Archives for posts with tag: Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society

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.

Advertisements

Saturday: A boys’ choir, dinner at the Turf and a late night conversation

I led a tour around The Kilns on Saturday, before Jen and I made our way into the Oxford city center that evening. We had plans to check out the boys’ choir evensong service in New College before grabbing dinner in town and making a date night out of the evening.

Jen had never been to New College before, and it was fun to be able to show her around. New College has to be one of my favorite college grounds. First, because it’s massive. Second, because it’s so old. Even though it’s called “New” College, it is still more than 600 years old. It’s massive stone walls and high-arching wooden doors make you feel as though you’ve traveled back in time. Back to the middle ages. And I love it.

We took our seats, Jen and I, in a long wooden pew in the college chapel just a few minutes before the evensong service was scheduled to being. The high-ceilinged room was dark, and the only thing illuminating the darkness were candles interspersed throughout the pews where people sat. It was a beautiful setting, with light dancing off the ornately carved walls as the candles flickered, and it was quiet apart from the sound of people’s feet shuffling as they found their seats.

Soon, the boys’ choir had entered, and the service had begun. If we felt as though we had traveled back in time before, now we certainly did. The choral hymns reverberated off the walls in a way that seemed to swallow up the setting and then come chasing into your eardrums, transporting you to a time centuries earlier. The singing was beautiful, and I was so thankful to share it with Jen.

After the service, we followed the train of people leaving the service like a snake escaping into the darkness before we broke off from the group and I led Jen through a shortcut across the College grounds and we passed through the same, high-arching, massive wooden doors that would’ve been used to let in, or keep out, large horse-drawn carriages. We continued along the lane in front of New College and a few minutes later we took a sharp turn down a narrow alley, before passing through a low doorway, through a short tunnel and then entering into the Turf Tavern, which has quickly become of our favorite pubs to frequent.

The only down side of the Turf is that it’s not just one of our favorite pubs, it’s a very popular spot, and it’s regularly completely full of people. We walked around most of the pub, unable to find a seat, and we were about ready to leave for another pub, where we might have better luck, when I stopped dead in my tracks at the sound of a familiar voice. As I turned, I realized we had walked right past Jonathan, our housemate at the Kilns, without even realizing it!

“Hey, Jonathan!” I said, turning as I recognized him.

Apparently he had not noticed us, either, as he looked completely surprised to see us.

“Ryan, Jennifer, hey!” he welcomed us with a smile, and introduced us to the woman he was talking to. “This is Stephanie,” he told us, “An old friend from London.”

Apparently they were just preparing to leave, as Jonathan had a dinner party to make, so they offered us their table. I felt bad taking it, as if we were cutting short their conversation, but they insisted. So we did. Jen took Stephanie’s seat, and I placed our food order at the pub counter. The room is filled with lots of dark wooden beams, and the low-hanging ceiling appears to be held up by the same.

After a very tasty meal at the turf–I’m so thankful my wife loves pub food as much as I do!–we made our way across town, to another pub (the Red Lion), and we continued our conversation over an order of sticky toffee pudding that we shared.

Once the plate that our pudding arrived on was nearly licked clean, and no remnants of the warm caramel dessert were left, we hopped on a bus and headed back to the Kilns. It had been a great night. It seemed like the perfect date, really. And we were still deep in conversation as we made our way on-foot up to the Kilns.

Because of this, I asked Jen if she’d like to continue our conversation up at the pond. Even though it was dark, there was a nice brick bench beside the water that I suggested as a good spot to continue our conversation. After a pause, Jen agreed. So we made our way up the small footpath leading to the pond, we passed through the small metal gate, and then we took our seat at the edge of the pond.

There was a slight wind as we spoke, causing the late fall leaves to blow into the water, as they fell like snowflakes in the dark. Fireworks left over from the Guy Fawkes Day celebration the previous weekend crackled in the distance and lit up the night sky as we talked. And it was like we were dating all over again. Jen talked, while I listened, mostly, and I found myself smiling at the scene of us, seated there together. As I realized that this woman who knows me better than anyone else was now encouraging me in our future together. It was from this spot that we talked for hours, sharing life and prayer requests. And it was from this spot that I realized I simply could not love her more.

6th Week

Tuesday: Roses from my Wrist

I was working on a presentation and essay on Tuesday afternoon, from the library at Harris Manchester, when I received an e-mail from my Dad. At the end of his note, he mentioned the fact that it’s weird to think I’m in England right now, as he had worked in England on occassion when I was growing up. And now the roles were reversed. And it was only when I read his words that I was reminded that we are actually in a foreign country right now. I know it sounds funny, but often times I forget that. I guess it has come to feel so natural, living here (all over again).

Joy’s Poems at the Lewis Society

Tuesday night was a big night at the Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society. I had invited a speaker to join us, a professor from the States by the name of Don King (not that Don King) who is an expert on Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis’s wife, and who had recently been given a collection of Joy’s never-before-seen poems. Apparently they had been stored away in a friend of Joy’s attic, and they had only recently been found, by this woman’s daughter. This was the first time these poems of Joy’s had been shared with a public group, and the room was packed as people came out to hear them.

Don used a projector to display each poem on a large screen so they entire room could see them, and someone was chosen to read each poem aloud as we made our way through her works.

I’m not usually one for poetry, but I was completely taken aback by her writing. It was honest and heartfelt in a way I’ve probably never seen before. It was revealing, in terms of her relationship with Lewis, and her desire for him long before they had even met.

Joy had been introduced to Lewis through his writing. She had always been introduced to Christ through his writing, as she was raised as a Jewish woman, and she went on to spend years involved with the Communist Party. One of things many people don’t realize about Joy, though is that she was quite brilliant in her own right. So brilliant, in fact, that she graduated high school at the age of just 14, and she went on to attend University in New York in the same year.

Apparently Lewis was reluctant to get involved, romantically, with Joy at first, because of her marriage, which ended in divorce after a long-time separation around the time she first visited Lewis in England. It was not known whether she had shared her poems with Lewis or not, but they spoke, deeply, of her love and longing for him. Her words were honest and heavy, and they made your own heart heavy just hearing them.

After we had read through the entirety of her recently found poetry, several of us retired to the Eagle & Child pub, just down the street, to chat a bit more about her poems.

One of the lines that stood out to me most, and which I brought up to the group now huddled around a low, thick-wooden table in the Eagle & Child, was when Joy talked about offering Lewis crimson-colored roses from her wrists, and asked whether he would accept them. It was the kind of word picture that took your breath away.

Dr Michael Ward commented on the fact that these words appeared, to him at least, as something of a premonition. It was only a few short years later, after Joy had penned these words, that she would find herself lying on what was believed to be her deathbed in an Oxford hospital. She was stricken with bone cancer, and none of her medical staff thought she would leave the hospital alive. It was at this point that she and Lewis were married, in a ceremony at her bedside. Miraculously, Joy’s cancer went into a period of remission, and they enjoyed three wonderful years of marriage from the Kilns.

But the thought of all of this, of Joy’s words years earlier, of her offering herself in love to Lewis, even if it meant her death, and then this scene of them marrying at what was supposed to be her deathbed, it was all enough to send a chill shivering down your spine.

It was nearly 11:00 that night when five of us–Jennifer and myself, Debbie, Don King, and Malcom Guite, the self-described “furry little man from Cambridge”–tucked into a cab and made our way back to the Kilns, after talking for an hour or so at the Eagle & Child.

Wednesday: Conversation with a Pagan

I had my tutorial with Dr Kennedy on Wednesday afternoon. I alway enjoy our time together. Our conversations. And, perhaps the best part, is finishing the essay you’ve spent two weeks preparing. There’s nothing better than finishing an essay. But, having it go well helps, too.

After my tutorial, I returned to Harris Manchester to get a bit more reading done when I passed by Sue, the librarian, in the hallway leading to the staircase I would take to the library. She made a large sigh as she walked out of an office door just as I was passing by.

“Yeah?” I asked, in response to the sigh, turning my head to look at her as we were now walking side-by-side.

Sue was walking quickly, throwing her arms back and forth to keep up me. “I keep telling myself, ‘there’s got to be a better way to earn a living!'” she said with a laugh. I laughed in reply as I climbed the stairs and headed back to the library.

The Oxford Open Forum

The Oxford Open Forum meeting was that night, and so, after a bit of reading in Harris Manchester, I packed up my things and headed to Jesus College, where we would be meeting on this particular evening.

Jesus College is a small, old college in the middle of the city center. Its high stone walls are the only thing that separate the sanctity that seems to loom like a thick fog in the college’s inner quads and classrooms from the busyness of the shopping and restaurants and people passing by outside its walls.

I made my way through the college entrance, showing my ID to the porter, and I followed the directions I had been given to find my way to the classroom where we’d be meeting.

There was only one other person there when I arrived. An older Pagan woman who I knew, and he is incredibly kind and soft-spoken. And, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, we would be the only two people making up the Open Forum that evening.

And so we began talking, as we waited for others to show up. She told me about how her mother tried to get her to go to church as a young girl. And how she’d have to go to Sunday school. But she didn’t like it.

“It never stuck,” she said, quite pointedly. “I didn’t like the control,” she continued, now with a distorted face. “You must do this, this and this, or else you go to hell and burn for eternity.”

I gave a face that showed I sympathized with her.

“So, after putting up a fight for all those years, finally she stopped forcing me to go,” she told me, now looking rather triumphant.

“How old were you then?” I asked her. Her brow now lowered as she thought.

“Oh, about 12, I suppose.”

And I struggled to wrap my mind around this response. Even if I conceded to this understanding of Christianity, that we must obey a body of rules and laws, or else we’ll burn for eternity in hell (which I feel is a misunderstood interpretation of the Scriptures), I still don’t see how I could ever respond this way. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the Bible is pretty clear on the destiny of those who aren’t covered by the grace made possible by Jesus’s sacrifice, I also believe Christianity is about more than following a long list of rules.

But I’m getting off topic… It was this woman’s response to what she thought Christianity was about that puzzled me. I was puzzled by the fact that she simply stopped believing in the Christian God because of the punishment she was told she’d receive if she didn’t obey this long list of rules. And I didn’t understand the logic in that. I’m not about to stop believing in electricity, for example, just because you tell me I’ll get shocked if I stick my finger in an electrical outlet.

Still, there was no one else around, and I was curious, so I asked her to continue, and she did. She told me how it wasn’t until her 50’s before anything “stuck.”

“Why’s that?” I asked her. “Why then?”

“Well, I underwent an incredible change…,” she told me, pausing, somewhat dramatically. She was clearly deep in thought as she spoke. “Everything sort of fell apart and I had the opportunity to start over.”

I told her it seems like, for many of us, that’s the only thing that gets us to the point of asking such questions. She nodded in agreement. And gave an “Mmmm…” to back it up.

But I found it odd, hearing her talk about her search at that point, how she ended up at Paganism. After searching through “all the other religions.” Because that one fit best. Like a t-shirt. Or a pair of jeans. Not because it was what she believed to be most true, but because it fit her.

Again, I struggled to wrap my mind around this response, and I chewed on it as I made my way back home to the Kilns that night, first on the  bus, then on my walk up Kilns Lane and along Lewis Close.

Thursday: Making sense of it all

I was still thinking about this conversation when I was walking down Cornmarket Street late Thursday afternoon, in the cold evening air. It was dark out, and I was running errands.

A man was playing bagpipes on one end of the street, as people carrying shopping bags passed by. The young guy was playing “Amazing Grace,” and a small group of people were gathered around him. He looked like a student, with his bag open in front of him, waiting for donations.

Then, walking a bit further, I came across a young woman who was sitting on the ground on the opposite end of the street. She was covered in a blanket, and she had two dogs by her side. She was playing a recorder, but it was drowned out by the sound of the bagpipes from the young guy playing down the street. She was staring off in his direction as people passed by her. No one stopped to put any change in her hat, which was sitting face up in front of her.

And I found myself overwhelmed at this sight. Thinking about how cold the night air was. And how I simply couldn’t imagine having to spend the night outside in this weather. I found myself overwhelmed by the brokenness of this scene. And not only of this scene, but by all of this. By everything around us. I found myself thinking, “Whatever you believe, somehow you have to deal with this brokenness.”

Somehow, whatever you believe as to make sense of the fact that some of us go hungry and sleep on the cold, wintry sidewalk each night, while others pass by on their way to a warm meal and a warm home. And it just doesn’t make sense to me.

“This isn’t right,” I found myself thinking as I made my way past this young girl. This can’t possibly be how it was supposed to be. And whatever you believe, somehow you have to deal with this.

I think the Christian story is not only the most beautiful response to this problem–that a God who is both hurt by how we’ve wronged Him, in our disobedience, is also hurt, heartbroken, at the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, and so He’s sent His only Son to make it right–I think it’s also grounded in history. That’s why I believe the Christian account of reality. Not just because it appeals to my heart, but because it appeals to my head, as well.

And I found myself thinking, as I walked, “I don’t want to believe this halfway. Either all the way or nothing at all.” And I prayed that that would always be the case for me. That I would believe this story with my whole heart. With my whole being. And that I would live it out. And that it would always be that way.

Ravi Zacharias and An Infant Rescued from Snake Alley

After running a few errands, I met up with Jen that night, who was working from Starbucks, and we made our way to St Aldate’s Church together. A guy by the name of Ravi Zacharias was speaking from St Aldates that evening, and I was excited to hear from him. I had heard of his name, and I had several friends who worked for the missions organization named after him, but I had never actually heard him speak in-person.

I was instantly taken aback by just how easy this man was to listen to, as he took the stage to a loud round of applause that evening. He was soft spoken, in a way that made him seem inviting to listen to, and personable, but he also managed to be very serious and intentional with each word, at the same time.

He shared with us how he had come to the Christian faith when he was just 19 years old, after having attempted suicide. He told us about how he was from India, and how none of his family were Christians, but how, when no one was there for him, except his mother, when he was lying in bed in a cold hospital after attempting to starve himself, a stranger visited and gave him a Bible, and told him there was hope, and that life was worth living.

He told us about how this experience changed the rest of his life, and how he has spent nearly the past 40 years traveling the world sharing with others who Christ is and why His life matters to us, here and now.

Ravi talked, as those in the old, stone church listened, about how those who hold to a secular worldview have a problem when it comes to how we are able to distinguish between what is good and what is evil. He talked about how, ultimately, those who hold to such a belief system are only able to distinguish good from evil based on what is practical for us. Based on what we want to call “good,” and what we want to call “evil.”

As he spoke, I was reminded of an article I had read recently. It was from an interview with the well-known Atheist Richard Dawkins, and he was being asked about this very issue. Dawkins had just made the point that our concepts of good and evil are simply a product of our culture, and he went on to say that we could imagine, if we tried, a culture that disagrees completely with our concept of good and evil.

In response, the interviewer brought the conversation to a point when he asked Dawkins if he thought this included rape. He asked Dawkins if he could, theoretically, imagine a culture that believed the practice of rape was not wrong, but good. His response, after some thought, was yes, yes he could envision such a culture.

My thoughts returned to the conversation at-hand as Ravi Zacharias began sharing a story about a trip he once took to Taiwan. He told us how he was sitting on an airplane, waiting for it to take off, when a woman sat down beside him. He told us how he asked her what she did, and she told him how she was involved in rescuing those enslaved by the sex trade.

Ravi asked this woman whether her trip to Taipei had been successful, and she told him it had. With a look of excitement, she told him about the infant she had rescued the night before.

And it was then that Ravi’s voice turned more serious than I had heard it all night. He told us how this woman had, the night before, found herself in Snake Alley, rescuing an infant from the hands of a man who had just fried his brains with a shot of snake blood, and who was about to have his way with this young child.

Ravi stopped talking at this point, and he looked out at the people gathered in St Aldates that evening, to hear from him. My eyes were misted over and it was all I could do to hold back my tears.

“You cannot tell me that this man’s intentions were anything other than evil,” Ravi spoke up once again, breaking the silence.

A Metaphor in the Stars

Jen and I hopped on a bus and made our way back to the Kilns together that evening, discussing the talk at St Aldates as we traveled. The bus dropped us off at the end of Lewis Close, and we walked the 100 feet or so up to the house.

As we walked, I found myself staring up into the dark, night sky. At the stars glimmering in the darkness. And I spoke up to Jen as I did.

“Does it blow you away to think that the same constellations you can pick out back home in the States you find halfway around the world, here in England?”

Jen paused, for a moment. To think about my question. Before replying, “No, because I don’t look for them in the States, and I don’t look for them here. I look where I’m going, rather than staring up at the stars.”

“Hmmm… Is that a metaphor?” I asked Jen, as she used her keys to open the front door.

“No, it’s just what I do,” she replied.

“I think it’s a metaphor,” I said, as I followed her into the house, cleaning the wet leaves from the bottom of my shoes, before stepping inside.

Friday: Could Not be Happier & A Terrible Surprise

I finished my weekly essay on John Calvin early this week, which meant I had some extra time to work on the essay I was writing on CS Lewis, Pagan mythology and Christianity. I don’t often find time for this, so I was thankful for the extra time to read from the Rad Cam.

I spent the morning reading several articles for my essay before heading to the Mitre Pub, to listen to a talk on the topic of Hell, and whether a Good God could actually allow such a thing.

I found a seat by my friend Tom, who works for the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and I told him how much I enjoyed the talk the night before. Tom was happy to hear it. He smiled, and nodded, as I talked.

“The thing that’s so great about Ravi,” Tom said, matter-of-factly, “Is that he removes the cultural argument against Christianity. He’s an Indian man from an Indian family, and he loves Jesus Christ as Lord.”

After the talk, I made my way back to the Kilns, as I had a tour to give that afternoon. The group were all Americans, and they all really seemed to enjoy the tour. As I made my way around the house, pointing out different pictures along the way, and telling stories about C.S. Lewis and his time at the house, I kept thinking, “I get paid to do this…” I was still waiting for the catch as I finished the tour and then spent some time getting caught up on e-mails over hot English tea and cucumber sandwiches from Lewis’s brother’s old study.

That evening, I told Jen I’d take care of dinner, and so I made a trip to the market and came back with fixings for tacos. It was while I was browning the hamburger and listening to music from C.S. Lewis’s old kitchen when it struck me, “I really do not feel like I could be any happier!”

But that’s when things changed. That’s when I received some surprising news that brought me from feeling like I was walking on clouds to feeling as though I was struggling to find my way in the dark, all over again.

A couple weeks earlier, I had a call with a publishing company back in the States. They had read a manuscript I had finished over the summer, and they were really excited about the idea of working with me to publish it. Wanting to get to know me a little bit better, after reading my words, we arranged a time for a Skype call. Even though it was the end of a rather long day for me here in Oxford, and even though we didn’t start talking until 10:30 that night, it went great. They basically started the call by saying, “We don’t know how long this will take, maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20 minutes. We just want to get to know you a little bit better.” Over an hour later, we were saying “goodbye” and they told me I could expect to hear back in a couple weeks with their decision. Because of how well the call went, I had began to believe that this was really going to go through.

But that’s when I heard back from them, on this particular Friday night, as I was preparing dinner. I received an e-mail letting me know that, as much as they loved my writing, and as much as they enjoyed getting to know me, they didn’t think now was the right time, largely because of the questions about what I would be doing after my time here in Oxford.

I was crushed.

I read the e-mail jut as we were sitting down to eat, and Jen could see the look of pain on my face as I did.

“What,” Jen said, looking over the top of my laptop. “What is it?”

I turned the computer around, so Jen could read it for herself, and all of a sudden I was no longer hungry.

We talked for a bit, Jen and I, from the kitchen. She told me this didn’t change anything. That she still thought this would go through, someday, but maybe just not with this particular publisher. She told me she still believed in me, and in my writing, and not to get too down about it.

I thanked her for her encouragement, and then I excused myself. I threw on my coat, and I grabbed my hat, before stepping outside, into the cool night air, and making my way the short walk up to the pond that sits just behind the house.

I sat on the brick bench alone in the dark, the same brick bench Jen and I had talked from a few days before, when the leaves fell like snowflakes, and I allowed my thoughts to race at this news.

“I really have no idea what I’m doing,” I thought to myself, “If this doesn’t go through.”

All of the excitement I had felt about life and where we were going, just an hour earlier, now seemed to be long gone. It felt as though it had run off with someone else, and that I was left alone, sickened by its absence.

And so I prayed. I called out to God, wondering what I was supposed to do with all of this. Wondering how He was going to work through all of this. And wondering, ultimately, where I was supposed to be heading.

It was there, in the cold, late-night air, beside this pond where Lewis used to sit and think, that I found myself now calling out to God. With many tears, I sat there and listened to the nearly-silent air that passed through the trees. And, even though I was all alone, and even though if someone were there, seated beside me, they wouldn’t have seen anything change, or hear any voices, I suddenly felt God encouraging me. I suddenly felt a peace of mind about the whole situation. I remembered Jen’s words she had spoken to me from this same spot just a few days before, and I felt Him reminding me that He still has plans for all of this, even when I cannot see them.

And suddently, even though nothing had changed, it was though things had. I was still hurt by this news, sure. And I was still struggling to figure out where that left us, but I no longer felt overwhelmed by it. Suddenly, in a way I can’t completely explain, I knew He was going to work through all of this in an incredible way. In a way I would never have believed were someone to tell me about it when we first set out for Oxford.

I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my jacket and smiled a bit as I stared out across the pond into the darkness. I thanked God for never leaving me alone, even when I feel so alone. And scared. And I made my way back toward the house. And back to my wife.

Saturday: Our trip to Blenheim Palace, and the Reason for Hayley’s Words

We woke up Saturday morning, Jen and I, and we made our way across town and caught a bus outside of the city to Blenheim Palace, an incredibly large, beautiful building that sits on more than 100 acres in the English countryside just outside of Oxford.

The palace was hosting a Christmas-themed fair this weekend. With crafts and food. And we decided to spend the day there, taking it in.

We had both been to Blenheim Palace before, but it’s still enough to take your breath away.

As you walk along the footpath leading up the palace, you’re welcomed by a stretching scene of a slow-moving river and a large bridge, with the palace sitting on a hill in the background. It’s beautiful, and it feels a bit like you’ve just been transported into a Jane Austen novel.

It was a beautiful day when we visited Blenheim. It was cold, but the sky was blue and only interspersed with white clouds, slowly gliding by in the horizon.

We enjoyed looking through the different craft booths that day, stopping to pick up a few Christmas gifts for our family. We enjoyed hot roast pork sandwhiches for lunch, and, for dessert, we shared a cup of hot cocoa.

When our stomachs were full and warm, we walked to the edge of the palace courtyard and took photos. Of the palace. Of ourselves in front of it. Sometimes jumping or making funny faces, to crack each other up. Other times just smiling, or taking in the scene.

I had so much fun with my wife that day. And it helped to take my mind off the news we had received the night before.

It was dark by the time we took the bus home that night. And we talked as we did, as the bus pulled around corners, maneuvering its way through the tight Oxford lanes.

And we continued talking as we walked the short distance from our bus stop to the Kilns. We talked about Jen’s sister Hayley. And this news. And something Hayley had said to me, before we left home. And before she passed away.

“Hayley believed in this, you know?” Jen reminded me in a serious tone as we walked. She paused, as her eyes became glossy from holding back her tears. As did mine.

“She believed in you and your writing,” Jen continued. “It made a difference in her life. And even though I don’t think that’s why she’s gone, I do think that maybe God knew you’d need that, as motivation.”

The tears fell slowly as her words came, warming my cheeks in the cold night air as we walked. And it was then I knew that no matter how bad this news hurt, I couldn’t let it stop me from doing what we came here to do.

Hayley believed in this, Jen reminded me. So did Jen. I had to, too.

Friday: Playing catch up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: A Stadium of Saints and Tea with Walter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theology Through Art

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

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

My eyebrows went up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea with Walter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Week

Monday: Our Culturally Relevant Library

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed.

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

Halloween from the Kilns

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Realizing I stole Alister McGrath’s seat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Talking with Dr Kennedy about Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: FBI security in the Bodleian Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I thought this was applicable to the point Tom was now making, as he talked about how often times it’s only the pain and suffering we experience in this world that leads us to God. Were we not to experience the painful consequences of our life choices, we would likely continue down the same painful road, completely unaware of just how bad things were getting. We would continue to journey further and further away from Him, further into greater and greater darkness, without realizing it.

But, thankfully, we do feel pain. We do feel the brunt force of suffering. In fact, we all have this shared sense that things simply aren’t how they are supposed to be. That things have gone painfully wrong. And that we need something to make it right. That we need something to make us right.

I was chewing on this thought when I was rushed back to the conversation at hand in the upstairs room at the Mitre Pub at the mention of C.S. Lewis’s name, who was once again being quoted by Tom. It was a quote I was fondly familiar with. A quote from the book Mere Christianity. The very same book that had caused me to look into Theology and Oxford in the first place.

‘If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong?’ For many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question…My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish could not feel wet.”

That was the thought I found myself chewing on even as I left Tom’s talk that afternoon. That this very awareness of pain and suffering in the world–the feeling I hate so much, the overwhelming feeling that brings tears to my eyes and stops me dead in my tracks with not a moment’s notice–it all points me to Him. This sense of right and wrong and justice must come from outside of this world, for this world, as long as we have known it, has always been broken.

A broken down world cannot recognize its own brokenness, not if that’s what it has always known. No, it takes something that is not broken, something that remains outside of this brokenness, to properly recognize the current state of affairs as broken. This point causes us to look outside our world, beyond our world, to a God who is, Himself, the opposite of this brokenness. Who is, indeed, just and good, where here we seem to experience only the opposite. Indeed, it appears, our innate sense that things simply are not as they ought to be and frustration at this truth, far from causing us to turn our backs on God, causes us to turn toward Him, knowing that if it weren’t for Him and for His goodness, we wouldn’t feel this way in the first place.

I made my way back to the Radcliffe Camera and back to my essay, even as I continued to think about this. I climbed up the spiral, stone staircase leading into the upstairs half of the Rad Cam as my mind continued to walk through Tom’s talk, and it came to land on another quote made in this afternoon’s talk. It was a quote from an American Philosopher by the name of Alvin Plantinga. A highly respected academic who teaches at The University of Notre Dame. It was Plantinga who once said, in consideration of this question of suffering and pain and evil, and how it all works in light of the good, loving, powerful God of Christianity, “The chief difference between Christianity and other theistic religions, lies just here: according to the Christian gospel, God is willing to enter into the sufferings of his creatures, in order to redeem them and his world.”

And I thought that was beautiful. Not because it answered all my questions, but because it reminded me of the God we worship. Even in light of such insurmountable pain and suffering. Even amidst the kind of grief and sorrow that seems to steal all one’s joy, we worship a God who not only has a plan to overcome the darkness, but who has already enacted that plan, and who is redeeming our broken story from the inside out, through Himself. Through His Son. And through the greatest sacrifice the world has ever known.

Back to the Rad Cam

I continued to think about this as I passed through the second story doorway of the Radcliffe Camera, and I gazed upward at the giant dome-ceiling, which rises more than 100-feet in the air as I made my way into the library.

The upstairs of the Rad Cam is home to thousands and thousands of the Bodleian’s history books. It has two stories, with an open-air second floor. It’s unbelievable, really, that it’s a library. It’s beautiful enough to be the kind of chapel you’d find in Rome. The ceiling is incredibly ornate, and it reminded me of many of the structures we saw on our trip to Italy and France last spring.

But instead of prayer and hymns, the room is home to books and students and desks. I took my seat at an old wooden desk toward the back of the library and continued plugging away on my essay. I hit “Submit” on my laptop at 5:01, and I fired off a few e-mails before leaving the Rad Cam and making my way down the lane to a nearby restaurant for my date night with Jen.

Greeted by that smile that first captured my heart more than 10 years ago, I was thankful to have my work done for the week, and to be able to enjoy this time together. Alone to our thoughts. Alone to our conversation. It was, as it always is, the highlight of my week, even in such an incredible place as this.

Monday: Lunch at one of Oxford’s oldest colleges & Embarrassed in the library (again)

I started off my third week of the term with lunch at Balliol College. I was meeting Myriam, Secretary for the C.S. Lewis Society, as well as a couple past presidents, Judith and Brendan, who are now back in Oxford after spending some time studying in Germany. We were meeting so they could share some of their advice on running the Society. Advice I was keen to hear.

I had been to Balliol for a lecture before, but never for lunch. As one of the oldest colleges at Oxford (it was established in 1263), its architecture is classic Oxford. Lots of old stone buildings set atop stretching green grounds, with giant wooden and metal doors. Narrow, stone corridors, with cobblestone walkways, lead you from one quad to another. It’s one of those colleges where, if you let yourself, you can really feel as though you’ve just traveled back in time.

And it was while the four of us were making our way across the college grounds, up the large, wide staircase that leads to Balliol’s dining hall, that I found myself thinking, “This really is such an incredible place!” And I love it. I love all of it. I love the people, people who come from all over the world. I love the accents (the British more than any others). And I love the history of this city. The kind of history I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else, and which hits you in the face around every corner.

We made our way into the dining hall for lunch. I took note of the beautiful, dark hardwood floor. The afternoon sun was pouring in through high, arching windows on one side of the room. It was the kind of place where you feel like you’re dining in a really old chapel, with the high-arching windows and the ornate, wood-carved walls.

Following our conversation over lunch (a tasty Indian lamb dish), we made our way out of Balliol College, around the corner and down St Giles Street to St John’s College, where Judith is a member of the faculty. To carry on the conversation over a walk around the college grounds. I had never been inside St John’s college before, so I was excited to see it. St John’s is known for being one of the most well endowed colleges here at Oxford. They own most, if not all, of the city street the college sits on, as well as an enormous amount of property around England.

The college grounds at St John’s include beautiful, stretching gardens. Set behind its high, college walls. And taking it all in on our walk, I couldn’t help but feel so privileged. For being a member of the university and having access to all of this beauty that’s hidden behind the stone walls that line St John’s perimeter, separating all of this from the outside city. Brendan was filling me in on much of the Society’s history as we walked. Brendan is tall, with short, dark hair, and a long, thick beard that he strokes as he talks. As if to help him think. As Brendan was leading the conversation, I noticed Judith taking in individual trees along the trail of our walk. She’d pause for a moment as we passed several along the way, as if she knew them. As if she were checking on the health of an old friend. While Brendan continued on in his deep, monotone voice, stroking his beard in the afternoon sun that washed over the college’s green grounds.

On our way out of the College, we peaked our heads into the small chapel. I always like to see the different chapels around Oxford when I visit a college. They’re always unique, and they tend to reflect a particular college’s character. Inside the St John’s College, I noticed a symbol I had seen before, at the “Lamb & Flag,” a nearby pub. It was of a white lamb carrying a flag over one shoulder. It was unique, and I had never noticed it before coming to Oxford.

“What does this symbol mean?” I asked, turning to Brendan and Judith.

“It comes from St John’s Gospel, and it represents the Christ,” Brendan replied, quoting a passage from Scripture: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Oh yeah… Okay, well that makes sense.”

We said our goodbyes and thanked Brendan and Judith for their time before Myriam and I made our way back to our respective libraries. For more studying.

Embarrassed in the library

I picked up a cell phone charger on the way, as I had somehow misplaced the charger for my UK cell phone over the summer. I plugged it in when I got back to the library at Harris Manchester. Since it had been turned off for several months, apparently the settings had been reset, including the volume… Because of this, when it had enough battery power, it notified me I had several messages in a not-so-subtle fashion. It began in a quiet voice, but then it grew louder: “message… Message… MESSAGE!” finally reaching its crescendo in a shrieking voice, as I frantically punched the buttons, trying to quiet it.

Finally it went silent, but not before my cheeks began to burn with embarrassment. Memories of the time when I opened my laptop in the Bodleian Library and Barlow Girl’s song “I need you to love me” came blaring out for several seconds, interrupting the otherwise pin-drop silence. What a horrible experience… Fortunately people in HMC are more forgiving; I didn’t feel as though I needed to pack up my things and leave, as I had done in the Bodleian.

Tuesday: When my mind woke up & Lewis Society

I was invited to hear a talk from a guy by the name of William Lane Craig on Tuesday. He’s a philosopher from the States, and he’s also one of the world’s leading Christian apologists. Professor Craig was giving a talk at the Sheldonian Theatre here in Oxford that evening, which I couldn’t attend (because of my commitments with the Lewis Society). Professor Craig regularly travels and debates on the existence of God, and he had given Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most well-known Atheist, an open-invitation for a debate here in Oxford. Unfortunately, Dawkins hadn’t taken him up on the offer.

A while back, a group of Atheists sponsored an advertising campaign where they ran a series of bus ads that said, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” After Dawkins turned down Professor William Lane Craig’s invite for a debate at the Sheldonian Theatre, a series of bus ads began running around Oxford that read, “There’s probably no Dawkins. Now stop worrying and enjoy October 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.” I thought that was pretty clever.

Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to listen to Craig respond to Dawkins’s latest book at the Sheldonian that night, I was happy to get to hear him talk for a bit at this by-invite lunch event. I took a seat by Max, who I hadn’t seen since returning to Oxford, and I pulled out a small notebook to take down some notes while I listened.

I had never heard Professor Craig before, but I was really impressed. He’s clearly a very intelligent guy, but I was impressed by just how articulate and easy to listen to he is. He talked about why he feels Christian Apologetics are important, both for the speaker and for the listener, and then he took about an hour’s worth of questions from those who had come to hear him. And one thing he mentioned that afternoon, in particular, stuck with me in a lasting way. Mostly because it’s one of the things that I took away from reading C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, for the first time. And, in that way, it’s really the reason I’m here. It was in the middle of this particular talk that Professor Craig said, “People need to know the Gospel is a viable option for the thinking person.” And I found myself sitting in the middle of the audience, grinning in agreement.

After the talk, while we were still thanking Professor Craig for his talk with a round of applause, I leaned over to Max and said, “It is so good to be back here. I feel like my soul and my mind are waking up from a bit of hibernation over the summer.”

Max smiled. He agreed. I grabbed a sandwich on our way out of the talk, and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library for a bit of reading before meeting for dinner and the C.S. Lewis Society that evening.

Dinner & C.S. Lewis Society

I had arranged for a small dinner with our speaker for the night, Dr Michael Ward, along with two other people. Dr Michael Ward is Oxford’s resident Lewis expert, and he’s also supervising my extended essay on Lewis & Pagan mythology.

We talked over dinner about Dr Ward’s talk for the night (“Lewis on Tragedy”), and a number of other things. One of the other people joining us for dinner on this particular evening was an American girl who’s currently working on her PhD in London. Somehow or another we got onto the topic of wearing pajamas to class in college back in the States, and she said she never really sees that here in the UK.

Dr Ward wore a look of disgust on his face when she asked if that was something he ever experienced here.

“No, not at all,” he said in his proper British accent, still looking as though he had just tasted something rather sour.

He told us about a story that ran in the paper recently regarding “the horrors” of people at the market in their pajamas.

“That gives you an idea of how people in England feel about others going out in public in their pajamas,” he told us.

That evening, when I got up to make a few announcements before introducing Dr Ward as our speaker for the evening, I made the mistake of saying “dollars” instead of “pounds” when I was mentioning the cost of Society membership. It got a laugh from the crowd, but not the kind of laugh I was hoping for. I tried to shrug it off by saying I had just returned to England and was still working on re-adjusting, clearly, but I found my mind stuck on it, even as I continued with the rest of the announcements. This resulted in me slipping up on my introduction for Dr Ward, and stumbling through the name of his most well-known book, “Planet Narnia.” I quickly finished the introduction and found my seat in the front row. Wanting to bury my head in the hardwood floor, I instead pretended to listen intently.

Following Dr Ward’s talk, and a brief time of Q&A, I took my seat at the head of the long table on one side of the room. It was the evening of our Annual General Meeting (AGM), and several of the Society’s longest-standing members, as well as a handful of newer members, stuck around to discuss details of the Society. Plans for the rest of the year, transitions in the role of our Treasurer, etc. And it was only a few moments into our meeting that I realized there was an understood structure to the AGM, I had never actually sat through one, and now I was responsible to lead this one… I did my best to pretend as though I had everything under control and knew exactly what I was doing, but my disguise quickly wore off, and people were interjecting to make points on items I had overlooked. Clearly, this was not how I had hoped the evening would go.

As different people spoke, I found my eyes wandering to the second story window, and my mind wandering to the question of how long it would be before the group decided to grab me by the ankles and toss me out. Then I looked down the length of the long table we were all seated at, and at the other head of the table, I saw Walter. He was wearing his yellow coat, which he tends to wear, over his tweed jacket. And he was listening intently to the conversation at hand. And that’s when I found myself thinking, “If things get out of hand, if it becomes clear I am in over my head and this group decides to throw me out of this second-story window, then surely Walter will stick up for me.” And with that thought I began to feel more at ease, and I was able to close up the meeting with more confidence than I had before.

But after my failed introduction and after not knowing the formalities of the AGM, I made my way back to the Kilns feeling rather incompetent and inadequate for my role. And the worst part was I had a long bus ride / walk home to think about it.

It was 11:30 by the time I made it home that night. After a 17-hr day, I was exhausted. But it wasn’t over yet. I still had some reading to get done. Before I got to my reading, though, I greeted Jen in our room and talked with her a bit about the meeting. And then I made my way to get a cup of tea to accompany my reading. And it was there, in the kitchen, that I found a note on the fridge. A note that seemed to speak to me exactly where I was, with with the precise words I needed to hear.

It was a passage from Matthew 6, but in a translation I did not recognize. And as I stood there in the middle of this kitchen just before midnight, these are the words I found myself reading:

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers, most of which are never even seen, don’t you think He’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do His best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. Steep your life in God . . . Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your concerns will be met.”

It was a translation that would’ve given my Greek Tutor cold sweats, as it was clearly modernized, but these words met me exactly where I needed to be met. And I was glad it was so late, and that the kitchen was empty, because the words put a tear in my eye. And then another. And I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that I am feeling so overwhelmed and inadequate because I am placing my confidence in myself, rather than in Him. And once I realized that, or, more appropriately, once I was reminded of that, I found myself comforted. Comforted in the fact that the same God who brought us here, to Oxford and to all of this, is still the same God looking out for us now that we’re here. And He’s not about to forget about us, even when I feel inadequate and overwhelmed. It was a good reminder that I need to place my confidence in myself. Or else I will always feel inadequate for the challenges we will find in this life.

Wednesday: 1st Formal Dinner

I signed Jen and I up for Wednesday night’s formal dinner at my college. It was the first formal guest night of the term, so I was excited to experience that again.

I woke up Wednesday morning, got ready, and then grabbed my suit and threw it on my bike before heading to town. I’d need it for dinner that evening, and I didn’t feel like wearing it all day, so I figured I’d bring it to college and then change before dinner that night.

The bike Rob gave me when the Gareys left has a hand basket from a grocery store tied down behind the seat for storage. The metal hand baskets you see in grocery stores, with blue plastic handles. I laughed the first time I saw it. It looks ridiculously tacky. But I decided to leave it on, thinking it might come in handy. Sure enough, I was thankful to have it this Wednesday when I threw my suit in it and made my way into town.

It was just starting to rain when I left the house, so I biked to the pelting of sporadic, cold rain drops against my cheeks. As I approached Headington Hill, which is a steady, long hill that drops just as you approach the city center, I reaching behind to make sure my suit was still there. In the metal handbasket. Fortunately it was. I made it to Harris Manchester Handing with my suit still intact and I handed it off to Amanda in the office when I arrived–she’d keep it for me until I needed it–before heading to the library for a day’s worth of reading.

I was getting ready to take a test on Friday, which I had missed while I was back in the States. It was on the European Reformation, which I studied in the Spring. I had a lot of reading to get ready for it.

I printed off a bunch of my old notes to study, as well as several of John Ash’s old essays (was we had taken the course together, and we exchanged essays each week). And all of a sudden, I felt as though my essay should be written in color crayons, when compared to his work…

In reading John’s essay to myself, I noticed that I found myself thinking in a British accent. It was a weird feeling, and I had never noticed it before.

Lewis Essay & A Formal Dinner

At 5:00, I made my way across town to St Peter’s College, as I had a meeting with Dr Michael Ward on an essay I was preparing on the topic of Lewis & Pagan mythology. I had been working on it all summer, and this was our first time going over my draft together.

He welcomed me into his office with a “Hello, Ryan Jehosafat Pemberton,” in his proper, posh British accent. Dr Ward didn’t know my middle name for the longest time, but he knew my middle initial, so he still makes up middle names for me, from time to time. It always puts a smile on my face.

We talked about my paper for a while. He was very helpful with his feedback. Giving me ideas on where to cut back, and where to add more. Giving me ideas of which books to look into.

And I found myself sitting there, in Dr Ward’s office with him, with this guy who is both a friend and a supervisor, and one of the world’s leading experts on CS Lewis, and just thinking how unreal all of this (still) is to me.

After our meeting, I hurried back to Harris Manchester and threw on my suit and gown for dinner. Jen was on her way from the Kilns when she missed her bus, as she called to let me know. She grabbed another, but she ended up being a few minutes late. I was standing at the stone gate leading into college when she arrived. She had run to make it on time, after being dropped off by the bus several blocks away. In her high heels, no less. She looked so beautiful. And I told her that, before entering the dining hall, through the large, arched wooden doors.

We took our seat at the end of the long middle table. The three tables, as well as the head table, were all packed when we arrived. Filled with men in their suits and gowns, and women in their dresses. Everyone all done up for the formal meal.

And the dinner was amazing. Salmon for appetizers, followed by a wonderful beef roast for dinner. We were seated next to a girl from Shanghai, and another from San Francisco. I told them we were from Seattle, and the girl from Shanghai said, “Oh, Starbucks!”

“That’s right,” I said with a laugh. Before thinking to myself, “That’s better than ‘Sleepless in Seattle’,” a reference I tend to get here more than I ever thought I would when people here hear where we’re from.

Most of the evening was spent to ourselves in conversation. Just Jen and I. Which was nice. It was almost as though we had gotten all dressed up and gone out for a really nice meal together. As busy as things have been here, it was much needed.

And as the evening carried on, I found myself sitting back on my chair and taking it all in. This enormous, beautiful, old dining hall, that looks a bit like a scene out of Harry Potter. Filled with the voices of Oxford students and friends and family. Filled with laughter and the sounds of dishes coming and going. Filled with the sounds of, in my case, dreams coming true.

I turned to Jen, with these thoughts floating through my head, and I said, “Our life looks so incredibly different now. Just think, we wouldn’t have had any of these experiences if we hadn’t decided to ever go after this.”

And I thanked Jen. Not only for being willing to leave all she knew back home to move here so I could study, and to put her own dreams of settling down and starting a family on hold, but for being the first person to encourage me to go after this. Long before I ever said the words “Oxford University” to anyone else, I told Jen about this dream. It was shortly after we were married, while we were still living in our first apartment. It was there I shared this dream of one day studying at Oxford with her. And from the very first, she had always encouraged me to go after this.

Looking over at her from across this table in Harris Manchester, this long table filled with talks of studies and travel and life, I realized how incredibly blessed I am to have this woman in my life. I could not have asked for a better companion to travel through this life with. She is far better than I could ever deserve.

As we made our way out of the dining hall that evening, we heard a voice from behind us call out, “Aha, I knew I’d spot you here, Jennifer!”

The voice came from an older woman who’s studying here with her husband. They’re both from Wales. She taught English and he had his own law firm before they moved here last year. She’s a short, petite, sweetheart of a woman. With a hair full of curly hair and a squinty smile that’s always beaming. He’s tall and wears glasses. He usually hangs in the background, like a tree, and lets her carry the conversation, only interjecting to make a witty comment here and there. She always makes a point to say “Hi” to Jen when she sees her, and she makes us both feel at home in a place that feels so very much unlike our home.

“And look at this,” she said, pointing out the ruffles on Jen’s dress. “With a black coat… I like that!” Jen smiled. And thanked her.

“So wonderful to see you both,” she said matter of factly, wearing her squinty smile as she exited the large, arched door into the dark night, with her tall husband looming behind her. He turned to offer us a soft smile and a head nod as he followed her to their room in the college.

Thursday: Breakfast with the guys & A thankful tour

I began Thursday by meeting a group of guys over breakfast. Rich, Max and I are all studying theology here, and we got together regularly last year. Usually weekly. To talk life and faith and studies. And another guy, by the name of Britton, was joining us this morning. Britton’s also studying theology here. He and his wife are from Hawaii. And they’re also in their second year here. It was nice to have him join us.

We met at Giraffe. An eclectic place with brightly colored walls. And a menu that is heavy on organic options. I ordered the breakfast burrito. And Max ordered the stack of pancakes. Max always orders the stack of pancakes. The restaurant’s eccentric decor and tasty food provided the perfect accent to our conversation, and I found myself thankful for the opportunity to share life with these guys.

A Thankful Tour

I had a tour that afternoon back at the Kilns, so after a bit of studying, I made my way back to the bus stop and back to the Kilns. I arrived early enough to grab a quick lunch with Jen before the group arrived, a rare treat. Soon the doorbell was ringing to let us know the tour had arrived and Jen was slipping into a room to get some work done. And to evade the guests.

This particular tour was from a group of elderly British women. They had a name for themselves, too. “Aging with Grace,” or something along those lines. They were a wonderful group. Very kind and attentive. And I think since they were older, and British, they could relate to a lot of the things I shared with them about Lewis. Things that younger, American tourists might be able to appreciate as much (such as living in war-time England and the like, things that largely influenced his writing).

Interestingly, only one of the women really seemed to have read much of Lewis’s books. The rest only seemed to know bits and pieces about him. Which I thought was great, as I got to answer a lot of great questions.

Halfway through the tour, one of the women who wasn’t very familiar with C.S. Lewis said, “He really sounds like a wonderful man,” with her eyebrows low, revealing a sense of seriousness.

“Yeah, I think he was, from all that I know about him, and from what others have told me,” I replied.

As I wrapped up the tour that afternoon, that same older woman thanked me for the tour, and then she asked me for the person in charge. I clarified who she might be looking to reach, and then I tracked down Dr Stan Matson‘s contact information (Dr Matson is Founder and President of the CS Lewis Foundation). When I asked her why she was interested in getting in touch with him, she said it was because she was wanting to let him know what a wonderful job I had done.

“I wasn’t very excited to come today, but now I just want to go home and read C.S. Lewis,” she told me as she was preparing to leave.

“Oh, good,” I said with a wide smile. “Well, mission accomplished, then.”

As soon as the group was gone, Jen popped up from around the corner with a cookie in one hand and a hot cup of tea in the other.

“Oh, wow!” I said with a look of surprise. “Thank you hun!”

She asked me how the tour had gone, and I shared the woman’s comments with her. But I didn’t have long to elaborate, or to enjoy my tea, for that matter, as I had a meeting back at Harris Manchester that I was supposed to be at. With the Principal and Senior Tutor. A meeting I could not be late for.

Meeting with the Principal & Senior Tutor

I made it back to Harris Manchester just in time for my meeting. Or so I thought. I ran to the flight of stairs leading up to the Principal’s office, where we’d be meeting, only to find that there were still several people ahead of me, and that things were running late. And so, after waiting for 20 minutes or so, and talking with several other students, I was called into Principal Waller’s office, by the Principal himself. He greeted me with his old familiar warm smile as he welcomed him into the room. Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated in her old familiar spot, by the window.

All of the Finalists (final year students) at Harris Manchester were required to sit in on these meetings. To discuss their plans for the final year, and to make sure each Finalist felt like they were doing okay leading up to final exams.

“Frankly, a lot of Finalists like to forget about the fact that they will soon be taking their finals,” Lesley said with a bit of a smirk, “but that doesn’t make the reality of finals go away.”

I told them I did, in fact, realize that I’d be finishing that year, and that I felt like I had a good idea of what I needed to do in the mean-time.

Principal Waller asked what I was taking this term, and what I had left to take before starting on preparations for my finals. And so I told them.

“Well, it certainly sounds like you’re going to be busy,” he said in response, in that voice that always sounds a bit sympathetic, no matter what he’s saying. And then, as if to show he really was concerned, his eyebrows pushed together in the middle of his forehead, and they lowered to just over his eyes as he spoke again, “Do make sure you use the vacation. Get away from studies and get caught up on rest. You will need it.”

It actually surprised me to hear Principal Waller say this. Most of my tutors give me a stack of books they’d like me to use to work on revisions over the holidays, which always makes it seem a bit less like vacation. But here was Principal Waller telling me to make sure I get caught up on rest. I’ve always knew I liked this guy.

I thanked Lesley and Principal Waller for their time as we shook hands and I let myself out of his office. It’s funny how nervous I was the first time I had a meeting with the Principal and Senior Tutor, and how incredibly comfortable I am with them now. It’s funny how much that’s changed, in such a short period of time.

Coming home to a smile

I followed up my meeting with some studies in the library. A couple hours’ worth, before gathering up my things and making my way home for dinner. I hopped on a bus on High Street and continued reading while the bus carried us through the dark Oxford roads that lead to the Kilns, stopping only for a moment to let passengers off. And others on.

20 minutes later I was getting off at the end of Lewis Close, and walking the 100 yards or so to the Kilns. Passing through the gate in the front hedges, I made my way around to the front of the house, on the pebbled walking path, and as I did, I stepped into the light that was pouring out through the kitchen windows. And it was there I caught a scene that made me stop in my tracks and take it in.

It was Jen, in the kitchen, standing side by side with Debbie at the AGA stove. They were making dinner together. And they were both smiling. And I found myself frozen by this scene. I found myself stopped dead in my tracks, thinking “She looks so happy.” And the smile on Jen’s face took me back. To the first time I saw it. More than 10 years ago now. When she was being crowned Homecoming royalty in our high school auditorium. I was just a Junior in high school at the time. Jen was a freshman. And it wasn’t long after that that I went home and told my Mom I believed God created that smile just for me. And now, more than 10 years later, it was still stopping me dead in my tracks.

As I stood outside the Kilns on this particular night. Outside of C.S. Lewis’s old home. And as the light from the kitchen and this scene poured out of the kitchen onto the walking path where I now stood in the darkness, I found myself in awe of all God has done. In giving me this beautiful, incredible woman as my wife. In allowing me to enjoy all of this journey with my high school sweetheart. And for all of the blessings He has poured out on our lives along the way. It’s all more than I could ever hope for or dream of. And yet, and yet it’s exactly what He’s given us. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

Thanks for reading.

3rd week of Trinity Term

I had a tour at the Kilns to lead on Tuesday of the third week of the term. I tend to give tours most Saturdays, but I also give tours during the week from time to time as well, when they come up. And when I can slip away to the Kilns for long enough.

This tour was scheduled for the afternoon, so I was able to make it to my Greek reading class before taking the 20-minute bus ride to Headington and the Kilns.

I found a seat next to Lyndon in Campion Hall a few minutes before our reading class began and I told him I was heading out to the Kilns after we finished for a tour.

“Is that right?” he asked, rhetorically. “I wonder if it’s with the group of Americans I met over lunch at Wycliffe Hall just now.”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t know,” I told him. “I’m not sure who the tour is with, but it could be.”

“Apparently one of the older gentleman who visited is a rather big deal, from Florida, I believe, but I didn’t recognize his name,” he continued. “I sat next to him at lunch, so we talked a bit. When he told me his name, he seemed to act as though I knew who he was, but I didn’t!”

“That’s always a bit awkward,” I said. “Well, I’ll let you know if I happen to give a tour to an older American guy I should recognize but don’t.”

Lyndon laughed, and soon we were off to the races with our Greek reading for the week.

Police and Americans at the Kilns

When I arrived at the Kilns later that afternoon, I was surprised to find two police officers at the back door. The Kilns is set up in a bit of a funny way. The first door you come to as you walk up to the house isn’t actually the front door, but the back. Or, more specifically, it’s referred to as the “servicemen’s entrance.” Confusing, I know. Either way, it’s not the door guests typically use, but it’s the door these two officers were standing at when I made my way through the front gate and walked up the trail leading to the house.

“Do you live here?” one of them asked me as I approached.

“No, I don’t live here, but I am giving a tour here in a few minutes,” I told them.

They explained to me that someone in the neighborhood had reported a small fire  on the trail that leads up to the pond behind the Kilns, and they were wondering if anyone who lived here had any information about it. I told them I didn’t, but that I could leave a message with those who do live at the Kilns and they could call if anyone knew anything. They thanked me, and one of them left me with a piece of paper and their phone number.

“Say,” one of them asked me with a puzzled look before leaving, pointing toward the blue plaque on the side of the house with Lewis’s name on it. “C. S. Lewis . . . I should know who he is . . . tell me one of his works?”

“Uh, sure. He wrote The Chronicles of Narnia,” I told him, hinting at Lewis’s identity.

“Ah, yes, of course!” he said with a look of “aha!”.

“Don’t say you were thinking Lewis Carroll, don’t say you were thinking Lewis Carroll…” I thought to myself.

“That’s right,” the police officer said. “I was thinking Lewis Carroll!”

I smiled. And laughed inside. It’s so funny to me that a police officer who patrols the neighborhood where C. S. Lewis used to live confuses him with the man who wrote Alice in Wonderland. I shook my head as I made my way around to the front of the house and began making preparations for the tour that would be arriving any moment.

About 15 minutes later, I was meeting a group of well-dressed men and a single woman at the front door and welcoming them in for their tour. The lone British man at the tour introduced himself. He had a lean face with thick, dark glasses, and a nearly bald head. While it was just he and I in the houses entryway, he shared with me that he was leading a group of Americans on a tour around Oxford during their visit, and he told me he was from Wycliffe Hall.

“Bingo,” I thought to myself as I shook his hand, before showing the group into the common room at the front of the house. “This must be the group Lyndon was referring to.”

I followed behind them and took my seat on a bench beside the door, so as to face everyone. Along with the gentleman from Wycliffe, there was a couple from America, fairly casually dressed, an older, grey-haired, heavy set gentleman in a suit, and another well-dressed man with glasses, this one younger than the other suited-man.

After asking where everyone was from, I introduced myself to the group, and then I began telling them about what Lyndon had told me only an hour or so earlier that afternoon, about running into the same group at Wycliffe Hall.

“So I’ll have to let my friend know he was right,” I shared to the group with a smile, as they sat around the small room on the old, rugged furniture. “I’ll have to tell him I did, in fact, see the old man from Florida who he had spoken with at lunch.”

The air quickly went out of the room as I finished my sentence, and I didn’t realize why at first. I replayed my words in my mind only to realize what I had said, and to realize that my attempt to break the ice had failed completely.

I tried to back-pedal, as quickly as possible, but it didn’t seem to help. Awkward glances went around the room. Looks to the “older man from Florida” who I probably should have recognized, but didn’t. Everyone seemed very serious, but he, alone, was smiling, and looking straight at me, as if to welcome the start of the tour. So that’s exactly what I did, pretending as though everything was completely normal and nothing at all had happened.

I made my way around the house, telling funny stories of Lewis mixed in with stories of his time at the home and his life in Oxford. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and all my jokes were met with laughter.

By the end of the tour I was shaking hands and being told what a wonderful job I had done. Everyone seemed to really have enjoyed themselves, and so I decided against mentioning any sort of apology for what had been a horrible choice of words on my part to start the tour.

“Best not to wake a sleeping dog,” I thought to myself as I waved goodbye to the group with a smile from the front door.

I tidied up the Kilns from the tour, after everyone had left, and I made my way to the bus stop and back toward town to get some studying done from the Harris Manchester Library before meeting up with the Oxford University Lewis Society for dinner.

Lewis Society & Dinner with Aidan Mackey

This week’s speaker at the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society wasn’t actually speaking on C. S. Lewis, but, rather, G. K. Chesterton. That may sound strange to some, but Chesterton was a writer who was rather influential in Lewis’s life and writing, and so he’s a welcome topic for the Society.

Prior to the Society meeting, a small group of us met at Pierre Victoire, a small french restaurant where we often meet, which is only a short walk north of the Society’s lecture room. I had never met Aidan Mackey, our speaker for the evening, before meeting him at the restaurant that night, but I was so happy to. Jen had met him before, once when she was working at the Kilns and when he was visiting. She had really enjoyed meeting him, and I was excited to.

Aidan is an older man, he must be approaching 90 if he is not already there, and sharp as can be. He has a head of white-as-snow hair that stands up tall on his narrow frame. And, while he looks rather frail, his conversation tells you his mind is anything but. He’s a brilliant guy, incredibly humble, and funny, too. He’s the kind of sharp-witted man I can only hope to still be when I am his age.

Aidan is a life-long admirer of Chesterton, and very likely one of the world’s foremost experts on the scholar. This evening would be his final public address on Chesterton, he told us.

“I just don’t want to be the older man who is the last person to realize he is long past his expiration date,” he explained to us with great humility.

“Oh no, no, no,” Walter (Hooper) said with a look of astonishment, seated just to Aidan’s right. “You’ve got a long way to go yet!”

Aidan has been reading Chesterton since he was 14, when he fell in love with his books after his brother lent him one. Over dinner that evening, Aidan told us about falling in love with Chesterton’s writing, of falling in love with his wife (who still says the only reason he married her is because she had an early edition of Chesterton’s writing he was wanting for his personal library), and about how his daughter held a written correspondence with Lewis.

“It’s embarrassing that my greatest claim to fame is being related to my daughter,” he said to those around the second-floor table that evening, receiving a round of laughter.

Walter cited the volume of letters in which Lewis replied to Aidan’s daughter’s letter. Lewis had recently written The Chronicles of Narnia when this young girl had written him. Walter explained that Lewis was at the height of his career at this point, how he had all these demands on his time and a long list of pressing requirements, and yet, how he took the time to write a careful letter in reply.

“There was not a hint of condescension in responding to her question,” Aidan shared with us, as if recalling reading the letter for the first time, with a hint of admiration in his voice.

Wednesday: Caught in the rain & Alone in a library full of people and champagne

I spent Wednesday studying in the library. I had an essay due the next day, and  lot of reading to catch up before I could begin writing. So I read, and read some more, eating my lunch at my desk from my favorite spot on the second floor.

By the time 4:00 rolled around, I realized I still needed to drop off a post card at the post office before it closed for the day. So I pulled it out of my bag and made my way out of the library and onto my bike. I had not been outside all day, but the library windows told me it was still nice out, so I didn’t bother with a jacket. This was a mistake.

By the time I rounded the corner onto Broad Street, a short ride from Harris Manchester, I was completely soaked. Not just my trousers, this time, but everything. My hair, my shirt, I was completely drenched. And then, almost miraculously, when I had made it to the Post Office, only a short, five-minute bike ride away, it was as if the skies peeled back the previously present cloud cover to let the blue, sunny skies shine through. It was bizarre, and I was left to wander into the post office soaking wet.

By 8:00 that night, I was back in the Harris Manchester library, plowing through my reading, and nearly dry. My hair was standing every which way on my head as it reached upward to dry.

Earlier in the day I had received an e-mail I had paid little attention to, something about a wine party that would be held in the library that evening. I should’ve paid more attention, as it would have likely given me more heads-up to the older men and women who were filing into the library out of nowhere, dressed in suits and dresses. But I didn’t, and suddenly the library was buzzing, filled with suits and champagne and old men. Apparently all of the other students at college had taken the time to read the e-mail, as I looked around to find I was the only one left. And all of a sudden, I was alone, lost in a sea of older men and women and enough small talk to make my ears ring.

I scooped up my books and bag and did my best to make my way down the metal spiral staircase and out the library’s double doors without disturbing anyone. “This bit of reading will be finished at home,” I told myself as I continued my way out of the library, down the stone stair steps, and outside into the cool, dark night air.

Friday: We are the message

After my tutorial on Friday morning, I got a bit of reading done before catching up with Tihi at Kellogg College on Banbury Road, in north Oxford, for lunch. Tihi and I had been playing tag, exchanging e-mails trying to find a time that worked to do lunch for some time. Finally we had found a date and time that worked, and I was glad. He has an incredible story.

I pulled off the busy Banbury Road traffic to the crunching sound of gravel under my bike tire just in time to see Tihi standing at the front of the College. He had been waiting for me, and he welcomed me with a smile. He’s tall, always taller than I remember, and he wears a broad smile. His eastern European accent is heavy, but its softened by his intent look of earnest care and compassion and interest, a look he seems to wear a lot. He’s one of those guys who always seems happy about life. The kind of guy I like being around.

I had never been to Kellogg College before, but it took me off guard. It was far more modern than 90% of the rest of the buildings I had stepped foot in here in Oxford. It was simple in design, and it was filled with lots of natural lighting, soft tones and smooth hard wood floors.

Tihi and I grabbed a plate and he led me to the lunch line. Kellogg College is like Wycliffe Hall in that you make your way through a food line where you’re served. However, it’s very unlike Wycliffe Hall in that the food looks like what you’d find in an up-scale restaurant in the city, with smaller servings that have been neatly arranged for the sake of presentation.

Tihi commented on the fact that the food is very good at Kellogg College, but that it’s always served in such small servings. I told him I thought it looked great. And, after we bowed our heads and said a short prayer, I found out it tasted great, too.

If you haven’t already, you should take the time to read Tihi’s story. It’s unreal, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Tihi, short for Tihomir, is from Serbia. And he’s working on his Dphil here at Oxford. Clearly, he’s a bright guy, but he doesn’t come across as condescending in the least. He’s incredibly personable, like he’s still in awe of the fact that he’s actually here, working on his studies. I think I find that comforting, and something I can relate to.

Tihi shared a bit more of his story as we talked over lunch. About how he showed up to Oxford with only $50 in his pocket, and about all the pressure he felt from those back home who knew where he had come from, and what he was now doing.

“I felt like everyone in Serbia was just waiting to see me fail,” he told me with a look of candid sincerity. “I didn’t know how this was going to work out, or what I was going to do, but I knew I was supposed to be here.”

Today, in addition to his studies, Tihi travels all around the world, to share the Gospel, and to tell others about the incredible ways in which things have unfolded so that he can be here now studying.

We talked about redemption, and Tihi shared with me how he believes God intentionally uses people who we wouldn’t normally expect, to tell others about His goodness and His love. So that they can see His mission is one of redemption.

After exchanging our thoughts on the point, and after we had both finished a forkful of food, Tihi looked across the table at me and said, “Since coming here, and since all of this has happened, I’ve realized that, in a way, we are the message.”

I nodded in my head in agreement, and I allowed his words to linger in the air so that I could let myself feel the full weight of his point.

Saturday: A rare Brit at the Kilns & A message in the park

I woke up Saturday morning and made my way to the Kilns, a five-mile bike ride from where we live in north Oxford, for my lone tour of the day. Fortunately, it was a sunny morning, and it made for a nice way to start the day.

Arriving to the Kilns on a sunny morning, and walking along the gravel pathway that leads to the front door to the crunching sound underfoot and looking into the kitchen to be greeted by a warm smile and “hello!” from one of the Kilns residents, is quite possibly one of my favorite things in Oxford. So much so that it is rather difficult to put into words.

My tour for the day went really well, and I managed to get all the way through it without getting my foot caught in my mouth this time around, which was good.

On my tours, I always make a point to point out the wardrobe that sits at the foot of the stairs, as, while its not the home’s original wardrobe, it is where the wardrobe that Lewis’s grandfather carved by hand stood when Lewis lived at the Kilns. This is significant because it’s the wardrobe Lewis would’ve had in his childhood home in Belfast, and it was later moved to the Kilns, which meant Lewis would have had it with him for nearly all of his life. Because of this, it’s not a stretch to imagine this is the wardrobe he would have likely had in mind when he was writing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

A photo of the original wardrobe hangs on the hallway wall, as the original wardrobe is now housed at Wheaton College in Illinois. I usually point out to the group that the home would’ve had several wardrobes at the time Lewis lived here, as the English tend to have wardrobes where most American homes have closets or dressers, but that this particular wardrobe is significant for the reason I told them before.

Later on, while we were in Lewis’s bedroom, the lone British woman on our tour (it’s not often we get English residents on our tours at the Kilns, at least I don’t) asked about a small doorway on the wall beside Lewis’s bed.

“What’s this?” she asked, turning toward me, and pointing at the small doorway.

“Oh, that’s a door that leads to the attic space,” I explained. “But now it’s really just used as a closet.”

She smiled and nodded contently, and I recalled the statement I had made earlier about English homes tending to have wardrobes, whereas American homes typically have closets or dressers.

“I just thought it was funny that you said the English are too poor to have closets,” she said, almost in passing.

I’m sure the look on my face showed how puzzled I was.

“I didn’t mean to say the English are too poor to have closets,” I tried to clarify. “I was just trying to explain a distinction between the two cultures, that we don’t tend to see wardrobes in America. If I get anything wrong about the English culture, please do correct me,” I told her.

She nodded her head, again with a bit of a smirk. It was a bit awkward, I thought. I had had other Brits on my tour before, and none of them had ever given me any reason to think my comment about English homes having wardrobes was offensive.

Once downstairs, I showed the group to Lewis’s brother Warnie’s room. I pointed out several things in the room. Photos of Lewis and his brother, and where their desks would’ve sat.

I also pointed out where Warnie would’ve had a small buddha statue, on the fireplace mantle. I told the group this may seem odd, as Warnie was a Christian, but he actually had it there because it reminded him of his conversion experience, which took place in Japan, in front of a very large buddha statue.

15 minutes later I was wrapping up my tour, shaking hands and thanking people for coming. There were a lot of smiles, and lots of “thank you’s” from those on my tour. The English woman who pointed out the door to the attic room in Lewis’s bedroom made a point to find me, and I could tell there was something she wanted to tell me from the look on her face.

“Hi,” she said, greeting me. “You mentioned that you thought it odd that Warnie came back to Christianity in front of a buddha statue, but I wanted to tell you I didn’t think that was weird.”

She explained to me how she thought all religions were ultimately trying to achieve the same thing, and so it shouldn’t be odd that one religious figure leads us to another religion, since they’re all leading to the same point. As best as I could, I tried to tell her why I disagreed.

Standing in the front hallway of the Kilns, as those from our tour shuffled from the front dining room where they were signing the guest book to the front door, I told her about the group I had started with several friends here in Oxford, the Oxford Open Forum, and how, after listening to people from so many different religions, it was clear to me that all religions really aren’t the same. I told her it was only after hearing, first-hand, just what each of the world’s major religions believe, that I came to realize just how different they truly are.

She nodded her head politely, and I was less than convinced she was persuaded by my comments. Then, for a reason I am still unclear on, she began to tell me about her frustrations with Christianity.

“Christianity just seems so concerned with rules and with laws,” she said to me, wearing a look of frustration.

This was not a conversation I was expecting to have when I arrived at the Kilns that morning, but, again, as politely as possible, I tried to explain why I disagreed.

“It’s kind of funny to hear you say that,” I said to her, “because that’s not what I think of at all when I think of Christianity.”

I went on to explain to her why I thought otherwise.

“To me, that seems like a very rigid, law-based religion, and that’s not Christianity at all.”

“There are plenty of religions that say you must do X, Y and Z in order to get A, B and C,” I continued, “but that’s not what I find in Christianity. The reason Christianity is so different from so many other religions is because, in Christianity, we find God coming as Jesus Christ and saying, ‘You cannot earn this, but I will do this on your behalf.'”

I went on to tell this woman that not only did I think this was an incredible distinguishing mark of Christianity, I also thought it was beautiful.

Again, she nodded her head, politely, and, again, I was less than convinced I had persuaded her to think differently. But I hoped I had at least given her something to consider. Shaking her hand and thanking her, again, for coming, I hoped, secretly, that she might have a second look at Christianity and realize it’s a bit more radical, and far more beautiful, than she had previously believed.

Music to my ears in the park

I returned home that afternoon to find Jen in bed. She hadn’t been feeling well, and she was doing her best to sleep it off.

I shared with her about my experience at the Kilns, and about the conversation with the English woman who joined us, before making my way downstairs to work on some reading. It was a sunny day, and the light from the spring afternoon shone through the front windows as I worked away.

I had planned on attending an open-air lecture that evening at a nearby park. South Park. The lecture was to be given by an Oxford Professor of Mathematics by the name of John Lennox.

I didn’t know who John Lennox was when I arrived in Oxford, but I had heard of him shortly after I arrived and I was blown away by some of his past talks, which I listened to online. Not only is Professor Lennox a brilliant mathematician, with an incredible body of work in his field, compiled during his time at both Cambridge and Oxford, he also regularly lectures on the topic of Faith and Science. One of his passions, it seems, is to show others that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that you do not have to throw out your faith simply because you consider yourself an intellectual.

It was a message I was drawn to from the start, and his speaking ability was as engaging as I have found. When I heard he would be giving this lecture at a nearby park, on a sunny spring evening, I knew I was in.

Jen had been planning on going with me, but, as she had not been feeling well, she decided to sit this one out. I told her I’d be happy to stay home and continue to work on my studies, just in case there was anything she needed me to do for her, but she insisted I go. I made sure this wasn’t one of those offers husbands are supposed to turn down, and hear about how they failed later if they don’t, but she didn’t budge. So I went.

South Park is in the direction of the Kilns. On the other side of Oxford. So I made my way across town on my bike once again, and 20 minutes later I was locking it up on the outside gate of the large park with its stretching green lawns. There were several tents set up as I made my way across the park, and people were beginning to gather beneath the high canopies as I arrived about 10 minutes early.

I recognized a few people there, but I found a seat about 20 feet back from center stage and took a seat in the lawn. Resting on my elbows, with my feet stretched out in front of me, I couldn’t help but think it was a perfect afternoon to be outside.

The evening’s lecture began with a bit of singing, as it was being hosted by several local churches, and it had a candidly evangelical bent. Many of those in the crowd raised their hands in the air as they sang, with eyes closed, even as they looked upward. The sound of voices singing praises hung in the air and drifted from the speakers on the stage, making their way to the surrounding neighborhoods. I found myself looking at those walking by, on the sidewalks that lined the park, and wondering to myself what they thought of all of this.

After several songs, an introduction was made by a local vicar (pastor) and John Lennox took the stage to a roar of clapping from the crowd.

Lennox is a large man, in his 50’s, with a head of white hair that has receded from the top of his head and settled around his ears and the base of the back of his head. He is from Ireland, and his voice rings beautifully with his rich Irish accent. He rolls each “r” sound, as if to emphasize its presence in each word, and I love it.

He spoke a lot about science, as one who is well established in the field of mathematics, and how those in the New Atheism camp like to argue that science has basically killed any reason to believe in God. His main point seemed to be to show that this is a farce, and that science was never intended to deal with spiritual matters. He began by explaining that, like anything, science has limits, and that spiritual matters is one of them.

He used an analogy I thought was beautiful to explain his point.

He told us a story about his Aunt Matilda who, he informed us, loved to bake cakes. He went on to explain that one could approach Matilda with every form of scientific testing available, but that it would ultimately prove unable to show why she baked cakes. He explained that science can’t tell us why she baked a cake because it’s beyond science’s reach. That’s not to say science cannot tell you many other things about Aunt Matilda and her cake, but not the reasoning behind Matilda’s baking. In the same way, he went on to explain, science can tell us many things about the world around us, and even about the humans that inhabit it, but there are many questions about the world and about us that it simply cannot answer for us, because it was never intended to. Many such questions fall under the label of “spiritual.”

Professor Lennox went on to tell us about a talk he once gave at a physicist convention and how, after his talk, one of the physicists approached him and asked him some fairly pointed questions about his faith. Apparently one of those questions was how he, as a mathematician, could hold onto his beliefs about God, knowing what he knows about science.

He told us how he agreed to respond to this man’s question, but how, before doing so, he asked the man a question in response. He told us how he asked this physicist to explain to him what consciousness is. The physicist was puzzled, he told us, both by his seemingly unrelated question, and as to how he might answer. And so, Lennox explained to us, he asked the physicist an easier question. Something more related to his field.

“What is energy?”

Lennox shared with the crowd how the physicist made some remarks about what energy does, but how, when Lennox continued to press him to describe not what energy does but what it is, he was unable.

“And so you see,” he shared with the crowd in his rich Irish accent, “Science does not have all the answers.”

He went on to explain that there are many questions science cannot answer, particularly those of a spiritual nature. How there are those who will try to tell you that science has disproved any reason for belief in God, but that is simply false. And how, ultimately, science was never intended to answer such questions.

And as I sat there in this crowd that had gathered at South Park in Oxford on a warm spring evening, a smile stretched across my face. I was filled with a great joy at this man’s ability to clear away the fog with his sharp thinking and illustrative analogies.

Listening to Lennox speak reminded me, quite strongly, of my first experience with C. S. Lewis’s writing. Another brilliant man from North Ireland, and a man who often passed by this very same park on his long walks between Magdelene College and his home at the Kilns. A man who a young John Lennox had heard lecture during his studies at Cambridge University. And, as Professor Lennox continued to speak on the topic of Science, Theology and New Atheism, his words rang with clarity, logic and truth of the kind I have rarely found, filling the park with beautiful music to my ears.

%d bloggers like this: