Archives for posts with tag: Christ Church

Saturday: Day 1 of Final Exams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope so,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Becoming a Godfather

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

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

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

More than Halfway There

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Sick to my Stomach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Final Finals Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting My Pen Down For the Last Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tear-Filled Phone Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The E-mail I Never Thought I Would Write

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

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

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

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

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

God is So Good

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

And her response took me off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Saying Goodbye to the Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: My Last Tours

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

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

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

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

Sorry to Go, Excited For the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories Are Not People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast in the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

When All Our Dreams Came True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, take me back to the start.”

The End Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love and gratitude,

Ryan (& Jen)

www.RyanAndJenGoToEngland.wordpress.com

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A Tour of Oxford

When we returned to Oxford from our time in Rome & Paris, Jen’s parents returned with us. They’d be spending a week with us here in Oxford before returning home. We were excited to show them around our new hometown. We were also looking forward to a bit of a low-key week, following the European, jet-setting lifestyle we had been living.

Jen returned to work the morning after we got back in. What can I say, I married a workaholic. So the three of us–Tim, Rhonda and myself–spent the day touring around Oxford, showing Tim & Rhonda all the highlights this city has to offer. We started with a look at some of the more famous Oxford architecture, including the Bridge of Sighs.

I pointed out the 400-year old Bodleian Library, and the Radcliffe Camera where I often study. As well as the large, University Church of the Virgin St. Mary that stands just behind it, reaching high into the sky.

We stopped inside to have a look around when we found a small orchestra practicing in the front of the church, as if just for us. We slid into the back row of pews and sat there, for several songs, enjoying the wonderful music in this beautiful old church, before continuing our tour.

From there, we made our way down to Cornmarket Street, full of shops and lots of sidewalk performers. Like this guy, who plays the violin while balancing on a tightrope with one foot.

After restraining myself from heckling this guy to see just how good his balance was, we wandered down to Christ Church, just a short walk away. I flashed my student ID and they porter at the front gate let us wander in, snapping photos of the wide, green lawns along the way.

We crossed the coutyard and entered through an arched doorway before climbing a wide, stone staircase leading to the Great Hall. The dining hall where Harry Potter and the gang shared meals while at Hogwarts.

It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, so we grabbed some ice cream after walking around the inside of Christ Church and we took a walk around the college meadow, a beautiful, park-like setting beyond the building’s high walls.

The park butts up against a river that runs along the eastern edge of Oxford. There were several people punting on the water, laughing as they haphazardly made their way down the water. Lots of first-timers, from the looks of it.

Leaving the Christ Church gardens, we walked back across the city and met up with Jen as she got off the bus, returning from her day of work at the Kilns. Her wide smile told us she was excited to see us sitting there, waiting for her to arrive, seated on a bench along High Street in the afternoon sun.

After a short stop into the market to pickup a few things for dinner, we made our way back home. Apparently it was the mens’ night to prepare dinner, which Rhonda thought was pretty great. Laughing, she snapped a photo of Tim and I together in the kitchen.

“It’s not every day you see this,” she said with a grin as she took the photo.

That night, I went to bed with a bit of a sore throat. I was hoping nothing would come of it, but that hope was all for nought. Not only did I wake up the next day with my sore throat still lingering, I also woke up to a stomach flu. Yeah, not a good combination.

That one-two punch had me in pretty bad shape for most of the remainder of Tim & Rhonda’s time with us here in Oxford. Not exactly how I wanted to spend that time.

Friday: A Breath of Fresh Air in the Cotswolds

Still, we did manage to see quite a bit over the next few days. On Friday, we rented a car and drove to the Cotswolds, introducing Tim & Rhonda to some beautiful, old English villages. I drove…

Our first stop was Bourton on the Water, the small Cotswold village with a quiet stream running through its center.

From there, we drove to some of the other, smaller villages in the area. All of the Cotswolds are connected by rather narrow English country roads. Only wide enough for one car at a time. Which means you spend most of the time hoping that you don’t find yourself face to face with another car going the opposite direction.

At one point, we came across this quaint little farm in the middle of, well, nowhere really. In-between villages. The home was beautiful. Built entirely out of this ancient stone.

It was surrounded by stone fences and fields. And in the field closest to it, there were loads of sheep. Including several young sheep, prancing about.

We ended up stopping the car and just watching these little guys run around for a while. It felt a bit surreal, standing there on this one-lane-road in the middle of the English countryside, seemingly untouched by humanity for hundreds of years, watching these sheep run and play with each other. But it was beautiful. Like a breath of fresh air.

Saturday: A trip to London

The next day, we took Tim & Rhonda to London. They had never been, so there was a lot to show them. We took a ride on the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel that sits right on the river, looking out over Parliament, and much of the London city center.

It was a pretty impressive view, as we climbed to the peak of the Eye, rolled its crest and looked out across the city.

After our trip on the Eye, Jen took a walk along the river with Tim & Rhonda. To go see the London Tower. I was feeling pretty worn out, as I was still a bit under the weather from my cold  / flu, so I sat this one out. Choosing instead to find a spot in the grass beneath the London Eye and try to nap in the sun.

Apparently along their walk, they stumbled across a sandcastle building contest along the shores of the Thames…

The Tower of London is a pretty good walk from where we parted ways, at the London Eye. And I think Jen had underestimated how long it takes, but, after a while, they finally made it to the Tower, and it made for some great pictures.

After taking in the sights of London Saturday, we made our way back to the carpark so we could head home. Except things didn’t go nearly as smoothly as planned.

We ended up getting lost and we walked much longer than we probably needed to. But, by around 9:00 that night, we had finally found our car. We were all feeling pretty tired from walking around London all day, and so we were looking forward to getting back to Oxford. Unfortunately, even after we found our car, we still weren’t out of the woods just yet.

We ran into a bit of a snag in the car park. For some reason, the ticketing system and arm that lets drivers out after they paid stopped working, just as we were trying to get out. After phoning up the operator, we were told that they couldn’t do anything about it from where they were, and that they needed to send someone out to have a look at the machine.

“No big deal,” we thought. We pulled our car over to the side of the parkade, out of the way of the gate, and we waited. But we weren’t the only ones wanting to leave that night. Soon, there was a long line of cars waiting to get out. All growing increasingly impatient, and all taking turns calling up this operator and letting her know their great frustration. Each time, the operator apologized and let them know there was nothing they could do to get the gate open from where they were, and that someone was coming to take a look at it.

Lots of shaking heads and crossed arms. People got out of their cars and began trying to lift up the arm of the gate, to see if they could somehow force it up.

Finally, after about 45 minutes of this scene, a man got on the phone and told the operator that he was going to call the fire department if someone was not down here in five minutes to get this gate open. Like magic, the gate arm that the operator said could not be opened so many times before now was lifted. Car engines fired up and took off in a hurry, full of drivers and passengers anxious to get out of the parkade that had held them like prisoners for nearly an hour.

Not exactly the perfect end to our day in London, but at least now we were finally making our way back home.

Sunday: Sick in Bed & Oxford Punting

On Sunday morning, we all woke up and went to St. Aldate’s together, the church Jen and I have been attending here in Oxford. We were excited to share it with Tim & Rhonda. It was a great service, and it was really nice to be able to show Tim & Rhonda our church home here in Oxford.

Afterward, we wandered through the city center in search of a good place for a post-church brunch. We ended up at Giraffe, a place I knew served pancakes. It was another sunny day, and it shone through the large restaurant windows, warming us as we browsed the menu.

We placed our orders and talked about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. We had been discussing whether or not we wanted to go see one of the nearby castles. I think we were all in agreement that it’d be a lot of fun to go see–Jen and I hadn’t been–but my illness was now in full gear, and I just didn’t have it in me. After lunch, I retired to my bed, in hopes of sleeping off this cold and flu that was sucking all my energy.

