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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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A Desire for Brains & Just Two More Weeks

I woke up one morning about halfway through Trinity (spring) Term to start my day–another long one spent working on revisions for final exams in the library at Harris Manchester College–and pulled on my jeans only to notice how loose they fit. I had hardly noticed it, but all of a sudden I could tell I had lost some serious weight. That’s what happens, I guess, when I’m spending so much time revising for finals that I don’t hkeave time to eat a second dinner at night.

I was just a couple weeks away from finals, at this point, and I was really beginning to feel the pressure. Not only was I fighting off fatigue, from day after long day spent in the library revising (usually arriving just after 9.00 in the morning, staying until the doors closed at 11.00 in the evening, and then returning to the Kilns to study for several more hours), but I was also worrying about how much material I had left to cover. I was worried about whether or not I was going to be able to get through everything I wanted to cover before exams arrived.

But, after several months of day-after-day of this routine, mostly I was just fighting off feeling like a zombie.

On one afternoon, in particular, I stumbled out of the Radcliffe Camera after several uninterrupted hours of Old Testament revisions, into the sunlight and in desperate need of a coffee. And I felt like a zombie, stumbling about on the cobblestone footpath as tourists walked by with their cameras in the afternoon sun.

The words, “Brains, brains,…” came to mind, as I made my way to the coffee shop, like some undead creature straight out of a 1960’s low-budget zombie flick. And given my current state, that of preparing for final exams, the irony of a desire for brains was cutting.

I took 15 minutes to spoil myself with a sandwich and coffee, which I enjoyed in the sun-drenched lawn that circles the Rad Cam. Black metal gates separate the Radcliffe Camera and its green grass lawn from street traffic, leaving tourists standing on the outside looking in, snapping photos. Sitting on the stone bench enjoying my caffeine and sandwich, with tourists in sunglasses snapping photos staring at me and the Rad Cam, I had never felt so much like a zoo exhibit in my life.

“Just two more weeks…,” I thought to myself as I finished my coffee and made my way back inside the Rad Cam for more revisions.

Missing Home

Following a week’s worth of intensive revisions, I woke up Saturday morning really missing home. I had had my head down on studies so much of the time that I had hardly had a chance to think about missing home for a while. But then, all of a sudden, it caught up with me like a wave.

I found myself missing Jen, and just wanting to be with her again. Thinking about being together with her again, I found myself trying to remember how she smells when I hug her. I wondered if I’d recognize the smell of her perfume when I saw her again, and then I tried to reassure myself that I would, in fact, smell her perfume again.

I found myself just missing having that someone to talk with, to share life with, and to be honest with. The thing is, when you’re married, you can say things to your spouse you can’t say to anyone else. Things you’re thinking. The kind of things that, if you were to share with anyone else, they’d think you were just plain evil. But you can share them with your spouse, because they know you’re evil. Because they live with you.

I found myself missing my family back in the States. I was missing all my favorite spots back in the Northwest, by the water, with the snow-capped mountains in the background. I was missing our favorite restaurants and late nights spent at the lake in the summer.

But riding my bike home from the market on this particular sunny Saturday morning, I reminded myself that I’m not always going to have sunny Saturday mornings at the Kilns. And as much as I was missing home, I tried to remind myself that I really ought to enjoy this while it lasts.

Casting Crowns at the Kilns

The following day was Mother’s Day back in the States (its one of those holidays that is celebrated on a different date here in the UK), and so I made sure to ring up my mom to wish her a happy one.

She was surprised to hear from me, it seemed, but very happy to hear my voice, at the same time. Being neck-deep in revisions, I really hadn’t had much extra time to talk with anyone back home as much as I normally did.

A couple of the members from the band Casting Crowns had stopped by the Kilns that afternoon for a tea, as they were in the area and a recent short-term scholar in residence here at the house had invited them over. It was great to meet them, though I had to excuse myself after just a few minutes to work on my Greek.

“Guess who’s here at the house?” I asked my Mom during our call.

“Who?”

“Have you heard of Casting Crowns?”

“No way! I remember going to their show last summer,” she told me, in a voice that rang of excitement.” Do you think they’ll remember me?”

I smiled, and I told her I was sure they would.

A Real Decision on Our Hands

I was working from the library in Harris Manchester the next day when I received an e-mail from Duke. They apologized for the delay, and explained that they were now forwarding me a letter dated from nearly a month earlier, which congratulated me on being accepted for the Master’s program in Theology, starting in August.

It was now nearly June, and apparently the original letter was sent to me on April 19. Only a few weeks after I submitted my application.

Reading over the acceptance letter, I found myself so excited, and I couldn’t help but smile from my second-story desk in the HMC library.

I rode my bike home that evening laughing to myself in the darkness as I passed through the city center. Laughing at the fact that, less than two years after leaving home, leaving a job in marketing and PR, I now had offers to study graduate-level Theology at both Oxford and Duke.

It all just seemed so unreal to me. But now, at last, we had a real decision on our hands.

Feeling Tired & Feeling Refreshed

Just a couple days later, I found myself feeling incredibly tired. For the first time, I felt so tired from the long days of studying that I felt like I no longer cared about my final exam marks as much as I longed just to be done.

I felt sore from sitting on the hard, wooden library chairs for hours on end, day after day. So much so that it hurt to sit down in the morning.

I also began having this terrible fear that I wouldn’t be able to recall anything I had been studying when my final exams finally arrived. This thought would wake me up at night, and I’d have trouble getting back to sleep.

I pictured myself sitting to take my exam, flipping open my question set and drawing a blank. I pictured myself sitting in that massive room upstairs in the Exams Schools, filled with other finalists, and just staring at my paper for three hours…

And then, in the midst of these fears and fatigue, seemingly out of nowhere, I remembered the look on Hayley’s face when she first found out I had been accepted to Oxford. I found myself picturing the look of sadness in her eyes when she knew we would soon be leaving. And then I remembered her words that came just a few days later, through text message:

I know you’re going to impact a lot of lives. You have mine.”

Those were the last words she sent me before she passed away, two years earlier.

And then, just as suddenly, I found myself looking forward to the arrival of our baby girl, Emma. And a smile spread across my face as I pictured her growing up before our eyes.

I felt myself realizing that, one day, she will ask me me about this time. About our journey to England and our time in Oxford. And it was then, when I pictured Emma asking about this experience at some far off future date, that I knew I will want to tell her I gave it my all. I knew I would want to tell her that it was worth it, to not be by her mother’s side all those months. And that her mother did not go through all of that for nothing.

And when I had considered of all that, I found myself realizing, no matter how tired I was of this seeming endless routine, no matter how completely exhausted I was, I simply could not give this any less than my all.

Refreshing Words of Encouragement

It was later that same day when I received a phone call from a professor friend of mine from the States. Steve. I met Steve last year, while giving a tour of the Kilns to a group of his students, and we had stayed in touch ever since.

Steve’s a big-time CS Lewis fan, which I appreciate, and he’s also one of the kindest people I have ever met in my life. He’s one of those few people who, when you’re talking with them, make you feel as though there is nothing else at all going on in the world.

There were several Lewis scholars from the States who just so happened to be in Oxford for a few days, on their way to different places in England and other parts of Europe, and who were gathering at The Trout for dinner that evening. Steve phoned to ask if I’d be interested in sharing a cab ride to the restaurant, and I told him that sounded like the perfect break from revisions.

I filled Steve in on our situation since we last spoke as the cab carried us from the city center through Port Meadow, Wolvercote, and finally to our restaurant. I told Steve that, after sharing some rather disappointing news with him previously, we now had two options, and a decision to make.

“Oh, good. Ryan, when you told me that news initially, I was so sorry, but I also just had this feeling that everything was going to turn out wonderfully,” Steve told me in a voice of encouragement and a confident smile. “And it appears it has.”

I was beaming from my seat in the rear of the cab, seated across from Steve on the bench seat, knowing how tough a time that had been, and, at the same time, how thankful I was to now have such options.

“Well, either way, they are both great options, Ryan,” Steve said to me as our cab pulled up to the front of the restaurant. “Congratulations. You’ve worked hard, and you’ve earned it!”

I thanked Steve for his kind words, for his encouragement along the way, and we made our way inside the Trout, only to find Walter Hooper, Jerry Root, Christopher Mitchell, and the rest of the gang standing at the bar. After a round of “Hellos,” “Heys,” and hugs, we ordered our food at the bar and took our drinks to the outdoor patio, that overlooks the rushing river passing by.

I met a woman who had only just accepted a teaching position at Duke, and who had completed her DPhil here at Oxford several years earlier. We talked about the funny nuances of studying at Oxford as an American, about the characters you run into in the basement of the Radcliffe Camera, and about our options for the following year.

After several hours of laughter and great company, our group walked the 10-minute journey to the Wolvercote bus stop, with the smell of Jerry’s pipe tobacco floating through the air. It was the perfect accent to the view of the sunset going down over Port Meadow.

We caught a bus back to the city center, and when I said my goodbyes, Jerry lifted me off the ground with a bear hug before holding my shoulders at arm’s length and making a point to encourage me in the work I was doing for the Oxford University CS Lewis Society.

“The Society is in very good shape,” he told me in his deep voice, with his eyes beaming from behind his thick glasses. “You should be proud.”

I thanked Jerry for the great evening, for his kind words, and then Steve and I walked together along Broad Street: he to his B&B, and I to Harris Manchester College.

We stopped at the corner where Lewis first stayed when he arrived in Oxford, just across the street from Harris Manchester, which also happens to be not far from the house Tolkien lived when he received his first book rejection letter (which Steve pointed out to me).

Steve gave me a large, warm hug, he told me it was a blessing to know me, and that if there was ever anything I needed from a Professor in Texas, just to let him know. I thanked him for his generosity, I told him the evening had been a breath of fresh air in a rather tired time, and that I looked forward to being in touch.

Walking back to the college library that evening, I felt more refreshed than I had in a long, long time. And I felt ready for the final stretch before exams.

Honored to Be a Godfather

I sat down at my computer at my second-story desk, still beaming from the evening’s dinner and conversation, when I opened up an e-mail from Olli. He wanted to invite me to he and Salla’s son’s baptism that weekend, and he asked if I’d be willing to be Tobias’s godfather.

He said it’d be a nice way to always stay in touch, even when we’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean. And even after such an incredible evening, I could not remember the last time I was so honored.

My Meeting with Philip

I had a meeting with Philip Kennedy the following afternoon, to discuss my collections results for Modern Theology, in preparation for finals.

We met in his office at 4.00 in the afternoon, and he apologize to me if he seemed tired, explaining that he had already had six meetings that day. I told him that was a lot of meetings for one day, and I thanked him for taking the time to meet with me.

We went over my collections results, and he told me he intentionally marks collections very strictly so as to motivate students to work extra hard for the real exams. And then, about halfway through our review of my results, he began telling me about a recent dinner he was at.

“I’m not very politically correct,” he said as a preface to his story, and which I interrupted by saying, “which I appreciate.”

He smiled, then continued.

“I was invited to this dinner event for the University when something very dangerous happened… They left me alone with a bishop!” he said to me with a look of shock. “That’s a very dangerous thing, as I nearly always say something that results in a fight!”

I laughed outloud.

“But I didn’t this time, because he was a nice man.”

At one point in the conversation he asked me how I would describe England.

“In two words,” I said, “to be brief, ‘Post-Christian.'”

He looked surprised.

“Well that’s very diplomatic of you,” he said, before rolling out a long list of rather negative descriptives, which ended with “hedonists.”

I told him I thought we were all hedonists. And he agreed.

Later on, he told me he didn’t envy me, bringing a baby into this world.

“It’s just such a horrible place,” he said, shaking his head and looking rather hopeless.

I told him I agreed, but that I was already preparing how I was going to teach her to handle it all. I told him I was writing her a letter.

“But she won’t be able to read when she arrives,” he pointed out to me.

“No, but she will one day.”

I told him there was this great quote from Mother Teresa that says,

Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”

I told him I thought there was something in that. I told him this quote reminded me of Jesus, and what he came to accomplish: not to run away from the pain and hurt and ugliness, nor to simply remove us from it, but to redeem it, from the inside out, and then to use us to continue that mission. Without getting tired.

I told Philip that I found reassurance in the fact that, even though things were really ugly at the moment, I was able to welcome Emma into the world knowing that things were going to be okay. Knowing that they were already being redeemed.

He smiled. And nodded. And we returned to our revisions discussion.

Falling Asleep on my Bike Ride Home

Riding home that night, I was so tired that I nearly stopped halfway up Headington Hill to walk the rest of the way, or to look for someone to walk my bike for me. But I kept going.

About halfway home after Headington Hill I began worrying that I’d fall asleep on the way home, while still on my bike, as I was so tired.

And then I imagined the headlines of the local newspapers the next day:

Oxford bus hits bicyclist. But not to worry, bus driver certain bicyclist was asleep.”

I was nearly home when I passed the palm tree that stands at the bottom of Kilns Lane. It’s branches were dry and brittle, and they hung heavy in the dark night air.

I nearly spoke outloud when I passed it, to tell it I knew how it felt. It had been a cold, long, and dark spring, and I was just barely hanging in there after the grueling, endless cycle of revisions.

Like the palm tree, there was only a hint of life left in me as I turned onto Lewis Close that evening and pulled into the Kilns.

“Just one more week before exams…,” I told myself as I slipped under my bed covers that evening and closed my eyes for a few hours of sleep.

False Alarm & A Different Ballgame

I woke up Saturday morning, just one week before my exams, with a mixture of excitement and anxiousness, all at the same time. I was excited to finally be getting close to just being done with this exhausting routine. At the same time, I was also anxious to actually sit down and know that this was it…

I spent the day in the library at college with my head down on studies, and several other finalists were doing the same. The look of anxiety and fatigue was visible on all our faces.

