The Anatomy of A Calling

by Bishop Dr Robert Solomon

From young I had wanted to be a doctor. I was born into a Christian family and was baptised on Christmas Day when I was less than a year old. It was my privilege to grow up attending church, being part of the Sunday School, and to learn about the Christian faith. In my first few years, I did not know any other religion except Christianity.

When I was about six or seven years old, I had an interesting experience, which to me is significant. One night I dreamt (or was it a vision?) that I was with some other children circling around Jesus, who was seated on a rock. He called me by name and when I approached Him, He showed me His scarred hands and asked me with great tenderness, “Do you know who this is for?” I replied: “It is for me.” Perhaps, my Sunday school classes had done a good job in creating some early understanding of Jesus. But that mystical experience stayed in my memory as a special encounter with Jesus.

My days in school were very memorable, growing up in a Singapore different from what it is today. I have many lasting impressions of our island and its people. At the age of 16, I had some life-changing experiences. I attended a specially organised series of evening rallies in church. The speaker gave an altar call and I felt a pull in my heart. But I did not go to the front, wondering what people would think. After all, I had been in church for such a long time. Being a shy person, I stayed rooted to my seat till the end of the service.

On my way home in the bus, my spirit was in a different world. My surroundings faded into insignificance as my thoughts and emotions became very focused and I was keenly aware of the presence of God. When I reached home, I went into my room and knelt in prayer. I poured out my heart to God, confessing my sins and committing my life to Christ. It was as if the windows of heaven were opened and my soul was drenched with the peace and joy of God. I went to sleep and woke to a new dawn. I remember taking note that everything seemed different that day.

Soon, I was reading the Bible with renewed interest. I began to read my Bible every day, marking it with comments and underlining verses. I had found a new and open channel of communication with God.

It was in the same year I had to decide what I was going to do for my pre-university studies. In secondary school, I found an aptitude for mathematics and physics and began to develop a keen interest in cosmology, astronomy, and aeronautics. My school gave me a form to fill, to select the particular stream I wanted to enroll in for my pre-university class. I could choose engineering, arts, pure sciences, or pre-medicine. It was then I realised I was not sure what to do.

Keenly aware I wanted to do God’s will and not to miss His plan for my life, I earnestly sought to discover God’s direction for my life. I tried to get some answers from my Bible-reading but found none there regarding my future studies. I felt as if God was deliberately silent on this matter. I asked God to show me clearly what He wanted me to do, committing myself to obey Him. The deadline for submitting the form approached very quickly. I still had no indication what I should do.

God spoke

It was at this time I had another strange experience. I was sleeping at night when I was suddenly awakened by a male voice in my room, and yet there was no one else in the room. The voice said: “Robert, after your Secondary Four, go and study medicine.” The words kept ringing in my mind and I felt God had spoken clearly and showed me the way. I then filled up the form and submitted it. I was soon in the pre-medical class and spent two years preparing myself for medical school. My parents were very happy for me and encouraged me greatly.

I entered medical school with great excitement. However, in my second year of studies, my heart began to be troubled. There was an emerging thought within me that God was asking me to quit medical school and enter into full-time Christian service. I thought it was a stray thought but it became stronger by the day. One day, it came to the point that I could not attend lectures. I asked one of my friends whether I could borrow his hostel room so I could spend the time praying. That afternoon, I was in that room on my knees. I pleaded with God to tell me clearly again. I struggled with Him and myself and stayed on my knees for some hours.

What would my parents say? What would others think? What am I going to do if I quit medical school? What was God trying to do with me? Why did He ask me to study medicine and then expect me to pull out halfway? These and other questions were laid out at God’s feet that afternoon. After much struggle, I came to the point when I completely surrendered myself to God. I was willing to do anything the Lord asked me to, even if it failed to make sense to me. It was after this I had a strange peace in my heart. I got up from my knees, aware that God was with me and that He would guide me.