While I slept, Jen and her parents made their way over to Magdalene College to try their hand at punting. I was sorry to miss out on the fun, on such a beautiful, sunny day, but I was not doing well at this point.

Since I wasn’t there to join in, I thought I’d ask Jen to share a bit about their first punting experience. Here’s Jen:

Of the three of us, Dad was the brave one who decided to go first. Although it helped that I volunteered him when the guy who was working that day asked who was going to be in charge of punting.

“He is,” I said, pointing to Dad.

We came across a small bridge shortly after we got started, and we all had to duck really low. This did not go well, though, as it made us go against the bank where there were lots of tree branches. So, we he had to continue to duck down low, but we still found ourselves getting hit by all the branches.

Dad looked so funny trying to stay balanced while having to crouch down so low. Mom and I were laughing so hard we literally felt like we were going to pee our pants. Dad was frustrated with us for laughing at him, and for not helping him. But there was no way we could help until we got ourselves under control!

I am happy to say that Dad did get used to how the pole worked, and then he was able to move us along quite quickly.

And then it was my turn. I had the advantage of going second, which meant I was able to watch Dad and figure out what not to do. It turns out I’m a natural at punting. I may not have been the fastest punter, but I could move us along without running into things. Unlike some people…

The problem, though, is that you can’t always control what others around you are doing. At one point, we came across a more narrow part of the river and there was a teenage boy who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. He managed to get his punt horizontal, across the river, which meant I had nowhere to go and ended up running us into the bank. Again, where lots of branches were sticking out. I seriously thought the branches were going to shove me off the platform of the boat! Thankfully it didn’t, but I did receive some nice, deep scratches on my arm.

We made sure Mom got into the action as well. Anytime I can have a good laugh at my parents’ expense is always nice. Mom did pretty good as well, but she was a little unsure of what she was doing at first. Soon, though, she got the hang of it, and she caught on fast enough.

We had a great time, full of lots of laughs, and we considered our first time punting a success.

Monday: Saying Goodbye

After our time with Jen’s parents in Rome, Paris and now Oxford, we were sad to see them go. We had been looking forward to their arrival for some time, and our time together had been pretty amazing. Not just because of all the things we had seen and done over the course of those two+ weeks, but it was just nice to have them with us again. It made it feel like we were carrying a piece of home with us again.

But Monday morning we got up and prepared to see them off. We’d be driving them to London to catch their flight, but not before Jen made us some homemade scones to start the day. I found Justin and Dan (Justin & Jane’s oldest son) next door, and I asked if they’d mind snapping a photo of us before Jen’s parents left. Dan was happy to help.

When we arrived at the airport, we had trouble checking in. The machine we were using didn’t want to accept their travel information, which I found rather odd. So we found an airline staff member and asked for his help. He tried his hand at the machine, doing the same we did, only to find the same failed result we did. He punched in a few numbers on another monitor and told us that, unfortunately, it looked like their flight had been overbooked, and they might need to catch a flight out the next day.

Rhonda’s jaw about hit the ground at that point. Tim remained cool as the young airline employee told us we needed to walk down to the customer service table at the end of the hall and they would let us know what was going on.

We followed his directions, commenting on how bizarre it is that you can buy something several months in advance and then show up the day of only to find it’s not actually yours.

After talking with a guy who looked like he had been dealing with similar problems all morning, and who was a bit frazzled, we learned that the flight had indeed been overbooked, and that several passengers would be asked to fly out the next day in exchange for £1,500. It didn’t seem like a bad deal to me, but Rhonda was planning on being at work the next day, and she was trying to figure out how she could ask someone to cover for her, even though she loved the idea of staying an extra night with us.

You could see the wheels turning in Tim’s head, thinking how that money could be put to use in helping cover part of their trip. I was with Tim; that sounded like a good deal to me.

After about an hour of waiting, and being told to wait some more, Tim & Rhonda found out they would in fact be flying out on their plane, as originally planned. It was a bit of a rollercoaster departure, preparing to say goodbye, then thinking they might not have to say goodbye just yet, then realizing that, yes, this really was goodbye.

It was tough to see them go, after such a nice time together. We were just thankful to have them. It meant the world that they both crossed the Atlantic for the first time to visit us. It was a quiet ride home, that afternoon. Jen staring out the window for much of it. I patted her knee from time to time, and let my hand rest there. Encouraging her with a smile as she turned her head to me.

A Hard Message

The Sunday before we took off for our trip to Rome and Paris, Jen and I had attended the evening service at St. Aldate’s. The pastor who typically speaks at that 6:00 evening service is a guy by the name of Simon. His background is in Theology, and so I appreciate his meat-and-potato style of teaching. Simon is British, and he’s quite funny. His sense of humor rounds out his solid teaching quite well, often making jokes about his large size, or his rather casual attire (whereas most pastors here tend to get quite dressed up for their role).

This evening he spoke, though, this Sunday evening before we left, he had a rather interesting message. He began by explaining that he had actually spent about 20 hours preparing a message that week on Romans, which we had been studying, but as he was sitting there, prior to speaking, he felt led to preach on a totally different topic. He explained to us that he really felt like God was telling him that He had another message that needed to be heard by someone tonight. And so, at the last minute, he jotted down some notes and took the stage for an impromptu message. I was intrigued.

Rather than speaking on Romans that night, Simon focused on the period directly after Jesus’ baptism. When he spent the 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. Simon started by pointing out that, what most people don’t realize in looking at this story is that Jesus was actually led by the Spirit when He went out into the desert for this time of temptation. That Jesus was not just experiencing this great trial, but that God was the One bringing this time of difficulty about for His Son.

Simon explained that he didn’t like to think about it that way. That it’s tough. But, he pointed out, that’s what we’re told happened. And so, Simon talked through what this means for us, for those of us going through a tough time.

He talked about how, a lot of times these difficult times come, and we just want to throw in the towel and give up, without realizing that God actually wants to use such experiences to grow us, so that He can use us in a way He couldn’t otherwise.

He was right. It was a hard message. But I appreciate preachers who teach what they believe they need to teach. I appreciate preachers who teach what the Bible says, whether it’s hard or not, without feeling the need to soften the blow by watering it down.

Simon shared several stories with us that night. To help with the lesson. He told us about a pastor who had received a wide amount of success, as a speaker, but who had been struck with Tourette syndrome at the height of his ministry. He told us how this pastor went from blessing others with his mouth, to not being able to stop using that same mouth from spouting off horrible obscenities at the most inappropriate moments. He told us how this pastor was literally put up in bed one day, because he could no longer serve as he had before, and just asking God, “Why in the world would you do this to me?…”

Simon explained to us the answer that pastor said he felt he received from God, in that moment. After asking, he said he felt God telling him, “This is what you would be like without me.” Simon told us how God had led this man through an incredibly low valley only so that this man could be brought to a place where he was fully reliant on God, and where he knew he could take no credit for any amount of success he had.

Simon also shared with us from his own experience. From some of his own trials. He talked about how he  had made plans to leave the UK as a young, “strapping”, 20-something. To go join up with Vineyard Ministries in the States, as a speaker. Only to be pressed down upon with the great realization that, as much as he wanted this, he felt that’s not what God wanted for him and his wife. Instead, he felt God was telling him to go to school. To go to seminary. And to go work in the Anglican Church.

Simon shared with us how this, all of this, was the opposite of what he wanted. How he spent years in school, in great depression, while his wife went to work, earning an income so that they could get by, rather than starting a family, as she wanted. He talked about how incredibly trying this was, but how, ultimately, he came out the other side with greater confidence in how God planned to use him to share His good news with others.

