Archives for posts with tag: Olli & Salla

Saturday: Day 1 of Final Exams

Saturday was day one of my six days’ worth of final exams. I had seven papers to sit, in total, beginning Saturday morning, and ending Friday afternoon, with only Sunday off.

Each of my exams would last three hours; each of which would be handwritten, essay format; and the cumulative average of which would represent my final mark for my Oxford degree (nothing else before this point matters, as far as my degree is concerned).

All of my months’ worth of revisions; all of my long days in the library and late nights at the Kilns; they would all come down to this. Needless to say, there was a lot of pressure riding on these exams.

I woke up early on Saturday morning, the day of my first final exam. I showered, got dressed in my full sub fusc, and then I grabbed breakfast in the dining room of the Kilns.

Debbie invited me to sit down for breakfast, which she prepared, and which I probably would have otherwise not made time for. There were a handful of short-term Kilns guests already seated around the dining room table when I took my seat, having just finished breakfast and still sharing conversation. Don, an English professor who was visiting from the States with his wife, as well as Greg, a pastor from New Mexico, who was treating his daughter to a tour of Europe for her sixteenth birthday.

Greg prayed for me and my exams before I dug into my food (yogurt with granola and fresh berries, toast, a banana and orange juice). They were all curious how I felt going into my first exam, and I told them about John’s comment as I ate, about how a million years from now, when I’m worshipping God in His presence, no one’s likely to turn around and ask me about my exam marks from Oxford. And I told them about how I thought that makes this a completely different ballgame for me.

Don smiled.

“That’s exactly the right perspective, man.”

I smiled. I liked that Don called me “man.”

After finishing my food, I thanked everyone for their prayers and encouragement, grabbed my bag and notes, and I made my way to the bus stop to catch a ride into the city center.

Standing at the bus stop dressed in my sub fusc, I noticed a young girl smiling at me, as she peeked out from behind her Mom, before whispering something into her mother’s ear. It’s a funny getup, to be sure, I thought, and I smiled back at her.

I took the bus to the city center, made the short walk to College, and then walked with a group of other finalists from Harris Manchester to the Exam Schools on this warm, sunny Saturday spring morning.

I wore a white carnation on my chest, which made me feel a bit like I was on my way to my high school prom, but all Oxford finalists wear carnations to their finals. The white carnation signals that I was on my way to my first final exam. I’d wear a pink carnation for the rest of my finals, with the exception of my last final exam, to which I’d wear a red carnation.

It’s a funny tradition, I know. But it’s Oxford, and the carnations are yet one more Oxford tradition.

It is helpful, though. It warns everyone around the city, “Be careful, this guy’s in the middle of final exams, and you don’t want to cross him, as he just might do something crazy.”

I met up with John (Adams) and John (Ash) in the large, white canopy that stands in the middle of the courtyard just outside of the Exam Schools, where we’d begin our finals in just a few minutes. The canopy was filled with other finalists, all dressed in their sub fuscs, and all abuzz for their impending exams.

I couldn’t help but notice how calm both Johns looked, like they were doing great. They greeted me with wide smiles, and asked how I was doing.

They both stand taller than me, as well. Rarely do I feel short, but I do around them. And their confidence on this particular morning only seemed to emphasize this fact.

Soon, our rooms were called and we were asked to make our way into the Exam Schools building. In a large crowd of students dressed in their black and white sub fuscs, we made our way upstairs to the examination room, some funneling into the North Schools room, and the rest into the South Schools room.

“Take note of this, Ryan,” John Adams said to me as we climbed the stairs, “This will be the only time you will walk up a marble staircase to take an exam.”

“I hope so,” I told him.

I finished my Old Testament exam three hours later. I didn’t feel great about it, but at least it was done, and I was still alive, and that was better than I had imagined it going.

As I left the Exam Schools building that afternoon, I suddenly felt so relieved, knowing I can only give my exams my best, and at the end of this dreadful routine, I’ll come out of the other end still alive.

I returned to Harris Manchester after I had finished, after being stopped at several points by friends who were interested to hear how it went, and I began working on New Testament, for my next exam, which would be on Monday afternoon. A few people looked at me like I was crazy for returning to the library so soon after my first exam, but this would be the only time I had a full day between two of my finals, and I wanted to make sure I was making the most of it.

After several hours of revisions from the library that Saturday afternoon, I took the bus home at 10.00 that night, a full hour before the library closed. I had actually hoped to be home earlier, but it didn’t happen. I stumbled off the bus at the Green Road roundabout, and I made the 15-minute walk home, in a daze, completely exhausted from my exam and studies.

I was certain I looked like I was drunk as I carried my suit under one arm, with my laptop bag strung across my opposite shoulder, struggling to walk a straight line in my exhaustion.

Two police offers passed by on their bikes, and I stared like a zombie at them before one of them asked me, “Are you all right?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah…” was all I could manage.

I found myself wondering whether you ask “Are you all right?” as a greeting here, in the UK, or if you ask “How’s it going?” as I passed them and continued to make my walk home to the Kilns. I felt turned upside down, trying to remember what’s normal here in the UK, versus back home in the States.

I turned onto Kilns Lane as I did my best to settle this riddle, and the old palm tree that stands at the corner, on the bottom of the hill, caught my eye. It looked as though there was something like yellow flowers blooming under some of its long, green palms.

“A sign of life,” I thought to myself, and the late evening breeze played with its branches in a way that made it wave to me as I passed. I smiled as I stared back at it over my shoulder.

“A palm tree in Oxford…,” I thought to myself, “What a funny idea.”

Sunday: Becoming a Godfather

I woke up early Sunday morning and rode my bike the six miles to St Andrew’s Church in north Oxford, just a half-block from where Jen and I lived when we first moved to Oxford. I found Olli and Salla in the Church, holding Tobias, and they welcomed me with a hug. I said “hi” to Aku, another Finnish friend, who would also be one of Tobias’s Godfathers.

And then, the service began. We stood in a row in the front of the church as the vicar led us and the congregation in a series of statements, acknowledging our commitment to raising Tobias in a Godly manner. He sprinkled Tobias’s head with water, and Tobias didn’t seem to mind too much, as Olli held him, wearing a wide grin. Salla smiled, making her eyes into tiny slivers, and I smiled, too, overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to be a Godfather to this beautiful little boy, and to stay in touch with such incredible friends, in this way, no matter where our respective journeys took us.

I thanked Olli and Salla after the service, gave Tobias a kiss on his forehead, apologized that I could not join them and others in the University Parks for a celebratory picnic, and then I hopped on my bike and made my way to Harris Manchester, to get back to work on revisions for the rest of the week’s final exams.

More than Halfway There

The next week seemed to fly by as I alternated between hurrying to remind myself of my revisions work, as I flew through the notes I had spent months preparing, then sitting a three-hour exam, and then returning to my notes to prepare for my next exam.

I had my second final exam on Monday afternoon, and then two more on Tuesday, for a total of three, three-hour exams in a 24-hour period. Making my way up the marble staircase on Tuesday morning, two girls walking ahead of me seemed incredibly nervous. More so than normal.

“I seriously feel like I’m going to wet myself,” I heard one girl say to the other in a British accent.

I returned to the Exam Schools just two hours later, that afternoon, to take my second final of the day, and I ran into John Adams, who knew I was sitting two papers that day.

“What’d you take this morning, Ryan?” he asked after greeting me with a smile and a handshake.

“Uhhhh…” was all I could muster, as I considered his question for a solid five, awkward seconds.

He laughed.

“It’s okay. Don’t worry, I know you’re mentally already working on the next one.”

I was stunned. As hard as I tried, I could not think of the name of the paper I had just taken only a couple hours earlier.

“I promise, I felt really good about it,” I told John as we made our way into the Exam Schools for yet another paper.

After finishing my exam, gathering up yet another armful of notes from the library and making my way back to the Kilns, I crashed that evening. It was my fourth exam, which meant I was now more than halfway done.

I went to bed with a smile on my face that evening, knowing I was likely going to survive, and that the next day’s paper should be one of my better exams.

Wednesday: Sick to my Stomach

I woke up Wednesday morning and made my way to Harris Manchester College to prepare for my fifth final exam paper, scheduled for that afternoon. It was in Patristics (early Church fathers and development of Church doctrine), which is one of my favorite papers. I had actually been looking forward to taking it, knowing it would likely be one of my better papers.

But then, for whatever reason, I suddenly began feeling sick to my stomach as I looked over my notes from my second-story desk that morning. I felt like I was going to throw up, and I knew I couldn’t make it to the Exam Schools.

I was overwhelmed by anxiety, suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, and my forehead began burning up. I was sweating, just seated at my desk, struggling to go over my notes, and I knew I had to do something.

I made my way to the office just down the hall from the library and explained to one of the college’s Academic Administrators that I was feeling really poorly, that I felt like throwing up, that I had an exam that afternoon, and that I’d like to sit my exam from the college, if possible.

She told me that would be just fine, and that she’d go about making the arrangements if I could just call the doctor’s office and get a note from them for the University examiners, explaining my situation.

And so, instead of going over my Patristics notes, as I should have been doing, I spent the next hour dealing with hospital secretaries who insisted on explaining to me that I needed to register with their offices when I arrived in Oxford, and not two years later. After explaining my case, I ended up being put in touch with a doctor who was more than happy to help.

The college received a note from the doctors’ office just a few minutes later, and I was able to sit my exam from a small, secluded room in a corner building at college, with a guy by the name of “Tony,” from Greece, who was finishing his DPhil in law, supervising my exam.

Being there, at college, was much more relaxed than the packed Exam Schools room, and my stomach quickly settled and my anxiety lifted as I opened my question set and got to work on my exam. Looking over the paper, I was pleasantly surprised with the questions I was given, and I even ended up smiling as I made my way through the exam.

My Final Finals Dinner

After finishing my sixth exam on Thursday morning, on the European Reformation (not my best exam), I had just just over 24 hours before my last exam, on Friday afternoon. It would be my favorite exam, Modern Theology, as it was the paper I took with Philip, and I was sure it would go better than the rest of the week’s exams.

Knowing this, I gathered up some notes from college and returned to the Kilns that afternoon. I wanted to work on my notes, but I also wanted to make sure I was well rested, and that I was in bed at a reasonable hour.

Jonathan knocked on my door shortly after I arrived at the Kilns and began studying to ask if I’d like some dinner later that evening. He told me he had picked up a pork roast from the market the weekend before, and that he had planned on making me dinner one night during my exams, but that things has been busy up to this point.

I told him that sounded perfect, and he closed my door with an “Okay, great” and a smile.

I took a break from my revisions a few hours later to wander down the hallway and into the Kilns kitchen to find Jonathan working away, and a wave of incredible smells.

“Almost there,” he said to me as I entered, looking up from his work at the stove. “Would you like me to bring you a plate when it’s ready?”

“Actually,” I told him, with a pause, “If you don’t mind, I wouldn’t mind having dinner together.”

I hadn’t taken a break from my studies to have dinner with someone for months, and the thought of having an actual dinner the night before my last exam sounded perfect.

“Of course,” he said with a smile, slightly taken aback by my request, knowing how reclusive I had been during my revisions work.

So we did. And it was so good. Not only the food–Jonathan is one of the best cooks I know–but also the opportunity just to stop, to enjoy some food, and to enjoy some company. Without reading notes in-between bites.

After finishing everything on my plate, and telling Jonathan how much I appreciated the meal, he asked if I’d like some coffee (which I, of course, accepted), and then he surprised me with a berry tart he had prepared for me. The top of the tart had with the words, “Good luck, Ryan!” spelled out in blueberries and raspberries.

I returned to my room with a slice of the tart, a hot cup of coffee, and a smile on my face, overwhelmed with gratitude for the generosity of my community during such an otherwise difficult time.

Putting My Pen Down For the Last Time

I woke up feeling great Friday morning, the morning of my last exam. In fact, I could not remember the last time I felt so great. I felt like it was my birthday as I showered, put on my sub fusc, and grabbed a quick breakfast before catching a bus to the city center, knowing it was the day of my last exam, and the culmination of months of revisions.

After getting off the bus on High Street, I made the short walk to Harris Manchester where I planned to look over my notes for a few hours before taking my final exam that afternoon.

Later that day, with my last exam less than an hour away, I looked out the second-story window of the library and a wave of joy washed over me as I thought to myself, “This is it… You are almost there.”

At 2.15 that afternoon, I walked into the Exam Schools for my last final exam, into a room full of more than a hundred guys and girls, dressed in their black and white sub fusc, like a spattering of salt and pepper, and I took my seat in the middle of the room.

And it was there, from my seat, that I found myself smiling. Uncontrollably.

I couldn’t help it. I was so excited, knowing I was just three hours away from completing my Oxford degree. And knowing I felt particularly well prepared well for this last exam.

I noticed Philip standing at the front of the room, a couple minutes after taking my seat, and I realized he would be supervising the paper. His eyes caught mine as I noticed him standing at the front of the room, and he smiled back at me. I liked that he was there for my last paper. It felt right, and his presence seemed to make it that much more comfortable.

After settling in, we were giving our exam instructions, which I could now almost recite myself after hearing them for the seventh time, and then we were told to begin. I flipped open the exam paper and quickly checked off the three questions I planned to respond to, before filling my answer sheet with page after page of blue ink.

And it had never felt so good. I was able to argue my points cogently. I was able to cite my sources. I was even able to remember all of the Bible verses I wanted to use. And it all came together so smoothly. I couldn’t help but think that this was what all of my previous papers had only dreamt of being.

And then, three quick hours later, I was finished.

I placed the period at the end of my last essay with three minutes to spare. I replaced the cap on my pen, set it at the top of my desk, closed my answer sheet, and then looked up to see Philip, again, at the front of the room smiling back at me. I smiled back, with a nod and a wink, and I knew that I was now finished. I had completed what I had set out to do, two years later. And a wave of unspeakable joy swept over me.

It was then that I recalled something CS Lewis wrote, many years ago, that I had once read:

The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

And seated there in the middle of this room, filled with guys and girls in their sub fuscs, in the the Exam Schools, thinking of all the endless hours I had spent in the library; all the Greek flashcards I had written up and gone over and over and over; all the late nights of studying at home that would regularly stretch into the early morning hours of the following day; I suddenly realized what Lewis meant.

This moment, in the space between all my revisions work and the clock telling me I was now finished, before being drenched in silly string and glitter and shouts of “congratulation!” and hugs, this moment was my reward, knowing I had give it my all, and knowing that I had given it my best. And I could not feel more proud.

A Tear-Filled Phone Call

After a day or so of doing my best to get caught up on rest, and to eat as much as I possibly could, I phoned my Mom on Sunday afternoon (first thing her Sunday morning back in Washington State). She had no idea who it was when she answered, and I could hear the surprise in her voice when she heard mine.

“I’m done, Mom,” I told her. “I’ve finished my exams here, and I’m all done.”

She was was so excited to hear from me, but she was also excited to hear that I was now done, knowing what a grueling process exams had been. I had not talked with her for some time, with my revisions schedule, and she was so happy to now hear from me.

I could hear the tears in her voice as she told me how proud she was, and then I went on.

“And I wanted to tell you, Mom, we’ve been waiting to share this news until after I was finished with my exams, but we’re going to be moving back to the States. I have accepted the Duke offer.”

And that’s when I heard her scream. That’s when I really heard her tears of joy.

When she could finally talk again, she told me I didn’t know how happy she was to hear that decision. She told me that she was wanting us to go where we wanted to go, where we were supposed to go, but that she was also so excited to know we would be back in the States.

She told me how happy she was knowing it would be that much easier to come and visit us and Emma, her first grandchild. And I told her I agreed.

The E-mail I Never Thought I Would Write

I woke up much earlier than I thought I would on Monday morning. I hadn’t been able to sleep nearly as much as I imagined I would after exams had finished. My mind was still racing, and I struggled to stay in bed for more than seven hours at a time.

After getting a workout in and cleaning up, I wrote the e-mail I never thought I would write on Monday afternoon. I wrote to thank Oxford’s graduate committee for their offer of a place in the MSt program for the following year, and to let them know I wouldn’t be accepting it.

As difficult as it was, I did so in confidence, knowing we were making the right decision, and that Duke was where we were supposed to be going given what Jen and I wanted to accomplish.

But I also did so acknowledging that it felt a bit surreal, to be turning down the university I had only dreamt of coming to for so long. It felt so very strange to be writing these words, after being here, and after falling in love with Oxford long after it had only been a dream, knowing I would not be returning.

It felt silly, really. And yet, I did so in confidence, even as the tears welled in the corner of my eyes. Knowing how very tough it would be to say goodbye to this place that had not only been a dream come true, but which had made all my dreams feel so thin and frail in comparison. But I did so because we were sure God had something else in store for us.

God is So Good

I made my way to the kitchen at the Kilns after sending that e-mail, and it was there that I found Debbie. She knew of our difficult decision, and what we had decided. I told her that I had just sent off this e-mail to the Oxford Graduate Committee, as I waited for my tea to brew, and I explained that, even though I was confident of our decision, it was still so tough.

And her response took me off guard.

“God is so good, Ryan,” she said to me with a smile, in a voice of joy-filled confidence.

“Mmmm, yeah,” I said, nodding, without knowing where, exactly, she was going with this comment.

But then she continued, preparing a cup of coffee with her hands as she talked from our spot in the Kilns kitchen.

“God closed this door to Oxford for you at first, to direct you toward the path He had for you. And then, when that was clear, He went ahead and gave you the acceptance you wanted here after all.”

She finished her sentence, smiled at me, and then continued, “He is so good.”

I smiled, and nodded, realizing the truth of her words, both now and months earlier, when she had previously reminded me that God was in control.

“He really is,” I said, wrapping my arms around Debbie in a hug, and thanking her for all the encouragement she had given along the way.

Friday: Saying Goodbye to the Library

After two weeks’ worth of coffee meetings and saying “goodbye” to friends in Oxford, I stopped into Harris Manchester one last time to pick up my books and notes from the library. I put them into a pile on my desk and before picking them up to leave, I stopped to stare out the second-story window one last time.

I took in the view of the Oxford rooftops one last time, lined with shingles and chimneys poking into the pale blue afternoon sky, and I found myself overwhelmed to think I would no longer be returning here to take in this view, day after day.

With my pile of folders and notes heavy in my arms, I made my way downstairs and stopped just before walking out the double doors. I set down my notes on a large wooden desk and made a point to say goodbye to Sue, the librarian.

She noticed me coming and greeted me with a sympathetic smile. I stooped down low and wrapped her in a tight hug.

“Oh, Ryan…,” she said to me in her warm, English accent. “You’re  a big softy, aren’t you?”

I nodded, and shook slightly, knowing she could feel the warmth of my tears on the side of her head as we hugged.

“You’re making the right decision, Ryan,” she told me with a smile, now holding my shoulders at arm’s length. “And you’re going to be a great father.”

“Thanks, Sue.” I told her, wiping my tears with one hand. “Thanks for all you have done and for all you do. You really have made this place such a blessing.”

I told her goodbye, picked up my notes, and I made my way out of the large, wooden library double doors one last time.

Saturday: My Last Tours

I gave two tours of the Kilns on my last Saturday in Oxford. And it was only halfway through my second tour that afternoon that I realized it would be my final tour as a scholar living at the Kilns. And even though my speech hardly slowed as this thought crossed my mind, I found I had to fight to hold back the tears.

Everyone clapped and thanked me for my time when I finished. One guy had been filming me, for their church, and a small group of the tour said they’d pray for our future after hearing about our plans.

Several minutes later, I thanked the group, let them out through the front door, and then I sat down to catch up on a few long-overdue e-mails from the desk that sits in the common room window at the front of the house, where Lewis used to sit and work.

And, as I answered e-mails, which included writing my “goodbye” note to Walter Hooper, it all seemed to hit me at once: my time here really was coming to an end. And I couldn’t help but let the tears fall as I thought about what an incredible journey this has all been, and how sad I was that it was now wrapping up.

Sorry to Go, Excited For the Future

My good friend Rich and I were talking on a bus trip we took to Amsterdam on the second weekend after the end of exams. He had been telling me that he was going to spend the 10-hour trip persuading me to reconsider our decision, and to come back to Oxford for another year.

I think he only spent a couple hours of the ride doing so, though, so he nearly kept his word.

But after he had finished giving me a hard time, Rich said something I found particularly helpful. He told me how, at one point, someone had told him that if you’re ever too excited to leave something behind and move forward for the next phase of your life, it probably isn’t a good thing, and it probably means it wasn’t a very good experience that you’re leaving behind.

He told me he didn’t think that was the case for me. He told me it seemed like I had a pretty good balance of being sorry to go, but also excited for the future. And he said he believed that meant we were doing the right thing. He had no idea how perfect his words were.

My last few days in Oxford were some of the most tear-filled days I can remember. After Principal Waller’s speech following the Finalists Dinner, reminding the two tables of finalists from Harris Manchester that we had done it, that we had survived finals, and that we would soon be moving on to the next chapter of our life, it hit me.

“This is it…,” I realized, looking around the room, knowing this would likely be the last time I would see all of these people in the same room. “We really are moving on from here.”

And I just didn’t feel ready to say goodbye.

When I thought about all I would be leaving behind in Oxford–the routine I had come to love, the incredible people, all of the unreal places and the experiences–I was overwhelmed with sadness. To the point of tears.

Over and over again I would find myself crying during my last few days in Oxford. On my bike, riding home from the city center. From the Kilns, while I packed. But then, when I thought about returning home, finally getting to see Jen again, and then welcoming Emma into the world, I would cry tears of joy, knowing how excited I was for all of that.

It was terrible, really. I felt like was the pregnant one, not Jen. But that’s not so out of the ordinary, I suppose.

Memories Are Not People

I had a going away party at the Kilns for my last evening in Oxford. On that Sunday night. And I was so glad for the brief break from rain, so that we could enjoy the evening from the garden in front of the house.

Friends from my time here in this incredible city came over to the house and filled the garden, many with their children. We enjoyed catching up over food and drink while the rain held off, and it was great to see so many of them before leaving. It was also incredibly difficult to say “goodbye.”

I gave my friend Emily from Harris Manchester a hug when it was finally time for her to say goodbye, and to return to her essay, which was due the next day, and I reminded her that she was actually the first person I met when I arrived in Oxford. I reminded her that she was the one who had told me to stick with it when I found myself sitting in what seemed to be a room straight out of Harry Potter, in Christ Church, struggling to keep up with Greek, and making plans to return home and ask for my job back.

I thanked her for talking some sense into me, and for her friendship over the past couple of years. She told me I would have to stay in touch, even if it was just a quick line every now and then.

Our good friends’ Jarred and Chelsea’s oldest son, Noah, had greeted me with a Father’s Day card when they arrived that afternoon, before asking if I would help him build a fence out of sticks in the garden, which I did.

Later that evening, when it was time to say “goodbye,” Noah climbed into my arms, wrapped his arms around me tightly, and then placed his head on my shoulder. I told him I was going to miss him so much, as I rocked him back and forth, and I told him to be a good boy for his mummy and da.

He pulled his head up and off my shoulder before giving me a kiss, and then I returned him to the floor, only to find Chelsea waiting with Owen.

Owen was laughing, and his cheeks were red beneath his floppy blonde hair. I hugged and kissed him, before hugging Chelsea and thanking her for all of the incredible meals she had invited me over for.

Only two nights earlier I had went to their house for what I was told would be a “Mexican-themed dinner,” only to be greeted by their entire family wearing mustaches (in pencil, with the exception of Jarred), Jarred playing mariachi music on the guitar, and the four of them welcoming me in song.

Chelsea apologized for her tears before saying we would have to stay in touch. I told her I agreed, that they would have a great time in France, where they would be moving in the autumn, and then I said goodbye before kissing her forehead.

Jarred followed after Chelsea, wearing a wide smile and a tomato red sweater. I hugged Jarred tightly, thanked him for everything and I told him how much I was going to miss them all.

“Love you, man,” he told me with a smile, with one hand gripping my shoulder.

A few minutes later I found myself in front of the house, talking with Olli and Salla. Salla asked how Jen and I had done it, spending six months apart, and I told her I honestly didn’t know. I told her I was thankful it was now nearly over, even though I was going to miss Oxford and them all so much.

She pulled her bottom lip over her top lip, with sympathetic eyes and wrapped me in a hug. I thanked her and Olli, and I explained that, while it may not have seemed like much, they had made me feel like family over the past six months, just by having me around and inviting me along for day trips, while I was so far from mine.

I hated saying goodbye to them, but I did so hoping our common bond, that of my Godson Tobias, their son, would make sure we were never that far or long out of touch.

I said goodbye to many other friends that evening, not knowing when I would see them again. Britton and his wife Michelle. Max and Michelle and Rich and Christine, who I had traveled with to Amsterdam the weekend before, and who I had met with, in prayer, on a nearly weekly basis in prayer for the past year and a half.

And it was later that evening when I was told something that helped with all of these goodbyes, something that was, perhaps, the most insightful thing I have heard in a long, long time.

I was talking with a friend of mine by the name of Ignacio from our seats around the dining room table. Ignacio is from Argentinia and he also studied at Harris Manchester. He first came to Oxford seven years ago to do his graduate studies in Theology, and he is one of the very few who had managed to stay on after finishing his degree, earning himself a rare teaching and research position.

After many of the evening’s guests  had said “goodbye” and made their way home in the late evening, I asked Ignacio if he still has a tough time saying goodbye year after year, to those he had come to know and grow close to. And I was touched by the insight of his words.

“Yes, it’s still really difficult,” he told me in his Argentinean accent, and in a voice that rang of sympathetic sincerity. “Not with everyone, of course, but with those who get into your heart.”

He paused for a moment, to think about his words, and then he continued on.

“It took me a couple of years to learn this, but memories are not people, Ryan. When you realize that, you realize that life changes, but those people are still there, and that makes saying goodbye not nearly so difficult.”

I clung to those words in my final hours in Oxford. Knowing how difficult it was to say goodbye to this incredible city and the amazing people I had met there, I reminded myself that it was not really goodbye. To the memories, maybe, but not to the people. And I was so thankful for those words.

Breakfast in the Garden

Debbie made omelettes for my last morning at the Kilns. It was a sunny morning, and it was just her and I and Cole at the house, as Cole was visiting for the week from St Andrew’s, in Scotland. It was so good to see him again and to say goodbye before leaving, as he was one of my first and closest friends in Oxford.

The three of us sat in the garden in front of the house from wooden tables and chairs, and after Debbie had prayed, we talked as we enjoyed our eggs and toast and fruit juice. Leaves on the trees danced gently in the soft breeze to the sound of birds chirping, and I glanced at my watch every few minutes, knowing it was my final hour at the Kilns, and that my time in Oxford was quickly drifting away.

“Are you going to make it my performance in August?” Cole asked as we ate, turning to Debbie.

“I hope to, yes,” she said. “But I need to add it to my calendar. I’m learning that my time here in Oxford goes much more quickly than I realize.”

They continued talking about Cole’s upcoming show as my thoughts stayed on Debbie’s words. She didn’t realize it, but they spoke more truth into that moment than I could have had I tried.

When All Our Dreams Came True

I had been sitting behind my second-story desk in the Harris Manchester library about a month earlier, just before the two-year anniversary of Hayley’s death, when my revisions work was interrupted by a picture of Jen that came to my mind.

I pictured myself seeing her again at the airport in Seattle when I returned home. I pictured myself wrapping her up in my arms in the tightest hug I could muster. I pictured myself stroking my fingers through her hair and staring into her eyes. I pictured her smile, that smile that stole my heart more than a decade earlier.

And then, unexpectedly, I pictured Hayley in this same scene. As I said, it was only a couple weeks shy of the anniversary of her death when this picture came to me, and she had been on my mind. I pictured Hayley approaching us, Jennifer and I, and wearing her bright, squinty-eyed smile. And for whatever reason, it wasn’t a shock to us; we were just happy to see her again.

I pictured Hayley putting her hand on Jen’s belly and just smiling. She was so happy. And then I saw her turn to Jen and I and say, “All of your guys’s dreams have come true, haven’t they?”

And sitting there in the Harris Manchester library on this particular afternoon, picturing this scene, I was struck by these words. I was struck by these words because, though I had not realized it at the time, and though I wouldn’t have said so myself, I realized she was right: all of our dreams had come true. In ways I had not imagined, perhaps. But they had.

I arrived here in Oxford hoping to write in a way that helped others see Christ more clearly. And even amidst my studies, I had been told time and time again how others had been encouraged by our journey. Both from people I knew, and from perfect strangers who had read my words along the way.

And I realized the goal I had set out for Oxford with, to help others see Christ more clearly through my writing, had been accomplished. I didn’t have a book to show for it, but I had letters from others that said so.

But it wasn’t just that. I had now finished my studies at Oxford, something I had only dreamt of doing for so many years, and we were expecting our first child, something Jen had dreamt of since she was a young girl.

I hadn’t realized it at the time, when things had seemed so dark in those endless days and nights spent away from Jen, revising for exams, but on this afternoon when my studies were interrupted by a picture of seeing Jen again, and of Hayley, I realized she was right. All of our dreams were coming true. All at once, it seemed. And I hadn’t even realized it, as I was far too close. But once I took a step back, I could see how it had all come together. I could see how it had all unfolded right under my nose.

And as I sat back in my chair from the second-story desk, tears welled up in the bottom of my eyelids, and a smile spread across my face. I turned toward the window and stared out at the sun peaking out from behind the white, cotton-ball clouds lying low over the peaks of the Oxford rooftops along Mansfield Road. I looked out at the view I had seen so many times before, the view I realized I would soon be leaving behind as I returned home, and I listened as Chris Martin’s voice played in my earphones, with his words narrating my thoughts,

Nobody said it was easy,
It’s such a shame for us to part;
Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard;

Oh, take me back to the start.”

The End Beginning

Two years ago I found myself seated in the Seattle-Tacoma airport, staring out at the tarmac, and wondering what in the world I was doing.

My wife and I had just given our notices at our jobs, great jobs we both loved. We had liquidated our retirement accounts and moved them into our checking accounts, to pay for school. We said goodbye to our friends and family, and we left home. Afraid. Not knowing how this was all going to work out, but believing, in faith, that He was going to use this, all of this, to help reveal Himself to others. To help tell His story.

And now, two years later, I can look back and smile, with the knowledge that He was guiding us every step of the way. It was not always easy, nor was it always fun. In fact, there were some times along the way that were far more difficult and painful than I’ve been able to now share here.

And yet, as I’ve said here and elsewhere before, I cannot look back on this journey without seeing God’s hand at work, time and time again. I simply do not know how this all could have worked out apart from His work in our lives along the way. I can tell you, there were many, many times where I really did not know how things were possibly going to work out. And yet, they did. Time after time after time.

But they didn’t just work out, things have been even more incredible than I could ever have imagined. As I look back on our time in England, in Oxford, I can hardly believe some of the experiences we’ve had. That two kids from Everson, Washington would get to enjoy the kind of experiences we’ve had is just unreal to me, and I would not have believed you had you told me before we left about the experiences we would have along the way.

Being paid to be a tour guide of CS Lewis’s old home… Serving as President of the Oxford University CS Lewis Society… And then, actually living in CS Lewis’s old home… Not to mention all of the incredible relationships we have gained from this experience. Friendships I am sure will last the rest of our lives, with people from around the world.

And I shudder to think how close we came to never actually experiencing all of this. Had we not decided to take this step out in faith; had we come to the conclusion that security was worth more to us than the risk of following Him in faith; had we not decided to follow where we believed He was leading us; none of this would have ever happened.

And now, two years later, it’s all coming to an end. The goal that we came here with is now complete. Our time in Oxford is now finished. It’s the end of this story, but it’s just the beginning of another. And I could not be more excited.

I’m saying goodbye to Oxford. To all the friends we’ve come to know here. To all the people who’ve come to feel like family. I’m saying goodbye to all of the experiences we’ve had here. All of the places I love. And I’m returning to the States. To see my wife again. To hold her in my arms again and to kiss her forehead when I tell her goodnight, after being apart for longer than we have ever been in the more than 10 years I’ve known her.

Very soon, I’ll be back in the States, to feel my baby girl kick for the first time, and to prepare for her arrival. And then, shortly after Emma arrives, to pack up our things and prepare to move across the country. To make our new home in North Carolina and to start our new adventure at Duke.

Very soon, I’ll once again take my seat at the airport, staring out the window at a tarmac that stretches into the horizon, not knowing exactly where this next journey is going to take us, and I’ll smile. I’ll smile because this time will be different.

Perhaps the greatest thing about this journey, to me, is that I’ve come to learn that I can rely on Him in a way I didn’t previously know how. Because I now know that, while it may be incredibly difficult at times, He is guiding us, as He has always been.

And even when I can’t see it, even when I can’t feel it, He is at work. And He is working it all out for good. Not only so that we might just get by, but so that we might experience an incredible picture of His handiwork here and now, on the gray canvas of everyday life.

Like a beautiful sunset melting into the horizon at the end of the day in a mixture of blues and purples and pinks, in a breathtaking display of His work, I pray you might get to the end of this story, nudge the person next to you and say, “Look. Just look at that… Isn’t He incredible?”

Thank you for reading my words and for following our journey. I hope it has been, in some small way, a gift in your life as it has been in mine. And my prayer is that He might bless you and be near to you as He has us.

With love and gratitude,

Ryan (& Jen)

www.RyanAndJenGoToEngland.wordpress.com

A Desire for Brains & Just Two More Weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Home

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

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

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

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

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

Casting Crowns at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Have you heard of Casting Crowns?”

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

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

A Real Decision on Our Hands

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Tired & Feeling Refreshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refreshing Words of Encouragement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honored to Be a Godfather

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

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

My Meeting with Philip

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

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

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

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

He smiled, then continued.

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

I laughed outloud.

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

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

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

He looked surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but she will one day.”

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Asleep on my Bike Ride Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Alarm & A Different Ballgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner With John & John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all laughed, and John Adams nodded.

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

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

Last Week Before Exams

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

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

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

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

A Conversation With CS Lewis’s Stepson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I agreed.

A Voice of Confirmation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that you have to go, mind you.”

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

The Last Day Before Finals

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

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

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

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

You hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterwards you will receive me

with honour.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

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

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion for ever.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

to tell of all your works.

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

The  Start of Trinity Term

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of Good News

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

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

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

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

“Dear Mr Ryan Pemberton,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Job Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Our Decision a Little Easier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guys’ Night Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News I Wasn’t Expecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding to Stick it Out

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

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

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

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

Chasing My Own Tail

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

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

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

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

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

Wondering if I Wasn’t Going Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helicopter Backflips and Envying Families

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

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

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

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

Looming Finals

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

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

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

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

Infinite Times Smarter Than You

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

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

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

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

Praying for Clarity

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

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

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

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

The Thought of Leaving Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Theology Makes us DO something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Saturday: Banana ketchup & Christmas in January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: House dinner & Big news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An imaginary conversation with the wife of my youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our friend the Pope & Social transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Growing old together & How quickly things change

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: I love baptisms & So tired I could puke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Lunch at Keble & Oh, Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different approach to ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: My first moose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: A fake English accent & God’s hiddenness 

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

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

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

An explanation of divine hiddenness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Old friends & Adopted by Finns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh wow…,” I said, with big eyes.

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

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

“And?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running into a familiar bearded face

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kilns tour for the neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: A note from home & Walter quoting Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We miss her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note from home

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

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

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

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

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

First Lewis Society of the Term

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Getting my seat back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: My 1st Tutorial & A real myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

A real myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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