Archives for posts with tag: Cole

Saturday: Lewis wasn’t a saint

I woke up Saturday morning after the second week of the term with just enough time for a shower and some breakfast before my tour arrived at the Kilns. I was leading a tour of the Kilns for a group of about a dozen 20-somethings from a Korean church in London on this particular morning. And their pastor.

I led them around the house, as usual, telling stories along the way. I told them about the time Joy, Lewis’s wife, was in the hospital, stricken with bone cancer. I told them how her diagnosis was so bad that she wasn’t expected to leave the hospital alive. And then, I told them how Joy experienced a rather miraculous period of remission and was able to leave the hospital and move into the Kilns for several years.

I told them about how Lewis had written about this experience in his book, A Grief Observed. I told them how he wrote that at the same time Joy was rebuilding her bone marrow, Lewis was losing his bone marrow, to osteoporosis.

I told them how, in his book, Lewis mentioned this idea of substitution, which his good friend Charles Williams shared with him. According to this idea, Williams believed if one prays for the healing of a sick loved one, God may respond to that prayer by giving them your good health, and allowing you to take their sickness upon yourself.

I commented on how Lewis wasn’t willing to say this is absolutely what had happened in this situation, but that the timing of Joy’s recovery and his illness was rather interesting, particularly following in light of his prayers. And yet, one of the guys in the group wore a face that told me the story left him a little disturbed.

“It seems like he had some superstitious ideas,” he commented. “Maybe even unbiblical.”

He was referring not just to this story, but to a story I had shared with the group earlier in the tour. I had told the group about how Lewis had “married” Joy, in a civil arrangement, as a way for her to avoid extradition for her former ties with the Communist Party and stay in the UK. I told them about how this wasn’t something Lewis even shared with a number of his friends, but how he did this as a way to help out a friend.

“Personally, I appreciate those kind of stories,” I told the guy in this group. “I think a lot of people, particularly evangelicals, try to make Lewis into a saint. But he wasn’t a saint. He was just a very bright guy who was trying to live out his Christian faith, and he used what he had to help others do the same. I appreciate hearing he was a bit unconventional.”

He nodded, and I could tell this answer probably wasn’t what he was expecting, but that he appreciated it.

One of the girls on the tour was a professional piano player, and she played a bit of music from the piano in the library. Afterward, I took a photo of the group in front of the house. I shook several hands as they thanked me and then were on their way.

The pastor who was leading the group only got about 10 feet away before turning around and returning to me, where I was standing beside the front door.

“You are a CS Lewis expert,” he said with a smile.

I couldn’t tell if it was a question, or if it was a statement. But I shrugged it off, sheepishly, with a smile, and told him I wasn’t.

He smiled and then returned to his group as they disappeared around the side of the house and I made my way back inside.

Sunday: Noah & Owen’s Baptism

I was up at 8:00 the next morning, and on a bus to the city center shortly afterward. I was on my way to Jarred and Chelsea’s house, to join them for their boys’ baptism at St Barnabas Church that morning, which Jarred had invited me to the week before.

Their two boys, Noah and Owen, greeted me at the door, with Jarred following behind them. “Hey man,” Jarred said, greeting me with a warm welcome. He was dressed in a suit, and I was glad I had decided to go with a tie at the last minute.

Noah and Owen each wore a tie and waistcoat. They looked very “smart,” as they say here. I met Chelsea’s Mom, who was visiting from their home in Florida, and their friend Sharie, who Jarred and Chelsea know from their time at St Andrews in Scotland.

We walked to church along the canal, our feet beating the pavement while ducks bathed in the river water. Chelsea wore Owen on her back and Noah rode ahead of us on his bike. He looked so small scooting along the pavement. He’d get 20 feet or so ahead of us and then stop and look back to make sure we were still following before going again.

The churchbells rang in the distance as we walked, and a low fog hung over the homes along the canal. 10 minutes later, we arrived at St Barnabas, with Noah leading the way on his miniature bike.

The church was large and old, with high-vaulted ceilings, and lots of ornate images of Christ, including a large painting of Jesus in the front of the room. The room was filled with old wooden chairs that groaned under our weight during the service. We lit candles halfway through, in recognition of Candlemas, but the entire service seemed to involve more of my sense than I was used to.

A procession of people dressed in white gowns walked through the church, and they were led by two people who were waving something that looked a small, round, globelike instrument that hung from a chain back and forth. It filled the air with a smell that reminded me of incense. The whole scene was so different than what I typically experienced at church, and I liked that.

The baptism was held in the back of the room, in a large, decorative wooden fountain. The boys took turns having their heads washed with the holy water, and I snapped photos while everyone watched on. Jarred and Chelsea stood by looking on wearing smiles, with Chelsea’s Mom and Sharie beside them. You could tell they were proud, and I was proud to be there.

After the service, a woman served coffee and cookies from a table in the back of the room, cookies Chelsea made, while adults gathered in small circles to talk, and young children ran around chasing one another, stopping only long enough to hide behind a parent. The priest made his way from group to group to say “hello,” and people made small talk over coffee and cookies (“I didn’t make them, no. The Americans brought them.”).

I took Owen from Jarred, as he went outside in search of Noah, who has a knack for running off when no one’s watching. Owen was tired, and his eyes and head struggled to fight off the sleep. It wasn’t long before his white haired head was resting limply against my chin, and I patted his back gently while Chelsea, her mom and Sharie talked.

I was thankful to have been a part of the boys’ baptism service, and I thanked them afterwards for inviting me, as we made our way back to their house along the canal.

When I didn’t understand Christianity

After saying goodbye to the boys, and to the others, I made my way back across the city center, to Harris Manchester College, where I planned to get a bit of studying done before I returned to Jarred & Chelsea’s place that evening for a celebration dinner.

It was lunchtime as I made my way to Harris Manchester, and so I figured I’d grab a sandwich to eat on my way to College. I passed by a guy sitting on the sidewalk, as I walked. He was wrapped up in a blanket, and he leaned against the stone building against him. And almost as soon as he could ask if I had any change to spare, I cut him off and said, “I’m sorry.” He apologized for bothering me, and I told him it was no bother at all, as I continued my way to the sandwich shop.

Immediately my mind darted to the change in my pocket. The change I could easily have given this man. My mind also began to replay the many ways in which I’ve been provided for, ways that have made it possible for me to even be here now.

I continued to think about this as I ordered my sandwich. And, sandwich in-hand, with the feeling of guilt weighing heavy on me, I decided to cross the street instead of passing back by this man again, a second time, with my food in-hand after telling him I was sorry I couldn’t help him.

But that didn’t help alleviate my guilt. As I crossed the street, without any effort on my part, I remembered the story of the good Samaritan, and the account of the “religious” ones who passed by on the opposite side of the street. As I walked, head hanging low, carrying my sandwich, I realized this story was about people just like me.

And that’s when I felt pressed to turn around and go give this man my sandwich. Or at least go offer it to him. A battle raged inside of me as I walked, with one voice encouraging me to turn around and go offer to help this man I had just snubbed, and another voice, the voice of my pride, telling me it would be embarrassing to do so, as that would just go to show I could’ve helped him in the first place if I wanted to.

This battle continued to rage inside of me until I bit down into my sandwich, sealing my decision, and it was at that moment I realized I didn’t actually understand Christianity.

Week 3

Monday: A guest in HMC & What’s a burrito?

I started the third week of the term off with a very cold ride down Headington Hill to college. The wind beat my face as I wrote, and I could think about was warming up with a hot cup of tea. My fingers numb by the time I arrived at Harris Manchester. I locked up my bike outside, removed my gloves once I was inside, and blew on my hands to warm them up as I made my way to my familiar spot in the library.

My buddy Rich joined me at Harris Manchester later that day, for a bit of studying. He had never been before, and his eyes were big as we made our way into the library. We climbed the spiral metal staircase to the second floor and I looked back just in time to see him silently mouth the word “Cooool…” We found an empty desk near mine, and whispered quietly to me, “This is really nice, man!”

I really do love Harris Manchester, but it’s always nice to share it with others and see how much they like it, as well. It’s one of the newer colleges, so it doesn’t have the ancient history many others do. It’s also quite small, so it doesn’t have the massive, sweeping grounds some of the other colleges do. And yet, I love it. I love the stone architecture, with arching doorways and stone buildings. I love the people, who greet me with a smile and know me by name. And I love the fact that it feels like home.

Rich left later that afternoon, and I continued to work away. He had only been gone for about 20 minutes when I received a text from him that read: “Thanks again for letting me study with you at HMC today. You’re blessed to be where you are, bro!”

I made a trip to Mission Burrito for a break from the studies to grab a quick bite that night. Mission is about as close as it comes to Chipotle here in Oxford. It’s also the only place to get any Mexican food. They really do have a monopoly on the market, now that I think of it.

The sign on the front door reads “What’s a burrito?”, which tells you just how sad a state of affairs Mexican food is in England at the moment. The man behind the counter taking orders and putting together burritos that night had a French accent. I thought that was funny, a French guy making burritos in an English city for an American student. It seemed like a bit of a microcosm of just how international a place Oxford is.

After finishing my burrito in record time, I hopped on my bike and rode back to college in the ice-cold night air. My hands were tucked behind my seat, trying to keep warm, as I rode swiftly along St Giles Street in the dark, with my pulsating headlight lighting the way.

Tuesday: Almost there & It’s not Harry Potter

I found myself locking up my bike and blowing on my hands to warm them up again on Tuesday morning, another cold start to the day. Emily was walking up to the front of college just as I arrived. She waved, and greeted me with a smile and a question: “Ryan, can you believe you only have five more weeks left of your last taught term?!”

“No… I really can’t,” I told her. “I’m really not looking forward to Trinity Term and finals!”

“It’ll go quickly,” she said sympathetically.

“Yeah, like a band-aid.”

That afternoon, while I was studying from the second floor of the library, Alister McGrath entered through the double doors with a camera crew following behind him. Sue, the librarian, apologized for the interruption. She smiled as she made the comment that the shoot was not for Harry Potter, and that they wouldn’t be needing any extras.

“Only in Oxford,” I thought to myself as I returned to my books while the camera crew wandered the library and set up tri-pods for the shoot.

Wednesday: I really do live here & “Jack” Pemberton

The cold weather continued Wednesday morning, greeting me as I left the house. The frigid air hit my face like a bite as I walked out the door, and I felt the reluctant crunch of the pea gravel foot path that pushed back against each step I took as I made my way around the house to get my bike. Unlocking my chain and throwing it in my basket along with my shoulder bag, I made my way around the house and stopped for a moment to look over my shoulder at the blue sign that sits just below CS Lewis’s old bedroom window. I read the old familar name and words just to remind myself that, yes, I really do live here.

“Crazy,” I thought to myself, shaking my head as I threw my leg over my bike and rode to college.

I spent the day working on my essay for the week from the library before reading for the chapel service that evening. I returned to my studies afterward, only to get a Skype call from Jen shortly after I took my seat.

And even though I couldn’t talk outloud, I could still hear her through my headphones, and type my response. And it was so good to see her again. Just seeing that smile and hearing from her again lit me up like fireworks in a night sky.

After a full day in the library, I made my way back home that night and I had another Skype call once I was back. This time with Cole, my good friend who is now studying at St Andrews University in Scotland.

It was good to catch up again, and to hear about his studies there. I told him I miss grabbing dinner at Eagle and Child, and catching the latest movies together, before sharing the big news with him: that we are expecting our first child this summer.

He responded with a wide smile, squinty eyes, and loud clapping. “That’s fantastic!” he said, before pausing a moment and then continuing.

“I think Jack Pemberton is a very good name. . . . Sounds like an Olympic athlete.”

I laughed, before telling him I agreed, and that he just needed to persuade Jen.

I was still working on my reading and writing for the week after 12:30 that night. Knowing I still had a ways to go, I put on some soft tunes by Audrey Assad, and turned off the lights, leaving just the lamp on my desk to light my late-night work. And it was there, working from Warnie’s old room by lamplight, that I found myself thinking, “This is exactly how it ought to be.”

Thursday: Another one of Oxford’s hidden treasures

Surprise of all surprises, Thursday was another frigid morning. This time, though, I left the house to find the ground and cars covered in a glimmering frost. The cold air was sharp against my face all the way to college, and I arrived at my desk first in the library first thing that morning to find a pile of a dozen or so books waiting for me, along with an apple, just as I left them the night before.

I took a short break from my studies Thursday afternoon to meet up with Myriam at Exeter College and go over a few things for the Oxford University CS Lewis Society. Myriam is the Society Secretary, and she’s a member of Exeter College. I had never been inside Exeter before, so she showed me around after our meeting.

