I learned a short while ago that my father-in-law, Varghese Mathai, died peacefully, in hospital, in Trivandrum, India. A week ago he had a massive stroke and he never regained consciousness. His family, including my wife, Jolly, were at his bedside at the end.
I want to pay my own personal tribute, although I have little doubt many others will do so, for he was much loved and well respected by many who he had met, and this was a significant number given he traveled much and was well known, and he also gave much love. This was evidenced by the fact that many visited him while in hospital, which was entirely appropriate given he spent most of his life visiting others, which he understood to be part of his calling.
Varghese Mathai received the “call” to be an evangelist at a young age, and was associated with the local Brethren assemblies. He was well known (and respected) among the assemblies, as well as in the wider community, and was a mentor to many. He believed he should live by faith given the Lord who called him, who he served, would also provide for his practical needs as well as those of his family and the many he felt some responsibility toward. It is noteworthy that all four of his children follow the Lord, are university graduates and professionals, who are well settled in life; and he made sure of this.
I first met papa (Varghese Mathai) back in 1983, when as a young backpacker I resolved to embark on an adventure to travel around India. Early on, during this of what was to be my first of many trips to this great land, I found myself staying in the home of a brother of a friend of a friend. It happened during that time, Varghese stopped by, who happened to be a friend of my host and he happened to be in the area. I recollect he was a humble man, a simple soul, a “live wire”, who had a unique and unconventional style and, like a free bird, his wings could never be clipped, who always carried with him a briefcase, which contained his preaching Bible, and an umbrella.
In the conversation that followed (Varghese’s English was fairly basic) he invited me to stay at his home. His home was situated in a village (Kattakode) near to a town (Kattakada), 20 miles away from Trivandrum. It felt like going back in a time warp. Everything seemed basic, including houses and shops. There was little in the way of amenities we often take for granted, like electricity. But the hospitality my future father-in-law and his family showed me was superb. I got the impression due to the attention, I was the first foreigner to visit. I came to reflect while they had little they had more of what really mattered, comparing with where I came from. While his home was simple, humble, I could see much spontaneous joy. It was there I met my future, now current, wife (Jolly).
As I said, and it is important to do so, Varghese Mathai, besides being one who loved God and his family, was first and foremost an evangelist, who saw it as his main priority to tell people about Jesus and how they must be saved. On my first visit, I would describe myself as a hurt, mixed up Christian yet with a strong faith, who identified with Varghese Mathai’s Brethren culture, having experienced the UK equivalent, but one novel thing was he got me to preach or give my testimony in various settings, including in the open air in his village, partly to attract would be listeners. In later years I found many opportunities to preach, encouraged by him.
On my next visit, I brought him a hand mike and wondered if I did the wise thing when he proceeded to preach from the rooftop while I was asleep. On another occasion I was down to preach but because there was no translator Varghese stepped in. I learned soon after the message people heard was not the one I gave. Upon enquiry, he told me it was ok as the people had enjoyed two messages. He took every opportunity to spread the word, without fear or favour, throughout his life, even when his powers began to wane, and if he had to pay the price (and he often did) he regarded this as a privilege. Besides preaching, he loved to pray (and he did so in gatherings of family or friends) and to read the Bible, and he loved to sing. Because he was a simple soul I felt people mistreated him sometimes. His response was to forgive and forbear as becomes a servant of the Lord.
Following that initial visit, I visited India many times after that. My explorer aspirations got replaced by interests in Christian ministry e.g. orphanages and preaching and teaching and when we got married regular visits to a wide network of family and friends, and invariably we got meet with papa and stay at the family home. What always struck me about him was his earnestness to be a faithful servant of the Lord and he would use every opportunity to visit all sorts of individuals and places as part of his work, where his focus was the Lord and to preach the Gospel. There are many memorable examples of him doing so – I recall one of him preaching outside a nearby Hindu temple and falling unwell, to be taken home by some of the concerned worshipers. I was always struck by his concern for others; if he needed money it was invariably to help other people.
It will take time for the loss of my father-in-law to sink in and there will be things to attend to in the aftermath and its many challenges. I have little doubt he leaves a big legacy, whose life impacted many including me, not least in those who follow his Lord because of his testimony. His death marks an end of one era and the start of another. I hope there will be Elishas to pick up the mantle that was dropped by this Elijah. I will ever be grateful for his encouragement and the confidence he had in me to undertake the Lord’s work and look after his daughter and grandson. “One off” is a much used term but if it applies anywhere it is here. He was not perfect but he was a good man and a godly one. He will be much missed by many, many of which will owe him a debt of gratitude. I like to think he will receive the accolade from the Lord who he served and the one he would value the most: “well done good and faithful servant”.
God willing, the Funeral service will be held on January 29, 2018 (Monday) from 9 am at his residence at Kattakode, near Kattakkada under the auspices of Ponnarakkonam Brethren Assembly, Kattakkada. His body will be buried at 1 pm at Kattakode Brethren Cemetery.
For details, please contact: +91-8281159665.
Let us uphold the family to the throne of grace for Heavenly comfort and strength. May the Lord bestow upon them heavenly grace, peace and strength, and console them with the Word of God. Please pray for the family members and dear ones who will be traveling from different places to attend the funeral. Please pray that God’s name be glorified through the funeral service.
Note: times are Indian Standard (UK is 5.5 hours behind). Although, regrettably I will not be able to attend, my wife and most other family members and friends will.
Update 29/01/18: I write after the long funeral service that has just finished and as papa’s remains are about to be buried. The entire three hour service can be followed in video, conducted entirely in Malayalam, papa’s mother tongue, and also that of almost all those attending. From what I can make out it was a moving occasion, with many tributes made to this great man, with his wide circle of associates. But life goes on and, somehow, God willing, I will be part of life after the death of the Lord’s servant. “Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them” – Joshua 1:2.