Archives for posts with tag: Emily

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: Lewis wasn’t a saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Noah & Owen’s Baptism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I didn’t understand Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Almost there & It’s not Harry Potter

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

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

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

“Yeah, like a band-aid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Another one of Oxford’s hidden treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan the Scapegoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Banana ketchup & Christmas in January

My second weekend back in Oxford was spent in the books. Nearly non-stop. I had just handed in a paper on Friday, on the question of natural law, and I had another one due Monday, on the topic of religious pluralism. And yes, most of my reading for Monday’s essay had been left for that weekend.

My greatest excitement on Saturday came when Jonathan knocked on my door at 10.30 that night and asked if I’d like to go to the “big” Sainsbury’s with him. I had hardly been grocery shopping in the two weeks since I’d returned, and I desperately needed to stock up (not to mention the fact that I was happy to take a break from the books), so I grabbed my jacket and we were on our way.

Sainsbury’s is a chain of English grocery stores. We refer to this particular location as “big” Sainsbury’s because it’s easily about five times as big as any other grocery store in Oxford. But the funny part is, it’s the size of your average grocery store back home, in the States.

Jonathan and I talked about my reading in religious pluralism as we made our way into the store. He grabbed a push cart and I grabbed a hand-basket. I don’t know what it is, but I do all I can to avoid push carts. I was quickly second-guessing my decision, though. My basket was soon overflowing with groceries as I realized just how many things I didn’t have at the house.

One of the great things about “big” Sainsbury’s is that they carry a lot of things you just can’t find in the other grocery stores in Oxford. Like seeded hamburger buns. I was so excited to find actual hamburger buns with sesame seeds, and not dinner rolls. I grabbed a box of oatmeal and laughed to myself at some of the crazy English flavors. Like chocolate caramel. I wondered to how that’d go over in the States as I continued my shopping. Probably better than I’d imagine.

I wandered the aisles while I waited for Jonathan to finish, and I found something called “banana ketchup” in the ethnic food aisle. I read the label and wondered to myself what I’d put it on. This is what you do at 11.00 at night when you’re a student. You stand in Aisle 11 and wonder to yourself what banana ketchup would go with. I nearly put it in my basket, but then I reminded myself I’m a student, and that banana ketchup equated to one lunch at the Alternative Tuck Shop. I ended up replacing it on the shelf, and I caught up with Jonathan as he was finishing his shopping.

Jonathan is great about finding what’s on sale (“on offer” as he said in his accent, so thick I didn’t understand it the first time around), and then turning it into an amazing meal.  He showed me the “crackling” pork and crown prince squash he’d found. I usually just find what I know. Like seeded hamburger buns.

We returned to the Kilns that night and unloaded our groceries, and Jonathan asked if I’d like to have some steak and cous cous if he prepared it. One of my life rules is to never turn down a meal made by Jonathan. If it includes steak, it’s non-negotiable.

Debbie wandered into the kitchen while Jonathan was preparing the food, and she ended up joining us. Debbie doesn’t eat meat, so she just had the cous cous. As we cleaned our plates I excused myself and returned a minute later with two presents in-hand. One for Debbie, and one for Jonathan. It was nearly a month late, but I had picked up Christmas presents for them while I was back home. A “Seattle” t-shirt and chocolates for Debbie. Roasted coffee beans and a mug from Woods Coffee, my favorite coffee shop back home, for Jonathan. They both really seemed to like their gifts, and I told Jonathan he had to share his.

Sunday: House dinner & Big news

I continued digging away at my never-ending pile of reading on Sunday. Until our house dinner that evening. Jonathan was preparing the meal, and we were having several friends over. Stephanie, whose an American studying on a degree up north. She’s working on Lewis research, and she stayed here at the Kilns last year for a bit. And Christina, who lived here at the Kilns last year, for the final year of her Dphil.

Jonathan prepared an amazing dinner, as he always seems to do. And we laughed as we enjoyed several plates full of food.

Someone was telling a story when Debbie, who’s a medieval literature professor back in the States and all-around Tolkien fan, interjected and said, “That’s just like Lord of the Rings!”

Without missing a beat, Christina piped up and said, “Of course it’s just like Lord of the Rings. Everything’s just like Lord of the Rings!”

“Wow,” I said, in-between laughter. “Watch out for Christina tonight. She’s calling people out!”

“Sorry,” Christina said with a look of embarrassment. “That’s what happens when you live on your own.” Everyone laughed.

Stephanie told us about the bbq she got invited to join at the hostel in the Oxford city center, where she was staying on this particular visit. She told us about how she was disappointed when she found out it wasn’t so much a bbq as she understood it (she’s from mississippi), as a hot grill and some brisket.

I told Jonathan we ought to go stay at the hostel for a weekend, for the experience. Christina didn’t think it’d work.

“Jonathan can’t stay at a hostel,” she said matter-of-factly. “His accent is too posh.”

“He can use his American accent,” I assured her. Jonathan pulled his bottom lip up and nodded in agreement.

Before our food had a chance to settle, I excused myself to the kitchen and returned with the brownies and ice cream I had prepared. Several minutes later, we had all cleared our bowls, pushed ourselves back from the table, and I was nearly asleep in my chair. After a bit of washing up, I thanked Jonathan for the meal, said ‘goodbye’ to Stephanie and Christina, and I returned to my desk. For more reading. Until late into the night.

An imaginary conversation with the wife of my youth

Christina had asked about Jennifer over dinner. About how she was doing back home. Everyone asks me about Jen, lately. And about when she is returning. I appreciate it, because it shows they care. But it’s also a painful reminder of her absence, every time.

And as I returned to my desk and cracked open my books, all I could think about was how much I missed her. How much I wanted my best friend with me. To see. To hold. To talk with.

I have some great friends here, so it’s not like I’m always on my own. I had just come from an incredible meal with great friends and laughter, for example, but it felt so empty without her there. After a while, things just seem to pale in comparison, with her not here.

I bring her up in conversation all the time. Without even thinking about it, because she’s always on my mind.

I found myself, on this particular evening, missing so much about her. Like the way her eyes light up when she talks. I’m pretty sure they don’t actually glimmer, but they do in my mind, when I picture her.

The way she can say a hundred words with just a smile. Or a half-smile. And then, when she does open her mouth, she only uses as many words as she has to. She’s efficient, Jen.

I found myself missing the way she tucks her hair behind her ear, and how she folds her hands in front of her when she talks. She tells it like it is, Jen. And I appreciate that. She’s sincere, and considerate, to be sure, but she never layers it on. Jen’s not about excess, in anything. She knows when I need a compliment, and she gives it. But most times, she only tells me what I need. And I think that’s the way it ought to be.

I found myself missing how she puts her head on my shoulder, softly, when she hugs me. I found myself missing the way our room smells when she’s here. Kissing her forehead before I leave in the morning, and before I fall asleep at night. I found myself missing the feeling of her head resting on my chest when I lay in bed at night, and the sound of her soft breathing when she’s fallen asleep before me. I found myself missing her eyes. Eyes that speak more truth than a hundred words. She’s efficient, Jen. And I was missing her dreadfully.

I was passing through our bedroom the day before, on my way out the back door, when I passed by a framed photo of us that sits on the mantle in our bedroom. The photo frame reads, “Smile,” and the photo is of us smiling at the camera while I held it at arm’s length and snapped the picture. I pass this photo several times a day, without thinking twice. But this time it caused me to stop, and stare at it. To stare at that smile, really. That same smile that stole my heart more than 10 years ago. That smile that still stops me dead in my tracks. And all of a sudden I realized how very much I miss my best friend.

I switched out my laptop wallpaper the other day. From a photo of a lighthouse on an ocean shore with boats and blue skies to a photo of Jen. It’s one of my favorite photos of her. It’s from years ago, at a concert at the Gorge, an incredible outdoor amphitheatre built on the side of a canyon back in Washington State.

She’s sitting on a hillside, it’s a sunny day, and the wind swept her hair across her face just before the photo was taken. She wasn’t ready for it, and so she’s not smiling or anything. She’s just staring at the camera with strands of hair delicately hugging her face. And she looks so beautiful. But she’d never admit it. And she’d smile with embarrassment, scrunch up her face and say “really?” if I told her how beautiful she looked. But she does, she looks so beautiful.

And it was here, from my desk in C.S. Lewis’s brother Warnie’s old room where I found myself staring at her photo on my computer wallpaper. Her eyes were staring right back into mine, and for a moment, it felt like she was really there, staring right back at me.

Even though I was alone, in our study, and Jen was still 6,000 miles away, in my mind I heard her ask, “What? What is it?” And so, in my mind, without thinking twice, I told her. I told this photo of Jen from eight years ago I missed her. I told her I missed her so much.

She asked me why, again, in my mind, and I told her it was because I was in England, going back to school, and she was still in the States. She looked surprised, sitting on this buff in Washington State eight years ago, but once she got her mind around this news, she asked me if I was enjoying it, if I was happy. And I told her I was. I told her I really do like it here, but it’s just that I miss her, when she’s not here. She told me she understood. And, in my mind, she said she was sure she missed me too. And that she was sure she’d be there with me if she could.

And so that’s when I told her. I told her the reason she was still back at home…

…I told her the reason we are now 6,000 miles apart is because she is pregnant. With our first child. And her eyes got big with excitement at this news.

“Reeeally?!…” she said, drawing out the word. “I am?!” I smiled. And told her yes, we are.

She asked me how long we’ve been married at this point. I told her five and a half years. “You mean I have to wait that long to get pregnant?!”, she said with a smile that revealed just how excited she was at the thought of being pregnant.

Then I told her she was still back at home because she wasn’t feeling well. That she was feeling pretty nauseous, and she just didn’t feel up to flying that far on her own quite yet. I told her Leann, her sister, was really sick during her pregnancy the year before, and so we kind of figured she would be, too.

“You mean Leann had a baby before me?!” she asked, with surprise, and a bit of frustration. “What about Hayley?” she asked again, without pausing. “Do I have a baby before Hayley?”