We stepped into the chapel and she pointed out the J.R.R. Tolkien bust that is perched on a pedestal just inside the doorway. “I nod to it after Evensong,” Myriam admitted with a smile that neared embarrassment.

I turned to see the Exeter Chapel, and I couldn’t help but greet it with a, “Whowwww…”

It really was beautiful, and easily one of the most stunning chapels at Oxford I’ve seen so far. It’s very well lit, with three of its walls made up almost entirely of ornately designed stained-glass windows. The ceiling is a high-arching stone, with an intricate design I wish I could put into words. Myriam pointed out the organ to me, which took up the majority of the back wall. She mentioned that it’s a French design, and, again, one of the nicest in all of Oxford.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so taken aback by something here in Oxford. And, of course, the funny part is I pass by this building, outside the college walls, on a daily basis. I found myself thinking about just how many hidden treasures there are in this city, which people pass by every day, as I rode my bike back to HMC for more studies.

A stream of water flowing into the street drain was frozen in its tracks, and the girl on her bike in front of me wore earmuffs. I thought she may have been onto something with the earmuffs.

Jonathan the Scapegoat

I left the library at 10:30 that night, to head home and grab some dinner before finishing my reading for the next day’s essay. The air was as cold as I’ve felt it since returning to Oxford, as I peddled through the city center. My teeth were chattering, forcing me to bury my chin in my jacket, head low as I rode on.

I pulled my bike up beside the Kilns, locked it up, and then paused, noting how very bright the moonlight made the evening. It was only a thumbnail of its full size, but it cast a great light at nearly 11:00 that night. An airplane flew just beside it, leaving a white trail fading in the glow of the moon.

Checking the temperature when I got inside, it read 22 degrees (F).

Jonathan was in the kitchen when I entered to prepare some dinner. He was cleaning up from his own dinner, which he had made for two guests from Malta. Former students he supervised.

I was heating up some leftovers while Jonathan washed dishes when Debbie entered.

“It’s 11:00, must be dinner time!” she said with a smile in her sing-song voice.

A lot of times I don’t see Debbie or Jonathan on a given day, because of my hours, so it was nice to catch up with them both. The three of us talked while I ate and Jonathan cleaned.

After clearing my plate, I poured myself a bowl of Jen’s Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, which my Grandpa had sent over for her, as she was still home, and I needed something sweet.

Seeing how Jonathan is English, Debbie asked if he had ever had Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. His face gave away his response before his words left his mouth, but he said he had never heard of such a thing.

“Good,” I said. “If Jen asks, we’ll tell her you hadn’t had any and wanted to try some. She can get mad at me, but she can’t get mad at you, so it only makes sense.”

“Yes, that is the very Christian thing to do,” he said, sarcastically. “I’ll let you know when I need a scapegoat.”

“Deal,” I said, bringing the spoonful of cereal to my mouth with a smile and a nod.

Jen and I caught a bus home after our date night on Friday. It was a cool night, and we were anxious to get inside the warm home and escape the cold by the time we had walked from our bus stop. But just as we opened the door, a taxi pulled up outside the house, which I thought was odd, considering it was now 12:30 in the morning. I remembered our good friend Cole, who’s currently studying at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, was visiting for the weekend, and I wondered if this was him.

I watched as the cab door opened up and a dark silhouette stepped out onto the street. Sure enough, it was Cole. I recognized his profile as Cole handed the cab driver his fare, and so I waited at the door to welcome him.

“Haaaaaay!” he said as he drug his luggage through the gate and to where we stood at the doorway. We welcomed him with hugs and caught up from the kitchen. He had grabbed a late dinner from a kebab van in the city center, and I made myself a bowl of cereal while the three of us talked. Friends don’t let friends eat alone…

It was nearly 1:00 in the morning by the time we said “goodnight” to Cole and made our way to bed. Cole would be joining us for Guy Fawkes Day fireworks in South Park the next day, just as the three of us had done the year before.

Saturday: Day with Jen & Guy Fawkes Day

Jen and I started off Saturday with a trip to the Oxford city center. It had been a busy week, and we planned to spend the day together before catching the fireworks display in the park with the rest of the house that night.

After showering and grabbing a quick breakfast, we caught a bus to the city center. Our bus made a quick stop in Headington, a small village just outside of the city center, and my eyes caught a small boy walking behind his parents. He was carrying a long, plastic sword that was nearly as tall as he was. He stopped for a moment to try and “sheath” the sword into the front of his pants, but quickly realized doing so would prevent him from walking. His parents stopped to look back and find the boy in the middle of this dilemma. I laughed. And asked Jen if our boy could have a plastic sword one day. “Of course,” she said. I grinned widely.

We got off the bus at High Street, and we tucked into a small antique shop near the Exam Schools building. We thumbed through a large collection of old Oxford photos and illustrations, pausing to show the other any ones that we particularly liked. Finally, after looking through dozens and dozens of matted illustrations, we decided on an old drawing of High Street, complete with a carriage, one of the Radcliffe Camera, with several Oxford students in their cap and gowns, and one of the Bridge of Sighs. We talked about how great the pictures would look framed in our future home some day as we made our way out of the antique shop, across the High Street, and down a narrow lane that leads toward the heart of the city center.

It was a beautiful, clear, cool day as we walked through this cobblestone lane with leaves on ground. The stone footpath was covered in rich oranges and reds and yellows. And it was almost as if Oxford had dressed up in its finest Autumn-inspired outfit, just for us. Fallen leaves were draped across the cobblestone lane leading us beneath the Bridge of Sighs and finally up to the Radcliffe Camera, illustrations of which we carried in our plastic bag.

The streets were packed as we made it to Broad Street. Jen had wanted to try on some boots, and so we polka-dotted the city center with our stops in a handful of different shoe stores. We took a brief break from our shopping to wander down to the Alternative Tuck Shop and order two paninis for lunch, which we enjoyed from the dark leather couches of the Junior Common Room of my college. We didn’t manage to find a pair of boots for Jen, but we did enjoy spending the day together. It was a wonderful time, and something we don’t get to do nearly enough.

We returned to the Kilns in the middle of the afternoon, while the sky was still a light shade of blue, with streaks of white clouds drifting slowly by. And, as Jen searched for her keys to open the door, I found my eyes wandering to the small blue plaque on the side of the house, the one that identifies the home as where C.S. Lewis lived from 1930 to 1963, and to the windows that look into his old bedroom, and it was then that I realized, perhaps for the first time, how truly incredible it is that we live here.

Lighting Guy Fawkes on Fire & Fireworks in South Park

That evening, Jen and I and Cole made our way to South Park, where Guy Fawkes Day was being celebrated, along with Debbie and Jonathan, who are living at the Kilns, and David Naugle, a short-term scholar from Dallas. We walked the long way around, passing through the nature reserve in the dark. Around the pond where Lewis used to swim and go punting, and through the field with its tall grass. We walked in a line, with Jonathan leading the way. Jonathan walks between the city center and the Kilns every day, which takes about an hour, so he’s well-practiced. He keeps a good pace, and the rest of us did our best to keep up with him.

As we made it out of the nature reserve and onto the streets, we found ourselves walking amongst a large crowd of people, all making their way to the Fireworks display. I talked with Cole as we walked. We had left the house a little later than we should have, and so we were wondering if we’d make it on-time.

I joked that I had told those in charge that we might be a little late arriving, and so we didn’t need to worry about the show starting without us. Cole played along with the joke.

“Ladies and gentleman, has anyone seen a tall, handsome, intelligent fellow?…” Cole said. “And his friend Ryan Pemberton?”

I laughed out loud.

We passed through the gate leading into South Park only to find it lined with large carnival rides that lit up the night skyline, and food vendors that filled the air with scents of grilled sausages and hot mulled wine. It felt a bit like being at the county fair back home. And I loved it.

“Does being here make anyone else want a hot dog?” I asked.

“It does me,” said Cole.

“Just you two, I think,” said Debbie, the vegetarian in the group.

We found our way toward the front of the crowd that had gathered in the eastern end of the park for fireworks. The show had yet to begin, and we stood should-to-shoulder as we waited in the crowd.

Apparently my comment about hot dogs had stuck with Cole, as he soon took food orders from our group and left to hunt down hot dogs while the rest of us waited for the fireworks to begin. Less than 10 minutes later, they had begun.

The percussion was so loud you could feel it in your chest as the fireworks exploded into the black night sky in bursts of reds and blues and yellows. Those standing around us ghasped in awe, as did I.

“They were all out of hot dogs, so I got us burgers instead,” Cole said as he made it back to where we were standing in the crowd. The fireworks were building up to a grand finale, and we all stared skyward, faces lit up by the display, as we enjoyed our warm, tinfoil-wrapped burgers.

After the fireworks had finished, a giant, 50-foot tall effigy was lit on fire, and the crowd watched as it went from a small fire to a roaring blaze.

Limb by limb the effigy was torn down by the flickering tongue of the flames, and we all stood there, looking on, almost as if we were bystanders to a crime. But it was no crime. It was just a typical Guy Fawkes Day celebration in England. It seemed so primitive and barbaric. So pagan.

The crowd dwindled as the statue crumbled, leaving little more than a bonfire, and soon we were making our way out of the crowd and back toward the Kilns. But before we had gone, Debbie and Cole let us know they wouldn’t be able to leave without a ride on the merry-go-round. And they were serious.

The rest of us watched as they purchased their tickets and found a seat on the ride, each choosing their own “horse” before it began. But before the merry-go-round could begin its rotation, it became clear that not everyone was going to be able to have their own horse. A small girl was left looking for a free seat when Cole noticed and offered her his. Realizing this left him without his own horse, he took the front seat of the horse Debbie had been on.

“Nooooo…” I said in a hushed voice, realizing that not only would Debbie and Cole be riding the merry-go-round, but they’d be sharing the same horse!

As the ride began, they both looked over at us with embarrassed grins, Cole from the front of the horse, and Debbie from the seat just behind him. I burst into laughter, in disbelief of the scene.

Neither one of them were about to let the opportunity go by without hamming it up, so they made different poses on each rotation as they passed by us. Cole would extend his arms out into the air, as if he were flying, and Debbie would lean back and swat at the horse’s rear end, while the three of us laughed uncontrollably from our spot just beyond the ride. I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard.

We caught a bus back to the Kilns that night. Jonathan had returned before us, to finish dinner preparations. Our meal was ready not long after we returned, and we all sat down to an incredible dinner in the dining room.

Jonathan is an amazing cook, and we enjoyed a truly inspired meal over much laughter as we explained the scene of Cole and Debbie on the merry-go-round to Jonathan. It was a great day, and a great night, and it didn’t end until nearly 2:00 the next morning.

Sunday: Magdalene Chapel & Shadow proves the sunshine

Jen and I attended church at Magdalene Chapel on Sunday morning, in the college where Lewis taught when he was here in Oxford. David, the short-term scholar from Dallas, joined us.

Magdalene is one of my favorite college chapels here in Oxford. It’s massive, and it has an incredible number of ornate carvings spread throughout its walls. The ceiling is a high-arching wooden structure, and the walls are lined with stained-glass windows. On this particular morning, a ray of light came dancing into the room through one of the front, corner stained glass windows in the chapel, in rather dramatic fashion, just as the choir–a mix of men and boys–began the morning hymns. It was an incredible, beautiful service, and I was so glad we had attended.

Afterward, we wandered a short way down High Street to the Grand Cafe for brunch. The Grand Cafe is England’s oldest coffee house, and David had never been before, so we thought it would be a nice place to follow up the service we had just enjoyed together.

We talked about the Switchfoot concert David would be attending the next week in Cambridge over our hot breakfast and coffee. David told us how he knew Switchfoot’s lead singer, Jon Foreman, and that a lot of the band’s lyrics had been influenced by his father, a pastor in California. I shared with him my favorite Switchfoot lyrics: “the shadow proves the Sunshine.” We agreed it was a beautiful line; theologically weighty and poetic.

We finished our breakfast, took care of the bill, and then we made our way back to the Kilns on a particularly sunny Sunday afternoon. It was nice to get back home early and enjoy a restful day before the start of another week.

5th week

Monday: Lincoln College’s most famous alum & Proud of you

In contrast to the weekend’s sunny weather, Monday arrived with a thick blanket of fog. The air was wet from it, and your clothes would pick up the moisture as you walked. “This feels like the England as so many know it,” I thought to myself as I made my short walk to the bus stop, en route to the city center and college.

After several hours of reading, I clicked off my desk lamp in the Harris Manchester Library and rode my bike to Lincoln College, where I’d be meeting Rich and Max and Britton for lunch. We’ve been meeting together once a week, on Mondays, to share life and lunch, and then pray together.

