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Life in a goldfish bowl

February 2021 | by Graham Heaps

The following is an excerpt from the book, ‘The Last Valley’, written by Graham Heaps and published by Evangelical Press. The book is an honest, graphic, and affectionately told account of the closing year of the life of Graham’s wife, Sue, dying of cancer. A review of the book is published in this edition of ET.

Over the weeks that Sue was struggling in Leeds General Infirmary I gradually came to realise that I was more and more living in a goldfish bowl – under the scrutiny of a great crowd of people. Staff at the hospital seemed intrigued by the appreciative man who was often seen reading the Bible to his distressingly poorly wife whom he so evidently loved deeply. They also noticed and commented on the fact that neither of us ever seemed depressed.

At the same time our five children were watching me intensely, very concerned about how their Dad was coping with their Mum’s suffering. They knew that their mother was, and had always been, the delight of his life, and by a country mile the closest and most precious of his many friends. So they were very anxious as to how I would cope with this living nightmare.

People in the church also looked on tenderly, longing that I might show, in my buffeted, uncertain and tear-stained life, the authentic outworking of the truth they had heard me preach for so many years. They were desperate to see that promises of God, which had so often excited me in preaching, were now sustaining my soul, giving me evident help and hope.

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Many other believers eagerly read and turned to prayer every detail that I recorded in the emails I sent out about Sue’s progress or lack of it. And I knew that they looked in hope not only for better news of the patient but also for evidence that my heart was being sustained by the grace and peace of God.

News of Sue’s condition also quickly reached many relatives and friends who didn’t share our faith. These longed just as much to hear better news of Sue, and rode the roller coaster of hope and despair with us. Yet it became evident that some of these were also intrigued to see whether my trust in the Good Shepherd would hold up. They looked on to discover if that faith would yield any benefit to us in the trial. Would we in fact see striking ‘answers’ to our prayers? Would we show singularly different attitudes to our troubles from others they knew who had experienced similar things? In fact I knew that some, perhaps many, were looking on to see if there was really anything supernatural in this Christianity of ours.

It was all rather strange. I had just retired from a very public position to sit, often alone, at the bedside of my terminally ill wife. As far as prominence in the church was concerned I was very much taking a back seat. Indeed, I had given up all ‘public ministry’. And yet as the weeks of our ordeal went by I became increasingly aware of my responsibility to be something attractive for the Lord in a very different kind of ‘public performance’.

The result was that I found I was praying for myself with an urgency and intensity that I had probably never known before. What I needed from the Lord was that he would more than sustain in me the peace, trust, submission, hope and even joy that I had experienced in some measure since the day that Sue’s dreadful tumour had been discovered. I knew that all those things were appropriate for me as his child in this, the toughest experience of my life. I knew, too, that only he could preserve and deepen these God-honouring graces in me.

During that time two passages from the Bible really held my spiritual life together. One gave strength and confidence to my feeble faith, while the other helped me greatly in the vital task of praying intelligently for myself. The first was from Luke’s account of Jesus and his apostles in an upstairs room in Jerusalem the night before he was crucified. The second was from the book of Psalms in the Old Testament. So helpful were those passages to me that I was delighted to get the opportunity, even during Sue’s illness, to preach on both of them to the church we had served together for decades.

Before Sue’s brain tumour began to grow – and her consultant believed that it probably took only six weeks to grow from nothing to dominate the whole front right portion of the brain – I had planned to retire on the last day of 2014. To mark that occasion the church had kindly organised a special Saturday afternoon service in early December to which many people had been invited. However, as soon as Sue’s condition was known that service was cancelled and later replaced by a special evening service on Sunday December 28th.

With some three weeks to contemplate the occasion I informed my co-pastor Daniel that I would like to preach at the service. I also determined that Sue’s illness should not be ‘the elephant in the room’, but freely spoken about. Accordingly I decided to preach on the words of Jesus to the foolishly self-confident Simon Peter of which I had drunk deeply through the past few disturbing weeks, and which had done so much to encourage and support my trust in my Saviour Jesus Christ.

