Monday, August 8, 2016

My First Twenty-Four Jobs



'So what do you want to be when you grow up?'

I remember being asked that so many times.  And the answers I heard from myself and from others were usually rather standard:  'I want to be a doctor!'  I want to be a teacher!'  'I want to be an astronaut!'  'I want design software and become a zillionaire!'  Well, maybe not in the 1960s.

The expectation behind such a question was that one would grow up and have a career.  Which means one would get hired and work at the same place until one retired.  Or one would train for a profession and then go and do that profession until one retired.  So one could legitimately say, 'I am a doctor', or 'I am a national park ranger', or 'I am a librarian' or 'I am Marlin Perkin's sidekick Jim and will be shooting scenes of Wild Kingdom until one or the both of us can't chase lions anymore.'

There are still many people who find themselves doing what they were originally hired to do, or doing what they were trained to do in college.  But more and more, there are people like me.  I just compiled a list of all the jobs I've had.  I is sobering to think that people have actually paid me money to do these things.  Here it is, more or less in order:

Bag boy and Stock boy at Grocery Store (A&P in Anderson, SC)
Encyclopedia Salesperson (World Book (!) in Anderson, SC)
Printshop delivery truck driver (Campus printshop, Duke University)
Offset Press operator (Curry Copy Centre, Hilton Head Island, SC)
Math-Physics night shift librarian (Duke University)
Motel Maid (Aspen, CO)
Bookstore clerk (Chapel Hill, NC)
Campus Minister (Chapel Hill, NC and Williamsburg, VA)
House Cleaner (Ipswich, MA)
House Painter (North Shore area, MA)
Gardener and Lawn care guy (North Shore area, MA)
Handyman (North Shore area, MA)
Presbyterian Minister (Pilot Mountain, NC; Reading, PA)
Cambridge Summer School of Theology Administrator (Cambridge, UK)
Missionary (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Nairobi, Kenya)
College and post-graduate lecturer (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
Megachurch Pastor (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
Graduate School Lecturer (Nairobi, Kenya)
College and Post grad lecturer (Limuru and Nairobi, Kenya)
Receptionist (YMCA, Crozet, VA)
Front Desk Manager (YMCA, Crozet, VA)
Gardener (Waynesboro, VA)
College and Post grad Lecturer (Nairobi and Limuru, Kenya)
Personal Secretary (Nairobi, Kenya)

When people go off to college or head out to get a job, more often than not, they are thinking to themselves that they are training for their 'career move'.  That's what I thought when I left home and went off in search of a degree and qualifications and experience.  But a career track was not to be, for me at least.

Many others share my experience.  And it provides a fascinating window in how not just our economy has changed in 40 years, but how our society has changed as well.  And it's not something one can blame on the rigours of underclass life, or the lack of education or opportunity.  Many of us with a plurality of jobs are, if anything, over-educated.  So there I was, little more than a year ago, with a PhD from the University of Cambridge, sitting at the front desk of the local YMCA answering phones, wiping down machines and cleaning toilets.  It happens.

Just to say, much in our society is changing, in flux.  Nothing actually remains the same for long when you think about it.  The world that my grandparents, even my parents understood as their unchanging context simply does not exist anymore.

All of which raises the challenge, to me at least, that with the demise of career, what comes into sharper focus is vocation, or calling.  Or to put it differently, the job may change, but the vocation - the calling - remains the same.  It enables one to be just as comfortable preaching to 1600 people week after week as one is pulling weeds on a hot afternoon in a quiet corner of someone else's beautiful garden.  Satisfaction comes not from the position or the recognition or the perks, but from the doing.

I'm grateful for all my different jobs, and the opportunities I had to learn new skills and work with different people.  Ok, all of my jobs except one.  I loathed trying to sell encyclopaedias.  The only benefit I derived from that job (and a significant one, at that) is the realisation that I could never, ever be a salesperson.  Other people do it well.  Not me.  But all the other ones?  I'd do them all again in a heartbeat.  Even being a maid.  Especially if it meant I could live in Aspen again!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Final Exam


I've been teaching a course called Theology and Society to six MDiv students and tonight I am invigilating their final exam.  Darkness is falling over Nairobi where we are sitting in a small classroom in the high-rise building that functions as the downtown campus of my university.  We are situated directly across the street from the Memorial Garden, the site of the former United States Embassy that was blown up in 1998 by al-Qaeda in a massive truck bomb blast that killed more than 230 and injured more than 5000.  Tonight, as I watch my students write their essays, it's just the normal rush hour Nairobi traffic sounds that I hear through our open windows.

I had to construct this course from scratch.  The reading that I came across tended to be much too abstract than useful, and I found that almost nothing was written with an African urban context in mind.  So I led the class in seminar mode,  telling provocative stories or describing realities which I then used to jumpstart a discussion on how to think Christianly about the particular issue of the evening.  Amongst the issues we tackled included corruption, domestic violence, sex and Kenyan youth, money and the churches, racism and ethnic violence, among other things.  Let's just say our discussions were usually rather lively.

So tonight they are having to choose four questions from the following six and then write essays in good form to answer them:

1. Describe the similarities and differences between rural and urban societies in Kenya.  Demonstrate how Christian theology engages the concerns of each kind of Kenyan society.  What, if anything, should local churches be doing differently to better engage the society of which they find themselves a part?

2. Bus and matatu drivers and their assistants form a well-known part of Kenyan society.  Describe the context and challenges faced by these people.  How might Christians and Christian theology more effectively engage them with Christian hope and new life?

3. Prostitutes and other sex-workers are shunned by most Christians as reflecting a lifestyle that is considered sinful, even though very few of these people would pursue this way of living if a better option were available to them.  Examine Kenyan Christian's attitude towards prostitution.  How might churches more effectively reach out to these people?

4. Examine the evidence for materialism that exists in Kenyan society.  What is a realistic Kenyan response to materialism?

5. Imagine that you are part of a new church being started in Kibera [a notorious and vast Nairobi slum].  What should the ministry priorities be?  What steps, if any, should be taken to address and engage the Kibera context?  What might Christian-inspired transformation look like in a context like this?

6. The Christians living in Lamu face the challenges of being a minority living in a Muslim majority community.  There have also been several al-Shabaab-inspired violent attacks against Christians and churches in recent years.  How should the Christians there respond to the threats against them?  What guidance does the Bible give Christians living in minority or threatening situations?  How should Christians live in the midst of the Muslim neighbours?


The purpose of these questions is not just to gauge what my students learned this past term, but by the act of answering them to get them to unabstract their theological thinking and stretch their minds to encompass realities that exist all around them but which they have never brought a Christian perspective to bear on before.

So if you were to take an exam like this, how might you do?