back in my chair. Allowing the news to set in, I turned to look out the window at the white clouds in the pale blue sky, and I heard the words repeated,

“…I am delighted to inform you that your application for admission to the University of Oxford as a graduate student has been successful…”

Still wearing a grin, I took a break from revisions to grab a sandwich from the ATS, an early dinner. And suddenly, stepping outside, everything seemed so much brighter.

My general malaise for Oxford, which had set in following my initial denial, began to fade and, in its place, I found myself once again falling head over heels in love with Oxford. Like an old girlfriend who, after telling you she’s not that into you, and that ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ gives you a call and asks if you’d be interested in doing something sometime.

At the time of the break up, you tell yourself it was actually a good thing. You tell yourself she wasn’t right for you, and you make some half-hearted comments to your good friends about how you knew, deep down, it would never have worked out. That it never works out with girls who–I don’t know–wear watches.

And then your good friends, since they are good friends, furrow their brows, nod their head in agreement, and say something like, “Hmmm…, yes. Girls with watches. Never trust them.”

All the while, you’re not so-secretly feeling sorry for yourself, and they’re not so-secretly feeling sorry for you.

I was walking on air as I made my way to the ATS, to see their old familiar faces waiting to take my sandwich order. Oxford had broken my heart, but boy was she beautiful.

At the same time, my heart really had been leading me toward Duke in the six weeks or so since I had first heard back from Oxford, and had made the decision to apply to Duke, inspired by Stanley Hauerwas and his work on Narrative Theology. Jen had been feeling the same way. We were both feeling like we were being led in that direction, even though we were discussing this decision with 6,000 miles in-between us, and we were excited about the possibilities for us there.

I could tell this wasn’t going to be an easy decision, and I couldn’t wait for Jen to wake up and read the news.

A Job Opportunity

Just an hour later, after returning to the library, I heard from the Senior Editor of a Christian magazine back home who I’d done some writing for, and who I am friends with. He was asking about my plans for the following year, and he mentioned that he had an “awesome editorial gig” coming up he’d like to consider me for, if I was interested.

The job just so happened to be in our old hometown, close to family. With a baby on the way, that had an obvious appeal.

In a couple of hours, I went from having no idea what the next year had in store, to being overwhelmed by potential opportunities.

I Skyped in with Jen a little later in the day. She said she received my e-mail and, after reading what I wrote to her, introducing the e-mail from Oxford’s Graduate Studies Committee, she was shocked to find out I had been accepted, because of how I presented it. I told her I was shocked, too. She told me congratulations, that that was a big deal.

And then I told her about the job. “Oh wow…” she said, with big eyes. “That sounds like it’d be a great fit with what you’d like to do.”

“Yeah, kind of perfect, in a lot of ways. And the fact that it came to me, in an economy like this, is pretty incredible.”

“And it’d be close to family,” she said with a smile, while Khloe peeked in the screen from beside her, wearing her crooked grin.

“And it’d be close to family,” I said, smiling and nodding. “Lots to think and pray about.”

Making Our Decision a Little Easier

I stayed up until 4.00 a.m. the next morning, putting together all my materials this Editor friend had asked for. My CV, writing samples, etc. And then, on just a few hours of sleep, I took a quick break from revisions to take an editing test the next day.

It all felt a bit rushed, and I had no idea how I’d done, but I figured I had at least given it my best, and we’d see what happened.

The following day, just two days after getting a note about the opportunity, I received a note letting me know that they’d decided not to offer this position after all. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little let down, particularly after the hurried pace of getting everything submitted.

I shared the news with Jen that evening, wondering how she’d take it, and knowing how appealing a job close to family would be for her, with Emma’s arrival quickly approaching.

“Well, that makes our decision a little easier,” she said with an encouraging smile.

I told her I agreed. We still had Duke to hear back from. And it would still be a very difficult decision.

Still, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. And feel a hint of failure.

Guys’ Night Out

I celebrated the end of that week with a Guys’ Night Out with Olli and his 10-year old son, Elias. We went to watch the new Avengers movie, and to grab some dinner afterward.