And so, before we left for Rome & Paris, I had fired off an e-mail to Simon. I told him his message really resonated with me, and I’d love to chat with him a bit more when we returned. I was happy to hear back from him right away, and we scheduled a time to get together when we returned to Oxford.

A Walk with Simon

I met up with Simon on a sunny Tuesday morning after Jen’s parents left. I met him in front of St. Aldate’s, and we walked down the lane toward Christ Church meadow. He was dressed in his usual, informal outfit: cargo shorts, t-shirt, a brown, leather waistcoat (which I’ve never seen him without) and sandals. Simon has broad shoulders and he walks heavily, swinging his arms as we went.

“How do you feel about ice cream,” he said, turning toward me as we walked.

I laughed to myself, slightly, checking my watch to make sure it was still in fact 10:30 in the morning.

“Sure, yeah, that sounds great,” I said.

We stopped into G&D’s, we each grabbed a cone of ice cream (custard for Simon, strawberry for me), and we continued toward Christ Church meadow.

“So I read your blog,” he said, without turning to me, as we crossed the street and entered through the large metal gate.

“You did?” I asked, somewhat surprisingly.

“Well, I looked at it,” he clarified, admittedly.

“Oh, well thanks.”

“You’re a writer, and a thinker,” he commented. “That’s rare.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“I mean, lots of people write. Lots. But lots of writers aren’t actually thinkers. And we have a lot of thinkers, but they don’t tend to write much,” he said, clarifying again.

“Yeah, well thank you,” I said, still unsure of what to say.

“You know, Harry Potter was filmed here,” he said, pointing toward the wide open fields in front of us, and to the side of Christ Church, quickly moving along in conversation.

“Yeah, I had heard that when I arrived,” I replied. “Pretty amazing.”

“It was a big setup,” he continued. “They had massive tents and trailers. You could see it all going on from where we were,” he said, motioning over his shoulder to St. Aldate’s not far behind us.

“They asked me to be in it, you know. But I told them ‘Nah… I have too much to do already,'” he joked.

“It’s funny you say that,” I said, without missing a beat, “Because when I first saw you, I thought to myself, ‘he looks just like Harry Potter!'”

“Really?” he asked, turning toward me.

“No, no I didn’t. I was just joking.”

“Oh, well I haven’t seen it, or read it, so I didn’t know.”

I almost felt bad, for my joke that had totally missed the mark.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to explain, “Harry Potter is a small, teenage boy with glasses, so pretty much nothing like you.”

“Ah,” he said, laughing.

We continued walking, making our way toward the river and along its edge, enjoying our ice cream cones as we walked.

“You know, I’m the most American Brit you’ll meet,” he told me, with a half-look of pride.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told.”

“I could see that,” I told him. “You tend to wear your heart on your sleeve a bit, like us Americans. You tell it like it is. I appreciate that.”

“I do, yeah,” he said in agreement. “I used to be a butcher, you know. And a meat salesman. So I’m pretty to the point. ‘You want this cut, it costs this much,’ he said aloud, as if to replay a scene from his former life as a butcher / meat salesman, and to show me where it came from.

We passed several people on our walk. Most of whom Simon seemed to know, and who knew him. Lots of smiles and “hello”‘s.

He asked if I minded if we took a break about a half hour into our walk. I didn’t, so we did. We took a seat on a bench that overlooks the river, and we sat there watching the water tumble slowly by. It really was a beautiful day, and this was an amazing spot to take it all in.

“So you contacted me a bit ago to talk about something,” Simon said, narrowing our conversation, and recalling the e-mail I had sent him several weeks prior.

“Yeah, it was about your sermon, where you talked about how sometimes God leads us into the wilderness, to help form us into who He wants us to be. So that He can use us.”

“Ah, yes,” he replied, looking off into the distance, recalling the message I was referring to.

I shared with him how this message had really resonated with me that night. I told him about how we had picked up and left home to come here to Oxford, because I really felt God wanted to use this experience to help prepare me to share Him with others, even though I wasn’t totally clear on what that was supposed to look like. I told him how it had been pretty tough to leave home behind and come here, even though this is such an amazing city.

I shared with him how, even though this is a dream come true, in so many ways, it is also one of the most difficult things either one of us have ever done. To come here and start over, as it were, investing literally all we have into this, with no guarantee of anything waiting us on the other side.

I also told him about how we had lost Jen’s sister, Hayley, shortly before leaving home, and how that had only made this time all the more difficult.

He hung his head low at the news, shaking it as if to share in our pain.

He told me he was so sorry for our loss. And then he asked several questions. About coming here. And he asked how Jen was doing with it all.

I told him this had not been easy on Jen. Not at all. But that she had been incredibly strong through it all. And supportive. And that there’s no way I could have done it without her.

Then he asked me what I wanted to do, at the end of our time here in Oxford. I’ve been asked that question a lot since arriving, and so I was prepared to answer.

“Well, when I first came over, I figured I’d just go the PhD route and work to eventually become a professor,” I told him. “I knew I wanted to write and speak, so I figured that’d let me do that on the side.”

“But, since coming here,” I continued, “I’ve begun to think maybe that’s not what I want to do. I really enjoyed speaking and writing in my former job, so I know I’d love to do that. But I think I’d like to do that for a more general audience. Not just for academics. To help everyday people see Him more clearly.”

“I know it sounds like a pipe dream, but if I could do that, if I could write and speak to help others with that, that’s what I’d be doing.”

Simon was quick to respond, and to encourage me.

“We need both of those things, Ryan. Writing and speaking. And there are a lot of people who don’t want to do those things. I enjoy speaking, but writing is a chore. If you can do both of those things, then I don’t think that’s a pipe dream.”

I nodded my head. I was thankful for his encouragement.

We left our spot from beside the river and continued on our walk, heading back toward the gate through which we had entered the meadow.

Simon shook his head again, commenting on our loss. And the recent difficulties.

“You know, Ryan, you have to gain this knowledge, you have to get this degree, to do what you want to do. And this is a great place to get it,” he said, staring off at Christ Church in the distance. “But I think you’ll realize, afterward, that God brought you here for more than just a degree. He’s teaching you both through all of this, and you might not know how until much later.”

“Hmmm…” I said aloud, allowing his words settle in.

I thanked Simon for the ice cream, and for taking the time. I told him I really appreciated his thoughts and wisdom.

He’s a pretty humble guy, so he quickly brushed off any idea that there was wisdom in his words. He told me we’d have to do this again some time. I told him I’d like that, and I made my way toward the city center. Back to the library to study, still chewing on Simon’s words.

Wednesday: Christmas Dinner, Caroling and the Christmas Story

Harris Manchester had a Christmas carol service and dinner on Wednesday night. A formal event. I didn’t find out until after going to get two tickets for Jennifer and I that it was a members-only event. Not like the jacket. Only Harris Manchester students and faculty members were invited to the dinner.

I was pretty bummed. I’m not a fan of leaving Jennifer to fend for herself for dinner. Not at all. But she insisted. She told me she didn’t want me to miss out on my college’s Christmas dinner for her sake. And not in some “I’m saying this, but I really want you to do that” way, but she meant it. So I went.

I threw my suit and tie on, hopped on my bike and hurried to Harris Manchester. On the snow-dusted road. It’s a weird feeling, riding your bike in a suit. But it sure beats walking 30-minutes in a suit.

I made it to college about 10 minutes after the carol service began. I left my coat and scarf with John (the night porter) at the front door and slipped into a pew in the back of the chapel. The song being sung when I arrived finished and someone came to the front and read the birth narrative from Luke. The chaplain, I believe.

