Archives for category: Theology

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: 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 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.

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.

Wednesday: End of the term review & Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A miraculous coincidence at the Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Dinner and Games with the St. Andrews group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would our parents believe it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Last day of Greek & a plant for Rhona

Friday (March 4) was my last day of Greek. The rest of the class would be taking their Greek prelims the following Tuesday, but not me (since I’m a senior status student, and a year ahead of everyone else in the class, apart from Lyndon). I was just there for the fun of it.

I talked with Emily a bit before class started. Asking her how she was feeling about prelims (the exams Oxford students take at the end of their first year). She looked a bit tired, and I think she was feeling that way, too.

She said she was feeling okay about it, but that she also had another exam for prelims. In addition to Greek. She told me Tariq (the medical doctor who decided to come back and study Theology, without telling his family) actually had three exams that week, including two three-hour exams on Saturday.

“Oh, wow…” I said to her. “Well, if anyone can handle that, it’s Tariq.”

“Indeed,” she said, eyes turning to Rhona as Rhona looked to gather the class’ attention to the front of the room.

Since it was our last day of Greek, Emily had decided to get a “Thank you” card and a small plant for Rhona. From the class. We passed the card around the room while Rhona spoke. So that she couldn’t see. Signing a short note of thanks. And our names.

Just before Rhona could send us off and conclude class, Emily spoke up and told her we had something we’d like to give her. To tell her thanks.

She looked totally surprised by the gifts. And grateful for the thought. She unwrapped the plant. A hydrangea. And her eyes got big.

“Oh, how lovely, a hydrangea,” she said, holding the plant up in her hands and looking at it.

Then, turning toward us, she said, “That comes from the Greek word udor! Which means…”

“Water…”, said several of those in the class, finishing her sentence in tired voices.

Same old Rhona. Always bringing everything back to Greek. She’s a bit like the father from the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in that way. The guy who is always wanting to teach people how the root-word of our English words come from Greek. The same guy who sprays Windex to fix everything, from cuts to zits.

I was walking back to Harris Manchester after Greek. With Emily. To wrap up my second of two essays due that week. For Patristics. When a girl on a bike let out a scream. She was riding toward us just as a blind man was crossing the street, swinging his cane as he tried to cross. She nearly ran into him, uncertain of whether he was going to cross or not.

We continued walking, but slowly, hesitantly, and stopping every few feet to look back and watch this man attempt to cross the street. To make sure he was okay. After a minute or so of this, I turned around and went back. To offer to help him cross. We weren’t on a busy street, it’s actually only for pedestrians. But there does tend to be a bit of bike traffic, and I felt horrible watching him try to cross without hitting anyone. Or being hit.

I walked up beside him and introduced myself. I told him I was happy to lend a hand if he was wanting to cross the street. He was a young guy. Maybe in his mid-20’s. I raised my arm so he could take a hold of it and we crossed, making sure no bicyclists were coming.

When we got to the other side, I asked him if he knew where he was going. And if he’d be able to find his way okay from here. He told me he could. So I said “goodbye” and returned to the other side of the street. Looking back over my shoulder, he still seemed to be struggling. He was walking slowly, and using his hands to feel the front of the buildings as he went. Touching each door to help orient himself. My heart went out to the guy. Apparently Emily’s did, too.

After walking ten feet or so, Emily turned around and said she was going to see if she couldn’t help him find wherever it was he was heading.

I watched as she did. Looking back over my shoulder as I walked down the street. Coming to the intersection where I had to turn the corner to head toward Harris Manchester, I looked back one last time to try and get Emily’s attention. To let her know I was continuing on to HMC. But she didn’t look. She was too engaged in conversation with this guy who she was walking with. Only taking her eyes off of him to look down at her feet and his, so as to make sure he didn’t trip up. Nothing at that point was more important to her than this conversation.

And I was so proud. Proud to have a friend with such a big heart.

I like it when God puts people like that in my life, I thought to myself as I rounded the corner and made my way to Harris Manchester. People who care so much about others. It reminds me not to be so focused on myself that I miss opportunities to serve others.

Napping in the Oriel courtyard

Seventh week was a very busy week for me. I had my last Old Testament essay due on Thursday evening, and my Patristics essay due Friday at 2:00. From Wednesday to Friday, I ended up punching out about 8,000 words worth of essays. On top of tackling each tutorial’s reading list (between 10 and 20 books each). Needless to say, by the time it came time to present my papers, I was beat.

I made it through Patristics okay, but then, immediately following that tutorial, I had to turn around and head to my Old Testament tutorial. I didn’t know if I had anything left in me. By the time you get to the end of the term here, you really do feel like you’re going to collapse.

I left the Theology Faculty Library, where my Patristics tutorial is held, and rode my bike toward Oriel College. To meet with my Old Testament tutor. To present my paper. I wasn’t supposed to be presenting this week. I have another guy in my tutorial, and so we rotate weeks. Switching off between who presents their paper each time we meet. But, just after turning in my paper that Thursday evening, I received an e-mail from Dave, my academic supervisor, letting me know the other guy in my class had dropped the course. And that I’d be presenting my paper.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself.

I arrived at Oriel a few minutes early. Looking into the window of where we meet, I could see my tutor, Casey, was still meeting with Emily, who has her tutorial just before mine.

Looking around the courtyard where I stood, I found a seat and took advantage of a few spare minutes to catch my breath. The first opportunity in several days, it seemed.

I sat down heavily, allowing my body to sink into the wooden chair. Fully enjoying the brief break from what felt like a frantic pace.

It was a  beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon, and my eyes wandered around the courtyard as I waited for Emily’s tutorial to wrap up. Taking in the tall, apartment-looking buildings that reached high into the blue sky overhead.

…And a metal spiral staircase that spun and spun before arriving at a room somewhere on the next story.

A handful of construction workers were cleaning up from the workday from the scaffolding of a building to my right. I listened to their conversation for a few minutes before leaning my head backwards to rest against the wooden chair, and closing my eyes, to get some rest before my Old Testament tutorial began.

I drifted off into something of a light sleep, and it was only when I overhead Emily and Casey asking each other if they should wake me that I realized what had happened. I quickly raised my head and threw open my eyes. Smiling at them both.

“How’re you doing?” Casey asked.

“Tired,” I replied, as we walked down the few concrete steps that lead into the room where we meet. “Looking forward to the weekend to catch up on some rest.”

I breathed a sigh of relief when Casey told me he wouldn’t have me present my paper. Recognizing it wasn’t my turn to present, and it hardly seemed fair to make me do so just because my classmate dropped the course.

Instead, we talked through the topic (1 and 2 Chronicles) together, and we scheduled a time to meet one last time. For a bit of an Old Testament history recap, which would help me prepare for my collections (testing) before the start of the next term.

Walking home that night, with Jen. After grabbing dinner in the city center. I was thankful to have made it through the week. And to have everything turned in. It would be my last week of essays for the term, and I was officially ready to collapse.

Monday: hands&feet in the mail and a Birthday tour of the Kilns

The doorbell rang Monday morning, shortly after I woke. As if to signal the start of another week.

It was the mail. The only time the doorbell is rung by the mailman is when a package needs to be signed for. So I was excited. To see what had come from home.

Signing for the box, and thanking the mailman, I took the package into the living room and wasted no time in opening it. It was from my Grandpa.

And, for perhaps the first time, he wasn’t sending us granola bars or cereal.

This time, he was sending us books. My book, hands&feet. 15 copies.

They had just rolled off the printer back home. And I was excited to see them.

It was actually the second edition of my book. A couple summer’s ago, my best friend Steve published my writing at hands&feet as a birthday present. I was blown away… A year later, I decided to add the rest of my writing, which I had written since this first printing, and republish the book in a second edition.

The book includes everything from when I first wrote about how we tend to treat the Cross like a Member’s Only jacket, more than three years ago now, to telling the story that led up to us leaving home and making this journey to England.

It took about eight months from the time I first started laying out the second edition to the time it rolled off the printers. Working on editing and layout while on vacation at a house on the Hood Canal back in Washington last summer. And while working on my schoolwork here. So I was pretty excited to finally see it in print. To hold it in my hands and flip through its pages. All 294 pages worth.

If you’re interested in a copy, let me know. I have some here in Oxford, and apparently there’s still some left back home. I’d be happy to get you one.

A birthday Kilns tour

I had a tour of the Kilns scheduled for that afternoon. Deb asked me the weekend before if I’d be willing and available to help out. There were only three people in the group, but this type of tour would be a first for her.

Two parents from Houston had gotten a hold of Deb to request a tour of the Kilns that week. They were touring around England with their son, Kirk, and they were traveling to see the Kilns for his birthday present. Kirk just turned 15. And he’s a huge C.S. Lewis fan.

What made this tour a first for Debbie, though, is that Kirk is in a wheelchair (because of his Cerebral Palsy). And so, getting around the house might be a bit of a trick, she thought. Deb let them know upfront that not every part of the house would be wheelchair accessible, including Lewis’ bedroom upstairs, but that we’d be happy to show them around as much as we could. They understood, and they were all for seeing as much as possible.

I arrived just before Kirk and his parents were scheduled to start their tour that afternoon. And I helped Deb with a few last minute things before they arrived.

Deb welcomed the three of them at the door, and I greeted them from the front of the house, in the common room. After telling them a bit about myself, I showed them around the house, pointing out photos of Lewis along the way. And sharing stories. And they loved it. I could tell they were fans of Lewis. And they were well read. Christine’s eyes would get big at different points along the tour, and Kirk would raise his head to look at the photos as I pointed them out.

Robin, Kirk’s father, and Christine, his mom, took turns pushing Kirk’s wheelchair, and making the sharp turns around the corners. English homes are tight as it is; they really aren’t wheelchair friendly in the least. But Robin and Christine were great. And they made sure Kirk was able to enjoy as much of it as possible. Christine told me he was a big fan of the Chronicles of Narnia series. A wide grin spread across Kirk’s face, confirming the point.

It was a really nice day out, and so we took a walk up to the pond behind Lewis’ home after finishing the tour inside the Kilns. I warned them that the trail might be a bit muddy from the rain we had over the weekend, but they were all for it.

And it was beautiful. Several ducks were swimming on the waters. As well as two beautiful, large geese. I pointed out the bomb shelter Lewis had built at the far end of the pond during the second World War. And Christine had Robin take her photo in front of it. We stopped at the edge of the pond, to take in the view. It really was incredibly beautiful.

Christine turned to me slightly and said, “I think you have a pretty good deal here, Ryan.”

“Yeah, I really do,” I told her. “It’s nothing less than a dream come true.”

We walked to the other end of the pond, where Lewis used to sit, and I pointed out the brick bench that had been uncovered only within the past decade or so.

I told them how Lewis used to swim in the pond. And paddle his punt around it. I told them being up here, surrounded by the trees, and by the water, made me feel like I was back home.

They asked about where I live. And about the hiking, in particular. I told them my Dad actually lives in Texas, and that we had gone on a nice hike there one time. On this huge rock out in the middle of the desert.

“It was near this small German town that I can’t recall the name of right now,” I told them.

“Fredericksburg!” they both said in unison, with great excitement.

“Yeah, that’s the place.”

Apparently that’s where they went for their honeymoon. After deciding against the UK.

“We had a great time just camping out and hiking,” they told me. “And we still got our trip to the UK.”

We made our way back to the Kilns, so they could say goodbye to Deb. And thank her for making all the arrangements.

Kirk and Robin and I waited outside, in front of the house, while Christine went to find Deb inside. I squatted down beside Kirk’s wheelchair as we talked, and Robin asked me about my time in Oxford so far. They told me how they had visited a church while they were in Scotland, and how they were surprised to find it so empty. They asked about my experience with the church here, and I had told them there were a lot of empty churches around the UK, unfortunately, but that we had found a wonderful community to worship with here in Oxford.

Deb and Christine came walking through the front door a few minutes later, greeting us in front of the house. And Christine asked if she could take a photo of Deb and I with Kirk. I told her I thought that was a great idea.

I always feel incredibly happy after finishing a tour of the Kilns. Incredibly fortunate and blessed for all of this experience. But that was particularly true after finishing this tour. After seeing the love Robin & Christine had for their son, Kirk. And the lengths they went to show him their love, in celebration of his 15th birthday.

Happy birthday, Kirk. It was a pleasure to meet you and your family, and to introduce you to CS Lewis’ old home for your birthday.

Tuesday: Celebrating Walter’s 80th birthday

I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing this with you, but Walter is celebrating his 80th birthday at the end of this month. I was excited to hear that the Oxford University CS Lewis Society was throwing him a birthday party to celebrate, and that we were invited to join in on the celebration.

The party was held on Tuesday evening of 8th Week, the last night of the Society’s gathering for the term. At a church on the edge of Oxford’s city center. Where Walter attends. Just down the street from the Eagle & Child.

The room was full when we walked in. Lots of men dressed in suits and ties, and women in dresses. Wine in hand. Talking. Laughing. And smiling. I recognized several people, and I immediately spotted Walter, surrounded by what looked to be a group of friends around his age.

We were greeted by David as we entered. Current President of the Society. He told us to help ourselves to some food and wine. And that they’d be giving Walter his presents shortly.

Walter made his way over to us before we had a chance to approach the food table. And I was glad he did. Jennifer and I had just been over to his house that Sunday afternoon. For tea. And I had asked him how he was feeling about the upcoming celebration. He told me he was dreading it. He told me he didn’t feel worthy of any of it. And I assured him he more than deserved it.

