Archives for posts with tag: CS Lewis

A Desire for Brains & Just Two More Weeks

I woke up one morning about halfway through Trinity (spring) Term to start my day–another long one spent working on revisions for final exams in the library at Harris Manchester College–and pulled on my jeans only to notice how loose they fit. I had hardly noticed it, but all of a sudden I could tell I had lost some serious weight. That’s what happens, I guess, when I’m spending so much time revising for finals that I don’t hkeave time to eat a second dinner at night.

I was just a couple weeks away from finals, at this point, and I was really beginning to feel the pressure. Not only was I fighting off fatigue, from day after long day spent in the library revising (usually arriving just after 9.00 in the morning, staying until the doors closed at 11.00 in the evening, and then returning to the Kilns to study for several more hours), but I was also worrying about how much material I had left to cover. I was worried about whether or not I was going to be able to get through everything I wanted to cover before exams arrived.

But, after several months of day-after-day of this routine, mostly I was just fighting off feeling like a zombie.

On one afternoon, in particular, I stumbled out of the Radcliffe Camera after several uninterrupted hours of Old Testament revisions, into the sunlight and in desperate need of a coffee. And I felt like a zombie, stumbling about on the cobblestone footpath as tourists walked by with their cameras in the afternoon sun.

The words, “Brains, brains,…” came to mind, as I made my way to the coffee shop, like some undead creature straight out of a 1960’s low-budget zombie flick. And given my current state, that of preparing for final exams, the irony of a desire for brains was cutting.

I took 15 minutes to spoil myself with a sandwich and coffee, which I enjoyed in the sun-drenched lawn that circles the Rad Cam. Black metal gates separate the Radcliffe Camera and its green grass lawn from street traffic, leaving tourists standing on the outside looking in, snapping photos. Sitting on the stone bench enjoying my caffeine and sandwich, with tourists in sunglasses snapping photos staring at me and the Rad Cam, I had never felt so much like a zoo exhibit in my life.

“Just two more weeks…,” I thought to myself as I finished my coffee and made my way back inside the Rad Cam for more revisions.

Missing Home

Following a week’s worth of intensive revisions, I woke up Saturday morning really missing home. I had had my head down on studies so much of the time that I had hardly had a chance to think about missing home for a while. But then, all of a sudden, it caught up with me like a wave.

I found myself missing Jen, and just wanting to be with her again. Thinking about being together with her again, I found myself trying to remember how she smells when I hug her. I wondered if I’d recognize the smell of her perfume when I saw her again, and then I tried to reassure myself that I would, in fact, smell her perfume again.

I found myself just missing having that someone to talk with, to share life with, and to be honest with. The thing is, when you’re married, you can say things to your spouse you can’t say to anyone else. Things you’re thinking. The kind of things that, if you were to share with anyone else, they’d think you were just plain evil. But you can share them with your spouse, because they know you’re evil. Because they live with you.

I found myself missing my family back in the States. I was missing all my favorite spots back in the Northwest, by the water, with the snow-capped mountains in the background. I was missing our favorite restaurants and late nights spent at the lake in the summer.

But riding my bike home from the market on this particular sunny Saturday morning, I reminded myself that I’m not always going to have sunny Saturday mornings at the Kilns. And as much as I was missing home, I tried to remind myself that I really ought to enjoy this while it lasts.

Casting Crowns at the Kilns

The following day was Mother’s Day back in the States (its one of those holidays that is celebrated on a different date here in the UK), and so I made sure to ring up my mom to wish her a happy one.

She was surprised to hear from me, it seemed, but very happy to hear my voice, at the same time. Being neck-deep in revisions, I really hadn’t had much extra time to talk with anyone back home as much as I normally did.

A couple of the members from the band Casting Crowns had stopped by the Kilns that afternoon for a tea, as they were in the area and a recent short-term scholar in residence here at the house had invited them over. It was great to meet them, though I had to excuse myself after just a few minutes to work on my Greek.

“Guess who’s here at the house?” I asked my Mom during our call.

“Who?”

“Have you heard of Casting Crowns?”

“No way! I remember going to their show last summer,” she told me, in a voice that rang of excitement.” Do you think they’ll remember me?”

I smiled, and I told her I was sure they would.

A Real Decision on Our Hands

I was working from the library in Harris Manchester the next day when I received an e-mail from Duke. They apologized for the delay, and explained that they were now forwarding me a letter dated from nearly a month earlier, which congratulated me on being accepted for the Master’s program in Theology, starting in August.

It was now nearly June, and apparently the original letter was sent to me on April 19. Only a few weeks after I submitted my application.

Reading over the acceptance letter, I found myself so excited, and I couldn’t help but smile from my second-story desk in the HMC library.

I rode my bike home that evening laughing to myself in the darkness as I passed through the city center. Laughing at the fact that, less than two years after leaving home, leaving a job in marketing and PR, I now had offers to study graduate-level Theology at both Oxford and Duke.

It all just seemed so unreal to me. But now, at last, we had a real decision on our hands.

Feeling Tired & Feeling Refreshed

Just a couple days later, I found myself feeling incredibly tired. For the first time, I felt so tired from the long days of studying that I felt like I no longer cared about my final exam marks as much as I longed just to be done.

I felt sore from sitting on the hard, wooden library chairs for hours on end, day after day. So much so that it hurt to sit down in the morning.

I also began having this terrible fear that I wouldn’t be able to recall anything I had been studying when my final exams finally arrived. This thought would wake me up at night, and I’d have trouble getting back to sleep.

I pictured myself sitting to take my exam, flipping open my question set and drawing a blank. I pictured myself sitting in that massive room upstairs in the Exams Schools, filled with other finalists, and just staring at my paper for three hours…

And then, in the midst of these fears and fatigue, seemingly out of nowhere, I remembered the look on Hayley’s face when she first found out I had been accepted to Oxford. I found myself picturing the look of sadness in her eyes when she knew we would soon be leaving. And then I remembered her words that came just a few days later, through text message:

I know you’re going to impact a lot of lives. You have mine.”

Those were the last words she sent me before she passed away, two years earlier.

And then, just as suddenly, I found myself looking forward to the arrival of our baby girl, Emma. And a smile spread across my face as I pictured her growing up before our eyes.

I felt myself realizing that, one day, she will ask me me about this time. About our journey to England and our time in Oxford. And it was then, when I pictured Emma asking about this experience at some far off future date, that I knew I will want to tell her I gave it my all. I knew I would want to tell her that it was worth it, to not be by her mother’s side all those months. And that her mother did not go through all of that for nothing.

And when I had considered of all that, I found myself realizing, no matter how tired I was of this seeming endless routine, no matter how completely exhausted I was, I simply could not give this any less than my all.

Refreshing Words of Encouragement

It was later that same day when I received a phone call from a professor friend of mine from the States. Steve. I met Steve last year, while giving a tour of the Kilns to a group of his students, and we had stayed in touch ever since.

Steve’s a big-time CS Lewis fan, which I appreciate, and he’s also one of the kindest people I have ever met in my life. He’s one of those few people who, when you’re talking with them, make you feel as though there is nothing else at all going on in the world.

There were several Lewis scholars from the States who just so happened to be in Oxford for a few days, on their way to different places in England and other parts of Europe, and who were gathering at The Trout for dinner that evening. Steve phoned to ask if I’d be interested in sharing a cab ride to the restaurant, and I told him that sounded like the perfect break from revisions.

I filled Steve in on our situation since we last spoke as the cab carried us from the city center through Port Meadow, Wolvercote, and finally to our restaurant. I told Steve that, after sharing some rather disappointing news with him previously, we now had two options, and a decision to make.

“Oh, good. Ryan, when you told me that news initially, I was so sorry, but I also just had this feeling that everything was going to turn out wonderfully,” Steve told me in a voice of encouragement and a confident smile. “And it appears it has.”

I was beaming from my seat in the rear of the cab, seated across from Steve on the bench seat, knowing how tough a time that had been, and, at the same time, how thankful I was to now have such options.

“Well, either way, they are both great options, Ryan,” Steve said to me as our cab pulled up to the front of the restaurant. “Congratulations. You’ve worked hard, and you’ve earned it!”

I thanked Steve for his kind words, for his encouragement along the way, and we made our way inside the Trout, only to find Walter Hooper, Jerry Root, Christopher Mitchell, and the rest of the gang standing at the bar. After a round of “Hellos,” “Heys,” and hugs, we ordered our food at the bar and took our drinks to the outdoor patio, that overlooks the rushing river passing by.

I met a woman who had only just accepted a teaching position at Duke, and who had completed her DPhil here at Oxford several years earlier. We talked about the funny nuances of studying at Oxford as an American, about the characters you run into in the basement of the Radcliffe Camera, and about our options for the following year.

After several hours of laughter and great company, our group walked the 10-minute journey to the Wolvercote bus stop, with the smell of Jerry’s pipe tobacco floating through the air. It was the perfect accent to the view of the sunset going down over Port Meadow.

We caught a bus back to the city center, and when I said my goodbyes, Jerry lifted me off the ground with a bear hug before holding my shoulders at arm’s length and making a point to encourage me in the work I was doing for the Oxford University CS Lewis Society.

“The Society is in very good shape,” he told me in his deep voice, with his eyes beaming from behind his thick glasses. “You should be proud.”

I thanked Jerry for the great evening, for his kind words, and then Steve and I walked together along Broad Street: he to his B&B, and I to Harris Manchester College.

We stopped at the corner where Lewis first stayed when he arrived in Oxford, just across the street from Harris Manchester, which also happens to be not far from the house Tolkien lived when he received his first book rejection letter (which Steve pointed out to me).

Steve gave me a large, warm hug, he told me it was a blessing to know me, and that if there was ever anything I needed from a Professor in Texas, just to let him know. I thanked him for his generosity, I told him the evening had been a breath of fresh air in a rather tired time, and that I looked forward to being in touch.

Walking back to the college library that evening, I felt more refreshed than I had in a long, long time. And I felt ready for the final stretch before exams.

Honored to Be a Godfather

I sat down at my computer at my second-story desk, still beaming from the evening’s dinner and conversation, when I opened up an e-mail from Olli. He wanted to invite me to he and Salla’s son’s baptism that weekend, and he asked if I’d be willing to be Tobias’s godfather.

He said it’d be a nice way to always stay in touch, even when we’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean. And even after such an incredible evening, I could not remember the last time I was so honored.

My Meeting with Philip

I had a meeting with Philip Kennedy the following afternoon, to discuss my collections results for Modern Theology, in preparation for finals.

We met in his office at 4.00 in the afternoon, and he apologize to me if he seemed tired, explaining that he had already had six meetings that day. I told him that was a lot of meetings for one day, and I thanked him for taking the time to meet with me.

We went over my collections results, and he told me he intentionally marks collections very strictly so as to motivate students to work extra hard for the real exams. And then, about halfway through our review of my results, he began telling me about a recent dinner he was at.

“I’m not very politically correct,” he said as a preface to his story, and which I interrupted by saying, “which I appreciate.”

He smiled, then continued.

“I was invited to this dinner event for the University when something very dangerous happened… They left me alone with a bishop!” he said to me with a look of shock. “That’s a very dangerous thing, as I nearly always say something that results in a fight!”

I laughed outloud.

“But I didn’t this time, because he was a nice man.”

At one point in the conversation he asked me how I would describe England.

“In two words,” I said, “to be brief, ‘Post-Christian.'”

He looked surprised.

“Well that’s very diplomatic of you,” he said, before rolling out a long list of rather negative descriptives, which ended with “hedonists.”

I told him I thought we were all hedonists. And he agreed.

Later on, he told me he didn’t envy me, bringing a baby into this world.

“It’s just such a horrible place,” he said, shaking his head and looking rather hopeless.

I told him I agreed, but that I was already preparing how I was going to teach her to handle it all. I told him I was writing her a letter.

“But she won’t be able to read when she arrives,” he pointed out to me.

“No, but she will one day.”

I told him there was this great quote from Mother Teresa that says,

Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”

I told him I thought there was something in that. I told him this quote reminded me of Jesus, and what he came to accomplish: not to run away from the pain and hurt and ugliness, nor to simply remove us from it, but to redeem it, from the inside out, and then to use us to continue that mission. Without getting tired.

I told Philip that I found reassurance in the fact that, even though things were really ugly at the moment, I was able to welcome Emma into the world knowing that things were going to be okay. Knowing that they were already being redeemed.

He smiled. And nodded. And we returned to our revisions discussion.

Falling Asleep on my Bike Ride Home

Riding home that night, I was so tired that I nearly stopped halfway up Headington Hill to walk the rest of the way, or to look for someone to walk my bike for me. But I kept going.

About halfway home after Headington Hill I began worrying that I’d fall asleep on the way home, while still on my bike, as I was so tired.

And then I imagined the headlines of the local newspapers the next day:

Oxford bus hits bicyclist. But not to worry, bus driver certain bicyclist was asleep.”

I was nearly home when I passed the palm tree that stands at the bottom of Kilns Lane. It’s branches were dry and brittle, and they hung heavy in the dark night air.

I nearly spoke outloud when I passed it, to tell it I knew how it felt. It had been a cold, long, and dark spring, and I was just barely hanging in there after the grueling, endless cycle of revisions.

Like the palm tree, there was only a hint of life left in me as I turned onto Lewis Close that evening and pulled into the Kilns.

“Just one more week before exams…,” I told myself as I slipped under my bed covers that evening and closed my eyes for a few hours of sleep.

False Alarm & A Different Ballgame

I woke up Saturday morning, just one week before my exams, with a mixture of excitement and anxiousness, all at the same time. I was excited to finally be getting close to just being done with this exhausting routine. At the same time, I was also anxious to actually sit down and know that this was it…

I spent the day in the library at college with my head down on studies, and several other finalists were doing the same. The look of anxiety and fatigue was visible on all our faces.

At one point in the afternoon I made my way downstairs to use the restroom, which is when I heard several jets pass by overhead, more loudly than I had ever heard before. And not just once, but several times.

My first thought was “Terrorists?” And then, “Would that mean finals are cancelled?”

I ran back upstairs to the library just as Mahdi and Evelina, two other finalists, came running out of the library.

“Is it terrorists?” Mahdi asked with an excited grin as we all looked out the windows toward the sky.

“We were hoping it’d be terrorists,” Evelina said, following after Mahdi with a smile, “So we wouldn’t have to take our exams.”

Turns out it wasn’t terrorists. Just a local airshow.

But that’s how bad things are just a week before Oxford finals: people would rather face a terrorist attack than their exams.

Dinner With John & John

I had dinner that evening with two of my good friends: John Ash and John Adams. Both Johns are studying theology at Wycliffe Hall here in Oxford, both of them are preparing to enter ministry full time, and all three of us were just a week away from starting finals.

We talked about theology and exams from our seats around the dinner table in John Ash’s dining room that evening as we ate. He mentioned a girl he had recently been talking with, before a revisions tutorial, who confessed to him that she hadn’t slept for more than two hours a night for the past several months, because of her anxiety over finals.

Apparently she shared with him that she had dreamt of coming to Oxford since she was just five years old, and that she had this terrible fear that her entire life was going to unravel before her eyes if she didn’t do well on these exams.

“And she was completely serious,” John said to us.

John Adams, whose wife is a doctor, talked about the fact that Oxford hospitals always see a spike in patients this time of year, because of finalists and anxiety, and that there was currently a four-week waiting period to get in.

“So, even if you are suffering from sleep deprivation…” he said, allowing his sentence to run off into silence, in a sign of hopelessness.

Just the week before, I had heard that about 60 percent of patients currently being seen at hospital in Oxfordshire are Oxford finalists.

I shared with the guys what I had been told by another finalist, a story about a finalist from the year before who had an offer from Harvard, and who had committed suicide just the week before exams because she couldn’t handle the pressure.

After a brief pause, John Ash went on to tell us what he said to this girl who had hardly slept in months, in light of her fear and anxiety.

“I’m not sure where she’s at, or what she believes, even, but after listening to her, I told her that I am not as worried as I could be,” he recounted to us.

“I told her I could be a lot more anxious, or worried, but I’m not, because millions of years after these exams have passed, when I am worshipping Jesus, I am confident no one is going to turn around and ask, ‘Hey John, by the way, how’d you do on your exams? Oh… Uh, are you sure you should be this close?'”

We all laughed, and John Adams nodded.

“That’s right,” John Adams said, now more serious. “We’ll be taking the same exams as everyone else, but it’s a completely different ball game for us.”

While my anxiety would only grow from that point on, in light of my approaching exams, that conversation would repeatedly come to mind, helping me fight off the thoughts that my life was going to completely unravel if I didn’t do well on my finals.

Last Week Before Exams

Tuesday morning was a warm, sun-drenched day as I made my way from the Kilns to the library on my bike. It was warm in a way it hadn’t been for ages.

The city smelled like flowers as I crossed over Magdalene Bridge and entered High Street, and all of a sudden it felt as though everything was waking up from a long, cold winter.

I passed by several finalists walking along High Street in their sub fuscs covered in glitter and paint, and I couldn’t help but smile. I couldn’t help but smile because I couldn’t wait to smile like that. I couldn’t wait to have my exams behind me, to be covered in confetti and silly string, and to be returning home to finally see Jen again.

And it made me excited, just to think about it. The finish line was so close I could taste it.

A Conversation With CS Lewis’s Stepson

Although I had a lot of work to get through, I took a break to head to the Oxford University CS Lewis Society Tuesday night. And although I had been terribly excited for the evening’s speaker, I struggled to step away from my work, feeling the pressure of my looming exams.

