Archives for posts with tag: Alternative Tuck Shop

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.

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Saturday: A trip to London with Rob

Saturday morning I hopped on a London-bound train in Oxford and enjoyed the meandering, snakelike ride through the English countryside to the gentle noise of the train shuffling along the train tracks. It was a rainy morning, which meant my two-mile bike ride to the train station from our house in north Oxford was less than enjoyable. I hoped by the time I’d arrived in London my clothes would somehow, perhaps miraculously, be dry. They weren’t.

An hour later I found a seat in Paddington Station, the large train station in London. The air was cool and crisp that morning, and it seemed to seep in from somewhere, even though the station was covered with a high-rising, glass roof. I was waiting on the next train from Oxford to arrive, as Rob and I would be attending a conference in the city that day, and he had booked his ticket on the train after mine.

After 15 minutes of listening to my iPod and people-watching, I spotted Rob in the crowd walking toward the spot where I was sitting. He’s just tall enough to stand out, but he also dresses in a way that makes him blend in with the English crowds. You’d never know Rob was an American if you didn’t know already, passing by him in England. The first time I met Rob, at a talk at the Mitre Pub in Oxford, I described him as much more Oxford than me, with his scarf and long hair. On this particular morning, Rob wore a tweed flat cap, with his long, dark hair curling out the back. He’s still more Oxford than me.

“Hey, how are you?” Rob asked, greeting me with a handshake and his broad grin. Rob’s also studying at Oxford, in the MBA program. He’s the kind of genuinely nice guy who instantly puts you at ease, and who you know will go far, be it in business or otherwise.

We were in London first thing on this Saturday morning for a men’s conference. Mark Driscoll, a pastor from Seattle we both appreciate, was in town, speaking to a group of men at the Royal Albert Hall. I had never been to the Hall before; nor had Rob. He peeked at his phone from time to time as we crossed a large, expansive park filled with trees and people on walks, peering at a map on his small screen leading us in the direction of the Hall.

About 15 minutes after leaving the train station, we spotted the hall: a giant, domed building looming just beyond the edge of the park. It was an incredible structure. Massive and beautiful. We made our way in through the double-doors and took an elevator to the third floor to find our seats. Walking down the hallway that bent along with the curve of the building’s exterior walls, I took in the pictures that hung on the walls, showing off the many performances that have taken place in the hall over the years. Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Hendrix and the Beatles. Coldplay, Rihanna and Bono. Amazing.

Rob and I slipped into a row of seats on the top-most level balcony and found our seats. The morning’s worship service had already begun when we arrived, so we joined in. The day included several speakers, all talking about man’s ministry in different aspects of life. At work. In the church. And at home.

Mark Driscoll spoke about man’s ministry in the home. He mentioned that he’s currently working on a book about marriage, along with his wife. And that this process had given him a lot of fodder for the day’s talk. If you aren’t familiar with Driscoll, he’s known for his in-your-face, blunt teaching style. He’s well known for his conservative theology (man as the head of the household, speaking out against homosexual marriages and abortion) and his more liberal presentation (he’s more likely to preach in jeans and an MMA t-shirt than a suit and tie).

Mark’s also known for yelling, particularly during his messages aimed at men. And as this was a men’s conference, with a hall filled with thousands and thousands of men, I was just waiting for him to erupt. But he kept things pretty tame. Only bursting out in a yell on one occasion, recounting for us a time he was counseling a father and daughter, and having to set a father straight for not taking better care of his daughter, and allowing her to get caught up in a relationship that ultimately ended in her being physically abused. In this case, the yelling seemed well deserved.

But one of the things Driscoll said that day, from his point on the stage in front of thousands and thousands of men, one of the things that stood out to me most was about how men ought to respond to their wife’s needs. He talked about what women want most out of their husbands. How they want someone who will be there for them. Someone who will be present and who will just listen to them when they need to talk. How they want their husband to be their best friend.

“How are you doing at being your wife’s best friend,” Driscoll asked from the front of Royal Albert Hall. And I left that day pondering this question, all the way to Paddington Train Station, and I continued to chew on it for the entire duration of my train ride back to Oxford.

