Archives for posts with tag: Harris Manchester

Friday: Last day of my first week back & Known by a stranger

Friday was the last day of my first week back. I was exhausted by this point, but I was encouraged to know I had nearly made it to the end of the week. I had already wrapped up and delivered a presentation for one class, and an essay for another. Now there was just one more essay standing between me and the weekend.

I spent most of the day Friday in the library at Harris Manchester. Punching out an essay. My only breaks came when I had to run downstairs to use the bathroom, or to grab a cup of tea.

On one trip back upstairs, after grabbing a cup of tea, I ran into Katrina, the librarian, as she was also returning to the library.

Turning to me as she opened the library door, Katrina said, “You know you’re welcome to use the loo upstairs,” referring to the old bathroom on the second story at Harris Manchester, a bathroom I rarely use because I always assumed it was a faculty bathroom.

“It’s a bit Victorian, but you’re welcome to it,” Katrina continued, using the word “victorian” as a bit of a euphemism, and not merely referring to its architecture. “Men don’t seem to mind. But women have different standards, you know,” Katrina said with a bit of a smirk.

By 5:00 that evening, I was putting the finishing touches on my essay e-mail and hitting “send.” It was a huge relief, to have my first week’s worth of studies in the bag. I hardly had time to eat and to sleep that week, and so it was a great feeling to have it behind me. Knowing I’d have at least a few days to catch my breath a bit before my next deadline.

Jen had heard from her friend Chelsea shortly after we returned. She asked if Jen might be interested in joining her for a book group with some other gals that meets one Friday night each month. Apparently their first book was “The Help,” a book Jen had just wrapped up while we were back home. Their first meeting was our first Friday back, so Jen made plans to join Chelsea for that.

Since I had a test to take the following Friday, a test I was making up from the week I was still back in the States, I decided I’d just stick around the library that Friday night, get back to some e-mails and prepare for that test. Not the most exciting way to spend my first Friday back in Oxford, but I did have a test to prepar for, and that way I could meet up with Jen and we could catch a bus back to the Kilns together.

By 11:00 that night, I still hadn’t heard from Jen and I was now being kicked out of the library. I know, I know… What kind of library closes at 11:00 on a Friday night? The kind that can hardly call itself an Oxford Library, that’s what kind!

…Dear Harris Manchester Library: I’m sorry. That was just a joke. You’re a fantastic library. You know I love you.

So, after gathering up my things and leaving Harris Manchester, I made my way across the city center to meet up with Jen. It was late, as I mentioned, and the city center was hopping from people coming and going from colleges and the clubs.

Jen’s book group was wrapping up just as I made it to the other side of town, which worked out nicely, and so we met up and made our way to the bus stop together. Jen had really enjoyed the group, and she told me about it as we walked.

“I actually knew several girls there, from my small group last year,” she told me. “And apparently one of the girls who I didn’t know knew you.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked with surprise. “Who was that?”

“Well, when we went around to introduce ourselves, I said my name, and I said my husband was here studying Theology for his second degree when one of the girls in the group asked if my husband’s name is Ryan.” Jen paused for a moment. “I said, “Yeah… How do you know that?”

I laughed out loud, awkwardly. It’s always a bit awkward when you wife is told by another woman, who she hasn’t met before, that she knows you.

“That’s weird,” I said, still having no idea who she was talking about, and trying to think of who it might be. “Who was it?” I asked.

“Well apparently her husband was your tutor (“Professor”) when you first came over. David.”

“Oh yeah?” I said in a bit of an “Ah ha” moment. “That’s cool you met David’s wife. He’s a great guy!”

“Yeah, she said he had you last year, and that he thinks really highly of you.”

“Oh wow,” I said with more surprise in my voice. “That’s really cool.”

I was so glad Jen had a good time that night. Even more so, I was thankful to have my first week back behind me. And, as we hopped on a bus and made our way back to the Kilns for the night, I was thankful to have the weekend ahead of me to catch up on some much-needed rest.

Saturday: A non-American tour, Moving our things into the Kilns & Dinner with the Mercers

I woke up late Saturday morning. Around 10. It was the first time I had been able to sleep much since we had returned, and I took full advantage of it, not climbing out of bed until after 10.

I made my way down the long, narrow hallway that leads from our bedroom to the front of the house and walked into the sun-warmed kitchen, with the warm sun rays still pouring into the kitchen on this particular late morning. The sun shone in through the windows, striking the worn, red-tiled floor and spilling all over the kitchen walls. And as I gathered up some things for breakfast, I found myself thinking it’s funny how quickly this place has grown to feel like home.

I had a tour that afternoon. For a local family (a grandmother with her daughter, her daughter’s husband and their two kids), as well as a group of international students from London. It was a unique tour in that I was the only American in the room. That almost never happens.

The grandmother and her family showed up first. Jen told me about her when she had booked the tour. Apparently this woman’s husband had been a student of Lewis’s when he taught here at Oxford, and she hadn’t been to the Kilns since Lewis invited the two of them over for a meal. She was just starting to tell me her memories of the house when the front doorbell rang.

“You’d better get that,” she said, pausing from her story and pointing her head in the direction of the door.

“Yeah, I suppose I should,” I said, with a bit of a pause. “It’s just that I’d really like to hear your story!”

We ended up starting the tour right away, as the group from London was late arriving. The tour went great, but I was a bit nervous, having this woman on my tour who had actually been here at the Kilns as a guest when Lewis lived here.

I wrapped up the tour at the front of the house and I was shaking hands with several of the students from London when the grandmother and her family passed by me on their way out. She looked as though she didn’t want to interrupt me, but I made a point to say “goodbye.” She thanked me for the tour, as did her family, and a few moments later they were gone.

I was really hoping to hear more from her, about her memories of Lewis and her time in the house, but it wasn’t going to happen this day. I hoped that, maybe someday, she’d visit us again.

Moving the rest of our things into the Kilns

Shortly after the tour left, the doorbell rang. It was Jarred. A good friend of mine who’s doing his PhD work here at Oxford. He and his wife, Chelsea (the gal who invited Jen along to the book group) are from Florida, and they have two young sons.

Jarred and Chelsea have a car, so I had wrangled him into helping us move the rest of our things from our old place to the Kilns. I didn’t know how I’d get it there otherwise, so I was certainly thankful for his help.

Jarred had never been to the Kilns before, so I gave him a quick tour before we made our way across town, to the North side of Oxford, to gather up all of our boxes we had left behind.

We parked in front of the house, on the street, and made our way across the gravel driveway underfoot. I pointed out the house across the street from where we were walking, to the blue plague that hung high on the front of its exterior.

“That’s Tolkien’s old house,” I told Jarred as we walked. “Apparently that’s where he wrote The Lord of The Rings.”

“Oh wow!..” Jarred said, commenting on how many incredible people have lived their lives here in Oxfordshire.

I struggled to remember the door code of the large home when we arrived, but by the third or fourth try, I had managed to get it open. I went to let Jane & Justin know I was there, collecting my things, while Jarred began gathering boxes and taking them to the car. I had let Jane know we’d be stopping by the day before, and she said to make sure to say “hello.”

I didn’t find Jane, but I did manage to find Justin. He welcomed me with a large smile and asked how I was doing. I could tell by the surprised look on his face that Jane probably hadn’t told him I would be coming by that day. I hadn’t seen him since June, so it was good to see him again.

Back in our old flat, I helped Jarred with the rest of the boxes and, as we were wrapping up, I heard Jane’s voice call up the stairs to our old bedroom, where Jarred and I were.

“Hello? Ryan? Are you up there?”

Jane has a beautiful British accent. Very posh. And it was great to hear it again.

“Hi Jane,” I called downstairs as I turned to go see her.

Apparently the family was just preparing to leave, as Felix and Dan (their two sons) were by the car in the front driveway. I’m much closer to Felix than I am to Dan, as Felix was generally around when we lived here, whereas Dan was typically away in boarding school.

“Hey, Felix, it’s great to see you again,” I said with a smile, reaching out to shake his hand.

“It’s good to see you again,” he said, returning my handshake and smiling himself. He has a grin that always looks a bit sheepish. It was so good to see him again.

“You’ve grown a bit since I last saw you, haven’t you?” I asked. He smiled again. Sheepishly, again.

“Yes, I believe he has,” Jane said with a nod. Felix shrugged his shoulders.

I said my goodbyes as they pulled their large Mercedes out of the gravel driveway and helped Jarred with the rest of the boxes.

Driving out of the neighborhood, with Jarred and Chelsea’s car packed full of boxes, I told Jarred it was so good to see this neighborhood again, but it was also weird to be leaving.

“This is the nicest neighborhood either of us have ever lived in,” I told him. “And the nicest neighborhood we will likely ever live.”

Thinking back to my memories of Jane and her family, I thought about how much I enjoyed my time there, at our old flat. And how much I enjoyed getting to know them, as bizarre as it was sometimes.

“I’m never quite sure how to act or what to talk about when I’m with them,” I confessed to Jarred as we drove down the British highway, across town toward the Kilns. “I’m not used to talking with people who get invited to Elton John’s place for dinner parties, and who know J.K. Rowling.”

Jarred just laughed.

We returned to the Kilns and unloaded our boxes into the library before getting Jen and making our way back across town, this time to Jarred and Chelsea’s place. They had moved over the summer, while we were back in the States, and we were looking forward to seeing their new home. They had invited us over to dinner that evening, after Jarred helped me move. I told him I owed him one.

“Or two, I guess.”

Dinner with the Mercers

Pulling up to their flat and getting out of the car, we could hear Noah’s voice call from behind the door, making known our arrival. Noah is just over two years old, and he’s a ball of energy.

Chelsea finished preparing dinner while Jen and I visited with Jarred in the living room. Owen, their youngest, is just over a year, and he’s recently learned how to walk. The last time we saw him, he was crawling, but now he’s taken off, walking non-stop to anything he can. He walked, constantly, back and forth across and around the living room while we talked.

Noah, their oldest boy, ran back and forth from Jen and I, exchanging hugs each time. He’d hop on Jen’s lap, give her a hug and then run over to me and do the same thing. Over and over again while we talked with Jarred. Apparently he was pretty excited to see us again.

This took Chelsea completely off guard when she came into the living room to ask us what we’d like to drink. Her face revealed her state of disbelief.

“I really can’t emphasize it enough, but he’s never like this,” she said. “Not with anyone but us.”

Jarred put the kids to bed, letting them tell us “goodnight” first, and then the four of us gathered around the dinner table. We had a great time catching up with them both. Exchanging stories from our trips home, to the States, over the summer. They had went back for a few weeks in August, whereas we were back for the entire time, of course, and so it was nice to share with others who know what those transitions look like.

Chelsea’s parents work for the airline industry, so they always get really good rates. The only catch is that they have to fly stand-by, which means they don’t always get the flight they were planning on taking. They told us about their many experiences of having to sleep over in cities and catch a different flight. But, considering how cheap they fly, I figured it’d be worth it.

I looked over to Jen and told her we needed someone in the family who worked for the airlines. She agreed.

We enjoyed some chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven for dessert. They were still warm and gooey when they hit the table.

“Have you ever had brown-kie?” Chelsea asked us from across the table as we dug into the cookies.

“Brown-kie?…” I repeated her words wearing a look of confusion. “No, no I don’t think I have… What is it?”

“Well, you are in for a treat,” Chelsea told us matter-of-factly. “Brown-kie is brownies baked with chocolate chip cookie dough over top, and served with vanilla ice cream.”

With my mouth hanging wide open, I nearly dropped the cookie I had in my hand.

“That’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” I said. Jarred laughed. Chelsea nodded in agreement.

“I know, right?” she said. “It’s brownie plus chocolate chip cookie. Brown-kie.”

I told them we’d have to have brown-kie the next time we got together, before continuing our conversation.

A few minutes later, after we had completely changed topics, I stopped the conversation to say, “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble focusing… All I can think of is about how much I’d like to get my hands on some brown-kie right about now.”

It was nearly 11:00 by this time, so Jen and I thanked Jarred and Chelsea for a wonderful evening, a very tasty dinner, and for helping us move.

“No problem,” Jarred said, getting up from the table. “Let me get my keys and I’ll take you guys home.”

“Oh no, we can catch the bus,” I said. “It stops not far from here, and we have bus passes, so it’s no problem.”

Jarred asked if we were sure, and I assured him we were.

“You’ve already helped us so much today, with the move, and it was so nice to join you guys for dinner. Next time we’ll take care of dinner.”

“Deal,” Chelsea said.

We exchanged hugs with the both of them and then made our way back toward the city center, along the river that cuts through the West side of town, and to the bus stop. It was a great evening, catching up with friends, and it helped having all of our things now at the Kilns. It certainly made it feel like we were really setting into life back in Oxford. And to the year ahead of us.

Sunday: David, Switchfoot & A palm tree in Oxford

Our first Sunday back was a lazy day, spent mostly at the Kilns. We unpacked several of the boxes we had brought over the night before, doing our best to find room for everything.

Living at the Kilns is a bit like living in a museum, as people are constantly coming through to see everything. So we kind of have to make sure that our personal things don’t take away from the fact that this was Lewis’s brother’s room.

That afternoon, a philosophy professor and writer from Dallas by the name of David Naugle arrived at the Kilns. I knew he was arriving that day, as Debbie had told me he would be before she left for an out-of-town conference the day before. David would be staying for a few weeks, she told me. As a scholar in residence. Apparently he’s working on a screenplay based loosely on the life of Augustine, but adapted for a modern audience. One of his books was named “Book of the Year” in the Philosophy & Ethics category by Christianity Today a few years back.

David’s a really nice guy. And even though we’re separated by a couple generations, I was surprised by how involved with current pop culture he is. We got talking in the kitchen shortly after he arrived, and somehow or another it came up that he was going to the Switchfoot show in Cambridge in a few weeks. Before leaving to return home. I didn’t even know Switchfoot was playing in the UK. I knew they had just put a new album out, so I guess it made sense.

He told me he knows Jon Foreman, frontman for Switchfoot, and he ended up showing me some photos from a recent private acoustic performance he had played at David’s home back in Texas.

“Oh wow!” I said, checking out the photos of Jon playing from David’s home. “That’s incredible!”

David informed me the Switchfoot show was now completely sold out, but that he’d get in touch with Jon to see about holding some extra tickets at the door for us, if Jen and I were interested in going.

“Uh, yeah, that’d be great,” I told him. “We understand if it doesn’t work, of course, but we’d love to see them again.”

We talked a bit more, from our seats in the kitchen, and he mentioned the idea of getting Jon and the rest of the guys from Switchfoot to stop in for a visit at the Kilns while they were in England, if they had time.

“Jon wrote a song for one of the recent Narnia films,” David told me, “So I’m sure they’d like to see the house, maybe even play a few songs, if they had time.”

And that’s when I laughed out loud.

“That’d be completely unreal,” I told David, still laughing.

“Well I’ll run it by Debbie later, see what she says, and then I’ll get in touch with Jon. Who knows, if it works out, that could be a lot of fun.”

I thanked David for the conversation, told him I’m sure we’d be catching up more during his time here, and I excused myself to the back of the Kilns, to our bedroom, where Jen was, to get some work done.

I had been looking forward to attending a service at St Aldate’s, where we usually attend here in Oxford. Simon Ponsonby, the vicar for the evening service, is a really solid theologian, and a great speaker. I always find I really appreciate his teaching.

Jen told me to go ahead and go on to church without her, as she wasn’t feeling up to traveling to town. She said she just wanted to stay down for the evening, but that I should go ahead and go. Making sure she was actually okay with me going, before I did so, I went ahead and left. Making my way to town, with her blessing.

A palm tree in Oxford

Shortly after 5:00 that evening, as I left the house, it was already getting dark. The night air was brisk, and my trip to town provided a nice time of reflection.

I had made this walk many times before, but it was on this particular trip that I noticed something that I had never seen before. At the end of Kilns Lane, the road that leads up a slight incline to Lewis Close, the road the Kilns is on, I noticed a tallish tree, standing just off the street, on the corner. What was peculiar about this tree was not its height, though, what made it stand out is that it was a palm tree. And it made me smile, thinking how very out of place it seemed. A palm tree, in Oxford. It’s maybe the last thing you’d expect to see.

And yet, almost just as soon as I noticed it, I felt as though I could somehow relate to this tree. As it stood there, in the dark, inconspicuously. Almost as if not to make eye contact with anyone, so as not to give away its presence. Wondering if anyone notices it, and being careful not to catch the attention of those native trees that actually do belong here in Oxford. Being careful to fit in.

As I continued to make my way down the lane that evening, walking to the bus stop to catch the number 8 bus that would take me to church, I couldn’t help but think how I felt a bit like that palm tree. Just waiting for someone to notice me and call attention to the fact that I don’t actually belong here. In Oxford. At the Kilns. At the helm of the Lewis Society. In any of it.

And I found comfort in this thought as I walked through the cool night air on my way to church. I found comfort in the thought that even if no one else understands those feelings of just waiting for someone to notice I don’t actually belong here–in the middle of this life that truly feels as though I’ve gone to bed one night only to wake up in someone else’s shoes, uprooted and set down in a completely foreign world–this tree does. This palm tree in Oxford knows exactly what it feels like.

But now that you know, now that you know about this palm tree in Oxford, do me a favor: don’t tell anyone. Don’t blow its cover. Let’s let it enjoy its time here while it lasts. For one day, someone will notice a palm tree doesn’t belong in England. And on that day, it will be time for this palm tree to go home. But until then, let it pretend. Let it pretend for just a little bit longer to fit into this incredible place called Oxford.

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Tuesday: Adjusting to my wet shorts

I was sitting in the library at Harris Manchester the following Tuesday afternoon. From my old familiar spot by the window on the second floor. Reading for my Patristics essay. When I stopped. And smiled. Realizing where I was. And what I was doing.

A couple weeks earlier, before Steve had arrived, I had been sitting in the same seat. Late one night. Staring out the window at the Oxford countryside settling into the darkness of another evening. Thinking how weird it was. To have received my dream of coming here and at the same time feeling like all I wanted was what I had left. Wanting so badly just to be back home, with my family and friends. To hold my new niece. To be doing what I knew how to do well. To have things back to the way they were. To just be back where things are familiar and comfortable.

But now, on this afternoon, I found myself fully aware of what an incredible blessing this was. Studying Theology at Oxford… The dream of my heart. The dream I was too embarrassed to share with others for so long. And now here I was. Right in the middle of it. And it felt amazing.

Reading the incredible works of these early Church fathers. Brilliant men. Men who didn’t just take this faith for granted, but who actively defended it. And explained it. Teaching others the truth that been handed down to them. With only a generation or two between them and the Apostles. The Apostles who had received these teachings from Jesus himself.

Since arriving here in Oxford, I regularly have the opportunity to listen to incredibly brilliant speakers. The kind of men who make me feel as though I should be off playing in a sandbox while they discuss such things. I get to be around the kind of discussions I may never again be fortunate enough to be around.

I get to translate Greek. Which I would normally say is just a horrible experience. But now, all of a sudden I’m beginning to see these words come alive.  In a way I’ve never known them before, almost as if I’m reading the Gospels for the first time. Even though I know them so well.

And I remembered what Principal Waller said to me that first time I sat in his office last fall. With the sun shining through the windows as he welcomed me to Harris Manchester. I remembered how he had told me that it probably seems overwhelming and really uncomfortable now, but that it would get better. I remember him comparing the transition to putting on a wet swimsuit. Totally uncomfortable at first. But then you jump in the water, and soon the discomfort fades away completely.

That’s really how it’s been. Without even realizing it, all of a sudden you find yourself swimming in this stuff and loving it.

And it made me think about being home. About all those summers spent at the lake with Jen and her family. It made me think about those hot summer days, falling in and out of sleep while laying in the sun and listening to children’s laughter bouncing off the sound of waves washing ashore. It’s probably the most peaceful place I know of. It’s my happy place. And I have a hard time thinking of anywhere else I’d rather be.

But it made me think about how often times I’d be lying there, in the sun. Warm. And not wanting to move. Being totally at peace. But then being asked to go for a ride behind the boat. To go wakeboarding. Or tubing. And not really wanting to. Not wanting to move because the sun just feels so good. Not wanting to feel the tight clench of the cold water when you first jump in.

But then you do. Hesitantly, you leave your dry, peaceful spot in the sun, you put on your lifejacket, and you go for a ride. And all of a sudden you’re having an incredible time. Soaring across the lake. The sound of your own laughter now echoing off the water. Sure, you get wet, and you’re not as warm as you were before. It’s not nearly as peaceful. But you’re also having the time of your life. And were you not to leave that place in the sun, you wouldn’t have experienced these laughs. These amazing experiences on the water. You would’ve had some more time in the sun, lying there, sure. But you wouldn’t have had these exciting experiences.

It’s a bit like that. It was so incredibly tough leaving home and coming here. More difficult that I can probably put into words. And it’s still tough. Very much so, at times. And yet, I’m so glad I did. The wet shorts are uncomfortable at first, sure, but pretty soon you’re having the time of your life. You’re having incredible experiences. And you’re thinking how glad you are for leaving your spot of comfort in the sun.

If you’re in a spot like that. Loving the comfort of the sun, loving how peaceful things are, but also thinking about pushing yourself. If you’re considering answering that call that keeps tugging at you to get up and leave your place in the sun, I’d tell you to go for it. The water feels great.

Doing well

My face must’ve shown it, how good I was feeling about everything all of a sudden, as I ran into Amanda from the front office while stepping out to grab a panini.

“Ryan, how are you?” she asked me with that look of sincere concern and genuine interest. Her eyebrows going up in the middle just so, as we approached each other in the hallways of Harris Manchester that afternoon.

“I’m doing well, thank you,” I told her with a smile. “I’m doing really well,” I said, looking back while continuing toward the stairs.

“You look like you’re doing really well,” she said, like a parent, comforted after seeing her child again for the first time since being apart for a stretch.

“Thanks, Amanda. It’s great to see you,” I said waving.

A proud uncle

Jennifer sent me this picture earlier this week…

Is that not the most amazing thing you’ve seen in a long time? It took your breath away a little bit, didn’t it?

That’s my niece, Khloe Dawn. She’s now the new wallpaper on my Macbook Pro.

Jen and Leann have been doing a great job of making me feel connected with everything back home. With Khloe. Even though I’m so far away from it all. I get photos pretty regularly in my e-mail inbox. I get to see Jen holding Khloe (who’s usually asleep at the time). And Leann writes me telling me all about the new experiences. About how Khloe rolled over for the first time.

And I love it. All of it. Which is funny, because I’ve never been a big baby guy. Until now. Khloe has made me change my ways. She’s beautiful. And every time I see her I just want to reach out my hands and take her in my arms. I told Jen the other day I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do come summertime when we get back home.

It’s official, I’ve become that uncle who brags about his niece. I never thought I’d see the day…

Wednesday: When my Greek came alive

I stayed behind after Greek that next morning. To talk with Rhona. I stood by the door as she gathered up her things and made her way out of the room. Looking up, I think she was surprised to still see me there.

“Hello,” she said with that wide smile of hers, eyes squinting just so behind her glasses.

Rhona has the kind of voice that would make her a perfect grandma. That sing-song kind of a voice that shoots up high with excitement and warmth at each greeting.

“Hey Rhona, I just wanted to share with you about what happened yesterday while I was translating our Greek text for class this morning,” I told her as we came to a stop just outside the door leading into the classroom.

“I was making my way through Mark 15,” I told her, “when I came to verse 24. And I know this story. I know it really well, actually. And so it’s not like I was hearing it for the first time. But, for whatever reason, as I was translating this text, it was almost as if I were hearing it for the first time.”

Her eyes were big behind her glasses, and she was leaning foward just so. I could tell she knew what I was talking about.

“And when I came to verse 24, I just found I had to stop. I knew what this word meant, but I just couldn’t do it… It was almost like, if I translated it, it would be real, and I didn’t want it to be real…”

“Yes, yes I know,” Rhona said. Her brow sinking low, as if she had complete sympathy with this experience, assuring me she did in fact know what I was referring to.

“No, you’re right, we don’t want it to be true,” she said.

“But I translated those words, ‘they crucified him.’ And I don’t know any way to describe it, other than to say it was like this familiar story was new, for the first time,” I told her. “And it really made me appreciate being able to translate the Greek.”

“I remember getting to the end of this account and just thinking to myself, ‘This man’s been murdered!'”

“Executed,” Rhona corrected me. “Yes, and for holding to the truth.”

Rhona’s a believer. She loves Jesus. And I could tell, in her voice and in her face. That this was real to her, too. Jesus’ death. That it both broke her heart and caused her to love this man with deep gratitude, at the same time.

That’s how it made me feel. It was a beautiful, incredible experience. Translating the Greek text from the Passion Account for the first time. It was as if I really was experiencing this truth for the first time, and it was so encouraging to share it with her. And to have it understood.

Grizzly Adams did have a beard

I’ve never been a facial hair guy. I don’t know what it is. I guess it kind of drives me nuts a little bit. It gets itchy, letting my facial hair grow much. And so I usually do a pretty good job of keeping my face shaved.

But Jen, well Jen’s even more against facial hair than I am. I swear, sometimes I can hug her that very same day after shaving and she’ll accuse me of trying to poker her eye out with my facial hair. And I’m not a hairy guy. Not in the least. But that’s how she is. She’s really sensitive to facial hair.

And so, knowing I had a couple weeks before Jen arrived yet, I decided to let it grow out.

“Why not,” I figured. “Now’s my chance to be a bit of a bum and get away with it.”

It’s a funny feeling, going from being clean-shaven and getting dressed up every day to meet with clients to not shaving and wearing whatever I want for class. I feel like I’m living someone else’s life most of the time I’m here still.

Saturday: Breakfast with the guys

After our traditional English breakfast the previous week, Max told us he’d try to find us a place with a bit more of an American menu for our next get-together.

“Someplace we can get some real, American pancakes,” he said.

I’m a pretty big fan of pancakes, so I wasn’t about to argue with that.

He sent us an e-mail a couple days before Saturday rolled around. Telling us there was a place called Giraffe in the city center that should do a pretty good job with some American pancakes.

I never knew pancakes would be a tough thing to get here, but apparently the English pancakes aren’t quite what they are back home. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by that at this point, but they’re not. They’re more like crepes, which is a different thing altogether, if traditional pancakes is what you’re looking for.

I met up with Rich and Max that Saturday morning for breakfast. And for our second prayer meeting. It was good to see them.

I was the last one to arrive, pulling off my sweatshirt and vest, pulling out a chair and draping them over the back of the chair before taking my seat.

“How’re you guys doing?” I asked, catching my breath from the bike ride.

Giraffe’s a really cool spot. I wouldn’t mind if we met there every time, actually. The decor strikes a pretty even balance between simplistic modern design and eco-friendly / funky.

A combination of sleek, wooden booths and tables filled the room, with minimalistic chairs circled around them.

The menu was definitely on the healthy / “I care what I’m putting into my body” side. Looking over the options, we all decided to go with the pancakes when the waiter came around to take our order. “Blueberry banana pancakes,” it read.

“I’ve been thinking about pancakes all week since you mentioned that the last time we met up,” I told Max, handing my menu to the waiter.

He laughed. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

We had a great time catching up. On our past week. And just sharing life over sips of coffee. Bouncing things off of each other to the response of head nods and softly-delivered advice. It’s great to have a group like that. To share stuff with. To bounce things off of.

We were all taken aback when our pancakes made their way to the table. Their presentation was something else.

The pancakes came in threes. And in-between each pancake stood four or five slices of banana, acting as columns to hold up the pancake on top of it. It was like that between the bottom and middle pancake, and then again between the middle and top pancake. And then, on top of the tower of pancakes, sat a dollop of fresh, crushed blueberries, with their juices draining over the sides. It was a thing of beauty.

We said a prayer, blessing the food, and then we took turns pouring liberal amounts of syrup over the pancakes before digging in.

“Mmm… those are good!” I said in-between bites.

I told the guys about a time I was having breakfast for lunch with a good friend of mine back home.

“A former colleague of mine,” I told them. “Really bright guy. Member of Mensa. And a devout atheist. We were sitting there in this restaurant and I was eating my pancakes when I looked up from my plate to ask him, ‘You know why I believe in God?'”

“Why’s that?” he asked, looking over at me from across the table, not seeming terribly surprised by my question.

“Pancakes,” I said with a smile. And he just smiled in response.

The guys laughed.

My shadow beard

My Mom Skyped in with me that Saturday. During their afternoon. We were talking, catching up on how the week had wrapped up, and talking about the weekend. My brother Zach was there, too. So we talked for a bit after Mom and I had caught up. About movies that had just come out. About what he had seen. About what I was hoping to catch.

After several minutes of talking with Zach, my sister Lucy stopped by. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and she had no idea I was pulling a Grizzly Adams while Jen was away.

“Hey Ryan!” she said, greeting me on the computer screen as she came into the room. “Wait, what’s that on your face?!” she asked with a look of confusion.

I laughed.

“It’s just a shadow,” Zach said, trying to pull one over on her. We always give Lucy a bit of a hard-time about being gullible.

“Oh,” she said. “It looked like you had a beard there for a second.”

Zach and I just laughed. It was great catching up with them again.


Wednesday: Christmas Dinner, Caroling and the Christmas Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Carols and the Christmas Story at the Sheldonian

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

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

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

“Tim,” he said, looking to Jen.

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

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

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

“Yeah…”

She shook her head and smiled.

Mary Was Surprised, too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A perfect end to the evening

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

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

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

Thursday: A Snow Covered Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A John Wayne like American accent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both laughed.

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

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

Friday: My last day of Greek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily laughed from the chair next to mine.

Rhona picked up on her mistake and corrected herself.

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

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

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

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

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

Several of us laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all laughed.

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

“Apparently.”

Tea with Cole

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

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

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

He nodded with a look of understanding.

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

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

More Time With Jen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: From Psychology to PR to Theology

I went to a University Sermon and formal dinner at Harris Manchester last week. Sunday night. Jen had planned to go, but she was not feeling well that day. I told her I was happy to stay home with her, but she encouraged me to go. Said she didn’t want me to miss out just because she wasn’t feeling well. My wife is amazing. I felt bad leaving her at home, but she insisted.

The sermon was held in the Harris Manchester Chapel. It was the University Sermon, which is held only once per term, from what I hear. It was a big deal that it was being held at our college, and I hadn’t been to our chapel before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to do so. It’s a great chapel. Not huge, but reasonably sized. Lots of stained glass windows. Lots of dark wood. Tall ceilings. I met up with Cole and Tim beforehand, so we sat together.

The service was very high church. Very formal. Not the kind of sermon you’ll likely see on YouTube anytime soon. There were a lot of grey-haired community members in the Chapel. I was tired, and as much as I had been looking forward to it, I found myself doing the head-bob through most of the sermon. Fighting off the temptation to fall asleep right there in the middle of the service. I felt horrible about it.

The sermon wrapped up with a prayer, and a song from the choir, and those seated at the front of the chapel in their suits made their exit down the aisle and out the chapel doors. After several minutes, we followed suit, and we made our way to the dining hall for dinner. Tim and I. Cole had other plans already.

Dinner was a good mix of students and community members and friends of the university. The students were definitely in the minority, though.

I sat next to a guy by the name of Guy Fielding. He asked what I was studying. I told him Theology. He asked about my background, and what brought me here. I told him my first degree was in Psychology and Business, and how I had been working in PR for the past four years before making this change.

Turns out he was a Social Psychologist who made the leap to PR. So we had a lot to talk about.

He told me about how he had developed the PR curriculum for the universities in the UK. That he had started up his own PR firm after teaching at Oxford, before selling it to a company in the US and then starting another one.

I told him I tied my tie myself…

Not really. I mean, I really did tie my tie, but I didn’t tell him that.

He was curious to hear what brought me from PR to Theology. So I told him. I told him about how I realized I really enjoyed writing, but that I wanted to write about the faith. In a way that’d help others with their faith.

I told him I had a great job back home. I told him we had to say “goodbye” to some amazing friends and family to get here. I told him how this was something that had been on my heart and my mind for years. And how I had fought it for quite a while. How it really didn’t make any sense for someone like me to be here. But that I just felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.

He seemed to appreciate that. He nodded lots and smiled as I spoke.

Then he asked how I planned to make any money at it. He said no one buys books anymore.

It sounds like a painful question, but I didn’t mind. I appreciated his honesty.

I told him I thought that although we seem to be moving away from reading in the traditional sense, with the introduction of the Kindle and iPad, for example, that I didn’t think people were going to become uninterested in the written word anytime soon.

He nodded in agreement. He seemed to agree, but it could have simply been to make nice. To be British.

I had a great time talking with Guy. About the differences between the two cultures. About communications. About past work each of us had done.

I put my fork down after polishing my dessert plate (an amazing caramel bread pudding with vanilla ice cream), thanked Guy for a great conversation, and I made my way out of Arlosh Hall. I was the first one to leave. I had a sick wife at home to return to.

Tuesday: A Walk with Jen

Jen and I walked home from the Oxford CS Lewis Society Lecture Tuesday night. In the cold night air. Walking and talking. As our breath swirled into the black night’s sky.

I had been having a tough time the past day or so. Doubting a lot of things. Losing faith in why we were here. And just not being sure about where we were going. Feeling bad about coming all the way over here with so many uncertainties. Worrying that sooner or later, all of this that has seemed simply too good to be true is going to come crashing down. Finding myself replaying in my mind something Guy had said several days earlier: “No one’s interested in books anymore. . .How are you going to make any money?”

And I have the most amazing wife.

“When are you going to start believing in yourself, Ryan?” She asked me. “When are you going to start believing you’re supposed to be here?”

Jen spent the rest of the walk home explaining to me why I should be more confident in our place here. And for what the future has in store.

And, that may not sound like a big deal to you, but it is. It is incredible. For this is a woman who has literally put her dreams on hold for the sake of mine. Without complaining. Without throwing a tantrum about it. Simply, and humbly, saying, “this is what we’re supposed to be doing, and I’m going to support you in that.”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for my wife. For, when I’m second-guessing what I’m doing, what we’re supposed to be doing, she’s encouraging me. Even when that dream comes at the delay of her own dreams, even when she struggles with this transition, she’s encouraging me. I married up, to be sure.

If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone considering marriage, or to anyone who is yet to be married, it’s this: marry someone who you look up to. Marry someone who you want to be like. That’s the single smartest decision I’ve ever made.

Wednesday: First Names at Oxford and A package from Grandpa

Oxford is interesting. As traditional a place as it is, in terms of formalities, you couldn’t get away with calling your professor by their first name back home. Not in most cases, at least. And yet, that’s the way it is here. It still feels weird, at times. Even inappropriate. But that’s the way it is.

I found myself thinking about that on Wednesday morning. After asking Rhona a question. We started class with an exam. Like most days. Heads down. Writing away.

Rhona made her to the back of the room. To check something with the lights. And she must’ve noticed there were some students missing that morning as she did. She asked if Augustan is rowing this term as she fiddled with the light switch. Augustan, seated at the front of the room, responded, “No.” Laughter. Rhona’s still having a tough time with names, it seems.

Package from Grandpa

We got another package from Grandpa this week. Probably the fourth or fifth since we’ve arrived. He’s been amazing with that…

More food. Some rain suits to keep us dry. Some thick socks to keep our feet warm. And plenty of other goodies.

Thanks so much, Grandpa!

Thursday: Christmas lights going up and our first Thanksgiving Away

I noticed Christmas lights were being put up around Oxford on Thursday morning. As I made my way back home from the gym. I was glad to see that. They looked great when we were in Bath, and I was looking forward to seeing them here.

I noticed a large Christmas tree going up on Broad Street the week before. I was excited to see things start to look a bit more like Christmas.

Our First Thanksgiving Away

We had been told about a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted here in Oxford when we were at our small group last week. Apparently there’s an American professor (or “Tutor”) here who has been putting this on for the past four years, for Americans away from home. And for British students who want to see what it’s all about.

We decided to go, rather than go to small group. Hoping it might make it feel a bit more like Thanksgiving.

It didn’t. Instead, it seemed only like a painful reminder of what we were missing back home. Although it was kind of funny having to explain to people (the English who were there) what goes into stuffing. And watching others experience pumpkin pie for the first time.

It was all familiar, the food, at least, but it was also just different enough to not feel like Thanksgiving. That and the fact that we were eating with 40 strangers. They were nice enough, but it wasn’t home.

We got back in just before 10:00 that night. We Skyped with our family. Aunts and Uncles. Cousins and Grandparents. They were all getting together, so we were able to see a number of people we hadn’t seen or talked to since leaving. It was great to see everyone again. To laugh and catch up. But it was also tough.

I hugged Jen when we were done. I thanked her for doing all of this, for being over here and missing out on holidays back home. For me. I told her I knew that was a big deal, and that it wasn’t easy.

Friday: Breakfast of Champions, Writing and the Value of Home

After staying up until 2:00 Thursday night / Friday morning, Skyping with family and studying for my Greek exam, I was pleasantly surprised to make it through Greek class without falling asleep. I think I may have even done pretty well on my exam, so that’s a plus.

I caught up with a guy from Greek by the name of Fin as we left class that morning. He’s a member of Christ Church here at Harris Manchester. Site of the Great Hall from Harry Potter. I told him I’d love to eat at the Great Hall sometime. He said he’d love to make that happen.

He told me he realized this morning, while grabbing a Twix and soda for breakfast, that he hadn’t had a true meal from Tuesday to Thursday. “Breakfast of Champions,” I said, eyeing his first meal of the day. Then I realized I hadn’t seen a box of Wheaties since arriving, and that my joke was probably lost on him.

Fin’s a cool guy. Very European. Very much what you think of when you picture a European guy in his early twenties. Large, unkept hair. Unshaven. Very trendy clothes (boots, skinny jeans, scarf, cardigan / sweater). Very chill, and laid back. Quite smart, with a witty humor. With a raspy voice. Like he’s been up all night sharing laughs and stories with friends over an entire pack of cigarettes. The kind of guy who’s probably only here because his parents want him to be. And who likely straightens up when they’re around.

He’s quite kind. The kind of guy who comes off as too cool to care, but still intelligent enough to do quite well, and kind enough to get me into the Hogwarts Great Hall for a meal.

The Greatest Evil…Second only to Religion

I made a cup of tea after Greek. In the JCR back at Harris Manchester. A woman came in after me. She was probably a good 15-20 years older than me. I had overheard her speaking with another student several days earlier in the same room. Discussing nationalism, and its evils. “It’s the greatest evil in the world,” she had said. “Second only to religion.”

I listened to a talk that afternoon. A guy by the name of Dr Peter Williams from Cambridge. Or “Pete,” as he introduced himself to me afterward. Easily one of the brightest guys I’ve ever heard. He talked about the violence in the Bible. And people’s questions about it, such as “How could God command the killing we see in the Old Testament (including children, etc.)?”

His argument was basically that God hates evil, and that He chose to put up with such outright evil and disobedience for only so long (400 years, in the case of the Canaanites), before using a specific people group to wipe out this widespread evil. Evil that included the sacrificing of their own children to their gods. He said that this situation was for a specific time and period, though, and that God no longer  acts in this manner (“to judicially carry out his judgement”).

I caught up with him afterward, to ask him if this point suggested that the God of the Bible is inconsistent. As we’ve obviously had some pretty incredible acts of evil since the Canaanites, and we don’t have other examples of God acting in this way to stop it. He said he didn’t think so, in-between bites of his lunch. Answering my question with little effort.

He pointed toward the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The one where the vineyard Owner decides to pay everyone equally, no matter whether they worked all day or only for an hour or so. He said, “In the case of the Canaanites, their evil deserved their punishment. If God is choosing not to punish such evil at this point, but instead to be more merciful, who are we to complain about His mercy?”

The tea kettle stopped a minute or two after this woman arrived in the JCR. I filled her cup first, before moving to mine.

“Oh, you can fill yours first,” she spoke up.

“It’s no problem,” I said with a smile.

And her words came to my mind, replaying themselves in my mind. “Nationalism is the greatest evil in the world…Second only to religion.”

Religion has its evils, to be sure. And I would have no problem agreeing with this woman, in many ways. But there’s also something quite beautiful about a religion that says: “You deserve this (death), but I am giving you this (life).”

There’s something incredibly humbling and wonderful about a religion that says, “You’ve chosen to make yourself an enemy of God, yet He’s chosen to call you His child.”

A religion that says, “Consider others better than yourself. In humility, serve them.”

This faith is beautiful, when it’s lived out. And it’s a far different life than I’d ever live left to my own devices.

I was thinking about it in class earlier that morning. My faith, while sitting in Greek. As Rhona told a story about a poem written by a homesick man in Russia, while others looked at each other as if to ask, “How does this apply to Greek?…”

I was thinking about the fact that this wasn’t something I chose for myself. My faith, I mean. Nor was it handed to me by my family. They may have introduced it to me years ago, certainly, but that does not mean they were any more responsible for its current role in my life than is someone who first told me about The Alternative Tuck responsible that I return their almost every day for a chicken pesto panini.

Sitting there, in Greek, as Rhona talked about this poem, I found myself thinking about the roots of my faith, and how deep they go. I found myself thinking about the fact that those roots are a gift. For, even if I wanted, I couldn’t believe and desire this faith as I do now. Not of my own accord. I could not force myself to desire this as I do anymore than I could force myself to fall in love with my wife. It’s simply the result of being face-to-face with something so beautiful that the only natural response is to fall head-over-heels in love. And the rest of your life pursuing it.

Lighting of the Christmas Lights

Jen spent the day at a Christmas fair at Oxford Castle with some of her girlfriends on Friday. And helping bake at Vanessa’s place for a Thanksgiving party they were putting on this weekend. Pumpkin pies and pumpkin bars. She had a great time, from the sounds of it. And she’s definitely meeting some gals she can connect with. Makes me happy to know that.

We were meeting up with Cole for dinner and a movie that night. So I met Jen in the city center beforehand. After studying all day.
Apparently there was a Christmas festival of some sort going on. As the streets were packed with people. And vendors. Selling food and crafts. Carnival games and rides had been set up, seemingly overnight.

A reporter from the BBC was doing an interview, and we found ourselves just behind her. So if you saw us on BBC, that’s why.

We found ourselves square in the middle of a Christmas Lighting celebration, complete with a countdown and everything. It was pretty great, and people were certainly in the Christmas spirit. Made it feel a bit more like the holidays.

We fought our way through the crowds to meet up with Cole after counting down for the lighting of the Christmas lights and tree. It felt like standing in the ocean and being pushed back and forth by the tossing waves.

I ended up being separated from Jen, as the crowds leaned this way and that, standing shoulder to shoulder in a sea of people, everyone fighting to make their way either out or in. To see the lights. To ride the rides. To see the parade.

Yep, it definitely felt like the holidays.

Unfinished Writing

I’ve been writing a lot lately. More so than I probably have time for. Journaling, mostly. Little thoughts. On fear. On love. On the change that happens within us when faced with the Good News. Ideas I would normally expound upon at hands&feet at a different time, choosing instead to let them remain unfinished. Like a gift left to open at a later day.

And it’s wonderful. I love writing. And the more I do it, the more I realize this is what I want to do, more than anything else. And this whole experience is revealing that to me.

I love digging through those ideas and putting them to paper, allowing them to breathe and live a life of their own. Seeing where they go. If I can somehow figure out a way to do that the rest of my life, to help others see Him clearly, well, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.

The Value of Home

This is such a blessing. All of this. I am so blessed. Studying at Oxford. Reading, writing and discussing my greatest passion. Living out my dream. Every day. Here in this beautiful city. With my wife.

Once you’ve got a routine down. Once you’re able to cram 30 Greek vocab terms the night before an exam. Or memorize several charts’ worth of Grammar rules. Or become adjusted to sitting down for seven, eight hours straight and punching out an essay. Once you’ve got all that down, this is really a wonderful place to be. The people. The buildings. On a sunny day like this, it hardly seems fair to want to be anywhere else.

And yet, it has its difficulties, certainly. For it is not home. No matter how wonderful the people may be, they are not family. They are not the friends you’ve known for ages. And the places, no matter how breathtaking they are, are not the places you turned to to escape the pains of life. To find Him. Those old comfortable spots. And holidays here are not holidays there. For, no matter how great the food and company may be, it is simply not the same when you’re not surrounded by those you love.

I’m learning so much being here. About Theology. About other cultures. About myself. But I’m also learning so much about the value of home. And about what makes a place home. Your thirst for home is something that not even the very presence of your dreams can satisfy. For home is something greater altogether. It is people. It is places. It is relationships and food and smells and feelings and emotions and memories. All woven together into this incredible thing we call home. And there’s nothing else like it.

Thanks for reading. We love and miss you all.

Had a rough start this morning. Going on not enough sleep. Still not feeling great after the night before. And starting my day with a Greek exam. Not quite the way I like to start my Fridays.

But I felt better after getting a cup of tea. And after doing well on my Greek exam. Or I think I did well. We’ll see. I also met a guy here at Harris Manchester who’s from Vancouver. Was comforting to meet someone so close from home, actually.

Stan from Vancouver

I was getting a cup of tea in the JCR this morning. After Greek. I needed it desperately. It’s funny how much of a tradition tea has become for me in such a short period of time. If I haven’t had my tea by 11, I’m usually looking at my watch trying to figure out what’s the matter.

JCR stands for Junior Common Room. It’s a room here at Harris Manchester where the undergrads can hang out. It’s a small room with wooden walls that are lined with framed photos of past Harris Manchester classes. Two oars are on the walls, celebrating a rowing championship of some sort. Two or three dark brown leather couches offer a nice place to chat, or to read the paper. And there’s a very worn pool table that’s used more often than I’d expect.

The room was dark this morning when I went in. The lights hadn’t been turned on yet, but no one seemed to mind. It was nice, actually. Still. Calming. I was waiting on my water to boil when someone pointed out all four of us in the room were from North America, which is quite rare. I had met the other two, but not the fourth guy.

“Stan,” he said as he extended his hand from his place on the couch. Nice guy.

He’s in the third and final year of his law degree here at Harris Manchester. He moved here to England a couple years earlier. To play rugby. He now plays for Oxford. Makes sense. He’s a big guy. With Brad Pitt good looks. Soft spoken, but he could probably tear me in half without breaking a sweat.

I told him I was hoping to get involved in sports in some form or another while I’m here, but that I was wanting to get a little settled in first. He mentioned that the college had a basketball team last year. During Trinity Term (or spring term – Why don’t they just call it spring term? Because that’d be too easy).

“The thing about basketball here is that the English are just bad,” he said with a slight smile. “So even if you’re not great back home, you’re probably far better than most guys here.”

I’d love to play some basketball. Maybe by Trinity Term things will be settled down enough.

I’d like to row while I’m here, too. At some point. I’d love that, actually. But I’m not sure I can cut that with my schedule right now. Not on top of everything else. I did do the rowing machine in Justin & Jane’s in-home gym before leaving for class this morning, though. Almost the same thing.

My first plate of fish & chips

I had lunch at Harris Manchester today. It was my first time eating a meal here all week. Seemed like forever.

Fish & chips were on the menu, and I was excited about that, as I have actually yet to have fish & chips here in England. I know, I know… Such a traditional meal, how have I missed it? Bangers & mash, that’s how. And Alternative Turk chicken pesto paninis.

But it was really good, the fish & chips. It felt more hearty than I’ve had before. I don’t know, more substantive. Thicker batter, maybe? But it was really good. With chips (think joe joe’s) and peas. I love peas, and I love how much the English eat them. And a slice of lemon for the fish. Really, really good. Everyone has their own recipe, I’m sure, but I’d eat this again. For sure.

Principal Waller, the furniture mover

The dining hall was empty 15 minutes after lunch was served. Crazy. Like I said, people here don’t mess around.

I returned to the library after lunch to wrap up some reading, from my spot on the second floor. It wasn’t long after I had returned that I noticed someone in a full suit carrying a large, leather chair into the library.

“What a funny picture,” I thought to myself. Then I realized who it was. It was the college Principal. Principal Waller. And it looked like he was helping out the head Librarian, Sue. And then another, a few minutes later. I watched from the second floor of the library, and I was about to go down to offer to help when another student passed by and did so. So funny. What other Principal moves furniture in his spare time? What other Principal has spare time? I knew I liked this guy.

An impromptu car show

Harris Manchester didn’t have one of the books on my reading list, so I had to make a special trip to the Bodleian this afternoon.

I was stopped on my way, though, by an impromptu car show. There was a row of sports cars lined up across Broad Street. A Ferrari. A Bentley convertible. And an Audi R8.

People were stopping left and right. To look. To take pictures. I love sports cars, so I was drooling at this point. Here was well over a half-million dollars worth of sports cars right in front of me.

I’m not sure what this was about, if they were coming from a car show, or if they were just out for a drive, but they were eating up the attention. The drivers. They started revving their engines. And they were still just sitting in the middle of the street. Granted, it’s a street with more foot-traffic than anything, but soon the locals had had enough.

“Come on… Get out of here!” A group of guys said.

They took off, tearing down the street. Engines roaring. I was loving it. It was an interesting sight against the old buildings of Oxford.

Everyone bikes here

I told you before everyone bikes here. And it’s true.

It’s funny, but everywhere you go, bikes are chained up to something. Fencing. Light poles. Anything they can. And it’s actually hard to find a spot in a fence to tie up your bike most times. That’s how many bikes there are here.

But it’s great, actually, because everyone’s used to bicyclists. Makes getting around that much easier. It’s a very bike-friendly city, and I’m really enjoying getting around by bike. It’s great. I don’t miss having a car at all.

A pile of kleenex

It seems like everyone’s getting sick here, all of a sudden. You notice it in class. The sniffles. The coughing. The girl sitting across from me in the Radcliffe Camera (at the Bodleian Library) had a pile of used kleenex sitting on her desk this afternoon. She’d sneeze, wipe her nose, and then add one to the pile right there on the desk beside her Macbook. I didn’t realize how gross that was until I wrote it out…

I think people are getting worn out. And run down. It’s a non-stop pace, for sure. And It’s probably catching up with people. The temperature has really dropped here, too, which probably doesn’t help.

I got sick right off the bat when I arrived. From the lack of sleep. And the transition. I felt horrible for a few days. But since then, I’ve been doing all right. I’ve yet to make any kleenex piles in the library. Makes me want to go take a bath in some hand-sanitize after thinking about it.

At the Radcliffe

The bathroom in the Radcliffe Camera is downstairs. Underground. You go down a steep set of concrete stairs to get there. And it smells like a dairy parlor. It’s so bizarre… I haven’t smelled a dairy parlor in probably, 10 years? But that’s what it smells like. No idea.

Security is really strict here at Oxford. I guess it has to be, with all the tourists. You can’t just walk off the street and go into most buildings. They don’t just let tourists go into the colleges or libraries, for example. You have to show your student ID. Or you have to have a key. Or both. Some places check your bags as you come and go, to make sure you’re not taking any books with you.

But the upside is that you can leave your things and not worry about it. Well, I guess I say that somewhat loosely. People leave their things — laptops, bags, etc — and don’t worry about it. There’s the possibility of another student stealing it, of course, but that’s just the way it is here.

People will be studying in the library with everything all set up (their laptop out, notes and books out) and they’ll leave it to go grab lunch or run and errand and come back later. It’s really nice, actually. And the thing about Harris Manchester, for example, is that everybody knows everybody. If someone doesn’t recognize you, they’re going to be watching anyway.

Dinner at Lynde & Mem’s

I had dinner at Lynde & Mem’s place again tonight. They were having some people over and invited me to join them. And it’s funny, because I’ve only just met them, but I totally felt right at home. Like I was meeting up with old friends.

There was another couple there, too. Adam & Kate. Adam is studying at Wycliffe Hall with Lynde. He’s tall, has blonde hair. Kate has blonde hair as well. They’re one of those couples that looks like a couple.

Lynde introduced me, saying I was doing the Theology degree through the university, rather than through Wycliffe.

“He’s quite brave,” Lynde said with a smile.

Adam and Kate are great. Really easy to talk with. I had never met them before, of course, but we had some great conversation right off the bat. Sharing foreign language class horror studies.

They asked me what I was hoping to do after my studies. I’ve been getting that question a lot.

Before leaving home, we had dinner with some close friends of ours. Doug & Carol. To say goodbye.

They’re the ones who encouraged us to come visit Oxford last summer, to see if this was something we were supposed to do. They’re a big reason we’re here now. Well, why I’m here now, and why Jen’s coming.

But it was during that night, after dinner, that I told Doug & Carol I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do after all of this. That I had initially planned on going into academics, and writing on the side. But that lately I was thinking about maybe ministry and writing. But I wasn’t sure.

I asked them if they thought it was foolish of me to be making such a big change without knowing exactly what I wanted to do with it.

Carol spoke up. She said she thought I had been given a gift with this opportunity, and that maybe I wasn’t supposed to know what was going to happen. Not all the way, at least. Not yet. But that I was just supposed to enjoy it. That’s been encouraging to me, lately. I’ve had to go back to that several times.

I told Adam & Kate how I really just enjoyed reading and writing and talking about this stuff. And that that’s what brought me here. I told them I was still trying to work out what that looked like, but that I knew I wanted to write.

“I feel like that’s where the real value comes from all this,” I told them. “Not necessarily in putting another textbook on the shelf, but writing about Theology in a way that says, ‘This is what this looks like in our life. This is what this means for us. This is why it matters.’ Writing in a way that speaks to people. Not in a dull, dry, academic sense. But in a way that people can relate to. And about the stuff that matters most.”

“If I could do that,” I told them, “I’d be the happiest guy in the world.”

Lots of smiles. Lots of head nods.

Adam was in business before coming here, so we have that in common. He’s going into the ministry when he finishes up at Wycliffe.

They have four kids, and they had them all in five years. I asked if they had planned on four, or if that’s just what they decided on.

“Actually, when we got married, we had planned on having six,” Katie told me. “Then we had one and thought we’d be happy with one.” She laughed. Adam smiled.

“It’s actually something we were just talking about, though,” Adam spoke up. “We thought we were done, but now we’re not sure. We realized it was something we probably needed to pray about.”

“I had started giving away all our baby clothes, and then I realized we hadn’t even prayed about this,” Katie said. “So that’s where we’re at now. We’re going to pray about it and see where that takes us.”

I thought that was encouraging. Me, I’d say, “Yep, four seems like plenty. Let’s call that good.” But I appreciated hearing they were wanting to pray about this before closing the door on the conversation. It made me take a look at my own prayer life. And think about what decisions I make without even thinking twice.

Lynde & Mems invited another guy from Wycliffe Hall, too. A guy by the name of Dominique. He’s from the States. Maui, actually. Lynde told everyone that this must’ve been a calling, because there’s no way anyone would leave Maui for England.

“Yeah, it really is great. Summer all the time. But after a while, you do find yourself wanting something else,” Dominique told us.

He was talking to three people from England, a guy from the Northwest, and a guy who’s been working in England for the past 10 years (Lynde), so he wasn’t getting much sympathy from his audience.

“Yeah, I think they call those people insane,” Adam joked.

Dominique is married, and they have one daughter, but he’s here on his own at this point as well. Another visa delay. But he has it much worse than I do.

He and his wife have been married for 10 years now, and their 10-year anniversary was last week. They had all these plans in store, for how they’d celebrate it here in England, but they celebrated it over skype instead. I felt horrible for him, hearing this.

He hasn’t seen them for a month, and it’s looking like it’ll still be another three weeks or so. Ridiculous.

Mems made another amazing meal. She really is an incredible cook. And it’s funny, because I’ve eaten there twice now, and both times she’s said before dishing up the plates not to feel bad if we don’t like her cooking. But not like she’s seeking your approval, or that she’s looking for your compliments, but that she genuinely wants to make sure you’re not uncomfortable speaking up if you don’t like something.

If you like food, you’ll like her cooking. It’s as simple as that.

She started us off with a mushroom soufflé, which was so good. She apologized for how it looked.

“It’s supposed to be puffier, but it looks rather like a pancake,” she said, from the head of the table.

Everyone raved about it. As they should have. It looked amazing. You could tell she took the time to prepare it just right. Little slices of mushrooms and cream peaking out from the top of the pillow-shaped soufflé. It was fresh out-of-the-oven warm, and it melted in your mouth.

Adam told us about how, growing up, his parents would often have students stay with them. College students. That’s just something his parents wanted to do to be able to help. And so they’d get people from all over the world. He said he got to meet a lot of great people that way.

“I still stay in touch with several of them, actually,” he told us.

“We had one guy from Japan staying with us. For about 15 months. And my mom wanted to prepare food she thought he’d enjoy. Food that would remind him of home. And so she cooked a lot of fish. About three nights a week. Well, there was one night he was away, for something, and my mom decided she’d cook fish anyways. The other student living with us at the time, he was from Sweden, he asked if we could not have fish. If we could have something else. My mom told him she had been planning to cook fish for this other student who was staying with them, the one from Japan. But this guy told her that actually, the Japanese student hated fish. He just didn’t want to say anything to make her feel bad. 15 months, three times a week, and he never said anything!”

Everyone laughed.

“That’s totally their culture, though,” Lynde said. I remember him telling me had spent some time in Japan. On business.

“Yeah, it is,” Adam said. “But he’d go back for seconds. Every time.”

We all laughed again.

After everyone had finished, Mems brought out the main course. Mashed potatoes, green beans and duck. I have only had duck once before, and I wasn’t a fan, so I was actually kind of disappointed to hear this, even though it looked amazing. I didn’t hesitate to dig in, though. And I was surprised. I probably shouldn’t have been, given the track record, but it was so good… It was so well prepared it just fell apart. Super moist. And she served it with this dark, sweet gravy. I’m not sure what it was, or what was in it, but it was amazing.

Lots of “Mmmmm” ‘s and “Oh my… that is good!” ‘s as everyone dug in.

We had some great conversation. Lots of church talk, since we’re all studying Theology. We talked about our experiences with the different lecturers. I told them about my Professor who speaks for an hour straight while holding his glass of water before finally drinking it in one foul swoop to bookend his lecture. They laughed.

We talked about evolution. Which sounds weird for a dinner conversation, but Dominique is doing his Master’s on faith and science. So it made sense.

Lynde gave a well-thought out explanation of where he stood. Of different books he had read, and about how he had actually had the opportunity to preach on this topic at a church, recently.

Adam said he had come to the conclusion that this just isn’t the real issue for him. That he wasn’t going to tie himself down to it one way or the other. That there were more important conversations to be had. More important issues to be settled.

“Like the cross. And sin,” he said. Everyone agreed.

I spoke up. I told him I agreed, but that, for a lot of people who aren’t in the church, who might not believe in this stuff, evolution is the issue. Or at least a real issue. And that sin just isn’t. Even though it is to us.

“If you go in saying, this is the issue. Sin is what we need to be concerned about, then you’re going to end the conversation right there. Because it’s not an issue to them. But evolution is. The tricky thing to balance is being able to have an educated conversation on the topic, and not painting the entirety of Christianity as not caring about the topic of evolution, even if we believe sin is the core issue.”

Nods. All the way around the table. I said that not because I’m deeply interested in evolution. I’m not. I agree with Adam, to be honest. But I think we need to be careful about not side-stepping the conversation. Or cutting it off before it starts.

Sounds like a heavy conversation, I know, but it really was a great time. We talked about Oxford. About all the things to see and do (once our wives arrive). The shrunken head display at one of the museums here, for example.

Mems told Dominique he’d have to have a pretend anniversary date when his wife got in. Adam suggested a place, but Kate told him it was far too expensive.

“Yeah, but this is a 10-year anniversary,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing you break into your pension for!”

We followed up dinner with an amazing roasted pear dessert. On a pastry crust. With a caramel sauce. And vanilla ice cream. Again, amazing.

“It’s not always like this,” Lynde later told us with a smile. “But she really is a great cook.”

Kate asked when Jennifer would be arriving, on their way out. I told her Wednesday.

“Oh, that’s great!”

“So, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday for date nights, then?” Mems asked.

I laughed. “Yeah, will definitely be nice to have her here, that’s for sure.”

“Does she know anyone here in Oxford?” Kate asked.

“No, she doesn’t. She knows zero people,” I told them. “And that’s going to be a tough transition, because we have a pretty great network of friends and family back home she’s saying ‘goodbye’ to.”

“Oh… Well, don’t worry. We’ll have to meet her. She can hang out with us,” Kate said. “She’ll be properly Mems and Katified when she arrives.”

It’s pretty amazing the people I’ve met already at this point. I really do already feel like I know some amazing people. So incredibly friendly. Genuinely friendly. And not awkwardly friendly, like they want you to join their cult or something. But the kind of people who you feel like you’ve known for a long time, even though you haven’t. And hospitable. The kind of people who invite over a perfect stranger. Just to get to know them.

That’s really been a blessing. It makes being so far from home not feel so far from home.

Before leaving for class this morning, I stopped in to say “bye” to Jane. They’re leaving for Rome tomorrow morning, and I didn’t know if I’d see them before they left.

Beng greeted me at the door. She was doing some cleaning.

“You have another beeg box by the door,” she told me as I came in.

“What? Really?…” I asked, completely surprised. Funny, I had received mail the previous two days, and I woke up this morning realizing it’d probably be a while before I get more. I was kind of bummed, but this was good news.

Beng led me to the dront door and, sure enough, there was another one. A 30 pounder this time. From grandpa, again. That guy…

I was in a hurry, so I wasn’t able to open it before leaving for class. It did give me something to look forward to that evening, though.

An Oxford kind of lecture

I just have one lecture to attend on Thursdays. The rest of this day is spent studying, reading and working on essays. And taking in views like this on my way to class.

My lecture this morning was on Pre-Nicaea Christian Doctrine. Basically, what the early Christian church believed. I can hear a few of you yawning, but I really enjoy this stuff. Early church heretical views and the like. Very interesting.

And our professor is great for this lecture, too. Dr. Mark Edwards. The guy’s brilliant, no doubt. He enters in his very Oxford attire: button-up dress shirt, tie, sweater (stained), scarf, tweed jacket, black academic gown, glasses. Messy hair. Scruffy face.

He enters the classroom, gown flowing behind him, pours himself a glass of water (which he holds for the entirety of class), and then he immediately begins. A two-sentence recap of the week before and then it’s on to the new material. Non-stop for an hour. No pauses. Straight through. Spitting out names and dates with ease. Smooth transitions. This guy knows his stuff front and back.

And then, at the top of the hour, “Next week I shall talk about the gnostics.” He drinks the glass of water he’s been holding for the past hour in one long swallow and then he’s out the door. First one out of the room. This guy is something else. It’s comical, really.

Studying at Blackwell’s

I spent most of this afternoon at Blackwell’s. The book shop I first visited yesterday. I had a bunch of Greek to get through, and I thought I’d try it out.

I really liked it, too. Very busy. Students. Professors. Others. Not a quiet place, by any means, but I liked that. It let me say my Greek aloud to myself without interrupting anyone.

I can’t really practice my Greek aloud at the Harris Manchester Library or the Bodleian. You feel bad walking too loudly in those places. I could probably yell my Greek here and people wouldn’t notice. Perfect.

It was about lunch time when I arrived, so I decided to snag a bite while I was there. They were advertising their paninis on the way in, so I thought I’d see how they compared to the Alternative Turk.

I was not impressed. For starters, you pick them up out of a cooler. Pre-packaged. And then they grill them for you when you pay. They also cost more than the Alternative Turk. And they’re not nearly as big or as tasty. Looks like the Alternative Turk is going to be taking my money for some time to come…

It was busy there. People were circling tables shortly after I arrived. Looking for a place to sit.

I noticed one guy, probably in his early 50’s, trying to get a table. Another guy was getting up to leave so he waited. Then another, younger girl walked up and set her things down at the table. I was just waiting for the first guy to get upset. He didn’t.

“They must be together,” I thought to myself. “Professor meeting with a student, perhaps?”

I’m not one to listen to other people’s conversations, but I struggled not to in this case. For starters, his American accent caught my ear. And he spoke loudly, so that I couldn’t not hear what he was saying. And I noticed he was talking a lot about God. And prayer. And how God wants to hear from us. It sounded like this girl was having a tough time, and he was encouraging her to seek Him. Because that’s what God wants us to do, he told her.

“He knows our desires,” he told this girl, “but he still wants to hear from us. We don’t have to fully understand it, we just have to do it.”

He was being pretty firm with her. Not in a bad way. Just like he knew what she needed to hear. And it surprised me. All the God talk. Especially in a public space like this coffee shop. I heard Wycliffe Hall mentioned. “Maybe he’s a professor there,” I thought to myself.

Toward the end of their conversation, he handed a camera to the table next to them and asked if they’d take a picture.

“Okay, now that’s just weird,” I thought to myself.

They both got up, he was leaving, apparently, and I realized this man was this girl’s father. He was saying goodbye.

I spent a couple hours more in my Greek after this scene ended. After wrapping up my assignment, I packed up my things and made my way out of Blackwell’s. But all of a sudden I felt the urge to go to talk to this girl. Even though I didn’t want to .

“I don’t want to come across as some creeper,” I told myself, pushing aside the internal prodding to introduce myself. “That’d just be weird”

I began to take the stairs out and ended up stopping before getting all the way down. It felt like someone had reached out a hand and pushed it into my gut, blocking my way out.

“All right. Okay. I’ll go,” I said to myself. Still not wanting to. Still feeling weird about the whole thing.

I made my way back up the stairs and shuffled through the tables to this girl. She was reading a book. And she looked up at me with this look like, “Yes? Can I help you?” as I did.

I told her I knew this sounded weird, but I overheard her conversation, and I felt the urge to come introduce myself. I was just waiting for her to tell me to go away. She didn’t.

I told her I noticed her American accent, and the other guy’s with her.

“Oh, yeah, that was my Dad,” she told me.

She introduced herself. “Karis. It’s Greek for Grace.”

I told her I was studying Greek, but I was horrible at it.

She told me she’s going to Wheaton. And that she’s studying abroad for a term. She told me she just got done saying goodbye to her Dad. I told her I would be a complete mess if that were me. She asked if I were close with my family, and I told her I was. Very much so.

“Me too,” she said.

She’s interested in apologetics. And she’s studying at Wycliffe Hall.

I told her I’ve met a number of guys from there, and that they’ve all been super nice.

“They’ve been great to me. Even inviting me over for dinner and lunch,” I told her. “Yeah, I’ve really had a great experience with Wycliffe.”

“Ah, you must be a Christian, then?” she asked.

She said when she tells people she’s going to Wycliffe, she gets some different responses.

“People think it’s cultish, or something, since it’s a Christian college,” she told me.

She asked where I went. I told her Harris Manchester. Not sure if that meant anything to her or not. Not sure what kind of connotations that name carries. Apart from the fact that we’re all old.

I told her I had just arrived a couple weeks earlier, and that my wife would be here at the end of the month. I told her that would make this feel much more like home.

“Not sure if that made a difference or not,” I thought to myself as I made my way out of Blackwell’s. But maybe it did. I don’t know. I’d be a mess if I were her. At least now I didn’t feel like someone was blocking me from going down the stairs when I left.

Living out my dream

I talk with my best friend Steve every day. By e-mail, usually. And he does a great job of telling me how proud he is of me. For following my dreams. And for living them out. He reminds me that I truly am living my dream right now. And I need that reminder, because it doesn’t usually feel that way. Instead, I usually just feel stressed. About all I have to get done. Mostly about Greek.

Three days out of the week I’m waking up to Greek class. First thing in the morning. Exam every class. First thing. It’s kind of like waking up to someone sitting beside your bed just waiting for you to open your eyes so they can punch you in the face.

But every once in a while I catch myself thinking, “this really is amazing. I am actually here, in Oxford. I am actually doing this.” I found myself thinking that as I left the Radcliffe Camera at the Bodleian this afternoon. Walking up those ancient stone steps. Reaching daylight and being surrounded by these incredible, old, and enormous buildings.

But then, after a few seconds, I don’t believe it anymore. It’s just too unreal.

Discuss

I went to Discuss for the first time tonight. It’s a small group that meets at St. Andrews. The Church just down the street from here, where I’ve gone on Sunday mornings a couple times.

It was nice. Good group of 20- and 30-somethings showed up. Dinner beforehand. Chicken curry and rice, which was really good.

I sat by a guy by the name of Martin. I think he’s 120% Irish. Give or take. A head of floppy, bright red hair. Thick as mud Irish accent. Really funny guy, too.

He asked where I was from. I told him Seattle.

“Ah… Grey’s Anatomy and Frasier!” he said with a smile.

“Yep, that pretty much sums up everything you’d need to know about me,” I said with a laugh.

He asked what brought me here. I told him about the change I had made from working at a marketing firm back home to studying Theology here at Oxford. I asked what he did.

“IT stuff,” he told me. “You know, the internet. Have you heard of it?” he asked, sarcastically.

“Oh, you mean the Google tubes? Yeah, are people still using that?” I asked him. He laughed.

After dinner, we broke up into small groups of about 10 or so people and had a short Bible study.

It was nice to be in the Word with some other folks. Walking through it and discussing our thoughts. And I found myself thinking about halfway through, “I can’t remember the last time I was sitting in a small group I wasn’t leading, in some form or another.” It was a good feeling.

Martin’s wife was also in our group. She’s also from Ireland, but her accent isn’t nearly as thick.

When she heard where I was from, she asked if I was getting any sleep.

“Yeah, actually, the first week was quite hard, but now I’m settling in all right…” but my words were cut off with laughter. Apparently her joke had gone right over my head.

Seattle. Sleepless In Seattle. You know.

I told her that’s actually the only movie anyone watches back home, so it’s weird I didn’t pick up on the joke. More laughter.

I’m pretty sure that won’t be the last time I’ll go. I knew I wanted to find some Christian community when I came here. Seems like it’s lining up pretty great so far.

One girl who was in our small group had spent some time in Vancouver. She was from England, but her parents had moved to Vancouver. She spent a couple years there. I told her that wasn’t far from where I was from. Maybe an hour.

“Bellingham,” I told her.

“I was going to ask if it was Bellingham,” she said. “We’d always go to the Macy’s there.”

“Yeah? You and the rest of Canada, I’m pretty sure.”

(Another) Jackpot

I was excited to return home and find the package from my grandpa waiting for me. Not having a memory has its benefits, sometimes. Like being surprised by things you already know.

I really wasn’t expecting another package from my Grandpa. The first box was pretty comprehensive. Or so I thought…

But he thought otherwise. More cereal. More oatmeal. More trail mix. More protein bars. I’m not sure I could eat all this if I didn’t eat anything other than cereal, oatmeal, protein bars and trail mix for the next two years.

I could hear my Grandpa’s voice, from all those mornings he’d make us breakfast. Huge breakfasts. With more food than we could ever possibly eat. “I’d rather make too much than not enough,” he’d say.

Thank you, Grandpa. This really is incredibly generous of you.

Missing Hayley

I had a bit of studying to do before turning in tonight. Greek. For my exam in the morning. A good hour or two’s worth, probably.

And I’m not sure why, but I found myself missing Hayley tonight. More so than usual. Really badly. I ended up going back and re-reading some of the words I had written following her passing. And I lost it. In a way I haven’t in a long time.

I had to just sit there for a while and let it out. Completely useless. For anything. Studying was hopeless at this point. I just hoped Jane didn’t hear me next door and wonder what was going on. It was that bad.

But then I got thinking, and I remembered what she had said. Shortly before we were forced to say goodbye. And I remembered how it seemed like she knew I was supposed to be here. She believed there was a reason for all of this. She believed something special was going to come from all of it.

I didn’t feel like studying after that. When I had stopped sobbing. I felt exhausted. I felt like I had nothing left in me. I just felt like crawling into bed and pulling the covers over my head.

Even though all of this seemed so pointless in the midst of feeling so overwhelmed with loss, remembering that she believed in this, that kept me going.

I picked up my pencil and started working on my Greek.

I want to honor Hayley in this. In all of this.

I’m beginning to take milk with my tea. I didn’t like it before, but I do now. The English is setting in already.

I still take sugar, though, so that makes me stand out. I’ve yet to run into someone from England who takes sugar with their tea.

When we were doing two-a-days in Greek, for two hours each class, we’d have a break for tea in the mornings. Someone would come into the room after an hour with a giant basket full of preparations for tea. Saucers and cups, tea bags and hot water, and sugar and spoons. And biscuits (cookies).

“Only in Oxford,” a girl in our class said to me, shaking her head with a smile. And she’s from a town only 30 minutes away.

I was the last to go through the line. And, as I got there, I noticed the sugar had yet to be uncovered.

“Leave it to the American to be the only one to take sugar,” I said aloud.

“Yeah, sorry we don’t have high fructose corn syrup for you,” a British classmate of mine joked.

My morning walk

I still quite enjoy my walk to class in the mornings. Not as much in the evenings, when it’s dark. But the mornings are nice. I still enjoy seeing everything.

Like this little bakery.

I’ve yet to go there to get anything, but I’d like to at some point. It looks so idyllic. Just passing by the window display on my way to class makes me happy.

And I love the entryway of this coffee house…

Apparently it’s the oldest coffeehouse in the world.

This place, Queen’s Lane Coffee House, across the street, apparently missed being the first by only a few years. Too bad, really.

Lunch at Harris Manchester

Apart from an hour of Greek in the morning, my Fridays are wide open, which gives me quite a bit of time to catch up on reading for my essays. And Greek, of course.

I decided to hunker down in the Harris Manchester Library today; it’s a bit brighter than the Radcliffe Camera.

After a few hours in the books, I made my way down to the Arlosh hall for lunch. That’s the name of the dining hall here at Harris Manchester. That’s where you can find Steve, the head chef. Full suit. Smiling. Asking to make sure everything’s okay. Steve’s great. And his (hand-painted) portrait is hanging on the wall as you walk in. Full suit. Smiling.

I hadn’t been to Harris Manchester for lunch all week. Not since meeting the Alternative Turk. It was nice to see some familiar faces again. And catch up with people I hadn’t seen since 0th week.

We had salmon for lunch. Baked inside of a dough crust. It was served with a light, cream colored sauce, and a side of peas and potatoes. It was quite tasty.

People don’t waste any time here at Oxford. 20 minutes into lunch and the entire dining hall is about cleared out. It’s kind of weird, actually. But people have a lot to do.

“Oh yeah…”

Every once in a while, I have these “oh yeah…” moments, where I realize I’m here in England. It sounds funny, I know. But it’s a bit like having a dream and then getting so used to it it’s only about halfway through you realize, “oh yeah…” I am in a dream right now. Sometimes you just don’t realize it at all.

They come at the weirdest moments, too. Like last night, at Lynde at Mem’s place. We were sitting in their living room talking. Mems was talking about what it’d be like to move to New Zealand, and all of a sudden it was like I woke up to the fact that she was speaking in a British accent. It’s weird. But the other time it’s just normal. It’s just the dream state and I’m fully engaged in it.

And it happened earlier today. I was walking out of the Little Turk after picking up something to snack on, and I was running through some Greek vocab in my head. I wasn’t too far down the road when it happened again, walking along the stone foot path, in front of these incredible, beautiful, old buildings, and I was just like, “oh yeah…” I’m in Oxford. This is real. It’s not a dream. I really am here.

Dinner at the Eagle & Child

I met Cole at the Eagle & Child for dinner after a full (eight hour) day in the library. It’s less than a 10 minute walk from Harris Manchester, which still blows my mind.

Cole told me that they recently put a new burger on their menu, and that it was the best burger he’s had in England since arriving.

“Sold,” i said.

We set our stuff down at a table in the back of the restaurant and made our way to the bar to place our orders. The woman at the bar asked me if I wanted a “regular” or “large” size burger.

“Large,” I said, without a pause. “If there’s a choice when it comes to burgers, always go with the large,” I said to Cole.

Cole asked what the difference was between a regular and large. It was an extra patty, apparently.

“Yep, that was the right choice,” I said.

We talked for a bit about our week. Cole was interested in how my first week had gone.

I asked him how he enjoyed his first year.

“Best year of my life,” he said confidently.

“Huh…” I thought to myself.

“But it does take some time to get comfortable with things. It seems like it’s not until the start of this year [his second] that I really am more comfortable with everything here.”

Cole mentioned the fact that, truly, most people are that way. And that they just think everyone else is doing great. And how that’s just simply not the case.

“Like Lesley Smith said during your introduction meetings,” he reminded me. “Everyone’s scared, they’re just putting on a face.”

Cole told me about something called the Impostor Syndrome. Apparently it’s when someone is unable to process the fact that they’ve achieved something special. That somehow there must have been a serious mistake along the way, and they have only achieved what they have due to some mistake or error.

It was an interesting idea. One I had never heard.

“Well, I definitely feel like an impostor most everywhere I am here,” I told him.

During my first week, I’d find myself passing by the gardener, the window cleaner, and thinking to myself. “I could do that. I could clean windows. What in the world am I doing trying to study here?”

Apparently Cole’s mom works at a university back home. She’s the one who introduced Cole to this term. She told him about so many of the students who are accepted into med school who, the entire time they’re there, believe they’re only there because someone messed up the application process, and that they had been accepted by accident. And that the school was too nice to tell them otherwise.

“Ryan, you have Matriculation in the morning [the University’s official induction ceremony],” cole said said to me, leaning over the table just slightly with wide-eyed excitement. He spoke in in firm sincerity.

“By this time tomorrow, you will be an official member of the University of Oxford, and you will be for the rest of your life. You will be just as much a member of the University as the professors.”

Yep. Something definitely didn’t seem right with that. Surely there was a mistake somewhere along the way.

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