As part of the celebration, two former Oxford CS Lewis Society Presidents had taken it upon themselves to put together a festschrift in his honor. A compilation of essays on the topic of Lewis and the Church. And they would be unveiling it for the first time at the party.

I had told Walter that it was due in large part to his more than 40 years of work that so many people around the world had been introduced to Lewis’ writings. He reminded me Lewis thought his books would die off and be forgotten about 10 years after he passed away. But Walter had told him they wouldn’t. He told Lewis people were too smart and his writing too good for that to happen. He was right.

Walter met Jen and I with a large hug that evening. We told him happy birthday (even though technically his birthday wasn’t until later that month), and that it looked like a wonderful party. He agreed. He told us he was happy to see so many people turn out. Including his good friend Priscilla Tolkein, J.R.R. Tolkein’s only daughter.

We let Walter continue his way around the room, and Jen and I said “hi” to a few more people before the gifts were opened. Including Cole, dressed in a full suit and tie, and wearing a large smile. I told him they had done a great job putting the party together, and that it looked like a success.

Shortly after that, David rapped a wine glass with a spoon several times to quiet the room, and to gather everyone’s attention. He told the room we would now be officially starting the celebration, and that Michael Ward had a few words to say in Walter’s honor.

Michael had been standing behind the bar going over what looked like notes for his speech in his hands when we arrived. And he was now standing at the front of the room to deliver a speech in honor of Walter’s birthday.

He did a wonderful job. He told about the time Walter first met Lewis, and how Lewis had led him to the “bathroom” (a room with just that, a bathtub, and only a bathtub) after Walter had asked for the bathroom, knowing full well Walter was really in need of a toilet. And how, after Walter finally got up the courage to return to the common room to explain the miscommunication to Lewis, how Lewis replied, “Ah… Well that will cure you of those useless American euphemisms!”

Even though most everyone there that night had heard the familiar story before, laughter filled the room. Michael told the room that if it weren’t for that practical joke, and the breaking of the ice in that way, Walter and Lewis may not have become so close, and Walter might not have become so involved in helping share Lewis’ writing with others. Something everyone in the room, and people around the world, have benefited from.

After Michael’s speech, he introduced the festscrhift, and he also handed over a large, gift-wrapped present for Walter to open. Walter tore the brown paper from the gift and stared intently at it as the paper fell to the floor. It was a painting. From a scene in Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce. The scene in which Lewis meets his literary mentor George McDonald (a man who Lewis never met in real life, but who influenced Lewis’ writing tremendously).

Michael explained how Lewis was quick to admit that he was forever indebted to McDonald’s writing, and that there wasn’t any book of his in which he didn’t either directly or indirectly quote McDonald. Michael explained how, just as Lewis benefited from McDonald’s work, Walter benefited from Lewis’ work, and largely because of Walter’s work, so have we.

When Michael had finished, and after Walter had the opportunity to take in this painting, he turned to the room with a look of seriousness on his face. You could tell Walter’s not one who likes the spotlight, but you could also tell he was incredibly grateful for the kind words, and for the gift.

“If you’ll permit me this once,” he spoke to the room, in that soft voice of his, “I’d like to compare myself to Lewis’ character of Aslan.”

I know Walter, and I’ve always known him to be an incredibly humble man. And so, this comparison struck me as odd. But he continued.

“You may recall, in the book Prince Caspian, Reepicheep has just lost his tail. And the other mice are standing at his side, waiting to cut off their own tails as a way to honor him. And when Aslan sees this love Reepicheep’s fellow mice have for him, he responds by saying, ‘You have conquered me.'”

“And that is how I feel at this moment,” he continued, looking around the room, with a warm look of sincerity. “You all have conquered me.”

The room erupted with the sound of clapping, and I was so proud and grateful to have been invited to join in on the celebration that evening. The celebration of a life well-lived.

Tuesday: Nietsche for breakfast and “Think Week”

Tuesdays have been my lecture days this term. Which means I spend a good chunk of each Tuesday in the Exam Schools (where all the lectures are held). I start off with God, Christ & Salvation at 9:00. Then I have Historical Jesus at 11:00. And I wrap things up with Intro to Paul at 12:00.

For the most part, I’ve really been enjoying my lectures this term. Apart from God, Christ & Salvation, I suppose. The lecture is being taught by a Professor from Christ Church. His hair is salt and pepper speckled, and worn short. He has a shortly shaved dark beard and he likes to wear black. A lot of it. Black turtle necks. Black pants. And a black leather jacket. He often stares off into a corner of the large lecture hall as he talks, as if he’s speaking to someone suspended 20-feet off the floor in a chair fastened to the back wall.

His specialty is modern theology, so most of our time is spent focusing on guys like Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietsche. Guys I’m not too excited about. Guys whose writing is just way too dark for a 9:00 lecture. Lots of “God is dead” talk. It’s a bit like starting your day with a bowl full of cereal only to find your cereal has been replaced by nails.

My second lecture of the day, The Historical Jesus, is a bit better. Three professors rotate throughout the term, taking turns to present and pose questions each time. One professor speaks for 45 to 50 minutes or so, and then one of the other professors poses follow-up questions for another five to 10 minutes. The talks are on a wide range of topics, including everything from miracle accounts in the gospels to early church practices, and they’re all centered around the question of what these things tell us about who those in the very early church believed Jesus to be. As well as who He thought Himself to be.

I love the format, where one professor puts another professor on the spot and poses response questions based on the talk that was just given. They’re always incredibly cordial about it (as is the English way), starting off by saying something along the lines of, “Well, I think Professor ________ did a great job of covering this topic, and I’m not sure I’d have much else to add,” before posing their response, which typically includes a lot of points I just wouldn’t have thought of from the lecture. It’s great.

I ran into Dave Lincicum Tuesday morning before the start of the lecture. Dave’s my academic supervisor, and he also taught my Gospels & Jesus tutorial last term. In the castle. Dave’s a great guy. He’s an American, and young. In his early 30’s, I guess. He and his wife had their first daughter last summer. And he’s soft-spoken, in a way that makes it seems like he’s really genuinely a nice guy. He’s a part of this three-person Historical Jesus lecture, as well.

He asked how things were going for me, as we hadn’t talked much since I first arrived back in Oxford. He told me he had just recently ran into my tutor (“Professor”) for my God & Israel in the Old Testament tutorial. Dave told me that my Old Testament tutor was really happy with my work, and that he told Dave it seems I’ve hit my stride in my essays.

I raised my eyebrows a bit.

“Oh wow. Well, that’s good to hear,” I told Dave.

“Yeah, yeah it is,” he said with a smile.

We chatted for a few more minutes. Commenting on the large, 10-foot tall paintings that seem to stare you down from the Exam Schools lecture halls. Dave asked how Jen was settling in. And then we took our seats for the lecture.

Think Week

The week Jennifer returned here to Oxford was the fifth week of the term, which has come to be a big week for Christian Societies on campus. Christian speakers are invited to come and speak during lunch and evening sessions throughout the week. On a wide range of topics.

I went to a lunch-time talk that Monday before Jennifer arrived that was titled, “Happy as I Am: Who needs God anyway?” I thought it was a great topic, and an equally great talk. Michael Ramsden was the speaker. The same guy who spoke at the Christmas Carol service Jen and I attended last term. He does a really good job of approaching these kind of questions in a logical, well thought out way that just makes sense. And he uses analogies well, which goes a long way in my book. I’ve really enjoyed listening to him whenever I have a chance.

Following on the coat-tails of these fifth-week talks, though, is what’s been given the title, “Think Week” (at least, that’s the title used this year). Think Week takes place the following week, during sixth week, and it’s a week’s worth of speakers organized by the Atheist Society. The speakers present on topics of similar nature to the previous week, but from a decidedly different standpoint.

One of the big speakers for the week is Richard Dawkins, a celebrity of sorts for those in the atheist camp. Max and Rich had picked up some tickets for his Tuesday evening talk, and they invited me to go along with them to the event.

Knowing it would be a popular talk, we arrived a bit early and waited in a short line in front of the Exam Schools. It was a cold night, and we could see our breath as we talked while waiting for the doors to open. By the time the doors opened, the front of the line had swelled, and we wondered if it had actually grown wider than it had longer.

We made our way through the twists and turns of the Exam Schools hallways, up the stone stairways, with those large portraits staring down at us, and we found a row of open seats in the large lecture room. The room quickly filled with people being ushered in and those in charge played with the microphones and monitors as they did.

I joked with Max about the name of the week, “Think Week.” It’s a bit pretentious, I thought.

“I go to church,” I joked with him, sarcastically, “so I don’t need to worry about ‘thinking.'”

The evening’s talk was being shared by another professor. A member of the Philosophy department. He had long white hair pulled back, and his eyes looked small behind his glasses. He was very well dressed and held his hands folded in is lap as people took their seats. Dawkins didn’t look quite as careful about his attire as this other man did. In a way, I guess Dawkins looked more Oxford. His tweed jacket a bit more worn, perhaps. Dawkins’ large, high-arching eyebrows almost looked menacing as he looked around at the audience from his chair at the front of the room. And I wondered if that was intentional.

Dawkins used to be a professor. A biologist, I believe. But then he decided to step away from academics to focus on his writing, if I’m not mistaken. His premise is that Science has basically shown that there’s no need for any belief in God, and that anyone who holds to such faith is simply outdated. I recently heard he wanted to get rid of Theology as an area of study at Oxford entirely, which I thought was pretty funny.

The evening’s talk was about whether or not there would be anything that would cause these two men (both devout Atheists) to believe in the supernatural. Whether or not they might deem any experience worthy of being called a miracle. Since they’re both on the same side of the argument, I thought this would be an interesting talk.

“It’s certainly not going to be much of a debate,” I spoke to Max before it began.

Dawkins acted as moderator for the talk, as well as participant, and so he would often play the role of devil’s advocate (or, in this case, God’s advocate?) for the conversation. Interjecting questions at points that seemed to support the view one from a religious background might hold.

“Well, what about this case?” he would ask, turning the conversation over to the Philosophy professor to respond. Setting him up, so to speak. Then Dawkins would agree. Make a point. And they’d move on.

I was a bit underwhelmed, to be honest. They basically concluded that no, there was nothing that would lead either of them to conclude that a supernatural, miraculous event had ever taken place. Not ever.

They jokingly referred to an example of a 50-foot tall Jesus walking over the English countryside, which, even then would not persuade them to believe in the supernatural. If such an act were to occur, not necessarily a 50-feet Jesus but anything that someone might want to label as a miracle, there would simply be a shift in the scientific model and then they would have an explanation for the event, they explained.

I was less than satisfied with the response. Perhaps I’m not giving the argument fair representation. And, if that’s the case, then it’s due merely to my own ability to listen, recall or comprehend what was being said. But I just remember feeling like the discussion was lazy, and not well thought through. Or even discussed, for that matter.

I enjoyed the question and answer period a bit more, though. I thought there were some interesting questions asked. One man, in particular, told a story, rather than a question. He didn’t come right out and say it, but, from the way he began, it didn’t appear that he or his family were believers. He told a story, though, about his father. Who he explicitly said was not a believer.

Speaking into a microphone that had been handed to him, he told the room, and Dawkins in particular, about a time when his father was driving home one evening. He told us how, while driving, his father first saw a man’s face appear to him, and then he heard him speak directly to him. He was so struck by this experience that he had to pull his car over to the side of the road. When this man’s father returned home that night, he told us he didn’t want to talk with anyone. That he appeared really shaken up. Finally, after some coercion, he talked with his wife and son. Explaining to them what had happened.

Someone in the audience asked the man telling the story who his father had seen that night, on his drive home.

“Well,” he said, “it was Jesus.”

There was some muffled laughter in the room. And talking.

He appeared to want to bring this to Dawkins to get his take on it. Almost as if to ask, “Obviously we don’t believe in this stuff, but what do we do with that?”

Dawkins was completely unfazed, though. I had been watching him as the man was telling his story, and Dawkins looked like he thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

After this man finished speaking, Dawkins simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Thanks for the story. Next question?”

That seemed a bit disrespectful to me. That’s not to say I didn’t think this story was pretty far out there. But he had a genuine question, and I really felt like he was a fan of Dawkins, and Dawkins simply brushed him off. He seemed like a rather unhappy man to me. Dawkins, that is.

Several other questions were asked over the next half hour or so. One of those was from a girl in the front of the room. She was asking about the psychological nature of faith, and whether certain people are predisposed to put their faith in such belief systems. Whether they have some innate need to believe such things, whereas others are more critical and do not need such belief systems. She pointed out that she had been raised in a very conservative Christian household. That everyone in her family were Christians. But that she was the first to step out and be an Atheist.

It was at this point that a man seated just a few rows to my right shouted out, “Congratulations!” The room filled with applause. And Dawkins and the philosopher in the front of the room joined in. It was one of the few times I remember seeing Dawkins smile that night.

I said goodbye to Max and Rich as we walked out of the Exam Schools that night, hopped on my bike and rode home in the cool night air. Jennifer had stayed home that night, not caring to go and listen to the talk. When I got in, I shared a bit about the evening with her. I shared the story of this man whose father had claimed to see Jesus on his drive home, and I shared the story about this girl who was the first to become an atheist from her family. And how the room had congratulated her with a long round of applause.

And it was only after sharing this with Jen that I realized the depth of what had just happened. And it struck me.

“If we really believe this stuff,” I told Jen, “and if this girl really is saying she doesn’t want anything to do with God or with His Son, then that room was celebrating something that could have eternal consequences for this girl’s soul.”

“Yep,” Jen said, seated on the couch across the living room from me, while I heated up some leftovers in the kitchen.

Jen’s so black-and-white. This was a no-brainer for her. But for me, things like that take a bit longer to compute. And I was left in painful awe of the “celebration” I had sat in that evening. It was an incredibly dark and sad experience. And the only thing that brought me comfort, at that moment, was to pray for that girl.

Wednesday: A humbling quiz and helping a Brit

I started Wednesday off with a Greek vocab quiz. As I often do. And it kicked my butt. Flat out. I’ve been doing well on grammar this term, but vocab is another matter. We’re being tested on vocab at random at this point, from all of the vocab we’ve learned so far (something over 300 words), and I’ve just been neglecting my vocab, focusing more on translation of our Greek text (some from John’s Gospel, some from Mark). So, when it comes to our vocab quizzes, I’ve been getting my teeth kicked in.

I was a bit humbled by the experience Wednesday morning. Staring down the list of 30 or so Greek terms and only being able to translate a handful from the top of my head. But I think it’s good to be humbled like that every once in a while. I think it’s good to light the fire under us a bit. I left class that morning knowing I needed to spend some more time on my vocab.

I was walking with a young guy after Greek that morning. By the name of Tim. He’s been feeling pretty overwhelmed by the Greek. Everyone is, at this point, I think, but he was feeling particularly so. He was telling me he’s jealous I don’t have to take the Preliminary Exams everyone else (apart from Lyndon) had to take, since I’m a Senior Status student (starting in year two of the three year program). Everyone else has to pass this exam before they can move on, so they’re feeling a bit stressed out at the moment.

He asked me a bit about my background as we walked through the Exam Schools hallways. And why I was studying theology.

I told him how I had been working in business before. In marketing and public relations. For about four years. And how, at the time, I was also reading and writing about theology. And how I finally came to the realization that I didn’t know many people in my field who were doing that. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who was doing that.

He laughed.

“And so,” I told him, “I figured, it probably makes more sense for me to be studying theology. And so here I am.”

It was a wet morning that day. Not necessarily because of heavy rain, but more because it seemed like there was just a heavy mist lingering in the city. Biking through the city center after picking up a book from the Theology Faculty Library, it felt like one of those mornings where you wake up after camping and everything and everyone is just wet.

I was planning on getting some reading done that day. For my two essays that were due later in the week. From the library at Harris Manchester. Two women were standing at the foot of the stone staircase leading up to the library, speaking  french to one another as I passed by.

There was something I needed to print off for the week, and so I took a seat at one of the PCs in the middle of the library. Jamie, one of the other students here at Harris Manchester, the guy who went rock climbing across the US years ago, and who made a stop over in Port Angeles, was working across from me. He seemed to be stuck on something, as he asked how familiar I was with Word Processor.

Having a look over his shoulder, he told me he was trying to put a line over a title on the page, but he didn’t know how.

“Ah, okay. Well, let’s see if this does the trick,” I said, holding down shift and using the underscore key several times. “Does that work?”

“Yeah, that’s great,” he said, turning to me with a smile. “Thanks!”

It was good to actually be able to help a native Brit with something here. To feel like I actually know something and can be of help. I feel like 99.9% of the time it’s the other way around.

Thursday: A sundrenched lunch and our “interview” at the Kilns

While Wedesday was a damp day in Oxford, Thursday more than made up for it. We woke up to a sunny, blue sky day. And not just a cold, dry, winter kind of sunny day. But the warm kind. The kind that seems to say, “Spring is coming. It’s not quite here, but it is coming.”

I met Jennifer at the Alternative Tuck Shop for lunch, after reading in the Harris Manchester Library for a while. We grabbed two paninis and walked around the corner to Harris Manchester. It was a beautiful day, and so we decided to enjoy our sandwiches from just inside the college gate. On the benches that sit beneath a large oak tree just outside the college chapel. It was wonderful, sitting there, talking with Jen, enjoying a hot from the grill chicken pesto panini in the sun.

After lunch, we made the short walk to High Street and waited for the bus. The number nine. Which would take us out to the Kilns. Deb had a tour scheduled, and so she thought that would be the perfect opportunity for me to shadow her before leading my own tours, as well as for us to talk a bit about getting Jen’s help there at the Kilns. She invited us to stay after the tour to talk a bit about the jobs over tea. The Pembertons aren’t ones to turn down tea at the Kilns.

It’s a short bus ride from the Oxford city center to the Kilns. Maybe 15 minutes. And just a short walk once the bus arrives at the end of the lane that leads to the Kilns: Lewis Close.

As we approached the house, we could hear Deb’s voice from the entrance. She was standing in front of the house with a couple from America. He was taller, and he had long hair. He wore a black t-shirt that read, “Over the Rhine,” along with a picture I don’t quite remember. I laughed to myself at the funny coincidence.

Over Christmas break, while we were home for the holidays, one of my good friends from back home, David, had written to an author of a book he was reading, “Hipster Christianity” (a book I highly recommend, by the way). Apparently the author was a big fan of Lewis, and he had written a portion of his book while living at the Kilns (as a scholar in residence). David wrote to this author, a guy by the name of Brett McCracken, to tell him a bit about my story. About what I was up to. And to see if he might sign a copy of his book so David could give it to me as a gift. I thought that was awesome, and I was blown away when I received this from David in December. Brett had not only signed the book, but he had written me a note. Encouraging me on this journey, and saying he was enjoying reading along. I had been in touch with Brett, after returning here to Oxford, off and on. Thanking him for the gift. And talking a bit about my thoughts on the book. And it was through meeting Brett that I was introduced to a band by the name of Over the Rhine, a favorite of his. I had never heard of them before, and I had certainly never noticed anyone in an Over the Rhine t-shirt, and so I thought that was a pretty funny coincidence.

Deb introduced us to the couple and told us they were on their wedding anniversary. I thought that was a great way to celebrate. I also thought there’s no way I’d ever be able to talk my way into celebrating that way, though.

“I’m a librarian,” she told us, introducing herself.

“Ahh…,” I thought to myself. “Well that explains it, then.”

I had been on a tour of the Kilns before. A couple of times before, actually. Both times with Walter and Deb. But I had never taken the time to write down notes along the way. Of important dates and names. And so I did that, this time, knowing I’d need to be able to remember the many details for my first tour in just two days.

Deb started us in the common room. The room with books stacked from floor to ceiling on one side of the room. The room where Lewis used to sit with this guests. Smoking his pipe and telling stories. It was a beautiful day. And the light from outside was pouring into the room as Deb spoke from her chair in the far corner, while I frantically jotted down notes in short hand.

The couple on the tour were quite familiar with Lewis’ works. Both of them were. And they asked great questions. Which made me more than a little worried for when it was my turn to lead.