Passing the test

The next day, I was on my way to see the Dean of the Medical Faculty to tell him I was going to quit my studies. On my way, I met a Christian houseman whom I knew. He asked me how I was and we got into a conversation. I told him what was happening and what I planned to do. He seemed to understand what I was saying and we talked about it for a while and prayed together. He then told me he felt God was not calling me to quit medical studies to enter full-time studies but that He was testing my availability, whether I was prepared to go wherever God wanted me to go. I had “passed” the test.

We prayed at the steps of the Medical Faculty College Building and I realised what he was saying made sense. God was not asking me to quit medical school, but He wanted to make sure that medicine and a medical career would never become idols in my life.

I never made it to the Dean’s office, and my parents had no inkling of what I had gone through. I continued my medical studies but somehow I knew I was not going to carry a stethoscope around my neck all my life.

My time in medical school ended on a successful note and I was soon working as a houseman. It was a great and memorable experience. During that year, I was encouraged by some of my professors to take up orthopaedic surgery or cardiology. Part of my housemanship was spent in an orthopaedic department and in the intensive care unit. Since both fields interested me, I was not sure what the future would be.

Then came National Service, a stint in an army camp as a medical officer, and another stint working in a polyclinic and the Accident & Emergency unit at Alexandra Hospital. The last posting was especially interesting to me and I learned very quickly, having to spend many busy nights attending to patients as the only medical officer on duty.

Two calls, one decision

When my bond with the government was coming to an end, I remembered the voice I heard several years ago. The voice had said: “…Go and study medicine.” I had done that and consequently served my bond too. Was I also to go on to practice medicine, I wondered? It was time to seek God’s directions afresh. And so, I found myself praying earnestly over a two-week period for God’s direction. This time I did not hear a voice but through my Bible reading and prayer, I felt God speaking clearly in my heart. The time had come for me to enter full-time Christian ministry. By that time I was married, and so when I became convinced of God’s call, I prepared myself to share this with my wife, Malar. I was not sure what she would say, but after I had told her, she remained calm and told me God had also called her in the preceding weeks. She was working as a teacher then. We realised God had called each of us separately, and had prepared us for our joint decision.

It was then easy for us to quit our jobs and offer ourselves for full-time service. We were soon on our way to the Philippines for me to do my Master of. Divinity studies. We did not know how we were going to finance ourselves. I had sold my car and the church gave us a small gift to help us. That was all we had. On the plane to Manila, I wondered how we were going to make it. God then showed me 1 Thessalonians 5:24: “The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” I had God’s assurance, then, on the plane that he would take care of my family. With God’s help, I was able to complete my course earlier than expected and at the end of my studies, I sat down to calculate how much I had spent in Manila. I found to my surprise God had provided exactly what we needed, not a single dollar more or less. God kept His promise marvelously.

Gift of teaching

When we returned to Singapore, we were interested to serve as missionaries, particularly in Indonesia. I was not thinking of serving as a medical missionary, though that would have made sense to many. Several key people in my life were used by God to tell me God’s primary gift to me for ministry was the gift of teaching. One of them was Dr Benjamin Chew. I was therefore interested in serving as a theological educator or a Bible teacher since, by then, I was ordained as a Methodist minister and had served as a pastor of a Tamil church.

During this period of waiting for a missionary opportunity, I did various other things. I served as the first medical officer at the newly-opened Singapore Red Cross Blood Centre. After this, I served part-time in the Singapore Home Council of Overseas Missionary Fellowship. I also lectured part-time at the Singapore Bible College. But somehow, the missionary opportunity did not come. Through a missionary who had served in Indonesia, God confirmed He had other plans. He wanted me to remain in Singapore and serve the church.

I thus continued pastoring in the church. In the late 1980s, a brother suggested I should go for further studies to prepare for ministry as an educator at Trinity Theological College (TTC). Again, it was marvelous how God put it all together for me to do my doctoral studies at Edinburgh University. My family was able to join me and we had three memorable years in Scotland. Malar was also able to do a diploma in theology programme with the London Bible College while we were there, giving her an opportunity to equip herself further for ministry.

We returned to be stationed at TTC where I taught for eight years, and served in various capacities. Meanwhile, I was also called to church leadership, and was elected as bishop. I sensed one of the key roles of a bishop is that of teaching with God placing me in a new ministry. The part of my present ministry I enjoy most is the teaching, preaching, and writing. Malar has also been busy leading Bible studies and preaching in churches and ladies’ groups.