His face was lit up by the light looming down on his Bible. It presented an almost awminous mood as he read the birth account. He read slowly. And deliberately. So much so that I felt like someone hit the slow-motion button on a dvd player.

But I really appreciated it. It was like great consideration was being given to each word. The words we tend to plow through because we’re so used to them.

After finishing the reading, he slowly lifted His Bible up from where it sat, stepped slowly back, and then walked slowly to his seat.

We sang a few more songs before making our way out of the chapel and into the college halls for some hot mulled wine. And more carols. The halls were crowded tightly with men dressed in their suits and ties and women in their dresses and formal wear. The smell of mulled wine filled the air. And the Christmas carols echoed off the stone walls. It was great.

After several songs, we ventured out into the cold night air just long enough to walk down the stone path leading to Arlosh Hall for Christmas dinner. The tables were arranged differently than normal. And they were lined with Christmas decor. Place settings standing out amongst the green pine decor and candles and treats. A giant Christmas tree, complete with lights and a star on top, sat in the corner of the room. Behind the head table. I asked Tariq how he thought they fit it in the hall.

“No idea,” he said, shrugging his shoulders with a laugh.

The meal was great. Salmon for starters (I’ve been surprised by how good the salmon is here). Turkey and mashed potatoes and green beans for a main meal. And I left before dessert. I was meeting up with Jen for a(nother) carol service at 8:30, and I didn’t want to keep her waiting.

I asked Tariq to excuse me and hurried out of Arlosh Hall. Tariq and I had been talking about the essay he was handing in that week. He had written a 12,000-word submission for a paper that’s supposed to be 2,000 words. . .This guy’s something else. He’s the medical doctor who left his practice to study Theology. And who still has yet to tell his parents he’s here.

I grabbed my coat and scarf from John at the front desk, hopped on my bike and rode the quarter-mile stretch to the Sheldonian to meet up with Jennifer for the Christmas Carol service. I locked up my bike across the street and found Jen walking up a few minutes later.

It was an amazing service. It definitely made it feel like Christmas time.

Christmas Carols and the Christmas Story at the Sheldonian

We were in the upper balcony of this circular-shaped building. Looking down from our wooden seats in the balcony on the brass band that sat in the middle of the first floor, with students and families seated all around them.

The circular ceiling had an ornate painting of a heavenly scene, complete with cherubim. It was an amazing building, and a perfect place for Christmas carols.

A guy from my Greek class was seated behind us with a small group of friends. He noticed me before I saw him there. He said “hi” and I went to introduce him to Jen only to find, mid-sentence, that I was second-guessing his name. I wanted to say “Tim,” but I wasn’t sure. So I just kind of mumbled the second-half of my introduction. He laughed.

“Tim,” he said, looking to Jen.

I told him that’s what I was going to say, but I’m not so sure he believed me.

After several Christmas songs I whispered to Jennifer that I loved Christmas carols.

“Didn’t you just come from singing carols?” she asked me.

“Yeah…”

She shook her head and smiled.

Mary Was Surprised, too

A guy by the name of Michael Ramsden spoke after several songs. He wore dark glasses and a light-colored blazer. You knew he was a pretty brilliant guy before he even had time to open his mouth.

He talked about the story of Christmas. And how it’s one so many people struggle to believe. Or simply don’t bother struggling with it at all. He mentioned a professor who recently said no one after the 18th century had any right to speak of the virgin birth as a historical event without sounding completely foolish. That the science of our day simply wouldn’t allow it.

Michael claimed that the virgin birth wasn’t pre-science. That, even as a young teenager, Mary would’ve understood the science behind what it took to bring a child into the world. That she would’ve seen the idea of giving birth to a baby as a virgin as not natural in the least bit. That she would not have seen this as a normal occurrence, which is why she responded as she did (“But how can that be, for I am a virgin?”). And so, it doesn’t do any good to say that somehow we have advanced to the point that we can see that it’s unnatural to presume a virgin can give birth to a child. Apparently, Mary thought the same thing.

And we find the same is true of Joseph. He, too, understood clearly what it takes to bring a child into the world, which is why an angel had to come and prepare him for the news. Any man, married or not, knows that short of an angel appearing, there’d be some explaining to be had if your virgin wife comes to you and tells you she’s pregnant.

And so, what we find is both Mary and Joseph, on separate occasions, being approached by an angelic being, and being told that God was doing something quite special here. They didn’t need to be told this was a miracle; they fully understood that part. But the angel came to tell them that this miracle was from God.

But that’s not to say being approached by an angel was an expected event for these two. It was not. And they responded probably the same way most of us would. We’re told Mary was troubled. The angel had to reassure her that everything was just fine. And that he had come to testify to the fact that God was doing something extraordinary here. Something miraculous.

And that’s just the way it should be, isn’t it? For it should not be something of ordinary origins testifying to the validity of the miraculous, but something of miraculous, even divine origins that testifies to the miraculous.

If you want to know if the “genuine Italian” leather shoes you get for a great deal are actually “genuinely Italian,” your best bet is to ask someone who is familiar with genuine Italian leather. Better yet, you ought to ask someone from Italy who works with Italian leather. And that’s precisely what we find here: a being from heaven testifying to the miracle that would be forthcoming as that of heavenly origins.

Michael went on to talk about the fact that many people simply refuse to even consider such a story because it doesn’t follow the laws of nature. They argue that all of nature has to agree with the laws of nature. And since this obviously doesn’t, then we can’t possibly believe it to be true.

But he suggested that’s not an argument against this story at all, for the laws of nature are precisely what makes the virgin birth a miracle. If the laws of nature tell us a virgin simply does not give birth, then that doesn’t mean we’re claiming the laws of nature have been broken, or that they’ve somehow failed us. Rather, they tell us we must look to something outside of the laws of nature for an explanation.

He used an anology I thought was pretty helpful to explain this.

He told us to imagine him going home this week and putting £2,000 in his nightstand. And then going and doing the same thing the next week, with another £2,000. Now, if he goes to his nightstand in the third week, the rules of arithmetic tell us he should find there £4,000. But say he opens up his nightstand and only finds £1,000. What then should he conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have somehow been broken? Or that arithmetic has failed him? Of course not. The laws of arithmetic describe what will happen when you add £2,000 to £2,000, not whether someone will come in and snatch £3,000 from his nightstand. That outside agent (a thief sneaking in while he is gone) is not accounted for by the rules of arithmetic. And, in the same way, a being outside of nature (namely, the Creator of nature) is not accounted for by the rules that describe the nature he created.

I thought that was helpful. He spoke to the students in the room that night. And their families. Encouraging them to not dismiss this story just because it doesn’t seem like something that’d happen in our day. Apparently, that’s what Mary thought, too.

A perfect end to the evening

Jen and I walked home afterward. Me with my bike, whistling Christmas tunes from the evening’s service. Jen in her black peacoat and red gloves. And as we walked in the frigid night air, pulling our scarves and collars high up against our cheeks, the snow began to fall. Slowly.

I looked over to see Jen staring up into the sky with that beautiful smile painted across her face. Looking up into the deep, dark night sky as the snow spun and twirled in the air. Swirling around the street lamps like moths to the light.

It was a beautiful scene. The snow falling in Oxford. Our breath forming little plumes as we walked home in the cool night air. And it was the perfect ending to a wonderful night of Christmas carols and decorations and food and the Christmas story.

Thursday: A Snow Covered Oxford

Thursday morning saw another dusting of snow in Oxford. The street leaving our house, the trees lining the streets and the sidewalk. All white from the fresh sheet of snow. Not thick. Not deep. But just enough to paint everything white.

Our Greek class was moved from Wednesday morning to Thursday morning this week, as Rhona wanted to have everyone over to Christ Church for treats. For the second-to-last Greek class of the term. (The last class would be reserved for more serious matters, she told us).