I hadn’t been to Lincoln College before, but it is a beautiful college in the middle of the city center. It’s small, but I’ve found myself liking the smaller colleges lately. They’re less intimidating.

We followed Britton through several courtyards and down a small stone staircase to an underground room lined with old wooden tables and flatscreen monitors on the walls. At the end of the room was a bar, where students where placing their food orders. The whole thing looked like a rather modern pub, and it was.

“I’m a little jealous that Lincoln has its own pub,” I confessed to Britton and the rest of the guys. “But this is great!”

We placed our orders, sandwiches and soup, and retired to a small alcove that looked a bit like a bomb shelter in the corner of the room.

“This place is amazing,” I said as we sat with our lunches. The guys agreed, nodding their heads as we dug into our food.

“Yeah, I think it used to be a wine cellar,” Britton told us as we ate.

“That makes sense,” said Max.

We were in awe of what an incredible deal Lincoln was for lunch, as well. For £1.95, I got a bowl of soup and a sandwich. It was incredible, really.

We had a great time of prayer, as we wrapped up our meal and time together. Walking out of the underground pub, we followed Britton along a cobblestone walkway, and it felt a bit like we’d traveled back in time.

Britton showed us the College’s chapel and dining hall as we toured the grounds. In the dining hall, Britton made sure to point out a large portrait of John Wesley, most famous for founding the Methodist Movement.

“He’s probably our most famous alum,” Britton told us.

“Meh…” I said with a smirk.

Rich laughed. “Yeah, not that big of a deal,” he said sarcastically.

Proud of You

Back in the library at Harris Manchester, I found my studies interrupted by a Skype call from my Mom. She calls me fairly often when I’m in the library, and, since I’m almost always wearing my earphones to listen to music while I read, I’m able to hear her without interrupting anyone else. I type my responses, and she speaks to me. It’s a routine we’ve got down as I’m often in the library when she calls.

The call was brief, and after a bit of small-talk, my Mom’s voice took on a more serious tone.

“Ryan, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said as she began. “I’ve been thinking about it and, I think if C.S. Lewis was alive today, he’d be so proud of what you’re doing.”

My eyes focused and the skin on my face tightened. Even though I couldn’t talk anyways, being in the library, I found I had to stop. I put my head down, and it was all I could do to stop the tears from welling up in my eyes.

My Mom didn’t know it, but I had been feeling a bit disillusioned at the time. I was having a tough time, wondering about the future, what we were going to do after my studies here, and all. The idea of what Lewis would’ve thought about all of this, were he alive, had never crossed my mind, but it meant so very much.

My Mom had to go, as she was on a break at work and now had to get back to things there, but she could see how much her comment had meant, even though I could hardly type.

No One Will Ever Believe You

Jen and I had a Skype call with her family that night, from our study at the Kilns. We were talking with Jen’s mom when we heard a knock on the door. I was closest to it, so I got up from my seat and opened the door. It was Debbie, and she was asking if Jen’s book was available. I looked back to Jen, who seemed to know what she was asking for, and she handed me a small romance novel from the desk.

I looked at the book she was handing me, and turned to hand it to Debbie with a look of surprise. Debbie is, perhaps, the last person you’d expect to be reading such a book. Debbie teaches Medieval Literature at a University back in Tennessee, when she’s not the Warden here at the Kilns. She likes things like knights and horses and Beowulf, and she invites her students to (secretly) bring their swords to class to show her.

I thought it was hilarious that Debbie would actually be reading a romance novel, and she smiled as I handed the book to her.

“No one will ever believe you, Ryan,” she said to me with a wide grin, almost as if to read my thoughts.

Tuesday: Our Finnish Friends

I had a lunch meeting with a guy from Finland by the name of Jason on Tuesday. Jason had spoken to the Lewis Society last year, and I had been in touch with him over the summer about joining us again this year. He had told me that he’d be stopping through Oxford on his way to a conference in the States in November, and we agreed that it’d be nice to meet up for lunch while he was in town.

At 12:30, I walked around the corner from College to the King’s Arms, a small pub where we’d be meeting for lunch. Jason was standing in front of the pub when I arrived, dressed in a black turtleneck and blue jeans. Though I’m not terribly tall, I’m not used to looking up to speak to most people, but I had to with Jason.

Jason stands at least 6’3″, and his hair is shaved short. He has a deep voice, with a strong Finnish accent, which paired with his height to make me feel just a bit less manly than I had when I arrived.

“Hello, Ryan” Jason said, greeting me with a firm shake. His wide grin was the only thing that made his presence less than intimidating.

We tucked into the pub and ordered some lunch before finding a seat near the front of the pub. It was cool outside, and while I’m not usually much of a chili fan, I ordered a hot bowl of it to warm up.

We enjoyed a great conversation over lunch. He sharing his story with me, and then vice versa. And it was funny how closely our stories lined up. We had both read C.S. Lewis at the age of 19 for the first time, and his writing had changed the course of each of our lives in a rather dramatic way.

Jason had been planning to pursue a law degree when he first read Lewis. It wasn’t long after that, he explained to me from our seat in the pub, that he asked himself what he would do if money were not an option, and if he could do everything. Once he asked himself that question, he told me, he decided he’d actually like to study theology. I laughed as he told me about this experience. It was funny just how similar it was to mine.

At one point in the conversation, Jason recommended a book called A Severe Mercy to me. It was a book that had been recommended to me several times before, by people who knew we were coming to Oxford, but I had yet to pick it up. It was a book about an American couple who moved to Oxford for studies as non-believers, and who came to the Christian faith largely through C.S. Lewis’s writing and their later friendship with him, and how the husband dealt with the loss of his wife in later life.

Jason told me he typically had about 20 copies of the book on-hand at his home, and that it was his “go-to” present for newlyweds, as it had some incredible lessons for marriage and life. I hadn’t been persuaded to read the book before, but after hearing this, I told Jason I’d have around the Kilns for a copy as soon as I got home that night.

“I think you’d get a lot from it,” Jason told me, matter-of-factly, “They have a very similar story as you and Jen.”

I thanked Jason for what had been an incredibly encouraging conversation as we made our way out of the pub, and he invited me along to dinner that evening. I hadn’t planned to go, as I had lots to do, but Jason said he’d like to introduce me to his colleagues here at Oxford over dinner at the Eagle & Child before the Lewis Society met that night. I told him I’d do my best to be there, as we exchanged another firm handshake and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library to get some more reading done.

Finnish Survivor & Walter’s Warm Welcome

After an afternoon of reading, I gave in and made my way across town to the Eagle & Child for dinner. Jen had texted me that afternoon to let me know her and Debbie would be going, and I couldn’t not go at that point. I walked into the pub only to find that nearly everyone else had already arrived. Jen was seated behind a long wooden table as I entered. I exchanged smiles with Jen before saying “hello” to Debbie and Jason and several others as I made my way around the table to sit beside her.

After several minutes of introductions to Jason’s Finnish colleagues who were joining us for the evening, we made our way to the counter to place our orders and then settled in to wait for our meals to arrive.

Debbie mentioned that Jason was on the Finland version of Survivor, and he nodded embarrassingly as Debbie rolled her head back with laughter. I was stunned.

“This will be another conversation,” Jason said to me, from across the table, with a look of complete seriousness.

I laughed.

“All right, yeah. I’d love to hear about it,” I told him.

He ended up telling us a bit about the experience over dinner as it arrived. About how he went for days without anything to eat or drink to start the show, and then about winning a competition toward the end of the show that rewarded he and another (male) contestant with an incredible formal dinner while the other (female) contests were forced to watch.

He told us about how the competition consisted of carrying melted butter by the mouthful across the sandy beach and filling up a bucket. The result was being covered in butter and eating as much as he could while several girls, who were chained up, for dramatic effect, were forced to watch.

“None of us had eaten for days,” he told us, wearing a broad smile as he remembered the scene. “It was quite the picture!”

Apparently he nearly won, too, making it to day 42 of the 45-day competition.

After a laughter-riddled meal, we left Eagle & Child and made our way to the Lewis Society meeting just a few buildings down on St Giles Street.

The meeting went very well, and afterward, Jennifer and I caught up with Walter, who lit up when he saw Jennifer.

“Well helloooo,” Walter said to her with a hug as soon as he saw her. It was the first time Walter had seen Jen since we had returned, and he did a double-take to make sure it was, in fact, her.

“You look genuinely happy,” Walter said to Jen after their hug. I looked over to Jen, and she really did.

“Is it love?” Walter asked with a bit of a coy smile. Jen smiled embarrassingly in return.

I laughed.

“That must be a rhetorical question, Walter,” I said with a grin.

“He really gets better every day, doesn’t he?” Walter asked, looking back to Jen.

I asked if Walter wanted help down the stairs, as he was on his way out to catch a cab when we caught up with him, and I helped him down the narrow, spiraling stone staircase before saying “goodbye” and making our way back to the Kilns.

Wednesday: Tour with Rob & If You Were to Write About This Year…

On Wednesday night we invited our good friend Rob over to the Kilns for a visit. He had never been before, and he would be leaving in a couple days to return to Washington State to join his wife, Vanessa, so we were happy to see him once more before he left.

Rob and I ended up making the last leg of the journey to the Kilns together, as our paths crossed (I on foot, with groceries in hand, and he on his bike) during the last mile of the trip. The air was cool, and we were both dressed warm. We caught up on how things had been going as we made our way to the Kilns together.

When we arrived, Jen met us at the door and let us know that she had just put on some water for tea, if we wanted some. We both agreed that sounded perfect after the cool-air walk, and so the three of us gathered in the kitchen and talked over hot, English tea.

We talked about what it’d be like to transition back to life in the States. We talked about finding jobs and re-adjusting to the cultural differences, after adjusting to life in the UK. We talked about how odd it will be to hang out again when we’re back in Washington, now that we’ve only known each other in England. And then I showed Rob around the house, pointing out interesting photos and telling stories along the way.

It was a much more informal tour than what I’m used to, and it was great. Rob would ask questions as we walked, and we’d talk about the books he had read. Rob had previously recommended I read A Severe Mercy, and so I mentioned to him that I had finally picked it up.

At the end of the tour, Debbie and Jen met us back at the front of the house. I introduced Rob to Debbie, and told her that Rob’s wife, Vanessa, had been at the house for the girls’ high tea that Jen threw last year.

“Ahhh, okay,” she said, connecting the dots.

We said our goodbyes to Rob, making tentative plans to get together again when we were back in the States for Christmas, and then he was off.

A Late-Night Visitor

Jen and I enjoyed dinner from the kitchen that night, which tends to be a rather social time when people are at home. Jonathan and David had gathered in the kitchen with us while we ate, and Debbie joined us later. There was a knock on the door as we were finishing our meal, and everyone looked around to make sure we were all there before giving one another puzzled looks, as if to say, “Who else could be knocking at this time?”

But I knew who it was before I even got up to check.

“Oh, it’s Tom,” I said, getting up and making my way to the front door.

Tom is a good friend of mine here in Oxford. He works at Ravi Zacharias Ministry, and he had given a talk the week before on the topic of topic of how a good God could allow suffering, which I had attended the week before.

I introduced Tom to Debbie and David, as he knows Jonathan (they grew up together) and Jen, and then we took a short walk to the Ampleforth Arms to catch up. There were only a handful of guys in the pub when we arrived, most of whom were watching a soccer match on a widescreen tv hanging from one of the walls. Tom and I tucked into a pair of overstuffed leather couches in the front of the pub, and we enjoyed catching up on life and church and studies.

I also asked Tom about balancing marriage and work and parenting, as he’s a few years ahead of me, and he and his wife have a young daughter at home. I talked about some of my goals, pausing to hear Tom’s advice, and I told him how much I appreciate the life of the mind here in Oxford.

“I feel like my mind is alive and at work here,” I told him, “in way I haven’t found anywhere else.”

Tom smiled, and nodded, in a way that told me he knew exactly what I meant, and we made our way back to the Kilns in the cool night air.

It was nearly 11:00 when we returned, and as we turned onto Lewis Close, Tom commented on how incredible it must be to me to be here and to be so involved with C.S. Lewis.

“Giving tours, living in his home,” Tom began.

“President of the Lewis Society, writing my essay on him…” I finished.

He smiled.

“If you were to write about what this year might look like before all of this,…” Tom began.

“…It would not have compared with this.” I said, finishing his sentence. Again, a wide smile from Tom.

Thursday: High Tea at the Kilns

Jen and Debbie put together a high tea at the Kilns on Thursday afternoon, as we had a new scholar arriving from the States, an English Professor from Montreat College in North Carolina by the name of Don King. Our Finnish friends were still in town, as well, and so they were invited to join us, too.

