Archives for posts with tag: C.S. Lewis

Those who enjoyed reading about our journey to Oxford to pursue a calling to study theology, and all of the adventures that followed, will appreciate knowing this story is being turned into a book, to be published by Leafwood Publishers in February 2015.

Here is the first look at the cover art for Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again.

Called_final

Click here to learn more. And you can sign up below to make sure you receive all the news about Called as the book release gets closer.

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Tuesday: Returning to Oxford

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

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

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

“Hi, this is Ryan,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: First day back at College

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

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

The air was cold as I glided down Headington Hill on my bike, passing all of the old familiar sights. Restaurants. Markets. Schools and neighborhoods, just as I remembered them. I passed through a small roundabout before coming up over Magdalene Bridge and seeing Magdalene Tower rising high into the sky, touching the blue and white brushstroked scene overhead. It was an incredible view, staring at this 500-year old stone-built college, and I caught myself thinking, “I really am back in Oxford…. This is so incredible.”

As I rode past the stone walls towering into the sky on both sides of High Street, I felt totally in awe of it all all over again.

Before Jen and I left Oxford to return home for the holidays, I met a friend from Texas at Eagle and Child. His name is Steve, and he teaches Communications at a large university there. I met Steve on a tour I led for a group at the Kilns last winter. Steve has been to Oxford “more times than I can count,” he told me from our seat in the Rabbit Room of the Eagle and Child that day. He loves it for all of the same reasons I do. For the history and the architecture. For the academic tradition and the fingerprints of C.S. Lewis that still remain to this day.

It was over lunch that day that I told Steve it always feels a bit like I’ve returned to an old dream when I’ve been away from Oxford for a time and come back. I told him it feels a bit like having an incredible dream, not being sure if you’ll ever have it again, and then falling asleep one night and being filled with great joy when you’re suddenly back in the middle of it.

He smiled as I shared this with him that afternoon in early December.

“For me, it’s a bit like returning to Narnia,” he confessed while leaning just slightly over the wooden table, with a smile that acknowledged how silly such a statement might sound. But I quickly wiped away any reason for embarrassment by admitting I knew exactly what he meant.

It was great to see several people I hadn’t seen for over a month as I made my way through Harris Manchester before finding my old familiar spot in the library, upstairs, in the northeast corner beside the window. My desk was still waiting for me, vacant, and I greeted it like an old familiar friend, with a smile, as I took my seat and poured over my notes for the next 10 hours or so.

The Artist

I made it back to the Kilns just after 7:00 Wednesday night, after a long day of studies. I wolfed down a quick dinner before grabbing my jacket and heading back out of the house with Jonathan and Holly (a short-term scholar who’s currently visiting Oxford from California). The house had made plans to go see the movie “The Artist” that night, and I was looking forward to joining them. We picked up Dr Michael Ward on the way, Chaplain of St Peter’s College and Lewis-expert, and we made our way to a theatre outside of the city center, called Vue, which I had never been to.

The theatre was large, with a bowling alley attached, and it had a massive parking lot. There were neon signs on the exterior of the building. When we walked into the theatre, I noticed a sign for an Italian restaurant that was attached to the building, again in neon lights, that read, “American-New York Italian Food,” which I thought was funny. It felt a bit like someone took a shopping center from the States and plopped it down in the middle of England, and then put up a bunch of neon signs to remind people that it really was American.

The movie was great, though. Feel free to skip ahead if you’d rather I don’t spoil it for you, but it ended up putting me in tears. Whether it was intentional or not (I doubt it was), it painted the most incredible picture of salvation and grace I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

The movie starts out in the year 1921, at the height of the silent film era in Hollywood. And we are introduced to George Valentine, the leading man in Hollywood at the time. Everyone worships George, including himself. He has huge portraits of himself that hang in his home, and everyone swoons when they meet him.

But then, things begin to change rapidly with the introduction of “Talkies,” movies with actual audible dialogue. Soon, George Valentine is a washed-up actor who used to be somebody, but who now struggles to make ends-meat by selling off his vast collection of expensive clothes and artwork, including the large portrait of himself that used to hang in his home.

Fast forward to the final, climactic scene, where George escapes from the gigantic palace of a good friend’s home, a friend who had only the day before rescued George from the fire he set inside his own home. And, after escaping the palace she had set him up in, so that he could rest and recover from the fire, George returns to his house.

The interior is ghastly, with remnants of the fire strewn about in a mess. He returns to his burnt up living room, in pride. He simply cannot accept the grace this friend had shown him because, in his pride, he interpreted her help as charity. And he was too proud for charity.

The movie builds to a great crescendo where we see George pull out a small box, and, from that small box, he pulls out a blunt-nosed revolver. Sitting in his burnt up living room, a charcoal-lined mess of a scene, George places the end of the revolver in his mouth and bites down hard as the tears roll down his face. This man who literally had the epicenter of the entertainment world at his fingertips is now but a simple tug of his index finger away from ending his own life. And just then, moments before he pulls the trigger, the friend who had rescued him and placed him in her palace runs into the scene, bringing a sense of urgent light into the darkness. And, suddenly, everything changes.

He removes the gun from his mouth, he stands up, and he embraces her in a hug. And as he does, she begins to cry. After several seconds, she holds him at arm’s length and says to him, “I’m so sorry, George. I only wanted to help you.”

And as she said that, I couldn’t help but cry myself. A few slow tears. It was, for me, an incredible reflection of the way I have chosen evil in my own life. Knowingly.

It was a picture of how I choose ugliness over the beautiful palace He wants to offer me. And how He rushes in to save me from myself. In the middle of the mess I’ve created. And, when He finds me, He does not verbally abuse or accuse me. Instead, He weeps at the mess I’ve made, and He pointedly reminds me that all He ever wanted was to help me.

That, for me, was the picture of grace and salvation I needed. And I was so thankful for it.

Thursday: A Flat Tire and Carb Baskets

After another full day of studying from the library on Thursday, I hopped on my bike around 6:45 that night, and I made my way across the city center in the dark, frigid night air. I was grabbing dinner with two English friends of mine who are currently studying Theology at Wycliffe Hall. Not only do they share a common British nationality, they also share first names. John. I felt outnumbered from the get-go.

I was coasting quite speedily down the hill in front of Christ Church that night, on my way to John (Ash’s) house, when suddenly my back bike tire started to shake. Something didn’t feel right. But I tried to ignore it.

By the time I made it to the bottom of the hill, it had gotten quite a bit worse. It was now bumping up and down. And so I decided to get off and have a look at it. Sure enough, I had a flat. My tire had gone so flat that there was now hardly anything left in it.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself as I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to give John a ring and explain my situation. I had planned on meeting up with him at his house and then we were going to drive together to John (Adams’) place.

After I explained what had happened, he told me not to worry about it, and that he’d come meet me where I was at. By the time I had pulled my hefty bike to the nearest bike rack to lock it up, John was waiting for me with a look of sympathy.

“So sorry about the bike,” he said with a smile as I opened the passenger door, “But it’s great to see you again.”

We made the 10 minute drive to John Adams’ place while catching up on our holidays, and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into the boarding school where Adams lives with his wife and baby daughter. He’s a chaplain at the school, and so they have a flat right there on the grounds.

We passed a group of boys walking in striped ties and black gowns, looking very Oxford.

“It’s a rather posh school,” John explained to me as we pulled the car into a parking spot just outside of Adams’ flat.

Apparently we had arrived a bit early, as John Adams wasn’t answering when we tried him at his door. Then, after 10 minutes or so of waiting in the near-freezing darkness, John’s cell phone began buzzing. It was John Adams, and he was making his way across the school grounds. We could hear his booming voice as he came, in the open air, so we knew he wasn’t far off.

“Gentleman,” he said welcoming us, “Hello.”

I hadn’t seen John since the spring, so it was really good to see him again.

He had only just finished his chapel service for the evening, and so he was dressed in a tie and black gown himself.

“How do you like my gown?” John asked me as he unlocked the door and led us inside.

“It’s really nice, yeah,” I replied. “I nearly wore mine.”

Both Johns’ wives were currently out of town, one in London and the other in Cambridge, so it was the three of us bachelors getting together for dinner that night.

We caught up on life while our three, individual frozen pizzas baked in the oven. John Ash cut up some vegetables while we talked, before boiling them on the stovetop.

John Adams commented on the new kettle he had just received from his mother-in-law, pointing out how incredibly well it poured.

“Look, no spillage at all,” he said, demonstrating it for us.

I laughed, and told them this was a very English conversation. I told them this is one conversation you’d never hear back home, is guys bragging about the “pourability” of their kettle.

They both looked at me puzzled.

I explained you hardly find kettles back in the States, and certainly not the electric kettles that come standard in every English home. Still they look puzzled.

“You don’t use kettles?” John asked.

“Well, it’s not that we don’t, it’s just not nearly as common,” I explained. “You’ll see more coffee makers, for example, because we tend to drink more coffee, but if you do see a kettle, it’s a stovetop kettle.”

Still they look puzzled, so I quickly tried to move the conversation on, as John checked on our pizzas.

“That black enough, you think?” he asked, staring into stove.

He pulled the pizza out, one by one, and John Ash asked if we minded if we just had the steamed vegetables straight on the pizza, as it covered the entire plate.

None of us minded, so he proceeded.

We set our plates down on the table and John Ash snapped a picture of the scene: pizza completely covering the plate, with thick cut steamed vegetables on top of the pizza.

