Archives for posts with tag: Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

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

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

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

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

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

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

The Oxford Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

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

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

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Making sense of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Metaphor in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was crushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday: Museum & Mere Christianity

Cole had told me on Friday over tea that he was planning on visiting the Ashmoleon the next day. A museum here in Oxford just down the street from the Eagle & Child. I told him I had been wanting to go since arriving, but that I hadn’t found anytime. I told him I’d love to join him now that the term was wrapped up. So I did.

Jen woke up with a headache Saturday morning. She powered her way through a workout with some of her girlfriends here in Oxford, but she didn’t have much in her after that. She told me to go on ahead and visit the Ashmoleon with Cole without her. And to pick her up some coffee on the way home. So I did.

The Ashmoleon is a beautiful building. With large stone columns and a circulating glass door welcoming visitors. Inside, the building is quite modern, with minimalistic features that seem to stand back and let the museum sights take center stage.

Cole arrived at the museum shortly after I did that rainy afternoon. He had been held up at the post office, mailing some subscriptions of The Chronicle (the Oxford CS Lewis Society’s quarterly publication).

“Sorry, I hate being late,” he apologized as we entered the museum’s Ancient Egypt display.

He then told me he had a gift for me. And to close my eyes. So I did.

It’s an awkward feeling closing your eyes in a public place. You immediately feel vulnerable. I half-opened my eyes after a few seconds, only to see Cole struggling with something in his pocket.

“Keep ’em closed!” he said sharply.

I closed my eyes firmly and lifted my hands to receive the gift. A second later I felt the hard cover of a book fall into my open palms, opening my eyes to gaze over the worn blue cover.

“Oh wow,” I said aloud, turning the book over to read the spine.

Mere Christianity, it read, in faded gold letters.

“No way…,” I said, two or three times.

“It’s a first edition,” Cole informed me with a grin that spread from one side of his face to the other.

“No way,” I said again, but this time louder.

“Oh man, no way!” I said once more, turning the book over in my hands and opening the cover to check. Sure enough, it was. A first edition copy of Mere Christianity. The book that led me to come here to Oxford.

“I’ve never even seen a first-edition copy of this book!” I told him. “Cole, thank you so much. Really, this is incredibly generous.”

Cole told me he had found it at the used bookstore here in Oxford. The one across from Christ Church. Near where he lives. St. Philip’s. And that he wanted to give it to me as a gift. To congratulate me on finishing my first term at Oxford. And as a Christmas gift.

I was stunned.

Somehow I’ve become the kind of guy who receives first edition copies of CS Lewis’ books as gifts, and I’m not quite sure how that works. But it’s amazing. It probably has more to do with the incredible people who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet than with anything about me. But I’m so grateful for it. The books and the amazing friendships.

Sunday: Worrying about tongues

Jennifer and I slept in Sunday morning. On purpose. St. Andrew’s, the church just down the street from where we live, was having their monthly “all ages” service, which we had been told was actually geared more toward the quite young than “all ages.” We had been told it would be a good chance to try out any other churches in Oxford we might be interested in, if we were wanting to do so.

I’m in no way a fan of “church-shopping,” but we thought we’d skip the children’s service this time around and try something else.

We had a dinner that night. At Harris Manchester. And so we found ourselves near the city center right around the time two of our good friends Rob & Vanessa normally go to church. St. Aldate’s.

We gave them a call while walking toward the church, only to find that they were actually going to a different service this weekend, unfortunately. But since we were there, and since we had been wanting to go check it out, we did.

I had heard a lot of great stuff about this church. That the teaching was the best in Oxford. And that it was a really lively, contemporary service. I was excited to experience it.

I had also heard it was a church were speaking in tongues sometimes happens. Which is something I’m not familiar with. I’ve never attended a church where that is practiced. And so, while I was excited, I was also a little anxious about what exactly that might be like. And whether it was going to happen while we were there.

But, as anyone knows who has ever visited a church, you never visit a church for a “normal” service. For some reason, whenever you visit a new church, they end up having a guest speaker, a missionary from Uganda, or some sort of special event going on. That’s just how it works.

On the Sunday evening we attended, they were saying “goodbye” to one of their pastors who was leaving to help out with a missionary organization. Sure enough, the no-normal-service for-visitors rule was in full effect.

St. Aldates is a beautiful church. With large stone columns that shoot up into the looming ceiling all throughout the room. Stone walls and floor. And large stained glass windows on the walls. It’s a mix of ancient and modern, with flatscreen monitors hanging from the stone columns, and large glass doors welcoming people as they enter.

It wasn’t very full when we arrived, but it quickly filled up as the worship band took the stage. We found a couple seats several rows back from the front, just to the right of the stage.

And it was a great service. With one of the most amazing times of worship that I’ve experienced in a long, long time. But I found myself halfway wondering, “Okay, are they going to start speaking in tongues now?” And I was anxious. Wondering to myself what I was supposed to do when it happens.

This went on for quite a while. About halfway through the worship service. I found myself thinking, “Wait, are they speaking in tongues now? No, they can’t be. I can understand that still.”

And it was distracting. But then, out of nowhere, I felt like He was telling me I wasn’t actually doing what I was supposed to be doing. That I really shouldn’t be wondering whether this was going to happen or not. That my focus should be on Him, and not on my neighbor. Or on the guy on the stage.

And He was right. I was there for Him. And once I felt His gentle reminder, the Worship time was amazing.

