Archives for category: dreams

Saturday: Day 1 of Final Exams

Saturday was day one of my six days’ worth of final exams. I had seven papers to sit, in total, beginning Saturday morning, and ending Friday afternoon, with only Sunday off.

Each of my exams would last three hours; each of which would be handwritten, essay format; and the cumulative average of which would represent my final mark for my Oxford degree (nothing else before this point matters, as far as my degree is concerned).

All of my months’ worth of revisions; all of my long days in the library and late nights at the Kilns; they would all come down to this. Needless to say, there was a lot of pressure riding on these exams.

I woke up early on Saturday morning, the day of my first final exam. I showered, got dressed in my full sub fusc, and then I grabbed breakfast in the dining room of the Kilns.

Debbie invited me to sit down for breakfast, which she prepared, and which I probably would have otherwise not made time for. There were a handful of short-term Kilns guests already seated around the dining room table when I took my seat, having just finished breakfast and still sharing conversation. Don, an English professor who was visiting from the States with his wife, as well as Greg, a pastor from New Mexico, who was treating his daughter to a tour of Europe for her sixteenth birthday.

Greg prayed for me and my exams before I dug into my food (yogurt with granola and fresh berries, toast, a banana and orange juice). They were all curious how I felt going into my first exam, and I told them about John’s comment as I ate, about how a million years from now, when I’m worshipping God in His presence, no one’s likely to turn around and ask me about my exam marks from Oxford. And I told them about how I thought that makes this a completely different ballgame for me.

Don smiled.

“That’s exactly the right perspective, man.”

I smiled. I liked that Don called me “man.”

After finishing my food, I thanked everyone for their prayers and encouragement, grabbed my bag and notes, and I made my way to the bus stop to catch a ride into the city center.

Standing at the bus stop dressed in my sub fusc, I noticed a young girl smiling at me, as she peeked out from behind her Mom, before whispering something into her mother’s ear. It’s a funny getup, to be sure, I thought, and I smiled back at her.

I took the bus to the city center, made the short walk to College, and then walked with a group of other finalists from Harris Manchester to the Exam Schools on this warm, sunny Saturday spring morning.

I wore a white carnation on my chest, which made me feel a bit like I was on my way to my high school prom, but all Oxford finalists wear carnations to their finals. The white carnation signals that I was on my way to my first final exam. I’d wear a pink carnation for the rest of my finals, with the exception of my last final exam, to which I’d wear a red carnation.

It’s a funny tradition, I know. But it’s Oxford, and the carnations are yet one more Oxford tradition.

It is helpful, though. It warns everyone around the city, “Be careful, this guy’s in the middle of final exams, and you don’t want to cross him, as he just might do something crazy.”

I met up with John (Adams) and John (Ash) in the large, white canopy that stands in the middle of the courtyard just outside of the Exam Schools, where we’d begin our finals in just a few minutes. The canopy was filled with other finalists, all dressed in their sub fuscs, and all abuzz for their impending exams.

I couldn’t help but notice how calm both Johns looked, like they were doing great. They greeted me with wide smiles, and asked how I was doing.

They both stand taller than me, as well. Rarely do I feel short, but I do around them. And their confidence on this particular morning only seemed to emphasize this fact.

Soon, our rooms were called and we were asked to make our way into the Exam Schools building. In a large crowd of students dressed in their black and white sub fuscs, we made our way upstairs to the examination room, some funneling into the North Schools room, and the rest into the South Schools room.

“Take note of this, Ryan,” John Adams said to me as we climbed the stairs, “This will be the only time you will walk up a marble staircase to take an exam.”

“I hope so,” I told him.

I finished my Old Testament exam three hours later. I didn’t feel great about it, but at least it was done, and I was still alive, and that was better than I had imagined it going.

As I left the Exam Schools building that afternoon, I suddenly felt so relieved, knowing I can only give my exams my best, and at the end of this dreadful routine, I’ll come out of the other end still alive.

I returned to Harris Manchester after I had finished, after being stopped at several points by friends who were interested to hear how it went, and I began working on New Testament, for my next exam, which would be on Monday afternoon. A few people looked at me like I was crazy for returning to the library so soon after my first exam, but this would be the only time I had a full day between two of my finals, and I wanted to make sure I was making the most of it.

After several hours of revisions from the library that Saturday afternoon, I took the bus home at 10.00 that night, a full hour before the library closed. I had actually hoped to be home earlier, but it didn’t happen. I stumbled off the bus at the Green Road roundabout, and I made the 15-minute walk home, in a daze, completely exhausted from my exam and studies.

I was certain I looked like I was drunk as I carried my suit under one arm, with my laptop bag strung across my opposite shoulder, struggling to walk a straight line in my exhaustion.

Two police offers passed by on their bikes, and I stared like a zombie at them before one of them asked me, “Are you all right?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah…” was all I could manage.

I found myself wondering whether you ask “Are you all right?” as a greeting here, in the UK, or if you ask “How’s it going?” as I passed them and continued to make my walk home to the Kilns. I felt turned upside down, trying to remember what’s normal here in the UK, versus back home in the States.

I turned onto Kilns Lane as I did my best to settle this riddle, and the old palm tree that stands at the corner, on the bottom of the hill, caught my eye. It looked as though there was something like yellow flowers blooming under some of its long, green palms.

“A sign of life,” I thought to myself, and the late evening breeze played with its branches in a way that made it wave to me as I passed. I smiled as I stared back at it over my shoulder.

“A palm tree in Oxford…,” I thought to myself, “What a funny idea.”

Sunday: Becoming a Godfather

I woke up early Sunday morning and rode my bike the six miles to St Andrew’s Church in north Oxford, just a half-block from where Jen and I lived when we first moved to Oxford. I found Olli and Salla in the Church, holding Tobias, and they welcomed me with a hug. I said “hi” to Aku, another Finnish friend, who would also be one of Tobias’s Godfathers.

And then, the service began. We stood in a row in the front of the church as the vicar led us and the congregation in a series of statements, acknowledging our commitment to raising Tobias in a Godly manner. He sprinkled Tobias’s head with water, and Tobias didn’t seem to mind too much, as Olli held him, wearing a wide grin. Salla smiled, making her eyes into tiny slivers, and I smiled, too, overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to be a Godfather to this beautiful little boy, and to stay in touch with such incredible friends, in this way, no matter where our respective journeys took us.

I thanked Olli and Salla after the service, gave Tobias a kiss on his forehead, apologized that I could not join them and others in the University Parks for a celebratory picnic, and then I hopped on my bike and made my way to Harris Manchester, to get back to work on revisions for the rest of the week’s final exams.

More than Halfway There

The next week seemed to fly by as I alternated between hurrying to remind myself of my revisions work, as I flew through the notes I had spent months preparing, then sitting a three-hour exam, and then returning to my notes to prepare for my next exam.

I had my second final exam on Monday afternoon, and then two more on Tuesday, for a total of three, three-hour exams in a 24-hour period. Making my way up the marble staircase on Tuesday morning, two girls walking ahead of me seemed incredibly nervous. More so than normal.

“I seriously feel like I’m going to wet myself,” I heard one girl say to the other in a British accent.

I returned to the Exam Schools just two hours later, that afternoon, to take my second final of the day, and I ran into John Adams, who knew I was sitting two papers that day.

“What’d you take this morning, Ryan?” he asked after greeting me with a smile and a handshake.

“Uhhhh…” was all I could muster, as I considered his question for a solid five, awkward seconds.

He laughed.

“It’s okay. Don’t worry, I know you’re mentally already working on the next one.”

I was stunned. As hard as I tried, I could not think of the name of the paper I had just taken only a couple hours earlier.

“I promise, I felt really good about it,” I told John as we made our way into the Exam Schools for yet another paper.

After finishing my exam, gathering up yet another armful of notes from the library and making my way back to the Kilns, I crashed that evening. It was my fourth exam, which meant I was now more than halfway done.

I went to bed with a smile on my face that evening, knowing I was likely going to survive, and that the next day’s paper should be one of my better exams.

Wednesday: Sick to my Stomach

I woke up Wednesday morning and made my way to Harris Manchester College to prepare for my fifth final exam paper, scheduled for that afternoon. It was in Patristics (early Church fathers and development of Church doctrine), which is one of my favorite papers. I had actually been looking forward to taking it, knowing it would likely be one of my better papers.

But then, for whatever reason, I suddenly began feeling sick to my stomach as I looked over my notes from my second-story desk that morning. I felt like I was going to throw up, and I knew I couldn’t make it to the Exam Schools.

I was overwhelmed by anxiety, suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, and my forehead began burning up. I was sweating, just seated at my desk, struggling to go over my notes, and I knew I had to do something.

I made my way to the office just down the hall from the library and explained to one of the college’s Academic Administrators that I was feeling really poorly, that I felt like throwing up, that I had an exam that afternoon, and that I’d like to sit my exam from the college, if possible.

She told me that would be just fine, and that she’d go about making the arrangements if I could just call the doctor’s office and get a note from them for the University examiners, explaining my situation.

And so, instead of going over my Patristics notes, as I should have been doing, I spent the next hour dealing with hospital secretaries who insisted on explaining to me that I needed to register with their offices when I arrived in Oxford, and not two years later. After explaining my case, I ended up being put in touch with a doctor who was more than happy to help.

The college received a note from the doctors’ office just a few minutes later, and I was able to sit my exam from a small, secluded room in a corner building at college, with a guy by the name of “Tony,” from Greece, who was finishing his DPhil in law, supervising my exam.

Being there, at college, was much more relaxed than the packed Exam Schools room, and my stomach quickly settled and my anxiety lifted as I opened my question set and got to work on my exam. Looking over the paper, I was pleasantly surprised with the questions I was given, and I even ended up smiling as I made my way through the exam.

My Final Finals Dinner

After finishing my sixth exam on Thursday morning, on the European Reformation (not my best exam), I had just just over 24 hours before my last exam, on Friday afternoon. It would be my favorite exam, Modern Theology, as it was the paper I took with Philip, and I was sure it would go better than the rest of the week’s exams.

Knowing this, I gathered up some notes from college and returned to the Kilns that afternoon. I wanted to work on my notes, but I also wanted to make sure I was well rested, and that I was in bed at a reasonable hour.

Jonathan knocked on my door shortly after I arrived at the Kilns and began studying to ask if I’d like some dinner later that evening. He told me he had picked up a pork roast from the market the weekend before, and that he had planned on making me dinner one night during my exams, but that things has been busy up to this point.

I told him that sounded perfect, and he closed my door with an “Okay, great” and a smile.

I took a break from my revisions a few hours later to wander down the hallway and into the Kilns kitchen to find Jonathan working away, and a wave of incredible smells.

“Almost there,” he said to me as I entered, looking up from his work at the stove. “Would you like me to bring you a plate when it’s ready?”

“Actually,” I told him, with a pause, “If you don’t mind, I wouldn’t mind having dinner together.”

I hadn’t taken a break from my studies to have dinner with someone for months, and the thought of having an actual dinner the night before my last exam sounded perfect.

“Of course,” he said with a smile, slightly taken aback by my request, knowing how reclusive I had been during my revisions work.

So we did. And it was so good. Not only the food–Jonathan is one of the best cooks I know–but also the opportunity just to stop, to enjoy some food, and to enjoy some company. Without reading notes in-between bites.

After finishing everything on my plate, and telling Jonathan how much I appreciated the meal, he asked if I’d like some coffee (which I, of course, accepted), and then he surprised me with a berry tart he had prepared for me. The top of the tart had with the words, “Good luck, Ryan!” spelled out in blueberries and raspberries.

I returned to my room with a slice of the tart, a hot cup of coffee, and a smile on my face, overwhelmed with gratitude for the generosity of my community during such an otherwise difficult time.

Putting My Pen Down For the Last Time

I woke up feeling great Friday morning, the morning of my last exam. In fact, I could not remember the last time I felt so great. I felt like it was my birthday as I showered, put on my sub fusc, and grabbed a quick breakfast before catching a bus to the city center, knowing it was the day of my last exam, and the culmination of months of revisions.

After getting off the bus on High Street, I made the short walk to Harris Manchester where I planned to look over my notes for a few hours before taking my final exam that afternoon.

Later that day, with my last exam less than an hour away, I looked out the second-story window of the library and a wave of joy washed over me as I thought to myself, “This is it… You are almost there.”

At 2.15 that afternoon, I walked into the Exam Schools for my last final exam, into a room full of more than a hundred guys and girls, dressed in their black and white sub fusc, like a spattering of salt and pepper, and I took my seat in the middle of the room.

And it was there, from my seat, that I found myself smiling. Uncontrollably.

I couldn’t help it. I was so excited, knowing I was just three hours away from completing my Oxford degree. And knowing I felt particularly well prepared well for this last exam.

I noticed Philip standing at the front of the room, a couple minutes after taking my seat, and I realized he would be supervising the paper. His eyes caught mine as I noticed him standing at the front of the room, and he smiled back at me. I liked that he was there for my last paper. It felt right, and his presence seemed to make it that much more comfortable.

After settling in, we were giving our exam instructions, which I could now almost recite myself after hearing them for the seventh time, and then we were told to begin. I flipped open the exam paper and quickly checked off the three questions I planned to respond to, before filling my answer sheet with page after page of blue ink.

And it had never felt so good. I was able to argue my points cogently. I was able to cite my sources. I was even able to remember all of the Bible verses I wanted to use. And it all came together so smoothly. I couldn’t help but think that this was what all of my previous papers had only dreamt of being.

And then, three quick hours later, I was finished.

I placed the period at the end of my last essay with three minutes to spare. I replaced the cap on my pen, set it at the top of my desk, closed my answer sheet, and then looked up to see Philip, again, at the front of the room smiling back at me. I smiled back, with a nod and a wink, and I knew that I was now finished. I had completed what I had set out to do, two years later. And a wave of unspeakable joy swept over me.

It was then that I recalled something CS Lewis wrote, many years ago, that I had once read:

The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

And seated there in the middle of this room, filled with guys and girls in their sub fuscs, in the the Exam Schools, thinking of all the endless hours I had spent in the library; all the Greek flashcards I had written up and gone over and over and over; all the late nights of studying at home that would regularly stretch into the early morning hours of the following day; I suddenly realized what Lewis meant.

This moment, in the space between all my revisions work and the clock telling me I was now finished, before being drenched in silly string and glitter and shouts of “congratulation!” and hugs, this moment was my reward, knowing I had give it my all, and knowing that I had given it my best. And I could not feel more proud.

A Tear-Filled Phone Call

After a day or so of doing my best to get caught up on rest, and to eat as much as I possibly could, I phoned my Mom on Sunday afternoon (first thing her Sunday morning back in Washington State). She had no idea who it was when she answered, and I could hear the surprise in her voice when she heard mine.

“I’m done, Mom,” I told her. “I’ve finished my exams here, and I’m all done.”

She was was so excited to hear from me, but she was also excited to hear that I was now done, knowing what a grueling process exams had been. I had not talked with her for some time, with my revisions schedule, and she was so happy to now hear from me.

I could hear the tears in her voice as she told me how proud she was, and then I went on.

“And I wanted to tell you, Mom, we’ve been waiting to share this news until after I was finished with my exams, but we’re going to be moving back to the States. I have accepted the Duke offer.”

And that’s when I heard her scream. That’s when I really heard her tears of joy.

When she could finally talk again, she told me I didn’t know how happy she was to hear that decision. She told me that she was wanting us to go where we wanted to go, where we were supposed to go, but that she was also so excited to know we would be back in the States.

She told me how happy she was knowing it would be that much easier to come and visit us and Emma, her first grandchild. And I told her I agreed.

The E-mail I Never Thought I Would Write

I woke up much earlier than I thought I would on Monday morning. I hadn’t been able to sleep nearly as much as I imagined I would after exams had finished. My mind was still racing, and I struggled to stay in bed for more than seven hours at a time.

After getting a workout in and cleaning up, I wrote the e-mail I never thought I would write on Monday afternoon. I wrote to thank Oxford’s graduate committee for their offer of a place in the MSt program for the following year, and to let them know I wouldn’t be accepting it.

As difficult as it was, I did so in confidence, knowing we were making the right decision, and that Duke was where we were supposed to be going given what Jen and I wanted to accomplish.

But I also did so acknowledging that it felt a bit surreal, to be turning down the university I had only dreamt of coming to for so long. It felt so very strange to be writing these words, after being here, and after falling in love with Oxford long after it had only been a dream, knowing I would not be returning.

It felt silly, really. And yet, I did so in confidence, even as the tears welled in the corner of my eyes. Knowing how very tough it would be to say goodbye to this place that had not only been a dream come true, but which had made all my dreams feel so thin and frail in comparison. But I did so because we were sure God had something else in store for us.

God is So Good

I made my way to the kitchen at the Kilns after sending that e-mail, and it was there that I found Debbie. She knew of our difficult decision, and what we had decided. I told her that I had just sent off this e-mail to the Oxford Graduate Committee, as I waited for my tea to brew, and I explained that, even though I was confident of our decision, it was still so tough.

And her response took me off guard.

“God is so good, Ryan,” she said to me with a smile, in a voice of joy-filled confidence.

“Mmmm, yeah,” I said, nodding, without knowing where, exactly, she was going with this comment.

But then she continued, preparing a cup of coffee with her hands as she talked from our spot in the Kilns kitchen.

“God closed this door to Oxford for you at first, to direct you toward the path He had for you. And then, when that was clear, He went ahead and gave you the acceptance you wanted here after all.”

She finished her sentence, smiled at me, and then continued, “He is so good.”

I smiled, and nodded, realizing the truth of her words, both now and months earlier, when she had previously reminded me that God was in control.

“He really is,” I said, wrapping my arms around Debbie in a hug, and thanking her for all the encouragement she had given along the way.

Friday: Saying Goodbye to the Library

After two weeks’ worth of coffee meetings and saying “goodbye” to friends in Oxford, I stopped into Harris Manchester one last time to pick up my books and notes from the library. I put them into a pile on my desk and before picking them up to leave, I stopped to stare out the second-story window one last time.

I took in the view of the Oxford rooftops one last time, lined with shingles and chimneys poking into the pale blue afternoon sky, and I found myself overwhelmed to think I would no longer be returning here to take in this view, day after day.

With my pile of folders and notes heavy in my arms, I made my way downstairs and stopped just before walking out the double doors. I set down my notes on a large wooden desk and made a point to say goodbye to Sue, the librarian.

She noticed me coming and greeted me with a sympathetic smile. I stooped down low and wrapped her in a tight hug.

“Oh, Ryan…,” she said to me in her warm, English accent. “You’re  a big softy, aren’t you?”

I nodded, and shook slightly, knowing she could feel the warmth of my tears on the side of her head as we hugged.

“You’re making the right decision, Ryan,” she told me with a smile, now holding my shoulders at arm’s length. “And you’re going to be a great father.”

“Thanks, Sue.” I told her, wiping my tears with one hand. “Thanks for all you have done and for all you do. You really have made this place such a blessing.”

I told her goodbye, picked up my notes, and I made my way out of the large, wooden library double doors one last time.

Saturday: My Last Tours

I gave two tours of the Kilns on my last Saturday in Oxford. And it was only halfway through my second tour that afternoon that I realized it would be my final tour as a scholar living at the Kilns. And even though my speech hardly slowed as this thought crossed my mind, I found I had to fight to hold back the tears.

Everyone clapped and thanked me for my time when I finished. One guy had been filming me, for their church, and a small group of the tour said they’d pray for our future after hearing about our plans.

Several minutes later, I thanked the group, let them out through the front door, and then I sat down to catch up on a few long-overdue e-mails from the desk that sits in the common room window at the front of the house, where Lewis used to sit and work.

And, as I answered e-mails, which included writing my “goodbye” note to Walter Hooper, it all seemed to hit me at once: my time here really was coming to an end. And I couldn’t help but let the tears fall as I thought about what an incredible journey this has all been, and how sad I was that it was now wrapping up.

Sorry to Go, Excited For the Future

My good friend Rich and I were talking on a bus trip we took to Amsterdam on the second weekend after the end of exams. He had been telling me that he was going to spend the 10-hour trip persuading me to reconsider our decision, and to come back to Oxford for another year.

I think he only spent a couple hours of the ride doing so, though, so he nearly kept his word.

But after he had finished giving me a hard time, Rich said something I found particularly helpful. He told me how, at one point, someone had told him that if you’re ever too excited to leave something behind and move forward for the next phase of your life, it probably isn’t a good thing, and it probably means it wasn’t a very good experience that you’re leaving behind.

He told me he didn’t think that was the case for me. He told me it seemed like I had a pretty good balance of being sorry to go, but also excited for the future. And he said he believed that meant we were doing the right thing. He had no idea how perfect his words were.

My last few days in Oxford were some of the most tear-filled days I can remember. After Principal Waller’s speech following the Finalists Dinner, reminding the two tables of finalists from Harris Manchester that we had done it, that we had survived finals, and that we would soon be moving on to the next chapter of our life, it hit me.

“This is it…,” I realized, looking around the room, knowing this would likely be the last time I would see all of these people in the same room. “We really are moving on from here.”

And I just didn’t feel ready to say goodbye.

When I thought about all I would be leaving behind in Oxford–the routine I had come to love, the incredible people, all of the unreal places and the experiences–I was overwhelmed with sadness. To the point of tears.

Over and over again I would find myself crying during my last few days in Oxford. On my bike, riding home from the city center. From the Kilns, while I packed. But then, when I thought about returning home, finally getting to see Jen again, and then welcoming Emma into the world, I would cry tears of joy, knowing how excited I was for all of that.

It was terrible, really. I felt like was the pregnant one, not Jen. But that’s not so out of the ordinary, I suppose.

Memories Are Not People

I had a going away party at the Kilns for my last evening in Oxford. On that Sunday night. And I was so glad for the brief break from rain, so that we could enjoy the evening from the garden in front of the house.

Friends from my time here in this incredible city came over to the house and filled the garden, many with their children. We enjoyed catching up over food and drink while the rain held off, and it was great to see so many of them before leaving. It was also incredibly difficult to say “goodbye.”

