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March 28, 2011

Time Well Spent

Spending even a single day in Oxford, walking the streets and examining the buildings, one can scarcely avoid an almost overwhelming impression of its long history. Nearly every inch of the city is full of history, as well as reminders of the long line of great Christians that have lived here. Even without leaving the major streets and sights, one can see buildings nearly a thousand years old, and churches where John Wesley and C.S. Lewis preached, a house where Robert Boyle, the father of chemistry, used to live and experiment, the university where William Tyndale once studied, the cross in the road that marks where the Oxford Martyrs were burned at the stake after refusing to compromise their faith to a royal decree.

It is easy to lose yourself in the heady atmosphere of the world’s leading university, with its dozens of colleges and libraries, including the famous Bodleian, with its millions of books. Perhaps more moving than the books and colleges is the feeling that we share space with so much history. We have literally walked where great men have gone before us. Like so many others, we have visited the famous Eagle and Child pub, where Lewis and the other Inklings met, and where Narnia and Middle Earth were read aloud. We have even walked the famous path where Lewis heard the gospel during a late-night conversation with Tolkien. One needs only a hint of sensitivity or imagination to appreciate the beauty and history of Oxford. To live and study here is an opportunity and blessing hard to describe and impossible to reproduce.

But amid all the wonders of Oxford lie the unpleasant realities as well. Ancient buildings have become clothing shops and cell phone stores, less concerned with history than with selling the latest technology. The beautiful Eagle and Child has a small sign about the Inklings near the back, but sells condoms from the restroom. Many of the beautiful churches sit mostly empty when not frequented by tourists, or have drifted into a religion that says little of the gospel, less about Jesus Christ, and calls no one a sinner except the intolerant or wealthy. The most active missionaries and evangelists in Oxford are often Muslims rather than Christians.

Work remains to be done, more so now than ever. Monuments to great intellects and heroes of the faith, both ancient and recent, surround us, but those men are gone. They have left their task to the generations who follow. If we rely always on the accomplishments of past generations, we have missed our calling. Renewal must come with every generation, and in every part of life. We cannot afford only to celebrate what Lewis wrote 50 years ago, or what Christians like Wesley or Wilberforce (alas, a Cambridge man) did 150 years ago. Christ is the lord of all things, times, and places. We are called to serve him in different fields, but in every field we should proclaim the gospel. We need more academics and writers like Lewis, new pastors like Wesley, politicians like Wilberforce, scientists like Boyle, Christians in every walk of life to declare Christ as lord and advance his kingdom.

That is why we are here; not just we happy few in Oxford, but every Christian in this world. The world of academics, of science and letters, is no holier a calling than any other, nor is it lower. Christians have neglected it for a long time, however, and we are paying the price with secular schools and universities, and with the reputation Christians have as ignorant. If we want to reverse these trends and undo our reputation, we need to become faithful and thoughtful leaders in every field of human endeavor.

We no longer live in the age of the Inklings, any more than in the age of Tyndale or Wesley. Oxford shows us a glimpse of the world that is coming: a world divided between the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and the growing influence of Islam. Neither of these worldviews can explain life, nor give hope to a dying world. The world is not safe, as we are learning from the economic crises, the continually growing violence in the Middle East, and the new wave of disasters that have struck Japan. We need a Church that can take this world seriously, and a faith that is strong and deeply-rooted, to stand in the face of tragedy, persecution, and change.

Even if we fail, Christ still stands, and the gospel will go forward with or without us. God does not need us to do his work. Nevertheless, he has given us work to do, and it is our responsibility, by his grace, to carry it out. For some of us, that means coming to Oxford for a season, preparing ourselves for what is next. We don’t yet know what that will be for each of us, but we pray to carry it out faithfully for God’s glory and Christ’s kingdom. Will anyone build a monument to us, celebrating our accomplishments, as others have for those great men that once walked here? No, probably not. But if this time in Oxford helps us love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strength, to serve him faithfully wherever he calls us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, it will be time well spent.

Stephen Sutherland
Summit Oxford Fellow (Hilary 2011)

Learn more about Summit Oxford here.

This post has earned 5 Comments so far.

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  • March 31, 2011 // 03:37 pm //  # 
    Jody Byrkett's avatar Jody Byrkett

    Excellent piece of writing, reflection, and admonition, Stephen. Thank you.
    ~ Jody

  • April 01, 2011 // 03:36 pm //  # 
    Jennifer Winters's avatar Jennifer Winters


    I stumbled on this post, began to read it, and thought, “Who is this? This is so good.” Your writing is powerful and full of conviction.
    It brought tears to my eyes. (And I am not a sappy person).
    Thanks, I am going to share this with my family and my church as well.


  • July 26, 2012 // 12:05 am //  # 
    pizzarias's avatar pizzarias

    Wow! very nice article for time well spent. I like this article. Thank you!

  • February 10, 2013 // 09:26 am //  # 
    Nick Jr's avatar Nick Jr

    I’m hoping that Google will have a street view type of walkthrough of Oxford. I doubt I’ll see it otherwise. Google has been adding various landmarks so hopefully Oxford is one of the upcoming projects.

  • December 03, 2013 // 08:19 am //  # 
    donna sullivan's avatar donna sullivan

    Stephen - I was hopeful that we (as participants in Summit Oxford) might get the addresses of the other participants, at least their emails. I would so like to communicate with them. We spoke of this befoe we left. Must go back and read your article, skimmed to get a way to communicate with you.

    Donna Sullivan, 180 Aqueduct Rd. #2, Washington Crossing, Pa. 18977   .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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