I had written an e-mail to CS Lewis’s Stepson, Douglas Gresham, earlier in the year, to see if he might be visiting Oxford in the near future, and to ask if he might be willing to address the Society when, and if, he did.

He had written back to me, not long after, and said that, while he didn’t have plans to visit the city, he very well might if he had an invitation. So I extended the invite and he warmly accepted it.

I had been looking forward to Douglas’s talk for some time, and it was a pleasure to hear, first-hand, his memories of his time here in Oxford with CS Lewis and his mother, Joy Davidman. To hear about his memories from living at the Kilns.

It was incredible to stand there, in the packed room of St John’s College, and to listen to his memories of what it was like to lose his mother to cancer, and then to share that grieving process with his stepfather, CS Lewis.

Very generously, after talking for nearly an hour, Douglas took questions until after 10.00 that night. Afterward, when he had signed several autographs and smiled for several photos, I walked him back to his hotel on High Street.

And as we walked, I thanked Douglas for his generosity, and for sharing such personal stories. He had shared with everyone about how painful it was not only to lose his mother to cancer, but also to lose his father to suicide, and his stepfather, CS Lewis, to heart failure.

“Everyone close to me was gone within just a few years,” he shared with the group.

I told him I really admired and appreciated his honesty, as not everyone is so open about such painful experiences.

“No,” he said with a pause, “but perhaps more should be.”

And I agreed.

A Voice of Confirmation

For the first time in a very long time, I woke up Wednesday morning nearly eight hours after going to bed. My body was desperate for sleep, and all of my tutors and supervisors had been emphasizing just how important it was to get plenty of rest that last week before finals began.

And even though I had slept for nearly eight hours, I felt like I had hardly slept at all. I was so anxious for exams to begin and my mind seemed to race, even in my sleep.

I made it to Harris Manchester just as the College library was opening that morning, and I ran into Sue, the librarian, halfway up the stone staircase that leads to the library.

After telling me “good morning,” and asking if I was getting any sleep these days, she went on to ask about my plans for after finals.

“Will you be returning next year, Ryan?” she asked.

“Well, we have an offer to do the MSt here,” I told her, ” but we also have an offer from Duke, back in the States.”

“Oh, well Duke’s a lovely school,” she said. “That’s not an easy decision.”

“No, it’s not,” I admitted. “And I’m not sure if you heard or not, but we’re expecting our first over the summer, so that’s an obvious attraction, too.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. And after pausing for a moment, and smiling, she looked me in the eyes and said rather matter-of-factly, “Well, Duke’s the right one,”

“Thank you, Sue,” I told her with a wide smile.

“Not that you have to go, mind you.”

“No, of course,” I said. “But thank you.”

The Last Day Before Finals

I woke up Friday morning, the last day before finals, feeling completely overwhelmed with anxiety. I felt like throwing up several times as I got ready to head to college, and I could not remember ever feeling so anxious in my life.

I met God in prayer several times on my bike ride to college that morning. I asked that He might help make the anxiety relent, and that I might be reminded to trust in Him.

And by the time I parked my bike at college, and after finishing several rounds of prayer, I felt like He was reminding me. I felt like He was reminding me that He had brought us here for His glory, and that He would see me through this, for His glory. I felt like He was reminding me that He would use all of this for His glory.

I was reading over notes and Scripture for my first final exam the following day, on the Old Testament, when I read Psalm 73. And as I sat there behind my desk on the second-story floor of the college library, comfort I cannot now describe swept over me as I read these words:

You hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterwards you will receive me

with honour.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion for ever.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

to tell of all your works.

And even though I had felt completely overwhelmed with anxiety only moments earlier, to the point of being sick to my stomach, I suddenly felt calm in a way I hadn’t in months. I suddenly felt ready to sit my final exams, which I would do in less than 24 hours.

The  Start of Trinity Term

After several dark, dark months that stretched from the end of Hilary (winter) term through the two months of spring break, months filled with valleys and challenges of the sort I have rarely experienced, things began to suddenly feel brighter at the start of Trinity term. Though it involved collections preparations (preparing for exams on papers from the previous term), and loads of revisions (preparations for final exams), and though I still had no idea what the next year looked like for us, in light of my recent disappointing news, the start of Trinity term was also an encouraging time.

It was encouraging because I suddenly found myself filled with reminders of how much I had to be thankful for: for my incredible wife, who loved and supported me in the valleys; for the fact that I would soon be completing my studies at Oxford, something I had only dreamt of doing for so long; and for the quickly approaching arrival of our first child, Emma.

I was working on collections preparations several days before the start of Trinity term from my second-story desk in the Harris Manchester college library one afternoon when a rather massive rainstorm rolled through Oxford. It was the kind of rainstorm that rolls in quick and comes down hard, beating the pavement with pellet-sized blows. Dark clouds covered the sky and, for a moment, it looked as though it might not ever let up.

But it didn’t last long, and soon, the clouds broke, once again revealing the bright blue background beneath.

And while I didn’t realize it at the time, the transition from that terrible storm to the bright blue sky painted something of a picture of how things would soon be unfolding for us.

A Bit of Good News

I was work on revisions the following week, on the other side of collections, when I received a note from the Oxford Graduate Studies office. And I knew, immediately, it was the news of their decision.

Hesitantly, I opened the e-mail, which confirmed my suspicion, and which directed me to open an attached letter to know whether I had been offered a spot or not. It all seemed so repetitive, and anti-climactic, like a set of russian nesting dolls.

My heart sank as I opened the attachment, even before I had read the first sentence. I had an overwhelming feeling I had not been offered a position, and the return of the guilt and feelings of inadequacy were too much for me to bear.

But then I read on, and I was shocked by what I read…

“Dear Mr Ryan Pemberton,

I am delighted to inform you that your application for admission to the University of Oxford as a graduate student has been successful. . . . Our admissions round is incredibly competitive, and we would like to congratulate you most warmly on your success.”

A smile enveloped my face as read these words. I really could not believe it, and I was still in awe when I forwarded the letter to Jennifer.

I quickly returned to my studies, with what felt like a newfound excitement and motivation for my work. My offer had been a conditional one; all MSt offers for current Oxford students are, I had been told. Knowing I had to get a certain mark on my finals was certainly good motivation to keep at it, particularly when revisions prep seemed to go on and on, with no end in sight.

Several minutes had gone by before I paused from my work and sat back in my chair. Allowing the news to set in, I turned to look out the window at the white clouds in the pale blue sky, and I heard the words repeated,

“…I am delighted to inform you that your application for admission to the University of Oxford as a graduate student has been successful…”

Still wearing a grin, I took a break from revisions to grab a sandwich from the ATS, an early dinner. And suddenly, stepping outside, everything seemed so much brighter.

My general malaise for Oxford, which had set in following my initial denial, began to fade and, in its place, I found myself once again falling head over heels in love with Oxford. Like an old girlfriend who, after telling you she’s not that into you, and that ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ gives you a call and asks if you’d be interested in doing something sometime.

At the time of the break up, you tell yourself it was actually a good thing. You tell yourself she wasn’t right for you, and you make some half-hearted comments to your good friends about how you knew, deep down, it would never have worked out. That it never works out with girls who–I don’t know–wear watches.

And then your good friends, since they are good friends, furrow their brows, nod their head in agreement, and say something like, “Hmmm…, yes. Girls with watches. Never trust them.”

All the while, you’re not so-secretly feeling sorry for yourself, and they’re not so-secretly feeling sorry for you.

I was walking on air as I made my way to the ATS, to see their old familiar faces waiting to take my sandwich order. Oxford had broken my heart, but boy was she beautiful.

At the same time, my heart really had been leading me toward Duke in the six weeks or so since I had first heard back from Oxford, and had made the decision to apply to Duke, inspired by Stanley Hauerwas and his work on Narrative Theology. Jen had been feeling the same way. We were both feeling like we were being led in that direction, even though we were discussing this decision with 6,000 miles in-between us, and we were excited about the possibilities for us there.

I could tell this wasn’t going to be an easy decision, and I couldn’t wait for Jen to wake up and read the news.

A Job Opportunity

Just an hour later, after returning to the library, I heard from the Senior Editor of a Christian magazine back home who I’d done some writing for, and who I am friends with. He was asking about my plans for the following year, and he mentioned that he had an “awesome editorial gig” coming up he’d like to consider me for, if I was interested.

The job just so happened to be in our old hometown, close to family. With a baby on the way, that had an obvious appeal.

In a couple of hours, I went from having no idea what the next year had in store, to being overwhelmed by potential opportunities.

I Skyped in with Jen a little later in the day. She said she received my e-mail and, after reading what I wrote to her, introducing the e-mail from Oxford’s Graduate Studies Committee, she was shocked to find out I had been accepted, because of how I presented it. I told her I was shocked, too. She told me congratulations, that that was a big deal.

And then I told her about the job. “Oh wow…” she said, with big eyes. “That sounds like it’d be a great fit with what you’d like to do.”

“Yeah, kind of perfect, in a lot of ways. And the fact that it came to me, in an economy like this, is pretty incredible.”

“And it’d be close to family,” she said with a smile, while Khloe peeked in the screen from beside her, wearing her crooked grin.

“And it’d be close to family,” I said, smiling and nodding. “Lots to think and pray about.”

Making Our Decision a Little Easier

I stayed up until 4.00 a.m. the next morning, putting together all my materials this Editor friend had asked for. My CV, writing samples, etc. And then, on just a few hours of sleep, I took a quick break from revisions to take an editing test the next day.

It all felt a bit rushed, and I had no idea how I’d done, but I figured I had at least given it my best, and we’d see what happened.

The following day, just two days after getting a note about the opportunity, I received a note letting me know that they’d decided not to offer this position after all. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little let down, particularly after the hurried pace of getting everything submitted.

I shared the news with Jen that evening, wondering how she’d take it, and knowing how appealing a job close to family would be for her, with Emma’s arrival quickly approaching.

“Well, that makes our decision a little easier,” she said with an encouraging smile.

I told her I agreed. We still had Duke to hear back from. And it would still be a very difficult decision.

Still, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. And feel a hint of failure.

Guys’ Night Out

I celebrated the end of that week with a Guys’ Night Out with Olli and his 10-year old son, Elias. We went to watch the new Avengers movie, and to grab some dinner afterward.

Driving to the theatre, Olli asked about my potential editorial job offer, and whether I’d heard anything.

“Yeah,” I told him, “I did hear back from them, and they decided to not hire the position after all.”

“Yessssss,” he said with a wide grin, without missing a beat.

I laughed out loud. Olli’s not the type to get excited about much at all, and so I told him I appreciated it, knowing he was rooting for our staying in Oxford for another year.

After the movie, the three of us tucked into an Asian restaurant to grab some dinner, and to recap our thoughts on the movie.

We talked about the movie for a while, comparing it to other superhero films, before we returned to our conversation about next year, and Olli asked what I thought I’d do if we heard back from Duke with another acceptance letter.

And it was at that point that I realized I hadn’t shared with Olli about losing Hayley shortly before arriving here, and how that loss made me realize how much I wanted to write in a way that reaches those who might not otherwise care to read or listen to teaching on Him. To help others to see Him more clearly, when they might not otherwise, and about why I came here in the first place.

“So, that will give you a bit more background on what it is I want to do, and why we set out to do this in the first place,” I told Olli from my seat across the table, while Elias listened to The Two Towers audio on his headphones from beside him.

“I feel like God has opened some really big doors for us along the way, as we’ve set out to do this, and I want to respect that with this decision”

News I Wasn’t Expecting

Monday of the following week was the first sunny morning in days. It energized me as I opened up the blinds and the sunlight poured into Warnie’s old rooms. I had a bit of time before I had to be in the city center, so I decided to throw on my shoes and I went for a run, for the first time in ages. And it felt great.

After cleaning up and grabbing a quick bite, I took the bus into the city center and got off at High Street. And as soon as I stepped off the bus I heard my name from behind me, “Hey Ryan.”

I turned around to find Ollie standing with a smile and a cup of Starbucks in one hand.

“Hey Olli! Funny running into you here… Hey, that looks good,” I said to him, pointing toward his cup. “I need to go get one of those.”

“Yeah,” he said, raising his cup with a smile. And then his voice become more serious in tone.

“Well, we came to a decision about next year…”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, knowing they had planned on deciding over the weekend, and fully expecting to hear they’d be here in Oxford for another year.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but we weighed out all the pros and cons, and we decided to head back home, to Finland, for next year.”

My heart sank at the sound of his words, and I’m sure my face showed it. It felt like I had been denied by Oxford all over again.

“Oh wow…,” I said, struggling for words. “I wasn’t expecting that!”

He told me it had not been an easy year, and with a new baby having just arrived, they thought they’d really appreciate being a bit closer to family. They’d also be able to save quite a bit, being back home, he told me, and that it’d be a chance to refresh themselves a bit before applying for some posts in the US for the following year.

“Wowwww…” I repeated, drawing out the word. “Well, that will certainly have an impact on our decision for next year.”

We talked for several more minutes before Olli had to get to a lecture in the Exam Schools. I said goodbye, and that we’d have to catch up soon. I crossed the High Street and made my way down the snaking back alley toward Harris Manchester.

I had been reading from Matthew’s Gospel on the bus, and my thumb was still holding my place in the small Bible in my hand, but I didn’t feel like reading after that. In fact, I found I had to fight back tears as I walked down the sunlit stone sidewalk.

Olli and Salla had become some of my best friends here in Oxford. But more than that, they had been like family. And I couldn’t imagine coming back here without them. It really would be a tough, tough decision.

Two Years Later

Several days after that surprising news was May 1, the anniversary of Hayley’s death, and it was the first time I’d be spending it alone, as Jen was still back in Washington. I hadn’t been looking forward to that day, knowing it was coming, and it was all I could do to get out of bed that morning. I stumbled through the day, just wanting to crawl into a hole.

So I did the next best thing and I went to the basement of the Rad Cam to study. The dimly lit room seemed like a bit of an escape from the reality of the day, as I figured I could probably go there without anyone recognizing me. I just didn’t feel like talking. With anyone.

I took a quick break from studies that afternoon, to get some caffeine, and I ended up running into Max and Britton and Rich in a coffee shop. They were surprised to see me, as I hadn’t seen them for a while, being buried in revisions work, and I felt embarrassed for looking like a zombie. With deep eye bags, and dressed in all black (which I didn’t notice until halfway through the day).

I stumbled my way through a conversation, and I was envious for the life they seemed to exude, and which I appeared to lack.

After a few minutes of awkward conversation, I explained that I needed to get back to my studies, and I made my way back to the cavernous Rad Cam for more revisions.

The Oxford University CS Lewis Society met that evening. And were it not for the fact that Myriam, our Secretary, was sitting her final exams (English comes before Theology), which required me to be present for the Society’s meeting, as President, I would have remained in the dark Rad Cam basement.

So I went, and it ended up being good that I did. It felt like a breath of fresh air for my grief-constricted lungs.

Peter, an older English gentleman and former Society Treasurer, drove Debbie and I back to the Kilns that evening, after the meeting. The two of them talked about the evening’s speaker from the front seat. They talked about Peter’s dog and wife. They talked about a lot of things, while I sat quietly in the backseat, staring out the window into the dark nothingness as we drove, thankful not to have to talk, and not to have to take the bus.

I thanked Peter for the ride when we arrived at the Kilns that evening. We entered the house, dimly lit, and Debbie asked how I was doing. I told her I was tired. That revisions seemed endless at this point.

Then, when I could tell there was more to her question, with her pressing, sympathetic eyes, I told her I was having a tough time, but I was feeling pretty good about getting out of bed this morning.

She told me Jen had informed her about Hayley’s anniversary, that I would likely be having a pretty tough day, and that she was sorry. She told me she was praying for us, and I thanked her for that.

She said the words I wrote that day for Hayley were beautiful. I thanked her for that, too. Then I retreated to my room, in the darkness, and replied to a long list of e-mails that read, “I’m praying for you,” and “my prayers are with you.” I was thankful for each and every one of them, but they all served as a painful reminder.

By the time I finally made it to bed that night it was after 1.00 in the morning, and I was so thankful to finally retreat to the comforts of my bed. And when I did, the oddest picture came to me…

This may sound funny, coming from someone who’s such an enthusiast of CS Lewis’s writing, but I’m not much of a reader of the Chronicles of Narnia series. I never did as a kid, and I only got halfway through the series when I picked them up later on. I know, I know…

But anyways, I had this picture in my mind as I got ready for bed that evening. It was of a giant lion lying at the head of my bed, where my pillows sat, who was inviting me to come lay down. To rest my head in the warm fur of his gently rising and lowering side.

And there was nothing I wanted more than to do just that. I knew, once I did, that I’d be safe. That none of the darkness of this day would be able to get me there.

So I did. And they didn’t. And all was suddenly better. Not that this loss or the grief was no longer there, but that it was now somehow absent, in the comforts of this resting spot.

And I know it sounds funny, but I fell asleep with a half-smile on my face, with my hands gripping the soft pillows under my head with thankfulness.

Deciding to Stick it Out

Jen and I had a chance to catch up on Skype the following night. She asked how I was doing, as, apparently, Debbie told her she thought it’d be best if Jen were here with me for my finals. She told Jen she could tell I was really missing home, and that she was sure I’d do better having her here.

But I told Jen I wasn’t so sure. I told Jen I knew I wanted her here. I told her I knew I wanted her here so bad. But that I also knew I nearly always felt guilty for not knowing my studies better, even with her back at home, and for any time I didn’t have my nose in my revisions.

And so, in that sense, I told Jen the thought of having her here made me a bit anxious, knowing I’d want to be with her, but that if I did I’d feel guilty for not studying as much as I possibly could. And, at the same time, knowing that when I was studying, I’d feel guilty for not being with her.