I gave my friend Emily from Harris Manchester a hug when it was finally time for her to say goodbye, and to return to her essay, which was due the next day, and I reminded her that she was actually the first person I met when I arrived in Oxford. I reminded her that she was the one who had told me to stick with it when I found myself sitting in what seemed to be a room straight out of Harry Potter, in Christ Church, struggling to keep up with Greek, and making plans to return home and ask for my job back.

I thanked her for talking some sense into me, and for her friendship over the past couple of years. She told me I would have to stay in touch, even if it was just a quick line every now and then.

Our good friends’ Jarred and Chelsea’s oldest son, Noah, had greeted me with a Father’s Day card when they arrived that afternoon, before asking if I would help him build a fence out of sticks in the garden, which I did.

Later that evening, when it was time to say “goodbye,” Noah climbed into my arms, wrapped his arms around me tightly, and then placed his head on my shoulder. I told him I was going to miss him so much, as I rocked him back and forth, and I told him to be a good boy for his mummy and da.

He pulled his head up and off my shoulder before giving me a kiss, and then I returned him to the floor, only to find Chelsea waiting with Owen.

Owen was laughing, and his cheeks were red beneath his floppy blonde hair. I hugged and kissed him, before hugging Chelsea and thanking her for all of the incredible meals she had invited me over for.

Only two nights earlier I had went to their house for what I was told would be a “Mexican-themed dinner,” only to be greeted by their entire family wearing mustaches (in pencil, with the exception of Jarred), Jarred playing mariachi music on the guitar, and the four of them welcoming me in song.

Chelsea apologized for her tears before saying we would have to stay in touch. I told her I agreed, that they would have a great time in France, where they would be moving in the autumn, and then I said goodbye before kissing her forehead.

Jarred followed after Chelsea, wearing a wide smile and a tomato red sweater. I hugged Jarred tightly, thanked him for everything and I told him how much I was going to miss them all.

“Love you, man,” he told me with a smile, with one hand gripping my shoulder.

A few minutes later I found myself in front of the house, talking with Olli and Salla. Salla asked how Jen and I had done it, spending six months apart, and I told her I honestly didn’t know. I told her I was thankful it was now nearly over, even though I was going to miss Oxford and them all so much.

She pulled her bottom lip over her top lip, with sympathetic eyes and wrapped me in a hug. I thanked her and Olli, and I explained that, while it may not have seemed like much, they had made me feel like family over the past six months, just by having me around and inviting me along for day trips, while I was so far from mine.

I hated saying goodbye to them, but I did so hoping our common bond, that of my Godson Tobias, their son, would make sure we were never that far or long out of touch.

I said goodbye to many other friends that evening, not knowing when I would see them again. Britton and his wife Michelle. Max and Michelle and Rich and Christine, who I had traveled with to Amsterdam the weekend before, and who I had met with, in prayer, on a nearly weekly basis in prayer for the past year and a half.

And it was later that evening when I was told something that helped with all of these goodbyes, something that was, perhaps, the most insightful thing I have heard in a long, long time.

I was talking with a friend of mine by the name of Ignacio from our seats around the dining room table. Ignacio is from Argentinia and he also studied at Harris Manchester. He first came to Oxford seven years ago to do his graduate studies in Theology, and he is one of the very few who had managed to stay on after finishing his degree, earning himself a rare teaching and research position.

After many of the evening’s guests  had said “goodbye” and made their way home in the late evening, I asked Ignacio if he still has a tough time saying goodbye year after year, to those he had come to know and grow close to. And I was touched by the insight of his words.

“Yes, it’s still really difficult,” he told me in his Argentinean accent, and in a voice that rang of sympathetic sincerity. “Not with everyone, of course, but with those who get into your heart.”

He paused for a moment, to think about his words, and then he continued on.

“It took me a couple of years to learn this, but memories are not people, Ryan. When you realize that, you realize that life changes, but those people are still there, and that makes saying goodbye not nearly so difficult.”

I clung to those words in my final hours in Oxford. Knowing how difficult it was to say goodbye to this incredible city and the amazing people I had met there, I reminded myself that it was not really goodbye. To the memories, maybe, but not to the people. And I was so thankful for those words.

Breakfast in the Garden

Debbie made omelettes for my last morning at the Kilns. It was a sunny morning, and it was just her and I and Cole at the house, as Cole was visiting for the week from St Andrew’s, in Scotland. It was so good to see him again and to say goodbye before leaving, as he was one of my first and closest friends in Oxford.

The three of us sat in the garden in front of the house from wooden tables and chairs, and after Debbie had prayed, we talked as we enjoyed our eggs and toast and fruit juice. Leaves on the trees danced gently in the soft breeze to the sound of birds chirping, and I glanced at my watch every few minutes, knowing it was my final hour at the Kilns, and that my time in Oxford was quickly drifting away.

“Are you going to make it my performance in August?” Cole asked as we ate, turning to Debbie.

“I hope to, yes,” she said. “But I need to add it to my calendar. I’m learning that my time here in Oxford goes much more quickly than I realize.”

They continued talking about Cole’s upcoming show as my thoughts stayed on Debbie’s words. She didn’t realize it, but they spoke more truth into that moment than I could have had I tried.

When All Our Dreams Came True

I had been sitting behind my second-story desk in the Harris Manchester library about a month earlier, just before the two-year anniversary of Hayley’s death, when my revisions work was interrupted by a picture of Jen that came to my mind.

I pictured myself seeing her again at the airport in Seattle when I returned home. I pictured myself wrapping her up in my arms in the tightest hug I could muster. I pictured myself stroking my fingers through her hair and staring into her eyes. I pictured her smile, that smile that stole my heart more than a decade earlier.

And then, unexpectedly, I pictured Hayley in this same scene. As I said, it was only a couple weeks shy of the anniversary of her death when this picture came to me, and she had been on my mind. I pictured Hayley approaching us, Jennifer and I, and wearing her bright, squinty-eyed smile. And for whatever reason, it wasn’t a shock to us; we were just happy to see her again.

I pictured Hayley putting her hand on Jen’s belly and just smiling. She was so happy. And then I saw her turn to Jen and I and say, “All of your guys’s dreams have come true, haven’t they?”

And sitting there in the Harris Manchester library on this particular afternoon, picturing this scene, I was struck by these words. I was struck by these words because, though I had not realized it at the time, and though I wouldn’t have said so myself, I realized she was right: all of our dreams had come true. In ways I had not imagined, perhaps. But they had.

I arrived here in Oxford hoping to write in a way that helped others see Christ more clearly. And even amidst my studies, I had been told time and time again how others had been encouraged by our journey. Both from people I knew, and from perfect strangers who had read my words along the way.

And I realized the goal I had set out for Oxford with, to help others see Christ more clearly through my writing, had been accomplished. I didn’t have a book to show for it, but I had letters from others that said so.

But it wasn’t just that. I had now finished my studies at Oxford, something I had only dreamt of doing for so many years, and we were expecting our first child, something Jen had dreamt of since she was a young girl.

I hadn’t realized it at the time, when things had seemed so dark in those endless days and nights spent away from Jen, revising for exams, but on this afternoon when my studies were interrupted by a picture of seeing Jen again, and of Hayley, I realized she was right. All of our dreams were coming true. All at once, it seemed. And I hadn’t even realized it, as I was far too close. But once I took a step back, I could see how it had all come together. I could see how it had all unfolded right under my nose.

And as I sat back in my chair from the second-story desk, tears welled up in the bottom of my eyelids, and a smile spread across my face. I turned toward the window and stared out at the sun peaking out from behind the white, cotton-ball clouds lying low over the peaks of the Oxford rooftops along Mansfield Road. I looked out at the view I had seen so many times before, the view I realized I would soon be leaving behind as I returned home, and I listened as Chris Martin’s voice played in my earphones, with his words narrating my thoughts,

Nobody said it was easy,
It’s such a shame for us to part;
Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard;

Oh, take me back to the start.”

The End Beginning

Two years ago I found myself seated in the Seattle-Tacoma airport, staring out at the tarmac, and wondering what in the world I was doing.

My wife and I had just given our notices at our jobs, great jobs we both loved. We had liquidated our retirement accounts and moved them into our checking accounts, to pay for school. We said goodbye to our friends and family, and we left home. Afraid. Not knowing how this was all going to work out, but believing, in faith, that He was going to use this, all of this, to help reveal Himself to others. To help tell His story.

And now, two years later, I can look back and smile, with the knowledge that He was guiding us every step of the way. It was not always easy, nor was it always fun. In fact, there were some times along the way that were far more difficult and painful than I’ve been able to now share here.

And yet, as I’ve said here and elsewhere before, I cannot look back on this journey without seeing God’s hand at work, time and time again. I simply do not know how this all could have worked out apart from His work in our lives along the way. I can tell you, there were many, many times where I really did not know how things were possibly going to work out. And yet, they did. Time after time after time.

But they didn’t just work out, things have been even more incredible than I could ever have imagined. As I look back on our time in England, in Oxford, I can hardly believe some of the experiences we’ve had. That two kids from Everson, Washington would get to enjoy the kind of experiences we’ve had is just unreal to me, and I would not have believed you had you told me before we left about the experiences we would have along the way.

Being paid to be a tour guide of CS Lewis’s old home… Serving as President of the Oxford University CS Lewis Society… And then, actually living in CS Lewis’s old home… Not to mention all of the incredible relationships we have gained from this experience. Friendships I am sure will last the rest of our lives, with people from around the world.

And I shudder to think how close we came to never actually experiencing all of this. Had we not decided to take this step out in faith; had we come to the conclusion that security was worth more to us than the risk of following Him in faith; had we not decided to follow where we believed He was leading us; none of this would have ever happened.

And now, two years later, it’s all coming to an end. The goal that we came here with is now complete. Our time in Oxford is now finished. It’s the end of this story, but it’s just the beginning of another. And I could not be more excited.

I’m saying goodbye to Oxford. To all the friends we’ve come to know here. To all the people who’ve come to feel like family. I’m saying goodbye to all of the experiences we’ve had here. All of the places I love. And I’m returning to the States. To see my wife again. To hold her in my arms again and to kiss her forehead when I tell her goodnight, after being apart for longer than we have ever been in the more than 10 years I’ve known her.

Very soon, I’ll be back in the States, to feel my baby girl kick for the first time, and to prepare for her arrival. And then, shortly after Emma arrives, to pack up our things and prepare to move across the country. To make our new home in North Carolina and to start our new adventure at Duke.

Very soon, I’ll once again take my seat at the airport, staring out the window at a tarmac that stretches into the horizon, not knowing exactly where this next journey is going to take us, and I’ll smile. I’ll smile because this time will be different.

Perhaps the greatest thing about this journey, to me, is that I’ve come to learn that I can rely on Him in a way I didn’t previously know how. Because I now know that, while it may be incredibly difficult at times, He is guiding us, as He has always been.

And even when I can’t see it, even when I can’t feel it, He is at work. And He is working it all out for good. Not only so that we might just get by, but so that we might experience an incredible picture of His handiwork here and now, on the gray canvas of everyday life.

Like a beautiful sunset melting into the horizon at the end of the day in a mixture of blues and purples and pinks, in a breathtaking display of His work, I pray you might get to the end of this story, nudge the person next to you and say, “Look. Just look at that… Isn’t He incredible?”

Thank you for reading my words and for following our journey. I hope it has been, in some small way, a gift in your life as it has been in mine. And my prayer is that He might bless you and be near to you as He has us.

With love and gratitude,

Ryan (& Jen)

www.RyanAndJenGoToEngland.wordpress.com

Advertisements

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.


Spring is an incredible time to be in Oxford. After a long, gray winter, the air begins to feel warm, and the smell of fresh, blossoming flowers floats through it like notes to a song. The sound of children’s laughter can be heard around town, as they flow through the streets like a stream, dressed in matching school uniforms.

Couples float down the River Cherwell in punts, one reclining in the middle of the boat, smiling up at the other, who is standing at the rear, propelling them forward with a long pole. The sky in Oxford is a pale blue in the spring, with strokes of white clouds and trails from airplanes, leaving the scene overhead to look like a new painting set up on display at the start of each day.

Spring is also typically a great time for Oxford students, as it tends to be less busy, academically, than the rest of the year. With more time on their hands, students take advantage of a relaxed schedule by playing croquet in their college gardens, enjoying garden parties and Pimms, and cheering on their college’s rowing team during the Summer Eights.

There are, of course, two rather significant caveats to this whole affair.

The first of which is if the weather doesn’t actually cooperate, and if the rainy, gray weather of winter just happens to stretch into the spring months. Such was the case this spring, when typically warm, blue sky spring days were exchanged for the rainiest spring in Oxford in well over a hundred years.

The second caveat is if you’re a finalist (an undergraduate in the final year of your degree), in which case your term is spent preparing for your final exams at every possible spare moment.

Oxford is the only university left in the world, I’m told, that has kept their particular finals system, which is such that the only thing that actually counts toward your degree are your final exams. Everything before that was just practice. Each student sits a series of three-hour final exams for each of their particular papers (“classes), and so they spend several spring months preparing for what will be, in most cases, the biggest tests of their life.

My degree gives me a total of seven three-hour exams. All essay-format. All handwritten. In just six days.

Both of the above caveats were true for me this spring. Which meant it felt a lot less like a proper spring in Oxford, and more like a winter that just wouldn’t relent. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning

Becoming Myself Again

Hilary (winter) term was easily one of my busiest terms for school work since I first arrived in Oxford. While many other finalists began looking ahead to finals and started working on their revisions, it was all I could do to keep up with my weekly essays. There were several nights when my workload that I started the day before would keep me up until moments before the sun rose the following day. I’d regularly collapse in bed in the early morning hours and close my eyes for a few hours before waking up and doing it all over again.

And so, when my first Saturday of spring break arrived, I avoided setting my alarm, and I allowed myself to wake up when my eyes came open, instead. Turns out that time didn’t come until 2.30 in the afternoon. And it felt great.

It felt so great, in fact, that I did the same thing the following day, not waking up until half of Sunday had already come and gone.

When I finally awoke, I got up, threw on some clothes, and then headed to the gym. It was the first time in ages, and it felt great to do something more physically demanding than flipping pages in a book. After a shower and a shave, I made my way to the Kilns’ kitchen to make something to eat, when I ran into Debbie.

“Wow, you look like your old self again!” she said with a look of shock.

“Thanks, I feel like my old self!” I said.

It had been the first time I had seen Debbie in some time, as the house was typically already asleep by the time I would make it in at night, and often I was out the door before the rest of the house was up. It was great to see her again, and good to begin to feel like a person again.

When My Plans Came Crashing Down

I started off the first week of spring break with a tour of the Kilns for a small group of people who had come to visit the house. And it went great. One of the women on the tour came up to me afterward and mentioned to me just how much she appreciated it.

“I’ve been here several times over the years, with different groups, and this was the best tour I’ve ever had,” she said, with a smile and a handshake. “Very good job. Thank you.”

I smiled in return. And her thanked her for coming out.

I always enjoy giving tours, but those kind of responses make it that much better. I was walking on air when I returned to my room, only to sit down at my computer and receive the news that came like a punch to the stomach, taking away any joy that had been built up over the past couple days of sleeping in and this woman’s response from my tour.

I had received an e-mail from the Oxford Graduate Studies Committee, writing to inform me that I had not been offered a place for the following year’s Master’s program here at Oxford…

And all of a sudden it felt like the plans I had made, and the world I had imagined for our future, were crashing down all around me.

Waking up to a Nightmare

I woke up Tuesday morning with a terrible feeling in my stomach, as I realized this news hadn’t been just a bad dream. As I realized that I had actually been turned down, and a wave of uncertainty washed over me as I struggled to gather my strength to get out of bed and face the day.

I felt like a failure. I felt deflated of all the renewed energy I had after a restful weekend. I felt like throwing my fists into the air and shouting, “Why?! What’s the point?!?”

I had worked so hard to get here, I had put in so many hours on my studies since I had been here, and then this?… It just didn’t make any sense to me.

I felt like a failure. I felt as though I had let all of my community back home down. “What would they think?” I wondered.

I had considered applying to another school back in the States during Michaelmas Term (Duke), as there were several scholars there I had come across who I was really interested in working with (Stanley Hauerwas, Lauren Winner, Richard Hays, Jeremy Begbee, and others), but the term was so busy that I just didn’t make the time for it.

I had been so sure that this was where we were supposed to be, spending another year in Oxford, and now I felt so foolish for not making alternate plans in case things didn’t come through. I had been too confident, I thought.

I found myself wondering what all my friends here in Oxford would think. I thought about all those friends of mine who were here doing Graduate Studies, and suddenly I felt on the outside of this great University I have been so proud to be a member of. I felt as though it had turned its back on me. I felt as though the news had finally come out: I didn’t belong at Oxford. I couldn’t actually cut it. And they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I felt as though I had been banished, and now I was standing on the outside, in the cold, looking in.

I felt like a failure with nowhere to go. I missed the arms of my wife, who was still back with our family in the States, and who was now nearly halfway through the pregnancy of our first child. I hurt, and I still felt lost and alone.

I had written a note to Philip the day before, my supervisor from Michaelmas Term, who is the director of Undergraduate Studies here at Oxford, and who had served as one of my references for the Master’s program. I wrote to explain my surprise at this news, and to ask his thoughts on the likelihood of my being given an offer in the second round (Oxford has two rounds of applications: one in January, and one in April). But my note to Philip from the day before was replied to with only a short note of consolation, encouraging me to try not to worry too much, and a friendly reminder that he wasn’t the appropriate person for this note, as he wasn’t on the Graduate Studies Committee.

I had also e-mailed Dr Michael Ward, who supervised my thesis, who’s also a longstanding member of the Oxford University CS Lewis, and a close friend. We had planned on meeting this week, to discuss my plans for the future, and some ideas I had for future studies, but I wrote to him shortly after receiving this news to explain what had happened. I thought I’d let him know, in case he no longer wanted to meet, or at least in case he wanted to put our meeting on hold until I found out for sure if we’d be returning. He wrote me back the next day to say he still wanted to meet, without even mentioning my rejection letter.

I shared the news with Debbie. I hadn’t planned to, but I had been short with her that morning, and I knew she could tell something was up, after I had finally seemed like my old self again after a few days’ worth of rest.

“Oh, Ryan…,” she said with a sympathetic look, that told me she was both sorry and surprised to hear this. “I’m so sorry.”

We talked for a few minutes, in quiet voices from the kitchen. She encouraged me that God was in control, that He still had His hand at work in my life, and that He was going to use this. I thanked her, knowing she was right, even though her words felt thin and frail, and I left the house, still feeling alone and hopeless. Feeling like I had just lost a fight. A fight that left me with nothing left to give.

And, yet, somehow, in all of it, in my feelings of loneliness and despair, I felt like He was reminding me that there wasn’t supposed to be anyone for me to seek refuge in, in this pain, apart from Him.

That Which Costs Nothing is Worth Nothing

I was catching up with my buddies Rich and Max in town for a meeting with Professor John Lennox that day. Even though I hardly felt like going, I had been incredibly excited for the opportunity.

Professor John Lennox is a rather brilliant mathematician here at Oxford, in his seventies, who, at the end of his academic career, now spends most of his time speaking on his Christian faith. He regularly travels all over the world to speak and to debate (with men like Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens). At Ivy League schools in the US. Across Europe. And in Australia and elsewhere. He’s an incredible man, and it was to our surprise that he said he’d be happy to meet with a few theologians who are studying here at Oxford to share some of his knowledge and experience with us.

We went into our meeting with a rough outline of a few questions we each had for Professor Lennox. After noting them, he began sharing a bit of his own experience with us. As theologians. And as men.

“First priority,” he said to us, in his booming, Irish accent, “You must get to know Scripture!”

Rather pointedly, he told us he thought today’s theologians spend too much time studying the work of other men, and not enough time in the Word.

“And secondly, you will learn, gentlemen, that which costs nothing is worth nothing.”

Professor Lennox talked a lot about courage, and the need for models. And you could tell, by the smile in his eyes, and the grey hair on his head, that he knew what he was talking about.

He Who Would Be  a Leader Must Be a Bridge

I had my meeting with Dr Michael Ward shortly after we met with Professor Lennox that day. I met him at his rooms at St Peter’s College, in the city center. His rooms were warm, even though it was cold and gray outside, and he prepared some tea for us both as we talked.

Dr Ward encouraged me to not get down on myself. He made the comment that the undergraduate program is the most competitive at Oxford, and that it was very likely I would still get an offer from Oxford for the MSt program.

But then he went on to ask me about why I wanted to return for another year. I explained that the program had been so busy that I was looking forward to spending another year in the city. To experience it just a bit more before returning to the States.

I told him I planned to apply to Duke, and he asked me a bit about that. He had supervised my thesis, and he told me he thought Duke would be a great fit for my interests. Perhaps even a better fit than Oxford, he told me, given the current Theology faculties at both schools.

He asked me what I would do if I applied and was accepted to Duke, and then I heard back from Oxford with an acceptance offer. I told him that was a humbling thought, and that I had no idea.

Then he went on to tell me, rather pointedly, that he didn’t think my place was in academics. He told me he thought I would likely end up somewhere in the middle. Not completely academics, not completely public ministry, but somewhere in the middle. And he talked about the importance of such positions, albeit the inherent difficulties.

“He who would be a leader must be a bridge, Ryan,” he told me, speaking in his thick, posh English accent from his spot on the sofa across from me in his college rooms.

“It will be difficult to feel pulled in different directions, but those are the most important people. They are the channels between academics and the public.”

I thanked Dr Ward for his time, and for his very encouraging words, and then I left, making my way to the Harris Manchester library for a bit of work before calling it a day.

The Lesson of New Life

I made it home to the Kilns after 9.00 that night. I had a Skype call with a friend from back home, and then my good friend Tom popped by around 10.00 that night, as I was heating up some leftovers for dinner.

