Archives for posts with tag: Max

Spring is an incredible time to be in Oxford. After a long, gray winter, the air begins to feel warm, and the smell of fresh, blossoming flowers floats through it like notes to a song. The sound of children’s laughter can be heard around town, as they flow through the streets like a stream, dressed in matching school uniforms.

Couples float down the River Cherwell in punts, one reclining in the middle of the boat, smiling up at the other, who is standing at the rear, propelling them forward with a long pole. The sky in Oxford is a pale blue in the spring, with strokes of white clouds and trails from airplanes, leaving the scene overhead to look like a new painting set up on display at the start of each day.

Spring is also typically a great time for Oxford students, as it tends to be less busy, academically, than the rest of the year. With more time on their hands, students take advantage of a relaxed schedule by playing croquet in their college gardens, enjoying garden parties and Pimms, and cheering on their college’s rowing team during the Summer Eights.

There are, of course, two rather significant caveats to this whole affair.

The first of which is if the weather doesn’t actually cooperate, and if the rainy, gray weather of winter just happens to stretch into the spring months. Such was the case this spring, when typically warm, blue sky spring days were exchanged for the rainiest spring in Oxford in well over a hundred years.

The second caveat is if you’re a finalist (an undergraduate in the final year of your degree), in which case your term is spent preparing for your final exams at every possible spare moment.

Oxford is the only university left in the world, I’m told, that has kept their particular finals system, which is such that the only thing that actually counts toward your degree are your final exams. Everything before that was just practice. Each student sits a series of three-hour final exams for each of their particular papers (“classes), and so they spend several spring months preparing for what will be, in most cases, the biggest tests of their life.

My degree gives me a total of seven three-hour exams. All essay-format. All handwritten. In just six days.

Both of the above caveats were true for me this spring. Which meant it felt a lot less like a proper spring in Oxford, and more like a winter that just wouldn’t relent. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning

Becoming Myself Again

Hilary (winter) term was easily one of my busiest terms for school work since I first arrived in Oxford. While many other finalists began looking ahead to finals and started working on their revisions, it was all I could do to keep up with my weekly essays. There were several nights when my workload that I started the day before would keep me up until moments before the sun rose the following day. I’d regularly collapse in bed in the early morning hours and close my eyes for a few hours before waking up and doing it all over again.

And so, when my first Saturday of spring break arrived, I avoided setting my alarm, and I allowed myself to wake up when my eyes came open, instead. Turns out that time didn’t come until 2.30 in the afternoon. And it felt great.

It felt so great, in fact, that I did the same thing the following day, not waking up until half of Sunday had already come and gone.

When I finally awoke, I got up, threw on some clothes, and then headed to the gym. It was the first time in ages, and it felt great to do something more physically demanding than flipping pages in a book. After a shower and a shave, I made my way to the Kilns’ kitchen to make something to eat, when I ran into Debbie.

“Wow, you look like your old self again!” she said with a look of shock.

“Thanks, I feel like my old self!” I said.

It had been the first time I had seen Debbie in some time, as the house was typically already asleep by the time I would make it in at night, and often I was out the door before the rest of the house was up. It was great to see her again, and good to begin to feel like a person again.

When My Plans Came Crashing Down

I started off the first week of spring break with a tour of the Kilns for a small group of people who had come to visit the house. And it went great. One of the women on the tour came up to me afterward and mentioned to me just how much she appreciated it.

“I’ve been here several times over the years, with different groups, and this was the best tour I’ve ever had,” she said, with a smile and a handshake. “Very good job. Thank you.”

I smiled in return. And her thanked her for coming out.

I always enjoy giving tours, but those kind of responses make it that much better. I was walking on air when I returned to my room, only to sit down at my computer and receive the news that came like a punch to the stomach, taking away any joy that had been built up over the past couple days of sleeping in and this woman’s response from my tour.

I had received an e-mail from the Oxford Graduate Studies Committee, writing to inform me that I had not been offered a place for the following year’s Master’s program here at Oxford…

And all of a sudden it felt like the plans I had made, and the world I had imagined for our future, were crashing down all around me.

Waking up to a Nightmare

I woke up Tuesday morning with a terrible feeling in my stomach, as I realized this news hadn’t been just a bad dream. As I realized that I had actually been turned down, and a wave of uncertainty washed over me as I struggled to gather my strength to get out of bed and face the day.

I felt like a failure. I felt deflated of all the renewed energy I had after a restful weekend. I felt like throwing my fists into the air and shouting, “Why?! What’s the point?!?”

I had worked so hard to get here, I had put in so many hours on my studies since I had been here, and then this?… It just didn’t make any sense to me.

I felt like a failure. I felt as though I had let all of my community back home down. “What would they think?” I wondered.

I had considered applying to another school back in the States during Michaelmas Term (Duke), as there were several scholars there I had come across who I was really interested in working with (Stanley Hauerwas, Lauren Winner, Richard Hays, Jeremy Begbee, and others), but the term was so busy that I just didn’t make the time for it.

I had been so sure that this was where we were supposed to be, spending another year in Oxford, and now I felt so foolish for not making alternate plans in case things didn’t come through. I had been too confident, I thought.

I found myself wondering what all my friends here in Oxford would think. I thought about all those friends of mine who were here doing Graduate Studies, and suddenly I felt on the outside of this great University I have been so proud to be a member of. I felt as though it had turned its back on me. I felt as though the news had finally come out: I didn’t belong at Oxford. I couldn’t actually cut it. And they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I felt as though I had been banished, and now I was standing on the outside, in the cold, looking in.

I felt like a failure with nowhere to go. I missed the arms of my wife, who was still back with our family in the States, and who was now nearly halfway through the pregnancy of our first child. I hurt, and I still felt lost and alone.

I had written a note to Philip the day before, my supervisor from Michaelmas Term, who is the director of Undergraduate Studies here at Oxford, and who had served as one of my references for the Master’s program. I wrote to explain my surprise at this news, and to ask his thoughts on the likelihood of my being given an offer in the second round (Oxford has two rounds of applications: one in January, and one in April). But my note to Philip from the day before was replied to with only a short note of consolation, encouraging me to try not to worry too much, and a friendly reminder that he wasn’t the appropriate person for this note, as he wasn’t on the Graduate Studies Committee.

I had also e-mailed Dr Michael Ward, who supervised my thesis, who’s also a longstanding member of the Oxford University CS Lewis, and a close friend. We had planned on meeting this week, to discuss my plans for the future, and some ideas I had for future studies, but I wrote to him shortly after receiving this news to explain what had happened. I thought I’d let him know, in case he no longer wanted to meet, or at least in case he wanted to put our meeting on hold until I found out for sure if we’d be returning. He wrote me back the next day to say he still wanted to meet, without even mentioning my rejection letter.

I shared the news with Debbie. I hadn’t planned to, but I had been short with her that morning, and I knew she could tell something was up, after I had finally seemed like my old self again after a few days’ worth of rest.

“Oh, Ryan…,” she said with a sympathetic look, that told me she was both sorry and surprised to hear this. “I’m so sorry.”

We talked for a few minutes, in quiet voices from the kitchen. She encouraged me that God was in control, that He still had His hand at work in my life, and that He was going to use this. I thanked her, knowing she was right, even though her words felt thin and frail, and I left the house, still feeling alone and hopeless. Feeling like I had just lost a fight. A fight that left me with nothing left to give.

And, yet, somehow, in all of it, in my feelings of loneliness and despair, I felt like He was reminding me that there wasn’t supposed to be anyone for me to seek refuge in, in this pain, apart from Him.

That Which Costs Nothing is Worth Nothing

I was catching up with my buddies Rich and Max in town for a meeting with Professor John Lennox that day. Even though I hardly felt like going, I had been incredibly excited for the opportunity.

Professor John Lennox is a rather brilliant mathematician here at Oxford, in his seventies, who, at the end of his academic career, now spends most of his time speaking on his Christian faith. He regularly travels all over the world to speak and to debate (with men like Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens). At Ivy League schools in the US. Across Europe. And in Australia and elsewhere. He’s an incredible man, and it was to our surprise that he said he’d be happy to meet with a few theologians who are studying here at Oxford to share some of his knowledge and experience with us.

We went into our meeting with a rough outline of a few questions we each had for Professor Lennox. After noting them, he began sharing a bit of his own experience with us. As theologians. And as men.

“First priority,” he said to us, in his booming, Irish accent, “You must get to know Scripture!”

Rather pointedly, he told us he thought today’s theologians spend too much time studying the work of other men, and not enough time in the Word.

“And secondly, you will learn, gentlemen, that which costs nothing is worth nothing.”

Professor Lennox talked a lot about courage, and the need for models. And you could tell, by the smile in his eyes, and the grey hair on his head, that he knew what he was talking about.

He Who Would Be  a Leader Must Be a Bridge

I had my meeting with Dr Michael Ward shortly after we met with Professor Lennox that day. I met him at his rooms at St Peter’s College, in the city center. His rooms were warm, even though it was cold and gray outside, and he prepared some tea for us both as we talked.

Dr Ward encouraged me to not get down on myself. He made the comment that the undergraduate program is the most competitive at Oxford, and that it was very likely I would still get an offer from Oxford for the MSt program.

But then he went on to ask me about why I wanted to return for another year. I explained that the program had been so busy that I was looking forward to spending another year in the city. To experience it just a bit more before returning to the States.

I told him I planned to apply to Duke, and he asked me a bit about that. He had supervised my thesis, and he told me he thought Duke would be a great fit for my interests. Perhaps even a better fit than Oxford, he told me, given the current Theology faculties at both schools.

He asked me what I would do if I applied and was accepted to Duke, and then I heard back from Oxford with an acceptance offer. I told him that was a humbling thought, and that I had no idea.

Then he went on to tell me, rather pointedly, that he didn’t think my place was in academics. He told me he thought I would likely end up somewhere in the middle. Not completely academics, not completely public ministry, but somewhere in the middle. And he talked about the importance of such positions, albeit the inherent difficulties.

“He who would be a leader must be a bridge, Ryan,” he told me, speaking in his thick, posh English accent from his spot on the sofa across from me in his college rooms.

“It will be difficult to feel pulled in different directions, but those are the most important people. They are the channels between academics and the public.”

I thanked Dr Ward for his time, and for his very encouraging words, and then I left, making my way to the Harris Manchester library for a bit of work before calling it a day.

The Lesson of New Life

I made it home to the Kilns after 9.00 that night. I had a Skype call with a friend from back home, and then my good friend Tom popped by around 10.00 that night, as I was heating up some leftovers for dinner.

He and Debbie and I sat on stools in the middle of the kitchen, sipping the tea Tom prepared for us. I told him we needed to have him over more often, as he made great tea.

He told a story about going to the States for his Master’s degree, and then leaving just six months later because of the frustrations he experienced with the US educational system. He talked about returning home, and continuing on with his degree through an online distance-learning program. He talked about how being back here, in his own home country, opened up the door to get involved with some opportunities and a mentoring relationship he wouldn’t have otherwise had. And he told me about how those opportunities led him to what he’s doing today, to a job he loves.

“And so,” he said, looking as though he was thinking carefully about his words, “Sometimes you don’t realize it at the time, but good things come out of rather disappointing experiences.”

He turned to me with an encouraging smile as he finished his sentence. Debbie smiled too, looking from Tom to me.

Tom and I wandered down to the pub, after I finished my late-evening supper, and we took a seat in two large, overstuffed leather chairs and talked about work and school and ministry. He shared several bits of advice with me that he had received from others, and which he had found particularly helpful along the way of his own journey.

After talking for a couple hours from the pub, with the football game on in a corner of the room, and a group of men gathered around the screen, interrupting the announcer with a loud cheer every few minutes or so, Tom and I slipped out the door and made the short walk back to the Kilns in the late evening air.

He let it slip that he and Caroline, his wife, would soon be going in for their 12th week “scan,” for their second child, and that they planned to find out the sex of their baby, as well (which the English typically like to make fun of us Americans for always doing).

I congratulated him on the news, and pointed out that, as Jen was currently in her 20th week, our children would actually be quite close in age.

“When that baby arrives,” Tom said, turning to me with a more serious tone as we walked, “it will totally humanize things for yourself. These goals and ambitions will not seem nearly so important, and you’ll learn so much about grace.”

I nodded, with my eyes glued to my shoes as we walked, and, looking up, I thanked him for his words.

When we arrived at the Kilns, Tom asked if it’d be okay if he came in and we had a time of prayer. I told him I’d like that. So we found a couple seats in the library, after flipping through some old 19th-century encyclopedias that had recently been donated to the Kilns, and we spent some time in prayer.

It was so good. It was good for my soul. And it was encouraging.

I thanked Tom, as he left, for his friendship, for his prayers, and then I wished him a smooth ride home in the cold night air, just after midnight. And I found myself thinking, even in the valleys, or perhaps particularly in the valleys, how thankful I am for friends like that.

A Meatless Dinner Conversation

The following evening, after a full day’s worth of finals revisions work from the college library, I returned to the Kilns to have dinner with Debbie and Melissa. Melissa is a former Warden here at the Kilns who would be staying for a few weeks while Debbie visited her son in Japan. She’s from North Carolina, where her husband is a doctor. She’s petite, and she talks proudly of home, in a voice that sounds like she’s from the South. She wears red Toms brand shoes, and she has as much energy as anyone I’ve ever met.

Melissa had very kindly offered to make us all dinner that evening. Even though she’s not a vegetarian herself, she made us meatless spaghetti, knowing Debbie is, along with garlic bread and salad. We enjoyed it from the dining room over conversation.

Debbie made a comment over dinner about the increasing appearance of sharks on the beaches along the east coast, due to climate change, and Melissa told us she didn’t think man was “big enough” to cause climate change. I found myself wondering how we got on this topic as I ate my spaghetti, wishing it had meat in it.

The Best Thing I’d Seen in a Long Time

After helping clean up, I excused myself and made my way back to my room for a very important call with Jen. She was scheduled to go in for her 20-week ultrasound that day, and I wanted to talk with her before she left the house. Before we found out whether we would be having a boy or a girl. And I can’t remember the last time I saw her so happy.

