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Work Adventures (1): Crossing the Divide

Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

A new blog series: work adventures

In September 1986 I left my 15-year job as a Bradford schoolteacher to return to university. In September 1989 I started a new job as a lecturer at Leeds University. This was much more than a job change; I was radically rethinking my calling as a Christian, which led to both remarkable adventures for me and my family and wonderful provisions from God.

This is the first of a series of posts in which I tell my story, which I hope will be an encouragement to many others.

Being “full-time”

I became a Christian in December 1967, in my first term at university. From early on, I wanted to be wholehearted in following Jesus. It seemed this meant being “full-time” as a church leader or missionary. No-one ever taught this, but it felt like an unspoken assumption. Many of my Christian contemporaries at university, maybe over 50%, did follow that path.

I already felt stirred to serve God in China, but at that time it was impossible to go there. In any case, I knew I wasn’t yet ready for the challenges that would bring. I shared these thoughts with a Careers Adviser, who suggested I should become a schoolteacher. Since that would make use of my mathematical knowledge and would be people-centred, it seemed a sensible decision, though I didn’t really think seriously about its implications or challenges. I trained as a teacher and got my first job teaching mathematics in a Bradford high school, in 1971. Sadly, I had no real sense of calling to become a teacher and my commitment to the work was shallow. I saw it as a temporary stage before my “real” work.

Focus on the church

At first, I really struggled with my teaching, but hung in and slowly improved. I was promoted three times, finally becoming the Head of the Computing Department in 1980, but my heart was still not fully in it, and I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable.

During the same period, I found myself part of the “charismatic renewal”. The church landscape was being dramatically reshaped; many people, including myself, felt that God was doing something new and significant. My attention was now focused on my local church, where I started to take on leadership roles. Subconsciously, I still believed that I needed to be “full-time”, but my ambition changed from mission in China to being an elder and full-time church leader. When I married Lesley in 1976, we were focused on serving our local church; China was not even mentioned.

By late 1980 I was part of a church plant in Leeds, which grew rapidly. As part of the leadership team, I was being trained for eldership. This was the centre of my ambition, with a much higher emotional priority than my work as a schoolteacher. Then, in September 1984, my world came tumbling down.

Necessary pain

One evening, our senior church leader told me that he didn’t see me as a potential elder, ever, and that I should be content with my role as a deacon.

I believed then, as I still do, that church leaders should be respected. I accepted his words and had immediate peace, but later, like the apostle John in Revelation 10, I found that what was sweet in my mouth became bitter in my stomach. This verdict challenged and undermined the whole assumption behind being a schoolteacher and crushed my ambition of full-time church leadership. Emotional turmoil followed. I even wanted to run away – I dragged Lesley and our three young sons on a dismal tour of a nearby city, hoping that God would call us to join a church plant there! Happily, common sense returned, but not peace.

New vision emerges

During the next few months, I slowly processed the end of my misplaced ambitions. A vital key was realising that God’s kingdom was not limited to serving in the church. On the contrary, there was a whole world out there needing God’s love and grace, in which his children were the seeds of his kingdom. My work could be part of that. Everything done in the name of the Lord is pleasing to him, however insignificant it may seem to be, not just certain kinds of service.

Unwittingly, during the previous years I had fallen into a “sacred-secular divide”, believing that some activities (such as church) were more holy or significant than everyday matters such as “secular” work. Therefore, pastors and missionaries were more important in God’s sight than schoolteachers, shop assistants or taxi drivers. I doubt if anyone really teaches this, but it seems that many Christians act as if it is true, and certainly I did at a deep subconscious level. Seeing through this heresy was the beginning of my liberation. I had “crossed the divide”, even though I don’t know where it would lead.

One special moment remains in my memory, when I watched the biographical film Chariots of Fire. Eric Liddell, though planning to become a missionary in China, spent part of his life training for the 1924 Olympic Games where he won a gold medal. In the film (though apparently not in real life), his sister chides him with not focusing on serving God. His response is famous: “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure in me.” I realised that if he had been in my house group, I would have advised him just like his sister! Yet it was his commitment to running that brought his testimony to thousands, if not millions, of people around the world. He was using the gifts God had given him.

A decision

This was probably the last link in the chain. I accepted that I didn’t really want to continue school-teaching, which didn’t make the best use of my abilities. I was developing a whole new kingdom-focused vision, but to go with this I had to make better use of my gifts. By Easter 1985, having “crossed the divide”, I concluded that I needed to find different work.

Though Lesley fully supported this, we faced a practical dilemma. The kinds of work I thought I could do well were best suited to new university graduates, preferably without the responsibilities of a family. Aged 36, married with three children, and with Lesley focused on the home, finding more suitable work seemed an impossible challenge. I couldn’t even think where to start!

In the rest of these posts, I’ll tell the story of how God opened many doors and made a way for us, a way which ultimately fulfilled my early ambition to serve him in China.

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