Archives for category: The Kilns

Saturday: Day 1 of Final Exams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope so,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Becoming a Godfather

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

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

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

More than Halfway There

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Sick to my Stomach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Final Finals Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting My Pen Down For the Last Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tear-Filled Phone Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The E-mail I Never Thought I Would Write

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

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

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

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

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

God is So Good

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

And her response took me off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Saying Goodbye to the Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: My Last Tours

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

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

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

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

Sorry to Go, Excited For the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories Are Not People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast in the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

When All Our Dreams Came True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, take me back to the start.”

The End Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love and gratitude,

Ryan (& Jen)

www.RyanAndJenGoToEngland.wordpress.com

A Desire for Brains & Just Two More Weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Home

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

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

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

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

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

Casting Crowns at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Have you heard of Casting Crowns?”

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

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

A Real Decision on Our Hands

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Tired & Feeling Refreshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refreshing Words of Encouragement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honored to Be a Godfather

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

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

My Meeting with Philip

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

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

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

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

He smiled, then continued.

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

I laughed outloud.

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

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

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

He looked surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but she will one day.”

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Asleep on my Bike Ride Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Alarm & A Different Ballgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner With John & John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all laughed, and John Adams nodded.

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

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

Last Week Before Exams

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

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

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

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

A Conversation With CS Lewis’s Stepson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I agreed.

A Voice of Confirmation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that you have to go, mind you.”

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

The Last Day Before Finals

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

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

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

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

You hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterwards you will receive me

with honour.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

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

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion for ever.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

to tell of all your works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Myself Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When My Plans Came Crashing Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waking up to a Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Which Costs Nothing is Worth Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He Who Would Be  a Leader Must Be a Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lesson of New Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Meatless Dinner Conversation

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

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

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

The Best Thing I’d Seen in a Long Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well… You’re having a baby girl!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is Full of Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is he?

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

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

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

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

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

A Rude Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no! Don’t! Go, go!” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, ____!” I shouted. “It’s a cat!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arrival of Olli & Salla’s Baby Boy

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

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

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

My phone rang a minute later. It was Olli.

“Congratulations!” I told him. He laughed.

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

“That sounded pretty exciting,” I told him.

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

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

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

A Challenge from Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words of Encouragement from a Stranger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter Sunday: Waking up the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Lewis wasn’t a saint

I woke up Saturday morning after the second week of the term with just enough time for a shower and some breakfast before my tour arrived at the Kilns. I was leading a tour of the Kilns for a group of about a dozen 20-somethings from a Korean church in London on this particular morning. And their pastor.

I led them around the house, as usual, telling stories along the way. I told them about the time Joy, Lewis’s wife, was in the hospital, stricken with bone cancer. I told them how her diagnosis was so bad that she wasn’t expected to leave the hospital alive. And then, I told them how Joy experienced a rather miraculous period of remission and was able to leave the hospital and move into the Kilns for several years.

I told them about how Lewis had written about this experience in his book, A Grief Observed. I told them how he wrote that at the same time Joy was rebuilding her bone marrow, Lewis was losing his bone marrow, to osteoporosis.

I told them how, in his book, Lewis mentioned this idea of substitution, which his good friend Charles Williams shared with him. According to this idea, Williams believed if one prays for the healing of a sick loved one, God may respond to that prayer by giving them your good health, and allowing you to take their sickness upon yourself.

I commented on how Lewis wasn’t willing to say this is absolutely what had happened in this situation, but that the timing of Joy’s recovery and his illness was rather interesting, particularly following in light of his prayers. And yet, one of the guys in the group wore a face that told me the story left him a little disturbed.

“It seems like he had some superstitious ideas,” he commented. “Maybe even unbiblical.”

He was referring not just to this story, but to a story I had shared with the group earlier in the tour. I had told the group about how Lewis had “married” Joy, in a civil arrangement, as a way for her to avoid extradition for her former ties with the Communist Party and stay in the UK. I told them about how this wasn’t something Lewis even shared with a number of his friends, but how he did this as a way to help out a friend.

“Personally, I appreciate those kind of stories,” I told the guy in this group. “I think a lot of people, particularly evangelicals, try to make Lewis into a saint. But he wasn’t a saint. He was just a very bright guy who was trying to live out his Christian faith, and he used what he had to help others do the same. I appreciate hearing he was a bit unconventional.”

He nodded, and I could tell this answer probably wasn’t what he was expecting, but that he appreciated it.

One of the girls on the tour was a professional piano player, and she played a bit of music from the piano in the library. Afterward, I took a photo of the group in front of the house. I shook several hands as they thanked me and then were on their way.

The pastor who was leading the group only got about 10 feet away before turning around and returning to me, where I was standing beside the front door.

“You are a CS Lewis expert,” he said with a smile.

I couldn’t tell if it was a question, or if it was a statement. But I shrugged it off, sheepishly, with a smile, and told him I wasn’t.

He smiled and then returned to his group as they disappeared around the side of the house and I made my way back inside.

Sunday: Noah & Owen’s Baptism

I was up at 8:00 the next morning, and on a bus to the city center shortly afterward. I was on my way to Jarred and Chelsea’s house, to join them for their boys’ baptism at St Barnabas Church that morning, which Jarred had invited me to the week before.

Their two boys, Noah and Owen, greeted me at the door, with Jarred following behind them. “Hey man,” Jarred said, greeting me with a warm welcome. He was dressed in a suit, and I was glad I had decided to go with a tie at the last minute.

Noah and Owen each wore a tie and waistcoat. They looked very “smart,” as they say here. I met Chelsea’s Mom, who was visiting from their home in Florida, and their friend Sharie, who Jarred and Chelsea know from their time at St Andrews in Scotland.

We walked to church along the canal, our feet beating the pavement while ducks bathed in the river water. Chelsea wore Owen on her back and Noah rode ahead of us on his bike. He looked so small scooting along the pavement. He’d get 20 feet or so ahead of us and then stop and look back to make sure we were still following before going again.

The churchbells rang in the distance as we walked, and a low fog hung over the homes along the canal. 10 minutes later, we arrived at St Barnabas, with Noah leading the way on his miniature bike.

The church was large and old, with high-vaulted ceilings, and lots of ornate images of Christ, including a large painting of Jesus in the front of the room. The room was filled with old wooden chairs that groaned under our weight during the service. We lit candles halfway through, in recognition of Candlemas, but the entire service seemed to involve more of my sense than I was used to.

A procession of people dressed in white gowns walked through the church, and they were led by two people who were waving something that looked a small, round, globelike instrument that hung from a chain back and forth. It filled the air with a smell that reminded me of incense. The whole scene was so different than what I typically experienced at church, and I liked that.

The baptism was held in the back of the room, in a large, decorative wooden fountain. The boys took turns having their heads washed with the holy water, and I snapped photos while everyone watched on. Jarred and Chelsea stood by looking on wearing smiles, with Chelsea’s Mom and Sharie beside them. You could tell they were proud, and I was proud to be there.

After the service, a woman served coffee and cookies from a table in the back of the room, cookies Chelsea made, while adults gathered in small circles to talk, and young children ran around chasing one another, stopping only long enough to hide behind a parent. The priest made his way from group to group to say “hello,” and people made small talk over coffee and cookies (“I didn’t make them, no. The Americans brought them.”).

I took Owen from Jarred, as he went outside in search of Noah, who has a knack for running off when no one’s watching. Owen was tired, and his eyes and head struggled to fight off the sleep. It wasn’t long before his white haired head was resting limply against my chin, and I patted his back gently while Chelsea, her mom and Sharie talked.

I was thankful to have been a part of the boys’ baptism service, and I thanked them afterwards for inviting me, as we made our way back to their house along the canal.

When I didn’t understand Christianity

After saying goodbye to the boys, and to the others, I made my way back across the city center, to Harris Manchester College, where I planned to get a bit of studying done before I returned to Jarred & Chelsea’s place that evening for a celebration dinner.

It was lunchtime as I made my way to Harris Manchester, and so I figured I’d grab a sandwich to eat on my way to College. I passed by a guy sitting on the sidewalk, as I walked. He was wrapped up in a blanket, and he leaned against the stone building against him. And almost as soon as he could ask if I had any change to spare, I cut him off and said, “I’m sorry.” He apologized for bothering me, and I told him it was no bother at all, as I continued my way to the sandwich shop.

Immediately my mind darted to the change in my pocket. The change I could easily have given this man. My mind also began to replay the many ways in which I’ve been provided for, ways that have made it possible for me to even be here now.

I continued to think about this as I ordered my sandwich. And, sandwich in-hand, with the feeling of guilt weighing heavy on me, I decided to cross the street instead of passing back by this man again, a second time, with my food in-hand after telling him I was sorry I couldn’t help him.

But that didn’t help alleviate my guilt. As I crossed the street, without any effort on my part, I remembered the story of the good Samaritan, and the account of the “religious” ones who passed by on the opposite side of the street. As I walked, head hanging low, carrying my sandwich, I realized this story was about people just like me.

And that’s when I felt pressed to turn around and go give this man my sandwich. Or at least go offer it to him. A battle raged inside of me as I walked, with one voice encouraging me to turn around and go offer to help this man I had just snubbed, and another voice, the voice of my pride, telling me it would be embarrassing to do so, as that would just go to show I could’ve helped him in the first place if I wanted to.

This battle continued to rage inside of me until I bit down into my sandwich, sealing my decision, and it was at that moment I realized I didn’t actually understand Christianity.

Week 3

Monday: A guest in HMC & What’s a burrito?

I started the third week of the term off with a very cold ride down Headington Hill to college. The wind beat my face as I wrote, and I could think about was warming up with a hot cup of tea. My fingers numb by the time I arrived at Harris Manchester. I locked up my bike outside, removed my gloves once I was inside, and blew on my hands to warm them up as I made my way to my familiar spot in the library.

My buddy Rich joined me at Harris Manchester later that day, for a bit of studying. He had never been before, and his eyes were big as we made our way into the library. We climbed the spiral metal staircase to the second floor and I looked back just in time to see him silently mouth the word “Cooool…” We found an empty desk near mine, and whispered quietly to me, “This is really nice, man!”

I really do love Harris Manchester, but it’s always nice to share it with others and see how much they like it, as well. It’s one of the newer colleges, so it doesn’t have the ancient history many others do. It’s also quite small, so it doesn’t have the massive, sweeping grounds some of the other colleges do. And yet, I love it. I love the stone architecture, with arching doorways and stone buildings. I love the people, who greet me with a smile and know me by name. And I love the fact that it feels like home.

Rich left later that afternoon, and I continued to work away. He had only been gone for about 20 minutes when I received a text from him that read: “Thanks again for letting me study with you at HMC today. You’re blessed to be where you are, bro!”

I made a trip to Mission Burrito for a break from the studies to grab a quick bite that night. Mission is about as close as it comes to Chipotle here in Oxford. It’s also the only place to get any Mexican food. They really do have a monopoly on the market, now that I think of it.

The sign on the front door reads “What’s a burrito?”, which tells you just how sad a state of affairs Mexican food is in England at the moment. The man behind the counter taking orders and putting together burritos that night had a French accent. I thought that was funny, a French guy making burritos in an English city for an American student. It seemed like a bit of a microcosm of just how international a place Oxford is.

After finishing my burrito in record time, I hopped on my bike and rode back to college in the ice-cold night air. My hands were tucked behind my seat, trying to keep warm, as I rode swiftly along St Giles Street in the dark, with my pulsating headlight lighting the way.

Tuesday: Almost there & It’s not Harry Potter

I found myself locking up my bike and blowing on my hands to warm them up again on Tuesday morning, another cold start to the day. Emily was walking up to the front of college just as I arrived. She waved, and greeted me with a smile and a question: “Ryan, can you believe you only have five more weeks left of your last taught term?!”

“No… I really can’t,” I told her. “I’m really not looking forward to Trinity Term and finals!”

“It’ll go quickly,” she said sympathetically.