She didn’t stop grinning during the 20 minutes we talked. And seeing her so happy made me happy. I told her I had really been missing her, and she told me she agreed.

She told me that when she finds herself missing me, she tries to look forward to this summer, when we’ll finally be together again. How she looks forward to that day we’ll see each other again for the first time after six months, in the airport. How she looks forward to celebrating our six-year anniversary, in the San Juan Islands. And how she looks forward to our baby’s arrival, and raising it together.

I smiled. I told her those were pretty great things to look forward to, but that I still missed her.

About an hour later, my mom pulled me up on Skype again. This time from the medical office. Jen was seated beside her, still beaming. A couple minutes later, our niece Khloe showed up with Jen’s sister Leann and her husband Ben, and she was blowing me kisses. Khloe that is, not Leann.

My sister, Lucy, was there, too, as well as Jen’s parents. It was quite the family affair, and I was glad to be there, virtually, to join them.

My Mom carried the laptop with her as they were all led into a dark room for the ultrasound, and soon I could just make out the baby’s head and spine, in splotches of white against the monitor’s black background. And I smiled and laughed outloud as soon as I could see it.

The medical technician said the baby was being stubborn, and Jen claimed it as her own. I agreed.

After a while, everyone was asked to leave the room, and Jen and I were left alone with the medical technician, to find out the baby’s sex. Jen took the latop from my mom, and she held it so that I could still see the ultrasound monitor.

The technician admitted she didn’t even know whether we’d be having a boy or girl, yet, as the baby had insisted on keeping its legs together. Then, a few minutes later, she asked if we were ready, and we both said “Yes,” simultaneously, even though we were 6,000 miles apart.

“Well… You’re having a baby girl!”

Immediately, I began clapping and laughing, in my room at the Kilns here in England, as tears of joy warmed my cheeks. Now it was my turn, and suddenly I couldn’t stop smiling. Jen turned the laptop to face her, so that I could see her and her reaction, while the technician looked through photos. Jen was still beaming.

“Congratulations, hun,” I told her, laughing with excitement. “We’re having a baby girl.”

“Congratulations to you, too,” she said to me, in that beautiful smile, with only a sliver of her eyes showing in her joy.

And then, a second later, we lost connection, and I was left holding my tear-soaked face in my hands, sobbing uncontrollably as I wept in a mix of overwhelming gladness at the thought that I would soon have a little princess to father, while, at the same time, hurting with all I had for not being able to be there with Jen for this moment.

I was glad Jen couldn’t see me as I shook and wept, in the face of this incredible news. Never did I think I’d find out like this.

Growing up, you don’t picture yourself 6,000 miles away from your wife when you find out you’re having a baby girl. But that’s how life goes, it seems. It really is full of surprises.

I rushed to the kitchen to share the news with Debbie. She smiled in anticipation as I described watching the ultrasound, and then she raised her hands in the air with a “Yeeeeah!” when I told her we were having a baby girl.

“Aunt Debbie,” she said with a smile, after celebrating.

I knocked on Jonathan’s door, and even though he was in bed, as it was now nearly midnight, I entered and shared the report with him anyway.

“That’s great news,” he said in his rich English accent with a smile, peeking over his covers. “I can picture you as a great father of a little girl.”

I rang my Dad, and I shared the news with him. Even though the rest of the family was asked to wait a few days for us to announce it at a party Jen was hosting with friends and family for the occassion, I figured it’d be okay to share it with him, as he was several States away and wouldn’t be able to be there.

“Well, are you ready to be a grandpa to our baby girl?” I asked.

I heard the sound of crying and laughter on the other end of the line for several moments, before he finally told me “Congratulations, Ryan.” And it was then that I realized just how much we’re alike, my father and I.

I wrote my Grandpa, after that, and told him how I wish I could put into words how overwhelmed with joy I felt at that moment. And as I went to bed that night, I remember feeling as though there’s no way I could ever deserve something this great.

Life is Full of Surprises

A couple days later, I found myself sitting behind a desk on the second-story floor of the Harris Manchester College library. The library was empty on this particular Saturday morning. Term was now over, and most students had returned home, to see family and friends. And to catch up on sleep before the next term began.

The library was empty and quiet on this Saturday morning. Except for the clicking of my keyboard as I worked on revising for final exams, which were only a couple months away.

Other students at college regularly tell me they are amazed by the hours I put into my studies. I tell them I wouldn’t put in so many hours if I didn’t have to. And that it just takes more time for some of us.

I also mention the fact that having a career before I arrived here probably helps. I often think of my studies as my new job. And sometimes this job requires me to put in some long hours. Actually, it usually requires me to put in some long hours.

The birds were chirping in the trees beyond the large, arched windows, on this morning, and I found my mind trailing off to the recent Skype call I had with Jen just a few days earlier.

I heard the nurse’s voice tell us we were having a baby girl… I saw Jen’s beautiful smile… And I remembered what it felt like to know, for the first time, that we would soon be welcoming our very own baby girl into this world.

I never imagined that when my wife finally became pregnant with our first child we’d be experiencing this new phase of life from 6,000 miles apart. But that’s just how it goes, it seems. Life is full of surprises.

Sometimes your job requires you to work from the same office every day, returning home in the evenings to share a meal with your family and catch up on your day. Sometimes your job requires you to be away during the week, only to return home on the weekends and enjoy a couple days with your family. And sometimes, just sometimes, your job requires you to revise for finals from a quiet library in Oxford on a Saturday morning, while the birds chirp beyond the windows, and you find yourself picturing how you’ll one day explain to your daughter what it felt like when you first found out you were having a baby girl.

She’ll ask why you were so far away from her mommy, and you’ll explain it was your job. You’ll tell her you never imagined that’s how you’d find out, but that she’ll learn, one day, life is full of surprises.

I did my best to return to my reading and writing, taking notes for my Old Testament paper. And every so often I’d have to stop because I couldn’t shake a picture of myself finally seeing Jen again. I pictured us meeting at the airport after six months of being apart. I imagined what it would feel like to hug her again. My mind wandered to the thought of feeling the touch of her hair in my hands. Seeing her smile. And feeling her pregnant belly for the first time. I’d pause from what I was doing, hold a knuckle to my mouth, and begin to feel my eyes well up.

Where is he?

I decided to work from the Kilns on finals revisions one day the following week, after giving a tour, when I received a Skype call from Jen and Khloe in the afternoon. And it was then, just before my picture came up on Jen’s computer, that I heard Khloe ask, for the first time, “Where is he?”

I remember being here, in Oxford, more than a year ago, when I saw Jen holding Khloe for the first time, shortly after her birth. And now, to hear Khloe put together that question, it just seemed unreal to think how quickly she was growing up.

We’d talk, Jen and I, while Khloe would peak in and out of the screen, playing “peek-a-boo” with me, which I taught her. I’d look surprised every time. And she’d laugh.

After a while, Khloe leaned over and gave me a kiss. Right there on the laptop monitor. And after she did, she pulled back and held her hands to her mouth, smiling in embarrassment. And that’s when my heart melted in my chest. It was all I could do not to reach out and hug her / my computer.

“It really is amazing to think how much has changed in the past year,” I thought to myself, as I said goodbye to Khloe and Jen, and returned to my studies.

A Rude Awakening

A couple weeks into the spring break, a good friend of mine from home, David, arrived in Oxford. David and I did our first degrees together, and he was visiting England for the first time. In fact, he decided to skip his Master’s degree graduation to make it out, which meant a lot.

David likes old things. Like me. Books. And buildings. So there was plenty to see and do as I showed him around Oxford. And he loved it.

After several days of showing off where I’ve spent the past year and a half or so, we visited Bath, a beautiful city that’s home to some incredible Roman architecture and original, ancient Roman bathhouses. We also spent a day touring around London. But then, one evening before David left, I had a pretty rude awakening that came just after 4.00 in the morning.

I had been sleeping when I heard a low, moaning sound. I was still half asleep at this point, so I did my best to ignore it, hoping it’d go away. But it didn’t.

And in my semi-conscience state, I began to wonder if it was an animal, just outside my window, making this terrible sound. I hoped it was. Again, trying to ignore it, the terrible noise continued, unnerving me every time.

Finally, when I realized it wasn’t going to go away, I began clapping, and shouting, as loudly as I could, in hopes of scaring whatever it was away.

“No, no! Don’t! Go, go!” I shouted.

But the noise continued, and now I realized the noise was not coming from outside my window, but from inside my room. If I wasn’t scared before, I most certainly was now.

Getting out of bed in a hurry, I flipped on the lamp that sits on my nightstand and I threw on my glasses.

“David?… Is that you?!” I shouted, as I circled my bed, with my eyes still struggling to adjust to the light.

“Nooo…,” was all I heard from David in the next room, who at this point had to be completely confused by the noise and shouting he was hearing from my room next door.

And that’s when I saw it: a grey cat, huddled up on the wood floor, on the opposite side of my bed, with its mouth open wide, and hissing a terrible hissing sound in my direction.

“Oh, ____!” I shouted. “It’s a cat!”

Still dressed only in my boxers and glasses, I ran through the library to the back of the house to open up the back door so as to create a way out for this cat, only to find the door locked. With my heart now racing at full tilt, I ran back through my bedroom, doing my best to avoid the cat, and I entered the room where David was staying, who was now standing in the middle of the room with a look that begged to know what was going on.

“The back door’s locked,” I explained in a frantic voice. “I’ve got to get my keys.”

I opened the wardrobe doors, found my keys, and I went back to the dark library to open the back door, only to realize the cat was now hidden, somewhere, in the pitch black library.

I turned on the lights and I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest as I looked around the room for several minutes before finally finding the cat tucked away in a small corner of the room. I opened the back door, revealing the darkness outside on this 4.00 morning, before returning to the cat and doing my best to stay a safe enough distance while shooing it out.

Like a dart, it finally ran out, escaping into the darkness. With a sigh of great relief, I closed the door, locked it behind me, and returned to David’s room, only to find him laughing out loud.

I shook my head in a mixture of laughter and racked nerves. At 4.00 in the morning, the last thing you expect to wake up to is some strange grey cat you’ve never seen in your life hissing at you from the side of your bed.

“I heard you shouting, ‘No, no; Go, go!’, and I thought you were dreaming,” David said to me, in-between laughs. “But then when you asked if I was doing that, I knew someone was in there with you, and I had no idea what was going on!”

I wasn’t sure who among the three of us was most scared that morning, but my money was on me.

I said goodnight to David and crawled back into bed, hesitantly. I removed my glasses, turned off the lamp on my nightstand, and closed my eyes. But I could hardly go to sleep that night, even with the nightlight on.

The Arrival of Olli & Salla’s Baby Boy

The week after David visited, another good friend of mine from back home visited, Matt, and we enjoyed the week together catching up around Oxford and London. And after saying “goodbye” to Matt, it was back to my revisions. Officially. As there was now nothing between my exams but about six weeks in which to prepare. The pressure was now on, in full force.

I was working on finals revisions from the Kilns late one evening when I began receiving a series of regular updates from my good friend Olli. He and his wife are from Finland, and they’ve been like family to me while Jen’s been back home. Olli is doing research here in Oxford at the moment, and his wife, Salla, had been having painful contractions with their second child for well over a month now. They had been hoping he’d arrive and give her some relief for some time.

I was very happy to hear from Olli that Salla was finally going into labor that evening. He asked me for prayer when it looked like they would be taking Salla into the hospital theater for surgery. So I did. And then I waited. And then I got another message. Salla was now in the recovery room, it seemed. And the baby was just fine.

My phone rang a minute later. It was Olli.

“Congratulations!” I told him. He laughed.

“Thank you,” he said, in his Finnish accent.

“That sounded pretty exciting,” I told him.

“Yes, much more exciting than we were hoping for,” he told me. “It looked a bit like Kill Bill in there for a while.”

I laughed out loud. I told him that didn’t make me feel good knowing our first one was arriving in just a few months, and he reminded me that every one was different. And that the birth of their first son, Elias, was much easier than this. I told him I was just glad to know both Salla and the little one were doing all right.

He told me they asked if he’d like to cut the umbilical cord, and he said he told them he would let them do what they do, and not get in the way. I thought that was wise, and I told him I was looking forward to meeting the little guy, and to let me know if there was anything at all I could do to help. And then I thanked him for the call. I was so thankful, at the moment, for their friendship.

A Challenge from Home

I was working from the library at college the next day when I received an Instant Message from a friend back home. We hadn’t talked for a while, and he was checking in to ask how things were going. I told him things were going all right. That I was just plugging away on finals prep, but really missing my wife.

He didn’t realize we had made the decision for Jen to stay back home while I prepared for and finished my exams. Both Jen and I knew how much time my studies would take, and that I’d hardly be around to care for her and look after her, were she here with me. We both knew the first several months of her pregnancy were incredibly difficult on her. She had lost 20 pounds almost immediately, and she needed quite a bit of help from her family.

If anything were to happen to her, and if she needed to be looked after again, we knew it’d be best for her to be there, rather than here. Even though it was easily one of the most difficult decisions we’d made. Knowing we’d end up being apart for nearly six months, during our first pregnancy. And even though we both made this decision with tears in our eyes, over Skype.

But it was during this Instant Message conversation with my friend from back home that I was challenged on our decision. He told me that it would be my decision to neglect my wife over my studies, if she were to return. And I really struggled with that comment. Seated there in the library, surrounded by my books, his comment made me think maybe I had made the wrong decision.

I was anxious to talk with Jen when we caught up later that night on Skype, and she reminded me this was something we were in agreement on, and that she thought this was what was best, even though we both wanted to be together, and even though it was incredibly difficult. I thanked her for her reminder. And for her encouragement.

She smiled at me, with that beautiful smile, and we talked a bit longer before I told her “goodnight,” and continued on with my studies, well into the early morning hours.

Words of Encouragement from a Stranger

I gave a tour of the Kilns a couple days later, for two American teenagers and their mother. They were from Wheaton, Illinios, and they were thrilled to be visiting the Kilns for the first time.

When they were getting ready to leave, after the tour, the mom, who had asked if I was married earlier on in the tour, and who I had told about Jen being pregnant and back home, turned to me and said something that took me completely off guard.

She encouraged me to not let what other people might say get to me about our decision to stick it out here, and to have Jen stay there, as I prepare for my finals. I thought this was strange, because I hadn’t mentioned to her that anyone had even said anything about it.

This woman encouraged me to not worry what others say, as long as Jen and I were in agreement, and that what I was doing here was really important.

Before leaving, she turned to me and said, “You know, your daughter will never know that you weren’t there during this time. If she were 10, then that’d be much more difficult.”

I was struck by the timing of her comment, and I was so encouraged by it.

Easter Sunday: Waking up the World

Easter Sunday came just a few days later. And I’m not sure why, exactly, but I had really been wanting to take part in a sunrise service here in Oxford, and late the night before I finally managed to find one. It started at 6:00 in the city center, which is a 20-minute bike ride away. So I set my alarm for 4:30 the next morning.

When my alarm went off at 4:30, just four hours after going to bed, I begrudgingly picked up my phone and went to reset it for 15 mins later, so I could get a bit more sleep, but then I felt God calling out to me, saying “Idou!” (Greek for “Behold!” or “Look!”), “I am doing something new here! Come see!”

God doesn’t usually speak to me in Greek. So I figured this was probably important.

And it was bizarre, but even though I had been struggling to find the strength and motivation to get out of bed only moments before, I suddenly found myself excited to get up and to go celebrate this day.

I showered while the house slept, dressed, and then stepped outside into the still dark-morning. The birds were chirping as I climbed on my bike, and it was as if all of nature was waking up and attesting to this new thing God did on Easter Sunday.

As I rode to the city center in the dark, chilly morning air, I remembered the scene in the Bible when the women went to the tomb that first Easter Sunday, to pay their respects for Jesus, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had heard the same thing that morning. I wondered if God had woken them up and said, “Look! Come and see what I have done!”

And it made me so happy, to think that somehow, 2,000 years later, I was taking part in the same celebration.

I smiled as I rode past Magdalene Tower, remembering how packed High Street was on May Day around this same hour last year. When students stumbled out of their colleges, many wearing only their underwear, and carrying with them the last remnants of their alcohol from the party that had begun the night before.

I thought about the crowds that gathered for this May Day event, and I wondered where they all were on this Easter morning.

“How can you possibly be sleeping at such a time as this?” I thought to myself. And I felt like He was telling me, “The world is asleep, Ryan.”

About a dozen of us gathered at the top of the oldest tower in Oxford early this Easter Sunday morning. There were mostly gray-haired couples, dressed warmly with thick jackets, but there was one younger couple, around my age, as well as a 30-something father with his young son.

There was also a man who smelled a bit like alcohol, and who went pale when he arrived at the top of the tower and looked out across the high, 360-degree view of the city’s rooftops and steeples. Looking about, he turned around and went back down stairs, before finally returning about five minutes later, deciding to brave it.

We listened as verses 1 to 10 were read from Matthew 28, we sang several hymns, we prayed, and then we took communion, tearing pieces from an unsliced loaf of french bread, and drinking from a gobbet of red wine.

By the time we were done, the sun had just risen, casting light on the formerly dark city, and we left the church tower with smiles as the city woke up. And I couldn’t help but felt like we all left carrying with us light and joy and gratitude for this Great News. I couldn’t help but think, as I climbed back on my bike and made my way home, if the tomb really was empty that morning, if Jesus really is risen, then that’s got to change everything.

The world may very well be asleep, I thought, but we are called to wake it up.

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Wednesday: End of the term review & Open Forum

My end of term review was scheduled for Wednesday morning of eighth week. That’s when I sit down with Dave, my academic advisor, and sign off on the reports submitted by my tutors. Saying how they feel about my work for the term, and how they predict me doing on my final exams (which I won’t take until June of 2012).

It’s not like the American educational system, where you get a letter grade based on your percentage out of a 100. Instead, they rate you on “Achievement” and “Effort” on what I’m guessing must be a five-point scale (Excellent, Very Good, Good, etc.). They also rate you on a numeric scale, where a First class honors (1) represents the top percentage, a 2:1 represents the upper portion of second class honors (which is still seen as quite good), a 2:2 represents the lower portion of second class honors, then there’s Third class honors, and, finally, a Pass (without honors, which is the worst you can do). Clear? That’s okay. It’s a bit confusing.

I locked up my bike outside of Mansfield College Wednesday morning and made my way down the gravel path toward the castle-like building. A few minutes later, I was seated on one of the leather couches in Dave’s office. It was a sunny day, and sunlight was pouring in through the windows as we talked.

Dave greeted me with a warm smile and handed me the report from my Old Testament tutor, Casey. He sat at his desk and worked on something at his computer while I read over my report. It was really positive. Casey said my essays had really improved since my first term, which surprised me, as I was pretty happy with my report at the end of last term. He rated me as “Very Good” for both Effort and Achievement, and predicted me at a 2:1 for the final exam. I was happy with that.

Dave told me my Patristics tutor had yet to submit my report, but that he’d get that to me as soon as he heard back from her. Dave and I talked for a bit after I signed off on my report. About my classes for next term, as well as just how things were going. He asked about Jen, and how she was settling in since returning from the States. I told him about our jobs at The Kilns. He was pretty excited for us about that.

We talked a bit about Dave’s plans, as he’s currently just filling in for another professor here. He’s a young guy, just barely in his thirties, and so this is his first position after wrapping up his Doctoral studies. He told me that he’s applied for several positions here at Oxford, and that, as much as his wife would like to return to the States, that he’s hoping something will work out here.

“I’d love to stay here,” he told me with a smile from his seat on the leather sofa across the room. “This is a dream come true.”

From my seat in this Oxford office, with books stacked on shelves from floor to high-reaching ceiling, with sunlight pouring into the room over the stretching green lawns, I could see why.

A miraculous coincidence at the Open Forum

Wednesday night was the third week of getting together for Oxford Open Forum. Our night of meeting at Puccino’s to discuss different worldviews. Where people from all different backgrounds can come and talk about different questions of the faith.

We had invited Alex to lead this week. The President of the Atheist Society here at Oxford. And he said he was happy to.

His topic for the evening was, “Lost in Translation: Obstacles and Pathways to Dialogue between World Views.” Basically, what we would be discussing are the different words that we sometimes trip up over while talking with people of different faith traditions.

Alex opened up the evening’s conversation with a brief introduction, and then he talked about different words like “spiritual” and “life force,” which are sometimes used by people, without really ever defining what is meant by them.

I piped up and said I agreed with Alex, to a certain extent. That I get frustrated when people say they’re “spiritual,” but not “religious.” How it seems like people who use that line aren’t really saying anything. That it’s far too ambiguous to know what they mean. And that it seems like a bit of a cop out.

One of the guys in the room introduced himself. A guy by the name Tihi (short for Tihomir). Tihomir is from Serbia, and this was his first night joining us. He said people who use this language are likely wanting to distance themselves from religion, as it tends to carry a lot of negative connotations.

Another guy, Peter, said that such language, and the word “spiritual” in particular, speaks to the fact that there is something beyond what we can see in this world, without defining exactly what that is. And this belief in something beyond our world is particularly relevant during times of great pain and loss. When we’re looking for answers in the world. For the way things are.

Our meeting happened to fall on Ash Wednesday, and so Peter referred to the charcoal colored cross on his forehead to identify his particular religious beliefs. And how Christianity responds to such pain.

It was at this point that Alex replied by saying that’s one problem he has with Christianity: that Christians create a problem, and then suggest a solution for it.

No one seemed to reply to that point. I’m not sure anyone had a response. And so the conversation quickly moved on.

Tihomir went on to suggest that, no matter what your particular views may be, you must acknowledge that there are things and experiences in this life that we simply cannot explain, apart from the supernatural. Or “spiritual.”

He told us about one seemingly miraculous experience from his own life. He told us about when he first arrived here in Oxford for his Dphil studies last year. And how his sponsor revoked his sponsorship three days before his tuition was due. He told us he didn’t have the money to cover his schooling, nor did his family back home in Serbia. He told us that he knew if he didn’t come up with the money, he’d be heading home. He told us how he remembers returning to him room that evening, distraught, and deciding to just pray, “If you’re there, would you help with this?” Then, with a smile on his face, the first smile I had seen from him, he told us what happened next.

“I went and checked my e-mail, and it was 11:00 on a Friday night. I still remember that quite clearly.”

He told us how, when he opened his e-mail, he was surprised to find between 20 and 30 e-mails in his inbox. From people from all over the world. Some of the people he hadn’t spoken to in years.

“It made no sense that some of these people would be e-mailing me,” he told us.

One after another, each of the people said they had been praying and were told by God that they were supposed to help Tihi with his schooling here at Oxford. Not because Tihi had told anyone about this, but because He had told them.

But that’s not the strangest part about this. He told us how, when all of the money was added up, from all of these people around the world, it was the exact amount he needed for schooling.

“Not a penny more, not a penny less,” he told us with a stunned look on his face, as though he was hearing the story for the first time himself.

“That’s more than a coincidence,” he told us, looking around the room. “Somehow, you have to be able to account for that.”

Alex simply smiled at the story. And referred to it as a coincidence. Before moving on.

Somehow, after a while, the conversation came back to the topic of the pain in this world, and man’s wrongdoing. And Alex made the point that we all make mistakes every now and then, but for the most part, people are generally good.

The room went quiet, seemingly in-between topics, and so I spoke up.

I made the point that Pete had previously brought up the fact that we all have some sort of longing for something beyond this world. How Augustine referred to it as a “God-shaped hole.” And how that leads us to conclude that there must be something beyond simply what we can see. I also referred to Alex’s comment about Christianity “creating” a problem and then providing a solution, before bringing the conversation to focus on his last comment. About people being generally good, but making mistakes every now and then.

I told him I disagreed with that completely. I told him I think people are actually pretty bad through and through. And that we can see the results of that all around us. Certainly in the horrors of the killings of Egypt and Libya. And that such acts aren’t mistakes, that they’re quite intentional.

He replied by saying his comment was actually a facetious one. And that he conceded to my point that we do intentionally do bad things. But that he still held that most people are good people, and that it’s only a minority of the population who do such terrible things.

Again, I told him I disagreed with him on this point. I told him it was easy to compare himself to situations taking place in Libya and Egypt and think himself a pretty decent guy, but that, the truth is, we’re also enjoying an incredible amount of affluence here in Oxford, and that it’s relatively easy to be a pretty decent guy here. But, even here in Oxford, there are terrible things taking place all the time. Like theft, for example.

“Why do you think we have a police force?” I asked him. “Why do people lock their doors at night? Christianity hasn’t “created” this problem. This is real, and it’s all around us.”

“Well, I don’t lock my door at night,” he replied, as if that somehow disproved the fact that the vast majority of people do lock their doors, because of the evil that’s all around us. So central to our lives that we almost don’t notice it.

And with that, one of the cafe’s waitresses entered the room, and told us they were closing up the shop.

I shook Alex’s hand and thanked him for chairing the evening. I told him I really appreciated him allowing the focus to fall on Atheism for the evening. And, as I walked out into the night air after the Forum that night, I felt even more confident of Christianity’s ability to make sense of the world we find ourselves in.

A number of the guys, including Rich, Max, Pete and Alex were heading to a pub after the Open Forum. To grab a pint and talk a bit more. I told them I’d love to join them, but that I hadn’t seen Jen all day, and that I should be getting home.

I caught up with Tihi as we left, though. He was walking the same way I was heading, and so I introduced myself and I thanked him for sharing his story with us.

“That blew me away,” I told him. “Your story of how all that money came in for you at the last minute. That was incredible!”

“Yes, but it’s happened time and time again,” he said to me.

He told me about another time he’s been provided for financially. More recently.

He told me about how, on another occasion, he found he had come up short in being able to pay for school. And so he decided to spend some time in prayer. Again. By himself. And his journal.

He told me the next day, after praying, he was approached by a family who had traveled here to Oxford from Africa. To find him. To help with his school finances. Apparently, they had money returned to them time after time, after paying for several things, and, after praying and asking what God wanted them to do with this money, they were told the money was to be used to help a student with his finances at Oxford.

“I didn’t even know them,” he told me with a look of complete surprise on his face. “So I asked them, ‘How do you know I’m the one you’re supposed to be helping?’ And they asked me, ‘You really want to know how we knew?’ And I told them I did, and that’s when they began repeating to me the prayer I had prayed the night before, word for word, and what I had written in my journal… There’s no way anyone could have known that!”

I was stunned. That was an incredible story. He went on to tell me he’s had several of these experiences. Not just with money, but with other ways in which things have lined up for him to be here. Ways that don’t make sense to simply call coincidences.

“Just three hours ago, I was on national television, talking about all of these incredible experiences that have happened to me since being here at Oxford,” he said to me.

He told me how he was raised in the church, but then how he had fallen away. Spending a number of years as an Agnostic, and then an Atheist. He told me he feels like he’s on a journey now. Searching for answers for these incredible experiences. And how he has told God that he is going to keep telling others about all of these experiences.

“I came from a poor town in Serbia,” he told me. “People laughed at me when I told them I wanted to go to Oxford.”

I told him I really appreciated hearing his story. And that I had a similar story. How I really didn’t feel like it made any sense for me to be here, apart from Him. And I loved hearing how He was doing that in someone else’s life.

Tihi took my e-mail and said he’d like to have us to his college for a meal sometime. Jennifer and I. When he returns from his 10-day trip around Europe. Telling others about all that has happened since arriving here in Oxford. I told him we’d really enjoy that, before hopping on my bike and heading home.

Thursday: Dinner and Games with the St. Andrews group

Last term, we were quite involved with a small group that met at the church just down the street from us. At St. Andrew’s Church. The group meets on Thursday nights. For dinner. And to read through and discuss a particular book of the Bible. It’s a great group of people, and we’ve really enjoyed getting to know them each Thursday night.

But this term had been different. With Friday deadlines this term, I found myself working on essays most Thursday nights, and unable to go to group. But this Thursday, with a bit of a break on my last essay (my Patristics tutor asked me just to put together an outline of what I had covered for the term), we were excited to go and catch up with everyone again.

This particular Thursday night was a social night, hosted at Chloe and Vanda’s house (two girls from our group). They were making dinner, and invited the group over for food and games. It was great to see everyone again, seated around the dining room table in Chloe and Vanda’s place. We had a great time catching up on what everyone had been up to since we saw them last. They asked about our new niece, Khloe, and how the term had treated me.

Chloe and Jen filled plates with a beef and red wine stew, and we passed them around the table until everyone had been served. We rounded out our plates with potatoes and carrots, and Rachel, our small group leader, asked Will if he’d bless the food for us. Will is training to be a Vicar (pastor) in the Anglican Church here in England. Eleanor, one of the girls in our group, a boisterous, witty gal from Scotland who is probably among the top 10 funniest people I’ve ever met, interjected, saying that Will’s always asked to pray and she didn’t think he should have to. Just because he’s training to work in a church. That someone else should. Half-jokingly. Half-serious. So we all said she should say grace in his place, which, from the look on her face, is not quite what she was going for.

We shared a lot of laughs over dinner, and dessert. Everyone brought ice cream and / or a topping. By the time everything was brought in from the kitchen, the table was covered in several different flavors of ice cream and toppings. Everything from M&M’s and malt balls to bananas and marshmallows.

Vanda made the comment that she felt like she was at the Ice Cream Factory at Pizza Hut.

Somehow we got on the topic of baptism while enjoying our ice cream. A few people thought it was funny that the Vicar at St. Andrew’s wears waders during the baptism service. Before entering the Baptismal pool. I suggested that maybe he was just an avid fisherman, and that he was looking for any opportunity he could to get in his waders.

Will told a funny story about a Vicar at a church he once visited. It was a baptism service when he visited, and he said he was shocked when the Vicar began stripping down right there on stage when it came time to enter the wading pool. Removing his shirt and pants to reveal a speedo…

We all erupted into shocked laughter at Will’s story.

Will said he couldn’t believe it, sitting there in that church when it happened. He said he remembers looking around to see other people’s reactions, but that everyone looked like this was perfectly normal. Like it was just part of the routine.

I asked Will if this Vicar was married. Eleanor looked at me with big eyes and a head nod, as if to say she was thinking the same thing.

“Because that’s when your wife is supposed to step in and say, ‘Actually, this is a really terrible idea’,” I told him.

I went on to tell about the time a boy at our church took our pastor up on a joke he’s known for using. That of betting the kids $10 to do a cannonball into the baptismal pool. And how, after years and years of using this joke, one kid finally took him up on it, shocking the entire congregation, and taking second place on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

After cleaning up from dinner and dessert, we moved into the living room. Sinking heavily into the cozy couches and pillows on the floor after a great meal. Settling in for some games.

We played a game called Articulate, which seems pretty close to a British version of the game Taboo. We split into three groups, and Jen and I were teamed up with Will. I apologized to Will in advance. For what I was sure was going to be a pretty sad performance. And I was right.

It sounds funny, as England is obviously an English-speaking country, but it’s really tough to understand the British accent sometimes. Especially when people are talking as fast as possible to beat the clock. And, there are just a lot of words in the British language that are foreign to us. All this added up to us doing horribly. And feeling bad that Will had to suffer with us.

There was one point where Will was trying to get us to guess the word, “Beaker.” Not like the kind you might find in a Chemistry lab, but used to describe what we would call a sippy cup. That’s right, in the UK, sippy cups are known as “Beakers.” Who knew. Needless to say, we didn’t get that one.

I was pretty excited when I got “Jack Nicholson” as a word in the People category.

“He’s an actor. He starred in The Shining and As Good as It Gets. He sits courtside at every Laker’s game…”

Nothing. Will had no idea. Nor did Jennifer. And that’s when I knew we were in serious trouble.

We ended up getting it handed to us that night. Will, Jennifer and I. Only making it about a quarter of the way around the board in the time it took Eleanor’s team to finish. But we had a great time.

It was the first time in a long time we’ve been in a room full of Brits where we’re the only Americans. Typically we’re either with other Americans, or with only Americans. But not this time. And it was great. Surrounded by Brits.Hearing completely candid British slang and humor. It felt a bit like how it should be.

Friday: Reflecting by C.S. Lewis’ old pond

I had a tour scheduled at the Kilns the next morning. And I arrived a bit early. About a half hour before things were supposed to kick off. So I decided to wander up to the pond.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the pond was like a bit of an oasis amongst the otherwise frantic pace of life in Oxford. Ducks were scooting smoothly across the water. Causing subtle ripples to chase them along the top of the water. The sun was shining through the trees and upon the emerald surface of the pond, causing the otherwise murky water to become translucent, revealing the algae covered rocks below. Light danced across the water in a spectrum of bright greens that shone across the surface.

I wandered over to the far edge of the pond and took a seat on the brick bench. The sound of wild birds singing was the only noise I heard that morning, singing as if just for me. And I imagined Lewis going for his morning dip, as I sat there. Or rowing his punt across the water. Completely removed from all the demands of life as an Oxford Don. From the teaching and speaking engagements. And responding to the thousands of letters he received from fans around the world.

“Lewis had it it figured out,” I thought to myself as I sat there.

And it ended up being an incredible time of reflection. Seated there on the brick bench beside the water. When I’m back home, one of my favorite spots to get away and catch my breath is beside the water. To pray and seek His presence. By the bay. On a spot at the waterfront that juts out into the ocean. Where I can sit and watch sailboats float gently across the water in front of the backdrop of the San Juan Islands.

And it was funny, for even though I was so far from home, I was amazed at how much this spot felt like home. And how close His presence felt at that moment. I hadn’t felt that way in a long, long time. Perhaps since I last sat in front of the ocean back home last summer. And I laughed at the thought that this was the view Lewis escaped to so often. Shaking my head at the thought that I now get to enjoy it.

I had woken up that morning to the news of the massive 8.9 earthquake that rocked Japan. And all the devastation of the resulting tsunamis and flooding. It was so painful to see. My heart went out to these people. To all those dealing with this loss and destruction. To all those now without a home. And to those who lost friends and family members in this scene.

That’s where I found my thoughts wandering while seated there beside the pond that morning. And it was when I got up to make my way down the hill toward the Kilns for the morning’s tour that I noticed, for the first time, the reflection of the blue and white speckled sky overhead on the water’s surface. As I walked along the water’s edge, something dropped from one of the trees just in front of me, onto the surface of the water, casting the reflection of the sky into a million little pieces as the rippled went out. The image of the sky had been shattered by whatever it was that had dropped from the tree, but the sky itself had not changed. The sky is still there, of course. Just as it has always been. And, somehow, that thought was reassuring to me. In light of the horrific scenes I had watched on my laptop that morning. With the earthquake in Japan still heavy on my mind. This picture encouraged me.

Even though I might not know how this all works. Even though really horrible things happen all around the world. Even in incredible suffering and loss. I was encouraged to think that God is still good. That He still reigns. And that He still loves us and calls us to love others in very real ways. I was encouraged to think that, even in this horrible situation, that hasn’t changed. And, in the end, He’s going to work this all out for good.

That picture helped me as I made my way down the hill and toward the Kilns for the morning tour.

Would our parents believe it?

Jen and I stayed in Friday night. After I handed in my last essay for the term. An outline more than an essay, really. We stayed in and enjoyed a nice dinner together, and then we played a board game our good friends David & Monika got us as a going-away gift called Ticket to Ride. We’ve really enjoyed playing this game since returning to Oxford, and I love that time. Seated in our living room playing a board game and sharing laughs. Just the two of us.

About halfway through the second game of the night, I found myself thinking about all we were doing here in England. About this huge change that the past six months have brought our lives.

I spoke up to Jen as she stared down at the cards in her hand.

“This is kind of a weird thought,” I said to Jen, “But what do you think our parents would have thought if someone would’ve told them, when we were still really young kids running around, that the two of us would one day become best friends, get married and then move to Oxford? What do you think they’d say if someone told them, while we were still just kids, that twenty some years later we’d be sitting here, playing a board game together in England?”

Jen looked up from her cards, across the table at me.

“Yeah, that is a weird thought. . .Now play.”

I smiled. That’s my wife: Tough as nails. And I love her.

Saturday: Leading my first tours of the Kilns

Saturday was my first day of leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home. At the Kilns. After taking notes on Deb’s tour a couple days earlier, I felt pretty ready for leading the two tours that were scheduled for me for the day. I had one at 11:30, and then another at 12:30. Each tour takes around 45 to 50 minutes, with time for questions afterward.

I rode my bike to the city center Saturday morning, and then I hopped on the number 9 bus that leads through Headington and on to Risinghurst, home of the Kilns. After taking the bus there just a couple days earlier, the trip was beginning to feel pretty familiar.

I studied my notes on the short trip to the Kilns. Reminding myself of key dates. And what’s said when.

By the way, if you’re wondering why Lewis’ old house is called, “The Kilns,” it’s because there used to stand two large kilns not far from the house. Before Lewis lived in the home, the property was used to fire bricks. There’s a man-made pond just beyond the house, which is where the clay came from. The workers would dredge clay out of the pond and then fire it into bricks at the nearby Kilns.

The house on the property was never intended to be anything special, just a place for the workers to live. Lewis actually didn’t even step foot in the house before he bought it. He was just sold on the setting: eight-acres set outside of the Oxford city center, in the countryside. Within walking distance from Magdalene College (where he taught, about a 60-minute walk from the Kilns).

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at the Kilns that Saturday. Walking up to the front of the house, I passed by the kitchen windows while Deb was preparing something from inside the kitchen.

“Hi, Ryan,” she said with a smile, looking out the window at me, and  turning to leave the kitchen so she could meet me at the front door.

It was at that point that I realized how crazy it is that I can be recognized by name at Lewis’ former house on a sunny, Saturday morning.

Deb greeted me at the front door and I helped with a few final things before the first tour arrived. Getting the kitchen picked up and turning on the lights in the rooms upstairs.

A few minutes later, a couple 20-something year old girls came to the front door. Deb welcomed them to the Kilns and invited them to have a seat in the common room while we waited for the rest of the tour to arrive.

Deb told me it’d be a bit of a trial by fire for my first tours. That they’d be much larger than normal tours. About 12-15 in the first group, and between 16-18 in the second. Apparently most tours are about half that size.

While we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, one of the girls told me she had just had my wife over at her house a couple days earlier. I had never seen her before, so I was a bit confused.

She explained that she had hosted Bible study at her house this week, the one Jen had gone to for the first time, and that Jen had told the group that I’d be leading tours at the Kilns. I didn’t know it, but she told the group they should go for a tour and check it out. Apparently it worked.

This girl, Mary Katherine, told me that her and her husband had just moved over to Oxford in the fall. And that her friend, who was with her, was in-town visiting. From California. Apparently Mary Katherine’s husband is a physicist working on his PhD. So, almost the same as what I’m doing…

After talking for a bit, the rest of the first tour arrived. There were about a dozen people or so in the group, made of of a couple British families who were traveling around the country. A pair of parents and their children, with the oldest kids in their early twenties.

I introduced myself to the group. Told them what I was up to here in Oxford. And then asked a bit about what brought them here to Oxford and the Kilns. Apparently a couple of them were pretty big Lewis fans. The wives / moms in the group. I figure it’s helpful knowing what brought them here in the first place, to know what will interest them along the way.

I told them it was actually my first time leading tours at the Kilns. I was thankful no one decided to leave at that point. I told them Deb would be joining us, or at least hanging back, to act as my training wheels for the day. And then I kicked off the tour.

I shared a bit about the history of the house and Lewis’ life from the common room. I told them how, after Lewis and his brother had died, that a family bought the home and left it in pretty poor shape by the mid-80’s. How the house became the eye-sore of the neighborhood at that point. And how it likely would’ve been steamrolled to make room for new housing had it not been for a group of Americans who got involved. A group who wanted to see the house maintained as a way to remember Lewis’ life and his legacy.

I told them about all the work that went in to restoring the house into what they now saw. Into the conditions that help us picture what it looked like during Lewis’ day, minus the period before Joy (Lewis’ wife-to-be) arrived and put the house in order. When it was just the brothers living at the home, apparently it was a bit of a bachelor pad. They’d dump out their pipe tobacco right on the carpets and grind it in with their shoes. As a way to keep away the moths. Apparently the moths aren’t the only thing it kept away. It was in such bad shape at one point that J.R.R. Tolkein’s wife apparently forbid her husband from visiting the house, as she didn’t want him getting sick.

For all practical purposes, the Kilns fit Lewis and his brother just fine. Set out in the country, it provided ample opportunity for walks outdoors. To talk. And to work on their writing with little worry of being bothered by the bustle of living in the city. Apparently the house was filled with books. Stacked up in every room, several rows deep. Lining the walls in the hallways, and even up the staircase. Lewis used to joke that their house was held up by books and cobwebs.

I led the group through the home, pointing out different things along the way. Photos hanging from the wall. And mentioning stories that had been told to me about the photos. And about those in them.

We wrapped up the tour in the library, and I said my goodbyes to the group. The girl who had hosted Jen’s Bible study several days earlier thanked me for the tour. Her and her friend told me they had really enjoyed it.

Before I made my way back to the front of the house, to get ready for the next group, one of the wives from the group asked me how it went, being my first tour and all.

“Well, I’m feeling pretty good about it,” I told her. “But maybe you should tell me.”

She laughed. “You did a great job,” she said with a wide smile.

The group left out the back door and I returned to the front of the house. To see if anyone from the second group had arrived. They had. Two older ladies were seated on a bench in the garden just outside the front door.

“Hi there,” I said to them. “Are you both here for the tour?”

“Yes we are,” one of them spoke up. “We were just enjoying our lunch from here in the garden.”