It felt like a lose, lose. And, with watery eyes, I told Jen I thought it’d probably be best just to continue as is, as difficult as it was, with the promise of seeing one another again, of being together again, in only seven weeks. She told me she agreed, as difficult as it was, and I was so thankful to know we were on the same page.

Chasing My Own Tail

I was thinking about this decision the following day, on my bike ride home, when I realized that, for me, the worst part about being alone is the mental circles I run. It feels a bit like I’m chasing my own mental tail, most times, without ever actually really getting anywhere.

It feels like I’m constantly bumping into the walls of my own mind, and I long for a voice from the outside to break up the shallowness of my own thoughts.

And it reminded me of something Lewis wrote years ago, on the value of reading other authors:

“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see.”

And I wasn’t completely sure that was what Lewis was getting at, in this quote, but it was at that point that I feel like I knew, perhaps for the first time, what he meant.

Wondering if I Wasn’t Going Crazy

For whatever reason, that weekend felt like the cumulation of the great weight of being away from my wife for the past five months. It felt like I felt, all at once, the weight of being away for our first pregnancy and the stress of finals, and worrying about deciding on next year. It felt like all of these things came to a head and sat down on my shoulders all at once.

And I found myself thinking that this arrangement that I had been in for so long just wasn’t good for a person: that of being alone, and focusing so much energy one one’s studies. And on one’s own performance.

I hardly thought about others during this time. And I hated that. It felt like my soul was going bad and turning sour, from all the inward focus.

I remember feeling like I now knew why God invented marriage, and why I was not meant to be on my own.

I was in a funk. I didn’t want to be around others, but I felt so alone, at the same time. I really felt like I was going crazy. I’ve only felt that way a few times in my life, usually from a lack of sleep, but I felt that way on this day.

I remember going to the market that evening to get groceries, and just wandering the aisles as though I were half asleep. Nothing sounded good to me, which, for a guy who typically eats two dinners an evening, is a sure sign something was off.

But since my refrigerator was only holding a single egg and some condiments, I knew I needed to get something. So I picked out a few staples that I knew I usually enjoy, even though they didn’t sound any good to me at the moment, and I returned home.

Jen called me a few minutes after I got in, and I told her I felt like I was going crazy. I told her I felt like I just didn’t have anything left, and I just wanted to come home. I told her I didn’t even care about my exams anymore, that I just wanted to be together.

She nodded, and she told me she understood. I told her I was just struggling to imagine how all of this could possibly be worth it. I told her I never imagined our first pregnancy would be spent 6,000 miles apart. I told her no one does.

She nodded again. But then then told me she was sure it’d be worth it, and that we wouldn’t be going through all of this if it wasn’t.

“It just doesn’t make sense that a guy from Everson would get into Oxford if it weren’t going to be used in a big way…,” Jen told me, with a voice of assurance, before making a terrible grimace all of a sudden.

“Owwww!… Oh, that was weird,” she said, making a face.

“I think Emma just turned over,” she said making a face, again. This time with a laugh.

I smiled. And knowing I would soon be holding our little girl in my arms, I knew that would make this all seem worth it.

Helicopter Backflips and Envying Families

Olli and Elias stopped by the next day, in the morning, to pick me up and spend the day at a nearby flight show that was taking place. And we had a great time.

We watched helicopters do backflips and airplanes soar by while doing barrel rolls. We sat in the grass and ate cornish pasties and bacon baps.

Olli laid down, fully extended, in the grass, and Elias sat on him to take in the show. I watched young families walk past us, pushing strollers carrying kids wearing brightly colored rubber boots. And all of a sudden I realized how very much I wanted a family of my own, and how difficult it was to know this was just around the corner for us, and to be away from it all.

You don’t realize how hungry you are until you get to a restaurant and wait for your order to arrive. And, when you’re hungry, the last thing you want to do is sit in a restaurant and watch others eat.

Looming Finals

Week three of Trinity Term brought with it a flood of Oxford students wearing their sub fuscs around the city. On their way to and from exams.

When you see other finalists, or when you’re a finalist and others see you, the question that’s inevitably asked is, “How’re you feeling about finals?” And the response is never good.

Even if they try to pretend as though they’re doing all right, it’s a bit like asking someone how they’re feeling about their funeral.

“Well, they’re three weeks away,” I would say with a shrug. “Ready or not.”

Infinite Times Smarter Than You

The thing about Oxford that I notice is that sometimes you’ll see someone and you’ll catch yourself judging them for something they are wearing that you find funny. At least I do.

For example, you might think, “That guy woke up and thought, ‘Yep, it’s got to be the red trousers today.'”

But then, just as soon as you catch this though passing through your mind, it’s met head on by another thought. One that reminds you that this guy is infinite times smarter than you. At least.

And you exchange smiles and say, “Hello,” politely, as you pass on your bikes.

Praying for Clarity

Jen and I had been talking every night about our plans for next year, and we each committed to praying over the decision. Hoping for clarity, which had escaped us so far. We both saw pros and cons to each school, and if Duke came through with an acceptance, we really didn’t know what we’d decide.

But one night, after spending a full day in the library, I was riding home to the Kilns, up Headington hill, and praying about this decision.

I began praying at the foot of the hill that He would make this decision clear for us, and by the time I arrived back at the Kilns that evening, I felt peace about the decision. Everything felt brighter. And all of a sudden, everything was suddenly clear, in a way it hadn’t been before.

Finals didn’t seem to weigh on me as they had been for so long. I knew I’d do my best, and that I’d soon be returning home. And all of a sudden I found myself so thankful for this journey.

The Thought of Leaving Oxford

I returned to the library the next day, for more revisions, and as I did, the thought of leaving Oxford pained me. The thought of not returning seemed crazy. Coming here truly has been an incredible experience, of the sort I could not have imagined before we left.

It’s a bit like falling in love with your dream girl, daydreaming about her for years, and then one day waking up to find out you’re married to your dream girl, and finding all your dreams for all those years were a pale reflection of how incredible she actually was.

That’s a bit like what this experience has been like for me. And the thought of giving up Oxford–my dreamgirl–pained me.

I remember a conversation I had with a pastor friend of mine years before we ever made this journey. We met for lunch and I told him I felt like I could go anywhere as long as Jen was with me. I told him I felt like she was my family, and how that was all that I needed.

And now, here I am, 6,000 miles away from home, and Jen is not with me. I couldn’t help but wonder if, somehow, that wasn’t intentional.

I wondered if this was not, in some small way, God saying, “Actually, rather than relying on your wife to get you through, I’d like you to rely on me.”

Similarly, I remember getting to a point where, while working in a marketing and PR firm back home, in a job I loved, I fell head-over-heels in love with Oxford. And I remember it was at that point that I said to God in prayer, “Okay, I’m willing to leave home and my career to study theology, but only if it’s at Oxford.”

And now, I quietly wondered if this wasn’t, in some small way, Him saying, “This is what I’d like you to do: give up your dreamgirl. First your wife, then Oxford. And make me your dream.”

I wondered if this entire journey has not been, in a rather complicated way, a process of God smashing all of my idols. Leaving me with nothing but Him, in the hope that I will finally see He is all I really need.

Good Theology Makes us DO something

A professor friend of mine by the name of Jeff visited Oxford during Trinity Term, from Seattle. He was on sabbatical, and he came here to spend a few months with his family, getting some of his own work done, but also enjoying Oxford with his wife and three girls.

He was giving a lecture at the Hall he was staying at one evening when he invited me along. It was on Theology & Literature, and I had no idea when I accepted the invitation just what an incredible impact it would have on me, and how much clarity it would bring to our decision for next year.

After the lecture, one of the Dominicans of the Hall in which the lecture was hosted spoke up, made a few comments on the talk, and then he said something that I thought was so good, and which has stuck with me to this day.

He said, “Good Theology makes us DO something.”

I smiled, and Jeff nodded. He mentioned that theology needs to become imaginative in order to be effective. He mentioned that Theology has lost that. And he said the problem with Theology, at the moment, is that people don’t think it has anything to do with truth.

And in a way I cannot now properly describe, with those two comments, I had confirmation for the peace I had first felt on that bike ride home the week before. When I prayed on Headington Hill and arrived home with the kind of peace that I’ve only had a few times before. That’s when I realized what we have to do.

Even though we were still waiting to hear back on their decision, that’s when I realized, the solution is Narrative Theology, and the place is Duke.


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.

Saturday: A fake English accent & God’s hiddenness 

I was getting ready to head out the door on my first Saturday back in Oxford, to head to the gym and get a bit of physical release after being pent up in the library all week, when Debbie asked me if I’d like to give a tour that afternoon. I had a larger tour I’d be giving on Tuesday, and so she thought I might appreciate the chance to brush up on my tour with a small group before then (since it had now been well over a month since I last led a group around the Kilns). As much as I was looking forward to a chance to get back in the gym, and to get a bit of exercise, I thought she had a point, so I changed my plans and stuck around to lead the tour.

And it was a small tour. Just a couple girls who were in Oxford for the day, from London. They told me they were doing a CS Lewis inspired weekend, where they were traveling around visiting as many different CS Lewis places as they could. I told them I thought that was awesome. And that I was a bit jealous.

It wasn’t until halfway through the tour that I ended up finding out that one of the girls was from Georgia. The State, not the country. I was shocked, as her English accent was spot on. She told me she had been in England for just a few years, that she had moved to London after finishing her degree in Oxford, and that it just kind of stuck. I was jealous, to be honest. But I also told them I made a point to not pick up any accent when we first arrived. Knowing Jen would give me a hard time if I did. Not to mention all those back home. I can only imagine what this girl will face when she returns to her home in Georgia with a British accent.

An explanation of divine hiddenness

That night, after the tour and a bit of studies, Jonathan and I took a trip to Tom’s house. Tom is a good friend who works for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and he lives just a couple miles away. Tom’s wife Caroline was still up when we arrived, cleaning up the kitchen. She joined us for conversation for a while, before telling us “goodnight” and heading upstairs.

We stayed up talking late into the early morning hours. First in the kitchen, then from the living room. Tom is a tutor for RZIM, but he also regularly gives apologetic talks, where he defends Christianity on different points (responding to questions such as “How could a good God allow so much pain and sufering?”, for example).

I asked Tom what kind of questions he was working on lately, and he told me he was really interested in the question of divine hiddenness. He explained how a lot of times people will ask, “If there really is a God, then why doesn’t He do a better job of making Himself known to us?”

Tom said one of the ideas he’s been talking through lately is the idea that God is so great, that He would completely overwhelm us were He to reveal Himself beyond what He has.

He compared this to love, and the fact that we all know of situations in which someone has, foolishly, said too much, too quickly, in revealing their love for someone else, and how that has completely scared the person away. He explained that we’re overwhelmed by that kind of love, that we can’t possibly handle such an incredible expression of love from someone else, and so we turn and run when it happens. And he explained that he thought there might be something in that with God, and with His relationship with us. He explained that God’s love for us is, of course, infinitely greater than anyone’s love for another person, and how, were God to go beyond what He already has in revealing Himself to us, and His love for us, it would likely completely overwhelm us.

I thought there was a lot of truth in that. I thought it was a great point, and something I’d never considered before.

It was between 1:00 and 2:00 Sunday morning when Jonathan and I finally thanked Tom for the evening’s conversation and made our way back to the Kilns. It was a good 15 minute walk, and the air was frigid, biting our faces as we walked.

After crossing the highway that runs between Tom’s house and the Kilns, we walked through a large, open field. The air was so cold that the grass crunched under the weight of our shoes as we walked. The trees lining the field cast large, black silhouettes into the night sky, and a handful of stars sparkled in the open-air sky overhead.

Jonathan and I talked as we walked, casting steam into the cold air with each comment. I told him, as difficult as it was to say ‘goodbye’ to everyone back home, I really enjoyed being back in Oxford. I told him I was thankful for the kind of conversations that left me chewing on the thoughts long after the conversation had finished. And for our late night walks and talks across Oxford.

“It’s good to have you back,” Jonathan said with a smile as we entered through the front door of the Kilns, before making his way upstairs, and I felt my way down the long hallway leading to Warnie’s old bedroom in the dark.

Sunday: Old friends & Adopted by Finns

It didn’t seem like I had been in bed long when my alarm went off Sunday morning. While I typically go to to the evening service at St Aldate’s Church when I’m here in Oxford, I told my friend Olli I’d meet him at St Andrews that day, and join he and his wife, Salla, for lunch at The Trout after the service. As much as a day to sleep in sounded like a much-needed treat, I was looking forward to catching up with Olli again, and it’s never a good idea to turn down a trip to The Trout.

St Andrews is just a few houses down from where Jen and I lived last year. With the family that goes to parties at Elton John’s house, to hang out with J.K. Rowling and the like. It was nice to be back there, and to see a lot of familiar faces again. Though I was reminded of how family-focused the church is after the service when everyone gathered in the foyer for tea and coffee. I began to worry someone was going to ask me to notice I didn’t have any children of my own and then, in the most polite, British accent, ask me to leave.

But they didn’t, and we ended up being the last people in the foyer, talking with old friends as the next church service began, and as people slowly filed out of the church and toward home for Sunday dinner. Being in conversation and the last to leave church on a Sunday, I suddenly felt like I was back at home.

Olli and Salla are both from Finland. I met Olli through another Finnish friend of mine last Autumn, over dinner at the Eagle & Child, and I met his wife, Salla, at a Christmas party at the Kilns not long after that. They have a 10-year old boy, Elias, and Salla is a good way into her pregnancy for their second son.

Olli had his PhD before he was 25, and he’s now doing research and teaching Theology here at Oxford. He’s a bright guy. Quiet, and very analytical. I found out shortly after we met that we share a common interest in great music (Angels & Airwaves, Sigur Ros, Jonsi), and film, so we found much to talk about. Salla, Olli’s wife, is bright, with a bubbly personality, and hair the color of sunshine. They balance each other out really well.

We tucked into Olli and Salla’s brand-new Audi wagon after church, dropped Elias off at a friend’s house, and then made our way to The Trout for lunch. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the sweet sound of Jonsi‘s voice came dancing in through the car’s speakers as we traveled the narrow roads.

The Trout sits on the edge of a river, sandwiched between two large fields, where people often bring their dogs to get out for a run, or just to go for a walk. It makes for a really beautiful place to visit, particularly on a sunny day like this.

We found a table in the rear of the restaurant and looked over the menu before placing our orders. The Trout used to be an inn, before it was converted into a restaurant. The interior is a mix of wood and river rock, with low-ceilings that make it feel a bit like a pub. But the modern decor and light streaming in from the windows facing the river make it feel much warmer than most pubs.

I ordered the roast chicken for lunch, along with a cup of hot coffee to warm up from the cold walk outside, and a glass of water.

When our drinks came, I was surprised to see her bring my water in a small carafe, the kind cream for your coffee would come in. After staring at it for a moment, I realized she somehow thought I wanted the water for my coffee, and so I explained I actually wanted some ice water.

A few minutes later, she returned with a glass of ice. Just ice. Salla and Olli and I, who had been in the middle of conversation when it arrived at our table, all looked at it and laughed. I apologized to the waitress for what I was sure was the result of my American accent, and explained that I actually was hoping to have some ice water, to drink. She laughed, shook her head, then assured she’d return with it.

The three of us talked and laughed over a nearly two hour lunch. We talked about some of our traditional Sundays meals from back home, and they asked me if I had ever eaten moose before. I told them I hadn’t, and that I couldn’t help thinking I’d feel a bit like I was eating one of Santa’s reindeer if I did, even though I knew they were completely different animals. And that I was pretty sure Santa had figured out a way to keep Finns from hunting his reindeer.

We laughed at how similar our relationship dynamics are. And backgrounds. Even though we’re from halfway around the world. When we had finished our meals, we returned to their home and enjoyed some more conversation from their living room.

After some time had passed, I thought I had better get going, as I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. Olli looked surprised when I did, and said he had something I had to try.

“It’s ginger wine,” he said, pouring me a glass. It’s sweet at first, but then it has a bit of a kick.

I took a sip of the dark colored drink, while Salla watched on with a bit of a painful look, which should’ve been my warning.

“Mmm…,” I said, staring into my glass. “That is really good. Sweet, like you said.”

And just then, a moment after I thought I was a fan of ginger wine, the kick hit me. But it was more like being hit by a truck full of ginger root, right in the mouth.

“Oh, wow…” I said, with big eyes, as my mouth filled with an explosion of ginger. “There it is!”

“You don’t have to finish it if you don’t want to,” Salla said with a laughed, still wearing that painful look.

We continued our conversation from their living room while I did my best to sip down my ginger drink. We talked about accents, and we took turns sharing stories about being in a foreign country and accent experiences.

Salla began to introduce a story then paused. I could tell she was unsure if she should share it or not, but I encouraged her to. She told me about a time she was having tea with a girlfriend here in Oxford. At The Old Parsonage, a really nice restaurant in the city center. She told me there was a handful of Americans at the table beside them, and that, before leaving, these Americans asked the girls where they were from, as they were curious about their accents. Apparently Salla said they should try and guess, and so they did. Their first guess?

“Japan,” Salla told me with a look of surprised embarrassment.

“Oh wow…,” I said, with big eyes.

Just to put this into perspective, Salla’s hair is white-blonde, and she’s clearly not Japanese.

“So I asked them to guess again,” Salla explained, wearing a wide smile, as if to tell me their second guess was not much better.

“And?” I asked.

“Portugal,” she said with a look of defeat.