“It’s not a bad set up, actually,” he commented while snapping a picture with his iPhone. “Carb basket.”

The night was filled with a lot of laughter as we talked and ate. John Ash explained how the remote-control helicopter he received as a Christmas gift had taken quite the beating, and how it now looked a bit like a smashed fly trying to take flight.

We talked about studies and ministry. John Adams told us about the school’s chaplain, “a great guy, really, who preaches the Gospel,” and how he was being removed from the school because apparently a few parents on the Board thought he was a bit too conservative and challenging in his teaching.

We talked about suffering, and how this Chaplain was basically suffering because of his “cross-shaped life.” John Adams kept using that term, cross-shaped life, as he talked about this Chaplain. And as he talked about the lives we are called to live, as followers of Christ.

And I loved it. I loved it in a way I didn’t like. I didn’t like it because I knew I often flee from suffering, and yet that’s the very mark of our faith.

Around 10:00, I explained that I should probably get back home, as I still had a bit of studying to do before my test the next day (“collections”), and so we said our goodbyes and made the short drive back to the city center, John Ash and I. He apologized about my flat as he dropped me off right where I left it, and I hauled it off to College in the cold night air, where I could lock it up safely before catching a bus back to the Kilns.

It was after 11:00 by the time I made it home that night, and I ended up studying until after 1:00 the next morning.

Friday: Collections and Unconventional Fingerprints

After several hours of studying that morning, I made my way to the Exam Schools that afternoon, dressed in my black gown, for collections. At Oxford, rather than taking a test at the end of the term, to see how you know the material, you take a vacation in-between terms and then come back and take a test (“collections”) before starting your next term. Yep, brutal, I know.

I sat in room full of 100 or so other students at 2:00 that afternoon, all of us dressed in our black gowns, and I scribbled away on my essays on John Calvin for the next three hours. By hand. By 5:00, when I finally put my pen down, I could hardly feel my thumb and my index finger. A numbness had set in that would linger for the next several days.

But I was done. All of the studying that I had put in after arriving in Oxford was now put to paper, and I could now wash my hands of it and get ready for the next term. It’s always a relief, that feeling.

I walked back to college in the dark, that evening, before climbing back into my old familiar desk and trudging through all of the e-mails that had piled up during the past few days I had spent studying. Once I had fended off enough e-mail for the day, I got started on my application for school next year. I’m applying to do one more year here in Oxford. For a nine-month MSt in Christian Doctrine.

Jen caught me on Skype after 9:00 that Friday night. I’m sure she assumed I’d be back home at this point. I wasn’t.

“So, where’d you go for dinner,” her words asked in my earphones, likely knowing what my response would be.

“Uhhh, the library?” I typed out, as I was in the library and I couldn’t talk.

“Ryannnn!” she said firmly. “Do I need to sick Debbie on you?”

“No, no you don’t need to sick Debbie on me,” I typed. “But can you guess where I had lunch?”

“Uh, the library,” Jen said in a mocking voice.

“Ding, ding, ding,” I typed. “But don’t get Debbie. I’ll go home soon.”

Jen and I talked for a bit, and it was great to see her again. It really made my day. We laughed together as we talked, separated by a giant ocean and 6,000 miles.

It was after 10:00 by the time I finally shut down my computer and made my way down the stone staircase leading out of the library that night. My phone buzzed in my pocket as I hit the bottom step. It was Debbie, calling to check up on me from the Kilns.

“Are you alive?” she asked with a laugh. “We thought you’d be home by now.”

I took my turn laughing. If only she knew the conversation Jen and I had just had.

“Yep, I’m still alive. But just barely. I’m making my way home now.”

“Okay, good,” she replied, with a bit of relief. “Well we’re looking forward to celebrating the end of your tests. We’ll be waiting for you when you get here.”

I thanked Debbie. Her thoughtfulness put a smile on my face. And it brought some life to my wearied mind.

I made my way out of the college into the cold night air. It had been a cloudless day, and the naked sky provided little cover for the cold. I zipped my jacket up to my neck as I walked, tucked my chin in close, and put my earphones in before turning on some music for my walk to the bus stop.

Unconventional Fingerprints

I was listening to the band Sigur Ros as I strode the stone sidewalks and back alleys that led to the bus stop on High Street that night. If you haven’t heard of Sigur Ros, I couldn’t recommend them more. I’ve only recently stumbled upon their music, which makes me feel bad. I like to think I know a thing or two about good music, about what the kids are listening to these days, but somehow this Icelandic band slipped out of my radar all these years.

The falsetto voice of their front man Jonsi (pronounced “yon-see”) rang in my ears, in dramatic, haunting, lingering tones as I crossed through the shadows of the Oxford alleys, with my hands in my coat pocket. I hugged closely to the stone walls as my feet beat the pavement. The colleges that sat just beyond the high stone walls bordering the alley I walked rose high into the dark sky like castles, and the gaslit lamps stood on each bend of the alley. The whole scene looked almost as though it could be taken straight out of a movie set in the middle ages, and I love it. It may sound funny, since I’ve been here a year and a half now, but all of this still seems so unreal to me at most times.

I laughed to myself as I walked in the late, cold night air, while my shadow chased a few feet behind me. And after several days of sleep-deprived studies, I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually here right now… I can’t believe I’m actually studying at the University of Oxford.”

Sigur Ros’s ethereal sound continued to play in my earphones as I walked, and the music seemed to set the mood for the scene. It was perfect, really.

The lead singer of this band Sigur Ros, Jonsi, is something else. He’s blind in one eye. Which really doesn’t matter all that much, actually, because he sings with his eyes closed. He strikes his guitar with a bow and sings not in Icelandic, not even in English, but in something of a gibberish-like concoction of his native tongue. Wherever the melody leads him. He dresses up in rather funky, homemade outfits, too. Complete with feathers. And glitter around his eyes. But his voice… His voice is what strikes you. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

And I found myself thinking about his unconventional approach to music as I hopped on the bus, made my way across town, and then got off the bus a short 10-minute walk away from the Kilns, while Jonsi’s voice continued to play in my ears.

The air was cold as I made my way up the slight incline of Kilns Lane that night. Oxford was tucked in for a night’s sleep as I walked, drumming along with the music on my legs. Houses and cars were covered in a blanket of frost, which made everything glimmer. It was a beautiful scene, and the combination of music and glimmering frost over everything made me want to dance in the cold, open night air. That or a lack of sleep and utter exhaustion. Or both.

But I began to think about the fact that this guy, Jonsi, is doing something completely ridiculous and unconventional to most people. It’s the kind of thing that, when you look at it on paper, most people would say, “Yeah, that sounds like a bad idea…” Dressing up in a head dress and singing in gibberish.

But then you hear it for yourself, and you’re breathless.

And I couldn’t help but think, “I’m so glad Jonsi had the courage to share this gift he’s been blessed with with all of us.” I couldn’t help but think, “We’re blessed by it.”

I got thinking about the fact that we’re all given roughly 80 or so years on this planet. If we’re lucky. And that’s all for our time here. It’s not the end of our story, of course, but it is all we have for this (brief) chapter of history. I got thinking about the fact that we all leave something here. Even if it’s not good, we all leave some sort of fingerprint.

And I got thinking, this world, and those who had the fortune of hearing the musical talents Jonsi has been blessed with, will be better for it. The mark he will have left, just by sharing the gift he’s been given, will matter. And it wouldn’t be the same if he was trying to do what someone else wanted or expected from him. In fact, it would probably be very unlike what he’s doing now. It probably wouldn’t include a feather head dress. Or a mish-mash of gibberish. Instead, it’d be more like what this agent told him to do if he wants to get a record deal. Or what that producer told him they’re looking for. But it’s not. Instead, it’s this unique, unconventional reflection of who He is. And I thought that was beautiful.

I continued to beat my legs with my hands to the sound of the music in my ears as I walked in the cool night air, under the sparkling stars and alongside the glistening cars. And I found myself thinking, “I want to do that.”

I want to leave my fingerprints on this world in a way that no one else can. Because it’s a reflection of the unique gifts God has given me.

I’m sure it sounds funny, but, for some reason I felt like listening to Jonsi pour out his soul in his gibberish, Icelandic falsetto gave me permission to do that. And I hoped, when it was all said and done, that at the end of my time here, the words from my life would matter. That they would find their way to someone and that person would say, “I now see God more clearly because this guy cared enough to share his soul with us.”

That, to me, would be a life worth living.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

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

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

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

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

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

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

The Oxford Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

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

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

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Making sense of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Metaphor in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was crushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Monday: Lunch at one of Oxford’s oldest colleges & Embarrassed in the library (again)

I started off my third week of the term with lunch at Balliol College. I was meeting Myriam, Secretary for the C.S. Lewis Society, as well as a couple past presidents, Judith and Brendan, who are now back in Oxford after spending some time studying in Germany. We were meeting so they could share some of their advice on running the Society. Advice I was keen to hear.

I had been to Balliol for a lecture before, but never for lunch. As one of the oldest colleges at Oxford (it was established in 1263), its architecture is classic Oxford. Lots of old stone buildings set atop stretching green grounds, with giant wooden and metal doors. Narrow, stone corridors, with cobblestone walkways, lead you from one quad to another. It’s one of those colleges where, if you let yourself, you can really feel as though you’ve just traveled back in time.