God changed His mind?

The question may be asked whether there was a mistake in my going to medical school. Was it a waste after all? If God led me to medical school, did He change His mind halfway? Or was it a case of wrong discernment on my part? I have thought through these questions and derived much peace through it.

I do not think the medical training was wasted. I have found my medical training very useful in my pastoral and teaching ministry. Medical school taught me to think in a certain systematic, diagnostic, and therapeutic way I find immensely helpful in theological reflection and pastoral practice. Moreover, clinical experience has taught me to approach people with compassion and care, and led me to think in a holistic way. My PhD thesis was actually on a holistic theological and pastoral reflection on demon possession. I found the multi-faceted training and experience that the Lord put me through very helpful in doing this work.

Being a doctor-pastor has opened otherwise closed doors. I find that church members are more forthcoming when sharing their problems with me or more ready to accept pastoral advice and help because of my medical background. My medical training and experience are indispensable gifts from God for the work I am now doing. I find the therapeutic approach very helpful when thinking of human sin, God's grace, and our salvation and transformation.

Do I miss medical practice? In some ways, yes.

But a lot of what I do run parallel to what a doctor does to help his patients. In the course of pastoring and teaching, some of my most memorable and moving moments have to do with seeing the healing of persons through the grace of God, whether it comes through counselling, preaching or administering the sacraments. To see the healing of the soul (often accompanied by the healing of the mind and body), the transformation of people and communities, the emergence of holistic health, are all wonderful fruits of a ministry of doctoring-pastoring.

I have had the privilege of walking with wounded persons over periods of time and seeing the grace of God do its healing and transforming work. God is the Healer par excellence, the Great Physician, in whose hands we all find healing and health. I have found this to be true both in medicine and pastoral work. In this respect, as a pastor, I continue to be a doctor (healer). My medical background is therefore a great asset to me and my work.

Healing ministry of pastoring

I believe nothing is wasted in God's economy. After all, God allowed Moses to be trained as a prince of a nation so that He could later use him to lead His people from slavery to the promised land. Likewise, David the shepherd-boy was called by God to shepherd His people. The fishermen of Galilee were called by Jesus to be fishers of men. Paul was trained to be a Pharisee so he could be used by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles and to write New Testament epistles, clearly interpreting the Old Testament in the light of Jesus, and the Law, in the light of the Gospel.

It seems to me what God calls us to do often has connections with our own past training and background. A medical training is very useful in the healing ministry of pastoring. A healer of the body can be called to be the healer of souls. It seems to me God often plans our lives in interesting ways that show His sovereignty and wisdom. Nothing is wasted in the hands of God.

In my experience of God's calling, I have learned that more important than our commitment to our calling is our commitment to the One who calls us. If our ultimate allegiance is to Him, then we can be prepared to move to new roads. We may find the old and the new roads run parallel after all, and what we have learned in the old road, can be put to good use in the new. It also means that we need to depend day by day on God's guidance. We do not ultimately just follow the road; we follow the One who is the way (John 14:6), and we follow Him on every road He leads us.

We keep listening to Him, and we are prepared to follow Him anywhere. The Lord Jesus reminds us: "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be," (John 12:26). Our fundamental calling is to follow Jesus, and where He takes us, we must go. It means we must listen to Him continuously, committed to translate our big "Yes," said to Him when He originally calls us into the little "yes-es" of every season of our lives.

God’s call is a wonderful privilege. It is an invitation to live life as His child and servant. I would not want to exchange it for anything else in the world. It is primarily a call to a relationship with Him and can take many forms. The circumstances may change, but the calling does not, and the relationship can deepen. God continues to lead, provide, protect, bless, and use. It is great to be in the hands of a loving God, and whose gifts and call are irrevocable (Romans 11:29).

This article is from the book “Carry the Spices – Singaporean Doctors in Medical Missions and Pastoral Ministry”. Dr Robert Solomon is the Bishop, The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000 to present.