Archives for posts with tag: David

Spring is an incredible time to be in Oxford. After a long, gray winter, the air begins to feel warm, and the smell of fresh, blossoming flowers floats through it like notes to a song. The sound of children’s laughter can be heard around town, as they flow through the streets like a stream, dressed in matching school uniforms.

Couples float down the River Cherwell in punts, one reclining in the middle of the boat, smiling up at the other, who is standing at the rear, propelling them forward with a long pole. The sky in Oxford is a pale blue in the spring, with strokes of white clouds and trails from airplanes, leaving the scene overhead to look like a new painting set up on display at the start of each day.

Spring is also typically a great time for Oxford students, as it tends to be less busy, academically, than the rest of the year. With more time on their hands, students take advantage of a relaxed schedule by playing croquet in their college gardens, enjoying garden parties and Pimms, and cheering on their college’s rowing team during the Summer Eights.

There are, of course, two rather significant caveats to this whole affair.

The first of which is if the weather doesn’t actually cooperate, and if the rainy, gray weather of winter just happens to stretch into the spring months. Such was the case this spring, when typically warm, blue sky spring days were exchanged for the rainiest spring in Oxford in well over a hundred years.

The second caveat is if you’re a finalist (an undergraduate in the final year of your degree), in which case your term is spent preparing for your final exams at every possible spare moment.

Oxford is the only university left in the world, I’m told, that has kept their particular finals system, which is such that the only thing that actually counts toward your degree are your final exams. Everything before that was just practice. Each student sits a series of three-hour final exams for each of their particular papers (“classes), and so they spend several spring months preparing for what will be, in most cases, the biggest tests of their life.

My degree gives me a total of seven three-hour exams. All essay-format. All handwritten. In just six days.

Both of the above caveats were true for me this spring. Which meant it felt a lot less like a proper spring in Oxford, and more like a winter that just wouldn’t relent. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning

Becoming Myself Again

Hilary (winter) term was easily one of my busiest terms for school work since I first arrived in Oxford. While many other finalists began looking ahead to finals and started working on their revisions, it was all I could do to keep up with my weekly essays. There were several nights when my workload that I started the day before would keep me up until moments before the sun rose the following day. I’d regularly collapse in bed in the early morning hours and close my eyes for a few hours before waking up and doing it all over again.

And so, when my first Saturday of spring break arrived, I avoided setting my alarm, and I allowed myself to wake up when my eyes came open, instead. Turns out that time didn’t come until 2.30 in the afternoon. And it felt great.

It felt so great, in fact, that I did the same thing the following day, not waking up until half of Sunday had already come and gone.

When I finally awoke, I got up, threw on some clothes, and then headed to the gym. It was the first time in ages, and it felt great to do something more physically demanding than flipping pages in a book. After a shower and a shave, I made my way to the Kilns’ kitchen to make something to eat, when I ran into Debbie.

“Wow, you look like your old self again!” she said with a look of shock.

“Thanks, I feel like my old self!” I said.

It had been the first time I had seen Debbie in some time, as the house was typically already asleep by the time I would make it in at night, and often I was out the door before the rest of the house was up. It was great to see her again, and good to begin to feel like a person again.

When My Plans Came Crashing Down

I started off the first week of spring break with a tour of the Kilns for a small group of people who had come to visit the house. And it went great. One of the women on the tour came up to me afterward and mentioned to me just how much she appreciated it.

“I’ve been here several times over the years, with different groups, and this was the best tour I’ve ever had,” she said, with a smile and a handshake. “Very good job. Thank you.”

I smiled in return. And her thanked her for coming out.

I always enjoy giving tours, but those kind of responses make it that much better. I was walking on air when I returned to my room, only to sit down at my computer and receive the news that came like a punch to the stomach, taking away any joy that had been built up over the past couple days of sleeping in and this woman’s response from my tour.

I had received an e-mail from the Oxford Graduate Studies Committee, writing to inform me that I had not been offered a place for the following year’s Master’s program here at Oxford…

And all of a sudden it felt like the plans I had made, and the world I had imagined for our future, were crashing down all around me.

Waking up to a Nightmare

I woke up Tuesday morning with a terrible feeling in my stomach, as I realized this news hadn’t been just a bad dream. As I realized that I had actually been turned down, and a wave of uncertainty washed over me as I struggled to gather my strength to get out of bed and face the day.

I felt like a failure. I felt deflated of all the renewed energy I had after a restful weekend. I felt like throwing my fists into the air and shouting, “Why?! What’s the point?!?”

I had worked so hard to get here, I had put in so many hours on my studies since I had been here, and then this?… It just didn’t make any sense to me.

I felt like a failure. I felt as though I had let all of my community back home down. “What would they think?” I wondered.

I had considered applying to another school back in the States during Michaelmas Term (Duke), as there were several scholars there I had come across who I was really interested in working with (Stanley Hauerwas, Lauren Winner, Richard Hays, Jeremy Begbee, and others), but the term was so busy that I just didn’t make the time for it.

I had been so sure that this was where we were supposed to be, spending another year in Oxford, and now I felt so foolish for not making alternate plans in case things didn’t come through. I had been too confident, I thought.

I found myself wondering what all my friends here in Oxford would think. I thought about all those friends of mine who were here doing Graduate Studies, and suddenly I felt on the outside of this great University I have been so proud to be a member of. I felt as though it had turned its back on me. I felt as though the news had finally come out: I didn’t belong at Oxford. I couldn’t actually cut it. And they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I felt as though I had been banished, and now I was standing on the outside, in the cold, looking in.

I felt like a failure with nowhere to go. I missed the arms of my wife, who was still back with our family in the States, and who was now nearly halfway through the pregnancy of our first child. I hurt, and I still felt lost and alone.

I had written a note to Philip the day before, my supervisor from Michaelmas Term, who is the director of Undergraduate Studies here at Oxford, and who had served as one of my references for the Master’s program. I wrote to explain my surprise at this news, and to ask his thoughts on the likelihood of my being given an offer in the second round (Oxford has two rounds of applications: one in January, and one in April). But my note to Philip from the day before was replied to with only a short note of consolation, encouraging me to try not to worry too much, and a friendly reminder that he wasn’t the appropriate person for this note, as he wasn’t on the Graduate Studies Committee.

I had also e-mailed Dr Michael Ward, who supervised my thesis, who’s also a longstanding member of the Oxford University CS Lewis, and a close friend. We had planned on meeting this week, to discuss my plans for the future, and some ideas I had for future studies, but I wrote to him shortly after receiving this news to explain what had happened. I thought I’d let him know, in case he no longer wanted to meet, or at least in case he wanted to put our meeting on hold until I found out for sure if we’d be returning. He wrote me back the next day to say he still wanted to meet, without even mentioning my rejection letter.

I shared the news with Debbie. I hadn’t planned to, but I had been short with her that morning, and I knew she could tell something was up, after I had finally seemed like my old self again after a few days’ worth of rest.

“Oh, Ryan…,” she said with a sympathetic look, that told me she was both sorry and surprised to hear this. “I’m so sorry.”

We talked for a few minutes, in quiet voices from the kitchen. She encouraged me that God was in control, that He still had His hand at work in my life, and that He was going to use this. I thanked her, knowing she was right, even though her words felt thin and frail, and I left the house, still feeling alone and hopeless. Feeling like I had just lost a fight. A fight that left me with nothing left to give.

And, yet, somehow, in all of it, in my feelings of loneliness and despair, I felt like He was reminding me that there wasn’t supposed to be anyone for me to seek refuge in, in this pain, apart from Him.

That Which Costs Nothing is Worth Nothing

I was catching up with my buddies Rich and Max in town for a meeting with Professor John Lennox that day. Even though I hardly felt like going, I had been incredibly excited for the opportunity.

Professor John Lennox is a rather brilliant mathematician here at Oxford, in his seventies, who, at the end of his academic career, now spends most of his time speaking on his Christian faith. He regularly travels all over the world to speak and to debate (with men like Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens). At Ivy League schools in the US. Across Europe. And in Australia and elsewhere. He’s an incredible man, and it was to our surprise that he said he’d be happy to meet with a few theologians who are studying here at Oxford to share some of his knowledge and experience with us.

We went into our meeting with a rough outline of a few questions we each had for Professor Lennox. After noting them, he began sharing a bit of his own experience with us. As theologians. And as men.

“First priority,” he said to us, in his booming, Irish accent, “You must get to know Scripture!”

Rather pointedly, he told us he thought today’s theologians spend too much time studying the work of other men, and not enough time in the Word.

“And secondly, you will learn, gentlemen, that which costs nothing is worth nothing.”

Professor Lennox talked a lot about courage, and the need for models. And you could tell, by the smile in his eyes, and the grey hair on his head, that he knew what he was talking about.

He Who Would Be  a Leader Must Be a Bridge

I had my meeting with Dr Michael Ward shortly after we met with Professor Lennox that day. I met him at his rooms at St Peter’s College, in the city center. His rooms were warm, even though it was cold and gray outside, and he prepared some tea for us both as we talked.

Dr Ward encouraged me to not get down on myself. He made the comment that the undergraduate program is the most competitive at Oxford, and that it was very likely I would still get an offer from Oxford for the MSt program.

But then he went on to ask me about why I wanted to return for another year. I explained that the program had been so busy that I was looking forward to spending another year in the city. To experience it just a bit more before returning to the States.

I told him I planned to apply to Duke, and he asked me a bit about that. He had supervised my thesis, and he told me he thought Duke would be a great fit for my interests. Perhaps even a better fit than Oxford, he told me, given the current Theology faculties at both schools.

He asked me what I would do if I applied and was accepted to Duke, and then I heard back from Oxford with an acceptance offer. I told him that was a humbling thought, and that I had no idea.

Then he went on to tell me, rather pointedly, that he didn’t think my place was in academics. He told me he thought I would likely end up somewhere in the middle. Not completely academics, not completely public ministry, but somewhere in the middle. And he talked about the importance of such positions, albeit the inherent difficulties.

“He who would be a leader must be a bridge, Ryan,” he told me, speaking in his thick, posh English accent from his spot on the sofa across from me in his college rooms.

“It will be difficult to feel pulled in different directions, but those are the most important people. They are the channels between academics and the public.”

I thanked Dr Ward for his time, and for his very encouraging words, and then I left, making my way to the Harris Manchester library for a bit of work before calling it a day.

The Lesson of New Life

I made it home to the Kilns after 9.00 that night. I had a Skype call with a friend from back home, and then my good friend Tom popped by around 10.00 that night, as I was heating up some leftovers for dinner.

He and Debbie and I sat on stools in the middle of the kitchen, sipping the tea Tom prepared for us. I told him we needed to have him over more often, as he made great tea.

He told a story about going to the States for his Master’s degree, and then leaving just six months later because of the frustrations he experienced with the US educational system. He talked about returning home, and continuing on with his degree through an online distance-learning program. He talked about how being back here, in his own home country, opened up the door to get involved with some opportunities and a mentoring relationship he wouldn’t have otherwise had. And he told me about how those opportunities led him to what he’s doing today, to a job he loves.

“And so,” he said, looking as though he was thinking carefully about his words, “Sometimes you don’t realize it at the time, but good things come out of rather disappointing experiences.”

He turned to me with an encouraging smile as he finished his sentence. Debbie smiled too, looking from Tom to me.

Tom and I wandered down to the pub, after I finished my late-evening supper, and we took a seat in two large, overstuffed leather chairs and talked about work and school and ministry. He shared several bits of advice with me that he had received from others, and which he had found particularly helpful along the way of his own journey.

After talking for a couple hours from the pub, with the football game on in a corner of the room, and a group of men gathered around the screen, interrupting the announcer with a loud cheer every few minutes or so, Tom and I slipped out the door and made the short walk back to the Kilns in the late evening air.

He let it slip that he and Caroline, his wife, would soon be going in for their 12th week “scan,” for their second child, and that they planned to find out the sex of their baby, as well (which the English typically like to make fun of us Americans for always doing).

I congratulated him on the news, and pointed out that, as Jen was currently in her 20th week, our children would actually be quite close in age.

“When that baby arrives,” Tom said, turning to me with a more serious tone as we walked, “it will totally humanize things for yourself. These goals and ambitions will not seem nearly so important, and you’ll learn so much about grace.”

I nodded, with my eyes glued to my shoes as we walked, and, looking up, I thanked him for his words.

When we arrived at the Kilns, Tom asked if it’d be okay if he came in and we had a time of prayer. I told him I’d like that. So we found a couple seats in the library, after flipping through some old 19th-century encyclopedias that had recently been donated to the Kilns, and we spent some time in prayer.

It was so good. It was good for my soul. And it was encouraging.

I thanked Tom, as he left, for his friendship, for his prayers, and then I wished him a smooth ride home in the cold night air, just after midnight. And I found myself thinking, even in the valleys, or perhaps particularly in the valleys, how thankful I am for friends like that.

A Meatless Dinner Conversation

The following evening, after a full day’s worth of finals revisions work from the college library, I returned to the Kilns to have dinner with Debbie and Melissa. Melissa is a former Warden here at the Kilns who would be staying for a few weeks while Debbie visited her son in Japan. She’s from North Carolina, where her husband is a doctor. She’s petite, and she talks proudly of home, in a voice that sounds like she’s from the South. She wears red Toms brand shoes, and she has as much energy as anyone I’ve ever met.

Melissa had very kindly offered to make us all dinner that evening. Even though she’s not a vegetarian herself, she made us meatless spaghetti, knowing Debbie is, along with garlic bread and salad. We enjoyed it from the dining room over conversation.

Debbie made a comment over dinner about the increasing appearance of sharks on the beaches along the east coast, due to climate change, and Melissa told us she didn’t think man was “big enough” to cause climate change. I found myself wondering how we got on this topic as I ate my spaghetti, wishing it had meat in it.

The Best Thing I’d Seen in a Long Time

After helping clean up, I excused myself and made my way back to my room for a very important call with Jen. She was scheduled to go in for her 20-week ultrasound that day, and I wanted to talk with her before she left the house. Before we found out whether we would be having a boy or a girl. And I can’t remember the last time I saw her so happy.

She didn’t stop grinning during the 20 minutes we talked. And seeing her so happy made me happy. I told her I had really been missing her, and she told me she agreed.

She told me that when she finds herself missing me, she tries to look forward to this summer, when we’ll finally be together again. How she looks forward to that day we’ll see each other again for the first time after six months, in the airport. How she looks forward to celebrating our six-year anniversary, in the San Juan Islands. And how she looks forward to our baby’s arrival, and raising it together.

I smiled. I told her those were pretty great things to look forward to, but that I still missed her.

About an hour later, my mom pulled me up on Skype again. This time from the medical office. Jen was seated beside her, still beaming. A couple minutes later, our niece Khloe showed up with Jen’s sister Leann and her husband Ben, and she was blowing me kisses. Khloe that is, not Leann.

My sister, Lucy, was there, too, as well as Jen’s parents. It was quite the family affair, and I was glad to be there, virtually, to join them.

My Mom carried the laptop with her as they were all led into a dark room for the ultrasound, and soon I could just make out the baby’s head and spine, in splotches of white against the monitor’s black background. And I smiled and laughed outloud as soon as I could see it.

The medical technician said the baby was being stubborn, and Jen claimed it as her own. I agreed.

After a while, everyone was asked to leave the room, and Jen and I were left alone with the medical technician, to find out the baby’s sex. Jen took the latop from my mom, and she held it so that I could still see the ultrasound monitor.

The technician admitted she didn’t even know whether we’d be having a boy or girl, yet, as the baby had insisted on keeping its legs together. Then, a few minutes later, she asked if we were ready, and we both said “Yes,” simultaneously, even though we were 6,000 miles apart.

“Well… You’re having a baby girl!”

Immediately, I began clapping and laughing, in my room at the Kilns here in England, as tears of joy warmed my cheeks. Now it was my turn, and suddenly I couldn’t stop smiling. Jen turned the laptop to face her, so that I could see her and her reaction, while the technician looked through photos. Jen was still beaming.

“Congratulations, hun,” I told her, laughing with excitement. “We’re having a baby girl.”

“Congratulations to you, too,” she said to me, in that beautiful smile, with only a sliver of her eyes showing in her joy.

And then, a second later, we lost connection, and I was left holding my tear-soaked face in my hands, sobbing uncontrollably as I wept in a mix of overwhelming gladness at the thought that I would soon have a little princess to father, while, at the same time, hurting with all I had for not being able to be there with Jen for this moment.

I was glad Jen couldn’t see me as I shook and wept, in the face of this incredible news. Never did I think I’d find out like this.

Growing up, you don’t picture yourself 6,000 miles away from your wife when you find out you’re having a baby girl. But that’s how life goes, it seems. It really is full of surprises.

I rushed to the kitchen to share the news with Debbie. She smiled in anticipation as I described watching the ultrasound, and then she raised her hands in the air with a “Yeeeeah!” when I told her we were having a baby girl.

“Aunt Debbie,” she said with a smile, after celebrating.

I knocked on Jonathan’s door, and even though he was in bed, as it was now nearly midnight, I entered and shared the report with him anyway.

“That’s great news,” he said in his rich English accent with a smile, peeking over his covers. “I can picture you as a great father of a little girl.”

I rang my Dad, and I shared the news with him. Even though the rest of the family was asked to wait a few days for us to announce it at a party Jen was hosting with friends and family for the occassion, I figured it’d be okay to share it with him, as he was several States away and wouldn’t be able to be there.

“Well, are you ready to be a grandpa to our baby girl?” I asked.

I heard the sound of crying and laughter on the other end of the line for several moments, before he finally told me “Congratulations, Ryan.” And it was then that I realized just how much we’re alike, my father and I.

I wrote my Grandpa, after that, and told him how I wish I could put into words how overwhelmed with joy I felt at that moment. And as I went to bed that night, I remember feeling as though there’s no way I could ever deserve something this great.

Life is Full of Surprises

A couple days later, I found myself sitting behind a desk on the second-story floor of the Harris Manchester College library. The library was empty on this particular Saturday morning. Term was now over, and most students had returned home, to see family and friends. And to catch up on sleep before the next term began.

The library was empty and quiet on this Saturday morning. Except for the clicking of my keyboard as I worked on revising for final exams, which were only a couple months away.

Other students at college regularly tell me they are amazed by the hours I put into my studies. I tell them I wouldn’t put in so many hours if I didn’t have to. And that it just takes more time for some of us.

I also mention the fact that having a career before I arrived here probably helps. I often think of my studies as my new job. And sometimes this job requires me to put in some long hours. Actually, it usually requires me to put in some long hours.

The birds were chirping in the trees beyond the large, arched windows, on this morning, and I found my mind trailing off to the recent Skype call I had with Jen just a few days earlier.

I heard the nurse’s voice tell us we were having a baby girl… I saw Jen’s beautiful smile… And I remembered what it felt like to know, for the first time, that we would soon be welcoming our very own baby girl into this world.

I never imagined that when my wife finally became pregnant with our first child we’d be experiencing this new phase of life from 6,000 miles apart. But that’s just how it goes, it seems. Life is full of surprises.

Sometimes your job requires you to work from the same office every day, returning home in the evenings to share a meal with your family and catch up on your day. Sometimes your job requires you to be away during the week, only to return home on the weekends and enjoy a couple days with your family. And sometimes, just sometimes, your job requires you to revise for finals from a quiet library in Oxford on a Saturday morning, while the birds chirp beyond the windows, and you find yourself picturing how you’ll one day explain to your daughter what it felt like when you first found out you were having a baby girl.

She’ll ask why you were so far away from her mommy, and you’ll explain it was your job. You’ll tell her you never imagined that’s how you’d find out, but that she’ll learn, one day, life is full of surprises.

I did my best to return to my reading and writing, taking notes for my Old Testament paper. And every so often I’d have to stop because I couldn’t shake a picture of myself finally seeing Jen again. I pictured us meeting at the airport after six months of being apart. I imagined what it would feel like to hug her again. My mind wandered to the thought of feeling the touch of her hair in my hands. Seeing her smile. And feeling her pregnant belly for the first time. I’d pause from what I was doing, hold a knuckle to my mouth, and begin to feel my eyes well up.

Where is he?

I decided to work from the Kilns on finals revisions one day the following week, after giving a tour, when I received a Skype call from Jen and Khloe in the afternoon. And it was then, just before my picture came up on Jen’s computer, that I heard Khloe ask, for the first time, “Where is he?”

I remember being here, in Oxford, more than a year ago, when I saw Jen holding Khloe for the first time, shortly after her birth. And now, to hear Khloe put together that question, it just seemed unreal to think how quickly she was growing up.

We’d talk, Jen and I, while Khloe would peak in and out of the screen, playing “peek-a-boo” with me, which I taught her. I’d look surprised every time. And she’d laugh.

After a while, Khloe leaned over and gave me a kiss. Right there on the laptop monitor. And after she did, she pulled back and held her hands to her mouth, smiling in embarrassment. And that’s when my heart melted in my chest. It was all I could do not to reach out and hug her / my computer.

“It really is amazing to think how much has changed in the past year,” I thought to myself, as I said goodbye to Khloe and Jen, and returned to my studies.

A Rude Awakening

A couple weeks into the spring break, a good friend of mine from home, David, arrived in Oxford. David and I did our first degrees together, and he was visiting England for the first time. In fact, he decided to skip his Master’s degree graduation to make it out, which meant a lot.

David likes old things. Like me. Books. And buildings. So there was plenty to see and do as I showed him around Oxford. And he loved it.

After several days of showing off where I’ve spent the past year and a half or so, we visited Bath, a beautiful city that’s home to some incredible Roman architecture and original, ancient Roman bathhouses. We also spent a day touring around London. But then, one evening before David left, I had a pretty rude awakening that came just after 4.00 in the morning.

I had been sleeping when I heard a low, moaning sound. I was still half asleep at this point, so I did my best to ignore it, hoping it’d go away. But it didn’t.

And in my semi-conscience state, I began to wonder if it was an animal, just outside my window, making this terrible sound. I hoped it was. Again, trying to ignore it, the terrible noise continued, unnerving me every time.

Finally, when I realized it wasn’t going to go away, I began clapping, and shouting, as loudly as I could, in hopes of scaring whatever it was away.

“No, no! Don’t! Go, go!” I shouted.

But the noise continued, and now I realized the noise was not coming from outside my window, but from inside my room. If I wasn’t scared before, I most certainly was now.

Getting out of bed in a hurry, I flipped on the lamp that sits on my nightstand and I threw on my glasses.

“David?… Is that you?!” I shouted, as I circled my bed, with my eyes still struggling to adjust to the light.

“Nooo…,” was all I heard from David in the next room, who at this point had to be completely confused by the noise and shouting he was hearing from my room next door.

And that’s when I saw it: a grey cat, huddled up on the wood floor, on the opposite side of my bed, with its mouth open wide, and hissing a terrible hissing sound in my direction.

“Oh, ____!” I shouted. “It’s a cat!”

Still dressed only in my boxers and glasses, I ran through the library to the back of the house to open up the back door so as to create a way out for this cat, only to find the door locked. With my heart now racing at full tilt, I ran back through my bedroom, doing my best to avoid the cat, and I entered the room where David was staying, who was now standing in the middle of the room with a look that begged to know what was going on.

“The back door’s locked,” I explained in a frantic voice. “I’ve got to get my keys.”

I opened the wardrobe doors, found my keys, and I went back to the dark library to open the back door, only to realize the cat was now hidden, somewhere, in the pitch black library.

I turned on the lights and I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest as I looked around the room for several minutes before finally finding the cat tucked away in a small corner of the room. I opened the back door, revealing the darkness outside on this 4.00 morning, before returning to the cat and doing my best to stay a safe enough distance while shooing it out.

Like a dart, it finally ran out, escaping into the darkness. With a sigh of great relief, I closed the door, locked it behind me, and returned to David’s room, only to find him laughing out loud.

I shook my head in a mixture of laughter and racked nerves. At 4.00 in the morning, the last thing you expect to wake up to is some strange grey cat you’ve never seen in your life hissing at you from the side of your bed.

“I heard you shouting, ‘No, no; Go, go!’, and I thought you were dreaming,” David said to me, in-between laughs. “But then when you asked if I was doing that, I knew someone was in there with you, and I had no idea what was going on!”

I wasn’t sure who among the three of us was most scared that morning, but my money was on me.

I said goodnight to David and crawled back into bed, hesitantly. I removed my glasses, turned off the lamp on my nightstand, and closed my eyes. But I could hardly go to sleep that night, even with the nightlight on.

The Arrival of Olli & Salla’s Baby Boy

The week after David visited, another good friend of mine from back home visited, Matt, and we enjoyed the week together catching up around Oxford and London. And after saying “goodbye” to Matt, it was back to my revisions. Officially. As there was now nothing between my exams but about six weeks in which to prepare. The pressure was now on, in full force.

I was working on finals revisions from the Kilns late one evening when I began receiving a series of regular updates from my good friend Olli. He and his wife are from Finland, and they’ve been like family to me while Jen’s been back home. Olli is doing research here in Oxford at the moment, and his wife, Salla, had been having painful contractions with their second child for well over a month now. They had been hoping he’d arrive and give her some relief for some time.

I was very happy to hear from Olli that Salla was finally going into labor that evening. He asked me for prayer when it looked like they would be taking Salla into the hospital theater for surgery. So I did. And then I waited. And then I got another message. Salla was now in the recovery room, it seemed. And the baby was just fine.

My phone rang a minute later. It was Olli.

“Congratulations!” I told him. He laughed.

“Thank you,” he said, in his Finnish accent.

“That sounded pretty exciting,” I told him.

“Yes, much more exciting than we were hoping for,” he told me. “It looked a bit like Kill Bill in there for a while.”

I laughed out loud. I told him that didn’t make me feel good knowing our first one was arriving in just a few months, and he reminded me that every one was different. And that the birth of their first son, Elias, was much easier than this. I told him I was just glad to know both Salla and the little one were doing all right.

He told me they asked if he’d like to cut the umbilical cord, and he said he told them he would let them do what they do, and not get in the way. I thought that was wise, and I told him I was looking forward to meeting the little guy, and to let me know if there was anything at all I could do to help. And then I thanked him for the call. I was so thankful, at the moment, for their friendship.

A Challenge from Home

I was working from the library at college the next day when I received an Instant Message from a friend back home. We hadn’t talked for a while, and he was checking in to ask how things were going. I told him things were going all right. That I was just plugging away on finals prep, but really missing my wife.

He didn’t realize we had made the decision for Jen to stay back home while I prepared for and finished my exams. Both Jen and I knew how much time my studies would take, and that I’d hardly be around to care for her and look after her, were she here with me. We both knew the first several months of her pregnancy were incredibly difficult on her. She had lost 20 pounds almost immediately, and she needed quite a bit of help from her family.

If anything were to happen to her, and if she needed to be looked after again, we knew it’d be best for her to be there, rather than here. Even though it was easily one of the most difficult decisions we’d made. Knowing we’d end up being apart for nearly six months, during our first pregnancy. And even though we both made this decision with tears in our eyes, over Skype.

But it was during this Instant Message conversation with my friend from back home that I was challenged on our decision. He told me that it would be my decision to neglect my wife over my studies, if she were to return. And I really struggled with that comment. Seated there in the library, surrounded by my books, his comment made me think maybe I had made the wrong decision.

I was anxious to talk with Jen when we caught up later that night on Skype, and she reminded me this was something we were in agreement on, and that she thought this was what was best, even though we both wanted to be together, and even though it was incredibly difficult. I thanked her for her reminder. And for her encouragement.

She smiled at me, with that beautiful smile, and we talked a bit longer before I told her “goodnight,” and continued on with my studies, well into the early morning hours.

Words of Encouragement from a Stranger

I gave a tour of the Kilns a couple days later, for two American teenagers and their mother. They were from Wheaton, Illinios, and they were thrilled to be visiting the Kilns for the first time.

When they were getting ready to leave, after the tour, the mom, who had asked if I was married earlier on in the tour, and who I had told about Jen being pregnant and back home, turned to me and said something that took me completely off guard.

She encouraged me to not let what other people might say get to me about our decision to stick it out here, and to have Jen stay there, as I prepare for my finals. I thought this was strange, because I hadn’t mentioned to her that anyone had even said anything about it.

This woman encouraged me to not worry what others say, as long as Jen and I were in agreement, and that what I was doing here was really important.

Before leaving, she turned to me and said, “You know, your daughter will never know that you weren’t there during this time. If she were 10, then that’d be much more difficult.”

I was struck by the timing of her comment, and I was so encouraged by it.

Easter Sunday: Waking up the World

Easter Sunday came just a few days later. And I’m not sure why, exactly, but I had really been wanting to take part in a sunrise service here in Oxford, and late the night before I finally managed to find one. It started at 6:00 in the city center, which is a 20-minute bike ride away. So I set my alarm for 4:30 the next morning.

When my alarm went off at 4:30, just four hours after going to bed, I begrudgingly picked up my phone and went to reset it for 15 mins later, so I could get a bit more sleep, but then I felt God calling out to me, saying “Idou!” (Greek for “Behold!” or “Look!”), “I am doing something new here! Come see!”

God doesn’t usually speak to me in Greek. So I figured this was probably important.

And it was bizarre, but even though I had been struggling to find the strength and motivation to get out of bed only moments before, I suddenly found myself excited to get up and to go celebrate this day.

I showered while the house slept, dressed, and then stepped outside into the still dark-morning. The birds were chirping as I climbed on my bike, and it was as if all of nature was waking up and attesting to this new thing God did on Easter Sunday.

As I rode to the city center in the dark, chilly morning air, I remembered the scene in the Bible when the women went to the tomb that first Easter Sunday, to pay their respects for Jesus, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had heard the same thing that morning. I wondered if God had woken them up and said, “Look! Come and see what I have done!”

And it made me so happy, to think that somehow, 2,000 years later, I was taking part in the same celebration.

I smiled as I rode past Magdalene Tower, remembering how packed High Street was on May Day around this same hour last year. When students stumbled out of their colleges, many wearing only their underwear, and carrying with them the last remnants of their alcohol from the party that had begun the night before.

I thought about the crowds that gathered for this May Day event, and I wondered where they all were on this Easter morning.

“How can you possibly be sleeping at such a time as this?” I thought to myself. And I felt like He was telling me, “The world is asleep, Ryan.”

About a dozen of us gathered at the top of the oldest tower in Oxford early this Easter Sunday morning. There were mostly gray-haired couples, dressed warmly with thick jackets, but there was one younger couple, around my age, as well as a 30-something father with his young son.

There was also a man who smelled a bit like alcohol, and who went pale when he arrived at the top of the tower and looked out across the high, 360-degree view of the city’s rooftops and steeples. Looking about, he turned around and went back down stairs, before finally returning about five minutes later, deciding to brave it.

We listened as verses 1 to 10 were read from Matthew 28, we sang several hymns, we prayed, and then we took communion, tearing pieces from an unsliced loaf of french bread, and drinking from a gobbet of red wine.

By the time we were done, the sun had just risen, casting light on the formerly dark city, and we left the church tower with smiles as the city woke up. And I couldn’t help but felt like we all left carrying with us light and joy and gratitude for this Great News. I couldn’t help but think, as I climbed back on my bike and made my way home, if the tomb really was empty that morning, if Jesus really is risen, then that’s got to change everything.

The world may very well be asleep, I thought, but we are called to wake it up.

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Day with Jen & Guy Fawkes Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting Guy Fawkes on Fire & Fireworks in South Park

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

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

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

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

I laughed out loud.

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

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

“It does me,” said Cole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Magdalene Chapel & Shadow proves the sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

5th week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes sense,” said Max.

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

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

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

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

“Meh…” I said with a smirk.

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

Proud of You

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One Will Ever Believe You

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Our Finnish Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finnish Survivor & Walter’s Warm Welcome

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

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

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

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

I laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Late-Night Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled.

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

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

Thursday: High Tea at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m picking things up on our second year at Oxford, even though I didn’t have a chance to wrap up last year while we were home over the summer. I apologize. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell the story of how last year finished at another point in time. Until then, here’s how our return to Oxford unfolded…

After being home for three and a half months, it was not easy to say goodbye to our friends and family back home when it came time to return to Oxford. We had grown awfully comfortable back home, and it felt like we were being uprooted all over again. Such is our life for now, it seems. But knowing where we were returning to did make things a bit easier.

Our new home

For those who might not know, we found out just before leaving last spring that we wouldn’t be able to live in the same place this year as we had last year. That was a pretty big disappointment. It was a beautiful home, everything was new, and the neighborhood was the nicest either of us had ever lived in (and likely ever will). As it turns out, the family we were living with (the family that gets invited over to Elton John’s place for parties, to hang with folks like J.K. Rowling and others) needed the space, as their parents were getting older, and they had been staying over more and more.

We understood, of course, but it was tough knowing we wouldn’t be returning to that home that had grown so comfortable to us. Our home search over the summer did not go so well. I’d continue to look for housing options from back in the States, but nothing seemed to come up that was in our budget and close enough to school. And this became more and more stressful the closer we came to making our departure.

Then, in September, I received an e-mail from Debbie, the woman who manages the Kilns here in Oxford (C.S. Lewis’s old home). Debbie is a professor at a university in Tennessee, and she’s on her sabbatical, living here at the Kilns and working on her own studies. Debbie prefaced her e-mail by saying she didn’t know if this was some crazy-Debbie question, or if this was a God thing, but she wanted to let us know that the C.S. Lewis Foundation was considering inviting a couple to live in the Kilns this year, and that she thought we’d be the perfect couple. She asked us to think about it, and to let her know if we were interested.

Those of you who know me, and who know C.S. Lewis is the very reason I’m here, studying theology in Oxford, will know how unreal that offer was to me. And it was. But knowing that Jen would be working for the Foundation, I wanted to make sure that wasn’t too much for her. I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel as though she could never get away from work, or that we were only living here because she knew I’d want to. And so we talked it over. We prayed for a week, and Jen came to me one day, while we were still back home, to let me know she thought this was a great fit for us, and that we should go for it. I agreed.

Our return to Oxford

After leaving home Sunday evening (our 11:40 p.m. flight was pushed back to 1:15 a.m. Monday morning), we touched down in London around 10:30 p.m. local time. We made our way through the meandering Heathrow hallways, through customs, and found our bags, sitting beside the carousel, heavy from their over-capacity packing. I threw them onto a luggage cart with a heave and then we made our way to the bus that would take us north to Oxford (about an hour’s journey).

But as we came out of the arrival’s gate, I noticed I didn’t recognize where we were at. I hadn’t landed here before, apparently, and so I wasn’t sure how to get to the bus station where we’d be catching the Oxford Tube (as there are several different bus stations at Heathrow). We walked toward the door I thought would lead us to the Tube, and I asked a guy who was approaching us if he knew where we could find the Oxford Tube.

“The bus?” he replied with a look of confusion. “I don’t think any more buses run to Oxford at this time of night. You’ll probably need to take a taxi.”

I thanked him and he continued on his way behind us. It was after 11:00, but I was sure the Tube ran later. And a taxi ride was out of the question. That’d surely cost us more than a £100 for the trip.

Quickly I remembered the lanyard around his neck. It was emblazoned with a taxi cab company’s logos.

“A taxi cab driver telling us we have to take a taxi from London to Oxford,” I said aloud, to Jen. “Go figure.”

After some walking, and some more asking (this time from a bus driver), we managed to find the place where our bus would meet us. But once we arrived, I looked on the schedule only to find that the last bus arrived at 11:10. It was now 11:30. My heart sank.

Thankfully, my wife is smarter than I am.

“Ryan,” she said, “the first bus comes at five after midnight. We’re fine.”

Jen and I took a seat on a bench beside the bus stop, under an overhead covering. It was nice to stop for a moment to catch our breath. And to talk. About our journey. About returning to Oxford and all we were doing.

It was raining when we arrived (it always seems to be raining when I arrive here), and the wind was beginning to pick up. The wind swept the rain between the overhead covering and a gap in the wall, so that there was a fine spray on our faces. I hoped the bus would come soon, so that we could escape into its warmth.

I checked my watch. It read 12:05. The bus was scheduled to arrive, and still there was no sight of it. Five more minutes passed and I began to worry we had somehow not read the schedule correctly. I called the number listed on the schedule, only to find the offices were closed (of course). I walked back to the bus station to ask someone if they knew anything about the where our bus might be, and they told me it was likely just running late.

They were right, and five minutes later, our large, looming bus pulled into the bus stop and we were soon being shuttled past the highway road signs on our way north to Oxford. I remembered the first time I traveled to Oxford. I was without Jen. And I remembered passing the same road signs. “Birmingham” is abbreviated as “B’ham” here, and I thought it funny having left “Bellingham” only a day earlier to be passing signs for “B’ham” here, 6,000 miles away.

We got off the bus at a park & ride in East Oxfordshire just after 1:00 in the morning, and we took a cab the short, five minute drive the rest of the way. I paid the cab driver and thanked him for helping us with our massive bags, before we passed through the small metal gate in the hedges and made our way to the front door. I rang the doorbell, and Debbie welcomed us with a warm smile, a hug, and  a loud “Heyyyyyy!” It was so good to see her, and it was an incredible feeling to be at the Kilns again.

The home was warm, and it was just as I remembered it. Quaint and comfortable. Old, in a way that kind of reminds you of your grandparent’s home, but warm and soothing. It was bright, with all the lights on, even in the 1:00 a.m. darkness outside.

We set our bags down in our room (which used to be Lewis’s brother Warnie’s room) and we joined Debbie in the kitchen. She had made some homemade soup that day, and some homemade cookies, and she offered both to us. We took a seat in the kitchen and she happily served us, as we happily accepted it. The warm soup tasted so good after a day’s worth of travels.

Debbie told us all that had happened at the house since we had been gone. About the different conferences that had been held, and about all the interesting people who had come through. She served us a plate of cheese and crackers, and when our soup bowls were empty, she offered to refill them. I was happy to let her.

By 2:00 a.m., both Jen and I were well fed and past tired from our travels. We were happy to say “goodnight” to Debbie and to retire to our bed, which had been done up by Debbie, with two chocolates resting on our pillows. It was so nice to return to Oxford and the Kilns, but this welcome made it that much better.

Tuesday: My first day back in Oxford & classes

My alarm went off at 7:00 on Tuesday morning, less than five hours after I had gone to bed that night, after traveling over night the night before. And yet, surprisingly, I was wide awake. It must have been the adrenaline. Preparing me for what would be an incredibly busy return to my classes. Preparing me to punch out a presentation and two essays in only a few days’ time.

We had returned to Oxford a week later than we would have otherwise. Steve, my best friend, was married the day before we left, and I was the best man in the wedding. So, rather than fly to England for a week, fly home for the weekend, and then fly back to Oxford for the second week of classes, I made arrangements before I left to do my first week’s work from home (which ended up just being reading, as my essays were due second week).

Unlike when we arrived, Tuesday morning was a beautiful day. It was sunny, and the blue skies only carried a handful of floating white clouds. I got ready quickly, only stopping long enough to shower and shave, but not to eat, before I made my way out of the house, down the lane, and onto the bus that would take me into the city center, a 20-minute ride away.

And it was an odd feeling, riding past all these buildings I hadn’t seen for months, still just as I remembered. We drove over Magdalene Bridge and past Magdalene College, where Lewis used to teach, with its large stone tower and stone walls, and we continued along High Street. I got off the bus here, on High Street, and took a shortcut down a curving lane with high stone walls, where all I could see towering over the walls were the high tops of towers from neighboring college. I walked past the entrance to New College (an ironic name, considering it was built in the 1300’s), and continued through an even narrower passage, past several high-climbing, old apartment buildings, past the Turf Tavern (where Bill Clinton used to frequent when he was a Rhodes Scholar here at Oxford, and where an open door revealed a woman behind the bar humming as she cleaned glasses from the night before, and I made my way out onto the road that would take me directly to Harris Manchester College, my first stop for the day.

Walking past the large, stone walls that lead up to the entrance of Harris Manchester, that odd feeling returned. It seemed like I had been away forever, and yet, here it was, just as I remembered it. It was a bit like returning to a dream, a dream I had had long ago. But it wasn’t. It was real. All of it. And I was thrown back into the middle of it just as though I had never left.

I stopped into the front office, to pick up my key to the library, and, as I did, I thought I was going to be attacked.

“Ryannnnn! Helloooooo!” Amanda’s voice came pouring out of the front office window in that beautiful, singing British accent as I entered the room. Amanda works in the office, and she is quite possibly one of the sweetest women I have ever met. And her greeting immediately made me feel welcome.

“It is so good to see you again, Ryan. Welcome back.”

I picked up my key from Amanda, we talked for a few minutes about the summer, and then I was on my way up the large, stone staircase that leads into the library. As I made my through the large, wooden double-doors, I passed by the front desk, where Katrina, one of our librarian’s was working. The look one her face when she saw me was one of, near, shock.

“Ryan?…” she said as I approached her with a smile. “We didn’t know if you were coming back.”

Apparently my delayed return had not been shared with many, as this was the response I received for the next few days. I explained to Katrina why I was late returning, and how much I had to get done in the next few days.

“Well, we’re very happy to have you back, Ryan,” Katrina told me with a smile. “I was beginning to wonder if we had lost you to an American University.”

“Of course not,” I assured her. “Never.”

I continued to pass through the library and up the narrow, spiral staircase. Its metal frame creaking slightly as I climbed. I walked around the upstairs walkway toward where I normally sit to get started on my presentation that was due later that day, only to find the desk where I normally work filled with a pile of books on Economics.

“Of course,” I thought to myself as I sat my bags down on another table. “That’s what I get, I suppose.”

I opened up my computer and used the notes I had gathered while back home to punch out a presentation on John Calvin. I finished it five hours later, just in time, and I scooped up my things before making my way across town, to the Theology Faculty where the class would be held.

As I entered, the first person I saw was David, my first tutor from last year. An American who finished his Dphil here at Oxford and is now teaching. It was great running into him, and he looked very happy to see me.

“Ryan, how are you?” he said with a wide grin as we hugged.

He told me another one of the Theology students at my college had seen him the other day and asked if I wasn’t returning. I told him I had already gotten that as I shared our summer with him.

“So, are you living in the same place, then?” David asked me.

“No, actually. We aren’t. Which was tough. But we’re actually live in the Kilns, in C.S. Lewis’s old place, over in Headington.”

His eyebrows shot up behind his glasses.

“Really?! Oh, wow…”

“Yeah, we’re staying in his brother Warnie’s old bedroom.”

“You’re kidding! Ryan, that’s incredible! And that’s funny, because Julia and I were just talking, and she was saying it’d be nice to check out the CS Lewis Society some night. Is that something you’re still involved in?”

“Yeah, I am. I’m the President now, actually.”

Again, his face exploded with surprise. And he laughed. I told him I’d send him the list of speakers for the term, so that they could have a look and see when they’d like to join us. I also told him we’d love to have them out to the Kilns at some point, if they were ever interested in taking a tour.

“That’d be great. We’d really like that,” he said.

Tea, biscuits and Calvin

As we finished our conversation, John, a classmate of mine from last spring, walked past us, stopping when he noticed it was me. John is in my Calvin class, and I was excited to see him again. I said “goodbye” to David, told him I’d be in touch, and John and I made our way upstairs to our classroom.

We were early when we arrived, but Sarah, our tutor for the Calvin class, wasn’t far behind. I introduced myself to her, and she seemed very happy to meet me in-person (we had been in touch over e-mail while I was still back in the States). She was very nice. Young and upbeat. She excused herself shortly after saying “Hello,” so that she could go make some tea and grab some biscuits (cookies) for our class.

“Welcome back to Oxford,” I thought to myself with a smile.

John and I were scheduled to present that day. He went first. And quickly I felt intimidated for my own presentation. John’s a brilliant guy. But he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. Dressed as if he had just come back from the gym, he poured through his presentation with ease, telling us why he disagreed with this scholar, and what he thought about that scholar. Apparently John’s father is a rather well-known pastor and successful author here in Britain. But, again, you’d never know it. He’d never come right out and say it.

I followed John with my presentation. And it went well, I thought, but I prefaced it by saying it would be quite a bit more thin than John’s. And it was. I finished much more quickly than John did. But Sarah thanked me very much after I was done, and told me she thought it was great. There were four other girls in the class (more than two people in a class is a rarity for Oxford, but it’s typical for our special Theologian classes). We had a brief time of questions following our presentations, over tea and biscuits. And 90-minutes later, we were saying our goodbyes and packing up.

I spoke with John for a few minutes before making my way back to Harris Manchester. I asked him if he had some dental work done over the summer.

“Yeah, I did, actually,” he said with a smile at my having noticed.

He explained that he had gotten into a bike accident over the summer and had some damage done to his front teeth. He said the dentist told him, while they were making the repairs, that they might as well straighten things out a bit for him.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. You look very American!” I told him with a laugh. He laughed, too.

“All you need now is a bit of bleaching and you’ll fit right in.” He laughed again.

“That’s right, very Hollywood.”

I said “goodbye” to John and made my way toward Harris Manchester. To get a bit more reading done before heading to the Oxford University CS Lewis Society, which meets on Tuesday nights.

And as I walked across the city center, I realized I had yet to eat that day, having been too busy working on my presentation to stop for lunch. I glanced at my watch. It was nearly six now. “Still time to catch the Alternative Tuck and a panini before it closes,” I thought to myself on my walk. If I hurry.

I entered the small sandwich shop just around the corner from Harris Manchester only a few minutes before it closed for the night, and instantly the guys in the shop recognized me. Smiles spread across the faces of those behind the counter. “Hey, are you okay?” they asked me (a traditional greeting here in England, which threw me off the first few times I heard it).

“Yeah, I’m doing really well. Happy to be back,” I told them. “I just got in early this morning, so I’m still adjusting to things, but it’s good to be back.”

We talked for a few minutes while my sandwich was being made. I asked them about their summer, where they had vacationed (in the Lake District), and how business had been (“Better now that school is going again”) before saying “Goodbye” and returning to Harris Manchester and the library. I managed to get a bit of my reading for the next day’s essay done before grabbing my things, again, and returning back across the city center to the CS Lewis Society meeting.

“I’ll be happy to have a bike again,” I thought to myself as I made my way back down Broad Street, between the tall,stone buildings on either side of the road. I never walk this much back home, and it always takes me longer than I imagine. But it does provide a nice opportunity to take in all the old buildings again. Walking past the high walls of Oriel College, I peaked in-between the gate to take in the College’s ivy covered stone walls in all of its grandeur, along with its sweeping green grass lawns. Oxford is such a beautiful place, and there’s nothing like it, so far as I’ve seen, back home.

First night back at the Lewis Society

I made my way to Pusey House (pronounced “pew-sea”), where the Lewis Society meets, and I greeted our speaker for the evening, as he was standing in the doorway talking with the Porter (the official title of the door guards found at all of the colleges and halls here in Oxford). Brendan, our speaker for the evening, is a past President of the Society. He’s an American, I believe, who is wrapping up his Dphil here at Oxford after spending some time in Germany with his wife, another Lewis scholar. He wears a long beard, and he looks a bit like the guy from Iron & Wine. But he’s super nice, soft spoken, and incredibly bright.

We made our way up the tight, stone spiral staircase and shortly after we entered the room, Walter Hooper came in flocked by a large group of students.

“Walter, it’s so good to see you again!” I said, greeting him with a smile.

I asked him if he had brought all these students with him. And he laughed.

“No, I’m afraid not,” he told me, wearing a wide smile. Having only talked once or twice over the summer, by e-mail, It was so good to see him again.

I introduced myself to start the meeting, mentioning a few announcements before introducing our speaker for the night. Brendan took his place at the front of the room to the sound of clapping as I took my seat in the front row. I listened to his talk on “C.S. Lewis on Relations Between the Churches,” and, as I did, I began to wonder quietly to myself, how in the world am I here? How in the world is it possible that I am studying at the same place as this guy?… He’s brilliant. And then I began to wonder how long it’d be before someone in the Society found me out and my role as President was revoked.

An hour and a half later, after the presentation and a brief time of Q&A, I was making my way back across the city center to hop on a bus and return to the Kilns. I hadn’t seen Jen all day, and I was about ready to collapse from fatigue.

I had a business conference call with someone from the States scheduled for 10:30 that night. Jen greeted me at the front door of the Kilns. It was so nice to see her, but it only lasted for a moment as I had to setup in the common room for my call.

An hour later, Jen and I were talking over a bowl of Debbie’s leftover soup in the kitchen. And cookies.

Jen has a tough time adjusting to the time difference coming this way, whereas I’m the opposite. Here, she struggles to fall asleep before 3 or 4 in the morning. And, because of that, she usually doesn’t wake up until well after noon. Other than dealing with the time difference, though, Jen was doing really well. Her and Debbie had spent that afternoon getting things settled here, as a tour had come through.

It was so nice to see her that evening. After my first full day back. I was overcome with fatigue from travel and studies, but also filled with excitement about being back in Oxford, and all that came with it. It was so exciting to me to think that this, this was going to be our home for the next year. And, as tired as I was, I was so excited to think about how it was all going to unfold.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday: A trip to London with Rob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner with Walter & My First night as President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sound of clapping once again filled the room.

Wednesday: Goodbye to one, Hello to two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon:  Dude, he’s killer

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

Brandon:  Jesus lover for sure

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

G.Brandon:  Thats because he loves Jesus

Saying “hello” to two more

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

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

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

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

Business at Hotel Pemberton was booming this week.

Thursday: Essay day and dinner with Jen 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: My 2nd European Reformation Tutorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last thing I expected to see in England

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Last day of Greek & a plant for Rhona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napping in the Oriel courtyard

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

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

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

“Perfect,” I thought to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’re you doing?” Casey asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A birthday Kilns tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s the place.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Celebrating Walter’s 80th birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Nietsche for breakfast and “Think Week”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raised my eyebrows a bit.

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

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

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

Think Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” he said, “it was Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: A humbling quiz and helping a Brit

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked concerned.

“Is something wrong?” she asked me.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I told her.

“What kind would you like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Returning home rejoicing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,

wherever He may send you.

May He guide you through the wilderness,

protect you through the storm.

May He bring you home rejoicing

at the wonders He has shown you.

May He bring you home rejoicing

once again into our doors.

Sunday: Tacos and laughs at Rob & Vanessa’s

I’ve been meaning to catch up with Rob & Vanessa since returning to Oxford from the holidays. But things have been busy. For me and for them.

But they sent out an e-mail this week. Asking a group of friends over for mexican food. On Sunday night. I wasn’t doing anything, and I’m not one to turn down a free Mexican dinner. So I wrote back, telling them I was looking forward to it.

After a full day of studies, I grabbed my jacket and hopped on my bike, racing through the city center in the cool, black night air on my way to Rob & Vanessa’s. It’s about a 10-minute bike ride from our place.

I locked up my bike out front and made my way to their apartment. Rob’s doing his MBA here at Oxford, and so they live right across from the Business school. In student accomodations. Which is basically an apartment complex full of business students. And usually spouses. Seems like everyone I’ve met in the MBA program is married.

Another couple was making their way up the stairs just ahead of me.

“Going to Rob & Vanessa’s place?” I asked.

“Yeah, you too?” the wife asked.

“Yep. Hi, I’m Ryan,” I said, holding shaking the guy’s hand first, then then his wife’s.

“Tyler,” he said.

“Hi, I’m Lauren,” she said.

“Good to meet you guys.”

Rob and Vanessa’s apartment was full by the time we got there. Several other couples were talking in the living room, while Vanessa finished preparations for dinner with a few other people crammed into their tiny kitchen.

Most of the people there that night were from the MBA program. And by “most” I mean, I wasn’t.

I talked with Tyler and another guy in the living room while the final touches were being put on the dinner. Tyler was telling us about a trip to London they just returned from. For a Business school dinner. At the Oxford & Cambridge Club.

I had never heard of such a place. But apparently it’s where Oxford & Cambridge alumni can spend loads of money on a membership so they have a place to book a room from or eat dinner at when they’re in London. Seemed like a pretty good deal to me.

Apparently it was an alumni dinner, which current MBA students were invited to. Tyler told us how they had interpreted that as an opportunity to go have dinner with alumni who have been in business for a while, and talk about job opportunities. But apparently that’s not what happened.

“It was a very high table event,” Tyler explained. “You had the big guys at their table, all the alumni on one side of the room, and then all of us current students off in our own corner, to ourselves.”

Apparently they were asked not even to talk to the alumni, which I thought was pretty funny.

Vanessa let us all know dinner was now being served a few minutes after that. Everyone’s conversations quieted. Heads bowed. And Rob blessed the food for us.

Vanessa warned us about the salsa Tyler and Lauren had brought. To be careful. As it was quite hot. The fact that it was orange was a good sign of that, I thought.

“That’s how we like it in Texas,” Lauren said. “I’m used to it. I eat this stuff on my cereal.”

I told them I had been born in Texas, before moving to the Northwest.

“Oh yeah? Where abouts?” Lauren asked.

“Just outside of Dallas,” I told her. “Grand Prairie.”

“Oh yeah. All right.”

I always say “just outside of Dallas” whenever I’m asked where I was born. Out of habit. Because no one from outside of Texas has any idea where Grand Prairie is.

We dished up our plates. Chicken tacos (with gluten-free chicken, Vanessa informed us). Rice. Beans. Chips and salsa. And took our seats around Rob & Vanessa’s living room to eat and talk.

I dipped a chip into the orange salsa, just to give it a test ride. Vanessa wasn’t joking. It was ridiculous.

We got onto the topic of TV shows. A conversation I’m always lost in. Lots of laughs were had about this or that episode of The Office. People gave their thoughts on how Lost had ended. And whether they thought it resolved or not. I kept waiting for Friday Night Lights to come up. But it never did. So I enjoyed my taco and pretended to know what was being talked about.

After a while, the conversation changed to travel. As one of the couples there that night had literally arrived with their luggage in-tow from their trip to Paris.

Lauren and Tyler told us about the trip they had taken to a museum while in London. And how Lauren had her picture taken hugging the Rosetta Stone. And how she went back the next day with someone else and took her to see it. After pointing to a large stone behind a piece of glass, Lauren insisted that wasn’t actually the Rosetta Stone, and that she had gotten her picture with it the day before. And how she had been able to touch it. But, sure enough, there was the plaque, showing pretty clearly this was the Rosetta Stone.

Lauren was pretty confused, but on the way out, she passed by the hallway she had been before, with “the Rosetta Stone” she had gotten her picture taken with. And that’s when she noticed the sign above the door of this hallway, which read, “Hall of Replicas.”

We all laughed. Wondering how many people took their picture with “the Rosetta Stone” or other ancient artifacts and then went home never knowing any better.

“Why would they even have that at the museum?” I asked, in-between laughs. “That must just be for the Americans who they know are going to want to touch everything and not know any better.”

Monday: Two for two on the headlight

I was talking with Steve on Monday from Harris Manchester’s library. On Skype. It was good to catch up with him.

I told him my bike headlight had been stolen at the end of the last week. And that I was glad my Grandpa had sent me an extra so I didn’t have to go out and buy a new one.

I told him I figured if this one got stolen too, that I’d just duct tape one of the many flashlights my Grandpa had sent us to the front of my bike as a substitute. He told me he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

I worked late into the evening that night. And at one point I swore I heard snoring. Even with music playing in my earphones. I turned around to find the guy behind me with his head down on his desk snoring away. It was the same guy who several days earlier started singing to the music playing in his earphones, without realizing. It was the second time in a week this guy made me laugh out loud in the library.

I left the library late that night. After reading all day. To head home and fix something for dinner.

And I was less than impressed when I found my bike where I left it that night. Minus the headlight.

“Well, it’s a good thing I have plenty of flashlights at home, I guess,” I thought to myself while unlocking my bike and riding away.

Tuesday: A beautiful day in Oxford

Tuesday was a beautiful sunny day here in Oxford. It wasn’t the first sunny day we’ve had this term, but this day was just beautiful. And actually warm.

I grabbed a panini for lunch and decided to eat outside. It was the first time I’ve been able to do so since arriving. I sat beside a tree across the street from Harris Manchester. Squinting my eyes as I ate my panini, staring up at the college in front of me.

“It really does look like a castle,” I thought to myself while enjoying my sandwich, as if suddenly seeing the college for the first time, in the sun.

The clouds overhead were shot through by the trails of airplanes, and it was a gorgeous day to be enjoying a panini outside, under the bright blue sky.

Wednesday: Apologetics & Talking Lewis over medium rare beef

I recently joined a Christian Apologetics group here in Oxford. The idea is to get together and give talks on different questions people might have about the faith. “How can we believe in God if pain and evil and suffering exist?” “Are all religions basically the same thing?” “Has science disproved God?”

The idea being that this will be good practice for us to go out and give such talks elsewhere, after we’ve given each other feedback. I loved the idea. Where better to find people to shoot holes through your talk than here in Oxford, I figured.

I talked this Wednesday on the topic of pain and suffering. And how we can believe in God, even in the midst of such evil. And it went really well. Particularly since I hadn’t had a chance to really put my talk together until around 11:45 the night before.

One of the guys there is basically in charge of training and organizing people to do these kind of talks here in Oxford. He told me afterward that he listens to a lot of speakers. That’s all he does, actually. And that I was in the top percentage of those he’s heard.

“Easily in the top 50%, but pushing into that Champion Level,” he said, motioning his hand up as if to make his point.

“Oh wow,” I said. “Well thank you.”

I really enjoy getting together with those guys. For these talks. This was just my second time, but each time I feel more and more that this is something I’d love to do more of.

Dinner with Michael Ward

From there, I raced off to meet up with Michael Ward. Michael is the Chaplain at one of the colleges here in Oxford. And he’s also on the Theology Faculty. He’s most well-known here for being the resident C.S. Lewis Scholar. And for writing a couple books on Lewis that have done really well, especially back in the States. He’s the same author who was interviewed by my cousin KC on the radio last term when the new Chronicles of Narnia came out in theatres.

I had met Michael pretty early on last term at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society events. Really nice guy. Incredibly bright. And after hearing Jen was going to be back in the States for a bit yet, he asked if I’d like to grab dinner one night. So we did.

I met him at St. Peter’s College that evening. It was my first time there. It’s a beautiful college. More modern than many here in Oxford. And on the small side. But I really liked it. He showed me into their chapel for a quick look. And he bragged a bit about their choir, which is apparently one of the best in Oxford. He told me he would have shown me around the chapel a bit more, but there was a cellist practicing on the far end, and he didn’t want to disturb him.

We walked to a restaurant around the corner from St. Peter’s. A french place. I didn’t catch the name, but I had noticed it before. It looked really nice, from the street. And it looked really nice from inside, too.

Very modern, with smiley waitstaff.

We found a seat by the window and began looking over the menu. I asked Michael if he had any recommendations. He did. He recommended the prime rib dinner for two, which gave him 10 extra respect points in my book.

“But it’s a bit on the spendy side,” he said. “Particularly for students without any money.”

He asked me how much I was planning on spending. And then he said he’d take care of the rest if that sounded good to me. I told him that sounded great to me.

The waitress came a few minutes later and took our order. When she asked how we wanted it prepared, Michael told her medium rare. Another 10 respect points in my book.

I had a great time getting to talk with Michael. I had only talked to him in short conversations before. I enjoyed hearing a bit more about his interests in Lewis. About his own work. About why he thought Lewis was more popular in the States than here in the UK (“He’s English, through and through, but he’s also quite direct and pointed in his writing, and I think the American audience appreciates that,” he said. “I think people forget Lewis was born in Ireland, and that certainly plays a role in his tone.”)

He told me how this idea for his books had come to him while he was working on his PhD. How he had been planning on writing something totally different, but then this thought just came to him one night. Totally unrelated to what he had been working on. Not even close to what he had been thinking about. And how it had completely changed his life. How he had been given the opportunity to travel all over the world to talk about it. And how he saw it as a gift from God, rather than a reflection of his own clever mind.

I told him I really appreciated hearing that. There are far too many people who want to take all the credit for how clever they are. Particularly when it comes to their work.

He asked me about my own interests in Lewis. And so I told him. I told him about reading “Mere Christianity” for the first time as a sophomore in college. And how that had literally changed my life. How I realized you don’t have to sacrifice your intellect to approach this faith, and how Lewis had shown me that. I told him about the crazy journey that brought us here, and how I was in Oxford because of Lewis.

Michael seemed to appreciate hearing about that story, as he smiled a lot while listening. And nodded in agreement.

He then asked me if I had realized the Oxford CS Lewis Society was losing its President to graduation after this year, and if I had put any thought to that.

I was taken aback by his question, but I told him I had realized that, yeah.

“Well, I wanted you to know your name has been discussed for that role,” he told me from across the table, wearing a slight smile.”

“Really?” I said, with big eyes. “Wow… Well that’s, that’s great.”

“Well, what do you think?” he asked me.

“I think it’s an honor to even be considered for that role,” I told him. “And I think I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything else I’d rather get behind here in Oxford.”

Again, I think he was happy to hear that, as his slight smile had now grown into a full-blown smile.

He told me it wasn’t his decision. That it was the current President’s decision. But that he thought I’d make a great fit, and that he’d be talking with him.

I was blown away. It wasn’t that long ago I was dreaming about coming to Oxford because of this man. Because of C.S. Lewis. And now I was being considered for the role of President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. It was at that point that I felt my chair lift off the ground a little bit.

Friday: A scene from Harry Potter at New College

I was on my way to Harris Manchester on Friday afternoon to punch out my Patristics essay when Emily asked me if I had taken a look around New College yet.

“No, I haven’t,” I told her.

New College isn’t actually very new. It was established in 1379. So, apparently it was new around that time.

It’s on a street I walk by after Greek every day on my way to Harris Manchester, but I’ve never actually been in to walk around. Emily asked if I had five minutes to check it out. She said she had just walked through it the other day and it was pretty amazing. Realizing I really haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities to see so many of these amazing buildings, I took her up on it.

And I’m glad I did. It’s an incredible place. It’s enormous, for one…

…but it’s also really, really old. And it shows it, in spots. One of the older, inner walls still has slots for archers, for example.

Emily told me that one of the scenes from Harry Potter had apparently been filmed here (the’ ferret scene’ in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). In the courtyard. What they call “cloisters.”

It’s a pretty cool spot. The cloisters. Old, arched stone hallways, with a stone floor underfoot, surround a large, grassy courtyard. And a large tree sits off in a corner of the square. With a bench underneath it.

It really was an incredible spot. And no one was around on this morning. No one except a handful of birds chirping in the tree overhead.

As we left New College, and made our way back to Harris Manchester, I couldn’t help but feel in awe. Of this incredible place. And all the buildings I walk by on a daily basis without checking them out. Without taking them in. The colleges aren’t open to the public, but all I have to do is show my card if I’m asked.

I really need to do a better job of taking advantage of all there is to see here.

Saturday: In Lewis old Chapel

Michael sent me an e-mail at the end of the week. Asking if I’d like to join him and David (the current Oxford Lewis Society President) for a chapel service at Magdelene College (pronounced “Maw-delene”) that Saturday night. At the college where Lewis used to teach.

I told him that sounded great. And that I had been looking for an excuse to visit Magdelene.

It was a beautiful night Saturday. It had been a clear day, so the stars seemed to be shining even brighter than normal in the dark night sky overhead. David arrived just as I did, so we entered the grounds at Magdalene College at the same time. And instantly I was taken aback.

The square courtyard was surrounded by these gigantic stone walls that reached high into the sky. It was amazing. Michael crossed the square and greeted David and I shortly after we arrived.

“Hello gentleman,” he said in his deep voice, wearing a smile.

“This really is your first time visiting the old hallowed halls, huh Ryan?” he asked me.

“Yeah, it is.”

“Well, you are in for a treat,” he told me.

He was right. The chapel and the service were both amazing.

Entering the candlelit room, I felt like I was going back in time. The wooden ceiling loomed high overhead. The walls are ornately carved wood. And candles lined the rows and rows of seats. With their high backs. The seats are tiered, and they look toward the center of the room, so that you’re looking at those seated on the opposite side of the room as you. The choir entered in their white robes shortly after we arrived. And they delivered an incredible performance.

They have this service every night, apparently. But Saturday nights are particularly good, Michael told us. I kept thinking how much I wanted to bring Jennifer there with me, to see and experience all of this.

“Next week,” I thought to myself. “Next week.”

After the service, Michael pointed toward a plaque on the wall, behind one of the seats at the end of the room.

“C.S. Lewis,” it read. Amazing. I was sitting in the same chapel Lewis sat in for all those years he taught here at Oxford. Amazing.

As we made our way out of the chapel that evening, Michael introduced me to the Bishop who had given the message that evening.

“This is Ryan Pemberton,” Michael said to him as we shook hands. “And he’s going to be our newest President for the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society.”

“Really? Well that’s wonderful,” he said to me with a smile. Apparently he’s a former President of the Society himself.

It was news to me, as we hadn’t talked about it anymore since dinner earlier in the week. And so I was taken aback. But also elated. Incredibly excited. I’m sure I was grinning from ear to ear like a little boy. But I didn’t care. I was in Magdalene College, and I had just been named the next Oxford C.S. Lewis Society President. I was ecstatic.

Tuesday Night: Even more excited

I was so excited getting that news Saturday night. I shared the news with Jen when I got back in. And she was incredibly excited for me as well, knowing how much that’d mean to me.

But, as exciting as that news was, I have even more exciting news… In about 10 hours, I will be greeting my wife at the London Heathrow Airport. With the biggest hug I can manage.

I haven’t seen her in more than five weeks at this point. The last time we went that long without seeing each other, I was a freshman in college. My first time around. Around eight years ago.

I’m terribly excited to see her again. And to be together. It’s been an incredible time being back here in Oxford, but it’s just not the same without my other half. I’m looking forward to enjoying this time together as the Pembertons again. And the next time I wake up, I’m looking forward to doing just that.

Thanks for reading.

%d bloggers like this: