Archives for posts with tag: Harris Manchester College

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

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A Desire for Brains & Just Two More Weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Home

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

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

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

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

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

Casting Crowns at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Have you heard of Casting Crowns?”

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

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

A Real Decision on Our Hands

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Tired & Feeling Refreshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refreshing Words of Encouragement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honored to Be a Godfather

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

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

My Meeting with Philip

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

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

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

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

He smiled, then continued.

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

I laughed outloud.

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

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

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

He looked surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but she will one day.”

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Asleep on my Bike Ride Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Alarm & A Different Ballgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner With John & John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all laughed, and John Adams nodded.

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

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

Last Week Before Exams

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

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

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

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

A Conversation With CS Lewis’s Stepson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I agreed.

A Voice of Confirmation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that you have to go, mind you.”

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

The Last Day Before Finals

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

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

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

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

You hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterwards you will receive me

with honour.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

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

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion for ever.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

to tell of all your works.

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

The  Start of Trinity Term

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of Good News

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

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

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

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

“Dear Mr Ryan Pemberton,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Job Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Our Decision a Little Easier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guys’ Night Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News I Wasn’t Expecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding to Stick it Out

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

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

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

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

Chasing My Own Tail

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

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

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

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

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

Wondering if I Wasn’t Going Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helicopter Backflips and Envying Families

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

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

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

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

Looming Finals

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

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

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

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

Infinite Times Smarter Than You

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

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

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

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

Praying for Clarity

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

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

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

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

The Thought of Leaving Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Theology Makes us DO something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday: Lewis wasn’t a saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Noah & Owen’s Baptism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I didn’t understand Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Almost there & It’s not Harry Potter

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

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

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

“Yeah, like a band-aid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Another one of Oxford’s hidden treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan the Scapegoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: A fake English accent & God’s hiddenness 

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

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

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

An explanation of divine hiddenness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Old friends & Adopted by Finns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh wow…,” I said, with big eyes.

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

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

“And?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running into a familiar bearded face

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kilns tour for the neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: A note from home & Walter quoting Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We miss her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note from home

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

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

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

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

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

First Lewis Society of the Term

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Getting my seat back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: My 1st Tutorial & A real myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

A real myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Returning to Oxford

My flight touched down in London at half past 11 on Tuesday morning. A little over nine hours after taking off from San Francisco on Monday afternoon, and nearly a day after leaving Seattle and saying “goodbye” to Jen. She had decided to stick around home for Khloe’s birthday (our first, and only, niece). Her first birthday. I would’ve loved to have been there, but school called.

I slept very little on the flight that passed northeast over the Atlantic, but I didn’t seem too tired as I made the long walk from our recently arrived airplane to customs. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Heathrow seems to be made out of unnecessarily long hallways. If you were to ask someone from England why it is that Heathrow has such long hallways leading from the planes to customs, they’d probably tell you it’s always been that way. And now it’s tradition. Like everything else here. And you can’t argue with that.

15 minutes after getting off my plane, I made it to customs. A long line had formed by the time I arrived, as several planes must’ve all arrived at the same time. I took my place in line and waited, with lots of other people who all looked like they had just been woken up from a nice nap. Hair standing on end from the back of their head. My cell phone began vibrating in my pocket moments later, and I read the words “The Kilns” as I glanced at the screen before answering.

“Hi, this is Ryan,” I said.

“Hi Ryan!” Debbie’s voice cried over the other end, in great excitement. “Welcome back!”

Debbie is the Director at the Kilns. She’s a professor from back in the States, who’s currently on sabbatical to look over things at the Kilns for a time. She told me her and Jonathan (another scholar-in-residence, like me, who also lives at the Kilns) had been eagerly waiting for my return, and that they were happy to have me back. As tough as it was to say goodbye to our friends and family back home–and it was very tough–it was great to return to this kind of a welcome.

Debbie continued on, talking as I slowly creeped my way through the Customs line. Trying not to talk too loudly and disturb the half-asleep travelers around me. Debbie told me her and Jonathan had planned a dinner in my honor for that evening. I was totally taken aback by the gesture. I told her I was really looking forward to gathering my bags and returning to the Kilns as quickly as I could get there.

After an hour-long bus ride on the M40 out of London, Jonathan met me at the bus stop (just a short, 5-minute drive from the Kilns). He pulled up in a tiny car, in a parking lot full of tiny cars, and I thought to myself, “It’s official, I’m back in England.”

Jonathan pulled up beside the curb where I was standing, stepped around the car and welcomed me with a wide grin, a “Happy New Year,” and a hug. Truth be told, I probably welcomed him with a hug. We Americans are big on our hugs.

It was great to see Jonathan again. He wore his trademark, red-tinged 5 o’clock shadow. And we caught up on our Christmas and New Year holidays as he navigated the narrow back roads leading from the park and ride to the Kilns. We pulled up in front of the familiar old brick home a few minutes later, with its blue plaque that hangs on the side of the house, just to the side of the room where C.S. Lewis used to sleep, and suddenly I was very happy to be back.

Jonathan helped me carry my luggage inside, and Debbie greeted us as we entered, “Ryan, hello!” she said warmly, in a loud voice. “Welcome back!” she said in a loud voice as she wrapped me up in a hug. Debbie’s an American. She’s big on hugs.

There were jams and clotted cream sitting out on the counter, and Debbie let me know she was just preparing some scones and tea for me, in case I was hungry.

“Feel free to put your bags down and come have some.”

The sky outside was blue and the sun was pouring in through the kitchen window and spilling over the stone-tiled floor as she talked.

I smiled, thanked Debbie for the very kind welcome, and then made my way down the hallway leading to Warnie’s old rooms (our current rooms), with my luggage in tow.

I stepped into the familiar room, with photos of Jen and I, and another one of Khloe sitting just where we left them on our desk. They were sharing the space with a handwritten “Welcome Home” sign, complete with an American flag and British flag, which I thought was rather patriotic. I smiled as I saw it. “What an incredible welcome,” I thought to myself.

I returned to the kitchen, where Jonathan and Debbie were talking, and Debbie invited me to sit down and help myself to some tea and scones, which she had prepared for my return. I felt so blessed to return to such a warm welcome.

It really is amazing to have two such incredible places, so far apart, that feel like home, I thought to myself while taking a seat and digging into the afternoon tea in the old familiar, stone-floored Kilns kitchen. A friend of Debbie’s arrived a few minutes later, as she was joining Debbie for tea. Debbie introduced Jonathan and I as the scholars in residence, and poured her a cup of tea.

After a couple scones and my tea, I excused myself and returned to my room. My bags were waiting to be unpacked, but the bed looked awfully inviting. Having not slept more than a couple hours during my travels, I laid down and closed my eyes. And all of a sudden, I was so very comfortable in our old, familiar room.

Wednesday: First day back at College

I woke up early Wednesday morning, after collapsing in bed shortly after our house dinner (a very tasty meal Jonathan prepared for us). I usually have a tough time waking up in a foreign bed for the first time, but that wasn’t the case Wednesday morning. Somehow it didn’t feel so foreign.

After a quick shave and a shower, I was on my bike and heading toward the Oxford city center, to get a day’s worth of studies in at Harris Manchester College.

The air was cold as I glided down Headington Hill on my bike, passing all of the old familiar sights. Restaurants. Markets. Schools and neighborhoods, just as I remembered them. I passed through a small roundabout before coming up over Magdalene Bridge and seeing Magdalene Tower rising high into the sky, touching the blue and white brushstroked scene overhead. It was an incredible view, staring at this 500-year old stone-built college, and I caught myself thinking, “I really am back in Oxford…. This is so incredible.”

As I rode past the stone walls towering into the sky on both sides of High Street, I felt totally in awe of it all all over again.

Before Jen and I left Oxford to return home for the holidays, I met a friend from Texas at Eagle and Child. His name is Steve, and he teaches Communications at a large university there. I met Steve on a tour I led for a group at the Kilns last winter. Steve has been to Oxford “more times than I can count,” he told me from our seat in the Rabbit Room of the Eagle and Child that day. He loves it for all of the same reasons I do. For the history and the architecture. For the academic tradition and the fingerprints of C.S. Lewis that still remain to this day.

It was over lunch that day that I told Steve it always feels a bit like I’ve returned to an old dream when I’ve been away from Oxford for a time and come back. I told him it feels a bit like having an incredible dream, not being sure if you’ll ever have it again, and then falling asleep one night and being filled with great joy when you’re suddenly back in the middle of it.

He smiled as I shared this with him that afternoon in early December.

“For me, it’s a bit like returning to Narnia,” he confessed while leaning just slightly over the wooden table, with a smile that acknowledged how silly such a statement might sound. But I quickly wiped away any reason for embarrassment by admitting I knew exactly what he meant.

It was great to see several people I hadn’t seen for over a month as I made my way through Harris Manchester before finding my old familiar spot in the library, upstairs, in the northeast corner beside the window. My desk was still waiting for me, vacant, and I greeted it like an old familiar friend, with a smile, as I took my seat and poured over my notes for the next 10 hours or so.

The Artist

I made it back to the Kilns just after 7:00 Wednesday night, after a long day of studies. I wolfed down a quick dinner before grabbing my jacket and heading back out of the house with Jonathan and Holly (a short-term scholar who’s currently visiting Oxford from California). The house had made plans to go see the movie “The Artist” that night, and I was looking forward to joining them. We picked up Dr Michael Ward on the way, Chaplain of St Peter’s College and Lewis-expert, and we made our way to a theatre outside of the city center, called Vue, which I had never been to.

The theatre was large, with a bowling alley attached, and it had a massive parking lot. There were neon signs on the exterior of the building. When we walked into the theatre, I noticed a sign for an Italian restaurant that was attached to the building, again in neon lights, that read, “American-New York Italian Food,” which I thought was funny. It felt a bit like someone took a shopping center from the States and plopped it down in the middle of England, and then put up a bunch of neon signs to remind people that it really was American.

The movie was great, though. Feel free to skip ahead if you’d rather I don’t spoil it for you, but it ended up putting me in tears. Whether it was intentional or not (I doubt it was), it painted the most incredible picture of salvation and grace I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

The movie starts out in the year 1921, at the height of the silent film era in Hollywood. And we are introduced to George Valentine, the leading man in Hollywood at the time. Everyone worships George, including himself. He has huge portraits of himself that hang in his home, and everyone swoons when they meet him.

But then, things begin to change rapidly with the introduction of “Talkies,” movies with actual audible dialogue. Soon, George Valentine is a washed-up actor who used to be somebody, but who now struggles to make ends-meat by selling off his vast collection of expensive clothes and artwork, including the large portrait of himself that used to hang in his home.

Fast forward to the final, climactic scene, where George escapes from the gigantic palace of a good friend’s home, a friend who had only the day before rescued George from the fire he set inside his own home. And, after escaping the palace she had set him up in, so that he could rest and recover from the fire, George returns to his house.

The interior is ghastly, with remnants of the fire strewn about in a mess. He returns to his burnt up living room, in pride. He simply cannot accept the grace this friend had shown him because, in his pride, he interpreted her help as charity. And he was too proud for charity.

The movie builds to a great crescendo where we see George pull out a small box, and, from that small box, he pulls out a blunt-nosed revolver. Sitting in his burnt up living room, a charcoal-lined mess of a scene, George places the end of the revolver in his mouth and bites down hard as the tears roll down his face. This man who literally had the epicenter of the entertainment world at his fingertips is now but a simple tug of his index finger away from ending his own life. And just then, moments before he pulls the trigger, the friend who had rescued him and placed him in her palace runs into the scene, bringing a sense of urgent light into the darkness. And, suddenly, everything changes.

He removes the gun from his mouth, he stands up, and he embraces her in a hug. And as he does, she begins to cry. After several seconds, she holds him at arm’s length and says to him, “I’m so sorry, George. I only wanted to help you.”

And as she said that, I couldn’t help but cry myself. A few slow tears. It was, for me, an incredible reflection of the way I have chosen evil in my own life. Knowingly.

It was a picture of how I choose ugliness over the beautiful palace He wants to offer me. And how He rushes in to save me from myself. In the middle of the mess I’ve created. And, when He finds me, He does not verbally abuse or accuse me. Instead, He weeps at the mess I’ve made, and He pointedly reminds me that all He ever wanted was to help me.

That, for me, was the picture of grace and salvation I needed. And I was so thankful for it.

Thursday: A Flat Tire and Carb Baskets

After another full day of studying from the library on Thursday, I hopped on my bike around 6:45 that night, and I made my way across the city center in the dark, frigid night air. I was grabbing dinner with two English friends of mine who are currently studying Theology at Wycliffe Hall. Not only do they share a common British nationality, they also share first names. John. I felt outnumbered from the get-go.

I was coasting quite speedily down the hill in front of Christ Church that night, on my way to John (Ash’s) house, when suddenly my back bike tire started to shake. Something didn’t feel right. But I tried to ignore it.

By the time I made it to the bottom of the hill, it had gotten quite a bit worse. It was now bumping up and down. And so I decided to get off and have a look at it. Sure enough, I had a flat. My tire had gone so flat that there was now hardly anything left in it.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself as I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to give John a ring and explain my situation. I had planned on meeting up with him at his house and then we were going to drive together to John (Adams’) place.

After I explained what had happened, he told me not to worry about it, and that he’d come meet me where I was at. By the time I had pulled my hefty bike to the nearest bike rack to lock it up, John was waiting for me with a look of sympathy.

“So sorry about the bike,” he said with a smile as I opened the passenger door, “But it’s great to see you again.”

We made the 10 minute drive to John Adams’ place while catching up on our holidays, and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into the boarding school where Adams lives with his wife and baby daughter. He’s a chaplain at the school, and so they have a flat right there on the grounds.

We passed a group of boys walking in striped ties and black gowns, looking very Oxford.

“It’s a rather posh school,” John explained to me as we pulled the car into a parking spot just outside of Adams’ flat.

Apparently we had arrived a bit early, as John Adams wasn’t answering when we tried him at his door. Then, after 10 minutes or so of waiting in the near-freezing darkness, John’s cell phone began buzzing. It was John Adams, and he was making his way across the school grounds. We could hear his booming voice as he came, in the open air, so we knew he wasn’t far off.

“Gentleman,” he said welcoming us, “Hello.”

I hadn’t seen John since the spring, so it was really good to see him again.

He had only just finished his chapel service for the evening, and so he was dressed in a tie and black gown himself.

“How do you like my gown?” John asked me as he unlocked the door and led us inside.

“It’s really nice, yeah,” I replied. “I nearly wore mine.”

Both Johns’ wives were currently out of town, one in London and the other in Cambridge, so it was the three of us bachelors getting together for dinner that night.

We caught up on life while our three, individual frozen pizzas baked in the oven. John Ash cut up some vegetables while we talked, before boiling them on the stovetop.

John Adams commented on the new kettle he had just received from his mother-in-law, pointing out how incredibly well it poured.

“Look, no spillage at all,” he said, demonstrating it for us.

I laughed, and told them this was a very English conversation. I told them this is one conversation you’d never hear back home, is guys bragging about the “pourability” of their kettle.

They both looked at me puzzled.

I explained you hardly find kettles back in the States, and certainly not the electric kettles that come standard in every English home. Still they look puzzled.

“You don’t use kettles?” John asked.

“Well, it’s not that we don’t, it’s just not nearly as common,” I explained. “You’ll see more coffee makers, for example, because we tend to drink more coffee, but if you do see a kettle, it’s a stovetop kettle.”

Still they look puzzled, so I quickly tried to move the conversation on, as John checked on our pizzas.

“That black enough, you think?” he asked, staring into stove.

He pulled the pizza out, one by one, and John Ash asked if we minded if we just had the steamed vegetables straight on the pizza, as it covered the entire plate.

None of us minded, so he proceeded.

We set our plates down on the table and John Ash snapped a picture of the scene: pizza completely covering the plate, with thick cut steamed vegetables on top of the pizza.

“It’s not a bad set up, actually,” he commented while snapping a picture with his iPhone. “Carb basket.”

The night was filled with a lot of laughter as we talked and ate. John Ash explained how the remote-control helicopter he received as a Christmas gift had taken quite the beating, and how it now looked a bit like a smashed fly trying to take flight.

We talked about studies and ministry. John Adams told us about the school’s chaplain, “a great guy, really, who preaches the Gospel,” and how he was being removed from the school because apparently a few parents on the Board thought he was a bit too conservative and challenging in his teaching.

We talked about suffering, and how this Chaplain was basically suffering because of his “cross-shaped life.” John Adams kept using that term, cross-shaped life, as he talked about this Chaplain. And as he talked about the lives we are called to live, as followers of Christ.

And I loved it. I loved it in a way I didn’t like. I didn’t like it because I knew I often flee from suffering, and yet that’s the very mark of our faith.

Around 10:00, I explained that I should probably get back home, as I still had a bit of studying to do before my test the next day (“collections”), and so we said our goodbyes and made the short drive back to the city center, John Ash and I. He apologized about my flat as he dropped me off right where I left it, and I hauled it off to College in the cold night air, where I could lock it up safely before catching a bus back to the Kilns.

It was after 11:00 by the time I made it home that night, and I ended up studying until after 1:00 the next morning.

Friday: Collections and Unconventional Fingerprints

After several hours of studying that morning, I made my way to the Exam Schools that afternoon, dressed in my black gown, for collections. At Oxford, rather than taking a test at the end of the term, to see how you know the material, you take a vacation in-between terms and then come back and take a test (“collections”) before starting your next term. Yep, brutal, I know.

I sat in room full of 100 or so other students at 2:00 that afternoon, all of us dressed in our black gowns, and I scribbled away on my essays on John Calvin for the next three hours. By hand. By 5:00, when I finally put my pen down, I could hardly feel my thumb and my index finger. A numbness had set in that would linger for the next several days.

But I was done. All of the studying that I had put in after arriving in Oxford was now put to paper, and I could now wash my hands of it and get ready for the next term. It’s always a relief, that feeling.

I walked back to college in the dark, that evening, before climbing back into my old familiar desk and trudging through all of the e-mails that had piled up during the past few days I had spent studying. Once I had fended off enough e-mail for the day, I got started on my application for school next year. I’m applying to do one more year here in Oxford. For a nine-month MSt in Christian Doctrine.

Jen caught me on Skype after 9:00 that Friday night. I’m sure she assumed I’d be back home at this point. I wasn’t.

“So, where’d you go for dinner,” her words asked in my earphones, likely knowing what my response would be.

“Uhhh, the library?” I typed out, as I was in the library and I couldn’t talk.

“Ryannnn!” she said firmly. “Do I need to sick Debbie on you?”

“No, no you don’t need to sick Debbie on me,” I typed. “But can you guess where I had lunch?”

“Uh, the library,” Jen said in a mocking voice.

“Ding, ding, ding,” I typed. “But don’t get Debbie. I’ll go home soon.”

Jen and I talked for a bit, and it was great to see her again. It really made my day. We laughed together as we talked, separated by a giant ocean and 6,000 miles.

It was after 10:00 by the time I finally shut down my computer and made my way down the stone staircase leading out of the library that night. My phone buzzed in my pocket as I hit the bottom step. It was Debbie, calling to check up on me from the Kilns.

“Are you alive?” she asked with a laugh. “We thought you’d be home by now.”

I took my turn laughing. If only she knew the conversation Jen and I had just had.

“Yep, I’m still alive. But just barely. I’m making my way home now.”

“Okay, good,” she replied, with a bit of relief. “Well we’re looking forward to celebrating the end of your tests. We’ll be waiting for you when you get here.”

I thanked Debbie. Her thoughtfulness put a smile on my face. And it brought some life to my wearied mind.

I made my way out of the college into the cold night air. It had been a cloudless day, and the naked sky provided little cover for the cold. I zipped my jacket up to my neck as I walked, tucked my chin in close, and put my earphones in before turning on some music for my walk to the bus stop.

Unconventional Fingerprints

I was listening to the band Sigur Ros as I strode the stone sidewalks and back alleys that led to the bus stop on High Street that night. If you haven’t heard of Sigur Ros, I couldn’t recommend them more. I’ve only recently stumbled upon their music, which makes me feel bad. I like to think I know a thing or two about good music, about what the kids are listening to these days, but somehow this Icelandic band slipped out of my radar all these years.

The falsetto voice of their front man Jonsi (pronounced “yon-see”) rang in my ears, in dramatic, haunting, lingering tones as I crossed through the shadows of the Oxford alleys, with my hands in my coat pocket. I hugged closely to the stone walls as my feet beat the pavement. The colleges that sat just beyond the high stone walls bordering the alley I walked rose high into the dark sky like castles, and the gaslit lamps stood on each bend of the alley. The whole scene looked almost as though it could be taken straight out of a movie set in the middle ages, and I love it. It may sound funny, since I’ve been here a year and a half now, but all of this still seems so unreal to me at most times.

I laughed to myself as I walked in the late, cold night air, while my shadow chased a few feet behind me. And after several days of sleep-deprived studies, I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually here right now… I can’t believe I’m actually studying at the University of Oxford.”

Sigur Ros’s ethereal sound continued to play in my earphones as I walked, and the music seemed to set the mood for the scene. It was perfect, really.

The lead singer of this band Sigur Ros, Jonsi, is something else. He’s blind in one eye. Which really doesn’t matter all that much, actually, because he sings with his eyes closed. He strikes his guitar with a bow and sings not in Icelandic, not even in English, but in something of a gibberish-like concoction of his native tongue. Wherever the melody leads him. He dresses up in rather funky, homemade outfits, too. Complete with feathers. And glitter around his eyes. But his voice… His voice is what strikes you. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

And I found myself thinking about his unconventional approach to music as I hopped on the bus, made my way across town, and then got off the bus a short 10-minute walk away from the Kilns, while Jonsi’s voice continued to play in my ears.

The air was cold as I made my way up the slight incline of Kilns Lane that night. Oxford was tucked in for a night’s sleep as I walked, drumming along with the music on my legs. Houses and cars were covered in a blanket of frost, which made everything glimmer. It was a beautiful scene, and the combination of music and glimmering frost over everything made me want to dance in the cold, open night air. That or a lack of sleep and utter exhaustion. Or both.

But I began to think about the fact that this guy, Jonsi, is doing something completely ridiculous and unconventional to most people. It’s the kind of thing that, when you look at it on paper, most people would say, “Yeah, that sounds like a bad idea…” Dressing up in a head dress and singing in gibberish.

But then you hear it for yourself, and you’re breathless.

And I couldn’t help but think, “I’m so glad Jonsi had the courage to share this gift he’s been blessed with with all of us.” I couldn’t help but think, “We’re blessed by it.”

I got thinking about the fact that we’re all given roughly 80 or so years on this planet. If we’re lucky. And that’s all for our time here. It’s not the end of our story, of course, but it is all we have for this (brief) chapter of history. I got thinking about the fact that we all leave something here. Even if it’s not good, we all leave some sort of fingerprint.

And I got thinking, this world, and those who had the fortune of hearing the musical talents Jonsi has been blessed with, will be better for it. The mark he will have left, just by sharing the gift he’s been given, will matter. And it wouldn’t be the same if he was trying to do what someone else wanted or expected from him. In fact, it would probably be very unlike what he’s doing now. It probably wouldn’t include a feather head dress. Or a mish-mash of gibberish. Instead, it’d be more like what this agent told him to do if he wants to get a record deal. Or what that producer told him they’re looking for. But it’s not. Instead, it’s this unique, unconventional reflection of who He is. And I thought that was beautiful.

I continued to beat my legs with my hands to the sound of the music in my ears as I walked in the cool night air, under the sparkling stars and alongside the glistening cars. And I found myself thinking, “I want to do that.”

I want to leave my fingerprints on this world in a way that no one else can. Because it’s a reflection of the unique gifts God has given me.

I’m sure it sounds funny, but, for some reason I felt like listening to Jonsi pour out his soul in his gibberish, Icelandic falsetto gave me permission to do that. And I hoped, when it was all said and done, that at the end of my time here, the words from my life would matter. That they would find their way to someone and that person would say, “I now see God more clearly because this guy cared enough to share his soul with us.”

That, to me, would be a life worth living.

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Day with Jen & Guy Fawkes Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting Guy Fawkes on Fire & Fireworks in South Park

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

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

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

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

I laughed out loud.

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

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

“It does me,” said Cole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Magdalene Chapel & Shadow proves the sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

5th week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes sense,” said Max.

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

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

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

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

“Meh…” I said with a smirk.

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

Proud of You

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One Will Ever Believe You

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Our Finnish Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finnish Survivor & Walter’s Warm Welcome

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

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

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

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

I laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Late-Night Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled.

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

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

Thursday: High Tea at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Playing catch up

I had a European Reformation test to make up during Friday of third week. I was supposed to take the test before the term began with everyone else, but since I was still back in the States, I was allowed to make it up on my own.

“I ought to go this route every time,” I thought to myself as I made my way to Harris Manchester and my spot in the library where I’d be taking my exam. It’s much less stressful taking an exam on your own than it is in a room full of other test-takers with someone seated at the front of the room.

I passed by Katrina, the librarian, at the printer as I made my way through one pair of double doors, and before passing through the next set.

“Good morning, Ryan,” she said with a smile, turning to face me as I entered the library. “You have a collection today, don’t you?”

“I do, yes,” I said, taking another step toward the library’s second set of double doors, before pausing and turning back toward Katrina. “How do you feel about the European Reformation, by the way?”

“Oh, well, I have too much to say about it, probably,” was her response.

“Perfect. Are you free at 2:00 for a collection, then?”

“Well…”, Katrina said with a pause, and a bit of a smile. “You’d probably better do it, you’d do a better job, she said, nodding her head.”

“Okay, okay…” I said heavily, turning and making my way toward my seat upstairs in the library. I had a few hours to study before my exam that afternoon, so I got to work, going through my old notes.

That is until 11:00 rolled around and all I could think about was getting my hands on a cup of tea… It’s funny how quickly that happens to me here. I hardly drink tea back in the States. But here, I typically drink several cups a day. With milk and sugar. I think my body knows when I’m in England and demands it. My stomach would likely revolt if I tried to go without it.

At 1:00, I made a break for the dining hall to grab a quick bite for lunch. I was in and out in 10 minutes, the first one.  “Thanks!” I called out to the head server as I skipped down the stairs from the dining hall, across the college grounds, and back up to the library with an apple in hand.

I began my exam at 2:00 and three hours later, with numb fingers from holding my pencil so hard, I placed my exam papers back into the folder they came to me in and stowed them in my advisor’s pigeon hole in the mail room. It was a good feeling to have that test wrapped up and no longer hanging over my head. Now I could focus on my weekly essays without worrying about studying material I had taken last spring. And, best of all, I was fairly confident I passed.

Saturday: The first enchiladas in CS Lewis’s dining room

We decided to have a house dinner Saturday night at the Kilns. Jonathan and Debbie and Jen and I, as well as our short-term scholar, David. The philosophy professor from Texas. Jen and I were in town for the day, and so we offered to pick up something to make. Earlier in the day, I suggested Mexican food. Jonathan seemed to like the idea, so Mexican food it was.

I laughed to myself as we found our seats around the dining room table that evening, thinking it was probably the first time enchiladas had ever been enjoyed from C.S. Lewis’s old dining room… The warm cheese and salsa lathered tortillas, stuffed full with chicken, went down easily, along with the conversation. We laughed over stories, and, at some point, Ray Stevens came up in conversation. Debbie and David and I (and I only because of my Grandfather) were the only ones who knew who Ray Stevens was, so we decided to pull up some of his songs on Youtube and we watched them from the dining room. Laughing, somewhat embarrassingly, at his ridiculous humor. If it was not, in fact, the first time enchiladas had been enjoyed from C.S. Lewis’s old dining room, Ray Stevens, I was sure, had to be a first.

Sunday: A Stadium of Saints and Tea with Walter

We woke up Sunday morning and made our way by foot to Holy Trinity Church, the local Anglican church where C.S. Lewis used to attend. Jen and I had never been before, as it was quite a ways away for us when we were living in north Oxford last year, but now it was only a 10-minute walk. And so that’s where we went on this particular Sunday morning.

We came up to the small village church, surrounded by an old graveyard (as they all are) just as the church bells began to ring. We walked a little fast and pressed through the large, wooden arched door before finding our seats toward the front of the congregation.

The small church was filled with people. Locals. Families and older couples. A few young couples. The room was interspersed with high-rising stone columns. And the ceiling came to an arched point. All the pews were faced toward a large, stained glass scene in the front of the church, where a choir had gathered. And the service began nearly as quickly as we took our seats. We sang. Hymns, of course. And then a brief message from a man in his late 40’s who wore his long, blonde hair in a ponytail against his white Anglican robe.

He began his message by telling a story about a young boy who was excited about his first trip to a live football (soccer) match, and the overwhelming feeling of being seated in the packed stadium as the football players took to the field, with the air blazing full of the sound of cheers. And, almost immediately, I found myself slightly disappointed. I’m not usually one to criticize a sports metaphor in sermons, as trite as they may be for most, but a sports metaphor for a sport I don’t actually play, that’s a bit more difficult for me. But I continued to listen in, of course, intently, trusting that this pony-tailed man would actually have something of importance to pull from the story.

He talked about how this young boy was struck by this image of the stadium full of people cheering for the athletes, and how he knew, at that moment that he wanted to become a professional football player himself one day. After carrying on this story for a while, the vicar changed the picture just slightly. Instead of football fans, he asked us to picture a stadium full of saints. The men and women who had come before us in the service of the Lord. Who had pressed on toward the goal laid before them with unswerving affection for their Lord. And he asked us to picture not professional football players on the field, but ourselves. Stepping out onto the freshly cut grass, surrounded by thousands and thousands of cheering saints. Cheering us on. Encouraging us to fight the good fight of life, for His glory. Just as they themselves had centuries before us. Cheering each of us on.

And I found myself enraptured by this picture. I found myself so encouraged. It’s easy, in the day to day busyness of life, to think that it doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. That I simply have to meet this deadline, or do that, or pick up this. And you go to bed at night. And you wake up the next day only to do it again. And you feel as though none of it, in the long run, really matters all that much.

But this scene reminded me that it does. All of it. Each day. Each moment, is an opportunity to point our lives toward Him, and in doing so, to point others toward Him. And, in so doing, to point others toward a life that, really, truly does matter. And will matter for all of eternity.

It was a reminder I needed on this particular morning. And as the pony-tailed vicar concluded his message, he looked at us all with a warm, subtle smile, and eyes of understanding, and he left us with these words: “Keep the faith.”

Theology Through Art

After the church service, we wandered down a narrow footpath to a small community center where the congregation was gathering for coffee and fellowship. Jen and I each grabbed a coffee and cookie and found Jonathan, who was talking with a friend. He introduced us to her. “Nancy” was her name. And we asked how they knew each other.

“Swing dancing,” Jonathan told us, in his full-bodied, rich English accent.

My eyebrows went up.

“Oh wow,” I said. “I didn’t take you to be a swing dancer.”

“Well I wasn’t, until Nancy introduced me to it,” he told us.

“You guys ought to come out one night,” Nancy said, looking toward Jen and I, in her American accent.

“Oh, well… I’m not a very good dancer,” I admitted. “The only time we’ve ever taken dance lessons I nearly turned Jen’s toes black and blue.”

They laughed. But Jen nodded with a smile, as if to tell them it wasn’t a joke.

I asked Nancy what she was doing in Oxford and she told us she was studying. Art history.

“But I’m interested in theology,” she told us, as if to clarify.

She told us she wanted to communicate theology, but not through theology. Through her appreciation of art history.

I was clearly excited when I heard this, and the wide grin on my face surely gave it away. I thought what she said was beautiful. I think that’s what we all ought to aim for. Communicating His important truths in all that we do. In our own areas of expertise. In our everyday. All of it aimed at helping others see Him more clearly.

My mind began to run away as we stood there, listening to Nancy describe her passion for theology and art. I found myself thinking how theology ought not be something we’re scared of. Or reluctant to approach. It should be something that’s so ingrained in us that we cannot help but allow it to pour out of us, in whatever it is we’re doing.

And I stood there, smiling widely as the four of us talked over coffee and cookies.

Tea with Walter

That evening, I hopped on a bus and headed to North Oxford. To Walter’s home. He had invited me over after I sent him an e-mail Tuesday night. Sharing with him how I felt during the Lewis Society’s Annual General Meeting. How I was certain that, even if everyone in the room decided I was completely incompetent and unsuitable for my role as Society President, that he would stick up from me and stop them from throwing me out the window.

And so I made my way to his home this Sunday evening. To talk about the Society. And to catch up. I hadn’t been to his home since we had returned to Oxford, and I was excited to see him again.

Jen had decided to stay home, as the talk was likely to be more Society-business oriented than pure socializing. Next time we met, she would have to come, we both decided.

I got off the bus at the entrance to Woodstock Close, the lane that leads to Walter’s home, and made my way to his front door. I rang the doorbell and a few moments later I was greeted by his old familiar voice, “Well helloooo,” he said with his warm smile, which matched the warm air spilling out from his home into the cool hallway where I stood.

He took my coat and led me into the living room, where everything stood just as I remembered it. The tall greek statue in the corner of the room. Lewis’s bronze  head. The ivory-colored busts beside the fireplace. And Blessed Lucy of Narnia, Walter’s cat, asleep on the corner of the back of his couch. It was all perfect. And it was all just as I remembered.

Walter petted Lucy, making known my presence (“You see, Uncle Ryan has returned!”), and invited me to take a seat in the high, wing-backed chair where I always sit, as he sat opposite me on the couch.

“I must tell you,” Walter began as we took our seats, “when I read your e-mail the other day, I thought to myself, ‘Was he even there?'”

Walter when on to tell me that he thought I had done a wonderful job at the Society meeting this past week, and in overseeing the Annual General Meeting, particularly as I had never even attended an AGM, let alone lead one.

“You mustn’t be so hard on yourself,” Walter assured me in his kind, sympathetic voice. “You really do make a wonderful President.”

We went on to talk about many other things over tea and cookies, as Blessed Lucy of Narnia slept away in the warm living room. We talked about the history of the Society, we talked about books, and we talked, of course, about Lewis.

“What was it like being around Lewis?” I later asked Walter before taking a sip of hot tea. “I mean, there are many brilliant people here in Oxford, and it’s often very intimidating. Was it like that with Lewis?”

Walter’s eyebrows crunched together, nearly meeting in the center of his forehead, before he began to answer my question. I could tell he was thinking about my question.

“You know, he really was so kind,” Walter began. “When we would be in conversation with some of his friends, I would sometimes make a point, and then he would pick it up and run with it. And then, afterward, he would come back to me, as though I had said something quite brilliant, when clearly it was he who was the brilliant one.”

Walter paused, as if to travel back in time to the scene he was telling me about. The room fell quiet for a moment as he took in this memory. And then his eyes returned to me.

“Lewis once told me,” Walter continued, picking up the conversation, “The wisest among us are gentlest to the raw.”

I sat back in my chair with a smile. I loved that. There are enough brilliant people here in Oxford who know they’re brilliant, and who want to make sure you know it. And that can be a bit intimidating. And I loved to hear that Lewis wasn’t like that.

I loved to hear that, even though his brilliance could be as fierce as a lion, he did not allow it to be that way when it was inappropriate. Instead, he tamed it, so that what those of us less brilliant than himself experienced in being around him, including Walter, was not the razor sharp edge and brunt force of his brilliance in violent attack, but a gentleness that understood the difference, and was keen to not make others feel humiliated by it.

We talked for a bit longer. And we looked over some of the books from Walter’s library, including some copies of Kipling’s works. Some of the books had previously been a part of Albert Lewis’s personal library (Lewis’s father), before they became the possession of Lewis and his brother Warnie.

“Amazing,” I said aloud, as I flipped gently through the heavy pages of the old books.

I thanked Walter for his time and company as I took up my coat. I thanked him for encouraging me in my role as President. And I thanked him for an incredible afternoon.

And as I made my way across town back to the Kilns, and back to Jen, I was warmed, even in the cold night air, by this man’s friendship.

Fourth Week

Monday: Our Culturally Relevant Library

I made my way to the Harris Manchester library on Monday. On Halloween. I nearly forgot it was Halloween, that is until I entered the library and found the library skeleton waiting at the door to greet me.

I found Katrina, the librarian, sitting behind her computer. I pointed out the skeleton at the door with a laugh as I passed by her. She smiled. And laughed, quietly.

“Well it’s not me who does that, you know?” Katrina said in a voice just above a whisper. “It’s like that when I arrive in the morning, so it’s done after I leave. I do think it’s a good spot for it, though. It provides a nice welcome.”

“Yes, a skeleton… A very warm welcome!” I said with a laugh. Katrina laughed, too. “Well, I suppose it is Halloween, isn’t it?” I said.

Katrina looked off for a moment, to think, “I suppose it is, isn’t it? Well yes, we like to think we’re relevant to culture.”

I laughed.

“It was done subconsciously, you know,” she said with a smile as I waved goodbye and made my way upstairs to spend the day reading.

Halloween from the Kilns

I returned to the Kilns that night. Jen and I enjoyed dinner from the kitchen, just the two of us. And then Debbie joined us, talking as we finished our dinner. We nodding our heads as we chewed. And then the conversation moved to the common room, and soon Jonathan and David joined us.

And so there we sat, until nearly midnight. All of us gathered around in the common room. It was a wonderful, family-like atmosphere. It hardly felt like Halloween, though, for we didn’t receive a single trick-or-treater.

“If I were a kid in this neighborhood,” I said, “I would make sure to trick-or-treat at C.S. Lewis’s home.”

Heads nodded, and the conversation continued. Until, finally, one by one, we retreated to our bedrooms to turn in for the night.

Tuesday: Realizing I stole Alister McGrath’s seat

I returned to Harris Manchester on Tuesday, to get a bit of reading done before making my way to my Calvin tutorial. And I ran into Sue, the librarian, before hitting the wide, stone staircase that leads into the library.

I had attended a lecture in college the night before, before returning home. And Sue had been seating behind me. She made a comment as I sat down that I had stolen Alister McGrath‘s seat, which I shook off with a laugh, thinking she was just joking. (If you haven’t heard of Alister McGrath, he took a First in Chemistry here at Oxford in the 70’s, as an atheist, was converted to Christianity and then decided he wanted to study Theology, after a respectable career in the Sciences. He went on to take a First in Theology and now teaches around the world on Theology, and he writes more books than I am confident is physically possible for any one man). As it turns out, Sue wasn’t joking. I had, in fact, stolen Alister McGrath’s seat in the previous night’s lecture…

“Well thanks for pointing that out,” I told her, sarcastically. “I feel pretty good about myself now!”

“Oh, yes, you’re welcome,” she said in her warm British accent, with her squinty-eyed smile. Sue went on to tell me about a conversation she once had with Professor McGrath.

“I asked him once if he realized that wherever he goes people whisper, ‘There goes Alister McGrath…’ And he got all red in the cheeks and said, “Maybe… Yes.” He’s a very shy, very humble man, you know.”

“Better that way than the other, though, isn’t it?” I told her.

“Yes, he’s not interested in that, you know? Not at all. Unlike some.”

“Yes, I think that’s refreshing,” I told Sue. “A good reminder for us all, I think.”

“Indeed,” Sue said, before I told her ‘goodbye’ and made my way up to the library for another day’s worth of reading.

Wednesday: Talking with Dr Kennedy about Jesus

I presented my paper on Jesus’ identity to Dr Kennedy on Wednesday for my modern theology course. I had hurried to make it to his office on-time, cycling across Oxford’s city center from Harris Manchester as quickly as possible, and then hurrying up the narrow staircase to his room. From his third-story office, lined with book shelves filled to the brim with theology texts, I read my paper aloud. I was short of breath, from the ride, and so I struggled through the first bit, before finally catching my breath around 2,000 words into my essay, and then finishing up the second half of it at a much more comfortable pace.

We talked about how Jesus is said to be both “fully God, and fully man,” and whether or not this actually made any sense. Some theologians say it doesn’t, even though this is a long-held creed of the Christian faith. Others say it does. Still others say, whether it makes sense conceptually or not to us, that it remains true, even as it remains beyond our comprehension.

Dr Kennedy–or Philip, as he encourages me to call him–asked if I thought Jesus would agree with the many doctrines about Him that had been put to paper in the first several centuries following his death. If Jesus would agree with the way the Church has decided to talk about him.

I said “yes,” I did, only to be met with Philip’s eyes rising with a look of surprise behind his glasses. He told me he found it quite difficult to imagine.

“In principle,” I clarified. “Yes I do.”

He went on to talk about how many scholars propose the only way to know anything about Jesus is to observe his actions. Dr Kennedy told me this was the theory he followed most closely to.

“I remember growing up and being told you need to go to a good school, you need to work really hard and then you need to earn a great income,” Philip told me, with a voice that seemed to mock those who had told him this as a young boy. “And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t find this anywhere in the Gospels!'”

And it was on this point that I found myself agreeing with Philip. Wholeheartedly. And then, before I knew it, our hour together was up. It had completely flown by.

“It goes quickly,” Dr Kennedy said, acknowledging the time.

“Yes, especially when I’m reading a 4,000-word essay!” I said.

Dr Kennedy encouraged me not to tell others about my mean tutor who makes me read my 4,000-word essay aloud. I told him I took the blame for the long essay, as we made our way downstairs. He grabbed some notes from the printer and handed them to me, with some additional references to look at for our conversation, and for my preparations for final exams.

“Keep up the great work, Ryan,” Dr Kennedy told me with a warm smile from behind his glasses. “You’re doing very well.”

And I found myself frozen in that moment, as I stood there in the hallway of the Theology Faculty Department. Taken aback by the realization that, even as we agreed to disagree on this particular essay, my work was being praised by one of Oxford’s rather high-chaired theologians. And I was in awe.

“Thank you,” I told him in response, wearing what I’m sure was an ear-to-ear grin. “I’ll see you in two weeks’ time.”

“See you in two weeks’ time,” he replied. “If not sooner.”

Leaving the Theology Faculty Center on broad street, I hopped on my bike and ran a few errands around town. The sky was thick with cloud cover. Like a giant cotton ball duvet, laid over the entire skyline. Impenetrable, it seemed. The cool air was ruffled only by a slight wind, which echoed with a hollow sound in my ear as I rode. Like a seashell held to a child’s ear.

After my errands, I grabbed a sandwich from the Alternative Tuck Shop and sat down on one of the overstuffed, dark brown leather chairs in the JCR back at Harris Manchester to eat my lunch. It was 4:30, by this point, and it felt so good to stop long enough to catch my breath. And to grab a quick bite. But that feeling did not last long, as I quickly remembered I had agreed to read Scripture at Chapel that evening. The service began in an hour, which left me with just enough time to enjoy a cup of tea and respond to some e-mails. Back to the library I went, with a cup of tea in-hand…

Thursday: FBI security in the Bodleian Library

I needed to find a book in the Bodleian Library on Thursday. For one of my essays. I couldn’t find it anywhere else, and so I made my way to the Radcliffe Camera, one of my favorite buildings in Oxford.

The Bodleian Library is a very high-security place in Oxford. While visitors can see most of the colleges around Oxford during special “visiting hours,” the Bodleian is generally off-limits. As you make your way through the gate and across the footpath that leads between two sections of green lawn in front of the Radcliffe Camera, you’re greeted by little signs along the way, prohibiting certain activities. This sign reads, “No photos.” That sign reads, “No visitors.” And then, as you pass through the front door, you’re greeted by more signs. “No smoking” on this one. “No food” on that one.  “No making forts in the middle of the library with books and staging attacks on other book-forts…” Okay, I made that last one up, but all the rest of the signs can be found in bold letters.

It was the first time I had been in the Rad Cam since returning, and I was surprised by the new security system that was in place. After being cleared by the gentleman behind the front desk, who checked my student ID and my bag, I was surprised to find an electronic gate that had been installed. I tried to pass through it, only to be met by a blaring alarm that erupted in the otherwise silent library. I had not seen the electronic security access signs that told me to swipe my card, and, once again, I had made a fool of myself in the library.

I swiped my card and quickly passed through the space, doing my best to not be noticed as the guy who set off the alarm, and I made my way down the stairs that led into the library’s newest space: The Gladstone Link. It’s an underground space that was recently opened to allow for even more books to be viewed. I followed the staircase downstairs. The stairs and walls were built out of a light-colored stone, and I felt like I was walking into a museum exhibit. The stairs were lit from blue lights hidden under the handrail, which created a rather ominous setting. It was quiet, and I passed through several glass doors. As I continued down several flights of stairs, passing further and further underground, I felt like I was entering some sort of top-secret, underground FBI archives. Finally, I entered into a large, cavernous room, a basement of the basement, where my book was waiting for me, along with an afternoon of reading.

Friday: How a Good God Can Allow Bad Things To Happen

I spent most of Friday back in the Radcliffe Camera, plowing through several books and my essay on John Calvin, which was due that afternoon. I took a break at 1:00 to head to the Mitre Pub for a quick bite and a lecture that my friend Tom Price from RZIM was giving. It was on the topic of “How a good God can allow bad things to happen,” and I was looking forward to hearing how he addressed what I believe to be the most difficult question facing Christianity.

I ran into Tim from Harris Manchester at the talk, in the food line, as we filled up our plates before the talk. He told me he was heading north to Manchester for the weekend. For the Manchester United match. I thought that sounded pretty exciting, as Manchester United is one of the most famous sports teams in the world. I nearly told him I was going to celebrate the weekend by watching a giant, wooden effigy of a man burn in the park, but I didn’t. (Stay tuned for that story, by the way…)

Tom began his talk shortly after we took our seats. As we bit into our sandwiches, Tom reminded us that a man by the name of C.S. Lewis once frequented this room, “Where he used to eat his Sunday lunches,” Tom told us. My eyes got big as I chewed my sandwich.

Tom approached his talk with grace and sensitivity, which I appreciated. It’s a topic one can approach only with their intellect, and risk seeming cold and uncaring, particularly for those who’ve experienced deep amounts of pain and wonder how in the world a good God could allow such incredibly evil things to happen.

He began with a quote from Lewis, and the reason why Lewis believed this particular argument was one that prevented him and others from coming to God for so long:

If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”

He went on to talk about Steve Jobs, and how this very same argument turned Jobs away from God at a very young age. Tom went on to argue that, in a world where true beauty and true love exists, so too much choice (for, as he and others have argued, true love cannot exist without choice). He went on to point out how the Christian faith explains all of the badness we now experience as the cumulative result of our choice gone terribly wrong, generation after generation after generation.

Tom made several other points in his talk. And he went to say that, for many of us, it is only in our experiences of pain and suffering that we realize our need for God.

“Take that away,” he explained, “And most of us will go on thinking we can make our way through life without any need for Him.”

And I thought that point was interesting. It was one I had heard before, but for some reason, hearing it made on this particular occasion caused me stop and think, even as Tom continued his talk.

I found myself remembering an article I once read about a very rare disorder in which some people are born without the ability to feel pain. The article told about those with this disorder who would put their hand on a hot burner without realizing it was actually on, only to be alerted to the fact of their injury by the smell of their burning flesh. It told of others who had broken a bone in their leg, without realizing it, only to go on walking as if everything was normal, all the while their injury was getting worse and worse and worse, putting the individual at great danger.

The article explained that, while the idea of living life without pain may sound like a great blessing, at first, it actually comes at a great price for those who experience this incredibly rare disorder. Many who have it experience worse injuries than they would otherwise, because the sting of pain that most of us feel–pain which is there to warn us of even greater injury–passes them by, and they go on hurting themselves even more than they normally would, often times without even realizing it.

And I thought this was applicable to the point Tom was now making, as he talked about how often times it’s only the pain and suffering we experience in this world that leads us to God. Were we not to experience the painful consequences of our life choices, we would likely continue down the same painful road, completely unaware of just how bad things were getting. We would continue to journey further and further away from Him, further into greater and greater darkness, without realizing it.

But, thankfully, we do feel pain. We do feel the brunt force of suffering. In fact, we all have this shared sense that things simply aren’t how they are supposed to be. That things have gone painfully wrong. And that we need something to make it right. That we need something to make us right.

I was chewing on this thought when I was rushed back to the conversation at hand in the upstairs room at the Mitre Pub at the mention of C.S. Lewis’s name, who was once again being quoted by Tom. It was a quote I was fondly familiar with. A quote from the book Mere Christianity. The very same book that had caused me to look into Theology and Oxford in the first place.

‘If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong?’ For many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question…My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish could not feel wet.”

That was the thought I found myself chewing on even as I left Tom’s talk that afternoon. That this very awareness of pain and suffering in the world–the feeling I hate so much, the overwhelming feeling that brings tears to my eyes and stops me dead in my tracks with not a moment’s notice–it all points me to Him. This sense of right and wrong and justice must come from outside of this world, for this world, as long as we have known it, has always been broken.

A broken down world cannot recognize its own brokenness, not if that’s what it has always known. No, it takes something that is not broken, something that remains outside of this brokenness, to properly recognize the current state of affairs as broken. This point causes us to look outside our world, beyond our world, to a God who is, Himself, the opposite of this brokenness. Who is, indeed, just and good, where here we seem to experience only the opposite. Indeed, it appears, our innate sense that things simply are not as they ought to be and frustration at this truth, far from causing us to turn our backs on God, causes us to turn toward Him, knowing that if it weren’t for Him and for His goodness, we wouldn’t feel this way in the first place.

I made my way back to the Radcliffe Camera and back to my essay, even as I continued to think about this. I climbed up the spiral, stone staircase leading into the upstairs half of the Rad Cam as my mind continued to walk through Tom’s talk, and it came to land on another quote made in this afternoon’s talk. It was a quote from an American Philosopher by the name of Alvin Plantinga. A highly respected academic who teaches at The University of Notre Dame. It was Plantinga who once said, in consideration of this question of suffering and pain and evil, and how it all works in light of the good, loving, powerful God of Christianity, “The chief difference between Christianity and other theistic religions, lies just here: according to the Christian gospel, God is willing to enter into the sufferings of his creatures, in order to redeem them and his world.”

And I thought that was beautiful. Not because it answered all my questions, but because it reminded me of the God we worship. Even in light of such insurmountable pain and suffering. Even amidst the kind of grief and sorrow that seems to steal all one’s joy, we worship a God who not only has a plan to overcome the darkness, but who has already enacted that plan, and who is redeeming our broken story from the inside out, through Himself. Through His Son. And through the greatest sacrifice the world has ever known.

Back to the Rad Cam

I continued to think about this as I passed through the second story doorway of the Radcliffe Camera, and I gazed upward at the giant dome-ceiling, which rises more than 100-feet in the air as I made my way into the library.

The upstairs of the Rad Cam is home to thousands and thousands of the Bodleian’s history books. It has two stories, with an open-air second floor. It’s unbelievable, really, that it’s a library. It’s beautiful enough to be the kind of chapel you’d find in Rome. The ceiling is incredibly ornate, and it reminded me of many of the structures we saw on our trip to Italy and France last spring.

But instead of prayer and hymns, the room is home to books and students and desks. I took my seat at an old wooden desk toward the back of the library and continued plugging away on my essay. I hit “Submit” on my laptop at 5:01, and I fired off a few e-mails before leaving the Rad Cam and making my way down the lane to a nearby restaurant for my date night with Jen.

Greeted by that smile that first captured my heart more than 10 years ago, I was thankful to have my work done for the week, and to be able to enjoy this time together. Alone to our thoughts. Alone to our conversation. It was, as it always is, the highlight of my week, even in such an incredible place as this.

Monday: Lunch at one of Oxford’s oldest colleges & Embarrassed in the library (again)

I started off my third week of the term with lunch at Balliol College. I was meeting Myriam, Secretary for the C.S. Lewis Society, as well as a couple past presidents, Judith and Brendan, who are now back in Oxford after spending some time studying in Germany. We were meeting so they could share some of their advice on running the Society. Advice I was keen to hear.

I had been to Balliol for a lecture before, but never for lunch. As one of the oldest colleges at Oxford (it was established in 1263), its architecture is classic Oxford. Lots of old stone buildings set atop stretching green grounds, with giant wooden and metal doors. Narrow, stone corridors, with cobblestone walkways, lead you from one quad to another. It’s one of those colleges where, if you let yourself, you can really feel as though you’ve just traveled back in time.

And it was while the four of us were making our way across the college grounds, up the large, wide staircase that leads to Balliol’s dining hall, that I found myself thinking, “This really is such an incredible place!” And I love it. I love all of it. I love the people, people who come from all over the world. I love the accents (the British more than any others). And I love the history of this city. The kind of history I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else, and which hits you in the face around every corner.

We made our way into the dining hall for lunch. I took note of the beautiful, dark hardwood floor. The afternoon sun was pouring in through high, arching windows on one side of the room. It was the kind of place where you feel like you’re dining in a really old chapel, with the high-arching windows and the ornate, wood-carved walls.

Following our conversation over lunch (a tasty Indian lamb dish), we made our way out of Balliol College, around the corner and down St Giles Street to St John’s College, where Judith is a member of the faculty. To carry on the conversation over a walk around the college grounds. I had never been inside St John’s college before, so I was excited to see it. St John’s is known for being one of the most well endowed colleges here at Oxford. They own most, if not all, of the city street the college sits on, as well as an enormous amount of property around England.

The college grounds at St John’s include beautiful, stretching gardens. Set behind its high, college walls. And taking it all in on our walk, I couldn’t help but feel so privileged. For being a member of the university and having access to all of this beauty that’s hidden behind the stone walls that line St John’s perimeter, separating all of this from the outside city. Brendan was filling me in on much of the Society’s history as we walked. Brendan is tall, with short, dark hair, and a long, thick beard that he strokes as he talks. As if to help him think. As Brendan was leading the conversation, I noticed Judith taking in individual trees along the trail of our walk. She’d pause for a moment as we passed several along the way, as if she knew them. As if she were checking on the health of an old friend. While Brendan continued on in his deep, monotone voice, stroking his beard in the afternoon sun that washed over the college’s green grounds.

On our way out of the College, we peaked our heads into the small chapel. I always like to see the different chapels around Oxford when I visit a college. They’re always unique, and they tend to reflect a particular college’s character. Inside the St John’s College, I noticed a symbol I had seen before, at the “Lamb & Flag,” a nearby pub. It was of a white lamb carrying a flag over one shoulder. It was unique, and I had never noticed it before coming to Oxford.

“What does this symbol mean?” I asked, turning to Brendan and Judith.

“It comes from St John’s Gospel, and it represents the Christ,” Brendan replied, quoting a passage from Scripture: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Oh yeah… Okay, well that makes sense.”

We said our goodbyes and thanked Brendan and Judith for their time before Myriam and I made our way back to our respective libraries. For more studying.

Embarrassed in the library

I picked up a cell phone charger on the way, as I had somehow misplaced the charger for my UK cell phone over the summer. I plugged it in when I got back to the library at Harris Manchester. Since it had been turned off for several months, apparently the settings had been reset, including the volume… Because of this, when it had enough battery power, it notified me I had several messages in a not-so-subtle fashion. It began in a quiet voice, but then it grew louder: “message… Message… MESSAGE!” finally reaching its crescendo in a shrieking voice, as I frantically punched the buttons, trying to quiet it.

Finally it went silent, but not before my cheeks began to burn with embarrassment. Memories of the time when I opened my laptop in the Bodleian Library and Barlow Girl’s song “I need you to love me” came blaring out for several seconds, interrupting the otherwise pin-drop silence. What a horrible experience… Fortunately people in HMC are more forgiving; I didn’t feel as though I needed to pack up my things and leave, as I had done in the Bodleian.

Tuesday: When my mind woke up & Lewis Society

I was invited to hear a talk from a guy by the name of William Lane Craig on Tuesday. He’s a philosopher from the States, and he’s also one of the world’s leading Christian apologists. Professor Craig was giving a talk at the Sheldonian Theatre here in Oxford that evening, which I couldn’t attend (because of my commitments with the Lewis Society). Professor Craig regularly travels and debates on the existence of God, and he had given Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most well-known Atheist, an open-invitation for a debate here in Oxford. Unfortunately, Dawkins hadn’t taken him up on the offer.

A while back, a group of Atheists sponsored an advertising campaign where they ran a series of bus ads that said, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” After Dawkins turned down Professor William Lane Craig’s invite for a debate at the Sheldonian Theatre, a series of bus ads began running around Oxford that read, “There’s probably no Dawkins. Now stop worrying and enjoy October 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.” I thought that was pretty clever.

Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to listen to Craig respond to Dawkins’s latest book at the Sheldonian that night, I was happy to get to hear him talk for a bit at this by-invite lunch event. I took a seat by Max, who I hadn’t seen since returning to Oxford, and I pulled out a small notebook to take down some notes while I listened.

I had never heard Professor Craig before, but I was really impressed. He’s clearly a very intelligent guy, but I was impressed by just how articulate and easy to listen to he is. He talked about why he feels Christian Apologetics are important, both for the speaker and for the listener, and then he took about an hour’s worth of questions from those who had come to hear him. And one thing he mentioned that afternoon, in particular, stuck with me in a lasting way. Mostly because it’s one of the things that I took away from reading C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, for the first time. And, in that way, it’s really the reason I’m here. It was in the middle of this particular talk that Professor Craig said, “People need to know the Gospel is a viable option for the thinking person.” And I found myself sitting in the middle of the audience, grinning in agreement.

After the talk, while we were still thanking Professor Craig for his talk with a round of applause, I leaned over to Max and said, “It is so good to be back here. I feel like my soul and my mind are waking up from a bit of hibernation over the summer.”

Max smiled. He agreed. I grabbed a sandwich on our way out of the talk, and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library for a bit of reading before meeting for dinner and the C.S. Lewis Society that evening.

Dinner & C.S. Lewis Society

I had arranged for a small dinner with our speaker for the night, Dr Michael Ward, along with two other people. Dr Michael Ward is Oxford’s resident Lewis expert, and he’s also supervising my extended essay on Lewis & Pagan mythology.

We talked over dinner about Dr Ward’s talk for the night (“Lewis on Tragedy”), and a number of other things. One of the other people joining us for dinner on this particular evening was an American girl who’s currently working on her PhD in London. Somehow or another we got onto the topic of wearing pajamas to class in college back in the States, and she said she never really sees that here in the UK.

Dr Ward wore a look of disgust on his face when she asked if that was something he ever experienced here.

“No, not at all,” he said in his proper British accent, still looking as though he had just tasted something rather sour.

He told us about a story that ran in the paper recently regarding “the horrors” of people at the market in their pajamas.

“That gives you an idea of how people in England feel about others going out in public in their pajamas,” he told us.

That evening, when I got up to make a few announcements before introducing Dr Ward as our speaker for the evening, I made the mistake of saying “dollars” instead of “pounds” when I was mentioning the cost of Society membership. It got a laugh from the crowd, but not the kind of laugh I was hoping for. I tried to shrug it off by saying I had just returned to England and was still working on re-adjusting, clearly, but I found my mind stuck on it, even as I continued with the rest of the announcements. This resulted in me slipping up on my introduction for Dr Ward, and stumbling through the name of his most well-known book, “Planet Narnia.” I quickly finished the introduction and found my seat in the front row. Wanting to bury my head in the hardwood floor, I instead pretended to listen intently.

Following Dr Ward’s talk, and a brief time of Q&A, I took my seat at the head of the long table on one side of the room. It was the evening of our Annual General Meeting (AGM), and several of the Society’s longest-standing members, as well as a handful of newer members, stuck around to discuss details of the Society. Plans for the rest of the year, transitions in the role of our Treasurer, etc. And it was only a few moments into our meeting that I realized there was an understood structure to the AGM, I had never actually sat through one, and now I was responsible to lead this one… I did my best to pretend as though I had everything under control and knew exactly what I was doing, but my disguise quickly wore off, and people were interjecting to make points on items I had overlooked. Clearly, this was not how I had hoped the evening would go.

As different people spoke, I found my eyes wandering to the second story window, and my mind wandering to the question of how long it would be before the group decided to grab me by the ankles and toss me out. Then I looked down the length of the long table we were all seated at, and at the other head of the table, I saw Walter. He was wearing his yellow coat, which he tends to wear, over his tweed jacket. And he was listening intently to the conversation at hand. And that’s when I found myself thinking, “If things get out of hand, if it becomes clear I am in over my head and this group decides to throw me out of this second-story window, then surely Walter will stick up for me.” And with that thought I began to feel more at ease, and I was able to close up the meeting with more confidence than I had before.

But after my failed introduction and after not knowing the formalities of the AGM, I made my way back to the Kilns feeling rather incompetent and inadequate for my role. And the worst part was I had a long bus ride / walk home to think about it.

It was 11:30 by the time I made it home that night. After a 17-hr day, I was exhausted. But it wasn’t over yet. I still had some reading to get done. Before I got to my reading, though, I greeted Jen in our room and talked with her a bit about the meeting. And then I made my way to get a cup of tea to accompany my reading. And it was there, in the kitchen, that I found a note on the fridge. A note that seemed to speak to me exactly where I was, with with the precise words I needed to hear.

It was a passage from Matthew 6, but in a translation I did not recognize. And as I stood there in the middle of this kitchen just before midnight, these are the words I found myself reading:

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers, most of which are never even seen, don’t you think He’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do His best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. Steep your life in God . . . Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your concerns will be met.”

It was a translation that would’ve given my Greek Tutor cold sweats, as it was clearly modernized, but these words met me exactly where I needed to be met. And I was glad it was so late, and that the kitchen was empty, because the words put a tear in my eye. And then another. And I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that I am feeling so overwhelmed and inadequate because I am placing my confidence in myself, rather than in Him. And once I realized that, or, more appropriately, once I was reminded of that, I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that the same God who brought us here, to Oxford and to all of this, is still the same God looking out for us now that we’re here. And He’s not about to forget about us, even when I feel inadequate and overwhelmed. It was a good reminder that I need to place my confidence in myself. Or else I will always feel inadequate for the challenges we will find in this life.

Wednesday: 1st Formal Dinner

I signed Jen and I up for Wednesday night’s formal dinner at my college. It was the first formal guest night of the term, so I was excited to experience that again.

I woke up Wednesday morning, got ready, and then grabbed my suit and threw it on my bike before heading to town. I’d need it for dinner that evening, and I didn’t feel like wearing it all day, so I figured I’d bring it to college and then change before dinner that night.

The bike Rob gave me when the Gareys left has a hand basket from a grocery store tied down behind the seat for storage. The metal hand baskets you see in grocery stores, with blue plastic handles. I laughed the first time I saw it. It looks ridiculously tacky. But I decided to leave it on, thinking it might come in handy. Sure enough, I was thankful to have it this Wednesday when I threw my suit in it and made my way into town.

It was just starting to rain when I left the house, so I biked to the pelting of sporadic, cold rain drops against my cheeks. As I approached Headington Hill, which is a steady, long hill that drops just as you approach the city center, I reaching behind to make sure my suit was still there. In the metal handbasket. Fortunately it was. I made it to Harris Manchester Handing with my suit still intact and I handed it off to Amanda in the office when I arrived–she’d keep it for me until I needed it–before heading to the library for a day’s worth of reading.

I was getting ready to take a test on Friday, which I had missed while I was back in the States. It was on the European Reformation, which I studied in the Spring. I had a lot of reading to get ready for it.

I printed off a bunch of my old notes to study, as well as several of John Ash’s old essays (was we had taken the course together, and we exchanged essays each week). And all of a sudden, I felt as though my essay should be written in color crayons, when compared to his work…

In reading John’s essay to myself, I noticed that I found myself thinking in a British accent. It was a weird feeling, and I had never noticed it before.

Lewis Essay & A Formal Dinner

At 5:00, I made my way across town to St Peter’s College, as I had a meeting with Dr Michael Ward on an essay I was preparing on the topic of Lewis & Pagan mythology. I had been working on it all summer, and this was our first time going over my draft together.

He welcomed me into his office with a “Hello, Ryan Jehosafat Pemberton,” in his proper, posh British accent. Dr Ward didn’t know my middle name for the longest time, but he knew my middle initial, so he still makes up middle names for me, from time to time. It always puts a smile on my face.

We talked about my paper for a while. He was very helpful with his feedback. Giving me ideas on where to cut back, and where to add more. Giving me ideas of which books to look into.

And I found myself sitting there, in Dr Ward’s office with him, with this guy who is both a friend and a supervisor, and one of the world’s leading experts on CS Lewis, and just thinking how unreal all of this (still) is to me.

After our meeting, I hurried back to Harris Manchester and threw on my suit and gown for dinner. Jen was on her way from the Kilns when she missed her bus, as she called to let me know. She grabbed another, but she ended up being a few minutes late. I was standing at the stone gate leading into college when she arrived. She had run to make it on time, after being dropped off by the bus several blocks away. In her high heels, no less. She looked so beautiful. And I told her that, before entering the dining hall, through the large, arched wooden doors.

We took our seat at the end of the long middle table. The three tables, as well as the head table, were all packed when we arrived. Filled with men in their suits and gowns, and women in their dresses. Everyone all done up for the formal meal.

And the dinner was amazing. Salmon for appetizers, followed by a wonderful beef roast for dinner. We were seated next to a girl from Shanghai, and another from San Francisco. I told them we were from Seattle, and the girl from Shanghai said, “Oh, Starbucks!”

“That’s right,” I said with a laugh. Before thinking to myself, “That’s better than ‘Sleepless in Seattle’,” a reference I tend to get here more than I ever thought I would when people here hear where we’re from.

Most of the evening was spent to ourselves in conversation. Just Jen and I. Which was nice. It was almost as though we had gotten all dressed up and gone out for a really nice meal together. As busy as things have been here, it was much needed.

And as the evening carried on, I found myself sitting back on my chair and taking it all in. This enormous, beautiful, old dining hall, that looks a bit like a scene out of Harry Potter. Filled with the voices of Oxford students and friends and family. Filled with laughter and the sounds of dishes coming and going. Filled with the sounds of, in my case, dreams coming true.

I turned to Jen, with these thoughts floating through my head, and I said, “Our life looks so incredibly different now. Just think, we wouldn’t have had any of these experiences if we hadn’t decided to ever go after this.”

And I thanked Jen. Not only for being willing to leave all she knew back home to move here so I could study, and to put her own dreams of settling down and starting a family on hold, but for being the first person to encourage me to go after this. Long before I ever said the words “Oxford University” to anyone else, I told Jen about this dream. It was shortly after we were married, while we were still living in our first apartment. It was there I shared this dream of one day studying at Oxford with her. And from the very first, she had always encouraged me to go after this.

Looking over at her from across this table in Harris Manchester, this long table filled with talks of studies and travel and life, I realized how incredibly blessed I am to have this woman in my life. I could not have asked for a better companion to travel through this life with. She is far better than I could ever deserve.

As we made our way out of the dining hall that evening, we heard a voice from behind us call out, “Aha, I knew I’d spot you here, Jennifer!”

The voice came from an older woman who’s studying here with her husband. They’re both from Wales. She taught English and he had his own law firm before they moved here last year. She’s a short, petite, sweetheart of a woman. With a hair full of curly hair and a squinty smile that’s always beaming. He’s tall and wears glasses. He usually hangs in the background, like a tree, and lets her carry the conversation, only interjecting to make a witty comment here and there. She always makes a point to say “Hi” to Jen when she sees her, and she makes us both feel at home in a place that feels so very much unlike our home.

“And look at this,” she said, pointing out the ruffles on Jen’s dress. “With a black coat… I like that!” Jen smiled. And thanked her.

“So wonderful to see you both,” she said matter of factly, wearing her squinty smile as she exited the large, arched door into the dark night, with her tall husband looming behind her. He turned to offer us a soft smile and a head nod as he followed her to their room in the college.

Thursday: Breakfast with the guys & A thankful tour

I began Thursday by meeting a group of guys over breakfast. Rich, Max and I are all studying theology here, and we got together regularly last year. Usually weekly. To talk life and faith and studies. And another guy, by the name of Britton, was joining us this morning. Britton’s also studying theology here. He and his wife are from Hawaii. And they’re also in their second year here. It was nice to have him join us.

We met at Giraffe. An eclectic place with brightly colored walls. And a menu that is heavy on organic options. I ordered the breakfast burrito. And Max ordered the stack of pancakes. Max always orders the stack of pancakes. The restaurant’s eccentric decor and tasty food provided the perfect accent to our conversation, and I found myself thankful for the opportunity to share life with these guys.

A Thankful Tour

I had a tour that afternoon back at the Kilns, so after a bit of studying, I made my way back to the bus stop and back to the Kilns. I arrived early enough to grab a quick lunch with Jen before the group arrived, a rare treat. Soon the doorbell was ringing to let us know the tour had arrived and Jen was slipping into a room to get some work done. And to evade the guests.

This particular tour was from a group of elderly British women. They had a name for themselves, too. “Aging with Grace,” or something along those lines. They were a wonderful group. Very kind and attentive. And I think since they were older, and British, they could relate to a lot of the things I shared with them about Lewis. Things that younger, American tourists might be able to appreciate as much (such as living in war-time England and the like, things that largely influenced his writing).

Interestingly, only one of the women really seemed to have read much of Lewis’s books. The rest only seemed to know bits and pieces about him. Which I thought was great, as I got to answer a lot of great questions.

Halfway through the tour, one of the women who wasn’t very familiar with C.S. Lewis said, “He really sounds like a wonderful man,” with her eyebrows low, revealing a sense of seriousness.

“Yeah, I think he was, from all that I know about him, and from what others have told me,” I replied.

As I wrapped up the tour that afternoon, that same older woman thanked me for the tour, and then she asked me for the person in charge. I clarified who she might be looking to reach, and then I tracked down Dr Stan Matson‘s contact information (Dr Matson is Founder and President of the CS Lewis Foundation). When I asked her why she was interested in getting in touch with him, she said it was because she was wanting to let him know what a wonderful job I had done.

“I wasn’t very excited to come today, but now I just want to go home and read C.S. Lewis,” she told me as she was preparing to leave.

“Oh, good,” I said with a wide smile. “Well, mission accomplished, then.”

As soon as the group was gone, Jen popped up from around the corner with a cookie in one hand and a hot cup of tea in the other.

“Oh, wow!” I said with a look of surprise. “Thank you hun!”

She asked me how the tour had gone, and I shared the woman’s comments with her. But I didn’t have long to elaborate, or to enjoy my tea, for that matter, as I had a meeting back at Harris Manchester that I was supposed to be at. With the Principal and Senior Tutor. A meeting I could not be late for.

Meeting with the Principal & Senior Tutor

I made it back to Harris Manchester just in time for my meeting. Or so I thought. I ran to the flight of stairs leading up to the Principal’s office, where we’d be meeting, only to find that there were still several people ahead of me, and that things were running late. And so, after waiting for 20 minutes or so, and talking with several other students, I was called into Principal Waller’s office, by the Principal himself. He greeted me with his old familiar warm smile as he welcomed him into the room. Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated in her old familiar spot, by the window.

All of the Finalists (final year students) at Harris Manchester were required to sit in on these meetings. To discuss their plans for the final year, and to make sure each Finalist felt like they were doing okay leading up to final exams.

“Frankly, a lot of Finalists like to forget about the fact that they will soon be taking their finals,” Lesley said with a bit of a smirk, “but that doesn’t make the reality of finals go away.”

I told them I did, in fact, realize that I’d be finishing that year, and that I felt like I had a good idea of what I needed to do in the mean-time.

Principal Waller asked what I was taking this term, and what I had left to take before starting on preparations for my finals. And so I told them.

“Well, it certainly sounds like you’re going to be busy,” he said in response, in that voice that always sounds a bit sympathetic, no matter what he’s saying. And then, as if to show he really was concerned, his eyebrows pushed together in the middle of his forehead, and they lowered to just over his eyes as he spoke again, “Do make sure you use the vacation. Get away from studies and get caught up on rest. You will need it.”

It actually surprised me to hear Principal Waller say this. Most of my tutors give me a stack of books they’d like me to use to work on revisions over the holidays, which always makes it seem a bit less like vacation. But here was Principal Waller telling me to make sure I get caught up on rest. I’ve always knew I liked this guy.

I thanked Lesley and Principal Waller for their time as we shook hands and I let myself out of his office. It’s funny how nervous I was the first time I had a meeting with the Principal and Senior Tutor, and how incredibly comfortable I am with them now. It’s funny how much that’s changed, in such a short period of time.

Coming home to a smile

I followed up my meeting with some studies in the library. A couple hours’ worth, before gathering up my things and making my way home for dinner. I hopped on a bus on High Street and continued reading while the bus carried us through the dark Oxford roads that lead to the Kilns, stopping only for a moment to let passengers off. And others on.

20 minutes later I was getting off at the end of Lewis Close, and walking the 100 yards or so to the Kilns. Passing through the gate in the front hedges, I made my way around to the front of the house, on the pebbled walking path, and as I did, I stepped into the light that was pouring out through the kitchen windows. And it was there I caught a scene that made me stop in my tracks and take it in.

It was Jen, in the kitchen, standing side by side with Debbie at the AGA stove. They were making dinner together. And they were both smiling. And I found myself frozen by this scene. I found myself stopped dead in my tracks, thinking “She looks so happy.” And the smile on Jen’s face took me back. To the first time I saw it. More than 10 years ago now. When she was being crowned Homecoming royalty in our high school auditorium. I was just a Junior in high school at the time. Jen was a freshman. And it wasn’t long after that that I went home and told my Mom I believed God created that smile just for me. And now, more than 10 years later, it was still stopping me dead in my tracks.

As I stood outside the Kilns on this particular night. Outside of C.S. Lewis’s old home. And as the light from the kitchen and this scene poured out of the kitchen onto the walking path where I now stood in the darkness, I found myself in awe of all God has done. In giving me this beautiful, incredible woman as my wife. In allowing me to enjoy all of this journey with my high school sweetheart. And for all of the blessings He has poured out on our lives along the way. It’s all more than I could ever hope for or dream of. And yet, and yet it’s exactly what He’s given us. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

Thanks for reading.

3rd week of Trinity Term

I had a tour at the Kilns to lead on Tuesday of the third week of the term. I tend to give tours most Saturdays, but I also give tours during the week from time to time as well, when they come up. And when I can slip away to the Kilns for long enough.

This tour was scheduled for the afternoon, so I was able to make it to my Greek reading class before taking the 20-minute bus ride to Headington and the Kilns.

I found a seat next to Lyndon in Campion Hall a few minutes before our reading class began and I told him I was heading out to the Kilns after we finished for a tour.

“Is that right?” he asked, rhetorically. “I wonder if it’s with the group of Americans I met over lunch at Wycliffe Hall just now.”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t know,” I told him. “I’m not sure who the tour is with, but it could be.”

“Apparently one of the older gentleman who visited is a rather big deal, from Florida, I believe, but I didn’t recognize his name,” he continued. “I sat next to him at lunch, so we talked a bit. When he told me his name, he seemed to act as though I knew who he was, but I didn’t!”

“That’s always a bit awkward,” I said. “Well, I’ll let you know if I happen to give a tour to an older American guy I should recognize but don’t.”

Lyndon laughed, and soon we were off to the races with our Greek reading for the week.

Police and Americans at the Kilns

When I arrived at the Kilns later that afternoon, I was surprised to find two police officers at the back door. The Kilns is set up in a bit of a funny way. The first door you come to as you walk up to the house isn’t actually the front door, but the back. Or, more specifically, it’s referred to as the “servicemen’s entrance.” Confusing, I know. Either way, it’s not the door guests typically use, but it’s the door these two officers were standing at when I made my way through the front gate and walked up the trail leading to the house.

“Do you live here?” one of them asked me as I approached.

“No, I don’t live here, but I am giving a tour here in a few minutes,” I told them.

They explained to me that someone in the neighborhood had reported a small fire  on the trail that leads up to the pond behind the Kilns, and they were wondering if anyone who lived here had any information about it. I told them I didn’t, but that I could leave a message with those who do live at the Kilns and they could call if anyone knew anything. They thanked me, and one of them left me with a piece of paper and their phone number.

“Say,” one of them asked me with a puzzled look before leaving, pointing toward the blue plaque on the side of the house with Lewis’s name on it. “C. S. Lewis . . . I should know who he is . . . tell me one of his works?”

“Uh, sure. He wrote The Chronicles of Narnia,” I told him, hinting at Lewis’s identity.

“Ah, yes, of course!” he said with a look of “aha!”.

“Don’t say you were thinking Lewis Carroll, don’t say you were thinking Lewis Carroll…” I thought to myself.

“That’s right,” the police officer said. “I was thinking Lewis Carroll!”

I smiled. And laughed inside. It’s so funny to me that a police officer who patrols the neighborhood where C. S. Lewis used to live confuses him with the man who wrote Alice in Wonderland. I shook my head as I made my way around to the front of the house and began making preparations for the tour that would be arriving any moment.

About 15 minutes later, I was meeting a group of well-dressed men and a single woman at the front door and welcoming them in for their tour. The lone British man at the tour introduced himself. He had a lean face with thick, dark glasses, and a nearly bald head. While it was just he and I in the houses entryway, he shared with me that he was leading a group of Americans on a tour around Oxford during their visit, and he told me he was from Wycliffe Hall.

“Bingo,” I thought to myself as I shook his hand, before showing the group into the common room at the front of the house. “This must be the group Lyndon was referring to.”

I followed behind them and took my seat on a bench beside the door, so as to face everyone. Along with the gentleman from Wycliffe, there was a couple from America, fairly casually dressed, an older, grey-haired, heavy set gentleman in a suit, and another well-dressed man with glasses, this one younger than the other suited-man.

After asking where everyone was from, I introduced myself to the group, and then I began telling them about what Lyndon had told me only an hour or so earlier that afternoon, about running into the same group at Wycliffe Hall.

“So I’ll have to let my friend know he was right,” I shared to the group with a smile, as they sat around the small room on the old, rugged furniture. “I’ll have to tell him I did, in fact, see the old man from Florida who he had spoken with at lunch.”

The air quickly went out of the room as I finished my sentence, and I didn’t realize why at first. I replayed my words in my mind only to realize what I had said, and to realize that my attempt to break the ice had failed completely.

I tried to back-pedal, as quickly as possible, but it didn’t seem to help. Awkward glances went around the room. Looks to the “older man from Florida” who I probably should have recognized, but didn’t. Everyone seemed very serious, but he, alone, was smiling, and looking straight at me, as if to welcome the start of the tour. So that’s exactly what I did, pretending as though everything was completely normal and nothing at all had happened.

I made my way around the house, telling funny stories of Lewis mixed in with stories of his time at the home and his life in Oxford. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and all my jokes were met with laughter.

By the end of the tour I was shaking hands and being told what a wonderful job I had done. Everyone seemed to really have enjoyed themselves, and so I decided against mentioning any sort of apology for what had been a horrible choice of words on my part to start the tour.

“Best not to wake a sleeping dog,” I thought to myself as I waved goodbye to the group with a smile from the front door.

I tidied up the Kilns from the tour, after everyone had left, and I made my way to the bus stop and back toward town to get some studying done from the Harris Manchester Library before meeting up with the Oxford University Lewis Society for dinner.

Lewis Society & Dinner with Aidan Mackey

This week’s speaker at the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society wasn’t actually speaking on C. S. Lewis, but, rather, G. K. Chesterton. That may sound strange to some, but Chesterton was a writer who was rather influential in Lewis’s life and writing, and so he’s a welcome topic for the Society.

Prior to the Society meeting, a small group of us met at Pierre Victoire, a small french restaurant where we often meet, which is only a short walk north of the Society’s lecture room. I had never met Aidan Mackey, our speaker for the evening, before meeting him at the restaurant that night, but I was so happy to. Jen had met him before, once when she was working at the Kilns and when he was visiting. She had really enjoyed meeting him, and I was excited to.

Aidan is an older man, he must be approaching 90 if he is not already there, and sharp as can be. He has a head of white-as-snow hair that stands up tall on his narrow frame. And, while he looks rather frail, his conversation tells you his mind is anything but. He’s a brilliant guy, incredibly humble, and funny, too. He’s the kind of sharp-witted man I can only hope to still be when I am his age.

Aidan is a life-long admirer of Chesterton, and very likely one of the world’s foremost experts on the scholar. This evening would be his final public address on Chesterton, he told us.

“I just don’t want to be the older man who is the last person to realize he is long past his expiration date,” he explained to us with great humility.

“Oh no, no, no,” Walter (Hooper) said with a look of astonishment, seated just to Aidan’s right. “You’ve got a long way to go yet!”

Aidan has been reading Chesterton since he was 14, when he fell in love with his books after his brother lent him one. Over dinner that evening, Aidan told us about falling in love with Chesterton’s writing, of falling in love with his wife (who still says the only reason he married her is because she had an early edition of Chesterton’s writing he was wanting for his personal library), and about how his daughter held a written correspondence with Lewis.

“It’s embarrassing that my greatest claim to fame is being related to my daughter,” he said to those around the second-floor table that evening, receiving a round of laughter.

Walter cited the volume of letters in which Lewis replied to Aidan’s daughter’s letter. Lewis had recently written The Chronicles of Narnia when this young girl had written him. Walter explained that Lewis was at the height of his career at this point, how he had all these demands on his time and a long list of pressing requirements, and yet, how he took the time to write a careful letter in reply.

“There was not a hint of condescension in responding to her question,” Aidan shared with us, as if recalling reading the letter for the first time, with a hint of admiration in his voice.

Wednesday: Caught in the rain & Alone in a library full of people and champagne

I spent Wednesday studying in the library. I had an essay due the next day, and  lot of reading to catch up before I could begin writing. So I read, and read some more, eating my lunch at my desk from my favorite spot on the second floor.

By the time 4:00 rolled around, I realized I still needed to drop off a post card at the post office before it closed for the day. So I pulled it out of my bag and made my way out of the library and onto my bike. I had not been outside all day, but the library windows told me it was still nice out, so I didn’t bother with a jacket. This was a mistake.

By the time I rounded the corner onto Broad Street, a short ride from Harris Manchester, I was completely soaked. Not just my trousers, this time, but everything. My hair, my shirt, I was completely drenched. And then, almost miraculously, when I had made it to the Post Office, only a short, five-minute bike ride away, it was as if the skies peeled back the previously present cloud cover to let the blue, sunny skies shine through. It was bizarre, and I was left to wander into the post office soaking wet.

By 8:00 that night, I was back in the Harris Manchester library, plowing through my reading, and nearly dry. My hair was standing every which way on my head as it reached upward to dry.

Earlier in the day I had received an e-mail I had paid little attention to, something about a wine party that would be held in the library that evening. I should’ve paid more attention, as it would have likely given me more heads-up to the older men and women who were filing into the library out of nowhere, dressed in suits and dresses. But I didn’t, and suddenly the library was buzzing, filled with suits and champagne and old men. Apparently all of the other students at college had taken the time to read the e-mail, as I looked around to find I was the only one left. And all of a sudden, I was alone, lost in a sea of older men and women and enough small talk to make my ears ring.

I scooped up my books and bag and did my best to make my way down the metal spiral staircase and out the library’s double doors without disturbing anyone. “This bit of reading will be finished at home,” I told myself as I continued my way out of the library, down the stone stair steps, and outside into the cool, dark night air.

Friday: We are the message

After my tutorial on Friday morning, I got a bit of reading done before catching up with Tihi at Kellogg College on Banbury Road, in north Oxford, for lunch. Tihi and I had been playing tag, exchanging e-mails trying to find a time that worked to do lunch for some time. Finally we had found a date and time that worked, and I was glad. He has an incredible story.

I pulled off the busy Banbury Road traffic to the crunching sound of gravel under my bike tire just in time to see Tihi standing at the front of the College. He had been waiting for me, and he welcomed me with a smile. He’s tall, always taller than I remember, and he wears a broad smile. His eastern European accent is heavy, but its softened by his intent look of earnest care and compassion and interest, a look he seems to wear a lot. He’s one of those guys who always seems happy about life. The kind of guy I like being around.

I had never been to Kellogg College before, but it took me off guard. It was far more modern than 90% of the rest of the buildings I had stepped foot in here in Oxford. It was simple in design, and it was filled with lots of natural lighting, soft tones and smooth hard wood floors.

Tihi and I grabbed a plate and he led me to the lunch line. Kellogg College is like Wycliffe Hall in that you make your way through a food line where you’re served. However, it’s very unlike Wycliffe Hall in that the food looks like what you’d find in an up-scale restaurant in the city, with smaller servings that have been neatly arranged for the sake of presentation.

Tihi commented on the fact that the food is very good at Kellogg College, but that it’s always served in such small servings. I told him I thought it looked great. And, after we bowed our heads and said a short prayer, I found out it tasted great, too.

If you haven’t already, you should take the time to read Tihi’s story. It’s unreal, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Tihi, short for Tihomir, is from Serbia. And he’s working on his Dphil here at Oxford. Clearly, he’s a bright guy, but he doesn’t come across as condescending in the least. He’s incredibly personable, like he’s still in awe of the fact that he’s actually here, working on his studies. I think I find that comforting, and something I can relate to.

Tihi shared a bit more of his story as we talked over lunch. About how he showed up to Oxford with only $50 in his pocket, and about all the pressure he felt from those back home who knew where he had come from, and what he was now doing.

“I felt like everyone in Serbia was just waiting to see me fail,” he told me with a look of candid sincerity. “I didn’t know how this was going to work out, or what I was going to do, but I knew I was supposed to be here.”

Today, in addition to his studies, Tihi travels all around the world, to share the Gospel, and to tell others about the incredible ways in which things have unfolded so that he can be here now studying.

We talked about redemption, and Tihi shared with me how he believes God intentionally uses people who we wouldn’t normally expect, to tell others about His goodness and His love. So that they can see His mission is one of redemption.

After exchanging our thoughts on the point, and after we had both finished a forkful of food, Tihi looked across the table at me and said, “Since coming here, and since all of this has happened, I’ve realized that, in a way, we are the message.”

I nodded in my head in agreement, and I allowed his words to linger in the air so that I could let myself feel the full weight of his point.

Saturday: A rare Brit at the Kilns & A message in the park

I woke up Saturday morning and made my way to the Kilns, a five-mile bike ride from where we live in north Oxford, for my lone tour of the day. Fortunately, it was a sunny morning, and it made for a nice way to start the day.

Arriving to the Kilns on a sunny morning, and walking along the gravel pathway that leads to the front door to the crunching sound underfoot and looking into the kitchen to be greeted by a warm smile and “hello!” from one of the Kilns residents, is quite possibly one of my favorite things in Oxford. So much so that it is rather difficult to put into words.

My tour for the day went really well, and I managed to get all the way through it without getting my foot caught in my mouth this time around, which was good.

On my tours, I always make a point to point out the wardrobe that sits at the foot of the stairs, as, while its not the home’s original wardrobe, it is where the wardrobe that Lewis’s grandfather carved by hand stood when Lewis lived at the Kilns. This is significant because it’s the wardrobe Lewis would’ve had in his childhood home in Belfast, and it was later moved to the Kilns, which meant Lewis would have had it with him for nearly all of his life. Because of this, it’s not a stretch to imagine this is the wardrobe he would have likely had in mind when he was writing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

A photo of the original wardrobe hangs on the hallway wall, as the original wardrobe is now housed at Wheaton College in Illinois. I usually point out to the group that the home would’ve had several wardrobes at the time Lewis lived here, as the English tend to have wardrobes where most American homes have closets or dressers, but that this particular wardrobe is significant for the reason I told them before.

Later on, while we were in Lewis’s bedroom, the lone British woman on our tour (it’s not often we get English residents on our tours at the Kilns, at least I don’t) asked about a small doorway on the wall beside Lewis’s bed.

“What’s this?” she asked, turning toward me, and pointing at the small doorway.

“Oh, that’s a door that leads to the attic space,” I explained. “But now it’s really just used as a closet.”

She smiled and nodded contently, and I recalled the statement I had made earlier about English homes tending to have wardrobes, whereas American homes typically have closets or dressers.

“I just thought it was funny that you said the English are too poor to have closets,” she said, almost in passing.

I’m sure the look on my face showed how puzzled I was.

“I didn’t mean to say the English are too poor to have closets,” I tried to clarify. “I was just trying to explain a distinction between the two cultures, that we don’t tend to see wardrobes in America. If I get anything wrong about the English culture, please do correct me,” I told her.

She nodded her head, again with a bit of a smirk. It was a bit awkward, I thought. I had had other Brits on my tour before, and none of them had ever given me any reason to think my comment about English homes having wardrobes was offensive.

Once downstairs, I showed the group to Lewis’s brother Warnie’s room. I pointed out several things in the room. Photos of Lewis and his brother, and where their desks would’ve sat.

I also pointed out where Warnie would’ve had a small buddha statue, on the fireplace mantle. I told the group this may seem odd, as Warnie was a Christian, but he actually had it there because it reminded him of his conversion experience, which took place in Japan, in front of a very large buddha statue.

15 minutes later I was wrapping up my tour, shaking hands and thanking people for coming. There were a lot of smiles, and lots of “thank you’s” from those on my tour. The English woman who pointed out the door to the attic room in Lewis’s bedroom made a point to find me, and I could tell there was something she wanted to tell me from the look on her face.

“Hi,” she said, greeting me. “You mentioned that you thought it odd that Warnie came back to Christianity in front of a buddha statue, but I wanted to tell you I didn’t think that was weird.”

She explained to me how she thought all religions were ultimately trying to achieve the same thing, and so it shouldn’t be odd that one religious figure leads us to another religion, since they’re all leading to the same point. As best as I could, I tried to tell her why I disagreed.

Standing in the front hallway of the Kilns, as those from our tour shuffled from the front dining room where they were signing the guest book to the front door, I told her about the group I had started with several friends here in Oxford, the Oxford Open Forum, and how, after listening to people from so many different religions, it was clear to me that all religions really aren’t the same. I told her it was only after hearing, first-hand, just what each of the world’s major religions believe, that I came to realize just how different they truly are.

She nodded her head politely, and I was less than convinced she was persuaded by my comments. Then, for a reason I am still unclear on, she began to tell me about her frustrations with Christianity.

“Christianity just seems so concerned with rules and with laws,” she said to me, wearing a look of frustration.

This was not a conversation I was expecting to have when I arrived at the Kilns that morning, but, again, as politely as possible, I tried to explain why I disagreed.

“It’s kind of funny to hear you say that,” I said to her, “because that’s not what I think of at all when I think of Christianity.”

I went on to explain to her why I thought otherwise.

“To me, that seems like a very rigid, law-based religion, and that’s not Christianity at all.”

“There are plenty of religions that say you must do X, Y and Z in order to get A, B and C,” I continued, “but that’s not what I find in Christianity. The reason Christianity is so different from so many other religions is because, in Christianity, we find God coming as Jesus Christ and saying, ‘You cannot earn this, but I will do this on your behalf.'”

I went on to tell this woman that not only did I think this was an incredible distinguishing mark of Christianity, I also thought it was beautiful.

Again, she nodded her head, politely, and, again, I was less than convinced I had persuaded her to think differently. But I hoped I had at least given her something to consider. Shaking her hand and thanking her, again, for coming, I hoped, secretly, that she might have a second look at Christianity and realize it’s a bit more radical, and far more beautiful, than she had previously believed.

Music to my ears in the park

I returned home that afternoon to find Jen in bed. She hadn’t been feeling well, and she was doing her best to sleep it off.

I shared with her about my experience at the Kilns, and about the conversation with the English woman who joined us, before making my way downstairs to work on some reading. It was a sunny day, and the light from the spring afternoon shone through the front windows as I worked away.

I had planned on attending an open-air lecture that evening at a nearby park. South Park. The lecture was to be given by an Oxford Professor of Mathematics by the name of John Lennox.

I didn’t know who John Lennox was when I arrived in Oxford, but I had heard of him shortly after I arrived and I was blown away by some of his past talks, which I listened to online. Not only is Professor Lennox a brilliant mathematician, with an incredible body of work in his field, compiled during his time at both Cambridge and Oxford, he also regularly lectures on the topic of Faith and Science. One of his passions, it seems, is to show others that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that you do not have to throw out your faith simply because you consider yourself an intellectual.

It was a message I was drawn to from the start, and his speaking ability was as engaging as I have found. When I heard he would be giving this lecture at a nearby park, on a sunny spring evening, I knew I was in.

Jen had been planning on going with me, but, as she had not been feeling well, she decided to sit this one out. I told her I’d be happy to stay home and continue to work on my studies, just in case there was anything she needed me to do for her, but she insisted I go. I made sure this wasn’t one of those offers husbands are supposed to turn down, and hear about how they failed later if they don’t, but she didn’t budge. So I went.

South Park is in the direction of the Kilns. On the other side of Oxford. So I made my way across town on my bike once again, and 20 minutes later I was locking it up on the outside gate of the large park with its stretching green lawns. There were several tents set up as I made my way across the park, and people were beginning to gather beneath the high canopies as I arrived about 10 minutes early.

I recognized a few people there, but I found a seat about 20 feet back from center stage and took a seat in the lawn. Resting on my elbows, with my feet stretched out in front of me, I couldn’t help but think it was a perfect afternoon to be outside.

The evening’s lecture began with a bit of singing, as it was being hosted by several local churches, and it had a candidly evangelical bent. Many of those in the crowd raised their hands in the air as they sang, with eyes closed, even as they looked upward. The sound of voices singing praises hung in the air and drifted from the speakers on the stage, making their way to the surrounding neighborhoods. I found myself looking at those walking by, on the sidewalks that lined the park, and wondering to myself what they thought of all of this.

After several songs, an introduction was made by a local vicar (pastor) and John Lennox took the stage to a roar of clapping from the crowd.

Lennox is a large man, in his 50’s, with a head of white hair that has receded from the top of his head and settled around his ears and the base of the back of his head. He is from Ireland, and his voice rings beautifully with his rich Irish accent. He rolls each “r” sound, as if to emphasize its presence in each word, and I love it.

He spoke a lot about science, as one who is well established in the field of mathematics, and how those in the New Atheism camp like to argue that science has basically killed any reason to believe in God. His main point seemed to be to show that this is a farce, and that science was never intended to deal with spiritual matters. He began by explaining that, like anything, science has limits, and that spiritual matters is one of them.

He used an analogy I thought was beautiful to explain his point.

He told us a story about his Aunt Matilda who, he informed us, loved to bake cakes. He went on to explain that one could approach Matilda with every form of scientific testing available, but that it would ultimately prove unable to show why she baked cakes. He explained that science can’t tell us why she baked a cake because it’s beyond science’s reach. That’s not to say science cannot tell you many other things about Aunt Matilda and her cake, but not the reasoning behind Matilda’s baking. In the same way, he went on to explain, science can tell us many things about the world around us, and even about the humans that inhabit it, but there are many questions about the world and about us that it simply cannot answer for us, because it was never intended to. Many such questions fall under the label of “spiritual.”

Professor Lennox went on to tell us about a talk he once gave at a physicist convention and how, after his talk, one of the physicists approached him and asked him some fairly pointed questions about his faith. Apparently one of those questions was how he, as a mathematician, could hold onto his beliefs about God, knowing what he knows about science.

He told us how he agreed to respond to this man’s question, but how, before doing so, he asked the man a question in response. He told us how he asked this physicist to explain to him what consciousness is. The physicist was puzzled, he told us, both by his seemingly unrelated question, and as to how he might answer. And so, Lennox explained to us, he asked the physicist an easier question. Something more related to his field.

“What is energy?”

Lennox shared with the crowd how the physicist made some remarks about what energy does, but how, when Lennox continued to press him to describe not what energy does but what it is, he was unable.

“And so you see,” he shared with the crowd in his rich Irish accent, “Science does not have all the answers.”

He went on to explain that there are many questions science cannot answer, particularly those of a spiritual nature. How there are those who will try to tell you that science has disproved any reason for belief in God, but that is simply false. And how, ultimately, science was never intended to answer such questions.

And as I sat there in this crowd that had gathered at South Park in Oxford on a warm spring evening, a smile stretched across my face. I was filled with a great joy at this man’s ability to clear away the fog with his sharp thinking and illustrative analogies.

Listening to Lennox speak reminded me, quite strongly, of my first experience with C. S. Lewis’s writing. Another brilliant man from North Ireland, and a man who often passed by this very same park on his long walks between Magdelene College and his home at the Kilns. A man who a young John Lennox had heard lecture during his studies at Cambridge University. And, as Professor Lennox continued to speak on the topic of Science, Theology and New Atheism, his words rang with clarity, logic and truth of the kind I have rarely found, filling the park with beautiful music to my ears.

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