Archives for category: Oxford Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

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

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

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

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

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

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

The Oxford Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

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

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

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Making sense of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Metaphor in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was crushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3rd week of Trinity Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police and Americans at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis Society & Dinner with Aidan Mackey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: We are the message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music to my ears in the park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is energy?”

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: End of the term review & Open Forum

My end of term review was scheduled for Wednesday morning of eighth week. That’s when I sit down with Dave, my academic advisor, and sign off on the reports submitted by my tutors. Saying how they feel about my work for the term, and how they predict me doing on my final exams (which I won’t take until June of 2012).

It’s not like the American educational system, where you get a letter grade based on your percentage out of a 100. Instead, they rate you on “Achievement” and “Effort” on what I’m guessing must be a five-point scale (Excellent, Very Good, Good, etc.). They also rate you on a numeric scale, where a First class honors (1) represents the top percentage, a 2:1 represents the upper portion of second class honors (which is still seen as quite good), a 2:2 represents the lower portion of second class honors, then there’s Third class honors, and, finally, a Pass (without honors, which is the worst you can do). Clear? That’s okay. It’s a bit confusing.

I locked up my bike outside of Mansfield College Wednesday morning and made my way down the gravel path toward the castle-like building. A few minutes later, I was seated on one of the leather couches in Dave’s office. It was a sunny day, and sunlight was pouring in through the windows as we talked.

Dave greeted me with a warm smile and handed me the report from my Old Testament tutor, Casey. He sat at his desk and worked on something at his computer while I read over my report. It was really positive. Casey said my essays had really improved since my first term, which surprised me, as I was pretty happy with my report at the end of last term. He rated me as “Very Good” for both Effort and Achievement, and predicted me at a 2:1 for the final exam. I was happy with that.

Dave told me my Patristics tutor had yet to submit my report, but that he’d get that to me as soon as he heard back from her. Dave and I talked for a bit after I signed off on my report. About my classes for next term, as well as just how things were going. He asked about Jen, and how she was settling in since returning from the States. I told him about our jobs at The Kilns. He was pretty excited for us about that.

We talked a bit about Dave’s plans, as he’s currently just filling in for another professor here. He’s a young guy, just barely in his thirties, and so this is his first position after wrapping up his Doctoral studies. He told me that he’s applied for several positions here at Oxford, and that, as much as his wife would like to return to the States, that he’s hoping something will work out here.

“I’d love to stay here,” he told me with a smile from his seat on the leather sofa across the room. “This is a dream come true.”

From my seat in this Oxford office, with books stacked on shelves from floor to high-reaching ceiling, with sunlight pouring into the room over the stretching green lawns, I could see why.

A miraculous coincidence at the Open Forum

Wednesday night was the third week of getting together for Oxford Open Forum. Our night of meeting at Puccino’s to discuss different worldviews. Where people from all different backgrounds can come and talk about different questions of the faith.

We had invited Alex to lead this week. The President of the Atheist Society here at Oxford. And he said he was happy to.

His topic for the evening was, “Lost in Translation: Obstacles and Pathways to Dialogue between World Views.” Basically, what we would be discussing are the different words that we sometimes trip up over while talking with people of different faith traditions.

Alex opened up the evening’s conversation with a brief introduction, and then he talked about different words like “spiritual” and “life force,” which are sometimes used by people, without really ever defining what is meant by them.

I piped up and said I agreed with Alex, to a certain extent. That I get frustrated when people say they’re “spiritual,” but not “religious.” How it seems like people who use that line aren’t really saying anything. That it’s far too ambiguous to know what they mean. And that it seems like a bit of a cop out.

One of the guys in the room introduced himself. A guy by the name Tihi (short for Tihomir). Tihomir is from Serbia, and this was his first night joining us. He said people who use this language are likely wanting to distance themselves from religion, as it tends to carry a lot of negative connotations.

Another guy, Peter, said that such language, and the word “spiritual” in particular, speaks to the fact that there is something beyond what we can see in this world, without defining exactly what that is. And this belief in something beyond our world is particularly relevant during times of great pain and loss. When we’re looking for answers in the world. For the way things are.

Our meeting happened to fall on Ash Wednesday, and so Peter referred to the charcoal colored cross on his forehead to identify his particular religious beliefs. And how Christianity responds to such pain.

It was at this point that Alex replied by saying that’s one problem he has with Christianity: that Christians create a problem, and then suggest a solution for it.

No one seemed to reply to that point. I’m not sure anyone had a response. And so the conversation quickly moved on.

Tihomir went on to suggest that, no matter what your particular views may be, you must acknowledge that there are things and experiences in this life that we simply cannot explain, apart from the supernatural. Or “spiritual.”