“Oh no…,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I hate hearing when we fulfill stereotypes.

Salla told me I had a very mild American accent, and I thanked her.

It was after 6:00 in the evening by the time I finally said goodbye that day. I thanked them for adopting me for the day, and they said they were looking forward to getting together again and visiting when Jen was back in Oxford. I told them I agreed and made my way back to the city center to catch the bus to the Kilns.

As I walked, I remembered how, just the day before, I had been dreading this day. I think it’s because Sundays are typically full of lots of time with family back home that I have tend to really dislike Sundays here. I guess it just feels like a painful reminder of that distance. But as I walked beside the river that afternoon, on my way toward the city center, I found myself smiling. Smiling at the thought that what I was afraid was going to be a rather painful, lonely day, had actually turned out to be the best day I had had since returning to Oxford. And I found myself so thankful for the kind of friendships that can make you feel like you’re really not so far from home after all.

Monday: A familiar bearded face & A tour for The Kilns neighbors

I had my first lecture Monday morning, on the topic of “God, Christ and Salvation.” The lecturer who led it has a heavy accent, eastern european, which makes the note-taking process interesting.

I had never had him before for tutorials, but I recognized his photo from the Theology Faculty board in the library. He was the one who I always thought looked a bit like Mozart, with large, frizzy hair. He didn’t look much like Mozart in person, I decided. Perhaps it was because he had recently had his haircut. And he was much taller than he looked in his photo.

He talked a lot about Jesus to introduce the lecture. About why He’s worth our study, and about why He’s still the focus of so much conversation. I was thrilled to be sitting in the middle of a lecture hall listening to this professor talk about Jesus and the significance of his life in his eastern european accent, and I scribbled my notes as best as I could understand to follow along.

Running into a familiar bearded face

After my lecture, and a quick bite for lunch with several of my Theology buddies here, I walked my bike, which still had a flat from the week before, to the bike shop across the city center. I left it with them, after I was told they wouldn’t be able to get to it for a couple days, and made my way back toward college. I was walking down Cornmarket Street, which regularly has musicians playing for money, amongst the busyness of people coming and going from work, class or the shops along the street, when I found myself staring at a three-man brass band as I walked. I turned my head to look where I was going, and to make sure I didn’t run into anyone on the crowded street, when I noticed a guy with a beard out of the corner of my eye. He was walking in the opposite direction as me, toward me, but a few feet over, and staring at me out of the corner of his eyes.

It was enough to startle me, but it only lasted for a second as I realized I knew the guy behind this beard. It was Rob, our good friend who’d lived here in Oxford last year with his wife, Vanessa, when he was doing his MBA.

“Rob, hey!” I shouted just as he made his way to me, before throwing my arms around him to greet him with a hug. He could tell I was completely surprised, and he laughed with a wide smile.

“It’s great to see you, man!” I told him loudly, knowing we were probably fulfilling the stereotype of a couple loud Americans.

He told me he had literally just arrived in Oxford, and that he’d be in town or the week on business. We talked for just a couple minutes, I told him I was just returning from dropping his old bike off at the bike shop, the same bike that was given him by an American friend who had studied here before he arrived, and which he had passed onto me when he and Vanessa left, and we agreed we’d have to catch up one night before he took off.

“Great seeing you again, bud,” I said with a laugh at the surprise encounter as we said goodbye. “Well see you soon.”

Kilns tour for the neighbors

I returned to the Kilns a little after 6:00 that night, much earlier than usual, because Debbie had reminded me about a tour I had agreed to help out with before we left to return to the States before Christmas (which I had completely forgotten about). A group of neighbors were coming by for a Christmas party, and she was hoping to get my help to show a few of them around the house. I told her I’d completely forgotten about the tour, but that I’d be happy to.

Mostly of the group was in their 60’s, or so, and most of them had been in the neighborhood for some time. But, the funny part is that none of them had ever actually been in the house for a tour!

One woman has been in the neighborhood since ’73, the same year Lewis’s brother passed away and the house went up for sale. As I began my tour, by introducing myself, one of the older women in the group asked me why I was interested in CS Lewis. I told her I read Lewis for the first time when I was 19, and how I had been blown away by his ability to approach the Christian faith with reason, and logic and analogies, and how I had never seen anyone do that before. I told her how it encouraged me in my own faith, by making me realize I didn’t need to sacrifice my intellect to consider myself a Christian, as funny as that sounded, and that his writing ultimately led me here, to Oxford. She smiled at me knowingly from behind her glasses, and I began telling them about the history of the house from Lewis’s old common room.

Even though I felt a bit sedated during the tour, as I was still feeling a bit jet-lagged, and fighting off fatigue from too many late nights and early mornings, the tour ended up going really well, and they applauded for me at the end. Each one of the guests thanked me at the end of the tour, rather sincerely, and they told me how much it meant to them, knowing this is here in their own neighborhood.

“It’s funny, this is right in my backyard, and I’ve never been here,” admitted one old man to me.

I told him it seems like that’s just how we are. We often miss out on things when they’re so close to home, and often times it takes a visitor to tell us how incredible they are. He nodded.

I retired to the kitchen for dinner around 9:00 that night. Jonathan was just starting to fix himself some dinner when I walked in, and he asked if I wanted some soup. Jonathan is an incredible cook, so I know better than to say “no” to anything he prepares.

We were eating and talking in the kitchen over our soup when Debbie’s tour came in. It almost felt like we were a part of the tour, as Debbie introduced us in-between bites of soup.

Jonathan thanked me for sending him an early draft of a paper I’d been working on for school, about CS Lewis, Pagan Mythology and Christianity. He said he really liked it. I told him about some of the revisions I had made in the latest version, and we talked about those ideas for a while.

Jonathan offered to make me a cup of coffee, and even though I just wanted to go to bed, I knew I had work to do, so I took him up on the offer.

I thanked Jonathan for the boost of caffeine, and for the very tasty soup, before leaving for my room to read. People were still hanging around the house from the neighborhood Christmas party as I studied, and they would pass through my room to get from one room to the next (as our rooms sit in-between the library and the rest of the house), apologizing each time. I smiled, and told them not to worry about it.

Most people would probably mind people passing through their room while they tried to study at nearly 10:00 at night. But I didn’t. I get to live in C.S. Lewis’s house. Seriously.

Just before I closed my books for the night, I received a Skype call from back home on my computer. It was Jen, and I was excited to see her.

“So I have something to show you,” she said with a wide smile as soon as she took the call. Before I could even get a good look at her, she pointed her monitor to the window to show me the woods behind her parents house. The trees and the ground were all completely white in snow. I could see large snowflakes fall as I watched the screen, and it looked a bit like a winter-themed screensaver. I was so jealous.

Just one week after I leave and everything’s covered in beautiful white snow.

“Of course…” I said aloud to Jen as I took in the snow-covered scene.

It was just a week after I returned to Oxford last winter that Khloe’s birth happened, which was even more difficult. But I was still jealous.

Tuesday: A note from home & Walter quoting Lewis

I’m a morning person, and I usually have no trouble hopping out of bed at the sound of my alarm, but Tuesday was different. It was all I could do to not continue to hit my “snooze” button all morning, as I struggled to get out of bed.

Finally, after three times of hitting “snooze,” I wandered into the kitchen for some cereal and tea.

Debbie was in the kitchen when I walked in, and I told her how tough it was to wake up that morning as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

“It’s no wonder, you’re probably still jet-lagged,” she told me with an understanding voice. “You’ve hardly stopped from you’ve returned. It’s probably just starting to set in.”

I had a tour that morning, just before noon. A group from RZIM, who were in Oxford for a Leadership meeting. The group was from all over Europe, with the exception from one American woman who was from Chicago. The only British girl in the group was younger, and I assumed she worked at the RZIM office here in Oxford. She did.

I asked if she used to work with Vanessa, Rob’s wife, and she told me she did with a wide smile.

“We miss her!”

“Yep, so do we,” I told her, as I explained my wife and Vanessa were good friends.

I showed the group around the house, and there tour was filled with lots of laughter as we went along, which is always a good sign.

Afterward, several people from the group thanked me for the tour. The woman from Chicago came and found me afterward, and made a point to say something.

“Thank you,” she said as she shook my hand, wearing a very serious look.

“No problem,” I told her. “It’s my pleasure. It’s an honor, really.”

She still looked serious, and her brow hung low on her face.

“You can tell. You can tell he has a really personal connection for you.”

I explained to her how Lewis had brought me here, and what I wanted to do with my degree afterward.

“How wonderful,” she said afterwards, as her face became much less serious, and much more personable in appearance. “Blessings to you.”

A note from home

The air was cold as I made my walk from the bus stop to Harris Manchester after the tour that afternoon. I thought about all the snow back home as I slipped my gloves on, and I found myself slightly thankful I didn’t have to walk through all that snow.

I was working from the library that afternoon when I received a note from a friend back home. From a guy who’s had a pretty rough time the past year or so, as his wife has been struck by a brain tumor, and their life has been completely turned on its head.

I was thankful to see his note in my inbox, as I always appreciate hearing from friends back home, but I was completely taken aback by the words he had sent. It was a note of encouragement. This guy has received the kind of news I never hope to hear, that his best friend, the love of his youth, may not have very long to live, and yet, and yet here he was writing me a note of encouragement.

“Take care kid,” his note read, after some words of encouragement regarding my journey, and how he believed God was at work in my life. “You’re always in my prayers.”

And it was at that point that I had to turn my head and stare out the window, to hide the tears that were welling up in the corner of my eyes. I was completely humbled by this man’s words, and, even more, in awe of the fact that he was praying for me. Here I am, literally living out my dream, and he was praying for me. I felt so incredibly unworthy of his prayers. And truly humbled by his friendship.

First Lewis Society of the Term

After an afternoon in the books, I made my way across the city center for the first Lewis Society of the term. I introduced myself to the group once everyone had quieted down and found a seat. I welcomed everyone back from their time away for the holiday, I wished them a happy new year and then I introduced our speaker for the evening before taking my seat.

After the talk, during the Q&A time, Walter spoke up to make a point and he ended up referencing a letter from Lewis he received in 1954. The first one. But he didn’t just reference it, he quoted it at length. It blew me away, along with many others in the room.

It really was phenomenal, I thought. And it reminded me of the first time I went to the Lewis Society meeting, and heard Walter telling a story from a conversation he had with Lewis on Cornmarket St. And how incredible I thought the whole experience was. That was the first time I met Walter. And now, to be President of the Society, it really was an incredible honor.

After a few more questions and discussion, I stood up in the front of the room to wrap things up and, unintentionally, I asked if everyone would thank me… That’s right, I asked everyone to thank me. I really did. And they did. To the sound of lots of laughter and clapping. And there was nothing I could do but stand there and smile and laugh at myself until the clapping died down.

Once it did, I apologized and asked everyone to thank our speaker for her wonderful talk. It wasn’t the first time I got my foot stuck in my mouth as President. I don’t know what it is about that setting.

Wednesday: Getting my seat back

I spent all of Wednesday in the HMC library. I was reading for my essay from my old familiar desk on the second floor of the library. I had a lot of reading to get through, and so I had my head down from the time the library opened that morning.

About halfway through the day, I was approached by Sue, the librarian. I removed my earphones as she stepped up quietly to my desk and I greeted her with a smile.

“Hello, Sue,” I said in a hushed voice.

“Hello, Ryan. Very good to see you back in your spot,” she said in her wonderful, warm English accent, wearing a wide grin that made her squint. “Lucy [the library assistant who sits just behind me] was very bothered that someone had taken your seat. You must keep a pile of things on your desk to make sure no one takes it.”

I smiled to Sue. And I told her it was good to have it back.

It found her comment quite funny. I was actually rather upset about having to work a couple days from the other side of the library, as the desk where I normally sit was taken.

The reason I found it particularly funny is that the librarians had only just sent out an e-mail the day before asking people to pick up after themselves, and not leave books on their desk when they’re not using them. Apparently they didn’t really mean it after all.

Thursday: A brief break from the library from the oldest pub in Oxford

I split my time between two libraries on Thursday, hurrying to get my reading done for the week so I could punch out a quick essay before my tutorial on Friday. I took a break that evening, around 7:00, when I met up with Rob at The Bear, Oxford’s “oldest” pub.

Lots of places like to use the term “oldest” in Oxford, and the Bear is one of them. Whether it’s actually the oldest or not, it’s rather incredible to think about just how hold it is: more than three times older than the United States.

The Bear’s ceilings are low, with wooden beams lying just above your head, and the walls feel as though they’re closing in on you from each small room, like a proper English pub. One of the room’s walls are completely covered in snipped pieces of ties that sit behind glass, with a name scrolled across a piece of paper penned to each one. Rob explained to me that it’s tradition for graduates to snip the end off their tie and donate it to the pub. After hundreds of years, it’s no wonder they’ve managed to collect so many ties.

It was nice to take a break from my reading and to catch up with Rob. Rob and Vanessa are also from the Pacific Northwest, and the more we talk, the more I realize how similar our journeys. And how much we get each other. I was thankful for that.

After a couple hours of catching up, I thanked Rob for taking the time, I wished him safe travels, and I made my way back to Harris Manchester. It was after 10:00 that night when I lifted my head up from my books to have a look around when I realized just how many other students were also studying until late into the night. There were several students printing essays well after 10:30, and I was encouraged that I wasn’t alone.

“Welcome back to Oxford,” I thought to myself.

I returned home to the Kilns after 11:00 that night, after being kicked out of the library when it closed. I had a bit more reading to get through yet, and I finally hit the bed after 2:00 the next morning, when I could no longer keep my eyes open.

Friday: My 1st Tutorial & A real myth

I was up at 7:00 the next morning, back in the library at Harris Manchester shortly after it opened its doors, and I managed to wrap up my essay just before 1:oo that afternoon. My essay was at 2:00 that afternoon, and, with my first essay printed off and in-hand, I suddenly felt like I was walking on air. Funny how much getting that done changes things!

But that feeling of walking on air didn’t last long. An hour later I found myself sitting in my first tutorial, and suddenly everything changed. We walked through my paper and then I fielded several questions. And I was stumped. Repeatedly. The thing about the tutorial system here at Oxford is, when it’s just you and the tutor (what we would call a “Professor” back home), there’s really nowhere to go if you don’t have the answer. There’s no one else to look to for back-up. It’s all on you.

One of the questions during the hour was, “How do you distinguish between conscience and the Holy Spirit?”

“Uhhh… I wish I knew,” was my response. “I mean, I personally wish I knew.”

Yep, that was my answer. Well, I went on to elaborate that I thought conscience was likely to be influenced by a number of factors, including culture, individuals, and other factors we face in life, while the Holy Spirit was wholly apart from such influence. But then he asked me if that was what the Bible says about conscience. And his asking made me think it wasn’t.

So I said, “No.”And then I had to defend why I think my view of conscience is different from the Bible. Yep, that was my tutorial in a nutshell. Pretty solid.

A real myth

I was still kicking myself a bit that night when Jonathan and I returned to the Vue to watch a movie. Even though I had another essay due on Monday, it was a great way to book-end the week, and it was a nice way to forget about my fumbling tutorial that afternoon.

We ended up watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and we walked out of the movie theatre into the cold night air at half past 12, by the time it had finally finished (nearly three hours later). We discussed the film as he drove us back to The Kilns that night,  the director, the characters, the soundtrack, and we continued to talk about it long after we’d returned home that night. We found some seats in the common room and, under the light of lamps, we chewed on the film, like a fine meal.

Jonathan just completed his DPhil last year, in Classics. Meaning his expertise is in the ancient world.

After talking about the film we had just seen, somehow the conversation turned to Jonathan’s studies. We talked about Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, and his accounts of Jesus, and John the Baptist, and Paul. And the fact that these men were real historic figures.

I asked Jonathan what he thought of Josephus’s records, knowing he had read them first-hand, which I had not.

“Well, if you’re looking for proof that these men lived, it’s right there,” Jonathan said matter-of-factly.

I told Jonathan that excited me. I told him about how, for so long, the gospels seemed like myth to me. Like just another “nice story” that we were told as children, but which most people grew out of when they got older

And I told him it was accounts such as these that helped remind me, this Jesus was a real man, in a real place, in a real time. And that excited me incredibly, even to this day.

Wednesday: End of the term review & Open Forum

My end of term review was scheduled for Wednesday morning of eighth week. That’s when I sit down with Dave, my academic advisor, and sign off on the reports submitted by my tutors. Saying how they feel about my work for the term, and how they predict me doing on my final exams (which I won’t take until June of 2012).

It’s not like the American educational system, where you get a letter grade based on your percentage out of a 100. Instead, they rate you on “Achievement” and “Effort” on what I’m guessing must be a five-point scale (Excellent, Very Good, Good, etc.). They also rate you on a numeric scale, where a First class honors (1) represents the top percentage, a 2:1 represents the upper portion of second class honors (which is still seen as quite good), a 2:2 represents the lower portion of second class honors, then there’s Third class honors, and, finally, a Pass (without honors, which is the worst you can do). Clear? That’s okay. It’s a bit confusing.

I locked up my bike outside of Mansfield College Wednesday morning and made my way down the gravel path toward the castle-like building. A few minutes later, I was seated on one of the leather couches in Dave’s office. It was a sunny day, and sunlight was pouring in through the windows as we talked.

Dave greeted me with a warm smile and handed me the report from my Old Testament tutor, Casey. He sat at his desk and worked on something at his computer while I read over my report. It was really positive. Casey said my essays had really improved since my first term, which surprised me, as I was pretty happy with my report at the end of last term. He rated me as “Very Good” for both Effort and Achievement, and predicted me at a 2:1 for the final exam. I was happy with that.