I told Jen later I ended up crying during the Worship service. Don’t be surprised. I’m a cryer. But it was just an amazing time. One of those times where you feel as though it’s just you and Him. Like you’ve been invited to this private time with The Lord. And you find Him resting His arm on your shoulder and speaking in a warm, strong voice that feels a bit like a combination of your childhood blanket and the smell of your Grandma’s kitchen when she bakes, saying, “This, this is what you were created for.”

A Pipeless Ryan

As we crawled into bed that night, I told Jen I wanted to get a pipe. After walking by several people through town in Oxford who were smoking a pipe. And each time being reminded of my Grandpa. By the smell. Each time feeling like I was a young boy sitting in his living room again, while he sat back in his chair and puffed on his pipe, holding it with one hand.

But Jen said, “No.” She said it’s not good for me. And that I should know that.

I told her she was confusing pipes with cigarettes. She didn’t seem to agree. I don’t think I’ll be getting a pipe after all.

Tuesday:  Dinner with Walter

Walter had us over for dinner on Tuesday night. We were both looking forward to that, as Walter’s home is such a cozy place. It’s one of those places that makes you feel like you’re at home, even though you’re not.

And Walter’s the quintessential host. Making sure you always have food in hand and that your glass doesn’t drop below half full, even while keeping the conversation going.

We sat in his living room with the fire ablaze and Blessed Lucy of Narnia (his cat) asleep on the back of the couch. Jen in the chair across from me, and Walter seated on the couch facing the fireplace. It was so nice, particularly after a full day of studying.

We ate “soft cheese” on crackers. Walter told us if he were stuck on a deserted island and could only eat one thing for the rest of his life, that it’d be cheese and crackers. He asked Jen what she’d choose if she were in the same situation, and she said pizza. I saw that one coming a mile away. I said I’d take chicken.

We talked a bit about the different ways to prepare chicken (Walter loves to talk about cooking) before he excused himself to the kitchen to tend to dinner preparations. He told us to make ourselves comfortable. And to look around, if we liked. So I did.

I looked through his bookshelves. A really good variety, with a fair amount of Tolkein scattered throughout.

I noticed a lack of C.S. Lewis books on Walter’s shelves, so I asked him about it. Calling into the kitchen.

Walter entered the living room a few moments later and told me to follow him. He led us down the hallway and into his bedroom. He asked us to excuse the mess as we crossed to the far corner of the room, where a large hutch stood. Probably seven-feet tall. With glass doors.

He opened the doors to reveal shelf after shelf of Lewis’ works. Sorted by book. Three-feet of Mere Christianity. Two-feet of Screwtape Letters. Another several feet of Surprised by Joy copies. And on and on. All very old.

I was stunned. It was amazing.

Walter reached to the far left corner of the top shelf and pulled out a very old, very thin book and handed it to me. Spirits in Bondage read the title. By Clive Hamilton. I had never heard of it.

Walter explained that this was the first book Lewis ever had published. That he wrote it under the pen name of “Clive Hamilton” after returning from the war. When we has just 20 years old.

“He wasn’t yet a Christian at this time,” Walter explained.

Walter opened the book cover to reveal the signature “Clive Hamilton” scrawled across the first page. Lewis had signed it for Walter shortly after they met, he told me with a beaming smile on his face.

I was still staring down at the book with big eyes when Walter excused himself again to return to the kitchen and finish preparing dinner. He told us to help ourselves and to have a look at the rest of his collection, which I was happy to do. I had never seen so many first edition copies of Lewis, or anyone else for that matter, in my life. It was amazing.

I handed Spirits in Bondage over to Jen and told her to hold it just so she could say she had. She wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was, but she was a good sport anyways.

We had a great time catching up with Walter over dinner. And dessert by the fire after that. Jen had made pumpkin bars with icing. Walter loved them. He asked where we got the pumpkin for it and we told him that my grandfather had sent us several cans. That we still had some if he’d like one. I told him I’d bring one by the next time we were over, and he nodded with a large smile and thanked me.

I love our time at Walter’s place.

Wednesday: A no good, very bad day

Wednesday wasn’t a good day. It started off not so good and it ended even worse.

I hopped on my bike and headed to the Theology Faculty Library that morning. To pick up a book before spending the day at the Harris Manchester Library to get some studying in. On my way out of the Faculty Library, I threw my bag over my shoulder only to find it drop hard on the pavement.

I was a bit stunned. I had no idea what had happened, and I stood there gawking at my bag as it sat on the pavement. The ring fastening my shoulder strap to my bag had snapped, apparently, from the weight of my books.

“Ridiculous,” I thought to myself as I searched for the other half of the snapped ring. People walked by, probably wondering what I was doing with my head down on the wet pavement. I picked up the other half of the ring, after searching for several minutes, stuffed it into my pocket, just in case, and I boarded my bike, struggling to ride. One hand on the handlebars, the other on my bag, wedged between my knees as I rode through the city center.

“Great way to start the day,” I thought to myself.

The air was cold as I stepped out of Harris Manchester that night. I had been studying all day, and now I was heading back home. To meet Jen for dinner. I made my way to my bike only to find the lock had frozen. I struggled with it for several minutes before finally giving up.

I went back into Harris Manchester to get a cup of hot water. I poured it over the lock and steam rose into the cold night air as the warm water rushed off the lock and onto the pavement. I tried my lock again and it opened easily.

“Thank goodness,” I thought to myself.