At one point in the afternoon I made my way downstairs to use the restroom, which is when I heard several jets pass by overhead, more loudly than I had ever heard before. And not just once, but several times.

My first thought was “Terrorists?” And then, “Would that mean finals are cancelled?”

I ran back upstairs to the library just as Mahdi and Evelina, two other finalists, came running out of the library.

“Is it terrorists?” Mahdi asked with an excited grin as we all looked out the windows toward the sky.

“We were hoping it’d be terrorists,” Evelina said, following after Mahdi with a smile, “So we wouldn’t have to take our exams.”

Turns out it wasn’t terrorists. Just a local airshow.

But that’s how bad things are just a week before Oxford finals: people would rather face a terrorist attack than their exams.

Dinner With John & John

I had dinner that evening with two of my good friends: John Ash and John Adams. Both Johns are studying theology at Wycliffe Hall here in Oxford, both of them are preparing to enter ministry full time, and all three of us were just a week away from starting finals.

We talked about theology and exams from our seats around the dinner table in John Ash’s dining room that evening as we ate. He mentioned a girl he had recently been talking with, before a revisions tutorial, who confessed to him that she hadn’t slept for more than two hours a night for the past several months, because of her anxiety over finals.

Apparently she shared with him that she had dreamt of coming to Oxford since she was just five years old, and that she had this terrible fear that her entire life was going to unravel before her eyes if she didn’t do well on these exams.

“And she was completely serious,” John said to us.

John Adams, whose wife is a doctor, talked about the fact that Oxford hospitals always see a spike in patients this time of year, because of finalists and anxiety, and that there was currently a four-week waiting period to get in.

“So, even if you are suffering from sleep deprivation…” he said, allowing his sentence to run off into silence, in a sign of hopelessness.

Just the week before, I had heard that about 60 percent of patients currently being seen at hospital in Oxfordshire are Oxford finalists.

I shared with the guys what I had been told by another finalist, a story about a finalist from the year before who had an offer from Harvard, and who had committed suicide just the week before exams because she couldn’t handle the pressure.

After a brief pause, John Ash went on to tell us what he said to this girl who had hardly slept in months, in light of her fear and anxiety.

“I’m not sure where she’s at, or what she believes, even, but after listening to her, I told her that I am not as worried as I could be,” he recounted to us.

“I told her I could be a lot more anxious, or worried, but I’m not, because millions of years after these exams have passed, when I am worshipping Jesus, I am confident no one is going to turn around and ask, ‘Hey John, by the way, how’d you do on your exams? Oh… Uh, are you sure you should be this close?'”

We all laughed, and John Adams nodded.

“That’s right,” John Adams said, now more serious. “We’ll be taking the same exams as everyone else, but it’s a completely different ball game for us.”

While my anxiety would only grow from that point on, in light of my approaching exams, that conversation would repeatedly come to mind, helping me fight off the thoughts that my life was going to completely unravel if I didn’t do well on my finals.

Last Week Before Exams

Tuesday morning was a warm, sun-drenched day as I made my way from the Kilns to the library on my bike. It was warm in a way it hadn’t been for ages.

The city smelled like flowers as I crossed over Magdalene Bridge and entered High Street, and all of a sudden it felt as though everything was waking up from a long, cold winter.

I passed by several finalists walking along High Street in their sub fuscs covered in glitter and paint, and I couldn’t help but smile. I couldn’t help but smile because I couldn’t wait to smile like that. I couldn’t wait to have my exams behind me, to be covered in confetti and silly string, and to be returning home to finally see Jen again.

And it made me excited, just to think about it. The finish line was so close I could taste it.

A Conversation With CS Lewis’s Stepson

Although I had a lot of work to get through, I took a break to head to the Oxford University CS Lewis Society Tuesday night. And although I had been terribly excited for the evening’s speaker, I struggled to step away from my work, feeling the pressure of my looming exams.

I had written an e-mail to CS Lewis’s Stepson, Douglas Gresham, earlier in the year, to see if he might be visiting Oxford in the near future, and to ask if he might be willing to address the Society when, and if, he did.

He had written back to me, not long after, and said that, while he didn’t have plans to visit the city, he very well might if he had an invitation. So I extended the invite and he warmly accepted it.

I had been looking forward to Douglas’s talk for some time, and it was a pleasure to hear, first-hand, his memories of his time here in Oxford with CS Lewis and his mother, Joy Davidman. To hear about his memories from living at the Kilns.

It was incredible to stand there, in the packed room of St John’s College, and to listen to his memories of what it was like to lose his mother to cancer, and then to share that grieving process with his stepfather, CS Lewis.

Very generously, after talking for nearly an hour, Douglas took questions until after 10.00 that night. Afterward, when he had signed several autographs and smiled for several photos, I walked him back to his hotel on High Street.

And as we walked, I thanked Douglas for his generosity, and for sharing such personal stories. He had shared with everyone about how painful it was not only to lose his mother to cancer, but also to lose his father to suicide, and his stepfather, CS Lewis, to heart failure.

“Everyone close to me was gone within just a few years,” he shared with the group.

I told him I really admired and appreciated his honesty, as not everyone is so open about such painful experiences.

“No,” he said with a pause, “but perhaps more should be.”

And I agreed.

A Voice of Confirmation

For the first time in a very long time, I woke up Wednesday morning nearly eight hours after going to bed. My body was desperate for sleep, and all of my tutors and supervisors had been emphasizing just how important it was to get plenty of rest that last week before finals began.

And even though I had slept for nearly eight hours, I felt like I had hardly slept at all. I was so anxious for exams to begin and my mind seemed to race, even in my sleep.

I made it to Harris Manchester just as the College library was opening that morning, and I ran into Sue, the librarian, halfway up the stone staircase that leads to the library.

After telling me “good morning,” and asking if I was getting any sleep these days, she went on to ask about my plans for after finals.

“Will you be returning next year, Ryan?” she asked.

“Well, we have an offer to do the MSt here,” I told her, ” but we also have an offer from Duke, back in the States.”

“Oh, well Duke’s a lovely school,” she said. “That’s not an easy decision.”

“No, it’s not,” I admitted. “And I’m not sure if you heard or not, but we’re expecting our first over the summer, so that’s an obvious attraction, too.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. And after pausing for a moment, and smiling, she looked me in the eyes and said rather matter-of-factly, “Well, Duke’s the right one,”

“Thank you, Sue,” I told her with a wide smile.

“Not that you have to go, mind you.”

“No, of course,” I said. “But thank you.”

The Last Day Before Finals

I woke up Friday morning, the last day before finals, feeling completely overwhelmed with anxiety. I felt like throwing up several times as I got ready to head to college, and I could not remember ever feeling so anxious in my life.

I met God in prayer several times on my bike ride to college that morning. I asked that He might help make the anxiety relent, and that I might be reminded to trust in Him.

And by the time I parked my bike at college, and after finishing several rounds of prayer, I felt like He was reminding me. I felt like He was reminding me that He had brought us here for His glory, and that He would see me through this, for His glory. I felt like He was reminding me that He would use all of this for His glory.

I was reading over notes and Scripture for my first final exam the following day, on the Old Testament, when I read Psalm 73. And as I sat there behind my desk on the second-story floor of the college library, comfort I cannot now describe swept over me as I read these words:

You hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterwards you will receive me

with honour.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion for ever.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

to tell of all your works.

And even though I had felt completely overwhelmed with anxiety only moments earlier, to the point of being sick to my stomach, I suddenly felt calm in a way I hadn’t in months. I suddenly felt ready to sit my final exams, which I would do in less than 24 hours.

The  Start of Trinity Term

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of Good News

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

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

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

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

“Dear Mr Ryan Pemberton,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Job Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Our Decision a Little Easier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guys’ Night Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News I Wasn’t Expecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding to Stick it Out

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

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

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

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

Chasing My Own Tail

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

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

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

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

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

Wondering if I Wasn’t Going Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helicopter Backflips and Envying Families

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

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

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

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

Looming Finals

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

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

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

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

Infinite Times Smarter Than You

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

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

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

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

Praying for Clarity

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

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

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

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

The Thought of Leaving Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Theology Makes us DO something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday: Banana ketchup & Christmas in January

My second weekend back in Oxford was spent in the books. Nearly non-stop. I had just handed in a paper on Friday, on the question of natural law, and I had another one due Monday, on the topic of religious pluralism. And yes, most of my reading for Monday’s essay had been left for that weekend.

My greatest excitement on Saturday came when Jonathan knocked on my door at 10.30 that night and asked if I’d like to go to the “big” Sainsbury’s with him. I had hardly been grocery shopping in the two weeks since I’d returned, and I desperately needed to stock up (not to mention the fact that I was happy to take a break from the books), so I grabbed my jacket and we were on our way.

Sainsbury’s is a chain of English grocery stores. We refer to this particular location as “big” Sainsbury’s because it’s easily about five times as big as any other grocery store in Oxford. But the funny part is, it’s the size of your average grocery store back home, in the States.

Jonathan and I talked about my reading in religious pluralism as we made our way into the store. He grabbed a push cart and I grabbed a hand-basket. I don’t know what it is, but I do all I can to avoid push carts. I was quickly second-guessing my decision, though. My basket was soon overflowing with groceries as I realized just how many things I didn’t have at the house.

One of the great things about “big” Sainsbury’s is that they carry a lot of things you just can’t find in the other grocery stores in Oxford. Like seeded hamburger buns. I was so excited to find actual hamburger buns with sesame seeds, and not dinner rolls. I grabbed a box of oatmeal and laughed to myself at some of the crazy English flavors. Like chocolate caramel. I wondered to how that’d go over in the States as I continued my shopping. Probably better than I’d imagine.

I wandered the aisles while I waited for Jonathan to finish, and I found something called “banana ketchup” in the ethnic food aisle. I read the label and wondered to myself what I’d put it on. This is what you do at 11.00 at night when you’re a student. You stand in Aisle 11 and wonder to yourself what banana ketchup would go with. I nearly put it in my basket, but then I reminded myself I’m a student, and that banana ketchup equated to one lunch at the Alternative Tuck Shop. I ended up replacing it on the shelf, and I caught up with Jonathan as he was finishing his shopping.

Jonathan is great about finding what’s on sale (“on offer” as he said in his accent, so thick I didn’t understand it the first time around), and then turning it into an amazing meal.  He showed me the “crackling” pork and crown prince squash he’d found. I usually just find what I know. Like seeded hamburger buns.

We returned to the Kilns that night and unloaded our groceries, and Jonathan asked if I’d like to have some steak and cous cous if he prepared it. One of my life rules is to never turn down a meal made by Jonathan. If it includes steak, it’s non-negotiable.

Debbie wandered into the kitchen while Jonathan was preparing the food, and she ended up joining us. Debbie doesn’t eat meat, so she just had the cous cous. As we cleaned our plates I excused myself and returned a minute later with two presents in-hand. One for Debbie, and one for Jonathan. It was nearly a month late, but I had picked up Christmas presents for them while I was back home. A “Seattle” t-shirt and chocolates for Debbie. Roasted coffee beans and a mug from Woods Coffee, my favorite coffee shop back home, for Jonathan. They both really seemed to like their gifts, and I told Jonathan he had to share his.

Sunday: House dinner & Big news

I continued digging away at my never-ending pile of reading on Sunday. Until our house dinner that evening. Jonathan was preparing the meal, and we were having several friends over. Stephanie, whose an American studying on a degree up north. She’s working on Lewis research, and she stayed here at the Kilns last year for a bit. And Christina, who lived here at the Kilns last year, for the final year of her Dphil.

Jonathan prepared an amazing dinner, as he always seems to do. And we laughed as we enjoyed several plates full of food.

Someone was telling a story when Debbie, who’s a medieval literature professor back in the States and all-around Tolkien fan, interjected and said, “That’s just like Lord of the Rings!”

Without missing a beat, Christina piped up and said, “Of course it’s just like Lord of the Rings. Everything’s just like Lord of the Rings!”

“Wow,” I said, in-between laughter. “Watch out for Christina tonight. She’s calling people out!”

“Sorry,” Christina said with a look of embarrassment. “That’s what happens when you live on your own.” Everyone laughed.

Stephanie told us about the bbq she got invited to join at the hostel in the Oxford city center, where she was staying on this particular visit. She told us about how she was disappointed when she found out it wasn’t so much a bbq as she understood it (she’s from mississippi), as a hot grill and some brisket.

I told Jonathan we ought to go stay at the hostel for a weekend, for the experience. Christina didn’t think it’d work.

“Jonathan can’t stay at a hostel,” she said matter-of-factly. “His accent is too posh.”

“He can use his American accent,” I assured her. Jonathan pulled his bottom lip up and nodded in agreement.

Before our food had a chance to settle, I excused myself to the kitchen and returned with the brownies and ice cream I had prepared. Several minutes later, we had all cleared our bowls, pushed ourselves back from the table, and I was nearly asleep in my chair. After a bit of washing up, I thanked Jonathan for the meal, said ‘goodbye’ to Stephanie and Christina, and I returned to my desk. For more reading. Until late into the night.

An imaginary conversation with the wife of my youth

Christina had asked about Jennifer over dinner. About how she was doing back home. Everyone asks me about Jen, lately. And about when she is returning. I appreciate it, because it shows they care. But it’s also a painful reminder of her absence, every time.

And as I returned to my desk and cracked open my books, all I could think about was how much I missed her. How much I wanted my best friend with me. To see. To hold. To talk with.