He and Debbie and I sat on stools in the middle of the kitchen, sipping the tea Tom prepared for us. I told him we needed to have him over more often, as he made great tea.

He told a story about going to the States for his Master’s degree, and then leaving just six months later because of the frustrations he experienced with the US educational system. He talked about returning home, and continuing on with his degree through an online distance-learning program. He talked about how being back here, in his own home country, opened up the door to get involved with some opportunities and a mentoring relationship he wouldn’t have otherwise had. And he told me about how those opportunities led him to what he’s doing today, to a job he loves.

“And so,” he said, looking as though he was thinking carefully about his words, “Sometimes you don’t realize it at the time, but good things come out of rather disappointing experiences.”

He turned to me with an encouraging smile as he finished his sentence. Debbie smiled too, looking from Tom to me.

Tom and I wandered down to the pub, after I finished my late-evening supper, and we took a seat in two large, overstuffed leather chairs and talked about work and school and ministry. He shared several bits of advice with me that he had received from others, and which he had found particularly helpful along the way of his own journey.

After talking for a couple hours from the pub, with the football game on in a corner of the room, and a group of men gathered around the screen, interrupting the announcer with a loud cheer every few minutes or so, Tom and I slipped out the door and made the short walk back to the Kilns in the late evening air.

He let it slip that he and Caroline, his wife, would soon be going in for their 12th week “scan,” for their second child, and that they planned to find out the sex of their baby, as well (which the English typically like to make fun of us Americans for always doing).

I congratulated him on the news, and pointed out that, as Jen was currently in her 20th week, our children would actually be quite close in age.

“When that baby arrives,” Tom said, turning to me with a more serious tone as we walked, “it will totally humanize things for yourself. These goals and ambitions will not seem nearly so important, and you’ll learn so much about grace.”

I nodded, with my eyes glued to my shoes as we walked, and, looking up, I thanked him for his words.

When we arrived at the Kilns, Tom asked if it’d be okay if he came in and we had a time of prayer. I told him I’d like that. So we found a couple seats in the library, after flipping through some old 19th-century encyclopedias that had recently been donated to the Kilns, and we spent some time in prayer.

It was so good. It was good for my soul. And it was encouraging.

I thanked Tom, as he left, for his friendship, for his prayers, and then I wished him a smooth ride home in the cold night air, just after midnight. And I found myself thinking, even in the valleys, or perhaps particularly in the valleys, how thankful I am for friends like that.

A Meatless Dinner Conversation

The following evening, after a full day’s worth of finals revisions work from the college library, I returned to the Kilns to have dinner with Debbie and Melissa. Melissa is a former Warden here at the Kilns who would be staying for a few weeks while Debbie visited her son in Japan. She’s from North Carolina, where her husband is a doctor. She’s petite, and she talks proudly of home, in a voice that sounds like she’s from the South. She wears red Toms brand shoes, and she has as much energy as anyone I’ve ever met.

Melissa had very kindly offered to make us all dinner that evening. Even though she’s not a vegetarian herself, she made us meatless spaghetti, knowing Debbie is, along with garlic bread and salad. We enjoyed it from the dining room over conversation.

Debbie made a comment over dinner about the increasing appearance of sharks on the beaches along the east coast, due to climate change, and Melissa told us she didn’t think man was “big enough” to cause climate change. I found myself wondering how we got on this topic as I ate my spaghetti, wishing it had meat in it.

The Best Thing I’d Seen in a Long Time

After helping clean up, I excused myself and made my way back to my room for a very important call with Jen. She was scheduled to go in for her 20-week ultrasound that day, and I wanted to talk with her before she left the house. Before we found out whether we would be having a boy or a girl. And I can’t remember the last time I saw her so happy.

She didn’t stop grinning during the 20 minutes we talked. And seeing her so happy made me happy. I told her I had really been missing her, and she told me she agreed.

She told me that when she finds herself missing me, she tries to look forward to this summer, when we’ll finally be together again. How she looks forward to that day we’ll see each other again for the first time after six months, in the airport. How she looks forward to celebrating our six-year anniversary, in the San Juan Islands. And how she looks forward to our baby’s arrival, and raising it together.

I smiled. I told her those were pretty great things to look forward to, but that I still missed her.

About an hour later, my mom pulled me up on Skype again. This time from the medical office. Jen was seated beside her, still beaming. A couple minutes later, our niece Khloe showed up with Jen’s sister Leann and her husband Ben, and she was blowing me kisses. Khloe that is, not Leann.

My sister, Lucy, was there, too, as well as Jen’s parents. It was quite the family affair, and I was glad to be there, virtually, to join them.

My Mom carried the laptop with her as they were all led into a dark room for the ultrasound, and soon I could just make out the baby’s head and spine, in splotches of white against the monitor’s black background. And I smiled and laughed outloud as soon as I could see it.

The medical technician said the baby was being stubborn, and Jen claimed it as her own. I agreed.

After a while, everyone was asked to leave the room, and Jen and I were left alone with the medical technician, to find out the baby’s sex. Jen took the latop from my mom, and she held it so that I could still see the ultrasound monitor.

The technician admitted she didn’t even know whether we’d be having a boy or girl, yet, as the baby had insisted on keeping its legs together. Then, a few minutes later, she asked if we were ready, and we both said “Yes,” simultaneously, even though we were 6,000 miles apart.

“Well… You’re having a baby girl!”

Immediately, I began clapping and laughing, in my room at the Kilns here in England, as tears of joy warmed my cheeks. Now it was my turn, and suddenly I couldn’t stop smiling. Jen turned the laptop to face her, so that I could see her and her reaction, while the technician looked through photos. Jen was still beaming.

“Congratulations, hun,” I told her, laughing with excitement. “We’re having a baby girl.”

“Congratulations to you, too,” she said to me, in that beautiful smile, with only a sliver of her eyes showing in her joy.

And then, a second later, we lost connection, and I was left holding my tear-soaked face in my hands, sobbing uncontrollably as I wept in a mix of overwhelming gladness at the thought that I would soon have a little princess to father, while, at the same time, hurting with all I had for not being able to be there with Jen for this moment.

I was glad Jen couldn’t see me as I shook and wept, in the face of this incredible news. Never did I think I’d find out like this.

Growing up, you don’t picture yourself 6,000 miles away from your wife when you find out you’re having a baby girl. But that’s how life goes, it seems. It really is full of surprises.

I rushed to the kitchen to share the news with Debbie. She smiled in anticipation as I described watching the ultrasound, and then she raised her hands in the air with a “Yeeeeah!” when I told her we were having a baby girl.

“Aunt Debbie,” she said with a smile, after celebrating.

I knocked on Jonathan’s door, and even though he was in bed, as it was now nearly midnight, I entered and shared the report with him anyway.

“That’s great news,” he said in his rich English accent with a smile, peeking over his covers. “I can picture you as a great father of a little girl.”

I rang my Dad, and I shared the news with him. Even though the rest of the family was asked to wait a few days for us to announce it at a party Jen was hosting with friends and family for the occassion, I figured it’d be okay to share it with him, as he was several States away and wouldn’t be able to be there.

“Well, are you ready to be a grandpa to our baby girl?” I asked.

I heard the sound of crying and laughter on the other end of the line for several moments, before he finally told me “Congratulations, Ryan.” And it was then that I realized just how much we’re alike, my father and I.

I wrote my Grandpa, after that, and told him how I wish I could put into words how overwhelmed with joy I felt at that moment. And as I went to bed that night, I remember feeling as though there’s no way I could ever deserve something this great.

Life is Full of Surprises

A couple days later, I found myself sitting behind a desk on the second-story floor of the Harris Manchester College library. The library was empty on this particular Saturday morning. Term was now over, and most students had returned home, to see family and friends. And to catch up on sleep before the next term began.

The library was empty and quiet on this Saturday morning. Except for the clicking of my keyboard as I worked on revising for final exams, which were only a couple months away.

Other students at college regularly tell me they are amazed by the hours I put into my studies. I tell them I wouldn’t put in so many hours if I didn’t have to. And that it just takes more time for some of us.

I also mention the fact that having a career before I arrived here probably helps. I often think of my studies as my new job. And sometimes this job requires me to put in some long hours. Actually, it usually requires me to put in some long hours.

The birds were chirping in the trees beyond the large, arched windows, on this morning, and I found my mind trailing off to the recent Skype call I had with Jen just a few days earlier.

I heard the nurse’s voice tell us we were having a baby girl… I saw Jen’s beautiful smile… And I remembered what it felt like to know, for the first time, that we would soon be welcoming our very own baby girl into this world.

I never imagined that when my wife finally became pregnant with our first child we’d be experiencing this new phase of life from 6,000 miles apart. But that’s just how it goes, it seems. Life is full of surprises.

Sometimes your job requires you to work from the same office every day, returning home in the evenings to share a meal with your family and catch up on your day. Sometimes your job requires you to be away during the week, only to return home on the weekends and enjoy a couple days with your family. And sometimes, just sometimes, your job requires you to revise for finals from a quiet library in Oxford on a Saturday morning, while the birds chirp beyond the windows, and you find yourself picturing how you’ll one day explain to your daughter what it felt like when you first found out you were having a baby girl.

She’ll ask why you were so far away from her mommy, and you’ll explain it was your job. You’ll tell her you never imagined that’s how you’d find out, but that she’ll learn, one day, life is full of surprises.

I did my best to return to my reading and writing, taking notes for my Old Testament paper. And every so often I’d have to stop because I couldn’t shake a picture of myself finally seeing Jen again. I pictured us meeting at the airport after six months of being apart. I imagined what it would feel like to hug her again. My mind wandered to the thought of feeling the touch of her hair in my hands. Seeing her smile. And feeling her pregnant belly for the first time. I’d pause from what I was doing, hold a knuckle to my mouth, and begin to feel my eyes well up.

Where is he?

I decided to work from the Kilns on finals revisions one day the following week, after giving a tour, when I received a Skype call from Jen and Khloe in the afternoon. And it was then, just before my picture came up on Jen’s computer, that I heard Khloe ask, for the first time, “Where is he?”

I remember being here, in Oxford, more than a year ago, when I saw Jen holding Khloe for the first time, shortly after her birth. And now, to hear Khloe put together that question, it just seemed unreal to think how quickly she was growing up.

We’d talk, Jen and I, while Khloe would peak in and out of the screen, playing “peek-a-boo” with me, which I taught her. I’d look surprised every time. And she’d laugh.

After a while, Khloe leaned over and gave me a kiss. Right there on the laptop monitor. And after she did, she pulled back and held her hands to her mouth, smiling in embarrassment. And that’s when my heart melted in my chest. It was all I could do not to reach out and hug her / my computer.

“It really is amazing to think how much has changed in the past year,” I thought to myself, as I said goodbye to Khloe and Jen, and returned to my studies.

A Rude Awakening

A couple weeks into the spring break, a good friend of mine from home, David, arrived in Oxford. David and I did our first degrees together, and he was visiting England for the first time. In fact, he decided to skip his Master’s degree graduation to make it out, which meant a lot.

David likes old things. Like me. Books. And buildings. So there was plenty to see and do as I showed him around Oxford. And he loved it.

After several days of showing off where I’ve spent the past year and a half or so, we visited Bath, a beautiful city that’s home to some incredible Roman architecture and original, ancient Roman bathhouses. We also spent a day touring around London. But then, one evening before David left, I had a pretty rude awakening that came just after 4.00 in the morning.

I had been sleeping when I heard a low, moaning sound. I was still half asleep at this point, so I did my best to ignore it, hoping it’d go away. But it didn’t.

And in my semi-conscience state, I began to wonder if it was an animal, just outside my window, making this terrible sound. I hoped it was. Again, trying to ignore it, the terrible noise continued, unnerving me every time.

Finally, when I realized it wasn’t going to go away, I began clapping, and shouting, as loudly as I could, in hopes of scaring whatever it was away.

“No, no! Don’t! Go, go!” I shouted.

But the noise continued, and now I realized the noise was not coming from outside my window, but from inside my room. If I wasn’t scared before, I most certainly was now.

Getting out of bed in a hurry, I flipped on the lamp that sits on my nightstand and I threw on my glasses.

“David?… Is that you?!” I shouted, as I circled my bed, with my eyes still struggling to adjust to the light.

“Nooo…,” was all I heard from David in the next room, who at this point had to be completely confused by the noise and shouting he was hearing from my room next door.

And that’s when I saw it: a grey cat, huddled up on the wood floor, on the opposite side of my bed, with its mouth open wide, and hissing a terrible hissing sound in my direction.

“Oh, ____!” I shouted. “It’s a cat!”

Still dressed only in my boxers and glasses, I ran through the library to the back of the house to open up the back door so as to create a way out for this cat, only to find the door locked. With my heart now racing at full tilt, I ran back through my bedroom, doing my best to avoid the cat, and I entered the room where David was staying, who was now standing in the middle of the room with a look that begged to know what was going on.

“The back door’s locked,” I explained in a frantic voice. “I’ve got to get my keys.”

I opened the wardrobe doors, found my keys, and I went back to the dark library to open the back door, only to realize the cat was now hidden, somewhere, in the pitch black library.

I turned on the lights and I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest as I looked around the room for several minutes before finally finding the cat tucked away in a small corner of the room. I opened the back door, revealing the darkness outside on this 4.00 morning, before returning to the cat and doing my best to stay a safe enough distance while shooing it out.

Like a dart, it finally ran out, escaping into the darkness. With a sigh of great relief, I closed the door, locked it behind me, and returned to David’s room, only to find him laughing out loud.

I shook my head in a mixture of laughter and racked nerves. At 4.00 in the morning, the last thing you expect to wake up to is some strange grey cat you’ve never seen in your life hissing at you from the side of your bed.

“I heard you shouting, ‘No, no; Go, go!’, and I thought you were dreaming,” David said to me, in-between laughs. “But then when you asked if I was doing that, I knew someone was in there with you, and I had no idea what was going on!”

I wasn’t sure who among the three of us was most scared that morning, but my money was on me.

I said goodnight to David and crawled back into bed, hesitantly. I removed my glasses, turned off the lamp on my nightstand, and closed my eyes. But I could hardly go to sleep that night, even with the nightlight on.

The Arrival of Olli & Salla’s Baby Boy

The week after David visited, another good friend of mine from back home visited, Matt, and we enjoyed the week together catching up around Oxford and London. And after saying “goodbye” to Matt, it was back to my revisions. Officially. As there was now nothing between my exams but about six weeks in which to prepare. The pressure was now on, in full force.

I was working on finals revisions from the Kilns late one evening when I began receiving a series of regular updates from my good friend Olli. He and his wife are from Finland, and they’ve been like family to me while Jen’s been back home. Olli is doing research here in Oxford at the moment, and his wife, Salla, had been having painful contractions with their second child for well over a month now. They had been hoping he’d arrive and give her some relief for some time.

I was very happy to hear from Olli that Salla was finally going into labor that evening. He asked me for prayer when it looked like they would be taking Salla into the hospital theater for surgery. So I did. And then I waited. And then I got another message. Salla was now in the recovery room, it seemed. And the baby was just fine.

My phone rang a minute later. It was Olli.

“Congratulations!” I told him. He laughed.

“Thank you,” he said, in his Finnish accent.

“That sounded pretty exciting,” I told him.

“Yes, much more exciting than we were hoping for,” he told me. “It looked a bit like Kill Bill in there for a while.”

I laughed out loud. I told him that didn’t make me feel good knowing our first one was arriving in just a few months, and he reminded me that every one was different. And that the birth of their first son, Elias, was much easier than this. I told him I was just glad to know both Salla and the little one were doing all right.

He told me they asked if he’d like to cut the umbilical cord, and he said he told them he would let them do what they do, and not get in the way. I thought that was wise, and I told him I was looking forward to meeting the little guy, and to let me know if there was anything at all I could do to help. And then I thanked him for the call. I was so thankful, at the moment, for their friendship.

A Challenge from Home

I was working from the library at college the next day when I received an Instant Message from a friend back home. We hadn’t talked for a while, and he was checking in to ask how things were going. I told him things were going all right. That I was just plugging away on finals prep, but really missing my wife.

He didn’t realize we had made the decision for Jen to stay back home while I prepared for and finished my exams. Both Jen and I knew how much time my studies would take, and that I’d hardly be around to care for her and look after her, were she here with me. We both knew the first several months of her pregnancy were incredibly difficult on her. She had lost 20 pounds almost immediately, and she needed quite a bit of help from her family.

If anything were to happen to her, and if she needed to be looked after again, we knew it’d be best for her to be there, rather than here. Even though it was easily one of the most difficult decisions we’d made. Knowing we’d end up being apart for nearly six months, during our first pregnancy. And even though we both made this decision with tears in our eyes, over Skype.

But it was during this Instant Message conversation with my friend from back home that I was challenged on our decision. He told me that it would be my decision to neglect my wife over my studies, if she were to return. And I really struggled with that comment. Seated there in the library, surrounded by my books, his comment made me think maybe I had made the wrong decision.

I was anxious to talk with Jen when we caught up later that night on Skype, and she reminded me this was something we were in agreement on, and that she thought this was what was best, even though we both wanted to be together, and even though it was incredibly difficult. I thanked her for her reminder. And for her encouragement.

She smiled at me, with that beautiful smile, and we talked a bit longer before I told her “goodnight,” and continued on with my studies, well into the early morning hours.

Words of Encouragement from a Stranger

I gave a tour of the Kilns a couple days later, for two American teenagers and their mother. They were from Wheaton, Illinios, and they were thrilled to be visiting the Kilns for the first time.

When they were getting ready to leave, after the tour, the mom, who had asked if I was married earlier on in the tour, and who I had told about Jen being pregnant and back home, turned to me and said something that took me completely off guard.

She encouraged me to not let what other people might say get to me about our decision to stick it out here, and to have Jen stay there, as I prepare for my finals. I thought this was strange, because I hadn’t mentioned to her that anyone had even said anything about it.

This woman encouraged me to not worry what others say, as long as Jen and I were in agreement, and that what I was doing here was really important.

Before leaving, she turned to me and said, “You know, your daughter will never know that you weren’t there during this time. If she were 10, then that’d be much more difficult.”

I was struck by the timing of her comment, and I was so encouraged by it.

Easter Sunday: Waking up the World

Easter Sunday came just a few days later. And I’m not sure why, exactly, but I had really been wanting to take part in a sunrise service here in Oxford, and late the night before I finally managed to find one. It started at 6:00 in the city center, which is a 20-minute bike ride away. So I set my alarm for 4:30 the next morning.

When my alarm went off at 4:30, just four hours after going to bed, I begrudgingly picked up my phone and went to reset it for 15 mins later, so I could get a bit more sleep, but then I felt God calling out to me, saying “Idou!” (Greek for “Behold!” or “Look!”), “I am doing something new here! Come see!”

God doesn’t usually speak to me in Greek. So I figured this was probably important.

And it was bizarre, but even though I had been struggling to find the strength and motivation to get out of bed only moments before, I suddenly found myself excited to get up and to go celebrate this day.

I showered while the house slept, dressed, and then stepped outside into the still dark-morning. The birds were chirping as I climbed on my bike, and it was as if all of nature was waking up and attesting to this new thing God did on Easter Sunday.

As I rode to the city center in the dark, chilly morning air, I remembered the scene in the Bible when the women went to the tomb that first Easter Sunday, to pay their respects for Jesus, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had heard the same thing that morning. I wondered if God had woken them up and said, “Look! Come and see what I have done!”

And it made me so happy, to think that somehow, 2,000 years later, I was taking part in the same celebration.

I smiled as I rode past Magdalene Tower, remembering how packed High Street was on May Day around this same hour last year. When students stumbled out of their colleges, many wearing only their underwear, and carrying with them the last remnants of their alcohol from the party that had begun the night before.

I thought about the crowds that gathered for this May Day event, and I wondered where they all were on this Easter morning.

“How can you possibly be sleeping at such a time as this?” I thought to myself. And I felt like He was telling me, “The world is asleep, Ryan.”

About a dozen of us gathered at the top of the oldest tower in Oxford early this Easter Sunday morning. There were mostly gray-haired couples, dressed warmly with thick jackets, but there was one younger couple, around my age, as well as a 30-something father with his young son.

There was also a man who smelled a bit like alcohol, and who went pale when he arrived at the top of the tower and looked out across the high, 360-degree view of the city’s rooftops and steeples. Looking about, he turned around and went back down stairs, before finally returning about five minutes later, deciding to brave it.

We listened as verses 1 to 10 were read from Matthew 28, we sang several hymns, we prayed, and then we took communion, tearing pieces from an unsliced loaf of french bread, and drinking from a gobbet of red wine.

By the time we were done, the sun had just risen, casting light on the formerly dark city, and we left the church tower with smiles as the city woke up. And I couldn’t help but felt like we all left carrying with us light and joy and gratitude for this Great News. I couldn’t help but think, as I climbed back on my bike and made my way home, if the tomb really was empty that morning, if Jesus really is risen, then that’s got to change everything.

The world may very well be asleep, I thought, but we are called to wake it up.

A Tour of Oxford

When we returned to Oxford from our time in Rome & Paris, Jen’s parents returned with us. They’d be spending a week with us here in Oxford before returning home. We were excited to show them around our new hometown. We were also looking forward to a bit of a low-key week, following the European, jet-setting lifestyle we had been living.

Jen returned to work the morning after we got back in. What can I say, I married a workaholic. So the three of us–Tim, Rhonda and myself–spent the day touring around Oxford, showing Tim & Rhonda all the highlights this city has to offer. We started with a look at some of the more famous Oxford architecture, including the Bridge of Sighs.

I pointed out the 400-year old Bodleian Library, and the Radcliffe Camera where I often study. As well as the large, University Church of the Virgin St. Mary that stands just behind it, reaching high into the sky.

We stopped inside to have a look around when we found a small orchestra practicing in the front of the church, as if just for us. We slid into the back row of pews and sat there, for several songs, enjoying the wonderful music in this beautiful old church, before continuing our tour.