And it was while the four of us were making our way across the college grounds, up the large, wide staircase that leads to Balliol’s dining hall, that I found myself thinking, “This really is such an incredible place!” And I love it. I love all of it. I love the people, people who come from all over the world. I love the accents (the British more than any others). And I love the history of this city. The kind of history I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else, and which hits you in the face around every corner.

We made our way into the dining hall for lunch. I took note of the beautiful, dark hardwood floor. The afternoon sun was pouring in through high, arching windows on one side of the room. It was the kind of place where you feel like you’re dining in a really old chapel, with the high-arching windows and the ornate, wood-carved walls.

Following our conversation over lunch (a tasty Indian lamb dish), we made our way out of Balliol College, around the corner and down St Giles Street to St John’s College, where Judith is a member of the faculty. To carry on the conversation over a walk around the college grounds. I had never been inside St John’s college before, so I was excited to see it. St John’s is known for being one of the most well endowed colleges here at Oxford. They own most, if not all, of the city street the college sits on, as well as an enormous amount of property around England.

The college grounds at St John’s include beautiful, stretching gardens. Set behind its high, college walls. And taking it all in on our walk, I couldn’t help but feel so privileged. For being a member of the university and having access to all of this beauty that’s hidden behind the stone walls that line St John’s perimeter, separating all of this from the outside city. Brendan was filling me in on much of the Society’s history as we walked. Brendan is tall, with short, dark hair, and a long, thick beard that he strokes as he talks. As if to help him think. As Brendan was leading the conversation, I noticed Judith taking in individual trees along the trail of our walk. She’d pause for a moment as we passed several along the way, as if she knew them. As if she were checking on the health of an old friend. While Brendan continued on in his deep, monotone voice, stroking his beard in the afternoon sun that washed over the college’s green grounds.

On our way out of the College, we peaked our heads into the small chapel. I always like to see the different chapels around Oxford when I visit a college. They’re always unique, and they tend to reflect a particular college’s character. Inside the St John’s College, I noticed a symbol I had seen before, at the “Lamb & Flag,” a nearby pub. It was of a white lamb carrying a flag over one shoulder. It was unique, and I had never noticed it before coming to Oxford.

“What does this symbol mean?” I asked, turning to Brendan and Judith.

“It comes from St John’s Gospel, and it represents the Christ,” Brendan replied, quoting a passage from Scripture: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Oh yeah… Okay, well that makes sense.”

We said our goodbyes and thanked Brendan and Judith for their time before Myriam and I made our way back to our respective libraries. For more studying.

Embarrassed in the library

I picked up a cell phone charger on the way, as I had somehow misplaced the charger for my UK cell phone over the summer. I plugged it in when I got back to the library at Harris Manchester. Since it had been turned off for several months, apparently the settings had been reset, including the volume… Because of this, when it had enough battery power, it notified me I had several messages in a not-so-subtle fashion. It began in a quiet voice, but then it grew louder: “message… Message… MESSAGE!” finally reaching its crescendo in a shrieking voice, as I frantically punched the buttons, trying to quiet it.

Finally it went silent, but not before my cheeks began to burn with embarrassment. Memories of the time when I opened my laptop in the Bodleian Library and Barlow Girl’s song “I need you to love me” came blaring out for several seconds, interrupting the otherwise pin-drop silence. What a horrible experience… Fortunately people in HMC are more forgiving; I didn’t feel as though I needed to pack up my things and leave, as I had done in the Bodleian.

Tuesday: When my mind woke up & Lewis Society

I was invited to hear a talk from a guy by the name of William Lane Craig on Tuesday. He’s a philosopher from the States, and he’s also one of the world’s leading Christian apologists. Professor Craig was giving a talk at the Sheldonian Theatre here in Oxford that evening, which I couldn’t attend (because of my commitments with the Lewis Society). Professor Craig regularly travels and debates on the existence of God, and he had given Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most well-known Atheist, an open-invitation for a debate here in Oxford. Unfortunately, Dawkins hadn’t taken him up on the offer.

A while back, a group of Atheists sponsored an advertising campaign where they ran a series of bus ads that said, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” After Dawkins turned down Professor William Lane Craig’s invite for a debate at the Sheldonian Theatre, a series of bus ads began running around Oxford that read, “There’s probably no Dawkins. Now stop worrying and enjoy October 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.” I thought that was pretty clever.

Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to listen to Craig respond to Dawkins’s latest book at the Sheldonian that night, I was happy to get to hear him talk for a bit at this by-invite lunch event. I took a seat by Max, who I hadn’t seen since returning to Oxford, and I pulled out a small notebook to take down some notes while I listened.

I had never heard Professor Craig before, but I was really impressed. He’s clearly a very intelligent guy, but I was impressed by just how articulate and easy to listen to he is. He talked about why he feels Christian Apologetics are important, both for the speaker and for the listener, and then he took about an hour’s worth of questions from those who had come to hear him. And one thing he mentioned that afternoon, in particular, stuck with me in a lasting way. Mostly because it’s one of the things that I took away from reading C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, for the first time. And, in that way, it’s really the reason I’m here. It was in the middle of this particular talk that Professor Craig said, “People need to know the Gospel is a viable option for the thinking person.” And I found myself sitting in the middle of the audience, grinning in agreement.

After the talk, while we were still thanking Professor Craig for his talk with a round of applause, I leaned over to Max and said, “It is so good to be back here. I feel like my soul and my mind are waking up from a bit of hibernation over the summer.”

Max smiled. He agreed. I grabbed a sandwich on our way out of the talk, and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library for a bit of reading before meeting for dinner and the C.S. Lewis Society that evening.

Dinner & C.S. Lewis Society

I had arranged for a small dinner with our speaker for the night, Dr Michael Ward, along with two other people. Dr Michael Ward is Oxford’s resident Lewis expert, and he’s also supervising my extended essay on Lewis & Pagan mythology.

We talked over dinner about Dr Ward’s talk for the night (“Lewis on Tragedy”), and a number of other things. One of the other people joining us for dinner on this particular evening was an American girl who’s currently working on her PhD in London. Somehow or another we got onto the topic of wearing pajamas to class in college back in the States, and she said she never really sees that here in the UK.

Dr Ward wore a look of disgust on his face when she asked if that was something he ever experienced here.

“No, not at all,” he said in his proper British accent, still looking as though he had just tasted something rather sour.

He told us about a story that ran in the paper recently regarding “the horrors” of people at the market in their pajamas.

“That gives you an idea of how people in England feel about others going out in public in their pajamas,” he told us.

That evening, when I got up to make a few announcements before introducing Dr Ward as our speaker for the evening, I made the mistake of saying “dollars” instead of “pounds” when I was mentioning the cost of Society membership. It got a laugh from the crowd, but not the kind of laugh I was hoping for. I tried to shrug it off by saying I had just returned to England and was still working on re-adjusting, clearly, but I found my mind stuck on it, even as I continued with the rest of the announcements. This resulted in me slipping up on my introduction for Dr Ward, and stumbling through the name of his most well-known book, “Planet Narnia.” I quickly finished the introduction and found my seat in the front row. Wanting to bury my head in the hardwood floor, I instead pretended to listen intently.

Following Dr Ward’s talk, and a brief time of Q&A, I took my seat at the head of the long table on one side of the room. It was the evening of our Annual General Meeting (AGM), and several of the Society’s longest-standing members, as well as a handful of newer members, stuck around to discuss details of the Society. Plans for the rest of the year, transitions in the role of our Treasurer, etc. And it was only a few moments into our meeting that I realized there was an understood structure to the AGM, I had never actually sat through one, and now I was responsible to lead this one… I did my best to pretend as though I had everything under control and knew exactly what I was doing, but my disguise quickly wore off, and people were interjecting to make points on items I had overlooked. Clearly, this was not how I had hoped the evening would go.

As different people spoke, I found my eyes wandering to the second story window, and my mind wandering to the question of how long it would be before the group decided to grab me by the ankles and toss me out. Then I looked down the length of the long table we were all seated at, and at the other head of the table, I saw Walter. He was wearing his yellow coat, which he tends to wear, over his tweed jacket. And he was listening intently to the conversation at hand. And that’s when I found myself thinking, “If things get out of hand, if it becomes clear I am in over my head and this group decides to throw me out of this second-story window, then surely Walter will stick up for me.” And with that thought I began to feel more at ease, and I was able to close up the meeting with more confidence than I had before.

But after my failed introduction and after not knowing the formalities of the AGM, I made my way back to the Kilns feeling rather incompetent and inadequate for my role. And the worst part was I had a long bus ride / walk home to think about it.

It was 11:30 by the time I made it home that night. After a 17-hr day, I was exhausted. But it wasn’t over yet. I still had some reading to get done. Before I got to my reading, though, I greeted Jen in our room and talked with her a bit about the meeting. And then I made my way to get a cup of tea to accompany my reading. And it was there, in the kitchen, that I found a note on the fridge. A note that seemed to speak to me exactly where I was, with with the precise words I needed to hear.

It was a passage from Matthew 6, but in a translation I did not recognize. And as I stood there in the middle of this kitchen just before midnight, these are the words I found myself reading:

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers, most of which are never even seen, don’t you think He’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do His best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. Steep your life in God . . . Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your concerns will be met.”

It was a translation that would’ve given my Greek Tutor cold sweats, as it was clearly modernized, but these words met me exactly where I needed to be met. And I was glad it was so late, and that the kitchen was empty, because the words put a tear in my eye. And then another. And I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that I am feeling so overwhelmed and inadequate because I am placing my confidence in myself, rather than in Him. And once I realized that, or, more appropriately, once I was reminded of that, I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that the same God who brought us here, to Oxford and to all of this, is still the same God looking out for us now that we’re here. And He’s not about to forget about us, even when I feel inadequate and overwhelmed. It was a good reminder that I need to place my confidence in myself. Or else I will always feel inadequate for the challenges we will find in this life.

Wednesday: 1st Formal Dinner

I signed Jen and I up for Wednesday night’s formal dinner at my college. It was the first formal guest night of the term, so I was excited to experience that again.

I woke up Wednesday morning, got ready, and then grabbed my suit and threw it on my bike before heading to town. I’d need it for dinner that evening, and I didn’t feel like wearing it all day, so I figured I’d bring it to college and then change before dinner that night.

The bike Rob gave me when the Gareys left has a hand basket from a grocery store tied down behind the seat for storage. The metal hand baskets you see in grocery stores, with blue plastic handles. I laughed the first time I saw it. It looks ridiculously tacky. But I decided to leave it on, thinking it might come in handy. Sure enough, I was thankful to have it this Wednesday when I threw my suit in it and made my way into town.

It was just starting to rain when I left the house, so I biked to the pelting of sporadic, cold rain drops against my cheeks. As I approached Headington Hill, which is a steady, long hill that drops just as you approach the city center, I reaching behind to make sure my suit was still there. In the metal handbasket. Fortunately it was. I made it to Harris Manchester Handing with my suit still intact and I handed it off to Amanda in the office when I arrived–she’d keep it for me until I needed it–before heading to the library for a day’s worth of reading.

I was getting ready to take a test on Friday, which I had missed while I was back in the States. It was on the European Reformation, which I studied in the Spring. I had a lot of reading to get ready for it.

I printed off a bunch of my old notes to study, as well as several of John Ash’s old essays (was we had taken the course together, and we exchanged essays each week). And all of a sudden, I felt as though my essay should be written in color crayons, when compared to his work…

In reading John’s essay to myself, I noticed that I found myself thinking in a British accent. It was a weird feeling, and I had never noticed it before.

Lewis Essay & A Formal Dinner

At 5:00, I made my way across town to St Peter’s College, as I had a meeting with Dr Michael Ward on an essay I was preparing on the topic of Lewis & Pagan mythology. I had been working on it all summer, and this was our first time going over my draft together.

He welcomed me into his office with a “Hello, Ryan Jehosafat Pemberton,” in his proper, posh British accent. Dr Ward didn’t know my middle name for the longest time, but he knew my middle initial, so he still makes up middle names for me, from time to time. It always puts a smile on my face.

We talked about my paper for a while. He was very helpful with his feedback. Giving me ideas on where to cut back, and where to add more. Giving me ideas of which books to look into.

And I found myself sitting there, in Dr Ward’s office with him, with this guy who is both a friend and a supervisor, and one of the world’s leading experts on CS Lewis, and just thinking how unreal all of this (still) is to me.

After our meeting, I hurried back to Harris Manchester and threw on my suit and gown for dinner. Jen was on her way from the Kilns when she missed her bus, as she called to let me know. She grabbed another, but she ended up being a few minutes late. I was standing at the stone gate leading into college when she arrived. She had run to make it on time, after being dropped off by the bus several blocks away. In her high heels, no less. She looked so beautiful. And I told her that, before entering the dining hall, through the large, arched wooden doors.

We took our seat at the end of the long middle table. The three tables, as well as the head table, were all packed when we arrived. Filled with men in their suits and gowns, and women in their dresses. Everyone all done up for the formal meal.

And the dinner was amazing. Salmon for appetizers, followed by a wonderful beef roast for dinner. We were seated next to a girl from Shanghai, and another from San Francisco. I told them we were from Seattle, and the girl from Shanghai said, “Oh, Starbucks!”

“That’s right,” I said with a laugh. Before thinking to myself, “That’s better than ‘Sleepless in Seattle’,” a reference I tend to get here more than I ever thought I would when people here hear where we’re from.

Most of the evening was spent to ourselves in conversation. Just Jen and I. Which was nice. It was almost as though we had gotten all dressed up and gone out for a really nice meal together. As busy as things have been here, it was much needed.

And as the evening carried on, I found myself sitting back on my chair and taking it all in. This enormous, beautiful, old dining hall, that looks a bit like a scene out of Harry Potter. Filled with the voices of Oxford students and friends and family. Filled with laughter and the sounds of dishes coming and going. Filled with the sounds of, in my case, dreams coming true.

I turned to Jen, with these thoughts floating through my head, and I said, “Our life looks so incredibly different now. Just think, we wouldn’t have had any of these experiences if we hadn’t decided to ever go after this.”

And I thanked Jen. Not only for being willing to leave all she knew back home to move here so I could study, and to put her own dreams of settling down and starting a family on hold, but for being the first person to encourage me to go after this. Long before I ever said the words “Oxford University” to anyone else, I told Jen about this dream. It was shortly after we were married, while we were still living in our first apartment. It was there I shared this dream of one day studying at Oxford with her. And from the very first, she had always encouraged me to go after this.

Looking over at her from across this table in Harris Manchester, this long table filled with talks of studies and travel and life, I realized how incredibly blessed I am to have this woman in my life. I could not have asked for a better companion to travel through this life with. She is far better than I could ever deserve.

As we made our way out of the dining hall that evening, we heard a voice from behind us call out, “Aha, I knew I’d spot you here, Jennifer!”

The voice came from an older woman who’s studying here with her husband. They’re both from Wales. She taught English and he had his own law firm before they moved here last year. She’s a short, petite, sweetheart of a woman. With a hair full of curly hair and a squinty smile that’s always beaming. He’s tall and wears glasses. He usually hangs in the background, like a tree, and lets her carry the conversation, only interjecting to make a witty comment here and there. She always makes a point to say “Hi” to Jen when she sees her, and she makes us both feel at home in a place that feels so very much unlike our home.

“And look at this,” she said, pointing out the ruffles on Jen’s dress. “With a black coat… I like that!” Jen smiled. And thanked her.

“So wonderful to see you both,” she said matter of factly, wearing her squinty smile as she exited the large, arched door into the dark night, with her tall husband looming behind her. He turned to offer us a soft smile and a head nod as he followed her to their room in the college.

Thursday: Breakfast with the guys & A thankful tour

I began Thursday by meeting a group of guys over breakfast. Rich, Max and I are all studying theology here, and we got together regularly last year. Usually weekly. To talk life and faith and studies. And another guy, by the name of Britton, was joining us this morning. Britton’s also studying theology here. He and his wife are from Hawaii. And they’re also in their second year here. It was nice to have him join us.

We met at Giraffe. An eclectic place with brightly colored walls. And a menu that is heavy on organic options. I ordered the breakfast burrito. And Max ordered the stack of pancakes. Max always orders the stack of pancakes. The restaurant’s eccentric decor and tasty food provided the perfect accent to our conversation, and I found myself thankful for the opportunity to share life with these guys.

A Thankful Tour

I had a tour that afternoon back at the Kilns, so after a bit of studying, I made my way back to the bus stop and back to the Kilns. I arrived early enough to grab a quick lunch with Jen before the group arrived, a rare treat. Soon the doorbell was ringing to let us know the tour had arrived and Jen was slipping into a room to get some work done. And to evade the guests.

This particular tour was from a group of elderly British women. They had a name for themselves, too. “Aging with Grace,” or something along those lines. They were a wonderful group. Very kind and attentive. And I think since they were older, and British, they could relate to a lot of the things I shared with them about Lewis. Things that younger, American tourists might be able to appreciate as much (such as living in war-time England and the like, things that largely influenced his writing).

Interestingly, only one of the women really seemed to have read much of Lewis’s books. The rest only seemed to know bits and pieces about him. Which I thought was great, as I got to answer a lot of great questions.

Halfway through the tour, one of the women who wasn’t very familiar with C.S. Lewis said, “He really sounds like a wonderful man,” with her eyebrows low, revealing a sense of seriousness.

“Yeah, I think he was, from all that I know about him, and from what others have told me,” I replied.

As I wrapped up the tour that afternoon, that same older woman thanked me for the tour, and then she asked me for the person in charge. I clarified who she might be looking to reach, and then I tracked down Dr Stan Matson‘s contact information (Dr Matson is Founder and President of the CS Lewis Foundation). When I asked her why she was interested in getting in touch with him, she said it was because she was wanting to let him know what a wonderful job I had done.

“I wasn’t very excited to come today, but now I just want to go home and read C.S. Lewis,” she told me as she was preparing to leave.

“Oh, good,” I said with a wide smile. “Well, mission accomplished, then.”

As soon as the group was gone, Jen popped up from around the corner with a cookie in one hand and a hot cup of tea in the other.

“Oh, wow!” I said with a look of surprise. “Thank you hun!”

She asked me how the tour had gone, and I shared the woman’s comments with her. But I didn’t have long to elaborate, or to enjoy my tea, for that matter, as I had a meeting back at Harris Manchester that I was supposed to be at. With the Principal and Senior Tutor. A meeting I could not be late for.

Meeting with the Principal & Senior Tutor

I made it back to Harris Manchester just in time for my meeting. Or so I thought. I ran to the flight of stairs leading up to the Principal’s office, where we’d be meeting, only to find that there were still several people ahead of me, and that things were running late. And so, after waiting for 20 minutes or so, and talking with several other students, I was called into Principal Waller’s office, by the Principal himself. He greeted me with his old familiar warm smile as he welcomed him into the room. Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated in her old familiar spot, by the window.