“Yeah, like a band-aid.”

That afternoon, while I was studying from the second floor of the library, Alister McGrath entered through the double doors with a camera crew following behind him. Sue, the librarian, apologized for the interruption. She smiled as she made the comment that the shoot was not for Harry Potter, and that they wouldn’t be needing any extras.

“Only in Oxford,” I thought to myself as I returned to my books while the camera crew wandered the library and set up tri-pods for the shoot.

Wednesday: I really do live here & “Jack” Pemberton

The cold weather continued Wednesday morning, greeting me as I left the house. The frigid air hit my face like a bite as I walked out the door, and I felt the reluctant crunch of the pea gravel foot path that pushed back against each step I took as I made my way around the house to get my bike. Unlocking my chain and throwing it in my basket along with my shoulder bag, I made my way around the house and stopped for a moment to look over my shoulder at the blue sign that sits just below CS Lewis’s old bedroom window. I read the old familar name and words just to remind myself that, yes, I really do live here.

“Crazy,” I thought to myself, shaking my head as I threw my leg over my bike and rode to college.

I spent the day working on my essay for the week from the library before reading for the chapel service that evening. I returned to my studies afterward, only to get a Skype call from Jen shortly after I took my seat.

And even though I couldn’t talk outloud, I could still hear her through my headphones, and type my response. And it was so good to see her again. Just seeing that smile and hearing from her again lit me up like fireworks in a night sky.

After a full day in the library, I made my way back home that night and I had another Skype call once I was back. This time with Cole, my good friend who is now studying at St Andrews University in Scotland.

It was good to catch up again, and to hear about his studies there. I told him I miss grabbing dinner at Eagle and Child, and catching the latest movies together, before sharing the big news with him: that we are expecting our first child this summer.

He responded with a wide smile, squinty eyes, and loud clapping. “That’s fantastic!” he said, before pausing a moment and then continuing.

“I think Jack Pemberton is a very good name. . . . Sounds like an Olympic athlete.”

I laughed, before telling him I agreed, and that he just needed to persuade Jen.

I was still working on my reading and writing for the week after 12:30 that night. Knowing I still had a ways to go, I put on some soft tunes by Audrey Assad, and turned off the lights, leaving just the lamp on my desk to light my late-night work. And it was there, working from Warnie’s old room by lamplight, that I found myself thinking, “This is exactly how it ought to be.”

Thursday: Another one of Oxford’s hidden treasures

Surprise of all surprises, Thursday was another frigid morning. This time, though, I left the house to find the ground and cars covered in a glimmering frost. The cold air was sharp against my face all the way to college, and I arrived at my desk first in the library first thing that morning to find a pile of a dozen or so books waiting for me, along with an apple, just as I left them the night before.

I took a short break from my studies Thursday afternoon to meet up with Myriam at Exeter College and go over a few things for the Oxford University CS Lewis Society. Myriam is the Society Secretary, and she’s a member of Exeter College. I had never been inside Exeter before, so she showed me around after our meeting.

We stepped into the chapel and she pointed out the J.R.R. Tolkien bust that is perched on a pedestal just inside the doorway. “I nod to it after Evensong,” Myriam admitted with a smile that neared embarrassment.

I turned to see the Exeter Chapel, and I couldn’t help but greet it with a, “Whowwww…”

It really was beautiful, and easily one of the most stunning chapels at Oxford I’ve seen so far. It’s very well lit, with three of its walls made up almost entirely of ornately designed stained-glass windows. The ceiling is a high-arching stone, with an intricate design I wish I could put into words. Myriam pointed out the organ to me, which took up the majority of the back wall. She mentioned that it’s a French design, and, again, one of the nicest in all of Oxford.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so taken aback by something here in Oxford. And, of course, the funny part is I pass by this building, outside the college walls, on a daily basis. I found myself thinking about just how many hidden treasures there are in this city, which people pass by every day, as I rode my bike back to HMC for more studies.

A stream of water flowing into the street drain was frozen in its tracks, and the girl on her bike in front of me wore earmuffs. I thought she may have been onto something with the earmuffs.

Jonathan the Scapegoat

I left the library at 10:30 that night, to head home and grab some dinner before finishing my reading for the next day’s essay. The air was as cold as I’ve felt it since returning to Oxford, as I peddled through the city center. My teeth were chattering, forcing me to bury my chin in my jacket, head low as I rode on.

I pulled my bike up beside the Kilns, locked it up, and then paused, noting how very bright the moonlight made the evening. It was only a thumbnail of its full size, but it cast a great light at nearly 11:00 that night. An airplane flew just beside it, leaving a white trail fading in the glow of the moon.

Checking the temperature when I got inside, it read 22 degrees (F).

Jonathan was in the kitchen when I entered to prepare some dinner. He was cleaning up from his own dinner, which he had made for two guests from Malta. Former students he supervised.

I was heating up some leftovers while Jonathan washed dishes when Debbie entered.

“It’s 11:00, must be dinner time!” she said with a smile in her sing-song voice.

A lot of times I don’t see Debbie or Jonathan on a given day, because of my hours, so it was nice to catch up with them both. The three of us talked while I ate and Jonathan cleaned.

After clearing my plate, I poured myself a bowl of Jen’s Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, which my Grandpa had sent over for her, as she was still home, and I needed something sweet.

Seeing how Jonathan is English, Debbie asked if he had ever had Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. His face gave away his response before his words left his mouth, but he said he had never heard of such a thing.

“Good,” I said. “If Jen asks, we’ll tell her you hadn’t had any and wanted to try some. She can get mad at me, but she can’t get mad at you, so it only makes sense.”

“Yes, that is the very Christian thing to do,” he said, sarcastically. “I’ll let you know when I need a scapegoat.”

“Deal,” I said, bringing the spoonful of cereal to my mouth with a smile and a nod.

Saturday: Banana ketchup & Christmas in January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: House dinner & Big news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An imaginary conversation with the wife of my youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our friend the Pope & Social transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Growing old together & How quickly things change

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: I love baptisms & So tired I could puke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Lunch at Keble & Oh, Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different approach to ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: My first moose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: A fake English accent & God’s hiddenness 

I was getting ready to head out the door on my first Saturday back in Oxford, to head to the gym and get a bit of physical release after being pent up in the library all week, when Debbie asked me if I’d like to give a tour that afternoon. I had a larger tour I’d be giving on Tuesday, and so she thought I might appreciate the chance to brush up on my tour with a small group before then (since it had now been well over a month since I last led a group around the Kilns). As much as I was looking forward to a chance to get back in the gym, and to get a bit of exercise, I thought she had a point, so I changed my plans and stuck around to lead the tour.

And it was a small tour. Just a couple girls who were in Oxford for the day, from London. They told me they were doing a CS Lewis inspired weekend, where they were traveling around visiting as many different CS Lewis places as they could. I told them I thought that was awesome. And that I was a bit jealous.

It wasn’t until halfway through the tour that I ended up finding out that one of the girls was from Georgia. The State, not the country. I was shocked, as her English accent was spot on. She told me she had been in England for just a few years, that she had moved to London after finishing her degree in Oxford, and that it just kind of stuck. I was jealous, to be honest. But I also told them I made a point to not pick up any accent when we first arrived. Knowing Jen would give me a hard time if I did. Not to mention all those back home. I can only imagine what this girl will face when she returns to her home in Georgia with a British accent.

An explanation of divine hiddenness

That night, after the tour and a bit of studies, Jonathan and I took a trip to Tom’s house. Tom is a good friend who works for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and he lives just a couple miles away. Tom’s wife Caroline was still up when we arrived, cleaning up the kitchen. She joined us for conversation for a while, before telling us “goodnight” and heading upstairs.

We stayed up talking late into the early morning hours. First in the kitchen, then from the living room. Tom is a tutor for RZIM, but he also regularly gives apologetic talks, where he defends Christianity on different points (responding to questions such as “How could a good God allow so much pain and sufering?”, for example).

I asked Tom what kind of questions he was working on lately, and he told me he was really interested in the question of divine hiddenness. He explained how a lot of times people will ask, “If there really is a God, then why doesn’t He do a better job of making Himself known to us?”

Tom said one of the ideas he’s been talking through lately is the idea that God is so great, that He would completely overwhelm us were He to reveal Himself beyond what He has.

He compared this to love, and the fact that we all know of situations in which someone has, foolishly, said too much, too quickly, in revealing their love for someone else, and how that has completely scared the person away. He explained that we’re overwhelmed by that kind of love, that we can’t possibly handle such an incredible expression of love from someone else, and so we turn and run when it happens. And he explained that he thought there might be something in that with God, and with His relationship with us. He explained that God’s love for us is, of course, infinitely greater than anyone’s love for another person, and how, were God to go beyond what He already has in revealing Himself to us, and His love for us, it would likely completely overwhelm us.

I thought there was a lot of truth in that. I thought it was a great point, and something I’d never considered before.

It was between 1:00 and 2:00 Sunday morning when Jonathan and I finally thanked Tom for the evening’s conversation and made our way back to the Kilns. It was a good 15 minute walk, and the air was frigid, biting our faces as we walked.

After crossing the highway that runs between Tom’s house and the Kilns, we walked through a large, open field. The air was so cold that the grass crunched under the weight of our shoes as we walked. The trees lining the field cast large, black silhouettes into the night sky, and a handful of stars sparkled in the open-air sky overhead.

Jonathan and I talked as we walked, casting steam into the cold air with each comment. I told him, as difficult as it was to say ‘goodbye’ to everyone back home, I really enjoyed being back in Oxford. I told him I was thankful for the kind of conversations that left me chewing on the thoughts long after the conversation had finished. And for our late night walks and talks across Oxford.

“It’s good to have you back,” Jonathan said with a smile as we entered through the front door of the Kilns, before making his way upstairs, and I felt my way down the long hallway leading to Warnie’s old bedroom in the dark.

Sunday: Old friends & Adopted by Finns

It didn’t seem like I had been in bed long when my alarm went off Sunday morning. While I typically go to to the evening service at St Aldate’s Church when I’m here in Oxford, I told my friend Olli I’d meet him at St Andrews that day, and join he and his wife, Salla, for lunch at The Trout after the service. As much as a day to sleep in sounded like a much-needed treat, I was looking forward to catching up with Olli again, and it’s never a good idea to turn down a trip to The Trout.

St Andrews is just a few houses down from where Jen and I lived last year. With the family that goes to parties at Elton John’s house, to hang out with J.K. Rowling and the like. It was nice to be back there, and to see a lot of familiar faces again. Though I was reminded of how family-focused the church is after the service when everyone gathered in the foyer for tea and coffee. I began to worry someone was going to ask me to notice I didn’t have any children of my own and then, in the most polite, British accent, ask me to leave.

But they didn’t, and we ended up being the last people in the foyer, talking with old friends as the next church service began, and as people slowly filed out of the church and toward home for Sunday dinner. Being in conversation and the last to leave church on a Sunday, I suddenly felt like I was back at home.

Olli and Salla are both from Finland. I met Olli through another Finnish friend of mine last Autumn, over dinner at the Eagle & Child, and I met his wife, Salla, at a Christmas party at the Kilns not long after that. They have a 10-year old boy, Elias, and Salla is a good way into her pregnancy for their second son.

Olli had his PhD before he was 25, and he’s now doing research and teaching Theology here at Oxford. He’s a bright guy. Quiet, and very analytical. I found out shortly after we met that we share a common interest in great music (Angels & Airwaves, Sigur Ros, Jonsi), and film, so we found much to talk about. Salla, Olli’s wife, is bright, with a bubbly personality, and hair the color of sunshine. They balance each other out really well.

We tucked into Olli and Salla’s brand-new Audi wagon after church, dropped Elias off at a friend’s house, and then made our way to The Trout for lunch. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the sweet sound of Jonsi‘s voice came dancing in through the car’s speakers as we traveled the narrow roads.

The Trout sits on the edge of a river, sandwiched between two large fields, where people often bring their dogs to get out for a run, or just to go for a walk. It makes for a really beautiful place to visit, particularly on a sunny day like this.

We found a table in the rear of the restaurant and looked over the menu before placing our orders. The Trout used to be an inn, before it was converted into a restaurant. The interior is a mix of wood and river rock, with low-ceilings that make it feel a bit like a pub. But the modern decor and light streaming in from the windows facing the river make it feel much warmer than most pubs.

I ordered the roast chicken for lunch, along with a cup of hot coffee to warm up from the cold walk outside, and a glass of water.

When our drinks came, I was surprised to see her bring my water in a small carafe, the kind cream for your coffee would come in. After staring at it for a moment, I realized she somehow thought I wanted the water for my coffee, and so I explained I actually wanted some ice water.

A few minutes later, she returned with a glass of ice. Just ice. Salla and Olli and I, who had been in the middle of conversation when it arrived at our table, all looked at it and laughed. I apologized to the waitress for what I was sure was the result of my American accent, and explained that I actually was hoping to have some ice water, to drink. She laughed, shook her head, then assured she’d return with it.

The three of us talked and laughed over a nearly two hour lunch. We talked about some of our traditional Sundays meals from back home, and they asked me if I had ever eaten moose before. I told them I hadn’t, and that I couldn’t help thinking I’d feel a bit like I was eating one of Santa’s reindeer if I did, even though I knew they were completely different animals. And that I was pretty sure Santa had figured out a way to keep Finns from hunting his reindeer.

We laughed at how similar our relationship dynamics are. And backgrounds. Even though we’re from halfway around the world. When we had finished our meals, we returned to their home and enjoyed some more conversation from their living room.

After some time had passed, I thought I had better get going, as I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. Olli looked surprised when I did, and said he had something I had to try.

“It’s ginger wine,” he said, pouring me a glass. It’s sweet at first, but then it has a bit of a kick.

I took a sip of the dark colored drink, while Salla watched on with a bit of a painful look, which should’ve been my warning.

“Mmm…,” I said, staring into my glass. “That is really good. Sweet, like you said.”

And just then, a moment after I thought I was a fan of ginger wine, the kick hit me. But it was more like being hit by a truck full of ginger root, right in the mouth.

“Oh, wow…” I said, with big eyes, as my mouth filled with an explosion of ginger. “There it is!”

“You don’t have to finish it if you don’t want to,” Salla said with a laughed, still wearing that painful look.

We continued our conversation from their living room while I did my best to sip down my ginger drink. We talked about accents, and we took turns sharing stories about being in a foreign country and accent experiences.

Salla began to introduce a story then paused. I could tell she was unsure if she should share it or not, but I encouraged her to. She told me about a time she was having tea with a girlfriend here in Oxford. At The Old Parsonage, a really nice restaurant in the city center. She told me there was a handful of Americans at the table beside them, and that, before leaving, these Americans asked the girls where they were from, as they were curious about their accents. Apparently Salla said they should try and guess, and so they did. Their first guess?

“Japan,” Salla told me with a look of surprised embarrassment.

“Oh wow…,” I said, with big eyes.

Just to put this into perspective, Salla’s hair is white-blonde, and she’s clearly not Japanese.

“So I asked them to guess again,” Salla explained, wearing a wide smile, as if to tell me their second guess was not much better.

“And?” I asked.

“Portugal,” she said with a look of defeat.

“Oh no…,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I hate hearing when we fulfill stereotypes.

Salla told me I had a very mild American accent, and I thanked her.

It was after 6:00 in the evening by the time I finally said goodbye that day. I thanked them for adopting me for the day, and they said they were looking forward to getting together again and visiting when Jen was back in Oxford. I told them I agreed and made my way back to the city center to catch the bus to the Kilns.

As I walked, I remembered how, just the day before, I had been dreading this day. I think it’s because Sundays are typically full of lots of time with family back home that I have tend to really dislike Sundays here. I guess it just feels like a painful reminder of that distance. But as I walked beside the river that afternoon, on my way toward the city center, I found myself smiling. Smiling at the thought that what I was afraid was going to be a rather painful, lonely day, had actually turned out to be the best day I had had since returning to Oxford. And I found myself so thankful for the kind of friendships that can make you feel like you’re really not so far from home after all.

Monday: A familiar bearded face & A tour for The Kilns neighbors

I had my first lecture Monday morning, on the topic of “God, Christ and Salvation.” The lecturer who led it has a heavy accent, eastern european, which makes the note-taking process interesting.

I had never had him before for tutorials, but I recognized his photo from the Theology Faculty board in the library. He was the one who I always thought looked a bit like Mozart, with large, frizzy hair. He didn’t look much like Mozart in person, I decided. Perhaps it was because he had recently had his haircut. And he was much taller than he looked in his photo.

He talked a lot about Jesus to introduce the lecture. About why He’s worth our study, and about why He’s still the focus of so much conversation. I was thrilled to be sitting in the middle of a lecture hall listening to this professor talk about Jesus and the significance of his life in his eastern european accent, and I scribbled my notes as best as I could understand to follow along.

Running into a familiar bearded face

After my lecture, and a quick bite for lunch with several of my Theology buddies here, I walked my bike, which still had a flat from the week before, to the bike shop across the city center. I left it with them, after I was told they wouldn’t be able to get to it for a couple days, and made my way back toward college. I was walking down Cornmarket Street, which regularly has musicians playing for money, amongst the busyness of people coming and going from work, class or the shops along the street, when I found myself staring at a three-man brass band as I walked. I turned my head to look where I was going, and to make sure I didn’t run into anyone on the crowded street, when I noticed a guy with a beard out of the corner of my eye. He was walking in the opposite direction as me, toward me, but a few feet over, and staring at me out of the corner of his eyes.

It was enough to startle me, but it only lasted for a second as I realized I knew the guy behind this beard. It was Rob, our good friend who’d lived here in Oxford last year with his wife, Vanessa, when he was doing his MBA.

“Rob, hey!” I shouted just as he made his way to me, before throwing my arms around him to greet him with a hug. He could tell I was completely surprised, and he laughed with a wide smile.

“It’s great to see you, man!” I told him loudly, knowing we were probably fulfilling the stereotype of a couple loud Americans.

He told me he had literally just arrived in Oxford, and that he’d be in town or the week on business. We talked for just a couple minutes, I told him I was just returning from dropping his old bike off at the bike shop, the same bike that was given him by an American friend who had studied here before he arrived, and which he had passed onto me when he and Vanessa left, and we agreed we’d have to catch up one night before he took off.

“Great seeing you again, bud,” I said with a laugh at the surprise encounter as we said goodbye. “Well see you soon.”

Kilns tour for the neighbors

I returned to the Kilns a little after 6:00 that night, much earlier than usual, because Debbie had reminded me about a tour I had agreed to help out with before we left to return to the States before Christmas (which I had completely forgotten about). A group of neighbors were coming by for a Christmas party, and she was hoping to get my help to show a few of them around the house. I told her I’d completely forgotten about the tour, but that I’d be happy to.

Mostly of the group was in their 60’s, or so, and most of them had been in the neighborhood for some time. But, the funny part is that none of them had ever actually been in the house for a tour!

One woman has been in the neighborhood since ’73, the same year Lewis’s brother passed away and the house went up for sale. As I began my tour, by introducing myself, one of the older women in the group asked me why I was interested in CS Lewis. I told her I read Lewis for the first time when I was 19, and how I had been blown away by his ability to approach the Christian faith with reason, and logic and analogies, and how I had never seen anyone do that before. I told her how it encouraged me in my own faith, by making me realize I didn’t need to sacrifice my intellect to consider myself a Christian, as funny as that sounded, and that his writing ultimately led me here, to Oxford. She smiled at me knowingly from behind her glasses, and I began telling them about the history of the house from Lewis’s old common room.

Even though I felt a bit sedated during the tour, as I was still feeling a bit jet-lagged, and fighting off fatigue from too many late nights and early mornings, the tour ended up going really well, and they applauded for me at the end. Each one of the guests thanked me at the end of the tour, rather sincerely, and they told me how much it meant to them, knowing this is here in their own neighborhood.

“It’s funny, this is right in my backyard, and I’ve never been here,” admitted one old man to me.

I told him it seems like that’s just how we are. We often miss out on things when they’re so close to home, and often times it takes a visitor to tell us how incredible they are. He nodded.

I retired to the kitchen for dinner around 9:00 that night. Jonathan was just starting to fix himself some dinner when I walked in, and he asked if I wanted some soup. Jonathan is an incredible cook, so I know better than to say “no” to anything he prepares.

We were eating and talking in the kitchen over our soup when Debbie’s tour came in. It almost felt like we were a part of the tour, as Debbie introduced us in-between bites of soup.

Jonathan thanked me for sending him an early draft of a paper I’d been working on for school, about CS Lewis, Pagan Mythology and Christianity. He said he really liked it. I told him about some of the revisions I had made in the latest version, and we talked about those ideas for a while.

Jonathan offered to make me a cup of coffee, and even though I just wanted to go to bed, I knew I had work to do, so I took him up on the offer.

I thanked Jonathan for the boost of caffeine, and for the very tasty soup, before leaving for my room to read. People were still hanging around the house from the neighborhood Christmas party as I studied, and they would pass through my room to get from one room to the next (as our rooms sit in-between the library and the rest of the house), apologizing each time. I smiled, and told them not to worry about it.

Most people would probably mind people passing through their room while they tried to study at nearly 10:00 at night. But I didn’t. I get to live in C.S. Lewis’s house. Seriously.

Just before I closed my books for the night, I received a Skype call from back home on my computer. It was Jen, and I was excited to see her.

“So I have something to show you,” she said with a wide smile as soon as she took the call. Before I could even get a good look at her, she pointed her monitor to the window to show me the woods behind her parents house. The trees and the ground were all completely white in snow. I could see large snowflakes fall as I watched the screen, and it looked a bit like a winter-themed screensaver. I was so jealous.

Just one week after I leave and everything’s covered in beautiful white snow.

“Of course…” I said aloud to Jen as I took in the snow-covered scene.

It was just a week after I returned to Oxford last winter that Khloe’s birth happened, which was even more difficult. But I was still jealous.

Tuesday: A note from home & Walter quoting Lewis

I’m a morning person, and I usually have no trouble hopping out of bed at the sound of my alarm, but Tuesday was different. It was all I could do to not continue to hit my “snooze” button all morning, as I struggled to get out of bed.

Finally, after three times of hitting “snooze,” I wandered into the kitchen for some cereal and tea.

Debbie was in the kitchen when I walked in, and I told her how tough it was to wake up that morning as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

“It’s no wonder, you’re probably still jet-lagged,” she told me with an understanding voice. “You’ve hardly stopped from you’ve returned. It’s probably just starting to set in.”

I had a tour that morning, just before noon. A group from RZIM, who were in Oxford for a Leadership meeting. The group was from all over Europe, with the exception from one American woman who was from Chicago. The only British girl in the group was younger, and I assumed she worked at the RZIM office here in Oxford. She did.

I asked if she used to work with Vanessa, Rob’s wife, and she told me she did with a wide smile.

“We miss her!”

“Yep, so do we,” I told her, as I explained my wife and Vanessa were good friends.

I showed the group around the house, and there tour was filled with lots of laughter as we went along, which is always a good sign.

Afterward, several people from the group thanked me for the tour. The woman from Chicago came and found me afterward, and made a point to say something.

“Thank you,” she said as she shook my hand, wearing a very serious look.

“No problem,” I told her. “It’s my pleasure. It’s an honor, really.”

She still looked serious, and her brow hung low on her face.

“You can tell. You can tell he has a really personal connection for you.”

I explained to her how Lewis had brought me here, and what I wanted to do with my degree afterward.

“How wonderful,” she said afterwards, as her face became much less serious, and much more personable in appearance. “Blessings to you.”

A note from home

The air was cold as I made my walk from the bus stop to Harris Manchester after the tour that afternoon. I thought about all the snow back home as I slipped my gloves on, and I found myself slightly thankful I didn’t have to walk through all that snow.

I was working from the library that afternoon when I received a note from a friend back home. From a guy who’s had a pretty rough time the past year or so, as his wife has been struck by a brain tumor, and their life has been completely turned on its head.

I was thankful to see his note in my inbox, as I always appreciate hearing from friends back home, but I was completely taken aback by the words he had sent. It was a note of encouragement. This guy has received the kind of news I never hope to hear, that his best friend, the love of his youth, may not have very long to live, and yet, and yet here he was writing me a note of encouragement.

“Take care kid,” his note read, after some words of encouragement regarding my journey, and how he believed God was at work in my life. “You’re always in my prayers.”

And it was at that point that I had to turn my head and stare out the window, to hide the tears that were welling up in the corner of my eyes. I was completely humbled by this man’s words, and, even more, in awe of the fact that he was praying for me. Here I am, literally living out my dream, and he was praying for me. I felt so incredibly unworthy of his prayers. And truly humbled by his friendship.

First Lewis Society of the Term

After an afternoon in the books, I made my way across the city center for the first Lewis Society of the term. I introduced myself to the group once everyone had quieted down and found a seat. I welcomed everyone back from their time away for the holiday, I wished them a happy new year and then I introduced our speaker for the evening before taking my seat.

After the talk, during the Q&A time, Walter spoke up to make a point and he ended up referencing a letter from Lewis he received in 1954. The first one. But he didn’t just reference it, he quoted it at length. It blew me away, along with many others in the room.

It really was phenomenal, I thought. And it reminded me of the first time I went to the Lewis Society meeting, and heard Walter telling a story from a conversation he had with Lewis on Cornmarket St. And how incredible I thought the whole experience was. That was the first time I met Walter. And now, to be President of the Society, it really was an incredible honor.

After a few more questions and discussion, I stood up in the front of the room to wrap things up and, unintentionally, I asked if everyone would thank me… That’s right, I asked everyone to thank me. I really did. And they did. To the sound of lots of laughter and clapping. And there was nothing I could do but stand there and smile and laugh at myself until the clapping died down.

Once it did, I apologized and asked everyone to thank our speaker for her wonderful talk. It wasn’t the first time I got my foot stuck in my mouth as President. I don’t know what it is about that setting.

Wednesday: Getting my seat back

I spent all of Wednesday in the HMC library. I was reading for my essay from my old familiar desk on the second floor of the library. I had a lot of reading to get through, and so I had my head down from the time the library opened that morning.

About halfway through the day, I was approached by Sue, the librarian. I removed my earphones as she stepped up quietly to my desk and I greeted her with a smile.

“Hello, Sue,” I said in a hushed voice.

“Hello, Ryan. Very good to see you back in your spot,” she said in her wonderful, warm English accent, wearing a wide grin that made her squint. “Lucy [the library assistant who sits just behind me] was very bothered that someone had taken your seat. You must keep a pile of things on your desk to make sure no one takes it.”

I smiled to Sue. And I told her it was good to have it back.

It found her comment quite funny. I was actually rather upset about having to work a couple days from the other side of the library, as the desk where I normally sit was taken.

The reason I found it particularly funny is that the librarians had only just sent out an e-mail the day before asking people to pick up after themselves, and not leave books on their desk when they’re not using them. Apparently they didn’t really mean it after all.

Thursday: A brief break from the library from the oldest pub in Oxford

I split my time between two libraries on Thursday, hurrying to get my reading done for the week so I could punch out a quick essay before my tutorial on Friday. I took a break that evening, around 7:00, when I met up with Rob at The Bear, Oxford’s “oldest” pub.

Lots of places like to use the term “oldest” in Oxford, and the Bear is one of them. Whether it’s actually the oldest or not, it’s rather incredible to think about just how hold it is: more than three times older than the United States.

The Bear’s ceilings are low, with wooden beams lying just above your head, and the walls feel as though they’re closing in on you from each small room, like a proper English pub. One of the room’s walls are completely covered in snipped pieces of ties that sit behind glass, with a name scrolled across a piece of paper penned to each one. Rob explained to me that it’s tradition for graduates to snip the end off their tie and donate it to the pub. After hundreds of years, it’s no wonder they’ve managed to collect so many ties.

It was nice to take a break from my reading and to catch up with Rob. Rob and Vanessa are also from the Pacific Northwest, and the more we talk, the more I realize how similar our journeys. And how much we get each other. I was thankful for that.

After a couple hours of catching up, I thanked Rob for taking the time, I wished him safe travels, and I made my way back to Harris Manchester. It was after 10:00 that night when I lifted my head up from my books to have a look around when I realized just how many other students were also studying until late into the night. There were several students printing essays well after 10:30, and I was encouraged that I wasn’t alone.

“Welcome back to Oxford,” I thought to myself.

I returned home to the Kilns after 11:00 that night, after being kicked out of the library when it closed. I had a bit more reading to get through yet, and I finally hit the bed after 2:00 the next morning, when I could no longer keep my eyes open.

Friday: My 1st Tutorial & A real myth

I was up at 7:00 the next morning, back in the library at Harris Manchester shortly after it opened its doors, and I managed to wrap up my essay just before 1:oo that afternoon. My essay was at 2:00 that afternoon, and, with my first essay printed off and in-hand, I suddenly felt like I was walking on air. Funny how much getting that done changes things!

But that feeling of walking on air didn’t last long. An hour later I found myself sitting in my first tutorial, and suddenly everything changed. We walked through my paper and then I fielded several questions. And I was stumped. Repeatedly. The thing about the tutorial system here at Oxford is, when it’s just you and the tutor (what we would call a “Professor” back home), there’s really nowhere to go if you don’t have the answer. There’s no one else to look to for back-up. It’s all on you.

One of the questions during the hour was, “How do you distinguish between conscience and the Holy Spirit?”

“Uhhh… I wish I knew,” was my response. “I mean, I personally wish I knew.”

Yep, that was my answer. Well, I went on to elaborate that I thought conscience was likely to be influenced by a number of factors, including culture, individuals, and other factors we face in life, while the Holy Spirit was wholly apart from such influence. But then he asked me if that was what the Bible says about conscience. And his asking made me think it wasn’t.

So I said, “No.”And then I had to defend why I think my view of conscience is different from the Bible. Yep, that was my tutorial in a nutshell. Pretty solid.

A real myth

I was still kicking myself a bit that night when Jonathan and I returned to the Vue to watch a movie. Even though I had another essay due on Monday, it was a great way to book-end the week, and it was a nice way to forget about my fumbling tutorial that afternoon.

We ended up watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and we walked out of the movie theatre into the cold night air at half past 12, by the time it had finally finished (nearly three hours later). We discussed the film as he drove us back to The Kilns that night,  the director, the characters, the soundtrack, and we continued to talk about it long after we’d returned home that night. We found some seats in the common room and, under the light of lamps, we chewed on the film, like a fine meal.

Jonathan just completed his DPhil last year, in Classics. Meaning his expertise is in the ancient world.

After talking about the film we had just seen, somehow the conversation turned to Jonathan’s studies. We talked about Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, and his accounts of Jesus, and John the Baptist, and Paul. And the fact that these men were real historic figures.

I asked Jonathan what he thought of Josephus’s records, knowing he had read them first-hand, which I had not.

“Well, if you’re looking for proof that these men lived, it’s right there,” Jonathan said matter-of-factly.

I told Jonathan that excited me. I told him about how, for so long, the gospels seemed like myth to me. Like just another “nice story” that we were told as children, but which most people grew out of when they got older

And I told him it was accounts such as these that helped remind me, this Jesus was a real man, in a real place, in a real time. And that excited me incredibly, even to this day.

Tuesday: Returning to Oxford

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

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

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

“Hi, this is Ryan,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: First day back at College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: A Flat Tire and Carb Baskets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both looked at me puzzled.

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

“You don’t use kettles?” John asked.

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

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

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

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

None of us minded, so he proceeded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Collections and Unconventional Fingerprints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unconventional Fingerprints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

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

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

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

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

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

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

The Oxford Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

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

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

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Making sense of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Metaphor in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was crushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jen and I caught a bus home after our date night on Friday. It was a cool night, and we were anxious to get inside the warm home and escape the cold by the time we had walked from our bus stop. But just as we opened the door, a taxi pulled up outside the house, which I thought was odd, considering it was now 12:30 in the morning. I remembered our good friend Cole, who’s currently studying at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, was visiting for the weekend, and I wondered if this was him.

I watched as the cab door opened up and a dark silhouette stepped out onto the street. Sure enough, it was Cole. I recognized his profile as Cole handed the cab driver his fare, and so I waited at the door to welcome him.

“Haaaaaay!” he said as he drug his luggage through the gate and to where we stood at the doorway. We welcomed him with hugs and caught up from the kitchen. He had grabbed a late dinner from a kebab van in the city center, and I made myself a bowl of cereal while the three of us talked. Friends don’t let friends eat alone…

It was nearly 1:00 in the morning by the time we said “goodnight” to Cole and made our way to bed. Cole would be joining us for Guy Fawkes Day fireworks in South Park the next day, just as the three of us had done the year before.

Saturday: Day with Jen & Guy Fawkes Day

Jen and I started off Saturday with a trip to the Oxford city center. It had been a busy week, and we planned to spend the day together before catching the fireworks display in the park with the rest of the house that night.

After showering and grabbing a quick breakfast, we caught a bus to the city center. Our bus made a quick stop in Headington, a small village just outside of the city center, and my eyes caught a small boy walking behind his parents. He was carrying a long, plastic sword that was nearly as tall as he was. He stopped for a moment to try and “sheath” the sword into the front of his pants, but quickly realized doing so would prevent him from walking. His parents stopped to look back and find the boy in the middle of this dilemma. I laughed. And asked Jen if our boy could have a plastic sword one day. “Of course,” she said. I grinned widely.

We got off the bus at High Street, and we tucked into a small antique shop near the Exam Schools building. We thumbed through a large collection of old Oxford photos and illustrations, pausing to show the other any ones that we particularly liked. Finally, after looking through dozens and dozens of matted illustrations, we decided on an old drawing of High Street, complete with a carriage, one of the Radcliffe Camera, with several Oxford students in their cap and gowns, and one of the Bridge of Sighs. We talked about how great the pictures would look framed in our future home some day as we made our way out of the antique shop, across the High Street, and down a narrow lane that leads toward the heart of the city center.

It was a beautiful, clear, cool day as we walked through this cobblestone lane with leaves on ground. The stone footpath was covered in rich oranges and reds and yellows. And it was almost as if Oxford had dressed up in its finest Autumn-inspired outfit, just for us. Fallen leaves were draped across the cobblestone lane leading us beneath the Bridge of Sighs and finally up to the Radcliffe Camera, illustrations of which we carried in our plastic bag.

The streets were packed as we made it to Broad Street. Jen had wanted to try on some boots, and so we polka-dotted the city center with our stops in a handful of different shoe stores. We took a brief break from our shopping to wander down to the Alternative Tuck Shop and order two paninis for lunch, which we enjoyed from the dark leather couches of the Junior Common Room of my college. We didn’t manage to find a pair of boots for Jen, but we did enjoy spending the day together. It was a wonderful time, and something we don’t get to do nearly enough.

We returned to the Kilns in the middle of the afternoon, while the sky was still a light shade of blue, with streaks of white clouds drifting slowly by. And, as Jen searched for her keys to open the door, I found my eyes wandering to the small blue plaque on the side of the house, the one that identifies the home as where C.S. Lewis lived from 1930 to 1963, and to the windows that look into his old bedroom, and it was then that I realized, perhaps for the first time, how truly incredible it is that we live here.