As sunny as it was, it was a perfect day for a lunch outdoors.

I introduced myself to them both. And asked where they were from. They were from the States. The south. One of the women had just moved over to England. To act as a “live-in Mom” for some of the American students at one of the houses just outside the city center. Her name was Kitty. The other woman was Kitty’s friend who was visiting from back home. Previously, she had been a math professor at Columbia.

Not long after meeting the two of them, a girl in her early twenties with a backpack came walking up to the house. She introduced herself and said she was looking for the tour. I told her she had found it. She, too, was from the States. She’s a student at Stanford, and she’s currently doing a study-abroad program here at Oxford. For a year. She told me she had been wanting to come up for a tour since arriving in the fall, but that she was only just finding time.

We made our way into the house and took our seats in the common room. Not long after, Deb greeted a good-sized group. Also from the States. A class, apparently, that was touring the UK. They stopped by Oxford and the Kilns as part of their trip. Rounding out the tour was a group of early twenty-somethings from Ireland. A handful of guys, and one girl. One of them was studying here. And the rest were his friends from back home.

Being made up of more Americans than the first group, the second group seemed much more excited about the tour. More smiles and laughs at the Lewis stories. More “Wow!”‘s at the different photos around the house.

And I loved it. Every bit of it. The opportunity not just to be at Lewis’ house, but to get to talk about Lewis for hours on end. And being paid for it. I kept waiting for the catch.

At the end of the tour, I shook several hands. And said lots of “your welcomes” before catching up with Deb. We each found a seat in the common room. To recap my first tours.

She told me I did a great job. Especially for being my first tours. She told me I seemed really comfortable speaking to the groups. And natural. And that it seemed like I was much more comfortable the second time around.

I told her I thought that was probably largely due to the fact that the second group was more heavily American. And that I could read them much better than the first group.

She corrected me on one thing I had wrong (referencing a wrong book), but that, overall, it seemed like it went really well. And she said she was really thankful to have my help leading the tours.

I told her it really was my pleasure. And that I still found it hard to believe I was actually doing this.

Sunday: More fire than stone at Fire & Stone Pizza

Our fellow Washingtonian friends, Rob & Vanessa, have been arranging Sunday evening dinners for a while now. For several American couples here in Oxford. Sometimes this is hosted at someone’s home (when Vanessa made Mexican food at her house, for example), but, for the most part, we tend to meet at a restaurant in the city center. We’ve really enjoyed getting together with the group, and sharing laughs with the other couples.

This particular week Vanessa sent out an e-mail inviting everyone to pizza at Fire & Stone. She had a two-for-one coupon she was excited to share with the group. Being students again, everyone in the group is pretty big on finding good deals when we can. We told Vanessa to count us in.

We had attended St. Aldate’s that night, knowing we’d be in town for dinner anyway, so we walked up to Fire & Stone with some of those who had attended the evening service as well: Penn & Grace, and Lauren. Lauren’s husband, Tyler, was working on a class assignment, so he was going to meet us at the restaurant. We were talking abut our week as we walked along the sidewalk in front of the dark storefronts after church.

The two girls asked how my tours had went. I was taken off-guard at first, but then I remembered Jen had shared the news with them during their Bible study.

“Ryan has the coolest job,” Grace said, turning to her husband Penn. “He’s leading tours at C.S. Lewis’ old home.”

Grace is studying here in Oxford to work in publishing. So I think naturally she’s a fan of Lewis.

The five of us arrived at Fire & Stone Pizza before anyone else. So we grabbed a table by the window and waited for others to arrive. Vanessa showed up about five minutes later. Wearing a large, puffy jacket and breathing heavily. Apparently she had an issue printing off the coupons for dinner, and so she ended up jogging to the restaurant.

“I’m so hot,” she told us, unzipping the large, puffy jacket and hanging it on the back of her chair. Unknowingly, she was sitting beneath the heating vent, and so she found herself not cooling down at all. After several minutes, she realized the hot air blowing on her was not helping matters, and so she took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

“But I do have the coupons,” she told us, reassuringly. Apparently the coupons were good for parties up to six people, and so she printed off two, hoping the restaurant would be cool with it.

“Worst-case scenario, we just won’t sit with you guys,” Lauren joked.

When the waiter came by to take our drink order, Vanessa showed him the coupons to make sure we could all use the two-for-one deal. But no, he was not going for it.

“It’s only good for parties up to six,” he explained.

“And if we just slide our table over a couple feet?” Lauren asked, half-jokingly.

“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head.

A look of defeat spread across Vanessa’s face.

“It’s a good thing I took the extra time to fight with my printer and print off that second coupon,” she said.

Tyler, Lauren’s husband joined us a few minutes after our drinks came, and we all put in our orders. I love the eccentric menu at Fire & Stone. The last couple of times I’ve ordered one of the pizzas from Australia. The one with chicken, mashed potatoes and sour cream. I never would have thought sour cream would be good on pizza, but it’s amazing. I decided to try something different this time, though. The egg and ham pizza. I forget which country it was from, as well as the witty name they gave it, but I’d call it the breakfast pizza if I were in charge.

It wasn’t long after placing our orders that the fire alarm went off. It didn’t seem to faze anyone at first. I think we all just figured it’d go off after a couple seconds and no one would worry about it. But it didn’t. And the head hostess soon began asking people to exit the restaurant and head across the street to get away from the building.

Anytime you’re  in a building with open ovens when the fire alarm starts going off and someone asks you to evacuate the building, it’s usually a good idea to evacuate the building.

A few minutes later the entire restaurant was evacuated and everyone was standing across the street in a large group. Waiters and waitresses. Cooks. Guests. Everyone. Waiting, wondering what was going on.

“It smells like burnt toast,” someone from the sidewalk said.

Almost immediately after those words were spoken, a woman in one of the the apartments that sit over the restaurant threw open two of the windows. Laughter filled the sidewalk. It didn’t take a detective to locate the source of this fire.

Unfortunately, we had to wait for the fire department to come and check everything out, and to declare everything safe before we could return to the restaurant, and to our pizza.

“I wonder if our pizza made it to the ovens,” someone asked.

We debated finding another restaurant to grab dinner at. Rather than waiting for this woman’s burnt toast to get straightened out. But then we figured surely if we decided to stick it out and wait around the restaurant would do something to compensate us.

“Maybe now they’ll honor our coupons,” I said, half-jokingly.

Rob, on his way to join us at the restaurant, found us gathered on the sidewalk and took up his place near Vanessa. We told him how we had just placed our order when the apartment overhead set off the building’s fire alarm. And how the woman upstairs threw open the windows shortly after we took our spot on the sidewalk outside.

Shortly after Rob arrived, a fire truck pulled up to the curb. Sirens blazing. At this point, people walking by were staring. At the large group gathered on the sidewalk at 9:00 at night. And the empty restaurant.

Just as the fire truck pulled up, the apartment with the woman who burnt her toast pulled her windows shut and flipped off the lights. We all laughed. As if somehow everyone there would’ve missed what had happened, and she’d never be found out.

After another 15 minutes or so, the restaurant management told us it was okay to come back inside. And that they’d have our dinner to us as quickly as possible. The fire truck was still parked outside when we returned to our table. We never did find out anything about the woman upstairs.

We shared some great laughs over some amazing pizza. My breakfast pizza was the best choice I’ve made in a long time. The egg and the ham went great together. I’m beginning to think egg is good on just about anything. Burgers… Pizza…

When our waiter came around to bring our bill, Lauren, wearing a wide grin, asked if they were going to do anything to compensate us for the long wait outside.

“Like letting us use our coupons,” she said.

The waiter half-smiled and just shook his head. “Sorry.”

“It was worth a shot,” she said with a large smile as she finished her glass of water.”

Monday: Jen’s first day working at the Kilns

Jen’s first day working at the Kilns was the the next morning. On that Monday. I wasn’t there with her, so I figured I’d ask Jen to tell you how it went herself. Here’s Jen…

I had told myself that come Monday (Feb. 21, the Monday after I arrived back in Oxford) that I would start looking for a job. I wasn’t looking forward to going through that process, though. The looking, applying and interviewing.

Well, lots of people must have been praying for me to get a job because that Monday afternoon, Ryan told me he got a call from Debbie, who is the warden at the Kilns, and she asked if we both were available to work. She was praying for someone to help with tours and for someone to relieve some of the stress on her. She was also looking for someone to help with the administrative work that needs to take place for the CS Lewis Foundation. Of course we both jumped at that opportunity. I’ll be working 12 to 15 hours a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, helping set up tours for the house, and Ryan will be giving a lot of the tours, so you know who to talk to if you want to come tour the Kilns!

It was crazy going to work on Monday (Feb 28), since I’ve been unemployed since the beginning of September. This job seems to be a great fit, though, and I will learn how to do a lot of new things. Like how to host a high-tea. I’ve already organized a lot of Deb’s files, which were piling up, I’ve learned how to deposit checks for the Foundation, and I’ve started to learn how to setup tours.

It’s nice that Ryan and I share this, too, both working for the Foundation, and it’s just a huge blessing overall, as it provides enough to cover our rent for the month, as well as some of our grocery expenses. I would have never thought I would be working for the CS Lewis Foundation, or working in CS Lewis’s house, where people come from all over the world to get a tour.

Wednesday: Oxford Open Forum

Okay, Ryan here. I’m back…

The previous Wednesday night was our first night hosting the “Oxford Open Forum,” a group Rich, Max and I have been excited to kick off. After meeting early on this term over breakfast in Summertown, we had the idea of starting up a group where people from all different religious views could come for an open, informal dialogue. Our thinking was, “what better opportunity than here at Oxford University to have an open conversation with brilliant people from all over the world about their religion?”

So that’s what we set out to do. Hoping that maybe we’d create something that would meet such a great need that it’d outlast our time here at Oxford.

We began by sending out e-mails to the heads of as many different religious societies at the University we could think of. Everything from Buddhism and Hinduism to the Catholic Society and Atheism, and everyone in-between. We got a really great response from the idea, too. Pretty much everyone seemed to be interested, and Rich and I even grabbed coffee with the head of the Atheist society to talk about the idea after church one day, ironically enough. We met with the head of the Graduate Christian Union and pitched the idea to him. He loved it, and he said he’d be sure to include it in the group’s weekly e-mails.

We found a cafe in the city center that stayed open until 8:30 that would allow us to meet once a week, as we figured a pub might be off-putting for some who held particularly conservative religious views, and we really did want to make things as open and inviting as possible. Puccino’s, the cafe we settled on is a really great, funky place, with colorful hand-writing scribbled all over the walls. The menu is written on the wall, as well as lots of random, witty comments. There’s an arrow pointing to an electrical box in one corner of the room where we meet that reads, “we have no idea what this does,” and, on one of the blank walls, someone wrote, “We had a really nice picture here, but then it was nicked.” One of the other walls has a picture hanging near a scribbled comment that reads, “What, was this photo too ugly to take?”

It was exciting when our first evening of the Forum rolled around and every chair in the large front room of the cafe was filled. We estimated about 20 people showed up that first night, representing an incredibly diverse number of backgrounds and belief systems.

Several of those from the Atheist society showed up, even during the middle of their big event, “Think Week.” We also had the head of the Hindu Society there. Two gals who identified themselves as pagan showed up. There were a number of Christians present, including several from the Catholic Chaplaincy. There was, I believe, one Buddhist there. And there was a guy who was adamant that really, when we get right down to it, all the different world religions are saying the same thing, and he was dead set on proving to us this was the case.

The group definitely shrunk a bit when the second week rolled around. But we figured it likely had something to do with the fact that the end of the term was approaching, and many of the students had exams to prepare for.

Our question the first week was, “Can faith be rational?” After addressing what it is we meant by “faith,” the conversation largely centered around Hinduism. Mostly because most of those in the room really weren’t familiar with the beliefs of the Hindu tradition. Ramesh, the head of the Hindu society and a guy who’s apparently pretty familiar with inter-faith dialogue, did a great job telling us about what practicing Hindus believe. He spoke in a slow, calm voice. Pausing to make sure he spoke with care, and that he was using the right words to say what he meant.

Ramesh explained that the English language lacks a lot of words that he would like to use, which made his explanation a bit difficult. I thought he did a great job, though. And I left thinking, “that really seems less like a religion and more like a philosophy than I ever imagined.”

And, as much as the guy seated near me attempted to persuade us that we really were all talking about the same thing, I walked away from our first Oxford Open Forum realizing there are some insurmountable differences between what Christianity teaches and what so many of those other faith systems in the room that night believe.

For the second week, our question was, “Can there be a single, objective truth?” With a slightly smaller group, our conversation came to focus largely on Paganism. There were two women there, who didn’t know each other, both of whom were practicing pagans. They shared their particular beliefs (apparently Paganism is a pretty broad view), and we had the chance to ask questions. It was great to be able to ask those questions to someone first-hand, rather than reading from a book written by someone outside of that particular tradition. And, while the questions were asked in a courteous way, they were pretty pointed. And, particularly on the topic of a single, objective truth, it became quite clear that Paganism and Christianity stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. Just in case any doubt lingered from the previous week.

It really was great, though, having the opportunity to talk so openly about so many different world views. I talked a bit with one of the Pagan women after the meeting that night. Asking what she was working on here in Oxford. She told me she’s in the medical field, and that she was thankful for the opportunity to return to academics (on top of working full-time) and have of a bit of a mental challenge after being in the workforce for a while. She told me had spent some time in the military for a while before starting her career, which I found interesting. I thanked her again for joining us, and for sharing a bit about her beliefs.

Never before have I been able to enjoy such open conversation about views so very different from my own. And it’s great. It helps me firm up my own faith, and how I communicate my own beliefs, as well as better understand the many, many different faith traditions out there.

Riding home that night, on my bike through the city center and along Banbury Road, I found myself incredibly thankful for all of this. For the conversations. And for those I was meeting. My education is stretching far beyond just the classroom.