All of the Finalists (final year students) at Harris Manchester were required to sit in on these meetings. To discuss their plans for the final year, and to make sure each Finalist felt like they were doing okay leading up to final exams.

“Frankly, a lot of Finalists like to forget about the fact that they will soon be taking their finals,” Lesley said with a bit of a smirk, “but that doesn’t make the reality of finals go away.”

I told them I did, in fact, realize that I’d be finishing that year, and that I felt like I had a good idea of what I needed to do in the mean-time.

Principal Waller asked what I was taking this term, and what I had left to take before starting on preparations for my finals. And so I told them.

“Well, it certainly sounds like you’re going to be busy,” he said in response, in that voice that always sounds a bit sympathetic, no matter what he’s saying. And then, as if to show he really was concerned, his eyebrows pushed together in the middle of his forehead, and they lowered to just over his eyes as he spoke again, “Do make sure you use the vacation. Get away from studies and get caught up on rest. You will need it.”

It actually surprised me to hear Principal Waller say this. Most of my tutors give me a stack of books they’d like me to use to work on revisions over the holidays, which always makes it seem a bit less like vacation. But here was Principal Waller telling me to make sure I get caught up on rest. I’ve always knew I liked this guy.

I thanked Lesley and Principal Waller for their time as we shook hands and I let myself out of his office. It’s funny how nervous I was the first time I had a meeting with the Principal and Senior Tutor, and how incredibly comfortable I am with them now. It’s funny how much that’s changed, in such a short period of time.

Coming home to a smile

I followed up my meeting with some studies in the library. A couple hours’ worth, before gathering up my things and making my way home for dinner. I hopped on a bus on High Street and continued reading while the bus carried us through the dark Oxford roads that lead to the Kilns, stopping only for a moment to let passengers off. And others on.

20 minutes later I was getting off at the end of Lewis Close, and walking the 100 yards or so to the Kilns. Passing through the gate in the front hedges, I made my way around to the front of the house, on the pebbled walking path, and as I did, I stepped into the light that was pouring out through the kitchen windows. And it was there I caught a scene that made me stop in my tracks and take it in.

It was Jen, in the kitchen, standing side by side with Debbie at the AGA stove. They were making dinner together. And they were both smiling. And I found myself frozen by this scene. I found myself stopped dead in my tracks, thinking “She looks so happy.” And the smile on Jen’s face took me back. To the first time I saw it. More than 10 years ago now. When she was being crowned Homecoming royalty in our high school auditorium. I was just a Junior in high school at the time. Jen was a freshman. And it wasn’t long after that that I went home and told my Mom I believed God created that smile just for me. And now, more than 10 years later, it was still stopping me dead in my tracks.

As I stood outside the Kilns on this particular night. Outside of C.S. Lewis’s old home. And as the light from the kitchen and this scene poured out of the kitchen onto the walking path where I now stood in the darkness, I found myself in awe of all God has done. In giving me this beautiful, incredible woman as my wife. In allowing me to enjoy all of this journey with my high school sweetheart. And for all of the blessings He has poured out on our lives along the way. It’s all more than I could ever hope for or dream of. And yet, and yet it’s exactly what He’s given us. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

Thanks for reading.

3rd week of Trinity Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police and Americans at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis Society & Dinner with Aidan Mackey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: We are the message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music to my ears in the park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is energy?”

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

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

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

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

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

Easter weekend in Oxford was an incredible time. Jen and I agreed, it was one of the most memorable Easters for either one of us. Even though we didn’t actually make it to church . . . I know, I know. Horrible. And I’m not proud of it. But here’s what happened . . .

A South of the Border Easter Brunch

We had plans to go to church at St. Aldate’s that evening. At the 6:00 service we’ve so been enjoying. And so we started off the day with a brunch at Rob & Vanessa‘s place. They were throwing a Mexican-inspired Easter Brunch. Vanessa makes some of the best Mexican food of anyone I know. And, considering the fact that I’ve only experienced her Mexican cooking here in Oxford, where the variety of Mexican ingredients is about as deep as the Spice Girls’ greatest hits album, that’s saying something.

Jen and I made the 20-minute walk to their place, carrying bags of fresh fruit for a fruit salad we’d make up once we arrived. We were the first ones to make it to their place, and we came across Rob as he was in-between the common room (where we’d be eating) and their apartment when we came strolling up the lane. We dropped off our things in the common room and made our way to their apartment. Vanessa was still working away in the kitchen when we arrived. Their apartment felt like a sauna, with the warm away rushing out of the door to greet us. We could tell she had been working hard all morning. And it smelled amazing.

After chatting with them both for a few minutes, we let Vanessa get back to wrapping up her work in the kitchen, and we excused ourselves from the sauna to go prepare our fruit salad in the common room kitchen. Not long after we began cutting up fruit, many others began showing up. Lots of people we hadn’t seen for a while. Friends who had been away during the break. Like Tyler & Lauren.

“Hey guys!” Lauren said with a big smile as she found us working away in the kitchen. Jen washing the fruit, and me cutting it. Tyler & Lauren had recently taken a cruise. Through Greece. They actually just got in the night before. So they were still a bit tired. We asked her how they found it, since neither Jen nor I had ever been on a cruise. She said they loved it. And that she’d have to take back all those bad things she said about Royal Caribbean over the years.

We wrapped up our fruit platter just in time to join everyone in the common room, and to bow our heads as Rob led us in prayer. There must’ve been between 15 and 20 people there for brunch. Lots of Rob & Vanessa’s friends from the MBA program, mostly. And us. The spread of food was amazing. Vanessa gave us all the rundown before inviting people to come dish up.

The main event of the spread was definitely the migas. If you’ve never had them before, migas are basically a mexican scrambled egg dish made with tortillas and salsa and cheese. They’re mazing. I had only had migas once before, but I loved them. My old roommate at Seattle Pacific introduced me to migas. Ryan. At one of my favorite breakfast spots back home. I take that back. It is my favorite breakfast spot back home.

But that wasn’t all. No, in addition to the migas, Vanessa had made a french toast style casserole. Homemade cinnamon rolls. And loads of other brunch goodies. I hopped in line and quickly went about the business of filling my plate to the point of overflow. Carefully balancing my paper plate, now full of fresh fruit, migas and homemade cinnamon rolls, I made my way out to the back garden and took a seat at one of the large, wooden, round tables where Rob had just found a seat and had begun working away on his own plate.

It was a beautiful, sunny day that Easter. And it was so nice to be able to enjoy this brunch outdoors. A few minutes later, Jen and Vanessa made their way outside, plates in hand, and joined Rob and I at the table where we were sitting. It was great to catch up with them both. They had both been back in the States over the break, and so it was nice to hear about their trips. Rob was visiting several companies back on the West Coast. And Vanessa had been back in Seattle helping out with several friend’s pregnancies and deliveries.

We enjoyed the delicious food and conversation from our seat in the sun, as others filed out of the common room and took their seats at several of the tables in the back garden. The food really was delicious. And, even though Vanessa was pretty disappointed that the cinnamon rolls came out fairly undercooked, Rob and I didn’t seem to mind. Even going back for seconds and helping ourselves to the warm, gooey cinnamon mess. It seemed to embarrass Vanessa, as they were clearly not in any sort of “roll” form at this point, but they were genuinely delicious, so we didn’t mind.

After a couple hours, Jen and I said our “thank you’s” and “goodbyes” and we made our way to the bus stop. I had nearly forgotten about our Easter commitments at the Kilns that afternoon after I filled up my second plate of brunch, but I didn’t actually mind too much.

Easter at C.S. Lewis’s home

We arrived at the Kilns around 2:00 that afternoon. Melissa greeted us at the front door when we arrived. Melissa is from the States, and she’s filling in for the full-time Kilns warden who’s currently back in the States dealing with some visa issues. She welcomed us in and we met up with the rest of the group in the kitchen. Dan, who lives at the Kilns, was working away on preparing the afternoon dinner, while a married couple who we didn’t know sat at the kitchen counter, preparing something that involved very small eggs.

“They’re quail eggs,” the guy said, turning to us with a smile.

“Ah,” was my response. “I’ve never had quail eggs before.”

“Well, they taste like eggs, but smaller,” he joked, in his British accent.

Dan introduced us to his two friends. He a nurse. She a youth worker in a local church. They both seemed really nice. He was tall, with spiky hair and glasses. She wore a cardigan and a pearl necklace.

We enjoyed getting to know them a bit while Dan finished preparing the dinner (lamb with all the fixings) and they finished arranging the salad on several plates (quail eggs and asparagus). It wasn’t long before we were all winding down the hallway toward the dining room, trying to find room among all the plates, glasses, flatware and food. The table was literally overflowing.

“Right, well, who’d like to say grace?” Dan asked, taking a seat at the head of the table, with his back to the window where the afternoon sun was pouring into the home.

“I’d like to hear an American blessing,” said Dan’s friend, with a smile. Laughter rounded the table.

“Sure, I’d be happy to,” I said. “Unless you’d like to,” I said, turning to Jen.”

“No, that’s okay,” she said, somewhat sheepishly. “I’ll let you go.”

So I did. And then we dug in. Starting with the quail eggs and asparagus (he was right–they do taste just like eggs, only smaller) before moving on to the main course: lamb, potatoes, yorkshire pudding (which isn’t actually pudding…) and broccoli. It was amazing. All of it. We filled our plates several times, and emptied them several times, before leaning back heavily into our chairs and talking about our plans for the Easter egg hunt.

