When The Walk Gets Hard...And Harder!
Cheryl Simmons Graves
It was 1943 and World War II was in full focus on the world stage. However, on a very meager and non-descript stage in Pasadena, Texas, an eight-pound nine-ounce baby girl was coming home from pasadena General Hospital, held tightly and lovingly by her 22-year-old parents, Earl and Becky Hazen. Though they knew very little about how to care for an infant and even less about child rearing, they knew the Lord and trusted He would guide them.
I was that baby girl—and now, at age 73, I have deep gratitude for my parents who loved Jesus, modeled their love for His Word, and molded me into the person I am today. As a child, I was taken to Sunday school where I heard Bible stories and learned to sing songs about Jesus. When I was ten, my grandmother inquired whether I had received Jesus as my Savior. This question puzzled me because I knew my parents believed in Jesus, and I thought that meant I did too. A loving pastor helped me understand that I needed to receive Jesus for myself. So, as a ten-year-old, I opened my heart to Him and began a faith-walk that has impacted my entire life!
Dreams Do Come True
Growing up, church was always a big part of my life. During my youth, I had the opportunity to belong to a mission organization in our church known as Girls’ Auxiliary. The group emphasized missions and taught girls God’s Word. A passion for and a love of the Word grew in my heart. Godly older women mentored us and helped us understand the purpose God had for our lives. They gave us an assignment to write a paper on the topic: “My dream—where I want to be in 15 years.” I knew my dream: I wanted to be a pastor’s wife!
God graciously fulfilled my dream in 1962. I met Phillip Simmons—a man with a contagious smile and a bold faith—at the University of Corpus Christi, a small Baptist college where we were both students. I was immediately attracted to him. After a year of dating, we married, and then struggled to finish college together. After finishing, we moved to New Orleans for Phil to complete an advanced degree, and I taught school. During these years, our three sons were born, and we ministered to youth in our local church. The young people were great babysitters, and our home was their hangout! But oh how I longed to be a pastor’s wife—not just minister to young people! I was so impatient! God, however, knew that Phil and I needed more experience, more wisdom and, yes—patience! Finally, after we had served in several churches ministering to youth, the Lord opened the doors to the pastorate. We were thrilled and eager. And for the next twenty years, I loved every minute of being a pastor’s wife!
The Faith-Walk Gets Harder
God had been very tender during my young adult years, and I had not experienced any pain and heart-wrenching circumstances. Now, at age 38, I faced my first faith-walk struggle. My dad, who had been my hero, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was stage 4 (aggressive) and he died within four months. Dad had always been actively involved in our lives. He loved his grandsons and had deep love and devotion for my mom. Daddy’s word was his bond. He had only a ninth grade education—and oh how he murdered the king’s English as he spoke! But he was willing to teach ninth grade boys, choosing not to allow any of his deficiencies in schooling to be a handicap for doing anything the Lord asked of him. As a child, one of my greatest joys was the nightly goodnight kiss and watching Daddy read and study God’s Word. His death meant our sons would miss the jaunts to Baskin-Robbins for their ice cream treats and the wrestling matches with Papa.
Up to this time, our serving in various churches had been blissful and exciting. But when God put us in a pastorate that was negatively challenging, our faith-walk began to grow harder. Seminary training failed to prepare us for how to survive in a church where there is dissension and disorder. A faith-walk of this kind is a painful walk! The devil can and does work—even in churches—to cause distrust and backbiting among the members. When a group in the church confronted Phil with ugly name-calling and a list of ways that my husband had failed the congregation, I fell to the floor—praying but fearful! Then, loving supportive church members surrounded me, giving me the courage to hold on. For the first time, I wished I was anything but a pastor’s wife! But God, in His goodness and grace, helped heal our wounded spirits, helped us forgive, and gave us courage to confront the true enemy—Satan! God’s Word was our anchor during this storm, and Phil—a man truly called of God—was a giant of spiritual strength.
We had served churches in Florida for fifteen years when God graciously moved us back to our home state of Texas in 1984. Phil and I were both in our early forties, and we were ready to be near family again. The church we had come to serve was progressive and open to change, allowing Phil to dream and even think outside the proverbial box.