That afternoon, there were nearly 15 of us gathered around the dining room table, which was now overflowing with freshly baked scones, cucumber sandwiches, two kinds of hot-out-of-the-oven cookies and tea, along with fresh jams, lemon curd and coddled cream for the scones. It was quite the sight.

We talked about Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman and love as we dug into the food and tea. Everyone agreed, the food was amazing, and we let Jen and Debbie know they had done a great job.

Don recently published a book on Joy, who was married to C.S. Lewis for three years before she passed away. She was quite the fiery Jewish New York woman before she was converted to Christianity, in large part through Lewis’s writings, and Don shared some of her earlier writing with us so we could get a sense of her personality.

He read a review Joy had written about a film that had, rather overtly, been produced to drum up efforts for the second World War, particularly among male viewers. It had us all laughing out loud. One part of the review, in particular, made a rather pointed attack on the main actresses inability to act, which, apparently, was made up by her looks.

“Although if she were to wear a brazier,” Don read Joy’s review aloud, “suddenly her acting skills would drop dramatically.”

Everyone around the table was squinting with laughter at Joy’s writing.

“I can see why Lewis would’ve loved this woman,” I said, in between laughs.

“Yes, but what does she really think?!” Jason asked with a loud, affirmative voice of authority, and half a smile. We all laughed even harder.

Saturday: A trip to London with Rob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner with Walter & My First night as President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sound of clapping once again filled the room.

Wednesday: Goodbye to one, Hello to two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon:  Dude, he’s killer

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

Brandon:  Jesus lover for sure

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

G.Brandon:  Thats because he loves Jesus

Saying “hello” to two more

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

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

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

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

Business at Hotel Pemberton was booming this week.

Thursday: Essay day and dinner with Jen 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: My 2nd European Reformation Tutorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last thing I expected to see in England

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Last day of Greek & a plant for Rhona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napping in the Oriel courtyard

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

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

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

“Perfect,” I thought to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’re you doing?” Casey asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A birthday Kilns tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s the place.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Celebrating Walter’s 80th birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Nietsche for breakfast and “Think Week”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raised my eyebrows a bit.

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

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

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

Think Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” he said, “it was Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: A humbling quiz and helping a Brit

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked concerned.

“Is something wrong?” she asked me.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I told her.

“What kind would you like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Returning home rejoicing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,

wherever He may send you.

May He guide you through the wilderness,

protect you through the storm.

May He bring you home rejoicing

at the wonders He has shown you.

May He bring you home rejoicing

once again into our doors.

Wednesday: Jen’s return to Oxford

Jen returned here to Oxford on a Wednesday. Around noon. Which meant I had time to make it to Greek before taking off to meet her at the airport.

Lyndon had offered to drive me to Heathrow again so I could be there when she arrived. I quickly took him up on that offer. I decided not to make a surprise out of it this time, though. I let Jen know we’d be there when she got in, knowing she’d be making the trip by herself and that’d make things a bit easier on her.

It’s a good thing she was expecting us, too, because had I decided to surprise her again we very well may have missed her…

Her flight was scheduled to arrive at noon that day. The same flight as last time. And so we got to the airport at that time. Thinking it’d take her a while to get her bags and get through customs. When we surprised her (and Steve) last fall, we didn’t see them until about 12:50. That was not the case this time.

By the time we parked our car and made it into the airport to meet those arriving, it was 12:15. We took a look at the arrivals monitor and it said something about baggage, which we assumed meant those on the flight were collecting their baggage. Thinking we still had another half hour or so before we’d see Jen, we thought we’d grab a cup of coffee and find a seat where we could spot her coming out through the double doors.

Turning to make our way over to one of the cafes, Lyndon and I were talking when I stopped mid-sentence, spotting Jen standing in the middle of the crowd, right where we had just come from, with her luggage beside her.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Hun, you’re here!”

I quickly wrapped her up in a tight hug and gave her a kiss.

“Hey, we didn’t see you,” Lyndon said.

“Sorry about that, hun,” I said. “You must’ve arrived early, huh? How long have you been waiting?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “We did arrive early, yeah. I’ve been here for about 20 minutes now,” she said.

That’s when my heart sank.

“Oh no, I’m sorry, hun. We thought we still had some time left. We were just going to go grab a cup of coffee. Would you like to join us?” I said with a smile.

“Yeah…” Jen replied, rolling her eyes.

We made our way out of Heathrow with Jen’s luggage in tow and made the hour-long drive back north to Oxford. It was a sunny day, and it made for a welcome return to Oxford for Jen.

Lyndon helped us with getting Jen’s luggage into the house before saying goodbye.

“Hey, thanks again for the ride, Lyndon,” I told him. “I know how valuable that time is for studying and being with your family, so thank you.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” he said with a smile.

I told him we’d love to give them a date night out some time by watching their two boys, Joshua and Joel. He seemed to like that idea and said they’d have to take us up on the offer.

I carried Jen’s large bags upstairs, and she quickly found her way under the covers of our bed. It was close to 2:00 in the afternoon at this point, but Jen hadn’t had much sleep before leaving, having stayed up for several late nights with her new niece Khloe back home, and then just not sleeping much on the plane. She was thankful for the opportunity to get some shut-eye.

“It’s so nice having you back, hun,” I told her, kissing her forehead.

She smiled gently, eyes closed, blankets pulled up tightly beneath her chin.

“I’ll just  be downstairs getting some work done, and I’ll wake you up for dinner if you’re not up before then,” I told her from her bedside.

It wasn’t easy for Jen leaving home. With her new niece recently arriving. And having spent a lot of great time with her family. Coming here was a major sacrifice for her. And I so appreciate her willingness to leave it all behind to support me in this. To continue to encourage me in all of this.

I see God’s selfless love in my wife, and I am so incredibly thankful for her. But I’ll let her tell you about it in her own words. . .Here’s Jen:

My Dad, Leann, and Khloe took me to the airport on Tuesday morning (Feb 15) so I could return to England and be with Ryan again.

The hard part about heading to the airport that morning was knowing just how long it will be until I get to see my sister again. By the time June comes, and I’m back in the States, this will be the longest time I’ve ever been away from my sister.

Over this last year, we’ve become closer than I could ever have imagined. I guess it helped that she was so sick from her pregnancy that she couldn’t get away from me… Just kidding. It was great, though. With me not really working a whole lot this past year, I was able to hangout with Leann and be there for her during her pregnancy, and afterwards as well.

When I came home for Christmas, Leann and I got to spend even more time together. She wasn’t as sick as she had been before (she had been really, really sick before), so we were able to do more together, which was nice. Then, after Christmas, Leann and I were doing all we could to get little Khloe out so Uncle Ryan could meet her before he had to head back to Oxford. And because Leann was just miserable. We did lots of walking and going to Aunt Gwen’s house so Leann could use her treadmill (when it grew too cold to walk outside), drinking raspberry leaf tea (because apparently that’s supposed to get a baby out), bouncing, and anything else that was suggested to her. With such a difficult pregnancy, we thought surely she’d come early, but the joke was on us, because Khloe decided to come nine days late.

From the time Khloe was born, I pretty much moved into Leann and Ben’s house when I was back home. I practically lived there for the first month, before returning here to Oxford. I was able to watch Khloe during the night, which I loved. It was so nice to have that opportunity to bond with her, and it allowed Leann & Ben to get some sleep because they weren’t able to during the days. It was fun to watch my sister be a mom. I know she is going to be a great one.

Saying those goodbyes at the airport, I was a wreck. I think I pretty much cried off and on until I left Chicago (where I had a layover on my way to the UK). Don’t get me wrong, I was so excited to see my husband. It had been so long. But when you have had the year that my family has had, it is just hard to say goodbye.

Being able to Skype with my family from over here really has been a saving grace, though. I get to talk with them almost as if we are in-person, and I get to see Khloe as she grows. Also, I’m really thankful that in a month and a half I will get to see my parents, because they will be coming over for a visit with some close family friends of ours (the McDowell’s). While they’re here, we’re going to visit Rome and Paris, spending four days in each city. I’m so excited for those travels, and to be able to show them the community we’ve been living in here.

On both my flights (first to Chicago, then on to England), I was able to have the full row of seats all to myself. I wish every flight could be like that. I think being able to lay out from Chicago to London was the only way I was able to fall asleep.

My plane was early arriving to London, and going through customs was a breeze, thankfully. I was a little worried about that whole customs process, just because it was my first time doing it by myself. The only bummer about my plane being early, though, is that when I got my luggage and walked out to all the people waiting for their loved ones, mine wasn’t among them…Needless to say, I was a little let down, especially considering it had been so long since I had seen Ryan, and after a full day of travels by myself. I was ready for something familiar.

After twenty minutes or so of sitting on a bench there in the airport, I saw Ryan and Lyndon. I was so excited to see them but it took me a little while to get to them because they didn’t see me and I had two heavy bags, as well as my camera bag, backpack (which was quite heavy, as it was full of books and my laptop) and my purse. With all my luggage, it was a little hard for me to move around.

Ryan and Lyndon were just on their way to grab coffee when they saw me, because they thought they still had to wait for me. So they were very surprised to see me standing there. At that point, I was thankful for their help with all my luggage! After taking my luggage off my hands, Ryan gave me the biggest hug.

Once we arrived safely to our flat, I went straight to bed. Well, after talking with Ryan some. I believe I slept for about three hours, I was so tired. Ryan woke me up for a nice Valentine’s dinner that night, which he had made for me. If it wasn’t for the nice dinner I probably would have kept sleeping.

Thursday: A birthday surprise

Hey, it’s me, Ryan. I’m back. So the day before Jennifer arrived was Valentine’s Day. And since we didn’t get to spend it together, I made her a nice meal that day she arrived. As well as picking up some flowers and a gift. (The one thing I forgot was wrapping paper, which explains the Christmas trees on the wrapped gift…).

It was so great to have that time together again. Dinner at home. Just the two of us. It had been a very long time.

The day after she arrived, that Thursday, was her 25th birthday. So we had a lot to celebrate when she got in.

I told her for her birthday that I had made dinner reservations at Fire & Stone Pizza in the city center. To celebrate. Just the two of us. She looked a bit disappointed.

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that. Pizza for your birthday.”

“Well, yeah, I love pizza, but I guess I just thought we’d do something a little nicer for my birthday.”

Jen didn’t know I had a little surprise waiting for her at Fire & Stone. So I played it up that I just thought she’d really want pizza for her birthday. She didn’t seem to mind too much.

We made our way to the city center that evening. Leaving the house right around 7:00. And made the old familiar walk to town.

We arrived at the restaurant about 15 minutes late, but I found the hostess and gave her my name.

“Sorry we’re late, but I have reservations for ‘Ryan.’ There should be people waiting at our table already,” I said in a hushed voice, so that Jen couldn’t hear me.

“Oh yes, just down the stairs, the last table on the left,” she said, pointing down the stairs.

“Great, thanks,” I said, passing by and leading the way toward our table.

Jen had no idea what was coming, and her face showed it. It wasn’t until we got right next to our table that she realized, “Wait a minute, I know you guys!”

A handful of our good friends had arrived there before us and were waiting on Jen to arrive.

“Surprise!” Vanessa shouted from the far end of the table with her hands thrown high into the air.

Jen was surprised, all right, and it was great to see that huge smile wash over her face. It was great for her to see just how many people were waiting for her to arrive back here in Oxford. To see just how many people were excited to see her. And to have them join us in celebrating her birthday.

(From left to right: Max, Christine & Rich, Rob & Vanessa, Minhee, Jen (of course), and Cole).

Cole grabbed the camera from me and told me to sit by my wife so we could have one with me in it, as well.

We had a great time celebrating Jen’s birthday together. The girls loved hearing about Jen’s time back home with her new niece, commenting on the photos they had seen of her online. And Jen loved telling them all about it, while the guys on the other side of the table talked Theology. And I had my wife by my side again. It was a win-win on all accounts.

I’ll let Jen tell you a bit about her birthday, in her own words… Here’s Jen:

For my 25th Birthday, I gave myself the gift of sleeping in. It was great. I got out of bed around 3:00 or 3:30 that day. I had told Ryan to be prepared for me to sleep a lot the first couple of days, while I caught up on my sleep. And that’s exactly what I did!

Ryan had made dinner plans for us at Fire & Stone for that night. As we were walking there, I quickly remembered how warm you can get with all the walking. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, I felt like I could take another shower.

We went downstairs to our table and there sat a bunch of our friends: Vanessa & Rob, Minhee, Rich & Christine, Cole, and Max. And to top if off, Vanessa made me my favorite cake: rainbow chip with rainbow chip frosting. Apparently Steve had shipped the cake mix and frosting out so that I would be able to have it for my birthday. I really do have some great friends. It was so nice to be able to catch up and see how everyone was doing.

When Ryan and I got home that night, I got to open up my present from him. It was a very nice white frame, and he got it so I could frame a photo of Khloe in and have here.

I absolutely loved it! The rest of  my birthday present is our trip to Paris and Rome.

Hey again. It’s me, Ryan. Yeah, so we talked and laughed for a long time with everyone that night. At Fire & Stone Pizza. And after we all finished off our pizza, we asked for some smaller plates and some more forks. For birthday cake.

Vanessa had e-mailed me a couple days before Jen arrived and said she was wanting to make a birthday cake for Jen and bring it along. I told her I thought that was a great idea, and I knew Jen would appreciate it.

The day Jen arrived, literally just before I left the house to head to the airport with Lyndon, a package arrived from back home. It was from Steve.

Steve had been saying how he felt bad he wouldn’t be able to be there with us to celebrate Jen’s birthday. He’s always been really great about helping make that a special time. The first year he celebrated Jen’s birthday with us, he stayed up all night making her cake. I turned in around 2:00 that night, after helping Steve for a while. But he stayed up, to put the finishing touches on it. For anyone who has ever seen Steve’s work, you know it’s amazing. And it was.

The next morning when I woke up, I told Steve Jen was going to love it. And that she’d be totally blown away. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned. We celebrated Jen’s birthday on Lummi Island that year. At this amazing home right on the water. And, on the way there, someone pulled out in front of Steve, causing him to slam on his brakes, and sending the cake smashing against the side of the box it was being carried in. It pretty much completely destroyed the work he had stayed up all night working on.

When he first told me, I thought he was joking, knowing how hard he had worked on it. He wasn’t. Fortunately, it still tasted great, and so we still used it to celebrate Jen’s birthday that night. Jen didn’t mind.

Steve knew how much Jen loved rainbow chip cake for her birthday, and that we wouldn’t be able to find that here, so he had taken the time to pack that up and send it over. So that Jen could have it for her birthday.

While Jen was sleeping that afternoon after the long journey from home, I ran the cake mix supplies to Vanessa’s work, so she’d have them for the next night when we celebrated Jen’s birthday together.

And it turned out great. We all sang “happy birthday” to Jen, and we enjoyed the birthday cake, compliments of Vanessa and Steve. It was great to celebrate Jen’s big day with friends, even though we were so far from home.

Sunday: Pub-Thai & baptisms

We met up with Max & his wife Michelle and Rich & Christine at a Thai place Sunday night. For dinner. Before church. The six of us hadn’t gotten together before, and we had been looking forward to Jen arriving so we could do that.

The place we met is an old pub that was bought not too long ago by a family who have made it into a Thai restaurant. It’s pretty funny, actually, because it was clearly built as a pub, but it has hints of Thai decor scattered throughout. It’s the most pub-like Thai restaurant you’ll ever find, but the food is great. Jen ordered the phad thai (her staple when we go out for Thai food), and I ordered a cashew dish. With pork.

We had a really good time catching up with everyone over dinner, and it was a nice chance for Jen to get to know Michelle and Christine a bit better.

St. Aldate’s, the church I’ve been attending since returning, is right next door, so it made things convenient that night. Rich & Christine and Max & Michelle also attend St. Aldate’s, so we all went to the 6:00 service after we finished up our pub-Thai dinner.

I’ve really loved it here at St. Aldate’s. I told a friend back home I really feel like my soul comes alive when I’m worshipping here, leaping for joy inside of me during the songs. And the people have been really great, too. Several times I’ve had people introduce themselves and ask to hear about what brought me there, having not recognized me before. I really do love it there. Jen had been with me to St. Aldate’s once before we returned home, and I was excited for her to return so we could attend together again.

The church is right in the heart of the city, so you’ll often see a homeless person sitting side-by-side with an Oxford student. And I think that’s great. I think it’s a good reminder heaven isn’t going to be quite as homogenous as we’d imagine.

The evening’s service was a baptism service, which I always love. The former owner of the marketing firm I used to work at back home is fond of saying, “You can do everything right, but if you never tell anyone about it, they may never know.” In a roundabout way, I guess that’s what baptism is about. It’s about telling others, “I believe Jesus did this really great thing. For me. For you. And I want to be a part of that. I want others to know about it.”

I always get excited seeing people take that step. To share what this faith means to them with others.

And the service was great. There were two gals and one guy being baptized that night. The two girls were students here at Oxford. And the guy was a little bit older. Maybe in his mid-30’s. And he worked nearby.

The one girl student and guy who went first shared about their backgrounds. And about why they wanted to take this step to become baptized. They both seemed super comfortable speaking in front of everyone. Even with the church packed full of people. Neither one of them seemed to mind. They both did great, not appearing nervous in the least. I assumed it was just an English thing. That perhaps the British are just natural-born public speakers.

But that wasn’t the case with the next girl. The last one to be baptized that evening. She was incredibly nervous. And it was clear to everyone.

Her hands were shaking, and she was breathing deep as she took the microphone on-stage. She started briefly and then had to turn her back to the audience to collect herself. The Vicar of the church (pastor) smiled at the crowd as she did. My heart went out to her.

She turned around, facing the audience again, and she still looked quite nervous. But she turned her eyes to her paper and began reading. Quite quickly. About what had brought her here.

She told us, while reading her notes, how she had grown up in a family of devout Atheists. And how her parents were quite proud when, on one occasion very early on in school, she was removed from her private school classroom for asking how dinosaurs fit in with the story of creation. She told us how her parents must’ve proudly thought she’d be the next Richard Dawkins at that point.

She told us about how she had come here to Oxford. Proud of herself for the accomplishment, and excited for her studies. But then, how she had surprisingly found God in all of this. How she had come to realize His love for her, and how she had formed a deep faith in Him. How she wanted to hand her life over to Him, and how she wanted others to know about it. It was an incredible story. Hearing about the amazing change in her life and her attitude toward Him. I really just don’t understand how that works, apart from His work in one’s life.

It put tears in the corners of my eyes, hearing her describe the change that had taken place since arriving here.

“I still have questions about dinosaurs,” she spoke into the microphone from the church stage, less nervous now, “But I want to follow Him.” Everyone laughed, and the sound of clapping echoed off the church’s stone walls as she made her way into the baptismal pool.

Monday: A surprise phone call

Since Jennifer had returned to Oxford, I had been working from home. Not wanting to leave her to spend those first few days back here in Oxford at home all on her own. On Monday, though, I made my way to Harris Manchester after Greek. To the library. To get some reading done.

I was still thinking about something Rhona had said that morning in Greek as I rode my bike to college after class. She had asked one of the girls in class to read aloud her translation of John to the class. As we had all been taking turns doing. But this girl had said she’d rather not. Not today.

Rhona didn’t press her. She said she was welcome to take a pass if she’d prefer, but she encouraged her to not get in the habit of doing so.

“You ought not hide your light under a bushel,” Rhona told her, speaking in that soft English accent with her familiar Grandmother-like voice. “You’ll regret it when you’re 55 or 60.” She smiled at this girl from the front of the room after saying so.

I liked how Rhona put that. And it made me think of this girl who had been baptized at St. Aldate’s the night before. It made me think about how easy it would have been for her not to do so. Particularly in light of her parents’ beliefs. I was glad she hadn’t decided to hide her light under a bushel, though, as Rhona put it.

Entering the library at Harris Manchester, I was greeted by Katrina. The assistant librarian. Katrina’s great. She always has a smile on. And she always greets you by name in a soft-whisper as you enter through the large, wooden double doors of the library.

And it was nice coming back to the library. It felt a bit like returning home. Being greeted by name. And returning to my old familiar spot. I love it there, at the Harris Manchester Library, seated from my familiar spot beside the window on the second floor.

I got a good amount of reading done that afternoon. And, checking my phone later on, I realized I had a missed call at some point during the day. I stepped out of the library to check my messages, and I was surprised to hear the voice of Deb on the message. Deb’s the Warden at the Kilns. The former home of C.S. Lewis. I had met her before, on my trips out to the Kilns, and at the C.S. Lewis Society dinners and meetings, but we really hadn’t talked too much before. I was surprised to hear from her.

She said she had something she wanted to run by me in her message. To see if she might be able to get my help with something. And she asked me to give her a call when I had a free moment. I had no idea what that might be, but I gave her a call back, and I heard her voice on the other end a few seconds later.

She sounded happy to hear from me, and, after a bit of small talk, she asked if I might be interested in giving tours out at the Kilns at some point.

I was stunned. She explained that they needed a bit of extra help, and she thought I might be interested, knowing my interest in Lewis.

“Really?” I asked. “Well, yeah, that’d be great. When were you thinking?”

“This Saturday?” she said, almost hesitantly.

“Oh wow… Yeah, that’s quick. Well, I’d love to help you, but I should check with Jen first and make sure that’s okay.”

Deb was fine with that, and I told her I’d get back to her either later that night or the next day.

Then she asked what Jen was up to. And if she might be looking for any work.

I laughed, and then I told her Jen had actually planned to start looking for work that day.

“Oh really?” she said. “Well, I was wondering if she might be interested in some administrative work here at the Kilns. I could certainly use her help!”

I told Deb I had been praying Jen would be able to find a job when she returned to Oxford without too much trouble. And one that would be a good fit for her. I told her this sounded great, and I was sure Jen would love the idea.

“Well, yeah, I don’t know why I was calling you other than the fact I was praying about it and your guys’ names came to me,” her voice said on the other line.

And it put a smile on my face, thinking about how incredible everything has lined up for us through all of this. Since arriving here in Oxford.

From great friends and community to job opportunities. It’s all so much more than I ever could have imagined. And I am so thankful for what He is doing here.

I am so thankful for being the recipient of His blessings. I am so thankful for the opportunity to be able to sit back and say, “Look, look at what He is doing here.”

Steve and I woke up Saturday morning and headed to the city center for a workout at the gym. I went to grab my gloves on the way out when I realized they were nowhere to be found…

The same gloves that had been reunited only days before when my missing glove mysteriously appeared in my mailbox were now missing. Both of them. They weren’t in my bag pocket, where I had left them.

“They must’ve fallen out somewhere in the city center, again,” I told Steve as we left the house.

I had to laugh at the irony of the situation. Maybe both will show up in my mailbox next week with a sign that reads, “This is the last time!” I thought to myself as we walked along Banbury Road to the city center.

Sunday: Introducing Steve to Walter’s Home

When I visited Walter for tea shortly after returning to Oxford at the start of the term, I had told him that Steve would be coming out to visit the following week. Steve had met Walter when we first visited the Kilns last fall, and Walter regularly asks how Steve is doing. Walter’s good about things like that. He’s always asking questions that shows he cares.

After hearing that Steve would be in town, Walter said it would be nice to see him again. I suggested the three of us find a time to get together for dinner, perhaps. Walter liked that idea, and he invited us over for dinner that Sunday evening Steve would be in town. I had mentioned the idea to Steve over e-mail before he arrived, and he loved it. After hearing about our time with Walter, he was looking forward to seeing him again, and to someday seeing his home. I told him he’d love it.

So that’s what we did. After church that morning, and working away from the house that afternoon, Steve and I ventured north to Walter’s house. Stopping briefly in Summertown to pick up something for dessert. I told Walter we’d take care of dessert, since he was preparing a meal for us. He didn’t seem to mind that idea.

We made it to Walter’s home just after six that night. He greeted us at the door, with that huge, warm smile of his, and big eyes behind his glasses.

“Hello,” Walter said, welcoming us and inviting us in. “Let me take your coats.”

I greeted Walter with a hug and handed the dessert to him, explaining that it’d need some time to bake.

“Of course,” he said. “I’ll take it into the kitchen; I’m sure my French chef Benoit will know what to do with it.”

I smiled. I had never heard of “Benoit” before.

Before leaving the front entryway, I pointed out a picture that hung on the wall to Steve .

“Walter with Lewis,” I said.

“Oh, wow.”

Walter returned from the kitchen and pointed out by name all the people in the photos that hung on his walls.

“And this, this is a view of the Kilns before the house next door to it that you saw was built,” Walter explained, helping orient us to the photo.

“They had quite a bit more room back then, from the looks of it,” I said.

“Well come into the living room,” Walter said, waving us along to follow him, which we did.

“This is great,” Steve said as we entered the room.

Walter’s living room has quickly become my favorite place in Oxford. It’s so incredibly comfortable. With the fireplace and large, comfortable chairs seated around it. With the books stacked high along the walls. And not to mention that Walter always has a hot pot of tea and some sort of treat waiting.

Walter showed Steve around the room, pointing out different things along the way.

“This statue shows how movement was first introduced into sculptures,” Walter explained, pointing toward the life-size statue in the corner of the room.

“Prior to this, you didn’t see this kind of movement. The Egyptians, for example, created their statues so that their arms were at their side and their legs were straight. But, by raising this leg just so, you create this movement in the rest of the sculpture.”

Walter continued the tour, pointing out the small table in the corner of the room that had been Lewis’ when he was a young boy, and the small humidor that used to be Lewis’.

“This isn’t his tobacco, though,” Walter explained, as he held it up for us to smell.

He pointed out the illustrations on the wall. Illustrations from the Chronicles of Narnia series. The original illustrations. Crazy. And then he asked us to excuse him while he returned to the kitchen to check on Benoit. His French chef. To make sure everything was coming along okay.

He invited us to have a look around, and to help ourselves to anything. So we did.

I found my way to Walter’s book shelves and allowed my eyes to read over the titles and authors.

“He really did a great job with the colors here,” Steve said. “Even in the entryway. The green works great with the photos of the house and the grass.”

“Yeah, he knows what he’s doing, for sure,” I said from across the room.

Walter’s second passion, to literature and all things Lewis, is sculpture. And he has a fair share of it spread throughout the room. As well as several pieces of art hanging from the wall.

“Here’s a picture of Walter with the Pope,” I said, pointing to a framed photo on the wall, beside one of the framed pieces of art. Walter’s a pretty big fan of the Pope.

Walter returned from the kitchen to tell us Benoit had everything under control, and that dinner would be ready shortly.

Steve told him he had done a great job decorating. And how much he liked the color choice.

“Oh, well thank you. I’m so glad to hear you like it,” he told Steve.

They talked for a while about the particular colors, and why they were chosen. A conversation which I, as a colorblind guy, didn’t appreciate nearly as much as they did.

Walter invited us to take a seat beside the fire. He helped us to some tea, and he held out a plate full of puffed pastries.

“They’re sausage rolls,” he told Steve. “Have you had one before?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well surely you have,” Walter said, turning toward me with the plate.

“Yeah, yeah I have. They’re really good, but we don’t have them back home,” I said, taking a bite. “Probably the closest thing I can think of would be pigs in a blanket, but they’re not quite the same.”

We talked for a while over tea and sausage rolls, while “Benoit” finished preparing dinner. Walter asked us what we had planned for Steve’s time in Oxford.

“Oh, well, we’re not quite sure yet,” I told him.

“I just enjoy being here and hanging out, really,” Steve piped in. “I love Oxford, but I’m not much of a tourist.”

“Have you made it to the Trout yet?” Walter asked, turning to me.

“No, no I haven’t, but I remember you telling me about that before. Still haven’t made it.”

“Oh, well you absolutely must go.”

The Trout is an old inn that has been turned into a restaurant, which sits right on the river. Walter had told Jen and I about it the last time he had us over for supper. But we had yet to make it there.

“Yes, you should go early in the day, before it gets dark, so you can take a walk beside the river,” Walter encouraged us. “It’s a nice walk, and I know you’ll enjoy it.”

“We’ll have to do that before you leave,” I said, turning to Steve.

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

We finished our tea and Walter invited us into the dining room, informing us that “Benoit” had finished preparing our dinner.

And he did a great job. Benoit, that is. A nice ham, some potatoes and broccoli. It looked really good.

“Why don’t you sit here in your spot,” Walter said, pointing to the chair where I had sat the last time Walter had us over for dinner. “And Steve, you can sit here.”

We fixed our plates and Walter asked me if I’d bless the food for us. I was happy to.

The meal was really good, and we had a great time, talking over the food. Walter’s a keen conversationalist, and he kept the questions coming. Never pressed or forced, but just good conversation.

We returned to the living room after supper. Stomachs now full. We sunk low into our chairs and picked up the conversation again.

He asked each of us how much we had traveled around Europe. Neither of us have much at all. He told us we needed to go to Rome someday. And Italy. He told us he loved Italy, and that he had just recently returned from visiting there. I told him I’d love to see both places someday.

He told us he was happy to see us having this time together, Steve and I, even while I was so far from home.

“It must be difficult to keep a friendship going while being so far apart,” he said, with that look of serious concern on his face.

“Yeah, it is,” I said, “but it definitely helps when this guy flies out to visit like this,” I said, motioning across the room to Steve.

Walter told us he had never seen a friendship quite like ours. And he was thankful for it.

“It’s rare to find a best friend, you know?” he told us.

He also told us we needed to read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves.

“Have you read it?” he asked us.

“Yeah, I have,” I spoke up.

“I haven’t, no,” Steve said.

“Oh, you must read it,” Walter insisted. “It’s a wonderful book, and Lewis writes about the love shared between friends. He contends for such friendship in it.”

Walter explained how he thought the Feminist movement and a lot of the other changes in the middle of the last century deconstructed such friendships (I love that Walter doesn’t bother with being P.C, by the way; it’s refreshing). He talked about how men don’t share friendships like they did before that time. He talked about The Inklings, about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein and others, about their weekly talks, and how these men spurred each other on to do great things.

“I hope you fight for this friendship,” he told us with a look of seriousness on his face. “And if you don’t, then come talk to me, and I will for you.”

We had a great time talking with Walter that night. He’s such a genuinely kind and sincere man.

At about half past 10, we thanked Walter for a wonderful time. We told him to give our compliments to “Benoit” for a great meal. And we asked him if he’d mind taking a couple quick photos. He as happy to oblige, as long as we signed his guestbook. It was a fair trade.

We thanked Walter again for a great time as he found our coats for us. And we promised to check out the Trout before Steve left.

Skyping with Jen: We’re going to Rome!

I Skyped with Jen when we got back to the house. To tell her about our time. And just to catch up. She told me they had just talked with Monti and Heidi about their trip out to see us (Monti and Heidi are great friends of our family back home, and they’re coming to visit with their two kids this spring).

“So it sounds like we’ll be going to Rome,” Jen told me with a big grin over our Skype call. “They just booked a place.”

“Oh yeah? That’s awesome!” I told her. “And kind of funny. Walter was just telling us we need to visit Rome someday.”

I told Steve it sounded like he needed to make a trip out this Spring, too.

Wednesday: Clive’s help with a wedding suit for Steve

I was working on some Greek at Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon when Steve stepped away to go walk around town for a bit. He returned about a half-hour later with a big smile on his face.

“I think I found suits for my wedding, man.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, not realizing that’s what he had been up to. “That’s awesome.”

Apparently he had walked into a place across the street and he told one of the guys there he was getting married in October. And that he had been looking at suits back home. Not long after that, he had a suit picked out for the wedding.

“I’d love to check it out,” I told him.

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

I packed up my things and we headed across the street. We had looked at suits at a couple places back home before I left to return to Oxford, but he hadn’t settled on anything. I was curious to see what he had found.

A stocky british guy with a thick english accent and shortly shaved head by the name of Clive greeted us as we walked in. “Steve, good to see you again.” He seemed like a real English man’s man. Like the kind of guy who would be out playing rugby for the first part of the day, and then come to the shop and tell you all about suits the next.

He led us upstairs and handed Steve the suit he had picked out. It ended up being a bit different than what we had been looking at back home, but it was great.

“I like it a lot, man. Yeah, it’s really sharp.”

“You should try one on,” Steve insisted, “to get your size right.”

So I did. Clive snapped a photo of Steve in his suit first. And then one “with the best man,” as Clive said.

I’d love to share the photos with you, but apparently it’s something of a secret.

“I don’t get to see her wedding dress until the day of, so she doesn’t get to see our suits,” Steve said. “That’s fair, right?”

Wednesday: A Trip to the Trout

We were serious about taking Walter up on his suggestion to make it to the Trout before Steve left, so we made plans to venture north to the restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. In the late afternoon, but not too late. Before it got dark. So we could still take in the sights.

It was a bit of a cloudy day, and it had been drizzling off and on earlier, but we lucked out and it seemed to hold off for our walk.

And Walter was right, it was a great walk. About three miles north of where I am living here.

A couple miles into the trip, we came to a bridge that crossed a river that runs through the western border of Oxford. The river had these small boats on one side, which I had been told people live in year-round.

After crossing the bridge, the view opened up into this beautiful English countryside.

Several small ponds were scattered throughout the fields, and a group of ducks skimmed across the top of the water as we passed.

Walking a little further, we came into a small town. With this little market. And all of a sudden I was reminded how very far we were from home. In this small English village miles even from Oxford. It’s funny. I hadn’t felt that way. I had just kind of gotten used to being here. But, for some reason, walking through this little village reminded me I was in a foreign country. I a beautiful foreign country.

Most of the homes in this village were old and built of stone. With little space from one house to the next. The roads were narrow, and we walked on them. Taking photos along the way.

This thatched roof home was seated on the corner of a bend that opened up to reveal another expansive field, which it looked like people were taking full advantage. A couple was walking together. And a man was walking with his dog.

The road narrowed again as it turned into another bridge, crossing another part of what I took to be the same river, bending just so.

After crossing this second bridge, we spotted a tall sign with a fish on it.

“That must be it,” I said to Steve, as we walked past what looked to be a small, communal garden in the center of a handful of older-looking stone homes.

The Trout was just as Walter had described it. An old stone inn that had been reconverted into a restaurant. It was great.

Randomly, a peacock was wandering by the front entryway. “Must be the bouncer,” I thought to myself as Steve and I both snapped pictures.

Entering the old stone building, we ducked our heads a bit for the low entry ceiling. The restaurant was amazing. I was immediately surprised by how modern it looked. Everything was very sleek and minimal. Lots of wood throughout. Dimly lit. And it looked out over this beautiful view of the river.

We passed right through the restaurant and onto the back patio to take in the sights, before finding our seats inside.

The river was rushing pretty swiftly as we stood on the patio, taking it all in. Large umbrellas provided for the seating area, which I’m sure must be great during the spring and summertime.

A long, narrow wooden foot bridge led across to the other side. It really was a great spot.

We made our way inside and found a table in the corner of the room that looked out across the river.

It was still a bit early for dinner, so we ordered a couple drinks and started journaling.

Steve and I had been talking a bit about our dreams. And we wanted to find a time to do that before he took off. To share with each other what we wanted to accomplish. And to pray for each other. So we did.

Steve’s the kind of guy who dreams big. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met before.

Before I met Steve, I always figured dreams were a bit for people who don’t actually do anything with their life. But, instead, for people who simply “dream” of doing something big. Someday. And then someday never comes.

But that’s not the case with Steve. not at all. I still remember the first time I shared with him about my dreams to one day study at Oxford. And to write in a way that helped others see God more clearly. I hadn’t shared this dream with anyone at this point. Apart from my wife. And so I did so somewhat sheepishly.

But he told me I should go after it. As simple as that. Without laughing at me or telling me that sounded like a pretty lofty dream. Just that I should.

That was just over two years ago. It was only the second or third time we had hung out. And now here I am. At Oxford. Studying Theology. Like I had dreamt of for so long.

Needless to say, that’s something I appreciate greatly in Steve. He’s the kind of friend who’s always encouraging me to dream big, and to go after those dreams. He’s the friend who always believes in me.

Having someone like that in your life. . .well, that’s priceless.

“I figured, rather than just sitting down and writing out what we want, maybe we should start with some of the ways God’s blessed our life up to this point,” Steve suggested. “That way, we’re reminded about all of the times God has shown up and provided when we doubted whether He would.”

I loved that idea. So we did. Each journaling to ourselves.

We shared them with each other after a while. All those ways God has shown up. In each of our lives. It was really encouraging to hear those times in Steve’s life, and it was good to remind myself of all those times He’s shown up in my life, even amidst my doubts.

After a while, we decided to order some food. We’re both burger guys, so we went with two of their burgers.

They showed up on these cool, wooden serving trays. Very unique.

After burgers, we talked a bit about what we wanted to set out to accomplish in life. Short-term and long-term. And then we prayed for each other. Lifting up these dreams to God, just like we had done all those years before. With Oxford. From just outside of Oxford.

So thankful for that time. So thankful for a friend who still dares me to dream big and who encourages me to go after them.

A second dinner: Hussein’s Kebab van

We made it back to the house kind of early. As we had taken an early trip out to The Trout.

Both Steve and I had been wanting to make a trip to the kebab vans in the city center before he left. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something so appealing about eating food from a truck. I think it’s unique to men, though, as neither Jen nor Jamie are big on the idea.