I have some great friends here, so it’s not like I’m always on my own. I had just come from an incredible meal with great friends and laughter, for example, but it felt so empty without her there. After a while, things just seem to pale in comparison, with her not here.

I bring her up in conversation all the time. Without even thinking about it, because she’s always on my mind.

I found myself, on this particular evening, missing so much about her. Like the way her eyes light up when she talks. I’m pretty sure they don’t actually glimmer, but they do in my mind, when I picture her.

The way she can say a hundred words with just a smile. Or a half-smile. And then, when she does open her mouth, she only uses as many words as she has to. She’s efficient, Jen.

I found myself missing the way she tucks her hair behind her ear, and how she folds her hands in front of her when she talks. She tells it like it is, Jen. And I appreciate that. She’s sincere, and considerate, to be sure, but she never layers it on. Jen’s not about excess, in anything. She knows when I need a compliment, and she gives it. But most times, she only tells me what I need. And I think that’s the way it ought to be.

I found myself missing how she puts her head on my shoulder, softly, when she hugs me. I found myself missing the way our room smells when she’s here. Kissing her forehead before I leave in the morning, and before I fall asleep at night. I found myself missing the feeling of her head resting on my chest when I lay in bed at night, and the sound of her soft breathing when she’s fallen asleep before me. I found myself missing her eyes. Eyes that speak more truth than a hundred words. She’s efficient, Jen. And I was missing her dreadfully.

I was passing through our bedroom the day before, on my way out the back door, when I passed by a framed photo of us that sits on the mantle in our bedroom. The photo frame reads, “Smile,” and the photo is of us smiling at the camera while I held it at arm’s length and snapped the picture. I pass this photo several times a day, without thinking twice. But this time it caused me to stop, and stare at it. To stare at that smile, really. That same smile that stole my heart more than 10 years ago. That smile that still stops me dead in my tracks. And all of a sudden I realized how very much I miss my best friend.

I switched out my laptop wallpaper the other day. From a photo of a lighthouse on an ocean shore with boats and blue skies to a photo of Jen. It’s one of my favorite photos of her. It’s from years ago, at a concert at the Gorge, an incredible outdoor amphitheatre built on the side of a canyon back in Washington State.

She’s sitting on a hillside, it’s a sunny day, and the wind swept her hair across her face just before the photo was taken. She wasn’t ready for it, and so she’s not smiling or anything. She’s just staring at the camera with strands of hair delicately hugging her face. And she looks so beautiful. But she’d never admit it. And she’d smile with embarrassment, scrunch up her face and say “really?” if I told her how beautiful she looked. But she does, she looks so beautiful.

And it was here, from my desk in C.S. Lewis’s brother Warnie’s old room where I found myself staring at her photo on my computer wallpaper. Her eyes were staring right back into mine, and for a moment, it felt like she was really there, staring right back at me.

Even though I was alone, in our study, and Jen was still 6,000 miles away, in my mind I heard her ask, “What? What is it?” And so, in my mind, without thinking twice, I told her. I told this photo of Jen from eight years ago I missed her. I told her I missed her so much.

She asked me why, again, in my mind, and I told her it was because I was in England, going back to school, and she was still in the States. She looked surprised, sitting on this buff in Washington State eight years ago, but once she got her mind around this news, she asked me if I was enjoying it, if I was happy. And I told her I was. I told her I really do like it here, but it’s just that I miss her, when she’s not here. She told me she understood. And, in my mind, she said she was sure she missed me too. And that she was sure she’d be there with me if she could.

And so that’s when I told her. I told her the reason she was still back at home…

…I told her the reason we are now 6,000 miles apart is because she is pregnant. With our first child. And her eyes got big with excitement at this news.

“Reeeally?!…” she said, drawing out the word. “I am?!” I smiled. And told her yes, we are.

She asked me how long we’ve been married at this point. I told her five and a half years. “You mean I have to wait that long to get pregnant?!”, she said with a smile that revealed just how excited she was at the thought of being pregnant.

Then I told her she was still back at home because she wasn’t feeling well. That she was feeling pretty nauseous, and she just didn’t feel up to flying that far on her own quite yet. I told her Leann, her sister, was really sick during her pregnancy the year before, and so we kind of figured she would be, too.

“You mean Leann had a baby before me?!” she asked, with surprise, and a bit of frustration. “What about Hayley?” she asked again, without pausing. “Do I have a baby before Hayley?”

I paused for a moment, before assuring her she did.

“What? Why’d you pause?” she asked me, with a look of confusion.

“Oh, nothing,” I said. “I… I was just thinking how much I know you wanted to be the first. I’m really sorry about that.”

She smiled at me, and her hair brushed across her face as the summer breeze played with it.

“It’s okay,” she told me with a smile. She was still beaming at this news, with her eyes glimmering in the afternoon sun as she stared back into mine.

And then, that was it. That was the end of our conversation, as I realized I was still seated at my desk, staring at the wallpaper on my computer screen, having an imaginative conversation with the wife of my youth. And I felt, quite possibly, even more alone as I washed my face in the cold water of our sink, toweled off my face, and then returned to my books.

2nd week

Monday: A hit-and-run & What about those who don’t believe in Jesus?

After reading until after 2 a.m., I was up at 7 on Monday morning. I grabbed a quick bite to eat, showered before anyone else in the house was up, and then I was out the door. I circled the house to get my bike and I was frozen when I realized it was nowhere to be found. For several seconds, I was sure it had been stolen, but then I remembered I had left it at College on Friday night, as Jonathan had picked me up before the movie.

I ended up being just in time to catch the bus, which is fortunate, as it only comes every 30 minutes. I cracked open my book for some last-minute reading and 20 minutes later the bus dropped me off in the city center. I continued reading as I walk the meandering cobblestone alleys to College.

I made a quick stop into the Alternative Tuck Shop to grab an Americano and help fuel my essay writing. One of the guys from the cafe was helping a customer across the street as I entered. A blind gentleman I remembered from last year. When Emily helped him cross the road.

I wanted to say something. That I thought I admired him taking the time to stop what he was doing to do that. But I didn’t. Instead, I made small talk with the guy behind the register, and pretended like I hadn’t actually noticed it.

I thanked them for the coffee and made my way to college, just around the corner, where I fumbled my way through the library doors, with one hand carrying my Americano, one hand carrying several books, and my bag balancing precariously on my shoulder. I mouthed “Hi” to Katrina, the librarian, as I entered, with a smile, and I made my way up the metal, spiral staircase towards my desk.

I passed by Emily as I did, who I don’t normally see in the library so early. When she looked up, I looked down at my watch then quickly looked at her with a look of surprise and mouthed, “It’s early!” She laughed outloud, even with her headphones on.

I made my way to my desk, in the corner window spot on the second floor, and I began plugging away on my essay.

My essay was due at 4.00 that afternoon, and I finished it at a quarter ’til. I hurried to print it off, hopped on my bike and then rode as quickly as I could toward St Giles and Dr Kennedy’s office.

But just after passing the Sheldonian Theatre, I heard the sound of something hitting the pavement and I looked back to find my bike lock sitting there in the middle of the road. I stopped, turned my bike around and headed toward it, just in time to see a large delivery truck heading my way, and just in time to watch it run directly over my bike lock.

“Nooooo!” I shouted as I watched its snakelike body flail under the weight of the truck. I hurried back to pick it up off the street just before a double-decker tour bus whizzed by. I threw it in the old metal basket that sits just behind my seat and hurried off to the Theology Faculty Office, hoping it was okay.

Once I arrived, I parked my bike beside the metal gate outside the office’s front door and attempted to lock it up using my bike lock, only to find it was no longer locking.

“Great…” I thought to myself, as people passed by on the sidewalk behind me. Thinking quickly, so as not to be late to my tutorial, I placed the bike lock so that it looked like it was properly locked, even though someone could easily walk up and walk off with it. I set off for Philip’s office, secretly hoping no one would figure it out and walk off with my bike.

Our friend the Pope & Social transformation

This thought was sitting in the back of my mind for the next hour of my tutorial with Philip, where we were discussing whether salvation is available to those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. It was a great question, and I really enjoyed reading and writing on it. I read several people who I agreed with, and lots of people I disagreed with, and I was excited to talk about it with Dr Kennedy. Or Philip, as he insists on me calling him.

And he’s great. He never makes me feel bad for what I don’t know, but, rather, he makes me feel pretty good about what I do know. At the same time, he drops little hints of people I can read for more information.

He was really positive about my essay, though, saying he thought I did a good job of civilly presenting all the sides, and still arguing my point. We talked about religious plurality, about extremists, and about some of the ideas in our faith we’d frankly prefer to do without.

“Like our friend the Pope,” Philip said with a mischievous grin, “Who still believes that women cannot be trained ministers.”

I didn’t comment on the point, but I did tell him I appreciated his reference to the Pope as “our friend.” Philip always refers to the Pope as “our friend,” particularly when he disagrees with him.

We talked about what makes Christianity unique from other world religions. And we talked about the role of a prophet, and Philip used the phrase “socially transforming” to describe such people. I loved that phrase, “socially transforming,” and I told him so, as I paused from my frantic pace of taking notes long enough to lift my head.

“Well they are, aren’t they?” he said, pausing from what he was saying, to respond to my comment. “Prophets care about justice,” he said, his voice growing in excitement and seriousness, at the same time. “They care about their message, and they’re not afraid to stand up to those in authority to get it across. They want to change the world!”

Soon, our hour together was up, and we were talking about the next essay we’d be discussing. I told Philip I liked his shirt, a black checkered shirt just like mine, except he wore his under a sweater. He laughed, and said, “Oh, it’s just plain.” I don’t think he realized the reason I said I liked his shirt was because I was wearing a similar one.

“I like ‘plain’ things,” I thought to myself. “Like checkered shirts.”

He said he’d see me in a fortnight, and he waved goodbye with a smile as I left his office. I made my way out of his office and I was very happy to find my bike still waiting for me out front, with my  faulty bike lock still pretending to hold it secure to the metal railings. I pulled the lock off without a hint of resistance and threw it in the basket, along with my bag, before hopping on my bike and heading back to the library at Harris Manchester. One essay down, one more to go for the week.

Tuesday: Growing old together & How quickly things change

I took a break from my reading on Tuesday afternoon to head to an Ethics lecture at Christ Church. I passed through a large stone gate on the east side of the College, and I made my way to the lecture hall along the cobblestone foot path. And as I walked, I found I was still in awe of the architecture there, at Christ Church. It made me recall the time I first visited Oxford with Jen, two summers ago.

I remember walking the Christ Church grounds on our first visit to Oxford and thinking, “How incredible would it be to actually study here?” That’s what I was thinking as I was nearly swallowed up in a tour group of teenage students dressed in Oxford sweatshirts, on my way to this lecture at Christ Church.

The lecture for that afternoon was on marriage. We talked about divorce, and the roles of husbands and wives. And, somewhere along the way, the lecturer referenced a passage from the Book of Tobit, from the Apocrypha, on the topic marriage. It talked about how the author, Tobias, prayed with his wife on the night of their wedding. That God, the creator of marriage, would grant them mercy and allow them to grow old together. And I thought that was beautiful. I made a mental note to ask God for the same thing in my prayers, as I scribbled down notes during the lecture.

It was after 11:00 by the time I made it home for dinner that night, after returning to the library for some more reading that evening. After dishing up a plate of dinner, I returned to my room and phoned up Jen on Skype. She was watching Khloe, our niece, and it was great to get to see them both.

Khloe had just her 1-year birthday party, and I was bummed to have missed it. As we talked, I remembered how incredible it was to see Jen holding Khloe just after her birth this time last year. Now, here Khloe was, a year later, waving goodbye to me with a couple teeth revealed in her grin, as our Skype call came to an end. And I couldn’t help but think how quickly things change.

Wednesday: I love baptisms & So tired I could puke

I was on my way to an inter-religious talk Wednesday night, in-between time at the library and more time at the library, when I ran into my good friend Jerrod on Cornmarket St. He told me their two boys were going to be baptized that Sunday, and they’d love to have me there for that, if I was interested and available.

“No pressure, and you can totally say no, but the boys are getting baptized on Sunday…”

“Awesome! I’d love to be there.” I told him, without letting him finish.

“Yeah?” his eyes got big behind his glasses. “Cool! Okay, great, well we’d love to have you.”

I get excited for baptisms. I don’t know how that sounds, really, but I do. I get really excited for baptisms. It’s like throwing a “Welcome Home” party, to me. And to be there, to see it for yourself, that’s something else. I told Jerrod I’d meet them at their place on Sunday morning, and head to church with them.

I returned to the library after attending this talk Wednesday night. Tucking back into my books just after 8 that night. And, it wasn’t like me, but I finally had to turn in at 9.30. I was tired, my eyes were struggling to stay open, and I felt like I was going to throw up from my hunger and fatigue.

I struggled on the bike ride home, with the wind blowing the rain sideways as I peddled up Headington Hill. My hair was completely soaked by the time I arrived. I grabbed a quick dinner and then had a Skype call with Jen, but I was so tired I was nearly falling asleep on the call.

“I’m going to let you go so you can go to bed, hun,” Jen told me. “But go to bed, okay?!”

“Mmmmhmmm.” I said, with a smile, with my head leaning heavily on my arm, before saying “goodnight.”

45 minutes later, after I finished reading a chapter on Christian Virtues, I closed down my computer and headed to bed. I’m pretty sure one of the reasons God brought Jen and I together is to save me from myself.

Thursday: Lunch at Keble & Oh, Stanley

I met up with a guy  by the name of Will on Thursday for lunch. My friend David had introduced us at church the Sunday before. Will had just moved to Oxford, with his wife and their young daughter, from Cambridge, where he had recently finished his DPhil. He had a part-time teaching gig here at Oxford, at Keble College. I had never eaten at Keble before, and I was happy to take him up on his offer.

