Archives for posts with tag: Punting

Saturday: London the day after the Royal Wedding

This was Steve’s third time visiting us in England since we moved over. Steve had never been to London before, and we hadn’t made a trip there on either of his two previous trips. His fiance, Jamie, is an avid traveler, and, having been to London, she insisted that he needed to go.

I was sure Jamie would strangle him if I sent Steve back without a trip to London yet again. I didn’t want my best friend to be strangled, so I decided we’d better make it happen. (I’m just kidding, by the way. Jamie’s great. And I don’t think she actually strangles people.)

So Saturday morning Steve and I hopped on a bus and headed to the city. As we pulled out of the bus station, the driver came on the intercom and welcomed us. He told us about how long it’d take to get to London, and after a few minutes of chatter, he told us to make sure our seatbelts were on. I thought this was funny, because the seat in front of me was taller than I was, which I figured would make sure I wasn’t going anywhere in the event of an emergency stop. Steve obediently put his on, while I looked out the window at the countryside passing by on this sunny morning.

“Do I need to go tell the bus driver the guy next to me isn’t wearing his seat belt?” Steve joked, turning toward me. I laughed. “Yeah, actually,” I replied. “I’d love to see how that goes for you.”

I asked him what, in particular, he was hoping to take in while we were there. He told me he wasn’t a big sight-seeing guy, and so a lot of the typical sights he could probably do without. He said he would be interested in seeing Westminster Abbey, though, as it was the day after the Royal Wedding and all. I told him I’d take him to Harrod’s, too, as I figured he’d like to see that.

My eyes grew heavy as we talked and soon I found myself drifting into a bit of a nap while the bus scooted smoothly along the freeway, leading us through the countryside and toward London.

We picked up a map shortly after arriving in London. I found Harrod’s on the map and soon we were off in that direction. Walking past Hyde Park. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the park was interspersed with people enjoying being outside on this particularly nice afternoon. Some with their dogs. Some with their kids. A handful of couples.

We passed a small men’s clothing store along the way. With a window full of ties on display. Steve wanted to step inside to see if anything stood out to him for his wedding, so we did. There was a long table in the middle of the store overflowing with ties in neat rows, organized by color. Steve picked through them while I made my way around the store, glancing at ties and suit jackets.

The owner of the store came up from a staircase that led downstairs and asked us if we needed any help. Steve told him we were looking for some ties for his wedding, and so they talked for a bit. He ended up finding a tie he liked. For himself. So he picked it up for his wedding.

As we were checking out, I asked the shop owner what the previous day had been like for him. The day of the Royal Wedding.

“Slow,” he said. He told us this side of town, even though it wasn’t far from Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace, was just empty. That it was a bit of a ghost town. Because people were either at one of those two locations for the big day, or watching it on TV.

We thanked him for the tie and continued to make our way to Harrods. When we finally arrived a couple miles later, we took in the store’s window displays, filled with different designs of Royal Wedding cakes. Some were big and extravagant, others were more modern and simple. Some were covered in great displays of the Union Jack, others were a bit more subtle. After taking in more than 30 Royal Wedding cake designs, we walked through the large double doors and found our way around Harrods.

We passed through the watch selection in the jewelry department, with glass cases filled with rows of watches that cost as much as a small home, before entering the market and restaurants section of Harrod’s first floor. Steve found Laduree, a small, french bakery known for its macaroons, and bought a small box filled with a variety of flavors. He shared with me that Laduree was the creator of the French macaroon. He was happy.

We continued upstairs, passing through the men’s department, filled with suits and ties, and we noticed the opera music playing over the speaker system. Or, at least, that’s what we assumed we were hearing. We rounded a corner only to find a woman in a gown with a white shawl over her shoulders standing on a balcony and singing. “Much more impressive than a speaker system,” I thought to myself.

After we had enough of Harrod’s, we made our way across West London and found our way to Westminster Abbey, the site of the Royal Wedding the day before. I had been to Westminster Abbey several times, but I had never seen it so busy. There were people lined up around the entire block, waiting to get inside for a tour. The lawn in front of the large church was filled with people as well. We snapped a couple quick pictures and then escaped from what felt like a mob scene.

Across the street from Westminster Abbey is Parliament and Big Ben. Since Steve hadn’t been before, we made the short walk around Parliament’s expansive building and halfway across the large bridge that crosses the River Thames so we could take in the view. The view from Westminster Bridge, with Parliament and Big Ben on one side, and the London Eye on the other, is my favorite view in all of London. It’s really quite something.

From there, we made our way back across town and walked around Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t nearly as busy as Westminster Abbey, but it was still full of its fair share of tourists snapping photos. City workers were still working on tearing down large platforms and scaffolding, which we assumed were used to house the media from all around the world on the big day. Most of the chairs had been removed, it looked like, but a few stragglers gave a hint as to just how big this event had been.

When we had snapped some photos in front of Buckingham Palace, we walked along St. James Park and made our way back toward Marble Arch, where we had been dropped off by our bus earlier that day. Neither one of us had eaten since that morning, and it was now nearly 5:00. We found a pub along the way, thanks to a young British guy in a top-hat and tuxedo standing in front of a hotel, and we both ordered large burgers at the bar when we arrived. It was a nice end to Steve’s first time in London, sitting there in the wood-covered pub, with something like five different TVs all playing video and running commentary of the previous day’s wedding events. We clinked our water glasses together and dug into our burgers when they arrived, wasting little time in our hunger.

The Marble Arch bus stop was only a short walk from the pub and we were soon speeding northwest on the M40, the large bus scooting along smoothly in the evening air.

Sunday: 1 Year Later & Roses on the River

Sunday was a tough day. We knew it would be. May 1 was the one-year anniversary of saying goodbye to our sister, Hayley. We knew it’d be made extra difficult being away from our family. Being so far from home. Neither one of us were looking forward to this day. But we wanted to use it to remember Hayley. In a special way. I had picked up a bunch of roses. Pink. Hayley’s favorite color. Two days earlier. And I had a plan on how we could use them to make sure Hayley was honored, even from here in Oxford.

Steve was gone when we woke up that morning. He left for the city center, wanting to give us space. It wasn’t expected, or even suggested, but he’s thoughtful that way.

We slept in a bit and, when we both were up, I made us breakfast. We took our time that morning. And when we were finally ready, we left the house and made our way toward the river. To the Cherwell River Boathouse. I carried Hayley’s pink roses in my hand. And Jen’s hand in my other.

Walking down a gravel lane about a half-mile from our home, the small pebbles crunching beneath our feet, we came up to the boathouse. A long, wooden building with a low roof that sloped toward the river. Several tables were spread out on one side of the building. And there was an open door halfway down the front of the building, facing the river, where you could rent boats. I handed the man behind the desk my debit card, a guy around my age, with tattoos on his arm and large, circular earrings. He asked how long we wanted it for, and I told him an hour would do. He pointed us toward the next room over. A large, open garage. And told us to grab our punting pole, seat cushions, and a paddle and then head to our boat. Anyone we wanted. So we did.

Jen got in first. I handed her the pole and the cushions and the paddle. I untied the rope that fastened the punt to the dock and then hurried to enter the boat before it gently scooted away, out into the smooth-surfaced river.

“You want me to go first, to get us out of here?” Jen asked me, standing at the rear of the boat with the long pole in her hand. “That way you can see how to do it and then take it from there?”

“Sure. Yeah, that sounds good,” I said, taking a seat in the center of the boat as we glided softly into the middle of the river. Jen used the long pole to straighten us out and then, just like that, we were moving north along the river. Floating as the boat rocked ever so gently from side to side.

“You really know what you’re doing,” I told Jen, from my seat in the boat, she standing several feet behind me. “I could get used to this.”

There were a handful of other boats on the water that day, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy. It still felt a bit like an escape. It was still relaxing.

“Okay, are you ready to take it from here?” Jen asked me, after we had made it a ways from the dock. And the other boats.

“Yeah, yeah I can do that, I guess,” I said, somewhat hesitantly. I was enjoying my seat. And the ride. But I also definitely wanted to give punting a shot.

Jen and I traded spots, her now sitting in the middle of the boat, and me now standing at the rear. I used the pole to push off the bottom of the river, and quickly noticed it wasn’t nearly as easy as Jen made it look. The bottom of the river was quite muddy, which meant the pole would stick with each shove. It took some getting used to, but soon we were moving again.

“Use your pole to steer us,” Jen told me. “Like a rudder. Let it float and gently move it from side to side.”

When we had made it a ways further, and when there were no longer any boats around, Jen opened the bouquet of roses. And handed me one. I let the pole rest gently in one hand, and took the rose in the other. I shared a memory of Hayley. Jen smiled. Then I laid the rose softly on the surface of the river. And watched it float along the side of the boat, with tears in my eyes, before trailing behind us.

When it was a ways off, I returned to punting, taking the pole in my hand and pushing off the bottom of the river. We moved along a bit further and then Jen took a rose for herself. She held it in one hand, turning it over and over while sharing a memory of Hayley. One that meant a lot to her. Before reaching her arm over the side of the boat and placing the pink rose on the river. Then, slowly, it was floating along behind us.

We continued along the river. Sharing memories. And dropping roses. Until all that was left was a string of roses. And a string of our memories. Of Hayley. Of our sister. Who left us long before we thought she should.

When all our roses were gone, I said a short prayer. Thanking God for the gift of memories. And for the gift of the time we had with Hayley. Time we wouldn’t trade for anything. For, even though this pain seemed so deep that afternoon while floating along the river, the joy of those memories was deeper. And even though we floated along with tears in our eyes, we also floated along with joy in our hearts. From each memory. And from the knowledge that, where her pain once resided, now there was only Light and Joy and Peace.

I was thankful for that time with my wife. We had not been looking forward to this day. But it turned out much better than either one of us imagined. We ended it with a night of worship at St. Aldate’s, dinner at Tom’s Thai pub, and ice cream at G&D’s. And laughter. Around a table full of friends.

I’m learning that’s how it seems to go. Life. We fear so much. And then, time and time again, He shows up. Bringing with Him light for the darkness we so fear.

That’s how May 1 was for us. Where we thought we’d find only pain and hurt and darkness, there was joy and laughter, even amongst the tears. He is good. Even in the valleys, He is good.

Tuesday: Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Steve, Saying ‘Hello’ to Greek

Tuesday was the day we said ‘goodbye’ to Steve and I said ‘hello’ to my first official day of Trinity Term, my last term of my first year at Oxford.

We called a cab for Steve and I rode with him back to Gloucester Green, along the same route we had walked so many times before. Back and forth between the city center and our home on Northmoor Road. We had had another great time with Steve here in Oxford, and I told him how much we appreciated him taking the time to come visit us.

The cab driver let us out at Gloucester Green, in a circle of large buses coming and going. I said ‘goodbye’ to Steve before he boarded one of the large buses himself and made his way back to London. Back to the airport. And back to the States.

It’s rare to have a friend who’s willing to travel so far to visit, I thought to myself as I made my way across the city center. To cross the Atlantic several times, as Steve has for us. What an incredible gift, I thought to myself. But soon, those warm thoughts were lost in a feeling of being completely overwhelmed by my return to Greek.

I wouldn’t be taking Greek this term as I had the two terms before. Not three times a week, with regular quizzes and translations to submit. Instead, I’d merely be sitting in on a translation class, where we’d walk through the text together and take turns reading and translating the text verse by verse. Much better than the nightmare I woke up to three times a week the previous terms, I figured.

Rhona had sent out an e-mail telling us about the different reading classes available to us this term. One by her, and another by another tutor, Nick King at Campion Hall. I had met Nick before. He’s a very nice, older British man. With a head of silver grey hair, neatly kept, and a sharp witted sense of humor. I chose Nick’s class for the term, not merely for his humor, or for a change, so much as because he would be covering the text I would be tested on as part of my final exams the following spring. That seemed to be the most obvious choice for me.

In her e-mail, Rhona said there’d be no need to prepare for our first day. So I didn’t. Entering Campion Hall, I made my way into a large room with a group huddled in a circle around a group of tables that had been squeezed together to form a large rectangle. Books were piled up in the middle of the table, and the group had just begun reading a passage from Matthew. In Greek. I took a seat on the right side of the circle and quickly noticed two good friends from Rhona’s class: Emily, on one side of the circle, and Lyndon on the other. Lyndon gave me a smile and a gentle wave.

Quickly, I realized everyone in the room was quite proficient in their Greek reading and translation, moving through the text at a dizzying pace. The reading didn’t scare me, but it was the translation that made me rather nervous. Soon, it was my turn. I read aloud my verse and then gave my best at translating, stumbling through a series of unfamiliar Greek words. The fact that I had hardly looked at my Greek over the two-month long vacation certainly didn’t help.

I soon found myself stuck on a word I was completely stumped on. I shook my head and confessed to Nick, who was seated across the large circle from me, that I had no idea what the translation was. The circle of students around the table were quiet, eyes on Nick and myself. He told me it was very similar to the Latin word of the same meaning, thinking surely that would be of help. It wasn’t. It was, instead, merely a reminder of another word I don’t know, and a bit like pouring salt in an open wound.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I don’t know Latin.” Someone else piped in with the answer and soon we were moving quickly back around the circle.

I felt horrible. Ashamed at how atrocious my Greek was, particularly in a group of students who were so proficient. I was quickly reminded Oxford attracts some sizable brains.

Before packing up and leaving for the afternoon, I noticed the students to my left and my right had notes on the text. From the looks of it, they had walked through the Greek and written out their translation in English.

“Well that would’ve saved me some embarrassment,” I thought to myself as I packed up my things. I caught up with Emily and Lyndon outside of Campion Hall afterwards. First Emily, then Lyndon. Emily seemed to share my sense of being completely overwhelmed with the return to Greek, which I appreciated, as I iced my wounds from the embarrassing scene. Lyndon fared better than us both, but he, too, shared in our sentiments when he caught up with us. Particularly with Nick’s attempt to use Latin to spur on my Greek.

“Don’t you love that?” Lyndon said with a smile and a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

It was an embarrassing first showing, to be sure, but it helped to know that, at least some of the others, had prepared in advance. I’d make sure I did the same come next week.

Wednesday: Open Forum & Atheism

I spent most of Wednesday working on my essay for the week, which was due Thursday evening. It was on the European Reformation. A topic I’m not well-versed in, which meant I needed to sink extra time into my reading just to get up to speed on the topic.

Wednesday night provided a break from the essay work, though, as it was our first Open Forum evening of the new term. We decided to change things up a bit with the Open Forum this term, choosing to have one worldview represented each week. We’d invite someone from a particular background, be it Atheism, Buddhism, Catholicism, etc., and give them 10-15 minutes to talk about their beliefs. After that, we’d spend the rest of the time in Q&A.

For our first night, we invited Alex to talk about Atheism. Alex is the president of the Oxford Atheist Society, so he was a perfect choice for the evening. And he did a great job.

Alex shared with us why he thought “Atheist” is a fair title, even though many in his camp tend to take issue with it. He explained their point, that we don’t have to carry a title because we don’t believe in fairies, yet we do when we don’t believe in God. He explained that many Atheists take it for granted that anyone would believe in God, but Alex said this is the case anytime you aren’t in the majority. And Theists have always been in the majority. Alex is a smart guy. He’s young, still in his early 20’s, and I appreciate his reasoning.

He talked a bit more about his own personal beliefs before we opened things up for questions. Jen was joining us this evening, along with her friend and co-worker Melissa from the Kilns. Jen asked Alex about the path that had brought him from Catholicism to Atheism. He had shared this story with us on a previous occasion, but Jen hadn’t been there. He gave us the condensed version, and then fielded some more questions.

I asked Alex something that had been on my mind, while listening to him talk. I asked him how his beliefs impact his life or the lives around him on a daily basis. In a practical way.

He looked almost confused by the question. Scrunching his eyebrows behind his glasses as he thought about the question for a few seconds before answering.

“It doesn’t,” he said, looking toward me. “But I don’t think we should look to such beliefs to do that.”

We wrapped up the night on that note, and I found myself chewing on his comment as we left the meeting. I agreed, we certainly shouldn’t “choose” our religion based on what it does for us. Or others. We should believe something because it’s true, and not for what it does for us. Which is why I believe the Christian account.

But Christianity does more than that. More than merely accounting for creation and our role in it, this faith reminds me I’m not the center of the universe, a reminder I often need. Christianity calls me to die to myself, to serve others and to love God with all I have. Christianity warns me against spending my short time on this earth worshipping myself or created things, which comes so easily to us. And I think that makes a difference, both in my life and in the lives of those around me.

I compared this with Alex’s response to my question: “How does your faith impact your life and the lives of those around you?” . . . “It doesn’t.”

How sad, I thought to myself, as we made our walk back north to Northmoor Road. And, as we made our way back home, I was wondering if Alex was thinking the same thing about his beliefs.

Thursday: Senior Tutor Mtg

Thursday morning I was scheduled to sit down with the Senior Tutor and Principal at College. To review my academic progress, and make sure everything was going okay. Everyone at Harris Manchester has this meeting at the start of the term, which means these meetings are super short. Only five minutes or so.

I made my way out of the library Thursday morning and up the wooden staircase leading to the Principal’s office for my meeting. Principal Waller met me at the door with a big, beaming smile and a warm, British, “Hello.”

He asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, and I thanked him but said, “No thank you.”

Lesley, the Senior Tutor, was seated at a desk near the window with some papers in her hand. My tutors’ reports, I assumed. She looked up from them as I entered and welcomed me.

Lesley is pretty straightforward, which I appreciate, so there was little small-talk. I had plenty of work to get back to in submitting my first week’s essay, and I’m sure the fact that they had plenty of other students to see helped, too.

“Well, we’re very happy with your work,” Lesley said, looking from her papers to me with a warm smile. Principal Waller looked at me and smiled as well. I thanked them, and I told them I was very happy to hear that. And then I let their words set in while they continued to talk.

It’s just that, it’s still a little unreal for me to hear that. That Oxford is happy with my work . . . Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d hear that.

After several minutes, I made my way back down the stairs leading to Principal Waller’s office, down the hallway and up the stairs leading to the Harris Manchester library. To wrap up my essay, which would take up the rest of my day.

Friday: My first European Reformation Tutorial

I made my way to Wycliffe Hall Friday morning for my first tutorial of the term. Wycliffe Hall is one of the few evangelical schools at Oxford. It’s where Lyndon is a member. My tutor for this paper teaches for Wycliffe, which is why my tutorial was there, in his office.

Walking up to Wycliffe, I met my classmate for the term. John Ash. I had met John during my first term at Oxford. When I had come to Wycliffe for lunch with another John I knew. From Greek class. John’s a tall guy. Maybe 6’2″. With dark brown hair and an athletic frame. I found out later he’s a rower.

“Ryan, good to see you again,” he said, greeting me with a smile. “I thought I recognized your name,” he commented, referring to the e-mail our tutor Andrew had sent out to us both before the start of the term.

We entered through a tall door and climbed a wooden, spiral staircase. We found Andrew’s door at the top of the stairs and, knocking, heard him answer from within.

“Hello,” he answered, in his low, British accent. “Come in.”

We did. Andrew stood up from his seat in the middle of the cramped office space. Cramped because it was not only small, but because it was filled to the brim with books and boxes. Bookshelves lined the walls of his triangle-shaped office, climbing high up into the ceiling. And boxes sat around the office’s floor, stacked on one another, leaving just enough room for three chairs.

Andrew is a younger guy, with close-shaven hair that’s nearly as long as the scruffy beard on his face. He has big, attentive eyes, and he welcomed us as we entered the room.

“Hello,” he said, greeting us. “Squeeze in and find a chair.”

I turned my shoulders and did my best to squeeze around him and into the chair on the opposite side of the small room. Taking my seat, Andrew and John did the same before he welcomed us.

We talked briefly about what brought us here to Oxford, and what we’ve been working on up to this point. Andrew then opened with a short prayer, which I’ve never had in a tutorial before, and I thought was great. A moment later we were launching headfirst into the paper we had submitted the night before, in response to the question, “Why did the Western Church prove to be so vulnerable to the critique of Reformers from the second decade of the sixteenth century?”

As I said, the European Reformation is a topic I’m almost completely unfamiliar with, and, even after my week’s reading, it showed. John took the lead on most of the questions, and I filled in the gaps where I could. It was the first time I had been outnumbered in my tutorial: both Andrew and Jonathan being British. Andrew works at a nearby church, when he’s not teaching, and John’s Dad is apparently a well-known Christian writer in England, on top of working in churches around the country. They have a lot in common, and very quickly I felt I was playing the role of outsider. I wondered, to myself, if they noticed.

Soon, our hour was up, Andrew was wishing us a good week, and John and I were making our way back downstairs and out into the open air courtyard behind Wycliffe Hall. It was a sunny day, and I was now officially done with my first week of the term. John and I chatted for a bit from outside Andrew’s office. He told me he and his wife were in the process of buying a home, and so he had his hands full of that when he wasn’t working on this paper.

“I’ve recently inherited a chunk of money, and so we found a very small home nearby,” he explained to me. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re excited.” Listening to John talk about his home remodel project, I realized I had absolutely no excuse not to find time for my paper in comparison.

I told John it was great to see him again, and that I looked forward to our conversation the following week before saying “goodbye.” Hopping on my bike and leaving Wycliffe Hall, I shook my head at the thought that I only had seven weeks left before the end of my first year at Oxford.

“Nearly there,” I thought to myself as I rode toward the library to find my books for the following week’s essay.

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A Tour of Oxford

When we returned to Oxford from our time in Rome & Paris, Jen’s parents returned with us. They’d be spending a week with us here in Oxford before returning home. We were excited to show them around our new hometown. We were also looking forward to a bit of a low-key week, following the European, jet-setting lifestyle we had been living.

Jen returned to work the morning after we got back in. What can I say, I married a workaholic. So the three of us–Tim, Rhonda and myself–spent the day touring around Oxford, showing Tim & Rhonda all the highlights this city has to offer. We started with a look at some of the more famous Oxford architecture, including the Bridge of Sighs.

I pointed out the 400-year old Bodleian Library, and the Radcliffe Camera where I often study. As well as the large, University Church of the Virgin St. Mary that stands just behind it, reaching high into the sky.

We stopped inside to have a look around when we found a small orchestra practicing in the front of the church, as if just for us. We slid into the back row of pews and sat there, for several songs, enjoying the wonderful music in this beautiful old church, before continuing our tour.

From there, we made our way down to Cornmarket Street, full of shops and lots of sidewalk performers. Like this guy, who plays the violin while balancing on a tightrope with one foot.

After restraining myself from heckling this guy to see just how good his balance was, we wandered down to Christ Church, just a short walk away. I flashed my student ID and they porter at the front gate let us wander in, snapping photos of the wide, green lawns along the way.

We crossed the coutyard and entered through an arched doorway before climbing a wide, stone staircase leading to the Great Hall. The dining hall where Harry Potter and the gang shared meals while at Hogwarts.

It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, so we grabbed some ice cream after walking around the inside of Christ Church and we took a walk around the college meadow, a beautiful, park-like setting beyond the building’s high walls.

The park butts up against a river that runs along the eastern edge of Oxford. There were several people punting on the water, laughing as they haphazardly made their way down the water. Lots of first-timers, from the looks of it.

Leaving the Christ Church gardens, we walked back across the city and met up with Jen as she got off the bus, returning from her day of work at the Kilns. Her wide smile told us she was excited to see us sitting there, waiting for her to arrive, seated on a bench along High Street in the afternoon sun.

After a short stop into the market to pickup a few things for dinner, we made our way back home. Apparently it was the mens’ night to prepare dinner, which Rhonda thought was pretty great. Laughing, she snapped a photo of Tim and I together in the kitchen.

“It’s not every day you see this,” she said with a grin as she took the photo.

That night, I went to bed with a bit of a sore throat. I was hoping nothing would come of it, but that hope was all for nought. Not only did I wake up the next day with my sore throat still lingering, I also woke up to a stomach flu. Yeah, not a good combination.

That one-two punch had me in pretty bad shape for most of the remainder of Tim & Rhonda’s time with us here in Oxford. Not exactly how I wanted to spend that time.

Friday: A Breath of Fresh Air in the Cotswolds

Still, we did manage to see quite a bit over the next few days. On Friday, we rented a car and drove to the Cotswolds, introducing Tim & Rhonda to some beautiful, old English villages. I drove…

Our first stop was Bourton on the Water, the small Cotswold village with a quiet stream running through its center.

From there, we drove to some of the other, smaller villages in the area. All of the Cotswolds are connected by rather narrow English country roads. Only wide enough for one car at a time. Which means you spend most of the time hoping that you don’t find yourself face to face with another car going the opposite direction.

At one point, we came across this quaint little farm in the middle of, well, nowhere really. In-between villages. The home was beautiful. Built entirely out of this ancient stone.

It was surrounded by stone fences and fields. And in the field closest to it, there were loads of sheep. Including several young sheep, prancing about.

We ended up stopping the car and just watching these little guys run around for a while. It felt a bit surreal, standing there on this one-lane-road in the middle of the English countryside, seemingly untouched by humanity for hundreds of years, watching these sheep run and play with each other. But it was beautiful. Like a breath of fresh air.

Saturday: A trip to London

The next day, we took Tim & Rhonda to London. They had never been, so there was a lot to show them. We took a ride on the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel that sits right on the river, looking out over Parliament, and much of the London city center.

It was a pretty impressive view, as we climbed to the peak of the Eye, rolled its crest and looked out across the city.

After our trip on the Eye, Jen took a walk along the river with Tim & Rhonda. To go see the London Tower. I was feeling pretty worn out, as I was still a bit under the weather from my cold  / flu, so I sat this one out. Choosing instead to find a spot in the grass beneath the London Eye and try to nap in the sun.

Apparently along their walk, they stumbled across a sandcastle building contest along the shores of the Thames…

The Tower of London is a pretty good walk from where we parted ways, at the London Eye. And I think Jen had underestimated how long it takes, but, after a while, they finally made it to the Tower, and it made for some great pictures.

After taking in the sights of London Saturday, we made our way back to the carpark so we could head home. Except things didn’t go nearly as smoothly as planned.

We ended up getting lost and we walked much longer than we probably needed to. But, by around 9:00 that night, we had finally found our car. We were all feeling pretty tired from walking around London all day, and so we were looking forward to getting back to Oxford. Unfortunately, even after we found our car, we still weren’t out of the woods just yet.

We ran into a bit of a snag in the car park. For some reason, the ticketing system and arm that lets drivers out after they paid stopped working, just as we were trying to get out. After phoning up the operator, we were told that they couldn’t do anything about it from where they were, and that they needed to send someone out to have a look at the machine.

“No big deal,” we thought. We pulled our car over to the side of the parkade, out of the way of the gate, and we waited. But we weren’t the only ones wanting to leave that night. Soon, there was a long line of cars waiting to get out. All growing increasingly impatient, and all taking turns calling up this operator and letting her know their great frustration. Each time, the operator apologized and let them know there was nothing they could do to get the gate open from where they were, and that someone was coming to take a look at it.

Lots of shaking heads and crossed arms. People got out of their cars and began trying to lift up the arm of the gate, to see if they could somehow force it up.

Finally, after about 45 minutes of this scene, a man got on the phone and told the operator that he was going to call the fire department if someone was not down here in five minutes to get this gate open. Like magic, the gate arm that the operator said could not be opened so many times before now was lifted. Car engines fired up and took off in a hurry, full of drivers and passengers anxious to get out of the parkade that had held them like prisoners for nearly an hour.

Not exactly the perfect end to our day in London, but at least now we were finally making our way back home.

Sunday: Sick in Bed & Oxford Punting

On Sunday morning, we all woke up and went to St. Aldate’s together, the church Jen and I have been attending here in Oxford. We were excited to share it with Tim & Rhonda. It was a great service, and it was really nice to be able to show Tim & Rhonda our church home here in Oxford.

Afterward, we wandered through the city center in search of a good place for a post-church brunch. We ended up at Giraffe, a place I knew served pancakes. It was another sunny day, and it shone through the large restaurant windows, warming us as we browsed the menu.

We placed our orders and talked about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day. We had been discussing whether or not we wanted to go see one of the nearby castles. I think we were all in agreement that it’d be a lot of fun to go see–Jen and I hadn’t been–but my illness was now in full gear, and I just didn’t have it in me. After lunch, I retired to my bed, in hopes of sleeping off this cold and flu that was sucking all my energy.

While I slept, Jen and her parents made their way over to Magdalene College to try their hand at punting. I was sorry to miss out on the fun, on such a beautiful, sunny day, but I was not doing well at this point.

Since I wasn’t there to join in, I thought I’d ask Jen to share a bit about their first punting experience. Here’s Jen:

Of the three of us, Dad was the brave one who decided to go first. Although it helped that I volunteered him when the guy who was working that day asked who was going to be in charge of punting.

“He is,” I said, pointing to Dad.

We came across a small bridge shortly after we got started, and we all had to duck really low. This did not go well, though, as it made us go against the bank where there were lots of tree branches. So, we he had to continue to duck down low, but we still found ourselves getting hit by all the branches.

Dad looked so funny trying to stay balanced while having to crouch down so low. Mom and I were laughing so hard we literally felt like we were going to pee our pants. Dad was frustrated with us for laughing at him, and for not helping him. But there was no way we could help until we got ourselves under control!

I am happy to say that Dad did get used to how the pole worked, and then he was able to move us along quite quickly.

And then it was my turn. I had the advantage of going second, which meant I was able to watch Dad and figure out what not to do. It turns out I’m a natural at punting. I may not have been the fastest punter, but I could move us along without running into things. Unlike some people…

The problem, though, is that you can’t always control what others around you are doing. At one point, we came across a more narrow part of the river and there was a teenage boy who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. He managed to get his punt horizontal, across the river, which meant I had nowhere to go and ended up running us into the bank. Again, where lots of branches were sticking out. I seriously thought the branches were going to shove me off the platform of the boat! Thankfully it didn’t, but I did receive some nice, deep scratches on my arm.

We made sure Mom got into the action as well. Anytime I can have a good laugh at my parents’ expense is always nice. Mom did pretty good as well, but she was a little unsure of what she was doing at first. Soon, though, she got the hang of it, and she caught on fast enough.

We had a great time, full of lots of laughs, and we considered our first time punting a success.

Monday: Saying Goodbye

After our time with Jen’s parents in Rome, Paris and now Oxford, we were sad to see them go. We had been looking forward to their arrival for some time, and our time together had been pretty amazing. Not just because of all the things we had seen and done over the course of those two+ weeks, but it was just nice to have them with us again. It made it feel like we were carrying a piece of home with us again.

But Monday morning we got up and prepared to see them off. We’d be driving them to London to catch their flight, but not before Jen made us some homemade scones to start the day. I found Justin and Dan (Justin & Jane’s oldest son) next door, and I asked if they’d mind snapping a photo of us before Jen’s parents left. Dan was happy to help.

When we arrived at the airport, we had trouble checking in. The machine we were using didn’t want to accept their travel information, which I found rather odd. So we found an airline staff member and asked for his help. He tried his hand at the machine, doing the same we did, only to find the same failed result we did. He punched in a few numbers on another monitor and told us that, unfortunately, it looked like their flight had been overbooked, and they might need to catch a flight out the next day.

Rhonda’s jaw about hit the ground at that point. Tim remained cool as the young airline employee told us we needed to walk down to the customer service table at the end of the hall and they would let us know what was going on.

We followed his directions, commenting on how bizarre it is that you can buy something several months in advance and then show up the day of only to find it’s not actually yours.

After talking with a guy who looked like he had been dealing with similar problems all morning, and who was a bit frazzled, we learned that the flight had indeed been overbooked, and that several passengers would be asked to fly out the next day in exchange for £1,500. It didn’t seem like a bad deal to me, but Rhonda was planning on being at work the next day, and she was trying to figure out how she could ask someone to cover for her, even though she loved the idea of staying an extra night with us.

You could see the wheels turning in Tim’s head, thinking how that money could be put to use in helping cover part of their trip. I was with Tim; that sounded like a good deal to me.

After about an hour of waiting, and being told to wait some more, Tim & Rhonda found out they would in fact be flying out on their plane, as originally planned. It was a bit of a rollercoaster departure, preparing to say goodbye, then thinking they might not have to say goodbye just yet, then realizing that, yes, this really was goodbye.

It was tough to see them go, after such a nice time together. We were just thankful to have them. It meant the world that they both crossed the Atlantic for the first time to visit us. It was a quiet ride home, that afternoon. Jen staring out the window for much of it. I patted her knee from time to time, and let my hand rest there. Encouraging her with a smile as she turned her head to me.

A Hard Message

The Sunday before we took off for our trip to Rome and Paris, Jen and I had attended the evening service at St. Aldate’s. The pastor who typically speaks at that 6:00 evening service is a guy by the name of Simon. His background is in Theology, and so I appreciate his meat-and-potato style of teaching. Simon is British, and he’s quite funny. His sense of humor rounds out his solid teaching quite well, often making jokes about his large size, or his rather casual attire (whereas most pastors here tend to get quite dressed up for their role).

This evening he spoke, though, this Sunday evening before we left, he had a rather interesting message. He began by explaining that he had actually spent about 20 hours preparing a message that week on Romans, which we had been studying, but as he was sitting there, prior to speaking, he felt led to preach on a totally different topic. He explained to us that he really felt like God was telling him that He had another message that needed to be heard by someone tonight. And so, at the last minute, he jotted down some notes and took the stage for an impromptu message. I was intrigued.

Rather than speaking on Romans that night, Simon focused on the period directly after Jesus’ baptism. When he spent the 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. Simon started by pointing out that, what most people don’t realize in looking at this story is that Jesus was actually led by the Spirit when He went out into the desert for this time of temptation. That Jesus was not just experiencing this great trial, but that God was the One bringing this time of difficulty about for His Son.

Simon explained that he didn’t like to think about it that way. That it’s tough. But, he pointed out, that’s what we’re told happened. And so, Simon talked through what this means for us, for those of us going through a tough time.

He talked about how, a lot of times these difficult times come, and we just want to throw in the towel and give up, without realizing that God actually wants to use such experiences to grow us, so that He can use us in a way He couldn’t otherwise.

He was right. It was a hard message. But I appreciate preachers who teach what they believe they need to teach. I appreciate preachers who teach what the Bible says, whether it’s hard or not, without feeling the need to soften the blow by watering it down.

Simon shared several stories with us that night. To help with the lesson. He told us about a pastor who had received a wide amount of success, as a speaker, but who had been struck with Tourette syndrome at the height of his ministry. He told us how this pastor went from blessing others with his mouth, to not being able to stop using that same mouth from spouting off horrible obscenities at the most inappropriate moments. He told us how this pastor was literally put up in bed one day, because he could no longer serve as he had before, and just asking God, “Why in the world would you do this to me?…”

Simon explained to us the answer that pastor said he felt he received from God, in that moment. After asking, he said he felt God telling him, “This is what you would be like without me.” Simon told us how God had led this man through an incredibly low valley only so that this man could be brought to a place where he was fully reliant on God, and where he knew he could take no credit for any amount of success he had.

Simon also shared with us from his own experience. From some of his own trials. He talked about how he  had made plans to leave the UK as a young, “strapping”, 20-something. To go join up with Vineyard Ministries in the States, as a speaker. Only to be pressed down upon with the great realization that, as much as he wanted this, he felt that’s not what God wanted for him and his wife. Instead, he felt God was telling him to go to school. To go to seminary. And to go work in the Anglican Church.

Simon shared with us how this, all of this, was the opposite of what he wanted. How he spent years in school, in great depression, while his wife went to work, earning an income so that they could get by, rather than starting a family, as she wanted. He talked about how incredibly trying this was, but how, ultimately, he came out the other side with greater confidence in how God planned to use him to share His good news with others.

And so, before we left for Rome & Paris, I had fired off an e-mail to Simon. I told him his message really resonated with me, and I’d love to chat with him a bit more when we returned. I was happy to hear back from him right away, and we scheduled a time to get together when we returned to Oxford.

A Walk with Simon

I met up with Simon on a sunny Tuesday morning after Jen’s parents left. I met him in front of St. Aldate’s, and we walked down the lane toward Christ Church meadow. He was dressed in his usual, informal outfit: cargo shorts, t-shirt, a brown, leather waistcoat (which I’ve never seen him without) and sandals. Simon has broad shoulders and he walks heavily, swinging his arms as we went.

“How do you feel about ice cream,” he said, turning toward me as we walked.

I laughed to myself, slightly, checking my watch to make sure it was still in fact 10:30 in the morning.

“Sure, yeah, that sounds great,” I said.

We stopped into G&D’s, we each grabbed a cone of ice cream (custard for Simon, strawberry for me), and we continued toward Christ Church meadow.

“So I read your blog,” he said, without turning to me, as we crossed the street and entered through the large metal gate.

“You did?” I asked, somewhat surprisingly.

“Well, I looked at it,” he clarified, admittedly.

“Oh, well thanks.”

“You’re a writer, and a thinker,” he commented. “That’s rare.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“I mean, lots of people write. Lots. But lots of writers aren’t actually thinkers. And we have a lot of thinkers, but they don’t tend to write much,” he said, clarifying again.

“Yeah, well thank you,” I said, still unsure of what to say.

“You know, Harry Potter was filmed here,” he said, pointing toward the wide open fields in front of us, and to the side of Christ Church, quickly moving along in conversation.

“Yeah, I had heard that when I arrived,” I replied. “Pretty amazing.”

“It was a big setup,” he continued. “They had massive tents and trailers. You could see it all going on from where we were,” he said, motioning over his shoulder to St. Aldate’s not far behind us.

“They asked me to be in it, you know. But I told them ‘Nah… I have too much to do already,'” he joked.

“It’s funny you say that,” I said, without missing a beat, “Because when I first saw you, I thought to myself, ‘he looks just like Harry Potter!'”

“Really?” he asked, turning toward me.

“No, no I didn’t. I was just joking.”

“Oh, well I haven’t seen it, or read it, so I didn’t know.”

I almost felt bad, for my joke that had totally missed the mark.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to explain, “Harry Potter is a small, teenage boy with glasses, so pretty much nothing like you.”

“Ah,” he said, laughing.

We continued walking, making our way toward the river and along its edge, enjoying our ice cream cones as we walked.

“You know, I’m the most American Brit you’ll meet,” he told me, with a half-look of pride.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told.”

“I could see that,” I told him. “You tend to wear your heart on your sleeve a bit, like us Americans. You tell it like it is. I appreciate that.”

“I do, yeah,” he said in agreement. “I used to be a butcher, you know. And a meat salesman. So I’m pretty to the point. ‘You want this cut, it costs this much,’ he said aloud, as if to replay a scene from his former life as a butcher / meat salesman, and to show me where it came from.

We passed several people on our walk. Most of whom Simon seemed to know, and who knew him. Lots of smiles and “hello”‘s.

He asked if I minded if we took a break about a half hour into our walk. I didn’t, so we did. We took a seat on a bench that overlooks the river, and we sat there watching the water tumble slowly by. It really was a beautiful day, and this was an amazing spot to take it all in.

“So you contacted me a bit ago to talk about something,” Simon said, narrowing our conversation, and recalling the e-mail I had sent him several weeks prior.

“Yeah, it was about your sermon, where you talked about how sometimes God leads us into the wilderness, to help form us into who He wants us to be. So that He can use us.”

“Ah, yes,” he replied, looking off into the distance, recalling the message I was referring to.

I shared with him how this message had really resonated with me that night. I told him about how we had picked up and left home to come here to Oxford, because I really felt God wanted to use this experience to help prepare me to share Him with others, even though I wasn’t totally clear on what that was supposed to look like. I told him how it had been pretty tough to leave home behind and come here, even though this is such an amazing city.

I shared with him how, even though this is a dream come true, in so many ways, it is also one of the most difficult things either one of us have ever done. To come here and start over, as it were, investing literally all we have into this, with no guarantee of anything waiting us on the other side.

I also told him about how we had lost Jen’s sister, Hayley, shortly before leaving home, and how that had only made this time all the more difficult.

He hung his head low at the news, shaking it as if to share in our pain.

He told me he was so sorry for our loss. And then he asked several questions. About coming here. And he asked how Jen was doing with it all.

I told him this had not been easy on Jen. Not at all. But that she had been incredibly strong through it all. And supportive. And that there’s no way I could have done it without her.

Then he asked me what I wanted to do, at the end of our time here in Oxford. I’ve been asked that question a lot since arriving, and so I was prepared to answer.

“Well, when I first came over, I figured I’d just go the PhD route and work to eventually become a professor,” I told him. “I knew I wanted to write and speak, so I figured that’d let me do that on the side.”

“But, since coming here,” I continued, “I’ve begun to think maybe that’s not what I want to do. I really enjoyed speaking and writing in my former job, so I know I’d love to do that. But I think I’d like to do that for a more general audience. Not just for academics. To help everyday people see Him more clearly.”

“I know it sounds like a pipe dream, but if I could do that, if I could write and speak to help others with that, that’s what I’d be doing.”

Simon was quick to respond, and to encourage me.

“We need both of those things, Ryan. Writing and speaking. And there are a lot of people who don’t want to do those things. I enjoy speaking, but writing is a chore. If you can do both of those things, then I don’t think that’s a pipe dream.”

I nodded my head. I was thankful for his encouragement.

We left our spot from beside the river and continued on our walk, heading back toward the gate through which we had entered the meadow.

Simon shook his head again, commenting on our loss. And the recent difficulties.

“You know, Ryan, you have to gain this knowledge, you have to get this degree, to do what you want to do. And this is a great place to get it,” he said, staring off at Christ Church in the distance. “But I think you’ll realize, afterward, that God brought you here for more than just a degree. He’s teaching you both through all of this, and you might not know how until much later.”

“Hmmm…” I said aloud, allowing his words settle in.

I thanked Simon for the ice cream, and for taking the time. I told him I really appreciated his thoughts and wisdom.

He’s a pretty humble guy, so he quickly brushed off any idea that there was wisdom in his words. He told me we’d have to do this again some time. I told him I’d like that, and I made my way toward the city center. Back to the library to study, still chewing on Simon’s words.

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