It was an incredible, convicting question. “How are you doing at being your wife’s best friend?” And as simple as it might seem, I felt like the day’s trip to London and the price of my ticket to the conference was all worth it for that one question. And it was a great chance to hang out and catch up with Rob, too.

Tuesday: Greek, Prawn & Mayo sandwich, and the new President

Tuesday was my second time sitting in on the Greek reading class since the start of the term. My first experience with the reading class, unprepared as I was, was a bit of a wake up call. My lack of time spent practicing Greek over the spring break showed, and I wasn’t about to let that happen again. I put several hours worth of time into my translations for week two so that I would be able to translate my Greek text without being embarrassed when it was my turn in the spotlight.

I left Harris Manchester after working from the library Tuesday morning and made my way across the city to Campion Hall, stopping for a few minutes at the Bodleian Library to say “hi” to Jen and Karli. I pulled my bike off the street and walked it to the front of the large, stone stairs that lead into the Bodleian on Broad Street.

Karli is a friend of Jen’s sister from back home, and she was in Europe doing some traveling. She had stopped over for a night in Oxford when she first arrived a couple week’s earlier, and she was now on her way back to the States, stopping over in Oxford a day early to visit with Jen again.

“How is your panini?” I asked Karli, spotting her chicken pesto panini. Both Jen and her were enjoying lunch from their seats on the large, stone staircase.

“It’s really good!” Karli said, in-between bites of her hot sandwich.

“Good, I’m glad you like it,” I told her. “It’s nice to see other people from back home enjoy the chicken pesto panini as much as I have.”

I asked if Karli would be joining us for the C. S. Lewis Society meeting that night, and dinner beforehand. She was. And then I continued to make my way to Greek, along High Street, a left turn on St. Aldate’s, past Christ Church and Tom Tower and then a sharp right onto Brewer Street, a narrow lane, which is home to Campion Hall.

I locked my bike up outside the large, stone-structured hall and made my way into the dimly lit, library-looking room where the reading class is held. I took my seat at the large round table where we’d be reading from, along with only a handful of other students who were there at this point. I was a bit early, which was already an improvement on my first week.

The reading class is meant to be an informal time and, since it’s held at 1:00 in the afternoon, people generally eat their lunches during the hour. 1:00 is the traditional lunch hour in England, which always seemed a bit late for me when I first arrived, but now I find myself eating after the reading class, as I have too much to get done beforehand, and I’m too nervous to eat during it.

The girl next to me was working on a sandwich when I took my seat. “Prawn and Mayo,” read the sandwich packaging that sat on the table beside her notebook.

“Wow…,” I thought to myself. “Prawn and Mayo . . . That’d be a pretty hard sell in the States!”

The English tend to use less euphemisms than we Americans do, I’ve found. For example, where we call tuna fish sandwiches, “Tuna Salad” or just “Tuna Fish Sandwich,” the English call it “Tuna and Mayo.” Same thing for “Chicken Salad;” the English call our “Chicked Salad” sandwiches “Chicken and Mayo.”

For us, in the States, we don’t want the word “Mayonnaise” in the title of our sandwich. Even if it is the first ingredient. No, we want it to be called “Salad.” That sounds much healthier.

I tried not to stare too much at my neighbor’s “Prawn and Mayo” sandwich as I settled in and unpacked my Greek papers for the class. Soon, Nick King, our silver-haired, sharp-witted English tutor for the reading class, took his seat at the table, setting down his own lunch, asking if everyone had a chance to grab some coffee, and then asking the poor guy to his left if he’d mind starting us off. Then, very quickly, we were off, rounding the table reading the Greek text aloud, and then sharing our translation with the class.

I didn’t feel nearly as nervous this time around, having spent several hours preparing. When it came to my turn, I found myself much more confident in my reading of the Greek text, and sharing my Greek translation. There was no need to ask for help with any Greek vocab that stumped me this time around, and I was soon passing the baton off to my Prawn and Mayo sandwich eating neighbor.

Leaving Campion Hall that afternoon was a completely different experience from the week before. Having prepared, I actually found myself enjoying the hour of Greek reading from Matthew. Well, as much as one can enjoy reading Greek indoors on a sunny spring day in Oxford.