Dave told me my Patristics tutor had yet to submit my report, but that he’d get that to me as soon as he heard back from her. Dave and I talked for a bit after I signed off on my report. About my classes for next term, as well as just how things were going. He asked about Jen, and how she was settling in since returning from the States. I told him about our jobs at The Kilns. He was pretty excited for us about that.

We talked a bit about Dave’s plans, as he’s currently just filling in for another professor here. He’s a young guy, just barely in his thirties, and so this is his first position after wrapping up his Doctoral studies. He told me that he’s applied for several positions here at Oxford, and that, as much as his wife would like to return to the States, that he’s hoping something will work out here.

“I’d love to stay here,” he told me with a smile from his seat on the leather sofa across the room. “This is a dream come true.”

From my seat in this Oxford office, with books stacked on shelves from floor to high-reaching ceiling, with sunlight pouring into the room over the stretching green lawns, I could see why.

A miraculous coincidence at the Open Forum

Wednesday night was the third week of getting together for Oxford Open Forum. Our night of meeting at Puccino’s to discuss different worldviews. Where people from all different backgrounds can come and talk about different questions of the faith.

We had invited Alex to lead this week. The President of the Atheist Society here at Oxford. And he said he was happy to.

His topic for the evening was, “Lost in Translation: Obstacles and Pathways to Dialogue between World Views.” Basically, what we would be discussing are the different words that we sometimes trip up over while talking with people of different faith traditions.

Alex opened up the evening’s conversation with a brief introduction, and then he talked about different words like “spiritual” and “life force,” which are sometimes used by people, without really ever defining what is meant by them.

I piped up and said I agreed with Alex, to a certain extent. That I get frustrated when people say they’re “spiritual,” but not “religious.” How it seems like people who use that line aren’t really saying anything. That it’s far too ambiguous to know what they mean. And that it seems like a bit of a cop out.

One of the guys in the room introduced himself. A guy by the name Tihi (short for Tihomir). Tihomir is from Serbia, and this was his first night joining us. He said people who use this language are likely wanting to distance themselves from religion, as it tends to carry a lot of negative connotations.

Another guy, Peter, said that such language, and the word “spiritual” in particular, speaks to the fact that there is something beyond what we can see in this world, without defining exactly what that is. And this belief in something beyond our world is particularly relevant during times of great pain and loss. When we’re looking for answers in the world. For the way things are.

Our meeting happened to fall on Ash Wednesday, and so Peter referred to the charcoal colored cross on his forehead to identify his particular religious beliefs. And how Christianity responds to such pain.

It was at this point that Alex replied by saying that’s one problem he has with Christianity: that Christians create a problem, and then suggest a solution for it.

No one seemed to reply to that point. I’m not sure anyone had a response. And so the conversation quickly moved on.

Tihomir went on to suggest that, no matter what your particular views may be, you must acknowledge that there are things and experiences in this life that we simply cannot explain, apart from the supernatural. Or “spiritual.”

He told us about one seemingly miraculous experience from his own life. He told us about when he first arrived here in Oxford for his Dphil studies last year. And how his sponsor revoked his sponsorship three days before his tuition was due. He told us he didn’t have the money to cover his schooling, nor did his family back home in Serbia. He told us that he knew if he didn’t come up with the money, he’d be heading home. He told us how he remembers returning to him room that evening, distraught, and deciding to just pray, “If you’re there, would you help with this?” Then, with a smile on his face, the first smile I had seen from him, he told us what happened next.

“I went and checked my e-mail, and it was 11:00 on a Friday night. I still remember that quite clearly.”

He told us how, when he opened his e-mail, he was surprised to find between 20 and 30 e-mails in his inbox. From people from all over the world. Some of the people he hadn’t spoken to in years.

“It made no sense that some of these people would be e-mailing me,” he told us.

One after another, each of the people said they had been praying and were told by God that they were supposed to help Tihi with his schooling here at Oxford. Not because Tihi had told anyone about this, but because He had told them.

But that’s not the strangest part about this. He told us how, when all of the money was added up, from all of these people around the world, it was the exact amount he needed for schooling.

“Not a penny more, not a penny less,” he told us with a stunned look on his face, as though he was hearing the story for the first time himself.

“That’s more than a coincidence,” he told us, looking around the room. “Somehow, you have to be able to account for that.”

Alex simply smiled at the story. And referred to it as a coincidence. Before moving on.

Somehow, after a while, the conversation came back to the topic of the pain in this world, and man’s wrongdoing. And Alex made the point that we all make mistakes every now and then, but for the most part, people are generally good.

The room went quiet, seemingly in-between topics, and so I spoke up.

I made the point that Pete had previously brought up the fact that we all have some sort of longing for something beyond this world. How Augustine referred to it as a “God-shaped hole.” And how that leads us to conclude that there must be something beyond simply what we can see. I also referred to Alex’s comment about Christianity “creating” a problem and then providing a solution, before bringing the conversation to focus on his last comment. About people being generally good, but making mistakes every now and then.

I told him I disagreed with that completely. I told him I think people are actually pretty bad through and through. And that we can see the results of that all around us. Certainly in the horrors of the killings of Egypt and Libya. And that such acts aren’t mistakes, that they’re quite intentional.

He replied by saying his comment was actually a facetious one. And that he conceded to my point that we do intentionally do bad things. But that he still held that most people are good people, and that it’s only a minority of the population who do such terrible things.

Again, I told him I disagreed with him on this point. I told him it was easy to compare himself to situations taking place in Libya and Egypt and think himself a pretty decent guy, but that, the truth is, we’re also enjoying an incredible amount of affluence here in Oxford, and that it’s relatively easy to be a pretty decent guy here. But, even here in Oxford, there are terrible things taking place all the time. Like theft, for example.

“Why do you think we have a police force?” I asked him. “Why do people lock their doors at night? Christianity hasn’t “created” this problem. This is real, and it’s all around us.”

“Well, I don’t lock my door at night,” he replied, as if that somehow disproved the fact that the vast majority of people do lock their doors, because of the evil that’s all around us. So central to our lives that we almost don’t notice it.

And with that, one of the cafe’s waitresses entered the room, and told us they were closing up the shop.

I shook Alex’s hand and thanked him for chairing the evening. I told him I really appreciated him allowing the focus to fall on Atheism for the evening. And, as I walked out into the night air after the Forum that night, I felt even more confident of Christianity’s ability to make sense of the world we find ourselves in.

A number of the guys, including Rich, Max, Pete and Alex were heading to a pub after the Open Forum. To grab a pint and talk a bit more. I told them I’d love to join them, but that I hadn’t seen Jen all day, and that I should be getting home.

I caught up with Tihi as we left, though. He was walking the same way I was heading, and so I introduced myself and I thanked him for sharing his story with us.

“That blew me away,” I told him. “Your story of how all that money came in for you at the last minute. That was incredible!”

“Yes, but it’s happened time and time again,” he said to me.

He told me about another time he’s been provided for financially. More recently.

He told me about how, on another occasion, he found he had come up short in being able to pay for school. And so he decided to spend some time in prayer. Again. By himself. And his journal.

He told me the next day, after praying, he was approached by a family who had traveled here to Oxford from Africa. To find him. To help with his school finances. Apparently, they had money returned to them time after time, after paying for several things, and, after praying and asking what God wanted them to do with this money, they were told the money was to be used to help a student with his finances at Oxford.

“I didn’t even know them,” he told me with a look of complete surprise on his face. “So I asked them, ‘How do you know I’m the one you’re supposed to be helping?’ And they asked me, ‘You really want to know how we knew?’ And I told them I did, and that’s when they began repeating to me the prayer I had prayed the night before, word for word, and what I had written in my journal… There’s no way anyone could have known that!”

I was stunned. That was an incredible story. He went on to tell me he’s had several of these experiences. Not just with money, but with other ways in which things have lined up for him to be here. Ways that don’t make sense to simply call coincidences.

“Just three hours ago, I was on national television, talking about all of these incredible experiences that have happened to me since being here at Oxford,” he said to me.

He told me how he was raised in the church, but then how he had fallen away. Spending a number of years as an Agnostic, and then an Atheist. He told me he feels like he’s on a journey now. Searching for answers for these incredible experiences. And how he has told God that he is going to keep telling others about all of these experiences.

“I came from a poor town in Serbia,” he told me. “People laughed at me when I told them I wanted to go to Oxford.”

I told him I really appreciated hearing his story. And that I had a similar story. How I really didn’t feel like it made any sense for me to be here, apart from Him. And I loved hearing how He was doing that in someone else’s life.

Tihi took my e-mail and said he’d like to have us to his college for a meal sometime. Jennifer and I. When he returns from his 10-day trip around Europe. Telling others about all that has happened since arriving here in Oxford. I told him we’d really enjoy that, before hopping on my bike and heading home.

Thursday: Dinner and Games with the St. Andrews group

Last term, we were quite involved with a small group that met at the church just down the street from us. At St. Andrew’s Church. The group meets on Thursday nights. For dinner. And to read through and discuss a particular book of the Bible. It’s a great group of people, and we’ve really enjoyed getting to know them each Thursday night.

But this term had been different. With Friday deadlines this term, I found myself working on essays most Thursday nights, and unable to go to group. But this Thursday, with a bit of a break on my last essay (my Patristics tutor asked me just to put together an outline of what I had covered for the term), we were excited to go and catch up with everyone again.

This particular Thursday night was a social night, hosted at Chloe and Vanda’s house (two girls from our group). They were making dinner, and invited the group over for food and games. It was great to see everyone again, seated around the dining room table in Chloe and Vanda’s place. We had a great time catching up on what everyone had been up to since we saw them last. They asked about our new niece, Khloe, and how the term had treated me.

Chloe and Jen filled plates with a beef and red wine stew, and we passed them around the table until everyone had been served. We rounded out our plates with potatoes and carrots, and Rachel, our small group leader, asked Will if he’d bless the food for us. Will is training to be a Vicar (pastor) in the Anglican Church here in England. Eleanor, one of the girls in our group, a boisterous, witty gal from Scotland who is probably among the top 10 funniest people I’ve ever met, interjected, saying that Will’s always asked to pray and she didn’t think he should have to. Just because he’s training to work in a church. That someone else should. Half-jokingly. Half-serious. So we all said she should say grace in his place, which, from the look on her face, is not quite what she was going for.

We shared a lot of laughs over dinner, and dessert. Everyone brought ice cream and / or a topping. By the time everything was brought in from the kitchen, the table was covered in several different flavors of ice cream and toppings. Everything from M&M’s and malt balls to bananas and marshmallows.

Vanda made the comment that she felt like she was at the Ice Cream Factory at Pizza Hut.

Somehow we got on the topic of baptism while enjoying our ice cream. A few people thought it was funny that the Vicar at St. Andrew’s wears waders during the baptism service. Before entering the Baptismal pool. I suggested that maybe he was just an avid fisherman, and that he was looking for any opportunity he could to get in his waders.

Will told a funny story about a Vicar at a church he once visited. It was a baptism service when he visited, and he said he was shocked when the Vicar began stripping down right there on stage when it came time to enter the wading pool. Removing his shirt and pants to reveal a speedo…

We all erupted into shocked laughter at Will’s story.

Will said he couldn’t believe it, sitting there in that church when it happened. He said he remembers looking around to see other people’s reactions, but that everyone looked like this was perfectly normal. Like it was just part of the routine.

I asked Will if this Vicar was married. Eleanor looked at me with big eyes and a head nod, as if to say she was thinking the same thing.

“Because that’s when your wife is supposed to step in and say, ‘Actually, this is a really terrible idea’,” I told him.

I went on to tell about the time a boy at our church took our pastor up on a joke he’s known for using. That of betting the kids $10 to do a cannonball into the baptismal pool. And how, after years and years of using this joke, one kid finally took him up on it, shocking the entire congregation, and taking second place on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

After cleaning up from dinner and dessert, we moved into the living room. Sinking heavily into the cozy couches and pillows on the floor after a great meal. Settling in for some games.

We played a game called Articulate, which seems pretty close to a British version of the game Taboo. We split into three groups, and Jen and I were teamed up with Will. I apologized to Will in advance. For what I was sure was going to be a pretty sad performance. And I was right.

It sounds funny, as England is obviously an English-speaking country, but it’s really tough to understand the British accent sometimes. Especially when people are talking as fast as possible to beat the clock. And, there are just a lot of words in the British language that are foreign to us. All this added up to us doing horribly. And feeling bad that Will had to suffer with us.

There was one point where Will was trying to get us to guess the word, “Beaker.” Not like the kind you might find in a Chemistry lab, but used to describe what we would call a sippy cup. That’s right, in the UK, sippy cups are known as “Beakers.” Who knew. Needless to say, we didn’t get that one.

I was pretty excited when I got “Jack Nicholson” as a word in the People category.

“He’s an actor. He starred in The Shining and As Good as It Gets. He sits courtside at every Laker’s game…”

Nothing. Will had no idea. Nor did Jennifer. And that’s when I knew we were in serious trouble.

We ended up getting it handed to us that night. Will, Jennifer and I. Only making it about a quarter of the way around the board in the time it took Eleanor’s team to finish. But we had a great time.

It was the first time in a long time we’ve been in a room full of Brits where we’re the only Americans. Typically we’re either with other Americans, or with only Americans. But not this time. And it was great. Surrounded by Brits.Hearing completely candid British slang and humor. It felt a bit like how it should be.

Friday: Reflecting by C.S. Lewis’ old pond

I had a tour scheduled at the Kilns the next morning. And I arrived a bit early. About a half hour before things were supposed to kick off. So I decided to wander up to the pond.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the pond was like a bit of an oasis amongst the otherwise frantic pace of life in Oxford. Ducks were scooting smoothly across the water. Causing subtle ripples to chase them along the top of the water. The sun was shining through the trees and upon the emerald surface of the pond, causing the otherwise murky water to become translucent, revealing the algae covered rocks below. Light danced across the water in a spectrum of bright greens that shone across the surface.

I wandered over to the far edge of the pond and took a seat on the brick bench. The sound of wild birds singing was the only noise I heard that morning, singing as if just for me. And I imagined Lewis going for his morning dip, as I sat there. Or rowing his punt across the water. Completely removed from all the demands of life as an Oxford Don. From the teaching and speaking engagements. And responding to the thousands of letters he received from fans around the world.

“Lewis had it it figured out,” I thought to myself as I sat there.

And it ended up being an incredible time of reflection. Seated there on the brick bench beside the water. When I’m back home, one of my favorite spots to get away and catch my breath is beside the water. To pray and seek His presence. By the bay. On a spot at the waterfront that juts out into the ocean. Where I can sit and watch sailboats float gently across the water in front of the backdrop of the San Juan Islands.

And it was funny, for even though I was so far from home, I was amazed at how much this spot felt like home. And how close His presence felt at that moment. I hadn’t felt that way in a long, long time. Perhaps since I last sat in front of the ocean back home last summer. And I laughed at the thought that this was the view Lewis escaped to so often. Shaking my head at the thought that I now get to enjoy it.

I had woken up that morning to the news of the massive 8.9 earthquake that rocked Japan. And all the devastation of the resulting tsunamis and flooding. It was so painful to see. My heart went out to these people. To all those dealing with this loss and destruction. To all those now without a home. And to those who lost friends and family members in this scene.

That’s where I found my thoughts wandering while seated there beside the pond that morning. And it was when I got up to make my way down the hill toward the Kilns for the morning’s tour that I noticed, for the first time, the reflection of the blue and white speckled sky overhead on the water’s surface. As I walked along the water’s edge, something dropped from one of the trees just in front of me, onto the surface of the water, casting the reflection of the sky into a million little pieces as the rippled went out. The image of the sky had been shattered by whatever it was that had dropped from the tree, but the sky itself had not changed. The sky is still there, of course. Just as it has always been. And, somehow, that thought was reassuring to me. In light of the horrific scenes I had watched on my laptop that morning. With the earthquake in Japan still heavy on my mind. This picture encouraged me.

Even though I might not know how this all works. Even though really horrible things happen all around the world. Even in incredible suffering and loss. I was encouraged to think that God is still good. That He still reigns. And that He still loves us and calls us to love others in very real ways. I was encouraged to think that, even in this horrible situation, that hasn’t changed. And, in the end, He’s going to work this all out for good.

That picture helped me as I made my way down the hill and toward the Kilns for the morning tour.

Would our parents believe it?

Jen and I stayed in Friday night. After I handed in my last essay for the term. An outline more than an essay, really. We stayed in and enjoyed a nice dinner together, and then we played a board game our good friends David & Monika got us as a going-away gift called Ticket to Ride. We’ve really enjoyed playing this game since returning to Oxford, and I love that time. Seated in our living room playing a board game and sharing laughs. Just the two of us.

About halfway through the second game of the night, I found myself thinking about all we were doing here in England. About this huge change that the past six months have brought our lives.

I spoke up to Jen as she stared down at the cards in her hand.

“This is kind of a weird thought,” I said to Jen, “But what do you think our parents would have thought if someone would’ve told them, when we were still really young kids running around, that the two of us would one day become best friends, get married and then move to Oxford? What do you think they’d say if someone told them, while we were still just kids, that twenty some years later we’d be sitting here, playing a board game together in England?”

Jen looked up from her cards, across the table at me.

“Yeah, that is a weird thought. . .Now play.”

I smiled. That’s my wife: Tough as nails. And I love her.

Saturday: Leading my first tours of the Kilns

Saturday was my first day of leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home. At the Kilns. After taking notes on Deb’s tour a couple days earlier, I felt pretty ready for leading the two tours that were scheduled for me for the day. I had one at 11:30, and then another at 12:30. Each tour takes around 45 to 50 minutes, with time for questions afterward.