It was a beautiful scene, walking into a snow-covered Christ Church Thursday morning.

Rhona welcomed us into her home at Christ Church, where we found a table brimming with warm mince pies, fruit cake and hot tea and coffee. It was great. I’ve never really had mince pies like I’ve found here in Oxford. Not back home.

They’re basically mini-versions of a full-size pie, complete with a pastry crust. And their filling is amazing. It tastes a bit like Christmas in your mouth. Warm, gooey center with hints of cranberries and cinnamon.

And the fruit cake was really good as well. It gets a bad rap back home, but I quite liked it. Nuts and fruits in a cake-like bread. Not sure what’s not to like about that.

We took a rather informal exam, where Rhona walked through what would be on the exam and then gave us a few minutes to take it. We graded our own and then she went over a few last items she wanted us to know before the end of the term.

We were all seated around the large Christ Church dining room table as she talked. Tending to our warm mince pies and hot drinks. It was great.

Rhona mentioned one of the students who had began the term with us, but who was no longer in our class. She must’ve left after about a month or so. Fiona. She explained to us that Fiona decided this wasn’t actually the path for her. Not at this point, at least. I was surprised to hear that, as she had been doing quite well in class.

Rhona didn’t know the details of Fiona’s decision to leave, but she asked if someone would be willing to pick up a Christmas card to send her. No one seemed to jump at the opportunity. After several seconds of awkward silence and avoidance of her eyes from students around the room, I told her I would. She thanked me, in that warm, motherly voice of hers. Tilting her head to the side just so and smiling warmly.

A John Wayne like American accent

I was talking with Lyndon and Emily as we left the Deanery at Christ Church that morning, stepping out into the snow-frosted courtyard.

I forget how we got on the topic, but we were talking about how you tend to pickup sayings and accents when you’re around another culture for long enough.

Emily asked me if I had picked up any British accents or sayings since being here. I told her I hadn’t. That Jen would give me too hard a time if I did. She laughed.

Lyndon gave his best go at an American accent, which made me laugh. He sounded a bit like a cowboy. Like John Wayne.

I said I had noticed myself picking up on different English inflections that I wouldn’t normally use since being here, though. At times. Emily asked for an example, not knowing what I was talking about.

“Well, say I want to ask a question. If I were in the States, I’d just say, ‘Where do you want to go?'” without adding any sort of inflection to my voice. Emily picked up on what I was talking about immediately.

“You mean, you wouldn’t go up at the end?”

“No, that’s the difference. I wouldn’t back home, but I’ve found myself doing so here from time to time, and I catch myself thinking, ‘Wait, what am I doing? I wouldn’t do that back home…'”

They both laughed.

Lyndon say that inflection gets abused back home. In New Zealand. To the point where it’s used for everything, not just questions. And you’re left wondering what’s a question and what’s not.

I pointed out the icicles hanging from the water fountain as we walked through the center of the courtyard. It was beautiful.

Friday: My last day of Greek

Friday morning was my last day of Greek for the term. Saying I was excited about that would be putting it lightly.

I had a bear of a time studying for the morning’s exam the day before. It was just a vocab exam, nothing too difficult. But I just didn’t feel like studying. I kept finding myself distracted. By the most mundane things. It was like I was having a case of senioritis, but five-terms too early.

Rhona greeted us all with a smile as we took our seats that morning, addressing us before handing out the morning’s exam.

“You should all be quite proud of yourselves,” she said to us from the front of the room, wearing that wide grin of hers.

She was standing in front of the deep blue table runner with the “Oxford University” emblem emblazoned on it. She can’t stand that table runner. She says it looks far too commercial.

“You’ve had a massive amount of coursework, and you’ve stuck it out,” she continued, now with a more serious look. “That takes courage.”

I had picked up a Christmas card after class at Christ Church the day before. For Fiona. I gave it to Rhona to pass around at the start of the class, so others could sign it.

“Oh thank you,” she said, taking the card from me.

“Lyndon has picked up a card for Fiona for everyone to sign,” she then declared to the class.

I smiled, fully intending not to correct her. Lyndon looked up with a look of confusion on his face, as if to ask, “what is it I have done?”

Emily laughed from the chair next to mine.

Rhona picked up on her mistake and corrected herself.

“Oh, right. . .Of course. Ryan picked up the card,” she said.

Appears she still has a tough time with my name. She explained to the class that she regularly mixes up her children’s names, and so we shouldn’t take any offense when she makes the same mistake with us.

We then had our final Greek exam of the term, and Rhona talked about what she’d like us to do over the holiday. “Revisions,” as they call them here.

Our breaks are six weeks here at Oxford. Which sounds pretty great on paper, except for the fact that they aren’t really much of a holiday, per se. It’s really more a time of self study. To prepare for the tests we take when school starts back up again. “Collections,” as they’re called.

Rhona told us about a mosaic in the tiles of the entryway of the building we were in. The Exam Schools. She said she’d point it out to us as we left the class, but that it’s of a tortoise and a hare. And she told us it is there for a reason, for we all know the hare wins the race, and so we ought to take note of that. “Slow and steady wins the race,” she reminded us, referring to preparing for Collections.

Several of us laughed.

“Funny, because I feel like this term has been rather fast and shaky,” I said, in a quiet voice.

Rhona had asked us to write up a plan for our revisions over the holidays. Of what we’d be working on each day. She looked over my shoulder at mine, on my laptop, and she said it looked wonderful. I didn’t think it looked wonderful. I thought it looked rather dreadful.

We all made our way to the front of the building after class. Through the large hallways, with the marble tile underfoot. Until we made it to the entryway, where Rhona pointed out the tortoise and the hare in the tile mosaic. Sure enough, there they were.

And it was funny, really, because “slow and steady” certainly doesn’t seem to be the Oxford mentality. Perhaps the tiles were placed there by a past student. As a protest, of sorts.

I told Rhona “goodbye” as I left, and to have a “Merry Christmas.” She smiled at me and said, “You as well, and same to Jenny.” People tend to call Jennifer “Jenny” here.

As Emily, Lyndon and I walked out through the large double doors, I pointed out I thought it rather funny that Rhona knows my wife’s name, who she’s met once, but not mine.

We all laughed.

“She rates higher than you, I guess,” Lyndon said with a smile and a laugh.

“Apparently.”

Tea with Cole

I received a text from Cole shortly after leaving Greek. Asking if I’d like to celebrate the end of my first term of Greek with some tea. I thought that sounded like a great idea.

We met up at Blackwell’s Bookstore. In the cafe on the second floor.

Cole congratulated me on wrapping up my first term, and now having that behind me. I told him it was a bit of an odd feeling, going from deadline after deadline to no deadlines, but also a lot of work to get done.

He nodded with a look of understanding.

We talked a bit about the paper he had just submitted earlier in the week. His extended essay. It was nice to sit down and not feel guilty for not studying Greek, or reading for an essay for the first time in months. It was like stopping just long enough to catch your breath after running a race.

But I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back in the books, preparing for collections. Even the holidays have a pile of work here.

More Time With Jen

The highlight of wrapping up my first term has been having more time with Jen. And not feeling like I’m always preparing for the next deadline.

I have loads of work to get done over the break, to be sure. And it seems like I keep realizing I actually have more work to do than I initially thought, somehow, but it’s definitely been nice to enjoy more free time together. For the first time in a long time.

We met in the city center Friday afternoon. At the market. To pick up something for dinner.

“How about french dip?” I suggested, after wandering around the store aimlessly for a while. The look on Jen’s face told me she was sold on that idea.

I found a young guy stocking the store shelves and asked him where I might find au jus seasoning. He looked at me blankly. As if he were listening to someone speak a foreign language completely unknown by him.

“I take it you don’t have au jus,” I said.

“Uh, no. I’m not even sure what that is, but no.”

We ended up deciding on a chicken dish of some sort. With mozzarella and pancetta. The kind of dish you can throw in the oven and not have to worry about. That part sounded great to both of us.

Dinner ended up proving more difficult that we had imagined, though, as I realized about 40 minutes after placing it in the oven that I hadn’t actually turned the oven on…

Once we got that part figured out, though, it was great to sit down to a nice meal together. Knowing I had zero exams to prepare for the following week. Or essays.

We clinked our glasses in celebration of the end of our first term in Oxford.

“Only five more to go,” I said, smiling at Jen, and raising the glass to my mouth.

We said ‘goodbye’ to Steve yesterday morning. He returned home after spending a week with us here in Oxford, and it didn’t feel nearly long enough. He’s an incredible friend. It was so nice having him here with us for that time. Lots of great memories.

We miss you, man.

The unfortunate part of his visit is that it just so happened to coincide with my busiest time so far here. I had a load of deadlines. Reading. Papers. Exams. But we had a great time, nonetheless.

Thursday – Clarity in what I’d like to do

I had Greek the morning after Steve arrived. We ended up meeting in Christ Church, because of some scheduling changes. Our professor lives there. Her husband’s the Dean. I honestly can’t imagine stepping out my front door and having this for a view.

Our class gathered outside the Deanery door. First just a couple of us. Then more. When most of us were gathered there, we knocked on the tall wooden door. Rhona opened it and met us with a smile.

“Helloooo,” she said in that warm, rich English accent. “Come in, come in.”

Her home was amazing. And it still feels weird to call it her home. It’s just an incredible place. Apparently King Charles I lived there at one point. So it has that going for it.

We made our way into the front room, with vaulted ceilings and a spiral staircase that seemed to climb up and up and up. Even the students in my class who are from Britain found their jaws on the floor.

Our class met in their formal dining room. A large room with tall glass windows that lined one wall. A long, oblong-shaped table sat in the center of the room, and a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth hung from one of the walls. Rhona told us how they had cleared out this room and used it for a dance after their daughter’s wedding. And how the Queen looked on with a look of distaste.

Shortly after our exam, the housekeeper (at least I’m assuming that’s who it was) brought in a couple trays for our class. A tray of tea and coffee and a tray of treats. Flapjacks. I had never had flapjacks before, but I had seen them at the Alternative Tuck Shop while waiting on my chicken panini. They were amazing. Like a homemade granola bar. A perfect accompaniment to our tea. I told Rhona it was the best I had ever had.

After class, Rhona let me know she had heard Walter Hooper would be joining us for our Tea at the Kilns on Monday. I hadn’t heard that, but I was so excited he was. This guy was Lewis’ secretary the summer before Lewis passed away, and he lived at the Kilns for a while, so I knew he’d have some amazing stories to share with us.

Another student was standing nearby as we spoke. Likely waiting to ask Rhona a Greek related question. Likely completely uninterested in our conversation. But she put on a good act anyway.

Rhona asked her if she had read Lewis at all. If she found Mere Christianity to be dated. She had. “Surprisingly so,” she said.

“Well then, you’ll just have to write the modern day Mere Christianity, won’t you?” she asked this girl with a large smile.

And it made me smile. Remembering the conversation I had with Steve the night before. On our way to pick up pizzas in Summertown.

I told Steve that, for some reason, being here had made me even more convicted about wanting to write. And how I felt like it was more clear than ever what that was supposed to look like.

“I feel like Lewis did a great job of talking about the Christian faith for the non-academic types. For the laymen. But I feel like there’s an opportunity to do that in a way that’s even more approachable. Using a tone that invites people in. Something like Don Miller’s writing. Something that anyone would want to pick up and read. I feel like if you were able to combine those two, it’d be incredibly effective. That’s what I want to do,” I told him as we walked.

Fast forward to Christ Church. Rhona has just told this girl perhaps she’d write the modern day Mere Christianity. And I felt like the kid in class who got a puppy over the weekend and the teacher asks if anyone has something to share. Hand shooting into the air. Squirming in his seat. But I didn’t say a word. I just smiled.

I met up with Steve after class. He had been working from the Grand Cafe. England’s oldest coffeehouse. We were making our way out of town. To meet up with Jen. Taking in the sights as we walked.

Steve likes sweets. And he had plenty to like in Oxford.

Feeling so inconsequential

We walked past a plaque I had just noticed for the first time the week before. It was on a building where Hooke & Boyle first discovered the living cell. Right here in Oxford. I pointed it out to Steve. I told him it was things like that that made me feel so out of place here.

“This place really has had some amazing minds come through over the years,” I said as we crossed the street. Minding the buses as they passed on the cobblestone road underfoot.

“Minds who have had incredible contributions in their field. Makes me feel so inconsequential.”

“Or, it could motivate you, wanting you to do something big as well,” Steve said, without missing a beat.

“That’s true, yeah. That’s a good way to look at it.” I love having this guy around. He’s the kind of guy who believes in your dreams even when you don’t believe in them yourself.

Andi’s Dream

Steve didn’t sleep the night before he left to come here. He had been helping a friend of his from back home setup her bakery. Andi. She was scheduled to open the next day, and he had been working non-stop to help her wrap everything up. For quite a while leading up to the opening. From baking cakes to design. It was quite the project, from the sounds of it.

Several years earlier, when Andi was living about an hour and a half south of where she now lives with her husband, she had gotten a hold of Steve. To tell him about her dream of one day opening up her own bakery.

“She was working as a real estate agent at the time,” he told me. “I think. Something like that. But her dream was to open a bakery.”

He ended up sending a bunch of business her way after she moved to town. So she could bake cakes and make desserts for weddings. Until she was finally able to open her bakery.

Her dream became a reality last week, when she opened up Pure Bliss Desserts in downtown Bellingham. In large part because of Steve. That’s just the kind of guy he is. And I’m honored to call him my best friend.

We met up with Jen back at the house. And the three of us walked together to The Alternative Tuck shop for lunch. To introduce Steve and Jen to the beauty that is the chicken pesto panini.

I’ve realized lately I no longer get hungry. I just find myself wanting a chicken pesto panini. That’s when I know I’m hungry.

I squeezed into the shop and made my way through the line. Jen & Steve waited outside. To avoid the sardine can space.

I made my way out of the shop, hot off the grill paninis in hand, and handed Jen and Steve theirs. I was happy they enjoyed them just as much as I do.

“That’s great, man,” Steve said after a big bite of his sandwich.

I showed Jen and Steve around Harris Manchester College. The library. The grounds. And they loved it. All of it. It was so great to finally share all of this with them. After living in it on my own for several weeks.

I pointed out a couple places I thought they’d like to visit while I wrapped up some studies, and then I made my way to the Radcliffe Camera.

Dinner at the Eagle & Child

After several hours of reading, it was great to wander outside into the cool night air and find them waiting for me. It was a gorgeous night in Oxford. And I was so happy to share it with them.

We decided on Eagle & Child for dinner. Steve’s first pub experience. The first time at Eagle & Child for either of them.

And we had a great time. Laughing. Enjoying some amazing food. After clearing our plates, we reached for the dessert menu and decided to stretch out the evening a bit more.

“We do have leftover birthday cake at home,” I mentioned, looking over the menu.

“Sounds like a good midnight snack,” Steve said.

“I like the way you think.”

Walking home, it felt so nice to enjoy all of this. To share all of this with them. And it made me smile.