He told us about one seemingly miraculous experience from his own life. He told us about when he first arrived here in Oxford for his Dphil studies last year. And how his sponsor revoked his sponsorship three days before his tuition was due. He told us he didn’t have the money to cover his schooling, nor did his family back home in Serbia. He told us that he knew if he didn’t come up with the money, he’d be heading home. He told us how he remembers returning to him room that evening, distraught, and deciding to just pray, “If you’re there, would you help with this?” Then, with a smile on his face, the first smile I had seen from him, he told us what happened next.

“I went and checked my e-mail, and it was 11:00 on a Friday night. I still remember that quite clearly.”

He told us how, when he opened his e-mail, he was surprised to find between 20 and 30 e-mails in his inbox. From people from all over the world. Some of the people he hadn’t spoken to in years.

“It made no sense that some of these people would be e-mailing me,” he told us.

One after another, each of the people said they had been praying and were told by God that they were supposed to help Tihi with his schooling here at Oxford. Not because Tihi had told anyone about this, but because He had told them.

But that’s not the strangest part about this. He told us how, when all of the money was added up, from all of these people around the world, it was the exact amount he needed for schooling.

“Not a penny more, not a penny less,” he told us with a stunned look on his face, as though he was hearing the story for the first time himself.

“That’s more than a coincidence,” he told us, looking around the room. “Somehow, you have to be able to account for that.”

Alex simply smiled at the story. And referred to it as a coincidence. Before moving on.

Somehow, after a while, the conversation came back to the topic of the pain in this world, and man’s wrongdoing. And Alex made the point that we all make mistakes every now and then, but for the most part, people are generally good.

The room went quiet, seemingly in-between topics, and so I spoke up.

I made the point that Pete had previously brought up the fact that we all have some sort of longing for something beyond this world. How Augustine referred to it as a “God-shaped hole.” And how that leads us to conclude that there must be something beyond simply what we can see. I also referred to Alex’s comment about Christianity “creating” a problem and then providing a solution, before bringing the conversation to focus on his last comment. About people being generally good, but making mistakes every now and then.

I told him I disagreed with that completely. I told him I think people are actually pretty bad through and through. And that we can see the results of that all around us. Certainly in the horrors of the killings of Egypt and Libya. And that such acts aren’t mistakes, that they’re quite intentional.

He replied by saying his comment was actually a facetious one. And that he conceded to my point that we do intentionally do bad things. But that he still held that most people are good people, and that it’s only a minority of the population who do such terrible things.

Again, I told him I disagreed with him on this point. I told him it was easy to compare himself to situations taking place in Libya and Egypt and think himself a pretty decent guy, but that, the truth is, we’re also enjoying an incredible amount of affluence here in Oxford, and that it’s relatively easy to be a pretty decent guy here. But, even here in Oxford, there are terrible things taking place all the time. Like theft, for example.

“Why do you think we have a police force?” I asked him. “Why do people lock their doors at night? Christianity hasn’t “created” this problem. This is real, and it’s all around us.”

“Well, I don’t lock my door at night,” he replied, as if that somehow disproved the fact that the vast majority of people do lock their doors, because of the evil that’s all around us. So central to our lives that we almost don’t notice it.

And with that, one of the cafe’s waitresses entered the room, and told us they were closing up the shop.

I shook Alex’s hand and thanked him for chairing the evening. I told him I really appreciated him allowing the focus to fall on Atheism for the evening. And, as I walked out into the night air after the Forum that night, I felt even more confident of Christianity’s ability to make sense of the world we find ourselves in.

A number of the guys, including Rich, Max, Pete and Alex were heading to a pub after the Open Forum. To grab a pint and talk a bit more. I told them I’d love to join them, but that I hadn’t seen Jen all day, and that I should be getting home.

I caught up with Tihi as we left, though. He was walking the same way I was heading, and so I introduced myself and I thanked him for sharing his story with us.

“That blew me away,” I told him. “Your story of how all that money came in for you at the last minute. That was incredible!”

“Yes, but it’s happened time and time again,” he said to me.

He told me about another time he’s been provided for financially. More recently.

He told me about how, on another occasion, he found he had come up short in being able to pay for school. And so he decided to spend some time in prayer. Again. By himself. And his journal.

He told me the next day, after praying, he was approached by a family who had traveled here to Oxford from Africa. To find him. To help with his school finances. Apparently, they had money returned to them time after time, after paying for several things, and, after praying and asking what God wanted them to do with this money, they were told the money was to be used to help a student with his finances at Oxford.

“I didn’t even know them,” he told me with a look of complete surprise on his face. “So I asked them, ‘How do you know I’m the one you’re supposed to be helping?’ And they asked me, ‘You really want to know how we knew?’ And I told them I did, and that’s when they began repeating to me the prayer I had prayed the night before, word for word, and what I had written in my journal… There’s no way anyone could have known that!”

I was stunned. That was an incredible story. He went on to tell me he’s had several of these experiences. Not just with money, but with other ways in which things have lined up for him to be here. Ways that don’t make sense to simply call coincidences.

“Just three hours ago, I was on national television, talking about all of these incredible experiences that have happened to me since being here at Oxford,” he said to me.

