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Work Adventures (3): In the way

As for me, the Lord has led me in the way. (Genesis 24:27)

In the way

This series of posts tells the story of a life-changing period in the 1980s when I moved from being a schoolteacher to lecturing at university.

I ended the last post in October 1986. At age 37, leaving my 15-year job in school-teaching, I started a full-time Masters course in Computer Science at Manchester University. Now I’ll tell how the Lord led me step by step by step in the way, to a long-term job as a lecturer at Leeds University.

A fresh start

Going back to university was a new beginning. It felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders and there was an open door to the future.

Having largely wasted my study time as an undergraduate, I now found I had a new motivation, not just because I was inspired by a vision of God’s kingdom in my work but also because Lesley and my three young sons needed my success. As a result, I found a fresh diligence for my work that I hadn’t known before.

I enjoyed studying and starting to develop my skills. My fellow students were almost entirely new graduates in their early 20s. This wasn’t a problem, but one of my young teachers was! When I submitted my first, rather mediocre, lab report, he not only marked it down but indulged his sarcasm in his comments. When I got over the “how dare he!” feeling, I had to admit the truth in what he said, which forced me to dig deeper. Growth usually involves some pain!

Lifestyle adjustments

My lifestyle changed a lot. The daily return car journey to Manchester from Leeds meant leaving home around 7 am and getting back about 7:15 pm, Monday to Friday. This became a bit easier (for me, not for Lesley!) when I started staying overnight at my brother’s home on the edge of Manchester two nights each week.

This schedule made it harder to fit in regular Bible reading, which is difficult enough anyway with normal family, work and church life. However, it was so important that I had to find a way. Before the course started, I recorded some long sections of the Bible on cassettes (these were days before mobile phones!) and played them on the journeys. It was enough to keep me going.

Before this, church activities had been the focus of my life outside work and family. Now there was almost no time outside work and family! I had already laid down all my specific church responsibilities, and now for almost a year I seldom went to midweek small groups. Going to the Sunday meeting together as a family was still a high priority; following Jesus means being part of the church, and we need to find ways to keep that connection alive. An enlarged vision of the kingdom did not mean that the church no longer mattered! On the contrary, our ability to represent Jesus in the world depends on remaining rooted in his body.

I’ve talked about all this primarily from my own point of view, but of course Lesley was affected as much as I was. Standing with me in this adventure involved great sacrifice on her part, less time from me and no car for her during the week. In due course she had her own rewards, but at this point it was mainly sacrificial commitment. Even when she is not directly mentioned, none of this would have happened without her unwavering, faithful support. She has her own stories to tell, but I leave that to her in her own way.

No new job!

I wanted to find technical computing work after my course – that was the way to build on the skills I was developing. Early in 1987, I sent my CV out to many companies. Mostly there was no reply.   A few said, “thanks but no thanks”. One offered me, without interview, a part-time job as a computer programmer, to start immediately – no thanks! One job interview turned out to be for teaching basic database skills to young people – definitely no thanks!

I had an interview with a major consultancy in Leeds. They said they were very interested in me, but I was too old to come in at entry level; they suggested I get some experience and re-apply. Encouraging, but no practical use. And that was it. The rest was silence.

As Easter approached, there seemed no prospect of getting a suitable job, presumably because of my age. Of course, I could still go back to teaching, but that felt like a complete defeat after all that had happened.

The next step

Shortly before Easter I had an exam week, with exams every morning from Tuesday to Friday, so I went to spend the week at my brother’s house. On Monday I fasted, asking God to open a door. On the other days I did exams in the morning and spent the rest of the days resting, praying, walking, and doing some final light revision. Because of hard work throughout the course, the bulk of revision was done so I could relax, while my younger course-mates were panicking with last-minute cramming.

On Friday, while driving to the final exam, I had a moment of revelation while passing through Ashton-under-Lyne. I suddenly knew I should go to Leeds University to do a PhD, and I knew roughly what area to go for. This was quite unexpected; various people had suggested I should do a PhD but I had always refused. Now it was clear, and I had faith to go for it, even if it meant several more years as a student. To this day I believe that this was the Holy Spirit speaking to me. I was so excited that I could hardly concentrate during the exam, but it turned out to be my highest mark! Perhaps that was an extra confirmation of his leading.

Once again, Lesley was completely supportive, so I applied to the Computing Department at Leeds University. My hard work in Manchester paid off and I got the best marks on my course, which paved the way to be accepted for a PhD. The regular grant for a postgraduate student, adequate for one year in Manchester, was not enough going forward, so at the interview I said I would need an Industrial Scholarship to top it up. The panel agreed to try to get one and said that the Department would pay the equivalent if one couldn’t be found. So, both the next step and the money to support it were clear. I resigned my teaching job and started at Leeds University in October 1987 with yet another sense of God opening the door, to a future not yet known. This time, however, there was no long daily commute, and family life could find a new normal.

A surprising opportunity

About the time I started at Manchester I watched a TV programme about the world-leading Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I dreamed of going there, but soon dismissed it as unrealistic. However, I found that my new supervisor had been a Visiting Professor there and that his students could go too. After some delays, in October 1988 our family went to Pittsburgh for six months, while I worked at Carnegie Mellon. This whole experience was life-changing and faith-building, but there’s so much to tell that the details must go in another post!

True to their word, the Leeds Computing Department found me an industrial scholarship, but in summer 1988 the company fired my industrial supervisor and his boss. This meant my scholarship ended. Although my funding was unaffected, because the Department honoured its word to pay the equivalent, it meant that my PhD direction was thrown up in the air and I had to start again virtually from scratch. Happily, the time at Carnegie Mellon brought inspiration and a new direction which led to the final PhD.

A new job

Not long after I started my PhD, my supervisor was promoted to be a Professor. This was a new post, which had a lectureship attached to it, and he asked me to apply even though I was completely unqualified in research, an essential part of the job. However, he clearly felt that my teaching experience would benefit the Department.

This was another unexpected direction. Several people had asked me if I wanted to become a lecturer. I had always said no, because I wanted to be doing things myself rather than teaching. But as I thought about it, I realised that this job was tailor-made for me. It enabled me to continue in research, drew on my 15 years of teaching experience, and fitted well with family life, with just a single bus ride to work. Moreover, it would allow me to be working alongside young people at a formative stage of their life. After initial surprise, peace settled, so I applied.

There were four interview candidates for two positions. All the others were much more qualified than I, but I was offered one of the posts. Because I was due to go to Carnegie Mellon, the appointment was delayed for a year, till September 1989.

Into the future

When I finally started work at Leeds University. It was exactly five years since my pastor’s disturbing words had started me on the journey to pursue God’s calling. Those years were a time of great challenges, uncertainty, faith building and experience of God’s leading and provision. Now I had come to a safe landing place. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way.

I stayed at Leeds University for the rest of my working life in the UK, finally going to China in 2006, a God-given dream that was seeded in 1968. Work during these years was not as dramatic as the five years I have written about. This is not surprising, since much of daily life is ordinary, sometimes dull. As Woody Allen supposedly said, “Showing up is 80% of life”. However, the time at Leeds University was rewarding, and prepared the way for what God had for us in China.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

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