Lighting Guy Fawkes on Fire & Fireworks in South Park

That evening, Jen and I and Cole made our way to South Park, where Guy Fawkes Day was being celebrated, along with Debbie and Jonathan, who are living at the Kilns, and David Naugle, a short-term scholar from Dallas. We walked the long way around, passing through the nature reserve in the dark. Around the pond where Lewis used to swim and go punting, and through the field with its tall grass. We walked in a line, with Jonathan leading the way. Jonathan walks between the city center and the Kilns every day, which takes about an hour, so he’s well-practiced. He keeps a good pace, and the rest of us did our best to keep up with him.

As we made it out of the nature reserve and onto the streets, we found ourselves walking amongst a large crowd of people, all making their way to the Fireworks display. I talked with Cole as we walked. We had left the house a little later than we should have, and so we were wondering if we’d make it on-time.

I joked that I had told those in charge that we might be a little late arriving, and so we didn’t need to worry about the show starting without us. Cole played along with the joke.

“Ladies and gentleman, has anyone seen a tall, handsome, intelligent fellow?…” Cole said. “And his friend Ryan Pemberton?”

I laughed out loud.

We passed through the gate leading into South Park only to find it lined with large carnival rides that lit up the night skyline, and food vendors that filled the air with scents of grilled sausages and hot mulled wine. It felt a bit like being at the county fair back home. And I loved it.

“Does being here make anyone else want a hot dog?” I asked.

“It does me,” said Cole.

“Just you two, I think,” said Debbie, the vegetarian in the group.

We found our way toward the front of the crowd that had gathered in the eastern end of the park for fireworks. The show had yet to begin, and we stood should-to-shoulder as we waited in the crowd.

Apparently my comment about hot dogs had stuck with Cole, as he soon took food orders from our group and left to hunt down hot dogs while the rest of us waited for the fireworks to begin. Less than 10 minutes later, they had begun.

The percussion was so loud you could feel it in your chest as the fireworks exploded into the black night sky in bursts of reds and blues and yellows. Those standing around us ghasped in awe, as did I.

“They were all out of hot dogs, so I got us burgers instead,” Cole said as he made it back to where we were standing in the crowd. The fireworks were building up to a grand finale, and we all stared skyward, faces lit up by the display, as we enjoyed our warm, tinfoil-wrapped burgers.

After the fireworks had finished, a giant, 50-foot tall effigy was lit on fire, and the crowd watched as it went from a small fire to a roaring blaze.

Limb by limb the effigy was torn down by the flickering tongue of the flames, and we all stood there, looking on, almost as if we were bystanders to a crime. But it was no crime. It was just a typical Guy Fawkes Day celebration in England. It seemed so primitive and barbaric. So pagan.

The crowd dwindled as the statue crumbled, leaving little more than a bonfire, and soon we were making our way out of the crowd and back toward the Kilns. But before we had gone, Debbie and Cole let us know they wouldn’t be able to leave without a ride on the merry-go-round. And they were serious.

The rest of us watched as they purchased their tickets and found a seat on the ride, each choosing their own “horse” before it began. But before the merry-go-round could begin its rotation, it became clear that not everyone was going to be able to have their own horse. A small girl was left looking for a free seat when Cole noticed and offered her his. Realizing this left him without his own horse, he took the front seat of the horse Debbie had been on.

“Nooooo…” I said in a hushed voice, realizing that not only would Debbie and Cole be riding the merry-go-round, but they’d be sharing the same horse!

As the ride began, they both looked over at us with embarrassed grins, Cole from the front of the horse, and Debbie from the seat just behind him. I burst into laughter, in disbelief of the scene.

Neither one of them were about to let the opportunity go by without hamming it up, so they made different poses on each rotation as they passed by us. Cole would extend his arms out into the air, as if he were flying, and Debbie would lean back and swat at the horse’s rear end, while the three of us laughed uncontrollably from our spot just beyond the ride. I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard.

We caught a bus back to the Kilns that night. Jonathan had returned before us, to finish dinner preparations. Our meal was ready not long after we returned, and we all sat down to an incredible dinner in the dining room.

Jonathan is an amazing cook, and we enjoyed a truly inspired meal over much laughter as we explained the scene of Cole and Debbie on the merry-go-round to Jonathan. It was a great day, and a great night, and it didn’t end until nearly 2:00 the next morning.

Sunday: Magdalene Chapel & Shadow proves the sunshine

Jen and I attended church at Magdalene Chapel on Sunday morning, in the college where Lewis taught when he was here in Oxford. David, the short-term scholar from Dallas, joined us.

Magdalene is one of my favorite college chapels here in Oxford. It’s massive, and it has an incredible number of ornate carvings spread throughout its walls. The ceiling is a high-arching wooden structure, and the walls are lined with stained-glass windows. On this particular morning, a ray of light came dancing into the room through one of the front, corner stained glass windows in the chapel, in rather dramatic fashion, just as the choir–a mix of men and boys–began the morning hymns. It was an incredible, beautiful service, and I was so glad we had attended.

Afterward, we wandered a short way down High Street to the Grand Cafe for brunch. The Grand Cafe is England’s oldest coffee house, and David had never been before, so we thought it would be a nice place to follow up the service we had just enjoyed together.

We talked about the Switchfoot concert David would be attending the next week in Cambridge over our hot breakfast and coffee. David told us how he knew Switchfoot’s lead singer, Jon Foreman, and that a lot of the band’s lyrics had been influenced by his father, a pastor in California. I shared with him my favorite Switchfoot lyrics: “the shadow proves the Sunshine.” We agreed it was a beautiful line; theologically weighty and poetic.

We finished our breakfast, took care of the bill, and then we made our way back to the Kilns on a particularly sunny Sunday afternoon. It was nice to get back home early and enjoy a restful day before the start of another week.

5th week

Monday: Lincoln College’s most famous alum & Proud of you

In contrast to the weekend’s sunny weather, Monday arrived with a thick blanket of fog. The air was wet from it, and your clothes would pick up the moisture as you walked. “This feels like the England as so many know it,” I thought to myself as I made my short walk to the bus stop, en route to the city center and college.

After several hours of reading, I clicked off my desk lamp in the Harris Manchester Library and rode my bike to Lincoln College, where I’d be meeting Rich and Max and Britton for lunch. We’ve been meeting together once a week, on Mondays, to share life and lunch, and then pray together.

I hadn’t been to Lincoln College before, but it is a beautiful college in the middle of the city center. It’s small, but I’ve found myself liking the smaller colleges lately. They’re less intimidating.

We followed Britton through several courtyards and down a small stone staircase to an underground room lined with old wooden tables and flatscreen monitors on the walls. At the end of the room was a bar, where students where placing their food orders. The whole thing looked like a rather modern pub, and it was.

“I’m a little jealous that Lincoln has its own pub,” I confessed to Britton and the rest of the guys. “But this is great!”

We placed our orders, sandwiches and soup, and retired to a small alcove that looked a bit like a bomb shelter in the corner of the room.

“This place is amazing,” I said as we sat with our lunches. The guys agreed, nodding their heads as we dug into our food.

“Yeah, I think it used to be a wine cellar,” Britton told us as we ate.

“That makes sense,” said Max.

We were in awe of what an incredible deal Lincoln was for lunch, as well. For £1.95, I got a bowl of soup and a sandwich. It was incredible, really.

We had a great time of prayer, as we wrapped up our meal and time together. Walking out of the underground pub, we followed Britton along a cobblestone walkway, and it felt a bit like we’d traveled back in time.

Britton showed us the College’s chapel and dining hall as we toured the grounds. In the dining hall, Britton made sure to point out a large portrait of John Wesley, most famous for founding the Methodist Movement.

“He’s probably our most famous alum,” Britton told us.

“Meh…” I said with a smirk.

Rich laughed. “Yeah, not that big of a deal,” he said sarcastically.

Proud of You

Back in the library at Harris Manchester, I found my studies interrupted by a Skype call from my Mom. She calls me fairly often when I’m in the library, and, since I’m almost always wearing my earphones to listen to music while I read, I’m able to hear her without interrupting anyone else. I type my responses, and she speaks to me. It’s a routine we’ve got down as I’m often in the library when she calls.

The call was brief, and after a bit of small-talk, my Mom’s voice took on a more serious tone.

“Ryan, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said as she began. “I’ve been thinking about it and, I think if C.S. Lewis was alive today, he’d be so proud of what you’re doing.”

My eyes focused and the skin on my face tightened. Even though I couldn’t talk anyways, being in the library, I found I had to stop. I put my head down, and it was all I could do to stop the tears from welling up in my eyes.

My Mom didn’t know it, but I had been feeling a bit disillusioned at the time. I was having a tough time, wondering about the future, what we were going to do after my studies here, and all. The idea of what Lewis would’ve thought about all of this, were he alive, had never crossed my mind, but it meant so very much.

My Mom had to go, as she was on a break at work and now had to get back to things there, but she could see how much her comment had meant, even though I could hardly type.

No One Will Ever Believe You

Jen and I had a Skype call with her family that night, from our study at the Kilns. We were talking with Jen’s mom when we heard a knock on the door. I was closest to it, so I got up from my seat and opened the door. It was Debbie, and she was asking if Jen’s book was available. I looked back to Jen, who seemed to know what she was asking for, and she handed me a small romance novel from the desk.

I looked at the book she was handing me, and turned to hand it to Debbie with a look of surprise. Debbie is, perhaps, the last person you’d expect to be reading such a book. Debbie teaches Medieval Literature at a University back in Tennessee, when she’s not the Warden here at the Kilns. She likes things like knights and horses and Beowulf, and she invites her students to (secretly) bring their swords to class to show her.

I thought it was hilarious that Debbie would actually be reading a romance novel, and she smiled as I handed the book to her.

“No one will ever believe you, Ryan,” she said to me with a wide grin, almost as if to read my thoughts.

Tuesday: Our Finnish Friends

I had a lunch meeting with a guy from Finland by the name of Jason on Tuesday. Jason had spoken to the Lewis Society last year, and I had been in touch with him over the summer about joining us again this year. He had told me that he’d be stopping through Oxford on his way to a conference in the States in November, and we agreed that it’d be nice to meet up for lunch while he was in town.

At 12:30, I walked around the corner from College to the King’s Arms, a small pub where we’d be meeting for lunch. Jason was standing in front of the pub when I arrived, dressed in a black turtleneck and blue jeans. Though I’m not terribly tall, I’m not used to looking up to speak to most people, but I had to with Jason.

Jason stands at least 6’3″, and his hair is shaved short. He has a deep voice, with a strong Finnish accent, which paired with his height to make me feel just a bit less manly than I had when I arrived.

“Hello, Ryan” Jason said, greeting me with a firm shake. His wide grin was the only thing that made his presence less than intimidating.

We tucked into the pub and ordered some lunch before finding a seat near the front of the pub. It was cool outside, and while I’m not usually much of a chili fan, I ordered a hot bowl of it to warm up.

We enjoyed a great conversation over lunch. He sharing his story with me, and then vice versa. And it was funny how closely our stories lined up. We had both read C.S. Lewis at the age of 19 for the first time, and his writing had changed the course of each of our lives in a rather dramatic way.

Jason had been planning to pursue a law degree when he first read Lewis. It wasn’t long after that, he explained to me from our seat in the pub, that he asked himself what he would do if money were not an option, and if he could do everything. Once he asked himself that question, he told me, he decided he’d actually like to study theology. I laughed as he told me about this experience. It was funny just how similar it was to mine.

At one point in the conversation, Jason recommended a book called A Severe Mercy to me. It was a book that had been recommended to me several times before, by people who knew we were coming to Oxford, but I had yet to pick it up. It was a book about an American couple who moved to Oxford for studies as non-believers, and who came to the Christian faith largely through C.S. Lewis’s writing and their later friendship with him, and how the husband dealt with the loss of his wife in later life.