He told me how he was raised in the church, but then how he had fallen away. Spending a number of years as an Agnostic, and then an Atheist. He told me he feels like he’s on a journey now. Searching for answers for these incredible experiences. And how he has told God that he is going to keep telling others about all of these experiences.

“I came from a poor town in Serbia,” he told me. “People laughed at me when I told them I wanted to go to Oxford.”

I told him I really appreciated hearing his story. And that I had a similar story. How I really didn’t feel like it made any sense for me to be here, apart from Him. And I loved hearing how He was doing that in someone else’s life.

Tihi took my e-mail and said he’d like to have us to his college for a meal sometime. Jennifer and I. When he returns from his 10-day trip around Europe. Telling others about all that has happened since arriving here in Oxford. I told him we’d really enjoy that, before hopping on my bike and heading home.

Thursday: Dinner and Games with the St. Andrews group

Last term, we were quite involved with a small group that met at the church just down the street from us. At St. Andrew’s Church. The group meets on Thursday nights. For dinner. And to read through and discuss a particular book of the Bible. It’s a great group of people, and we’ve really enjoyed getting to know them each Thursday night.

But this term had been different. With Friday deadlines this term, I found myself working on essays most Thursday nights, and unable to go to group. But this Thursday, with a bit of a break on my last essay (my Patristics tutor asked me just to put together an outline of what I had covered for the term), we were excited to go and catch up with everyone again.

This particular Thursday night was a social night, hosted at Chloe and Vanda’s house (two girls from our group). They were making dinner, and invited the group over for food and games. It was great to see everyone again, seated around the dining room table in Chloe and Vanda’s place. We had a great time catching up on what everyone had been up to since we saw them last. They asked about our new niece, Khloe, and how the term had treated me.

Chloe and Jen filled plates with a beef and red wine stew, and we passed them around the table until everyone had been served. We rounded out our plates with potatoes and carrots, and Rachel, our small group leader, asked Will if he’d bless the food for us. Will is training to be a Vicar (pastor) in the Anglican Church here in England. Eleanor, one of the girls in our group, a boisterous, witty gal from Scotland who is probably among the top 10 funniest people I’ve ever met, interjected, saying that Will’s always asked to pray and she didn’t think he should have to. Just because he’s training to work in a church. That someone else should. Half-jokingly. Half-serious. So we all said she should say grace in his place, which, from the look on her face, is not quite what she was going for.

We shared a lot of laughs over dinner, and dessert. Everyone brought ice cream and / or a topping. By the time everything was brought in from the kitchen, the table was covered in several different flavors of ice cream and toppings. Everything from M&M’s and malt balls to bananas and marshmallows.

Vanda made the comment that she felt like she was at the Ice Cream Factory at Pizza Hut.

Somehow we got on the topic of baptism while enjoying our ice cream. A few people thought it was funny that the Vicar at St. Andrew’s wears waders during the baptism service. Before entering the Baptismal pool. I suggested that maybe he was just an avid fisherman, and that he was looking for any opportunity he could to get in his waders.

Will told a funny story about a Vicar at a church he once visited. It was a baptism service when he visited, and he said he was shocked when the Vicar began stripping down right there on stage when it came time to enter the wading pool. Removing his shirt and pants to reveal a speedo…

We all erupted into shocked laughter at Will’s story.

Will said he couldn’t believe it, sitting there in that church when it happened. He said he remembers looking around to see other people’s reactions, but that everyone looked like this was perfectly normal. Like it was just part of the routine.

I asked Will if this Vicar was married. Eleanor looked at me with big eyes and a head nod, as if to say she was thinking the same thing.

“Because that’s when your wife is supposed to step in and say, ‘Actually, this is a really terrible idea’,” I told him.

I went on to tell about the time a boy at our church took our pastor up on a joke he’s known for using. That of betting the kids $10 to do a cannonball into the baptismal pool. And how, after years and years of using this joke, one kid finally took him up on it, shocking the entire congregation, and taking second place on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

After cleaning up from dinner and dessert, we moved into the living room. Sinking heavily into the cozy couches and pillows on the floor after a great meal. Settling in for some games.

We played a game called Articulate, which seems pretty close to a British version of the game Taboo. We split into three groups, and Jen and I were teamed up with Will. I apologized to Will in advance. For what I was sure was going to be a pretty sad performance. And I was right.

It sounds funny, as England is obviously an English-speaking country, but it’s really tough to understand the British accent sometimes. Especially when people are talking as fast as possible to beat the clock. And, there are just a lot of words in the British language that are foreign to us. All this added up to us doing horribly. And feeling bad that Will had to suffer with us.

There was one point where Will was trying to get us to guess the word, “Beaker.” Not like the kind you might find in a Chemistry lab, but used to describe what we would call a sippy cup. That’s right, in the UK, sippy cups are known as “Beakers.” Who knew. Needless to say, we didn’t get that one.

I was pretty excited when I got “Jack Nicholson” as a word in the People category.

“He’s an actor. He starred in The Shining and As Good as It Gets. He sits courtside at every Laker’s game…”

Nothing. Will had no idea. Nor did Jennifer. And that’s when I knew we were in serious trouble.

We ended up getting it handed to us that night. Will, Jennifer and I. Only making it about a quarter of the way around the board in the time it took Eleanor’s team to finish. But we had a great time.

It was the first time in a long time we’ve been in a room full of Brits where we’re the only Americans. Typically we’re either with other Americans, or with only Americans. But not this time. And it was great. Surrounded by Brits.Hearing completely candid British slang and humor. It felt a bit like how it should be.

Friday: Reflecting by C.S. Lewis’ old pond

I had a tour scheduled at the Kilns the next morning. And I arrived a bit early. About a half hour before things were supposed to kick off. So I decided to wander up to the pond.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the pond was like a bit of an oasis amongst the otherwise frantic pace of life in Oxford. Ducks were scooting smoothly across the water. Causing subtle ripples to chase them along the top of the water. The sun was shining through the trees and upon the emerald surface of the pond, causing the otherwise murky water to become translucent, revealing the algae covered rocks below. Light danced across the water in a spectrum of bright greens that shone across the surface.

I wandered over to the far edge of the pond and took a seat on the brick bench. The sound of wild birds singing was the only noise I heard that morning, singing as if just for me. And I imagined Lewis going for his morning dip, as I sat there. Or rowing his punt across the water. Completely removed from all the demands of life as an Oxford Don. From the teaching and speaking engagements. And responding to the thousands of letters he received from fans around the world.

“Lewis had it it figured out,” I thought to myself as I sat there.

And it ended up being an incredible time of reflection. Seated there on the brick bench beside the water. When I’m back home, one of my favorite spots to get away and catch my breath is beside the water. To pray and seek His presence. By the bay. On a spot at the waterfront that juts out into the ocean. Where I can sit and watch sailboats float gently across the water in front of the backdrop of the San Juan Islands.

And it was funny, for even though I was so far from home, I was amazed at how much this spot felt like home. And how close His presence felt at that moment. I hadn’t felt that way in a long, long time. Perhaps since I last sat in front of the ocean back home last summer. And I laughed at the thought that this was the view Lewis escaped to so often. Shaking my head at the thought that I now get to enjoy it.

I had woken up that morning to the news of the massive 8.9 earthquake that rocked Japan. And all the devastation of the resulting tsunamis and flooding. It was so painful to see. My heart went out to these people. To all those dealing with this loss and destruction. To all those now without a home. And to those who lost friends and family members in this scene.

That’s where I found my thoughts wandering while seated there beside the pond that morning. And it was when I got up to make my way down the hill toward the Kilns for the morning’s tour that I noticed, for the first time, the reflection of the blue and white speckled sky overhead on the water’s surface. As I walked along the water’s edge, something dropped from one of the trees just in front of me, onto the surface of the water, casting the reflection of the sky into a million little pieces as the rippled went out. The image of the sky had been shattered by whatever it was that had dropped from the tree, but the sky itself had not changed. The sky is still there, of course. Just as it has always been. And, somehow, that thought was reassuring to me. In light of the horrific scenes I had watched on my laptop that morning. With the earthquake in Japan still heavy on my mind. This picture encouraged me.

Even though I might not know how this all works. Even though really horrible things happen all around the world. Even in incredible suffering and loss. I was encouraged to think that God is still good. That He still reigns. And that He still loves us and calls us to love others in very real ways. I was encouraged to think that, even in this horrible situation, that hasn’t changed. And, in the end, He’s going to work this all out for good.

That picture helped me as I made my way down the hill and toward the Kilns for the morning tour.

Would our parents believe it?

Jen and I stayed in Friday night. After I handed in my last essay for the term. An outline more than an essay, really. We stayed in and enjoyed a nice dinner together, and then we played a board game our good friends David & Monika got us as a going-away gift called Ticket to Ride. We’ve really enjoyed playing this game since returning to Oxford, and I love that time. Seated in our living room playing a board game and sharing laughs. Just the two of us.

About halfway through the second game of the night, I found myself thinking about all we were doing here in England. About this huge change that the past six months have brought our lives.

I spoke up to Jen as she stared down at the cards in her hand.

“This is kind of a weird thought,” I said to Jen, “But what do you think our parents would have thought if someone would’ve told them, when we were still really young kids running around, that the two of us would one day become best friends, get married and then move to Oxford? What do you think they’d say if someone told them, while we were still just kids, that twenty some years later we’d be sitting here, playing a board game together in England?”

Jen looked up from her cards, across the table at me.

“Yeah, that is a weird thought. . .Now play.”

I smiled. That’s my wife: Tough as nails. And I love her.