One of the scholars in residence at the Kilns, Stephanie, joined us for the tour. An American. She’s currently studying in Edinburgh, but she’s living at the Kilns for a month while writing her dissertation on Lewis. She’s from the South. And she had a bit of a southern draw. Which always sounds particularly out of place when you’re in England.

Deb did a great job with the tour. Even though I had heard it all before, I really enjoyed it. And I made sure to jot down all the things I knew I wouldn’t remember otherwise. It was great seeing the couple’s reaction around the house, seeing different things for the first time.

Afterwards, we said goodbye to the group and then we made our way into the dining room for tea.

I had received a text-message just as the tour was beginning, but I wasn’t able to get to it as I was doing my best to stay on top of my notes. It wasn’t until we sat down after the tour that I was able to check it. It was from Cole, and he was letting me know he had heard back from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland about his application. He had gotten in. He had been accepted for the PhD program with a scholarship. That was big news, and definitely worth a phone call. I excused myself from the room, making my way to the back of the house before calling him.

“Hey, congratulations” I said over the phone after Cole had answered on the other end. “That’s great news!”

After talking for a few minutes about the good news, I made my way back to the front of the house. I told Deb Cole was wanting to talk with her, and that she should give him a call.

She looked concerned.

“Is something wrong?” she asked me.

“No, no. Nothing’s wrong. But you should give him a call.”

Still looking concerned, and a bit confused, she made her way back to her room. I whispered the good news to Jen, so that Deb couldn’t hear. And a few minutes later, we heard a scream from Deb’s room.

“Oh, Cole! That’s great news!” came Deb’s voice.

Stephanie peeked her head into the dining room, where Jennifer and I were waiting for Deb, and she asked if we’d like some tea.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I told her.

“What kind would you like?”

“Oh… Well, I don’t know. I guess the normal English kind?” I had never been asked what kind of tea I wanted in England. Usually I just take what’s served to me. And it always tastes the same to me.

Deb joined us in the dining room a few minutes later. Still smiling from the good news. And Stephanie wasn’t far behind her. With a pot of tea in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other.

“Oh, thank you, Stephanie,” Deb said as she entered the room.

We talked for several minutes over tea and cookies. Oatmeal raisin and ginger. Stephanie asked what I was up to here in Oxford. And I shared with her how I was studying Theology. After working in Public Relations for several years. And how I was hoping to one day write.

She asked a bit about what I was interested in writing, and so I told her a bit about hands&feet, and what I had been up to there. How I was interested in writing on theology using everyday experiences. Using stories that people could relate to. But that they also got something out of. And that would ultimately help them see Him more clearly.

After she explained a bit about what her own work was on, Stephanie excused herself so that we could talk about our work at the Kilns.

Deb made sure I felt okay about leading the tours, which I did. And we got the schedule for Saturday’s tours all settled out. I told her I was really looking forward to it.

We talked a bit about Jen’s job. About how many hours Deb might need from her (about 15 per week). About what she’d be doing (responding to e-mails, scheduling tours, organizing the office and helping prepare for tours). And about pay. Deb said she was really looking forward to having Jen’s help, and that she’d have her start tomorrow if she could.

“What I’ll do is I’ll call Stan at the Foundation back in the States tonight, and I’ll make sure he’s okay with everything we’ve talked about,” she told us. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t plan on you starting on Monday next week.”

If that was an interview, it was the easiest interview I’ve ever been a part of, I thought to myself as we helped Deb clean up after the tea.

We had a great time at the Kilns that afternoon, and, walking down the lane and back to the bus stop with Jen afterward, I still couldn’t believe we were going to be working there. Amazing.

Friday: Returning home rejoicing

I went to the morning prayer service at Harris Manchester this week. It’s held every week. Just a short, 10-minute service at 8:40 on Friday mornings in the chapel. I’ve been meaning to go for some time, but I’m usually spending that time on some last minute studying for my Greek quizzes. So I’ve never been before. I was glad I went that morning, though.

I was in a hurry to get there. Riding my bike at a frantic pace to make it on-time. I slipped into the chapel shortly after the service began. Breathing heavily as I took my seat in a pew behind one of only four other people in the audience.

I recognized Ken Wilson a few rows ahead of me. The hand surgeon turned Theologian from Oregon. And Principal Waller sat across the aisle from him. In his suit.

A man in the front of the chapel was reading a story from the Old Testament book of Exodus. The story of God’s conversation with Moses. When God came to Moses and told him He was going to use Moses to rescue His people from captivity. To lead them out of Egypt. And how Moses responded in confusion and fear, not knowing why in the world God would use him of all people for such an incredible mission. And feeling totally unworthy.

It was a great service. Short, but incredibly peaceful. And it was a welcome break from the frantic pace I’m used to most mornings.

After the reading, we sang a hymn. I don’t often sing hymns, but in this chapel, it seemed like a perfect fit.

At the conclusion of the service, the man who had been reading returned to the front of the room. And, with a hint of a smile on his face, he gave a short concluding message before we left.

And the words seemed so perfect. As if they were meant just for me. Almost as if He were speaking these words just for me that morning. Through this man. And through his words.

And I was speechless, seated there in that hard, wooden chapel pew. Staring up into the tall stained glass windows that fill the end wall of the room. I found myself filled with an incredible amount of joy. And thankfulness. For all He has done.

For guiding us through all of this. For bringing so many amazing people into our lives. For lining up jobs for us; the kind of jobs I never dreamt of. For keeping us safe and well fed. And for the incredible things He has shown us along the way.

I was filled with great joy as I replayed the words over again in my head, seated there from the pew that morning.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,

wherever He may send you.

May He guide you through the wilderness,

protect you through the storm.

May He bring you home rejoicing

at the wonders He has shown you.

May He bring you home rejoicing

once again into our doors.

Sunday: Tacos and laughs at Rob & Vanessa’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, you too?” the wife asked.

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

“Tyler,” he said.

“Hi, I’m Lauren,” she said.

“Good to meet you guys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? Where abouts?” Lauren asked.

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

“Oh yeah. All right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday: Two for two on the headlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: A beautiful day in Oxford

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Apologetics & Talking Lewis over medium rare beef

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh wow,” I said. “Well thank you.”

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

Dinner with Michael Ward

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

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

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

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

Very modern, with smiley waitstaff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: A scene from Harry Potter at New College

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

“No, I haven’t,” I told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: In Lewis old Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday Night: Even more excited

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday: Adjusting to my wet shorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing well

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

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

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

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

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

A proud uncle

Jennifer sent me this picture earlier this week…

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: When my Greek came alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grizzly Adams did have a beard

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Breakfast with the guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guys laughed.

My shadow beard

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

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

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

I laughed.

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

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

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


Friday: An honest conversation

I had Greek the Friday morning Steve left to head back to the States. He walked with me to class and then said goodbye before grabbing a bus to Heathrow.