Jason told me he typically had about 20 copies of the book on-hand at his home, and that it was his “go-to” present for newlyweds, as it had some incredible lessons for marriage and life. I hadn’t been persuaded to read the book before, but after hearing this, I told Jason I’d have around the Kilns for a copy as soon as I got home that night.

“I think you’d get a lot from it,” Jason told me, matter-of-factly, “They have a very similar story as you and Jen.”

I thanked Jason for what had been an incredibly encouraging conversation as we made our way out of the pub, and he invited me along to dinner that evening. I hadn’t planned to go, as I had lots to do, but Jason said he’d like to introduce me to his colleagues here at Oxford over dinner at the Eagle & Child before the Lewis Society met that night. I told him I’d do my best to be there, as we exchanged another firm handshake and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library to get some more reading done.

Finnish Survivor & Walter’s Warm Welcome

After an afternoon of reading, I gave in and made my way across town to the Eagle & Child for dinner. Jen had texted me that afternoon to let me know her and Debbie would be going, and I couldn’t not go at that point. I walked into the pub only to find that nearly everyone else had already arrived. Jen was seated behind a long wooden table as I entered. I exchanged smiles with Jen before saying “hello” to Debbie and Jason and several others as I made my way around the table to sit beside her.

After several minutes of introductions to Jason’s Finnish colleagues who were joining us for the evening, we made our way to the counter to place our orders and then settled in to wait for our meals to arrive.

Debbie mentioned that Jason was on the Finland version of Survivor, and he nodded embarrassingly as Debbie rolled her head back with laughter. I was stunned.

“This will be another conversation,” Jason said to me, from across the table, with a look of complete seriousness.

I laughed.

“All right, yeah. I’d love to hear about it,” I told him.

He ended up telling us a bit about the experience over dinner as it arrived. About how he went for days without anything to eat or drink to start the show, and then about winning a competition toward the end of the show that rewarded he and another (male) contestant with an incredible formal dinner while the other (female) contests were forced to watch.

He told us about how the competition consisted of carrying melted butter by the mouthful across the sandy beach and filling up a bucket. The result was being covered in butter and eating as much as he could while several girls, who were chained up, for dramatic effect, were forced to watch.

“None of us had eaten for days,” he told us, wearing a broad smile as he remembered the scene. “It was quite the picture!”

Apparently he nearly won, too, making it to day 42 of the 45-day competition.

After a laughter-riddled meal, we left Eagle & Child and made our way to the Lewis Society meeting just a few buildings down on St Giles Street.

The meeting went very well, and afterward, Jennifer and I caught up with Walter, who lit up when he saw Jennifer.

“Well helloooo,” Walter said to her with a hug as soon as he saw her. It was the first time Walter had seen Jen since we had returned, and he did a double-take to make sure it was, in fact, her.

“You look genuinely happy,” Walter said to Jen after their hug. I looked over to Jen, and she really did.

“Is it love?” Walter asked with a bit of a coy smile. Jen smiled embarrassingly in return.

I laughed.

“That must be a rhetorical question, Walter,” I said with a grin.

“He really gets better every day, doesn’t he?” Walter asked, looking back to Jen.

I asked if Walter wanted help down the stairs, as he was on his way out to catch a cab when we caught up with him, and I helped him down the narrow, spiraling stone staircase before saying “goodbye” and making our way back to the Kilns.

Wednesday: Tour with Rob & If You Were to Write About This Year…

On Wednesday night we invited our good friend Rob over to the Kilns for a visit. He had never been before, and he would be leaving in a couple days to return to Washington State to join his wife, Vanessa, so we were happy to see him once more before he left.

Rob and I ended up making the last leg of the journey to the Kilns together, as our paths crossed (I on foot, with groceries in hand, and he on his bike) during the last mile of the trip. The air was cool, and we were both dressed warm. We caught up on how things had been going as we made our way to the Kilns together.

When we arrived, Jen met us at the door and let us know that she had just put on some water for tea, if we wanted some. We both agreed that sounded perfect after the cool-air walk, and so the three of us gathered in the kitchen and talked over hot, English tea.

We talked about what it’d be like to transition back to life in the States. We talked about finding jobs and re-adjusting to the cultural differences, after adjusting to life in the UK. We talked about how odd it will be to hang out again when we’re back in Washington, now that we’ve only known each other in England. And then I showed Rob around the house, pointing out interesting photos and telling stories along the way.

It was a much more informal tour than what I’m used to, and it was great. Rob would ask questions as we walked, and we’d talk about the books he had read. Rob had previously recommended I read A Severe Mercy, and so I mentioned to him that I had finally picked it up.

At the end of the tour, Debbie and Jen met us back at the front of the house. I introduced Rob to Debbie, and told her that Rob’s wife, Vanessa, had been at the house for the girls’ high tea that Jen threw last year.

“Ahhh, okay,” she said, connecting the dots.

We said our goodbyes to Rob, making tentative plans to get together again when we were back in the States for Christmas, and then he was off.

A Late-Night Visitor

Jen and I enjoyed dinner from the kitchen that night, which tends to be a rather social time when people are at home. Jonathan and David had gathered in the kitchen with us while we ate, and Debbie joined us later. There was a knock on the door as we were finishing our meal, and everyone looked around to make sure we were all there before giving one another puzzled looks, as if to say, “Who else could be knocking at this time?”

But I knew who it was before I even got up to check.

“Oh, it’s Tom,” I said, getting up and making my way to the front door.

Tom is a good friend of mine here in Oxford. He works at Ravi Zacharias Ministry, and he had given a talk the week before on the topic of topic of how a good God could allow suffering, which I had attended the week before.

I introduced Tom to Debbie and David, as he knows Jonathan (they grew up together) and Jen, and then we took a short walk to the Ampleforth Arms to catch up. There were only a handful of guys in the pub when we arrived, most of whom were watching a soccer match on a widescreen tv hanging from one of the walls. Tom and I tucked into a pair of overstuffed leather couches in the front of the pub, and we enjoyed catching up on life and church and studies.

I also asked Tom about balancing marriage and work and parenting, as he’s a few years ahead of me, and he and his wife have a young daughter at home. I talked about some of my goals, pausing to hear Tom’s advice, and I told him how much I appreciate the life of the mind here in Oxford.

“I feel like my mind is alive and at work here,” I told him, “in way I haven’t found anywhere else.”

Tom smiled, and nodded, in a way that told me he knew exactly what I meant, and we made our way back to the Kilns in the cool night air.

It was nearly 11:00 when we returned, and as we turned onto Lewis Close, Tom commented on how incredible it must be to me to be here and to be so involved with C.S. Lewis.

“Giving tours, living in his home,” Tom began.

“President of the Lewis Society, writing my essay on him…” I finished.

He smiled.

“If you were to write about what this year might look like before all of this,…” Tom began.

“…It would not have compared with this.” I said, finishing his sentence. Again, a wide smile from Tom.

Thursday: High Tea at the Kilns

Jen and Debbie put together a high tea at the Kilns on Thursday afternoon, as we had a new scholar arriving from the States, an English Professor from Montreat College in North Carolina by the name of Don King. Our Finnish friends were still in town, as well, and so they were invited to join us, too.

That afternoon, there were nearly 15 of us gathered around the dining room table, which was now overflowing with freshly baked scones, cucumber sandwiches, two kinds of hot-out-of-the-oven cookies and tea, along with fresh jams, lemon curd and coddled cream for the scones. It was quite the sight.

We talked about Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman and love as we dug into the food and tea. Everyone agreed, the food was amazing, and we let Jen and Debbie know they had done a great job.

Don recently published a book on Joy, who was married to C.S. Lewis for three years before she passed away. She was quite the fiery Jewish New York woman before she was converted to Christianity, in large part through Lewis’s writings, and Don shared some of her earlier writing with us so we could get a sense of her personality.

He read a review Joy had written about a film that had, rather overtly, been produced to drum up efforts for the second World War, particularly among male viewers. It had us all laughing out loud. One part of the review, in particular, made a rather pointed attack on the main actresses inability to act, which, apparently, was made up by her looks.

“Although if she were to wear a brazier,” Don read Joy’s review aloud, “suddenly her acting skills would drop dramatically.”

Everyone around the table was squinting with laughter at Joy’s writing.

“I can see why Lewis would’ve loved this woman,” I said, in between laughs.

“Yes, but what does she really think?!” Jason asked with a loud, affirmative voice of authority, and half a smile. We all laughed even harder.

Friday: Playing catch up

I had a European Reformation test to make up during Friday of third week. I was supposed to take the test before the term began with everyone else, but since I was still back in the States, I was allowed to make it up on my own.

“I ought to go this route every time,” I thought to myself as I made my way to Harris Manchester and my spot in the library where I’d be taking my exam. It’s much less stressful taking an exam on your own than it is in a room full of other test-takers with someone seated at the front of the room.

I passed by Katrina, the librarian, at the printer as I made my way through one pair of double doors, and before passing through the next set.

“Good morning, Ryan,” she said with a smile, turning to face me as I entered the library. “You have a collection today, don’t you?”

“I do, yes,” I said, taking another step toward the library’s second set of double doors, before pausing and turning back toward Katrina. “How do you feel about the European Reformation, by the way?”

“Oh, well, I have too much to say about it, probably,” was her response.

“Perfect. Are you free at 2:00 for a collection, then?”

“Well…”, Katrina said with a pause, and a bit of a smile. “You’d probably better do it, you’d do a better job, she said, nodding her head.”

“Okay, okay…” I said heavily, turning and making my way toward my seat upstairs in the library. I had a few hours to study before my exam that afternoon, so I got to work, going through my old notes.

That is until 11:00 rolled around and all I could think about was getting my hands on a cup of tea… It’s funny how quickly that happens to me here. I hardly drink tea back in the States. But here, I typically drink several cups a day. With milk and sugar. I think my body knows when I’m in England and demands it. My stomach would likely revolt if I tried to go without it.

At 1:00, I made a break for the dining hall to grab a quick bite for lunch. I was in and out in 10 minutes, the first one.  “Thanks!” I called out to the head server as I skipped down the stairs from the dining hall, across the college grounds, and back up to the library with an apple in hand.

I began my exam at 2:00 and three hours later, with numb fingers from holding my pencil so hard, I placed my exam papers back into the folder they came to me in and stowed them in my advisor’s pigeon hole in the mail room. It was a good feeling to have that test wrapped up and no longer hanging over my head. Now I could focus on my weekly essays without worrying about studying material I had taken last spring. And, best of all, I was fairly confident I passed.

Saturday: The first enchiladas in CS Lewis’s dining room

We decided to have a house dinner Saturday night at the Kilns. Jonathan and Debbie and Jen and I, as well as our short-term scholar, David. The philosophy professor from Texas. Jen and I were in town for the day, and so we offered to pick up something to make. Earlier in the day, I suggested Mexican food. Jonathan seemed to like the idea, so Mexican food it was.

I laughed to myself as we found our seats around the dining room table that evening, thinking it was probably the first time enchiladas had ever been enjoyed from C.S. Lewis’s old dining room… The warm cheese and salsa lathered tortillas, stuffed full with chicken, went down easily, along with the conversation. We laughed over stories, and, at some point, Ray Stevens came up in conversation. Debbie and David and I (and I only because of my Grandfather) were the only ones who knew who Ray Stevens was, so we decided to pull up some of his songs on Youtube and we watched them from the dining room. Laughing, somewhat embarrassingly, at his ridiculous humor. If it was not, in fact, the first time enchiladas had been enjoyed from C.S. Lewis’s old dining room, Ray Stevens, I was sure, had to be a first.

Sunday: A Stadium of Saints and Tea with Walter

We woke up Sunday morning and made our way by foot to Holy Trinity Church, the local Anglican church where C.S. Lewis used to attend. Jen and I had never been before, as it was quite a ways away for us when we were living in north Oxford last year, but now it was only a 10-minute walk. And so that’s where we went on this particular Sunday morning.

We came up to the small village church, surrounded by an old graveyard (as they all are) just as the church bells began to ring. We walked a little fast and pressed through the large, wooden arched door before finding our seats toward the front of the congregation.

The small church was filled with people. Locals. Families and older couples. A few young couples. The room was interspersed with high-rising stone columns. And the ceiling came to an arched point. All the pews were faced toward a large, stained glass scene in the front of the church, where a choir had gathered. And the service began nearly as quickly as we took our seats. We sang. Hymns, of course. And then a brief message from a man in his late 40’s who wore his long, blonde hair in a ponytail against his white Anglican robe.

He began his message by telling a story about a young boy who was excited about his first trip to a live football (soccer) match, and the overwhelming feeling of being seated in the packed stadium as the football players took to the field, with the air blazing full of the sound of cheers. And, almost immediately, I found myself slightly disappointed. I’m not usually one to criticize a sports metaphor in sermons, as trite as they may be for most, but a sports metaphor for a sport I don’t actually play, that’s a bit more difficult for me. But I continued to listen in, of course, intently, trusting that this pony-tailed man would actually have something of importance to pull from the story.

He talked about how this young boy was struck by this image of the stadium full of people cheering for the athletes, and how he knew, at that moment that he wanted to become a professional football player himself one day. After carrying on this story for a while, the vicar changed the picture just slightly. Instead of football fans, he asked us to picture a stadium full of saints. The men and women who had come before us in the service of the Lord. Who had pressed on toward the goal laid before them with unswerving affection for their Lord. And he asked us to picture not professional football players on the field, but ourselves. Stepping out onto the freshly cut grass, surrounded by thousands and thousands of cheering saints. Cheering us on. Encouraging us to fight the good fight of life, for His glory. Just as they themselves had centuries before us. Cheering each of us on.

And I found myself enraptured by this picture. I found myself so encouraged. It’s easy, in the day to day busyness of life, to think that it doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. That I simply have to meet this deadline, or do that, or pick up this. And you go to bed at night. And you wake up the next day only to do it again. And you feel as though none of it, in the long run, really matters all that much.

But this scene reminded me that it does. All of it. Each day. Each moment, is an opportunity to point our lives toward Him, and in doing so, to point others toward Him. And, in so doing, to point others toward a life that, really, truly does matter. And will matter for all of eternity.

It was a reminder I needed on this particular morning. And as the pony-tailed vicar concluded his message, he looked at us all with a warm, subtle smile, and eyes of understanding, and he left us with these words: “Keep the faith.”

Theology Through Art

After the church service, we wandered down a narrow footpath to a small community center where the congregation was gathering for coffee and fellowship. Jen and I each grabbed a coffee and cookie and found Jonathan, who was talking with a friend. He introduced us to her. “Nancy” was her name. And we asked how they knew each other.

“Swing dancing,” Jonathan told us, in his full-bodied, rich English accent.

My eyebrows went up.

“Oh wow,” I said. “I didn’t take you to be a swing dancer.”

“Well I wasn’t, until Nancy introduced me to it,” he told us.

“You guys ought to come out one night,” Nancy said, looking toward Jen and I, in her American accent.

“Oh, well… I’m not a very good dancer,” I admitted. “The only time we’ve ever taken dance lessons I nearly turned Jen’s toes black and blue.”

They laughed. But Jen nodded with a smile, as if to tell them it wasn’t a joke.

I asked Nancy what she was doing in Oxford and she told us she was studying. Art history.

“But I’m interested in theology,” she told us, as if to clarify.

She told us she wanted to communicate theology, but not through theology. Through her appreciation of art history.

I was clearly excited when I heard this, and the wide grin on my face surely gave it away. I thought what she said was beautiful. I think that’s what we all ought to aim for. Communicating His important truths in all that we do. In our own areas of expertise. In our everyday. All of it aimed at helping others see Him more clearly.

My mind began to run away as we stood there, listening to Nancy describe her passion for theology and art. I found myself thinking how theology ought not be something we’re scared of. Or reluctant to approach. It should be something that’s so ingrained in us that we cannot help but allow it to pour out of us, in whatever it is we’re doing.

And I stood there, smiling widely as the four of us talked over coffee and cookies.

Tea with Walter

That evening, I hopped on a bus and headed to North Oxford. To Walter’s home. He had invited me over after I sent him an e-mail Tuesday night. Sharing with him how I felt during the Lewis Society’s Annual General Meeting. How I was certain that, even if everyone in the room decided I was completely incompetent and unsuitable for my role as Society President, that he would stick up from me and stop them from throwing me out the window.

And so I made my way to his home this Sunday evening. To talk about the Society. And to catch up. I hadn’t been to his home since we had returned to Oxford, and I was excited to see him again.

Jen had decided to stay home, as the talk was likely to be more Society-business oriented than pure socializing. Next time we met, she would have to come, we both decided.

I got off the bus at the entrance to Woodstock Close, the lane that leads to Walter’s home, and made my way to his front door. I rang the doorbell and a few moments later I was greeted by his old familiar voice, “Well helloooo,” he said with his warm smile, which matched the warm air spilling out from his home into the cool hallway where I stood.

He took my coat and led me into the living room, where everything stood just as I remembered it. The tall greek statue in the corner of the room. Lewis’s bronze  head. The ivory-colored busts beside the fireplace. And Blessed Lucy of Narnia, Walter’s cat, asleep on the corner of the back of his couch. It was all perfect. And it was all just as I remembered.

Walter petted Lucy, making known my presence (“You see, Uncle Ryan has returned!”), and invited me to take a seat in the high, wing-backed chair where I always sit, as he sat opposite me on the couch.

“I must tell you,” Walter began as we took our seats, “when I read your e-mail the other day, I thought to myself, ‘Was he even there?'”

Walter when on to tell me that he thought I had done a wonderful job at the Society meeting this past week, and in overseeing the Annual General Meeting, particularly as I had never even attended an AGM, let alone lead one.

“You mustn’t be so hard on yourself,” Walter assured me in his kind, sympathetic voice. “You really do make a wonderful President.”

We went on to talk about many other things over tea and cookies, as Blessed Lucy of Narnia slept away in the warm living room. We talked about the history of the Society, we talked about books, and we talked, of course, about Lewis.

“What was it like being around Lewis?” I later asked Walter before taking a sip of hot tea. “I mean, there are many brilliant people here in Oxford, and it’s often very intimidating. Was it like that with Lewis?”

Walter’s eyebrows crunched together, nearly meeting in the center of his forehead, before he began to answer my question. I could tell he was thinking about my question.

“You know, he really was so kind,” Walter began. “When we would be in conversation with some of his friends, I would sometimes make a point, and then he would pick it up and run with it. And then, afterward, he would come back to me, as though I had said something quite brilliant, when clearly it was he who was the brilliant one.”

Walter paused, as if to travel back in time to the scene he was telling me about. The room fell quiet for a moment as he took in this memory. And then his eyes returned to me.

“Lewis once told me,” Walter continued, picking up the conversation, “The wisest among us are gentlest to the raw.”

I sat back in my chair with a smile. I loved that. There are enough brilliant people here in Oxford who know they’re brilliant, and who want to make sure you know it. And that can be a bit intimidating. And I loved to hear that Lewis wasn’t like that.

I loved to hear that, even though his brilliance could be as fierce as a lion, he did not allow it to be that way when it was inappropriate. Instead, he tamed it, so that what those of us less brilliant than himself experienced in being around him, including Walter, was not the razor sharp edge and brunt force of his brilliance in violent attack, but a gentleness that understood the difference, and was keen to not make others feel humiliated by it.

We talked for a bit longer. And we looked over some of the books from Walter’s library, including some copies of Kipling’s works. Some of the books had previously been a part of Albert Lewis’s personal library (Lewis’s father), before they became the possession of Lewis and his brother Warnie.

“Amazing,” I said aloud, as I flipped gently through the heavy pages of the old books.

I thanked Walter for his time and company as I took up my coat. I thanked him for encouraging me in my role as President. And I thanked him for an incredible afternoon.

And as I made my way across town back to the Kilns, and back to Jen, I was warmed, even in the cold night air, by this man’s friendship.

Fourth Week

Monday: Our Culturally Relevant Library

I made my way to the Harris Manchester library on Monday. On Halloween. I nearly forgot it was Halloween, that is until I entered the library and found the library skeleton waiting at the door to greet me.

I found Katrina, the librarian, sitting behind her computer. I pointed out the skeleton at the door with a laugh as I passed by her. She smiled. And laughed, quietly.

“Well it’s not me who does that, you know?” Katrina said in a voice just above a whisper. “It’s like that when I arrive in the morning, so it’s done after I leave. I do think it’s a good spot for it, though. It provides a nice welcome.”

“Yes, a skeleton… A very warm welcome!” I said with a laugh. Katrina laughed, too. “Well, I suppose it is Halloween, isn’t it?” I said.

Katrina looked off for a moment, to think, “I suppose it is, isn’t it? Well yes, we like to think we’re relevant to culture.”

I laughed.

“It was done subconsciously, you know,” she said with a smile as I waved goodbye and made my way upstairs to spend the day reading.

Halloween from the Kilns

I returned to the Kilns that night. Jen and I enjoyed dinner from the kitchen, just the two of us. And then Debbie joined us, talking as we finished our dinner. We nodding our heads as we chewed. And then the conversation moved to the common room, and soon Jonathan and David joined us.

And so there we sat, until nearly midnight. All of us gathered around in the common room. It was a wonderful, family-like atmosphere. It hardly felt like Halloween, though, for we didn’t receive a single trick-or-treater.

“If I were a kid in this neighborhood,” I said, “I would make sure to trick-or-treat at C.S. Lewis’s home.”

Heads nodded, and the conversation continued. Until, finally, one by one, we retreated to our bedrooms to turn in for the night.

Tuesday: Realizing I stole Alister McGrath’s seat

I returned to Harris Manchester on Tuesday, to get a bit of reading done before making my way to my Calvin tutorial. And I ran into Sue, the librarian, before hitting the wide, stone staircase that leads into the library.

I had attended a lecture in college the night before, before returning home. And Sue had been seating behind me. She made a comment as I sat down that I had stolen Alister McGrath‘s seat, which I shook off with a laugh, thinking she was just joking. (If you haven’t heard of Alister McGrath, he took a First in Chemistry here at Oxford in the 70’s, as an atheist, was converted to Christianity and then decided he wanted to study Theology, after a respectable career in the Sciences. He went on to take a First in Theology and now teaches around the world on Theology, and he writes more books than I am confident is physically possible for any one man). As it turns out, Sue wasn’t joking. I had, in fact, stolen Alister McGrath’s seat in the previous night’s lecture…

“Well thanks for pointing that out,” I told her, sarcastically. “I feel pretty good about myself now!”

“Oh, yes, you’re welcome,” she said in her warm British accent, with her squinty-eyed smile. Sue went on to tell me about a conversation she once had with Professor McGrath.

“I asked him once if he realized that wherever he goes people whisper, ‘There goes Alister McGrath…’ And he got all red in the cheeks and said, “Maybe… Yes.” He’s a very shy, very humble man, you know.”

“Better that way than the other, though, isn’t it?” I told her.

“Yes, he’s not interested in that, you know? Not at all. Unlike some.”

“Yes, I think that’s refreshing,” I told Sue. “A good reminder for us all, I think.”

“Indeed,” Sue said, before I told her ‘goodbye’ and made my way up to the library for another day’s worth of reading.

Wednesday: Talking with Dr Kennedy about Jesus

I presented my paper on Jesus’ identity to Dr Kennedy on Wednesday for my modern theology course. I had hurried to make it to his office on-time, cycling across Oxford’s city center from Harris Manchester as quickly as possible, and then hurrying up the narrow staircase to his room. From his third-story office, lined with book shelves filled to the brim with theology texts, I read my paper aloud. I was short of breath, from the ride, and so I struggled through the first bit, before finally catching my breath around 2,000 words into my essay, and then finishing up the second half of it at a much more comfortable pace.