It was at this point that my bag, which I had been resting on my bike fell onto the pavement. Again. Spilling much of its contents.

I shook my head, hunched down close to the ground and began picking up my belongings and stuffing them back into my bag. Including each of the colorful paperclips that had scattered across the dark street.

Back on my bike, I was happy to be heading home. There, I hoped, things would be better.

I turned the corner after leaving Harris Manchester to see a police officer talking with a guy on a bike on the sidewalk. Two seconds later I was being asked to pull over myself. By another cop. I nearly didn’t stop, not quite realizing what he was saying.

He asked me where my headlights and taillights were. I told him I didn’t have any. He told me he’d be giving me a ticket for not having any lights.

“Of course you are,” I thought to myself. “Of course I’m going to get pulled over on my bike after the way this day has gone.”

I smiled while the police officer told me how important it was to have lights on my bike. I continued to smile while he told me it’d be a £30 fine ($50). And I was still smiling when he explained how to go about paying for it. It was that or get upset, and I knew that wasn’t going to help me out at all. So I just stood there and grinned like a baffoon.

“Of course,” I thought to myself.

I walked my bike back home that night. After the officer told me I probably wouldn’t be ticketed if I got pulled over again, but that they would be the ones who would have to clean up after me if I were hit. And they wouldn’t want that.

He had a way with words, that guy.

Sunday: A 16-Mile Walk in London

We took a trip to London after spending the week in Oxford. We hadn’t been there since the previous summer. And, since Jen’s camera was stolen just before we returned home on that trip, we were excited to snap some more photos around the city.

Some friends of Lyndon & Mim offered to put us up for the weekend, after hearing that we were going to be visiting the city. As London prices are through the roof, we were happy to accept their offer.

We had mapped out everything we wanted to see the night before. The couple we were staying with said that’d be a lot to see in one day. We told them we’d give it our best.

We started off at the Tower of London, a 15-minute walk from their home. It’s an old castle built in 1066. Right on the River Thames.

It used to have a moat. And catapults. It’s still pretty impressive. We didn’t get a chance to tour this time, but we’re hoping to on our next visit.

From there, we crossed over the river on the Tower Bridge. It was a beautiful day, too. Cold, but sunny with blue skies. We really couldn’t have asked for better weather.

We were walking through a cobblestone alley when we came across the ruins of Winchester Palace. Built in the 12th-century, this wall and a handful of stones are all that remain.

The Eye of London is a giant ferris wheel built right on the River Thames.

It’s pretty incredible how large it is, and it gives incredible views of the city (from what we’re told). We didn’t have time to find out, though, as we had lots to see.

But after so much walking I decided to lie down for a bit and get some shut-eye before making the rest of the journey. Jen was kind enough to keep watch for a bit while I did…*

[*NOTE: Ryan&JenGoToEngland does not support the practice of drinking and passing out on the street in London. But it does support a good joke. A half-pint of ale sitting by itself on the sidewalk was simply too good to pass up.]

From there we came up to Big Ben and Parliament, which are simply an incredible sight. It’s hard to put into words the size of this place, and all of the architecture work that went into it. It’s breathtaking, really.

Jen caught this photo of the front of Parliament. I was happy to see they had set up a Christmas tree. Apparently no one has told them that’s not politically correct, yet.

From Parliament, we made our way to Westminster Abbey. Another place that just blows you away with its size.

I told Jen it’d be crazy to be the pastor at this church, week in and week out. Right across the street from Parliament.

We had a bit of a walk to our next stop: Buckingham Palace. It was beginning to get dark by the time we arrived. But it was a beautiful sight at night.

I saw an Asian guy who was jumping into the air just before getting his photo taken in front of Buckingham Palace. I thought I’d get in on the action. . .

There’s an enormous statue of Queen Victoria that sits just outside the Buckingham Palace gates. With lights shining on it in the night, it was quite the sight.

Christmas time is an amazing time to be in London. They really do a great job decorating. Like this hotel on the West side of the city.

When my Dad heard we were visiting London, he told us we had to go see Harrods. That it’s something else during Christmas time. We had been before. Last summer. But he was right. It was quite the sight, all draped in Christmas lights. And the store-front windows were each decorated with a Christmas theme.

Harrods is a pretty incredible place. If you’ve never heard of it, they’re famous for saying you can find anything you want there. And if they don’t have it, they’ll get it for you. Anything. Like an airplane.

I didn’t get an airplane, but we did pick up a couple Christmas gifts.

After dinner at a pub called Head of Nails (which was amazing, by the way; great food and great service), we made our way back across town. And we were glad we walked, as there was so much Jen wanted to stop and take photos of.

London at night, in December, is a beautiful place to be.

We walked along the river on our way back. Taking in the sights. And stopping every few minutes so Jen could snap photos.

It was cold, and we were both tired from the long day, but it was also a stunning view to take in.

We were both happy when we made it back to where we were staying. To rest our legs after a full day of walking.

The couple we were staying with, Andy and Anna, greeted us at the door when we walked in shortly after 9:00 that night. And asked how our day was. We told them we had a great time. And we walked through our day. Telling them about everything we had seen. And how we had decided to walk, rather than take the bus.

They couldn’t believe it when they heard all we had done. Andy thought we must’ve walked 25 miles. Turns out we only walked 16. . .

Monday: A Surprise Christmas

Going into this term, we were planning on spending Christmas in Oxford. Jen’s sister Leann and her husband Ben were expecting their first child in January, and she was planning on flying home after the New Year to be around for that. As much as we wanted to, we simply couldn’t afford to fly me home for Christmas, and so we were planning on spending the holidays here in Oxford.

