Archives for category: faith

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

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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.

Tuesday: Returning to Oxford

My flight touched down in London at half past 11 on Tuesday morning. A little over nine hours after taking off from San Francisco on Monday afternoon, and nearly a day after leaving Seattle and saying “goodbye” to Jen. She had decided to stick around home for Khloe’s birthday (our first, and only, niece). Her first birthday. I would’ve loved to have been there, but school called.

I slept very little on the flight that passed northeast over the Atlantic, but I didn’t seem too tired as I made the long walk from our recently arrived airplane to customs. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Heathrow seems to be made out of unnecessarily long hallways. If you were to ask someone from England why it is that Heathrow has such long hallways leading from the planes to customs, they’d probably tell you it’s always been that way. And now it’s tradition. Like everything else here. And you can’t argue with that.

15 minutes after getting off my plane, I made it to customs. A long line had formed by the time I arrived, as several planes must’ve all arrived at the same time. I took my place in line and waited, with lots of other people who all looked like they had just been woken up from a nice nap. Hair standing on end from the back of their head. My cell phone began vibrating in my pocket moments later, and I read the words “The Kilns” as I glanced at the screen before answering.

“Hi, this is Ryan,” I said.

“Hi Ryan!” Debbie’s voice cried over the other end, in great excitement. “Welcome back!”

Debbie is the Director at the Kilns. She’s a professor from back in the States, who’s currently on sabbatical to look over things at the Kilns for a time. She told me her and Jonathan (another scholar-in-residence, like me, who also lives at the Kilns) had been eagerly waiting for my return, and that they were happy to have me back. As tough as it was to say goodbye to our friends and family back home–and it was very tough–it was great to return to this kind of a welcome.

Debbie continued on, talking as I slowly creeped my way through the Customs line. Trying not to talk too loudly and disturb the half-asleep travelers around me. Debbie told me her and Jonathan had planned a dinner in my honor for that evening. I was totally taken aback by the gesture. I told her I was really looking forward to gathering my bags and returning to the Kilns as quickly as I could get there.

After an hour-long bus ride on the M40 out of London, Jonathan met me at the bus stop (just a short, 5-minute drive from the Kilns). He pulled up in a tiny car, in a parking lot full of tiny cars, and I thought to myself, “It’s official, I’m back in England.”

Jonathan pulled up beside the curb where I was standing, stepped around the car and welcomed me with a wide grin, a “Happy New Year,” and a hug. Truth be told, I probably welcomed him with a hug. We Americans are big on our hugs.

It was great to see Jonathan again. He wore his trademark, red-tinged 5 o’clock shadow. And we caught up on our Christmas and New Year holidays as he navigated the narrow back roads leading from the park and ride to the Kilns. We pulled up in front of the familiar old brick home a few minutes later, with its blue plaque that hangs on the side of the house, just to the side of the room where C.S. Lewis used to sleep, and suddenly I was very happy to be back.

Jonathan helped me carry my luggage inside, and Debbie greeted us as we entered, “Ryan, hello!” she said warmly, in a loud voice. “Welcome back!” she said in a loud voice as she wrapped me up in a hug. Debbie’s an American. She’s big on hugs.

There were jams and clotted cream sitting out on the counter, and Debbie let me know she was just preparing some scones and tea for me, in case I was hungry.

“Feel free to put your bags down and come have some.”

The sky outside was blue and the sun was pouring in through the kitchen window and spilling over the stone-tiled floor as she talked.

I smiled, thanked Debbie for the very kind welcome, and then made my way down the hallway leading to Warnie’s old rooms (our current rooms), with my luggage in tow.

I stepped into the familiar room, with photos of Jen and I, and another one of Khloe sitting just where we left them on our desk. They were sharing the space with a handwritten “Welcome Home” sign, complete with an American flag and British flag, which I thought was rather patriotic. I smiled as I saw it. “What an incredible welcome,” I thought to myself.

I returned to the kitchen, where Jonathan and Debbie were talking, and Debbie invited me to sit down and help myself to some tea and scones, which she had prepared for my return. I felt so blessed to return to such a warm welcome.

It really is amazing to have two such incredible places, so far apart, that feel like home, I thought to myself while taking a seat and digging into the afternoon tea in the old familiar, stone-floored Kilns kitchen. A friend of Debbie’s arrived a few minutes later, as she was joining Debbie for tea. Debbie introduced Jonathan and I as the scholars in residence, and poured her a cup of tea.

After a couple scones and my tea, I excused myself and returned to my room. My bags were waiting to be unpacked, but the bed looked awfully inviting. Having not slept more than a couple hours during my travels, I laid down and closed my eyes. And all of a sudden, I was so very comfortable in our old, familiar room.

Wednesday: First day back at College

I woke up early Wednesday morning, after collapsing in bed shortly after our house dinner (a very tasty meal Jonathan prepared for us). I usually have a tough time waking up in a foreign bed for the first time, but that wasn’t the case Wednesday morning. Somehow it didn’t feel so foreign.

After a quick shave and a shower, I was on my bike and heading toward the Oxford city center, to get a day’s worth of studies in at Harris Manchester College.

The air was cold as I glided down Headington Hill on my bike, passing all of the old familiar sights. Restaurants. Markets. Schools and neighborhoods, just as I remembered them. I passed through a small roundabout before coming up over Magdalene Bridge and seeing Magdalene Tower rising high into the sky, touching the blue and white brushstroked scene overhead. It was an incredible view, staring at this 500-year old stone-built college, and I caught myself thinking, “I really am back in Oxford…. This is so incredible.”

As I rode past the stone walls towering into the sky on both sides of High Street, I felt totally in awe of it all all over again.

Before Jen and I left Oxford to return home for the holidays, I met a friend from Texas at Eagle and Child. His name is Steve, and he teaches Communications at a large university there. I met Steve on a tour I led for a group at the Kilns last winter. Steve has been to Oxford “more times than I can count,” he told me from our seat in the Rabbit Room of the Eagle and Child that day. He loves it for all of the same reasons I do. For the history and the architecture. For the academic tradition and the fingerprints of C.S. Lewis that still remain to this day.

It was over lunch that day that I told Steve it always feels a bit like I’ve returned to an old dream when I’ve been away from Oxford for a time and come back. I told him it feels a bit like having an incredible dream, not being sure if you’ll ever have it again, and then falling asleep one night and being filled with great joy when you’re suddenly back in the middle of it.

He smiled as I shared this with him that afternoon in early December.

“For me, it’s a bit like returning to Narnia,” he confessed while leaning just slightly over the wooden table, with a smile that acknowledged how silly such a statement might sound. But I quickly wiped away any reason for embarrassment by admitting I knew exactly what he meant.

It was great to see several people I hadn’t seen for over a month as I made my way through Harris Manchester before finding my old familiar spot in the library, upstairs, in the northeast corner beside the window. My desk was still waiting for me, vacant, and I greeted it like an old familiar friend, with a smile, as I took my seat and poured over my notes for the next 10 hours or so.

The Artist

I made it back to the Kilns just after 7:00 Wednesday night, after a long day of studies. I wolfed down a quick dinner before grabbing my jacket and heading back out of the house with Jonathan and Holly (a short-term scholar who’s currently visiting Oxford from California). The house had made plans to go see the movie “The Artist” that night, and I was looking forward to joining them. We picked up Dr Michael Ward on the way, Chaplain of St Peter’s College and Lewis-expert, and we made our way to a theatre outside of the city center, called Vue, which I had never been to.

The theatre was large, with a bowling alley attached, and it had a massive parking lot. There were neon signs on the exterior of the building. When we walked into the theatre, I noticed a sign for an Italian restaurant that was attached to the building, again in neon lights, that read, “American-New York Italian Food,” which I thought was funny. It felt a bit like someone took a shopping center from the States and plopped it down in the middle of England, and then put up a bunch of neon signs to remind people that it really was American.

The movie was great, though. Feel free to skip ahead if you’d rather I don’t spoil it for you, but it ended up putting me in tears. Whether it was intentional or not (I doubt it was), it painted the most incredible picture of salvation and grace I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

The movie starts out in the year 1921, at the height of the silent film era in Hollywood. And we are introduced to George Valentine, the leading man in Hollywood at the time. Everyone worships George, including himself. He has huge portraits of himself that hang in his home, and everyone swoons when they meet him.