I had a Patristics essay due that afternoon, so I headed to my favorite spot on the second floor of the Harris Manchester Library to punch that out after Greek. Emily was heading back to Harris Manchester as well. Emily’s the only one in my Greek class from Harris Manchester.  And Emily, Lyndon and I are the only “mature” students in the class (over 21). Everyone else in the class is straight out of high school (or the UK equivalent).

Emily asked how the term was treating me as we made our way down the curved lanes between high stone walls that led to HMC. I told her it was going really well, actually. Much better than last term. I told her I just felt felt myself feeling more comfortable with everything. How last term not only was the material new, but everything was new. Now, at least, I was a bit more comfortable here in Oxford. I told her I have really been enjoying my material this term, too, which helps.

“Yeah?” she said, looking over at me with a look that told me she wasn’t quite in the same boat.

“How’s the term going for you?” I asked.

“Well, not so well,” she said. “I had a bit of a breakdown this week, actually.”

Emily went on to tell me how she went to start her essay this week and just couldn’t do it. That she just didn’t have it in her.

“I ended up skipping my lectures, too,” she told me, in a voice that sounded a bit embarrassed. “That’s just not like me.”

“Yeah, no, that doesn’t sound like you,” I said. “Have you just been tired?”

“Yeah, I really just got to the point where I couldn’t make myself do it,” she said, again, in the semi-embarrassed tone.

We talked a bit about the frantic pace of studies here at Oxford. How, when the term is in session, it really is full-time, all the time. It’s condensed, to put it lightly. And we talked about how you really cannot stop, or else you’ll just get behind.

Emily’s from the UK, but she’s not the type who just assumed she’d go to Oxford. Not at all. Even though she recently told me her Dad went to Cambridge, she seems in awe of the fact she’s here, still. Like me. I appreciate that.

Somehow her family came up. I’m not quite sure how. But she told me about how they’ll call and the first thing they want to know is how her studies are going. How Oxford is treating her.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I told her. “It’s a big thing that you’re here, and to everyone else, this is just amazing. But, to you, it’s overwhelming.”

I asked her if she had let on to her family at all about how she was feeling. She told me she hadn’t. That they’re just so proud of her for being here. How they’re always telling their friends how their daughter is going to Oxford. And that she didn’t want to let them down.

I told her I was actually somewhat relieved to hear her say all of this. Not because I liked hearing she was having a hard time, but just because it was nice knowing I wasn’t the only one to feel like that.

“Yeah?” she asked, turning to me with a look of surprise.

“Yeah, I mean, as the American, I feel like I totally wear my heart on my sleeve,” I told her. “And, when I’m overwhelmed, I feel like it’s totally apparent. Whereas, you English, you always seem so cool and relaxed.”

I told her how I had been feeling totally overwhelmed the previous term. How I was having a really hard time even returning after the holidays. After being home, earning a paycheck again, and being around friends and family. I told her how I had literally started thinking how I might be able to return home and still save face.

“Because it’s been this whole big thing, right? Coming to Oxford, I mean,” I said, looking over to Emily to make sure she was following me. Her face told me she was.

“But then, you start thinking this was all just a horrible idea. And that you can’t actually do this. But then you just do, you know? You just put your head down and get through it.”

I wasn’t sure if that’s what Emily needed to hear or not. But it was my experience. And I hoped it’d help, in some way or another.

She told me she had scheduled an appointment to sit down with the Senior Supervisor. To let her know how she was feeling. To explain why she had missed her essay deadlines. Why she hadn’t been attending lectures. And to see if she had any advice.

“Good, good. I’m really glad to hear that,” I said, as we approached the front entryway at Harris Manchester. “Well, I hope that helps. You’ll have to let me know how that goes, huh?”

She told me she would. And she thanked me for listening.

I told her I was happy to. It’s not often the English show how they’re really doing. At least not in my experience. And I told her it had helped me, reminding me I’m not the only one feeling this way at times.

Saturday: Prayer over breakfast with Rich & Max

The last time I was in Summertown working with Rich from Starbucks, he had told me how he and another guy, Max, had been talking about starting a small men’s prayer group. A “prayer triplet” he told me. Apparently it’s an England thing. Where three guys meet once a week and prayer for each other. He told me they had been looking for a third guy. And since I had a lot in common with them (married, just started at Oxford, studying theology, etc.) he thought I’d be a great fit.

Rich and Max are both doing their doctorates here. Wheras I’m doing my second BA. They’re both in Philosophy and Theology. Whereas Rich has been doing this for a while, teaching Philosophy at Biola, Max is just rolling right through, and so he is right around my age. Maybe a few years younger. And he and his wife are from here in England. Rich and his wife are both from Southern California.

I told Rich I thought that sounded like a great idea. I told him it’d be nice to have some other guys to chat with who are in the same boat.

“Cool. Well I’ll talk it over with Max and we’ll set up a time to meet, then.”

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

I ended up getting an e-mail shortly after that, seeing if I wanted to meet for breakfast that Saturday morning. In Summertown. At Starbucks. And then we could take it from there.

So I woke up Saturday morning. Hopped in the shower to wash the sleep off of me, and I and rode into Summertown to meet up with Rich and Max for breakfast. They were seated at a table in Starbucks when I walked in. I had only met Max briefly before, but he’s a great guy. He has a big floppy head of red hair that’s always puffed up in the back. Messy in a trendy “I don’t care” kind of a way. And a great grin that goes to the side of his freckled face. He’s a super nice guy, and he greeted me with a handshake and that grin of his.

The three of us walked down to a place called Joe’s in Summertown. The same place Steve and Jen and I had went for brunch when they were here last fall. And the place I went shortly after arriving and ordered a side of ham with my eggs and toast. Only to be served ham cold cuts.

It’s a great place, though. It feels American. Like the kind of restaurant we’d have back home. With wooden tables, low hanging lights and large leather bench seats with high backs.

The place is pretty popular for breakfast. It’s always full.

We were greeted by a hostess and she led us to a table in the far back corner of the room where we pulled off our layers of jackets and gloves and scarves. It was a cold morning. We all ordered coffee to warm up.

And it was a blast meeting with these guys. They have great hearts, and they’re experiencing a lot of the same things I am, which makes it easy to relate and share.

We continued to chat as we looked over the menu.

Max’s eyes fell on the English breakfast.

“Mmmm…, yeah, I’m afraid I might need to do the English breakfast,” he said, in that British accent of his.

“Yeah? That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” I told him. “I haven’t actually had one since last term.”

Not everyone’s a fan of the traditional English breakfast. Well, not all Americans, I mean. For starters, it’s served with beans. The pork & beans kind. It also comes with fried tomatoes and mushrooms, which also puts some people off. But, it does include bacon (which is really fried ham, here in the UK), fried eggs, sausages and toast.

I’m a fan. I know the beans sounds weird, but once you get over the fact that you’re eating beans for breakfast, it’s actually pretty good.

Rich went with the french toast. Always a safe bet.

Rich started us off by talking a bit about what he and Max had in mind when they first started talking about this as an idea. How they hoped it could be a place where we can talk about anything and everything. From marriage to school to whatever. And a place where we can encourage and pray for each other.

“We’re all going to be here for at least two years,” Rich said from behind his glasses across the table, “and it’d be great to have this community while we’re here.”

Max and I both nodded our heads in agreement. We talked a bit about format. About what we thought might work best.

Then we all just talked about what had brought us here, and how the transition was going for us.

It was nice to hear their stories, and, again, to know that I’m not the only one going through this big change. That we’re not the only ones going through this big change.

It was great just to open up to these guys, to say, “this is where it’s tough,” and to see in their eyes that they knew exactly what I was talking about. Because they had shared that experience.

Max talked a bit about feeling overwhelmed in his program. How he had went from being at the top of his class in his Master’s program, about being favored by his professors, but how this was just on another level. How the people here are just brilliant, and how that’s been humbling for him.

Rich nodded his head from across the table, looking at Max.

I’m not sure why, but when I hear Max’s name, I think of the kid from Where the Wild Things Are, and I can’t help but picture him in those pajamas. The ones with the ears and whiskers and claws. With the crown on top of his head. And it makes me laugh to myself.

I told Max how I had felt the same way when I arrived. How I felt totally out of my element after the first few times of sitting in Greek. With these kids who were straight out of high school with their private school education rattling off French, Latin and Greek like it was nothing. I told them that I basically realized everyone here was smarter than me. And how that helped, because I no longer had to worry about it.

“Everyone. Not just in class, but everyone in Oxford,” I said. “The guy washing the windows, I’d literally think to myself, ‘That guy’s smarter than me,’ as I’d walk by.”

They both laughed. I was serious.

We wrapped up our breakfasts. I finished all of my traditional English breakfast. Including the beans. And I felt great.

We prayed for each other, going around the table, and then we nearly left without paying. After sitting there for a couple hours, I guess we just kind of forgot about that part.

Monday: Alister McGrath & Christianity-The story of best-fit

I went to a talk with Max and Rich two nights later here in Oxford. It was at the University Church of St. Mary. It’s a beautiful church right in the middle of the city center. With tall spyres that reach high into the sky. Apparently it’s where Lewis preached The Weight of Glory during the wartime. It’s also the most photographed building in Oxford, I’m told.

It’s an incredible building to sit in, with its cavernous ceilings that seem to never end. Row after row of wooden pews lead up to the front of the church. Tall, arching stone columns reach high into the air. The walls are stone, too, interspersed with stained glass windows. And it all feels so ancient. So old. Like you’re sitting in the middle of history.

I pointed toward the pulpit off to the side of the front of the room and asked Rich if he thought he could preach better from that. He laughed.

The pulpit has a winding wooden staircase that leads up to a small, wooden, framed-in box, just tall enough for someone to stand in, looking out over the pews. It looked a bit like a little tree house. A preacher’s tree house. I told Rich if I ever became a pastor I was going to make sure I had a treehouse on-stage.

A guy by the name of Alister McGrath was talking that night on the topic of Science & Religion. Alister is a pretty well-known author and professor here. He’s an incredibly bright guy, with an amazing resume. He originally studied molecular biophysics here at Oxford, and he was wrapping up his work on his PhD in the natural sciences when he decided to pick up a degree in theology while he was at it. He’s since published a mountain of books on theology, and he frequently talks to groups about not only theology, but also hows science and theology interrelate. He regularly defends Christianity against guys who like to say Christianity is a joke because of what we now through Science.

It was a great talk, and you could tell Professor McGrath was both brilliant and really familiar with talking about this subject. After rolling through his talk for about 45-minutes or so, he took questions from the audience. And I was amazed by how quickly he responded. I was still processing the question when he was walking through the three points he would make in response. It was kind of crazy, actually.

After several questions, we were asked to thank Alister for his talk with our applause. We were also told we were invited to come upstairs, to “the old library” for some biscuits, tea and coffee if we had any other questions we’d like to ask. I didn’t, but I was interested in hearing the rest of the conversation.

Rich knows Alister, having introduced himself before. They met and Rich told Alister he’d like to help him with his website, to promote his work. So he is now doing that. Rich asked me if I’d like to be involved, and so I’m helping out with that as well now.

Rich introduced me briefly to Alister and told him I was studying theology here. He said he’d have to keep his eyes out for me, then.

“Yeah…,” I said, smiling. He was a really nice guy.

I snapped a photo of Rich and his wife, Christine, with Alister.

Rich asked if I wanted my photo taken as well.

“Sure. Yeah, that’d be great, actually,” I said.

The old library we were led to for questions with Alister afterwards was a really cool old room. We made our way up an old staircase that opened up into this ancient-looking room, with old wooden boards for a floor. Cracked and sloping, and not even in the least. The walls were mostly stained glass windows, looking out onto the Oxford city center lit up in the dark by street lights. Wooden rafters loomed overhead, and a circle of chairs had been set out in the far end of the room. We grabbed several seats while others circled the coffee and biscuit table.

Alister answered several more questions. Seemingly with ease. And more relaxed than the tone had been downstairs. Perhaps it was the smaller audience. Perhaps he didn’t feel as rushed now.

One of the questions that stood out was, “Why Christianity?” I thought it was a great question. Among all the other religions, why this one?

Alister’s a big fan of C.S. Lewis, which I appreciate. But it’s also rare. Lewis doesn’t have a big following here in England, particularly among academics. But Alister loves to quote Lewis. Or include him in his talks.

He responded to this question by quoting Lewis, saying, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

He talked about how Lewis had been an atheist for many years. And how his friend J.R.R. Tolkein had led him to the faith. He talked about the power of story. And how C.S. Lewis had seen in the Lord of the Rings series that Christianity made sense. That the story of Christianity fits with what we see around us. That this story explains the world around us better than any other religion.

Alister told us how he had grown up in Ireland, and how religion seemed to produce nothing but violence. Which is why he was an atheist himself for so many years. But then, many years later, something changed. He told us how, as a scientist, he came to see Christianity as the story that best solves all the pieces we have before us.

“In Christianity, all the pieces fall together just so,” Alister told us, looking around the room at those seated in their chairs.

Alister answered the last question around 10 o’clock that night, and the three of us made our way down the staircase and into the dark, cold night air outside. We chatted about Alister’s talk as we walked.

That was my first time listening to Alister, and I told them I thought he was brilliant.

“Sitting there, I felt like I was in the wrong place,” I told them. “Like, somehow, I had missed the memo for children’s church, and I was left sitting in the adult’s service. Like I should be somewhere playing in a sandbox during this conversation.”

They laughed.

I said goodbye and we all went our separate ways, me on my bike. It was a cold, foggy night, and the thick air seemed to envelope me as I scooted through the city center on my way north.

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