When I first approached this season of sabbatical, of course it came with its share of uncertainties. “What am I doing?” “Is this the right time?” “Will Simi and the children be fine?” and, “What about the church?” These were among the few concerns tugging at my heart as I prayerfully embarked upon this time we call “a sabbatical” but God calls “Sabbath” rest. Still I pressed on, working through my personal apprehensions, and not losing sight of what this sabbatical means to me and for my own faith journey. I cannot say I know all that God intends to accomplish within the lives of our families throughout this period of change. However, I know God is at work. I have the assurance that, in my time away from you all, God’s hand is richly shaping our families for His purpose in a way that exceeds explanation and our limited understanding.
For those who do not know this, sabbaticals are no strange thing for laborers in the ministry. As a matter of fact, wise ministers know the benefits of intentional getaways for themselves, their families, and even the growth of the church. A sabbatical assists them in maintaining balance, avoiding burnout, and ensuring longevity and effectiveness in their ministry unto the Lord and His Church. Even Jesus was known to retreat to secluded areas just to be refreshed from time to time. Scripture records accounts of when Jesus would also escape into regions wherein he was a stranger. Such hiatuses provided him opportunities to encounter God in a fresh way and find Sabbath rest among a people of whom Jesus was not as well known. Then, after recuperating and being re-filled by the Holy Spirit, Jesus would happily return to those whom God had directed his full-time ministry.
One such land Jesus retreats to as a stranger is Tyre and Sidon, a region of Hellenistic Gentiles. Mark 7:24b explains that it is here where Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden” (ESV). His plans to rest are delayed due to the immediate need of a family member—not his family member, but the daughter of the woman who came making her request known to Jesus. This certainly reminds me of the start of my sabbatical, which too began in crisis. Sort of like Jesus’, my journey towards an opportunity of rest, relaxation, reflection, recuperation, and spiritual renewal was immediately interrupted for the sake of a love call.
My wife, the children, and I were on our way to JFK airport when I received a call that my wife’s uncle, Philips A. Philip (Joby for those who knew and loved him), had suffered a massive heart attack. Our family stopped suddenly in our tracks, switched directions, and went straight to the hospital. We were hoping to see Joby in the hospital recovering…but instead we found out that he had passed on.
Joby was like a father to Simi. Both of us loved him deeply. He was the one who helped arrange my marriage to Simi. Simi and I still chuckle to this day when we think about the time he persuaded her to give a look at the young Church of South India priest from the US as a possible marriage match. At the time, she exclaimed, “I don’t want to marry a priest!” He quickly said, “Don’t worry, Simi. He’s not a normal priest!” After marrying Simi, Joby Uppapen (Uncle Joby) and I would often talk about the family, and he would check up on me to see if I was ok. Joby was that way with many people. He always was there for those who needed him. He was the man that everyone depended upon—sort of like this account of Jesus, when here Jesus stops to help bring restful peace in another’s life just before reaching a point of rest himself. Joby had such a gentle and persuasive charm about him that, even if the person he was dealing with had a difficult personality, he would nonetheless find a way to be friends. He was a wonderful model of Christian faith.
My trip was postponed by three days after I had learned that Uncle Joby had died. I decided to stay and support the family—Simi, my grieving aunt, her and Joby’s sons (Jeril and Cecil), and the rest of our family. At the viewing and throughout the two days that led up to it, countless people shared and gave witness to Uncle Joby’s support and love. Then, in my eulogy for him, I told my aunt that the community he once supported would now support her, Jeril, and Cecil. There was an outpouring of love for the family. God’s rest was even in our midst.
Still after over 20 years in the priesthood, I remain wonderstruck at how supportive people of the Christian community could be in difficult times. It is as if we stop midstream from the course of our intended affairs and attend immediately first to those who are in serious need of strength or help. It should not be a surprise to me however, because it is the spiritual and cultural DNA of our faith to follow Jesus’ command “to love one another as he loves us.” God has commanded that this community be a place of love and support. This love gives security to those who feel insecure when our world and life is disrupted and changed.
My sabbatical will, in a way, test this theory for me. I am hopeful that this is one aspect that I will learn about God and the Christian community. On this my sabbatical, I am making connections to places that my parents had once lived with their young family. In addition to my faith in God, I am taking this journey as I rely upon the help of people whom I have not met and are among the Christian community here. Therefore, I too come to this place as a stranger. I will be praying for them as they help and pray for me. I have the faith that I will meet many wonderful, faithful people. I have this faith because it is God who has crafted good compassionate men like my Joby Uppapen. I have faith that God has crafted other people of great faith and compassion in many places, and who are not unwilling to come from their restful places to help a stranger who may call upon them in my time of need.
Blessings and Rest to all,