I rode my bike to the city center Saturday morning, and then I hopped on the number 9 bus that leads through Headington and on to Risinghurst, home of the Kilns. After taking the bus there just a couple days earlier, the trip was beginning to feel pretty familiar.

I studied my notes on the short trip to the Kilns. Reminding myself of key dates. And what’s said when.

By the way, if you’re wondering why Lewis’ old house is called, “The Kilns,” it’s because there used to stand two large kilns not far from the house. Before Lewis lived in the home, the property was used to fire bricks. There’s a man-made pond just beyond the house, which is where the clay came from. The workers would dredge clay out of the pond and then fire it into bricks at the nearby Kilns.

The house on the property was never intended to be anything special, just a place for the workers to live. Lewis actually didn’t even step foot in the house before he bought it. He was just sold on the setting: eight-acres set outside of the Oxford city center, in the countryside. Within walking distance from Magdalene College (where he taught, about a 60-minute walk from the Kilns).

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at the Kilns that Saturday. Walking up to the front of the house, I passed by the kitchen windows while Deb was preparing something from inside the kitchen.

“Hi, Ryan,” she said with a smile, looking out the window at me, and  turning to leave the kitchen so she could meet me at the front door.

It was at that point that I realized how crazy it is that I can be recognized by name at Lewis’ former house on a sunny, Saturday morning.

Deb greeted me at the front door and I helped with a few final things before the first tour arrived. Getting the kitchen picked up and turning on the lights in the rooms upstairs.

A few minutes later, a couple 20-something year old girls came to the front door. Deb welcomed them to the Kilns and invited them to have a seat in the common room while we waited for the rest of the tour to arrive.

Deb told me it’d be a bit of a trial by fire for my first tours. That they’d be much larger than normal tours. About 12-15 in the first group, and between 16-18 in the second. Apparently most tours are about half that size.

While we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, one of the girls told me she had just had my wife over at her house a couple days earlier. I had never seen her before, so I was a bit confused.

She explained that she had hosted Bible study at her house this week, the one Jen had gone to for the first time, and that Jen had told the group that I’d be leading tours at the Kilns. I didn’t know it, but she told the group they should go for a tour and check it out. Apparently it worked.

This girl, Mary Katherine, told me that her and her husband had just moved over to Oxford in the fall. And that her friend, who was with her, was in-town visiting. From California. Apparently Mary Katherine’s husband is a physicist working on his PhD. So, almost the same as what I’m doing…

After talking for a bit, the rest of the first tour arrived. There were about a dozen people or so in the group, made of of a couple British families who were traveling around the country. A pair of parents and their children, with the oldest kids in their early twenties.

I introduced myself to the group. Told them what I was up to here in Oxford. And then asked a bit about what brought them here to Oxford and the Kilns. Apparently a couple of them were pretty big Lewis fans. The wives / moms in the group. I figure it’s helpful knowing what brought them here in the first place, to know what will interest them along the way.

I told them it was actually my first time leading tours at the Kilns. I was thankful no one decided to leave at that point. I told them Deb would be joining us, or at least hanging back, to act as my training wheels for the day. And then I kicked off the tour.

I shared a bit about the history of the house and Lewis’ life from the common room. I told them how, after Lewis and his brother had died, that a family bought the home and left it in pretty poor shape by the mid-80’s. How the house became the eye-sore of the neighborhood at that point. And how it likely would’ve been steamrolled to make room for new housing had it not been for a group of Americans who got involved. A group who wanted to see the house maintained as a way to remember Lewis’ life and his legacy.

I told them about all the work that went in to restoring the house into what they now saw. Into the conditions that help us picture what it looked like during Lewis’ day, minus the period before Joy (Lewis’ wife-to-be) arrived and put the house in order. When it was just the brothers living at the home, apparently it was a bit of a bachelor pad. They’d dump out their pipe tobacco right on the carpets and grind it in with their shoes. As a way to keep away the moths. Apparently the moths aren’t the only thing it kept away. It was in such bad shape at one point that J.R.R. Tolkein’s wife apparently forbid her husband from visiting the house, as she didn’t want him getting sick.

For all practical purposes, the Kilns fit Lewis and his brother just fine. Set out in the country, it provided ample opportunity for walks outdoors. To talk. And to work on their writing with little worry of being bothered by the bustle of living in the city. Apparently the house was filled with books. Stacked up in every room, several rows deep. Lining the walls in the hallways, and even up the staircase. Lewis used to joke that their house was held up by books and cobwebs.

I led the group through the home, pointing out different things along the way. Photos hanging from the wall. And mentioning stories that had been told to me about the photos. And about those in them.

We wrapped up the tour in the library, and I said my goodbyes to the group. The girl who had hosted Jen’s Bible study several days earlier thanked me for the tour. Her and her friend told me they had really enjoyed it.

Before I made my way back to the front of the house, to get ready for the next group, one of the wives from the group asked me how it went, being my first tour and all.

“Well, I’m feeling pretty good about it,” I told her. “But maybe you should tell me.”

She laughed. “You did a great job,” she said with a wide smile.

The group left out the back door and I returned to the front of the house. To see if anyone from the second group had arrived. They had. Two older ladies were seated on a bench in the garden just outside the front door.

“Hi there,” I said to them. “Are you both here for the tour?”

“Yes we are,” one of them spoke up. “We were just enjoying our lunch from here in the garden.”

As sunny as it was, it was a perfect day for a lunch outdoors.

I introduced myself to them both. And asked where they were from. They were from the States. The south. One of the women had just moved over to England. To act as a “live-in Mom” for some of the American students at one of the houses just outside the city center. Her name was Kitty. The other woman was Kitty’s friend who was visiting from back home. Previously, she had been a math professor at Columbia.

Not long after meeting the two of them, a girl in her early twenties with a backpack came walking up to the house. She introduced herself and said she was looking for the tour. I told her she had found it. She, too, was from the States. She’s a student at Stanford, and she’s currently doing a study-abroad program here at Oxford. For a year. She told me she had been wanting to come up for a tour since arriving in the fall, but that she was only just finding time.

We made our way into the house and took our seats in the common room. Not long after, Deb greeted a good-sized group. Also from the States. A class, apparently, that was touring the UK. They stopped by Oxford and the Kilns as part of their trip. Rounding out the tour was a group of early twenty-somethings from Ireland. A handful of guys, and one girl. One of them was studying here. And the rest were his friends from back home.

Being made up of more Americans than the first group, the second group seemed much more excited about the tour. More smiles and laughs at the Lewis stories. More “Wow!”‘s at the different photos around the house.

And I loved it. Every bit of it. The opportunity not just to be at Lewis’ house, but to get to talk about Lewis for hours on end. And being paid for it. I kept waiting for the catch.

At the end of the tour, I shook several hands. And said lots of “your welcomes” before catching up with Deb. We each found a seat in the common room. To recap my first tours.

She told me I did a great job. Especially for being my first tours. She told me I seemed really comfortable speaking to the groups. And natural. And that it seemed like I was much more comfortable the second time around.

I told her I thought that was probably largely due to the fact that the second group was more heavily American. And that I could read them much better than the first group.

She corrected me on one thing I had wrong (referencing a wrong book), but that, overall, it seemed like it went really well. And she said she was really thankful to have my help leading the tours.

I told her it really was my pleasure. And that I still found it hard to believe I was actually doing this.

Sunday: More fire than stone at Fire & Stone Pizza

Our fellow Washingtonian friends, Rob & Vanessa, have been arranging Sunday evening dinners for a while now. For several American couples here in Oxford. Sometimes this is hosted at someone’s home (when Vanessa made Mexican food at her house, for example), but, for the most part, we tend to meet at a restaurant in the city center. We’ve really enjoyed getting together with the group, and sharing laughs with the other couples.

This particular week Vanessa sent out an e-mail inviting everyone to pizza at Fire & Stone. She had a two-for-one coupon she was excited to share with the group. Being students again, everyone in the group is pretty big on finding good deals when we can. We told Vanessa to count us in.

We had attended St. Aldate’s that night, knowing we’d be in town for dinner anyway, so we walked up to Fire & Stone with some of those who had attended the evening service as well: Penn & Grace, and Lauren. Lauren’s husband, Tyler, was working on a class assignment, so he was going to meet us at the restaurant. We were talking abut our week as we walked along the sidewalk in front of the dark storefronts after church.

The two girls asked how my tours had went. I was taken off-guard at first, but then I remembered Jen had shared the news with them during their Bible study.

“Ryan has the coolest job,” Grace said, turning to her husband Penn. “He’s leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home.”

Grace is studying here in Oxford to work in publishing. So I think naturally she’s a fan of Lewis.

The five of us arrived at Fire & Stone Pizza before anyone else. So we grabbed a table by the window and waited for others to arrive. Vanessa showed up about five minutes later. Wearing a large, puffy jacket and breathing heavily. Apparently she had an issue printing off the coupons for dinner, and so she ended up jogging to the restaurant.

“I’m so hot,” she told us, unzipping the large, puffy jacket and hanging it on the back of her chair. Unknowingly, she was sitting beneath the heating vent, and so she found herself not cooling down at all. After several minutes, she realized the hot air blowing on her was not helping matters, and so she took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

“But I do have the coupons,” she told us, reassuringly. Apparently the coupons were good for parties up to six people, and so she printed off two, hoping the restaurant would be cool with it.

“Worst-case scenario, we just won’t sit with you guys,” Lauren joked.

When the waiter came by to take our drink order, Vanessa showed him the coupons to make sure we could all use the two-for-one deal. But no, he was not going for it.

“It’s only good for parties up to six,” he explained.

“And if we just slide our table over a couple feet?” Lauren asked, half-jokingly.

“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head.

A look of defeat spread across Vanessa’s face.

“It’s a good thing I took the extra time to fight with my printer and print off that second coupon,” she said.

Tyler, Lauren’s husband joined us a few minutes after our drinks came, and we all put in our orders. I love the eccentric menu at Fire & Stone. The last couple of times I’ve ordered one of the pizzas from Australia. The one with chicken, mashed potatoes and sour cream. I never would have thought sour cream would be good on pizza, but it’s amazing. I decided to try something different this time, though. The egg and ham pizza. I forget which country it was from, as well as the witty name they gave it, but I’d call it the breakfast pizza if I were in charge.

It wasn’t long after placing our orders that the fire alarm went off. It didn’t seem to faze anyone at first. I think we all just figured it’d go off after a couple seconds and no one would worry about it. But it didn’t. And the head hostess soon began asking people to exit the restaurant and head across the street to get away from the building.

Anytime you’re  in a building with open ovens when the fire alarm starts going off and someone asks you to evacuate the building, it’s usually a good idea to evacuate the building.

A few minutes later the entire restaurant was evacuated and everyone was standing across the street in a large group. Waiters and waitresses. Cooks. Guests. Everyone. Waiting, wondering what was going on.

“It smells like burnt toast,” someone from the sidewalk said.

Almost immediately after those words were spoken, a woman in one of the the apartments that sit over the restaurant threw open two of the windows. Laughter filled the sidewalk. It didn’t take a detective to locate the source of this fire.

Unfortunately, we had to wait for the fire department to come and check everything out, and to declare everything safe before we could return to the restaurant, and to our pizza.

“I wonder if our pizza made it to the ovens,” someone asked.

We debated finding another restaurant to grab dinner at. Rather than waiting for this woman’s burnt toast to get straightened out. But then we figured surely if we decided to stick it out and wait around the restaurant would do something to compensate us.

“Maybe now they’ll honor our coupons,” I said, half-jokingly.

Rob, on his way to join us at the restaurant, found us gathered on the sidewalk and took up his place near Vanessa. We told him how we had just placed our order when the apartment overhead set off the building’s fire alarm. And how the woman upstairs threw open the windows shortly after we took our spot on the sidewalk outside.

Shortly after Rob arrived, a fire truck pulled up to the curb. Sirens blazing. At this point, people walking by were staring. At the large group gathered on the sidewalk at 9:00 at night. And the empty restaurant.

Just as the fire truck pulled up, the apartment with the woman who burnt her toast pulled her windows shut and flipped off the lights. We all laughed. As if somehow everyone there would’ve missed what had happened, and she’d never be found out.

After another 15 minutes or so, the restaurant management told us it was okay to come back inside. And that they’d have our dinner to us as quickly as possible. The fire truck was still parked outside when we returned to our table. We never did find out anything about the woman upstairs.

We shared some great laughs over some amazing pizza. My breakfast pizza was the best choice I’ve made in a long time. The egg and the ham went great together. I’m beginning to think egg is good on just about anything. Burgers… Pizza…

When our waiter came around to bring our bill, Lauren, wearing a wide grin, asked if they were going to do anything to compensate us for the long wait outside.

“Like letting us use our coupons,” she said.

The waiter half-smiled and just shook his head. “Sorry.”

“It was worth a shot,” she said with a large smile as she finished her glass of water.”

Monday: Jen’s first day working at the Kilns

Jen’s first day working at the Kilns was the the next morning. On that Monday. I wasn’t there with her, so I figured I’d ask Jen to tell you how it went herself. Here’s Jen…

I had told myself that come Monday (Feb. 21, the Monday after I arrived back in Oxford) that I would start looking for a job. I wasn’t looking forward to going through that process, though. The looking, applying and interviewing.

Well, lots of people must have been praying for me to get a job because that Monday afternoon, Ryan told me he got a call from Debbie, who is the warden at the Kilns, and she asked if we both were available to work. She was praying for someone to help with tours and for someone to relieve some of the stress on her. She was also looking for someone to help with the administrative work that needs to take place for the CS Lewis Foundation. Of course we both jumped at that opportunity. I’ll be working 12 to 15 hours a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, helping set up tours for the house, and Ryan will be giving a lot of the tours, so you know who to talk to if you want to come tour the Kilns!

It was crazy going to work on Monday (Feb 28), since I’ve been unemployed since the beginning of September. This job seems to be a great fit, though, and I will learn how to do a lot of new things. Like how to host a high-tea. I’ve already organized a lot of Deb’s files, which were piling up, I’ve learned how to deposit checks for the Foundation, and I’ve started to learn how to setup tours.

It’s nice that Ryan and I share this, too, both working for the Foundation, and it’s just a huge blessing overall, as it provides enough to cover our rent for the month, as well as some of our grocery expenses. I would have never thought I would be working for the CS Lewis Foundation, or working in CS Lewis’s house, where people come from all over the world to get a tour.

Wednesday: Oxford Open Forum

Okay, Ryan here. I’m back…

The previous Wednesday night was our first night hosting the “Oxford Open Forum,” a group Rich, Max and I have been excited to kick off. After meeting early on this term over breakfast in Summertown, we had the idea of starting up a group where people from all different religious views could come for an open, informal dialogue. Our thinking was, “what better opportunity than here at Oxford University to have an open conversation with brilliant people from all over the world about their religion?”

So that’s what we set out to do. Hoping that maybe we’d create something that would meet such a great need that it’d outlast our time here at Oxford.

We began by sending out e-mails to the heads of as many different religious societies at the University we could think of. Everything from Buddhism and Hinduism to the Catholic Society and Atheism, and everyone in-between. We got a really great response from the idea, too. Pretty much everyone seemed to be interested, and Rich and I even grabbed coffee with the head of the Atheist society to talk about the idea after church one day, ironically enough. We met with the head of the Graduate Christian Union and pitched the idea to him. He loved it, and he said he’d be sure to include it in the group’s weekly e-mails.

We found a cafe in the city center that stayed open until 8:30 that would allow us to meet once a week, as we figured a pub might be off-putting for some who held particularly conservative religious views, and we really did want to make things as open and inviting as possible. Puccino’s, the cafe we settled on is a really great, funky place, with colorful hand-writing scribbled all over the walls. The menu is written on the wall, as well as lots of random, witty comments. There’s an arrow pointing to an electrical box in one corner of the room where we meet that reads, “we have no idea what this does,” and, on one of the blank walls, someone wrote, “We had a really nice picture here, but then it was nicked.” One of the other walls has a picture hanging near a scribbled comment that reads, “What, was this photo too ugly to take?”

It was exciting when our first evening of the Forum rolled around and every chair in the large front room of the cafe was filled. We estimated about 20 people showed up that first night, representing an incredibly diverse number of backgrounds and belief systems.

Several of those from the Atheist society showed up, even during the middle of their big event, “Think Week.” We also had the head of the Hindu Society there. Two gals who identified themselves as pagan showed up. There were a number of Christians present, including several from the Catholic Chaplaincy. There was, I believe, one Buddhist there. And there was a guy who was adamant that really, when we get right down to it, all the different world religions are saying the same thing, and he was dead set on proving to us this was the case.

The group definitely shrunk a bit when the second week rolled around. But we figured it likely had something to do with the fact that the end of the term was approaching, and many of the students had exams to prepare for.

Our question the first week was, “Can faith be rational?” After addressing what it is we meant by “faith,” the conversation largely centered around Hinduism. Mostly because most of those in the room really weren’t familiar with the beliefs of the Hindu tradition. Ramesh, the head of the Hindu society and a guy who’s apparently pretty familiar with inter-faith dialogue, did a great job telling us about what practicing Hindus believe. He spoke in a slow, calm voice. Pausing to make sure he spoke with care, and that he was using the right words to say what he meant.

Ramesh explained that the English language lacks a lot of words that he would like to use, which made his explanation a bit difficult. I thought he did a great job, though. And I left thinking, “that really seems less like a religion and more like a philosophy than I ever imagined.”

And, as much as the guy seated near me attempted to persuade us that we really were all talking about the same thing, I walked away from our first Oxford Open Forum realizing there are some insurmountable differences between what Christianity teaches and what so many of those other faith systems in the room that night believe.

For the second week, our question was, “Can there be a single, objective truth?” With a slightly smaller group, our conversation came to focus largely on Paganism. There were two women there, who didn’t know each other, both of whom were practicing pagans. They shared their particular beliefs (apparently Paganism is a pretty broad view), and we had the chance to ask questions. It was great to be able to ask those questions to someone first-hand, rather than reading from a book written by someone outside of that particular tradition. And, while the questions were asked in a courteous way, they were pretty pointed. And, particularly on the topic of a single, objective truth, it became quite clear that Paganism and Christianity stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. Just in case any doubt lingered from the previous week.

It really was great, though, having the opportunity to talk so openly about so many different world views. I talked a bit with one of the Pagan women after the meeting that night. Asking what she was working on here in Oxford. She told me she’s in the medical field, and that she was thankful for the opportunity to return to academics (on top of working full-time) and have of a bit of a mental challenge after being in the workforce for a while. She told me had spent some time in the military for a while before starting her career, which I found interesting. I thanked her again for joining us, and for sharing a bit about her beliefs.

Never before have I been able to enjoy such open conversation about views so very different from my own. And it’s great. It helps me firm up my own faith, and how I communicate my own beliefs, as well as better understand the many, many different faith traditions out there.

Riding home that night, on my bike through the city center and along Banbury Road, I found myself incredibly thankful for all of this. For the conversations. And for those I was meeting. My education is stretching far beyond just the classroom.


One of the first things I did after arriving back in Oxford after the holidays was send Walter Hooper an e-mail. Jennifer and I had gone over to his place for dinner before we left and, knowing I’d be on my own for a bit before Jen rejoined me, Walter made sure to invite me over when I returned.

I sent him an e-mail shortly after getting settled in, and it wasn’t long before I received a reply from Walter, welcoming me back to Oxford and inviting me over for tea my first Sunday back in Oxford.

Saturday: CS Lewis gifts from a stranger

When we’re apart, Jennifer and I try to Skype a couple times a day. The whole long distance thing isn’t a lot of fun, but if you can talk regularly, and even see each other, that makes everything a bit easier.

I Skyped with Jen Saturday evening. My evening, her afternoon. And she told me someone back home who knew her Dad, and who had heard about what we were up to, had given me a first edition copy of Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. As well as a complete, early-edition set of The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Apparently this man had heard I was a big fan of Lewis’ writing, and that I was studying here at Oxford, and he had decided to give me these books from his personal collection.

I was stunned. I didn’t even know the guy, but that was an incredible gift.

“You’re building up quite the collection,” Jennifer told me over Skype.

“No kidding,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief of the generous gift.

Sunday: Tea with Walter

After church on Sunday morning, I made my way to Summertown. To get some work done on Greek before the start of the first official week of the term. And to catch up with a friend.

Richard had sent me a message shortly after lunch. Letting me know he was studying from Startbucks in Summertown, in case I wanted to join him. It’s nice to come back to a place half-way around the world and find people reaching out to you. It certainly makes for an easier transition.

I met Richard shortly before leaving to return home from the holidays. He’s a great guy. He and his wife are from California. Beautiful, sunny, southern California. And they had actually just been married before moving here to Oxford, so Richard could start his Doctoral work.

Richard’s background is in Philosophy. He seems young for the job, but he’s been teaching at Biola. Philosophy. His passion, though, is Christian Apologetics. Talking about why Christians believe what they believe. Answering questions about the faith. And that’s something I certainly appreciate. That’s something we have in common, as it’s much of the reason why I’m here, too. So we find a lot to talk about.

We caught up for a while, sharing stories from our holiday vacations over coffee, before picking up our books and getting some studying done.

After a couple hours, I excused myself, telling Richard I had a tea to make. At Walter Hooper’s house. He thought that was pretty great.

Summertown is about a five-minute bike ride from where we live, and Walter’s house is about another five-minute ride north of Summertown.

It was just starting to get dark outside when I arrived. I pulled my bike around the back of his large, condo building and locked it up. Not seeing a bike rack, and not wanting it to get in the way if I tied it to the entryway.

I passed through the two large double doors and rung the bell at Walter’s door. Seconds later I was greeted by his wonderful smile and  a “Why hello there!”

It really was great to see him again. Being at Walter’s home makes me feel like I’m at home, in a way. It’s just comforting.

After we had said our “hello’s,” I handed Walter some canned pumpkin pie mix we had promised him the last time we were over. After he had raved about the pumpkin bread Jen brought over for dessert. He was pretty happy to receive it, and he was quite grateful about it, thanking me several times.

I also brought him one of our Christmas cards. Jen had signed and prepared it for him before I left. It seemed like he appreciated it. I pointed out all the places we had been in the photos on the cards. The Tower of London. Bath. Blenheim Palace.

Walter invited me to sit down and we shared some tea. From that old, comfortable chair in his living room. The one I always sit in. He pointed a plate of shortbread cookies in my direction and insisted I have some. Walter’s incredibly hospitable.

I love sitting in Walter’s living room. Talking. While the fire flickers in the fireplace. There’s always great conversation, and it’s never forced or dull. He always has something interesting to talk about. And, somehow, it always comes back to Lewis.

I asked him about meeting Lewis for the first time, and he shared the story with me in incredibly rich detail. It was like I was right there with him.

He told me how he had shown up on Lewis’ doorstep several days earlier than he was expected, after being told to give some extra time, as Lewis’ home was difficult to find. And, even though Lewis wasn’t expecting him for another few days, he invited him into his home and they ended up sharing three pots of tea just like that. Apparently Walter had come expecting just to stay for the one visit, and maybe to see a bit of England, but that trip quickly turned into the next 45 years of his life. Walter went from being a pen-pal of Lewis’ to being Lewis’ personal secretary.

“I remember thinking, shortly after meeting him for the first time,” Walter told me, “that I genuinely loved this man.” He let his words hang in the air as he looked off in the distance, into the fireplace, and you knew he was replaying these experiences to himself.

“He was so incredibly kind,” Walter said to me after a pause. “He really was unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”

I asked Walter if he had been homesick after coming here and staying unexpectedly. He told me he had, particularly after Lewis passed away.

Walter’s cat, Blessed Lucy of Narnia, entered the room while we were talking. Walter always addresses Lucy when she’s around, as if she were a person who had just entered.

“Well hello, Blessed Lucy of Narnia,” he said to her. “Are you going to say hello to your uncle Ryan?”

I smiled, as Lucy paced back and forth in front of where Walter sat as he played with her tail.

We talked for a bit longer. He asked about Jen. How she was doing, and if she was enjoying being home.

I asked him a theological question. Something a friend of mine back home had been talking with me about. Something that had been weighing pretty heavily on this friend for some time. About whether or not everyone, ultimately goes to heaven (what’s called “Universalism”), or if there is indeed a heaven for some, and a hell for others.

Walter was quick to answer, and he immediately began by referencing Lewis book The Great Divorce. He asked me if I had read it. I told him I had began reading it at one point, but I hadn’t finished it.

“Oh, you must read it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful book.”

I told him how I had just received a first-edition copy as a gift the day before, and how I now had no excuse.

He began to tell me how he’d respond to this question, that he believed the end of this life would mean great disappointment for many. But that it wasn’t a matter of tastes or opinion. Rather, it was matter of fact. Of truth, referencing Lewis’ book as he talked. He then excused himself from the room so that he might grab a copy from his room and read directly from the book.

This surprised me, as Walter routinely quotes verbatim from books when we’re talking. Not just Lewis, but others as well. And I’m always blown away. I hope I can pull that off when I’m 79.

After a few minutes, Walter returned to the room, his copy of The Great Divorce in hand. He flipped through the pages to find the section he wanted to read from, scanning the pages like he was returning to an old conversation. And, as he read it aloud, I realized he was doing just that. After knowing Lewis, and after working on his books for more than 40 years, Lewis’ words must feel like nothing short of an old friend to Walter.

“I’m often asked if I regret this, having spent all this time studying Lewis’ writing and compiling his letters. I’m often asked if I feel like it’s been a waste,” Walter later shared with me. “And I don’t know how I could. My life is so much richer because of this man.”

Walter was beaming as he finished this sentence.

Staring at this 79-year old man seated in the middle of his beautiful living room, knowing the amazing difference meeting Lewis had meant in his life, I was touched. To know such a man, and to know that, as much as Lewis has meant in my life, he has meant so much more to Walter.

I could feel the joy permeating from him as Walter sat there across the room from me, and I was so thankful for that time together.

Monday: Back in school

It was an odd feeling, returning to class on Monday. Like I had never really been away.

My week began with Greek, which meant I hit the ground running. We spent most of the class time talking about what we would be focusing on this term, and what Rhona expected us to have finished by the next time we met.

Looks of horror spread across the faces of those seated around me, as fingers and eyes flipped through page after page of Greek translations to complete. It seemed insurmountable, more than we could possibly do or know, on top of the rest of our studies. But Rhona spoke of it like it was nothing, of course. I think she honestly believes students can learn Greek by osmosis. By simply looking at the pages for a few moments. I think that’s how she learned it. Fresh out of the womb. She’s brilliant.

Lyndon and I were chatting about the workload as we left class that morning, as we were unlocking our bikes.

“And now I see why the Oxford name carries a certain cache,” he said with a large grin.

“Yeah, no kidding. It’s there for a reason,” I told him as I got on my bike and made my way to the library to get started on my reading list for the week.

Oxford attire

I couldn’t help but take in the different outfits of those passing through the library while I was supposed to be reading. My head lifting up with each passerby. After being away from Oxford for a while, I was reminded how unique men dress here in Oxford.

Very academic, for the most part. Particularly those who aren’t 18 and straight out of high school.

Lots of tweed jackets with v-neck sweaters, dress shirts and ties. Pointed leather shoes. And turtle shell rimmed glasses. Messy hair and scarves. Unkept, not polished, seems to be the Oxford way. Too flashy or showy seems to be very much “un-Oxford.” No whites, or light or bright colors, but dark browns and greys and black earthy colors.

It feels like an escape, in a way. Being here. Into history. Into the classics. And I suppose you can’t help but feel that way, when you study in libraries that are nearly as old as The United States, and when you’re daily walking past buildings that are 800 years old.

Oxford, where young men dress like old men. Where modernity, it seems, is shunned.

Tuesday: Sitting with Felix

Jane told me shortly after I arrived that Beng was away on vacation. I let her know that I was happy to help with anything until she returned, if needed. She thanked me, and then asked if I might be willing to “babysit” Felix Tuesday night. I thought it odd, referring to hanging out with a 12-year old boy as babysitting, but I told her I’d be happy to.

Felix is a great kid, and I was looking forward to getting to hang out with him again. It’s something I’ve wanted to do more, but things here don’t leave a whole lot of free time.

Felix was working on Latin homework at the dining room table when I crossed the hall and made my way into their home Tuesday night. He greeted me with that large, toothy grin of his. It was great to see him again.

Jane and I caught up and talked about our holidays. She asked if the baby had come yet. Jen’s sister’s first. We had been hoping she’d arrive before I left, but we had no such luck, I told her.

“Jen’s getting pretty excited for her to arrive at this point,” I told Jane. “I think everyone is.”

“I bet so,” she said, with that same wide grin that Felix has.

“Oh, I booked our skiing trip today, Felix,” she said. Turning quickly to where he was seated at the table.

“Felix and I are heading to Switzerland for some skiing in February,” she told me with a look of excitement. But nonchalent excitement, like it wasn’t completely out of the norm for them.

It was for me, as I’m sure my large eyes gave away.

“Oh wow. That sounds great!” I said.

She walked over to where Felix was seated at the dining room table working on latin and asked him to sit up straight. He did. I smiled, to myself.

“He might like some pudding later on. Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told me. I smiled and thanked her.

Jane went through Felix’s bedtime with me, “Lights out at 9:00,” and she asked me to look over Felix’s work, if I wouldn’t mind. I was actually considering asking Felix to look over my Greek, but I told her I would, not knowing how I would actually know whether or not he had done what was being asked.

After Felix had wrapped up his Latin homework for the night, he told me he needed to go feed his rabits. He asked if I wanted to join him. I told him that’d be great. It was dark outside, and so Felix snagged a pair of goggles from a table in the corner of the room.

“They’re night vision goggles. I got them for Christmas,” he told me, while holding them out to me.” Would you like to try them?

“Cooool…,” I said, like a kid seeing his buddy’s new toy. “Yeah, I’d love to try them out.”

I’m not one to pass up on night-vision goggles. We walked out to the rabbit cage, me holding the goggles to my face, and he told me about the fox they had spotted in their backyard with the goggles.

I considered telling him I had received some pretty great wool socks for Christmas, and how they were keeping my feet nice and warm, but I decided against it.

We played some cricket in the large entryway of their home after feeding the rabbits. Felix ran over the different batting styles of the game. I was surprised to hear it’s still called batting. And not punting or something else, just to be different.

Grizz, their small dog, hated that we were playing with her tennis ball, and she’d constantly try to get it until we finally gave up and tossed her the ball.

“Would you like to watch some Simpsons?” Felix asked me, after throwing in the towel on our game of Cricket.

“I would love to, yeah,” I said. “I haven’t watched Simpsons in years.”

Seated there, in their living room, watching The Simpsons with Felix, I thought about all the studying I needed to get done. All the Greek I had waiting for me. But then I remembered I was being paid to watch The Simpsons with Felix and all of a sudden those studies didn’t seem quite so important.

One of the (three) episodes we watched involved the family going to an apple farm. Grandpa Simpson went with them. When they were leaving, he took his seat in the backseat. Marge quickly asked, “Oh no! Are you sitting on the apple pie?!”

“I sure hope so…” he replied.

Felix laughed quite hard at that point. “I sure hope so,” he repeated to himself, eyes glued to the TV screen.

After one of the episodes had finished, Felix got up and made his way to the kitchen.

“I like enjoying pudding while I watch The Simpsons,” he told me. He really is a smart kid, I thought to myself.

“Would you like some ice cream?”

We enjoyed our dessert, or pudding, while watching a couple more episodes of The Simpsons.

During a commercial break, Felix asked me if I had heard his dad had started another paper. I knew he co-owned two papers in London already.

“No, no I hadn’t heard that,” I told him.

“Yeah, it’s called The I, and it’s a short paper. Just the basics.”

About five seconds later, a commercial came on the TV announcing a new, concise newspaper. “Only what you need, none of gossip you don’t,” the narrator’s voice spoke. It was a great commercial.

“There, that’s it,” Felix said.

I had to laugh. It all seemed quite unreal.

After several episodes of The Simpsons, I told Felix it looked like it was about time to start getting ready for bed. I followed him upstairs and waited outside his door as he brushed his teeth and got changed for bed.

I told him goodnight and turned off the light as I left. “Thanks for watching me tonight,” he said as I left. It put a smile on my face. This kid is a stud; he’s so polite.

“You’re so welcome, Felix. It was a lot of fun.”

Becoming An Uncle

I returned to the living room and pulled my Greek textbook and notebook from my bag. I figured I would get some work done while I waited for Jane to return home.

But I couldn’t. My mind was elsewhere. Thinking about the e-mail Jen had sent me just before I came over to Jane’s. Telling me Leann’s contractions were getting closer, and that they would likely be heading to the hospital that day. That Khloe would probably be arriving soon.

I tried to put my head down on my Greek, knowing I had vocab to memorize for a quiz the next morning, but I couldn’t focus. Finally, I pulled out my laptop to check my e-mail. Hoping I would have an update from Jen, as I had asked her to keep me posted.

Sure enough, Ben & Leann had left for the hospital, and Jen and her parents weren’t far behind. Khloe was on her way, it seemed!

I was so excited. More so than I expected to be. But I was also sad at the same point. I think it took receiving that e-mail to realize this is something I’m going to miss, being here. The birth of my first niece, and I wouldn’t be there to experience it.

Jen had asked Ben & Leann if it would be all right to bring the laptop into the room with them, so that I could be a part of things. Not during the birth, obviously. But before, while they were waiting. And afterward.

It was nearly 11:00 by the time I got back that night. After Jane returned.

I was quick to get online and Skype with Jen and Ben & Leann and Tim & Rhonda. To see them all there, in the birthing room. Getting ready for Khloe’s arrival.

I was so excited Khloe was finally coming, and it was so good to see them. They hadn’t slept much the past several days, apparently, but you could tell they were terribly excited as well.

I stayed up for a couple more hours. Studying Greek for my quiz. And taking breaks to check in with Jen.

By 1:00, Leann wasn’t far from giving birth, they told me, but I was fading fast. I told them I was probably going to need to turn in.

Jen told me they’d Skype in with me after Khloe arrived, if I wanted to leave my computer on. So I did. I turned the volume up as high as it would go and I left it at the foot of the stairs leading up to our bedroom, knowing the wireless signal isn’t strong in our room, and I didn’t want to miss out.

I told Jen goodnight and went to bud, a little past 1:00.

At around 6:00 that morning, a beeping noise woke me from my sleep. It took me several seconds to realize what was going on, but I stumbled toward the source of the noise, with one eye open and one eye still shut.

I spotted my laptop at the foot of the stairs and, even in my sleepy-state, I quickly realized what was going on. Khloe had arrived!

The first thing I saw after taking the call was Jennifer holding baby Khloe, and suddenly I was filled with incredible joy. I sat down on the stairs in my pajamas, held the laptop up close to my face and said, “Oh wow. . .that is amazing. She is so beautiful!”

Jen was smiling from ear to ear at this point. Smiling like I hadn’t seen her in a long, long time.

I couldn’t get over what a beautiful baby she was. Even while struggling to wake up, I was taken aback by her perfect features. Her perfectly round button nose. Her beautiful round face.

“That is so amazing,” I said again.

Seated there, on the stairs that early morning in Oxford, the house still dark and the light of the laptop illuminating my face, I was taken aback by the beauty of this baby. And what an incredible blessing she was to our family in what has been a pretty difficult time. This past year has been full of some of the deepest, darkest pain we’ve ever known, after losing Hayley. And yet, here, before us, was this beautiful baby girl. This gift of light and joy. From God. Almost as if to say, “Here I am. In all the dark and in all your pain, I still delight in giving good gifts.”

I was terribly disappointed I wasn’t there to experience, first-hand, this moment with my family. It hurt deeply. I wanted with all I had just to reach out and grab a hold of Khloe. So that I might hold her in my arms. But I realized I couldn’t. And I realized I would have to wait six months before I could. I wondered if I would one day look at Khloe, after she was several years old, playing by the lake as a beautiful little girl, and regret that I had not been there for this moment. Ben & Lean had said time and time again that they understood I couldn’t be there, after I apologized time and time again. They shrugged it off, saying there was nothing to forgive me for. I wondered if I’d be able to forgive myself.

But those thoughts of disappointment quickly turned to joy. Joy for Ben & Leann, and the beautiful, healthy baby girl they had been blessed with. For the family she was born into, and knowing how deeply she would be loved and cared for. Knowing what wonderful parents Ben & Leann were going to be to her. What amazing grandparents Tim & Rhonda would be. How Jen was going to be the most incredible aunt. And how I couldn’t wait to spoil her as an uncle should. Those thoughts brought me great joy.

Baby Khloe Dawn Van Dyken, welcome to the world. It is more beautiful now that you have entered into it, and we are so delighted to have you. (Click here for a bit of mood music to accompany the photos).

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.

 

and

Saturday: We get great packages, Thanksgiving Take Two

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

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

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

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

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

Change of Plans

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

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

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

Thanksgiving, Take Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: A Sunday Dinner with Ken & Lynne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Waking up to Snow

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

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

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

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

An Interview with A Lewis Expert

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

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

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

End of Term Interviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Party at Lewis’ Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Lewis replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday: Smiling in the rain and an informal date night

I rode my bike to class Monday morning. For Greek. In the rain. It was coming down pretty good. And I was soaked by about halfway to class.

Normally I would be terribly frustrated by this. I am not a fan of being in sopping wet clothes. Like many, I suppose.

But it didn’t take long for me to remind myself that I was going to class. That I’m studying Theology. At Oxford. That I’m doing something I thought only a year ago I’d never actually get to do. And yet, here I am. Wet or not. I’m living out my dream.

Tacos and cards

We decided to stay in Monday night. Rather than go to dinner at college. To have dinner at home. Just the two us. And to play cards. We made tacos. More mexican food. And they were great.

It was a bit of an informal date night. And I loved it. It felt like we were back at home. Minus the fact that we were always so busy running back and forth at home, from here to there, that we never actually stopped to do something like this. Just the two of us. And I’m so thankful for that time together.

Tuesday: Dinner with Lewis’ godson

I had a load of work to get done early on this week. An essay to read for and write. And a fairly large Greek exam to study for. And some Greek translation. Not much free time whatsoever, but we had been invited to join a small group of people for dinner on Tuesday night. At a French restaurant here in Oxford. Pierre Victoire. On a little, brick road called Clarendon Street, with stringed lights criss-crossing overhead.

CS Lewis’ godson, Laurence Harwood, was going to be speaking at the Oxford CS Lewis Society’s lecture on Tuesday night. Sharing memories from his childhood of growing up around Lewis. And he was going out to dinner with a small group of people beforehand.

As there would be only a handful of people at dinner, it’d be pretty tough to pass this up. With as much work as I had to get done, I’m normally one to say, “I’d love to go, but…”. Fortunately Jen told me I needed to go. She was right. As she almost always is. She decided to come with, too. And I’m so glad she did.

It was so neat to hear stories from this man about Lewis. About the Lewis others never get the opportunity to hear.

“I feel like the movie Shadowlands paints this picture of Lewis that just isn’t accurate,” someone spoke up during dinner. Speaking to Laurence. I can’t now remember who. “That of a standoffish scholar. One who doesn’t allow anyone to get close to him. And one who particularly wouldn’t want to be around children. How does that compare with how you remember him?”

“Quite right. It’s awful. I always loved it when Jack came around,” Laurence told us. (Lewis went by “Jack” with all of his close friends, by the way).

“As children, we’d be playing games when he’d come over, and he’d get right down there with us. On the floor. At our level. He was genuinely interested in what we were playing, and he’d play with us. Not in a condescending way. He’d always beat us, of course, but we really enjoyed him.”

Laurence told us about how you could feel it when Lewis entered the room. Or Jack. That he was just one of those people with a powerful presence. But not in a bad, or scary way. That, even as a child, Laurence thoroughly enjoyed Lewis.

He told us how his father (a close friend of Lewis’) would always mentally prepare before Lewis arrived, knowing the mental battles that would ensue. And he told us how, even as a child, he’d love to listen in to the conversations. Not because he followed a word of it, but because of the sheer passion that would pour out from it. And how he loved being around the energy.

Laurence told us how Lewis never pushed his faith on him. That, even as a child, Lewis never bought him a book, subtly implying what he should believe. “Even though that was his role, as my godfather.”

And he told us about the letters Lewis would write. That he must’ve written more than 200,000 during his lifetime. How he’d spend a couple hours every day. Responding to those who wrote him. And how, as a child, Lewis would often include illustrations in his letters. To make a point. If, for example, Lewis wrote about a book he was writing that had a bear in it, he’d draw a picture of a bear. Not in the margin, but right there in the middle of the paragraph. Laurence told us how he’d always look forward to receiving these letters.

It reminded me of my grandpa. It seemed like something he’d do. Or used to do. For me. As a child.

Laurence shared a slideshow with us during his lecture. Old photos of Lewis. And he could tell a story for each. One of the photos was of Lewis sitting on a hill with his good friend Owen Barfield and Laurence’s parents. The photo is still hanging on the walls of Eagle & Child.

Laurence has a book out. I didn’t manage to get a copy. I wouldn’t have mind having one. Signed. But they were gone by the time I managed to make it to the front of the room after his talk.

We made it home around 10 that night. After dinner. And the talk. Me walking my bike. Jen walking beside me.

Jen skyped with her family. I made my way upstairs to study. I had a Greek exam the next morning. 10:00 quickly turned into 1:30. After feeling I had crammed enough, I made my way downstairs. To make my second dinner. Leftover tacos.

Turning in at 2:00. It’s becoming a terrible habit.

Thursday: small group

We made it to small group Thursday night. At St. Andrew’s Church. Just down the street from us.

It was the second time we went there. The two of us.

We talked with a girl over dinner who moved here several years ago. She told us this was the first church she visited after arriving. And how she hasn’t been anywhere since. She told us she wasn’t a fan of the whole church shopping business. I nodded my head, telling her I could respect that.

We’ve been to one other church since arriving. We went to a small community church with Lyndon and Mim last weekend. Before joining them for lunch at their home afterward. We had a great time. The food is always so good. And those two are just amazing people to be around. It was Jen’s first time meeting Mim, and the kids. She loved them.

But I really haven’t felt like visiting many other churches. There’s one Rob and Vanessa go to I wouldn’t mind checking out. But, I guess I feel like, church is about more than just the message, you know? I feel like I’m realizing it’s really what you make of it, if that makes sense. I’m realizing it’s probably more about finding a community and being a part of it than what you get out of it. Than about how it tastes.

This church is made up of a group of people. Broken people. Not perfect. That church is the same way. Maybe a little better looking people. Maybe a bit more well off. But still broken. This church may have a decent speaker. That one might be a bit better. But I feel like, maybe that’s not the point. I don’t know. Sorry if I’m taking a bit of a tangent here. I guess it’s just, we walked out of church that night, and I couldn’t help but think how grateful I was for the community we had found.

Two girls had prayed for Jennifer that night. Separately. Not because they had to. But because they wanted to. They prayed that this transition would go smoothly for her. That she would be comforted. That she would know what it is she’s supposed to be doing. That she would build friendships here in Oxford. And, afterward, one of the girls gave her a hug. Eleanor. The one from Ireland. The one that got me with the Sleepless in Seattle joke.

And, I don’t know. I guess that just took me back a bit. That we could come all this way. So far from home. And find people who want to care for us. Who genuinely want to help and love us. And I don’t know. I guess that’s the beauty of the Church, in a way. That we can have a family so far from home. No matter where we are, that we can find someone who has received from Him the same love that has been poured out onto us, and who want to share that love with us. It’s nice to be recipients of that kind of love.

Walking home, I told Jen how thankful I was for that. She agreed.

Friday: A story in Greek, drinking from a fire hydrant and a date night with Jen

I’m about ready to break up with my bike lock, I’m afraid. Or Justin’s bike lock, for his bike, I should say. It’s been neglected for quite some time. It’s beginning to rust a bit inside, I believe. But it’s terribly frustrating. I find myself spending more time trying to lock it or unlock it than I actually do trying to get somewhere. It took me five minutes to ride a mile and a half to class this morning. It took me eight minutes to unlock my bike lock.

I arrived in front of the exam schools for Greek right on time this morning. Then I literally watched Rhona arrive several minutes later. And Lyndon several minutes after that. All the while I struggled to get my bike lock to release so I could lock it up and go to class.

It was dreadful. The sweat was beading up on my forehead and dripping off by the time I was through. I wasn’t sweating when I arrived.

But then I get out of class and it works great. The first time. It’s like that terrible girlfriend. The one who treats you horribly 99% of the time, but then that one day, she smiles at you. Or says something nice. And you think to yourself, “Okay, I’ll give her one more shot.”

It’s funny, because at home, I wouldn’t think twice about buying a new bike lock. But here, the idea of spending £25 on a new bike lock. Well, that’s groceries. Ridiculous. This girlfriend may be around for awhile.

At the end of this life

Rhona was telling a story when I arrived in class. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the majority of our time in Greek. Anecdotal stories. But I liked this one.

She was talking about a man who had served in the first World War. About how he had literally come from nothing. And how he had worked hard, making a name for himself after the war. As a businessman. And how he managed to do quite well for himself. And how he was able to take care of his family.

Rhona told us about how, when he had grown old, he began to lose much of his memory. And his general awareness began to fade away. So that his family had trouble talking with him as they once did. But the one way his family was still able to connect with him was by reminding him of this fact. How he had taken care of them.

She told us how his daughter would visit him. How she’d bring him a cup of tea and say, “I am so thankful for all you’ve done for our family. You really have provided so much for us.” And he’d smile. He’d remember. And they’d connect over that thought.

Rhona finished the story, pushed her index finger down into the Greek textbook she had been holding open in her left hand and said, “Right…” as she seems to do when she transitions from her stories back to Greek.

I still have no idea what the context was for this story. Probably a Greek vocab word of some sort. But I liked it. I think that’s what we all want in a way, isn’t it? To be able to look back at the end of this road and know that we made a difference. To know that, somewhere along the line, our life had an impact on another life. Or lives. And to smile at the thought of it. I know that’s what I want.

Drinking from a fire hydrant

It’s the end of week five of classes here. Crazy to think. It’s gone by so quickly. Four more weeks and this term will be done. And we’ll be getting ready for Christmas. Hard to believe.

School is a frantic pace here. Unsurprisingly, I suppose. But you can see it on people’s faces. Tired. Lots of yawns in class. Baggy eyes. People don’t want to respond to questions like they did before.

But, oddly, I’ve found myself feeling better about things. I’ve felt like I’m beginning to adjust to the pace. You arrive here and quickly find yourself stunned by the pace. Wondering how you’ll ever keep up the sprint, when it seems like you’re running a marathon. You find yourself certain you’re never going to be able to do it. That you’re going to fail. It feels so overwhelming. But then you just do it. You realize you have a pile of work to get done, and not much time to get it done in, but you do.

And I think it’s probably that way with most things in life. We all have things that seem impossible. Or overwhelming. We find ourselves wondering how in the world it’s all going to work out. But then you just go after it. You get your hands dirty. And it works out. But if we never get our hands dirty, then our fears are right. It will be impossible.

It’s a bit like drinking out of a fire hydrant, being here. The workload. You can feel bad. And get frustrated. Over how difficult it is. Because it is. And it seems unreasonable that someone doesn’t turn it down just a bit. Or you can realize everyone’s drinking out of the same fire hydrant. And it’s not going to slow down when it comes to your turn. You simply do as much as you can and find contentment in that. That’s how I’ve managed to keep my sanity in it all, at least.

I received my first perfect exam in Greek this morning. From the exam I took Wednesday morning. After staying up until 2. Sorry if it sounds as though I’m bragging, it’s just, when I arrived, I was getting only a handful of questions right. Literally. Four or five out of 25. It’s nice to feel like you’re able to get a decent drink from the hydrant every now and then. I’m sure I’ll be drowning again in only a few days.

Dinner from a truck and Romeo & Juliet

We had a date night in Oxford tonight. Jen and I. Jen noticed the other day that Romeo & Juliet was playing at the Oxford Playhouse. And I had been wanting to eat out of a food truck parked in the city center. So we put the two together and we had ourselves a date night.

I hadn’t realized it before, but the name of this particular food truck was Husein’s. Can’t say it didn’t give me a bit of pause. But I was still excited. Jen has always refused to eat from the taco trucks back home, even though I love them. So this was a treat.

A woman was waiting for her food when we arrived, so we had some time to look over the menu.

And it’s a good thing. The menu was all over the map. They had everything. Pizza. Kebabs. Burgers. And egg burgers. I’m still not quite sure what an egg burger is.

Jen went with the burger and chips. I decided to try the Kebab. Which isn’t what we’d think of by a kebab back home. No meat on a stick here. Which I was disappointed to find out.

Hot chunks of chicken and lamb were served on a warmed piece of naan bread. Then they piled on mixed lettuce and cabbage and onions. A couple tomatoes and pieces of cucumber. And then a good dose of tzatziki sauce to top it all off.

We found a seat beside a large statue in the middle of the city center. On the stairs. Cars passing by on either side. Under the dark night sky, lit up by the shops that lined the road.

I had no idea how I was going to eat my pile o’ kebab. But I did. It was messy. Not quite as messy as a birth, mind you, but pretty messy. Sorry, I couldn’t help it.

I told Jen it was pretty good, but the Alternative Tuck was still the best deal in town. She agreed. I told her I got thinking about it this week, and I realized I can’t remember the last time I ate something other than paninis from the Alternative Tuck for lunch.

She nodded.

“It’s the highlight of my day,” she said. “It gets me into town.”

I’m not alone.

We wrapped up our food and made our way down the street to the Oxford Playhouse. Just a few minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

I figure if you’re going to take in a Shakespeare performance, England’s not a bad place to do so. The accents made it seem, well, like it was supposed to be performed, I guess.

It made me remember when Jen and I visited England last summer. And when we toured London. We got to see a small church hidden down a terribly tight lane. It was the location where Shakespeare’s work was first performed. For the Queen. With Shakespeare himself playing the lead role. It was pretty unbelievable.

Tonight’s performance was a pretty modern take on the story. The dialogue was the same, but the characters looked like they were straight out of London. Mercutio wore Chuck Taylor’s. Romeo wore his jeans tucked into high tops. Juliet wore a flannel button up shirt over a pink dress, over black tights, with high, dark-colored lace up boots.

But the performance was actually quite good. Apart from Juliet. I told Jen she reminded me of Kristen Stewart. She agreed.

“I didn’t like her,” she said. “She wasn’t how I pictured Juliet.”

“Too flighty,” I suggested.

But it made me realize how brilliant Shakespeare was. And why his works still draw crowds. He really was amazing with words. I enjoyed that part of it, for sure. Listening to him paint a picture of the dawning sun. Or describe the pain of losing someone you love.

And his works are so unlike modern works. Leaving you hanging. Feeling so unresolved. Not neat and tidy in the least bit. A bit like life, I suppose.

We decided to wrap up the night with a stop into G&D’s for ice cream. Not a bad way to wrap up a great date night.

Things are changing

I love our walks home. Jen and I together. Not driving. But walking. Sharing the cool night together. Feeling the pavement underfoot as we catch up on life. And all that’s been happening.

Things are changing quickly here. The leaves are falling from the trees. The same richly colored leaves that provided cover for a streetlamp only a couple weeks before…

…have now fallen to the ground. Leaving the skeletal tree limbs to stretch out into the night sky. And the streetlamp naked to those passing by.

Things are changing so quickly, it seems.

The Dream Giver

Steve told me the other night he’s reading a book he gave me two Christmases ago. The Dream Giver. He’s re-reading it. With Jamie.

It’s a great read, if you haven’t already. Not the kind of book I’d normally pick up for myself, but I read it because I trusted Steve’s thoughts on it. The first part of the book is a story. About someone who decides to follow their dreams. A “Nobody” from “Nowhere.” That’s the main character. And the story is about all of the obstacles he faces as he steps out in pursuit of his dream.

I remember reading this book and thinking how it was a great story, but that it must’ve been written for someone else. I simply wasn’t the type of person to have dreams. And I certainly wasn’t the type of person to go after my dreams. And yet, here we are. In Oxford. In pursuit of a dream. It’s still so hard to believe.

Thanks for daring me to dream big, Steve.

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