It had been a nice day, but it began to rain halfway there. I quickly became soaked as I peddled toward Keble, arriving with a wet head of hair to greet Will. He wore a blazer and a sweater and a shirt with a tie, and I felt completely under-dressed. We made our way inside and Will offered to take my coat before pushing against a seemingly inconspicuous wall, only to reveal a hidden coat closet. That’s when I realized I wanted a hidden door that reveals a coat closet in my home when I grow up.

We entered the dining room and I quickly realized this wasn’t where the students ate, as my eyes took in the many grey-haired, well-dressed men and women already gathered around the table. Will and I were easily the youngest in the room. And I was easily the most casually dressed.

We started with some soup and bread before moving onto the main course, salmon and potatoes, and then finishing with a walnut tart. It was all very, very good. By far one of the best lunches I’ve had at any of the colleges since arriving in Oxford.

After our three-course meal, we retired to the Senior Common Room for coffee, and to chat a bit more. David had shared with Will that I was living at the Kilns, and he was excited to ask me about Lewis, as he was currently reading one of his biographies with his wife.

“You’ll have to come check out the Kilns when you’ve finished the book,” I told Will, thanking him for the very tasty meal, before grabbing my jacket from the hidden coat closet and making my way toward my bike.

A different approach to ethics

I stopped into the Theology Faculty Library, after lunch, on my way back to Harris Manchester, to pick up a book I needed that wasn’t at our College library. I found it in the basement and when I set it down at the check out desk, the librarian looked at the cover and said, “Oh, Stanley,” in a warm tone, as if she had just run into an old friend she hadn’t seen for a while. It made me wonder what was so special about this guy, as Matt, my tutor, had really made a point to emphasize his work in my reading list.

I plowed through more reading that afternoon before taking a short break at qtr till 6 that evening, for a trip to the Alternative Tuck Shop. I grabbed a sandwich and some coffee, as fuel for what would likely be a very late night, with my essay due the next day. I’m not sure if it was the coffee or actually what I was reading, but I found myself falling in love with (Stanley) Hauerwas’ approach to ethics and morality.

In what was otherwise a rather cold, clinical look at morality, here was this (Protestant) professor from Duke saying, “You want to know how to live a moral life? It’s by the story you’re trying to tell, and how closely you actually live in a way that looks like that story.”

And I thought that was beautiful. He didn’t outline a long list of rules one needed to follow, or he didn’t even pick out one virtue or character trait and say this, this is the central aim you need to live your life for in order to live a moral life. No, instead, he said those who live their life according to a good story will live a good life.

He went on to point out that those who live life as a Christian are going to try to live according to a different story than others. And they’ll often fail, he noted, but that doesn’t mean they’re trying to live according to a bad story (quite the opposite!).

His approach to ethics was like a breath of fresh air. And I found myself filled with a deep sense of joy at the beauty of his approach to explaining this topic, which he did not only in an aesthetically pleasing way, but in an intellectually satisfying way. And that’s incredibly rare. I found myself realizing just why this librarian had greeted Stanley’s book like an old friend.

At 11 that night, I was finally kicked out of the library, knowing I had much work left to do that evening. I returned home, opened up my computer and my books, and I continued to plug away until well after 2.00 the next morning.

Friday: My first moose

I was up early the next morning, to head to college and finish my essay for the day. I ran into Jonathan on my way out, stopped for just long enough to say ‘goodbye,’ and I was quickly out the door. I peddled as quickly as I could through Headington, I cruised down Headington Hill, with the cold air beating my face until it felt numb, and I passed several small cars coasting down the hill as I went.

“Good morning, Sue,” I said, passing her on her way down the stone staircase leading to HMC’s second floor, and to the library. I was back in the library as soon as it opened that morning, the first one in.

I wrote frantically all day, and I managed to finish just in time. I made my way across the city center for my tutorial, and we had a great discussion, but I was beat by the time I made it back to the library. Olli and Salla had invited me over to their place for dinner that night, and a movie, and, as much as I was looking forward to it, I began to wonder how I was going to stay awake.

Olli and Salla live just a couple miles away from Harris Manchester, where I was studying that afternoon, on the other side of the river, and on the opposite side of the city center from the Kilns. 10 minutes after hopping on my bike at College, I was pulling my bike up in front of their place and knocking on the front door.

Elias, Olli and Salla’s son, let me in, and I was thankful to find the warm air from inside their home come rushing out to meet me. It had been a chilly ride, and I warmed my hands with my breath before removing my jacket. Olli came in to greet me shortly after Elias let me in, welcoming me with a smile and a handshake. Salla greeted me after that, with a wide smile, squinted eyes, and a hug, “Hi Ryannnn,” she said, in her Finnish accent.

Olli was preparing dinner when I arrived. “Moose,” he told me. Apparently his uncle had killed it on a recent hunting trip, and they brought some back to Oxford with them. He invited me to try some after he had cooked it, “Before I add all the spices, so you can get a true taste for it.”

It was a bright red color, almost like a steak that had hardly been cooked. I hesitated or a half-second, but since he invited me to taste it, I was sure it was actually cooked. I took a fork from Salla, stabbed a chunk of the red moose flesh and put it to my mouth. The texture was soft, almost like tuna sashimi. And the meat had a very mild flavor. The closest thing I could think of, as comparison, was a very good beef roast. “That is really good,” I told Olli. He smiled proudly.

We gathered around the table and enjoyed the moose yakisoba Olli had prepared for us. We talked about the cultural differences between America and England and Finnland, and I told them how much trouble the English accent gave me coming here as an American. This surprised Salla, it seemed, so I explained. “It wasn’t until I came here that I realized, the British speak English, but we speak American.” There’s definitely a difference.

After dinner, Elias played in his room and the three of us watched a movie from the comforts of their overstuffed leather couches, which welcomed me like a bear hug as I sank comfortably into their embrace. We talked for a bit after the movie, and soon I was thanking Salla for the evening.

Olli walked me out to unlock my bike, and he told me about some of the lectures he had been attending this term, including a philosophy lecture that was “beyond him,” as he described it.

He’d never own up to it, but Olli’s an incredibly bright guy. I remembered my conversation with Jason, another Finnish friend, and a good friend of Olli’s. Jason had told me Olli had his PhD by the time he was 24.

“Well, if it’s beyond you, then there’s no point of me going,” I told Ollie. He smiled and looked away sheepishly. We talked about the ridiculously intelligent people we’ve come across here at Oxford, and how the average here is so much higher here than anywhere else either of us had ever been.

“If you have  low self-esteem, Oxford is not a good place for you,” Olli said with a laugh, in his Finnish accent. “The smartest kids in the world come here.” I smiled, and nodded, noting that for Olli to say so is really saying something.

I thanked Olli for a great night. For the moose. For the conversation. And then I was off, peddling toward the city center and then east toward the Kilns. I was still so tired, even more so now, and I was half-worried I was going to fall asleep while peddling my bike back to the Kilns. Fortunately, it was so cold that the chattering of my teeth kept me awake long enough to make it home and tuck into bed for the evening.

A Tour of Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: A Breath of Fresh Air in the Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: A trip to London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Sick in Bed & Oxford Punting

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is,” I said, pointing to Dad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday: Saying Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk with Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did?” I asked, somewhat surprisingly.

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

“Oh, well thanks.”

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

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” he asked, turning toward me.

“No, no I didn’t. I was just joking.”

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

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

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

“Ah,” he said, laughing.

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon was quick to respond, and to encourage me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday: Touring the Louvre & a sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower

We had a big day planned for Monday, our third day in Paris. First, we’d start out taking a (very brief) tour of the Eiffel Tour, and then we were heading to watch the sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower, before rounding out the day with a late night river cruise through the city. I was quite excited about being able to squeeze all three into the same day.

We scheduled a tour guide for our time at the Louvre, knowing without one we’d end up lost and probably miss most of the big items we were hoping to see. We took a bus to the Louvre first thing that morning…

…and we waited for a few minutes before our tour guide met us at the front entryway.

He was a nice guy. A bit quiet, but nice. He told us he was from San Francisco, and that he was studying art here in Paris. At the university. He had been here a couple years, and he had started leading tours of the Louvre short after he arrived, he explained.

“Even after a couple years, though,” I still haven’t seen every wing of the Louvre.”

Apparently, it’s a pretty big place…

Our tour guide led us through the stone archway that led into the Louvre, and we took several escalators that led us further and further under ground. After several minutes, we were standing under the large glass pyramid we had seen aboveground. From this view, though, we could see the inverted pyramid now stretching downward from the ceiling above us. It was pretty impressive.

Our tour guide mentioned a few things about the architecture before continuing the tour, and leading us toward, what he explained as, the oldest part of the Louvre. He explained that the Louvre actually began as a fortress that was built in the 12th century.

He pointed out the old, original stone walls as we walked, and mentioned all the restoration work that had been done. It’s not everyday you see the foundation from a 900-year old fortress; it was something else. You can see the old, original brick foundation in the wall of the marketing firm I worked at back at home in Bellingham, but somehow I’m thinking it wasn’t quite this old…

From there, we headed to the wing of the Louvre that housed the ancient Greek and Roman statues. We had seen quite a bit in Rome, but their collection was still quite impressive.

We walked up several long, wide staircases to get to this wing and, once we did, our tour guide led us into a long hallway full of ivory-colored marble statues. One of the first of which was of Cupid, embracing a girl by the name of Psyche, as our guide explained.

Apparently, the story is that Psyche, the most beautiful woman in the world, has fallen into a lifeless sleep. And she would have remained that way, had it not been for a kiss she received from the god of love, Eros, or Cupid, which revived her. The moment of that embrace, the embrace that brought her back to life, is captured in this statue: Antonio Canova’s  “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.” I thought it was a pretty powerful piece.

I had never seen the next statue our guide pointed out to us before, but I was taken aback by it. At first, it just looked like a woman seated in the windowsill, but then our guide told us a bit more about it.

He told us this statue was of a beautiful nymph who had just been stung by a scorpion. Not only is she dealing with the painful sting, though, she is quickly coming to the realization that she will soon be dead.

The thing that stuck with me most is the look on her face. It was more than just a look of pain. It was a look of anguish. She knew her death was coming, and there was nothing she could do about it.

I think really good art, the kind that sticks with you and makes its way into your conversation long after you’ve experienced it, is the kind that approaches life. The kind that, even though you know it’s not real, creates an emotion with you that feels real.

And I think that’s what this statue accomplished. It was almost as if you could feel the anguish of death and grief in her face, as the reality of her pending death set in like a surprise visit from an unwanted guest.

We turned from these two statues and continued walking down the long hallway full of other figures.

About halfway down the hallway stood these statues: the Dying Slave and the Suffering Slave. Both works of Michelangelo.

Our tour guide told us that the Louvre had the most pieces of Michelangelo’s work outside of Rome. We told him we had just come from Rome, and so we had actually seen quite a bit of his work there.

Apparently these two pieces, the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, had been seized during the French Revolution and brought here to the Louvre. I’m sure those in Rome were pretty happy about that…

We continued to make our way through the long hallways, noting the colorful, painted ceilings along the way. The ceiling artwork reminded me a lot of our time at the Vatican Museum.

We rounded a corner and entered into another long hallway full of more ivory-colored statues. In the middle of this room stood a tall, armless statue, one we immediately recognized: the Venus de Milo.

Our tour guide told us the statue had been carved sometime around 100 BC. He told us that, even though it wasn’t carved by a famous sculptor, like some of the others in the hallway, it was easily the most famous in the room.

Apparently its fame is due largely to an act of propaganda by the French to get people to the Louvre to see it, which dates hundreds of years back. However, those who to this day hold up the de Milo as a true work of art say it is the epitome of feminine beauty.

Our tour guide asked us for our thoughts on the statue, and I told him it seemed a bit tall and exaggerated, as if its torso was longer than it should be. He told us that was actually done intentionally, as a way to exaggerate her features. Again, as a picture of the “ideal” woman, and not necessarily the most realistic.

I may be a little biased, but, personally, I prefer mine with arms.

In the next room, our tour guide had us stop at another, similar statue. This statue was actually created by a more famous artist, and it was done quite literally, as opposed to the exaggerated features of the de Milo (in the background).

“You can see,” he said, turning toward us, “the de Milo really is more beautiful.”

We continued walking through the long hallway of statues, stopping at the end of the room to take in a very tall statue of another woman wearing, this one wearing a soldier’s helmet.

Before wrapping up our time with the statues, our tour guide led us down a large staircase and asked us to stop at the landing to take in a headless statue. It was Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

Standing on the landing look up at this large, winged figure, our tour guide pointed out Victory’s robe, showing how it really did look as if it were blowing in the wind. An illusion the statue was famous for.

At this point, we traded statues for paintings, and we entered a long, darkly colored room with different-sized paintings on the walls.

Some of them were quite large, including this painting of Napoleon’s inaugurating his queen (Note the Pope standing by and watching, signifying Napoleon was even more important than the Pope. This painting was obviously done by a Frenchman).

Not far from this portrait hung a painting of King Leonidas, whom, as our tour guide told us, we probably knew of from the movie, 300.

The painting, he explained, was meant to represent the celebration that would have taken place on the eve of their battle with the Persian empire, which the men would have surely believed to be their last night alive.

We passed through an arched doorway and entered another hallway of art. Our tour guide pointed out what he referred to as one of the most famous French paintings, that of “Liberty Leading the People.”

The painting was meant to speak of the French Revolution, and the different parties involved (the older man in the top hat on the left representing the older generation, and the young boy on the right with two guns representing the newer generation), both of whom were fighting for the people’s freedom, led by Lady Liberty, a mythical figure. Interestingly, he told us, this figure was likely the model for the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the US.

Oh, and you might also recognize this painting from the cover of the Coldplay album, Viva la Vida.

From this hallway we took a right and entered the largest room we had seen for some time since entering the Louvre. The ceiling rose high into the air as we entered and, even though there were paintings on all of the walls, it looked as though there was only one wall that was gathering everyone’s attention, the wall holding the Louvre’s most famous painting: the Mona Lisa.

Our tour guide told us quite a bit about the Mona Lisa, as the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd pushed and shoved, everyone trying to get a closer look at the painting. He told us that the portrait hasn’t always been so famous, but it was liked very much from early on. Apparently Napoleon liked it so much he had it hanging in his room, but the woman in his life didn’t like that and it was soon removed.

Later, an employee of the museum was so enamored by it that he decided to leave with it one day, and he actually managed to keep it as his apartment for something like eight months before anyone found out. Hard to believe. But now, you’d be hard-pressed even to get within 10-feet of the painting.

The crowd was quite tight, but we managed to squeeze our way to the front and snap a handful of decent photos.

Brock asked our tour guide if he thought the photo was originally a self-portrait Da Vinci had painted, and then later changed into a woman. He shook his head and said he was sure that was just a myth. Instead, he told us the woman was probably someone of very little significance, but whom Da Vinci wanted, for some reason or another, to paint. Maybe not even someone he knew very well.

After wrapping things up at the Louvre, we hopped on a bus and headed back toward the Eiffel Tower. We were had plans to take in the sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and I couldn’t wait.

I didn’t realize it, but apparently Brock is not a fan of heights. Not in the least. In fact, when we got off the bus at the base of the Eiffel Tower, he declared that he’d wait for us at the bottom. Monty & Heidi must have done some smooth-talking, because Brock joined us as we huddled together with a large group, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a small elevator with glass walls, climbing up toward the top of the Eiffel Tower.

The elevator doors opened a few moments later and we stepped out onto the metal platform, hurrying to the edge of the railing to take in the 360 degree view of the city.

“Wowwww…”, I said with my mouth hanging wide open, hands gripping the railing.

I knew Paris was a beautiful city from what we had seen already, but taking it in from the Tower was something else entirely. It really was a spectacular view.

On one side of the tower, you could see the River Seine, and boats floating by, along with everything on that side of the city. On the opposite side of the Tower, you could the the large park that stretched its green, tree-lined lawn on and on and on. Along with all of the old architecture of the city, pieced together like a miniature model. It was a beautiful view. 

It was a sunny afternoon when we made the climb up the tower, but it was still quite cold from this height. Even with our jackets, there was a bit of a breeze that seemed to cut right through us.

We stood near the railings and snapped several photos, while Brock did his best to remain near the inside core of the tower, not caring to venture toward the railing and peer over at the city below.

From time to time, I’d brace myself, making my eyes really big, and look over at Brock as if to say, “Did you feel that?!” He’d smile, barely, and look away. Jen would hit me and tell me to knock it off. Mean, I know. 

The Eiffel Tower has two platforms for guests. Two different levels. The elevator you get on at the ground only takes you up so far. If you want to go up to the peak, you have to buy another ticket at the lower level. Which we did. And I’m so glad.

Another short elevator ride and we were now at the very peak of the Eiffel Tower, looking out over the city from an impressive height. The view was stunning.

I kept finding myself hunched over the railing, looking down at the ground so far below.

“Wow… that’s amazing,” I said aloud to myself. “I just wish there was a good way to show…” And I stopped myself, mid-sentence. I had an idea.

Jen and Heidi both had their cameras with them. They have the same camera, but they were using different lenses. Jen was using her high-powered lens to snap far-away shots close-up, while Heidi had her standard lens, which allowed her to take wider photos of the city.

“You mind if I see your camera real quick?” I asked Heidi. She looked a bit unsure of the question, but hesitantly handed it over.

“Thanks,” I said, taking it from her. Then, extending my arms as far as I could reach, I raised the camera over my head and snapped this photo of the view below…

Our plan was to stay at the peak until the sun went down, that way we could take in the sunset from this beautiful view. We found a perfect spot in a corner of the platform, near the river side of the city, and waited. We had some time to kill, so we snapped several photos.

They even managed to talk Brock into (carefully) walking to the railing for a family photo. I was impressed.

There was a very small door at the top of the Eiffel Tower, with a young guy inside. He was selling wine and champagne to those who wanted to celebrate the view with a drink.

I was getting hungry at this point, and so I joked with Brock that we should see if he had any burgers in there. Brock laughed. He told me I should. But I chickened out. America doesn’t need any help looking stupid in France, I figured.

The clouds soon began getting dark, and we could tell the sunset wasn’t too far away, casting rays of light from behind the clouds that did their best to hide its brightness.

It grew increasingly cold as the clouds hid the sun, and several of us began to shiver. But we decided to stick it out and take in the view. It shouldn’t be too much longer, we figured.

And we were right. Soon, the entire sky turned a burnt orange color as the sun began making its final descent behind the skyline.

We took the elevator down to the lower level just in time to see the sun make its final appearance before dipping below the horizon, leaving the Parisian skyline to grow dim, as if someone had just hit the light switch.

It really was an incredible view, and I was so thankful for the experience. As we made our way down the tower, I told Jen we’d need to take in this view on New Year’s Eve one year.

A wide grin spread across her face at the suggestion. She nodded her head in agreement.

“Yeah, that’d be beautiful.”

When we reached the bottom of the tower, we had some time to kill before our river cruise that evening. It started at 10:00, and we had about an hour and a half, so we grabbed some dinner at a nearby restaurant and snapped a few more photos of the tower, all lit up in the night sky.

After a warm meal, we boarded the river cruise. Behind a group of, what looked like, American high school students. One of the boys wore a sweatshirt with a giant, yellow “O” on the front, and I wondered if the group was from Oregon. It’s always a weird feeling seeing references from so close to home when you’re so far from it.

We took our seats toward the rear of the boat, near the windows, and played with, what looked like giant, metal remote controls. Apparently, they’d be playing the audio tour during the river cruise. The metal was cold as you held it to your ear.

Before we took off, Heidi told us all to look up, just before snapping a photo of us.

While the view of Paris from the top of the tower was amazing, this was something else. You couldn’t see nearly as much from our spot on the river, of course, but, as we floated along, slowly, and it was almost as if we had been invited to a secret, night-time tour of the city. The river was quiet and calm, and it reflected the buildings we passed, floating through the old parts of the city.

Our audio tour guide pointed out points of interest along the way and, when the recorded voice stopped, a woman in the center of the boat would make comments about the area over a loud speaker. First in French, then in English, and then in about six other languages. All from the same woman. It was pretty impressive.

I wondered, to myself, if she knew all of those languages fluently, or if she had just recited the scripts for each. Her accent made me think it was the former.

The group of American high school students were spread out across the boat, as well as a number of other guests. I thought it was funny that almost all of the guys from the group of students sat on one side of the boat, and the girls sat on the opposite side. Apart from three of the more athletic looking guys and three of the girls, who sat huddled together in the center aisle of the boat.

About 20-minutes into our tour, a group in the front of the boat began hollering and the sound of clapping soon filled the boat. Someone had just proposed and, from the clapping, I assumed someone had just said, “Yes.”

It was a beautiful view of the city, from this quiet spot on the river, and it seemed like the perfect way to wrap up an already amazing day in Paris.

Tuesday: Saying “goodbye” to Paris and great friends

On our last morning in Paris, we walked down the street from our hotel, rounded the corner, and found a small, open air cafe with a red canopy to enjoy breakfast. I made sure to order the croque madam, following Jennifer’s lead. And I was not disappointed.

Several others ordered the croque madam as well. Jen was a breakfast trailblazer, it seems.

From there, we hopped on a bus and headed back toward the Notre Dame. We had heard that the chapel held some ancient relics, including the crown of thorns from Jesus’ crucifixion. It seemed pretty hard to believe, but that’s what they said…

While there’s no charge to get into Notre Dame, there is a fee to enter the room holding the chapel’s relics. We paid an older woman standing behind a small desk and entered a long, dark room with loads of relics behind plates of glass. Lots of jewelry. And crucifixes. Finally, after several minutes of looking, we noticed a photo of the ring that holds the purported crown of thorns that sat on Jesus’ head during his crucifixion. That’s right, a photo. Apparently they only take out the real thing on the first Friday of every month.

“That would’ve been good to know before we came in,” I said aloud as we left, feeling a bit like the kid who spends his allowance on a pair of x-ray glasses only to find out they’re not good for seeing through anything.

From there, we saw a bit more of the Parisian architecture we hadn’t had a chance yet to see, including a tall, long building with water fountains that seemed to dance in celebration before it.

Around noon or so, we decided to go our separate ways: the women to their shopping…

…and the men to their war museum.

The war museum was housed in a huge building with a square courtyard in the center, an expansive green lawn with cone-shaped bushes spread out across the green grass, and rows of cannons standing in front of, what I assumed to be, an old moat. 

The many manicured bushes that stood up in rows around the lawn reminded me a bit of a scene from Edward Scissorhands.

We entered through the large archway, crossed the courtyard and made our way into the first room of the war museum. They had several exhibits, displaying room after room of knights in armor, old swords and guns, and more. It was pretty impressive just how much they had on display.

After about an hour or walking through the war museum, we wandered around to the rear of the building and entered a large, dome-shaped room: home to Napoleon’s tomb. The building that housed his tomb was breathtaking in both its size and architecture. The entire place appeared to be built out of marble, with columns and arched-ceilings that climbed high into the air.

A large room to the right of the entryway was home to an incredibly large tomb, the largest I had ever seen up to this point. It was the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, and it was housed in a beautiful room, with large windows that allowed the outside light to come pouring in over it.

The ceiling of the room that housed Napoleon’s tomb was painted with several scenes and an incredibly ornate border. It was terribly impressive.

But then we walked back into the main room, where we had first entered, and stared down at a tomb that made Napoleon’s tomb look not quite as large as it had first seemed.

This tomb belonged to Napoleon II, Napoleon Bonaparte’s son. While Napoleon I was known for his military conquests, Napoleon II was known for investing his energies into Paris itself. Into the city. And the people loved him for it, as his tomb showed.

His tomb really was incredible. It stood nearly 20 feet in the air, including its marble base, and it must’ve stretched nearly 10 feet long, if not more. It stood in the epicenter of the building, with the large domed ceiling staring down at it. It was encircled by something like 15 statues, all of them nearly 20-feet tall. I wasn’t sure what the significance of the statues were, or who they were supposed to be, but the whole scene was just stunning.

Standing there, staring at this tomb, at this monument, really, I found it hard to believe this was built to remember any one man’s life. But it was.

And it was there, while taking in this scene, I was reminded of a quote I heard many years ago. A quote I love, and that sticks with me to this day. It came from a Pastor I like to listen to by the name of Alistair Begg. He’s from Glasgow, and he has this incredibly rich Scottish accent, even though he’s been in the States since the 80’s.

And it was then I remembered his Scottish accent saying, “The best of men are men at best.” And I found it fitting, staring at this tomb. This tomb that was now home to only bones, where before there had been life.

By this point, we realized it was nearly time to meet up with the women for lunch before grabbing our things from the hotel and heading for our chunnel ride back to London.

We had a bit of a walk, past several markets, through a handful of neighborhoods, with their beautiful, ornate balconies…

Thankfully we made it just in time. And thankfully, the women were shopping, so we figured, even if we were a few minutes late, we’d probably still be okay. We were right.

We met up with them at a restaurant in a beautiful neighborhood just down the street from the Eiffel Tower. We had eaten there the night before, and it was amazing. We figured we’d take advantage of it one last time, for our last meal in Paris.

As we made our way down the final street toward this restaurant, we came across two parked Vespas. One white, one black. With a large apartment building in the background, it felt like the perfect Paris scene. The kind I’ll recall years from now, when we talk about our first time in Paris. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

After another amazing meal, we grabbed our luggage from the hotel and made our way to the chunnel station. The two hour drive provided plenty of time to think about our trip, and our time in Rome and Paris. It was hard to believe it was all coming to an end.

Two hours later, we were sharing hugs and saying “goodbye” to Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy. We’ve been through a lot with these guys. They’ve been there by our side through some of the most painful times we’ve known; it only seemed right to now have shared some incredibly joy-filled experiences in Rome and Paris as well.

With tears and smiles, we said our “goodbyes” as they prepared to return to the States and we made our way back north to Oxford. Jen’s parents had yet to see Oxford, and we were excited to introduce them to it.

Leaving Rome and heading to Paris was quite the adventure. First, we had an hour-long bus ride from our hotel to the airport. Once at the airport, we had a couple hours to kill before our flight took off, which I put to good use…

Jen always tells me she doesn’t understand how I can fall asleep anywhere. I like to say it’s my spiritual gift.

We flew out of Rome just as the sun was setting. It was a beautiful view, the clouds in the burnt orange skyline waving goodbye as we left the city of scooters, breath-taking architecture and the Pope.

We landed in London a couple hours later. After a bit of a run around with our shuttle driver (we called one and got three, go figure), we were on our way to our hotel and tucking into bed for maybe four hours of sleep, if we were lucky.

Saturday: Our first day in Paris

Our alarm came early Saturday morning. The clocks had just reached half past 4:00 when they began buzzing persistently, pulling us from our dreams and soft pillows and demanding we get going. Our channel ride from London to Paris left first thing that morning, so we had to make sure we were all packed up and out the door before the break of dawn.