Driving to the theatre, Olli asked about my potential editorial job offer, and whether I’d heard anything.

“Yeah,” I told him, “I did hear back from them, and they decided to not hire the position after all.”

“Yessssss,” he said with a wide grin, without missing a beat.

I laughed out loud. Olli’s not the type to get excited about much at all, and so I told him I appreciated it, knowing he was rooting for our staying in Oxford for another year.

After the movie, the three of us tucked into an Asian restaurant to grab some dinner, and to recap our thoughts on the movie.

We talked about the movie for a while, comparing it to other superhero films, before we returned to our conversation about next year, and Olli asked what I thought I’d do if we heard back from Duke with another acceptance letter.

And it was at that point that I realized I hadn’t shared with Olli about losing Hayley shortly before arriving here, and how that loss made me realize how much I wanted to write in a way that reaches those who might not otherwise care to read or listen to teaching on Him. To help others to see Him more clearly, when they might not otherwise, and about why I came here in the first place.

“So, that will give you a bit more background on what it is I want to do, and why we set out to do this in the first place,” I told Olli from my seat across the table, while Elias listened to The Two Towers audio on his headphones from beside him.

“I feel like God has opened some really big doors for us along the way, as we’ve set out to do this, and I want to respect that with this decision”

News I Wasn’t Expecting

Monday of the following week was the first sunny morning in days. It energized me as I opened up the blinds and the sunlight poured into Warnie’s old rooms. I had a bit of time before I had to be in the city center, so I decided to throw on my shoes and I went for a run, for the first time in ages. And it felt great.

After cleaning up and grabbing a quick bite, I took the bus into the city center and got off at High Street. And as soon as I stepped off the bus I heard my name from behind me, “Hey Ryan.”

I turned around to find Ollie standing with a smile and a cup of Starbucks in one hand.

“Hey Olli! Funny running into you here… Hey, that looks good,” I said to him, pointing toward his cup. “I need to go get one of those.”

“Yeah,” he said, raising his cup with a smile. And then his voice become more serious in tone.

“Well, we came to a decision about next year…”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, knowing they had planned on deciding over the weekend, and fully expecting to hear they’d be here in Oxford for another year.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but we weighed out all the pros and cons, and we decided to head back home, to Finland, for next year.”

My heart sank at the sound of his words, and I’m sure my face showed it. It felt like I had been denied by Oxford all over again.

“Oh wow…,” I said, struggling for words. “I wasn’t expecting that!”

He told me it had not been an easy year, and with a new baby having just arrived, they thought they’d really appreciate being a bit closer to family. They’d also be able to save quite a bit, being back home, he told me, and that it’d be a chance to refresh themselves a bit before applying for some posts in the US for the following year.

“Wowwww…” I repeated, drawing out the word. “Well, that will certainly have an impact on our decision for next year.”

We talked for several more minutes before Olli had to get to a lecture in the Exam Schools. I said goodbye, and that we’d have to catch up soon. I crossed the High Street and made my way down the snaking back alley toward Harris Manchester.

I had been reading from Matthew’s Gospel on the bus, and my thumb was still holding my place in the small Bible in my hand, but I didn’t feel like reading after that. In fact, I found I had to fight back tears as I walked down the sunlit stone sidewalk.

Olli and Salla had become some of my best friends here in Oxford. But more than that, they had been like family. And I couldn’t imagine coming back here without them. It really would be a tough, tough decision.

Two Years Later

Several days after that surprising news was May 1, the anniversary of Hayley’s death, and it was the first time I’d be spending it alone, as Jen was still back in Washington. I hadn’t been looking forward to that day, knowing it was coming, and it was all I could do to get out of bed that morning. I stumbled through the day, just wanting to crawl into a hole.

So I did the next best thing and I went to the basement of the Rad Cam to study. The dimly lit room seemed like a bit of an escape from the reality of the day, as I figured I could probably go there without anyone recognizing me. I just didn’t feel like talking. With anyone.