Dan had the idea of having an Easter egg hunt around the property. Just the six of us “adults.” I thought it was a great idea. We all brought our own chocolate eggs, which we’d be hiding. Everyone else brought these gigantic chocolate eggs, whereas Jen and I brought these small chocolate eggs. We called it strategy.

After a bit of deliberation around the dining room table, as to whether we should have it indoors or outdoors, we decided we’d hold the Easter egg hunt out in the nature reserve, in the woods around the pond just a short walk from Lewis’s house. A pond where he used to swim and take his punt out regularly.

We left the dishes and headed up toward the pond, with our chocolate eggs in hand. We split up, two at a time, and we had several minutes to run and hide our eggs. Then, just to make it interesting, we decided to write up hints to help people find our egg on a small piece of paper, which we’d draw from a hat. This was all very complicated, I know. But that’s what happens when you get a bunch of adults having their own Easter egg hunt around C.S. Lewis’s home.

We all took several minutes to scribble down our clues before tossing them in a hat of Dan’s. I made mine rhyme. And then we took turns drawing the clues. Puzzled looks all around.

“All right, let’s go,” Dan said with a wide grin.

And we were off. Dan was the first to find his egg, running back to where we started with great excitement. It felt just like a normal Easter egg hunt. Only we were a bit taller. It wasn’t long before I found the egg that went with my clue. Hidden under a small, wooden footbridge. Dan and I stood at the edge of the pond, chocolate eggs in hand, and waited for the rest of the group.

Turns out I hadn’t been completely fair in hiding my egg. Well, I take that back. I hadn’t been completely fair in hiding my egg for anyone under seven feet tall (it was on top of a downed tree, which I could reach, but was a bit out of sight for the five-foot friend of Dan’s who was trying to find it). So I helped her.

About 20 minutes later, we were all walking down the hill toward the Kilns, chocolate Easter eggs in-hand. It was only then that I glanced at my watch and realized what time it was. Already much later than I thought, and too late for us to catch the bus back to the Oxford city center in time for the 6:00 church service at St. Aldate’s that we were planning on going to. I felt horrible . . . It was Easter, after all. I should’ve been paying better attention.

Realizing there was no way we’d make it to the service in-time, we took Dan up on his offer to take a seat in the front garden with everyone and enjoy the beautiful evening. It had been a perfect day. Warm. But not too warm. And blue skies.

Dan brought out his pipe. He explained that Jonathan had just given it to him as a gift. Jonathan is one of the other scholars in residence there at the Kilns.

“A lot of times we’ll go up to the pond and have a smoke from the bench where Lewis used to sit,” Dan shared with us, while fiddling with the pipe and tobacco. Removing the pipe from a small box.

Dan’s friend, the nurse, gave him a hard time. About how bad it was for his health. How foolish he was. And how there’s no way he’d ever do that. He was pretty relentless.

I always associate pipes with my Grandpa. In the evenings, after working on projects around his house when I was growing up, I remember watching him light up his pipe from his reclining chair in the living room. With one eye closed. Focusing as he puffed on the pipe to get it going. Then shaking the match in one hand to put it out. And, to this day, the smell of pipe tobacco makes me feel like a young boy, sitting in my Grandpa’s living room. After a long day of working outside with him. On projects around the house.

“Would you like a pipe?” Dan asked, looking across the garden at me. “I have an extra one.”

“Uh, sure, yeah,” I said. Realizing I’d never actually smoked a pipe before, and that I had no idea what I was doing. Except for that old picture of my Grandpa in my head.

I remember telling Jen I wanted a pipe one evening when we were going to bed shortly after moving here to Oxford. Because I liked the smell of them. She told me “no,” because they are bad for you. I told her she was confusing pipes with cigarettes.

I did my best to arrange the stringy tobacco into the pipe, without looking too much like I had no idea what I was doing, but realizing it was quite clear I had no idea what I was doing. Then came the lighting. Dan threw me a box of matches. Bracing the pipe between my teeth, I struck a match and did my best to light the pile of stringy tobacco sitting in the bowl of the pipe.

Without realizing it, I had become quite focused on this process. Crossing my eyes to focus my gaze on my match and the pile of tobacco in front of my face. Dan’s friend, the nurse, began laughing at me.

“I’m sorry,” he said, with a bit of a restrained laugh. “I don’t mean any offense, but you don’t look very intelligent right now.” That was his British way of saying I looked stupid.

Everyone else turned to see my face and began to laugh. And I realized he was probably right.

I gave it a couple more attempts before throwing in the towel and resorting to taking in the smell from Dan’s pipe, which, as it turns out, might actually be better than the real thing. I realized I should probably stick to the sidelines when it comes to smoking a pipe. But, at least I gave it my best. We were at C.S. Lewis’s house after all.

We enjoyed pudding with the group, a wonderful berry shortcake dessert Jen had brought, before saying our goodbyes and heading off to catch the bus. As we passed through the metal gate that sits between the green hedges in front of the Kilns, the sun beginning its descent just beyond the house, Jen turned to me and said, “You know, I think today has been one of the most memorable Easters.” And I had to agree.

Monday: Steve’s Return to Oxford

My best friend Steve was arriving that Monday. The day after Easter. He actually flew out the day of Easter. After going to church with his mom and fiance. And grabbing brunch with them both.

I was excited to see him again. It had been several months. But it felt like a lot longer. Both Jen and I were glad he was making the trip out.

I met him at the bus stop that afternoon, taking my Bible with me to prepare for my collections (exams) at the end of the week. I arrived about 10 minutes before Steve’s bus was scheduled to arrive, so I found a seat under one of the bus canopies and read while I waited. Not long after that, I saw Steve come walking off a bus with his luggage in tow. He was dressed really sharp, as he usually does, which made me self-conscious. It was another beautiful, warm day, so I was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals.

“Hey bud, it’s great to see you!” I said, greeting him with a smile and a hug. “Let me take one of these for you.”

We crossed the courtyard beside the bus stop and climbed into one of the cabs.

“27A Northmoor Road,” I told the driver as we got in.

“So how are you doing, bud?” I asked, turning to Steve.

“Yeah, good. Glad to be back. It’s funny, everything is just how I remember it. It feels like I was just here,” he said as our cab pulled through the city center.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I remember feeling the same way when I returned.”

I asked him about his Easter. Then he asked me about mine.

“Uh . . . Well, we had a great Easter, but we didn’t go to church . . .” I said, in a voice of embarrassment.

“You didn’t go to church?! . . . But it was Easter?” he said with a voice of shock.

“Yeah, no, I know. . .,” I said, preparing to explain myself. “We were at a dinner and then we had an Easter egg hunt and we lost track of time,” I said, trying to keep my voice down, hoping the taxi driver wouldn’t hear. I didn’t want him judging me.

Thursday: Exam Preparations & Jen’s Departure

I had exams on the Friday following Easter. The Friday several days after Steve arrived. I was to be tested on my classes from the previous term. That’s how Oxford does it. They give you a six to eight week long break, but then test you afterward, which kind of spoils the fun of a “break.”

Because of all our travels, I had made very little time for my exam preparation. Certainly less than I had hoped. Which meant that the week following Easter included a lot of time in the library for me. Going over notes and preparing. I ended up typing up more than 120 pages worth of notes in preparation for my two exams. They’d take six hours in total, and I wanted to make sure I was ready.

That Thursday night was the night before the Royal Wedding, which Jen would be attending with several of her girlfriends. Originally, they had planned to camp out just outside of Westminster Abbey, which I was less than excited about. Fortunately, they found someone–a friend of a friend–at the last minute who had a spare room, just a short walk from Westminster Abbey. I never thought that would happen, the night before the Royal Wedding. But it did. Which made saying goodbye to her that night much more doable.

So, we said “goodbye” to Jen and had a guy’s night in her absence, Steve and I. It was great. Having him in town again. And catching up.

But Jen had a pretty great time herself. I’ll let her tell you all about it. Here’s Jen . . .

The Night Before the Royal Wedding

My friends Vanessa, Lauren and I started our journey to the Royal Wedding by taking the train from Oxford to London on Thursday night (the night before the big day).

Once we arrived in London (about an hour later), we took the Tube (subway) and we got out at Big Ben and Westminister Abbey. We walked by the front of Westminister Abbey and the sidewalks packed full of people who were all ready camping out.

There was a vibe in the air and everyone was so excited.

We walked around for a while and took in a lot of the sights on the eve of the Royal Wedding. It was a really exciting place to be.

After a while, we decided to eat dinner at a Sushi restaurant. Then we went and got a Chinese back massage for 12 minutes before enjoying some Snog (a sugar-free, fat-free frozen yogurt). It has a different taste but it is really good. After our Snog we walked by Buckingham Palace and then back to Westminster Abbey.

Lauren had bought a mask of Kate before the wedding. We had so much fun going around with her wearing it. Lots of people were saying, “Look there’s Kate!” or they would ask Lauren how she was feeling the night before her wedding day. But as we were walking to dinner we found “Prince William” and, of course, we had to get a picture of Kate and William the day before their wedding!

We got to the apartment where we were staying that night after midnight. We had a lot of fun in London, but if we wanted to get a good spot at the wedding the next morning, we would have to be up early.

Friday: The day of the Royal Wedding!

We woke up a little after 4:30 Friday morning, which is way too early! That is why I was so happy to get coffee before doing anything else.

We got to our spot in front of Westminster Abbey at 5:30 and met my friend Melissa there. Melissa is from California, and she worked at the Kilns with me for a while this spring.

We had the perfect view of the front door of Westminister Abbey from where we were standing, where all the royalty would be going in. Vanessa and Lauren were at the back of the sidewalk where there was a wall and Melissa and I were in the middle of the sidewalk.

When all was said and done I counted that I was five or six people back from the front row of people looking on, which gave us a great view of everyone entering. Like the Queen . . .Prince William and Prince Henry………

And the Royal couple themselves . . .

After the ceremony, Lauren was interviewed by BBC because of her Kate mask.

We all were very excited and even though we ended up waiting for nearly five hours that morning, it was very much worth the wait!

After the ceremony we walked back to the apartment where we stayed the night. Along the way we saw several people who had attended the Wedding, including who we thought was Posh Spice (aka Victoria Beckham), which was pretty cool.

Once we got to the apartment, we turned on the TV and watched the Royal Couple come out at Buckingham Palace and greet everyone. That is where they shared their first kiss. Being there in London that morning with these girls for the Royal Wedding really was an experience I will always remember.

Ryan’s Royal Wedding Day of Exams

While Jen was at the Royal Wedding in London, I was in a room at Harris Manchester here in Oxford full of other students frantically scribbling down their essays. I had two exams that day: Old Testament in the morning, and Patristics (early church fathers) in the afternoon. Each three hours long. By the time I was finished, my brains felt like my mush. And I realized, walking out of the room, I actually couldn’t feel my index finger and thumb. The ends of each finger had gone numb from writing with a pencil so frantically all day!

I wandered out of the room and, as I was heading up to the library to gather my things, I saw Steve seated on a bench at the end of the hallway. After six hours of essays, I was pretty happy to see him seated there.

“Hey bud!” I said, turning mid-step form the stairs leading up to the library to turn down the hallways leading toward him. We talked for a while from his seat there in the front entryway of Harris Manchester. About our plans. We decided a trip to The Trout would be a good way to celebrate the end of my exams, the preparations for which had taken up nearly all my time since he arrived.

I grabbed my things from the library and we headed home. Hoping to catch up with Jen, as she had only just returned from London, and bring her along with us to the Trout. I kept telling Steve how much of a relief it was to have my exams behind me, after studying non-stop for them for so long. I’m sure he got tired of hearing about it, but it was an incredible weight off my shoulder. We got nearly halfway home before I realized I was without my bike, which I had ridden to exams at college that morning. I apologized to Steve and we headed back to Harris Manchester. I told you my brains were mush.

Jen was home when we finally made it back. I found her lying in bed upstairs. She was exhausted.

She told me all about her time in London. How close she was to the wedding. And how much she enjoyed hanging out with the girls. But she was beat, having hardly slept, and walked all over the city. Her feet were killing her and she was really looking forward to just lying down and getting some rest. Which made telling her our idea of going to The Trout for dinner to celebrate tough.

She was hesitant at first, and so I told her we could just do it another night, but she insisted she was up for it. I’ve said it here before, and I’ll probably say it again, but she’s tough as nails.

We made the three-mile walk, across several footbridges, through a small village and around the countryside, and soon we were sitting around a small table in the dim, low-ceilinged pub. It’s an amazing place, first recommended to me by Walter. Apparently it was built as an inn back in the seventeenth-century, right on the water, and today its this incredible pub, with the river slowly flowing by the windows.

We placed our orders and all of a sudden I could exhale. Seated around this table with my two best friends. Laughing like I hadn’t laughed in a long, long time. It was the perfect ending to the week, and I was so thankful to have that time together.

A couple weeks into my spring break here, we were visited by some good friends of ours from back home. Monty & Heidi. And their son Brock and daughter Lacy. Monty & Heidi have been good friends of Jen’s parents since way back when, and we always have a great time with them.

Their daughter Lacy is graduating from high school this year, and she’s been wanting to take a trip to Europe for, well for a long time, from the sounds of it, so they decided to make a trip out of her graduation gift and see us along the way. Jen’s parents, Tim & Rhonda, had been planning on visiting us in the spring, so we all decided to take a vacation together. Starting in Oxford and then moving on to London, Monty & Heidi would spend a few days touring around the UK before Tim & Rhonda arrived several days later and we all continued on to Rome and Paris.

Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy arrived here in Oxford on a Thursday afternoon. It was their first time in the UK, and so Monty had a lot of fun driving their rental car (a stick shift) on the wrong side of the road for the first time. They all looked happy to be out of the car when they arrived.

“We hit six curbs getting here,” Lacy said with a wide grin shortly after they arrived.

“Only six?” I asked. “Well that’s not so bad.”

We helped them unload their luggage from the rental car and showed them around Oxford. I was impressed by how much energy they had after all the travels.

We showed them my college. We walked past Eagle & Child and I pointed out where Lewis, Tolkein and others used to meet every week. We showed them Christ Church, and we rounded out the evening with a trip to the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. I ordered the Sydney burger: served with beet, pineapple and a fried egg.

Lacy asked why I liked egg so much (after hearing about the ham and egg pizza I had ordered at the pizza place across the street). I shrugged my shoulders while finishing chewing a big bite of my burger.

“Because they’re good,” I replied, after finishing chewing. “And good for you.”

A trip to the Cotswolds, the Kilns, and Eagle & Child

The next day, we took a drive to the Cotswolds, stopping into Bourton on the Water first. It’s a beautiful little village with a wide, shallow stream that runs through the middle of it.

Wide, green lawns provide plenty of space for families to walk, kids to run, and couples to play frisbee. It’s a beautiful place, particularly on a sunny day.

A handful of ducks floated softly along the surface of the water the afternoon we were there, as walked on the cobblestone sidewalk in front of the store shops. Jewelers, clothing boutique shops, and small game stores rounded out the village.

We ordered lunch at a place on the edge of the village with sweeping lawns and a large willow tree. We ate outdoors, as it was a sunny afternoon, and most everyone ordered the fish and chips. Except for Lacy, who ordered the chicken nuggets. Everyone liked their fish, but most were not big fans of their side of mashed peas. Which meant I had loads of peas to go along with my fish (I’m one of the few people I know here who’s a fan of mashed peas).

We looked at a handful of shops after finishing our lunch and, before leaving Bourton on the Water, we stopped at a small ice cream shop. The cool ice cream was a welcome treat on the warm afternoon.

For our next stop, we visited another small village, called Lower Slaughter. This village is even older than Bourton on the Water. It really makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time when you’re there. Like Bourton on the Water, Lower Slaughter is also built right on a stream, and there are small footbridges that make a path to cross it throughout the village.

Two young girls were seated on one of the footbridges when we walked past, kicking their legs in the air hanging over the stream and smiling in the sunlight.

The large, wooden water wheel at the end of the lane was flowing, turning over and over as the water flipped it round and round.

The homes in Lower Slaughter are amazing. The kind you would expect to see in a Thomas Kincaid painting. One after another after another. Stone homes, with thatched rooftops, and low, wooden gates at the front of each walkway leading to the front door.

After a walk around the village, we climbed back into the rental car and made our way back to Oxford. We pulled into town just before 5:00 that afternoon, and we decided to pull up to the Kilns for a quick tour before heading home. They were leaving for London the next morning, and they were hoping to see the Kilns before leaving. I called Deb and made sure she didn’t mind us stopping by. She was in town doing a bit of shopping at the time, but she told us to go ahead and stop in, that one of the scholars in residence would likely let us in. So we did. It was fun showing them around, where Jen and I work, and telling them about the house.

By the time we finished and made it back to our house, it was dinner time, so we walked to the city center and introduced them to their first pub experience, at the Eagle and Child. Monty and Brock followed my lead and tried their luck with the bangers and mash. They were not disappointed.

A poorly-timed trip to London and Addison’s Walk

The next morning, Jen prepared some freshly baked scones before seeing Monty & Heidi and Brock and Lacy off to London. They’d be spending the next two days there before we all flew off to Rome.

Unfortunately, when they arrived in London, they were met by hundreds of thousands of protesters. There’s no way they could’ve seen this one coming when they had booked their trip, but apparently the people of London chose this weekend to stage a massive protest over the recent government cuts. It was the largest protest in London since the 1960’s, and they all found themselves square in the middle of it.

People were climbing buildings and shouting. Others were throwing paint on shops and breaking storefront windows. Apparently it was peaceful for the most part, but others decided to take it as an opportunity to cause some ruckus. After getting their phone call to tell us they couldn’t do anything they had planned because of the protesting, we turned on our TV to see it all unfold. Sure enough, there were hundreds of thousands of protesters; it looked like quite the mess. We felt horrible for them, and told them they were welcome to return to (protest-free) Oxford if they liked. They decided to stick it out, and they made it safely back to their hotel. It really was terrible timing.

After seeing Monty & Heidi off, we met up with Rich & Christine and Max & Michelle. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Oxford, and Rich suggested we take advantage of it by going to Magdalene College for a walk. Magdelene College is where CS Lewis taught here at Oxford, and it’s famous for its beautiful gardens. I had yet to go take it all in, so I was quick to take Rich up on his suggestion.

We met up with the rest of them just outside the large, stone college walls, and we walked through the massive courtyards before making our way to the back of the college and into the college gardens.