We talked about how Jesus is said to be both “fully God, and fully man,” and whether or not this actually made any sense. Some theologians say it doesn’t, even though this is a long-held creed of the Christian faith. Others say it does. Still others say, whether it makes sense conceptually or not to us, that it remains true, even as it remains beyond our comprehension.

Dr Kennedy–or Philip, as he encourages me to call him–asked if I thought Jesus would agree with the many doctrines about Him that had been put to paper in the first several centuries following his death. If Jesus would agree with the way the Church has decided to talk about him.

I said “yes,” I did, only to be met with Philip’s eyes rising with a look of surprise behind his glasses. He told me he found it quite difficult to imagine.

“In principle,” I clarified. “Yes I do.”

He went on to talk about how many scholars propose the only way to know anything about Jesus is to observe his actions. Dr Kennedy told me this was the theory he followed most closely to.

“I remember growing up and being told you need to go to a good school, you need to work really hard and then you need to earn a great income,” Philip told me, with a voice that seemed to mock those who had told him this as a young boy. “And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t find this anywhere in the Gospels!'”

And it was on this point that I found myself agreeing with Philip. Wholeheartedly. And then, before I knew it, our hour together was up. It had completely flown by.

“It goes quickly,” Dr Kennedy said, acknowledging the time.

“Yes, especially when I’m reading a 4,000-word essay!” I said.

Dr Kennedy encouraged me not to tell others about my mean tutor who makes me read my 4,000-word essay aloud. I told him I took the blame for the long essay, as we made our way downstairs. He grabbed some notes from the printer and handed them to me, with some additional references to look at for our conversation, and for my preparations for final exams.

“Keep up the great work, Ryan,” Dr Kennedy told me with a warm smile from behind his glasses. “You’re doing very well.”

And I found myself frozen in that moment, as I stood there in the hallway of the Theology Faculty Department. Taken aback by the realization that, even as we agreed to disagree on this particular essay, my work was being praised by one of Oxford’s rather high-chaired theologians. And I was in awe.

“Thank you,” I told him in response, wearing what I’m sure was an ear-to-ear grin. “I’ll see you in two weeks’ time.”

“See you in two weeks’ time,” he replied. “If not sooner.”

Leaving the Theology Faculty Center on broad street, I hopped on my bike and ran a few errands around town. The sky was thick with cloud cover. Like a giant cotton ball duvet, laid over the entire skyline. Impenetrable, it seemed. The cool air was ruffled only by a slight wind, which echoed with a hollow sound in my ear as I rode. Like a seashell held to a child’s ear.

After my errands, I grabbed a sandwich from the Alternative Tuck Shop and sat down on one of the overstuffed, dark brown leather chairs in the JCR back at Harris Manchester to eat my lunch. It was 4:30, by this point, and it felt so good to stop long enough to catch my breath. And to grab a quick bite. But that feeling did not last long, as I quickly remembered I had agreed to read Scripture at Chapel that evening. The service began in an hour, which left me with just enough time to enjoy a cup of tea and respond to some e-mails. Back to the library I went, with a cup of tea in-hand…

Thursday: FBI security in the Bodleian Library

I needed to find a book in the Bodleian Library on Thursday. For one of my essays. I couldn’t find it anywhere else, and so I made my way to the Radcliffe Camera, one of my favorite buildings in Oxford.

The Bodleian Library is a very high-security place in Oxford. While visitors can see most of the colleges around Oxford during special “visiting hours,” the Bodleian is generally off-limits. As you make your way through the gate and across the footpath that leads between two sections of green lawn in front of the Radcliffe Camera, you’re greeted by little signs along the way, prohibiting certain activities. This sign reads, “No photos.” That sign reads, “No visitors.” And then, as you pass through the front door, you’re greeted by more signs. “No smoking” on this one. “No food” on that one.  “No making forts in the middle of the library with books and staging attacks on other book-forts…” Okay, I made that last one up, but all the rest of the signs can be found in bold letters.

It was the first time I had been in the Rad Cam since returning, and I was surprised by the new security system that was in place. After being cleared by the gentleman behind the front desk, who checked my student ID and my bag, I was surprised to find an electronic gate that had been installed. I tried to pass through it, only to be met by a blaring alarm that erupted in the otherwise silent library. I had not seen the electronic security access signs that told me to swipe my card, and, once again, I had made a fool of myself in the library.

I swiped my card and quickly passed through the space, doing my best to not be noticed as the guy who set off the alarm, and I made my way down the stairs that led into the library’s newest space: The Gladstone Link. It’s an underground space that was recently opened to allow for even more books to be viewed. I followed the staircase downstairs. The stairs and walls were built out of a light-colored stone, and I felt like I was walking into a museum exhibit. The stairs were lit from blue lights hidden under the handrail, which created a rather ominous setting. It was quiet, and I passed through several glass doors. As I continued down several flights of stairs, passing further and further underground, I felt like I was entering some sort of top-secret, underground FBI archives. Finally, I entered into a large, cavernous room, a basement of the basement, where my book was waiting for me, along with an afternoon of reading.

Friday: How a Good God Can Allow Bad Things To Happen

I spent most of Friday back in the Radcliffe Camera, plowing through several books and my essay on John Calvin, which was due that afternoon. I took a break at 1:00 to head to the Mitre Pub for a quick bite and a lecture that my friend Tom Price from RZIM was giving. It was on the topic of “How a good God can allow bad things to happen,” and I was looking forward to hearing how he addressed what I believe to be the most difficult question facing Christianity.

I ran into Tim from Harris Manchester at the talk, in the food line, as we filled up our plates before the talk. He told me he was heading north to Manchester for the weekend. For the Manchester United match. I thought that sounded pretty exciting, as Manchester United is one of the most famous sports teams in the world. I nearly told him I was going to celebrate the weekend by watching a giant, wooden effigy of a man burn in the park, but I didn’t. (Stay tuned for that story, by the way…)

Tom began his talk shortly after we took our seats. As we bit into our sandwiches, Tom reminded us that a man by the name of C.S. Lewis once frequented this room, “Where he used to eat his Sunday lunches,” Tom told us. My eyes got big as I chewed my sandwich.

Tom approached his talk with grace and sensitivity, which I appreciated. It’s a topic one can approach only with their intellect, and risk seeming cold and uncaring, particularly for those who’ve experienced deep amounts of pain and wonder how in the world a good God could allow such incredibly evil things to happen.

He began with a quote from Lewis, and the reason why Lewis believed this particular argument was one that prevented him and others from coming to God for so long:

If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”

He went on to talk about Steve Jobs, and how this very same argument turned Jobs away from God at a very young age. Tom went on to argue that, in a world where true beauty and true love exists, so too much choice (for, as he and others have argued, true love cannot exist without choice). He went on to point out how the Christian faith explains all of the badness we now experience as the cumulative result of our choice gone terribly wrong, generation after generation after generation.

Tom made several other points in his talk. And he went to say that, for many of us, it is only in our experiences of pain and suffering that we realize our need for God.

“Take that away,” he explained, “And most of us will go on thinking we can make our way through life without any need for Him.”

And I thought that point was interesting. It was one I had heard before, but for some reason, hearing it made on this particular occasion caused me stop and think, even as Tom continued his talk.

I found myself remembering an article I once read about a very rare disorder in which some people are born without the ability to feel pain. The article told about those with this disorder who would put their hand on a hot burner without realizing it was actually on, only to be alerted to the fact of their injury by the smell of their burning flesh. It told of others who had broken a bone in their leg, without realizing it, only to go on walking as if everything was normal, all the while their injury was getting worse and worse and worse, putting the individual at great danger.

The article explained that, while the idea of living life without pain may sound like a great blessing, at first, it actually comes at a great price for those who experience this incredibly rare disorder. Many who have it experience worse injuries than they would otherwise, because the sting of pain that most of us feel–pain which is there to warn us of even greater injury–passes them by, and they go on hurting themselves even more than they normally would, often times without even realizing it.

And I thought this was applicable to the point Tom was now making, as he talked about how often times it’s only the pain and suffering we experience in this world that leads us to God. Were we not to experience the painful consequences of our life choices, we would likely continue down the same painful road, completely unaware of just how bad things were getting. We would continue to journey further and further away from Him, further into greater and greater darkness, without realizing it.

But, thankfully, we do feel pain. We do feel the brunt force of suffering. In fact, we all have this shared sense that things simply aren’t how they are supposed to be. That things have gone painfully wrong. And that we need something to make it right. That we need something to make us right.

I was chewing on this thought when I was rushed back to the conversation at hand in the upstairs room at the Mitre Pub at the mention of C.S. Lewis’s name, who was once again being quoted by Tom. It was a quote I was fondly familiar with. A quote from the book Mere Christianity. The very same book that had caused me to look into Theology and Oxford in the first place.

‘If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong?’ For many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question…My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish could not feel wet.”

That was the thought I found myself chewing on even as I left Tom’s talk that afternoon. That this very awareness of pain and suffering in the world–the feeling I hate so much, the overwhelming feeling that brings tears to my eyes and stops me dead in my tracks with not a moment’s notice–it all points me to Him. This sense of right and wrong and justice must come from outside of this world, for this world, as long as we have known it, has always been broken.

A broken down world cannot recognize its own brokenness, not if that’s what it has always known. No, it takes something that is not broken, something that remains outside of this brokenness, to properly recognize the current state of affairs as broken. This point causes us to look outside our world, beyond our world, to a God who is, Himself, the opposite of this brokenness. Who is, indeed, just and good, where here we seem to experience only the opposite. Indeed, it appears, our innate sense that things simply are not as they ought to be and frustration at this truth, far from causing us to turn our backs on God, causes us to turn toward Him, knowing that if it weren’t for Him and for His goodness, we wouldn’t feel this way in the first place.

I made my way back to the Radcliffe Camera and back to my essay, even as I continued to think about this. I climbed up the spiral, stone staircase leading into the upstairs half of the Rad Cam as my mind continued to walk through Tom’s talk, and it came to land on another quote made in this afternoon’s talk. It was a quote from an American Philosopher by the name of Alvin Plantinga. A highly respected academic who teaches at The University of Notre Dame. It was Plantinga who once said, in consideration of this question of suffering and pain and evil, and how it all works in light of the good, loving, powerful God of Christianity, “The chief difference between Christianity and other theistic religions, lies just here: according to the Christian gospel, God is willing to enter into the sufferings of his creatures, in order to redeem them and his world.”

And I thought that was beautiful. Not because it answered all my questions, but because it reminded me of the God we worship. Even in light of such insurmountable pain and suffering. Even amidst the kind of grief and sorrow that seems to steal all one’s joy, we worship a God who not only has a plan to overcome the darkness, but who has already enacted that plan, and who is redeeming our broken story from the inside out, through Himself. Through His Son. And through the greatest sacrifice the world has ever known.

Back to the Rad Cam

I continued to think about this as I passed through the second story doorway of the Radcliffe Camera, and I gazed upward at the giant dome-ceiling, which rises more than 100-feet in the air as I made my way into the library.

The upstairs of the Rad Cam is home to thousands and thousands of the Bodleian’s history books. It has two stories, with an open-air second floor. It’s unbelievable, really, that it’s a library. It’s beautiful enough to be the kind of chapel you’d find in Rome. The ceiling is incredibly ornate, and it reminded me of many of the structures we saw on our trip to Italy and France last spring.

But instead of prayer and hymns, the room is home to books and students and desks. I took my seat at an old wooden desk toward the back of the library and continued plugging away on my essay. I hit “Submit” on my laptop at 5:01, and I fired off a few e-mails before leaving the Rad Cam and making my way down the lane to a nearby restaurant for my date night with Jen.

Greeted by that smile that first captured my heart more than 10 years ago, I was thankful to have my work done for the week, and to be able to enjoy this time together. Alone to our thoughts. Alone to our conversation. It was, as it always is, the highlight of my week, even in such an incredible place as this.

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