I took a quick break from studies that afternoon, to get some caffeine, and I ended up running into Max and Britton and Rich in a coffee shop. They were surprised to see me, as I hadn’t seen them for a while, being buried in revisions work, and I felt embarrassed for looking like a zombie. With deep eye bags, and dressed in all black (which I didn’t notice until halfway through the day).

I stumbled my way through a conversation, and I was envious for the life they seemed to exude, and which I appeared to lack.

After a few minutes of awkward conversation, I explained that I needed to get back to my studies, and I made my way back to the cavernous Rad Cam for more revisions.

The Oxford University CS Lewis Society met that evening. And were it not for the fact that Myriam, our Secretary, was sitting her final exams (English comes before Theology), which required me to be present for the Society’s meeting, as President, I would have remained in the dark Rad Cam basement.

So I went, and it ended up being good that I did. It felt like a breath of fresh air for my grief-constricted lungs.

Peter, an older English gentleman and former Society Treasurer, drove Debbie and I back to the Kilns that evening, after the meeting. The two of them talked about the evening’s speaker from the front seat. They talked about Peter’s dog and wife. They talked about a lot of things, while I sat quietly in the backseat, staring out the window into the dark nothingness as we drove, thankful not to have to talk, and not to have to take the bus.

I thanked Peter for the ride when we arrived at the Kilns that evening. We entered the house, dimly lit, and Debbie asked how I was doing. I told her I was tired. That revisions seemed endless at this point.

Then, when I could tell there was more to her question, with her pressing, sympathetic eyes, I told her I was having a tough time, but I was feeling pretty good about getting out of bed this morning.

She told me Jen had informed her about Hayley’s anniversary, that I would likely be having a pretty tough day, and that she was sorry. She told me she was praying for us, and I thanked her for that.

She said the words I wrote that day for Hayley were beautiful. I thanked her for that, too. Then I retreated to my room, in the darkness, and replied to a long list of e-mails that read, “I’m praying for you,” and “my prayers are with you.” I was thankful for each and every one of them, but they all served as a painful reminder.

By the time I finally made it to bed that night it was after 1.00 in the morning, and I was so thankful to finally retreat to the comforts of my bed. And when I did, the oddest picture came to me…

This may sound funny, coming from someone who’s such an enthusiast of CS Lewis’s writing, but I’m not much of a reader of the Chronicles of Narnia series. I never did as a kid, and I only got halfway through the series when I picked them up later on. I know, I know…

But anyways, I had this picture in my mind as I got ready for bed that evening. It was of a giant lion lying at the head of my bed, where my pillows sat, who was inviting me to come lay down. To rest my head in the warm fur of his gently rising and lowering side.

And there was nothing I wanted more than to do just that. I knew, once I did, that I’d be safe. That none of the darkness of this day would be able to get me there.

So I did. And they didn’t. And all was suddenly better. Not that this loss or the grief was no longer there, but that it was now somehow absent, in the comforts of this resting spot.

And I know it sounds funny, but I fell asleep with a half-smile on my face, with my hands gripping the soft pillows under my head with thankfulness.

Deciding to Stick it Out

Jen and I had a chance to catch up on Skype the following night. She asked how I was doing, as, apparently, Debbie told her she thought it’d be best if Jen were here with me for my finals. She told Jen she could tell I was really missing home, and that she was sure I’d do better having her here.

But I told Jen I wasn’t so sure. I told Jen I knew I wanted her here. I told her I knew I wanted her here so bad. But that I also knew I nearly always felt guilty for not knowing my studies better, even with her back at home, and for any time I didn’t have my nose in my revisions.

And so, in that sense, I told Jen the thought of having her here made me a bit anxious, knowing I’d want to be with her, but that if I did I’d feel guilty for not studying as much as I possibly could. And, at the same time, knowing that when I was studying, I’d feel guilty for not being with her.

It felt like a lose, lose. And, with watery eyes, I told Jen I thought it’d probably be best just to continue as is, as difficult as it was, with the promise of seeing one another again, of being together again, in only seven weeks. She told me she agreed, as difficult as it was, and I was so thankful to know we were on the same page.