Dinner with Walter & My First night as President

After a bit more studying at Harris Manchester, I hopped back on my bike and headed across town to Little Clarendon Street, with cobblestones underfoot and stringed lights overhead. A handful of us were meeting with Walter Hooper for dinner at Pierre Victoire, Walter’s favorite restaurant in Oxford, a small, family-owned French restaurant, before the C. S. Lewis Society meeting.

I was the first to arrive, so I gave the host our name and he showed me to our table. It was long, and it sat in the front window of the restaurant. Not long after, Walter and Cole came in, along with David. Soon, Jen and Kari arrived, along with Melissa, the temporary Kilns warden.

We had a great time, laughing and talking over dinner. Walter kept asking if I were having the escargot, and I assured him I was not.

Over dinner, Walter shared with me about an article he had recently read in the paper. It was about an interesting trend in which more and more English women were marrying Muslim men. One of the primary reasons for this trend according to the article, Walter shared with me, was that these Muslim men are more confident in what they believe in than their English counterparts.

“Hmmm…,” I said, pondering Walter’s recount of the article. “I think there’s probably a lesson for us all in there.”

When we had finished with our dinner and dessert, and when the bill was taken care of, we made our way down Saint Giles Street, toward Pusey House, where the Society meets each Tuesday night.

The second-story room was full by the time we arrived, with small groups of people gathered around the room, talking with each other. I quickly made my way to the front of the room, as we were already a few minutes past our normal starting time, having waited a while at the restaurant for our bill to arrive.

“Hello and thank you all for coming,” I said with a smile once I had everyone’s attention. “I’m Ryan Pemberton and, in case you don’t know me, I am the new President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society.”

The sound of clapping filled the room, echoing off the second story walls and pouring out through the open glass windows into the cool spring evening air.

It was one those unreal moments in life where time itself seems to slow down a bit, just enough for you to look around and take in the reality of which you never thought you’d ever experience. Introducing Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis’s former secretary as the evening’s speaker. As President of the Society. And yet, there I was. Doing just that. The smile on my face was more than an obligatory “welcome to our little society” smile, it was a pure, unadulterated reflection of the joy that was tumbling out of me in that moment as I reflected on the incredible things God had done in our short time here in Oxford.

President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society . . . Introducing Walter Hooper as the evening’s speaker, a man who was not only C. S. Lewis’s former secretary and friend, but now a good friend of mine. It was all so unreal, and I stood in awe of it all, in awe of God’s goodness and His incredible gifts, as the sound of clapping filled the room. My eyes caught Jen’s, just for a moment, from her spot sitting in the crowd, and I felt as though I simply could not be more happy than I felt in that moment.

“It really is a pleasure to be here,” I said, as the clapping quieted. “Thank you for joining us, and it is my pleasure to introduce tonight’s speaker, my friend, Walter Hooper.”

The sound of clapping once again filled the room.

Wednesday: Goodbye to one, Hello to two

I took a break from the Harris Manchester Library on Wednesday morning to meet Jen and Karli at the entrance gate to the college gardens. Karli was on her way to the bus station, as she’d be flying back to the States later that afternoon.

They arrived with hot chicken pesto paninis from the Alternative Tuck Shop in-hand, as well as Karli’s luggage.

“Well I’m really glad you were able to stop over and see us,” I told Karli before saying ‘goodbye.’ “Say hello to your family for us.”

“I will,” she said with a smile. “They’ll all be jealous.”

I turned and walked back toward the front doors of Harris Manchester, passing a guy with earphones blaring a Taylor Swift tune as I went. He was singing along as he walked, quite loudly, too. It made me laugh. And it reminded me of the time in the Bodleian Library when I opened my laptop and I couldn’t get it to stop blaring out Barlow Girl’s “I need you to love me” lyrics. At least this guy was outside, I thought to myself. And completely oblivious.

I returned to the library for a bit more reading, before stopping for lunch myself. I also wandered down to the Alternative Tuck and grabbed a sandwich for lunch, like the girls. After finishing my sandwich from the comfortable leather chairs of the Junior Common Room, I made my way back up the wide, stone staircase to the library for some more studying.