Steve told Jamie we were going to go grab a second dinner from the kebab van. She told him to be careful they didn’t serve us rat. Or pigeon.

Jamie used to work in New York. And apparently there was a case where some sidewalk vendors got caught for selling pigeon. So, her fear isn’t completely unfounded, I guess.

Neither Steve nor I were swayed, though. We were dead set on ordering food from a van before he left.

Around 10 o’clock that night, we made our way to the city center. And we found “Hussein’s Kebab Van” in his old familiar spot. On the corner near the Ashmoleon Museum. Where Cole had surprised me with that first-edition copy of Mere Christianity last December.

One of my favorite parts about Hussein’s is the menu. They have everything. From pizza to burgers to kebabs… They even have tuna pizza. I dared Steve to order it, but he decided against it. Choosing to go with the chicken kebab instead.

It was a cool night, but we found a spot nearby to eat our kebabs. Under a large statue in the city center that sits between two lanes of traffic. It’s where Jen and I had eaten our kebabs before seeing Romeo & Juliet last fall.

It was a cool spot to eat. With oncoming headlights cutting through the night air, as though they were going to come straight for you, before finally turning.

The kebabs were great. Messy, but great. The hot chicken was a warm welcome in the cool night air.

It was a great time, sitting there with my best friend. Late that night in the middle of Oxford. Thankful for those times. And memories.

Thursday: Paninis & celebrating Steve’s engagement

Steve’s a big fan of the Alternative Tuck paninis here in Oxford. As am I, obviously. So we enjoyed quite a few trips to the panini shop while he was here. We’d normally meet up there halfway through the day, make our way through the long line, and head down to Harris Manchester, warm paninis in-hand, to find a place to sit and eat.

Steve snapped this one of me unexpectedly. But, as you can see, I wasted little time. That panini didn’t have a chance with me.

We worked away from the Harris Manchester Library for a few hours that afternoon. Me on my papers. Steve on his business. And on wedding plans.

Celebrating answered prayers

I had told Steve I had a surprise for him that night. Before he left. I don’t think he had any idea what it was. I told him we’d take off a little after five for it.

About a quarter after five, we left the college and headed back home. I asked Steve if he had packed any dress clothes for the trip. He hadn’t.

“Hmm… well, maybe you can borrow a pair of mine.” I suggested.

“Actually, I bought another suit with my wedding suit,” he told me. “Not sure if it’s tailored or not, but maybe it’ll work.”

After getting ready at the house, we stepped out and headed back to the city center.

“Well, bud, I felt bad we weren’t able to celebrate your engagement when I was back home,” I told him, “so I wanted to make sure we got to do that before you left.”

“Oh, thanks man.”

There’s a restaurant here in Oxford that always catches Steve’s eye. Gee’s. It looks a bit like a green house. With white trim and loads of windows. It has chandeliers hanging just above the tables inside.

I told Steve I had tried to make reservations for us for Gee’s for the night before he took off, but that they were booked out for an event.

“So, next best option: The Old Parsonage.”

The Old Parsonage is a hotel / restaurant in the city center. It’s supposed to be a pretty nice place. And apparently it’s owned by the same folks as Gee’s.

“That sounds great, man. Thank you so much,” Steve said, turning toward me as we walked. “That really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The Old Parsonage is a really cool old stone building with lots of vines growing on the exterior. And large hedges along the road, blocking the view from traffic.

The front door is an old, castle-esque wooden door.

We made our way in to find a small room with several people seated with drinks and smiles. A young guy behind a desk wearing a dark suit and a tie greeted us. I told him we were looking for the restaurant.

“Just around the corner,” he told us, pointing us in the right direction.

The small room opened up to a slightly larger room after a couple steps. The room’s walls were plastered in framed art and portraits.

It was a really elegant place. And just a handful of other tables with people at them.

There were two older men seated with a woman at one table, and an older couple seated beside a window at another who talked in french to each other the whole night.

A Porsche pulled into the gravel driveway as we sat down, and I watched as a guy in his late 50’s stepped out, wearing a suit and scarf.

We were clearly the youngest ones in the restaurant.

Opening up our menus, I think Steve was taken aback a bit.

“Oh, wow. Man, we can go some place else if you like.”

That’s just the kind of guy Steve is. He gives other people the world, and yet he expects so little in return.

“This really means a lot, man, but I seriously would’ve been happy just being treated to ice cream or something,” he told me from across the table.

“Ice cream? Had you known me when I got engaged, I know there’s no way you would’ve taken me out for ice cream to celebrate.”

A sheepish grin spread across his face as he looked off. He knew I was right.

When I received the news that I had been accepted to Oxford, Steve treated Jennifer to an umpteen course meal at one of the nicest restaurants in the area back home. Certainly the nicest restaurant either Jen or I had ever been to. And will probably ever go to.

We had an amazing time that night, celebrating my being accepted to study here. And I wanted to do the same for Steve.

“Well thanks, man. It really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The food at The Old Parsonage was pretty incredible. I ordered the ox. Because I’ve never had ox. And Steve ordered the cod.

Both were great. My ox tasted a bit like the best roast beef you’ve ever had. Falling apart with the slightest touch of a fork. And mashed potatoes to top it off.

We had a great time. Talking about Steve & Jamie’s big day. And remembering about all the times we had spent praying for Steve’s future wife. Over coffee at Wood’s back home. Now the big day was just months away, and I was happy to celebrate that with him.

After cleaning our plates, I slid around the table so our waitress could snap a photo of us. Celebrating just another way God has shown up, in a very big way, and answered the prayers of our hearts. The wife of Steve’s dreams.

Thanks for a great trip, my friend.

I woke up early Monday morning. Before Jen. Shaved. Showered. And finished packing. I was heading back to Oxford in a few hours. On my own.

Jen’s sister Leann & her husband are expecting their first-born. Any day, at this point. And Jen was going to stick around for an extra few weeks. To lend an extra hand to Leann. And to enjoy her new role as aunt. Baby Khloe’s aunt.

Monday: Tough saying goodbye

I loaded my bags into the car while Jen finished getting ready. I came back through the front door after my second trip to the car just as Jen made her way downstairs. Tim & Rhonda were in the kitchen. Rhonda getting a bowl of cereal before work. Tim struggling to wake up. Earlier than he normally would, to say “goodbye.”

“My shower wakes me up,” he told us with a smile as we gathered in the living room. To say “goodbye.”

Rhonda told me how nice it was to have us home for the holidays. How it made for a really special time. I told her I agreed. And that I was happy we were able to be there.

I hugged them both. Told them I loved them. And we left. It was weird saying “goodbye,” knowing the next time I’d be there it’d be summertime.

“But we’ll see you again in a couple months,” Tim reminded me. “That makes it easier.” Rhonda nodded.

Jen’s parents had just booked tickets to come out and visit us. Along with some of their friends, Monty & Heidi and their two kids. Over spring break. It’d be their first trip to Europe.

“Yeah, that does make it a bit easier. Really looking forward to that time!” I told them as we left.

Jennifer and I stopped into Ben and Leann’s house on the way. To tell them “goodbye” as well. Leann greeted us at the door. We talked for a few minutes. Small talk. Then I told them I was really sorry I wouldn’t be there for Khloe’s birth. They shrugged it off, saying they understood. And thanking me for letting Jen stick around to be there for it. As if I had a choice. I’d rather steal a bear’s dinner than tell Jen she couldn’t be there for the birth of her first niece.

They told me they’d bring the laptop into the birthing room when Khloe arrived. So that I could be there, too.

“But just from the neck up,” Ben clarified. I thanked them both. Hugged them both. Told them both I loved them. And then we left. Making our way to Bellingham, to meet up with some of my family for a “goodbye” breakfast.

It was tough saying goodbye to those two. Ben & Leann. We’ve grown really close over the past year. The four of us. After losing Hayley, in particular. They really are some of our best friends, and it hurt like crazy knowing I wouldn’t be around for Khloe’s big day.

We pulled up to Lee’s about 10 minutes after we were supposed to be there. A restaurant near my Grandpa’s house where we used to eat breakfast when I was a kid growing up. He’d take me there early, before school, and we’d sit near the window as I ate my french toast, and he’d sip his coffee. Black, just like he had at home.

We were late from saying “goodbye” to everyone, so everyone else was at the counter ordering when we walked in. My brother Zach and his girlfriend Vanessa. My sister Lucy. My Mom. My Grandpa. And my best friend Steve, who was joining us, too.

It was great sharing a meal together before I left. I loved seeing Zach order his two plate’s worth of breakfast, and seeing the look on Lucy’s face when she realized she should’ve done the same thing. I loved seeing Mom glow at the image of her three children getting together for breakfast again. I loved watching my Grandpa sip his black coffee, just like all those mornings before. And I loved sitting between my best friend and my wife for the last meal I’d enjoy in Bellingham for the next six months.

Lucy had to head to class before the rest of us left. Zach & Vanessa were taking her, so I walked them to the door and said “goodbye.” I told them I loved them, and I hugged Lucy for a few extra seconds. “I love you, Goose,” I told her. “And I’m so proud of you.”

The five of us talked for a bit longer before leaving. Over coffee and orange juice. Before I said “goodbye” to my Mom. And my Grandpa. My Grandpa’s not much of a hugger, but I hugged him big as we left. My Mom is. And I hugged her big too. Told them both I loved them, and we were on the road. Waving “goodbye” out the driver’s-side window as we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. A couple quick errands and we were heading to the airport.

Steve and Jen walked me to the airport security line. And we said our “goodbye’s” there, after an hour and a half drive south. I’d be seeing Steve in just over a week, as he would be coming out to Oxford shortly after me. To visit. He was originally planning on coming out with Jen, but he had a speaking engagement come up. So he moved his plans and broke up the three weeks I would otherwise be spending by myself. That was good news in my book. I told him I was looking forward to hanging out with him in Oxford in just over a week, and we said “goodbye” to each other.

I held Jen for a long time before going through security. I eased up on my hug, letting her back a bit so I could look at her. And smile. She told me not to cry. So I fought it. She’s so much tougher than me, and I’m used to it at this point.

I really didn’t want to, but we said our “goodbye’s” and I made my way to the security line, looking back just in time to see Jen smile and wave as she and Steve left. Smiling with that same smile that stole my heart all those years ago from the stage in our high school auditorium. I wasn’t looking forward to being without that smile for the next few weeks, but I was happy to know she’d soon be holding her new baby niece in her arms.

We made a stop in Chicago, and I changed planes on my way to England. Walking the airport hallways, my eyes kept catching young families. A dad walking hand-in-hand with his young son. A young family of four seated, with their backs against the windows, waiting on their plane. And I realized I didn’t want this. Traveling on my own. I’m a married man, and it just didn’t feel right traveling on my own. I didn’t feel complete.

When we got married, our pastor (Craig, a good friend of the family) really emphasized that, when we became married, we went from being two individuals to one, united flesh. He really made a point to tell us that this is what this act meant. And I often use that line, from time to time, with Jen. Mostly when I want to steal something from her plate. “Hey, one flesh, remember?” I’ll say to her.

But that’s how it felt, walking through the airport that night in Chicago, waiting for my plane to board. Like half of a single piece of flesh. And I didn’t like it. I found myself looking forward to the day when we’d be traveling together. With our kids with us. All antsy and excited for the plane ride. And it put a smile on my face, seated there in the airport, waiting to board my flight to England.

Back in Oxford

I landed in London around noon local time on Tuesday, after flying out from Seattle at 3:00 on Monday afternoon. After sleeping most of the way (in complete disregard of the Greek studies I knew I should be working on), I found myself with more energy than I thought I’d have. Which was good, since I still had some traveling to do before I could rest.

I made my way through customs. The man taking my passport asked what I was doing in England. I told him I was going back to school. He asked what I was doing before. I told him I was in Public Relations. He asked what I was studying, as he flipped through my passport. I told him “Theology.” He asked why the change, still looking down. I told him I realized that was what I was passionate about. He stopped, looked up at me with a nod, and then returned to the passport. Stamped it and handed it over.

It was a good reminder for me, as I entered the country. I was here to pursue what I was most passionate about.

I grabbed my bags from the conveyor belt baggage claim and made the long walk through the airport to the bus station. After a short wait, I was on the bus heading to Oxford.

I thought it was funny that the sign leading to Oxford had the city “B’ham” on it, after leaving “Bellingham” a day earlier.

We pulled into Oxford an hour later. And I grabbed a cab for the last leg of my journey back. The driver helped me with my bags as I hopped into the back of the tall, black English cab. He asked where I was coming from. I told him Seattle. He asked if we had snow. I told him not much.