Chasing My Own Tail

I was thinking about this decision the following day, on my bike ride home, when I realized that, for me, the worst part about being alone is the mental circles I run. It feels a bit like I’m chasing my own mental tail, most times, without ever actually really getting anywhere.

It feels like I’m constantly bumping into the walls of my own mind, and I long for a voice from the outside to break up the shallowness of my own thoughts.

And it reminded me of something Lewis wrote years ago, on the value of reading other authors:

“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see.”

And I wasn’t completely sure that was what Lewis was getting at, in this quote, but it was at that point that I feel like I knew, perhaps for the first time, what he meant.

Wondering if I Wasn’t Going Crazy

For whatever reason, that weekend felt like the cumulation of the great weight of being away from my wife for the past five months. It felt like I felt, all at once, the weight of being away for our first pregnancy and the stress of finals, and worrying about deciding on next year. It felt like all of these things came to a head and sat down on my shoulders all at once.

And I found myself thinking that this arrangement that I had been in for so long just wasn’t good for a person: that of being alone, and focusing so much energy one one’s studies. And on one’s own performance.

I hardly thought about others during this time. And I hated that. It felt like my soul was going bad and turning sour, from all the inward focus.

I remember feeling like I now knew why God invented marriage, and why I was not meant to be on my own.

I was in a funk. I didn’t want to be around others, but I felt so alone, at the same time. I really felt like I was going crazy. I’ve only felt that way a few times in my life, usually from a lack of sleep, but I felt that way on this day.

I remember going to the market that evening to get groceries, and just wandering the aisles as though I were half asleep. Nothing sounded good to me, which, for a guy who typically eats two dinners an evening, is a sure sign something was off.

But since my refrigerator was only holding a single egg and some condiments, I knew I needed to get something. So I picked out a few staples that I knew I usually enjoy, even though they didn’t sound any good to me at the moment, and I returned home.

Jen called me a few minutes after I got in, and I told her I felt like I was going crazy. I told her I felt like I just didn’t have anything left, and I just wanted to come home. I told her I didn’t even care about my exams anymore, that I just wanted to be together.

She nodded, and she told me she understood. I told her I was just struggling to imagine how all of this could possibly be worth it. I told her I never imagined our first pregnancy would be spent 6,000 miles apart. I told her no one does.

She nodded again. But then then told me she was sure it’d be worth it, and that we wouldn’t be going through all of this if it wasn’t.

“It just doesn’t make sense that a guy from Everson would get into Oxford if it weren’t going to be used in a big way…,” Jen told me, with a voice of assurance, before making a terrible grimace all of a sudden.

“Owwww!… Oh, that was weird,” she said, making a face.

“I think Emma just turned over,” she said making a face, again. This time with a laugh.

I smiled. And knowing I would soon be holding our little girl in my arms, I knew that would make this all seem worth it.

Helicopter Backflips and Envying Families

Olli and Elias stopped by the next day, in the morning, to pick me up and spend the day at a nearby flight show that was taking place. And we had a great time.

We watched helicopters do backflips and airplanes soar by while doing barrel rolls. We sat in the grass and ate cornish pasties and bacon baps.

Olli laid down, fully extended, in the grass, and Elias sat on him to take in the show. I watched young families walk past us, pushing strollers carrying kids wearing brightly colored rubber boots. And all of a sudden I realized how very much I wanted a family of my own, and how difficult it was to know this was just around the corner for us, and to be away from it all.

You don’t realize how hungry you are until you get to a restaurant and wait for your order to arrive. And, when you’re hungry, the last thing you want to do is sit in a restaurant and watch others eat.

Looming Finals

Week three of Trinity Term brought with it a flood of Oxford students wearing their sub fuscs around the city. On their way to and from exams.

When you see other finalists, or when you’re a finalist and others see you, the question that’s inevitably asked is, “How’re you feeling about finals?” And the response is never good.

Even if they try to pretend as though they’re doing all right, it’s a bit like asking someone how they’re feeling about their funeral.

“Well, they’re three weeks away,” I would say with a shrug. “Ready or not.”

Infinite Times Smarter Than You

The thing about Oxford that I notice is that sometimes you’ll see someone and you’ll catch yourself judging them for something they are wearing that you find funny. At least I do.

For example, you might think, “That guy woke up and thought, ‘Yep, it’s got to be the red trousers today.'”

But then, just as soon as you catch this though passing through your mind, it’s met head on by another thought. One that reminds you that this guy is infinite times smarter than you. At least.

And you exchange smiles and say, “Hello,” politely, as you pass on your bikes.

Praying for Clarity

Jen and I had been talking every night about our plans for next year, and we each committed to praying over the decision. Hoping for clarity, which had escaped us so far. We both saw pros and cons to each school, and if Duke came through with an acceptance, we really didn’t know what we’d decide.

But one night, after spending a full day in the library, I was riding home to the Kilns, up Headington hill, and praying about this decision.

I began praying at the foot of the hill that He would make this decision clear for us, and by the time I arrived back at the Kilns that evening, I felt peace about the decision. Everything felt brighter. And all of a sudden, everything was suddenly clear, in a way it hadn’t been before.

Finals didn’t seem to weigh on me as they had been for so long. I knew I’d do my best, and that I’d soon be returning home. And all of a sudden I found myself so thankful for this journey.

The Thought of Leaving Oxford

I returned to the library the next day, for more revisions, and as I did, the thought of leaving Oxford pained me. The thought of not returning seemed crazy. Coming here truly has been an incredible experience, of the sort I could not have imagined before we left.

It’s a bit like falling in love with your dream girl, daydreaming about her for years, and then one day waking up to find out you’re married to your dream girl, and finding all your dreams for all those years were a pale reflection of how incredible she actually was.

That’s a bit like what this experience has been like for me. And the thought of giving up Oxford–my dreamgirl–pained me.

I remember a conversation I had with a pastor friend of mine years before we ever made this journey. We met for lunch and I told him I felt like I could go anywhere as long as Jen was with me. I told him I felt like she was my family, and how that was all that I needed.

And now, here I am, 6,000 miles away from home, and Jen is not with me. I couldn’t help but wonder if, somehow, that wasn’t intentional.

I wondered if this was not, in some small way, God saying, “Actually, rather than relying on your wife to get you through, I’d like you to rely on me.”

Similarly, I remember getting to a point where, while working in a marketing and PR firm back home, in a job I loved, I fell head-over-heels in love with Oxford. And I remember it was at that point that I said to God in prayer, “Okay, I’m willing to leave home and my career to study theology, but only if it’s at Oxford.”

And now, I quietly wondered if this wasn’t, in some small way, Him saying, “This is what I’d like you to do: give up your dreamgirl. First your wife, then Oxford. And make me your dream.”

I wondered if this entire journey has not been, in a rather complicated way, a process of God smashing all of my idols. Leaving me with nothing but Him, in the hope that I will finally see He is all I really need.

Good Theology Makes us DO something

A professor friend of mine by the name of Jeff visited Oxford during Trinity Term, from Seattle. He was on sabbatical, and he came here to spend a few months with his family, getting some of his own work done, but also enjoying Oxford with his wife and three girls.

He was giving a lecture at the Hall he was staying at one evening when he invited me along. It was on Theology & Literature, and I had no idea when I accepted the invitation just what an incredible impact it would have on me, and how much clarity it would bring to our decision for next year.

After the lecture, one of the Dominicans of the Hall in which the lecture was hosted spoke up, made a few comments on the talk, and then he said something that I thought was so good, and which has stuck with me to this day.

He said, “Good Theology makes us DO something.”

I smiled, and Jeff nodded. He mentioned that theology needs to become imaginative in order to be effective. He mentioned that Theology has lost that. And he said the problem with Theology, at the moment, is that people don’t think it has anything to do with truth.

And in a way I cannot now properly describe, with those two comments, I had confirmation for the peace I had first felt on that bike ride home the week before. When I prayed on Headington Hill and arrived home with the kind of peace that I’ve only had a few times before. That’s when I realized what we have to do.

Even though we were still waiting to hear back on their decision, that’s when I realized, the solution is Narrative Theology, and the place is Duke.


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