From there, we made our way down to Cornmarket Street, full of shops and lots of sidewalk performers. Like this guy, who plays the violin while balancing on a tightrope with one foot.

After restraining myself from heckling this guy to see just how good his balance was, we wandered down to Christ Church, just a short walk away. I flashed my student ID and they porter at the front gate let us wander in, snapping photos of the wide, green lawns along the way.

We crossed the coutyard and entered through an arched doorway before climbing a wide, stone staircase leading to the Great Hall. The dining hall where Harry Potter and the gang shared meals while at Hogwarts.

It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, so we grabbed some ice cream after walking around the inside of Christ Church and we took a walk around the college meadow, a beautiful, park-like setting beyond the building’s high walls.

The park butts up against a river that runs along the eastern edge of Oxford. There were several people punting on the water, laughing as they haphazardly made their way down the water. Lots of first-timers, from the looks of it.

Leaving the Christ Church gardens, we walked back across the city and met up with Jen as she got off the bus, returning from her day of work at the Kilns. Her wide smile told us she was excited to see us sitting there, waiting for her to arrive, seated on a bench along High Street in the afternoon sun.

After a short stop into the market to pickup a few things for dinner, we made our way back home. Apparently it was the mens’ night to prepare dinner, which Rhonda thought was pretty great. Laughing, she snapped a photo of Tim and I together in the kitchen.

“It’s not every day you see this,” she said with a grin as she took the photo.

That night, I went to bed with a bit of a sore throat. I was hoping nothing would come of it, but that hope was all for nought. Not only did I wake up the next day with my sore throat still lingering, I also woke up to a stomach flu. Yeah, not a good combination.

That one-two punch had me in pretty bad shape for most of the remainder of Tim & Rhonda’s time with us here in Oxford. Not exactly how I wanted to spend that time.

Friday: A Breath of Fresh Air in the Cotswolds

Still, we did manage to see quite a bit over the next few days. On Friday, we rented a car and drove to the Cotswolds, introducing Tim & Rhonda to some beautiful, old English villages. I drove…

Our first stop was Bourton on the Water, the small Cotswold village with a quiet stream running through its center.

From there, we drove to some of the other, smaller villages in the area. All of the Cotswolds are connected by rather narrow English country roads. Only wide enough for one car at a time. Which means you spend most of the time hoping that you don’t find yourself face to face with another car going the opposite direction.

At one point, we came across this quaint little farm in the middle of, well, nowhere really. In-between villages. The home was beautiful. Built entirely out of this ancient stone.

It was surrounded by stone fences and fields. And in the field closest to it, there were loads of sheep. Including several young sheep, prancing about.

We ended up stopping the car and just watching these little guys run around for a while. It felt a bit surreal, standing there on this one-lane-road in the middle of the English countryside, seemingly untouched by humanity for hundreds of years, watching these sheep run and play with each other. But it was beautiful. Like a breath of fresh air.

Saturday: A trip to London

The next day, we took Tim & Rhonda to London. They had never been, so there was a lot to show them. We took a ride on the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel that sits right on the river, looking out over Parliament, and much of the London city center.

It was a pretty impressive view, as we climbed to the peak of the Eye, rolled its crest and looked out across the city.

After our trip on the Eye, Jen took a walk along the river with Tim & Rhonda. To go see the London Tower. I was feeling pretty worn out, as I was still a bit under the weather from my cold  / flu, so I sat this one out. Choosing instead to find a spot in the grass beneath the London Eye and try to nap in the sun.

Apparently along their walk, they stumbled across a sandcastle building contest along the shores of the Thames…

The Tower of London is a pretty good walk from where we parted ways, at the London Eye. And I think Jen had underestimated how long it takes, but, after a while, they finally made it to the Tower, and it made for some great pictures.

After taking in the sights of London Saturday, we made our way back to the carpark so we could head home. Except things didn’t go nearly as smoothly as planned.

We ended up getting lost and we walked much longer than we probably needed to. But, by around 9:00 that night, we had finally found our car. We were all feeling pretty tired from walking around London all day, and so we were looking forward to getting back to Oxford. Unfortunately, even after we found our car, we still weren’t out of the woods just yet.

We ran into a bit of a snag in the car park. For some reason, the ticketing system and arm that lets drivers out after they paid stopped working, just as we were trying to get out. After phoning up the operator, we were told that they couldn’t do anything about it from where they were, and that they needed to send someone out to have a look at the machine.

“No big deal,” we thought. We pulled our car over to the side of the parkade, out of the way of the gate, and we waited. But we weren’t the only ones wanting to leave that night. Soon, there was a long line of cars waiting to get out. All growing increasingly impatient, and all taking turns calling up this operator and letting her know their great frustration. Each time, the operator apologized and let them know there was nothing they could do to get the gate open from where they were, and that someone was coming to take a look at it.

Lots of shaking heads and crossed arms. People got out of their cars and began trying to lift up the arm of the gate, to see if they could somehow force it up.

Finally, after about 45 minutes of this scene, a man got on the phone and told the operator that he was going to call the fire department if someone was not down here in five minutes to get this gate open. Like magic, the gate arm that the operator said could not be opened so many times before now was lifted. Car engines fired up and took off in a hurry, full of drivers and passengers anxious to get out of the parkade that had held them like prisoners for nearly an hour.

Not exactly the perfect end to our day in London, but at least now we were finally making our way back home.

Sunday: Sick in Bed & Oxford Punting

On Sunday morning, we all woke up and went to St. Aldate’s together, the church Jen and I have been attending here in Oxford. We were excited to share it with Tim & Rhonda. It was a great service, and it was really nice to be able to show Tim & Rhonda our church home here in Oxford.

Afterward, we wandered through the city center in search of a good place for a post-church brunch. We ended up at Giraffe, a place I knew served pancakes. It was another sunny day, and it shone through the large restaurant windows, warming us as we browsed the menu.

We placed our orders and talked about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. We had been discussing whether or not we wanted to go see one of the nearby castles. I think we were all in agreement that it’d be a lot of fun to go see–Jen and I hadn’t been–but my illness was now in full gear, and I just didn’t have it in me. After lunch, I retired to my bed, in hopes of sleeping off this cold and flu that was sucking all my energy.

While I slept, Jen and her parents made their way over to Magdalene College to try their hand at punting. I was sorry to miss out on the fun, on such a beautiful, sunny day, but I was not doing well at this point.

Since I wasn’t there to join in, I thought I’d ask Jen to share a bit about their first punting experience. Here’s Jen:

Of the three of us, Dad was the brave one who decided to go first. Although it helped that I volunteered him when the guy who was working that day asked who was going to be in charge of punting.

“He is,” I said, pointing to Dad.

We came across a small bridge shortly after we got started, and we all had to duck really low. This did not go well, though, as it made us go against the bank where there were lots of tree branches. So, we he had to continue to duck down low, but we still found ourselves getting hit by all the branches.

Dad looked so funny trying to stay balanced while having to crouch down so low. Mom and I were laughing so hard we literally felt like we were going to pee our pants. Dad was frustrated with us for laughing at him, and for not helping him. But there was no way we could help until we got ourselves under control!

I am happy to say that Dad did get used to how the pole worked, and then he was able to move us along quite quickly.

And then it was my turn. I had the advantage of going second, which meant I was able to watch Dad and figure out what not to do. It turns out I’m a natural at punting. I may not have been the fastest punter, but I could move us along without running into things. Unlike some people…

The problem, though, is that you can’t always control what others around you are doing. At one point, we came across a more narrow part of the river and there was a teenage boy who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. He managed to get his punt horizontal, across the river, which meant I had nowhere to go and ended up running us into the bank. Again, where lots of branches were sticking out. I seriously thought the branches were going to shove me off the platform of the boat! Thankfully it didn’t, but I did receive some nice, deep scratches on my arm.

We made sure Mom got into the action as well. Anytime I can have a good laugh at my parents’ expense is always nice. Mom did pretty good as well, but she was a little unsure of what she was doing at first. Soon, though, she got the hang of it, and she caught on fast enough.

We had a great time, full of lots of laughs, and we considered our first time punting a success.

Monday: Saying Goodbye

After our time with Jen’s parents in Rome, Paris and now Oxford, we were sad to see them go. We had been looking forward to their arrival for some time, and our time together had been pretty amazing. Not just because of all the things we had seen and done over the course of those two+ weeks, but it was just nice to have them with us again. It made it feel like we were carrying a piece of home with us again.

But Monday morning we got up and prepared to see them off. We’d be driving them to London to catch their flight, but not before Jen made us some homemade scones to start the day. I found Justin and Dan (Justin & Jane’s oldest son) next door, and I asked if they’d mind snapping a photo of us before Jen’s parents left. Dan was happy to help.

When we arrived at the airport, we had trouble checking in. The machine we were using didn’t want to accept their travel information, which I found rather odd. So we found an airline staff member and asked for his help. He tried his hand at the machine, doing the same we did, only to find the same failed result we did. He punched in a few numbers on another monitor and told us that, unfortunately, it looked like their flight had been overbooked, and they might need to catch a flight out the next day.

Rhonda’s jaw about hit the ground at that point. Tim remained cool as the young airline employee told us we needed to walk down to the customer service table at the end of the hall and they would let us know what was going on.

We followed his directions, commenting on how bizarre it is that you can buy something several months in advance and then show up the day of only to find it’s not actually yours.

After talking with a guy who looked like he had been dealing with similar problems all morning, and who was a bit frazzled, we learned that the flight had indeed been overbooked, and that several passengers would be asked to fly out the next day in exchange for £1,500. It didn’t seem like a bad deal to me, but Rhonda was planning on being at work the next day, and she was trying to figure out how she could ask someone to cover for her, even though she loved the idea of staying an extra night with us.

You could see the wheels turning in Tim’s head, thinking how that money could be put to use in helping cover part of their trip. I was with Tim; that sounded like a good deal to me.

After about an hour of waiting, and being told to wait some more, Tim & Rhonda found out they would in fact be flying out on their plane, as originally planned. It was a bit of a rollercoaster departure, preparing to say goodbye, then thinking they might not have to say goodbye just yet, then realizing that, yes, this really was goodbye.

It was tough to see them go, after such a nice time together. We were just thankful to have them. It meant the world that they both crossed the Atlantic for the first time to visit us. It was a quiet ride home, that afternoon. Jen staring out the window for much of it. I patted her knee from time to time, and let my hand rest there. Encouraging her with a smile as she turned her head to me.

A Hard Message

The Sunday before we took off for our trip to Rome and Paris, Jen and I had attended the evening service at St. Aldate’s. The pastor who typically speaks at that 6:00 evening service is a guy by the name of Simon. His background is in Theology, and so I appreciate his meat-and-potato style of teaching. Simon is British, and he’s quite funny. His sense of humor rounds out his solid teaching quite well, often making jokes about his large size, or his rather casual attire (whereas most pastors here tend to get quite dressed up for their role).

This evening he spoke, though, this Sunday evening before we left, he had a rather interesting message. He began by explaining that he had actually spent about 20 hours preparing a message that week on Romans, which we had been studying, but as he was sitting there, prior to speaking, he felt led to preach on a totally different topic. He explained to us that he really felt like God was telling him that He had another message that needed to be heard by someone tonight. And so, at the last minute, he jotted down some notes and took the stage for an impromptu message. I was intrigued.

Rather than speaking on Romans that night, Simon focused on the period directly after Jesus’ baptism. When he spent the 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. Simon started by pointing out that, what most people don’t realize in looking at this story is that Jesus was actually led by the Spirit when He went out into the desert for this time of temptation. That Jesus was not just experiencing this great trial, but that God was the One bringing this time of difficulty about for His Son.

Simon explained that he didn’t like to think about it that way. That it’s tough. But, he pointed out, that’s what we’re told happened. And so, Simon talked through what this means for us, for those of us going through a tough time.

He talked about how, a lot of times these difficult times come, and we just want to throw in the towel and give up, without realizing that God actually wants to use such experiences to grow us, so that He can use us in a way He couldn’t otherwise.

He was right. It was a hard message. But I appreciate preachers who teach what they believe they need to teach. I appreciate preachers who teach what the Bible says, whether it’s hard or not, without feeling the need to soften the blow by watering it down.

Simon shared several stories with us that night. To help with the lesson. He told us about a pastor who had received a wide amount of success, as a speaker, but who had been struck with Tourette syndrome at the height of his ministry. He told us how this pastor went from blessing others with his mouth, to not being able to stop using that same mouth from spouting off horrible obscenities at the most inappropriate moments. He told us how this pastor was literally put up in bed one day, because he could no longer serve as he had before, and just asking God, “Why in the world would you do this to me?…”

Simon explained to us the answer that pastor said he felt he received from God, in that moment. After asking, he said he felt God telling him, “This is what you would be like without me.” Simon told us how God had led this man through an incredibly low valley only so that this man could be brought to a place where he was fully reliant on God, and where he knew he could take no credit for any amount of success he had.

Simon also shared with us from his own experience. From some of his own trials. He talked about how he  had made plans to leave the UK as a young, “strapping”, 20-something. To go join up with Vineyard Ministries in the States, as a speaker. Only to be pressed down upon with the great realization that, as much as he wanted this, he felt that’s not what God wanted for him and his wife. Instead, he felt God was telling him to go to school. To go to seminary. And to go work in the Anglican Church.

Simon shared with us how this, all of this, was the opposite of what he wanted. How he spent years in school, in great depression, while his wife went to work, earning an income so that they could get by, rather than starting a family, as she wanted. He talked about how incredibly trying this was, but how, ultimately, he came out the other side with greater confidence in how God planned to use him to share His good news with others.

And so, before we left for Rome & Paris, I had fired off an e-mail to Simon. I told him his message really resonated with me, and I’d love to chat with him a bit more when we returned. I was happy to hear back from him right away, and we scheduled a time to get together when we returned to Oxford.

A Walk with Simon

I met up with Simon on a sunny Tuesday morning after Jen’s parents left. I met him in front of St. Aldate’s, and we walked down the lane toward Christ Church meadow. He was dressed in his usual, informal outfit: cargo shorts, t-shirt, a brown, leather waistcoat (which I’ve never seen him without) and sandals. Simon has broad shoulders and he walks heavily, swinging his arms as we went.

“How do you feel about ice cream,” he said, turning toward me as we walked.

I laughed to myself, slightly, checking my watch to make sure it was still in fact 10:30 in the morning.

“Sure, yeah, that sounds great,” I said.

We stopped into G&D’s, we each grabbed a cone of ice cream (custard for Simon, strawberry for me), and we continued toward Christ Church meadow.

“So I read your blog,” he said, without turning to me, as we crossed the street and entered through the large metal gate.

“You did?” I asked, somewhat surprisingly.

“Well, I looked at it,” he clarified, admittedly.

“Oh, well thanks.”

“You’re a writer, and a thinker,” he commented. “That’s rare.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“I mean, lots of people write. Lots. But lots of writers aren’t actually thinkers. And we have a lot of thinkers, but they don’t tend to write much,” he said, clarifying again.

“Yeah, well thank you,” I said, still unsure of what to say.

“You know, Harry Potter was filmed here,” he said, pointing toward the wide open fields in front of us, and to the side of Christ Church, quickly moving along in conversation.

“Yeah, I had heard that when I arrived,” I replied. “Pretty amazing.”

“It was a big setup,” he continued. “They had massive tents and trailers. You could see it all going on from where we were,” he said, motioning over his shoulder to St. Aldate’s not far behind us.

“They asked me to be in it, you know. But I told them ‘Nah… I have too much to do already,'” he joked.

“It’s funny you say that,” I said, without missing a beat, “Because when I first saw you, I thought to myself, ‘he looks just like Harry Potter!'”

“Really?” he asked, turning toward me.

“No, no I didn’t. I was just joking.”

“Oh, well I haven’t seen it, or read it, so I didn’t know.”

I almost felt bad, for my joke that had totally missed the mark.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to explain, “Harry Potter is a small, teenage boy with glasses, so pretty much nothing like you.”

“Ah,” he said, laughing.

We continued walking, making our way toward the river and along its edge, enjoying our ice cream cones as we walked.

“You know, I’m the most American Brit you’ll meet,” he told me, with a half-look of pride.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told.”

“I could see that,” I told him. “You tend to wear your heart on your sleeve a bit, like us Americans. You tell it like it is. I appreciate that.”

“I do, yeah,” he said in agreement. “I used to be a butcher, you know. And a meat salesman. So I’m pretty to the point. ‘You want this cut, it costs this much,’ he said aloud, as if to replay a scene from his former life as a butcher / meat salesman, and to show me where it came from.

We passed several people on our walk. Most of whom Simon seemed to know, and who knew him. Lots of smiles and “hello”‘s.

He asked if I minded if we took a break about a half hour into our walk. I didn’t, so we did. We took a seat on a bench that overlooks the river, and we sat there watching the water tumble slowly by. It really was a beautiful day, and this was an amazing spot to take it all in.

“So you contacted me a bit ago to talk about something,” Simon said, narrowing our conversation, and recalling the e-mail I had sent him several weeks prior.

“Yeah, it was about your sermon, where you talked about how sometimes God leads us into the wilderness, to help form us into who He wants us to be. So that He can use us.”

“Ah, yes,” he replied, looking off into the distance, recalling the message I was referring to.

I shared with him how this message had really resonated with me that night. I told him about how we had picked up and left home to come here to Oxford, because I really felt God wanted to use this experience to help prepare me to share Him with others, even though I wasn’t totally clear on what that was supposed to look like. I told him how it had been pretty tough to leave home behind and come here, even though this is such an amazing city.

I shared with him how, even though this is a dream come true, in so many ways, it is also one of the most difficult things either one of us have ever done. To come here and start over, as it were, investing literally all we have into this, with no guarantee of anything waiting us on the other side.

I also told him about how we had lost Jen’s sister, Hayley, shortly before leaving home, and how that had only made this time all the more difficult.

He hung his head low at the news, shaking it as if to share in our pain.

He told me he was so sorry for our loss. And then he asked several questions. About coming here. And he asked how Jen was doing with it all.

I told him this had not been easy on Jen. Not at all. But that she had been incredibly strong through it all. And supportive. And that there’s no way I could have done it without her.

Then he asked me what I wanted to do, at the end of our time here in Oxford. I’ve been asked that question a lot since arriving, and so I was prepared to answer.

“Well, when I first came over, I figured I’d just go the PhD route and work to eventually become a professor,” I told him. “I knew I wanted to write and speak, so I figured that’d let me do that on the side.”

“But, since coming here,” I continued, “I’ve begun to think maybe that’s not what I want to do. I really enjoyed speaking and writing in my former job, so I know I’d love to do that. But I think I’d like to do that for a more general audience. Not just for academics. To help everyday people see Him more clearly.”

“I know it sounds like a pipe dream, but if I could do that, if I could write and speak to help others with that, that’s what I’d be doing.”

Simon was quick to respond, and to encourage me.

“We need both of those things, Ryan. Writing and speaking. And there are a lot of people who don’t want to do those things. I enjoy speaking, but writing is a chore. If you can do both of those things, then I don’t think that’s a pipe dream.”

I nodded my head. I was thankful for his encouragement.

We left our spot from beside the river and continued on our walk, heading back toward the gate through which we had entered the meadow.

Simon shook his head again, commenting on our loss. And the recent difficulties.

“You know, Ryan, you have to gain this knowledge, you have to get this degree, to do what you want to do. And this is a great place to get it,” he said, staring off at Christ Church in the distance. “But I think you’ll realize, afterward, that God brought you here for more than just a degree. He’s teaching you both through all of this, and you might not know how until much later.”

“Hmmm…” I said aloud, allowing his words settle in.

I thanked Simon for the ice cream, and for taking the time. I told him I really appreciated his thoughts and wisdom.

He’s a pretty humble guy, so he quickly brushed off any idea that there was wisdom in his words. He told me we’d have to do this again some time. I told him I’d like that, and I made my way toward the city center. Back to the library to study, still chewing on Simon’s words.

Tuesday: Adjusting to my wet shorts

I was sitting in the library at Harris Manchester the following Tuesday afternoon. From my old familiar spot by the window on the second floor. Reading for my Patristics essay. When I stopped. And smiled. Realizing where I was. And what I was doing.

A couple weeks earlier, before Steve had arrived, I had been sitting in the same seat. Late one night. Staring out the window at the Oxford countryside settling into the darkness of another evening. Thinking how weird it was. To have received my dream of coming here and at the same time feeling like all I wanted was what I had left. Wanting so badly just to be back home, with my family and friends. To hold my new niece. To be doing what I knew how to do well. To have things back to the way they were. To just be back where things are familiar and comfortable.

But now, on this afternoon, I found myself fully aware of what an incredible blessing this was. Studying Theology at Oxford… The dream of my heart. The dream I was too embarrassed to share with others for so long. And now here I was. Right in the middle of it. And it felt amazing.

Reading the incredible works of these early Church fathers. Brilliant men. Men who didn’t just take this faith for granted, but who actively defended it. And explained it. Teaching others the truth that been handed down to them. With only a generation or two between them and the Apostles. The Apostles who had received these teachings from Jesus himself.

Since arriving here in Oxford, I regularly have the opportunity to listen to incredibly brilliant speakers. The kind of men who make me feel as though I should be off playing in a sandbox while they discuss such things. I get to be around the kind of discussions I may never again be fortunate enough to be around.

I get to translate Greek. Which I would normally say is just a horrible experience. But now, all of a sudden I’m beginning to see these words come alive.  In a way I’ve never known them before, almost as if I’m reading the Gospels for the first time. Even though I know them so well.

And I remembered what Principal Waller said to me that first time I sat in his office last fall. With the sun shining through the windows as he welcomed me to Harris Manchester. I remembered how he had told me that it probably seems overwhelming and really uncomfortable now, but that it would get better. I remember him comparing the transition to putting on a wet swimsuit. Totally uncomfortable at first. But then you jump in the water, and soon the discomfort fades away completely.

That’s really how it’s been. Without even realizing it, all of a sudden you find yourself swimming in this stuff and loving it.

And it made me think about being home. About all those summers spent at the lake with Jen and her family. It made me think about those hot summer days, falling in and out of sleep while laying in the sun and listening to children’s laughter bouncing off the sound of waves washing ashore. It’s probably the most peaceful place I know of. It’s my happy place. And I have a hard time thinking of anywhere else I’d rather be.

But it made me think about how often times I’d be lying there, in the sun. Warm. And not wanting to move. Being totally at peace. But then being asked to go for a ride behind the boat. To go wakeboarding. Or tubing. And not really wanting to. Not wanting to move because the sun just feels so good. Not wanting to feel the tight clench of the cold water when you first jump in.

But then you do. Hesitantly, you leave your dry, peaceful spot in the sun, you put on your lifejacket, and you go for a ride. And all of a sudden you’re having an incredible time. Soaring across the lake. The sound of your own laughter now echoing off the water. Sure, you get wet, and you’re not as warm as you were before. It’s not nearly as peaceful. But you’re also having the time of your life. And were you not to leave that place in the sun, you wouldn’t have experienced these laughs. These amazing experiences on the water. You would’ve had some more time in the sun, lying there, sure. But you wouldn’t have had these exciting experiences.

It’s a bit like that. It was so incredibly tough leaving home and coming here. More difficult that I can probably put into words. And it’s still tough. Very much so, at times. And yet, I’m so glad I did. The wet shorts are uncomfortable at first, sure, but pretty soon you’re having the time of your life. You’re having incredible experiences. And you’re thinking how glad you are for leaving your spot of comfort in the sun.

If you’re in a spot like that. Loving the comfort of the sun, loving how peaceful things are, but also thinking about pushing yourself. If you’re considering answering that call that keeps tugging at you to get up and leave your place in the sun, I’d tell you to go for it. The water feels great.

Doing well

My face must’ve shown it, how good I was feeling about everything all of a sudden, as I ran into Amanda from the front office while stepping out to grab a panini.

“Ryan, how are you?” she asked me with that look of sincere concern and genuine interest. Her eyebrows going up in the middle just so, as we approached each other in the hallways of Harris Manchester that afternoon.

“I’m doing well, thank you,” I told her with a smile. “I’m doing really well,” I said, looking back while continuing toward the stairs.

“You look like you’re doing really well,” she said, like a parent, comforted after seeing her child again for the first time since being apart for a stretch.

“Thanks, Amanda. It’s great to see you,” I said waving.

A proud uncle

Jennifer sent me this picture earlier this week…

Is that not the most amazing thing you’ve seen in a long time? It took your breath away a little bit, didn’t it?

That’s my niece, Khloe Dawn. She’s now the new wallpaper on my Macbook Pro.

Jen and Leann have been doing a great job of making me feel connected with everything back home. With Khloe. Even though I’m so far away from it all. I get photos pretty regularly in my e-mail inbox. I get to see Jen holding Khloe (who’s usually asleep at the time). And Leann writes me telling me all about the new experiences. About how Khloe rolled over for the first time.

And I love it. All of it. Which is funny, because I’ve never been a big baby guy. Until now. Khloe has made me change my ways. She’s beautiful. And every time I see her I just want to reach out my hands and take her in my arms. I told Jen the other day I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do come summertime when we get back home.

It’s official, I’ve become that uncle who brags about his niece. I never thought I’d see the day…

Wednesday: When my Greek came alive

I stayed behind after Greek that next morning. To talk with Rhona. I stood by the door as she gathered up her things and made her way out of the room. Looking up, I think she was surprised to still see me there.

“Hello,” she said with that wide smile of hers, eyes squinting just so behind her glasses.

Rhona has the kind of voice that would make her a perfect grandma. That sing-song kind of a voice that shoots up high with excitement and warmth at each greeting.

“Hey Rhona, I just wanted to share with you about what happened yesterday while I was translating our Greek text for class this morning,” I told her as we came to a stop just outside the door leading into the classroom.

“I was making my way through Mark 15,” I told her, “when I came to verse 24. And I know this story. I know it really well, actually. And so it’s not like I was hearing it for the first time. But, for whatever reason, as I was translating this text, it was almost as if I were hearing it for the first time.”

Her eyes were big behind her glasses, and she was leaning foward just so. I could tell she knew what I was talking about.

“And when I came to verse 24, I just found I had to stop. I knew what this word meant, but I just couldn’t do it… It was almost like, if I translated it, it would be real, and I didn’t want it to be real…”

“Yes, yes I know,” Rhona said. Her brow sinking low, as if she had complete sympathy with this experience, assuring me she did in fact know what I was referring to.

“No, you’re right, we don’t want it to be true,” she said.

“But I translated those words, ‘they crucified him.’ And I don’t know any way to describe it, other than to say it was like this familiar story was new, for the first time,” I told her. “And it really made me appreciate being able to translate the Greek.”

“I remember getting to the end of this account and just thinking to myself, ‘This man’s been murdered!'”

“Executed,” Rhona corrected me. “Yes, and for holding to the truth.”

Rhona’s a believer. She loves Jesus. And I could tell, in her voice and in her face. That this was real to her, too. Jesus’ death. That it both broke her heart and caused her to love this man with deep gratitude, at the same time.

That’s how it made me feel. It was a beautiful, incredible experience. Translating the Greek text from the Passion Account for the first time. It was as if I really was experiencing this truth for the first time, and it was so encouraging to share it with her. And to have it understood.

Grizzly Adams did have a beard

I’ve never been a facial hair guy. I don’t know what it is. I guess it kind of drives me nuts a little bit. It gets itchy, letting my facial hair grow much. And so I usually do a pretty good job of keeping my face shaved.

But Jen, well Jen’s even more against facial hair than I am. I swear, sometimes I can hug her that very same day after shaving and she’ll accuse me of trying to poker her eye out with my facial hair. And I’m not a hairy guy. Not in the least. But that’s how she is. She’s really sensitive to facial hair.

And so, knowing I had a couple weeks before Jen arrived yet, I decided to let it grow out.

“Why not,” I figured. “Now’s my chance to be a bit of a bum and get away with it.”

It’s a funny feeling, going from being clean-shaven and getting dressed up every day to meet with clients to not shaving and wearing whatever I want for class. I feel like I’m living someone else’s life most of the time I’m here still.

Saturday: Breakfast with the guys

After our traditional English breakfast the previous week, Max told us he’d try to find us a place with a bit more of an American menu for our next get-together.

“Someplace we can get some real, American pancakes,” he said.

I’m a pretty big fan of pancakes, so I wasn’t about to argue with that.

He sent us an e-mail a couple days before Saturday rolled around. Telling us there was a place called Giraffe in the city center that should do a pretty good job with some American pancakes.

I never knew pancakes would be a tough thing to get here, but apparently the English pancakes aren’t quite what they are back home. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by that at this point, but they’re not. They’re more like crepes, which is a different thing altogether, if traditional pancakes is what you’re looking for.

I met up with Rich and Max that Saturday morning for breakfast. And for our second prayer meeting. It was good to see them.

I was the last one to arrive, pulling off my sweatshirt and vest, pulling out a chair and draping them over the back of the chair before taking my seat.

“How’re you guys doing?” I asked, catching my breath from the bike ride.

Giraffe’s a really cool spot. I wouldn’t mind if we met there every time, actually. The decor strikes a pretty even balance between simplistic modern design and eco-friendly / funky.

A combination of sleek, wooden booths and tables filled the room, with minimalistic chairs circled around them.

The menu was definitely on the healthy / “I care what I’m putting into my body” side. Looking over the options, we all decided to go with the pancakes when the waiter came around to take our order. “Blueberry banana pancakes,” it read.

“I’ve been thinking about pancakes all week since you mentioned that the last time we met up,” I told Max, handing my menu to the waiter.

He laughed. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

We had a great time catching up. On our past week. And just sharing life over sips of coffee. Bouncing things off of each other to the response of head nods and softly-delivered advice. It’s great to have a group like that. To share stuff with. To bounce things off of.

We were all taken aback when our pancakes made their way to the table. Their presentation was something else.

The pancakes came in threes. And in-between each pancake stood four or five slices of banana, acting as columns to hold up the pancake on top of it. It was like that between the bottom and middle pancake, and then again between the middle and top pancake. And then, on top of the tower of pancakes, sat a dollop of fresh, crushed blueberries, with their juices draining over the sides. It was a thing of beauty.

We said a prayer, blessing the food, and then we took turns pouring liberal amounts of syrup over the pancakes before digging in.

“Mmm… those are good!” I said in-between bites.

I told the guys about a time I was having breakfast for lunch with a good friend of mine back home.

“A former colleague of mine,” I told them. “Really bright guy. Member of Mensa. And a devout atheist. We were sitting there in this restaurant and I was eating my pancakes when I looked up from my plate to ask him, ‘You know why I believe in God?'”

“Why’s that?” he asked, looking over at me from across the table, not seeming terribly surprised by my question.

“Pancakes,” I said with a smile. And he just smiled in response.

The guys laughed.

My shadow beard

My Mom Skyped in with me that Saturday. During their afternoon. We were talking, catching up on how the week had wrapped up, and talking about the weekend. My brother Zach was there, too. So we talked for a bit after Mom and I had caught up. About movies that had just come out. About what he had seen. About what I was hoping to catch.

After several minutes of talking with Zach, my sister Lucy stopped by. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and she had no idea I was pulling a Grizzly Adams while Jen was away.

“Hey Ryan!” she said, greeting me on the computer screen as she came into the room. “Wait, what’s that on your face?!” she asked with a look of confusion.

I laughed.

“It’s just a shadow,” Zach said, trying to pull one over on her. We always give Lucy a bit of a hard-time about being gullible.

“Oh,” she said. “It looked like you had a beard there for a second.”

Zach and I just laughed. It was great catching up with them again.


Steve and I woke up Saturday morning and headed to the city center for a workout at the gym. I went to grab my gloves on the way out when I realized they were nowhere to be found…

The same gloves that had been reunited only days before when my missing glove mysteriously appeared in my mailbox were now missing. Both of them. They weren’t in my bag pocket, where I had left them.

“They must’ve fallen out somewhere in the city center, again,” I told Steve as we left the house.

I had to laugh at the irony of the situation. Maybe both will show up in my mailbox next week with a sign that reads, “This is the last time!” I thought to myself as we walked along Banbury Road to the city center.

Sunday: Introducing Steve to Walter’s Home

When I visited Walter for tea shortly after returning to Oxford at the start of the term, I had told him that Steve would be coming out to visit the following week. Steve had met Walter when we first visited the Kilns last fall, and Walter regularly asks how Steve is doing. Walter’s good about things like that. He’s always asking questions that shows he cares.

After hearing that Steve would be in town, Walter said it would be nice to see him again. I suggested the three of us find a time to get together for dinner, perhaps. Walter liked that idea, and he invited us over for dinner that Sunday evening Steve would be in town. I had mentioned the idea to Steve over e-mail before he arrived, and he loved it. After hearing about our time with Walter, he was looking forward to seeing him again, and to someday seeing his home. I told him he’d love it.

So that’s what we did. After church that morning, and working away from the house that afternoon, Steve and I ventured north to Walter’s house. Stopping briefly in Summertown to pick up something for dessert. I told Walter we’d take care of dessert, since he was preparing a meal for us. He didn’t seem to mind that idea.

We made it to Walter’s home just after six that night. He greeted us at the door, with that huge, warm smile of his, and big eyes behind his glasses.

“Hello,” Walter said, welcoming us and inviting us in. “Let me take your coats.”

I greeted Walter with a hug and handed the dessert to him, explaining that it’d need some time to bake.

“Of course,” he said. “I’ll take it into the kitchen; I’m sure my French chef Benoit will know what to do with it.”

I smiled. I had never heard of “Benoit” before.

Before leaving the front entryway, I pointed out a picture that hung on the wall to Steve .

“Walter with Lewis,” I said.

“Oh, wow.”

Walter returned from the kitchen and pointed out by name all the people in the photos that hung on his walls.

“And this, this is a view of the Kilns before the house next door to it that you saw was built,” Walter explained, helping orient us to the photo.

“They had quite a bit more room back then, from the looks of it,” I said.

“Well come into the living room,” Walter said, waving us along to follow him, which we did.

“This is great,” Steve said as we entered the room.

Walter’s living room has quickly become my favorite place in Oxford. It’s so incredibly comfortable. With the fireplace and large, comfortable chairs seated around it. With the books stacked high along the walls. And not to mention that Walter always has a hot pot of tea and some sort of treat waiting.

Walter showed Steve around the room, pointing out different things along the way.

“This statue shows how movement was first introduced into sculptures,” Walter explained, pointing toward the life-size statue in the corner of the room.

“Prior to this, you didn’t see this kind of movement. The Egyptians, for example, created their statues so that their arms were at their side and their legs were straight. But, by raising this leg just so, you create this movement in the rest of the sculpture.”

Walter continued the tour, pointing out the small table in the corner of the room that had been Lewis’ when he was a young boy, and the small humidor that used to be Lewis’.

“This isn’t his tobacco, though,” Walter explained, as he held it up for us to smell.

He pointed out the illustrations on the wall. Illustrations from the Chronicles of Narnia series. The original illustrations. Crazy. And then he asked us to excuse him while he returned to the kitchen to check on Benoit. His French chef. To make sure everything was coming along okay.

He invited us to have a look around, and to help ourselves to anything. So we did.

I found my way to Walter’s book shelves and allowed my eyes to read over the titles and authors.

“He really did a great job with the colors here,” Steve said. “Even in the entryway. The green works great with the photos of the house and the grass.”

“Yeah, he knows what he’s doing, for sure,” I said from across the room.

Walter’s second passion, to literature and all things Lewis, is sculpture. And he has a fair share of it spread throughout the room. As well as several pieces of art hanging from the wall.

“Here’s a picture of Walter with the Pope,” I said, pointing to a framed photo on the wall, beside one of the framed pieces of art. Walter’s a pretty big fan of the Pope.

Walter returned from the kitchen to tell us Benoit had everything under control, and that dinner would be ready shortly.

Steve told him he had done a great job decorating. And how much he liked the color choice.

“Oh, well thank you. I’m so glad to hear you like it,” he told Steve.

They talked for a while about the particular colors, and why they were chosen. A conversation which I, as a colorblind guy, didn’t appreciate nearly as much as they did.

Walter invited us to take a seat beside the fire. He helped us to some tea, and he held out a plate full of puffed pastries.

“They’re sausage rolls,” he told Steve. “Have you had one before?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well surely you have,” Walter said, turning toward me with the plate.

“Yeah, yeah I have. They’re really good, but we don’t have them back home,” I said, taking a bite. “Probably the closest thing I can think of would be pigs in a blanket, but they’re not quite the same.”

We talked for a while over tea and sausage rolls, while “Benoit” finished preparing dinner. Walter asked us what we had planned for Steve’s time in Oxford.

“Oh, well, we’re not quite sure yet,” I told him.

“I just enjoy being here and hanging out, really,” Steve piped in. “I love Oxford, but I’m not much of a tourist.”

“Have you made it to the Trout yet?” Walter asked, turning to me.

“No, no I haven’t, but I remember you telling me about that before. Still haven’t made it.”

“Oh, well you absolutely must go.”

The Trout is an old inn that has been turned into a restaurant, which sits right on the river. Walter had told Jen and I about it the last time he had us over for supper. But we had yet to make it there.

“Yes, you should go early in the day, before it gets dark, so you can take a walk beside the river,” Walter encouraged us. “It’s a nice walk, and I know you’ll enjoy it.”

“We’ll have to do that before you leave,” I said, turning to Steve.

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

We finished our tea and Walter invited us into the dining room, informing us that “Benoit” had finished preparing our dinner.

And he did a great job. Benoit, that is. A nice ham, some potatoes and broccoli. It looked really good.

“Why don’t you sit here in your spot,” Walter said, pointing to the chair where I had sat the last time Walter had us over for dinner. “And Steve, you can sit here.”

We fixed our plates and Walter asked me if I’d bless the food for us. I was happy to.

The meal was really good, and we had a great time, talking over the food. Walter’s a keen conversationalist, and he kept the questions coming. Never pressed or forced, but just good conversation.

We returned to the living room after supper. Stomachs now full. We sunk low into our chairs and picked up the conversation again.

He asked each of us how much we had traveled around Europe. Neither of us have much at all. He told us we needed to go to Rome someday. And Italy. He told us he loved Italy, and that he had just recently returned from visiting there. I told him I’d love to see both places someday.

He told us he was happy to see us having this time together, Steve and I, even while I was so far from home.

“It must be difficult to keep a friendship going while being so far apart,” he said, with that look of serious concern on his face.

“Yeah, it is,” I said, “but it definitely helps when this guy flies out to visit like this,” I said, motioning across the room to Steve.

Walter told us he had never seen a friendship quite like ours. And he was thankful for it.

“It’s rare to find a best friend, you know?” he told us.

He also told us we needed to read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves.

“Have you read it?” he asked us.

“Yeah, I have,” I spoke up.

“I haven’t, no,” Steve said.

“Oh, you must read it,” Walter insisted. “It’s a wonderful book, and Lewis writes about the love shared between friends. He contends for such friendship in it.”

Walter explained how he thought the Feminist movement and a lot of the other changes in the middle of the last century deconstructed such friendships (I love that Walter doesn’t bother with being P.C, by the way; it’s refreshing). He talked about how men don’t share friendships like they did before that time. He talked about The Inklings, about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein and others, about their weekly talks, and how these men spurred each other on to do great things.

“I hope you fight for this friendship,” he told us with a look of seriousness on his face. “And if you don’t, then come talk to me, and I will for you.”

We had a great time talking with Walter that night. He’s such a genuinely kind and sincere man.

At about half past 10, we thanked Walter for a wonderful time. We told him to give our compliments to “Benoit” for a great meal. And we asked him if he’d mind taking a couple quick photos. He as happy to oblige, as long as we signed his guestbook. It was a fair trade.

We thanked Walter again for a great time as he found our coats for us. And we promised to check out the Trout before Steve left.

Skyping with Jen: We’re going to Rome!

I Skyped with Jen when we got back to the house. To tell her about our time. And just to catch up. She told me they had just talked with Monti and Heidi about their trip out to see us (Monti and Heidi are great friends of our family back home, and they’re coming to visit with their two kids this spring).

“So it sounds like we’ll be going to Rome,” Jen told me with a big grin over our Skype call. “They just booked a place.”

“Oh yeah? That’s awesome!” I told her. “And kind of funny. Walter was just telling us we need to visit Rome someday.”

I told Steve it sounded like he needed to make a trip out this Spring, too.

Wednesday: Clive’s help with a wedding suit for Steve

I was working on some Greek at Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon when Steve stepped away to go walk around town for a bit. He returned about a half-hour later with a big smile on his face.

“I think I found suits for my wedding, man.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, not realizing that’s what he had been up to. “That’s awesome.”

Apparently he had walked into a place across the street and he told one of the guys there he was getting married in October. And that he had been looking at suits back home. Not long after that, he had a suit picked out for the wedding.

“I’d love to check it out,” I told him.

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

I packed up my things and we headed across the street. We had looked at suits at a couple places back home before I left to return to Oxford, but he hadn’t settled on anything. I was curious to see what he had found.

A stocky british guy with a thick english accent and shortly shaved head by the name of Clive greeted us as we walked in. “Steve, good to see you again.” He seemed like a real English man’s man. Like the kind of guy who would be out playing rugby for the first part of the day, and then come to the shop and tell you all about suits the next.

He led us upstairs and handed Steve the suit he had picked out. It ended up being a bit different than what we had been looking at back home, but it was great.

“I like it a lot, man. Yeah, it’s really sharp.”

“You should try one on,” Steve insisted, “to get your size right.”

So I did. Clive snapped a photo of Steve in his suit first. And then one “with the best man,” as Clive said.

I’d love to share the photos with you, but apparently it’s something of a secret.

“I don’t get to see her wedding dress until the day of, so she doesn’t get to see our suits,” Steve said. “That’s fair, right?”

Wednesday: A Trip to the Trout

We were serious about taking Walter up on his suggestion to make it to the Trout before Steve left, so we made plans to venture north to the restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. In the late afternoon, but not too late. Before it got dark. So we could still take in the sights.

It was a bit of a cloudy day, and it had been drizzling off and on earlier, but we lucked out and it seemed to hold off for our walk.

And Walter was right, it was a great walk. About three miles north of where I am living here.

A couple miles into the trip, we came to a bridge that crossed a river that runs through the western border of Oxford. The river had these small boats on one side, which I had been told people live in year-round.

After crossing the bridge, the view opened up into this beautiful English countryside.

Several small ponds were scattered throughout the fields, and a group of ducks skimmed across the top of the water as we passed.

Walking a little further, we came into a small town. With this little market. And all of a sudden I was reminded how very far we were from home. In this small English village miles even from Oxford. It’s funny. I hadn’t felt that way. I had just kind of gotten used to being here. But, for some reason, walking through this little village reminded me I was in a foreign country. I a beautiful foreign country.

Most of the homes in this village were old and built of stone. With little space from one house to the next. The roads were narrow, and we walked on them. Taking photos along the way.

This thatched roof home was seated on the corner of a bend that opened up to reveal another expansive field, which it looked like people were taking full advantage. A couple was walking together. And a man was walking with his dog.

The road narrowed again as it turned into another bridge, crossing another part of what I took to be the same river, bending just so.

After crossing this second bridge, we spotted a tall sign with a fish on it.

“That must be it,” I said to Steve, as we walked past what looked to be a small, communal garden in the center of a handful of older-looking stone homes.

The Trout was just as Walter had described it. An old stone inn that had been reconverted into a restaurant. It was great.

Randomly, a peacock was wandering by the front entryway. “Must be the bouncer,” I thought to myself as Steve and I both snapped pictures.

Entering the old stone building, we ducked our heads a bit for the low entry ceiling. The restaurant was amazing. I was immediately surprised by how modern it looked. Everything was very sleek and minimal. Lots of wood throughout. Dimly lit. And it looked out over this beautiful view of the river.

We passed right through the restaurant and onto the back patio to take in the sights, before finding our seats inside.

The river was rushing pretty swiftly as we stood on the patio, taking it all in. Large umbrellas provided for the seating area, which I’m sure must be great during the spring and summertime.

A long, narrow wooden foot bridge led across to the other side. It really was a great spot.

We made our way inside and found a table in the corner of the room that looked out across the river.

It was still a bit early for dinner, so we ordered a couple drinks and started journaling.

Steve and I had been talking a bit about our dreams. And we wanted to find a time to do that before he took off. To share with each other what we wanted to accomplish. And to pray for each other. So we did.

Steve’s the kind of guy who dreams big. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met before.

Before I met Steve, I always figured dreams were a bit for people who don’t actually do anything with their life. But, instead, for people who simply “dream” of doing something big. Someday. And then someday never comes.

But that’s not the case with Steve. not at all. I still remember the first time I shared with him about my dreams to one day study at Oxford. And to write in a way that helped others see God more clearly. I hadn’t shared this dream with anyone at this point. Apart from my wife. And so I did so somewhat sheepishly.

But he told me I should go after it. As simple as that. Without laughing at me or telling me that sounded like a pretty lofty dream. Just that I should.

That was just over two years ago. It was only the second or third time we had hung out. And now here I am. At Oxford. Studying Theology. Like I had dreamt of for so long.

Needless to say, that’s something I appreciate greatly in Steve. He’s the kind of friend who’s always encouraging me to dream big, and to go after those dreams. He’s the friend who always believes in me.

Having someone like that in your life. . .well, that’s priceless.

“I figured, rather than just sitting down and writing out what we want, maybe we should start with some of the ways God’s blessed our life up to this point,” Steve suggested. “That way, we’re reminded about all of the times God has shown up and provided when we doubted whether He would.”

I loved that idea. So we did. Each journaling to ourselves.

We shared them with each other after a while. All those ways God has shown up. In each of our lives. It was really encouraging to hear those times in Steve’s life, and it was good to remind myself of all those times He’s shown up in my life, even amidst my doubts.

After a while, we decided to order some food. We’re both burger guys, so we went with two of their burgers.

They showed up on these cool, wooden serving trays. Very unique.

After burgers, we talked a bit about what we wanted to set out to accomplish in life. Short-term and long-term. And then we prayed for each other. Lifting up these dreams to God, just like we had done all those years before. With Oxford. From just outside of Oxford.

So thankful for that time. So thankful for a friend who still dares me to dream big and who encourages me to go after them.

A second dinner: Hussein’s Kebab van

We made it back to the house kind of early. As we had taken an early trip out to The Trout.

Both Steve and I had been wanting to make a trip to the kebab vans in the city center before he left. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something so appealing about eating food from a truck. I think it’s unique to men, though, as neither Jen nor Jamie are big on the idea.

Steve told Jamie we were going to go grab a second dinner from the kebab van. She told him to be careful they didn’t serve us rat. Or pigeon.

Jamie used to work in New York. And apparently there was a case where some sidewalk vendors got caught for selling pigeon. So, her fear isn’t completely unfounded, I guess.

Neither Steve nor I were swayed, though. We were dead set on ordering food from a van before he left.

Around 10 o’clock that night, we made our way to the city center. And we found “Hussein’s Kebab Van” in his old familiar spot. On the corner near the Ashmoleon Museum. Where Cole had surprised me with that first-edition copy of Mere Christianity last December.

One of my favorite parts about Hussein’s is the menu. They have everything. From pizza to burgers to kebabs… They even have tuna pizza. I dared Steve to order it, but he decided against it. Choosing to go with the chicken kebab instead.

It was a cool night, but we found a spot nearby to eat our kebabs. Under a large statue in the city center that sits between two lanes of traffic. It’s where Jen and I had eaten our kebabs before seeing Romeo & Juliet last fall.

It was a cool spot to eat. With oncoming headlights cutting through the night air, as though they were going to come straight for you, before finally turning.

The kebabs were great. Messy, but great. The hot chicken was a warm welcome in the cool night air.

It was a great time, sitting there with my best friend. Late that night in the middle of Oxford. Thankful for those times. And memories.

Thursday: Paninis & celebrating Steve’s engagement

Steve’s a big fan of the Alternative Tuck paninis here in Oxford. As am I, obviously. So we enjoyed quite a few trips to the panini shop while he was here. We’d normally meet up there halfway through the day, make our way through the long line, and head down to Harris Manchester, warm paninis in-hand, to find a place to sit and eat.

Steve snapped this one of me unexpectedly. But, as you can see, I wasted little time. That panini didn’t have a chance with me.

We worked away from the Harris Manchester Library for a few hours that afternoon. Me on my papers. Steve on his business. And on wedding plans.

Celebrating answered prayers

I had told Steve I had a surprise for him that night. Before he left. I don’t think he had any idea what it was. I told him we’d take off a little after five for it.

About a quarter after five, we left the college and headed back home. I asked Steve if he had packed any dress clothes for the trip. He hadn’t.

“Hmm… well, maybe you can borrow a pair of mine.” I suggested.

“Actually, I bought another suit with my wedding suit,” he told me. “Not sure if it’s tailored or not, but maybe it’ll work.”

After getting ready at the house, we stepped out and headed back to the city center.

“Well, bud, I felt bad we weren’t able to celebrate your engagement when I was back home,” I told him, “so I wanted to make sure we got to do that before you left.”

“Oh, thanks man.”

There’s a restaurant here in Oxford that always catches Steve’s eye. Gee’s. It looks a bit like a green house. With white trim and loads of windows. It has chandeliers hanging just above the tables inside.

I told Steve I had tried to make reservations for us for Gee’s for the night before he took off, but that they were booked out for an event.

“So, next best option: The Old Parsonage.”

The Old Parsonage is a hotel / restaurant in the city center. It’s supposed to be a pretty nice place. And apparently it’s owned by the same folks as Gee’s.

“That sounds great, man. Thank you so much,” Steve said, turning toward me as we walked. “That really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The Old Parsonage is a really cool old stone building with lots of vines growing on the exterior. And large hedges along the road, blocking the view from traffic.

The front door is an old, castle-esque wooden door.

We made our way in to find a small room with several people seated with drinks and smiles. A young guy behind a desk wearing a dark suit and a tie greeted us. I told him we were looking for the restaurant.

“Just around the corner,” he told us, pointing us in the right direction.

The small room opened up to a slightly larger room after a couple steps. The room’s walls were plastered in framed art and portraits.

It was a really elegant place. And just a handful of other tables with people at them.

There were two older men seated with a woman at one table, and an older couple seated beside a window at another who talked in french to each other the whole night.

A Porsche pulled into the gravel driveway as we sat down, and I watched as a guy in his late 50’s stepped out, wearing a suit and scarf.

We were clearly the youngest ones in the restaurant.

Opening up our menus, I think Steve was taken aback a bit.

“Oh, wow. Man, we can go some place else if you like.”

That’s just the kind of guy Steve is. He gives other people the world, and yet he expects so little in return.

“This really means a lot, man, but I seriously would’ve been happy just being treated to ice cream or something,” he told me from across the table.

“Ice cream? Had you known me when I got engaged, I know there’s no way you would’ve taken me out for ice cream to celebrate.”

A sheepish grin spread across his face as he looked off. He knew I was right.

When I received the news that I had been accepted to Oxford, Steve treated Jennifer to an umpteen course meal at one of the nicest restaurants in the area back home. Certainly the nicest restaurant either Jen or I had ever been to. And will probably ever go to.

We had an amazing time that night, celebrating my being accepted to study here. And I wanted to do the same for Steve.

“Well thanks, man. It really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The food at The Old Parsonage was pretty incredible. I ordered the ox. Because I’ve never had ox. And Steve ordered the cod.

Both were great. My ox tasted a bit like the best roast beef you’ve ever had. Falling apart with the slightest touch of a fork. And mashed potatoes to top it off.

We had a great time. Talking about Steve & Jamie’s big day. And remembering about all the times we had spent praying for Steve’s future wife. Over coffee at Wood’s back home. Now the big day was just months away, and I was happy to celebrate that with him.

After cleaning our plates, I slid around the table so our waitress could snap a photo of us. Celebrating just another way God has shown up, in a very big way, and answered the prayers of our hearts. The wife of Steve’s dreams.

Thanks for a great trip, my friend.

I woke up early Monday morning. Before Jen. Shaved. Showered. And finished packing. I was heading back to Oxford in a few hours. On my own.

Jen’s sister Leann & her husband are expecting their first-born. Any day, at this point. And Jen was going to stick around for an extra few weeks. To lend an extra hand to Leann. And to enjoy her new role as aunt. Baby Khloe’s aunt.

Monday: Tough saying goodbye

I loaded my bags into the car while Jen finished getting ready. I came back through the front door after my second trip to the car just as Jen made her way downstairs. Tim & Rhonda were in the kitchen. Rhonda getting a bowl of cereal before work. Tim struggling to wake up. Earlier than he normally would, to say “goodbye.”

“My shower wakes me up,” he told us with a smile as we gathered in the living room. To say “goodbye.”

Rhonda told me how nice it was to have us home for the holidays. How it made for a really special time. I told her I agreed. And that I was happy we were able to be there.

I hugged them both. Told them I loved them. And we left. It was weird saying “goodbye,” knowing the next time I’d be there it’d be summertime.

“But we’ll see you again in a couple months,” Tim reminded me. “That makes it easier.” Rhonda nodded.

Jen’s parents had just booked tickets to come out and visit us. Along with some of their friends, Monty & Heidi and their two kids. Over spring break. It’d be their first trip to Europe.

“Yeah, that does make it a bit easier. Really looking forward to that time!” I told them as we left.

Jennifer and I stopped into Ben and Leann’s house on the way. To tell them “goodbye” as well. Leann greeted us at the door. We talked for a few minutes. Small talk. Then I told them I was really sorry I wouldn’t be there for Khloe’s birth. They shrugged it off, saying they understood. And thanking me for letting Jen stick around to be there for it. As if I had a choice. I’d rather steal a bear’s dinner than tell Jen she couldn’t be there for the birth of her first niece.

They told me they’d bring the laptop into the birthing room when Khloe arrived. So that I could be there, too.

“But just from the neck up,” Ben clarified. I thanked them both. Hugged them both. Told them both I loved them. And then we left. Making our way to Bellingham, to meet up with some of my family for a “goodbye” breakfast.

It was tough saying goodbye to those two. Ben & Leann. We’ve grown really close over the past year. The four of us. After losing Hayley, in particular. They really are some of our best friends, and it hurt like crazy knowing I wouldn’t be around for Khloe’s big day.

We pulled up to Lee’s about 10 minutes after we were supposed to be there. A restaurant near my Grandpa’s house where we used to eat breakfast when I was a kid growing up. He’d take me there early, before school, and we’d sit near the window as I ate my french toast, and he’d sip his coffee. Black, just like he had at home.

We were late from saying “goodbye” to everyone, so everyone else was at the counter ordering when we walked in. My brother Zach and his girlfriend Vanessa. My sister Lucy. My Mom. My Grandpa. And my best friend Steve, who was joining us, too.

It was great sharing a meal together before I left. I loved seeing Zach order his two plate’s worth of breakfast, and seeing the look on Lucy’s face when she realized she should’ve done the same thing. I loved seeing Mom glow at the image of her three children getting together for breakfast again. I loved watching my Grandpa sip his black coffee, just like all those mornings before. And I loved sitting between my best friend and my wife for the last meal I’d enjoy in Bellingham for the next six months.

Lucy had to head to class before the rest of us left. Zach & Vanessa were taking her, so I walked them to the door and said “goodbye.” I told them I loved them, and I hugged Lucy for a few extra seconds. “I love you, Goose,” I told her. “And I’m so proud of you.”

The five of us talked for a bit longer before leaving. Over coffee and orange juice. Before I said “goodbye” to my Mom. And my Grandpa. My Grandpa’s not much of a hugger, but I hugged him big as we left. My Mom is. And I hugged her big too. Told them both I loved them, and we were on the road. Waving “goodbye” out the driver’s-side window as we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. A couple quick errands and we were heading to the airport.

Steve and Jen walked me to the airport security line. And we said our “goodbye’s” there, after an hour and a half drive south. I’d be seeing Steve in just over a week, as he would be coming out to Oxford shortly after me. To visit. He was originally planning on coming out with Jen, but he had a speaking engagement come up. So he moved his plans and broke up the three weeks I would otherwise be spending by myself. That was good news in my book. I told him I was looking forward to hanging out with him in Oxford in just over a week, and we said “goodbye” to each other.

I held Jen for a long time before going through security. I eased up on my hug, letting her back a bit so I could look at her. And smile. She told me not to cry. So I fought it. She’s so much tougher than me, and I’m used to it at this point.

I really didn’t want to, but we said our “goodbye’s” and I made my way to the security line, looking back just in time to see Jen smile and wave as she and Steve left. Smiling with that same smile that stole my heart all those years ago from the stage in our high school auditorium. I wasn’t looking forward to being without that smile for the next few weeks, but I was happy to know she’d soon be holding her new baby niece in her arms.

We made a stop in Chicago, and I changed planes on my way to England. Walking the airport hallways, my eyes kept catching young families. A dad walking hand-in-hand with his young son. A young family of four seated, with their backs against the windows, waiting on their plane. And I realized I didn’t want this. Traveling on my own. I’m a married man, and it just didn’t feel right traveling on my own. I didn’t feel complete.

When we got married, our pastor (Craig, a good friend of the family) really emphasized that, when we became married, we went from being two individuals to one, united flesh. He really made a point to tell us that this is what this act meant. And I often use that line, from time to time, with Jen. Mostly when I want to steal something from her plate. “Hey, one flesh, remember?” I’ll say to her.

But that’s how it felt, walking through the airport that night in Chicago, waiting for my plane to board. Like half of a single piece of flesh. And I didn’t like it. I found myself looking forward to the day when we’d be traveling together. With our kids with us. All antsy and excited for the plane ride. And it put a smile on my face, seated there in the airport, waiting to board my flight to England.

Back in Oxford

I landed in London around noon local time on Tuesday, after flying out from Seattle at 3:00 on Monday afternoon. After sleeping most of the way (in complete disregard of the Greek studies I knew I should be working on), I found myself with more energy than I thought I’d have. Which was good, since I still had some traveling to do before I could rest.

I made my way through customs. The man taking my passport asked what I was doing in England. I told him I was going back to school. He asked what I was doing before. I told him I was in Public Relations. He asked what I was studying, as he flipped through my passport. I told him “Theology.” He asked why the change, still looking down. I told him I realized that was what I was passionate about. He stopped, looked up at me with a nod, and then returned to the passport. Stamped it and handed it over.

It was a good reminder for me, as I entered the country. I was here to pursue what I was most passionate about.

I grabbed my bags from the conveyor belt baggage claim and made the long walk through the airport to the bus station. After a short wait, I was on the bus heading to Oxford.

I thought it was funny that the sign leading to Oxford had the city “B’ham” on it, after leaving “Bellingham” a day earlier.

We pulled into Oxford an hour later. And I grabbed a cab for the last leg of my journey back. The driver helped me with my bags as I hopped into the back of the tall, black English cab. He asked where I was coming from. I told him Seattle. He asked if we had snow. I told him not much.

He told me Oxford had been hit pretty hard over the holidays. “About 10 inches,” he told me. “We had to stick to the main roads, and drop people off at the start of the side streets.”

“What’s the weather look like for this week?” I asked him.

“Rain. All week. Just rain.”

“Perfect,” I said from the back seat. “Just like home.”

I paid the driver as we pulled up to 27 Northmoor Road, the house looking just as we left it a month earlier. And he helped me with my bags.

Jane greeted me at the front door. With a hug. And a smile. And a “Happy New Year!”

She pointed to the tower of packages that had piled up while we were gone.

“Christmas packages I presume,” she said. I nodded.

“Yep,” I think so.

I unpacked my bags straight away, knowing I wouldn’t want to deal with it after waking up. It’d also help me put sleep off longer, and get back on the routine here.

I opened up our Christmas cards and packages from Grandpa after unpacking my bags and getting settled in. Don’t worry, I had Jen’s permission.

Even though we had been home with most of these people over the holidays, it was great seeing their smiling faces on the Christmas Cards again. And reading their Christmas wishes.

“We know it will be tough not being home, but we hope it’s a special one,” so many read. And it was a nice reminder of the surprise we were able to give everyone before the holidays. It put a smile on my face.

I opened the package from my Grandpa next. A mix of bike equipment, food and Christmas decor. And a clock. Oh, and two “Sumas, Washington” coffee mugs. (Special thanks to my cousin Matt for those. Only ones in Oxford, I’m sure!)

My Grandpa had just returned from the post office when Jennifer and I surprised him a month earlier. From sending us this package. “Good timing,” I had told him. He looked at me with a smile, still in disbelief that we were there, standing in his living room.

The package also contained a large zip-lock plastic bag. With cards in it. I opened the first one to see that they were Christmas Cards. From my extended family back home. Each one signed to Jennifer and I. Each one with a note inside, telling us how much we were missed. And how the holidays just weren’t the same without us.

“They must’ve been filled out over Thanksgiving,” I thought to myself while opening another. This wasn’t quite what my family was intending when they filled them out, I’m sure, but it was so nice to return to. Thank you all. It means so much.

Pre-Exam Hibernation Mode

Oxford’s breaks between terms are six-weeks long. Which sounds great on paper. But then you realize the amount of work they want you to do in-between terms and realize the word “break” in Oxford means something quite different than it does back home, like so many other words.

Having returned home to the States for the holidays, I took the opportunity to get some work in. The kind of work you get a paycheck for. To help with school. Which left little time for studies. Well, that and trying to catch up with everyone. And preparing a sermon for our home church after being asked.

And so I returned to Oxford feeling totally and completely overwhelmed with the amount of preparation I knew needed to be had before my exams (“collections,” as they call them here) Friday morning. So I put my head down and studied. At home. And at the library. Not even taking time to venture out to the grocery store for several days, but living off anything I could find in our cupboards.

I’m not a fan of soup for dinner. Never been. In fact, I don’t actually consider that a meal. But it was my dinner for three nights in a row while studying. That and oatmeal.

The Day of Collections

I had received a note the day before telling me gowns were required for collections. Not full Sub-Fusc (meaning cap and gown), but gowns were. So I woke up early Friday morning, after staying up until 2:00 a.m. the night before studying, put on my suit, gown and hopped on my bike, en route to collections.

It’s a funny thing, riding a bike in a suit and Oxford gown. I caught several people staring as I rode. Not knowing whether that was because they knew the doom awaiting me on my collections, or if it was just because I looked ridiculous riding a bike while wearing a full suit and gown.

Riding through Oxford again was a weird feeling. Like returning to a familiar dream you’ve had before. Familiar because it’s not the first time you’ve had it, but still foreign because it’s a dream. That’s a bit how it felt, riding through Oxford again, staring up at the large stone buildings that stretched on and on and on into the sky overhead.

I made my way to the library at Harris Manchester and passed through the “Quiet Please, Collections In Progress” paper sign on the door. I was a good 20-minutes early, so I found a seat and took the extra time for some last-minute studies.

About 10 minutes before the exams were scheduled to begin, I realized no one else was in the library. There wasn’t a student in sight. I started to wonder if I had somehow missed out on some critical information, informing me that the collections weren’t being held in the library after all.

I made my way down the stone stairway and found Amanda in the main office. She greeted me and I asked where the exams were being held, as I didn’t see anyone in the library. Immediately she gave me this look like her heart had just sank into her stomach as she thought to herself, “Oh no, I feel horrible for you.”

The first words out of her mouth were, “Don’t panic,” which is never a good sign. She looked up at the clock and, with big eyes, said to me, “You need to be at the Exam Schools, just get there.” Without waiting, I rushed out of the college and hopped on my bike, again, knowing the Exam Schools were several minutes away, and I didn’t have several minutes to spare.

My laptop bag had been thrown hastily over my shoulder, rather than across my body, so it swung as I rode. I approached the final intersection before the Exam schools, squeezing tightly between a line of cars, when my bag struck one of the car’s rear-view mirrors.

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, listening intently for the sound of it to fall and hit the concrete below. Nothing. “It must be okay, then,” I thought to myself.

I was met by a red light, and so I waited to cross the street. The cars turned left (as we would take a free right back home), and I quickly realized the car my bag had struck would soon be passing me. My heart sank.

“Hey!” the man shouted as he pulled up, stopped, rolled down his window and looked at me. “Hey! You hit my car!”

I looked over at his rear-view mirror sheepishly, to see if there was any damage. There wasn’t. From what I could see.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, still focusing on making it to the Exam Schools in time for my collections.

“You’re sorry?! You’re SORRY?!” he continued to shout, only several feet from me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just looked ahead, waiting for the light to change.

He ended up speeding off, and I was relieved. I was really hoping to avoid a fight before my exams that morning.

I found my way to the room where my collections were being held and walked through the closed door, just as everyone was turning over their exams to begin. And as I did, everyone looked toward the door to see me walk in late. I quickly realized everyone was wearing their gown, like me, but dressed completely casually otherwise, unlike me.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself. “I’m late for my first collections AND I look like a complete idiot.”

It was like one of those bad dreams that you have, where you’re in front of the class and everyone’s staring at you because you’re either naked or forgot how to spell “the.” Except it wasn’t a dream, and I had an exam to take.

I apologized to the Senior Academic Tutor overseeing the collections and found my seat. Quickly trying to shrug off the rough start and focus on the questions on the paper.

Kicked in the teeth by Greek

The good news is that my first exam of the day wasn’t in Greek. It was my Gospels & Jesus exam. I felt pretty good about the material, and I was fairly confident I had done a decent job after finishing my last essay.

The bad news is that wasn’t my only exam for the day. That afternoon, I took a Greek exam. And by that I mean, I got my teeth kicked in by Greek. I really felt horrible. I had studied the material, not nearly as much as I should have, but I felt like I was seeing the language for the first time. I don’t know if it was the stress of the day, my jetlag fog still setting in, or what, but I was fairly confident someone answering my questions in Spanish would have done at least as well as I did.

I’m not a fan of Greek. Not at all. If Greek and I were to go toe-to-toe in a UFC cage match, I wouldn’t think twice to swinging an illegal, below-the-belt kick to Greek.

Steve told me later that day I probably did better than I thought. I told him if I did better than 50% then I’d be doing better than I thought.

I had spoken with my academic advisor the day before. Telling him I knew my busy holidays were likely to catch up with me on collections. He told me not to worry about it. That collections didn’t actually count for anything, and they weren’t likely to send me home if I did poorly.

“Worst case scenario, we ask you to take them again in a couple weeks,” Dave told me with a smile as we sat across from each other on the leather couches of his office. In the castle-like building of Mansfield College.

I wasn’t excited about the idea of taking another Greek collection again in two weeks, but I figured that wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Riding home after spending most of the day in exams, I was feeling pretty down. Knowing I would have liked to do better. And picturing the look of disappointment Rhona would surely have when she graded my collection. Not quite the way I was hoping to start the term.

It was a sunny afternoon when I left the Exam Schools, so I promised myself a run and some fresh air when I got home. To reward myself for several days worth of hunkering down and studying. And for getting my teeth kicked in.

The sun was beginning to set by the time I got home and changed for a run. Cole texted me and asked if I’d be interested in going to watch a movie (127 Hours) that night. To celebrate having collections behind us. I told him that sounded perfect.

Steve Skyped in with me before taking off for a run. I told him about my day. And that I wasn’t having  such a great time here. He told me he was sorry. And that it would be the kind of day I’d laugh about at some point. He told me to go for a run. And to go watch a movie. I told him that sounded like a good idea.

I ran north. To Summertown. With music playing in my ears. It was dark and people were walking on the sidewalks as busses and cars drove by.

I loved feeling the rhythmic pounding of my feet on the stone sidewalk, and the cool night air on my face. It was incredibly refreshing after the day I had had.

It smelled like garlic bread as I entered Summertown. And I remembered how it smelled like drop-biscuits the first time I ran through the neighborhood, earlier in the fall. And how that smell had reminded me of my Grandpa’s house, growing up. And instantly I was taken back to my Grandpa’s, over the holidays. Into his packed kitchen as everyone filled their plates.

I could see their faces, telling me how nice it was to see me again. To have us home. And suddenly I didn’t feel so far away from home.

Cutting off your arm for a vision

If I was honest with you, I’d tell you it’s been tough since coming back to Oxford. After spending the holidays with friends and family and all that’s comfortable to us. Being able to earn an income again. And then returning to a place that still feels a bit foreign.

If I were being honest with you, I’d tell you there have been several days where I’ve just wanted to head back home, to be with everyone we know again. If I were being honest with you, that’s what I’d say.

Before leaving, I was asked to preach at our church. And so I did. On lessons I’ve learned since going through this process. Saying “goodbye” to a great job and friends and family to go after this dream. And one of the lessons I’ve learned, the lesson I closed with is that the Christian life isn’t a life of comfort. And that’s something I’ve had to remind myself since coming back to Oxford. I’m not here because this is the most comfortable life possible for us. It’s quite the opposite, in a lot of ways. Sure, it’s my dream, but it’s still really tough. But that’s just it. Following after Him, and what He intends to do with your life is rarely the most comfortable plan for your life. It’s something I’ve been learning through all of this. And I’m still learning.

I met Cole at the Theatre Friday night. To see 127 Hours. The real-life story about a man who got stuck while rock climbing, and who ended up cutting off his own arm to escape after several days. After 127 hours, apparently.

We ran into resident Lewis expert Dr. Michael Ward and President of the Oxford Lewis Society David at the theatre. It was good to see those two again. They sat across the aisle from us in the theatre, as we bought our tickets separately.

When you buy your tickets in the UK, you have two choices: standard seating and premium seating. Standard seating is basically the lower-level seating, where you’re looking up at the screen. These seats are also first-come, first-served, as it is in the states for everyone. But premium seating, premium seating seats are elevated, so you’re looking straight ahead at the screen. And they’re reserved, so you know exactly where you’re sitting ahead of time. Anything to make an extra buck, I suppose… Or pound.

The movie was pretty great. Gruesome, obviously, but pretty great. I’m not one for blood. Not in the least. I’ve always said I’d love to be a Doctor if it weren’t for the blood. But this movie was still definitely worth seeing, even for those of us who feel like taking a bit of a nap at the first sight of blood.

Not to spoil it for anyone, but the movie’s climax really stuck with me. Obviously it is incredible to think of someone cutting off their own arm to set themselves free, but what got him through this experience is what really stuck with me.

Apparently, what got this man through, what led him to decide to cut off his own arm so that he could get free was a vision he had.

While pinned there in that canyon, with no rescue in sight five days after falling into this horrible situation, this guy had a vision. He saw his son. A son he didn’t have at that point. He saw his son playing. And he saw himself playing with his son. Carrying him on his shoulders. And suddenly he was so overwhelmed with this vision that he would stop at nothing to get himself out of there, not even at cutting off his own arm with a cheap, dull knife. Because he believed in that vision. And because he wanted the reality of that vision with every ounce of his being. More so even then his own right arm.

And that’s stuck with me even now. That’s why we’re here. Because, long ago, I had this dream of one day studying at Oxford. Like so many others before me. Men who have changed my life with their writing. Men like Lewis. That I might write in a way that changes lives, too. That I might write in a way that helps others see Him more clearly.

It’s not comfortable. Not all the time. But it is a pretty incredible experience. And it certainly beats cutting off my own arm. And I hope, someday, to be able to look back on all of this and say, “There, right there, that is when He carried out that vision He set on my heart all those years ago.” That’s what I hope for all of this.

Thanks for reading.

 

Sunday: From Psychology to PR to Theology

I went to a University Sermon and formal dinner at Harris Manchester last week. Sunday night. Jen had planned to go, but she was not feeling well that day. I told her I was happy to stay home with her, but she encouraged me to go. Said she didn’t want me to miss out just because she wasn’t feeling well. My wife is amazing. I felt bad leaving her at home, but she insisted.

The sermon was held in the Harris Manchester Chapel. It was the University Sermon, which is held only once per term, from what I hear. It was a big deal that it was being held at our college, and I hadn’t been to our chapel before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to do so. It’s a great chapel. Not huge, but reasonably sized. Lots of stained glass windows. Lots of dark wood. Tall ceilings. I met up with Cole and Tim beforehand, so we sat together.

The service was very high church. Very formal. Not the kind of sermon you’ll likely see on YouTube anytime soon. There were a lot of grey-haired community members in the Chapel. I was tired, and as much as I had been looking forward to it, I found myself doing the head-bob through most of the sermon. Fighting off the temptation to fall asleep right there in the middle of the service. I felt horrible about it.

The sermon wrapped up with a prayer, and a song from the choir, and those seated at the front of the chapel in their suits made their exit down the aisle and out the chapel doors. After several minutes, we followed suit, and we made our way to the dining hall for dinner. Tim and I. Cole had other plans already.

Dinner was a good mix of students and community members and friends of the university. The students were definitely in the minority, though.

I sat next to a guy by the name of Guy Fielding. He asked what I was studying. I told him Theology. He asked about my background, and what brought me here. I told him my first degree was in Psychology and Business, and how I had been working in PR for the past four years before making this change.

Turns out he was a Social Psychologist who made the leap to PR. So we had a lot to talk about.

He told me about how he had developed the PR curriculum for the universities in the UK. That he had started up his own PR firm after teaching at Oxford, before selling it to a company in the US and then starting another one.

I told him I tied my tie myself…

Not really. I mean, I really did tie my tie, but I didn’t tell him that.

He was curious to hear what brought me from PR to Theology. So I told him. I told him about how I realized I really enjoyed writing, but that I wanted to write about the faith. In a way that’d help others with their faith.

I told him I had a great job back home. I told him we had to say “goodbye” to some amazing friends and family to get here. I told him how this was something that had been on my heart and my mind for years. And how I had fought it for quite a while. How it really didn’t make any sense for someone like me to be here. But that I just felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.

He seemed to appreciate that. He nodded lots and smiled as I spoke.

Then he asked how I planned to make any money at it. He said no one buys books anymore.

It sounds like a painful question, but I didn’t mind. I appreciated his honesty.

I told him I thought that although we seem to be moving away from reading in the traditional sense, with the introduction of the Kindle and iPad, for example, that I didn’t think people were going to become uninterested in the written word anytime soon.

He nodded in agreement. He seemed to agree, but it could have simply been to make nice. To be British.

I had a great time talking with Guy. About the differences between the two cultures. About communications. About past work each of us had done.

I put my fork down after polishing my dessert plate (an amazing caramel bread pudding with vanilla ice cream), thanked Guy for a great conversation, and I made my way out of Arlosh Hall. I was the first one to leave. I had a sick wife at home to return to.

Tuesday: A Walk with Jen

Jen and I walked home from the Oxford CS Lewis Society Lecture Tuesday night. In the cold night air. Walking and talking. As our breath swirled into the black night’s sky.

I had been having a tough time the past day or so. Doubting a lot of things. Losing faith in why we were here. And just not being sure about where we were going. Feeling bad about coming all the way over here with so many uncertainties. Worrying that sooner or later, all of this that has seemed simply too good to be true is going to come crashing down. Finding myself replaying in my mind something Guy had said several days earlier: “No one’s interested in books anymore. . .How are you going to make any money?”

And I have the most amazing wife.

“When are you going to start believing in yourself, Ryan?” She asked me. “When are you going to start believing you’re supposed to be here?”

Jen spent the rest of the walk home explaining to me why I should be more confident in our place here. And for what the future has in store.

And, that may not sound like a big deal to you, but it is. It is incredible. For this is a woman who has literally put her dreams on hold for the sake of mine. Without complaining. Without throwing a tantrum about it. Simply, and humbly, saying, “this is what we’re supposed to be doing, and I’m going to support you in that.”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for my wife. For, when I’m second-guessing what I’m doing, what we’re supposed to be doing, she’s encouraging me. Even when that dream comes at the delay of her own dreams, even when she struggles with this transition, she’s encouraging me. I married up, to be sure.

If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone considering marriage, or to anyone who is yet to be married, it’s this: marry someone who you look up to. Marry someone who you want to be like. That’s the single smartest decision I’ve ever made.

Wednesday: First Names at Oxford and A package from Grandpa

Oxford is interesting. As traditional a place as it is, in terms of formalities, you couldn’t get away with calling your professor by their first name back home. Not in most cases, at least. And yet, that’s the way it is here. It still feels weird, at times. Even inappropriate. But that’s the way it is.

I found myself thinking about that on Wednesday morning. After asking Rhona a question. We started class with an exam. Like most days. Heads down. Writing away.

Rhona made her to the back of the room. To check something with the lights. And she must’ve noticed there were some students missing that morning as she did. She asked if Augustan is rowing this term as she fiddled with the light switch. Augustan, seated at the front of the room, responded, “No.” Laughter. Rhona’s still having a tough time with names, it seems.

Package from Grandpa

We got another package from Grandpa this week. Probably the fourth or fifth since we’ve arrived. He’s been amazing with that…

More food. Some rain suits to keep us dry. Some thick socks to keep our feet warm. And plenty of other goodies.

Thanks so much, Grandpa!

Thursday: Christmas lights going up and our first Thanksgiving Away

I noticed Christmas lights were being put up around Oxford on Thursday morning. As I made my way back home from the gym. I was glad to see that. They looked great when we were in Bath, and I was looking forward to seeing them here.

I noticed a large Christmas tree going up on Broad Street the week before. I was excited to see things start to look a bit more like Christmas.

Our First Thanksgiving Away

We had been told about a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted here in Oxford when we were at our small group last week. Apparently there’s an American professor (or “Tutor”) here who has been putting this on for the past four years, for Americans away from home. And for British students who want to see what it’s all about.

We decided to go, rather than go to small group. Hoping it might make it feel a bit more like Thanksgiving.

It didn’t. Instead, it seemed only like a painful reminder of what we were missing back home. Although it was kind of funny having to explain to people (the English who were there) what goes into stuffing. And watching others experience pumpkin pie for the first time.

It was all familiar, the food, at least, but it was also just different enough to not feel like Thanksgiving. That and the fact that we were eating with 40 strangers. They were nice enough, but it wasn’t home.

We got back in just before 10:00 that night. We Skyped with our family. Aunts and Uncles. Cousins and Grandparents. They were all getting together, so we were able to see a number of people we hadn’t seen or talked to since leaving. It was great to see everyone again. To laugh and catch up. But it was also tough.

I hugged Jen when we were done. I thanked her for doing all of this, for being over here and missing out on holidays back home. For me. I told her I knew that was a big deal, and that it wasn’t easy.

Friday: Breakfast of Champions, Writing and the Value of Home

After staying up until 2:00 Thursday night / Friday morning, Skyping with family and studying for my Greek exam, I was pleasantly surprised to make it through Greek class without falling asleep. I think I may have even done pretty well on my exam, so that’s a plus.

I caught up with a guy from Greek by the name of Fin as we left class that morning. He’s a member of Christ Church here at Harris Manchester. Site of the Great Hall from Harry Potter. I told him I’d love to eat at the Great Hall sometime. He said he’d love to make that happen.

He told me he realized this morning, while grabbing a Twix and soda for breakfast, that he hadn’t had a true meal from Tuesday to Thursday. “Breakfast of Champions,” I said, eyeing his first meal of the day. Then I realized I hadn’t seen a box of Wheaties since arriving, and that my joke was probably lost on him.

Fin’s a cool guy. Very European. Very much what you think of when you picture a European guy in his early twenties. Large, unkept hair. Unshaven. Very trendy clothes (boots, skinny jeans, scarf, cardigan / sweater). Very chill, and laid back. Quite smart, with a witty humor. With a raspy voice. Like he’s been up all night sharing laughs and stories with friends over an entire pack of cigarettes. The kind of guy who’s probably only here because his parents want him to be. And who likely straightens up when they’re around.

He’s quite kind. The kind of guy who comes off as too cool to care, but still intelligent enough to do quite well, and kind enough to get me into the Hogwarts Great Hall for a meal.

The Greatest Evil…Second only to Religion

I made a cup of tea after Greek. In the JCR back at Harris Manchester. A woman came in after me. She was probably a good 15-20 years older than me. I had overheard her speaking with another student several days earlier in the same room. Discussing nationalism, and its evils. “It’s the greatest evil in the world,” she had said. “Second only to religion.”

I listened to a talk that afternoon. A guy by the name of Dr Peter Williams from Cambridge. Or “Pete,” as he introduced himself to me afterward. Easily one of the brightest guys I’ve ever heard. He talked about the violence in the Bible. And people’s questions about it, such as “How could God command the killing we see in the Old Testament (including children, etc.)?”

His argument was basically that God hates evil, and that He chose to put up with such outright evil and disobedience for only so long (400 years, in the case of the Canaanites), before using a specific people group to wipe out this widespread evil. Evil that included the sacrificing of their own children to their gods. He said that this situation was for a specific time and period, though, and that God no longer  acts in this manner (“to judicially carry out his judgement”).

I caught up with him afterward, to ask him if this point suggested that the God of the Bible is inconsistent. As we’ve obviously had some pretty incredible acts of evil since the Canaanites, and we don’t have other examples of God acting in this way to stop it. He said he didn’t think so, in-between bites of his lunch. Answering my question with little effort.

He pointed toward the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The one where the vineyard Owner decides to pay everyone equally, no matter whether they worked all day or only for an hour or so. He said, “In the case of the Canaanites, their evil deserved their punishment. If God is choosing not to punish such evil at this point, but instead to be more merciful, who are we to complain about His mercy?”

The tea kettle stopped a minute or two after this woman arrived in the JCR. I filled her cup first, before moving to mine.

“Oh, you can fill yours first,” she spoke up.

“It’s no problem,” I said with a smile.

And her words came to my mind, replaying themselves in my mind. “Nationalism is the greatest evil in the world…Second only to religion.”

Religion has its evils, to be sure. And I would have no problem agreeing with this woman, in many ways. But there’s also something quite beautiful about a religion that says: “You deserve this (death), but I am giving you this (life).”

There’s something incredibly humbling and wonderful about a religion that says, “You’ve chosen to make yourself an enemy of God, yet He’s chosen to call you His child.”

A religion that says, “Consider others better than yourself. In humility, serve them.”

This faith is beautiful, when it’s lived out. And it’s a far different life than I’d ever live left to my own devices.

I was thinking about it in class earlier that morning. My faith, while sitting in Greek. As Rhona told a story about a poem written by a homesick man in Russia, while others looked at each other as if to ask, “How does this apply to Greek?…”

I was thinking about the fact that this wasn’t something I chose for myself. My faith, I mean. Nor was it handed to me by my family. They may have introduced it to me years ago, certainly, but that does not mean they were any more responsible for its current role in my life than is someone who first told me about The Alternative Tuck responsible that I return their almost every day for a chicken pesto panini.

Sitting there, in Greek, as Rhona talked about this poem, I found myself thinking about the roots of my faith, and how deep they go. I found myself thinking about the fact that those roots are a gift. For, even if I wanted, I couldn’t believe and desire this faith as I do now. Not of my own accord. I could not force myself to desire this as I do anymore than I could force myself to fall in love with my wife. It’s simply the result of being face-to-face with something so beautiful that the only natural response is to fall head-over-heels in love. And the rest of your life pursuing it.

Lighting of the Christmas Lights

Jen spent the day at a Christmas fair at Oxford Castle with some of her girlfriends on Friday. And helping bake at Vanessa’s place for a Thanksgiving party they were putting on this weekend. Pumpkin pies and pumpkin bars. She had a great time, from the sounds of it. And she’s definitely meeting some gals she can connect with. Makes me happy to know that.

We were meeting up with Cole for dinner and a movie that night. So I met Jen in the city center beforehand. After studying all day.
Apparently there was a Christmas festival of some sort going on. As the streets were packed with people. And vendors. Selling food and crafts. Carnival games and rides had been set up, seemingly overnight.

A reporter from the BBC was doing an interview, and we found ourselves just behind her. So if you saw us on BBC, that’s why.

We found ourselves square in the middle of a Christmas Lighting celebration, complete with a countdown and everything. It was pretty great, and people were certainly in the Christmas spirit. Made it feel a bit more like the holidays.

We fought our way through the crowds to meet up with Cole after counting down for the lighting of the Christmas lights and tree. It felt like standing in the ocean and being pushed back and forth by the tossing waves.

I ended up being separated from Jen, as the crowds leaned this way and that, standing shoulder to shoulder in a sea of people, everyone fighting to make their way either out or in. To see the lights. To ride the rides. To see the parade.

Yep, it definitely felt like the holidays.

Unfinished Writing

I’ve been writing a lot lately. More so than I probably have time for. Journaling, mostly. Little thoughts. On fear. On love. On the change that happens within us when faced with the Good News. Ideas I would normally expound upon at hands&feet at a different time, choosing instead to let them remain unfinished. Like a gift left to open at a later day.

And it’s wonderful. I love writing. And the more I do it, the more I realize this is what I want to do, more than anything else. And this whole experience is revealing that to me.

I love digging through those ideas and putting them to paper, allowing them to breathe and live a life of their own. Seeing where they go. If I can somehow figure out a way to do that the rest of my life, to help others see Him clearly, well, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.

The Value of Home

This is such a blessing. All of this. I am so blessed. Studying at Oxford. Reading, writing and discussing my greatest passion. Living out my dream. Every day. Here in this beautiful city. With my wife.

Once you’ve got a routine down. Once you’re able to cram 30 Greek vocab terms the night before an exam. Or memorize several charts’ worth of Grammar rules. Or become adjusted to sitting down for seven, eight hours straight and punching out an essay. Once you’ve got all that down, this is really a wonderful place to be. The people. The buildings. On a sunny day like this, it hardly seems fair to want to be anywhere else.

And yet, it has its difficulties, certainly. For it is not home. No matter how wonderful the people may be, they are not family. They are not the friends you’ve known for ages. And the places, no matter how breathtaking they are, are not the places you turned to to escape the pains of life. To find Him. Those old comfortable spots. And holidays here are not holidays there. For, no matter how great the food and company may be, it is simply not the same when you’re not surrounded by those you love.

I’m learning so much being here. About Theology. About other cultures. About myself. But I’m also learning so much about the value of home. And about what makes a place home. Your thirst for home is something that not even the very presence of your dreams can satisfy. For home is something greater altogether. It is people. It is places. It is relationships and food and smells and feelings and emotions and memories. All woven together into this incredible thing we call home. And there’s nothing else like it.

Thanks for reading. We love and miss you all.

I was invited to CS Lewis old home not long after arriving here in Oxford. After only a matter of days, really. For tea. Just a small, private group of Lewis fans. And I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.

Cole set it up for us. He lived there at the Kilns last year. So he still had the connections to make this happen. And after hearing Jen & Steve would be here on the day of the tea, he made sure to let me know they were welcome to join us as well. Great guy.

Monday: The lion guy, tea at the Kilns & a formal dinner

I’ve been surprised to find that CS Lewis isn’t a bigger deal here in Oxford. Being where he lived and taught and wrote for so many years. I’ve brought up his name as the reason why I’m here to several people, and, on a couple occasions, I’ve been met with faces that looked like they had no idea what I was talking about. Not every time, but on more than one occasion.

One person thought I was talking about Lewis Carroll. The author of Alice in Wonderland. Carroll also studied here at Oxford. At Christ Church. He was a brilliant mathematician, apparently. I’m sure they were scratching their head on that one for a while, trying to figure out how Lewis Carroll would make me want to study Theology.

I don’t know, maybe it seems funny to some people. You can almost see the look on their face. Almost as if to ask, “Wait, the lion guy, right? The one who wrote about the kids who went into the wardrobe? That one? That’s why you’re here?”

Yep, that’s the one. But I never actually read the Narnia series. I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I have a terribly limited amount of time to read and a massive list of books I’d like to read. And so when I do finally find time for it, I want to read something a bit more meaty. I want a big steak. I don’t have much room for dessert on my plate.

No, for me, Lewis is the man who, in Mere Christianity, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You don’t have to feel like a fool for believing this stuff.” And that was the first time I ever felt that way. The first time I ever read him. During my sophomore year of college. My first time around.

Lewis took a logical approach to dig through the beliefs of the Christian faith. Using analogies and reason to talk about things like whether Christ was just a man or something more. And that was so foreign to me. That approach.

As I read through his pages, I found myself encouraged, that I didn’t have to leave my reasoning at the door to approach this stuff. The stuff of the faith. In fact, I felt like he encouraged me to dig into the faith in a way I never had before. For he’s the one who put my hand in the hand of the Lord’s and said with a smile, “Go for it. Go the whole way, and don’t feel like you have to apologize for it.”

And as I did, I felt my relationship with Christ grow deeper. I felt my faith open up and awake in a way it never had before. Probably because it was the first time I felt like I could put both feet in. And, ever since then, I’ve wanted to help others do the same.

Tea at the Kilns

Jen, Steve and I took a bus to the Kilns on Monday afternoon. It was a short ride from Oxford’s city center. Maybe 15 minutes.

Jen spotted the sign as soon as we got off the bus for the Kilns, letting us know we were in the right spot.

We walked down a short lane and, sure enough, there was Lewis’ old home. Just as Cole’s directions had explained. A smallish cottage. Surrounded by trees and a garden. Just peeking out from behind the greenery.

Two small signs identify the home. One on the top left corner reads, “The Kilns.”

The second, a small blue plaque, the same style found on Tolkein’s house across the street from where we’re living, tells the dates Lewis lived here.

A small black cab was parked in front of the house when we arrived. Walking up, we saw Walter Hooper get out.

Walter was Lewis’ secretary before he passed away. They had been in touch for many years before that. Sharing letters back and forth across the Atlantic. Walter moved here shortly before Lewis died, and he’s been here in Oxford ever since. Writing. About Lewis, mostly.

I first met Walter at a CS Lewis lecture here at Oxford. Shortly after arriving. He was incredibly nice. And soft-spoken. He told me he’d have to have me over for tea at some point. I was pretty excited to hear he’d be joining us for tea on this afternoon, as I knew he’d have plenty of stories for us.

“Walter, hi,” I said with a smile as we approached. I held my hand out to greet him.

“Ryan Pemberton. We met at the Lewis lecture a few weeks back.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said in his soft-spoken voice. “Nice to see you again, Ryan.”

I introduced Walter to Jen and Steve. I told him how they had just arrived a few days earlier, and that they’d be joining us for tea.

He greeted them. Warmly. Like he was genuinely happy to meet them. And then he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small journal. The same small journal he pulled out when I met him before.

“I’m just going to put your names down here,” he said. “And look who that is,” as he opened the page to my name.

Walter told us how he had lived here for several years. With Lewis’ brother, after he passed away. He told us how Lewis and his brother bought the home for £2,000. And how Tolkein had encouraged them to buy the property next to the house for an additional £200, but they didn’t have the money.

He told me how Lewis and his brother used to go for walks. Around the lake behind their house. Behind the Kilns.

“Would you like to go see it?” he asked. It sounded like a trick question to me.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I told him, with big eyes. So we headed up the hill, toward the lake. The muddy trail squishing beneath our shoes as we walked.

We came to the top of the hill and all of a sudden it opened up into a tree lined lake. Leaves were falling from the trees. Swirling round and round before landing on the surface of the lake. Into a pool of ripples. Ducks floated softly by. It was beautiful.

Walter told me how Lewis used to love swimming here. In the lake. And I thought that was so funny. I guess I never pictured Lewis as a swimmer. Probably because I never pictured him without a pipe in his mouth.

Walter told me some more stories as we walked. Stopping to point out a brick bench that overlooked the lake. Telling me about how the area used to be. About how much it had been developed since those days. About all the new homes. About how it looked before. In that soft-spoken voice you could listen to for hours.

We made our way back down the hill. Along the muddy trail. Back toward the Kilns. Knowing tea would soon be ready.

Rhona (my Greek professor) and her husband arrived just as we did. On their bikes. They were joining us for tea as well. They both looked winded from the ride. But happy to be there. They both wore wide smiles.

Rhona’s husband, Chris, is the dean of Christ Church here at Oxford. Pretty big time position. But he was super down to earth. Just as Cole had described. Great guy to talk to.

After introductions, we made our way into the house. For a tour. And for tea.

The first room we came to was the living room. A desk set just below the window on one wall. While two bookshelves sat on either side of the fireplace on another wall. A couch and a couple chairs rounded out the room. Several photos hung on the wall. Of Lewis. And of his wife. Joy.

Walter pointed to one of Lewis and told me that was the last day he was ever photographed. And that he (Walter) had taken the photo.

I looked over the books on the shelves. Not the originals that were there during Lewis’ day, but lots of his books. Lots of very early editions. I took an early edition copy of Screwtape Letters from the shelf and flipped open to the first few pages. “To JRR Tolkein,” it read.

The shelf held some books about Lewis, as well. Including this one by Walter.


We continued our tour. Making our way into what has been setup as a library. It was a garage before. Now it holds books. Lewis’ original signed marriage license to Joy. Memorabilia from when the movie Shadowlands was filmed. And the original Eagle & Child sign, which Walter managed to get from the restaurant and donate to the Kilns.

We were talking about Lewis’ writing. Walter and I. About how he managed to do what the Theologians of his day couldn’t. About the way in which he managed to pair logic and reason with wonderful analogies to paint a clear picture of the rather complex points of the faith.

“That’s where his intellect and imagination really came into play,” Walter said. “It was the perfect combination.”

Walter told Steve he must hear some great Theology from me. I shook my head, sheepishly.

Steve told Walter I was actually quite the writer myself.

I told Walter I felt like there was an opportunity. To reach people of my generation. With the things of the faith. In a format they’d want to pick up and read. He told me he agreed, as we made our way back to the front of the house for tea. He told me he thought that’s something we needed to do. And it made me smile, knowing we were on the same page.

“This is an official English tea,” Rhona told us with a smile as Jen took a seat beside her.

It was amazing. Fresh scones. Still warm. Jam. Lemon curd cream. Biscuits (cookies). Cucumber sandwiches (no, I had never heard of them, neither). And, of course, tea.

We ate and talked. And laughed. I sat between Jen and Walter. Steve sat across from us. Walter told Jen I was the nicest guy he’d ever met. And that he hoped to be as nice as me someday. Took me completely off guard. I laughed.

I told Walter about how Steve had printed off my writing and made it into a book for my birthday a couple summers ago. His eyes got big behind his glasses. He told me he’d love to read it some time.

We enjoyed our scones. I took a second. Layering on the sweet berry jam.

And then I remembered that I had an extra copy of my book in my bag, beside the door. I grabbed it and handed it to Walter, apologizing for its condition after being in my bag for so long. It was pretty beaten up.

He asked me to sign it for him, and I told him I’d have to get him another copy. That I felt horrible giving him such a rough-looking copy. But that he was welcome to borrow this copy for as long as he’d like. That it’d mean so much to have him read it.

We wrapped up our tea and had a quick tour around the rest of the home. Stopping in Lewis’ bedroom. And his old study. And it felt so unreal. All of it. Like I was in some sort of a dream.

We had taken the bus to the Kilns. And we were planning on taking it home. But Walter suggested we join him in his cab. That it could drop us off after dropping him off at Mass. So we took him up on it. And we crammed into the back of the cab. The three of us. Jen, Steve and I. Thanking Cole for everything before we left. Before the black cab pulled away from the Kilns. I couldn’t have been happier.

Formal Dinner

We made it back home with just enough time to change. I had signed us up for the formal dinner at Harris Manchester that evening. I was excited for Jen and Steve to be able to enjoy it.

It was a formal dinner. Suit and tie for me. And my gown. I had asked one of the ladies in the Administration office what the appropriate attire was for guests earlier that day. She told me they should dress smart. Jen and Steve were having fun with that one.

“Does this look smart enough, d’ya think?” they’d ask.

We walked the 30 minutes or so to the college in the cool night air. And we made it just in time.

Arlosh Hall is beautiful. With high, vaulted ceilings and portraits along the walls. And I love it. All of it. The formality of it. Everyone standing behind their chair, waiting for the Principal to enter. Followed by the rest of the faculty. Then a short prayer and everyone’s seated. It was great to share all of it with Jen and Steve.

Apparently it was an exchange night. With another college. I had no idea. We sat next to a girl from Poland. She was from the other college. I can’t remember the name just now. But she was nice. Funny. And definitely a talker. Have only met great people from Poland. All three of them.

Lamb was on the menu for the evening. I’m not usually a fan of lamb. It usually tastes too much like lamb, I suppose. But it was great this night. Served with a light gravy sauce.

I told Jen I didn’t usually like lamb, but that this was great.

And instantly I could tell Jen didn’t know it was lamb. Her eyes lifting from her plate. She didn’t like the idea of eating lamb, apparently. I had no problem with it.

TuesdaySteve’s last night in Oxford

We went to an Irish pub by the name of O’Neill’s for Steve’s last night here. And it was great. The place had lots of dark wood. The bar. The tables. On the columns and the ceiling.

And the food was great. At least I thought so. Steve and I ordered the burgers. He wasn’t terribly happy with his. I loved mine. Thought about ordering one for the road. Jen ordered the fish and chips. I ate her smashed peas, as she is simply not a fan of peas. And I’m not a fan of letting good food go to waste.

We had a great time catching up one last time before Steve left. He told us about a weird dream he had had the night before. That apparently Jane had asked him to be their butler. And that he agreed.

He told us how he had to wear a tuxedo, and wait at the door for us to arrive. To open the door for us. With a towel over one of his arms. In stereotypical butler fashion.

“And I was so mad at you,” he told me. “I wanted to punch you.”

“Why? Because you had to open the door for me?”

“That and you had a British accent.”

I erupted into laughter.

We stopped into G&D’s for some ice cream on the way home. A nice treat for the walk home.

Steve finished packing when we got home. Tucking away the last of his things. Showing me some of the gifts he had picked up for friends back home. And he told me he had picked up a couple of things for me, handing me a bag.

I wasn’t expecting anything. I asked him if I could open it now or if I needed to wait. He told me to go ahead. So I did.

And I was speechless when I did. He had gone to St. Phillip’s. A used bookstore here in Oxford. Where Jen bought me a first edition copy of Broadcast Talks (which later became Mere Christianity) last summer. As a birthday gift. And he had picked up several early edition copies of Lewis works for me, including a first edition copy of Surprised by Joy.

I was speechless.

The last book in the pile. Or the one at the bottom, rather. That’s a book Walter Hooper put together. It’s a book of letters between CS Lewis and his best friend Arthur Greeves. It’s a first edition. I told you this guy’s an incredible friend.

He also got me a scarf. So I could look more Oxford. I’ve really been enjoying it.

We had a great time with Steve here. Both Jen and I. It meant so much for him to fly out here, so Jen didn’t have to make the tripe alone. To show her around town. So she didn’t have to experience it all on her own while I was in class.

It was tough seeing him go after such a great week. And we miss having him here, for sure.

My only consolation? A date night with my wife. Pizza and Die Hard. I have an amazing wife.

We said ‘goodbye’ to Steve yesterday morning. He returned home after spending a week with us here in Oxford, and it didn’t feel nearly long enough. He’s an incredible friend. It was so nice having him here with us for that time. Lots of great memories.

We miss you, man.

The unfortunate part of his visit is that it just so happened to coincide with my busiest time so far here. I had a load of deadlines. Reading. Papers. Exams. But we had a great time, nonetheless.

Thursday – Clarity in what I’d like to do

I had Greek the morning after Steve arrived. We ended up meeting in Christ Church, because of some scheduling changes. Our professor lives there. Her husband’s the Dean. I honestly can’t imagine stepping out my front door and having this for a view.

Our class gathered outside the Deanery door. First just a couple of us. Then more. When most of us were gathered there, we knocked on the tall wooden door. Rhona opened it and met us with a smile.

“Helloooo,” she said in that warm, rich English accent. “Come in, come in.”

Her home was amazing. And it still feels weird to call it her home. It’s just an incredible place. Apparently King Charles I lived there at one point. So it has that going for it.

We made our way into the front room, with vaulted ceilings and a spiral staircase that seemed to climb up and up and up. Even the students in my class who are from Britain found their jaws on the floor.

Our class met in their formal dining room. A large room with tall glass windows that lined one wall. A long, oblong-shaped table sat in the center of the room, and a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth hung from one of the walls. Rhona told us how they had cleared out this room and used it for a dance after their daughter’s wedding. And how the Queen looked on with a look of distaste.

Shortly after our exam, the housekeeper (at least I’m assuming that’s who it was) brought in a couple trays for our class. A tray of tea and coffee and a tray of treats. Flapjacks. I had never had flapjacks before, but I had seen them at the Alternative Tuck Shop while waiting on my chicken panini. They were amazing. Like a homemade granola bar. A perfect accompaniment to our tea. I told Rhona it was the best I had ever had.

After class, Rhona let me know she had heard Walter Hooper would be joining us for our Tea at the Kilns on Monday. I hadn’t heard that, but I was so excited he was. This guy was Lewis’ secretary the summer before Lewis passed away, and he lived at the Kilns for a while, so I knew he’d have some amazing stories to share with us.

Another student was standing nearby as we spoke. Likely waiting to ask Rhona a Greek related question. Likely completely uninterested in our conversation. But she put on a good act anyway.

Rhona asked her if she had read Lewis at all. If she found Mere Christianity to be dated. She had. “Surprisingly so,” she said.

“Well then, you’ll just have to write the modern day Mere Christianity, won’t you?” she asked this girl with a large smile.

And it made me smile. Remembering the conversation I had with Steve the night before. On our way to pick up pizzas in Summertown.

I told Steve that, for some reason, being here had made me even more convicted about wanting to write. And how I felt like it was more clear than ever what that was supposed to look like.

“I feel like Lewis did a great job of talking about the Christian faith for the non-academic types. For the laymen. But I feel like there’s an opportunity to do that in a way that’s even more approachable. Using a tone that invites people in. Something like Don Miller’s writing. Something that anyone would want to pick up and read. I feel like if you were able to combine those two, it’d be incredibly effective. That’s what I want to do,” I told him as we walked.

Fast forward to Christ Church. Rhona has just told this girl perhaps she’d write the modern day Mere Christianity. And I felt like the kid in class who got a puppy over the weekend and the teacher asks if anyone has something to share. Hand shooting into the air. Squirming in his seat. But I didn’t say a word. I just smiled.

I met up with Steve after class. He had been working from the Grand Cafe. England’s oldest coffeehouse. We were making our way out of town. To meet up with Jen. Taking in the sights as we walked.

Steve likes sweets. And he had plenty to like in Oxford.

Feeling so inconsequential

We walked past a plaque I had just noticed for the first time the week before. It was on a building where Hooke & Boyle first discovered the living cell. Right here in Oxford. I pointed it out to Steve. I told him it was things like that that made me feel so out of place here.

“This place really has had some amazing minds come through over the years,” I said as we crossed the street. Minding the buses as they passed on the cobblestone road underfoot.

“Minds who have had incredible contributions in their field. Makes me feel so inconsequential.”

“Or, it could motivate you, wanting you to do something big as well,” Steve said, without missing a beat.

“That’s true, yeah. That’s a good way to look at it.” I love having this guy around. He’s the kind of guy who believes in your dreams even when you don’t believe in them yourself.

Andi’s Dream

Steve didn’t sleep the night before he left to come here. He had been helping a friend of his from back home setup her bakery. Andi. She was scheduled to open the next day, and he had been working non-stop to help her wrap everything up. For quite a while leading up to the opening. From baking cakes to design. It was quite the project, from the sounds of it.

Several years earlier, when Andi was living about an hour and a half south of where she now lives with her husband, she had gotten a hold of Steve. To tell him about her dream of one day opening up her own bakery.

“She was working as a real estate agent at the time,” he told me. “I think. Something like that. But her dream was to open a bakery.”

He ended up sending a bunch of business her way after she moved to town. So she could bake cakes and make desserts for weddings. Until she was finally able to open her bakery.

Her dream became a reality last week, when she opened up Pure Bliss Desserts in downtown Bellingham. In large part because of Steve. That’s just the kind of guy he is. And I’m honored to call him my best friend.

We met up with Jen back at the house. And the three of us walked together to The Alternative Tuck shop for lunch. To introduce Steve and Jen to the beauty that is the chicken pesto panini.

I’ve realized lately I no longer get hungry. I just find myself wanting a chicken pesto panini. That’s when I know I’m hungry.

I squeezed into the shop and made my way through the line. Jen & Steve waited outside. To avoid the sardine can space.

I made my way out of the shop, hot off the grill paninis in hand, and handed Jen and Steve theirs. I was happy they enjoyed them just as much as I do.

“That’s great, man,” Steve said after a big bite of his sandwich.

I showed Jen and Steve around Harris Manchester College. The library. The grounds. And they loved it. All of it. It was so great to finally share all of this with them. After living in it on my own for several weeks.

I pointed out a couple places I thought they’d like to visit while I wrapped up some studies, and then I made my way to the Radcliffe Camera.

Dinner at the Eagle & Child

After several hours of reading, it was great to wander outside into the cool night air and find them waiting for me. It was a gorgeous night in Oxford. And I was so happy to share it with them.

We decided on Eagle & Child for dinner. Steve’s first pub experience. The first time at Eagle & Child for either of them.

And we had a great time. Laughing. Enjoying some amazing food. After clearing our plates, we reached for the dessert menu and decided to stretch out the evening a bit more.

“We do have leftover birthday cake at home,” I mentioned, looking over the menu.

“Sounds like a good midnight snack,” Steve said.

“I like the way you think.”

Walking home, it felt so nice to enjoy all of this. To share all of this with them. And it made me smile.

Friday: Sue the impostor and Jen’s as tough as nails

I had my first cornish pasty for lunch last Friday. Finally. And I have to say, I was a little disappointed. Maybe I’ll give it another try. But I can’t help but feel like it’d be a missed opportunity when I know of a perfectly good place to get a chicken pesto panini…

I worked from the library most of the day on Friday. And I ran into Sue on my way back into the library at one point, hot cup of tea in-hand. She greeted me by name. With a smile. And she asked me how I was settling in.

She told me how when she first arrived here at Oxford. To take up her job. How overwhelmed this all seemed.

“I didn’t believe it,” she told me. “I kept feeling like at some point, someone was going to tell me they had made a terrible mistake, and that I was going to have to leave.”

Funny. I guess even the librarians feel like impostors. I’m in good company. Sue’s an angel.

Sue told me that’s why everyone here. All the faculty. That that’s why they go out of their way to do everything they can to make sure the students have a welcoming experience. That they know they’re cared for. And that if they ever need anything, that they only have to ask.

I told her that, as overwhelming as this all has been, that the people truly have been the bright spot.

She told me that after a while, you realize everyone here are just normal people. Normal people who are incredibly passionate about what they want to do. And that that is a real pleasure to be around. I still feel like everyone’s a couple hundred IQ points higher than I am. But it really is an amazing place to be. And I’m still in awe of it all.

I met up with Jen & Steve after a full day of reading. We grabbed pizza at a really cool woodfire place. Their menu was amazing. Split into different regions of the world. Asia. America. Europe. Africa. Each region featuring pizza toppings from their culture. It was great. And the environment was amazing. Lots of open-air space. Hanging lights. Large windows. Concrete floors and columns. Very modern feel in a very old city.

A woman and her son sat beside us. She was very English. Very proper. And the boy was, well, he was a boy. Messing around all night. Having a good time. She was trying to keep him under her thumb, so as not to make a scene. He was cracking us up all night.

At one point in the evening, he let out a loud burp. And he immediately erupted into laughter. You could see the blood drain from the boy’s mother as he did.

“Oh, I am so embarrassed,” she said, looking at us before hanging her face in her hands. “This truly isn’t representative.”

We all laughed. Along with the boy. I felt like she was apologizing for her entire country. Maybe she was. Either way, it was hilarious.

We caught a movie after dinner. RED. The new action movie with Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman and some others. It was great. Lots of brainless action. A much-needed reprieve from all the studies.

Jen loves Bruce Willis movies. And I love that Jen loves Bruce Willis movies. Ever since we watched the latest Die Hard on our anniversary on Whidbey Island several summers ago, she’s been hooked.

I think it’s because they share a common respect for each other. Jen and Bruce. I think it’s because he’s the only one in the world tough enough for her to respect like that. I always tell Jen if she had a motto it’d be, “Jennifer Pemberton…Tough as nails.” I keep telling her I’m going to make her a t-shirt. I need to get on that.

Walking home under the light posts leaving town that night, I couldn’t help but think how perfect this all seemed. Now. Having them here. Even better than before.

Leaves piled up, crunching underfoot. Steve kicking them as we walked. Golden yellow and burnt orange shuffling as we walked. Talking. Sharing memories. Those are the times we’ll miss Steve most.

Saturday: Like Mallards & The Bagelry

We grabbed dessert at a place in Oxford city center Saturday night. The best ice cream in town, we were told.

It feels very much like a Mallards back home. Lots of crazy flavors. Stout. Bacon & Brie.

I placed my order and told Steve I felt like I was back in Bellingham. That if felt like Mallards.

“And the Bagelry, combined,” Steve added.

He was right. They served bagels, too.

I went to hand them my credit card to pay for the ice cream, and they told me they only took cash.

“Yep, just like Mallard’s and the Bagelry,” I said, turning to Steve and Jen with a smile.


%d bloggers like this: