Archives for posts with tag: Walter Hooper

Saturday: Day 1 of Final Exams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope so,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Becoming a Godfather

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

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

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

More than Halfway There

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Sick to my Stomach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Final Finals Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting My Pen Down For the Last Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tear-Filled Phone Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The E-mail I Never Thought I Would Write

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

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

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

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

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

God is So Good

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

And her response took me off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Saying Goodbye to the Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: My Last Tours

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

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

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

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

Sorry to Go, Excited For the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories Are Not People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast in the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

When All Our Dreams Came True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, take me back to the start.”

The End Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love and gratitude,

Ryan (& Jen)

www.RyanAndJenGoToEngland.wordpress.com

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A Desire for Brains & Just Two More Weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Home

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

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

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

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

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

Casting Crowns at the Kilns

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Have you heard of Casting Crowns?”

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

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

A Real Decision on Our Hands

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Tired & Feeling Refreshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refreshing Words of Encouragement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honored to Be a Godfather

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

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

My Meeting with Philip

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

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

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

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

He smiled, then continued.

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

I laughed outloud.

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

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

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

He looked surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but she will one day.”

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Asleep on my Bike Ride Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Alarm & A Different Ballgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner With John & John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all laughed, and John Adams nodded.

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

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

Last Week Before Exams

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

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

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

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

A Conversation With CS Lewis’s Stepson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I agreed.

A Voice of Confirmation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that you have to go, mind you.”

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

The Last Day Before Finals

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

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

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

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

You hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterwards you will receive me

with honour.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

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

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion for ever.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

to tell of all your works.

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

Jen and I caught a bus home after our date night on Friday. It was a cool night, and we were anxious to get inside the warm home and escape the cold by the time we had walked from our bus stop. But just as we opened the door, a taxi pulled up outside the house, which I thought was odd, considering it was now 12:30 in the morning. I remembered our good friend Cole, who’s currently studying at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, was visiting for the weekend, and I wondered if this was him.

I watched as the cab door opened up and a dark silhouette stepped out onto the street. Sure enough, it was Cole. I recognized his profile as Cole handed the cab driver his fare, and so I waited at the door to welcome him.

“Haaaaaay!” he said as he drug his luggage through the gate and to where we stood at the doorway. We welcomed him with hugs and caught up from the kitchen. He had grabbed a late dinner from a kebab van in the city center, and I made myself a bowl of cereal while the three of us talked. Friends don’t let friends eat alone…

It was nearly 1:00 in the morning by the time we said “goodnight” to Cole and made our way to bed. Cole would be joining us for Guy Fawkes Day fireworks in South Park the next day, just as the three of us had done the year before.

Saturday: Day with Jen & Guy Fawkes Day

Jen and I started off Saturday with a trip to the Oxford city center. It had been a busy week, and we planned to spend the day together before catching the fireworks display in the park with the rest of the house that night.

After showering and grabbing a quick breakfast, we caught a bus to the city center. Our bus made a quick stop in Headington, a small village just outside of the city center, and my eyes caught a small boy walking behind his parents. He was carrying a long, plastic sword that was nearly as tall as he was. He stopped for a moment to try and “sheath” the sword into the front of his pants, but quickly realized doing so would prevent him from walking. His parents stopped to look back and find the boy in the middle of this dilemma. I laughed. And asked Jen if our boy could have a plastic sword one day. “Of course,” she said. I grinned widely.

We got off the bus at High Street, and we tucked into a small antique shop near the Exam Schools building. We thumbed through a large collection of old Oxford photos and illustrations, pausing to show the other any ones that we particularly liked. Finally, after looking through dozens and dozens of matted illustrations, we decided on an old drawing of High Street, complete with a carriage, one of the Radcliffe Camera, with several Oxford students in their cap and gowns, and one of the Bridge of Sighs. We talked about how great the pictures would look framed in our future home some day as we made our way out of the antique shop, across the High Street, and down a narrow lane that leads toward the heart of the city center.

It was a beautiful, clear, cool day as we walked through this cobblestone lane with leaves on ground. The stone footpath was covered in rich oranges and reds and yellows. And it was almost as if Oxford had dressed up in its finest Autumn-inspired outfit, just for us. Fallen leaves were draped across the cobblestone lane leading us beneath the Bridge of Sighs and finally up to the Radcliffe Camera, illustrations of which we carried in our plastic bag.

The streets were packed as we made it to Broad Street. Jen had wanted to try on some boots, and so we polka-dotted the city center with our stops in a handful of different shoe stores. We took a brief break from our shopping to wander down to the Alternative Tuck Shop and order two paninis for lunch, which we enjoyed from the dark leather couches of the Junior Common Room of my college. We didn’t manage to find a pair of boots for Jen, but we did enjoy spending the day together. It was a wonderful time, and something we don’t get to do nearly enough.

We returned to the Kilns in the middle of the afternoon, while the sky was still a light shade of blue, with streaks of white clouds drifting slowly by. And, as Jen searched for her keys to open the door, I found my eyes wandering to the small blue plaque on the side of the house, the one that identifies the home as where C.S. Lewis lived from 1930 to 1963, and to the windows that look into his old bedroom, and it was then that I realized, perhaps for the first time, how truly incredible it is that we live here.

Lighting Guy Fawkes on Fire & Fireworks in South Park

That evening, Jen and I and Cole made our way to South Park, where Guy Fawkes Day was being celebrated, along with Debbie and Jonathan, who are living at the Kilns, and David Naugle, a short-term scholar from Dallas. We walked the long way around, passing through the nature reserve in the dark. Around the pond where Lewis used to swim and go punting, and through the field with its tall grass. We walked in a line, with Jonathan leading the way. Jonathan walks between the city center and the Kilns every day, which takes about an hour, so he’s well-practiced. He keeps a good pace, and the rest of us did our best to keep up with him.

As we made it out of the nature reserve and onto the streets, we found ourselves walking amongst a large crowd of people, all making their way to the Fireworks display. I talked with Cole as we walked. We had left the house a little later than we should have, and so we were wondering if we’d make it on-time.

I joked that I had told those in charge that we might be a little late arriving, and so we didn’t need to worry about the show starting without us. Cole played along with the joke.

“Ladies and gentleman, has anyone seen a tall, handsome, intelligent fellow?…” Cole said. “And his friend Ryan Pemberton?”

I laughed out loud.

We passed through the gate leading into South Park only to find it lined with large carnival rides that lit up the night skyline, and food vendors that filled the air with scents of grilled sausages and hot mulled wine. It felt a bit like being at the county fair back home. And I loved it.

“Does being here make anyone else want a hot dog?” I asked.

“It does me,” said Cole.

“Just you two, I think,” said Debbie, the vegetarian in the group.

We found our way toward the front of the crowd that had gathered in the eastern end of the park for fireworks. The show had yet to begin, and we stood should-to-shoulder as we waited in the crowd.

Apparently my comment about hot dogs had stuck with Cole, as he soon took food orders from our group and left to hunt down hot dogs while the rest of us waited for the fireworks to begin. Less than 10 minutes later, they had begun.

The percussion was so loud you could feel it in your chest as the fireworks exploded into the black night sky in bursts of reds and blues and yellows. Those standing around us ghasped in awe, as did I.

“They were all out of hot dogs, so I got us burgers instead,” Cole said as he made it back to where we were standing in the crowd. The fireworks were building up to a grand finale, and we all stared skyward, faces lit up by the display, as we enjoyed our warm, tinfoil-wrapped burgers.

After the fireworks had finished, a giant, 50-foot tall effigy was lit on fire, and the crowd watched as it went from a small fire to a roaring blaze.

Limb by limb the effigy was torn down by the flickering tongue of the flames, and we all stood there, looking on, almost as if we were bystanders to a crime. But it was no crime. It was just a typical Guy Fawkes Day celebration in England. It seemed so primitive and barbaric. So pagan.

The crowd dwindled as the statue crumbled, leaving little more than a bonfire, and soon we were making our way out of the crowd and back toward the Kilns. But before we had gone, Debbie and Cole let us know they wouldn’t be able to leave without a ride on the merry-go-round. And they were serious.

The rest of us watched as they purchased their tickets and found a seat on the ride, each choosing their own “horse” before it began. But before the merry-go-round could begin its rotation, it became clear that not everyone was going to be able to have their own horse. A small girl was left looking for a free seat when Cole noticed and offered her his. Realizing this left him without his own horse, he took the front seat of the horse Debbie had been on.

“Nooooo…” I said in a hushed voice, realizing that not only would Debbie and Cole be riding the merry-go-round, but they’d be sharing the same horse!

As the ride began, they both looked over at us with embarrassed grins, Cole from the front of the horse, and Debbie from the seat just behind him. I burst into laughter, in disbelief of the scene.

Neither one of them were about to let the opportunity go by without hamming it up, so they made different poses on each rotation as they passed by us. Cole would extend his arms out into the air, as if he were flying, and Debbie would lean back and swat at the horse’s rear end, while the three of us laughed uncontrollably from our spot just beyond the ride. I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard.

We caught a bus back to the Kilns that night. Jonathan had returned before us, to finish dinner preparations. Our meal was ready not long after we returned, and we all sat down to an incredible dinner in the dining room.

Jonathan is an amazing cook, and we enjoyed a truly inspired meal over much laughter as we explained the scene of Cole and Debbie on the merry-go-round to Jonathan. It was a great day, and a great night, and it didn’t end until nearly 2:00 the next morning.

Sunday: Magdalene Chapel & Shadow proves the sunshine

Jen and I attended church at Magdalene Chapel on Sunday morning, in the college where Lewis taught when he was here in Oxford. David, the short-term scholar from Dallas, joined us.

Magdalene is one of my favorite college chapels here in Oxford. It’s massive, and it has an incredible number of ornate carvings spread throughout its walls. The ceiling is a high-arching wooden structure, and the walls are lined with stained-glass windows. On this particular morning, a ray of light came dancing into the room through one of the front, corner stained glass windows in the chapel, in rather dramatic fashion, just as the choir–a mix of men and boys–began the morning hymns. It was an incredible, beautiful service, and I was so glad we had attended.

Afterward, we wandered a short way down High Street to the Grand Cafe for brunch. The Grand Cafe is England’s oldest coffee house, and David had never been before, so we thought it would be a nice place to follow up the service we had just enjoyed together.

We talked about the Switchfoot concert David would be attending the next week in Cambridge over our hot breakfast and coffee. David told us how he knew Switchfoot’s lead singer, Jon Foreman, and that a lot of the band’s lyrics had been influenced by his father, a pastor in California. I shared with him my favorite Switchfoot lyrics: “the shadow proves the Sunshine.” We agreed it was a beautiful line; theologically weighty and poetic.

We finished our breakfast, took care of the bill, and then we made our way back to the Kilns on a particularly sunny Sunday afternoon. It was nice to get back home early and enjoy a restful day before the start of another week.

5th week

Monday: Lincoln College’s most famous alum & Proud of you

In contrast to the weekend’s sunny weather, Monday arrived with a thick blanket of fog. The air was wet from it, and your clothes would pick up the moisture as you walked. “This feels like the England as so many know it,” I thought to myself as I made my short walk to the bus stop, en route to the city center and college.

After several hours of reading, I clicked off my desk lamp in the Harris Manchester Library and rode my bike to Lincoln College, where I’d be meeting Rich and Max and Britton for lunch. We’ve been meeting together once a week, on Mondays, to share life and lunch, and then pray together.

I hadn’t been to Lincoln College before, but it is a beautiful college in the middle of the city center. It’s small, but I’ve found myself liking the smaller colleges lately. They’re less intimidating.

We followed Britton through several courtyards and down a small stone staircase to an underground room lined with old wooden tables and flatscreen monitors on the walls. At the end of the room was a bar, where students where placing their food orders. The whole thing looked like a rather modern pub, and it was.

“I’m a little jealous that Lincoln has its own pub,” I confessed to Britton and the rest of the guys. “But this is great!”

We placed our orders, sandwiches and soup, and retired to a small alcove that looked a bit like a bomb shelter in the corner of the room.

“This place is amazing,” I said as we sat with our lunches. The guys agreed, nodding their heads as we dug into our food.

“Yeah, I think it used to be a wine cellar,” Britton told us as we ate.

“That makes sense,” said Max.

We were in awe of what an incredible deal Lincoln was for lunch, as well. For £1.95, I got a bowl of soup and a sandwich. It was incredible, really.

We had a great time of prayer, as we wrapped up our meal and time together. Walking out of the underground pub, we followed Britton along a cobblestone walkway, and it felt a bit like we’d traveled back in time.

Britton showed us the College’s chapel and dining hall as we toured the grounds. In the dining hall, Britton made sure to point out a large portrait of John Wesley, most famous for founding the Methodist Movement.

“He’s probably our most famous alum,” Britton told us.

“Meh…” I said with a smirk.

Rich laughed. “Yeah, not that big of a deal,” he said sarcastically.

Proud of You

Back in the library at Harris Manchester, I found my studies interrupted by a Skype call from my Mom. She calls me fairly often when I’m in the library, and, since I’m almost always wearing my earphones to listen to music while I read, I’m able to hear her without interrupting anyone else. I type my responses, and she speaks to me. It’s a routine we’ve got down as I’m often in the library when she calls.

The call was brief, and after a bit of small-talk, my Mom’s voice took on a more serious tone.

“Ryan, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said as she began. “I’ve been thinking about it and, I think if C.S. Lewis was alive today, he’d be so proud of what you’re doing.”

My eyes focused and the skin on my face tightened. Even though I couldn’t talk anyways, being in the library, I found I had to stop. I put my head down, and it was all I could do to stop the tears from welling up in my eyes.

My Mom didn’t know it, but I had been feeling a bit disillusioned at the time. I was having a tough time, wondering about the future, what we were going to do after my studies here, and all. The idea of what Lewis would’ve thought about all of this, were he alive, had never crossed my mind, but it meant so very much.

My Mom had to go, as she was on a break at work and now had to get back to things there, but she could see how much her comment had meant, even though I could hardly type.

No One Will Ever Believe You

Jen and I had a Skype call with her family that night, from our study at the Kilns. We were talking with Jen’s mom when we heard a knock on the door. I was closest to it, so I got up from my seat and opened the door. It was Debbie, and she was asking if Jen’s book was available. I looked back to Jen, who seemed to know what she was asking for, and she handed me a small romance novel from the desk.

I looked at the book she was handing me, and turned to hand it to Debbie with a look of surprise. Debbie is, perhaps, the last person you’d expect to be reading such a book. Debbie teaches Medieval Literature at a University back in Tennessee, when she’s not the Warden here at the Kilns. She likes things like knights and horses and Beowulf, and she invites her students to (secretly) bring their swords to class to show her.

I thought it was hilarious that Debbie would actually be reading a romance novel, and she smiled as I handed the book to her.

“No one will ever believe you, Ryan,” she said to me with a wide grin, almost as if to read my thoughts.

Tuesday: Our Finnish Friends

I had a lunch meeting with a guy from Finland by the name of Jason on Tuesday. Jason had spoken to the Lewis Society last year, and I had been in touch with him over the summer about joining us again this year. He had told me that he’d be stopping through Oxford on his way to a conference in the States in November, and we agreed that it’d be nice to meet up for lunch while he was in town.

At 12:30, I walked around the corner from College to the King’s Arms, a small pub where we’d be meeting for lunch. Jason was standing in front of the pub when I arrived, dressed in a black turtleneck and blue jeans. Though I’m not terribly tall, I’m not used to looking up to speak to most people, but I had to with Jason.

Jason stands at least 6’3″, and his hair is shaved short. He has a deep voice, with a strong Finnish accent, which paired with his height to make me feel just a bit less manly than I had when I arrived.

“Hello, Ryan” Jason said, greeting me with a firm shake. His wide grin was the only thing that made his presence less than intimidating.

We tucked into the pub and ordered some lunch before finding a seat near the front of the pub. It was cool outside, and while I’m not usually much of a chili fan, I ordered a hot bowl of it to warm up.

We enjoyed a great conversation over lunch. He sharing his story with me, and then vice versa. And it was funny how closely our stories lined up. We had both read C.S. Lewis at the age of 19 for the first time, and his writing had changed the course of each of our lives in a rather dramatic way.

Jason had been planning to pursue a law degree when he first read Lewis. It wasn’t long after that, he explained to me from our seat in the pub, that he asked himself what he would do if money were not an option, and if he could do everything. Once he asked himself that question, he told me, he decided he’d actually like to study theology. I laughed as he told me about this experience. It was funny just how similar it was to mine.

At one point in the conversation, Jason recommended a book called A Severe Mercy to me. It was a book that had been recommended to me several times before, by people who knew we were coming to Oxford, but I had yet to pick it up. It was a book about an American couple who moved to Oxford for studies as non-believers, and who came to the Christian faith largely through C.S. Lewis’s writing and their later friendship with him, and how the husband dealt with the loss of his wife in later life.

Jason told me he typically had about 20 copies of the book on-hand at his home, and that it was his “go-to” present for newlyweds, as it had some incredible lessons for marriage and life. I hadn’t been persuaded to read the book before, but after hearing this, I told Jason I’d have around the Kilns for a copy as soon as I got home that night.

“I think you’d get a lot from it,” Jason told me, matter-of-factly, “They have a very similar story as you and Jen.”

I thanked Jason for what had been an incredibly encouraging conversation as we made our way out of the pub, and he invited me along to dinner that evening. I hadn’t planned to go, as I had lots to do, but Jason said he’d like to introduce me to his colleagues here at Oxford over dinner at the Eagle & Child before the Lewis Society met that night. I told him I’d do my best to be there, as we exchanged another firm handshake and I made my way back to the Harris Manchester Library to get some more reading done.

Finnish Survivor & Walter’s Warm Welcome

After an afternoon of reading, I gave in and made my way across town to the Eagle & Child for dinner. Jen had texted me that afternoon to let me know her and Debbie would be going, and I couldn’t not go at that point. I walked into the pub only to find that nearly everyone else had already arrived. Jen was seated behind a long wooden table as I entered. I exchanged smiles with Jen before saying “hello” to Debbie and Jason and several others as I made my way around the table to sit beside her.

After several minutes of introductions to Jason’s Finnish colleagues who were joining us for the evening, we made our way to the counter to place our orders and then settled in to wait for our meals to arrive.

Debbie mentioned that Jason was on the Finland version of Survivor, and he nodded embarrassingly as Debbie rolled her head back with laughter. I was stunned.

“This will be another conversation,” Jason said to me, from across the table, with a look of complete seriousness.

I laughed.

“All right, yeah. I’d love to hear about it,” I told him.

He ended up telling us a bit about the experience over dinner as it arrived. About how he went for days without anything to eat or drink to start the show, and then about winning a competition toward the end of the show that rewarded he and another (male) contestant with an incredible formal dinner while the other (female) contests were forced to watch.

He told us about how the competition consisted of carrying melted butter by the mouthful across the sandy beach and filling up a bucket. The result was being covered in butter and eating as much as he could while several girls, who were chained up, for dramatic effect, were forced to watch.

“None of us had eaten for days,” he told us, wearing a broad smile as he remembered the scene. “It was quite the picture!”

Apparently he nearly won, too, making it to day 42 of the 45-day competition.

After a laughter-riddled meal, we left Eagle & Child and made our way to the Lewis Society meeting just a few buildings down on St Giles Street.

The meeting went very well, and afterward, Jennifer and I caught up with Walter, who lit up when he saw Jennifer.

“Well helloooo,” Walter said to her with a hug as soon as he saw her. It was the first time Walter had seen Jen since we had returned, and he did a double-take to make sure it was, in fact, her.

“You look genuinely happy,” Walter said to Jen after their hug. I looked over to Jen, and she really did.

“Is it love?” Walter asked with a bit of a coy smile. Jen smiled embarrassingly in return.

I laughed.

“That must be a rhetorical question, Walter,” I said with a grin.

“He really gets better every day, doesn’t he?” Walter asked, looking back to Jen.

I asked if Walter wanted help down the stairs, as he was on his way out to catch a cab when we caught up with him, and I helped him down the narrow, spiraling stone staircase before saying “goodbye” and making our way back to the Kilns.

Wednesday: Tour with Rob & If You Were to Write About This Year…

On Wednesday night we invited our good friend Rob over to the Kilns for a visit. He had never been before, and he would be leaving in a couple days to return to Washington State to join his wife, Vanessa, so we were happy to see him once more before he left.

Rob and I ended up making the last leg of the journey to the Kilns together, as our paths crossed (I on foot, with groceries in hand, and he on his bike) during the last mile of the trip. The air was cool, and we were both dressed warm. We caught up on how things had been going as we made our way to the Kilns together.

When we arrived, Jen met us at the door and let us know that she had just put on some water for tea, if we wanted some. We both agreed that sounded perfect after the cool-air walk, and so the three of us gathered in the kitchen and talked over hot, English tea.

We talked about what it’d be like to transition back to life in the States. We talked about finding jobs and re-adjusting to the cultural differences, after adjusting to life in the UK. We talked about how odd it will be to hang out again when we’re back in Washington, now that we’ve only known each other in England. And then I showed Rob around the house, pointing out interesting photos and telling stories along the way.

It was a much more informal tour than what I’m used to, and it was great. Rob would ask questions as we walked, and we’d talk about the books he had read. Rob had previously recommended I read A Severe Mercy, and so I mentioned to him that I had finally picked it up.

At the end of the tour, Debbie and Jen met us back at the front of the house. I introduced Rob to Debbie, and told her that Rob’s wife, Vanessa, had been at the house for the girls’ high tea that Jen threw last year.

“Ahhh, okay,” she said, connecting the dots.

We said our goodbyes to Rob, making tentative plans to get together again when we were back in the States for Christmas, and then he was off.

A Late-Night Visitor

Jen and I enjoyed dinner from the kitchen that night, which tends to be a rather social time when people are at home. Jonathan and David had gathered in the kitchen with us while we ate, and Debbie joined us later. There was a knock on the door as we were finishing our meal, and everyone looked around to make sure we were all there before giving one another puzzled looks, as if to say, “Who else could be knocking at this time?”

But I knew who it was before I even got up to check.

“Oh, it’s Tom,” I said, getting up and making my way to the front door.

Tom is a good friend of mine here in Oxford. He works at Ravi Zacharias Ministry, and he had given a talk the week before on the topic of topic of how a good God could allow suffering, which I had attended the week before.

I introduced Tom to Debbie and David, as he knows Jonathan (they grew up together) and Jen, and then we took a short walk to the Ampleforth Arms to catch up. There were only a handful of guys in the pub when we arrived, most of whom were watching a soccer match on a widescreen tv hanging from one of the walls. Tom and I tucked into a pair of overstuffed leather couches in the front of the pub, and we enjoyed catching up on life and church and studies.

I also asked Tom about balancing marriage and work and parenting, as he’s a few years ahead of me, and he and his wife have a young daughter at home. I talked about some of my goals, pausing to hear Tom’s advice, and I told him how much I appreciate the life of the mind here in Oxford.

“I feel like my mind is alive and at work here,” I told him, “in way I haven’t found anywhere else.”

Tom smiled, and nodded, in a way that told me he knew exactly what I meant, and we made our way back to the Kilns in the cool night air.

It was nearly 11:00 when we returned, and as we turned onto Lewis Close, Tom commented on how incredible it must be to me to be here and to be so involved with C.S. Lewis.

“Giving tours, living in his home,” Tom began.

“President of the Lewis Society, writing my essay on him…” I finished.

He smiled.

“If you were to write about what this year might look like before all of this,…” Tom began.

“…It would not have compared with this.” I said, finishing his sentence. Again, a wide smile from Tom.

Thursday: High Tea at the Kilns

Jen and Debbie put together a high tea at the Kilns on Thursday afternoon, as we had a new scholar arriving from the States, an English Professor from Montreat College in North Carolina by the name of Don King. Our Finnish friends were still in town, as well, and so they were invited to join us, too.

That afternoon, there were nearly 15 of us gathered around the dining room table, which was now overflowing with freshly baked scones, cucumber sandwiches, two kinds of hot-out-of-the-oven cookies and tea, along with fresh jams, lemon curd and coddled cream for the scones. It was quite the sight.

We talked about Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman and love as we dug into the food and tea. Everyone agreed, the food was amazing, and we let Jen and Debbie know they had done a great job.

Don recently published a book on Joy, who was married to C.S. Lewis for three years before she passed away. She was quite the fiery Jewish New York woman before she was converted to Christianity, in large part through Lewis’s writings, and Don shared some of her earlier writing with us so we could get a sense of her personality.

He read a review Joy had written about a film that had, rather overtly, been produced to drum up efforts for the second World War, particularly among male viewers. It had us all laughing out loud. One part of the review, in particular, made a rather pointed attack on the main actresses inability to act, which, apparently, was made up by her looks.

“Although if she were to wear a brazier,” Don read Joy’s review aloud, “suddenly her acting skills would drop dramatically.”

Everyone around the table was squinting with laughter at Joy’s writing.

“I can see why Lewis would’ve loved this woman,” I said, in between laughs.

“Yes, but what does she really think?!” Jason asked with a loud, affirmative voice of authority, and half a smile. We all laughed even harder.

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.

I’m picking things up on our second year at Oxford, even though I didn’t have a chance to wrap up last year while we were home over the summer. I apologize. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell the story of how last year finished at another point in time. Until then, here’s how our return to Oxford unfolded…

After being home for three and a half months, it was not easy to say goodbye to our friends and family back home when it came time to return to Oxford. We had grown awfully comfortable back home, and it felt like we were being uprooted all over again. Such is our life for now, it seems. But knowing where we were returning to did make things a bit easier.

Our new home

For those who might not know, we found out just before leaving last spring that we wouldn’t be able to live in the same place this year as we had last year. That was a pretty big disappointment. It was a beautiful home, everything was new, and the neighborhood was the nicest either of us had ever lived in (and likely ever will). As it turns out, the family we were living with (the family that gets invited over to Elton John’s place for parties, to hang with folks like J.K. Rowling and others) needed the space, as their parents were getting older, and they had been staying over more and more.

We understood, of course, but it was tough knowing we wouldn’t be returning to that home that had grown so comfortable to us. Our home search over the summer did not go so well. I’d continue to look for housing options from back in the States, but nothing seemed to come up that was in our budget and close enough to school. And this became more and more stressful the closer we came to making our departure.

Then, in September, I received an e-mail from Debbie, the woman who manages the Kilns here in Oxford (C.S. Lewis’s old home). Debbie is a professor at a university in Tennessee, and she’s on her sabbatical, living here at the Kilns and working on her own studies. Debbie prefaced her e-mail by saying she didn’t know if this was some crazy-Debbie question, or if this was a God thing, but she wanted to let us know that the C.S. Lewis Foundation was considering inviting a couple to live in the Kilns this year, and that she thought we’d be the perfect couple. She asked us to think about it, and to let her know if we were interested.

Those of you who know me, and who know C.S. Lewis is the very reason I’m here, studying theology in Oxford, will know how unreal that offer was to me. And it was. But knowing that Jen would be working for the Foundation, I wanted to make sure that wasn’t too much for her. I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel as though she could never get away from work, or that we were only living here because she knew I’d want to. And so we talked it over. We prayed for a week, and Jen came to me one day, while we were still back home, to let me know she thought this was a great fit for us, and that we should go for it. I agreed.

Our return to Oxford

After leaving home Sunday evening (our 11:40 p.m. flight was pushed back to 1:15 a.m. Monday morning), we touched down in London around 10:30 p.m. local time. We made our way through the meandering Heathrow hallways, through customs, and found our bags, sitting beside the carousel, heavy from their over-capacity packing. I threw them onto a luggage cart with a heave and then we made our way to the bus that would take us north to Oxford (about an hour’s journey).

But as we came out of the arrival’s gate, I noticed I didn’t recognize where we were at. I hadn’t landed here before, apparently, and so I wasn’t sure how to get to the bus station where we’d be catching the Oxford Tube (as there are several different bus stations at Heathrow). We walked toward the door I thought would lead us to the Tube, and I asked a guy who was approaching us if he knew where we could find the Oxford Tube.

“The bus?” he replied with a look of confusion. “I don’t think any more buses run to Oxford at this time of night. You’ll probably need to take a taxi.”

I thanked him and he continued on his way behind us. It was after 11:00, but I was sure the Tube ran later. And a taxi ride was out of the question. That’d surely cost us more than a £100 for the trip.

Quickly I remembered the lanyard around his neck. It was emblazoned with a taxi cab company’s logos.

“A taxi cab driver telling us we have to take a taxi from London to Oxford,” I said aloud, to Jen. “Go figure.”

After some walking, and some more asking (this time from a bus driver), we managed to find the place where our bus would meet us. But once we arrived, I looked on the schedule only to find that the last bus arrived at 11:10. It was now 11:30. My heart sank.

Thankfully, my wife is smarter than I am.

“Ryan,” she said, “the first bus comes at five after midnight. We’re fine.”

Jen and I took a seat on a bench beside the bus stop, under an overhead covering. It was nice to stop for a moment to catch our breath. And to talk. About our journey. About returning to Oxford and all we were doing.

It was raining when we arrived (it always seems to be raining when I arrive here), and the wind was beginning to pick up. The wind swept the rain between the overhead covering and a gap in the wall, so that there was a fine spray on our faces. I hoped the bus would come soon, so that we could escape into its warmth.

I checked my watch. It read 12:05. The bus was scheduled to arrive, and still there was no sight of it. Five more minutes passed and I began to worry we had somehow not read the schedule correctly. I called the number listed on the schedule, only to find the offices were closed (of course). I walked back to the bus station to ask someone if they knew anything about the where our bus might be, and they told me it was likely just running late.

They were right, and five minutes later, our large, looming bus pulled into the bus stop and we were soon being shuttled past the highway road signs on our way north to Oxford. I remembered the first time I traveled to Oxford. I was without Jen. And I remembered passing the same road signs. “Birmingham” is abbreviated as “B’ham” here, and I thought it funny having left “Bellingham” only a day earlier to be passing signs for “B’ham” here, 6,000 miles away.

We got off the bus at a park & ride in East Oxfordshire just after 1:00 in the morning, and we took a cab the short, five minute drive the rest of the way. I paid the cab driver and thanked him for helping us with our massive bags, before we passed through the small metal gate in the hedges and made our way to the front door. I rang the doorbell, and Debbie welcomed us with a warm smile, a hug, and  a loud “Heyyyyyy!” It was so good to see her, and it was an incredible feeling to be at the Kilns again.

The home was warm, and it was just as I remembered it. Quaint and comfortable. Old, in a way that kind of reminds you of your grandparent’s home, but warm and soothing. It was bright, with all the lights on, even in the 1:00 a.m. darkness outside.

We set our bags down in our room (which used to be Lewis’s brother Warnie’s room) and we joined Debbie in the kitchen. She had made some homemade soup that day, and some homemade cookies, and she offered both to us. We took a seat in the kitchen and she happily served us, as we happily accepted it. The warm soup tasted so good after a day’s worth of travels.

Debbie told us all that had happened at the house since we had been gone. About the different conferences that had been held, and about all the interesting people who had come through. She served us a plate of cheese and crackers, and when our soup bowls were empty, she offered to refill them. I was happy to let her.

By 2:00 a.m., both Jen and I were well fed and past tired from our travels. We were happy to say “goodnight” to Debbie and to retire to our bed, which had been done up by Debbie, with two chocolates resting on our pillows. It was so nice to return to Oxford and the Kilns, but this welcome made it that much better.

Tuesday: My first day back in Oxford & classes

My alarm went off at 7:00 on Tuesday morning, less than five hours after I had gone to bed that night, after traveling over night the night before. And yet, surprisingly, I was wide awake. It must have been the adrenaline. Preparing me for what would be an incredibly busy return to my classes. Preparing me to punch out a presentation and two essays in only a few days’ time.

We had returned to Oxford a week later than we would have otherwise. Steve, my best friend, was married the day before we left, and I was the best man in the wedding. So, rather than fly to England for a week, fly home for the weekend, and then fly back to Oxford for the second week of classes, I made arrangements before I left to do my first week’s work from home (which ended up just being reading, as my essays were due second week).

Unlike when we arrived, Tuesday morning was a beautiful day. It was sunny, and the blue skies only carried a handful of floating white clouds. I got ready quickly, only stopping long enough to shower and shave, but not to eat, before I made my way out of the house, down the lane, and onto the bus that would take me into the city center, a 20-minute ride away.

And it was an odd feeling, riding past all these buildings I hadn’t seen for months, still just as I remembered. We drove over Magdalene Bridge and past Magdalene College, where Lewis used to teach, with its large stone tower and stone walls, and we continued along High Street. I got off the bus here, on High Street, and took a shortcut down a curving lane with high stone walls, where all I could see towering over the walls were the high tops of towers from neighboring college. I walked past the entrance to New College (an ironic name, considering it was built in the 1300’s), and continued through an even narrower passage, past several high-climbing, old apartment buildings, past the Turf Tavern (where Bill Clinton used to frequent when he was a Rhodes Scholar here at Oxford, and where an open door revealed a woman behind the bar humming as she cleaned glasses from the night before, and I made my way out onto the road that would take me directly to Harris Manchester College, my first stop for the day.

Walking past the large, stone walls that lead up to the entrance of Harris Manchester, that odd feeling returned. It seemed like I had been away forever, and yet, here it was, just as I remembered it. It was a bit like returning to a dream, a dream I had had long ago. But it wasn’t. It was real. All of it. And I was thrown back into the middle of it just as though I had never left.

I stopped into the front office, to pick up my key to the library, and, as I did, I thought I was going to be attacked.

“Ryannnnn! Helloooooo!” Amanda’s voice came pouring out of the front office window in that beautiful, singing British accent as I entered the room. Amanda works in the office, and she is quite possibly one of the sweetest women I have ever met. And her greeting immediately made me feel welcome.

“It is so good to see you again, Ryan. Welcome back.”

I picked up my key from Amanda, we talked for a few minutes about the summer, and then I was on my way up the large, stone staircase that leads into the library. As I made my through the large, wooden double-doors, I passed by the front desk, where Katrina, one of our librarian’s was working. The look one her face when she saw me was one of, near, shock.

“Ryan?…” she said as I approached her with a smile. “We didn’t know if you were coming back.”

Apparently my delayed return had not been shared with many, as this was the response I received for the next few days. I explained to Katrina why I was late returning, and how much I had to get done in the next few days.

“Well, we’re very happy to have you back, Ryan,” Katrina told me with a smile. “I was beginning to wonder if we had lost you to an American University.”

“Of course not,” I assured her. “Never.”

I continued to pass through the library and up the narrow, spiral staircase. Its metal frame creaking slightly as I climbed. I walked around the upstairs walkway toward where I normally sit to get started on my presentation that was due later that day, only to find the desk where I normally work filled with a pile of books on Economics.

“Of course,” I thought to myself as I sat my bags down on another table. “That’s what I get, I suppose.”

I opened up my computer and used the notes I had gathered while back home to punch out a presentation on John Calvin. I finished it five hours later, just in time, and I scooped up my things before making my way across town, to the Theology Faculty where the class would be held.

As I entered, the first person I saw was David, my first tutor from last year. An American who finished his Dphil here at Oxford and is now teaching. It was great running into him, and he looked very happy to see me.

“Ryan, how are you?” he said with a wide grin as we hugged.

He told me another one of the Theology students at my college had seen him the other day and asked if I wasn’t returning. I told him I had already gotten that as I shared our summer with him.

“So, are you living in the same place, then?” David asked me.

“No, actually. We aren’t. Which was tough. But we’re actually live in the Kilns, in C.S. Lewis’s old place, over in Headington.”

His eyebrows shot up behind his glasses.

“Really?! Oh, wow…”

“Yeah, we’re staying in his brother Warnie’s old bedroom.”

“You’re kidding! Ryan, that’s incredible! And that’s funny, because Julia and I were just talking, and she was saying it’d be nice to check out the CS Lewis Society some night. Is that something you’re still involved in?”

“Yeah, I am. I’m the President now, actually.”

Again, his face exploded with surprise. And he laughed. I told him I’d send him the list of speakers for the term, so that they could have a look and see when they’d like to join us. I also told him we’d love to have them out to the Kilns at some point, if they were ever interested in taking a tour.

“That’d be great. We’d really like that,” he said.

Tea, biscuits and Calvin

As we finished our conversation, John, a classmate of mine from last spring, walked past us, stopping when he noticed it was me. John is in my Calvin class, and I was excited to see him again. I said “goodbye” to David, told him I’d be in touch, and John and I made our way upstairs to our classroom.

We were early when we arrived, but Sarah, our tutor for the Calvin class, wasn’t far behind. I introduced myself to her, and she seemed very happy to meet me in-person (we had been in touch over e-mail while I was still back in the States). She was very nice. Young and upbeat. She excused herself shortly after saying “Hello,” so that she could go make some tea and grab some biscuits (cookies) for our class.

“Welcome back to Oxford,” I thought to myself with a smile.

John and I were scheduled to present that day. He went first. And quickly I felt intimidated for my own presentation. John’s a brilliant guy. But he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. Dressed as if he had just come back from the gym, he poured through his presentation with ease, telling us why he disagreed with this scholar, and what he thought about that scholar. Apparently John’s father is a rather well-known pastor and successful author here in Britain. But, again, you’d never know it. He’d never come right out and say it.

I followed John with my presentation. And it went well, I thought, but I prefaced it by saying it would be quite a bit more thin than John’s. And it was. I finished much more quickly than John did. But Sarah thanked me very much after I was done, and told me she thought it was great. There were four other girls in the class (more than two people in a class is a rarity for Oxford, but it’s typical for our special Theologian classes). We had a brief time of questions following our presentations, over tea and biscuits. And 90-minutes later, we were saying our goodbyes and packing up.

I spoke with John for a few minutes before making my way back to Harris Manchester. I asked him if he had some dental work done over the summer.

“Yeah, I did, actually,” he said with a smile at my having noticed.

He explained that he had gotten into a bike accident over the summer and had some damage done to his front teeth. He said the dentist told him, while they were making the repairs, that they might as well straighten things out a bit for him.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. You look very American!” I told him with a laugh. He laughed, too.

“All you need now is a bit of bleaching and you’ll fit right in.” He laughed again.

“That’s right, very Hollywood.”

I said “goodbye” to John and made my way toward Harris Manchester. To get a bit more reading done before heading to the Oxford University CS Lewis Society, which meets on Tuesday nights.

And as I walked across the city center, I realized I had yet to eat that day, having been too busy working on my presentation to stop for lunch. I glanced at my watch. It was nearly six now. “Still time to catch the Alternative Tuck and a panini before it closes,” I thought to myself on my walk. If I hurry.

I entered the small sandwich shop just around the corner from Harris Manchester only a few minutes before it closed for the night, and instantly the guys in the shop recognized me. Smiles spread across the faces of those behind the counter. “Hey, are you okay?” they asked me (a traditional greeting here in England, which threw me off the first few times I heard it).

“Yeah, I’m doing really well. Happy to be back,” I told them. “I just got in early this morning, so I’m still adjusting to things, but it’s good to be back.”

We talked for a few minutes while my sandwich was being made. I asked them about their summer, where they had vacationed (in the Lake District), and how business had been (“Better now that school is going again”) before saying “Goodbye” and returning to Harris Manchester and the library. I managed to get a bit of my reading for the next day’s essay done before grabbing my things, again, and returning back across the city center to the CS Lewis Society meeting.

“I’ll be happy to have a bike again,” I thought to myself as I made my way back down Broad Street, between the tall,stone buildings on either side of the road. I never walk this much back home, and it always takes me longer than I imagine. But it does provide a nice opportunity to take in all the old buildings again. Walking past the high walls of Oriel College, I peaked in-between the gate to take in the College’s ivy covered stone walls in all of its grandeur, along with its sweeping green grass lawns. Oxford is such a beautiful place, and there’s nothing like it, so far as I’ve seen, back home.

First night back at the Lewis Society

I made my way to Pusey House (pronounced “pew-sea”), where the Lewis Society meets, and I greeted our speaker for the evening, as he was standing in the doorway talking with the Porter (the official title of the door guards found at all of the colleges and halls here in Oxford). Brendan, our speaker for the evening, is a past President of the Society. He’s an American, I believe, who is wrapping up his Dphil here at Oxford after spending some time in Germany with his wife, another Lewis scholar. He wears a long beard, and he looks a bit like the guy from Iron & Wine. But he’s super nice, soft spoken, and incredibly bright.

We made our way up the tight, stone spiral staircase and shortly after we entered the room, Walter Hooper came in flocked by a large group of students.

“Walter, it’s so good to see you again!” I said, greeting him with a smile.

I asked him if he had brought all these students with him. And he laughed.

“No, I’m afraid not,” he told me, wearing a wide smile. Having only talked once or twice over the summer, by e-mail, It was so good to see him again.

I introduced myself to start the meeting, mentioning a few announcements before introducing our speaker for the night. Brendan took his place at the front of the room to the sound of clapping as I took my seat in the front row. I listened to his talk on “C.S. Lewis on Relations Between the Churches,” and, as I did, I began to wonder quietly to myself, how in the world am I here? How in the world is it possible that I am studying at the same place as this guy?… He’s brilliant. And then I began to wonder how long it’d be before someone in the Society found me out and my role as President was revoked.

An hour and a half later, after the presentation and a brief time of Q&A, I was making my way back across the city center to hop on a bus and return to the Kilns. I hadn’t seen Jen all day, and I was about ready to collapse from fatigue.

I had a business conference call with someone from the States scheduled for 10:30 that night. Jen greeted me at the front door of the Kilns. It was so nice to see her, but it only lasted for a moment as I had to setup in the common room for my call.

An hour later, Jen and I were talking over a bowl of Debbie’s leftover soup in the kitchen. And cookies.

Jen has a tough time adjusting to the time difference coming this way, whereas I’m the opposite. Here, she struggles to fall asleep before 3 or 4 in the morning. And, because of that, she usually doesn’t wake up until well after noon. Other than dealing with the time difference, though, Jen was doing really well. Her and Debbie had spent that afternoon getting things settled here, as a tour had come through.

It was so nice to see her that evening. After my first full day back. I was overcome with fatigue from travel and studies, but also filled with excitement about being back in Oxford, and all that came with it. It was so exciting to me to think that this, this was going to be our home for the next year. And, as tired as I was, I was so excited to think about how it was all going to unfold.

Thanks for reading.

Friday: Last day of Greek & a plant for Rhona

Friday (March 4) was my last day of Greek. The rest of the class would be taking their Greek prelims the following Tuesday, but not me (since I’m a senior status student, and a year ahead of everyone else in the class, apart from Lyndon). I was just there for the fun of it.

I talked with Emily a bit before class started. Asking her how she was feeling about prelims (the exams Oxford students take at the end of their first year). She looked a bit tired, and I think she was feeling that way, too.

She said she was feeling okay about it, but that she also had another exam for prelims. In addition to Greek. She told me Tariq (the medical doctor who decided to come back and study Theology, without telling his family) actually had three exams that week, including two three-hour exams on Saturday.

“Oh, wow…” I said to her. “Well, if anyone can handle that, it’s Tariq.”

“Indeed,” she said, eyes turning to Rhona as Rhona looked to gather the class’ attention to the front of the room.

Since it was our last day of Greek, Emily had decided to get a “Thank you” card and a small plant for Rhona. From the class. We passed the card around the room while Rhona spoke. So that she couldn’t see. Signing a short note of thanks. And our names.

Just before Rhona could send us off and conclude class, Emily spoke up and told her we had something we’d like to give her. To tell her thanks.

She looked totally surprised by the gifts. And grateful for the thought. She unwrapped the plant. A hydrangea. And her eyes got big.

“Oh, how lovely, a hydrangea,” she said, holding the plant up in her hands and looking at it.

Then, turning toward us, she said, “That comes from the Greek word udor! Which means…”

“Water…”, said several of those in the class, finishing her sentence in tired voices.

Same old Rhona. Always bringing everything back to Greek. She’s a bit like the father from the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in that way. The guy who is always wanting to teach people how the root-word of our English words come from Greek. The same guy who sprays Windex to fix everything, from cuts to zits.

I was walking back to Harris Manchester after Greek. With Emily. To wrap up my second of two essays due that week. For Patristics. When a girl on a bike let out a scream. She was riding toward us just as a blind man was crossing the street, swinging his cane as he tried to cross. She nearly ran into him, uncertain of whether he was going to cross or not.

We continued walking, but slowly, hesitantly, and stopping every few feet to look back and watch this man attempt to cross the street. To make sure he was okay. After a minute or so of this, I turned around and went back. To offer to help him cross. We weren’t on a busy street, it’s actually only for pedestrians. But there does tend to be a bit of bike traffic, and I felt horrible watching him try to cross without hitting anyone. Or being hit.

I walked up beside him and introduced myself. I told him I was happy to lend a hand if he was wanting to cross the street. He was a young guy. Maybe in his mid-20’s. I raised my arm so he could take a hold of it and we crossed, making sure no bicyclists were coming.

When we got to the other side, I asked him if he knew where he was going. And if he’d be able to find his way okay from here. He told me he could. So I said “goodbye” and returned to the other side of the street. Looking back over my shoulder, he still seemed to be struggling. He was walking slowly, and using his hands to feel the front of the buildings as he went. Touching each door to help orient himself. My heart went out to the guy. Apparently Emily’s did, too.

After walking ten feet or so, Emily turned around and said she was going to see if she couldn’t help him find wherever it was he was heading.

I watched as she did. Looking back over my shoulder as I walked down the street. Coming to the intersection where I had to turn the corner to head toward Harris Manchester, I looked back one last time to try and get Emily’s attention. To let her know I was continuing on to HMC. But she didn’t look. She was too engaged in conversation with this guy who she was walking with. Only taking her eyes off of him to look down at her feet and his, so as to make sure he didn’t trip up. Nothing at that point was more important to her than this conversation.

And I was so proud. Proud to have a friend with such a big heart.

I like it when God puts people like that in my life, I thought to myself as I rounded the corner and made my way to Harris Manchester. People who care so much about others. It reminds me not to be so focused on myself that I miss opportunities to serve others.

Napping in the Oriel courtyard

Seventh week was a very busy week for me. I had my last Old Testament essay due on Thursday evening, and my Patristics essay due Friday at 2:00. From Wednesday to Friday, I ended up punching out about 8,000 words worth of essays. On top of tackling each tutorial’s reading list (between 10 and 20 books each). Needless to say, by the time it came time to present my papers, I was beat.

I made it through Patristics okay, but then, immediately following that tutorial, I had to turn around and head to my Old Testament tutorial. I didn’t know if I had anything left in me. By the time you get to the end of the term here, you really do feel like you’re going to collapse.

I left the Theology Faculty Library, where my Patristics tutorial is held, and rode my bike toward Oriel College. To meet with my Old Testament tutor. To present my paper. I wasn’t supposed to be presenting this week. I have another guy in my tutorial, and so we rotate weeks. Switching off between who presents their paper each time we meet. But, just after turning in my paper that Thursday evening, I received an e-mail from Dave, my academic supervisor, letting me know the other guy in my class had dropped the course. And that I’d be presenting my paper.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself.

I arrived at Oriel a few minutes early. Looking into the window of where we meet, I could see my tutor, Casey, was still meeting with Emily, who has her tutorial just before mine.

Looking around the courtyard where I stood, I found a seat and took advantage of a few spare minutes to catch my breath. The first opportunity in several days, it seemed.

I sat down heavily, allowing my body to sink into the wooden chair. Fully enjoying the brief break from what felt like a frantic pace.

It was a  beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon, and my eyes wandered around the courtyard as I waited for Emily’s tutorial to wrap up. Taking in the tall, apartment-looking buildings that reached high into the blue sky overhead.

…And a metal spiral staircase that spun and spun before arriving at a room somewhere on the next story.

A handful of construction workers were cleaning up from the workday from the scaffolding of a building to my right. I listened to their conversation for a few minutes before leaning my head backwards to rest against the wooden chair, and closing my eyes, to get some rest before my Old Testament tutorial began.

I drifted off into something of a light sleep, and it was only when I overhead Emily and Casey asking each other if they should wake me that I realized what had happened. I quickly raised my head and threw open my eyes. Smiling at them both.

“How’re you doing?” Casey asked.

“Tired,” I replied, as we walked down the few concrete steps that lead into the room where we meet. “Looking forward to the weekend to catch up on some rest.”

I breathed a sigh of relief when Casey told me he wouldn’t have me present my paper. Recognizing it wasn’t my turn to present, and it hardly seemed fair to make me do so just because my classmate dropped the course.

Instead, we talked through the topic (1 and 2 Chronicles) together, and we scheduled a time to meet one last time. For a bit of an Old Testament history recap, which would help me prepare for my collections (testing) before the start of the next term.

Walking home that night, with Jen. After grabbing dinner in the city center. I was thankful to have made it through the week. And to have everything turned in. It would be my last week of essays for the term, and I was officially ready to collapse.

Monday: hands&feet in the mail and a Birthday tour of the Kilns

The doorbell rang Monday morning, shortly after I woke. As if to signal the start of another week.

It was the mail. The only time the doorbell is rung by the mailman is when a package needs to be signed for. So I was excited. To see what had come from home.

Signing for the box, and thanking the mailman, I took the package into the living room and wasted no time in opening it. It was from my Grandpa.

And, for perhaps the first time, he wasn’t sending us granola bars or cereal.

This time, he was sending us books. My book, hands&feet. 15 copies.

They had just rolled off the printer back home. And I was excited to see them.

It was actually the second edition of my book. A couple summer’s ago, my best friend Steve published my writing at hands&feet as a birthday present. I was blown away… A year later, I decided to add the rest of my writing, which I had written since this first printing, and republish the book in a second edition.

The book includes everything from when I first wrote about how we tend to treat the Cross like a Member’s Only jacket, more than three years ago now, to telling the story that led up to us leaving home and making this journey to England.

It took about eight months from the time I first started laying out the second edition to the time it rolled off the printers. Working on editing and layout while on vacation at a house on the Hood Canal back in Washington last summer. And while working on my schoolwork here. So I was pretty excited to finally see it in print. To hold it in my hands and flip through its pages. All 294 pages worth.

If you’re interested in a copy, let me know. I have some here in Oxford, and apparently there’s still some left back home. I’d be happy to get you one.

A birthday Kilns tour

I had a tour of the Kilns scheduled for that afternoon. Deb asked me the weekend before if I’d be willing and available to help out. There were only three people in the group, but this type of tour would be a first for her.

Two parents from Houston had gotten a hold of Deb to request a tour of the Kilns that week. They were touring around England with their son, Kirk, and they were traveling to see the Kilns for his birthday present. Kirk just turned 15. And he’s a huge C.S. Lewis fan.

What made this tour a first for Debbie, though, is that Kirk is in a wheelchair (because of his Cerebral Palsy). And so, getting around the house might be a bit of a trick, she thought. Deb let them know upfront that not every part of the house would be wheelchair accessible, including Lewis’ bedroom upstairs, but that we’d be happy to show them around as much as we could. They understood, and they were all for seeing as much as possible.

I arrived just before Kirk and his parents were scheduled to start their tour that afternoon. And I helped Deb with a few last minute things before they arrived.

Deb welcomed the three of them at the door, and I greeted them from the front of the house, in the common room. After telling them a bit about myself, I showed them around the house, pointing out photos of Lewis along the way. And sharing stories. And they loved it. I could tell they were fans of Lewis. And they were well read. Christine’s eyes would get big at different points along the tour, and Kirk would raise his head to look at the photos as I pointed them out.

Robin, Kirk’s father, and Christine, his mom, took turns pushing Kirk’s wheelchair, and making the sharp turns around the corners. English homes are tight as it is; they really aren’t wheelchair friendly in the least. But Robin and Christine were great. And they made sure Kirk was able to enjoy as much of it as possible. Christine told me he was a big fan of the Chronicles of Narnia series. A wide grin spread across Kirk’s face, confirming the point.

It was a really nice day out, and so we took a walk up to the pond behind Lewis’ home after finishing the tour inside the Kilns. I warned them that the trail might be a bit muddy from the rain we had over the weekend, but they were all for it.

And it was beautiful. Several ducks were swimming on the waters. As well as two beautiful, large geese. I pointed out the bomb shelter Lewis had built at the far end of the pond during the second World War. And Christine had Robin take her photo in front of it. We stopped at the edge of the pond, to take in the view. It really was incredibly beautiful.

Christine turned to me slightly and said, “I think you have a pretty good deal here, Ryan.”

“Yeah, I really do,” I told her. “It’s nothing less than a dream come true.”

We walked to the other end of the pond, where Lewis used to sit, and I pointed out the brick bench that had been uncovered only within the past decade or so.

I told them how Lewis used to swim in the pond. And paddle his punt around it. I told them being up here, surrounded by the trees, and by the water, made me feel like I was back home.

They asked about where I live. And about the hiking, in particular. I told them my Dad actually lives in Texas, and that we had gone on a nice hike there one time. On this huge rock out in the middle of the desert.

“It was near this small German town that I can’t recall the name of right now,” I told them.

“Fredericksburg!” they both said in unison, with great excitement.

“Yeah, that’s the place.”

Apparently that’s where they went for their honeymoon. After deciding against the UK.

“We had a great time just camping out and hiking,” they told me. “And we still got our trip to the UK.”

We made our way back to the Kilns, so they could say goodbye to Deb. And thank her for making all the arrangements.

Kirk and Robin and I waited outside, in front of the house, while Christine went to find Deb inside. I squatted down beside Kirk’s wheelchair as we talked, and Robin asked me about my time in Oxford so far. They told me how they had visited a church while they were in Scotland, and how they were surprised to find it so empty. They asked about my experience with the church here, and I had told them there were a lot of empty churches around the UK, unfortunately, but that we had found a wonderful community to worship with here in Oxford.

Deb and Christine came walking through the front door a few minutes later, greeting us in front of the house. And Christine asked if she could take a photo of Deb and I with Kirk. I told her I thought that was a great idea.

I always feel incredibly happy after finishing a tour of the Kilns. Incredibly fortunate and blessed for all of this experience. But that was particularly true after finishing this tour. After seeing the love Robin & Christine had for their son, Kirk. And the lengths they went to show him their love, in celebration of his 15th birthday.

Happy birthday, Kirk. It was a pleasure to meet you and your family, and to introduce you to CS Lewis’ old home for your birthday.

Tuesday: Celebrating Walter’s 80th birthday

I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing this with you, but Walter is celebrating his 80th birthday at the end of this month. I was excited to hear that the Oxford University CS Lewis Society was throwing him a birthday party to celebrate, and that we were invited to join in on the celebration.

The party was held on Tuesday evening of 8th Week, the last night of the Society’s gathering for the term. At a church on the edge of Oxford’s city center. Where Walter attends. Just down the street from the Eagle & Child.

The room was full when we walked in. Lots of men dressed in suits and ties, and women in dresses. Wine in hand. Talking. Laughing. And smiling. I recognized several people, and I immediately spotted Walter, surrounded by what looked to be a group of friends around his age.

We were greeted by David as we entered. Current President of the Society. He told us to help ourselves to some food and wine. And that they’d be giving Walter his presents shortly.

Walter made his way over to us before we had a chance to approach the food table. And I was glad he did. Jennifer and I had just been over to his house that Sunday afternoon. For tea. And I had asked him how he was feeling about the upcoming celebration. He told me he was dreading it. He told me he didn’t feel worthy of any of it. And I assured him he more than deserved it.

As part of the celebration, two former Oxford CS Lewis Society Presidents had taken it upon themselves to put together a festschrift in his honor. A compilation of essays on the topic of Lewis and the Church. And they would be unveiling it for the first time at the party.

I had told Walter that it was due in large part to his more than 40 years of work that so many people around the world had been introduced to Lewis’ writings. He reminded me Lewis thought his books would die off and be forgotten about 10 years after he passed away. But Walter had told him they wouldn’t. He told Lewis people were too smart and his writing too good for that to happen. He was right.

Walter met Jen and I with a large hug that evening. We told him happy birthday (even though technically his birthday wasn’t until later that month), and that it looked like a wonderful party. He agreed. He told us he was happy to see so many people turn out. Including his good friend Priscilla Tolkein, J.R.R. Tolkein’s only daughter.

We let Walter continue his way around the room, and Jen and I said “hi” to a few more people before the gifts were opened. Including Cole, dressed in a full suit and tie, and wearing a large smile. I told him they had done a great job putting the party together, and that it looked like a success.

Shortly after that, David rapped a wine glass with a spoon several times to quiet the room, and to gather everyone’s attention. He told the room we would now be officially starting the celebration, and that Michael Ward had a few words to say in Walter’s honor.

Michael had been standing behind the bar going over what looked like notes for his speech in his hands when we arrived. And he was now standing at the front of the room to deliver a speech in honor of Walter’s birthday.

He did a wonderful job. He told about the time Walter first met Lewis, and how Lewis had led him to the “bathroom” (a room with just that, a bathtub, and only a bathtub) after Walter had asked for the bathroom, knowing full well Walter was really in need of a toilet. And how, after Walter finally got up the courage to return to the common room to explain the miscommunication to Lewis, how Lewis replied, “Ah… Well that will cure you of those useless American euphemisms!”

Even though most everyone there that night had heard the familiar story before, laughter filled the room. Michael told the room that if it weren’t for that practical joke, and the breaking of the ice in that way, Walter and Lewis may not have become so close, and Walter might not have become so involved in helping share Lewis’ writing with others. Something everyone in the room, and people around the world, have benefited from.

After Michael’s speech, he introduced the festscrhift, and he also handed over a large, gift-wrapped present for Walter to open. Walter tore the brown paper from the gift and stared intently at it as the paper fell to the floor. It was a painting. From a scene in Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce. The scene in which Lewis meets his literary mentor George McDonald (a man who Lewis never met in real life, but who influenced Lewis’ writing tremendously).

Michael explained how Lewis was quick to admit that he was forever indebted to McDonald’s writing, and that there wasn’t any book of his in which he didn’t either directly or indirectly quote McDonald. Michael explained how, just as Lewis benefited from McDonald’s work, Walter benefited from Lewis’ work, and largely because of Walter’s work, so have we.

When Michael had finished, and after Walter had the opportunity to take in this painting, he turned to the room with a look of seriousness on his face. You could tell Walter’s not one who likes the spotlight, but you could also tell he was incredibly grateful for the kind words, and for the gift.

“If you’ll permit me this once,” he spoke to the room, in that soft voice of his, “I’d like to compare myself to Lewis’ character of Aslan.”

I know Walter, and I’ve always known him to be an incredibly humble man. And so, this comparison struck me as odd. But he continued.

“You may recall, in the book Prince Caspian, Reepicheep has just lost his tail. And the other mice are standing at his side, waiting to cut off their own tails as a way to honor him. And when Aslan sees this love Reepicheep’s fellow mice have for him, he responds by saying, ‘You have conquered me.'”

“And that is how I feel at this moment,” he continued, looking around the room, with a warm look of sincerity. “You all have conquered me.”

The room erupted with the sound of clapping, and I was so proud and grateful to have been invited to join in on the celebration that evening. The celebration of a life well-lived.

Steve and I woke up Saturday morning and headed to the city center for a workout at the gym. I went to grab my gloves on the way out when I realized they were nowhere to be found…

The same gloves that had been reunited only days before when my missing glove mysteriously appeared in my mailbox were now missing. Both of them. They weren’t in my bag pocket, where I had left them.

“They must’ve fallen out somewhere in the city center, again,” I told Steve as we left the house.

I had to laugh at the irony of the situation. Maybe both will show up in my mailbox next week with a sign that reads, “This is the last time!” I thought to myself as we walked along Banbury Road to the city center.

Sunday: Introducing Steve to Walter’s Home

When I visited Walter for tea shortly after returning to Oxford at the start of the term, I had told him that Steve would be coming out to visit the following week. Steve had met Walter when we first visited the Kilns last fall, and Walter regularly asks how Steve is doing. Walter’s good about things like that. He’s always asking questions that shows he cares.

After hearing that Steve would be in town, Walter said it would be nice to see him again. I suggested the three of us find a time to get together for dinner, perhaps. Walter liked that idea, and he invited us over for dinner that Sunday evening Steve would be in town. I had mentioned the idea to Steve over e-mail before he arrived, and he loved it. After hearing about our time with Walter, he was looking forward to seeing him again, and to someday seeing his home. I told him he’d love it.

So that’s what we did. After church that morning, and working away from the house that afternoon, Steve and I ventured north to Walter’s house. Stopping briefly in Summertown to pick up something for dessert. I told Walter we’d take care of dessert, since he was preparing a meal for us. He didn’t seem to mind that idea.

We made it to Walter’s home just after six that night. He greeted us at the door, with that huge, warm smile of his, and big eyes behind his glasses.

“Hello,” Walter said, welcoming us and inviting us in. “Let me take your coats.”

I greeted Walter with a hug and handed the dessert to him, explaining that it’d need some time to bake.

“Of course,” he said. “I’ll take it into the kitchen; I’m sure my French chef Benoit will know what to do with it.”

I smiled. I had never heard of “Benoit” before.

Before leaving the front entryway, I pointed out a picture that hung on the wall to Steve .

“Walter with Lewis,” I said.

“Oh, wow.”

Walter returned from the kitchen and pointed out by name all the people in the photos that hung on his walls.

“And this, this is a view of the Kilns before the house next door to it that you saw was built,” Walter explained, helping orient us to the photo.

“They had quite a bit more room back then, from the looks of it,” I said.

“Well come into the living room,” Walter said, waving us along to follow him, which we did.

“This is great,” Steve said as we entered the room.

Walter’s living room has quickly become my favorite place in Oxford. It’s so incredibly comfortable. With the fireplace and large, comfortable chairs seated around it. With the books stacked high along the walls. And not to mention that Walter always has a hot pot of tea and some sort of treat waiting.

Walter showed Steve around the room, pointing out different things along the way.

“This statue shows how movement was first introduced into sculptures,” Walter explained, pointing toward the life-size statue in the corner of the room.

“Prior to this, you didn’t see this kind of movement. The Egyptians, for example, created their statues so that their arms were at their side and their legs were straight. But, by raising this leg just so, you create this movement in the rest of the sculpture.”

Walter continued the tour, pointing out the small table in the corner of the room that had been Lewis’ when he was a young boy, and the small humidor that used to be Lewis’.

“This isn’t his tobacco, though,” Walter explained, as he held it up for us to smell.

He pointed out the illustrations on the wall. Illustrations from the Chronicles of Narnia series. The original illustrations. Crazy. And then he asked us to excuse him while he returned to the kitchen to check on Benoit. His French chef. To make sure everything was coming along okay.

He invited us to have a look around, and to help ourselves to anything. So we did.

I found my way to Walter’s book shelves and allowed my eyes to read over the titles and authors.

“He really did a great job with the colors here,” Steve said. “Even in the entryway. The green works great with the photos of the house and the grass.”

“Yeah, he knows what he’s doing, for sure,” I said from across the room.

Walter’s second passion, to literature and all things Lewis, is sculpture. And he has a fair share of it spread throughout the room. As well as several pieces of art hanging from the wall.

“Here’s a picture of Walter with the Pope,” I said, pointing to a framed photo on the wall, beside one of the framed pieces of art. Walter’s a pretty big fan of the Pope.

Walter returned from the kitchen to tell us Benoit had everything under control, and that dinner would be ready shortly.

Steve told him he had done a great job decorating. And how much he liked the color choice.

“Oh, well thank you. I’m so glad to hear you like it,” he told Steve.

They talked for a while about the particular colors, and why they were chosen. A conversation which I, as a colorblind guy, didn’t appreciate nearly as much as they did.

Walter invited us to take a seat beside the fire. He helped us to some tea, and he held out a plate full of puffed pastries.

“They’re sausage rolls,” he told Steve. “Have you had one before?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well surely you have,” Walter said, turning toward me with the plate.

“Yeah, yeah I have. They’re really good, but we don’t have them back home,” I said, taking a bite. “Probably the closest thing I can think of would be pigs in a blanket, but they’re not quite the same.”

We talked for a while over tea and sausage rolls, while “Benoit” finished preparing dinner. Walter asked us what we had planned for Steve’s time in Oxford.

“Oh, well, we’re not quite sure yet,” I told him.

“I just enjoy being here and hanging out, really,” Steve piped in. “I love Oxford, but I’m not much of a tourist.”

“Have you made it to the Trout yet?” Walter asked, turning to me.

“No, no I haven’t, but I remember you telling me about that before. Still haven’t made it.”

“Oh, well you absolutely must go.”

The Trout is an old inn that has been turned into a restaurant, which sits right on the river. Walter had told Jen and I about it the last time he had us over for supper. But we had yet to make it there.

“Yes, you should go early in the day, before it gets dark, so you can take a walk beside the river,” Walter encouraged us. “It’s a nice walk, and I know you’ll enjoy it.”

“We’ll have to do that before you leave,” I said, turning to Steve.

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

We finished our tea and Walter invited us into the dining room, informing us that “Benoit” had finished preparing our dinner.

And he did a great job. Benoit, that is. A nice ham, some potatoes and broccoli. It looked really good.

“Why don’t you sit here in your spot,” Walter said, pointing to the chair where I had sat the last time Walter had us over for dinner. “And Steve, you can sit here.”

We fixed our plates and Walter asked me if I’d bless the food for us. I was happy to.

The meal was really good, and we had a great time, talking over the food. Walter’s a keen conversationalist, and he kept the questions coming. Never pressed or forced, but just good conversation.

We returned to the living room after supper. Stomachs now full. We sunk low into our chairs and picked up the conversation again.

He asked each of us how much we had traveled around Europe. Neither of us have much at all. He told us we needed to go to Rome someday. And Italy. He told us he loved Italy, and that he had just recently returned from visiting there. I told him I’d love to see both places someday.

He told us he was happy to see us having this time together, Steve and I, even while I was so far from home.

“It must be difficult to keep a friendship going while being so far apart,” he said, with that look of serious concern on his face.

“Yeah, it is,” I said, “but it definitely helps when this guy flies out to visit like this,” I said, motioning across the room to Steve.

Walter told us he had never seen a friendship quite like ours. And he was thankful for it.

“It’s rare to find a best friend, you know?” he told us.

He also told us we needed to read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves.

“Have you read it?” he asked us.

“Yeah, I have,” I spoke up.

“I haven’t, no,” Steve said.

“Oh, you must read it,” Walter insisted. “It’s a wonderful book, and Lewis writes about the love shared between friends. He contends for such friendship in it.”

Walter explained how he thought the Feminist movement and a lot of the other changes in the middle of the last century deconstructed such friendships (I love that Walter doesn’t bother with being P.C, by the way; it’s refreshing). He talked about how men don’t share friendships like they did before that time. He talked about The Inklings, about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein and others, about their weekly talks, and how these men spurred each other on to do great things.

“I hope you fight for this friendship,” he told us with a look of seriousness on his face. “And if you don’t, then come talk to me, and I will for you.”

We had a great time talking with Walter that night. He’s such a genuinely kind and sincere man.

At about half past 10, we thanked Walter for a wonderful time. We told him to give our compliments to “Benoit” for a great meal. And we asked him if he’d mind taking a couple quick photos. He as happy to oblige, as long as we signed his guestbook. It was a fair trade.

We thanked Walter again for a great time as he found our coats for us. And we promised to check out the Trout before Steve left.

Skyping with Jen: We’re going to Rome!

I Skyped with Jen when we got back to the house. To tell her about our time. And just to catch up. She told me they had just talked with Monti and Heidi about their trip out to see us (Monti and Heidi are great friends of our family back home, and they’re coming to visit with their two kids this spring).

“So it sounds like we’ll be going to Rome,” Jen told me with a big grin over our Skype call. “They just booked a place.”

“Oh yeah? That’s awesome!” I told her. “And kind of funny. Walter was just telling us we need to visit Rome someday.”

I told Steve it sounded like he needed to make a trip out this Spring, too.

Wednesday: Clive’s help with a wedding suit for Steve

I was working on some Greek at Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon when Steve stepped away to go walk around town for a bit. He returned about a half-hour later with a big smile on his face.

“I think I found suits for my wedding, man.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, not realizing that’s what he had been up to. “That’s awesome.”

Apparently he had walked into a place across the street and he told one of the guys there he was getting married in October. And that he had been looking at suits back home. Not long after that, he had a suit picked out for the wedding.

“I’d love to check it out,” I told him.

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

I packed up my things and we headed across the street. We had looked at suits at a couple places back home before I left to return to Oxford, but he hadn’t settled on anything. I was curious to see what he had found.

A stocky british guy with a thick english accent and shortly shaved head by the name of Clive greeted us as we walked in. “Steve, good to see you again.” He seemed like a real English man’s man. Like the kind of guy who would be out playing rugby for the first part of the day, and then come to the shop and tell you all about suits the next.

He led us upstairs and handed Steve the suit he had picked out. It ended up being a bit different than what we had been looking at back home, but it was great.

“I like it a lot, man. Yeah, it’s really sharp.”

“You should try one on,” Steve insisted, “to get your size right.”

So I did. Clive snapped a photo of Steve in his suit first. And then one “with the best man,” as Clive said.

I’d love to share the photos with you, but apparently it’s something of a secret.

“I don’t get to see her wedding dress until the day of, so she doesn’t get to see our suits,” Steve said. “That’s fair, right?”

Wednesday: A Trip to the Trout

We were serious about taking Walter up on his suggestion to make it to the Trout before Steve left, so we made plans to venture north to the restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. In the late afternoon, but not too late. Before it got dark. So we could still take in the sights.

It was a bit of a cloudy day, and it had been drizzling off and on earlier, but we lucked out and it seemed to hold off for our walk.

And Walter was right, it was a great walk. About three miles north of where I am living here.

A couple miles into the trip, we came to a bridge that crossed a river that runs through the western border of Oxford. The river had these small boats on one side, which I had been told people live in year-round.

After crossing the bridge, the view opened up into this beautiful English countryside.

Several small ponds were scattered throughout the fields, and a group of ducks skimmed across the top of the water as we passed.

Walking a little further, we came into a small town. With this little market. And all of a sudden I was reminded how very far we were from home. In this small English village miles even from Oxford. It’s funny. I hadn’t felt that way. I had just kind of gotten used to being here. But, for some reason, walking through this little village reminded me I was in a foreign country. I a beautiful foreign country.

Most of the homes in this village were old and built of stone. With little space from one house to the next. The roads were narrow, and we walked on them. Taking photos along the way.

This thatched roof home was seated on the corner of a bend that opened up to reveal another expansive field, which it looked like people were taking full advantage. A couple was walking together. And a man was walking with his dog.

The road narrowed again as it turned into another bridge, crossing another part of what I took to be the same river, bending just so.

After crossing this second bridge, we spotted a tall sign with a fish on it.

“That must be it,” I said to Steve, as we walked past what looked to be a small, communal garden in the center of a handful of older-looking stone homes.

The Trout was just as Walter had described it. An old stone inn that had been reconverted into a restaurant. It was great.

Randomly, a peacock was wandering by the front entryway. “Must be the bouncer,” I thought to myself as Steve and I both snapped pictures.

Entering the old stone building, we ducked our heads a bit for the low entry ceiling. The restaurant was amazing. I was immediately surprised by how modern it looked. Everything was very sleek and minimal. Lots of wood throughout. Dimly lit. And it looked out over this beautiful view of the river.

We passed right through the restaurant and onto the back patio to take in the sights, before finding our seats inside.

The river was rushing pretty swiftly as we stood on the patio, taking it all in. Large umbrellas provided for the seating area, which I’m sure must be great during the spring and summertime.

A long, narrow wooden foot bridge led across to the other side. It really was a great spot.

We made our way inside and found a table in the corner of the room that looked out across the river.

It was still a bit early for dinner, so we ordered a couple drinks and started journaling.

Steve and I had been talking a bit about our dreams. And we wanted to find a time to do that before he took off. To share with each other what we wanted to accomplish. And to pray for each other. So we did.

Steve’s the kind of guy who dreams big. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met before.

Before I met Steve, I always figured dreams were a bit for people who don’t actually do anything with their life. But, instead, for people who simply “dream” of doing something big. Someday. And then someday never comes.

But that’s not the case with Steve. not at all. I still remember the first time I shared with him about my dreams to one day study at Oxford. And to write in a way that helped others see God more clearly. I hadn’t shared this dream with anyone at this point. Apart from my wife. And so I did so somewhat sheepishly.

But he told me I should go after it. As simple as that. Without laughing at me or telling me that sounded like a pretty lofty dream. Just that I should.

That was just over two years ago. It was only the second or third time we had hung out. And now here I am. At Oxford. Studying Theology. Like I had dreamt of for so long.

Needless to say, that’s something I appreciate greatly in Steve. He’s the kind of friend who’s always encouraging me to dream big, and to go after those dreams. He’s the friend who always believes in me.

Having someone like that in your life. . .well, that’s priceless.

“I figured, rather than just sitting down and writing out what we want, maybe we should start with some of the ways God’s blessed our life up to this point,” Steve suggested. “That way, we’re reminded about all of the times God has shown up and provided when we doubted whether He would.”

I loved that idea. So we did. Each journaling to ourselves.

We shared them with each other after a while. All those ways God has shown up. In each of our lives. It was really encouraging to hear those times in Steve’s life, and it was good to remind myself of all those times He’s shown up in my life, even amidst my doubts.

After a while, we decided to order some food. We’re both burger guys, so we went with two of their burgers.

They showed up on these cool, wooden serving trays. Very unique.

After burgers, we talked a bit about what we wanted to set out to accomplish in life. Short-term and long-term. And then we prayed for each other. Lifting up these dreams to God, just like we had done all those years before. With Oxford. From just outside of Oxford.

So thankful for that time. So thankful for a friend who still dares me to dream big and who encourages me to go after them.

A second dinner: Hussein’s Kebab van

We made it back to the house kind of early. As we had taken an early trip out to The Trout.

Both Steve and I had been wanting to make a trip to the kebab vans in the city center before he left. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something so appealing about eating food from a truck. I think it’s unique to men, though, as neither Jen nor Jamie are big on the idea.

Steve told Jamie we were going to go grab a second dinner from the kebab van. She told him to be careful they didn’t serve us rat. Or pigeon.

Jamie used to work in New York. And apparently there was a case where some sidewalk vendors got caught for selling pigeon. So, her fear isn’t completely unfounded, I guess.

Neither Steve nor I were swayed, though. We were dead set on ordering food from a van before he left.

Around 10 o’clock that night, we made our way to the city center. And we found “Hussein’s Kebab Van” in his old familiar spot. On the corner near the Ashmoleon Museum. Where Cole had surprised me with that first-edition copy of Mere Christianity last December.

One of my favorite parts about Hussein’s is the menu. They have everything. From pizza to burgers to kebabs… They even have tuna pizza. I dared Steve to order it, but he decided against it. Choosing to go with the chicken kebab instead.

It was a cool night, but we found a spot nearby to eat our kebabs. Under a large statue in the city center that sits between two lanes of traffic. It’s where Jen and I had eaten our kebabs before seeing Romeo & Juliet last fall.

It was a cool spot to eat. With oncoming headlights cutting through the night air, as though they were going to come straight for you, before finally turning.

The kebabs were great. Messy, but great. The hot chicken was a warm welcome in the cool night air.

It was a great time, sitting there with my best friend. Late that night in the middle of Oxford. Thankful for those times. And memories.

Thursday: Paninis & celebrating Steve’s engagement

Steve’s a big fan of the Alternative Tuck paninis here in Oxford. As am I, obviously. So we enjoyed quite a few trips to the panini shop while he was here. We’d normally meet up there halfway through the day, make our way through the long line, and head down to Harris Manchester, warm paninis in-hand, to find a place to sit and eat.

Steve snapped this one of me unexpectedly. But, as you can see, I wasted little time. That panini didn’t have a chance with me.

We worked away from the Harris Manchester Library for a few hours that afternoon. Me on my papers. Steve on his business. And on wedding plans.

Celebrating answered prayers

I had told Steve I had a surprise for him that night. Before he left. I don’t think he had any idea what it was. I told him we’d take off a little after five for it.

About a quarter after five, we left the college and headed back home. I asked Steve if he had packed any dress clothes for the trip. He hadn’t.

“Hmm… well, maybe you can borrow a pair of mine.” I suggested.

“Actually, I bought another suit with my wedding suit,” he told me. “Not sure if it’s tailored or not, but maybe it’ll work.”

After getting ready at the house, we stepped out and headed back to the city center.

“Well, bud, I felt bad we weren’t able to celebrate your engagement when I was back home,” I told him, “so I wanted to make sure we got to do that before you left.”

“Oh, thanks man.”

There’s a restaurant here in Oxford that always catches Steve’s eye. Gee’s. It looks a bit like a green house. With white trim and loads of windows. It has chandeliers hanging just above the tables inside.

I told Steve I had tried to make reservations for us for Gee’s for the night before he took off, but that they were booked out for an event.

“So, next best option: The Old Parsonage.”

The Old Parsonage is a hotel / restaurant in the city center. It’s supposed to be a pretty nice place. And apparently it’s owned by the same folks as Gee’s.

“That sounds great, man. Thank you so much,” Steve said, turning toward me as we walked. “That really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The Old Parsonage is a really cool old stone building with lots of vines growing on the exterior. And large hedges along the road, blocking the view from traffic.

The front door is an old, castle-esque wooden door.

We made our way in to find a small room with several people seated with drinks and smiles. A young guy behind a desk wearing a dark suit and a tie greeted us. I told him we were looking for the restaurant.

“Just around the corner,” he told us, pointing us in the right direction.

The small room opened up to a slightly larger room after a couple steps. The room’s walls were plastered in framed art and portraits.

It was a really elegant place. And just a handful of other tables with people at them.

There were two older men seated with a woman at one table, and an older couple seated beside a window at another who talked in french to each other the whole night.

A Porsche pulled into the gravel driveway as we sat down, and I watched as a guy in his late 50’s stepped out, wearing a suit and scarf.

We were clearly the youngest ones in the restaurant.

Opening up our menus, I think Steve was taken aback a bit.

“Oh, wow. Man, we can go some place else if you like.”

That’s just the kind of guy Steve is. He gives other people the world, and yet he expects so little in return.

“This really means a lot, man, but I seriously would’ve been happy just being treated to ice cream or something,” he told me from across the table.

“Ice cream? Had you known me when I got engaged, I know there’s no way you would’ve taken me out for ice cream to celebrate.”

A sheepish grin spread across his face as he looked off. He knew I was right.

When I received the news that I had been accepted to Oxford, Steve treated Jennifer to an umpteen course meal at one of the nicest restaurants in the area back home. Certainly the nicest restaurant either Jen or I had ever been to. And will probably ever go to.

We had an amazing time that night, celebrating my being accepted to study here. And I wanted to do the same for Steve.

“Well thanks, man. It really means a lot.”

“Of course.”

The food at The Old Parsonage was pretty incredible. I ordered the ox. Because I’ve never had ox. And Steve ordered the cod.

Both were great. My ox tasted a bit like the best roast beef you’ve ever had. Falling apart with the slightest touch of a fork. And mashed potatoes to top it off.

We had a great time. Talking about Steve & Jamie’s big day. And remembering about all the times we had spent praying for Steve’s future wife. Over coffee at Wood’s back home. Now the big day was just months away, and I was happy to celebrate that with him.

After cleaning our plates, I slid around the table so our waitress could snap a photo of us. Celebrating just another way God has shown up, in a very big way, and answered the prayers of our hearts. The wife of Steve’s dreams.

Thanks for a great trip, my friend.

One of the first things I did after arriving back in Oxford after the holidays was send Walter Hooper an e-mail. Jennifer and I had gone over to his place for dinner before we left and, knowing I’d be on my own for a bit before Jen rejoined me, Walter made sure to invite me over when I returned.

I sent him an e-mail shortly after getting settled in, and it wasn’t long before I received a reply from Walter, welcoming me back to Oxford and inviting me over for tea my first Sunday back in Oxford.

Saturday: CS Lewis gifts from a stranger

When we’re apart, Jennifer and I try to Skype a couple times a day. The whole long distance thing isn’t a lot of fun, but if you can talk regularly, and even see each other, that makes everything a bit easier.

I Skyped with Jen Saturday evening. My evening, her afternoon. And she told me someone back home who knew her Dad, and who had heard about what we were up to, had given me a first edition copy of Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. As well as a complete, early-edition set of The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Apparently this man had heard I was a big fan of Lewis’ writing, and that I was studying here at Oxford, and he had decided to give me these books from his personal collection.

I was stunned. I didn’t even know the guy, but that was an incredible gift.

“You’re building up quite the collection,” Jennifer told me over Skype.

“No kidding,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief of the generous gift.

Sunday: Tea with Walter

After church on Sunday morning, I made my way to Summertown. To get some work done on Greek before the start of the first official week of the term. And to catch up with a friend.

Richard had sent me a message shortly after lunch. Letting me know he was studying from Startbucks in Summertown, in case I wanted to join him. It’s nice to come back to a place half-way around the world and find people reaching out to you. It certainly makes for an easier transition.

I met Richard shortly before leaving to return home from the holidays. He’s a great guy. He and his wife are from California. Beautiful, sunny, southern California. And they had actually just been married before moving here to Oxford, so Richard could start his Doctoral work.

Richard’s background is in Philosophy. He seems young for the job, but he’s been teaching at Biola. Philosophy. His passion, though, is Christian Apologetics. Talking about why Christians believe what they believe. Answering questions about the faith. And that’s something I certainly appreciate. That’s something we have in common, as it’s much of the reason why I’m here, too. So we find a lot to talk about.

We caught up for a while, sharing stories from our holiday vacations over coffee, before picking up our books and getting some studying done.

After a couple hours, I excused myself, telling Richard I had a tea to make. At Walter Hooper’s house. He thought that was pretty great.

Summertown is about a five-minute bike ride from where we live, and Walter’s house is about another five-minute ride north of Summertown.

It was just starting to get dark outside when I arrived. I pulled my bike around the back of his large, condo building and locked it up. Not seeing a bike rack, and not wanting it to get in the way if I tied it to the entryway.

I passed through the two large double doors and rung the bell at Walter’s door. Seconds later I was greeted by his wonderful smile and  a “Why hello there!”

It really was great to see him again. Being at Walter’s home makes me feel like I’m at home, in a way. It’s just comforting.

After we had said our “hello’s,” I handed Walter some canned pumpkin pie mix we had promised him the last time we were over. After he had raved about the pumpkin bread Jen brought over for dessert. He was pretty happy to receive it, and he was quite grateful about it, thanking me several times.

I also brought him one of our Christmas cards. Jen had signed and prepared it for him before I left. It seemed like he appreciated it. I pointed out all the places we had been in the photos on the cards. The Tower of London. Bath. Blenheim Palace.

Walter invited me to sit down and we shared some tea. From that old, comfortable chair in his living room. The one I always sit in. He pointed a plate of shortbread cookies in my direction and insisted I have some. Walter’s incredibly hospitable.

I love sitting in Walter’s living room. Talking. While the fire flickers in the fireplace. There’s always great conversation, and it’s never forced or dull. He always has something interesting to talk about. And, somehow, it always comes back to Lewis.

I asked him about meeting Lewis for the first time, and he shared the story with me in incredibly rich detail. It was like I was right there with him.

He told me how he had shown up on Lewis’ doorstep several days earlier than he was expected, after being told to give some extra time, as Lewis’ home was difficult to find. And, even though Lewis wasn’t expecting him for another few days, he invited him into his home and they ended up sharing three pots of tea just like that. Apparently Walter had come expecting just to stay for the one visit, and maybe to see a bit of England, but that trip quickly turned into the next 45 years of his life. Walter went from being a pen-pal of Lewis’ to being Lewis’ personal secretary.

“I remember thinking, shortly after meeting him for the first time,” Walter told me, “that I genuinely loved this man.” He let his words hang in the air as he looked off in the distance, into the fireplace, and you knew he was replaying these experiences to himself.

“He was so incredibly kind,” Walter said to me after a pause. “He really was unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”

I asked Walter if he had been homesick after coming here and staying unexpectedly. He told me he had, particularly after Lewis passed away.

Walter’s cat, Blessed Lucy of Narnia, entered the room while we were talking. Walter always addresses Lucy when she’s around, as if she were a person who had just entered.

“Well hello, Blessed Lucy of Narnia,” he said to her. “Are you going to say hello to your uncle Ryan?”

I smiled, as Lucy paced back and forth in front of where Walter sat as he played with her tail.

We talked for a bit longer. He asked about Jen. How she was doing, and if she was enjoying being home.

I asked him a theological question. Something a friend of mine back home had been talking with me about. Something that had been weighing pretty heavily on this friend for some time. About whether or not everyone, ultimately goes to heaven (what’s called “Universalism”), or if there is indeed a heaven for some, and a hell for others.

Walter was quick to answer, and he immediately began by referencing Lewis book The Great Divorce. He asked me if I had read it. I told him I had began reading it at one point, but I hadn’t finished it.

“Oh, you must read it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful book.”

I told him how I had just received a first-edition copy as a gift the day before, and how I now had no excuse.

He began to tell me how he’d respond to this question, that he believed the end of this life would mean great disappointment for many. But that it wasn’t a matter of tastes or opinion. Rather, it was matter of fact. Of truth, referencing Lewis’ book as he talked. He then excused himself from the room so that he might grab a copy from his room and read directly from the book.

This surprised me, as Walter routinely quotes verbatim from books when we’re talking. Not just Lewis, but others as well. And I’m always blown away. I hope I can pull that off when I’m 79.

After a few minutes, Walter returned to the room, his copy of The Great Divorce in hand. He flipped through the pages to find the section he wanted to read from, scanning the pages like he was returning to an old conversation. And, as he read it aloud, I realized he was doing just that. After knowing Lewis, and after working on his books for more than 40 years, Lewis’ words must feel like nothing short of an old friend to Walter.

“I’m often asked if I regret this, having spent all this time studying Lewis’ writing and compiling his letters. I’m often asked if I feel like it’s been a waste,” Walter later shared with me. “And I don’t know how I could. My life is so much richer because of this man.”

Walter was beaming as he finished this sentence.

Staring at this 79-year old man seated in the middle of his beautiful living room, knowing the amazing difference meeting Lewis had meant in his life, I was touched. To know such a man, and to know that, as much as Lewis has meant in my life, he has meant so much more to Walter.

I could feel the joy permeating from him as Walter sat there across the room from me, and I was so thankful for that time together.

Monday: Back in school

It was an odd feeling, returning to class on Monday. Like I had never really been away.

My week began with Greek, which meant I hit the ground running. We spent most of the class time talking about what we would be focusing on this term, and what Rhona expected us to have finished by the next time we met.

Looks of horror spread across the faces of those seated around me, as fingers and eyes flipped through page after page of Greek translations to complete. It seemed insurmountable, more than we could possibly do or know, on top of the rest of our studies. But Rhona spoke of it like it was nothing, of course. I think she honestly believes students can learn Greek by osmosis. By simply looking at the pages for a few moments. I think that’s how she learned it. Fresh out of the womb. She’s brilliant.

Lyndon and I were chatting about the workload as we left class that morning, as we were unlocking our bikes.

“And now I see why the Oxford name carries a certain cache,” he said with a large grin.

“Yeah, no kidding. It’s there for a reason,” I told him as I got on my bike and made my way to the library to get started on my reading list for the week.

Oxford attire

I couldn’t help but take in the different outfits of those passing through the library while I was supposed to be reading. My head lifting up with each passerby. After being away from Oxford for a while, I was reminded how unique men dress here in Oxford.

Very academic, for the most part. Particularly those who aren’t 18 and straight out of high school.

Lots of tweed jackets with v-neck sweaters, dress shirts and ties. Pointed leather shoes. And turtle shell rimmed glasses. Messy hair and scarves. Unkept, not polished, seems to be the Oxford way. Too flashy or showy seems to be very much “un-Oxford.” No whites, or light or bright colors, but dark browns and greys and black earthy colors.

It feels like an escape, in a way. Being here. Into history. Into the classics. And I suppose you can’t help but feel that way, when you study in libraries that are nearly as old as The United States, and when you’re daily walking past buildings that are 800 years old.

Oxford, where young men dress like old men. Where modernity, it seems, is shunned.

Tuesday: Sitting with Felix

Jane told me shortly after I arrived that Beng was away on vacation. I let her know that I was happy to help with anything until she returned, if needed. She thanked me, and then asked if I might be willing to “babysit” Felix Tuesday night. I thought it odd, referring to hanging out with a 12-year old boy as babysitting, but I told her I’d be happy to.

Felix is a great kid, and I was looking forward to getting to hang out with him again. It’s something I’ve wanted to do more, but things here don’t leave a whole lot of free time.

Felix was working on Latin homework at the dining room table when I crossed the hall and made my way into their home Tuesday night. He greeted me with that large, toothy grin of his. It was great to see him again.

Jane and I caught up and talked about our holidays. She asked if the baby had come yet. Jen’s sister’s first. We had been hoping she’d arrive before I left, but we had no such luck, I told her.

“Jen’s getting pretty excited for her to arrive at this point,” I told Jane. “I think everyone is.”

“I bet so,” she said, with that same wide grin that Felix has.

“Oh, I booked our skiing trip today, Felix,” she said. Turning quickly to where he was seated at the table.

“Felix and I are heading to Switzerland for some skiing in February,” she told me with a look of excitement. But nonchalent excitement, like it wasn’t completely out of the norm for them.

It was for me, as I’m sure my large eyes gave away.

“Oh wow. That sounds great!” I said.

She walked over to where Felix was seated at the dining room table working on latin and asked him to sit up straight. He did. I smiled, to myself.

“He might like some pudding later on. Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told me. I smiled and thanked her.

Jane went through Felix’s bedtime with me, “Lights out at 9:00,” and she asked me to look over Felix’s work, if I wouldn’t mind. I was actually considering asking Felix to look over my Greek, but I told her I would, not knowing how I would actually know whether or not he had done what was being asked.

After Felix had wrapped up his Latin homework for the night, he told me he needed to go feed his rabits. He asked if I wanted to join him. I told him that’d be great. It was dark outside, and so Felix snagged a pair of goggles from a table in the corner of the room.

“They’re night vision goggles. I got them for Christmas,” he told me, while holding them out to me.” Would you like to try them?

“Cooool…,” I said, like a kid seeing his buddy’s new toy. “Yeah, I’d love to try them out.”

I’m not one to pass up on night-vision goggles. We walked out to the rabbit cage, me holding the goggles to my face, and he told me about the fox they had spotted in their backyard with the goggles.

I considered telling him I had received some pretty great wool socks for Christmas, and how they were keeping my feet nice and warm, but I decided against it.

We played some cricket in the large entryway of their home after feeding the rabbits. Felix ran over the different batting styles of the game. I was surprised to hear it’s still called batting. And not punting or something else, just to be different.

Grizz, their small dog, hated that we were playing with her tennis ball, and she’d constantly try to get it until we finally gave up and tossed her the ball.

“Would you like to watch some Simpsons?” Felix asked me, after throwing in the towel on our game of Cricket.

“I would love to, yeah,” I said. “I haven’t watched Simpsons in years.”

Seated there, in their living room, watching The Simpsons with Felix, I thought about all the studying I needed to get done. All the Greek I had waiting for me. But then I remembered I was being paid to watch The Simpsons with Felix and all of a sudden those studies didn’t seem quite so important.

One of the (three) episodes we watched involved the family going to an apple farm. Grandpa Simpson went with them. When they were leaving, he took his seat in the backseat. Marge quickly asked, “Oh no! Are you sitting on the apple pie?!”

“I sure hope so…” he replied.

Felix laughed quite hard at that point. “I sure hope so,” he repeated to himself, eyes glued to the TV screen.

After one of the episodes had finished, Felix got up and made his way to the kitchen.

“I like enjoying pudding while I watch The Simpsons,” he told me. He really is a smart kid, I thought to myself.

“Would you like some ice cream?”

We enjoyed our dessert, or pudding, while watching a couple more episodes of The Simpsons.

During a commercial break, Felix asked me if I had heard his dad had started another paper. I knew he co-owned two papers in London already.

“No, no I hadn’t heard that,” I told him.

“Yeah, it’s called The I, and it’s a short paper. Just the basics.”

About five seconds later, a commercial came on the TV announcing a new, concise newspaper. “Only what you need, none of gossip you don’t,” the narrator’s voice spoke. It was a great commercial.

“There, that’s it,” Felix said.

I had to laugh. It all seemed quite unreal.

After several episodes of The Simpsons, I told Felix it looked like it was about time to start getting ready for bed. I followed him upstairs and waited outside his door as he brushed his teeth and got changed for bed.

I told him goodnight and turned off the light as I left. “Thanks for watching me tonight,” he said as I left. It put a smile on my face. This kid is a stud; he’s so polite.

“You’re so welcome, Felix. It was a lot of fun.”

Becoming An Uncle

I returned to the living room and pulled my Greek textbook and notebook from my bag. I figured I would get some work done while I waited for Jane to return home.

But I couldn’t. My mind was elsewhere. Thinking about the e-mail Jen had sent me just before I came over to Jane’s. Telling me Leann’s contractions were getting closer, and that they would likely be heading to the hospital that day. That Khloe would probably be arriving soon.

I tried to put my head down on my Greek, knowing I had vocab to memorize for a quiz the next morning, but I couldn’t focus. Finally, I pulled out my laptop to check my e-mail. Hoping I would have an update from Jen, as I had asked her to keep me posted.

Sure enough, Ben & Leann had left for the hospital, and Jen and her parents weren’t far behind. Khloe was on her way, it seemed!

I was so excited. More so than I expected to be. But I was also sad at the same point. I think it took receiving that e-mail to realize this is something I’m going to miss, being here. The birth of my first niece, and I wouldn’t be there to experience it.

Jen had asked Ben & Leann if it would be all right to bring the laptop into the room with them, so that I could be a part of things. Not during the birth, obviously. But before, while they were waiting. And afterward.

It was nearly 11:00 by the time I got back that night. After Jane returned.

I was quick to get online and Skype with Jen and Ben & Leann and Tim & Rhonda. To see them all there, in the birthing room. Getting ready for Khloe’s arrival.

I was so excited Khloe was finally coming, and it was so good to see them. They hadn’t slept much the past several days, apparently, but you could tell they were terribly excited as well.

I stayed up for a couple more hours. Studying Greek for my quiz. And taking breaks to check in with Jen.

By 1:00, Leann wasn’t far from giving birth, they told me, but I was fading fast. I told them I was probably going to need to turn in.

Jen told me they’d Skype in with me after Khloe arrived, if I wanted to leave my computer on. So I did. I turned the volume up as high as it would go and I left it at the foot of the stairs leading up to our bedroom, knowing the wireless signal isn’t strong in our room, and I didn’t want to miss out.

I told Jen goodnight and went to bud, a little past 1:00.

At around 6:00 that morning, a beeping noise woke me from my sleep. It took me several seconds to realize what was going on, but I stumbled toward the source of the noise, with one eye open and one eye still shut.

I spotted my laptop at the foot of the stairs and, even in my sleepy-state, I quickly realized what was going on. Khloe had arrived!

The first thing I saw after taking the call was Jennifer holding baby Khloe, and suddenly I was filled with incredible joy. I sat down on the stairs in my pajamas, held the laptop up close to my face and said, “Oh wow. . .that is amazing. She is so beautiful!”

Jen was smiling from ear to ear at this point. Smiling like I hadn’t seen her in a long, long time.

I couldn’t get over what a beautiful baby she was. Even while struggling to wake up, I was taken aback by her perfect features. Her perfectly round button nose. Her beautiful round face.

“That is so amazing,” I said again.

Seated there, on the stairs that early morning in Oxford, the house still dark and the light of the laptop illuminating my face, I was taken aback by the beauty of this baby. And what an incredible blessing she was to our family in what has been a pretty difficult time. This past year has been full of some of the deepest, darkest pain we’ve ever known, after losing Hayley. And yet, here, before us, was this beautiful baby girl. This gift of light and joy. From God. Almost as if to say, “Here I am. In all the dark and in all your pain, I still delight in giving good gifts.”

I was terribly disappointed I wasn’t there to experience, first-hand, this moment with my family. It hurt deeply. I wanted with all I had just to reach out and grab a hold of Khloe. So that I might hold her in my arms. But I realized I couldn’t. And I realized I would have to wait six months before I could. I wondered if I would one day look at Khloe, after she was several years old, playing by the lake as a beautiful little girl, and regret that I had not been there for this moment. Ben & Lean had said time and time again that they understood I couldn’t be there, after I apologized time and time again. They shrugged it off, saying there was nothing to forgive me for. I wondered if I’d be able to forgive myself.

But those thoughts of disappointment quickly turned to joy. Joy for Ben & Leann, and the beautiful, healthy baby girl they had been blessed with. For the family she was born into, and knowing how deeply she would be loved and cared for. Knowing what wonderful parents Ben & Leann were going to be to her. What amazing grandparents Tim & Rhonda would be. How Jen was going to be the most incredible aunt. And how I couldn’t wait to spoil her as an uncle should. Those thoughts brought me great joy.

Baby Khloe Dawn Van Dyken, welcome to the world. It is more beautiful now that you have entered into it, and we are so delighted to have you. (Click here for a bit of mood music to accompany the photos).

and

Saturday: We get great packages, Thanksgiving Take Two

I woke up Saturday morning and started working on some Greek while Jen slept in a bit. We were planning on taking a trip to Manchester that day, to listen to a friend of ours from back home perform in a concert, and so I knew I needed to get as much done as I could before we left.

Not long after I had been up, I heard a knock on the door. It was Beng. Letting me know we had another package by the door. And that it was too heavy for her. Beng’s great. And she’s usually the bearer of good news. That we’ve received another package from home.

This one was from our Aunt Katrina. She had told us it was coming. And we had really been looking forward to it. I picked up the package and took it upstairs. Beside our bed. Where Jen was just waking up. It was like Christmas morning. Opening up gifts in bed.

It was such a great package to open up, too. So many things from back home we’d been missing. Jen’s favorite cereals (Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms), her Baker’s Breakfast Cookies and favorite flavored Crystal Light (Kiwi Strawberry). Beef jerky and slippers for me. I’m a big fan of slippers, and getting a new pair of slippers made my week.

Gloves and playing cards rounded out the package. And a very nice card, telling us how proud she was of us. Thanks so much for the package, Katrina. It meant so very much!

Change of Plans

I mentioned before that we were supposed to be going to Manchester to hear a friend of ours from back home perform. Katie Van Kooten. She has an incredible voice. If you’ve never heard her, you will have to at some point. Katie performed in London for something like six years after school, with the Opera House. And she was a huge help to us in preparing to make the move over here to England. We were really excited to go listen to her.

Naively, we didn’t think it’d be a big deal to hop on a bus or the train and go listen to her. Turns out it was a much bigger deal than we thought. Because the show wouldn’t get done until later in the evening, we found out we’d have to take the last bus out of Manchester, which would get us back into Oxford at 5:00 in the morning… That sounded less than ideal.

We felt horrible canceling on Katie at the last minute, but I simply wasn’t going to be able to be out that late and lose a day Sunday catching up on rest, not with my final week of the term ahead of me. So I had to write her an e-mail, apologizing for the last minute cancellation. We were both bummed, as Katie’s simply an amazing performer. We’re hoping we’ll have another chance to see her while we’re over here. Katie, if you’re reading this, how about booking another UK show?

Thanksgiving, Take Two

Our friends Rob and Vanessa were throwing a Thanksgiving party that night. Jen had been helping Vanessa prepare by baking some pumpkin pies and pumpkin bars the day before. Since it looked like we wouldn’t be traveling north to Manchester, we thought we’d join in on some more Thanksgiving festivities.

It was held in a church building not far from Christ Church. In the city center. Not the church itself, but an extra building. For events like this. For people to reserve. And it was great. There were probably between 20 and 30 people there. Husbands and wives. And a handful of kids. Lots of people from the business school, but a handful of others.

The food was great. Long tables overflowing with turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and yams and green beans and salads and bread. And another table for desserts (or “puddings”) and appetizers and drinks. It was great.

One of the pastors stopped in and introduced himself. You could tell he was interested in what was going on. He was from Ghana, originally. And his name was Abu. He had been a student here at Oxford. First in Theology. Then in Law. Before becoming a pastor. Super nice guy. He told us he had been involved in reaching out to those in the middle east with the Christian faith. And that he was working on setting up an Alpha Group for muslims here in Oxford. That blew me away. It sounded like someone hosting a steak dinner in the middle of the lion exhibit at the zoo.

But that’s where his heart was at. “The middle east needs Christ,” he told us, with a voice of sincere confidence.

Abu had never been to a Thanksgiving dinner before, so we told him he had to grab a plate and join us. He half-hesitated and then did so. I was standing in the end of the food line when he came back with a plate, and a piece of smoked salmon on it. He pointed over to the table that held the desserts and appetizers and drinks and asked if those were the puddings. I told him they were. Then he pointed down to his plate and asked if the smoked salmon was pudding. I laughed and told him that was an exception to the pudding table. That it was smoked salmon. He laughed. He said he just didn’t know.

We had a great time talking with Abu. He asked where we were from. I told him about an hour’s drive north of Seattle. He told us he had a friend here at Oxford who was from Seattle. And that he was one of the smartest guys he had ever known. He told us how this guy completed two Masters degrees while also finishing his Doctorate degree. I told him I’d never again complain about my workload.

After dinner, people sat and around and talked over mulled wine and pumpkin pie. Vanessa put Home Alone on the projector screen. Jen and I found two seats front and center and laughed as Kevin lit Joe Pesci’s head on fire, and dropped an iron on the curly-haired guy’s head. That movie just feels like Christmas, doesn’t it?

We thanked Rob and Vanessa for a great time afterward, and we went home and put some Christmas music on while I opened up my Greek book and got to work.

Sunday: A Sunday Dinner with Ken & Lynne

We went to church Sunday morning, and we found two seats next to Ken and Lynne (the hand surgeon turned Theologian and his wife, both from Oregon). They had e-mailed me the week before, asking if we’d like to come over for Sunday dinner after church this week. So that Lynne could meet Jen. Ken had met Jen briefly at Harris Manchester at one week but, surprisingly, her and Lynne had yet to meet each other. Ken and Lynne are great, and I was excited to join them at their warm home again.

After the service, a good number of the congregation gathered in the back room, to share tea and catch up. We each took a cup of tea and talked with Ken and Lynne for a bit. Then Lynne stepped away to say “hello” to someone she knew. A little bit later, Ken stepped away to find her.

There was a table set up in the church foyer, selling Christmas cards. Home-made ones. I asked Jen what she thought people would think if I flipped it over and began shouting, “You’ve turned my house into a den of thieves.” She just rolled her eyes.

Jarred and Chelsea made their way across the church foyer to say “Hi.” Along with their two kids. Jarred’s doing his Doctorate here in Theology. They just came here from St. Andrew’s in Scotland, but they’re both originally from the states. Both really nice. Jarred’s in one of my lectures with me. Jen and Chelsea talked for a bit, before exchanging e-mails and making plans to get together for tea.

We stepped out into the cold late-morning air after church. It was easily the coldest it has been since we’ve arrived. We climbed into Ken and Lynne’s car and waited for the warm air to come pouring out of the vents. Ken wore driving gloves. And explained to us all the crazy driving rules the English have, as we made our way to their home.

We pulled into their drive way, with a Christmas wreath hanging from their front door. Inviting us in. Their home was warm, and the leather chairs seated around their fireplace looked as though they had been waiting for us to arrive, to join them. Which we did. Gladly. Ken turned on the fire and Lynne asked us if we wanted anything warm to drink. Jen and I loved the idea of a hot cup of tea. Ken passed. And we sat around the cozy living room, with Christmas decor and warm fireplace, sipping our tea and talking as Lynne piped in from the kitchen while she finished preparations for lunch.

Ken told us about their plans to travel home for the holidays. And the interesting conversations they’ve seemed to have with those they sit by the past few times they’ve flown.

He told us about a recent trip, and how they had missed a flight, as their incoming flight had been late arriving. He told us that they were pretty frustrated, having to wait longer for the next flight out, but how they tried to tell themselves that there was a reason for it. He told us how they were seated toward the back of the plane on their new flight, and how there were a number of seats toward the front of the plane still open. Just before take off, they asked the stewardess if they could move up to those free seats. And she let them. He told us how, just before the doors closed, a middle-eastern man boarded the flight, and took the seat next to them. In the seats they had just moved to.

He told us how Lynne had struck up a conversation with this man, as she was reading a book about religions around the world. Apparently he told her if she had any questions on the Islam faith, to feel free to ask him. They got talking after this, about their different faiths. Islam and Christianity. And then Lynne subtly handing the conversation over to Ken.

“As a woman, I knew he’d listen to what Ken had to say before he’d listen to me,” Lynne said, poking her head in from the kitchen. They told us how this man was surprised to hear them talk about Christianity, and how it appeared quite different from what he knew of the faith.

“There weren’t any other conversations going on at this point,” Ken told us. “It was so quiet, you could hear a bit drop. Everyone around us was listening in,” he said with a laugh.

Apparently Ken and Lynne invited this man to join them for a meal at their home, while he was in Oregon. Leaving him with their phone number.

“We never got a phone call,” Ken told us.

After about 20 minutes, Lynne invited us into the dining room. Where she had prepared lunch for us. Roast chicken. Rice. Bread. Green beans. Salad. It looked wonderful. And it smelled even better. We made our plates and Ken prayed before we began. The four of us seated around their table.

They told us about all the work they had put into the home since arriving. They told us about their home back in Oregon. In the country. And the small church they attend. And how the pastor and his family were staying there while Ken and Lynne were here in Oxford.

It felt like we were back home. Sharing a meal with old friends. And it was wonderful.

About halfway through the meal, Ken looked over at Jen and asked her what the most difficult part of all of this had been for her. It was a fair question. Jen smiled softly as she prepared her thoughts.

“Probably just the change in schedule,” she said. “I was always so busy back home, and now I have all this time on my hands.”

Lynne told Jen she completely understood where she was coming from. And she went on to suggest a number of different places Jen might want to look into to get involved. In the youth program at church. In the Newcomer’s Meeting at the University. And that she’d be happy to meet Jen there, if she wanted.

Lynne’s a mom, to be sure. Not just because she has four children of her own, but because she just has that natural motherly instinct to her. She’s an incredibly kind, caring woman.

After finishing my second plate of lunch, we left the table and rejoined our seats in the living room, beside the fire.

Lynne asked if we’d like some of the chocolate cake she had baked for dessert. We weren’t about to pass that up.

“I like mine served warm, with vanilla ice cream. Does that sound all right with you?” she asked us. I wanted to give her another hug at this point.

“Yeah, that sounds great. Thank you, Lynne,” I said, in place of the hug.

We enjoyed our warm chocolate cake and conversation in the living room. Sharing stories from back home. Laughing about all the differences we’ve come across being here in England. Ken laughs with his shoulders. They rise and fall as he chuckles.

It was so nice sitting there, in their warm living room with Christmas decorations and good friends. It hardly felt like we were even in England.

Monday: Last New Testament Paper, An Introduction to the Christian Union

Monday was my last New Testament tutorial of the term. I’ll miss that. Going to class in the castle.

And it’s really been a great class (if I can say “class,” when there’s only two of us, and a professor). Not only because I enjoy the material, but I’ve really enjoyed my tutor (or professor, Dave) and classmate (Sarah, the one who always comes in these funky outfits) and the discussions we’ve had. I thanked Dave as we left the class that afternoon. And I shook his hand.

I don’t think Dave’s probably much of a handshaker, but I am. I once shook the Principal of Bellingham High School’s elbow after meeting him for the first time. Because he didn’t have any hands free. I don’t think he was terribly impressed. I wish I were making this up, but I have witnesses.

The wind was blowing hard as we left class Monday afternoon. And it was cold. Riding away on my bike, I asked Sarah what she plans to do for the extra week she was going to spend in Oxford before returning home.

“Oh, I’ll probably just see where the wind takes me,” she said. I laughed. Seemed like something she’d say.

Christian Union

I had told Tim I’d join him for a meeting with the Christian Union that night. The Christian Union is the University-wide Christian group here at Oxford. And each college has a smaller group that meets, as part of the wider Christian Union umbrella. Tim had been wanting to start up a chapter at Harris Manchester, since we don’t currently have one, and I said I’d help him. I liked the idea of getting a group going at Harris Manchester. I believe people meeting to talk about Jesus is a good thing.

This evening’s meeting was full of Oxford students crammed into a small church room, gathered around tables. I was late arriving, because of my class, but I quickly picked out Tim in the crowd and found a seat next to him.

Two leaders stood in the front of the room. One girl. One guy. They both looked quite trendy. And a bit older than the rest of the students in the room. I didn’t catch their names. So I made them up. “Sarah.” She went to Cambridge, apparently. To study literature. And “Rowan.” I didn’t catch where he studied, but he wore designer glasses. He looked smart. And he talked smart, too.

The point of the evening’s meeting was to brainstorm ideas to get more people involved in the Christian Union next term. In particular, the group was discussing ways to reach out to friends who don’t consider themselves believers in God and Jesus. I’m not sure if it’s just because I was going on a lack of sleep, but I felt like I had a bit of a critical attitude toward the whole thing. Like it was a bit too creative strategy and not much about how “God” fit into the whole thing.

We prayed afterward. People prayed over those in the room, and students at Oxford in general. For creativity in coming up with ideas, and that they would go off smoothly. I had to fight the urge to allow my critical feelings pour over into my prayer. Or make any cutting remarks.

I’m usually quick to jump in and pray in group prayer. I’m not one to sit back and listen. But I did this time. Mostly to make sure I wasn’t jumping in with any rash prayers. But I just had it on my heart to pray that God would be at work here in Oxford. Through this ministry. Through other ways we weren’t aware of. That we would be diligent to love others, and even put together events that might help us share Him with others, but that, more so, we would be confident in His work in the hearts of those students here at Oxford. And that we would give Him the glory for any changed lives. That it would be more about what He was doing here, than what any of us were doing here. Than any creative ideas we came up with.

So I did. I prayed for all of that. I’m not sure how cutting it came across. I hope not very. But I felt better after saying it.

Tuesday: Waking up to Snow

We woke up to snow Tuesday morning, which was quite exciting. Peeking out of our second-story window to take in the snow-covered scene.

Jen had said the night before the snow was supposed to be coming. She was right.

Jen’s really missed her calling. She should’ve been a weather reporter. I’ve never met someone so in-tune with the weather. Someone who always seems to know what the weather’s going to do. I always tell her that’s her spiritual gift. She just rolls her eyes.

I rode off to the gym on my bike, hoping not to fall flat on my face in the snow and ice. I passed Jane and Felix on their way to school. And I tried extra hard not to fall.

An Interview with A Lewis Expert

I returned home from the gym that morning to find an e-mail waiting for me from my cousin in Indiana. Tracy. He’s a producer for a Christian radio station, and he was writing to tell me about an interview he had scheduled for the next day. It was with an expert on C.S. Lewis from Oxford, a guy by the name of Michael Ward. Tracy told me that Michael has written several books on Lewis, that he was a warden at the Kilns for several years, and that he even appeared in the Lewis biography Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins. And apparently it had made Tracy think of me, so he wanted to tell me about it.

I had to laugh after reading the e-mail. I replied, to tell him we know Michael. Jen and I have had several meals with him since arriving here, with a small group from the Oxford Lewis Society. And we’d be seeing him that evening at the Lewis Society’s Christmas party at the Kilns.

I told Tracy I’d tell Michael to prepare for the interview of his life. Tracy asked me if I could get him an interview with the Queen.

End of Term Interviews

We had our end-of-term interviews at Harris Manchester this week. To find out how we are doing. And to make sure to address any issues before the next term rolls around.

I met with the Senior Tutor, Lesley Smith (basically the director of academics) and the Vice Principal Tuesday evening. I really didn’t know what to expect, other than a brief meeting, as I knew they were meeting with about 150 students over only three days.

We met in the Principal’s office. Which always sounds bad, but it ended up being a great meeting. Lesley smiled at me as she read my tutor’s reports. She said everyone was very happy with my work. She said they reported that I was “keenly engaged in the classroom,” and that I had the “mental tools” for the coursework. She told me she thought I was doing very well. I told her I was happy to hear that.

It’s a rather odd feeling, dreaming of studying at a place like this for so long, and then suddenly finding yourself propped up in the middle of a room, with the administrators telling you they’re happy with your work. It’s rather like finding yourself in the middle of a dream, where you can’t quite remember the details surrounding how you got there in the first place.

Lesley asked me how I was feeling about the studies, at this point. I told her it had been a pretty difficult transition, coming from working and not having had to study for several years. But that I was really enjoying it now. She smiled and nodded.

The Vice Principal, who I hadn’t met before, asked what I did before coming to Oxford. I told him I worked in Public Relations for four years. He told me they’d keep that in mind in case they needed any PR help. I told him to do that. And to let me know if they wanted to work out a trade. They laughed. Which I think might mean they took that as a joke.

I smiled as I found my way down the staircase and toward the library to wrap up my last essay of the term. Encouraged by their response to my efforts, encouraged to know that, at the end of my first term, Oxford was happy with my work.

A Christmas Party at Lewis’ Home

I met up with Jen for thai food after submitting my final essay of the term. Before heading to the Kilns for a Christmas party. It was a place we had been wanting to try but hadn’t had a chance yet. Across the street from Christ Church. Walking in, it looked very much like a pub. Which made me wonder whether their thai food would actually taste like thai food, or if it’d be served with a side of chips.

But the food was great. I told Jen about my meeting over dinner. She was so happy for me. She looked beautiful. And I told her that. It was so nice to stop from the frantic pace long enough to enjoy a nice meal away from home. And a real conversation.

We caught the bus to Lewis’ old home after dinner, and we were there 15 minutes later. Stepping off the bus into the snow-crusted grass. Making our way down the lane that leads up to the Kilns. Looking at the Christmas lights on the homes and through the windows as we went. It all felt very much like Christmas.

Walter arrived shortly after we did. It was great to see him again. He sat with Jennifer and I, beside the row of books and the fireplace. And we caught up on all we’ve seen and done since he had us over last.

I told Walter we bought ourselves a couple packs of digestive biscuits after he had introduced us to them over tea, and that we were going through those quickly. He appreciated hearing that, I think. He’s a big fan of digestive biscuits. And tea. We told him about going to Blenheim Palace. And Bath. He smiled, and asked questions about each place as we spoke.

Walter’s an amazing guy to talk to. He’s the kind of guy who will be telling a story and, inconsequentially, will mention the time he visited Tolkein in the hospital, and finding him reading a detective novel… It’s still very unreal for me to sit with a man who was friends with such incredible people. And who has all these memories of them, still.

Walter asked what I would be reading over the break. I told him it’d likely be a lot of studying Greek, actually. He asked what I liked to cook. Walter likes to talk about cooking. And his running joke is that Jen only cooks mashed potatoes. Unseasoned mashed potatoes. I’m still a little unclear about how that all came about. But he loves that joke.

The night included a tour around the house. We split up into three groups of about 10 people each. Michael Ward led one group. Cole led another. And Deb (who’s the current warden at the Kilns) led the third tour. Along with Walter, to share old stories. We were in Deb and Walter’s group. It was great, because we got to hear firsthand a lot of these great stories. About Lewis. And others.

Walter told us about the cat that lived at the Kilns. Tom. And how he got so old that his teeth fell out. At one point the maid asked for Lewis’ permission to have Tom put down. Lewis responded, “Of course not. He’s a pensioner.” Laughter filled the room. Walter told us that, from then on, Lewis requested that Tom be fed fresh fish. Three times a day. De-boned, in light of Tom’s lack of teeth.

Walter told us about a time he and Lewis were leaving the house to go for a walk. And they passed Tom as they went. Lewis tipped his hat to Tom as they walked, Walter told us, before whispering to Walter, “He’s a pensioner.”

We toured around the rest of the house and coming to the dining room (“decorated to match Joy’s tastes”), Deb told us a story about Joy. Joy was Lewis’ wife. And, from what I hear, she was a fiery woman. Deb told us about a time Lewis and Joy were on a walk, in the eight acres behind their home. Around the pond. When they came across an archer, who was on their property. Hunting. Without permission. And how Lewis kindly asked him to leave, to which re responded by pointing his arrow directly at them. She told us Lewis quickly stepped in front of Joy at this point, like any gentleman would, and how Joy responded by saying, “Damnit Jack, you’re in my line of fire!” Everyone in the group laughed. I turned to Jen and told her that reminded me of her. She smiled. And nodded. Except she’d say, “You’re in my line of fire, bonehead!”

We finished the tour with Deb’s favorite story. A story Walter tells about the time he first arrived at the Kilns. About the time he first met Lewis, after sharing letters for nine years.

Apparently Walter arrived at the Kilns around tea time, as he said Lewis and he talked over about three pot’s worth of tea. After which he grew increasingly uncomfortable, and found himself in need of a restroom. After waiting as long as he could, he asked Lewis to excuse him, and if he could show him where the “bathroom” was.

“Of course,” Lewis replied.

Walter told us Lewis took him down the hallway from the common room, pulled out a stack of towels and soap from a closet, handed them to Walter and then opened up a door leading into the bathroom.

Walter looked around the room to find just that, a bathtub. And a sink. But no toilet.

After several minutes of wondering what to do, he made his way back out to the common room to explain the misunderstanding to Lewis. Or “Jack,” as Walter refers to him as.

Apparently Lewis responded by saying, “All right, well perhaps we should start over. Where would you like to be taken, then? That’ll cure you of those senseless American euphemisms!”

Everyone laughed. Deb handed Walter a stack of towels and soap, so she could take a photo.

Walter told us Lewis knew where he wanted to go, and he had done that on purpose. He told us Lewis was quite particular about words. He and Tolkein were both that way, he told us.

After several hours, Jennifer and I decided to make our way to the bus stop, and back home. We thanked Deb for the party. We told Michael “goodbye,” and said “goodbye” and “thanks” to Cole, and then I found Walter, to tell him “goodbye.”

He was surrounded by a group of students, in front of the fireplace. He was telling a story, and everyone was listening attentively. I hated to interrupt, but we needed to be going if we were going to catch our bus.

I apologized for the interruption as I stepped up to Walter, to let him know we were leaving. He stopped his story without a look of frustration and told me it was so nice to see us again, and that he’d write me later in the week to invite us over for supper at his home before Christmas. I told him we’d like that very much, and we made our way out of the Kilns. Away from the warm home into the cold night air. Through the snow, down the lane, lined with homes lit up by Christmas lights, and toward the bus that would bring us home. It had been a wonderful day.

I had lunch with John today. He caught up with me after Greek class yesterday and suggested we grab lunch. He’s doing the same thing I am. Theology BA in two years. He’s married. Both returning to school. So we have a lot in common, there.

He’s a couple years older than I am, I think, and a really nice guy. He taught school before. High school. And I think he did some IT as well. The Theology studies are his foot into the ministry.

Lunch at Wycliffe Hall

John is a member of Wycliffe Hall. Different college than me, but it’s actually closer to where I live.

Wycliffe focuses solely on Theology, and it’s generally for folks preparing for the ministry. They have a lot of great speakers who visit. I’m looking forward to hearing a few.

John met me at the front door when I arrived. He’s a tall guy. Taller than me. Probably 6’4″ or so. With floppy brown hair and a big grin. He was wearing a hawaiian shirt when he greeted me. No one wears hawaiian shirts in England. But John does.

We made our way to the dining hall and he asked how my studies were going. I told him I just submitted my Gospels & Jesus paper the day before. I told him it’s going to be interesting. And that the reading is definitely going to challenge my faith.

“Oh yeah?” he asked. Seeming somewhat surprised.

“Yeah, I mean, there’s definitely some things that fly in the face of what I believe.”

“Like what?” he asked.

I told him about one of the books I read. The Messianic Secret. The book was published by a German guy (Wrede) in the early 1900’s. From what I’m told, he was one of the first to come out and say, “Yeah, we’re probably not going to be able to trust this stuff, guys.” Biblical Criticism is what it’s called, I believe.

I told John how he basically posed that Jesus didn’t actually suggest he was the messiah, and that this all came up after the fact. That it was written in, so to speak.

“Ahhh, yes. That one.” John said.

We came to the food line and conversation quickly changed subject. Today’s lunch was a meat pie, with a side of vegetables. It was all right, but it’s not quite Harris Manchester.

John introduced me to some of the other guys at the table. They asked about my transition to England. About when my wife was going to arrive. About Harris Manchester. About whether I’ve been to any churches since arriving.

Apparently St. Andrew’s (where I attended this past Sunday) is John’s home church.

“For the past six years,” he told me. “But of course I wasn’t there Sunday,” he said with a smile.

Before wrapping up with lunch, John made sure I paid a trip to the yogurt bar. He said I’d be missing out if I didn’t. Yogurt is served at room temperature here in England, by the way. Just a heads-up.

He spoke like a car salesman, showing me all the options.

“First you have your fruit sauce,” he said, pointing at the bowls of various colors. Green. Red. And Orange. (He had to help me out with this one, as I’m colorblind).

“Much like a stop light,” he said after describing the different sauces.

“But that’s not all. You also have an assortment of slightly crunchy, meusli-like toppings to choose from,” he said with a smile. You could tell he was pretty proud of this treat. That or he was playing it up. He might’ve been playing it up.

“After 14 days straight, it becomes quite cathartic,” he explained.

“Ah… Well, I wouldn’t want you to get the shakes,” I said.

We sat back down at the table and he helped me with the layout of town. Explaining where he lived. Where some of the other roads led. He’s actually from just south of Oxford, so he and his wife didn’t have to move when he returned to school. He was pretty happy about that.

His wife is a teacher as well. They’re both teachers. He said he might be able to help find Jen something when she arrived. Or at least point us in the right direction.

Pushing his empty yogurt bowl aside, he then changed the topic rather quickly.

“Well, I think we’re going to have quite the challenge ahead of us with this BA, Ryan.” he said. His voice was more serious now.

“But there’s no reason if we’re praying for each other, and if we’re talking through what we’re learning, that we can’t come out of this with our faith even more stronger than it was. And not so that we can puff out our chests and all, but so that we can glorify God.”

I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear those words. That’s what I was hoping for all along. Before arriving here. But then you start getting scholars throwing stuff at you in your reading (as I knew they would), and I knew how important prayer and Biblical community would be.

John asked if he could pray for me. I told him I’d like that very much.

“Why don’t we make this a regular thing, what do you say?” he asked after wrapping up his prayer. We’re going to meet every Tuesday for lunch. And I am so glad.

My First Tutorial – I go to class in a castle

I stopped into a place called Orange after leaving Wycliffe. They sell cell phones and sim cards. A friend from back home, Katie VanKooten, had given me a cell phone she previously used here in England, and I thought I’d buy a pay-as-you-go sim card in case Jane or anyone else needed to be in contact with me. I really don’t plan to use it all that much.

I had my first tutorial today. Tutorials are basically what Oxford calls your standard classes. They’re very small, discussion-based format. As in two people in a class. Me and one other person. They’re what Oxford is famous for offering.

Today’s tutorial was for my Gospels & Jesus course, and it was at Mansfield College. Another beautiful, castle-like building.

Our tutorial was in Dave Lincicum’s office. He’s the guy I ran into at church on Sunday, and he’s filling in for another professor who is currently on Sabbatical. It was an amazing office, too. Book shelves from floor to ceiling on every wall. Only to be interrupted by an old, antique desk. It used to be the desk of some famous New Testament scholar, but I couldn’t tell you his name. It was pretty ornate, though, and it had the carvings of various saints all over it. They were kind of creepy, actually, but the desk itself was pretty impressive.

The room was quite large, compared to what I’ve seen so far. Room enough for two, actually three full couches. The stone walls had windows that looked out over the courtyard, and we could actually hear a student singing Kelly Clarkson as we wrapped up class. I laughed out loud.

The class itself was great, though. We each were asked to go over our essay (main points) and then he’d ask us several questions about the texts we were posed with as well as our essays. I ate it up. I was so engaged and interested I actually found myself having to hold back so I didn’t consume the conversation.

Dave would ask a question in a very calm, almost warm voice, and then leave us to respond. He’d get talking about a certain point and then have to stop himself and apologize for lecturing. We didn’t mind, of course. We wanted to hear what he had to say, but apparently the point of the tutorial is for us to discuss.

I hadn’t met the other student in my class before today. She’s a member of a different college. Sarah. She’s from the southern tip of England. And I don’t mean any disrespect by this, but she kind of looks like she walked into a thrift store and blindly picked out her outfit. I know, I know, it sounds horrible, but I thought it was rad. An old red sweater, a blue and white pinstriped blouse and black tights with boots. She probably thought I looked boring. And American. Which I did, next to her. Like a vanilla ice cream cone next to a banana split. With sprinkles.

The tutorial was only an hour long, and it flew by. Before I knew it, we were talking about our reading for next week and were being ushered out the door with a smile.

Walking over the pebbled footpath leading from Mansfield College, I looked back over my shoulder to take it all in.

The massive, centuries-old stone building. The intricate carvings. The green lawn. And I thought to myself, “how cool is it that I actually get to go to class here? I go to class in a castle.”

The Alternative Turk

It was only 5:00 when I left class, but I was hungry. I knew I needed to get some studying done, so I thought I’d get something to go. I decided to stop into a little corner cafe that had been recommended to me. Just down the street from Harris Manchester.

I thought it was called the Little Tux. Apparently I was wrong.

I had seen several people walking around campus with these amazing looking paninis, and I was happy to realize this is the place to get them. For only£2.95, too (you say that “two pound 95,” by the way). I was pretty excited. The shop was very small. And crowded, which I figured was a good sign.

There was a sign hanging on the wall for a Halloween haunted castle tour here in Oxford. I thought it’d be fun to take Jen to that when she arrives.

The shop had an amazing display of treats. Muffins. Cupcakes. Baklava. I plan to go back for the maple pecan pie. It looked incredible.

As did this.

I went with the chicken pesto panini. The bread was fresh-out-of-the-oven hot and crispy, and the mozzarella mixed in perfectly with the chunks of chicken and smeared pesto. I’m definitely going to become a regular of the Turk Shop. In fact, I could go for another chicken pesto panini right about now…

I made my way to the Bodleian to get a bit of studying in before the CS Lewis Society’s talk that would be later tonight. I found another line of film trucks parked outside the Bodleian today.

I’m not sure what they were filming, but I would assume they were wrapping up the Inspector Lewis shoot that was going on yesterday. When I passed by.

I was finishing up my sandwich and walking to the Radcliffe Camera (the Theology section of the Bodleian) when I saw this view and thought, “man, this place really is amazing.” I had to snap a picture so you could see.

A guy was walking by as I did carrying a camera. I figured he probably wouldn’t mind if I asked him to snap a photo of me (since my sister had been asking for more photos of me).

I realized right away my eyes were probably closed, but I wasn’t about to ask for another one.

The Oxford CS Lewis Society

After a couple hours of studying I made my way out of the Radcliffe Camera and headed toward St. Aldate’s Street for the Oxford CS Lewis Society’s talk.

The film crew had apparently been hard at work while I was studying, as they were all setup and shooting by the time I walked by.

The Lewis Society’s talks are held at a place just two doors down from the Eagle & Child. By no coincidence, I am sure. It was in a smallish room on the second floor. One long dining room table sat beside the windows on one side, which cleared up the rest of the space for chairs. There was a piano in the front of the room, which made me think religious services of some sort might be held here.

Tonight’s speaker was a guy from Wheaton College in Illinois. Chris Mitchell. Apparently he oversees the largest collection of Lewis literature in the world, which is housed at the college. So he knows his stuff, when it comes to Lewis.

He spoke on the topic of Lewis and his impact on historical evangelism. He talked about how Lewis’ influence has touched the lives of people from many different denominations and backgrounds. And how many of his fans would often get squeamish at his personal life, as it didn’t line up with their own beliefs. (He smoked, drank and carried on).

Chris talked about how Lewis’ real focus was on mere christianity. On faith for the public, not for the academic. And how, because of that, he was able to reach a very large audience.

“Lewis was a real lover of souls,” Chris said. I liked that.

He talked about how, on top of his academic responsibilities, Lewis traveled and spoke. How he spoke at groups that met at Oxford on a weekly basis, including The Socratic Club. And how he would respond to letters from thousands of people who wrote him with questions about their faith. This was not a guy who took lightly his call to use what he had to help others with their faith.

After Chris had finished his talk, one of the people in the room asked about Lewis’ thoughts on Reformed Theology versus Evangelism. And this is when another man spoke up. A man by the name of Walter Hooper. A man who knew Lewis personally.

He is an older man. He wore a tweed jacket with a v-neck sweater that disclosed a dress shirt and tie underneath. Apparently Hooper was Lewis’ personal secretary while he was in declining health. He is now an advisor of Lewis’ literary estate.

“I remember standing just down the street from here, on Cornmarket Street,” Hooper spoke up, in his soft voice. Cornmarket is a street I walk to get to class.

“And I remember Lewis saying, ‘Imagine a space ship landing right here before us and a group of Martians walking out and greeting us. Imagine they say to us, we only have a few minutes before we have to return to Mars, so please don’t mind our frightful appearance. We hear you have some Good News. We would very much like to hear this before returning home. Can you tell us about it?’ “And you know what would happen, don’t you? Surely someone would speak up and say, ‘Well yes, this church over here, they have liturgy, but the other church in town does not. And that church over there, they have candles, but the first church I told you about, they do not…’ And what would happen? Well the Martians would return home having not heard the Good News.”

The point of all this, Hooper explained, is that Lewis believed we are for more concerned with church format or demoninational differences than we should be. Than we are about the real matter before us. That of sharing the beauty of the Good News with others.

I smiled a lot tonight.

I caught up with Cole afterward. He’s the Vice President of the group. I told him it was amazing. I told him I’d love to meet Mr. Hooper at some point. So he introduced me.

“He’s such a nice guy,” he assured me.

And he really is.

I explained to Mr. Hooper how I had only just arrived a week ago, and that Lewis is the reason I am here.

“How wonderful,” he said with that soft-spoken voice and smile.

Cole mentioned a class of his in which the professor asked if he enjoyed Lewis’ works. Naturally, they had a lot to talk about after that. But then he mentioned that there are plenty of Theology professors here who actually hate Lewis. Likely for wearing his faith on his sleeve as he did, and not keeping it separate from his academics.

“That’s terrible,” Hooper said with a look of disgust. “If you ever find yourself in that position, just walk out. You’ll still have me.” I liked this guy.

We talked a bit more, and he took out a small notebook from his jacket pocket as we did. He wrote my name on a page and slid it back into his coat pocket. Hooper asked me where I was living. I told him. He told me he lives not far from there, and that I’d have to come over for tea.

“I’d like that a lot,” I said.

An e-mail from my Dad

I got an e-mail from my Dad today. He reminded me that I am living out my dream. Right now. By going to Oxford. To study Theology. He reminded me this is something not many people can say of themselves.

I never thought it’d actually happen, but here I am. It was a good reminder for me.

I’ve said it at hands&feet previously, but this has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Leaving a great job. A job I enjoyed, and one that provided very well for us. I am now unemployed for the first time since, well, since high school. And I have no idea what my next job will be.

Packing up and saying goodbye to some of the most amazing friends and family anyone could ask for. . .and then having to adjust to life abroad without my wife at my side.

I’d have a hard time putting into words how difficult this has been, actually. Constantly questioning myself. And what I was doing here.

I’m not here because I thought this was the most sensical step to take at this point in our lives. But I took this step because I believed my life would be put to better use, in the long-run, having had made this change. That this experience would allow me to step out in ways I would not have been able to before, to help others see and experience and know and believe and trust in the Good News. That I might have the opportunity to experience the blessing of changed lives first-hand. For, the real beauty of the Good News, the real beauty of the Gospel, is its power to change lives.

The point of all of this is that I might use the gifts God has given me to help with that purpose.

I’m looking forward to being able to look back on this road and say, “see there. See what God was doing at that point? And there, too, at that point. Even when I had no idea, he was doing something incredible.”

It’s difficult now, because we can’t always see the road before us. But we go forward knowing He is good and that He is, daily, directing our paths.

I’m just happy to be along for the ride.

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