Tuesday: Nietsche for breakfast and “Think Week”

Tuesdays have been my lecture days this term. Which means I spend a good chunk of each Tuesday in the Exam Schools (where all the lectures are held). I start off with God, Christ & Salvation at 9:00. Then I have Historical Jesus at 11:00. And I wrap things up with Intro to Paul at 12:00.

For the most part, I’ve really been enjoying my lectures this term. Apart from God, Christ & Salvation, I suppose. The lecture is being taught by a Professor from Christ Church. His hair is salt and pepper speckled, and worn short. He has a shortly shaved dark beard and he likes to wear black. A lot of it. Black turtle necks. Black pants. And a black leather jacket. He often stares off into a corner of the large lecture hall as he talks, as if he’s speaking to someone suspended 20-feet off the floor in a chair fastened to the back wall.

His specialty is modern theology, so most of our time is spent focusing on guys like Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietsche. Guys I’m not too excited about. Guys whose writing is just way too dark for a 9:00 lecture. Lots of “God is dead” talk. It’s a bit like starting your day with a bowl full of cereal only to find your cereal has been replaced by nails.

My second lecture of the day, The Historical Jesus, is a bit better. Three professors rotate throughout the term, taking turns to present and pose questions each time. One professor speaks for 45 to 50 minutes or so, and then one of the other professors poses follow-up questions for another five to 10 minutes. The talks are on a wide range of topics, including everything from miracle accounts in the gospels to early church practices, and they’re all centered around the question of what these things tell us about who those in the very early church believed Jesus to be. As well as who He thought Himself to be.

I love the format, where one professor puts another professor on the spot and poses response questions based on the talk that was just given. They’re always incredibly cordial about it (as is the English way), starting off by saying something along the lines of, “Well, I think Professor ________ did a great job of covering this topic, and I’m not sure I’d have much else to add,” before posing their response, which typically includes a lot of points I just wouldn’t have thought of from the lecture. It’s great.

I ran into Dave Lincicum Tuesday morning before the start of the lecture. Dave’s my academic supervisor, and he also taught my Gospels & Jesus tutorial last term. In the castle. Dave’s a great guy. He’s an American, and young. In his early 30’s, I guess. He and his wife had their first daughter last summer. And he’s soft-spoken, in a way that makes it seems like he’s really genuinely a nice guy. He’s a part of this three-person Historical Jesus lecture, as well.

He asked how things were going for me, as we hadn’t talked much since I first arrived back in Oxford. He told me he had just recently ran into my tutor (“Professor”) for my God & Israel in the Old Testament tutorial. Dave told me that my Old Testament tutor was really happy with my work, and that he told Dave it seems I’ve hit my stride in my essays.

I raised my eyebrows a bit.

“Oh wow. Well, that’s good to hear,” I told Dave.

“Yeah, yeah it is,” he said with a smile.

We chatted for a few more minutes. Commenting on the large, 10-foot tall paintings that seem to stare you down from the Exam Schools lecture halls. Dave asked how Jen was settling in. And then we took our seats for the lecture.

Think Week

The week Jennifer returned here to Oxford was the fifth week of the term, which has come to be a big week for Christian Societies on campus. Christian speakers are invited to come and speak during lunch and evening sessions throughout the week. On a wide range of topics.

I went to a lunch-time talk that Monday before Jennifer arrived that was titled, “Happy as I Am: Who needs God anyway?” I thought it was a great topic, and an equally great talk. Michael Ramsden was the speaker. The same guy who spoke at the Christmas Carol service Jen and I attended last term. He does a really good job of approaching these kind of questions in a logical, well thought out way that just makes sense. And he uses analogies well, which goes a long way in my book. I’ve really enjoyed listening to him whenever I have a chance.

Following on the coat-tails of these fifth-week talks, though, is what’s been given the title, “Think Week” (at least, that’s the title used this year). Think Week takes place the following week, during sixth week, and it’s a week’s worth of speakers organized by the Atheist Society. The speakers present on topics of similar nature to the previous week, but from a decidedly different standpoint.

One of the big speakers for the week is Richard Dawkins, a celebrity of sorts for those in the atheist camp. Max and Rich had picked up some tickets for his Tuesday evening talk, and they invited me to go along with them to the event.

Knowing it would be a popular talk, we arrived a bit early and waited in a short line in front of the Exam Schools. It was a cold night, and we could see our breath as we talked while waiting for the doors to open. By the time the doors opened, the front of the line had swelled, and we wondered if it had actually grown wider than it had longer.

We made our way through the twists and turns of the Exam Schools hallways, up the stone stairways, with those large portraits staring down at us, and we found a row of open seats in the large lecture room. The room quickly filled with people being ushered in and those in charge played with the microphones and monitors as they did.

I joked with Max about the name of the week, “Think Week.” It’s a bit pretentious, I thought.

“I go to church,” I joked with him, sarcastically, “so I don’t need to worry about ‘thinking.'”

The evening’s talk was being shared by another professor. A member of the Philosophy department. He had long white hair pulled back, and his eyes looked small behind his glasses. He was very well dressed and held his hands folded in is lap as people took their seats. Dawkins didn’t look quite as careful about his attire as this other man did. In a way, I guess Dawkins looked more Oxford. His tweed jacket a bit more worn, perhaps. Dawkins’ large, high-arching eyebrows almost looked menacing as he looked around at the audience from his chair at the front of the room. And I wondered if that was intentional.

Dawkins used to be a professor. A biologist, I believe. But then he decided to step away from academics to focus on his writing, if I’m not mistaken. His premise is that Science has basically shown that there’s no need for any belief in God, and that anyone who holds to such faith is simply outdated. I recently heard he wanted to get rid of Theology as an area of study at Oxford entirely, which I thought was pretty funny.

The evening’s talk was about whether or not there would be anything that would cause these two men (both devout Atheists) to believe in the supernatural. Whether or not they might deem any experience worthy of being called a miracle. Since they’re both on the same side of the argument, I thought this would be an interesting talk.

“It’s certainly not going to be much of a debate,” I spoke to Max before it began.

Dawkins acted as moderator for the talk, as well as participant, and so he would often play the role of devil’s advocate (or, in this case, God’s advocate?) for the conversation. Interjecting questions at points that seemed to support the view one from a religious background might hold.

“Well, what about this case?” he would ask, turning the conversation over to the Philosophy professor to respond. Setting him up, so to speak. Then Dawkins would agree. Make a point. And they’d move on.

I was a bit underwhelmed, to be honest. They basically concluded that no, there was nothing that would lead either of them to conclude that a supernatural, miraculous event had ever taken place. Not ever.

They jokingly referred to an example of a 50-foot tall Jesus walking over the English countryside, which, even then would not persuade them to believe in the supernatural. If such an act were to occur, not necessarily a 50-feet Jesus but anything that someone might want to label as a miracle, there would simply be a shift in the scientific model and then they would have an explanation for the event, they explained.

I was less than satisfied with the response. Perhaps I’m not giving the argument fair representation. And, if that’s the case, then it’s due merely to my own ability to listen, recall or comprehend what was being said. But I just remember feeling like the discussion was lazy, and not well thought through. Or even discussed, for that matter.

I enjoyed the question and answer period a bit more, though. I thought there were some interesting questions asked. One man, in particular, told a story, rather than a question. He didn’t come right out and say it, but, from the way he began, it didn’t appear that he or his family were believers. He told a story, though, about his father. Who he explicitly said was not a believer.

Speaking into a microphone that had been handed to him, he told the room, and Dawkins in particular, about a time when his father was driving home one evening. He told us how, while driving, his father first saw a man’s face appear to him, and then he heard him speak directly to him. He was so struck by this experience that he had to pull his car over to the side of the road. When this man’s father returned home that night, he told us he didn’t want to talk with anyone. That he appeared really shaken up. Finally, after some coercion, he talked with his wife and son. Explaining to them what had happened.

Someone in the audience asked the man telling the story who his father had seen that night, on his drive home.

“Well,” he said, “it was Jesus.”

There was some muffled laughter in the room. And talking.

He appeared to want to bring this to Dawkins to get his take on it. Almost as if to ask, “Obviously we don’t believe in this stuff, but what do we do with that?”

Dawkins was completely unfazed, though. I had been watching him as the man was telling his story, and Dawkins looked like he thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

After this man finished speaking, Dawkins simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Thanks for the story. Next question?”

That seemed a bit disrespectful to me. That’s not to say I didn’t think this story was pretty far out there. But he had a genuine question, and I really felt like he was a fan of Dawkins, and Dawkins simply brushed him off. He seemed like a rather unhappy man to me. Dawkins, that is.

Several other questions were asked over the next half hour or so. One of those was from a girl in the front of the room. She was asking about the psychological nature of faith, and whether certain people are predisposed to put their faith in such belief systems. Whether they have some innate need to believe such things, whereas others are more critical and do not need such belief systems. She pointed out that she had been raised in a very conservative Christian household. That everyone in her family were Christians. But that she was the first to step out and be an Atheist.

It was at this point that a man seated just a few rows to my right shouted out, “Congratulations!” The room filled with applause. And Dawkins and the philosopher in the front of the room joined in. It was one of the few times I remember seeing Dawkins smile that night.

I said goodbye to Max and Rich as we walked out of the Exam Schools that night, hopped on my bike and rode home in the cool night air. Jennifer had stayed home that night, not caring to go and listen to the talk. When I got in, I shared a bit about the evening with her. I shared the story of this man whose father had claimed to see Jesus on his drive home, and I shared the story about this girl who was the first to become an atheist from her family. And how the room had congratulated her with a long round of applause.

And it was only after sharing this with Jen that I realized the depth of what had just happened. And it struck me.

“If we really believe this stuff,” I told Jen, “and if this girl really is saying she doesn’t want anything to do with God or with His Son, then that room was celebrating something that could have eternal consequences for this girl’s soul.”

“Yep,” Jen said, seated on the couch across the living room from me, while I heated up some leftovers in the kitchen.

Jen’s so black-and-white. This was a no-brainer for her. But for me, things like that take a bit longer to compute. And I was left in painful awe of the “celebration” I had sat in that evening. It was an incredibly dark and sad experience. And the only thing that brought me comfort, at that moment, was to pray for that girl.

Wednesday: A humbling quiz and helping a Brit

I started Wednesday off with a Greek vocab quiz. As I often do. And it kicked my butt. Flat out. I’ve been doing well on grammar this term, but vocab is another matter. We’re being tested on vocab at random at this point, from all of the vocab we’ve learned so far (something over 300 words), and I’ve just been neglecting my vocab, focusing more on translation of our Greek text (some from John’s Gospel, some from Mark). So, when it comes to our vocab quizzes, I’ve been getting my teeth kicked in.

I was a bit humbled by the experience Wednesday morning. Staring down the list of 30 or so Greek terms and only being able to translate a handful from the top of my head. But I think it’s good to be humbled like that every once in a while. I think it’s good to light the fire under us a bit. I left class that morning knowing I needed to spend some more time on my vocab.

I was walking with a young guy after Greek that morning. By the name of Tim. He’s been feeling pretty overwhelmed by the Greek. Everyone is, at this point, I think, but he was feeling particularly so. He was telling me he’s jealous I don’t have to take the Preliminary Exams everyone else (apart from Lyndon) had to take, since I’m a Senior Status student (starting in year two of the three year program). Everyone else has to pass this exam before they can move on, so they’re feeling a bit stressed out at the moment.

He asked me a bit about my background as we walked through the Exam Schools hallways. And why I was studying theology.

I told him how I had been working in business before. In marketing and public relations. For about four years. And how, at the time, I was also reading and writing about theology. And how I finally came to the realization that I didn’t know many people in my field who were doing that. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who was doing that.

He laughed.

“And so,” I told him, “I figured, it probably makes more sense for me to be studying theology. And so here I am.”

It was a wet morning that day. Not necessarily because of heavy rain, but more because it seemed like there was just a heavy mist lingering in the city. Biking through the city center after picking up a book from the Theology Faculty Library, it felt like one of those mornings where you wake up after camping and everything and everyone is just wet.

I was planning on getting some reading done that day. For my two essays that were due later in the week. From the library at Harris Manchester. Two women were standing at the foot of the stone staircase leading up to the library, speaking  french to one another as I passed by.

There was something I needed to print off for the week, and so I took a seat at one of the PCs in the middle of the library. Jamie, one of the other students here at Harris Manchester, the guy who went rock climbing across the US years ago, and who made a stop over in Port Angeles, was working across from me. He seemed to be stuck on something, as he asked how familiar I was with Word Processor.

Having a look over his shoulder, he told me he was trying to put a line over a title on the page, but he didn’t know how.

“Ah, okay. Well, let’s see if this does the trick,” I said, holding down shift and using the underscore key several times. “Does that work?”

“Yeah, that’s great,” he said, turning to me with a smile. “Thanks!”

It was good to actually be able to help a native Brit with something here. To feel like I actually know something and can be of help. I feel like 99.9% of the time it’s the other way around.

Thursday: A sundrenched lunch and our “interview” at the Kilns

While Wedesday was a damp day in Oxford, Thursday more than made up for it. We woke up to a sunny, blue sky day. And not just a cold, dry, winter kind of sunny day. But the warm kind. The kind that seems to say, “Spring is coming. It’s not quite here, but it is coming.”

I met Jennifer at the Alternative Tuck Shop for lunch, after reading in the Harris Manchester Library for a while. We grabbed two paninis and walked around the corner to Harris Manchester. It was a beautiful day, and so we decided to enjoy our sandwiches from just inside the college gate. On the benches that sit beneath a large oak tree just outside the college chapel. It was wonderful, sitting there, talking with Jen, enjoying a hot from the grill chicken pesto panini in the sun.

After lunch, we made the short walk to High Street and waited for the bus. The number nine. Which would take us out to the Kilns. Deb had a tour scheduled, and so she thought that would be the perfect opportunity for me to shadow her before leading my own tours, as well as for us to talk a bit about getting Jen’s help there at the Kilns. She invited us to stay after the tour to talk a bit about the jobs over tea. The Pembertons aren’t ones to turn down tea at the Kilns.

It’s a short bus ride from the Oxford city center to the Kilns. Maybe 15 minutes. And just a short walk once the bus arrives at the end of the lane that leads to the Kilns: Lewis Close.

As we approached the house, we could hear Deb’s voice from the entrance. She was standing in front of the house with a couple from America. He was taller, and he had long hair. He wore a black t-shirt that read, “Over the Rhine,” along with a picture I don’t quite remember. I laughed to myself at the funny coincidence.

Over Christmas break, while we were home for the holidays, one of my good friends from back home, David, had written to an author of a book he was reading, “Hipster Christianity” (a book I highly recommend, by the way). Apparently the author was a big fan of Lewis, and he had written a portion of his book while living at the Kilns (as a scholar in residence). David wrote to this author, a guy by the name of Brett McCracken, to tell him a bit about my story. About what I was up to. And to see if he might sign a copy of his book so David could give it to me as a gift. I thought that was awesome, and I was blown away when I received this from David in December. Brett had not only signed the book, but he had written me a note. Encouraging me on this journey, and saying he was enjoying reading along. I had been in touch with Brett, after returning here to Oxford, off and on. Thanking him for the gift. And talking a bit about my thoughts on the book. And it was through meeting Brett that I was introduced to a band by the name of Over the Rhine, a favorite of his. I had never heard of them before, and I had certainly never noticed anyone in an Over the Rhine t-shirt, and so I thought that was a pretty funny coincidence.

Deb introduced us to the couple and told us they were on their wedding anniversary. I thought that was a great way to celebrate. I also thought there’s no way I’d ever be able to talk my way into celebrating that way, though.

“I’m a librarian,” she told us, introducing herself.

“Ahh…,” I thought to myself. “Well that explains it, then.”

I had been on a tour of the Kilns before. A couple of times before, actually. Both times with Walter and Deb. But I had never taken the time to write down notes along the way. Of important dates and names. And so I did that, this time, knowing I’d need to be able to remember the many details for my first tour in just two days.

Deb started us in the common room. The room with books stacked from floor to ceiling on one side of the room. The room where Lewis used to sit with this guests. Smoking his pipe and telling stories. It was a beautiful day. And the light from outside was pouring into the room as Deb spoke from her chair in the far corner, while I frantically jotted down notes in short hand.

The couple on the tour were quite familiar with Lewis’ works. Both of them were. And they asked great questions. Which made me more than a little worried for when it was my turn to lead.

One of the scholars in residence at the Kilns, Stephanie, joined us for the tour. An American. She’s currently studying in Edinburgh, but she’s living at the Kilns for a month while writing her dissertation on Lewis. She’s from the South. And she had a bit of a southern draw. Which always sounds particularly out of place when you’re in England.

Deb did a great job with the tour. Even though I had heard it all before, I really enjoyed it. And I made sure to jot down all the things I knew I wouldn’t remember otherwise. It was great seeing the couple’s reaction around the house, seeing different things for the first time.

Afterwards, we said goodbye to the group and then we made our way into the dining room for tea.

I had received a text-message just as the tour was beginning, but I wasn’t able to get to it as I was doing my best to stay on top of my notes. It wasn’t until we sat down after the tour that I was able to check it. It was from Cole, and he was letting me know he had heard back from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland about his application. He had gotten in. He had been accepted for the PhD program with a scholarship. That was big news, and definitely worth a phone call. I excused myself from the room, making my way to the back of the house before calling him.

“Hey, congratulations” I said over the phone after Cole had answered on the other end. “That’s great news!”

After talking for a few minutes about the good news, I made my way back to the front of the house. I told Deb Cole was wanting to talk with her, and that she should give him a call.

She looked concerned.

“Is something wrong?” she asked me.

“No, no. Nothing’s wrong. But you should give him a call.”

Still looking concerned, and a bit confused, she made her way back to her room. I whispered the good news to Jen, so that Deb couldn’t hear. And a few minutes later, we heard a scream from Deb’s room.

“Oh, Cole! That’s great news!” came Deb’s voice.

Stephanie peeked her head into the dining room, where Jennifer and I were waiting for Deb, and she asked if we’d like some tea.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I told her.

“What kind would you like?”

“Oh… Well, I don’t know. I guess the normal English kind?” I had never been asked what kind of tea I wanted in England. Usually I just take what’s served to me. And it always tastes the same to me.

Deb joined us in the dining room a few minutes later. Still smiling from the good news. And Stephanie wasn’t far behind her. With a pot of tea in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other.

“Oh, thank you, Stephanie,” Deb said as she entered the room.

We talked for several minutes over tea and cookies. Oatmeal raisin and ginger. Stephanie asked what I was up to here in Oxford. And I shared with her how I was studying Theology. After working in Public Relations for several years. And how I was hoping to one day write.

She asked a bit about what I was interested in writing, and so I told her a bit about hands&feet, and what I had been up to there. How I was interested in writing on theology using everyday experiences. Using stories that people could relate to. But that they also got something out of. And that would ultimately help them see Him more clearly.

After she explained a bit about what her own work was on, Stephanie excused herself so that we could talk about our work at the Kilns.

Deb made sure I felt okay about leading the tours, which I did. And we got the schedule for Saturday’s tours all settled out. I told her I was really looking forward to it.

We talked a bit about Jen’s job. About how many hours Deb might need from her (about 15 per week). About what she’d be doing (responding to e-mails, scheduling tours, organizing the office and helping prepare for tours). And about pay. Deb said she was really looking forward to having Jen’s help, and that she’d have her start tomorrow if she could.

“What I’ll do is I’ll call Stan at the Foundation back in the States tonight, and I’ll make sure he’s okay with everything we’ve talked about,” she told us. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t plan on you starting on Monday next week.”

If that was an interview, it was the easiest interview I’ve ever been a part of, I thought to myself as we helped Deb clean up after the tea.

We had a great time at the Kilns that afternoon, and, walking down the lane and back to the bus stop with Jen afterward, I still couldn’t believe we were going to be working there. Amazing.

Friday: Returning home rejoicing

I went to the morning prayer service at Harris Manchester this week. It’s held every week. Just a short, 10-minute service at 8:40 on Friday mornings in the chapel. I’ve been meaning to go for some time, but I’m usually spending that time on some last minute studying for my Greek quizzes. So I’ve never been before. I was glad I went that morning, though.

I was in a hurry to get there. Riding my bike at a frantic pace to make it on-time. I slipped into the chapel shortly after the service began. Breathing heavily as I took my seat in a pew behind one of only four other people in the audience.

I recognized Ken Wilson a few rows ahead of me. The hand surgeon turned Theologian from Oregon. And Principal Waller sat across the aisle from him. In his suit.

A man in the front of the chapel was reading a story from the Old Testament book of Exodus. The story of God’s conversation with Moses. When God came to Moses and told him He was going to use Moses to rescue His people from captivity. To lead them out of Egypt. And how Moses responded in confusion and fear, not knowing why in the world God would use him of all people for such an incredible mission. And feeling totally unworthy.

It was a great service. Short, but incredibly peaceful. And it was a welcome break from the frantic pace I’m used to most mornings.

After the reading, we sang a hymn. I don’t often sing hymns, but in this chapel, it seemed like a perfect fit.

At the conclusion of the service, the man who had been reading returned to the front of the room. And, with a hint of a smile on his face, he gave a short concluding message before we left.

And the words seemed so perfect. As if they were meant just for me. Almost as if He were speaking these words just for me that morning. Through this man. And through his words.

And I was speechless, seated there in that hard, wooden chapel pew. Staring up into the tall stained glass windows that fill the end wall of the room. I found myself filled with an incredible amount of joy. And thankfulness. For all He has done.

For guiding us through all of this. For bringing so many amazing people into our lives. For lining up jobs for us; the kind of jobs I never dreamt of. For keeping us safe and well fed. And for the incredible things He has shown us along the way.

I was filled with great joy as I replayed the words over again in my head, seated there from the pew that morning.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,

wherever He may send you.

May He guide you through the wilderness,

protect you through the storm.

May He bring you home rejoicing

at the wonders He has shown you.

May He bring you home rejoicing

once again into our doors.

Wednesday: Jen’s return to Oxford

Jen returned here to Oxford on a Wednesday. Around noon. Which meant I had time to make it to Greek before taking off to meet her at the airport.

Lyndon had offered to drive me to Heathrow again so I could be there when she arrived. I quickly took him up on that offer. I decided not to make a surprise out of it this time, though. I let Jen know we’d be there when she got in, knowing she’d be making the trip by herself and that’d make things a bit easier on her.

It’s a good thing she was expecting us, too, because had I decided to surprise her again we very well may have missed her…

Her flight was scheduled to arrive at noon that day. The same flight as last time. And so we got to the airport at that time. Thinking it’d take her a while to get her bags and get through customs. When we surprised her (and Steve) last fall, we didn’t see them until about 12:50. That was not the case this time.

By the time we parked our car and made it into the airport to meet those arriving, it was 12:15. We took a look at the arrivals monitor and it said something about baggage, which we assumed meant those on the flight were collecting their baggage. Thinking we still had another half hour or so before we’d see Jen, we thought we’d grab a cup of coffee and find a seat where we could spot her coming out through the double doors.

Turning to make our way over to one of the cafes, Lyndon and I were talking when I stopped mid-sentence, spotting Jen standing in the middle of the crowd, right where we had just come from, with her luggage beside her.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Hun, you’re here!”

I quickly wrapped her up in a tight hug and gave her a kiss.

“Hey, we didn’t see you,” Lyndon said.

“Sorry about that, hun,” I said. “You must’ve arrived early, huh? How long have you been waiting?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “We did arrive early, yeah. I’ve been here for about 20 minutes now,” she said.

That’s when my heart sank.

“Oh no, I’m sorry, hun. We thought we still had some time left. We were just going to go grab a cup of coffee. Would you like to join us?” I said with a smile.

“Yeah…” Jen replied, rolling her eyes.

We made our way out of Heathrow with Jen’s luggage in tow and made the hour-long drive back north to Oxford. It was a sunny day, and it made for a welcome return to Oxford for Jen.

Lyndon helped us with getting Jen’s luggage into the house before saying goodbye.

“Hey, thanks again for the ride, Lyndon,” I told him. “I know how valuable that time is for studying and being with your family, so thank you.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” he said with a smile.

I told him we’d love to give them a date night out some time by watching their two boys, Joshua and Joel. He seemed to like that idea and said they’d have to take us up on the offer.

I carried Jen’s large bags upstairs, and she quickly found her way under the covers of our bed. It was close to 2:00 in the afternoon at this point, but Jen hadn’t had much sleep before leaving, having stayed up for several late nights with her new niece Khloe back home, and then just not sleeping much on the plane. She was thankful for the opportunity to get some shut-eye.

“It’s so nice having you back, hun,” I told her, kissing her forehead.

She smiled gently, eyes closed, blankets pulled up tightly beneath her chin.

“I’ll just  be downstairs getting some work done, and I’ll wake you up for dinner if you’re not up before then,” I told her from her bedside.

It wasn’t easy for Jen leaving home. With her new niece recently arriving. And having spent a lot of great time with her family. Coming here was a major sacrifice for her. And I so appreciate her willingness to leave it all behind to support me in this. To continue to encourage me in all of this.

I see God’s selfless love in my wife, and I am so incredibly thankful for her. But I’ll let her tell you about it in her own words. . .Here’s Jen:

My Dad, Leann, and Khloe took me to the airport on Tuesday morning (Feb 15) so I could return to England and be with Ryan again.

The hard part about heading to the airport that morning was knowing just how long it will be until I get to see my sister again. By the time June comes, and I’m back in the States, this will be the longest time I’ve ever been away from my sister.

Over this last year, we’ve become closer than I could ever have imagined. I guess it helped that she was so sick from her pregnancy that she couldn’t get away from me… Just kidding. It was great, though. With me not really working a whole lot this past year, I was able to hangout with Leann and be there for her during her pregnancy, and afterwards as well.

When I came home for Christmas, Leann and I got to spend even more time together. She wasn’t as sick as she had been before (she had been really, really sick before), so we were able to do more together, which was nice. Then, after Christmas, Leann and I were doing all we could to get little Khloe out so Uncle Ryan could meet her before he had to head back to Oxford. And because Leann was just miserable. We did lots of walking and going to Aunt Gwen’s house so Leann could use her treadmill (when it grew too cold to walk outside), drinking raspberry leaf tea (because apparently that’s supposed to get a baby out), bouncing, and anything else that was suggested to her. With such a difficult pregnancy, we thought surely she’d come early, but the joke was on us, because Khloe decided to come nine days late.

From the time Khloe was born, I pretty much moved into Leann and Ben’s house when I was back home. I practically lived there for the first month, before returning here to Oxford. I was able to watch Khloe during the night, which I loved. It was so nice to have that opportunity to bond with her, and it allowed Leann & Ben to get some sleep because they weren’t able to during the days. It was fun to watch my sister be a mom. I know she is going to be a great one.

Saying those goodbyes at the airport, I was a wreck. I think I pretty much cried off and on until I left Chicago (where I had a layover on my way to the UK). Don’t get me wrong, I was so excited to see my husband. It had been so long. But when you have had the year that my family has had, it is just hard to say goodbye.

Being able to Skype with my family from over here really has been a saving grace, though. I get to talk with them almost as if we are in-person, and I get to see Khloe as she grows. Also, I’m really thankful that in a month and a half I will get to see my parents, because they will be coming over for a visit with some close family friends of ours (the McDowell’s). While they’re here, we’re going to visit Rome and Paris, spending four days in each city. I’m so excited for those travels, and to be able to show them the community we’ve been living in here.

On both my flights (first to Chicago, then on to England), I was able to have the full row of seats all to myself. I wish every flight could be like that. I think being able to lay out from Chicago to London was the only way I was able to fall asleep.

My plane was early arriving to London, and going through customs was a breeze, thankfully. I was a little worried about that whole customs process, just because it was my first time doing it by myself. The only bummer about my plane being early, though, is that when I got my luggage and walked out to all the people waiting for their loved ones, mine wasn’t among them…Needless to say, I was a little let down, especially considering it had been so long since I had seen Ryan, and after a full day of travels by myself. I was ready for something familiar.

After twenty minutes or so of sitting on a bench there in the airport, I saw Ryan and Lyndon. I was so excited to see them but it took me a little while to get to them because they didn’t see me and I had two heavy bags, as well as my camera bag, backpack (which was quite heavy, as it was full of books and my laptop) and my purse. With all my luggage, it was a little hard for me to move around.

Ryan and Lyndon were just on their way to grab coffee when they saw me, because they thought they still had to wait for me. So they were very surprised to see me standing there. At that point, I was thankful for their help with all my luggage! After taking my luggage off my hands, Ryan gave me the biggest hug.

Once we arrived safely to our flat, I went straight to bed. Well, after talking with Ryan some. I believe I slept for about three hours, I was so tired. Ryan woke me up for a nice Valentine’s dinner that night, which he had made for me. If it wasn’t for the nice dinner I probably would have kept sleeping.

Thursday: A birthday surprise

Hey, it’s me, Ryan. I’m back. So the day before Jennifer arrived was Valentine’s Day. And since we didn’t get to spend it together, I made her a nice meal that day she arrived. As well as picking up some flowers and a gift. (The one thing I forgot was wrapping paper, which explains the Christmas trees on the wrapped gift…).

It was so great to have that time together again. Dinner at home. Just the two of us. It had been a very long time.

The day after she arrived, that Thursday, was her 25th birthday. So we had a lot to celebrate when she got in.

I told her for her birthday that I had made dinner reservations at Fire & Stone Pizza in the city center. To celebrate. Just the two of us. She looked a bit disappointed.

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that. Pizza for your birthday.”

“Well, yeah, I love pizza, but I guess I just thought we’d do something a little nicer for my birthday.”

Jen didn’t know I had a little surprise waiting for her at Fire & Stone. So I played it up that I just thought she’d really want pizza for her birthday. She didn’t seem to mind too much.

We made our way to the city center that evening. Leaving the house right around 7:00. And made the old familiar walk to town.

We arrived at the restaurant about 15 minutes late, but I found the hostess and gave her my name.

“Sorry we’re late, but I have reservations for ‘Ryan.’ There should be people waiting at our table already,” I said in a hushed voice, so that Jen couldn’t hear me.

“Oh yes, just down the stairs, the last table on the left,” she said, pointing down the stairs.

“Great, thanks,” I said, passing by and leading the way toward our table.

Jen had no idea what was coming, and her face showed it. It wasn’t until we got right next to our table that she realized, “Wait a minute, I know you guys!”

A handful of our good friends had arrived there before us and were waiting on Jen to arrive.

“Surprise!” Vanessa shouted from the far end of the table with her hands thrown high into the air.

Jen was surprised, all right, and it was great to see that huge smile wash over her face. It was great for her to see just how many people were waiting for her to arrive back here in Oxford. To see just how many people were excited to see her. And to have them join us in celebrating her birthday.

(From left to right: Max, Christine & Rich, Rob & Vanessa, Minhee, Jen (of course), and Cole).

Cole grabbed the camera from me and told me to sit by my wife so we could have one with me in it, as well.

We had a great time celebrating Jen’s birthday together. The girls loved hearing about Jen’s time back home with her new niece, commenting on the photos they had seen of her online. And Jen loved telling them all about it, while the guys on the other side of the table talked Theology. And I had my wife by my side again. It was a win-win on all accounts.

I’ll let Jen tell you a bit about her birthday, in her own words… Here’s Jen:

For my 25th Birthday, I gave myself the gift of sleeping in. It was great. I got out of bed around 3:00 or 3:30 that day. I had told Ryan to be prepared for me to sleep a lot the first couple of days, while I caught up on my sleep. And that’s exactly what I did!

Ryan had made dinner plans for us at Fire & Stone for that night. As we were walking there, I quickly remembered how warm you can get with all the walking. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, I felt like I could take another shower.

We went downstairs to our table and there sat a bunch of our friends: Vanessa & Rob, Minhee, Rich & Christine, Cole, and Max. And to top if off, Vanessa made me my favorite cake: rainbow chip with rainbow chip frosting. Apparently Steve had shipped the cake mix and frosting out so that I would be able to have it for my birthday. I really do have some great friends. It was so nice to be able to catch up and see how everyone was doing.

When Ryan and I got home that night, I got to open up my present from him. It was a very nice white frame, and he got it so I could frame a photo of Khloe in and have here.

I absolutely loved it! The rest of  my birthday present is our trip to Paris and Rome.

Hey again. It’s me, Ryan. Yeah, so we talked and laughed for a long time with everyone that night. At Fire & Stone Pizza. And after we all finished off our pizza, we asked for some smaller plates and some more forks. For birthday cake.

Vanessa had e-mailed me a couple days before Jen arrived and said she was wanting to make a birthday cake for Jen and bring it along. I told her I thought that was a great idea, and I knew Jen would appreciate it.

The day Jen arrived, literally just before I left the house to head to the airport with Lyndon, a package arrived from back home. It was from Steve.

Steve had been saying how he felt bad he wouldn’t be able to be there with us to celebrate Jen’s birthday. He’s always been really great about helping make that a special time. The first year he celebrated Jen’s birthday with us, he stayed up all night making her cake. I turned in around 2:00 that night, after helping Steve for a while. But he stayed up, to put the finishing touches on it. For anyone who has ever seen Steve’s work, you know it’s amazing. And it was.

The next morning when I woke up, I told Steve Jen was going to love it. And that she’d be totally blown away. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned. We celebrated Jen’s birthday on Lummi Island that year. At this amazing home right on the water. And, on the way there, someone pulled out in front of Steve, causing him to slam on his brakes, and sending the cake smashing against the side of the box it was being carried in. It pretty much completely destroyed the work he had stayed up all night working on.

When he first told me, I thought he was joking, knowing how hard he had worked on it. He wasn’t. Fortunately, it still tasted great, and so we still used it to celebrate Jen’s birthday that night. Jen didn’t mind.

Steve knew how much Jen loved rainbow chip cake for her birthday, and that we wouldn’t be able to find that here, so he had taken the time to pack that up and send it over. So that Jen could have it for her birthday.

While Jen was sleeping that afternoon after the long journey from home, I ran the cake mix supplies to Vanessa’s work, so she’d have them for the next night when we celebrated Jen’s birthday together.

And it turned out great. We all sang “happy birthday” to Jen, and we enjoyed the birthday cake, compliments of Vanessa and Steve. It was great to celebrate Jen’s big day with friends, even though we were so far from home.

Sunday: Pub-Thai & baptisms

We met up with Max & his wife Michelle and Rich & Christine at a Thai place Sunday night. For dinner. Before church. The six of us hadn’t gotten together before, and we had been looking forward to Jen arriving so we could do that.

The place we met is an old pub that was bought not too long ago by a family who have made it into a Thai restaurant. It’s pretty funny, actually, because it was clearly built as a pub, but it has hints of Thai decor scattered throughout. It’s the most pub-like Thai restaurant you’ll ever find, but the food is great. Jen ordered the phad thai (her staple when we go out for Thai food), and I ordered a cashew dish. With pork.

We had a really good time catching up with everyone over dinner, and it was a nice chance for Jen to get to know Michelle and Christine a bit better.

St. Aldate’s, the church I’ve been attending since returning, is right next door, so it made things convenient that night. Rich & Christine and Max & Michelle also attend St. Aldate’s, so we all went to the 6:00 service after we finished up our pub-Thai dinner.

I’ve really loved it here at St. Aldate’s. I told a friend back home I really feel like my soul comes alive when I’m worshipping here, leaping for joy inside of me during the songs. And the people have been really great, too. Several times I’ve had people introduce themselves and ask to hear about what brought me there, having not recognized me before. I really do love it there. Jen had been with me to St. Aldate’s once before we returned home, and I was excited for her to return so we could attend together again.

The church is right in the heart of the city, so you’ll often see a homeless person sitting side-by-side with an Oxford student. And I think that’s great. I think it’s a good reminder heaven isn’t going to be quite as homogenous as we’d imagine.

The evening’s service was a baptism service, which I always love. The former owner of the marketing firm I used to work at back home is fond of saying, “You can do everything right, but if you never tell anyone about it, they may never know.” In a roundabout way, I guess that’s what baptism is about. It’s about telling others, “I believe Jesus did this really great thing. For me. For you. And I want to be a part of that. I want others to know about it.”

I always get excited seeing people take that step. To share what this faith means to them with others.

And the service was great. There were two gals and one guy being baptized that night. The two girls were students here at Oxford. And the guy was a little bit older. Maybe in his mid-30’s. And he worked nearby.

The one girl student and guy who went first shared about their backgrounds. And about why they wanted to take this step to become baptized. They both seemed super comfortable speaking in front of everyone. Even with the church packed full of people. Neither one of them seemed to mind. They both did great, not appearing nervous in the least. I assumed it was just an English thing. That perhaps the British are just natural-born public speakers.

But that wasn’t the case with the next girl. The last one to be baptized that evening. She was incredibly nervous. And it was clear to everyone.

Her hands were shaking, and she was breathing deep as she took the microphone on-stage. She started briefly and then had to turn her back to the audience to collect herself. The Vicar of the church (pastor) smiled at the crowd as she did. My heart went out to her.

She turned around, facing the audience again, and she still looked quite nervous. But she turned her eyes to her paper and began reading. Quite quickly. About what had brought her here.

She told us, while reading her notes, how she had grown up in a family of devout Atheists. And how her parents were quite proud when, on one occasion very early on in school, she was removed from her private school classroom for asking how dinosaurs fit in with the story of creation. She told us how her parents must’ve proudly thought she’d be the next Richard Dawkins at that point.

She told us about how she had come here to Oxford. Proud of herself for the accomplishment, and excited for her studies. But then, how she had surprisingly found God in all of this. How she had come to realize His love for her, and how she had formed a deep faith in Him. How she wanted to hand her life over to Him, and how she wanted others to know about it. It was an incredible story. Hearing about the amazing change in her life and her attitude toward Him. I really just don’t understand how that works, apart from His work in one’s life.

It put tears in the corners of my eyes, hearing her describe the change that had taken place since arriving here.

“I still have questions about dinosaurs,” she spoke into the microphone from the church stage, less nervous now, “But I want to follow Him.” Everyone laughed, and the sound of clapping echoed off the church’s stone walls as she made her way into the baptismal pool.

Monday: A surprise phone call

Since Jennifer had returned to Oxford, I had been working from home. Not wanting to leave her to spend those first few days back here in Oxford at home all on her own. On Monday, though, I made my way to Harris Manchester after Greek. To the library. To get some reading done.

I was still thinking about something Rhona had said that morning in Greek as I rode my bike to college after class. She had asked one of the girls in class to read aloud her translation of John to the class. As we had all been taking turns doing. But this girl had said she’d rather not. Not today.

Rhona didn’t press her. She said she was welcome to take a pass if she’d prefer, but she encouraged her to not get in the habit of doing so.

“You ought not hide your light under a bushel,” Rhona told her, speaking in that soft English accent with her familiar Grandmother-like voice. “You’ll regret it when you’re 55 or 60.” She smiled at this girl from the front of the room after saying so.

I liked how Rhona put that. And it made me think of this girl who had been baptized at St. Aldate’s the night before. It made me think about how easy it would have been for her not to do so. Particularly in light of her parents’ beliefs. I was glad she hadn’t decided to hide her light under a bushel, though, as Rhona put it.

Entering the library at Harris Manchester, I was greeted by Katrina. The assistant librarian. Katrina’s great. She always has a smile on. And she always greets you by name in a soft-whisper as you enter through the large, wooden double doors of the library.

And it was nice coming back to the library. It felt a bit like returning home. Being greeted by name. And returning to my old familiar spot. I love it there, at the Harris Manchester Library, seated from my familiar spot beside the window on the second floor.

I got a good amount of reading done that afternoon. And, checking my phone later on, I realized I had a missed call at some point during the day. I stepped out of the library to check my messages, and I was surprised to hear the voice of Deb on the message. Deb’s the Warden at the Kilns. The former home of C.S. Lewis. I had met her before, on my trips out to the Kilns, and at the C.S. Lewis Society dinners and meetings, but we really hadn’t talked too much before. I was surprised to hear from her.

She said she had something she wanted to run by me in her message. To see if she might be able to get my help with something. And she asked me to give her a call when I had a free moment. I had no idea what that might be, but I gave her a call back, and I heard her voice on the other end a few seconds later.

She sounded happy to hear from me, and, after a bit of small talk, she asked if I might be interested in giving tours out at the Kilns at some point.

I was stunned. She explained that they needed a bit of extra help, and she thought I might be interested, knowing my interest in Lewis.

“Really?” I asked. “Well, yeah, that’d be great. When were you thinking?”

“This Saturday?” she said, almost hesitantly.

“Oh wow… Yeah, that’s quick. Well, I’d love to help you, but I should check with Jen first and make sure that’s okay.”

Deb was fine with that, and I told her I’d get back to her either later that night or the next day.

Then she asked what Jen was up to. And if she might be looking for any work.

I laughed, and then I told her Jen had actually planned to start looking for work that day.

“Oh really?” she said. “Well, I was wondering if she might be interested in some administrative work here at the Kilns. I could certainly use her help!”

I told Deb I had been praying Jen would be able to find a job when she returned to Oxford without too much trouble. And one that would be a good fit for her. I told her this sounded great, and I was sure Jen would love the idea.

“Well, yeah, I don’t know why I was calling you other than the fact I was praying about it and your guys’ names came to me,” her voice said on the other line.

And it put a smile on my face, thinking about how incredible everything has lined up for us through all of this. Since arriving here in Oxford.

From great friends and community to job opportunities. It’s all so much more than I ever could have imagined. And I am so thankful for what He is doing here.

I am so thankful for being the recipient of His blessings. I am so thankful for the opportunity to be able to sit back and say, “Look, look at what He is doing here.”

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.


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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