I paused for a moment, before assuring her she did.

“What? Why’d you pause?” she asked me, with a look of confusion.

“Oh, nothing,” I said. “I… I was just thinking how much I know you wanted to be the first. I’m really sorry about that.”

She smiled at me, and her hair brushed across her face as the summer breeze played with it.

“It’s okay,” she told me with a smile. She was still beaming at this news, with her eyes glimmering in the afternoon sun as she stared back into mine.

And then, that was it. That was the end of our conversation, as I realized I was still seated at my desk, staring at the wallpaper on my computer screen, having an imaginative conversation with the wife of my youth. And I felt, quite possibly, even more alone as I washed my face in the cold water of our sink, toweled off my face, and then returned to my books.

2nd week

Monday: A hit-and-run & What about those who don’t believe in Jesus?

After reading until after 2 a.m., I was up at 7 on Monday morning. I grabbed a quick bite to eat, showered before anyone else in the house was up, and then I was out the door. I circled the house to get my bike and I was frozen when I realized it was nowhere to be found. For several seconds, I was sure it had been stolen, but then I remembered I had left it at College on Friday night, as Jonathan had picked me up before the movie.

I ended up being just in time to catch the bus, which is fortunate, as it only comes every 30 minutes. I cracked open my book for some last-minute reading and 20 minutes later the bus dropped me off in the city center. I continued reading as I walk the meandering cobblestone alleys to College.

I made a quick stop into the Alternative Tuck Shop to grab an Americano and help fuel my essay writing. One of the guys from the cafe was helping a customer across the street as I entered. A blind gentleman I remembered from last year. When Emily helped him cross the road.

I wanted to say something. That I thought I admired him taking the time to stop what he was doing to do that. But I didn’t. Instead, I made small talk with the guy behind the register, and pretended like I hadn’t actually noticed it.

I thanked them for the coffee and made my way to college, just around the corner, where I fumbled my way through the library doors, with one hand carrying my Americano, one hand carrying several books, and my bag balancing precariously on my shoulder. I mouthed “Hi” to Katrina, the librarian, as I entered, with a smile, and I made my way up the metal, spiral staircase towards my desk.

I passed by Emily as I did, who I don’t normally see in the library so early. When she looked up, I looked down at my watch then quickly looked at her with a look of surprise and mouthed, “It’s early!” She laughed outloud, even with her headphones on.

I made my way to my desk, in the corner window spot on the second floor, and I began plugging away on my essay.

My essay was due at 4.00 that afternoon, and I finished it at a quarter ’til. I hurried to print it off, hopped on my bike and then rode as quickly as I could toward St Giles and Dr Kennedy’s office.

But just after passing the Sheldonian Theatre, I heard the sound of something hitting the pavement and I looked back to find my bike lock sitting there in the middle of the road. I stopped, turned my bike around and headed toward it, just in time to see a large delivery truck heading my way, and just in time to watch it run directly over my bike lock.

“Nooooo!” I shouted as I watched its snakelike body flail under the weight of the truck. I hurried back to pick it up off the street just before a double-decker tour bus whizzed by. I threw it in the old metal basket that sits just behind my seat and hurried off to the Theology Faculty Office, hoping it was okay.

Once I arrived, I parked my bike beside the metal gate outside the office’s front door and attempted to lock it up using my bike lock, only to find it was no longer locking.

“Great…” I thought to myself, as people passed by on the sidewalk behind me. Thinking quickly, so as not to be late to my tutorial, I placed the bike lock so that it looked like it was properly locked, even though someone could easily walk up and walk off with it. I set off for Philip’s office, secretly hoping no one would figure it out and walk off with my bike.

Our friend the Pope & Social transformation

This thought was sitting in the back of my mind for the next hour of my tutorial with Philip, where we were discussing whether salvation is available to those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. It was a great question, and I really enjoyed reading and writing on it. I read several people who I agreed with, and lots of people I disagreed with, and I was excited to talk about it with Dr Kennedy. Or Philip, as he insists on me calling him.

And he’s great. He never makes me feel bad for what I don’t know, but, rather, he makes me feel pretty good about what I do know. At the same time, he drops little hints of people I can read for more information.

He was really positive about my essay, though, saying he thought I did a good job of civilly presenting all the sides, and still arguing my point. We talked about religious plurality, about extremists, and about some of the ideas in our faith we’d frankly prefer to do without.

“Like our friend the Pope,” Philip said with a mischievous grin, “Who still believes that women cannot be trained ministers.”

I didn’t comment on the point, but I did tell him I appreciated his reference to the Pope as “our friend.” Philip always refers to the Pope as “our friend,” particularly when he disagrees with him.

We talked about what makes Christianity unique from other world religions. And we talked about the role of a prophet, and Philip used the phrase “socially transforming” to describe such people. I loved that phrase, “socially transforming,” and I told him so, as I paused from my frantic pace of taking notes long enough to lift my head.

“Well they are, aren’t they?” he said, pausing from what he was saying, to respond to my comment. “Prophets care about justice,” he said, his voice growing in excitement and seriousness, at the same time. “They care about their message, and they’re not afraid to stand up to those in authority to get it across. They want to change the world!”

Soon, our hour together was up, and we were talking about the next essay we’d be discussing. I told Philip I liked his shirt, a black checkered shirt just like mine, except he wore his under a sweater. He laughed, and said, “Oh, it’s just plain.” I don’t think he realized the reason I said I liked his shirt was because I was wearing a similar one.

“I like ‘plain’ things,” I thought to myself. “Like checkered shirts.”

He said he’d see me in a fortnight, and he waved goodbye with a smile as I left his office. I made my way out of his office and I was very happy to find my bike still waiting for me out front, with my  faulty bike lock still pretending to hold it secure to the metal railings. I pulled the lock off without a hint of resistance and threw it in the basket, along with my bag, before hopping on my bike and heading back to the library at Harris Manchester. One essay down, one more to go for the week.

Tuesday: Growing old together & How quickly things change

I took a break from my reading on Tuesday afternoon to head to an Ethics lecture at Christ Church. I passed through a large stone gate on the east side of the College, and I made my way to the lecture hall along the cobblestone foot path. And as I walked, I found I was still in awe of the architecture there, at Christ Church. It made me recall the time I first visited Oxford with Jen, two summers ago.

I remember walking the Christ Church grounds on our first visit to Oxford and thinking, “How incredible would it be to actually study here?” That’s what I was thinking as I was nearly swallowed up in a tour group of teenage students dressed in Oxford sweatshirts, on my way to this lecture at Christ Church.

The lecture for that afternoon was on marriage. We talked about divorce, and the roles of husbands and wives. And, somewhere along the way, the lecturer referenced a passage from the Book of Tobit, from the Apocrypha, on the topic marriage. It talked about how the author, Tobias, prayed with his wife on the night of their wedding. That God, the creator of marriage, would grant them mercy and allow them to grow old together. And I thought that was beautiful. I made a mental note to ask God for the same thing in my prayers, as I scribbled down notes during the lecture.

It was after 11:00 by the time I made it home for dinner that night, after returning to the library for some more reading that evening. After dishing up a plate of dinner, I returned to my room and phoned up Jen on Skype. She was watching Khloe, our niece, and it was great to get to see them both.

Khloe had just her 1-year birthday party, and I was bummed to have missed it. As we talked, I remembered how incredible it was to see Jen holding Khloe just after her birth this time last year. Now, here Khloe was, a year later, waving goodbye to me with a couple teeth revealed in her grin, as our Skype call came to an end. And I couldn’t help but think how quickly things change.

Wednesday: I love baptisms & So tired I could puke

I was on my way to an inter-religious talk Wednesday night, in-between time at the library and more time at the library, when I ran into my good friend Jerrod on Cornmarket St. He told me their two boys were going to be baptized that Sunday, and they’d love to have me there for that, if I was interested and available.

“No pressure, and you can totally say no, but the boys are getting baptized on Sunday…”

“Awesome! I’d love to be there.” I told him, without letting him finish.

“Yeah?” his eyes got big behind his glasses. “Cool! Okay, great, well we’d love to have you.”

I get excited for baptisms. I don’t know how that sounds, really, but I do. I get really excited for baptisms. It’s like throwing a “Welcome Home” party, to me. And to be there, to see it for yourself, that’s something else. I told Jerrod I’d meet them at their place on Sunday morning, and head to church with them.

I returned to the library after attending this talk Wednesday night. Tucking back into my books just after 8 that night. And, it wasn’t like me, but I finally had to turn in at 9.30. I was tired, my eyes were struggling to stay open, and I felt like I was going to throw up from my hunger and fatigue.

I struggled on the bike ride home, with the wind blowing the rain sideways as I peddled up Headington Hill. My hair was completely soaked by the time I arrived. I grabbed a quick dinner and then had a Skype call with Jen, but I was so tired I was nearly falling asleep on the call.

“I’m going to let you go so you can go to bed, hun,” Jen told me. “But go to bed, okay?!”

“Mmmmhmmm.” I said, with a smile, with my head leaning heavily on my arm, before saying “goodnight.”

45 minutes later, after I finished reading a chapter on Christian Virtues, I closed down my computer and headed to bed. I’m pretty sure one of the reasons God brought Jen and I together is to save me from myself.

Thursday: Lunch at Keble & Oh, Stanley

I met up with a guy  by the name of Will on Thursday for lunch. My friend David had introduced us at church the Sunday before. Will had just moved to Oxford, with his wife and their young daughter, from Cambridge, where he had recently finished his DPhil. He had a part-time teaching gig here at Oxford, at Keble College. I had never eaten at Keble before, and I was happy to take him up on his offer.

It had been a nice day, but it began to rain halfway there. I quickly became soaked as I peddled toward Keble, arriving with a wet head of hair to greet Will. He wore a blazer and a sweater and a shirt with a tie, and I felt completely under-dressed. We made our way inside and Will offered to take my coat before pushing against a seemingly inconspicuous wall, only to reveal a hidden coat closet. That’s when I realized I wanted a hidden door that reveals a coat closet in my home when I grow up.

We entered the dining room and I quickly realized this wasn’t where the students ate, as my eyes took in the many grey-haired, well-dressed men and women already gathered around the table. Will and I were easily the youngest in the room. And I was easily the most casually dressed.

We started with some soup and bread before moving onto the main course, salmon and potatoes, and then finishing with a walnut tart. It was all very, very good. By far one of the best lunches I’ve had at any of the colleges since arriving in Oxford.

After our three-course meal, we retired to the Senior Common Room for coffee, and to chat a bit more. David had shared with Will that I was living at the Kilns, and he was excited to ask me about Lewis, as he was currently reading one of his biographies with his wife.

“You’ll have to come check out the Kilns when you’ve finished the book,” I told Will, thanking him for the very tasty meal, before grabbing my jacket from the hidden coat closet and making my way toward my bike.

A different approach to ethics

I stopped into the Theology Faculty Library, after lunch, on my way back to Harris Manchester, to pick up a book I needed that wasn’t at our College library. I found it in the basement and when I set it down at the check out desk, the librarian looked at the cover and said, “Oh, Stanley,” in a warm tone, as if she had just run into an old friend she hadn’t seen for a while. It made me wonder what was so special about this guy, as Matt, my tutor, had really made a point to emphasize his work in my reading list.

I plowed through more reading that afternoon before taking a short break at qtr till 6 that evening, for a trip to the Alternative Tuck Shop. I grabbed a sandwich and some coffee, as fuel for what would likely be a very late night, with my essay due the next day. I’m not sure if it was the coffee or actually what I was reading, but I found myself falling in love with (Stanley) Hauerwas’ approach to ethics and morality.

In what was otherwise a rather cold, clinical look at morality, here was this (Protestant) professor from Duke saying, “You want to know how to live a moral life? It’s by the story you’re trying to tell, and how closely you actually live in a way that looks like that story.”

And I thought that was beautiful. He didn’t outline a long list of rules one needed to follow, or he didn’t even pick out one virtue or character trait and say this, this is the central aim you need to live your life for in order to live a moral life. No, instead, he said those who live their life according to a good story will live a good life.

He went on to point out that those who live life as a Christian are going to try to live according to a different story than others. And they’ll often fail, he noted, but that doesn’t mean they’re trying to live according to a bad story (quite the opposite!).

His approach to ethics was like a breath of fresh air. And I found myself filled with a deep sense of joy at the beauty of his approach to explaining this topic, which he did not only in an aesthetically pleasing way, but in an intellectually satisfying way. And that’s incredibly rare. I found myself realizing just why this librarian had greeted Stanley’s book like an old friend.

At 11 that night, I was finally kicked out of the library, knowing I had much work left to do that evening. I returned home, opened up my computer and my books, and I continued to plug away until well after 2.00 the next morning.

Friday: My first moose

I was up early the next morning, to head to college and finish my essay for the day. I ran into Jonathan on my way out, stopped for just long enough to say ‘goodbye,’ and I was quickly out the door. I peddled as quickly as I could through Headington, I cruised down Headington Hill, with the cold air beating my face until it felt numb, and I passed several small cars coasting down the hill as I went.

“Good morning, Sue,” I said, passing her on her way down the stone staircase leading to HMC’s second floor, and to the library. I was back in the library as soon as it opened that morning, the first one in.

I wrote frantically all day, and I managed to finish just in time. I made my way across the city center for my tutorial, and we had a great discussion, but I was beat by the time I made it back to the library. Olli and Salla had invited me over to their place for dinner that night, and a movie, and, as much as I was looking forward to it, I began to wonder how I was going to stay awake.

Olli and Salla live just a couple miles away from Harris Manchester, where I was studying that afternoon, on the other side of the river, and on the opposite side of the city center from the Kilns. 10 minutes after hopping on my bike at College, I was pulling my bike up in front of their place and knocking on the front door.

Elias, Olli and Salla’s son, let me in, and I was thankful to find the warm air from inside their home come rushing out to meet me. It had been a chilly ride, and I warmed my hands with my breath before removing my jacket. Olli came in to greet me shortly after Elias let me in, welcoming me with a smile and a handshake. Salla greeted me after that, with a wide smile, squinted eyes, and a hug, “Hi Ryannnn,” she said, in her Finnish accent.

Olli was preparing dinner when I arrived. “Moose,” he told me. Apparently his uncle had killed it on a recent hunting trip, and they brought some back to Oxford with them. He invited me to try some after he had cooked it, “Before I add all the spices, so you can get a true taste for it.”

It was a bright red color, almost like a steak that had hardly been cooked. I hesitated or a half-second, but since he invited me to taste it, I was sure it was actually cooked. I took a fork from Salla, stabbed a chunk of the red moose flesh and put it to my mouth. The texture was soft, almost like tuna sashimi. And the meat had a very mild flavor. The closest thing I could think of, as comparison, was a very good beef roast. “That is really good,” I told Olli. He smiled proudly.

We gathered around the table and enjoyed the moose yakisoba Olli had prepared for us. We talked about the cultural differences between America and England and Finnland, and I told them how much trouble the English accent gave me coming here as an American. This surprised Salla, it seemed, so I explained. “It wasn’t until I came here that I realized, the British speak English, but we speak American.” There’s definitely a difference.

After dinner, Elias played in his room and the three of us watched a movie from the comforts of their overstuffed leather couches, which welcomed me like a bear hug as I sank comfortably into their embrace. We talked for a bit after the movie, and soon I was thanking Salla for the evening.

Olli walked me out to unlock my bike, and he told me about some of the lectures he had been attending this term, including a philosophy lecture that was “beyond him,” as he described it.

He’d never own up to it, but Olli’s an incredibly bright guy. I remembered my conversation with Jason, another Finnish friend, and a good friend of Olli’s. Jason had told me Olli had his PhD by the time he was 24.

“Well, if it’s beyond you, then there’s no point of me going,” I told Ollie. He smiled and looked away sheepishly. We talked about the ridiculously intelligent people we’ve come across here at Oxford, and how the average here is so much higher here than anywhere else either of us had ever been.

“If you have  low self-esteem, Oxford is not a good place for you,” Olli said with a laugh, in his Finnish accent. “The smartest kids in the world come here.” I smiled, and nodded, noting that for Olli to say so is really saying something.

I thanked Olli for a great night. For the moose. For the conversation. And then I was off, peddling toward the city center and then east toward the Kilns. I was still so tired, even more so now, and I was half-worried I was going to fall asleep while peddling my bike back to the Kilns. Fortunately, it was so cold that the chattering of my teeth kept me awake long enough to make it home and tuck into bed for the evening.

Saturday: London the day after the Royal Wedding

This was Steve’s third time visiting us in England since we moved over. Steve had never been to London before, and we hadn’t made a trip there on either of his two previous trips. His fiance, Jamie, is an avid traveler, and, having been to London, she insisted that he needed to go.

I was sure Jamie would strangle him if I sent Steve back without a trip to London yet again. I didn’t want my best friend to be strangled, so I decided we’d better make it happen. (I’m just kidding, by the way. Jamie’s great. And I don’t think she actually strangles people.)

So Saturday morning Steve and I hopped on a bus and headed to the city. As we pulled out of the bus station, the driver came on the intercom and welcomed us. He told us about how long it’d take to get to London, and after a few minutes of chatter, he told us to make sure our seatbelts were on. I thought this was funny, because the seat in front of me was taller than I was, which I figured would make sure I wasn’t going anywhere in the event of an emergency stop. Steve obediently put his on, while I looked out the window at the countryside passing by on this sunny morning.

“Do I need to go tell the bus driver the guy next to me isn’t wearing his seat belt?” Steve joked, turning toward me. I laughed. “Yeah, actually,” I replied. “I’d love to see how that goes for you.”

I asked him what, in particular, he was hoping to take in while we were there. He told me he wasn’t a big sight-seeing guy, and so a lot of the typical sights he could probably do without. He said he would be interested in seeing Westminster Abbey, though, as it was the day after the Royal Wedding and all. I told him I’d take him to Harrod’s, too, as I figured he’d like to see that.

My eyes grew heavy as we talked and soon I found myself drifting into a bit of a nap while the bus scooted smoothly along the freeway, leading us through the countryside and toward London.

We picked up a map shortly after arriving in London. I found Harrod’s on the map and soon we were off in that direction. Walking past Hyde Park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the park was interspersed with people enjoying being outside on this particularly nice afternoon. Some with their dogs. Some with their kids. A handful of couples.

We passed a small men’s clothing store along the way. With a window full of ties on display. Steve wanted to step inside to see if anything stood out to him for his wedding, so we did. There was a long table in the middle of the store overflowing with ties in neat rows, organized by color. Steve picked through them while I made my way around the store, glancing at ties and suit jackets.

The owner of the store came up from a staircase that led downstairs and asked us if we needed any help. Steve told him we were looking for some ties for his wedding, and so they talked for a bit. He ended up finding a tie he liked. For himself. So he picked it up for his wedding.

As we were checking out, I asked the shop owner what the previous day had been like for him. The day of the Royal Wedding.

“Slow,” he said. He told us this side of town, even though it wasn’t far from Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace, was just empty. That it was a bit of a ghost town. Because people were either at one of those two locations for the big day, or watching it on TV.

We thanked him for the tie and continued to make our way to Harrods. When we finally arrived a couple miles later, we took in the store’s window displays, filled with different designs of Royal Wedding cakes. Some were big and extravagant, others were more modern and simple. Some were covered in great displays of the Union Jack, others were a bit more subtle. After taking in more than 30 Royal Wedding cake designs, we walked through the large double doors and found our way around Harrods.

We passed through the watch selection in the jewelry department, with glass cases filled with rows of watches that cost as much as a small home, before entering the market and restaurants section of Harrod’s first floor. Steve found Laduree, a small, french bakery known for its macaroons, and bought a small box filled with a variety of flavors. He shared with me that Laduree was the creator of the French macaroon. He was happy.

We continued upstairs, passing through the men’s department, filled with suits and ties, and we noticed the opera music playing over the speaker system. Or, at least, that’s what we assumed we were hearing. We rounded a corner only to find a woman in a gown with a white shawl over her shoulders standing on a balcony and singing. “Much more impressive than a speaker system,” I thought to myself.

After we had enough of Harrod’s, we made our way across West London and found our way to Westminster Abbey, the site of the Royal Wedding the day before. I had been to Westminster Abbey several times, but I had never seen it so busy. There were people lined up around the entire block, waiting to get inside for a tour. The lawn in front of the large church was filled with people as well. We snapped a couple quick pictures and then escaped from what felt like a mob scene.

Across the street from Westminster Abbey is Parliament and Big Ben. Since Steve hadn’t been before, we made the short walk around Parliament’s expansive building and halfway across the large bridge that crosses the River Thames so we could take in the view. The view from Westminster Bridge, with Parliament and Big Ben on one side, and the London Eye on the other, is my favorite view in all of London. It’s really quite something.

From there, we made our way back across town and walked around Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t nearly as busy as Westminster Abbey, but it was still full of its fair share of tourists snapping photos. City workers were still working on tearing down large platforms and scaffolding, which we assumed were used to house the media from all around the world on the big day. Most of the chairs had been removed, it looked like, but a few stragglers gave a hint as to just how big this event had been.

When we had snapped some photos in front of Buckingham Palace, we walked along St. James Park and made our way back toward Marble Arch, where we had been dropped off by our bus earlier that day. Neither one of us had eaten since that morning, and it was now nearly 5:00. We found a pub along the way, thanks to a young British guy in a top-hat and tuxedo standing in front of a hotel, and we both ordered large burgers at the bar when we arrived. It was a nice end to Steve’s first time in London, sitting there in the wood-covered pub, with something like five different TVs all playing video and running commentary of the previous day’s wedding events. We clinked our water glasses together and dug into our burgers when they arrived, wasting little time in our hunger.

The Marble Arch bus stop was only a short walk from the pub and we were soon speeding northwest on the M40, the large bus scooting along smoothly in the evening air.

Sunday: 1 Year Later & Roses on the River

Sunday was a tough day. We knew it would be. May 1 was the one-year anniversary of saying goodbye to our sister, Hayley. We knew it’d be made extra difficult being away from our family. Being so far from home. Neither one of us were looking forward to this day. But we wanted to use it to remember Hayley. In a special way. I had picked up a bunch of roses. Pink. Hayley’s favorite color. Two days earlier. And I had a plan on how we could use them to make sure Hayley was honored, even from here in Oxford.

Steve was gone when we woke up that morning. He left for the city center, wanting to give us space. It wasn’t expected, or even suggested, but he’s thoughtful that way.

We slept in a bit and, when we both were up, I made us breakfast. We took our time that morning. And when we were finally ready, we left the house and made our way toward the river. To the Cherwell River Boathouse. I carried Hayley’s pink roses in my hand. And Jen’s hand in my other.

Walking down a gravel lane about a half-mile from our home, the small pebbles crunching beneath our feet, we came up to the boathouse. A long, wooden building with a low roof that sloped toward the river. Several tables were spread out on one side of the building. And there was an open door halfway down the front of the building, facing the river, where you could rent boats. I handed the man behind the desk my debit card, a guy around my age, with tattoos on his arm and large, circular earrings. He asked how long we wanted it for, and I told him an hour would do. He pointed us toward the next room over. A large, open garage. And told us to grab our punting pole, seat cushions, and a paddle and then head to our boat. Anyone we wanted. So we did.

Jen got in first. I handed her the pole and the cushions and the paddle. I untied the rope that fastened the punt to the dock and then hurried to enter the boat before it gently scooted away, out into the smooth-surfaced river.

“You want me to go first, to get us out of here?” Jen asked me, standing at the rear of the boat with the long pole in her hand. “That way you can see how to do it and then take it from there?”

“Sure. Yeah, that sounds good,” I said, taking a seat in the center of the boat as we glided softly into the middle of the river. Jen used the long pole to straighten us out and then, just like that, we were moving north along the river. Floating as the boat rocked ever so gently from side to side.

“You really know what you’re doing,” I told Jen, from my seat in the boat, she standing several feet behind me. “I could get used to this.”

There were a handful of other boats on the water that day, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy. It still felt a bit like an escape. It was still relaxing.

“Okay, are you ready to take it from here?” Jen asked me, after we had made it a ways from the dock. And the other boats.

“Yeah, yeah I can do that, I guess,” I said, somewhat hesitantly. I was enjoying my seat. And the ride. But I also definitely wanted to give punting a shot.

Jen and I traded spots, her now sitting in the middle of the boat, and me now standing at the rear. I used the pole to push off the bottom of the river, and quickly noticed it wasn’t nearly as easy as Jen made it look. The bottom of the river was quite muddy, which meant the pole would stick with each shove. It took some getting used to, but soon we were moving again.

“Use your pole to steer us,” Jen told me. “Like a rudder. Let it float and gently move it from side to side.”

When we had made it a ways further, and when there were no longer any boats around, Jen opened the bouquet of roses. And handed me one. I let the pole rest gently in one hand, and took the rose in the other. I shared a memory of Hayley. Jen smiled. Then I laid the rose softly on the surface of the river. And watched it float along the side of the boat, with tears in my eyes, before trailing behind us.

When it was a ways off, I returned to punting, taking the pole in my hand and pushing off the bottom of the river. We moved along a bit further and then Jen took a rose for herself. She held it in one hand, turning it over and over while sharing a memory of Hayley. One that meant a lot to her. Before reaching her arm over the side of the boat and placing the pink rose on the river. Then, slowly, it was floating along behind us.

We continued along the river. Sharing memories. And dropping roses. Until all that was left was a string of roses. And a string of our memories. Of Hayley. Of our sister. Who left us long before we thought she should.

When all our roses were gone, I said a short prayer. Thanking God for the gift of memories. And for the gift of the time we had with Hayley. Time we wouldn’t trade for anything. For, even though this pain seemed so deep that afternoon while floating along the river, the joy of those memories was deeper. And even though we floated along with tears in our eyes, we also floated along with joy in our hearts. From each memory. And from the knowledge that, where her pain once resided, now there was only Light and Joy and Peace.

I was thankful for that time with my wife. We had not been looking forward to this day. But it turned out much better than either one of us imagined. We ended it with a night of worship at St. Aldate’s, dinner at Tom’s Thai pub, and ice cream at G&D’s. And laughter. Around a table full of friends.

I’m learning that’s how it seems to go. Life. We fear so much. And then, time and time again, He shows up. Bringing with Him light for the darkness we so fear.

That’s how May 1 was for us. Where we thought we’d find only pain and hurt and darkness, there was joy and laughter, even amongst the tears. He is good. Even in the valleys, He is good.

Tuesday: Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Steve, Saying ‘Hello’ to Greek

Tuesday was the day we said ‘goodbye’ to Steve and I said ‘hello’ to my first official day of Trinity Term, my last term of my first year at Oxford.

We called a cab for Steve and I rode with him back to Gloucester Green, along the same route we had walked so many times before. Back and forth between the city center and our home on Northmoor Road. We had had another great time with Steve here in Oxford, and I told him how much we appreciated him taking the time to come visit us.

The cab driver let us out at Gloucester Green, in a circle of large buses coming and going. I said ‘goodbye’ to Steve before he boarded one of the large buses himself and made his way back to London. Back to the airport. And back to the States.

It’s rare to have a friend who’s willing to travel so far to visit, I thought to myself as I made my way across the city center. To cross the Atlantic several times, as Steve has for us. What an incredible gift, I thought to myself. But soon, those warm thoughts were lost in a feeling of being completely overwhelmed by my return to Greek.

I wouldn’t be taking Greek this term as I had the two terms before. Not three times a week, with regular quizzes and translations to submit. Instead, I’d merely be sitting in on a translation class, where we’d walk through the text together and take turns reading and translating the text verse by verse. Much better than the nightmare I woke up to three times a week the previous terms, I figured.

Rhona had sent out an e-mail telling us about the different reading classes available to us this term. One by her, and another by another tutor, Nick King at Campion Hall. I had met Nick before. He’s a very nice, older British man. With a head of silver grey hair, neatly kept, and a sharp witted sense of humor. I chose Nick’s class for the term, not merely for his humor, or for a change, so much as because he would be covering the text I would be tested on as part of my final exams the following spring. That seemed to be the most obvious choice for me.

In her e-mail, Rhona said there’d be no need to prepare for our first day. So I didn’t. Entering Campion Hall, I made my way into a large room with a group huddled in a circle around a group of tables that had been squeezed together to form a large rectangle. Books were piled up in the middle of the table, and the group had just begun reading a passage from Matthew. In Greek. I took a seat on the right side of the circle and quickly noticed two good friends from Rhona’s class: Emily, on one side of the circle, and Lyndon on the other. Lyndon gave me a smile and a gentle wave.

Quickly, I realized everyone in the room was quite proficient in their Greek reading and translation, moving through the text at a dizzying pace. The reading didn’t scare me, but it was the translation that made me rather nervous. Soon, it was my turn. I read aloud my verse and then gave my best at translating, stumbling through a series of unfamiliar Greek words. The fact that I had hardly looked at my Greek over the two-month long vacation certainly didn’t help.

I soon found myself stuck on a word I was completely stumped on. I shook my head and confessed to Nick, who was seated across the large circle from me, that I had no idea what the translation was. The circle of students around the table were quiet, eyes on Nick and myself. He told me it was very similar to the Latin word of the same meaning, thinking surely that would be of help. It wasn’t. It was, instead, merely a reminder of another word I don’t know, and a bit like pouring salt in an open wound.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I don’t know Latin.” Someone else piped in with the answer and soon we were moving quickly back around the circle.

I felt horrible. Ashamed at how atrocious my Greek was, particularly in a group of students who were so proficient. I was quickly reminded Oxford attracts some sizable brains.

Before packing up and leaving for the afternoon, I noticed the students to my left and my right had notes on the text. From the looks of it, they had walked through the Greek and written out their translation in English.

“Well that would’ve saved me some embarrassment,” I thought to myself as I packed up my things. I caught up with Emily and Lyndon outside of Campion Hall afterwards. First Emily, then Lyndon. Emily seemed to share my sense of being completely overwhelmed with the return to Greek, which I appreciated, as I iced my wounds from the embarrassing scene. Lyndon fared better than us both, but he, too, shared in our sentiments when he caught up with us. Particularly with Nick’s attempt to use Latin to spur on my Greek.

“Don’t you love that?” Lyndon said with a smile and a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

It was an embarrassing first showing, to be sure, but it helped to know that, at least some of the others, had prepared in advance. I’d make sure I did the same come next week.

Wednesday: Open Forum & Atheism

I spent most of Wednesday working on my essay for the week, which was due Thursday evening. It was on the European Reformation. A topic I’m not well-versed in, which meant I needed to sink extra time into my reading just to get up to speed on the topic.

Wednesday night provided a break from the essay work, though, as it was our first Open Forum evening of the new term. We decided to change things up a bit with the Open Forum this term, choosing to have one worldview represented each week. We’d invite someone from a particular background, be it Atheism, Buddhism, Catholicism, etc., and give them 10-15 minutes to talk about their beliefs. After that, we’d spend the rest of the time in Q&A.

For our first night, we invited Alex to talk about Atheism. Alex is the president of the Oxford Atheist Society, so he was a perfect choice for the evening. And he did a great job.

Alex shared with us why he thought “Atheist” is a fair title, even though many in his camp tend to take issue with it. He explained their point, that we don’t have to carry a title because we don’t believe in fairies, yet we do when we don’t believe in God. He explained that many Atheists take it for granted that anyone would believe in God, but Alex said this is the case anytime you aren’t in the majority. And Theists have always been in the majority. Alex is a smart guy. He’s young, still in his early 20’s, and I appreciate his reasoning.

He talked a bit more about his own personal beliefs before we opened things up for questions. Jen was joining us this evening, along with her friend and co-worker Melissa from the Kilns. Jen asked Alex about the path that had brought him from Catholicism to Atheism. He had shared this story with us on a previous occasion, but Jen hadn’t been there. He gave us the condensed version, and then fielded some more questions.

I asked Alex something that had been on my mind, while listening to him talk. I asked him how his beliefs impact his life or the lives around him on a daily basis. In a practical way.

He looked almost confused by the question. Scrunching his eyebrows behind his glasses as he thought about the question for a few seconds before answering.

“It doesn’t,” he said, looking toward me. “But I don’t think we should look to such beliefs to do that.”

We wrapped up the night on that note, and I found myself chewing on his comment as we left the meeting. I agreed, we certainly shouldn’t “choose” our religion based on what it does for us. Or others. We should believe something because it’s true, and not for what it does for us. Which is why I believe the Christian account.

But Christianity does more than that. More than merely accounting for creation and our role in it, this faith reminds me I’m not the center of the universe, a reminder I often need. Christianity calls me to die to myself, to serve others and to love God with all I have. Christianity warns me against spending my short time on this earth worshipping myself or created things, which comes so easily to us. And I think that makes a difference, both in my life and in the lives of those around me.

I compared this with Alex’s response to my question: “How does your faith impact your life and the lives of those around you?” . . . “It doesn’t.”

How sad, I thought to myself, as we made our walk back north to Northmoor Road. And, as we made our way back home, I was wondering if Alex was thinking the same thing about his beliefs.

Thursday: Senior Tutor Mtg

Thursday morning I was scheduled to sit down with the Senior Tutor and Principal at College. To review my academic progress, and make sure everything was going okay. Everyone at Harris Manchester has this meeting at the start of the term, which means these meetings are super short. Only five minutes or so.

I made my way out of the library Thursday morning and up the wooden staircase leading to the Principal’s office for my meeting. Principal Waller met me at the door with a big, beaming smile and a warm, British, “Hello.”

He asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, and I thanked him but said, “No thank you.”

Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated at a desk near the window with some papers in her hand. My tutors’ reports, I assumed. She looked up from them as I entered and welcomed me.

Lesley is pretty straightforward, which I appreciate, so there was little small-talk. I had plenty of work to get back to in submitting my first week’s essay, and I’m sure the fact that they had plenty of other students to see helped, too.

“Well, we’re very happy with your work,” Lesley said, looking from her papers to me with a warm smile. Principal Waller looked at me and smiled as well. I thanked them, and I told them I was very happy to hear that. And then I let their words set in while they continued to talk.

It’s just that, it’s still a little unreal for me to hear that. That Oxford is happy with my work . . . Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d hear that.

After several minutes, I made my way back down the stairs leading to Principal Waller’s office, down the hallway and up the stairs leading to the Harris Manchester library. To wrap up my essay, which would take up the rest of my day.

Friday: My first European Reformation Tutorial

I made my way to Wycliffe Hall Friday morning for my first tutorial of the term. Wycliffe Hall is one of the few evangelical schools at Oxford. It’s where Lyndon is a member. My tutor for this paper teaches for Wycliffe, which is why my tutorial was there, in his office.

Walking up to Wycliffe, I met my classmate for the term. John Ash. I had met John during my first term at Oxford. When I had come to Wycliffe for lunch with another John I knew. From Greek class. John’s a tall guy. Maybe 6’2″. With dark brown hair and an athletic frame. I found out later he’s a rower.

“Ryan, good to see you again,” he said, greeting me with a smile. “I thought I recognized your name,” he commented, referring to the e-mail our tutor Andrew had sent out to us both before the start of the term.

We entered through a tall door and climbed a wooden, spiral staircase. We found Andrew’s door at the top of the stairs and, knocking, heard him answer from within.

“Hello,” he answered, in his low, British accent. “Come in.”

We did. Andrew stood up from his seat in the middle of the cramped office space. Cramped because it was not only small, but because it was filled to the brim with books and boxes. Bookshelves lined the walls of his triangle-shaped office, climbing high up into the ceiling. And boxes sat around the office’s floor, stacked on one another, leaving just enough room for three chairs.

Andrew is a younger guy, with close-shaven hair that’s nearly as long as the scruffy beard on his face. He has big, attentive eyes, and he welcomed us as we entered the room.

“Hello,” he said, greeting us. “Squeeze in and find a chair.”

I turned my shoulders and did my best to squeeze around him and into the chair on the opposite side of the small room. Taking my seat, Andrew and John did the same before he welcomed us.

We talked briefly about what brought us here to Oxford, and what we’ve been working on up to this point. Andrew then opened with a short prayer, which I’ve never had in a tutorial before, and I thought was great. A moment later we were launching headfirst into the paper we had submitted the night before, in response to the question, “Why did the Western Church prove to be so vulnerable to the critique of Reformers from the second decade of the sixteenth century?”

As I said, the European Reformation is a topic I’m almost completely unfamiliar with, and, even after my week’s reading, it showed. John took the lead on most of the questions, and I filled in the gaps where I could. It was the first time I had been outnumbered in my tutorial: both Andrew and Jonathan being British. Andrew works at a nearby church, when he’s not teaching, and John’s Dad is apparently a well-known Christian writer in England, on top of working in churches around the country. They have a lot in common, and very quickly I felt I was playing the role of outsider. I wondered, to myself, if they noticed.

Soon, our hour was up, Andrew was wishing us a good week, and John and I were making our way back downstairs and out into the open air courtyard behind Wycliffe Hall. It was a sunny day, and I was now officially done with my first week of the term. John and I chatted for a bit from outside Andrew’s office. He told me he and his wife were in the process of buying a home, and so he had his hands full of that when he wasn’t working on this paper.

“I’ve recently inherited a chunk of money, and so we found a very small home nearby,” he explained to me. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re excited.” Listening to John talk about his home remodel project, I realized I had absolutely no excuse not to find time for my paper in comparison.

I told John it was great to see him again, and that I looked forward to our conversation the following week before saying “goodbye.” Hopping on my bike and leaving Wycliffe Hall, I shook my head at the thought that I only had seven weeks left before the end of my first year at Oxford.

“Nearly there,” I thought to myself as I rode toward the library to find my books for the following week’s essay.

Friday: Last day of Greek & a plant for Rhona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napping in the Oriel courtyard

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

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

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

“Perfect,” I thought to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’re you doing?” Casey asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A birthday Kilns tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s the place.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Celebrating Walter’s 80th birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: An honest conversation

I had Greek the Friday morning Steve left to head back to the States. He walked with me to class and then said goodbye before grabbing a bus to Heathrow.

I had a Patristics essay due that afternoon, so I headed to my favorite spot on the second floor of the Harris Manchester Library to punch that out after Greek. Emily was heading back to Harris Manchester as well. Emily’s the only one in my Greek class from Harris Manchester.  And Emily, Lyndon and I are the only “mature” students in the class (over 21). Everyone else in the class is straight out of high school (or the UK equivalent).

Emily asked how the term was treating me as we made our way down the curved lanes between high stone walls that led to HMC. I told her it was going really well, actually. Much better than last term. I told her I just felt felt myself feeling more comfortable with everything. How last term not only was the material new, but everything was new. Now, at least, I was a bit more comfortable here in Oxford. I told her I have really been enjoying my material this term, too, which helps.

“Yeah?” she said, looking over at me with a look that told me she wasn’t quite in the same boat.

“How’s the term going for you?” I asked.

“Well, not so well,” she said. “I had a bit of a breakdown this week, actually.”

Emily went on to tell me how she went to start her essay this week and just couldn’t do it. That she just didn’t have it in her.

“I ended up skipping my lectures, too,” she told me, in a voice that sounded a bit embarrassed. “That’s just not like me.”

“Yeah, no, that doesn’t sound like you,” I said. “Have you just been tired?”

“Yeah, I really just got to the point where I couldn’t make myself do it,” she said, again, in the semi-embarrassed tone.

We talked a bit about the frantic pace of studies here at Oxford. How, when the term is in session, it really is full-time, all the time. It’s condensed, to put it lightly. And we talked about how you really cannot stop, or else you’ll just get behind.

Emily’s from the UK, but she’s not the type who just assumed she’d go to Oxford. Not at all. Even though she recently told me her Dad went to Cambridge, she seems in awe of the fact she’s here, still. Like me. I appreciate that.

Somehow her family came up. I’m not quite sure how. But she told me about how they’ll call and the first thing they want to know is how her studies are going. How Oxford is treating her.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I told her. “It’s a big thing that you’re here, and to everyone else, this is just amazing. But, to you, it’s overwhelming.”

I asked her if she had let on to her family at all about how she was feeling. She told me she hadn’t. That they’re just so proud of her for being here. How they’re always telling their friends how their daughter is going to Oxford. And that she didn’t want to let them down.

I told her I was actually somewhat relieved to hear her say all of this. Not because I liked hearing she was having a hard time, but just because it was nice knowing I wasn’t the only one to feel like that.

“Yeah?” she asked, turning to me with a look of surprise.

“Yeah, I mean, as the American, I feel like I totally wear my heart on my sleeve,” I told her. “And, when I’m overwhelmed, I feel like it’s totally apparent. Whereas, you English, you always seem so cool and relaxed.”

I told her how I had been feeling totally overwhelmed the previous term. How I was having a really hard time even returning after the holidays. After being home, earning a paycheck again, and being around friends and family. I told her how I had literally started thinking how I might be able to return home and still save face.

“Because it’s been this whole big thing, right? Coming to Oxford, I mean,” I said, looking over to Emily to make sure she was following me. Her face told me she was.

“But then, you start thinking this was all just a horrible idea. And that you can’t actually do this. But then you just do, you know? You just put your head down and get through it.”

I wasn’t sure if that’s what Emily needed to hear or not. But it was my experience. And I hoped it’d help, in some way or another.

She told me she had scheduled an appointment to sit down with the Senior Supervisor. To let her know how she was feeling. To explain why she had missed her essay deadlines. Why she hadn’t been attending lectures. And to see if she had any advice.

“Good, good. I’m really glad to hear that,” I said, as we approached the front entryway at Harris Manchester. “Well, I hope that helps. You’ll have to let me know how that goes, huh?”

She told me she would. And she thanked me for listening.

I told her I was happy to. It’s not often the English show how they’re really doing. At least not in my experience. And I told her it had helped me, reminding me I’m not the only one feeling this way at times.

Saturday: Prayer over breakfast with Rich & Max

The last time I was in Summertown working with Rich from Starbucks, he had told me how he and another guy, Max, had been talking about starting a small men’s prayer group. A “prayer triplet” he told me. Apparently it’s an England thing. Where three guys meet once a week and prayer for each other. He told me they had been looking for a third guy. And since I had a lot in common with them (married, just started at Oxford, studying theology, etc.) he thought I’d be a great fit.

Rich and Max are both doing their doctorates here. Wheras I’m doing my second BA. They’re both in Philosophy and Theology. Whereas Rich has been doing this for a while, teaching Philosophy at Biola, Max is just rolling right through, and so he is right around my age. Maybe a few years younger. And he and his wife are from here in England. Rich and his wife are both from Southern California.

I told Rich I thought that sounded like a great idea. I told him it’d be nice to have some other guys to chat with who are in the same boat.

“Cool. Well I’ll talk it over with Max and we’ll set up a time to meet, then.”

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

I ended up getting an e-mail shortly after that, seeing if I wanted to meet for breakfast that Saturday morning. In Summertown. At Starbucks. And then we could take it from there.

So I woke up Saturday morning. Hopped in the shower to wash the sleep off of me, and I and rode into Summertown to meet up with Rich and Max for breakfast. They were seated at a table in Starbucks when I walked in. I had only met Max briefly before, but he’s a great guy. He has a big floppy head of red hair that’s always puffed up in the back. Messy in a trendy “I don’t care” kind of a way. And a great grin that goes to the side of his freckled face. He’s a super nice guy, and he greeted me with a handshake and that grin of his.

The three of us walked down to a place called Joe’s in Summertown. The same place Steve and Jen and I had went for brunch when they were here last fall. And the place I went shortly after arriving and ordered a side of ham with my eggs and toast. Only to be served ham cold cuts.

It’s a great place, though. It feels American. Like the kind of restaurant we’d have back home. With wooden tables, low hanging lights and large leather bench seats with high backs.

The place is pretty popular for breakfast. It’s always full.

We were greeted by a hostess and she led us to a table in the far back corner of the room where we pulled off our layers of jackets and gloves and scarves. It was a cold morning. We all ordered coffee to warm up.

And it was a blast meeting with these guys. They have great hearts, and they’re experiencing a lot of the same things I am, which makes it easy to relate and share.

We continued to chat as we looked over the menu.

Max’s eyes fell on the English breakfast.

“Mmmm…, yeah, I’m afraid I might need to do the English breakfast,” he said, in that British accent of his.

“Yeah? That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” I told him. “I haven’t actually had one since last term.”

Not everyone’s a fan of the traditional English breakfast. Well, not all Americans, I mean. For starters, it’s served with beans. The pork & beans kind. It also comes with fried tomatoes and mushrooms, which also puts some people off. But, it does include bacon (which is really fried ham, here in the UK), fried eggs, sausages and toast.

I’m a fan. I know the beans sounds weird, but once you get over the fact that you’re eating beans for breakfast, it’s actually pretty good.

Rich went with the french toast. Always a safe bet.

Rich started us off by talking a bit about what he and Max had in mind when they first started talking about this as an idea. How they hoped it could be a place where we can talk about anything and everything. From marriage to school to whatever. And a place where we can encourage and pray for each other.

“We’re all going to be here for at least two years,” Rich said from behind his glasses across the table, “and it’d be great to have this community while we’re here.”

Max and I both nodded our heads in agreement. We talked a bit about format. About what we thought might work best.

Then we all just talked about what had brought us here, and how the transition was going for us.

It was nice to hear their stories, and, again, to know that I’m not the only one going through this big change. That we’re not the only ones going through this big change.

It was great just to open up to these guys, to say, “this is where it’s tough,” and to see in their eyes that they knew exactly what I was talking about. Because they had shared that experience.

Max talked a bit about feeling overwhelmed in his program. How he had went from being at the top of his class in his Master’s program, about being favored by his professors, but how this was just on another level. How the people here are just brilliant, and how that’s been humbling for him.

Rich nodded his head from across the table, looking at Max.

I’m not sure why, but when I hear Max’s name, I think of the kid from Where the Wild Things Are, and I can’t help but picture him in those pajamas. The ones with the ears and whiskers and claws. With the crown on top of his head. And it makes me laugh to myself.

I told Max how I had felt the same way when I arrived. How I felt totally out of my element after the first few times of sitting in Greek. With these kids who were straight out of high school with their private school education rattling off French, Latin and Greek like it was nothing. I told them that I basically realized everyone here was smarter than me. And how that helped, because I no longer had to worry about it.

“Everyone. Not just in class, but everyone in Oxford,” I said. “The guy washing the windows, I’d literally think to myself, ‘That guy’s smarter than me,’ as I’d walk by.”

They both laughed. I was serious.

We wrapped up our breakfasts. I finished all of my traditional English breakfast. Including the beans. And I felt great.

We prayed for each other, going around the table, and then we nearly left without paying. After sitting there for a couple hours, I guess we just kind of forgot about that part.

Monday: Alister McGrath & Christianity-The story of best-fit

I went to a talk with Max and Rich two nights later here in Oxford. It was at the University Church of St. Mary. It’s a beautiful church right in the middle of the city center. With tall spyres that reach high into the sky. Apparently it’s where Lewis preached The Weight of Glory during the wartime. It’s also the most photographed building in Oxford, I’m told.

It’s an incredible building to sit in, with its cavernous ceilings that seem to never end. Row after row of wooden pews lead up to the front of the church. Tall, arching stone columns reach high into the air. The walls are stone, too, interspersed with stained glass windows. And it all feels so ancient. So old. Like you’re sitting in the middle of history.

I pointed toward the pulpit off to the side of the front of the room and asked Rich if he thought he could preach better from that. He laughed.

The pulpit has a winding wooden staircase that leads up to a small, wooden, framed-in box, just tall enough for someone to stand in, looking out over the pews. It looked a bit like a little tree house. A preacher’s tree house. I told Rich if I ever became a pastor I was going to make sure I had a treehouse on-stage.

A guy by the name of Alister McGrath was talking that night on the topic of Science & Religion. Alister is a pretty well-known author and professor here. He’s an incredibly bright guy, with an amazing resume. He originally studied molecular biophysics here at Oxford, and he was wrapping up his work on his PhD in the natural sciences when he decided to pick up a degree in theology while he was at it. He’s since published a mountain of books on theology, and he frequently talks to groups about not only theology, but also hows science and theology interrelate. He regularly defends Christianity against guys who like to say Christianity is a joke because of what we now through Science.

It was a great talk, and you could tell Professor McGrath was both brilliant and really familiar with talking about this subject. After rolling through his talk for about 45-minutes or so, he took questions from the audience. And I was amazed by how quickly he responded. I was still processing the question when he was walking through the three points he would make in response. It was kind of crazy, actually.

After several questions, we were asked to thank Alister for his talk with our applause. We were also told we were invited to come upstairs, to “the old library” for some biscuits, tea and coffee if we had any other questions we’d like to ask. I didn’t, but I was interested in hearing the rest of the conversation.

Rich knows Alister, having introduced himself before. They met and Rich told Alister he’d like to help him with his website, to promote his work. So he is now doing that. Rich asked me if I’d like to be involved, and so I’m helping out with that as well now.

Rich introduced me briefly to Alister and told him I was studying theology here. He said he’d have to keep his eyes out for me, then.

“Yeah…,” I said, smiling. He was a really nice guy.

I snapped a photo of Rich and his wife, Christine, with Alister.

Rich asked if I wanted my photo taken as well.

“Sure. Yeah, that’d be great, actually,” I said.

The old library we were led to for questions with Alister afterwards was a really cool old room. We made our way up an old staircase that opened up into this ancient-looking room, with old wooden boards for a floor. Cracked and sloping, and not even in the least. The walls were mostly stained glass windows, looking out onto the Oxford city center lit up in the dark by street lights. Wooden rafters loomed overhead, and a circle of chairs had been set out in the far end of the room. We grabbed several seats while others circled the coffee and biscuit table.

Alister answered several more questions. Seemingly with ease. And more relaxed than the tone had been downstairs. Perhaps it was the smaller audience. Perhaps he didn’t feel as rushed now.

One of the questions that stood out was, “Why Christianity?” I thought it was a great question. Among all the other religions, why this one?

Alister’s a big fan of C.S. Lewis, which I appreciate. But it’s also rare. Lewis doesn’t have a big following here in England, particularly among academics. But Alister loves to quote Lewis. Or include him in his talks.

He responded to this question by quoting Lewis, saying, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

He talked about how Lewis had been an atheist for many years. And how his friend J.R.R. Tolkein had led him to the faith. He talked about the power of story. And how C.S. Lewis had seen in the Lord of the Rings series that Christianity made sense. That the story of Christianity fits with what we see around us. That this story explains the world around us better than any other religion.

Alister told us how he had grown up in Ireland, and how religion seemed to produce nothing but violence. Which is why he was an atheist himself for so many years. But then, many years later, something changed. He told us how, as a scientist, he came to see Christianity as the story that best solves all the pieces we have before us.

“In Christianity, all the pieces fall together just so,” Alister told us, looking around the room at those seated in their chairs.

Alister answered the last question around 10 o’clock that night, and the three of us made our way down the staircase and into the dark, cold night air outside. We chatted about Alister’s talk as we walked.

That was my first time listening to Alister, and I told them I thought he was brilliant.

“Sitting there, I felt like I was in the wrong place,” I told them. “Like, somehow, I had missed the memo for children’s church, and I was left sitting in the adult’s service. Like I should be somewhere playing in a sandbox during this conversation.”

They laughed.

I said goodbye and we all went our separate ways, me on my bike. It was a cold, foggy night, and the thick air seemed to envelope me as I scooted through the city center on my way north.

Wednesday: Christmas Dinner, Caroling and the Christmas Story

Harris Manchester had a Christmas carol service and dinner on Wednesday night. A formal event. I didn’t find out until after going to get two tickets for Jennifer and I that it was a members-only event. Not like the jacket. Only Harris Manchester students and faculty members were invited to the dinner.

I was pretty bummed. I’m not a fan of leaving Jennifer to fend for herself for dinner. Not at all. But she insisted. She told me she didn’t want me to miss out on my college’s Christmas dinner for her sake. And not in some “I’m saying this, but I really want you to do that” way, but she meant it. So I went.

I threw my suit and tie on, hopped on my bike and hurried to Harris Manchester. On the snow-dusted road. It’s a weird feeling, riding your bike in a suit. But it sure beats walking 30-minutes in a suit.

I made it to college about 10 minutes after the carol service began. I left my coat and scarf with John (the night porter) at the front door and slipped into a pew in the back of the chapel. The song being sung when I arrived finished and someone came to the front and read the birth narrative from Luke. The chaplain, I believe.

His face was lit up by the light looming down on his Bible. It presented an almost awminous mood as he read the birth account. He read slowly. And deliberately. So much so that I felt like someone hit the slow-motion button on a dvd player.

But I really appreciated it. It was like great consideration was being given to each word. The words we tend to plow through because we’re so used to them.

After finishing the reading, he slowly lifted His Bible up from where it sat, stepped slowly back, and then walked slowly to his seat.

We sang a few more songs before making our way out of the chapel and into the college halls for some hot mulled wine. And more carols. The halls were crowded tightly with men dressed in their suits and ties and women in their dresses and formal wear. The smell of mulled wine filled the air. And the Christmas carols echoed off the stone walls. It was great.

After several songs, we ventured out into the cold night air just long enough to walk down the stone path leading to Arlosh Hall for Christmas dinner. The tables were arranged differently than normal. And they were lined with Christmas decor. Place settings standing out amongst the green pine decor and candles and treats. A giant Christmas tree, complete with lights and a star on top, sat in the corner of the room. Behind the head table. I asked Tariq how he thought they fit it in the hall.

“No idea,” he said, shrugging his shoulders with a laugh.

The meal was great. Salmon for starters (I’ve been surprised by how good the salmon is here). Turkey and mashed potatoes and green beans for a main meal. And I left before dessert. I was meeting up with Jen for a(nother) carol service at 8:30, and I didn’t want to keep her waiting.

I asked Tariq to excuse me and hurried out of Arlosh Hall. Tariq and I had been talking about the essay he was handing in that week. He had written a 12,000-word submission for a paper that’s supposed to be 2,000 words. . .This guy’s something else. He’s the medical doctor who left his practice to study Theology. And who still has yet to tell his parents he’s here.

I grabbed my coat and scarf from John at the front desk, hopped on my bike and rode the quarter-mile stretch to the Sheldonian to meet up with Jennifer for the Christmas Carol service. I locked up my bike across the street and found Jen walking up a few minutes later.

It was an amazing service. It definitely made it feel like Christmas time.

Christmas Carols and the Christmas Story at the Sheldonian

We were in the upper balcony of this circular-shaped building. Looking down from our wooden seats in the balcony on the brass band that sat in the middle of the first floor, with students and families seated all around them.

The circular ceiling had an ornate painting of a heavenly scene, complete with cherubim. It was an amazing building, and a perfect place for Christmas carols.

A guy from my Greek class was seated behind us with a small group of friends. He noticed me before I saw him there. He said “hi” and I went to introduce him to Jen only to find, mid-sentence, that I was second-guessing his name. I wanted to say “Tim,” but I wasn’t sure. So I just kind of mumbled the second-half of my introduction. He laughed.

“Tim,” he said, looking to Jen.

I told him that’s what I was going to say, but I’m not so sure he believed me.

After several Christmas songs I whispered to Jennifer that I loved Christmas carols.

“Didn’t you just come from singing carols?” she asked me.

“Yeah…”

She shook her head and smiled.

Mary Was Surprised, too

A guy by the name of Michael Ramsden spoke after several songs. He wore dark glasses and a light-colored blazer. You knew he was a pretty brilliant guy before he even had time to open his mouth.

He talked about the story of Christmas. And how it’s one so many people struggle to believe. Or simply don’t bother struggling with it at all. He mentioned a professor who recently said no one after the 18th century had any right to speak of the virgin birth as a historical event without sounding completely foolish. That the science of our day simply wouldn’t allow it.

Michael claimed that the virgin birth wasn’t pre-science. That, even as a young teenager, Mary would’ve understood the science behind what it took to bring a child into the world. That she would’ve seen the idea of giving birth to a baby as a virgin as not natural in the least bit. That she would not have seen this as a normal occurrence, which is why she responded as she did (“But how can that be, for I am a virgin?”). And so, it doesn’t do any good to say that somehow we have advanced to the point that we can see that it’s unnatural to presume a virgin can give birth to a child. Apparently, Mary thought the same thing.

And we find the same is true of Joseph. He, too, understood clearly what it takes to bring a child into the world, which is why an angel had to come and prepare him for the news. Any man, married or not, knows that short of an angel appearing, there’d be some explaining to be had if your virgin wife comes to you and tells you she’s pregnant.

And so, what we find is both Mary and Joseph, on separate occasions, being approached by an angelic being, and being told that God was doing something quite special here. They didn’t need to be told this was a miracle; they fully understood that part. But the angel came to tell them that this miracle was from God.

But that’s not to say being approached by an angel was an expected event for these two. It was not. And they responded probably the same way most of us would. We’re told Mary was troubled. The angel had to reassure her that everything was just fine. And that he had come to testify to the fact that God was doing something extraordinary here. Something miraculous.

And that’s just the way it should be, isn’t it? For it should not be something of ordinary origins testifying to the validity of the miraculous, but something of miraculous, even divine origins that testifies to the miraculous.

If you want to know if the “genuine Italian” leather shoes you get for a great deal are actually “genuinely Italian,” your best bet is to ask someone who is familiar with genuine Italian leather. Better yet, you ought to ask someone from Italy who works with Italian leather. And that’s precisely what we find here: a being from heaven testifying to the miracle that would be forthcoming as that of heavenly origins.

Michael went on to talk about the fact that many people simply refuse to even consider such a story because it doesn’t follow the laws of nature. They argue that all of nature has to agree with the laws of nature. And since this obviously doesn’t, then we can’t possibly believe it to be true.

But he suggested that’s not an argument against this story at all, for the laws of nature are precisely what makes the virgin birth a miracle. If the laws of nature tell us a virgin simply does not give birth, then that doesn’t mean we’re claiming the laws of nature have been broken, or that they’ve somehow failed us. Rather, they tell us we must look to something outside of the laws of nature for an explanation.

He used an anology I thought was pretty helpful to explain this.

He told us to imagine him going home this week and putting £2,000 in his nightstand. And then going and doing the same thing the next week, with another £2,000. Now, if he goes to his nightstand in the third week, the rules of arithmetic tell us he should find there £4,000. But say he opens up his nightstand and only finds £1,000. What then should he conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have somehow been broken? Or that arithmetic has failed him? Of course not. The laws of arithmetic describe what will happen when you add £2,000 to £2,000, not whether someone will come in and snatch £3,000 from his nightstand. That outside agent (a thief sneaking in while he is gone) is not accounted for by the rules of arithmetic. And, in the same way, a being outside of nature (namely, the Creator of nature) is not accounted for by the rules that describe the nature he created.

I thought that was helpful. He spoke to the students in the room that night. And their families. Encouraging them to not dismiss this story just because it doesn’t seem like something that’d happen in our day. Apparently, that’s what Mary thought, too.

A perfect end to the evening

Jen and I walked home afterward. Me with my bike, whistling Christmas tunes from the evening’s service. Jen in her black peacoat and red gloves. And as we walked in the frigid night air, pulling our scarves and collars high up against our cheeks, the snow began to fall. Slowly.

I looked over to see Jen staring up into the sky with that beautiful smile painted across her face. Looking up into the deep, dark night sky as the snow spun and twirled in the air. Swirling around the street lamps like moths to the light.

It was a beautiful scene. The snow falling in Oxford. Our breath forming little plumes as we walked home in the cool night air. And it was the perfect ending to a wonderful night of Christmas carols and decorations and food and the Christmas story.

Thursday: A Snow Covered Oxford

Thursday morning saw another dusting of snow in Oxford. The street leaving our house, the trees lining the streets and the sidewalk. All white from the fresh sheet of snow. Not thick. Not deep. But just enough to paint everything white.

Our Greek class was moved from Wednesday morning to Thursday morning this week, as Rhona wanted to have everyone over to Christ Church for treats. For the second-to-last Greek class of the term. (The last class would be reserved for more serious matters, she told us).

It was a beautiful scene, walking into a snow-covered Christ Church Thursday morning.

Rhona welcomed us into her home at Christ Church, where we found a table brimming with warm mince pies, fruit cake and hot tea and coffee. It was great. I’ve never really had mince pies like I’ve found here in Oxford. Not back home.

They’re basically mini-versions of a full-size pie, complete with a pastry crust. And their filling is amazing. It tastes a bit like Christmas in your mouth. Warm, gooey center with hints of cranberries and cinnamon.

And the fruit cake was really good as well. It gets a bad rap back home, but I quite liked it. Nuts and fruits in a cake-like bread. Not sure what’s not to like about that.

We took a rather informal exam, where Rhona walked through what would be on the exam and then gave us a few minutes to take it. We graded our own and then she went over a few last items she wanted us to know before the end of the term.

We were all seated around the large Christ Church dining room table as she talked. Tending to our warm mince pies and hot drinks. It was great.

Rhona mentioned one of the students who had began the term with us, but who was no longer in our class. She must’ve left after about a month or so. Fiona. She explained to us that Fiona decided this wasn’t actually the path for her. Not at this point, at least. I was surprised to hear that, as she had been doing quite well in class.

Rhona didn’t know the details of Fiona’s decision to leave, but she asked if someone would be willing to pick up a Christmas card to send her. No one seemed to jump at the opportunity. After several seconds of awkward silence and avoidance of her eyes from students around the room, I told her I would. She thanked me, in that warm, motherly voice of hers. Tilting her head to the side just so and smiling warmly.

A John Wayne like American accent

I was talking with Lyndon and Emily as we left the Deanery at Christ Church that morning, stepping out into the snow-frosted courtyard.

I forget how we got on the topic, but we were talking about how you tend to pickup sayings and accents when you’re around another culture for long enough.

Emily asked me if I had picked up any British accents or sayings since being here. I told her I hadn’t. That Jen would give me too hard a time if I did. She laughed.

Lyndon gave his best go at an American accent, which made me laugh. He sounded a bit like a cowboy. Like John Wayne.

I said I had noticed myself picking up on different English inflections that I wouldn’t normally use since being here, though. At times. Emily asked for an example, not knowing what I was talking about.

“Well, say I want to ask a question. If I were in the States, I’d just say, ‘Where do you want to go?'” without adding any sort of inflection to my voice. Emily picked up on what I was talking about immediately.

“You mean, you wouldn’t go up at the end?”

“No, that’s the difference. I wouldn’t back home, but I’ve found myself doing so here from time to time, and I catch myself thinking, ‘Wait, what am I doing? I wouldn’t do that back home…'”

They both laughed.

Lyndon say that inflection gets abused back home. In New Zealand. To the point where it’s used for everything, not just questions. And you’re left wondering what’s a question and what’s not.

I pointed out the icicles hanging from the water fountain as we walked through the center of the courtyard. It was beautiful.

Friday: My last day of Greek

Friday morning was my last day of Greek for the term. Saying I was excited about that would be putting it lightly.

I had a bear of a time studying for the morning’s exam the day before. It was just a vocab exam, nothing too difficult. But I just didn’t feel like studying. I kept finding myself distracted. By the most mundane things. It was like I was having a case of senioritis, but five-terms too early.

Rhona greeted us all with a smile as we took our seats that morning, addressing us before handing out the morning’s exam.

“You should all be quite proud of yourselves,” she said to us from the front of the room, wearing that wide grin of hers.

She was standing in front of the deep blue table runner with the “Oxford University” emblem emblazoned on it. She can’t stand that table runner. She says it looks far too commercial.

“You’ve had a massive amount of coursework, and you’ve stuck it out,” she continued, now with a more serious look. “That takes courage.”

I had picked up a Christmas card after class at Christ Church the day before. For Fiona. I gave it to Rhona to pass around at the start of the class, so others could sign it.

“Oh thank you,” she said, taking the card from me.

“Lyndon has picked up a card for Fiona for everyone to sign,” she then declared to the class.

I smiled, fully intending not to correct her. Lyndon looked up with a look of confusion on his face, as if to ask, “what is it I have done?”

Emily laughed from the chair next to mine.

Rhona picked up on her mistake and corrected herself.

“Oh, right. . .Of course. Ryan picked up the card,” she said.

Appears she still has a tough time with my name. She explained to the class that she regularly mixes up her children’s names, and so we shouldn’t take any offense when she makes the same mistake with us.

We then had our final Greek exam of the term, and Rhona talked about what she’d like us to do over the holiday. “Revisions,” as they call them here.

Our breaks are six weeks here at Oxford. Which sounds pretty great on paper, except for the fact that they aren’t really much of a holiday, per se. It’s really more a time of self study. To prepare for the tests we take when school starts back up again. “Collections,” as they’re called.

Rhona told us about a mosaic in the tiles of the entryway of the building we were in. The Exam Schools. She said she’d point it out to us as we left the class, but that it’s of a tortoise and a hare. And she told us it is there for a reason, for we all know the hare wins the race, and so we ought to take note of that. “Slow and steady wins the race,” she reminded us, referring to preparing for Collections.

Several of us laughed.

“Funny, because I feel like this term has been rather fast and shaky,” I said, in a quiet voice.

Rhona had asked us to write up a plan for our revisions over the holidays. Of what we’d be working on each day. She looked over my shoulder at mine, on my laptop, and she said it looked wonderful. I didn’t think it looked wonderful. I thought it looked rather dreadful.

We all made our way to the front of the building after class. Through the large hallways, with the marble tile underfoot. Until we made it to the entryway, where Rhona pointed out the tortoise and the hare in the tile mosaic. Sure enough, there they were.

And it was funny, really, because “slow and steady” certainly doesn’t seem to be the Oxford mentality. Perhaps the tiles were placed there by a past student. As a protest, of sorts.

I told Rhona “goodbye” as I left, and to have a “Merry Christmas.” She smiled at me and said, “You as well, and same to Jenny.” People tend to call Jennifer “Jenny” here.

As Emily, Lyndon and I walked out through the large double doors, I pointed out I thought it rather funny that Rhona knows my wife’s name, who she’s met once, but not mine.

We all laughed.

“She rates higher than you, I guess,” Lyndon said with a smile and a laugh.

“Apparently.”

Tea with Cole

I received a text from Cole shortly after leaving Greek. Asking if I’d like to celebrate the end of my first term of Greek with some tea. I thought that sounded like a great idea.

We met up at Blackwell’s Bookstore. In the cafe on the second floor.

Cole congratulated me on wrapping up my first term, and now having that behind me. I told him it was a bit of an odd feeling, going from deadline after deadline to no deadlines, but also a lot of work to get done.

He nodded with a look of understanding.

We talked a bit about the paper he had just submitted earlier in the week. His extended essay. It was nice to sit down and not feel guilty for not studying Greek, or reading for an essay for the first time in months. It was like stopping just long enough to catch your breath after running a race.

But I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back in the books, preparing for collections. Even the holidays have a pile of work here.

More Time With Jen

The highlight of wrapping up my first term has been having more time with Jen. And not feeling like I’m always preparing for the next deadline.

I have loads of work to get done over the break, to be sure. And it seems like I keep realizing I actually have more work to do than I initially thought, somehow, but it’s definitely been nice to enjoy more free time together. For the first time in a long time.

We met in the city center Friday afternoon. At the market. To pick up something for dinner.

“How about french dip?” I suggested, after wandering around the store aimlessly for a while. The look on Jen’s face told me she was sold on that idea.

I found a young guy stocking the store shelves and asked him where I might find au jus seasoning. He looked at me blankly. As if he were listening to someone speak a foreign language completely unknown by him.

“I take it you don’t have au jus,” I said.

“Uh, no. I’m not even sure what that is, but no.”

We ended up deciding on a chicken dish of some sort. With mozzarella and pancetta. The kind of dish you can throw in the oven and not have to worry about. That part sounded great to both of us.

Dinner ended up proving more difficult that we had imagined, though, as I realized about 40 minutes after placing it in the oven that I hadn’t actually turned the oven on…

Once we got that part figured out, though, it was great to sit down to a nice meal together. Knowing I had zero exams to prepare for the following week. Or essays.

We clinked our glasses in celebration of the end of our first term in Oxford.

“Only five more to go,” I said, smiling at Jen, and raising the glass to my mouth.

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