Knowing we wouldn’t be flying home for Christmas, Steve was planning on flying out. To spend it with us.

That’s what we were planning on doing, but that all changed when Steve came out to visit.

When he was here with us, Steve shared with us an idea he had. He told us he had been thinking a lot about Christmas, and how it would be Jen’s parents’ first Christmas without Hayley. And now, with us overseas, it’d be their first Christmas without Jen, too.

He had a point. That was going to make an already difficult time that much more difficult.

He told us that instead of flying out to spend Christmas with us, he wanted to fly me back home for the holidays. He suggested we book Jen’s ticket for earlier in December, rather than January, as we had been planning, and that way we could be home for Christmas. And make things a bit brighter for the family. That we could even surprise them. So we did. . .

Monday morning we woke up at 5:30 in London, grabbed our bags and made the long trek across the city, on the underground, before fighting holiday traffic in London Heathrow and finally boarding our flight, en route to the States.

We were both ecstatic to be flying home for the holidays. Excited to see the look of shock on our family’s faces when we surprised them.

13 hours in the air and two flights later, Steve greeted us at the airport. It was so good to see him again. We grabbed a quick bite in Seattle and made the hour and a half drive home.

27 hours after waking up in London, we walked through the front door of Jen’s parents’ house and creeped up the stairs, where they were watching TV.

“Merry Christmas!” Jen shouted as we climbed to the top of the stairs.

They were surprised to see us, to be sure. . .

After several seconds of a state of shock, Jen’s Mom yelled, “You’re supposed to be in England!”

We traded long hugs as they smiled and told us how happy they were to see us. And how thankful they were to have us home for Christmas.

I pointed toward Steve and told them they had him to blame. Then I asked if they minded putting us up for the holidays.

“Of course not,” Rhonda said with a warm smile.

Tuesday: More surprises

After a bit of hibernation, we woke up late Tuesday morning, got ready and headed into town. To surprise my family.

We went to my Mom’s office and I told the receptionist I was there to see her. She told me she’d let her know and asked us to have a seat. So we did.

A few minutes later, my Mom opened the door to the waiting room and just stared at us for several seconds. We smiled back. She then covered her mouth and ran to us.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, giving each of us huge hugs. She cried, and I cried too. I get it from her, I think. The tears. She apologized to the other lady in the waiting room, and explained how we had just returned from England as a surprise.

She didn’t appear too impressed. After a “Oh, that’s nice,” she returned to her Lady’s Home Journal.

Mom asked if we minded waiting for a few minutes so she could wrap up with a patient and then take us out to lunch. We told her we’d be happy to.

From there, we drove to my Sister’s work. My Sister is currently studying nursing, and she’s working part-time at a local elderly home. I asked the receptionist where I might find her, and she told us she was working on the third floor. And that we were welcome to go see her. So we did.

A short elevator ride and then we were wandering the maze-like hallways. We spent about 10 minutes walking the halls before we saw anyone.

I rounded a corner and saw Lucy walking with another worker. Both walking toward us. Lucy stared straight at me. Continuing to walk and talk with her co-worker. With a dead-pan look on her face, like she wasn’t quite sure what was going on.

I couldn’t help but smile, and soon she did, too. Her eyes went huge and she ran into my arms.

I gave her the tightest hug as she buried her head into my shoulder. And I held her as she sobbed. it was so good to see her again.

We had a great time surprising the rest of my family that day.

My grandma was surprised. . .

My brother was surprised, too.

So much so that he cussed when he saw us.

“What the heck are you doing here?!” he shouted when he saw us. But he didn’t say “heck.”

My grandpa was surprised to see us, too. He opened the door, looked at us and just smiled.

He almost didn’t let us in, though. He asked us if we were ghosts or if we were real. We told him we were real.

I don’t think it fully hit him we were there until he let us in and we gave him a hug. I held him for a while. It was so good to see him again. And I told him that.

He told us he had just returned from the post office. He had sent us another package. And we’d now have two packages waiting for us when we got back to Oxford. He’s an amazing Grandpa.

A Very Merry Christmas

The past several months have been a whirlwind. They’ve simply felt unreal, in so many ways. And after all of the experiences in Oxford, it’s so nice to be home for a bit and spend this Christmas with our family.

What a wonderful gift. Steve, thank you for making this happen. You are simply the most incredible friend anyone could ask for.

I am so thankful for all of this. For the opportunity to study at my dream school. To meet some amazing people in Oxford and experience all we have in such a short time. And to be able to return home to spend the holidays with those we love.

I hope your Christmas is a special one. I hope it’s filled with lots of smiles and laughter. I hope it’s spent with those you love, and with those who love you.

And as you do, I hope you find a special way to celebrate the day our Rescuer showed up in our story. To provide a way to bring us home. The greatest gift we could ever hope for.

Merry Christmas. And thanks for reading.

and

Saturday: We get great packages, Thanksgiving Take Two

I woke up Saturday morning and started working on some Greek while Jen slept in a bit. We were planning on taking a trip to Manchester that day, to listen to a friend of ours from back home perform in a concert, and so I knew I needed to get as much done as I could before we left.

Not long after I had been up, I heard a knock on the door. It was Beng. Letting me know we had another package by the door. And that it was too heavy for her. Beng’s great. And she’s usually the bearer of good news. That we’ve received another package from home.

This one was from our Aunt Katrina. She had told us it was coming. And we had really been looking forward to it. I picked up the package and took it upstairs. Beside our bed. Where Jen was just waking up. It was like Christmas morning. Opening up gifts in bed.

It was such a great package to open up, too. So many things from back home we’d been missing. Jen’s favorite cereals (Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms), her Baker’s Breakfast Cookies and favorite flavored Crystal Light (Kiwi Strawberry). Beef jerky and slippers for me. I’m a big fan of slippers, and getting a new pair of slippers made my week.

Gloves and playing cards rounded out the package. And a very nice card, telling us how proud she was of us. Thanks so much for the package, Katrina. It meant so very much!

Change of Plans

I mentioned before that we were supposed to be going to Manchester to hear a friend of ours from back home perform. Katie Van Kooten. She has an incredible voice. If you’ve never heard her, you will have to at some point. Katie performed in London for something like six years after school, with the Opera House. And she was a huge help to us in preparing to make the move over here to England. We were really excited to go listen to her.

Naively, we didn’t think it’d be a big deal to hop on a bus or the train and go listen to her. Turns out it was a much bigger deal than we thought. Because the show wouldn’t get done until later in the evening, we found out we’d have to take the last bus out of Manchester, which would get us back into Oxford at 5:00 in the morning… That sounded less than ideal.

We felt horrible canceling on Katie at the last minute, but I simply wasn’t going to be able to be out that late and lose a day Sunday catching up on rest, not with my final week of the term ahead of me. So I had to write her an e-mail, apologizing for the last minute cancellation. We were both bummed, as Katie’s simply an amazing performer. We’re hoping we’ll have another chance to see her while we’re over here. Katie, if you’re reading this, how about booking another UK show?

Thanksgiving, Take Two

Our friends Rob and Vanessa were throwing a Thanksgiving party that night. Jen had been helping Vanessa prepare by baking some pumpkin pies and pumpkin bars the day before. Since it looked like we wouldn’t be traveling north to Manchester, we thought we’d join in on some more Thanksgiving festivities.

It was held in a church building not far from Christ Church. In the city center. Not the church itself, but an extra building. For events like this. For people to reserve. And it was great. There were probably between 20 and 30 people there. Husbands and wives. And a handful of kids. Lots of people from the business school, but a handful of others.

The food was great. Long tables overflowing with turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and yams and green beans and salads and bread. And another table for desserts (or “puddings”) and appetizers and drinks. It was great.

One of the pastors stopped in and introduced himself. You could tell he was interested in what was going on. He was from Ghana, originally. And his name was Abu. He had been a student here at Oxford. First in Theology. Then in Law. Before becoming a pastor. Super nice guy. He told us he had been involved in reaching out to those in the middle east with the Christian faith. And that he was working on setting up an Alpha Group for muslims here in Oxford. That blew me away. It sounded like someone hosting a steak dinner in the middle of the lion exhibit at the zoo.

But that’s where his heart was at. “The middle east needs Christ,” he told us, with a voice of sincere confidence.

Abu had never been to a Thanksgiving dinner before, so we told him he had to grab a plate and join us. He half-hesitated and then did so. I was standing in the end of the food line when he came back with a plate, and a piece of smoked salmon on it. He pointed over to the table that held the desserts and appetizers and drinks and asked if those were the puddings. I told him they were. Then he pointed down to his plate and asked if the smoked salmon was pudding. I laughed and told him that was an exception to the pudding table. That it was smoked salmon. He laughed. He said he just didn’t know.

We had a great time talking with Abu. He asked where we were from. I told him about an hour’s drive north of Seattle. He told us he had a friend here at Oxford who was from Seattle. And that he was one of the smartest guys he had ever known. He told us how this guy completed two Masters degrees while also finishing his Doctorate degree. I told him I’d never again complain about my workload.

After dinner, people sat and around and talked over mulled wine and pumpkin pie. Vanessa put Home Alone on the projector screen. Jen and I found two seats front and center and laughed as Kevin lit Joe Pesci’s head on fire, and dropped an iron on the curly-haired guy’s head. That movie just feels like Christmas, doesn’t it?

We thanked Rob and Vanessa for a great time afterward, and we went home and put some Christmas music on while I opened up my Greek book and got to work.

Sunday: A Sunday Dinner with Ken & Lynne

We went to church Sunday morning, and we found two seats next to Ken and Lynne (the hand surgeon turned Theologian and his wife, both from Oregon). They had e-mailed me the week before, asking if we’d like to come over for Sunday dinner after church this week. So that Lynne could meet Jen. Ken had met Jen briefly at Harris Manchester at one week but, surprisingly, her and Lynne had yet to meet each other. Ken and Lynne are great, and I was excited to join them at their warm home again.

After the service, a good number of the congregation gathered in the back room, to share tea and catch up. We each took a cup of tea and talked with Ken and Lynne for a bit. Then Lynne stepped away to say “hello” to someone she knew. A little bit later, Ken stepped away to find her.

There was a table set up in the church foyer, selling Christmas cards. Home-made ones. I asked Jen what she thought people would think if I flipped it over and began shouting, “You’ve turned my house into a den of thieves.” She just rolled her eyes.

Jarred and Chelsea made their way across the church foyer to say “Hi.” Along with their two kids. Jarred’s doing his Doctorate here in Theology. They just came here from St. Andrew’s in Scotland, but they’re both originally from the states. Both really nice. Jarred’s in one of my lectures with me. Jen and Chelsea talked for a bit, before exchanging e-mails and making plans to get together for tea.

