Archives for posts with tag: Don King

Saturday: Day 1 of Final Exams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope so,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Becoming a Godfather

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

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

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

More than Halfway There

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Sick to my Stomach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Final Finals Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting My Pen Down For the Last Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tear-Filled Phone Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The E-mail I Never Thought I Would Write

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

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

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

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

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

God is So Good

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

And her response took me off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Saying Goodbye to the Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: My Last Tours

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

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

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

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

Sorry to Go, Excited For the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories Are Not People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast in the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

When All Our Dreams Came True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, take me back to the start.”

The End Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love and gratitude,

Ryan (& Jen)

www.RyanAndJenGoToEngland.wordpress.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

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

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

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

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

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

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

The Oxford Open Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

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

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

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Making sense of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Metaphor in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was crushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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