Archives for posts with tag: Lord of the Rings

Saturday: Banana ketchup & Christmas in January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: House dinner & Big news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An imaginary conversation with the wife of my youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our friend the Pope & Social transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Growing old together & How quickly things change

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: I love baptisms & So tired I could puke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Lunch at Keble & Oh, Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different approach to ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: My first moose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Friday: An honest conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: Prayer over breakfast with Rich & Max

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We continued to chat as we looked over the menu.

Max’s eyes fell on the English breakfast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both laughed. I was serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich asked if I wanted my photo taken as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They laughed.

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

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