He told me Oxford had been hit pretty hard over the holidays. “About 10 inches,” he told me. “We had to stick to the main roads, and drop people off at the start of the side streets.”

“What’s the weather look like for this week?” I asked him.

“Rain. All week. Just rain.”

“Perfect,” I said from the back seat. “Just like home.”

I paid the driver as we pulled up to 27 Northmoor Road, the house looking just as we left it a month earlier. And he helped me with my bags.

Jane greeted me at the front door. With a hug. And a smile. And a “Happy New Year!”

She pointed to the tower of packages that had piled up while we were gone.

“Christmas packages I presume,” she said. I nodded.

“Yep,” I think so.

I unpacked my bags straight away, knowing I wouldn’t want to deal with it after waking up. It’d also help me put sleep off longer, and get back on the routine here.

I opened up our Christmas cards and packages from Grandpa after unpacking my bags and getting settled in. Don’t worry, I had Jen’s permission.

Even though we had been home with most of these people over the holidays, it was great seeing their smiling faces on the Christmas Cards again. And reading their Christmas wishes.

“We know it will be tough not being home, but we hope it’s a special one,” so many read. And it was a nice reminder of the surprise we were able to give everyone before the holidays. It put a smile on my face.

I opened the package from my Grandpa next. A mix of bike equipment, food and Christmas decor. And a clock. Oh, and two “Sumas, Washington” coffee mugs. (Special thanks to my cousin Matt for those. Only ones in Oxford, I’m sure!)

My Grandpa had just returned from the post office when Jennifer and I surprised him a month earlier. From sending us this package. “Good timing,” I had told him. He looked at me with a smile, still in disbelief that we were there, standing in his living room.

The package also contained a large zip-lock plastic bag. With cards in it. I opened the first one to see that they were Christmas Cards. From my extended family back home. Each one signed to Jennifer and I. Each one with a note inside, telling us how much we were missed. And how the holidays just weren’t the same without us.

“They must’ve been filled out over Thanksgiving,” I thought to myself while opening another. This wasn’t quite what my family was intending when they filled them out, I’m sure, but it was so nice to return to. Thank you all. It means so much.

Pre-Exam Hibernation Mode

Oxford’s breaks between terms are six-weeks long. Which sounds great on paper. But then you realize the amount of work they want you to do in-between terms and realize the word “break” in Oxford means something quite different than it does back home, like so many other words.

Having returned home to the States for the holidays, I took the opportunity to get some work in. The kind of work you get a paycheck for. To help with school. Which left little time for studies. Well, that and trying to catch up with everyone. And preparing a sermon for our home church after being asked.

And so I returned to Oxford feeling totally and completely overwhelmed with the amount of preparation I knew needed to be had before my exams (“collections,” as they call them here) Friday morning. So I put my head down and studied. At home. And at the library. Not even taking time to venture out to the grocery store for several days, but living off anything I could find in our cupboards.

I’m not a fan of soup for dinner. Never been. In fact, I don’t actually consider that a meal. But it was my dinner for three nights in a row while studying. That and oatmeal.

The Day of Collections

I had received a note the day before telling me gowns were required for collections. Not full Sub-Fusc (meaning cap and gown), but gowns were. So I woke up early Friday morning, after staying up until 2:00 a.m. the night before studying, put on my suit, gown and hopped on my bike, en route to collections.

It’s a funny thing, riding a bike in a suit and Oxford gown. I caught several people staring as I rode. Not knowing whether that was because they knew the doom awaiting me on my collections, or if it was just because I looked ridiculous riding a bike while wearing a full suit and gown.

Riding through Oxford again was a weird feeling. Like returning to a familiar dream you’ve had before. Familiar because it’s not the first time you’ve had it, but still foreign because it’s a dream. That’s a bit how it felt, riding through Oxford again, staring up at the large stone buildings that stretched on and on and on into the sky overhead.

I made my way to the library at Harris Manchester and passed through the “Quiet Please, Collections In Progress” paper sign on the door. I was a good 20-minutes early, so I found a seat and took the extra time for some last-minute studies.

About 10 minutes before the exams were scheduled to begin, I realized no one else was in the library. There wasn’t a student in sight. I started to wonder if I had somehow missed out on some critical information, informing me that the collections weren’t being held in the library after all.

I made my way down the stone stairway and found Amanda in the main office. She greeted me and I asked where the exams were being held, as I didn’t see anyone in the library. Immediately she gave me this look like her heart had just sank into her stomach as she thought to herself, “Oh no, I feel horrible for you.”

The first words out of her mouth were, “Don’t panic,” which is never a good sign. She looked up at the clock and, with big eyes, said to me, “You need to be at the Exam Schools, just get there.” Without waiting, I rushed out of the college and hopped on my bike, again, knowing the Exam Schools were several minutes away, and I didn’t have several minutes to spare.

My laptop bag had been thrown hastily over my shoulder, rather than across my body, so it swung as I rode. I approached the final intersection before the Exam schools, squeezing tightly between a line of cars, when my bag struck one of the car’s rear-view mirrors.

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, listening intently for the sound of it to fall and hit the concrete below. Nothing. “It must be okay, then,” I thought to myself.

I was met by a red light, and so I waited to cross the street. The cars turned left (as we would take a free right back home), and I quickly realized the car my bag had struck would soon be passing me. My heart sank.

“Hey!” the man shouted as he pulled up, stopped, rolled down his window and looked at me. “Hey! You hit my car!”

I looked over at his rear-view mirror sheepishly, to see if there was any damage. There wasn’t. From what I could see.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, still focusing on making it to the Exam Schools in time for my collections.

“You’re sorry?! You’re SORRY?!” he continued to shout, only several feet from me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just looked ahead, waiting for the light to change.

He ended up speeding off, and I was relieved. I was really hoping to avoid a fight before my exams that morning.

I found my way to the room where my collections were being held and walked through the closed door, just as everyone was turning over their exams to begin. And as I did, everyone looked toward the door to see me walk in late. I quickly realized everyone was wearing their gown, like me, but dressed completely casually otherwise, unlike me.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself. “I’m late for my first collections AND I look like a complete idiot.”

It was like one of those bad dreams that you have, where you’re in front of the class and everyone’s staring at you because you’re either naked or forgot how to spell “the.” Except it wasn’t a dream, and I had an exam to take.

I apologized to the Senior Academic Tutor overseeing the collections and found my seat. Quickly trying to shrug off the rough start and focus on the questions on the paper.

Kicked in the teeth by Greek

The good news is that my first exam of the day wasn’t in Greek. It was my Gospels & Jesus exam. I felt pretty good about the material, and I was fairly confident I had done a decent job after finishing my last essay.

The bad news is that wasn’t my only exam for the day. That afternoon, I took a Greek exam. And by that I mean, I got my teeth kicked in by Greek. I really felt horrible. I had studied the material, not nearly as much as I should have, but I felt like I was seeing the language for the first time. I don’t know if it was the stress of the day, my jetlag fog still setting in, or what, but I was fairly confident someone answering my questions in Spanish would have done at least as well as I did.

I’m not a fan of Greek. Not at all. If Greek and I were to go toe-to-toe in a UFC cage match, I wouldn’t think twice to swinging an illegal, below-the-belt kick to Greek.

Steve told me later that day I probably did better than I thought. I told him if I did better than 50% then I’d be doing better than I thought.

I had spoken with my academic advisor the day before. Telling him I knew my busy holidays were likely to catch up with me on collections. He told me not to worry about it. That collections didn’t actually count for anything, and they weren’t likely to send me home if I did poorly.

“Worst case scenario, we ask you to take them again in a couple weeks,” Dave told me with a smile as we sat across from each other on the leather couches of his office. In the castle-like building of Mansfield College.

I wasn’t excited about the idea of taking another Greek collection again in two weeks, but I figured that wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Riding home after spending most of the day in exams, I was feeling pretty down. Knowing I would have liked to do better. And picturing the look of disappointment Rhona would surely have when she graded my collection. Not quite the way I was hoping to start the term.

It was a sunny afternoon when I left the Exam Schools, so I promised myself a run and some fresh air when I got home. To reward myself for several days worth of hunkering down and studying. And for getting my teeth kicked in.

The sun was beginning to set by the time I got home and changed for a run. Cole texted me and asked if I’d be interested in going to watch a movie (127 Hours) that night. To celebrate having collections behind us. I told him that sounded perfect.

Steve Skyped in with me before taking off for a run. I told him about my day. And that I wasn’t having  such a great time here. He told me he was sorry. And that it would be the kind of day I’d laugh about at some point. He told me to go for a run. And to go watch a movie. I told him that sounded like a good idea.

I ran north. To Summertown. With music playing in my ears. It was dark and people were walking on the sidewalks as busses and cars drove by.

I loved feeling the rhythmic pounding of my feet on the stone sidewalk, and the cool night air on my face. It was incredibly refreshing after the day I had had.

It smelled like garlic bread as I entered Summertown. And I remembered how it smelled like drop-biscuits the first time I ran through the neighborhood, earlier in the fall. And how that smell had reminded me of my Grandpa’s house, growing up. And instantly I was taken back to my Grandpa’s, over the holidays. Into his packed kitchen as everyone filled their plates.

I could see their faces, telling me how nice it was to see me again. To have us home. And suddenly I didn’t feel so far away from home.

Cutting off your arm for a vision

If I was honest with you, I’d tell you it’s been tough since coming back to Oxford. After spending the holidays with friends and family and all that’s comfortable to us. Being able to earn an income again. And then returning to a place that still feels a bit foreign.

If I were being honest with you, I’d tell you there have been several days where I’ve just wanted to head back home, to be with everyone we know again. If I were being honest with you, that’s what I’d say.

Before leaving, I was asked to preach at our church. And so I did. On lessons I’ve learned since going through this process. Saying “goodbye” to a great job and friends and family to go after this dream. And one of the lessons I’ve learned, the lesson I closed with is that the Christian life isn’t a life of comfort. And that’s something I’ve had to remind myself since coming back to Oxford. I’m not here because this is the most comfortable life possible for us. It’s quite the opposite, in a lot of ways. Sure, it’s my dream, but it’s still really tough. But that’s just it. Following after Him, and what He intends to do with your life is rarely the most comfortable plan for your life. It’s something I’ve been learning through all of this. And I’m still learning.

I met Cole at the Theatre Friday night. To see 127 Hours. The real-life story about a man who got stuck while rock climbing, and who ended up cutting off his own arm to escape after several days. After 127 hours, apparently.

We ran into resident Lewis expert Dr. Michael Ward and President of the Oxford Lewis Society David at the theatre. It was good to see those two again. They sat across the aisle from us in the theatre, as we bought our tickets separately.

When you buy your tickets in the UK, you have two choices: standard seating and premium seating. Standard seating is basically the lower-level seating, where you’re looking up at the screen. These seats are also first-come, first-served, as it is in the states for everyone. But premium seating, premium seating seats are elevated, so you’re looking straight ahead at the screen. And they’re reserved, so you know exactly where you’re sitting ahead of time. Anything to make an extra buck, I suppose… Or pound.

The movie was pretty great. Gruesome, obviously, but pretty great. I’m not one for blood. Not in the least. I’ve always said I’d love to be a Doctor if it weren’t for the blood. But this movie was still definitely worth seeing, even for those of us who feel like taking a bit of a nap at the first sight of blood.

Not to spoil it for anyone, but the movie’s climax really stuck with me. Obviously it is incredible to think of someone cutting off their own arm to set themselves free, but what got him through this experience is what really stuck with me.

Apparently, what got this man through, what led him to decide to cut off his own arm so that he could get free was a vision he had.

While pinned there in that canyon, with no rescue in sight five days after falling into this horrible situation, this guy had a vision. He saw his son. A son he didn’t have at that point. He saw his son playing. And he saw himself playing with his son. Carrying him on his shoulders. And suddenly he was so overwhelmed with this vision that he would stop at nothing to get himself out of there, not even at cutting off his own arm with a cheap, dull knife. Because he believed in that vision. And because he wanted the reality of that vision with every ounce of his being. More so even then his own right arm.

And that’s stuck with me even now. That’s why we’re here. Because, long ago, I had this dream of one day studying at Oxford. Like so many others before me. Men who have changed my life with their writing. Men like Lewis. That I might write in a way that changes lives, too. That I might write in a way that helps others see Him more clearly.

It’s not comfortable. Not all the time. But it is a pretty incredible experience. And it certainly beats cutting off my own arm. And I hope, someday, to be able to look back on all of this and say, “There, right there, that is when He carried out that vision He set on my heart all those years ago.” That’s what I hope for all of this.

Thanks for reading.

 

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.

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.

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