Passing through the wooden double-doors, I had a funny feeling that I had forgotten something. I began patting my hands on my jean pockets, hoping to jumpstart my memory. Katrina, the librarian, was standing behind her desk when she saw me and asked, “Forget your keys?”

Her question apparently did the trick, as it was just then I realized what I had forgotten.

“No, tea,” I said, looking back at her. “I was just remembering I need some tea.”

“Oh, and you thought of that when you looked at me? Why, because I’m English?” she said in a joking voice.

Without missing a beat, I replied, “Yes, that was a racial stereotype,” to which she replied by rolling her head back and laughing out loud. In her library voice, of course.

A few minutes later, I returned to my second story, window desk seat in the library with my hot cup of tea in hand. Now I was ready to return to my studies. I love hot, slightly sweet English tea after lunch on a cold, UK day.

It wasn’t long into my afternoon studies that I heard from a friend of mine from back home. Brandon, a guy I used to work with. We catch up from time to time. He to ask how life in Oxford is going; me to ask how life at the firm and in the Northwest is going.

On this particular afternoon, we found ourselves Instant Messaging each other, talking about a renewed thirst for His Word I had recently experienced. He was excited to hear this, and he asked me if I had read a book called “Crazy Love” by a pastor out of California by the name of Francis Chan. I told him I hadn’t, but that I planned to. And that I’ve really enjoyed his ministry and teaching.

me:  the thing i love about Francis Chan is that i feel like he has his priorities straight, in a way that is biblical, but completely counter-cultural

Brandon:  Dude, he’s killer

me:  he hurts for the poor and the non-believers

Brandon:  Jesus lover for sure

me:  and i feel like that’s what we need, more leaders like that

G.Brandon:  Thats because he loves Jesus

Saying “hello” to two more

That afternoon, I left Harris Manchester and met up with two family members at the train station: my cousin Noah, who recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and his dad, Randy. They’d be traveling around Europe, and London was their first stop. They arrived that day, and they took the train from London to Oxford to stay with us overnight before continuing their journeys.

I met them at the train station, with a hug and smiles all around. They wore large, hiking backpacks, which held all of their belongings for their trip. They looked surprisingly awake, considering the trans-Atlantic trip they had just made. They asked if I’d like a coffee before we made our way back to the city center. I thanked them but said, “No thanks,” and then we were on our way to meet up with Jen. We found Jen on Cornmarket Street, in the middle of the city center. Noah and Randy said “hello” to Jen, and then we began showing them around Oxford. They had never been before, so it was fun to show them all the old buildings and sights.

They took lots of photos as we walked. Of the 400-year old Bodleian Library, and of Christ Church and Tom Tower. We walked along the old city walls that run along the perimeter of Magdalen College and then walked back through the city center, stopping at the Eagle & Child for dinner. It was their first pub experience, and we were happy to share it with them.

After cleaning up several plates worth of bangers & mash, Noah and Randy replaced their large backpacks on their backs, and we made our way north to our home. By the time we arrived, they were happy to unload their backpacks, remove their shoes and settle in for the night.

Business at Hotel Pemberton was booming this week.

Thursday: Essay day and dinner with Jen 

I awoke Thursday morning to say my “goodbyes” to Noah and Randy, wish them safe, fun travels as they made their way around Europe, and then I was off to the library. I had an essay deadline that evening, and so I would be spending the next 10 hours typing away frantically to hit it and get my paper submitted in time.

Essay days are always a bit stressful. Making sure I have understood the question, finished all my background reading, and finally put together a semi-coherent essay that argues my point. But submitting my essay makes Thursday evening’s one of the most enjoyable evenings of the week. By this point in the week, I’ve normally been working nearly non-stop on my reading and writing, often not even stopping on essay days for lunch, so I’m always ready to relax in the evening and enjoy some time with Jennifer.

This particular Thursday evening was no different. We stayed in and made dinner. The perfect way to relax and spend some time together.

Jen had made a cake to help celebrate Karli’s birthday when she returned to Oxford earlier in the week. We had enjoyed it when she was here, but there was still several pieces left, even after Jen had brought some to the Kilns to share.

“You should clean up that cake,” Jen said, motioning to the cake that was sitting on the kitchen counter around 10:00 that night.

“I will. But I have to eat my dinner first,” I told her.