Friday: Sue the impostor and Jen’s as tough as nails

I had my first cornish pasty for lunch last Friday. Finally. And I have to say, I was a little disappointed. Maybe I’ll give it another try. But I can’t help but feel like it’d be a missed opportunity when I know of a perfectly good place to get a chicken pesto panini…

I worked from the library most of the day on Friday. And I ran into Sue on my way back into the library at one point, hot cup of tea in-hand. She greeted me by name. With a smile. And she asked me how I was settling in.

She told me how when she first arrived here at Oxford. To take up her job. How overwhelmed this all seemed.

“I didn’t believe it,” she told me. “I kept feeling like at some point, someone was going to tell me they had made a terrible mistake, and that I was going to have to leave.”

Funny. I guess even the librarians feel like impostors. I’m in good company. Sue’s an angel.

Sue told me that’s why everyone here. All the faculty. That that’s why they go out of their way to do everything they can to make sure the students have a welcoming experience. That they know they’re cared for. And that if they ever need anything, that they only have to ask.

I told her that, as overwhelming as this all has been, that the people truly have been the bright spot.

She told me that after a while, you realize everyone here are just normal people. Normal people who are incredibly passionate about what they want to do. And that that is a real pleasure to be around. I still feel like everyone’s a couple hundred IQ points higher than I am. But it really is an amazing place to be. And I’m still in awe of it all.

I met up with Jen & Steve after a full day of reading. We grabbed pizza at a really cool woodfire place. Their menu was amazing. Split into different regions of the world. Asia. America. Europe. Africa. Each region featuring pizza toppings from their culture. It was great. And the environment was amazing. Lots of open-air space. Hanging lights. Large windows. Concrete floors and columns. Very modern feel in a very old city.

A woman and her son sat beside us. She was very English. Very proper. And the boy was, well, he was a boy. Messing around all night. Having a good time. She was trying to keep him under her thumb, so as not to make a scene. He was cracking us up all night.

At one point in the evening, he let out a loud burp. And he immediately erupted into laughter. You could see the blood drain from the boy’s mother as he did.

“Oh, I am so embarrassed,” she said, looking at us before hanging her face in her hands. “This truly isn’t representative.”

We all laughed. Along with the boy. I felt like she was apologizing for her entire country. Maybe she was. Either way, it was hilarious.

We caught a movie after dinner. RED. The new action movie with Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman and some others. It was great. Lots of brainless action. A much-needed reprieve from all the studies.

Jen loves Bruce Willis movies. And I love that Jen loves Bruce Willis movies. Ever since we watched the latest Die Hard on our anniversary on Whidbey Island several summers ago, she’s been hooked.

I think it’s because they share a common respect for each other. Jen and Bruce. I think it’s because he’s the only one in the world tough enough for her to respect like that. I always tell Jen if she had a motto it’d be, “Jennifer Pemberton…Tough as nails.” I keep telling her I’m going to make her a t-shirt. I need to get on that.

Walking home under the light posts leaving town that night, I couldn’t help but think how perfect this all seemed. Now. Having them here. Even better than before.

Leaves piled up, crunching underfoot. Steve kicking them as we walked. Golden yellow and burnt orange shuffling as we walked. Talking. Sharing memories. Those are the times we’ll miss Steve most.

Saturday: Like Mallards & The Bagelry

We grabbed dessert at a place in Oxford city center Saturday night. The best ice cream in town, we were told.

It feels very much like a Mallards back home. Lots of crazy flavors. Stout. Bacon & Brie.

I placed my order and told Steve I felt like I was back in Bellingham. That if felt like Mallards.

“And the Bagelry, combined,” Steve added.

He was right. They served bagels, too.

I went to hand them my credit card to pay for the ice cream, and they told me they only took cash.

“Yep, just like Mallard’s and the Bagelry,” I said, turning to Steve and Jen with a smile.


I apologize in advance for the lack of photos in today’s blog entry, but there just wasn’t a whole lot of time to take many pictures. And, even if I did, they would’ve looked something like this…

Not so exciting, I know. But that was what the majority of my day looked like. Trying to play catch up in Greek. Still.

Getting my cap and gown

We had Pre-Sessions (class before the real class begins) from 10 to 12 this morning, and then again from 4:30 to 6 this evening. In between? That’s right, Greek. Oh, and I bought my cap and gown. Because that’s what you do when you’re at Oxford. You wear your gown, and you carry your cap until you graduate. No, the funny get-up isn’t just for graduation. Not at Oxford. So when do you wear the gown and carry the cap, then? Why, to formal meals and tests, of course! Ridiculous, I know. Anyway, I have one now.

I’ll have a chance to wear my gown (more appropriately, with a full suit and bow tie) on Wednesday evening for our first formal dinner at Harris Manchester.

Harris Manchester

Harris Manchester is the college at Oxford University I’m a member of. And today was actually my first time seeing it. I hadn’t had a chance to see it last summer, and I did my application interview over the phone, so today was my first experience with it. It’s really quite nice. It has a really pretty grass and stone courtyard surrounded by a large stone fence that you can look into from the street through an arched gate. The school itself has some very beautiful architecture. Lots of stained glass windows. Lots of stone. Really cool two-story library.

I checked in at the front desk and picked up my mail (all internal school paperwork). I met some of the other students who were in the common room waiting for lunch. Most of them were very friendly and easy to get a long with. There were three guys from Singapore who just arrived. They’re studying economics. Very bright, but very friendly and easy to talk with. And they remembered my name. I was surprised. I’d be hard pressed to remember the name of someone from Singapore. Except for Tim. I remember Tim.

There was only one other American at the school who I met today. Moira, I believe. I heard it a couple times and I’m still not sure if that’s right. She just moved over. A transfer from Brown. Daughter of a professor back in Ithaca. And she seemed like it.

Brown had a change in its Anthropology curriculum, she explained to us over lunch (bangers and mash – my favorite English dish!), so it was either take a two-hour bus ride to Harvard for some of her classes, or change schools. So she chose to transfer to Oxford. Naturally.

I came because I didn’t like my 20-minute commute from Everson to Bellingham. Naturally.

Back to Greek

After picking up my gown, finding my college for the first time and a bit of studying in Starbucks (felt almost like home), I made my way back to Christ Church to get my brains stomped in by some more Greek. But not before passing a number of incredible buildings and still being blown away by it all.

Including this one: Magdalene College (where Lewis taught during his tenure at Oxford).

We were tested right off the bat, which I knew was coming, and it did not go so well, which I feared was coming.

I found myself sitting in the second Pre-session of the day thinking to myself, “You know, this was probably the worst decision I’ve ever made. I don’t need to know Greek to write! . . . Now, all I’ve got to do is ask for my job back and things will be just fine.”

Being talked off the ledge

After class this evening, I stayed after until everyone else had gone. All except for one other classmate who was also feeling a bit behind, and I explained to the professor that I still felt terribly behind. She said not to worry. She said I certainly had some catching up to do, but I had time before our actual classes began in a week. She told me to take my time, to walk through each chapter, and to not get anxious. She was sure I would do fine as soon as I had a chance to be caught up on the reading material. (To put it into perspective, most of today was spent discussing chapters six and seven of the book. I’m about halfway through the third chapter).

On the way out, I told the other classmate I was planning my escape from England. And that I was wondering how easy it’d be to ask for my job back.

She quickly shrugged it off. Telling me I would do fine, and that this material would be confusing for anyone who hadn’t seen it before. That each chapter build on the previous, and I shouldn’t be surprised I don’t understand chapter 7 material if I am still working on chapter 3.

I explained that I’m not used to being lost in class. And that it was all so disorienting, particularly after traveling to a foreign country and trying to orient myself. She assured me to just work through the material. And not to book my return flight just yet.