We snaked our way through the early morning London streets with our luggage in tow. The streets were littered with broken bottles and food wrappers, signs of the fun that was had only a few hours before. Strings of young adults stumbled out of buildings closing, past bouncers, and toward what I hoped was home after a long night out on the town.

Not long into our walk, I turned around to see Brock booking it back from the way we came, with Monty taking up his luggage.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Brock going?”

“He forgot his painting at the hotel,” Monty told me with a look of disbelief (referring to the spray paint art Brock had picked up while we were in Rome from the sidewalk performer).

We made it to the channel station with not a minute to spare (with Brock catching up to us at full-spring just before we arrived). Seeing the size of our group, a staff member ushered us into a newly opened line and helped us make our train on-time. We were relieved to have our things safely stowed away and take our seats. The late night and early wake up call provided little time for sleep, but the two-hour train ride would make up for some of it.

We pulled into a large, open-air station a couple hours (and a short nap) later. We pulled our luggage from the train and made our way to the entrance. Our shuttle driver was waiting to greet us as we reached the front of our train. He was a nice guy. He only spoke a bit of English. But he was very friendly.

By the time we arrived at our hotel and got situated in our rooms, we were all feeling a bit tired after all the travels and lack of sleep the night before. I lied down on the floor, tucked myself up into the fetal position against the wall and got some shut-eye while the others talked about plans for the rest of the day. Not long after, the others followed suit, sneaking in a bit of a nap themselves.

It was still very early in the afternoon by the time we shook the sleep from our eyes and decided to wander out to have our first good look at the city. None of us had been to Paris before.

Our first stop was to find something to eat, as we were all pretty quite hungry. We found a small cafe on a street corner with a large man in the front door dressed in a black shirt and black pants. He had a thick, deep-voiced French accent that paired well with his thick frame. He promised us he had crepes (which Heidi said she had to try while we were in Paris), so we followed him inside and took our seats. Turns out he did have crepes, but not yet. Apparently they weren’t served until later in the day.

Looking over the menu, the options seemed rather narrow. Sandwiches and omelettes seemed to jump out at us. All served with french fries (go figure). Jen was the lone person to venture out from the bunch, which almost never happens. She ordered the croque madam, two pieces of toast with ham and parmesan cheese in the middle, served with a fried egg on top.

When our plates were brought out to us, the bright orange sunny-side-up egg on Jen’s croque madam almost seemed to be taunting me for my choice of an omelette. Heckling me for such an uneducated choice.

“Mmmm… That’s good,” Jen said, biting into her sandwich.

Next time I’d be ordering the croque madam, I promised myself.

While we may not have been totally impressed with the state of our hotel (the floor we were on was currently being remodeled when we arrived), the location was great. We were only a short, two-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower overlooks the Paris city center, but it also looms high over the River Seine. I love being by water, so this was a welcome surprise for me (I didn’t realize how close the tower was to the river before arriving).

Seeing as how it was a Saturday, the Eiffel Tower was buzzing with visitors. People were everywhere beneath its large base, waiting in line to take a ride to the top. We’d be doing so at some point over the next several days, but for our first day, we thought we’d see a bit of the city.

Jen had really been looking forward to our time in Paris, before arriving. Whereas I had more been looking forward to experiencing Rome. I had been really excited to see the Coliseum, all of the old churches and the museum in Rome, and there just wasn’t a whole lot I had been excited to see in Paris. I had also heard my fair share of horror stories about Americans being treated really badly by the French citizens who weren’t too keen on the American tourists. I’m not big on going places I’m not welcome, and so I just hadn’t really been looking forward to this leg of the trip.

But, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Paris. It was more green than I was expecting, it had a river running right through the heart of the city, it didn’t seem quite so frantic as Rome, and the people were actually great to us. I really did love it there.

I think one of the things that surprised me was how green of a city it is. It seemed like there were trees everywhere. Lining the streets. Bunched up into small forests in the many parks scattered throughout the city. Freshly  blossoming trees welcoming spring were everywhere, and, since I am from the land of trees (the Pacific Northwest), I think it felt a bit like home in that regard.

We crossed the River Seine and caught a bus that brought us to one of the shopping districts, Champs Elysees. Champs Elysees is French for “Elysian Fields,” and supposedly its one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. Shops, cinemas and restaurants line each side of the road, some brand names recognizable and others not. The avenue is just over a mile long, and it climbs subtly uphill from the gardens on one end to the the Arc de Triomph on the other.

We waited on a red light for traffic to stop just long enough for us to step out into the median of the road so we could snap photos of the tall archway. Apparently you can take an elevator to the rooftop terrace where a restaurant serves food. The people at the peak of the arch looked like ants staring down at us.

After an hour or two along Champs Elysees of shopping and tucking in and out of foot-traffic of the large crowds that streamed down the sidewalks, we made our walk back toward the Eiffel Tower, stopping in several neighborhoods along the way for photos. Again, I wasn’t expecting it, but the architecture here was really beautiful. Maybe that’s the thing, maybe I just wasn’t expecting much… Either way, Paris is beautiful.

We came to one neighborhood, in particular, that surrounded a small tree-lined park. The streets here were quiet. There was hardly any foot traffic, and no cars were flying by. All seemed so calm, compared to the hustle and bustle of the Champs Elysees we had just left behind only a few minutes before.

I told Jen I could live here. In Paris. And here in this neighborhood in particular. It even included a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

It was just getting to be dusk by the time we made it back to the Eiffel Tower. And it was beautiful. It seemed to be glowing with the many lights hidden within its metal framework.

The River Seine, which runs through the city, right in front of the Eiffel Tower, was quite the sight by this time. With its many bridges lit up in lights and river tour boats floating along, casting waves of light on the surface of the water.

The street lamps on the river’s shore formed a row of floating orbs in the night sky, marking off the borders of the river. It was an amazing view.

From where we stood, it was just the bridge separating us from the Eiffel Tower, lighting the night’s sky.

Street lamps, all lit up, formed a line starting at one end of the bridge and advanced toward the Eiffel Towers’ base before stopping abruptly on the other side of the bridge. Like a small child running toward something in great excitement, only to stop just long enough to turn back and wave you along with his arm, as if to say, “Come on; come check this out!”

Before crossing over the river, we took the opportunity to snap a few photos. First one of Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy…

Then one of Tim & Rhonda and Jen and myself.

By the time we made it back to the Eiffel Tower on Saturday night, it was hopping. Crowds of people poured out of the elevator after their tour, and the vast green lawn that seemed to stretch on and on behind the tower was filled with people streaming this way and that. It was a busy place, on a Saturday night. And I loved it. I loved the energy of it.

A handful of food and ice cream vendors filled the air with smells of chocolate and freshly baked waffle cones. And crepes. Which we were happy to see. Several of us put in an order for ice cream or crepes (or ice cream in a crepe), and we made our way back to our hotel. It had been a great first day in Paris, and we were looking forward to seeing more of it after a good night’s sleep.

Sunday: Snow in Paris & Notre Dame

We woke up Sunday morning and started our day with a trip to the boulangerie. The small, corner bakery was filled with freshly baked pastries and croissants. We ordered enough for breakfast, and made our way toward the bus stop. We would be riding the double-decker bus around the city that day, stopping at several spots along the way.

We boarded at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and we were handed cheap, red-colored headphones as we did. The headphones plugged in to an outlet beside our seat from which we could listen to an automated tour guide as we drove through the city. The woman’s voice pointed out the different sights as we drove, mentioning interesting facts along the way.

From time to time, when she wasn’t looking, I’d switch Jen’s language from English to Italian or French. “Rrrryan!” she’d say. And I’d laugh. I’m a little kid, I know. I often tell Jen she’s going to get a gold star beside her name in heaven for having to put up with me.

We turned around the backside of the Eiffel Tower and the woman’s voice pointed out Napoleon’s Tomb as we did…

…along with the military museum, with rows of cannons at the edge of its expansive green lawns.

I made a mental note to make sure we saw both the tomb and the military museum before the trip was through.

We crossed over the river and made a quick stop beside its edge to pick up some more passengers. Rows of artists and their work lined the sidewalk. Trees provided a border between the river’s edge and the street. Along with a 20-foot drop.

As the bus began to move forward again, I noticed the cotton balls falling in the air. And it brought back memories of driving with my grandpa back home as a young boy.

I remembered, every spring, when the cotton wood trees would begin blooming, casting off thousands of little “cotton balls” into the air, like large snowflakes. They’d pile up along the side of the street, and it’d almost look as if it were snowing as we drove. I remember my Grandpa would say, “When the cotton balls stop falling, that’s when it’s time to open up the pool.”

My Grandpa has an outdoor, in-ground swimming pool behind his house back home, a rarity in our neck of the woods in the Pacific Northwest. But for a few months each year, that swimming pool was my favorite place to be. As a young boy in the just-hot-enough Washington summers.

And so, whenever I saw those cotton balls falling in the air, I knew long days of floating, swimming and playing in the pool on hot summer days weren’t far away.

And it put a smile on my face, remembering those times growing up, even as we made our way through Paris. It brought back memories of long, warm summer days and running around barefoot. It brought back back memories of my Grandpa teaching me how to do the dead-man’s float and smells of Coppertone sunscreen.

“What?” Jen asked, turning and seeing me smile to myself. “Why are you smiling?”

“Oh, I was just remembering something,” I told her.

Our first stop of the day was at Notre Dame. I’m not sure I’d seen photos of Notre Dame prior to our time in Paris, which I’m embarrassed to admit. Or maybe I had and I had just forgotten. Either way, even if I had, I’m not sure they’d do it justice.

I was blown away by how enormous this cathedral was. Even after coming straight from Rome and seeing places like St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame was incredibly large.

I jumped into Lacy’s photo in front of Notre Dame at the last minute and gave my best attempt at a Quasimodo impersonation for this shot…


…which, as it turns out, might be the worst Quasimodo impersonation ever.

We made our way into the Cathedral after snapping a handful of photos of the building, and it is just as amazing inside as it was outside. The long stone hallways, columns, arching ceilings and hanging chandeliers made it all seem as if you had just stepped back in time.

The Cathedral’s stained glass windows seemed to amplify the hints of sunlight streaming in from outside, casting it to dance across the stone pillars and walls inside the building.

Spotlights helped to create the effect, pouring rays of light over the stage in front of the church.

The high-arching ceiling seemed to climb up and up and up, as if someone had grabbed the Cathedral from above and stretched it after it had been completed.

A woodcarving along one side of the Cathedral told the New Testament story of Jesus’ life, from birth to resurrection.

Even though the building was full of others, tourists, taking photos, it still seemed quite reverential. There were several spots where people could stop and pray. There were confessional booths, which were made available at certain times throughout the day. And there were even spots where people could light a candle for a lost loved one.

A man with an accent that I could only identify as being from somewhere in Africa was leading a service at the front of the Cathedral. Many people were seated, listening to him, while many others were simply walking by, snapping photos along the way.

Notre Dame really was stunning. Like so much else in Paris, it made a mockery of my expectations.

We’d be visiting the Louvre the next day, one of the few places in Paris I had really been looking forward to. And it did not let me down.

Sunday: Tacos and laughs at Rob & Vanessa’s

I’ve been meaning to catch up with Rob & Vanessa since returning to Oxford from the holidays. But things have been busy. For me and for them.

But they sent out an e-mail this week. Asking a group of friends over for mexican food. On Sunday night. I wasn’t doing anything, and I’m not one to turn down a free Mexican dinner. So I wrote back, telling them I was looking forward to it.

After a full day of studies, I grabbed my jacket and hopped on my bike, racing through the city center in the cool, black night air on my way to Rob & Vanessa’s. It’s about a 10-minute bike ride from our place.

I locked up my bike out front and made my way to their apartment. Rob’s doing his MBA here at Oxford, and so they live right across from the Business school. In student accomodations. Which is basically an apartment complex full of business students. And usually spouses. Seems like everyone I’ve met in the MBA program is married.

Another couple was making their way up the stairs just ahead of me.

“Going to Rob & Vanessa’s place?” I asked.

“Yeah, you too?” the wife asked.

“Yep. Hi, I’m Ryan,” I said, holding shaking the guy’s hand first, then then his wife’s.

“Tyler,” he said.

“Hi, I’m Lauren,” she said.

“Good to meet you guys.”

Rob and Vanessa’s apartment was full by the time we got there. Several other couples were talking in the living room, while Vanessa finished preparations for dinner with a few other people crammed into their tiny kitchen.

Most of the people there that night were from the MBA program. And by “most” I mean, I wasn’t.

I talked with Tyler and another guy in the living room while the final touches were being put on the dinner. Tyler was telling us about a trip to London they just returned from. For a Business school dinner. At the Oxford & Cambridge Club.

I had never heard of such a place. But apparently it’s where Oxford & Cambridge alumni can spend loads of money on a membership so they have a place to book a room from or eat dinner at when they’re in London. Seemed like a pretty good deal to me.

Apparently it was an alumni dinner, which current MBA students were invited to. Tyler told us how they had interpreted that as an opportunity to go have dinner with alumni who have been in business for a while, and talk about job opportunities. But apparently that’s not what happened.

“It was a very high table event,” Tyler explained. “You had the big guys at their table, all the alumni on one side of the room, and then all of us current students off in our own corner, to ourselves.”

Apparently they were asked not even to talk to the alumni, which I thought was pretty funny.

Vanessa let us all know dinner was now being served a few minutes after that. Everyone’s conversations quieted. Heads bowed. And Rob blessed the food for us.

Vanessa warned us about the salsa Tyler and Lauren had brought. To be careful. As it was quite hot. The fact that it was orange was a good sign of that, I thought.

“That’s how we like it in Texas,” Lauren said. “I’m used to it. I eat this stuff on my cereal.”

I told them I had been born in Texas, before moving to the Northwest.

“Oh yeah? Where abouts?” Lauren asked.

“Just outside of Dallas,” I told her. “Grand Prairie.”

“Oh yeah. All right.”

I always say “just outside of Dallas” whenever I’m asked where I was born. Out of habit. Because no one from outside of Texas has any idea where Grand Prairie is.

We dished up our plates. Chicken tacos (with gluten-free chicken, Vanessa informed us). Rice. Beans. Chips and salsa. And took our seats around Rob & Vanessa’s living room to eat and talk.

I dipped a chip into the orange salsa, just to give it a test ride. Vanessa wasn’t joking. It was ridiculous.

We got onto the topic of TV shows. A conversation I’m always lost in. Lots of laughs were had about this or that episode of The Office. People gave their thoughts on how Lost had ended. And whether they thought it resolved or not. I kept waiting for Friday Night Lights to come up. But it never did. So I enjoyed my taco and pretended to know what was being talked about.

After a while, the conversation changed to travel. As one of the couples there that night had literally arrived with their luggage in-tow from their trip to Paris.

Lauren and Tyler told us about the trip they had taken to a museum while in London. And how Lauren had her picture taken hugging the Rosetta Stone. And how she went back the next day with someone else and took her to see it. After pointing to a large stone behind a piece of glass, Lauren insisted that wasn’t actually the Rosetta Stone, and that she had gotten her picture with it the day before. And how she had been able to touch it. But, sure enough, there was the plaque, showing pretty clearly this was the Rosetta Stone.

Lauren was pretty confused, but on the way out, she passed by the hallway she had been before, with “the Rosetta Stone” she had gotten her picture taken with. And that’s when she noticed the sign above the door of this hallway, which read, “Hall of Replicas.”

We all laughed. Wondering how many people took their picture with “the Rosetta Stone” or other ancient artifacts and then went home never knowing any better.

“Why would they even have that at the museum?” I asked, in-between laughs. “That must just be for the Americans who they know are going to want to touch everything and not know any better.”

Monday: Two for two on the headlight

I was talking with Steve on Monday from Harris Manchester’s library. On Skype. It was good to catch up with him.

I told him my bike headlight had been stolen at the end of the last week. And that I was glad my Grandpa had sent me an extra so I didn’t have to go out and buy a new one.

I told him I figured if this one got stolen too, that I’d just duct tape one of the many flashlights my Grandpa had sent us to the front of my bike as a substitute. He told me he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

I worked late into the evening that night. And at one point I swore I heard snoring. Even with music playing in my earphones. I turned around to find the guy behind me with his head down on his desk snoring away. It was the same guy who several days earlier started singing to the music playing in his earphones, without realizing. It was the second time in a week this guy made me laugh out loud in the library.

I left the library late that night. After reading all day. To head home and fix something for dinner.

And I was less than impressed when I found my bike where I left it that night. Minus the headlight.

“Well, it’s a good thing I have plenty of flashlights at home, I guess,” I thought to myself while unlocking my bike and riding away.

Tuesday: A beautiful day in Oxford

Tuesday was a beautiful sunny day here in Oxford. It wasn’t the first sunny day we’ve had this term, but this day was just beautiful. And actually warm.

I grabbed a panini for lunch and decided to eat outside. It was the first time I’ve been able to do so since arriving. I sat beside a tree across the street from Harris Manchester. Squinting my eyes as I ate my panini, staring up at the college in front of me.

“It really does look like a castle,” I thought to myself while enjoying my sandwich, as if suddenly seeing the college for the first time, in the sun.

The clouds overhead were shot through by the trails of airplanes, and it was a gorgeous day to be enjoying a panini outside, under the bright blue sky.

Wednesday: Apologetics & Talking Lewis over medium rare beef

I recently joined a Christian Apologetics group here in Oxford. The idea is to get together and give talks on different questions people might have about the faith. “How can we believe in God if pain and evil and suffering exist?” “Are all religions basically the same thing?” “Has science disproved God?”

The idea being that this will be good practice for us to go out and give such talks elsewhere, after we’ve given each other feedback. I loved the idea. Where better to find people to shoot holes through your talk than here in Oxford, I figured.

I talked this Wednesday on the topic of pain and suffering. And how we can believe in God, even in the midst of such evil. And it went really well. Particularly since I hadn’t had a chance to really put my talk together until around 11:45 the night before.

One of the guys there is basically in charge of training and organizing people to do these kind of talks here in Oxford. He told me afterward that he listens to a lot of speakers. That’s all he does, actually. And that I was in the top percentage of those he’s heard.

“Easily in the top 50%, but pushing into that Champion Level,” he said, motioning his hand up as if to make his point.

“Oh wow,” I said. “Well thank you.”

I really enjoy getting together with those guys. For these talks. This was just my second time, but each time I feel more and more that this is something I’d love to do more of.

Dinner with Michael Ward

From there, I raced off to meet up with Michael Ward. Michael is the Chaplain at one of the colleges here in Oxford. And he’s also on the Theology Faculty. He’s most well-known here for being the resident C.S. Lewis Scholar. And for writing a couple books on Lewis that have done really well, especially back in the States. He’s the same author who was interviewed by my cousin KC on the radio last term when the new Chronicles of Narnia came out in theatres.

I had met Michael pretty early on last term at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society events. Really nice guy. Incredibly bright. And after hearing Jen was going to be back in the States for a bit yet, he asked if I’d like to grab dinner one night. So we did.

I met him at St. Peter’s College that evening. It was my first time there. It’s a beautiful college. More modern than many here in Oxford. And on the small side. But I really liked it. He showed me into their chapel for a quick look. And he bragged a bit about their choir, which is apparently one of the best in Oxford. He told me he would have shown me around the chapel a bit more, but there was a cellist practicing on the far end, and he didn’t want to disturb him.

We walked to a restaurant around the corner from St. Peter’s. A french place. I didn’t catch the name, but I had noticed it before. It looked really nice, from the street. And it looked really nice from inside, too.

Very modern, with smiley waitstaff.

We found a seat by the window and began looking over the menu. I asked Michael if he had any recommendations. He did. He recommended the prime rib dinner for two, which gave him 10 extra respect points in my book.

“But it’s a bit on the spendy side,” he said. “Particularly for students without any money.”

He asked me how much I was planning on spending. And then he said he’d take care of the rest if that sounded good to me. I told him that sounded great to me.

The waitress came a few minutes later and took our order. When she asked how we wanted it prepared, Michael told her medium rare. Another 10 respect points in my book.

I had a great time getting to talk with Michael. I had only talked to him in short conversations before. I enjoyed hearing a bit more about his interests in Lewis. About his own work. About why he thought Lewis was more popular in the States than here in the UK (“He’s English, through and through, but he’s also quite direct and pointed in his writing, and I think the American audience appreciates that,” he said. “I think people forget Lewis was born in Ireland, and that certainly plays a role in his tone.”)

He told me how this idea for his books had come to him while he was working on his PhD. How he had been planning on writing something totally different, but then this thought just came to him one night. Totally unrelated to what he had been working on. Not even close to what he had been thinking about. And how it had completely changed his life. How he had been given the opportunity to travel all over the world to talk about it. And how he saw it as a gift from God, rather than a reflection of his own clever mind.

I told him I really appreciated hearing that. There are far too many people who want to take all the credit for how clever they are. Particularly when it comes to their work.

He asked me about my own interests in Lewis. And so I told him. I told him about reading “Mere Christianity” for the first time as a sophomore in college. And how that had literally changed my life. How I realized you don’t have to sacrifice your intellect to approach this faith, and how Lewis had shown me that. I told him about the crazy journey that brought us here, and how I was in Oxford because of Lewis.

Michael seemed to appreciate hearing about that story, as he smiled a lot while listening. And nodded in agreement.

He then asked me if I had realized the Oxford CS Lewis Society was losing its President to graduation after this year, and if I had put any thought to that.

I was taken aback by his question, but I told him I had realized that, yeah.

“Well, I wanted you to know your name has been discussed for that role,” he told me from across the table, wearing a slight smile.”

“Really?” I said, with big eyes. “Wow… Well that’s, that’s great.”

“Well, what do you think?” he asked me.

“I think it’s an honor to even be considered for that role,” I told him. “And I think I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything else I’d rather get behind here in Oxford.”

Again, I think he was happy to hear that, as his slight smile had now grown into a full-blown smile.

He told me it wasn’t his decision. That it was the current President’s decision. But that he thought I’d make a great fit, and that he’d be talking with him.

I was blown away. It wasn’t that long ago I was dreaming about coming to Oxford because of this man. Because of C.S. Lewis. And now I was being considered for the role of President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. It was at that point that I felt my chair lift off the ground a little bit.

Friday: A scene from Harry Potter at New College

I was on my way to Harris Manchester on Friday afternoon to punch out my Patristics essay when Emily asked me if I had taken a look around New College yet.

“No, I haven’t,” I told her.

New College isn’t actually very new. It was established in 1379. So, apparently it was new around that time.

It’s on a street I walk by after Greek every day on my way to Harris Manchester, but I’ve never actually been in to walk around. Emily asked if I had five minutes to check it out. She said she had just walked through it the other day and it was pretty amazing. Realizing I really haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities to see so many of these amazing buildings, I took her up on it.

And I’m glad I did. It’s an incredible place. It’s enormous, for one…

…but it’s also really, really old. And it shows it, in spots. One of the older, inner walls still has slots for archers, for example.

Emily told me that one of the scenes from Harry Potter had apparently been filmed here (the’ ferret scene’ in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). In the courtyard. What they call “cloisters.”

It’s a pretty cool spot. The cloisters. Old, arched stone hallways, with a stone floor underfoot, surround a large, grassy courtyard. And a large tree sits off in a corner of the square. With a bench underneath it.

It really was an incredible spot. And no one was around on this morning. No one except a handful of birds chirping in the tree overhead.

As we left New College, and made our way back to Harris Manchester, I couldn’t help but feel in awe. Of this incredible place. And all the buildings I walk by on a daily basis without checking them out. Without taking them in. The colleges aren’t open to the public, but all I have to do is show my card if I’m asked.

I really need to do a better job of taking advantage of all there is to see here.

Saturday: In Lewis old Chapel

Michael sent me an e-mail at the end of the week. Asking if I’d like to join him and David (the current Oxford Lewis Society President) for a chapel service at Magdelene College (pronounced “Maw-delene”) that Saturday night. At the college where Lewis used to teach.

I told him that sounded great. And that I had been looking for an excuse to visit Magdelene.

It was a beautiful night Saturday. It had been a clear day, so the stars seemed to be shining even brighter than normal in the dark night sky overhead. David arrived just as I did, so we entered the grounds at Magdalene College at the same time. And instantly I was taken aback.

The square courtyard was surrounded by these gigantic stone walls that reached high into the sky. It was amazing. Michael crossed the square and greeted David and I shortly after we arrived.

“Hello gentleman,” he said in his deep voice, wearing a smile.

“This really is your first time visiting the old hallowed halls, huh Ryan?” he asked me.

“Yeah, it is.”

“Well, you are in for a treat,” he told me.

He was right. The chapel and the service were both amazing.

Entering the candlelit room, I felt like I was going back in time. The wooden ceiling loomed high overhead. The walls are ornately carved wood. And candles lined the rows and rows of seats. With their high backs. The seats are tiered, and they look toward the center of the room, so that you’re looking at those seated on the opposite side of the room as you. The choir entered in their white robes shortly after we arrived. And they delivered an incredible performance.

They have this service every night, apparently. But Saturday nights are particularly good, Michael told us. I kept thinking how much I wanted to bring Jennifer there with me, to see and experience all of this.

“Next week,” I thought to myself. “Next week.”

After the service, Michael pointed toward a plaque on the wall, behind one of the seats at the end of the room.

“C.S. Lewis,” it read. Amazing. I was sitting in the same chapel Lewis sat in for all those years he taught here at Oxford. Amazing.

As we made our way out of the chapel that evening, Michael introduced me to the Bishop who had given the message that evening.

“This is Ryan Pemberton,” Michael said to him as we shook hands. “And he’s going to be our newest President for the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society.”

“Really? Well that’s wonderful,” he said to me with a smile. Apparently he’s a former President of the Society himself.

It was news to me, as we hadn’t talked about it anymore since dinner earlier in the week. And so I was taken aback. But also elated. Incredibly excited. I’m sure I was grinning from ear to ear like a little boy. But I didn’t care. I was in Magdalene College, and I had just been named the next Oxford C.S. Lewis Society President. I was ecstatic.

Tuesday Night: Even more excited

I was so excited getting that news Saturday night. I shared the news with Jen when I got back in. And she was incredibly excited for me as well, knowing how much that’d mean to me.

But, as exciting as that news was, I have even more exciting news… In about 10 hours, I will be greeting my wife at the London Heathrow Airport. With the biggest hug I can manage.

I haven’t seen her in more than five weeks at this point. The last time we went that long without seeing each other, I was a freshman in college. My first time around. Around eight years ago.

I’m terribly excited to see her again. And to be together. It’s been an incredible time being back here in Oxford, but it’s just not the same without my other half. I’m looking forward to enjoying this time together as the Pembertons again. And the next time I wake up, I’m looking forward to doing just that.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday: Adjusting to my wet shorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing well

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

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

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

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

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

A proud uncle

Jennifer sent me this picture earlier this week…

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: When my Greek came alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grizzly Adams did have a beard

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Breakfast with the guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guys laughed.

My shadow beard

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

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

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

I laughed.

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

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

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


Friday: An honest conversation

I had Greek the Friday morning Steve left to head back to the States. He walked with me to class and then said goodbye before grabbing a bus to Heathrow.

I had a Patristics essay due that afternoon, so I headed to my favorite spot on the second floor of the Harris Manchester Library to punch that out after Greek. Emily was heading back to Harris Manchester as well. Emily’s the only one in my Greek class from Harris Manchester.  And Emily, Lyndon and I are the only “mature” students in the class (over 21). Everyone else in the class is straight out of high school (or the UK equivalent).

Emily asked how the term was treating me as we made our way down the curved lanes between high stone walls that led to HMC. I told her it was going really well, actually. Much better than last term. I told her I just felt felt myself feeling more comfortable with everything. How last term not only was the material new, but everything was new. Now, at least, I was a bit more comfortable here in Oxford. I told her I have really been enjoying my material this term, too, which helps.

“Yeah?” she said, looking over at me with a look that told me she wasn’t quite in the same boat.

“How’s the term going for you?” I asked.

“Well, not so well,” she said. “I had a bit of a breakdown this week, actually.”

Emily went on to tell me how she went to start her essay this week and just couldn’t do it. That she just didn’t have it in her.

“I ended up skipping my lectures, too,” she told me, in a voice that sounded a bit embarrassed. “That’s just not like me.”

“Yeah, no, that doesn’t sound like you,” I said. “Have you just been tired?”

“Yeah, I really just got to the point where I couldn’t make myself do it,” she said, again, in the semi-embarrassed tone.

We talked a bit about the frantic pace of studies here at Oxford. How, when the term is in session, it really is full-time, all the time. It’s condensed, to put it lightly. And we talked about how you really cannot stop, or else you’ll just get behind.

Emily’s from the UK, but she’s not the type who just assumed she’d go to Oxford. Not at all. Even though she recently told me her Dad went to Cambridge, she seems in awe of the fact she’s here, still. Like me. I appreciate that.

Somehow her family came up. I’m not quite sure how. But she told me about how they’ll call and the first thing they want to know is how her studies are going. How Oxford is treating her.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I told her. “It’s a big thing that you’re here, and to everyone else, this is just amazing. But, to you, it’s overwhelming.”

I asked her if she had let on to her family at all about how she was feeling. She told me she hadn’t. That they’re just so proud of her for being here. How they’re always telling their friends how their daughter is going to Oxford. And that she didn’t want to let them down.

I told her I was actually somewhat relieved to hear her say all of this. Not because I liked hearing she was having a hard time, but just because it was nice knowing I wasn’t the only one to feel like that.

“Yeah?” she asked, turning to me with a look of surprise.

“Yeah, I mean, as the American, I feel like I totally wear my heart on my sleeve,” I told her. “And, when I’m overwhelmed, I feel like it’s totally apparent. Whereas, you English, you always seem so cool and relaxed.”

I told her how I had been feeling totally overwhelmed the previous term. How I was having a really hard time even returning after the holidays. After being home, earning a paycheck again, and being around friends and family. I told her how I had literally started thinking how I might be able to return home and still save face.

“Because it’s been this whole big thing, right? Coming to Oxford, I mean,” I said, looking over to Emily to make sure she was following me. Her face told me she was.

“But then, you start thinking this was all just a horrible idea. And that you can’t actually do this. But then you just do, you know? You just put your head down and get through it.”

I wasn’t sure if that’s what Emily needed to hear or not. But it was my experience. And I hoped it’d help, in some way or another.

She told me she had scheduled an appointment to sit down with the Senior Supervisor. To let her know how she was feeling. To explain why she had missed her essay deadlines. Why she hadn’t been attending lectures. And to see if she had any advice.

“Good, good. I’m really glad to hear that,” I said, as we approached the front entryway at Harris Manchester. “Well, I hope that helps. You’ll have to let me know how that goes, huh?”

She told me she would. And she thanked me for listening.

I told her I was happy to. It’s not often the English show how they’re really doing. At least not in my experience. And I told her it had helped me, reminding me I’m not the only one feeling this way at times.

Saturday: Prayer over breakfast with Rich & Max

The last time I was in Summertown working with Rich from Starbucks, he had told me how he and another guy, Max, had been talking about starting a small men’s prayer group. A “prayer triplet” he told me. Apparently it’s an England thing. Where three guys meet once a week and prayer for each other. He told me they had been looking for a third guy. And since I had a lot in common with them (married, just started at Oxford, studying theology, etc.) he thought I’d be a great fit.

Rich and Max are both doing their doctorates here. Wheras I’m doing my second BA. They’re both in Philosophy and Theology. Whereas Rich has been doing this for a while, teaching Philosophy at Biola, Max is just rolling right through, and so he is right around my age. Maybe a few years younger. And he and his wife are from here in England. Rich and his wife are both from Southern California.

I told Rich I thought that sounded like a great idea. I told him it’d be nice to have some other guys to chat with who are in the same boat.

“Cool. Well I’ll talk it over with Max and we’ll set up a time to meet, then.”

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

I ended up getting an e-mail shortly after that, seeing if I wanted to meet for breakfast that Saturday morning. In Summertown. At Starbucks. And then we could take it from there.

So I woke up Saturday morning. Hopped in the shower to wash the sleep off of me, and I and rode into Summertown to meet up with Rich and Max for breakfast. They were seated at a table in Starbucks when I walked in. I had only met Max briefly before, but he’s a great guy. He has a big floppy head of red hair that’s always puffed up in the back. Messy in a trendy “I don’t care” kind of a way. And a great grin that goes to the side of his freckled face. He’s a super nice guy, and he greeted me with a handshake and that grin of his.

The three of us walked down to a place called Joe’s in Summertown. The same place Steve and Jen and I had went for brunch when they were here last fall. And the place I went shortly after arriving and ordered a side of ham with my eggs and toast. Only to be served ham cold cuts.

It’s a great place, though. It feels American. Like the kind of restaurant we’d have back home. With wooden tables, low hanging lights and large leather bench seats with high backs.

The place is pretty popular for breakfast. It’s always full.

We were greeted by a hostess and she led us to a table in the far back corner of the room where we pulled off our layers of jackets and gloves and scarves. It was a cold morning. We all ordered coffee to warm up.

And it was a blast meeting with these guys. They have great hearts, and they’re experiencing a lot of the same things I am, which makes it easy to relate and share.

We continued to chat as we looked over the menu.

Max’s eyes fell on the English breakfast.

“Mmmm…, yeah, I’m afraid I might need to do the English breakfast,” he said, in that British accent of his.

“Yeah? That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” I told him. “I haven’t actually had one since last term.”

Not everyone’s a fan of the traditional English breakfast. Well, not all Americans, I mean. For starters, it’s served with beans. The pork & beans kind. It also comes with fried tomatoes and mushrooms, which also puts some people off. But, it does include bacon (which is really fried ham, here in the UK), fried eggs, sausages and toast.

I’m a fan. I know the beans sounds weird, but once you get over the fact that you’re eating beans for breakfast, it’s actually pretty good.

Rich went with the french toast. Always a safe bet.

Rich started us off by talking a bit about what he and Max had in mind when they first started talking about this as an idea. How they hoped it could be a place where we can talk about anything and everything. From marriage to school to whatever. And a place where we can encourage and pray for each other.

“We’re all going to be here for at least two years,” Rich said from behind his glasses across the table, “and it’d be great to have this community while we’re here.”

Max and I both nodded our heads in agreement. We talked a bit about format. About what we thought might work best.

Then we all just talked about what had brought us here, and how the transition was going for us.

It was nice to hear their stories, and, again, to know that I’m not the only one going through this big change. That we’re not the only ones going through this big change.

It was great just to open up to these guys, to say, “this is where it’s tough,” and to see in their eyes that they knew exactly what I was talking about. Because they had shared that experience.

Max talked a bit about feeling overwhelmed in his program. How he had went from being at the top of his class in his Master’s program, about being favored by his professors, but how this was just on another level. How the people here are just brilliant, and how that’s been humbling for him.

Rich nodded his head from across the table, looking at Max.

I’m not sure why, but when I hear Max’s name, I think of the kid from Where the Wild Things Are, and I can’t help but picture him in those pajamas. The ones with the ears and whiskers and claws. With the crown on top of his head. And it makes me laugh to myself.

I told Max how I had felt the same way when I arrived. How I felt totally out of my element after the first few times of sitting in Greek. With these kids who were straight out of high school with their private school education rattling off French, Latin and Greek like it was nothing. I told them that I basically realized everyone here was smarter than me. And how that helped, because I no longer had to worry about it.

“Everyone. Not just in class, but everyone in Oxford,” I said. “The guy washing the windows, I’d literally think to myself, ‘That guy’s smarter than me,’ as I’d walk by.”

They both laughed. I was serious.

We wrapped up our breakfasts. I finished all of my traditional English breakfast. Including the beans. And I felt great.

We prayed for each other, going around the table, and then we nearly left without paying. After sitting there for a couple hours, I guess we just kind of forgot about that part.

Monday: Alister McGrath & Christianity-The story of best-fit

I went to a talk with Max and Rich two nights later here in Oxford. It was at the University Church of St. Mary. It’s a beautiful church right in the middle of the city center. With tall spyres that reach high into the sky. Apparently it’s where Lewis preached The Weight of Glory during the wartime. It’s also the most photographed building in Oxford, I’m told.

It’s an incredible building to sit in, with its cavernous ceilings that seem to never end. Row after row of wooden pews lead up to the front of the church. Tall, arching stone columns reach high into the air. The walls are stone, too, interspersed with stained glass windows. And it all feels so ancient. So old. Like you’re sitting in the middle of history.

I pointed toward the pulpit off to the side of the front of the room and asked Rich if he thought he could preach better from that. He laughed.

The pulpit has a winding wooden staircase that leads up to a small, wooden, framed-in box, just tall enough for someone to stand in, looking out over the pews. It looked a bit like a little tree house. A preacher’s tree house. I told Rich if I ever became a pastor I was going to make sure I had a treehouse on-stage.

A guy by the name of Alister McGrath was talking that night on the topic of Science & Religion. Alister is a pretty well-known author and professor here. He’s an incredibly bright guy, with an amazing resume. He originally studied molecular biophysics here at Oxford, and he was wrapping up his work on his PhD in the natural sciences when he decided to pick up a degree in theology while he was at it. He’s since published a mountain of books on theology, and he frequently talks to groups about not only theology, but also hows science and theology interrelate. He regularly defends Christianity against guys who like to say Christianity is a joke because of what we now through Science.

It was a great talk, and you could tell Professor McGrath was both brilliant and really familiar with talking about this subject. After rolling through his talk for about 45-minutes or so, he took questions from the audience. And I was amazed by how quickly he responded. I was still processing the question when he was walking through the three points he would make in response. It was kind of crazy, actually.

After several questions, we were asked to thank Alister for his talk with our applause. We were also told we were invited to come upstairs, to “the old library” for some biscuits, tea and coffee if we had any other questions we’d like to ask. I didn’t, but I was interested in hearing the rest of the conversation.

Rich knows Alister, having introduced himself before. They met and Rich told Alister he’d like to help him with his website, to promote his work. So he is now doing that. Rich asked me if I’d like to be involved, and so I’m helping out with that as well now.

Rich introduced me briefly to Alister and told him I was studying theology here. He said he’d have to keep his eyes out for me, then.

“Yeah…,” I said, smiling. He was a really nice guy.

I snapped a photo of Rich and his wife, Christine, with Alister.

Rich asked if I wanted my photo taken as well.

“Sure. Yeah, that’d be great, actually,” I said.

The old library we were led to for questions with Alister afterwards was a really cool old room. We made our way up an old staircase that opened up into this ancient-looking room, with old wooden boards for a floor. Cracked and sloping, and not even in the least. The walls were mostly stained glass windows, looking out onto the Oxford city center lit up in the dark by street lights. Wooden rafters loomed overhead, and a circle of chairs had been set out in the far end of the room. We grabbed several seats while others circled the coffee and biscuit table.

Alister answered several more questions. Seemingly with ease. And more relaxed than the tone had been downstairs. Perhaps it was the smaller audience. Perhaps he didn’t feel as rushed now.

One of the questions that stood out was, “Why Christianity?” I thought it was a great question. Among all the other religions, why this one?

Alister’s a big fan of C.S. Lewis, which I appreciate. But it’s also rare. Lewis doesn’t have a big following here in England, particularly among academics. But Alister loves to quote Lewis. Or include him in his talks.

He responded to this question by quoting Lewis, saying, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

He talked about how Lewis had been an atheist for many years. And how his friend J.R.R. Tolkein had led him to the faith. He talked about the power of story. And how C.S. Lewis had seen in the Lord of the Rings series that Christianity made sense. That the story of Christianity fits with what we see around us. That this story explains the world around us better than any other religion.

Alister told us how he had grown up in Ireland, and how religion seemed to produce nothing but violence. Which is why he was an atheist himself for so many years. But then, many years later, something changed. He told us how, as a scientist, he came to see Christianity as the story that best solves all the pieces we have before us.

“In Christianity, all the pieces fall together just so,” Alister told us, looking around the room at those seated in their chairs.

Alister answered the last question around 10 o’clock that night, and the three of us made our way down the staircase and into the dark, cold night air outside. We chatted about Alister’s talk as we walked.

That was my first time listening to Alister, and I told them I thought he was brilliant.

“Sitting there, I felt like I was in the wrong place,” I told them. “Like, somehow, I had missed the memo for children’s church, and I was left sitting in the adult’s service. Like I should be somewhere playing in a sandbox during this conversation.”

They laughed.

I said goodbye and we all went our separate ways, me on my bike. It was a cold, foggy night, and the thick air seemed to envelope me as I scooted through the city center on my way north.

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