Truthfully, I was finishing my second dinner. Okay, honest truth, I had to finish seconds of my second dinner. And then I’d get to the cake. What can I say, I’m a growing boy.

Friday: My 2nd European Reformation Tutorial

My European Reformation tutorials for this term are held on Friday mornings. At 10:00 in my tutor’s offices at Wycliffe Hall, just a short, five-minute bike ride from where we live. If the weather’s nice, I like to start off these mornings with a run. I normally don’t have time, but with a 10:00 a.m. tutorial, it seems to work out as a good filler.

John, the other student in my tutorial, had recommended at the end of our first tutorial that we include each other in our e-mails when we submit our essays for the week, that way we have an idea of what points and arguments the other has made before we meet. I thought that seemed like a good idea. I pulled up his essay on my laptop while I ate a bowl of cereal standing in our kitchen that morning and I began reading.

Right away, I found myself in awe of his work. While I found him to be rather intelligent and on the ball during our first tutorial, I was completely shocked at just how good his essay was, particularly in comparison to what I had submitted.

“John uses big words,” I found myself thinking while eating my bowl of cereal as the morning sunlight poured in from our living room window. I wondered if I should bring color crayons along with me to our tutorial to go along with the essay I had produced.

Our second tutorial went great. John met me at the front door to the building at Wycliffe where we meet, wearing a large grin and his brown, floppy hair. Andrew, our tutor, welcomed us into his office when we arrived, and he stood so we could squeeze in and find a seat amongst the boxes and books piled up in every spare inch of the small room.

Andrew asked us to, briefly, share the key points we sought to make in our essays, before running through the week’s question and his thoughts. I felt good about my summary, but the feelings of embarrassment after reading John’s essay still haunted me. Thankfully, the thing about the English is that, no matter what they might think, they’re not likely to actually tell you to your face. This allowed me to enjoy our time together, and devour the conversation, taking notes of all of Andrew’s points.

An hour later, John and I were walking back down the spiral staircase from Andrew’s office, and walking back outdoors into the sunny Friday morning air. I was off to the library to pick up my books for the following week’s essay, and John was off to work with his rowing team, which he coaches. Clearly, he had things figured out. I thanked John for the conversation, wished him a great week, and then rode off toward the city center on my bike in the warm, sun-filled air.

The last thing I expected to see in England

I spent the rest of the day gathering books for next week’s essay, and working on my application for my proposed extended essay topic; a dissertation which would replace on my of elective classes. I planned to submit an abstract and bibliography for a proposed essay on the topic of C. S. Lewis & Christianity, looking at how he defended the faith after becoming a Christian. In particular, I’d be looking at how Lewis defended Christianity against those alternative ideas he previously held as an atheist, and later as a theist (who was drawn to the pagan myths of a dying god). I was excited to be working with Dr. Michael Ward, a Chaplain and member of the Theology Faculty here at Oxford, who has written a book on Lewis and the Narnia series that has received a significant amount of attention recently.

I felt honored to have Dr. Ward agree to sign on as my advisor for the paper, as he’s not only a good friend (through our similar interest in the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society), but he’s also brilliant (having graduated from Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrew’s universities), and the man N. T. Wright declared the world’s foremost expert on C. S. Lewis. This will both work in my favor, and against me, in a way. Because of his incredibly deep knowledge of the topic, Dr. Ward will be able to help me with any questions I might have as I worked through this paper. On the other hand, his expectations will also be sky high. All the same, I’m both happy and honored for the opportunity.

After spending most of the day working from the Harris Manchester Library, I rode to the Starbucks on Cornmarket Street, in the city center, to meet up with Jen. She was on her way back from her day spent working at the Kilns, and we were going to meet up to grab a cup of coffee and figure out what we’d like to do for our date night in the city that evening.

I parked my bike just around the corner from Starbucks and, as I did, I saw something I never thought I’d see: a guy around my age wearing a “Les Schwab” jacket . . . In case you’re unfamiliar with Les Schwab, it’s the name of a chain of tire centers from our home in the northwest corner of the States.

Of all the things we’ve seen in England since arriving, this, more than anything else was a complete surprise. Suddenly, the world felt very small, indeed.

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