Groceries and my talk with myself

I stopped by the grocery store on the walk home. My first time at a British grocery store. The place was packed. Lots of 20-somethings stocking up on staples. The place was bustling, and I did my best to not look like it was my first time at a British grocery store, which included my best attempt not to appear shocked when their cereal aisle ended after only about 10 brands.

I have 20-min walk from campus to where we’re living. Which gives me plenty of time to think. When I’m not reading my flash cards (tough to do with two hands full of groceries). Walking home, I thought about why I was here. About what had brought me to Oxford. And what I wanted to do with all of this.

I really didn’t come here just so I could have the prestigious “Oxford” label by my name. What I wanted was to write in a way that helped reveal Christ to others. In a way that made the difficult things of the faith a little more clear. I knew Oxford has something truly unique that could help me reach this goal. And I knew they’d give me the opportunity to write to a much larger audience than I otherwise would be able to. “If he’s coming from Oxford, he’s gotta have something worth hearing, right?”

Also, because this is where Lewis studied and taught. And he is the reason this passion began in me so many years ago. So here I am, not for bragging rights, but so that others might be touched by my words. Sounds cheesy, I know. But that’s why I am here. And that’s what I want to take away. The opportunity to help others. The opportunity to speak into their lives. The opportunity to illuminate the difficult things of the faith. No matter how difficult the road getting there might be.

I’d stick it out, I told myself. I’d keep plugging away and give it my best. And we’ll see where that takes me. At least until Jen has a chance to come over and see everything.

About halfway home I got to thinking, “I just bought all of this food to go home and make dinner, but I really would like some company. Particularly company that is not interested in talking about Greek.”

JK Rowling, Sir Elton John and dinner

When I arrived home, I found a note from Jane waiting for me at the door, inviting me to have supper with Felix (Jane was on her way out the door for tennis). Beng (the housekeeper) was cooking fried rice. Things were already looking up.

I set down my things from the day, put away groceries, and I quickly found my way into the family’s kitchen. Justin (the father/husband of the home where I’m living) was in, which I was excited about, since I hadn’t actually had the opportunity to meet him yet. Justin works in London Tuesdays through Friday each week, and he is at home the other days of the week.

He invited me to come join him and Felix at the dinner table while Beng warmed up a plate of dinner for me. They had just finished. Felix was wrapping up some math homework; Justin was wrapping up a bowl of cereal.

Beng brought me a plate of fried rice, freshly warmed from the microwave, and a glass of water. Felix and Justin asked how my Greek exams went. “Poorly,” I told them. They were familiar with the circumstances of my departure, so they weren’t terribly surprised to hear about my need to play catch up.

I explained how I had been studying at Christ Church, and Felix told me that’s where his Dad studied. He then told me that’s where Harry Potter is filmed. Funny, as that’s exactly how it felt.

“Yes, Hogwarts,” Justin chimed in from the kitchen, filling up his bowl with another round of cereal. “Do you know who I’m having dinner with tomorrow evening?” he asked Felix upon returning to the kitchen table.

“Who?” Felix asked, leaving the table himself for the kitchen.

“J.K. Rowling,” Justin responded. Felix’s eyes grew big.

Apparently Justin co-owns two newspapers in London. One of his business associates is having a party tomorrow night. It’s being hosted by Sir Elton John. Hugh Grant and many other close friends of Sir Elton will be there. Including Ms. Rowling herself.

“Ask her if she plans to write any more books,” Felix told his dad.

I finished my dinner just as Felix returned to the kitchen table with a bowl full of ice cream. Justin eyed Felix’s bowl with a smile and wide eyes. “That’s a lot of ice cream!” Felix grinned. He has a terrific grin.

“I hear ice cream helps with mathematics homework,” I said from across the table. Felix smiled and nodded.

Harris Manchester, the college I’m a member of, is hosting a pub crawl this evening. After going to bed at 1 a.m. last night / this morning and not being able to fall asleep until just before my 6:30 alarm, I decided to stay in for the night. The school is continuing the pub crawl tomorrow evening, so I might try to squeeze in some studying tonight and catch up with them tomorrow evening.

It’s only Tuesday tomorrow, but it already feels like I’ve been here for ages.

I knew I needed to arrive in Oxford by today, as I have to take some Greek preparatory classes before classes actually begin, and that began today. With a test. I spent the majority of my first day unpacking, meeting the family I’ll be staying with, and studying. Less than exciting, I know, but it’s what needed to be done.

This will be a quick post because, as my test showed, I have a lot of studying to do!

I accidentally slept in until 11 today. My first day here and I slept through half of it. My cell phone alarm did not work (due to the time change), so I got a few extra hours of shut-eye. Which was probably a good thing, as I am feeling pretty well rested. Really haven’t felt the jet lag at all, which everyone has been surprised about.

The family I’m living with had already left when I woke up (which I felt terrible about), but I met them when they returned from Felix’s soccer match (Felix is their youngest, he’s 10). They invited me over for tea that afternoon, and we talked. It was great. They have an amazing home. Very large. With a beautiful back yard. We talked over tea for a bit. They told me they were at the oldest museum in the world last night (which just happens to be right here in Oxford) for a private dinner party. I told them I spent an extra hour in Poland due to a delay and all I could hear was Polish when I went to sleep.

I was off pretty quick after tea for my exam. It was at Christ Church. Only about a mile away. And a beautiful walk.

Oh, by the way, I walked by this on the way to my exam…

For those who don’t know, the above picture is of CS Lewis’ favorite watering hole, The Eagle and Child, where he used to go with friends like Tolkein and others.

If you haven’t seen pictures of Christ Church, do a Google Image search for it. It’s breathtaking. I remember visiting the school when Jen and I came over last summer and telling Jen, “How cool would it be to actually take class here?” Now I am. Crazy.

I really enjoyed meeting my Greek classmates. They all seem really nice. And they’re from all over the world. It’s pretty cool. We were going around the world introducing ourselves, and I couldn’t help feeling like I had woken up and all of a sudden I had found myself in the middle of a Harry Potter movie. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so excited. Picture a shaken up bottle of champagne with a smile drawn on the front, and that’s a good picture of what I looked like.

We were supposed to be competent in the first five chapters of our Greek textbook when we arrived. Due to all the craziness of the last couple weeks (visa snag, moving, etc.), I just simply did not have the time necessary to devote to this. As a result, I didn’t do nearly as well as I had wanted to on my exam.

We had a class dinner after the exam. And social hour. To meet our classmates and professors. It was the awkward kind of dinner, where the food is really good, and you really want to eat it, but you can’t actually eat it, because you’re standing the whole time, trying to have a conversation. I managed to do an okay job of eating most of it, though, and it was actually quite good. A chicken and pepper dish. Beef stew. Pasta. Rice. Salad. Potatoes. All very good.

I found my professor and apologized for my nightmare performance on the exam. I explained that I really was a good student, and a hard worker, and I planned to catch up. She told me not to worry at all. That I’d be just fine.

I went on to explain how I had gotten here. How Lewis had influenced me and uprooted me from the states to pursue this dream. That put a smile on her face. She is very friendly. Incredibly bright. And quite funny. She told me one of her former students is now living in C.S. Lewis’ home. And that he is actually staying in the room Lewis used to live in! She then went on to tell me how she had stupidly (her words, not mine) never made it over for tea, but that she’d have to contact him and have the both of us go over for tea! That was the point I began drooling all over her. Not really, but I was stunned.

Which is why I need to get going now. I don’t want to let this professor down. I’ve got to make it to Lewis’ old place for tea!

So, lots of studying to do tonight (it’s 11 p.m. already here), and then I plan to study in the morning again before class. Things are going to be busy, that’s for sure. But it’s going to be amazing, too. Here we go…

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