But then, things begin to change rapidly with the introduction of “Talkies,” movies with actual audible dialogue. Soon, George Valentine is a washed-up actor who used to be somebody, but who now struggles to make ends-meat by selling off his vast collection of expensive clothes and artwork, including the large portrait of himself that used to hang in his home.

Fast forward to the final, climactic scene, where George escapes from the gigantic palace of a good friend’s home, a friend who had only the day before rescued George from the fire he set inside his own home. And, after escaping the palace she had set him up in, so that he could rest and recover from the fire, George returns to his house.

The interior is ghastly, with remnants of the fire strewn about in a mess. He returns to his burnt up living room, in pride. He simply cannot accept the grace this friend had shown him because, in his pride, he interpreted her help as charity. And he was too proud for charity.

The movie builds to a great crescendo where we see George pull out a small box, and, from that small box, he pulls out a blunt-nosed revolver. Sitting in his burnt up living room, a charcoal-lined mess of a scene, George places the end of the revolver in his mouth and bites down hard as the tears roll down his face. This man who literally had the epicenter of the entertainment world at his fingertips is now but a simple tug of his index finger away from ending his own life. And just then, moments before he pulls the trigger, the friend who had rescued him and placed him in her palace runs into the scene, bringing a sense of urgent light into the darkness. And, suddenly, everything changes.

He removes the gun from his mouth, he stands up, and he embraces her in a hug. And as he does, she begins to cry. After several seconds, she holds him at arm’s length and says to him, “I’m so sorry, George. I only wanted to help you.”

And as she said that, I couldn’t help but cry myself. A few slow tears. It was, for me, an incredible reflection of the way I have chosen evil in my own life. Knowingly.

It was a picture of how I choose ugliness over the beautiful palace He wants to offer me. And how He rushes in to save me from myself. In the middle of the mess I’ve created. And, when He finds me, He does not verbally abuse or accuse me. Instead, He weeps at the mess I’ve made, and He pointedly reminds me that all He ever wanted was to help me.

That, for me, was the picture of grace and salvation I needed. And I was so thankful for it.

Thursday: A Flat Tire and Carb Baskets

After another full day of studying from the library on Thursday, I hopped on my bike around 6:45 that night, and I made my way across the city center in the dark, frigid night air. I was grabbing dinner with two English friends of mine who are currently studying Theology at Wycliffe Hall. Not only do they share a common British nationality, they also share first names. John. I felt outnumbered from the get-go.

I was coasting quite speedily down the hill in front of Christ Church that night, on my way to John (Ash’s) house, when suddenly my back bike tire started to shake. Something didn’t feel right. But I tried to ignore it.

By the time I made it to the bottom of the hill, it had gotten quite a bit worse. It was now bumping up and down. And so I decided to get off and have a look at it. Sure enough, I had a flat. My tire had gone so flat that there was now hardly anything left in it.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself as I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to give John a ring and explain my situation. I had planned on meeting up with him at his house and then we were going to drive together to John (Adams’) place.

After I explained what had happened, he told me not to worry about it, and that he’d come meet me where I was at. By the time I had pulled my hefty bike to the nearest bike rack to lock it up, John was waiting for me with a look of sympathy.

“So sorry about the bike,” he said with a smile as I opened the passenger door, “But it’s great to see you again.”

We made the 10 minute drive to John Adams’ place while catching up on our holidays, and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into the boarding school where Adams lives with his wife and baby daughter. He’s a chaplain at the school, and so they have a flat right there on the grounds.

We passed a group of boys walking in striped ties and black gowns, looking very Oxford.

“It’s a rather posh school,” John explained to me as we pulled the car into a parking spot just outside of Adams’ flat.

Apparently we had arrived a bit early, as John Adams wasn’t answering when we tried him at his door. Then, after 10 minutes or so of waiting in the near-freezing darkness, John’s cell phone began buzzing. It was John Adams, and he was making his way across the school grounds. We could hear his booming voice as he came, in the open air, so we knew he wasn’t far off.

“Gentleman,” he said welcoming us, “Hello.”

I hadn’t seen John since the spring, so it was really good to see him again.

He had only just finished his chapel service for the evening, and so he was dressed in a tie and black gown himself.

“How do you like my gown?” John asked me as he unlocked the door and led us inside.

“It’s really nice, yeah,” I replied. “I nearly wore mine.”

Both Johns’ wives were currently out of town, one in London and the other in Cambridge, so it was the three of us bachelors getting together for dinner that night.

We caught up on life while our three, individual frozen pizzas baked in the oven. John Ash cut up some vegetables while we talked, before boiling them on the stovetop.

John Adams commented on the new kettle he had just received from his mother-in-law, pointing out how incredibly well it poured.

“Look, no spillage at all,” he said, demonstrating it for us.

I laughed, and told them this was a very English conversation. I told them this is one conversation you’d never hear back home, is guys bragging about the “pourability” of their kettle.

They both looked at me puzzled.

I explained you hardly find kettles back in the States, and certainly not the electric kettles that come standard in every English home. Still they look puzzled.

“You don’t use kettles?” John asked.

“Well, it’s not that we don’t, it’s just not nearly as common,” I explained. “You’ll see more coffee makers, for example, because we tend to drink more coffee, but if you do see a kettle, it’s a stovetop kettle.”

Still they look puzzled, so I quickly tried to move the conversation on, as John checked on our pizzas.

“That black enough, you think?” he asked, staring into stove.

He pulled the pizza out, one by one, and John Ash asked if we minded if we just had the steamed vegetables straight on the pizza, as it covered the entire plate.

None of us minded, so he proceeded.

We set our plates down on the table and John Ash snapped a picture of the scene: pizza completely covering the plate, with thick cut steamed vegetables on top of the pizza.

“It’s not a bad set up, actually,” he commented while snapping a picture with his iPhone. “Carb basket.”

The night was filled with a lot of laughter as we talked and ate. John Ash explained how the remote-control helicopter he received as a Christmas gift had taken quite the beating, and how it now looked a bit like a smashed fly trying to take flight.

We talked about studies and ministry. John Adams told us about the school’s chaplain, “a great guy, really, who preaches the Gospel,” and how he was being removed from the school because apparently a few parents on the Board thought he was a bit too conservative and challenging in his teaching.

We talked about suffering, and how this Chaplain was basically suffering because of his “cross-shaped life.” John Adams kept using that term, cross-shaped life, as he talked about this Chaplain. And as he talked about the lives we are called to live, as followers of Christ.

And I loved it. I loved it in a way I didn’t like. I didn’t like it because I knew I often flee from suffering, and yet that’s the very mark of our faith.

Around 10:00, I explained that I should probably get back home, as I still had a bit of studying to do before my test the next day (“collections”), and so we said our goodbyes and made the short drive back to the city center, John Ash and I. He apologized about my flat as he dropped me off right where I left it, and I hauled it off to College in the cold night air, where I could lock it up safely before catching a bus back to the Kilns.

It was after 11:00 by the time I made it home that night, and I ended up studying until after 1:00 the next morning.

Friday: Collections and Unconventional Fingerprints

After several hours of studying that morning, I made my way to the Exam Schools that afternoon, dressed in my black gown, for collections. At Oxford, rather than taking a test at the end of the term, to see how you know the material, you take a vacation in-between terms and then come back and take a test (“collections”) before starting your next term. Yep, brutal, I know.

I sat in room full of 100 or so other students at 2:00 that afternoon, all of us dressed in our black gowns, and I scribbled away on my essays on John Calvin for the next three hours. By hand. By 5:00, when I finally put my pen down, I could hardly feel my thumb and my index finger. A numbness had set in that would linger for the next several days.

But I was done. All of the studying that I had put in after arriving in Oxford was now put to paper, and I could now wash my hands of it and get ready for the next term. It’s always a relief, that feeling.

I walked back to college in the dark, that evening, before climbing back into my old familiar desk and trudging through all of the e-mails that had piled up during the past few days I had spent studying. Once I had fended off enough e-mail for the day, I got started on my application for school next year. I’m applying to do one more year here in Oxford. For a nine-month MSt in Christian Doctrine.

Jen caught me on Skype after 9:00 that Friday night. I’m sure she assumed I’d be back home at this point. I wasn’t.

“So, where’d you go for dinner,” her words asked in my earphones, likely knowing what my response would be.

“Uhhh, the library?” I typed out, as I was in the library and I couldn’t talk.

“Ryannnn!” she said firmly. “Do I need to sick Debbie on you?”

“No, no you don’t need to sick Debbie on me,” I typed. “But can you guess where I had lunch?”

“Uh, the library,” Jen said in a mocking voice.

“Ding, ding, ding,” I typed. “But don’t get Debbie. I’ll go home soon.”

Jen and I talked for a bit, and it was great to see her again. It really made my day. We laughed together as we talked, separated by a giant ocean and 6,000 miles.

It was after 10:00 by the time I finally shut down my computer and made my way down the stone staircase leading out of the library that night. My phone buzzed in my pocket as I hit the bottom step. It was Debbie, calling to check up on me from the Kilns.

“Are you alive?” she asked with a laugh. “We thought you’d be home by now.”

I took my turn laughing. If only she knew the conversation Jen and I had just had.

“Yep, I’m still alive. But just barely. I’m making my way home now.”

“Okay, good,” she replied, with a bit of relief. “Well we’re looking forward to celebrating the end of your tests. We’ll be waiting for you when you get here.”

I thanked Debbie. Her thoughtfulness put a smile on my face. And it brought some life to my wearied mind.

I made my way out of the college into the cold night air. It had been a cloudless day, and the naked sky provided little cover for the cold. I zipped my jacket up to my neck as I walked, tucked my chin in close, and put my earphones in before turning on some music for my walk to the bus stop.

Unconventional Fingerprints

I was listening to the band Sigur Ros as I strode the stone sidewalks and back alleys that led to the bus stop on High Street that night. If you haven’t heard of Sigur Ros, I couldn’t recommend them more. I’ve only recently stumbled upon their music, which makes me feel bad. I like to think I know a thing or two about good music, about what the kids are listening to these days, but somehow this Icelandic band slipped out of my radar all these years.

The falsetto voice of their front man Jonsi (pronounced “yon-see”) rang in my ears, in dramatic, haunting, lingering tones as I crossed through the shadows of the Oxford alleys, with my hands in my coat pocket. I hugged closely to the stone walls as my feet beat the pavement. The colleges that sat just beyond the high stone walls bordering the alley I walked rose high into the dark sky like castles, and the gaslit lamps stood on each bend of the alley. The whole scene looked almost as though it could be taken straight out of a movie set in the middle ages, and I love it. It may sound funny, since I’ve been here a year and a half now, but all of this still seems so unreal to me at most times.

I laughed to myself as I walked in the late, cold night air, while my shadow chased a few feet behind me. And after several days of sleep-deprived studies, I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually here right now… I can’t believe I’m actually studying at the University of Oxford.”

Sigur Ros’s ethereal sound continued to play in my earphones as I walked, and the music seemed to set the mood for the scene. It was perfect, really.

The lead singer of this band Sigur Ros, Jonsi, is something else. He’s blind in one eye. Which really doesn’t matter all that much, actually, because he sings with his eyes closed. He strikes his guitar with a bow and sings not in Icelandic, not even in English, but in something of a gibberish-like concoction of his native tongue. Wherever the melody leads him. He dresses up in rather funky, homemade outfits, too. Complete with feathers. And glitter around his eyes. But his voice… His voice is what strikes you. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

And I found myself thinking about his unconventional approach to music as I hopped on the bus, made my way across town, and then got off the bus a short 10-minute walk away from the Kilns, while Jonsi’s voice continued to play in my ears.

The air was cold as I made my way up the slight incline of Kilns Lane that night. Oxford was tucked in for a night’s sleep as I walked, drumming along with the music on my legs. Houses and cars were covered in a blanket of frost, which made everything glimmer. It was a beautiful scene, and the combination of music and glimmering frost over everything made me want to dance in the cold, open night air. That or a lack of sleep and utter exhaustion. Or both.

But I began to think about the fact that this guy, Jonsi, is doing something completely ridiculous and unconventional to most people. It’s the kind of thing that, when you look at it on paper, most people would say, “Yeah, that sounds like a bad idea…” Dressing up in a head dress and singing in gibberish.

But then you hear it for yourself, and you’re breathless.

And I couldn’t help but think, “I’m so glad Jonsi had the courage to share this gift he’s been blessed with with all of us.” I couldn’t help but think, “We’re blessed by it.”

I got thinking about the fact that we’re all given roughly 80 or so years on this planet. If we’re lucky. And that’s all for our time here. It’s not the end of our story, of course, but it is all we have for this (brief) chapter of history. I got thinking about the fact that we all leave something here. Even if it’s not good, we all leave some sort of fingerprint.

And I got thinking, this world, and those who had the fortune of hearing the musical talents Jonsi has been blessed with, will be better for it. The mark he will have left, just by sharing the gift he’s been given, will matter. And it wouldn’t be the same if he was trying to do what someone else wanted or expected from him. In fact, it would probably be very unlike what he’s doing now. It probably wouldn’t include a feather head dress. Or a mish-mash of gibberish. Instead, it’d be more like what this agent told him to do if he wants to get a record deal. Or what that producer told him they’re looking for. But it’s not. Instead, it’s this unique, unconventional reflection of who He is. And I thought that was beautiful.

I continued to beat my legs with my hands to the sound of the music in my ears as I walked in the cool night air, under the sparkling stars and alongside the glistening cars. And I found myself thinking, “I want to do that.”

I want to leave my fingerprints on this world in a way that no one else can. Because it’s a reflection of the unique gifts God has given me.

I’m sure it sounds funny, but, for some reason I felt like listening to Jonsi pour out his soul in his gibberish, Icelandic falsetto gave me permission to do that. And I hoped, when it was all said and done, that at the end of my time here, the words from my life would matter. That they would find their way to someone and that person would say, “I now see God more clearly because this guy cared enough to share his soul with us.”

That, to me, would be a life worth living.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

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

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

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

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

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

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

The Oxford Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

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

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

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Making sense of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Metaphor in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was crushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3rd week of Trinity Term

I had a tour at the Kilns to lead on Tuesday of the third week of the term. I tend to give tours most Saturdays, but I also give tours during the week from time to time as well, when they come up. And when I can slip away to the Kilns for long enough.

This tour was scheduled for the afternoon, so I was able to make it to my Greek reading class before taking the 20-minute bus ride to Headington and the Kilns.

I found a seat next to Lyndon in Campion Hall a few minutes before our reading class began and I told him I was heading out to the Kilns after we finished for a tour.

“Is that right?” he asked, rhetorically. “I wonder if it’s with the group of Americans I met over lunch at Wycliffe Hall just now.”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t know,” I told him. “I’m not sure who the tour is with, but it could be.”

“Apparently one of the older gentleman who visited is a rather big deal, from Florida, I believe, but I didn’t recognize his name,” he continued. “I sat next to him at lunch, so we talked a bit. When he told me his name, he seemed to act as though I knew who he was, but I didn’t!”

“That’s always a bit awkward,” I said. “Well, I’ll let you know if I happen to give a tour to an older American guy I should recognize but don’t.”

Lyndon laughed, and soon we were off to the races with our Greek reading for the week.

Police and Americans at the Kilns

When I arrived at the Kilns later that afternoon, I was surprised to find two police officers at the back door. The Kilns is set up in a bit of a funny way. The first door you come to as you walk up to the house isn’t actually the front door, but the back. Or, more specifically, it’s referred to as the “servicemen’s entrance.” Confusing, I know. Either way, it’s not the door guests typically use, but it’s the door these two officers were standing at when I made my way through the front gate and walked up the trail leading to the house.

“Do you live here?” one of them asked me as I approached.

“No, I don’t live here, but I am giving a tour here in a few minutes,” I told them.

They explained to me that someone in the neighborhood had reported a small fire  on the trail that leads up to the pond behind the Kilns, and they were wondering if anyone who lived here had any information about it. I told them I didn’t, but that I could leave a message with those who do live at the Kilns and they could call if anyone knew anything. They thanked me, and one of them left me with a piece of paper and their phone number.

“Say,” one of them asked me with a puzzled look before leaving, pointing toward the blue plaque on the side of the house with Lewis’s name on it. “C. S. Lewis . . . I should know who he is . . . tell me one of his works?”

“Uh, sure. He wrote The Chronicles of Narnia,” I told him, hinting at Lewis’s identity.

“Ah, yes, of course!” he said with a look of “aha!”.

“Don’t say you were thinking Lewis Carroll, don’t say you were thinking Lewis Carroll…” I thought to myself.

“That’s right,” the police officer said. “I was thinking Lewis Carroll!”

I smiled. And laughed inside. It’s so funny to me that a police officer who patrols the neighborhood where C. S. Lewis used to live confuses him with the man who wrote Alice in Wonderland. I shook my head as I made my way around to the front of the house and began making preparations for the tour that would be arriving any moment.

About 15 minutes later, I was meeting a group of well-dressed men and a single woman at the front door and welcoming them in for their tour. The lone British man at the tour introduced himself. He had a lean face with thick, dark glasses, and a nearly bald head. While it was just he and I in the houses entryway, he shared with me that he was leading a group of Americans on a tour around Oxford during their visit, and he told me he was from Wycliffe Hall.

“Bingo,” I thought to myself as I shook his hand, before showing the group into the common room at the front of the house. “This must be the group Lyndon was referring to.”

I followed behind them and took my seat on a bench beside the door, so as to face everyone. Along with the gentleman from Wycliffe, there was a couple from America, fairly casually dressed, an older, grey-haired, heavy set gentleman in a suit, and another well-dressed man with glasses, this one younger than the other suited-man.

After asking where everyone was from, I introduced myself to the group, and then I began telling them about what Lyndon had told me only an hour or so earlier that afternoon, about running into the same group at Wycliffe Hall.

“So I’ll have to let my friend know he was right,” I shared to the group with a smile, as they sat around the small room on the old, rugged furniture. “I’ll have to tell him I did, in fact, see the old man from Florida who he had spoken with at lunch.”

The air quickly went out of the room as I finished my sentence, and I didn’t realize why at first. I replayed my words in my mind only to realize what I had said, and to realize that my attempt to break the ice had failed completely.

I tried to back-pedal, as quickly as possible, but it didn’t seem to help. Awkward glances went around the room. Looks to the “older man from Florida” who I probably should have recognized, but didn’t. Everyone seemed very serious, but he, alone, was smiling, and looking straight at me, as if to welcome the start of the tour. So that’s exactly what I did, pretending as though everything was completely normal and nothing at all had happened.

I made my way around the house, telling funny stories of Lewis mixed in with stories of his time at the home and his life in Oxford. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and all my jokes were met with laughter.

By the end of the tour I was shaking hands and being told what a wonderful job I had done. Everyone seemed to really have enjoyed themselves, and so I decided against mentioning any sort of apology for what had been a horrible choice of words on my part to start the tour.

“Best not to wake a sleeping dog,” I thought to myself as I waved goodbye to the group with a smile from the front door.

I tidied up the Kilns from the tour, after everyone had left, and I made my way to the bus stop and back toward town to get some studying done from the Harris Manchester Library before meeting up with the Oxford University Lewis Society for dinner.

Lewis Society & Dinner with Aidan Mackey

This week’s speaker at the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society wasn’t actually speaking on C. S. Lewis, but, rather, G. K. Chesterton. That may sound strange to some, but Chesterton was a writer who was rather influential in Lewis’s life and writing, and so he’s a welcome topic for the Society.

Prior to the Society meeting, a small group of us met at Pierre Victoire, a small french restaurant where we often meet, which is only a short walk north of the Society’s lecture room. I had never met Aidan Mackey, our speaker for the evening, before meeting him at the restaurant that night, but I was so happy to. Jen had met him before, once when she was working at the Kilns and when he was visiting. She had really enjoyed meeting him, and I was excited to.

Aidan is an older man, he must be approaching 90 if he is not already there, and sharp as can be. He has a head of white-as-snow hair that stands up tall on his narrow frame. And, while he looks rather frail, his conversation tells you his mind is anything but. He’s a brilliant guy, incredibly humble, and funny, too. He’s the kind of sharp-witted man I can only hope to still be when I am his age.

Aidan is a life-long admirer of Chesterton, and very likely one of the world’s foremost experts on the scholar. This evening would be his final public address on Chesterton, he told us.

“I just don’t want to be the older man who is the last person to realize he is long past his expiration date,” he explained to us with great humility.

“Oh no, no, no,” Walter (Hooper) said with a look of astonishment, seated just to Aidan’s right. “You’ve got a long way to go yet!”

Aidan has been reading Chesterton since he was 14, when he fell in love with his books after his brother lent him one. Over dinner that evening, Aidan told us about falling in love with Chesterton’s writing, of falling in love with his wife (who still says the only reason he married her is because she had an early edition of Chesterton’s writing he was wanting for his personal library), and about how his daughter held a written correspondence with Lewis.

“It’s embarrassing that my greatest claim to fame is being related to my daughter,” he said to those around the second-floor table that evening, receiving a round of laughter.

Walter cited the volume of letters in which Lewis replied to Aidan’s daughter’s letter. Lewis had recently written The Chronicles of Narnia when this young girl had written him. Walter explained that Lewis was at the height of his career at this point, how he had all these demands on his time and a long list of pressing requirements, and yet, how he took the time to write a careful letter in reply.

“There was not a hint of condescension in responding to her question,” Aidan shared with us, as if recalling reading the letter for the first time, with a hint of admiration in his voice.

Wednesday: Caught in the rain & Alone in a library full of people and champagne

I spent Wednesday studying in the library. I had an essay due the next day, and  lot of reading to catch up before I could begin writing. So I read, and read some more, eating my lunch at my desk from my favorite spot on the second floor.

By the time 4:00 rolled around, I realized I still needed to drop off a post card at the post office before it closed for the day. So I pulled it out of my bag and made my way out of the library and onto my bike. I had not been outside all day, but the library windows told me it was still nice out, so I didn’t bother with a jacket. This was a mistake.

By the time I rounded the corner onto Broad Street, a short ride from Harris Manchester, I was completely soaked. Not just my trousers, this time, but everything. My hair, my shirt, I was completely drenched. And then, almost miraculously, when I had made it to the Post Office, only a short, five-minute bike ride away, it was as if the skies peeled back the previously present cloud cover to let the blue, sunny skies shine through. It was bizarre, and I was left to wander into the post office soaking wet.

By 8:00 that night, I was back in the Harris Manchester library, plowing through my reading, and nearly dry. My hair was standing every which way on my head as it reached upward to dry.

Earlier in the day I had received an e-mail I had paid little attention to, something about a wine party that would be held in the library that evening. I should’ve paid more attention, as it would have likely given me more heads-up to the older men and women who were filing into the library out of nowhere, dressed in suits and dresses. But I didn’t, and suddenly the library was buzzing, filled with suits and champagne and old men. Apparently all of the other students at college had taken the time to read the e-mail, as I looked around to find I was the only one left. And all of a sudden, I was alone, lost in a sea of older men and women and enough small talk to make my ears ring.

I scooped up my books and bag and did my best to make my way down the metal spiral staircase and out the library’s double doors without disturbing anyone. “This bit of reading will be finished at home,” I told myself as I continued my way out of the library, down the stone stair steps, and outside into the cool, dark night air.

Friday: We are the message

After my tutorial on Friday morning, I got a bit of reading done before catching up with Tihi at Kellogg College on Banbury Road, in north Oxford, for lunch. Tihi and I had been playing tag, exchanging e-mails trying to find a time that worked to do lunch for some time. Finally we had found a date and time that worked, and I was glad. He has an incredible story.

I pulled off the busy Banbury Road traffic to the crunching sound of gravel under my bike tire just in time to see Tihi standing at the front of the College. He had been waiting for me, and he welcomed me with a smile. He’s tall, always taller than I remember, and he wears a broad smile. His eastern European accent is heavy, but its softened by his intent look of earnest care and compassion and interest, a look he seems to wear a lot. He’s one of those guys who always seems happy about life. The kind of guy I like being around.

I had never been to Kellogg College before, but it took me off guard. It was far more modern than 90% of the rest of the buildings I had stepped foot in here in Oxford. It was simple in design, and it was filled with lots of natural lighting, soft tones and smooth hard wood floors.

Tihi and I grabbed a plate and he led me to the lunch line. Kellogg College is like Wycliffe Hall in that you make your way through a food line where you’re served. However, it’s very unlike Wycliffe Hall in that the food looks like what you’d find in an up-scale restaurant in the city, with smaller servings that have been neatly arranged for the sake of presentation.

Tihi commented on the fact that the food is very good at Kellogg College, but that it’s always served in such small servings. I told him I thought it looked great. And, after we bowed our heads and said a short prayer, I found out it tasted great, too.

If you haven’t already, you should take the time to read Tihi’s story. It’s unreal, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Tihi, short for Tihomir, is from Serbia. And he’s working on his Dphil here at Oxford. Clearly, he’s a bright guy, but he doesn’t come across as condescending in the least. He’s incredibly personable, like he’s still in awe of the fact that he’s actually here, working on his studies. I think I find that comforting, and something I can relate to.

Tihi shared a bit more of his story as we talked over lunch. About how he showed up to Oxford with only $50 in his pocket, and about all the pressure he felt from those back home who knew where he had come from, and what he was now doing.

“I felt like everyone in Serbia was just waiting to see me fail,” he told me with a look of candid sincerity. “I didn’t know how this was going to work out, or what I was going to do, but I knew I was supposed to be here.”

Today, in addition to his studies, Tihi travels all around the world, to share the Gospel, and to tell others about the incredible ways in which things have unfolded so that he can be here now studying.

We talked about redemption, and Tihi shared with me how he believes God intentionally uses people who we wouldn’t normally expect, to tell others about His goodness and His love. So that they can see His mission is one of redemption.

After exchanging our thoughts on the point, and after we had both finished a forkful of food, Tihi looked across the table at me and said, “Since coming here, and since all of this has happened, I’ve realized that, in a way, we are the message.”

I nodded in my head in agreement, and I allowed his words to linger in the air so that I could let myself feel the full weight of his point.

Saturday: A rare Brit at the Kilns & A message in the park

I woke up Saturday morning and made my way to the Kilns, a five-mile bike ride from where we live in north Oxford, for my lone tour of the day. Fortunately, it was a sunny morning, and it made for a nice way to start the day.

Arriving to the Kilns on a sunny morning, and walking along the gravel pathway that leads to the front door to the crunching sound underfoot and looking into the kitchen to be greeted by a warm smile and “hello!” from one of the Kilns residents, is quite possibly one of my favorite things in Oxford. So much so that it is rather difficult to put into words.

My tour for the day went really well, and I managed to get all the way through it without getting my foot caught in my mouth this time around, which was good.

On my tours, I always make a point to point out the wardrobe that sits at the foot of the stairs, as, while its not the home’s original wardrobe, it is where the wardrobe that Lewis’s grandfather carved by hand stood when Lewis lived at the Kilns. This is significant because it’s the wardrobe Lewis would’ve had in his childhood home in Belfast, and it was later moved to the Kilns, which meant Lewis would have had it with him for nearly all of his life. Because of this, it’s not a stretch to imagine this is the wardrobe he would have likely had in mind when he was writing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

A photo of the original wardrobe hangs on the hallway wall, as the original wardrobe is now housed at Wheaton College in Illinois. I usually point out to the group that the home would’ve had several wardrobes at the time Lewis lived here, as the English tend to have wardrobes where most American homes have closets or dressers, but that this particular wardrobe is significant for the reason I told them before.

Later on, while we were in Lewis’s bedroom, the lone British woman on our tour (it’s not often we get English residents on our tours at the Kilns, at least I don’t) asked about a small doorway on the wall beside Lewis’s bed.

“What’s this?” she asked, turning toward me, and pointing at the small doorway.

“Oh, that’s a door that leads to the attic space,” I explained. “But now it’s really just used as a closet.”

She smiled and nodded contently, and I recalled the statement I had made earlier about English homes tending to have wardrobes, whereas American homes typically have closets or dressers.

“I just thought it was funny that you said the English are too poor to have closets,” she said, almost in passing.

I’m sure the look on my face showed how puzzled I was.

“I didn’t mean to say the English are too poor to have closets,” I tried to clarify. “I was just trying to explain a distinction between the two cultures, that we don’t tend to see wardrobes in America. If I get anything wrong about the English culture, please do correct me,” I told her.

She nodded her head, again with a bit of a smirk. It was a bit awkward, I thought. I had had other Brits on my tour before, and none of them had ever given me any reason to think my comment about English homes having wardrobes was offensive.

Once downstairs, I showed the group to Lewis’s brother Warnie’s room. I pointed out several things in the room. Photos of Lewis and his brother, and where their desks would’ve sat.

I also pointed out where Warnie would’ve had a small buddha statue, on the fireplace mantle. I told the group this may seem odd, as Warnie was a Christian, but he actually had it there because it reminded him of his conversion experience, which took place in Japan, in front of a very large buddha statue.

15 minutes later I was wrapping up my tour, shaking hands and thanking people for coming. There were a lot of smiles, and lots of “thank you’s” from those on my tour. The English woman who pointed out the door to the attic room in Lewis’s bedroom made a point to find me, and I could tell there was something she wanted to tell me from the look on her face.

“Hi,” she said, greeting me. “You mentioned that you thought it odd that Warnie came back to Christianity in front of a buddha statue, but I wanted to tell you I didn’t think that was weird.”

She explained to me how she thought all religions were ultimately trying to achieve the same thing, and so it shouldn’t be odd that one religious figure leads us to another religion, since they’re all leading to the same point. As best as I could, I tried to tell her why I disagreed.

Standing in the front hallway of the Kilns, as those from our tour shuffled from the front dining room where they were signing the guest book to the front door, I told her about the group I had started with several friends here in Oxford, the Oxford Open Forum, and how, after listening to people from so many different religions, it was clear to me that all religions really aren’t the same. I told her it was only after hearing, first-hand, just what each of the world’s major religions believe, that I came to realize just how different they truly are.

She nodded her head politely, and I was less than convinced she was persuaded by my comments. Then, for a reason I am still unclear on, she began to tell me about her frustrations with Christianity.

“Christianity just seems so concerned with rules and with laws,” she said to me, wearing a look of frustration.

This was not a conversation I was expecting to have when I arrived at the Kilns that morning, but, again, as politely as possible, I tried to explain why I disagreed.

“It’s kind of funny to hear you say that,” I said to her, “because that’s not what I think of at all when I think of Christianity.”

I went on to explain to her why I thought otherwise.

“To me, that seems like a very rigid, law-based religion, and that’s not Christianity at all.”

“There are plenty of religions that say you must do X, Y and Z in order to get A, B and C,” I continued, “but that’s not what I find in Christianity. The reason Christianity is so different from so many other religions is because, in Christianity, we find God coming as Jesus Christ and saying, ‘You cannot earn this, but I will do this on your behalf.'”

I went on to tell this woman that not only did I think this was an incredible distinguishing mark of Christianity, I also thought it was beautiful.

Again, she nodded her head, politely, and, again, I was less than convinced I had persuaded her to think differently. But I hoped I had at least given her something to consider. Shaking her hand and thanking her, again, for coming, I hoped, secretly, that she might have a second look at Christianity and realize it’s a bit more radical, and far more beautiful, than she had previously believed.

Music to my ears in the park

I returned home that afternoon to find Jen in bed. She hadn’t been feeling well, and she was doing her best to sleep it off.

I shared with her about my experience at the Kilns, and about the conversation with the English woman who joined us, before making my way downstairs to work on some reading. It was a sunny day, and the light from the spring afternoon shone through the front windows as I worked away.

I had planned on attending an open-air lecture that evening at a nearby park. South Park. The lecture was to be given by an Oxford Professor of Mathematics by the name of John Lennox.

I didn’t know who John Lennox was when I arrived in Oxford, but I had heard of him shortly after I arrived and I was blown away by some of his past talks, which I listened to online. Not only is Professor Lennox a brilliant mathematician, with an incredible body of work in his field, compiled during his time at both Cambridge and Oxford, he also regularly lectures on the topic of Faith and Science. One of his passions, it seems, is to show others that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that you do not have to throw out your faith simply because you consider yourself an intellectual.

It was a message I was drawn to from the start, and his speaking ability was as engaging as I have found. When I heard he would be giving this lecture at a nearby park, on a sunny spring evening, I knew I was in.

Jen had been planning on going with me, but, as she had not been feeling well, she decided to sit this one out. I told her I’d be happy to stay home and continue to work on my studies, just in case there was anything she needed me to do for her, but she insisted I go. I made sure this wasn’t one of those offers husbands are supposed to turn down, and hear about how they failed later if they don’t, but she didn’t budge. So I went.

South Park is in the direction of the Kilns. On the other side of Oxford. So I made my way across town on my bike once again, and 20 minutes later I was locking it up on the outside gate of the large park with its stretching green lawns. There were several tents set up as I made my way across the park, and people were beginning to gather beneath the high canopies as I arrived about 10 minutes early.

I recognized a few people there, but I found a seat about 20 feet back from center stage and took a seat in the lawn. Resting on my elbows, with my feet stretched out in front of me, I couldn’t help but think it was a perfect afternoon to be outside.

The evening’s lecture began with a bit of singing, as it was being hosted by several local churches, and it had a candidly evangelical bent. Many of those in the crowd raised their hands in the air as they sang, with eyes closed, even as they looked upward. The sound of voices singing praises hung in the air and drifted from the speakers on the stage, making their way to the surrounding neighborhoods. I found myself looking at those walking by, on the sidewalks that lined the park, and wondering to myself what they thought of all of this.

After several songs, an introduction was made by a local vicar (pastor) and John Lennox took the stage to a roar of clapping from the crowd.

Lennox is a large man, in his 50’s, with a head of white hair that has receded from the top of his head and settled around his ears and the base of the back of his head. He is from Ireland, and his voice rings beautifully with his rich Irish accent. He rolls each “r” sound, as if to emphasize its presence in each word, and I love it.

He spoke a lot about science, as one who is well established in the field of mathematics, and how those in the New Atheism camp like to argue that science has basically killed any reason to believe in God. His main point seemed to be to show that this is a farce, and that science was never intended to deal with spiritual matters. He began by explaining that, like anything, science has limits, and that spiritual matters is one of them.

He used an analogy I thought was beautiful to explain his point.

He told us a story about his Aunt Matilda who, he informed us, loved to bake cakes. He went on to explain that one could approach Matilda with every form of scientific testing available, but that it would ultimately prove unable to show why she baked cakes. He explained that science can’t tell us why she baked a cake because it’s beyond science’s reach. That’s not to say science cannot tell you many other things about Aunt Matilda and her cake, but not the reasoning behind Matilda’s baking. In the same way, he went on to explain, science can tell us many things about the world around us, and even about the humans that inhabit it, but there are many questions about the world and about us that it simply cannot answer for us, because it was never intended to. Many such questions fall under the label of “spiritual.”

Professor Lennox went on to tell us about a talk he once gave at a physicist convention and how, after his talk, one of the physicists approached him and asked him some fairly pointed questions about his faith. Apparently one of those questions was how he, as a mathematician, could hold onto his beliefs about God, knowing what he knows about science.

He told us how he agreed to respond to this man’s question, but how, before doing so, he asked the man a question in response. He told us how he asked this physicist to explain to him what consciousness is. The physicist was puzzled, he told us, both by his seemingly unrelated question, and as to how he might answer. And so, Lennox explained to us, he asked the physicist an easier question. Something more related to his field.

“What is energy?”

Lennox shared with the crowd how the physicist made some remarks about what energy does, but how, when Lennox continued to press him to describe not what energy does but what it is, he was unable.

“And so you see,” he shared with the crowd in his rich Irish accent, “Science does not have all the answers.”

He went on to explain that there are many questions science cannot answer, particularly those of a spiritual nature. How there are those who will try to tell you that science has disproved any reason for belief in God, but that is simply false. And how, ultimately, science was never intended to answer such questions.

And as I sat there in this crowd that had gathered at South Park in Oxford on a warm spring evening, a smile stretched across my face. I was filled with a great joy at this man’s ability to clear away the fog with his sharp thinking and illustrative analogies.

Listening to Lennox speak reminded me, quite strongly, of my first experience with C. S. Lewis’s writing. Another brilliant man from North Ireland, and a man who often passed by this very same park on his long walks between Magdelene College and his home at the Kilns. A man who a young John Lennox had heard lecture during his studies at Cambridge University. And, as Professor Lennox continued to speak on the topic of Science, Theology and New Atheism, his words rang with clarity, logic and truth of the kind I have rarely found, filling the park with beautiful music to my ears.

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.

 

Saturday: Museum & Mere Christianity

Cole had told me on Friday over tea that he was planning on visiting the Ashmoleon the next day. A museum here in Oxford just down the street from the Eagle & Child. I told him I had been wanting to go since arriving, but that I hadn’t found anytime. I told him I’d love to join him now that the term was wrapped up. So I did.

Jen woke up with a headache Saturday morning. She powered her way through a workout with some of her girlfriends here in Oxford, but she didn’t have much in her after that. She told me to go on ahead and visit the Ashmoleon with Cole without her. And to pick her up some coffee on the way home. So I did.

The Ashmoleon is a beautiful building. With large stone columns and a circulating glass door welcoming visitors. Inside, the building is quite modern, with minimalistic features that seem to stand back and let the museum sights take center stage.

Cole arrived at the museum shortly after I did that rainy afternoon. He had been held up at the post office, mailing some subscriptions of The Chronicle (the Oxford CS Lewis Society’s quarterly publication).

“Sorry, I hate being late,” he apologized as we entered the museum’s Ancient Egypt display.

He then told me he had a gift for me. And to close my eyes. So I did.

It’s an awkward feeling closing your eyes in a public place. You immediately feel vulnerable. I half-opened my eyes after a few seconds, only to see Cole struggling with something in his pocket.

“Keep ’em closed!” he said sharply.

I closed my eyes firmly and lifted my hands to receive the gift. A second later I felt the hard cover of a book fall into my open palms, opening my eyes to gaze over the worn blue cover.

“Oh wow,” I said aloud, turning the book over to read the spine.

Mere Christianity, it read, in faded gold letters.

“No way…,” I said, two or three times.

“It’s a first edition,” Cole informed me with a grin that spread from one side of his face to the other.

“No way,” I said again, but this time louder.

“Oh man, no way!” I said once more, turning the book over in my hands and opening the cover to check. Sure enough, it was. A first edition copy of Mere Christianity. The book that led me to come here to Oxford.

“I’ve never even seen a first-edition copy of this book!” I told him. “Cole, thank you so much. Really, this is incredibly generous.”

Cole told me he had found it at the used bookstore here in Oxford. The one across from Christ Church. Near where he lives. St. Philip’s. And that he wanted to give it to me as a gift. To congratulate me on finishing my first term at Oxford. And as a Christmas gift.

I was stunned.

Somehow I’ve become the kind of guy who receives first edition copies of CS Lewis’ books as gifts, and I’m not quite sure how that works. But it’s amazing. It probably has more to do with the incredible people who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet than with anything about me. But I’m so grateful for it. The books and the amazing friendships.

Sunday: Worrying about tongues

Jennifer and I slept in Sunday morning. On purpose. St. Andrew’s, the church just down the street from where we live, was having their monthly “all ages” service, which we had been told was actually geared more toward the quite young than “all ages.” We had been told it would be a good chance to try out any other churches in Oxford we might be interested in, if we were wanting to do so.

I’m in no way a fan of “church-shopping,” but we thought we’d skip the children’s service this time around and try something else.

We had a dinner that night. At Harris Manchester. And so we found ourselves near the city center right around the time two of our good friends Rob & Vanessa normally go to church. St. Aldate’s.

We gave them a call while walking toward the church, only to find that they were actually going to a different service this weekend, unfortunately. But since we were there, and since we had been wanting to go check it out, we did.

I had heard a lot of great stuff about this church. That the teaching was the best in Oxford. And that it was a really lively, contemporary service. I was excited to experience it.

I had also heard it was a church were speaking in tongues sometimes happens. Which is something I’m not familiar with. I’ve never attended a church where that is practiced. And so, while I was excited, I was also a little anxious about what exactly that might be like. And whether it was going to happen while we were there.

But, as anyone knows who has ever visited a church, you never visit a church for a “normal” service. For some reason, whenever you visit a new church, they end up having a guest speaker, a missionary from Uganda, or some sort of special event going on. That’s just how it works.

On the Sunday evening we attended, they were saying “goodbye” to one of their pastors who was leaving to help out with a missionary organization. Sure enough, the no-normal-service for-visitors rule was in full effect.

St. Aldates is a beautiful church. With large stone columns that shoot up into the looming ceiling all throughout the room. Stone walls and floor. And large stained glass windows on the walls. It’s a mix of ancient and modern, with flatscreen monitors hanging from the stone columns, and large glass doors welcoming people as they enter.

It wasn’t very full when we arrived, but it quickly filled up as the worship band took the stage. We found a couple seats several rows back from the front, just to the right of the stage.

And it was a great service. With one of the most amazing times of worship that I’ve experienced in a long, long time. But I found myself halfway wondering, “Okay, are they going to start speaking in tongues now?” And I was anxious. Wondering to myself what I was supposed to do when it happens.

This went on for quite a while. About halfway through the worship service. I found myself thinking, “Wait, are they speaking in tongues now? No, they can’t be. I can understand that still.”

And it was distracting. But then, out of nowhere, I felt like He was telling me I wasn’t actually doing what I was supposed to be doing. That I really shouldn’t be wondering whether this was going to happen or not. That my focus should be on Him, and not on my neighbor. Or on the guy on the stage.

And He was right. I was there for Him. And once I felt His gentle reminder, the Worship time was amazing.

I told Jen later I ended up crying during the Worship service. Don’t be surprised. I’m a cryer. But it was just an amazing time. One of those times where you feel as though it’s just you and Him. Like you’ve been invited to this private time with The Lord. And you find Him resting His arm on your shoulder and speaking in a warm, strong voice that feels a bit like a combination of your childhood blanket and the smell of your Grandma’s kitchen when she bakes, saying, “This, this is what you were created for.”

A Pipeless Ryan

As we crawled into bed that night, I told Jen I wanted to get a pipe. After walking by several people through town in Oxford who were smoking a pipe. And each time being reminded of my Grandpa. By the smell. Each time feeling like I was a young boy sitting in his living room again, while he sat back in his chair and puffed on his pipe, holding it with one hand.

But Jen said, “No.” She said it’s not good for me. And that I should know that.

I told her she was confusing pipes with cigarettes. She didn’t seem to agree. I don’t think I’ll be getting a pipe after all.

Tuesday:  Dinner with Walter

Walter had us over for dinner on Tuesday night. We were both looking forward to that, as Walter’s home is such a cozy place. It’s one of those places that makes you feel like you’re at home, even though you’re not.

And Walter’s the quintessential host. Making sure you always have food in hand and that your glass doesn’t drop below half full, even while keeping the conversation going.

We sat in his living room with the fire ablaze and Blessed Lucy of Narnia (his cat) asleep on the back of the couch. Jen in the chair across from me, and Walter seated on the couch facing the fireplace. It was so nice, particularly after a full day of studying.

We ate “soft cheese” on crackers. Walter told us if he were stuck on a deserted island and could only eat one thing for the rest of his life, that it’d be cheese and crackers. He asked Jen what she’d choose if she were in the same situation, and she said pizza. I saw that one coming a mile away. I said I’d take chicken.

We talked a bit about the different ways to prepare chicken (Walter loves to talk about cooking) before he excused himself to the kitchen to tend to dinner preparations. He told us to make ourselves comfortable. And to look around, if we liked. So I did.

I looked through his bookshelves. A really good variety, with a fair amount of Tolkein scattered throughout.

I noticed a lack of C.S. Lewis books on Walter’s shelves, so I asked him about it. Calling into the kitchen.

Walter entered the living room a few moments later and told me to follow him. He led us down the hallway and into his bedroom. He asked us to excuse the mess as we crossed to the far corner of the room, where a large hutch stood. Probably seven-feet tall. With glass doors.

He opened the doors to reveal shelf after shelf of Lewis’ works. Sorted by book. Three-feet of Mere Christianity. Two-feet of Screwtape Letters. Another several feet of Surprised by Joy copies. And on and on. All very old.

I was stunned. It was amazing.

Walter reached to the far left corner of the top shelf and pulled out a very old, very thin book and handed it to me. Spirits in Bondage read the title. By Clive Hamilton. I had never heard of it.

Walter explained that this was the first book Lewis ever had published. That he wrote it under the pen name of “Clive Hamilton” after returning from the war. When we has just 20 years old.

“He wasn’t yet a Christian at this time,” Walter explained.

Walter opened the book cover to reveal the signature “Clive Hamilton” scrawled across the first page. Lewis had signed it for Walter shortly after they met, he told me with a beaming smile on his face.

I was still staring down at the book with big eyes when Walter excused himself again to return to the kitchen and finish preparing dinner. He told us to help ourselves and to have a look at the rest of his collection, which I was happy to do. I had never seen so many first edition copies of Lewis, or anyone else for that matter, in my life. It was amazing.

I handed Spirits in Bondage over to Jen and told her to hold it just so she could say she had. She wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was, but she was a good sport anyways.

We had a great time catching up with Walter over dinner. And dessert by the fire after that. Jen had made pumpkin bars with icing. Walter loved them. He asked where we got the pumpkin for it and we told him that my grandfather had sent us several cans. That we still had some if he’d like one. I told him I’d bring one by the next time we were over, and he nodded with a large smile and thanked me.

I love our time at Walter’s place.

Wednesday: A no good, very bad day

Wednesday wasn’t a good day. It started off not so good and it ended even worse.

I hopped on my bike and headed to the Theology Faculty Library that morning. To pick up a book before spending the day at the Harris Manchester Library to get some studying in. On my way out of the Faculty Library, I threw my bag over my shoulder only to find it drop hard on the pavement.

I was a bit stunned. I had no idea what had happened, and I stood there gawking at my bag as it sat on the pavement. The ring fastening my shoulder strap to my bag had snapped, apparently, from the weight of my books.

“Ridiculous,” I thought to myself as I searched for the other half of the snapped ring. People walked by, probably wondering what I was doing with my head down on the wet pavement. I picked up the other half of the ring, after searching for several minutes, stuffed it into my pocket, just in case, and I boarded my bike, struggling to ride. One hand on the handlebars, the other on my bag, wedged between my knees as I rode through the city center.

“Great way to start the day,” I thought to myself.

The air was cold as I stepped out of Harris Manchester that night. I had been studying all day, and now I was heading back home. To meet Jen for dinner. I made my way to my bike only to find the lock had frozen. I struggled with it for several minutes before finally giving up.

I went back into Harris Manchester to get a cup of hot water. I poured it over the lock and steam rose into the cold night air as the warm water rushed off the lock and onto the pavement. I tried my lock again and it opened easily.

“Thank goodness,” I thought to myself.

It was at this point that my bag, which I had been resting on my bike fell onto the pavement. Again. Spilling much of its contents.

I shook my head, hunched down close to the ground and began picking up my belongings and stuffing them back into my bag. Including each of the colorful paperclips that had scattered across the dark street.

Back on my bike, I was happy to be heading home. There, I hoped, things would be better.

I turned the corner after leaving Harris Manchester to see a police officer talking with a guy on a bike on the sidewalk. Two seconds later I was being asked to pull over myself. By another cop. I nearly didn’t stop, not quite realizing what he was saying.

He asked me where my headlights and taillights were. I told him I didn’t have any. He told me he’d be giving me a ticket for not having any lights.

“Of course you are,” I thought to myself. “Of course I’m going to get pulled over on my bike after the way this day has gone.”

I smiled while the police officer told me how important it was to have lights on my bike. I continued to smile while he told me it’d be a £30 fine ($50). And I was still smiling when he explained how to go about paying for it. It was that or get upset, and I knew that wasn’t going to help me out at all. So I just stood there and grinned like a baffoon.

“Of course,” I thought to myself.

I walked my bike back home that night. After the officer told me I probably wouldn’t be ticketed if I got pulled over again, but that they would be the ones who would have to clean up after me if I were hit. And they wouldn’t want that.

He had a way with words, that guy.

Sunday: A 16-Mile Walk in London

We took a trip to London after spending the week in Oxford. We hadn’t been there since the previous summer. And, since Jen’s camera was stolen just before we returned home on that trip, we were excited to snap some more photos around the city.

Some friends of Lyndon & Mim offered to put us up for the weekend, after hearing that we were going to be visiting the city. As London prices are through the roof, we were happy to accept their offer.

We had mapped out everything we wanted to see the night before. The couple we were staying with said that’d be a lot to see in one day. We told them we’d give it our best.

We started off at the Tower of London, a 15-minute walk from their home. It’s an old castle built in 1066. Right on the River Thames.

It used to have a moat. And catapults. It’s still pretty impressive. We didn’t get a chance to tour this time, but we’re hoping to on our next visit.

From there, we crossed over the river on the Tower Bridge. It was a beautiful day, too. Cold, but sunny with blue skies. We really couldn’t have asked for better weather.

We were walking through a cobblestone alley when we came across the ruins of Winchester Palace. Built in the 12th-century, this wall and a handful of stones are all that remain.

The Eye of London is a giant ferris wheel built right on the River Thames.

It’s pretty incredible how large it is, and it gives incredible views of the city (from what we’re told). We didn’t have time to find out, though, as we had lots to see.

But after so much walking I decided to lie down for a bit and get some shut-eye before making the rest of the journey. Jen was kind enough to keep watch for a bit while I did…*

[*NOTE: Ryan&JenGoToEngland does not support the practice of drinking and passing out on the street in London. But it does support a good joke. A half-pint of ale sitting by itself on the sidewalk was simply too good to pass up.]

From there we came up to Big Ben and Parliament, which are simply an incredible sight. It’s hard to put into words the size of this place, and all of the architecture work that went into it. It’s breathtaking, really.

Jen caught this photo of the front of Parliament. I was happy to see they had set up a Christmas tree. Apparently no one has told them that’s not politically correct, yet.

From Parliament, we made our way to Westminster Abbey. Another place that just blows you away with its size.

I told Jen it’d be crazy to be the pastor at this church, week in and week out. Right across the street from Parliament.

We had a bit of a walk to our next stop: Buckingham Palace. It was beginning to get dark by the time we arrived. But it was a beautiful sight at night.

I saw an Asian guy who was jumping into the air just before getting his photo taken in front of Buckingham Palace. I thought I’d get in on the action. . .

There’s an enormous statue of Queen Victoria that sits just outside the Buckingham Palace gates. With lights shining on it in the night, it was quite the sight.

Christmas time is an amazing time to be in London. They really do a great job decorating. Like this hotel on the West side of the city.

When my Dad heard we were visiting London, he told us we had to go see Harrods. That it’s something else during Christmas time. We had been before. Last summer. But he was right. It was quite the sight, all draped in Christmas lights. And the store-front windows were each decorated with a Christmas theme.

Harrods is a pretty incredible place. If you’ve never heard of it, they’re famous for saying you can find anything you want there. And if they don’t have it, they’ll get it for you. Anything. Like an airplane.

I didn’t get an airplane, but we did pick up a couple Christmas gifts.

After dinner at a pub called Head of Nails (which was amazing, by the way; great food and great service), we made our way back across town. And we were glad we walked, as there was so much Jen wanted to stop and take photos of.

London at night, in December, is a beautiful place to be.

We walked along the river on our way back. Taking in the sights. And stopping every few minutes so Jen could snap photos.

It was cold, and we were both tired from the long day, but it was also a stunning view to take in.

We were both happy when we made it back to where we were staying. To rest our legs after a full day of walking.

The couple we were staying with, Andy and Anna, greeted us at the door when we walked in shortly after 9:00 that night. And asked how our day was. We told them we had a great time. And we walked through our day. Telling them about everything we had seen. And how we had decided to walk, rather than take the bus.

They couldn’t believe it when they heard all we had done. Andy thought we must’ve walked 25 miles. Turns out we only walked 16. . .

Monday: A Surprise Christmas

Going into this term, we were planning on spending Christmas in Oxford. Jen’s sister Leann and her husband Ben were expecting their first child in January, and she was planning on flying home after the New Year to be around for that. As much as we wanted to, we simply couldn’t afford to fly me home for Christmas, and so we were planning on spending the holidays here in Oxford.

Knowing we wouldn’t be flying home for Christmas, Steve was planning on flying out. To spend it with us.

That’s what we were planning on doing, but that all changed when Steve came out to visit.

When he was here with us, Steve shared with us an idea he had. He told us he had been thinking a lot about Christmas, and how it would be Jen’s parents’ first Christmas without Hayley. And now, with us overseas, it’d be their first Christmas without Jen, too.

He had a point. That was going to make an already difficult time that much more difficult.

He told us that instead of flying out to spend Christmas with us, he wanted to fly me back home for the holidays. He suggested we book Jen’s ticket for earlier in December, rather than January, as we had been planning, and that way we could be home for Christmas. And make things a bit brighter for the family. That we could even surprise them. So we did. . .

Monday morning we woke up at 5:30 in London, grabbed our bags and made the long trek across the city, on the underground, before fighting holiday traffic in London Heathrow and finally boarding our flight, en route to the States.

We were both ecstatic to be flying home for the holidays. Excited to see the look of shock on our family’s faces when we surprised them.

13 hours in the air and two flights later, Steve greeted us at the airport. It was so good to see him again. We grabbed a quick bite in Seattle and made the hour and a half drive home.

27 hours after waking up in London, we walked through the front door of Jen’s parents’ house and creeped up the stairs, where they were watching TV.

“Merry Christmas!” Jen shouted as we climbed to the top of the stairs.

They were surprised to see us, to be sure. . .

After several seconds of a state of shock, Jen’s Mom yelled, “You’re supposed to be in England!”

We traded long hugs as they smiled and told us how happy they were to see us. And how thankful they were to have us home for Christmas.

I pointed toward Steve and told them they had him to blame. Then I asked if they minded putting us up for the holidays.

“Of course not,” Rhonda said with a warm smile.

Tuesday: More surprises

After a bit of hibernation, we woke up late Tuesday morning, got ready and headed into town. To surprise my family.

We went to my Mom’s office and I told the receptionist I was there to see her. She told me she’d let her know and asked us to have a seat. So we did.

A few minutes later, my Mom opened the door to the waiting room and just stared at us for several seconds. We smiled back. She then covered her mouth and ran to us.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, giving each of us huge hugs. She cried, and I cried too. I get it from her, I think. The tears. She apologized to the other lady in the waiting room, and explained how we had just returned from England as a surprise.

She didn’t appear too impressed. After a “Oh, that’s nice,” she returned to her Lady’s Home Journal.

Mom asked if we minded waiting for a few minutes so she could wrap up with a patient and then take us out to lunch. We told her we’d be happy to.

From there, we drove to my Sister’s work. My Sister is currently studying nursing, and she’s working part-time at a local elderly home. I asked the receptionist where I might find her, and she told us she was working on the third floor. And that we were welcome to go see her. So we did.

A short elevator ride and then we were wandering the maze-like hallways. We spent about 10 minutes walking the halls before we saw anyone.

I rounded a corner and saw Lucy walking with another worker. Both walking toward us. Lucy stared straight at me. Continuing to walk and talk with her co-worker. With a dead-pan look on her face, like she wasn’t quite sure what was going on.

I couldn’t help but smile, and soon she did, too. Her eyes went huge and she ran into my arms.

I gave her the tightest hug as she buried her head into my shoulder. And I held her as she sobbed. it was so good to see her again.

We had a great time surprising the rest of my family that day.

My grandma was surprised. . .

My brother was surprised, too.

So much so that he cussed when he saw us.

“What the heck are you doing here?!” he shouted when he saw us. But he didn’t say “heck.”

My grandpa was surprised to see us, too. He opened the door, looked at us and just smiled.

He almost didn’t let us in, though. He asked us if we were ghosts or if we were real. We told him we were real.

I don’t think it fully hit him we were there until he let us in and we gave him a hug. I held him for a while. It was so good to see him again. And I told him that.

He told us he had just returned from the post office. He had sent us another package. And we’d now have two packages waiting for us when we got back to Oxford. He’s an amazing Grandpa.

A Very Merry Christmas

The past several months have been a whirlwind. They’ve simply felt unreal, in so many ways. And after all of the experiences in Oxford, it’s so nice to be home for a bit and spend this Christmas with our family.

What a wonderful gift. Steve, thank you for making this happen. You are simply the most incredible friend anyone could ask for.

I am so thankful for all of this. For the opportunity to study at my dream school. To meet some amazing people in Oxford and experience all we have in such a short time. And to be able to return home to spend the holidays with those we love.

I hope your Christmas is a special one. I hope it’s filled with lots of smiles and laughter. I hope it’s spent with those you love, and with those who love you.

And as you do, I hope you find a special way to celebrate the day our Rescuer showed up in our story. To provide a way to bring us home. The greatest gift we could ever hope for.

Merry Christmas. And 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.

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