Here are the words. ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you all as wheat; but I have prayed (very particularly) for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ You can find those words in verses 31 and 32 of Luke chapter 22.

They are words that profoundly expressed both my situation and my confidence, both my danger and my security. They remind us of what I knew deep in my soul, namely that the best of believers is very weak and open to the assaults of the evil one. Indeed, we face the danger that the very faith that joins us to Christ and so brings us acceptance with God may be swept away with disastrous consequences. Jesus himself underlined to Peter just how real that danger is, especially in times of deep and unexpected trials.

Yet here, too, is the assurance that, through the effective prayers of the Saviour for his flawed followers, that danger is nullified. He sees and knows our terrible vulnerability, often made worse by Peter-like complacency, and overcomes it by fervent and heartfelt prayer. That was where my soul had come to rest, and so that was what I sought to share with the large congregation before me, people united by the most tender concern for Sue and me, as many conversations afterwards made very apparent.

The other passage that really strengthened my soul at that time can be found in section ten of the longest of all the Psalms, Psalm 119. In most Bibles these verses are headed by the Hebrew letter ‘yodh’, for in the original language each of the eight verses in the section (verses 73-80) begins with a word starting with that letter.

Here I found help in the vital business of understanding what I myself needed most from God and how to articulate it succinctly in prayer. This Psalmist, who knew what it was to be afflicted (see verses 71 and 75), taught me three great requests that I quickly made my own as I laid my personal needs before the living God in the closing year of Sue’s life. These petitions brought focus and clarity to the way I prayed for myself in this time of great heartache.

First of all, I prayed that the ‘unfailing love’ of my covenant God would be ‘my comfort’ (verse 76). I was overjoyed to be reminded that God’s compassion had been my birth-right since I was born again of God’s Spirit as a wayward teenager. Secondly, I prayed that in the midst of all the trauma and upheaval of my so changed life I might not forget God’s law and its wise rules for my life (verse 80). In fact, I was brought by the Psalmist to realise the danger I faced in this trial of becoming so self-absorbed that I excused all manner of personal sin. Finally, I began to pray that I might be able so to cope with all that was facing me that I might be a real encouragement to other believers who were looking on (verse 74).

I prayed like this because I knew that without God’s mighty help I would never be able to maintain a spirit of calmness, trust and obedience to him through whatever life threw at me. I knew, too, that pretending to know peace, or joy, or dependence on the Lord, or trusting submission to his providence, would be worse than useless. I would never be able to carry it off – you just can’t fake the peace of God – and God would never bless it. And I believe that these prayers were answered abundantly. I was sustained in good heart and a generally cheerful spirit. For the first time in my life I was enabled to live a day at a time without always worrying about the future. And I never felt angry with God or very low in spirits.

Needless to say, however, while Sue remained in hospital she was the number one focus of my prayers and my great concern every waking hour. Day after day I carefully chose a brief Bible passage to read to her, always seeking, with God’s help, to reinforce her under-pressure faith. And many times most days I prayed fervently for her, and often with her, supremely that her faith would not fail, but that God would make her a blessing to all who came into contact with her.

Did God hear those prayers? I believe that he did, and abundantly so. And what is my evidence for that momentous claim? Well, I have to testify that in all my fifty years as a Christian I have never had so many openings, and certainly never so many requests, to share my faith and talk of the reality of God’s sustaining of his wayward child, as I did in the long weeks I spent visiting on Ward 24. And so many of those opportunities came as the result of Sue’s patience, cheerfulness and thankfulness. Yet all the while she lay in the corner bed in the bay across from the nursing station, making nothing like the progress that the doctors and nurses were looking and hoping for.

The Last Valley: A story of God’s grace in terminal illness; Graham Heaps; EP Books; 140 pages; £7.99; ISBN: 978-1-78397-296-8

Graham Heaps was pastor of Dewsbury Evangelical Church for four decades and is now retired.

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