Our sons had adjusted well to the move and were doing well, joining in with the children and youth activities. Our eldest son, David, had graduated from high school and was attending a local junior college. Our middle son, Drew, was a graduating senior and had loads of guy friends. On April Fools’ Day, he was out with a church youth group on a rural property whooping it up in a dune buggy. I took the phone call: Drew was being care-flighted to Fort Worth Harris Hospital. He had been thrown from the dune buggy, which overturned, rolling onto his left arm, crushing it from his body. I did not recognize it at the time, but looking back, I see how God was building our faith in His strength—in Drew, in his dad, in me, and in our church. Drew had fifteen surgeries, which were actually debridements of infection and dead flesh, as doctors attempted to clean the wound and save the arm from gangrene. Our church rallied behind us, and we were held by the Lord. Drew was able to keep his arm, but he lost two fingers in the process. God was so very gracious—the dune buggy top could have easily landed on his head! This was a faith-walk for sure!
The Hardest Walk
We had been at this wonderful church for eight years when suddenly our ministry was challenged—and ended—with one simple word: cancer. Astrocytoma! The cancerous tumor (two centimeters) was found in the speech motor control, left parietal area of Phil’s brain. With the removal of the tumor, 36 radiation treatments were administered, and upon finishing them, it was determined that staph had been present during the surgery, and it was out of control in the brain. With each reopening and debridement, the brain was compromised. This faith-walk had become a full-fledged fire-walk! I felt broken—irreparably! I didn’t know if I would or could survive.
Within sixteen months, Phil was enjoying all the glorious benefits that Heaven affords through the power of the cross and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. But for me, this was the most painful of all walks! I was overwhelmed and fearful. My strength partner whom I had so long depended on was not there to run to or lean on. To insure my survival and eventual thriving, God provided six women who became my counselors, encouragers, correctors, and precious sisters in the Lord. They logged many hours with me in Bible studies, lunch dates, and conversations filled with reminiscing and laughter. Slowly, the Lord became my first love, and I praise Him that He never wearied of my questions, my fears, or my faith-walk which at times was two steps forward, three steps backward. God was indeed faithful! At times the cyclonic winds blew, yet the anchor of His Word—My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways (Isaiah 55:8)—helped bring stability. It was obvious that my faith was going to grow by being willing to learn more of His ways and His thoughts.
A New Walk of Faith
After two years of being a widow, God provided a male friend, Dick Graves. He was a member of my church and had been mentored by Phil when he made the decision of an obedient return to the Lord. Dick loved Phil. He had prayed at the hospital when Drew was injured and had been a prayer warrior for Phil. Dick also had a son, Brad, who had lymphoma and tuberculosis and was the same age as Drew. Dick had been divorced for some 20 years. We began walking together in the mornings, and he finally got up the courage to ask me for a date. But oh my! I hadn’t dated since I was 18! We dated for two years and were married in 1998. I thought since I had been married for 31 years—and by God’s grace it had been a successful and happy marriage—that I was ahead of the game! I figured this assignment and faith-walk would be easy. How like me to see the big picture and miss the details! But the positives for our relationship were our faith and also the fact that our children were grown and no longer with us. We have now been married for eighteen years, and between us, we have five children and twelve grandchildren. God’s grace has been very evident in this faith-walk!
More Faith Building
God in His love and tender mercy continued to build my faith, and this time it came again with the word cancer—in the life of my eldest son, David, who is a firefighter and paramedic. In 2013, through his simple check-up for the new year, it was found that he had a rare lymphatic leukemia, Biphenotypic ALL/AML. The leukemia was aggressive and virulent. Death would have been imminent had the cancer not been found during his annual health checkup. It was God’s intervention! David was immediately hospitalized and began treatment. A stem-cell donor would be needed and a transplant to take place in the months to follow. Today, David is healed because of the donor transplant, the anti-rejection meds, doctors, nurses, prayers, a loving wife and family—but most of all, the grace of God! God has a plan and purpose for David and his family, and we marvel at His grace repeatedly shown to our family.
Dick’s son, Brad, has also been clear of cancer for 19 years and serves a church in Houston. Liane, Dick’s daughter, is a realtor in Dallas. My third son, Matthew, is a biology and physics teacher in a nearby school district. My 95-year-old mother, a prayer warrior who shares her love for the Lord with everyone, lives in the house next door to ours. She is healthy, still drives, and is very alert. Dick and I are now in our 70’s. Like Caleb in Joshua’s day, we still have some mountains to conquer, and there are giants who want to taunt and discourage us, telling us we are too old, no longer useful, or going to fail. But it is with courage from the Lord that we answer back, No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us (Romans 8:37). We continue to fight the good fight of faith as we battle on in our faith-walk, so we can finish well to His glory.