We stepped out into the cold late-morning air after church. It was easily the coldest it has been since we’ve arrived. We climbed into Ken and Lynne’s car and waited for the warm air to come pouring out of the vents. Ken wore driving gloves. And explained to us all the crazy driving rules the English have, as we made our way to their home.

We pulled into their drive way, with a Christmas wreath hanging from their front door. Inviting us in. Their home was warm, and the leather chairs seated around their fireplace looked as though they had been waiting for us to arrive, to join them. Which we did. Gladly. Ken turned on the fire and Lynne asked us if we wanted anything warm to drink. Jen and I loved the idea of a hot cup of tea. Ken passed. And we sat around the cozy living room, with Christmas decor and warm fireplace, sipping our tea and talking as Lynne piped in from the kitchen while she finished preparations for lunch.

Ken told us about their plans to travel home for the holidays. And the interesting conversations they’ve seemed to have with those they sit by the past few times they’ve flown.

He told us about a recent trip, and how they had missed a flight, as their incoming flight had been late arriving. He told us that they were pretty frustrated, having to wait longer for the next flight out, but how they tried to tell themselves that there was a reason for it. He told us how they were seated toward the back of the plane on their new flight, and how there were a number of seats toward the front of the plane still open. Just before take off, they asked the stewardess if they could move up to those free seats. And she let them. He told us how, just before the doors closed, a middle-eastern man boarded the flight, and took the seat next to them. In the seats they had just moved to.

He told us how Lynne had struck up a conversation with this man, as she was reading a book about religions around the world. Apparently he told her if she had any questions on the Islam faith, to feel free to ask him. They got talking after this, about their different faiths. Islam and Christianity. And then Lynne subtly handing the conversation over to Ken.

“As a woman, I knew he’d listen to what Ken had to say before he’d listen to me,” Lynne said, poking her head in from the kitchen. They told us how this man was surprised to hear them talk about Christianity, and how it appeared quite different from what he knew of the faith.

“There weren’t any other conversations going on at this point,” Ken told us. “It was so quiet, you could hear a bit drop. Everyone around us was listening in,” he said with a laugh.

Apparently Ken and Lynne invited this man to join them for a meal at their home, while he was in Oregon. Leaving him with their phone number.

“We never got a phone call,” Ken told us.

After about 20 minutes, Lynne invited us into the dining room. Where she had prepared lunch for us. Roast chicken. Rice. Bread. Green beans. Salad. It looked wonderful. And it smelled even better. We made our plates and Ken prayed before we began. The four of us seated around their table.

They told us about all the work they had put into the home since arriving. They told us about their home back in Oregon. In the country. And the small church they attend. And how the pastor and his family were staying there while Ken and Lynne were here in Oxford.

It felt like we were back home. Sharing a meal with old friends. And it was wonderful.

About halfway through the meal, Ken looked over at Jen and asked her what the most difficult part of all of this had been for her. It was a fair question. Jen smiled softly as she prepared her thoughts.

“Probably just the change in schedule,” she said. “I was always so busy back home, and now I have all this time on my hands.”

Lynne told Jen she completely understood where she was coming from. And she went on to suggest a number of different places Jen might want to look into to get involved. In the youth program at church. In the Newcomer’s Meeting at the University. And that she’d be happy to meet Jen there, if she wanted.

Lynne’s a mom, to be sure. Not just because she has four children of her own, but because she just has that natural motherly instinct to her. She’s an incredibly kind, caring woman.

After finishing my second plate of lunch, we left the table and rejoined our seats in the living room, beside the fire.

Lynne asked if we’d like some of the chocolate cake she had baked for dessert. We weren’t about to pass that up.

“I like mine served warm, with vanilla ice cream. Does that sound all right with you?” she asked us. I wanted to give her another hug at this point.

“Yeah, that sounds great. Thank you, Lynne,” I said, in place of the hug.

We enjoyed our warm chocolate cake and conversation in the living room. Sharing stories from back home. Laughing about all the differences we’ve come across being here in England. Ken laughs with his shoulders. They rise and fall as he chuckles.

It was so nice sitting there, in their warm living room with Christmas decorations and good friends. It hardly felt like we were even in England.

Monday: Last New Testament Paper, An Introduction to the Christian Union

Monday was my last New Testament tutorial of the term. I’ll miss that. Going to class in the castle.

And it’s really been a great class (if I can say “class,” when there’s only two of us, and a professor). Not only because I enjoy the material, but I’ve really enjoyed my tutor (or professor, Dave) and classmate (Sarah, the one who always comes in these funky outfits) and the discussions we’ve had. I thanked Dave as we left the class that afternoon. And I shook his hand.

I don’t think Dave’s probably much of a handshaker, but I am. I once shook the Principal of Bellingham High School’s elbow after meeting him for the first time. Because he didn’t have any hands free. I don’t think he was terribly impressed. I wish I were making this up, but I have witnesses.

The wind was blowing hard as we left class Monday afternoon. And it was cold. Riding away on my bike, I asked Sarah what she plans to do for the extra week she was going to spend in Oxford before returning home.

“Oh, I’ll probably just see where the wind takes me,” she said. I laughed. Seemed like something she’d say.

Christian Union

I had told Tim I’d join him for a meeting with the Christian Union that night. The Christian Union is the University-wide Christian group here at Oxford. And each college has a smaller group that meets, as part of the wider Christian Union umbrella. Tim had been wanting to start up a chapter at Harris Manchester, since we don’t currently have one, and I said I’d help him. I liked the idea of getting a group going at Harris Manchester. I believe people meeting to talk about Jesus is a good thing.

This evening’s meeting was full of Oxford students crammed into a small church room, gathered around tables. I was late arriving, because of my class, but I quickly picked out Tim in the crowd and found a seat next to him.

Two leaders stood in the front of the room. One girl. One guy. They both looked quite trendy. And a bit older than the rest of the students in the room. I didn’t catch their names. So I made them up. “Sarah.” She went to Cambridge, apparently. To study literature. And “Rowan.” I didn’t catch where he studied, but he wore designer glasses. He looked smart. And he talked smart, too.

The point of the evening’s meeting was to brainstorm ideas to get more people involved in the Christian Union next term. In particular, the group was discussing ways to reach out to friends who don’t consider themselves believers in God and Jesus. I’m not sure if it’s just because I was going on a lack of sleep, but I felt like I had a bit of a critical attitude toward the whole thing. Like it was a bit too creative strategy and not much about how “God” fit into the whole thing.

We prayed afterward. People prayed over those in the room, and students at Oxford in general. For creativity in coming up with ideas, and that they would go off smoothly. I had to fight the urge to allow my critical feelings pour over into my prayer. Or make any cutting remarks.

I’m usually quick to jump in and pray in group prayer. I’m not one to sit back and listen. But I did this time. Mostly to make sure I wasn’t jumping in with any rash prayers. But I just had it on my heart to pray that God would be at work here in Oxford. Through this ministry. Through other ways we weren’t aware of. That we would be diligent to love others, and even put together events that might help us share Him with others, but that, more so, we would be confident in His work in the hearts of those students here at Oxford. And that we would give Him the glory for any changed lives. That it would be more about what He was doing here, than what any of us were doing here. Than any creative ideas we came up with.

So I did. I prayed for all of that. I’m not sure how cutting it came across. I hope not very. But I felt better after saying it.

Tuesday: Waking up to Snow

We woke up to snow Tuesday morning, which was quite exciting. Peeking out of our second-story window to take in the snow-covered scene.

Jen had said the night before the snow was supposed to be coming. She was right.

Jen’s really missed her calling. She should’ve been a weather reporter. I’ve never met someone so in-tune with the weather. Someone who always seems to know what the weather’s going to do. I always tell her that’s her spiritual gift. She just rolls her eyes.

I rode off to the gym on my bike, hoping not to fall flat on my face in the snow and ice. I passed Jane and Felix on their way to school. And I tried extra hard not to fall.

An Interview with A Lewis Expert

I returned home from the gym that morning to find an e-mail waiting for me from my cousin in Indiana. Tracy. He’s a producer for a Christian radio station, and he was writing to tell me about an interview he had scheduled for the next day. It was with an expert on C.S. Lewis from Oxford, a guy by the name of Michael Ward. Tracy told me that Michael has written several books on Lewis, that he was a warden at the Kilns for several years, and that he even appeared in the Lewis biography Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins. And apparently it had made Tracy think of me, so he wanted to tell me about it.

I had to laugh after reading the e-mail. I replied, to tell him we know Michael. Jen and I have had several meals with him since arriving here, with a small group from the Oxford Lewis Society. And we’d be seeing him that evening at the Lewis Society’s Christmas party at the Kilns.

I told Tracy I’d tell Michael to prepare for the interview of his life. Tracy asked me if I could get him an interview with the Queen.

End of Term Interviews

We had our end-of-term interviews at Harris Manchester this week. To find out how we are doing. And to make sure to address any issues before the next term rolls around.

I met with the Senior Tutor, Lesley Smith (basically the director of academics) and the Vice Principal Tuesday evening. I really didn’t know what to expect, other than a brief meeting, as I knew they were meeting with about 150 students over only three days.

We met in the Principal’s office. Which always sounds bad, but it ended up being a great meeting. Lesley smiled at me as she read my tutor’s reports. She said everyone was very happy with my work. She said they reported that I was “keenly engaged in the classroom,” and that I had the “mental tools” for the coursework. She told me she thought I was doing very well. I told her I was happy to hear that.

It’s a rather odd feeling, dreaming of studying at a place like this for so long, and then suddenly finding yourself propped up in the middle of a room, with the administrators telling you they’re happy with your work. It’s rather like finding yourself in the middle of a dream, where you can’t quite remember the details surrounding how you got there in the first place.

Lesley asked me how I was feeling about the studies, at this point. I told her it had been a pretty difficult transition, coming from working and not having had to study for several years. But that I was really enjoying it now. She smiled and nodded.

The Vice Principal, who I hadn’t met before, asked what I did before coming to Oxford. I told him I worked in Public Relations for four years. He told me they’d keep that in mind in case they needed any PR help. I told him to do that. And to let me know if they wanted to work out a trade. They laughed. Which I think might mean they took that as a joke.

I smiled as I found my way down the staircase and toward the library to wrap up my last essay of the term. Encouraged by their response to my efforts, encouraged to know that, at the end of my first term, Oxford was happy with my work.

A Christmas Party at Lewis’ Home

I met up with Jen for thai food after submitting my final essay of the term. Before heading to the Kilns for a Christmas party. It was a place we had been wanting to try but hadn’t had a chance yet. Across the street from Christ Church. Walking in, it looked very much like a pub. Which made me wonder whether their thai food would actually taste like thai food, or if it’d be served with a side of chips.

But the food was great. I told Jen about my meeting over dinner. She was so happy for me. She looked beautiful. And I told her that. It was so nice to stop from the frantic pace long enough to enjoy a nice meal away from home. And a real conversation.

We caught the bus to Lewis’ old home after dinner, and we were there 15 minutes later. Stepping off the bus into the snow-crusted grass. Making our way down the lane that leads up to the Kilns. Looking at the Christmas lights on the homes and through the windows as we went. It all felt very much like Christmas.

Walter arrived shortly after we did. It was great to see him again. He sat with Jennifer and I, beside the row of books and the fireplace. And we caught up on all we’ve seen and done since he had us over last.

I told Walter we bought ourselves a couple packs of digestive biscuits after he had introduced us to them over tea, and that we were going through those quickly. He appreciated hearing that, I think. He’s a big fan of digestive biscuits. And tea. We told him about going to Blenheim Palace. And Bath. He smiled, and asked questions about each place as we spoke.

Walter’s an amazing guy to talk to. He’s the kind of guy who will be telling a story and, inconsequentially, will mention the time he visited Tolkein in the hospital, and finding him reading a detective novel… It’s still very unreal for me to sit with a man who was friends with such incredible people. And who has all these memories of them, still.

Walter asked what I would be reading over the break. I told him it’d likely be a lot of studying Greek, actually. He asked what I liked to cook. Walter likes to talk about cooking. And his running joke is that Jen only cooks mashed potatoes. Unseasoned mashed potatoes. I’m still a little unclear about how that all came about. But he loves that joke.

The night included a tour around the house. We split up into three groups of about 10 people each. Michael Ward led one group. Cole led another. And Deb (who’s the current warden at the Kilns) led the third tour. Along with Walter, to share old stories. We were in Deb and Walter’s group. It was great, because we got to hear firsthand a lot of these great stories. About Lewis. And others.

Walter told us about the cat that lived at the Kilns. Tom. And how he got so old that his teeth fell out. At one point the maid asked for Lewis’ permission to have Tom put down. Lewis responded, “Of course not. He’s a pensioner.” Laughter filled the room. Walter told us that, from then on, Lewis requested that Tom be fed fresh fish. Three times a day. De-boned, in light of Tom’s lack of teeth.

Walter told us about a time he and Lewis were leaving the house to go for a walk. And they passed Tom as they went. Lewis tipped his hat to Tom as they walked, Walter told us, before whispering to Walter, “He’s a pensioner.”

We toured around the rest of the house and coming to the dining room (“decorated to match Joy’s tastes”), Deb told us a story about Joy. Joy was Lewis’ wife. And, from what I hear, she was a fiery woman. Deb told us about a time Lewis and Joy were on a walk, in the eight acres behind their home. Around the pond. When they came across an archer, who was on their property. Hunting. Without permission. And how Lewis kindly asked him to leave, to which re responded by pointing his arrow directly at them. She told us Lewis quickly stepped in front of Joy at this point, like any gentleman would, and how Joy responded by saying, “Damnit Jack, you’re in my line of fire!” Everyone in the group laughed. I turned to Jen and told her that reminded me of her. She smiled. And nodded. Except she’d say, “You’re in my line of fire, bonehead!”

We finished the tour with Deb’s favorite story. A story Walter tells about the time he first arrived at the Kilns. About the time he first met Lewis, after sharing letters for nine years.

Apparently Walter arrived at the Kilns around tea time, as he said Lewis and he talked over about three pot’s worth of tea. After which he grew increasingly uncomfortable, and found himself in need of a restroom. After waiting as long as he could, he asked Lewis to excuse him, and if he could show him where the “bathroom” was.

“Of course,” Lewis replied.

Walter told us Lewis took him down the hallway from the common room, pulled out a stack of towels and soap from a closet, handed them to Walter and then opened up a door leading into the bathroom.

Walter looked around the room to find just that, a bathtub. And a sink. But no toilet.

After several minutes of wondering what to do, he made his way back out to the common room to explain the misunderstanding to Lewis. Or “Jack,” as Walter refers to him as.

Apparently Lewis responded by saying, “All right, well perhaps we should start over. Where would you like to be taken, then? That’ll cure you of those senseless American euphemisms!”

Everyone laughed. Deb handed Walter a stack of towels and soap, so she could take a photo.

Walter told us Lewis knew where he wanted to go, and he had done that on purpose. He told us Lewis was quite particular about words. He and Tolkein were both that way, he told us.

After several hours, Jennifer and I decided to make our way to the bus stop, and back home. We thanked Deb for the party. We told Michael “goodbye,” and said “goodbye” and “thanks” to Cole, and then I found Walter, to tell him “goodbye.”

He was surrounded by a group of students, in front of the fireplace. He was telling a story, and everyone was listening attentively. I hated to interrupt, but we needed to be going if we were going to catch our bus.

I apologized for the interruption as I stepped up to Walter, to let him know we were leaving. He stopped his story without a look of frustration and told me it was so nice to see us again, and that he’d write me later in the week to invite us over for supper at his home before Christmas. I told him we’d like that very much, and we made our way out of the Kilns. Away from the warm home into the cold night air. Through the snow, down the lane, lined with homes lit up by Christmas lights, and toward the bus that would bring us home. It had been a wonderful day.

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