Last night I was speaking at a dinner for first year Christian dental students. It is hard to imagine that I was a freshman in dental school in 1974. Time has dulled both joy and terror but I still recall starting dental school as a major transition in my life. Not only was I embarking on the last phase of life before adulthood, doing my dental studies in the University of Singapore also meant my leaving family and home for the first time. Therefore I felt led to share from Joshua 1 and on how one encountered God afresh in the transitions of life.
There was another speaker, a senior professor from the dental faculty. He told the first year students (and reminded the rest of us) that there were three key lessons they had to learn in the four years of their sojourn through the dental programme.
- How to decide between what is good and what is God’s best.
- The true definitions of success and failure.
- How to differentiate between needs and wants.
The prof was spot on.
At every phase of life, we learn at at least two levels. First we learn the subject at hand,and for my dental student friends, that will mean applying themselves to learning the science and art of dental practice. But at all phases of life, we are also enrolled in the continuing education programme of life. And indeed if these followers of Jesus allow God to speak to them through all they go through in dental school, they will also learn something about what it means to be the kind of persons God wants them to be. However I suspect that the full significance of the life lessons learned in dental school will only get clearermany years later.
Frederick Buechner was only able to make more sense of the things that happened to him in his fifties.
. . . since I passed the age of fifty, I have taken to looking back on my life as a whole more. I have looked through old letters and dug out old photographs. I have gone through twenty years’ worth of old home movies. I have thought about the people I have known and the things that have happened that have, for better or worse, left the deepest mark on me. (The Sacred Journey, San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1982, 5)
I learned many life lessons in dental school. A lecturer humiliated me in front of my patient in my first day in clinics. The wound was very deep and it took me a long time to forgive that person. I leaned that forgiveness is very difficult when you have been hurt badly but that in the power of God, if you don’t give up, it can happen.
In dental school I relearned the power of friendship. I struggled in dental school. I am sure a large part of that was caused by my immaturity. But I struggled. I am grateful for the friends who stood by me, encouraged me, and helped me. Some of us, who had a hard time in the programme, started the “sheep farmers’ club.” We vowed that after we flunked out of dental school, because it looked like we were not going to make it, we were going to emigrate to Australia and start a sheep farm together. Foxhole humour that kept you sane. Interestingly, most of the members of the sheep farmers’ club were not followers of Jesus Christ. But they acted Christianly.
In dental school, I learned what it meant to treat people with dignity. You experienced first hand how it felt to be treated with dignity and without dignity, from the various lecturers you encountered. Jesus said to do to others what you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12). I know I don’t do it as well as I should but I try to give dignity and respect to all who are in the classes I am privileged to teach.
So yes, I learnt a lot about life from my time in dental school. No, I didn’t wait till fifty before I tried to make sense of all that happened to me but there is a perspective that only comes with time. And I also learnt how to be a dentist. I was a poor dental student but I wasn’t a bad dentist. I remembered how affirmed I was when my bosses asked me to take some of their cases when they had too many to handle.
If I was pursuing tertiary education today, I doubt that I would choose dentistry. With all the vocational testing tools available today, I would probably end up in some mass communications or management programme. But in 1974, my parents and I thought it best that I should pursue a career in dentistry. Was it a mistake? Who knows? We can’t turn back the clock anyway. But we can choose to love God and seek to be in His purposes. And when we do that we find that “. . . in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 TNIV) What I must do, and what I encourage my young dental student friends to do, is to listen to what God is teaching us in the ups and downs of our lives.
It seemed to me . . . that if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere,it is into our personal lives that he speaks. (Buechner, Sacred Journey, 1.)
Of course God speaks to us through the Scriptures, but it is in the context of the particulars of our lives that we see His truths fleshed out. It has been long time since I left dental school, but the school of life is still in session. And I am still a student.