Saturday: Leading my first tours of the Kilns

Saturday was my first day of leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home. At the Kilns. After taking notes on Deb’s tour a couple days earlier, I felt pretty ready for leading the two tours that were scheduled for me for the day. I had one at 11:30, and then another at 12:30. Each tour takes around 45 to 50 minutes, with time for questions afterward.

I rode my bike to the city center Saturday morning, and then I hopped on the number 9 bus that leads through Headington and on to Risinghurst, home of the Kilns. After taking the bus there just a couple days earlier, the trip was beginning to feel pretty familiar.

I studied my notes on the short trip to the Kilns. Reminding myself of key dates. And what’s said when.

By the way, if you’re wondering why Lewis’ old house is called, “The Kilns,” it’s because there used to stand two large kilns not far from the house. Before Lewis lived in the home, the property was used to fire bricks. There’s a man-made pond just beyond the house, which is where the clay came from. The workers would dredge clay out of the pond and then fire it into bricks at the nearby Kilns.

The house on the property was never intended to be anything special, just a place for the workers to live. Lewis actually didn’t even step foot in the house before he bought it. He was just sold on the setting: eight-acres set outside of the Oxford city center, in the countryside. Within walking distance from Magdalene College (where he taught, about a 60-minute walk from the Kilns).

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at the Kilns that Saturday. Walking up to the front of the house, I passed by the kitchen windows while Deb was preparing something from inside the kitchen.

“Hi, Ryan,” she said with a smile, looking out the window at me, and  turning to leave the kitchen so she could meet me at the front door.

It was at that point that I realized how crazy it is that I can be recognized by name at Lewis’ former house on a sunny, Saturday morning.

Deb greeted me at the front door and I helped with a few final things before the first tour arrived. Getting the kitchen picked up and turning on the lights in the rooms upstairs.

A few minutes later, a couple 20-something year old girls came to the front door. Deb welcomed them to the Kilns and invited them to have a seat in the common room while we waited for the rest of the tour to arrive.

Deb told me it’d be a bit of a trial by fire for my first tours. That they’d be much larger than normal tours. About 12-15 in the first group, and between 16-18 in the second. Apparently most tours are about half that size.

While we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, one of the girls told me she had just had my wife over at her house a couple days earlier. I had never seen her before, so I was a bit confused.

She explained that she had hosted Bible study at her house this week, the one Jen had gone to for the first time, and that Jen had told the group that I’d be leading tours at the Kilns. I didn’t know it, but she told the group they should go for a tour and check it out. Apparently it worked.

This girl, Mary Katherine, told me that her and her husband had just moved over to Oxford in the fall. And that her friend, who was with her, was in-town visiting. From California. Apparently Mary Katherine’s husband is a physicist working on his PhD. So, almost the same as what I’m doing…

After talking for a bit, the rest of the first tour arrived. There were about a dozen people or so in the group, made of of a couple British families who were traveling around the country. A pair of parents and their children, with the oldest kids in their early twenties.

I introduced myself to the group. Told them what I was up to here in Oxford. And then asked a bit about what brought them here to Oxford and the Kilns. Apparently a couple of them were pretty big Lewis fans. The wives / moms in the group. I figure it’s helpful knowing what brought them here in the first place, to know what will interest them along the way.

I told them it was actually my first time leading tours at the Kilns. I was thankful no one decided to leave at that point. I told them Deb would be joining us, or at least hanging back, to act as my training wheels for the day. And then I kicked off the tour.

I shared a bit about the history of the house and Lewis’ life from the common room. I told them how, after Lewis and his brother had died, that a family bought the home and left it in pretty poor shape by the mid-80’s. How the house became the eye-sore of the neighborhood at that point. And how it likely would’ve been steamrolled to make room for new housing had it not been for a group of Americans who got involved. A group who wanted to see the house maintained as a way to remember Lewis’ life and his legacy.

I told them about all the work that went in to restoring the house into what they now saw. Into the conditions that help us picture what it looked like during Lewis’ day, minus the period before Joy (Lewis’ wife-to-be) arrived and put the house in order. When it was just the brothers living at the home, apparently it was a bit of a bachelor pad. They’d dump out their pipe tobacco right on the carpets and grind it in with their shoes. As a way to keep away the moths. Apparently the moths aren’t the only thing it kept away. It was in such bad shape at one point that J.R.R. Tolkein’s wife apparently forbid her husband from visiting the house, as she didn’t want him getting sick.

For all practical purposes, the Kilns fit Lewis and his brother just fine. Set out in the country, it provided ample opportunity for walks outdoors. To talk. And to work on their writing with little worry of being bothered by the bustle of living in the city. Apparently the house was filled with books. Stacked up in every room, several rows deep. Lining the walls in the hallways, and even up the staircase. Lewis used to joke that their house was held up by books and cobwebs.

I led the group through the home, pointing out different things along the way. Photos hanging from the wall. And mentioning stories that had been told to me about the photos. And about those in them.

We wrapped up the tour in the library, and I said my goodbyes to the group. The girl who had hosted Jen’s Bible study several days earlier thanked me for the tour. Her and her friend told me they had really enjoyed it.

Before I made my way back to the front of the house, to get ready for the next group, one of the wives from the group asked me how it went, being my first tour and all.

“Well, I’m feeling pretty good about it,” I told her. “But maybe you should tell me.”

She laughed. “You did a great job,” she said with a wide smile.

The group left out the back door and I returned to the front of the house. To see if anyone from the second group had arrived. They had. Two older ladies were seated on a bench in the garden just outside the front door.

“Hi there,” I said to them. “Are you both here for the tour?”

“Yes we are,” one of them spoke up. “We were just enjoying our lunch from here in the garden.”

As sunny as it was, it was a perfect day for a lunch outdoors.

I introduced myself to them both. And asked where they were from. They were from the States. The south. One of the women had just moved over to England. To act as a “live-in Mom” for some of the American students at one of the houses just outside the city center. Her name was Kitty. The other woman was Kitty’s friend who was visiting from back home. Previously, she had been a math professor at Columbia.

Not long after meeting the two of them, a girl in her early twenties with a backpack came walking up to the house. She introduced herself and said she was looking for the tour. I told her she had found it. She, too, was from the States. She’s a student at Stanford, and she’s currently doing a study-abroad program here at Oxford. For a year. She told me she had been wanting to come up for a tour since arriving in the fall, but that she was only just finding time.

We made our way into the house and took our seats in the common room. Not long after, Deb greeted a good-sized group. Also from the States. A class, apparently, that was touring the UK. They stopped by Oxford and the Kilns as part of their trip. Rounding out the tour was a group of early twenty-somethings from Ireland. A handful of guys, and one girl. One of them was studying here. And the rest were his friends from back home.

Being made up of more Americans than the first group, the second group seemed much more excited about the tour. More smiles and laughs at the Lewis stories. More “Wow!”‘s at the different photos around the house.

And I loved it. Every bit of it. The opportunity not just to be at Lewis’ house, but to get to talk about Lewis for hours on end. And being paid for it. I kept waiting for the catch.

At the end of the tour, I shook several hands. And said lots of “your welcomes” before catching up with Deb. We each found a seat in the common room. To recap my first tours.

She told me I did a great job. Especially for being my first tours. She told me I seemed really comfortable speaking to the groups. And natural. And that it seemed like I was much more comfortable the second time around.

I told her I thought that was probably largely due to the fact that the second group was more heavily American. And that I could read them much better than the first group.

She corrected me on one thing I had wrong (referencing a wrong book), but that, overall, it seemed like it went really well. And she said she was really thankful to have my help leading the tours.

I told her it really was my pleasure. And that I still found it hard to believe I was actually doing this.

Sunday: More fire than stone at Fire & Stone Pizza

Our fellow Washingtonian friends, Rob & Vanessa, have been arranging Sunday evening dinners for a while now. For several American couples here in Oxford. Sometimes this is hosted at someone’s home (when Vanessa made Mexican food at her house, for example), but, for the most part, we tend to meet at a restaurant in the city center. We’ve really enjoyed getting together with the group, and sharing laughs with the other couples.

This particular week Vanessa sent out an e-mail inviting everyone to pizza at Fire & Stone. She had a two-for-one coupon she was excited to share with the group. Being students again, everyone in the group is pretty big on finding good deals when we can. We told Vanessa to count us in.

We had attended St. Aldate’s that night, knowing we’d be in town for dinner anyway, so we walked up to Fire & Stone with some of those who had attended the evening service as well: Penn & Grace, and Lauren. Lauren’s husband, Tyler, was working on a class assignment, so he was going to meet us at the restaurant. We were talking abut our week as we walked along the sidewalk in front of the dark storefronts after church.

The two girls asked how my tours had went. I was taken off-guard at first, but then I remembered Jen had shared the news with them during their Bible study.

“Ryan has the coolest job,” Grace said, turning to her husband Penn. “He’s leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home.”

Grace is studying here in Oxford to work in publishing. So I think naturally she’s a fan of Lewis.

The five of us arrived at Fire & Stone Pizza before anyone else. So we grabbed a table by the window and waited for others to arrive. Vanessa showed up about five minutes later. Wearing a large, puffy jacket and breathing heavily. Apparently she had an issue printing off the coupons for dinner, and so she ended up jogging to the restaurant.

“I’m so hot,” she told us, unzipping the large, puffy jacket and hanging it on the back of her chair. Unknowingly, she was sitting beneath the heating vent, and so she found herself not cooling down at all. After several minutes, she realized the hot air blowing on her was not helping matters, and so she took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

“But I do have the coupons,” she told us, reassuringly. Apparently the coupons were good for parties up to six people, and so she printed off two, hoping the restaurant would be cool with it.

“Worst-case scenario, we just won’t sit with you guys,” Lauren joked.

When the waiter came by to take our drink order, Vanessa showed him the coupons to make sure we could all use the two-for-one deal. But no, he was not going for it.

“It’s only good for parties up to six,” he explained.

“And if we just slide our table over a couple feet?” Lauren asked, half-jokingly.

“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head.

A look of defeat spread across Vanessa’s face.

“It’s a good thing I took the extra time to fight with my printer and print off that second coupon,” she said.

Tyler, Lauren’s husband joined us a few minutes after our drinks came, and we all put in our orders. I love the eccentric menu at Fire & Stone. The last couple of times I’ve ordered one of the pizzas from Australia. The one with chicken, mashed potatoes and sour cream. I never would have thought sour cream would be good on pizza, but it’s amazing. I decided to try something different this time, though. The egg and ham pizza. I forget which country it was from, as well as the witty name they gave it, but I’d call it the breakfast pizza if I were in charge.

It wasn’t long after placing our orders that the fire alarm went off. It didn’t seem to faze anyone at first. I think we all just figured it’d go off after a couple seconds and no one would worry about it. But it didn’t. And the head hostess soon began asking people to exit the restaurant and head across the street to get away from the building.

Anytime you’re  in a building with open ovens when the fire alarm starts going off and someone asks you to evacuate the building, it’s usually a good idea to evacuate the building.

A few minutes later the entire restaurant was evacuated and everyone was standing across the street in a large group. Waiters and waitresses. Cooks. Guests. Everyone. Waiting, wondering what was going on.

“It smells like burnt toast,” someone from the sidewalk said.

Almost immediately after those words were spoken, a woman in one of the the apartments that sit over the restaurant threw open two of the windows. Laughter filled the sidewalk. It didn’t take a detective to locate the source of this fire.

Unfortunately, we had to wait for the fire department to come and check everything out, and to declare everything safe before we could return to the restaurant, and to our pizza.

“I wonder if our pizza made it to the ovens,” someone asked.

We debated finding another restaurant to grab dinner at. Rather than waiting for this woman’s burnt toast to get straightened out. But then we figured surely if we decided to stick it out and wait around the restaurant would do something to compensate us.

“Maybe now they’ll honor our coupons,” I said, half-jokingly.

Rob, on his way to join us at the restaurant, found us gathered on the sidewalk and took up his place near Vanessa. We told him how we had just placed our order when the apartment overhead set off the building’s fire alarm. And how the woman upstairs threw open the windows shortly after we took our spot on the sidewalk outside.

Shortly after Rob arrived, a fire truck pulled up to the curb. Sirens blazing. At this point, people walking by were staring. At the large group gathered on the sidewalk at 9:00 at night. And the empty restaurant.

Just as the fire truck pulled up, the apartment with the woman who burnt her toast pulled her windows shut and flipped off the lights. We all laughed. As if somehow everyone there would’ve missed what had happened, and she’d never be found out.

After another 15 minutes or so, the restaurant management told us it was okay to come back inside. And that they’d have our dinner to us as quickly as possible. The fire truck was still parked outside when we returned to our table. We never did find out anything about the woman upstairs.

We shared some great laughs over some amazing pizza. My breakfast pizza was the best choice I’ve made in a long time. The egg and the ham went great together. I’m beginning to think egg is good on just about anything. Burgers… Pizza…

When our waiter came around to bring our bill, Lauren, wearing a wide grin, asked if they were going to do anything to compensate us for the long wait outside.

“Like letting us use our coupons,” she said.

The waiter half-smiled and just shook his head. “Sorry.”

“It was worth a shot,” she said with a large smile as she finished her glass of water.”

Monday: Jen’s first day working at the Kilns

Jen’s first day working at the Kilns was the the next morning. On that Monday. I wasn’t there with her, so I figured I’d ask Jen to tell you how it went herself. Here’s Jen…

I had told myself that come Monday (Feb. 21, the Monday after I arrived back in Oxford) that I would start looking for a job. I wasn’t looking forward to going through that process, though. The looking, applying and interviewing.

Well, lots of people must have been praying for me to get a job because that Monday afternoon, Ryan told me he got a call from Debbie, who is the warden at the Kilns, and she asked if we both were available to work. She was praying for someone to help with tours and for someone to relieve some of the stress on her. She was also looking for someone to help with the administrative work that needs to take place for the CS Lewis Foundation. Of course we both jumped at that opportunity. I’ll be working 12 to 15 hours a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, helping set up tours for the house, and Ryan will be giving a lot of the tours, so you know who to talk to if you want to come tour the Kilns!

It was crazy going to work on Monday (Feb 28), since I’ve been unemployed since the beginning of September. This job seems to be a great fit, though, and I will learn how to do a lot of new things. Like how to host a high-tea. I’ve already organized a lot of Deb’s files, which were piling up, I’ve learned how to deposit checks for the Foundation, and I’ve started to learn how to setup tours.

It’s nice that Ryan and I share this, too, both working for the Foundation, and it’s just a huge blessing overall, as it provides enough to cover our rent for the month, as well as some of our grocery expenses. I would have never thought I would be working for the CS Lewis Foundation, or working in CS Lewis’s house, where people come from all over the world to get a tour.

Wednesday: Oxford Open Forum

Okay, Ryan here. I’m back…

The previous Wednesday night was our first night hosting the “Oxford Open Forum,” a group Rich, Max and I have been excited to kick off. After meeting early on this term over breakfast in Summertown, we had the idea of starting up a group where people from all different religious views could come for an open, informal dialogue. Our thinking was, “what better opportunity than here at Oxford University to have an open conversation with brilliant people from all over the world about their religion?”

So that’s what we set out to do. Hoping that maybe we’d create something that would meet such a great need that it’d outlast our time here at Oxford.

We began by sending out e-mails to the heads of as many different religious societies at the University we could think of. Everything from Buddhism and Hinduism to the Catholic Society and Atheism, and everyone in-between. We got a really great response from the idea, too. Pretty much everyone seemed to be interested, and Rich and I even grabbed coffee with the head of the Atheist society to talk about the idea after church one day, ironically enough. We met with the head of the Graduate Christian Union and pitched the idea to him. He loved it, and he said he’d be sure to include it in the group’s weekly e-mails.

We found a cafe in the city center that stayed open until 8:30 that would allow us to meet once a week, as we figured a pub might be off-putting for some who held particularly conservative religious views, and we really did want to make things as open and inviting as possible. Puccino’s, the cafe we settled on is a really great, funky place, with colorful hand-writing scribbled all over the walls. The menu is written on the wall, as well as lots of random, witty comments. There’s an arrow pointing to an electrical box in one corner of the room where we meet that reads, “we have no idea what this does,” and, on one of the blank walls, someone wrote, “We had a really nice picture here, but then it was nicked.” One of the other walls has a picture hanging near a scribbled comment that reads, “What, was this photo too ugly to take?”

It was exciting when our first evening of the Forum rolled around and every chair in the large front room of the cafe was filled. We estimated about 20 people showed up that first night, representing an incredibly diverse number of backgrounds and belief systems.

Several of those from the Atheist society showed up, even during the middle of their big event, “Think Week.” We also had the head of the Hindu Society there. Two gals who identified themselves as pagan showed up. There were a number of Christians present, including several from the Catholic Chaplaincy. There was, I believe, one Buddhist there. And there was a guy who was adamant that really, when we get right down to it, all the different world religions are saying the same thing, and he was dead set on proving to us this was the case.

The group definitely shrunk a bit when the second week rolled around. But we figured it likely had something to do with the fact that the end of the term was approaching, and many of the students had exams to prepare for.

Our question the first week was, “Can faith be rational?” After addressing what it is we meant by “faith,” the conversation largely centered around Hinduism. Mostly because most of those in the room really weren’t familiar with the beliefs of the Hindu tradition. Ramesh, the head of the Hindu society and a guy who’s apparently pretty familiar with inter-faith dialogue, did a great job telling us about what practicing Hindus believe. He spoke in a slow, calm voice. Pausing to make sure he spoke with care, and that he was using the right words to say what he meant.

Ramesh explained that the English language lacks a lot of words that he would like to use, which made his explanation a bit difficult. I thought he did a great job, though. And I left thinking, “that really seems less like a religion and more like a philosophy than I ever imagined.”

And, as much as the guy seated near me attempted to persuade us that we really were all talking about the same thing, I walked away from our first Oxford Open Forum realizing there are some insurmountable differences between what Christianity teaches and what so many of those other faith systems in the room that night believe.

For the second week, our question was, “Can there be a single, objective truth?” With a slightly smaller group, our conversation came to focus largely on Paganism. There were two women there, who didn’t know each other, both of whom were practicing pagans. They shared their particular beliefs (apparently Paganism is a pretty broad view), and we had the chance to ask questions. It was great to be able to ask those questions to someone first-hand, rather than reading from a book written by someone outside of that particular tradition. And, while the questions were asked in a courteous way, they were pretty pointed. And, particularly on the topic of a single, objective truth, it became quite clear that Paganism and Christianity stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. Just in case any doubt lingered from the previous week.

It really was great, though, having the opportunity to talk so openly about so many different world views. I talked a bit with one of the Pagan women after the meeting that night. Asking what she was working on here in Oxford. She told me she’s in the medical field, and that she was thankful for the opportunity to return to academics (on top of working full-time) and have of a bit of a mental challenge after being in the workforce for a while. She told me had spent some time in the military for a while before starting her career, which I found interesting. I thanked her again for joining us, and for sharing a bit about her beliefs.

Never before have I been able to enjoy such open conversation about views so very different from my own. And it’s great. It helps me firm up my own faith, and how I communicate my own beliefs, as well as better understand the many, many different faith traditions out there.

Riding home that night, on my bike through the city center and along Banbury Road, I found myself incredibly thankful for all of this. For the conversations. And for those I was meeting. My education is stretching far beyond just the classroom.


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