Oxford really is a beautiful place to be in the spring time. All of the trees have transformed their previously skeletal-like frames into these amazing, blossoming towers that seem to reach out at you from every corner, as if to hand you a bouquet of freshly blossomed flowers. Seemingly out of nowhere, flower beds have sprouted up, spreading fields of bright colors where there was previously only greens and browns. The entire city smells amazing, like it’s all just coming awake from the long winter and it has put on it’s finest, flower-scented perfume.

Addison’s Walk leads visitors along the river that runs through the Magdalene College grounds, and beside Deer Park, aptly named for all the deer that call it home.

C.S. Lewis loved being outdoors. He loved going for long walks, and he often did so here at Addison’s Walk. But, what makes this walk particularly meaningful for those interested in Lewis is that this is the trail where he first seriously began rethinking the Christian Faith. Thanks to a conversation with a good friend of his by the name of J.R.R. Tolkein, as well as another friend by the name of Hugo Dyson, in 1931, C.S. Lewis gave second-thought to this idea of God writing Himself into our story, to pay a death on behalf of His own creation, so that they might be made right with Him.

It was the kind of story of myths and fairy tales, which, as a Professor of Literature, Lewis loved. But, as Lewis’ friends described to him that afternoon on their walk, this was one myth that was more than myth, it was historic fact. Of this conversation, Lewis later wrote to his best friend Arthur Greeves,

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god sacrificing himself to himself…. I liked it very much… provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels… Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with tremendous difference that it really happened…. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) that this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths; (b) that it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly sure that it happened….”

Monday: flying out to Rome

Jen and I woke up Monday morning to wrap up the last of our packing before heading off to the airport. We would be meeting Tim & Rhonda there before flying out to Rome, while Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy would be flying out that morning. We’d meet up with them at our hotel in Rome.

We arrived at the airport at the time Tim & Rhonda were scheduled to land. But they didn’t come walking out of their gate until nearly an hour later. The anticipation of seeing them mounted as we waited, and I told Jen this is what it felt like waiting for her to arrive that first time her and Steve came out last fall.

Finally, after nearly an hour of waiting, Tim & Rhonda came wandering out of the arrivals gate looking relatively well rested. I was impressed, and it was great to see them. We exchanged hugs and made our way to check in for our flight to Rome.

We had a bit of a wait before our flight, so we grabbed lunch at a restaurant in the airport. A pub. It was great just to talk and laugh with them again. And it was a weird feeling, thinking we were actually in England with Jen’s parents.

We made it into Rome around 9:00 that evening. We hadn’t eaten since lunch, and so we were all quite hungry. Having landed ahead of us, Monty & Heidi told us they had found a great restaurant not far from our hotel. Sounded good enough for us.

We were greeted at the airport by our shuttle driver, and he whisked us along the Roman freeway to our hotel, about a 40-minute drive away. He pointed out things along the way in his thick Italian accent.

“Here are the walls to the old city. The Coliseum is that way… The Vatican is that way…” he said, pointing as he drove.

It seemed so unreal. Being here, and having things like the Coliseum and the Vatican pointed out. I was excited to see it all, but particularly the Coliseum.

Lots of motorcycles pulled in and out of traffic as we made our way to the hotel. Our driver acted like it was perfectly normal. The city felt alive, even though it was nearly 10:00 at night.

We met up with Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy at the hotel, dropped off our things in the room, and made the short walk to the restaurant for dinner. It was 10:00 by this time, but, strangely, it didn’t seem too late to be eating dinner. Other people were at the restaurants we passed along the way. And this restaurant, too, had a handful of other people eating. 

It was a nice-looking restaurant, and we were lead to a large, round table in the back of the room by a waiter dressed in a white shirt with slicked back hair. I ordered a pizza with eggs and ham. Lacy and the others laughed. It sounded good to me, I told them.

I was surprised to find it not quite how I had expected it when it arrived, though. The eggs were served hard-boiled and halved, and four of them sat perched atop my pizza alongside thinly cut pieces of pancetta (thinly cut, salted pork belly). Again, not quite what I was expecting, but I dug in anyway.

After ordering water with our dinner, we were surprised to find that it’s impossible to order “tap water” in Rome. At least it was for us. Instead, you end up paying for still, bottled water. About 3 euros a bottle (or well over $4). Crazy.

We thanked our waiter for the dinner, paid our bill, and made our walk back to our hotel. It had been a long day of traveling, particularly for Tim & Rhonda, and we were all anxious to get a good night’s rest before taking in the city the next day.

Tuesday: The Coliseum and ancient Rome

Waking up in Rome on our first full day in the city, I was surprised by how warm it was. It must’ve been close to 80 degrees out, which feels like summer for those of us from the Pacific Northwest. You add palm trees to the mix and you can put money on the fact that I’m g0ing to be taking full advantage of the opportunity to dust off the shorts and flip-flops. When we went to Cabo after our wedding, I did my best to wear just my swim trunks and flip-flops to as many places as possible. I could gladly be that guy the rest of my life.

But the funny part about this is that the Italians are the complete opposite. It’s 80 degrees outside and they’re wearing full-length coats and scarves. I didn’t understand it. In the Pacific Northwest, we’re known for people wearing socks with their velcro sandals, so clearly we don’t come from a place that values fashion over function.

Our first stop for the day was the Coliseum. A short walk and a subway ride away. I had been looking forward to the Coliseum from the time I first found out we were visiting Rome. Jen and I watched Gladiator just before coming, so we were well-prepared for it.

And it was something else. Just huge. As you’re walking up to it, it completely consumes your view, making you feel so incredibly small as you stand beside it.

We purchased some sort of tickets in advance, which meant we didn’t have to wait in the (long) line to get in. I was quite happy about that. There were loads of people there they day we visited. Tours, classes and families filled the walkways that led in and out of the enormous ruins.

The Coliseum has not aged well, either. Sure, it’s been a couple thousand years, but it looks it. The stone frame is broken all over the place, and it literally looks like it’s been through a storm. Apparently the Coliseum used to be covered in marble, but it was later pulled apart and much of it went toward the construction of the Vatican Museum (which we’d be visiting the next day). But, I don’t know, I think that’s part of the appeal, too. It wouldn’t seem quite so ancient if it were all shined up.

Like I said, it was a beautiful, hot day when we were there at the Coliseum, and the big blue skies provided quite the backdrop to take it all in.

We didn’t take a guided tour of the Coliseum; we just showed ourselves around instead. I listened in to one tour guide for part of the time; he seemed to know quite a bit about the place. I’m a little bummed we didn’t take a guided tour of the Coliseum, actually, as I think there is a lot I would’ve liked to hear about it, but didn’t.

I did read a few plaques along the way, though. I read one story about a famous gladiator who fought and killed a bear, a lion, a rhino and a number of other animals all in one day, with his bare hands. I thought that was something else. The Coliseum had on display a rather large collection of animal bones that they had found during their excavation work. From animals that had been killed as part of the entertainment at the Coliseum. It was rather remarkable how many different kinds of animals they had brought in there. Everything from exotic animals like elephants and giraffes to violent predators like lions and bears.

We snapped a group photo before wrapping up our time at the Coliseum, and I couldn’t help but wonder how successful the Coliseum would be if they still put on such shows today.

When we left the Coliseum, we were barraged by men trying to sell us things. There were men dressed up in Roman gladiator costumes trying to sell photo opportunities with them, and there was a seemingly endless amount of men dressed in black jackets and jeans trying to sell those passing by everything from camera tripods to Coliseum post cards and refrigerator magnets. Others were selling these squishy little figures in the shape of a ball that they would throw on the ground. When they hit the ground, they’d squish down flat, but then quickly reform themselves into a ball.

Guys were lined up on the sidewalk, one after another, for miles, trying to get you to buy these things, right outside of the Coliseum. I wasn’t a fan. It seemed like a good way to ruin this incredible place. To cheapen it.

And these guys were persistent. They’d walk right up to you, shoving whatever it was they were interested in selling directly into your face, and then ask you to buy it. Over and over again. And they wouldn’t leave you alone. They’d follow you, long after you had told them you were not interested in a camera tripod.

The next place we visited after the Coliseum was the oldest part of the city, the ancient Roman ruins. Apparently the oldest part of the city used to be built on a hill just across from the Coliseum.

We walked up the hill to take in the old city ruins. The walking path was lined with these trees that reminded me a bit of Dr. Suess. They shot up high into the sky, and they didn’t have any branches until they reached their highest point, before spreading out wide into an umbrella-like figure. I really liked the looks of those trees. I’ve never seen anything like them. Apart from these trees, there were loads of old city ruins, which made the Coliseum look pretty good in comparison.

After a short hike along a trail that wove back and forth with several switchbacks, we made it to the top of the hill, and we found a pretty spectacular view of Rome. It seemed like we could see for miles, looking out across the city. It was a great spot to take it all in. Homes and hotels were built in a more modern architecture, and they were interspersed among lots of incredible, older buildings. It really was a beautiful sight.

We took the opportunity to snap a few photos here, including one of ourselves.

Not long after we reached the top of the hill, dark clouds began rolling in, bringing a deep stroke of grey to an otherwise beautiful, blue skyline. It created a rather ominous scene, there from the top of the hill. One of the buildings, with winged angels on chariots at its peak, looked quite apocalyptic.

With the dark clouds came a bit of rain. And wind. Soon, I found myself standing in my shorts and flip-flops wishing I were the one wearing a full length coat and scarf. Maybe those Italians know a bit more about their weather than I give them credit for.


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.

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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