s I sat on my front porch clinging to every word that came through the phone receiver, I struggled to contain the flood of emotions that begged to be released. I felt suspended in time as the painful reality of Bill’s words soaked deep into my spirit. It was unbelievable but true. The pronounced physical symptoms that Bill had been experiencing for several months were a result of something very serious. What began as a small breeze had quickly turned into a mighty gale. If I understood the implications of his explanation, a full-scale storm was about to blow ashore.
A natural athlete, Bill excelled in leadership and sports at Sheffield High School. He earned letters in football, baseball and basketball and was the President of his senior class. Graduating in 1967, Bill enrolled in the University of Alabama to pursue a degree in engineering. Although he did receive a degree in industrial engineering, God had other plans for Bill’s life of service. Through the strong influence of Campus Crusade for Christ, Bill yielded his life to the gospel ministry and began to make plans for the future. Something else very significant happened to him during those years at college.
Bill’s life was like a good day at the beach until…
In 1997 Bill celebrated his twenty third anniversary as a pastor. Everything was going so well. He was a successful husband and father, a respected leader in the community and a pastor with a vision of prospering church. He was in the center of God’s will for his life…in shape physically and spiritually. Bill’s life was like a very good day at the beach until the day the storm blew in unannounced.
By Easter of 1997, Bill began to notice some slight difficulties in pronouncing certain words, especially those containing the letter s. Thinking the problem was related to a virus or infection, he consulted a physician who immediately sent him to ECM hospital for an MRI of his brain. The outcome was good news…no brain tumor. However, relief quickly turned to horror when a neurologist suggested that “most likely” the symptoms were a result of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrigs’s disease. ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a rapidly progressive, fatal neuromuscular disease. It attacks motor neurons in the spinal cord and lower brain where signals are transmitted from the brain to the voluntary muscles throughout the body. When motor neurons die as a result of ALS, the ability of the brain to control muscle movement is lost. When muscles fail to receive messages, they weaken, atrophy, and die. The outcome is always death in one to four years, usually by respiratory failure.
In August 1997, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic added his confirmation to Bill’s situation as “multiple cranial motor neuropathies” most likely caused by ALS.
Immediately the progressive death of the nerves in the brain affected the tongue and facial muscles creating difficulty in speaking and in swallowing. Eventually, other symptoms were manifest such as loss of strength in his hands and arms, muscle twitching and cramping. In spite of these symptoms, as an active pastor Bill, continued to preach three times each Sunday, finally relinquishing preaching responsibilities in April 1999. In April 2000 he resigned as Senior Pastor of Woodmont Baptist Church accepting the title of Pastor Emeritus. Even after he lost his ability to communicate and in the face of increasing disability and weakness, he continued to actively love and serve his congregation. As the nerve deteriotion progressed it eventually affected other areas resulting in difficulty in eating and breathing, chronic fatigue as well as continual deterioration of strength and stamina.
From the outset the entire Christian community began to earnestly fast and pray, asking God for a miracle in behalf of “Brother Bill”. Throughout the Shoals Area cars displayed bumper stickers that simply read: PRAY FOR BROTHER BILL. As people sought the holy ground required in genuine intercession, many lives were touched and eternally transformed as waves of mercy flowed from the throne of grace. God’s miraculous working power was never an issue for the multitudes who prayed. The Scripture is clear that Jesus healed many (Luke 7:21) and His power today is still the same. So, we prayed with all of our hearts. In spite of our prayers, vigils and fasting, Bill was not to be included among the many. In a sermon that Bill preached in October 1996, from Hebrews 11, speaking of those who died not seeing the full fruit of their faith in their lifetime, he asked a piercing question: “Would you be willing to endure physical challenges in this life in order to attain a greater resurrection in the next life, all for His greater glory?” We never fully understand the mysteries of Divine sovereignty, but following Bill’s example, we must never fail in our commitment to His greater glory.
Psalm 107:3 “…He heals all of my
Janet McMullen, friend and member at Woodmont Baptist Church, was faithful in communicating with Bill on a regular basis via email. She always closed her positive notes with the encouraging phrase One Day Closer. Janet shared with me the background behind the phrase: “When I started writing One Day Closer we were standing in faith that Bill would be healed. Like many, I never tolerated any thoughts that he might not, even though that I knew that God is God and I would accept His plan no matter what. One Day Closer was the first part of the longer phrase; One day closer to that GREAT THING God is going to do. The focus was on Bill’s complete and total healing.” Whatever fate lay hidden behind the mysterious veil of the future, healing or transition to a greater place, one thing was obvious…he was One Day Closer.
The day after Christmas 2000, Bill’s health began to rapidly decline as his breathing difficulties became more and more pronounced. His strength waned hour by hour. On December 28th, Bill motioned to Laura indicating that he wanted his speaking devise. With a look of expectancy and victory upon his face, almost as if to say, “We are really close to something special here!”, he keyed in the phrase…One Day Closer.
On Sunday, December 31, 2000 at 12:33 PM Bill stepped across a threshold into a spacious place, one he had only seen by faith, and his One Day Closer gave way to full reality.
In the Celebration Service honoring Bill’s life and Lord a theme taken from the song, When It’s All Said And Done, clearly emerged. The words were an appropriate tribute to Bill’s commitment to Jesus Christ as well as a challenge to those of us dealing with the crucial issues of living.
When it’s all been said and done
There is just one thing that matters
Did I do my best to live for truth
Did I live my life for You
I will always sing Your praise
Here on earth and ever after
For You’ve shown me Heaven’s my
When it’s all been said and done
You’re my Life when life is gone
(Jim Cowan, Copyright 1999 Integrity’s Hosanna Music/ASCAP)
During the three years of Bill’s illness, God was so faithful in making His precious Word come alive to those who sought His wisdom and counsel. Isaiah 35 and Psalm 91:13-16 were special gifts from the Holy Spirit to his wife Laura. The strength she experienced from these verses is immeasurable. It enabled her to find peace and balance while spinning furiously on the Potter’s Wheel. Personally, the Lord gave me Psalm 18:16-19 in 1997. Even though I never fully understood the spacious place part until now, the words were a source of such encouragement. These verses, in addition to many other encouraging words from the Lord, imparted wisdom, strength and virtue in the midst of the storm.
However, there is one verse that I believe still awaits full completion. “I tell you a truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it brings forth a harvest” (John 12:25). Even in the midst of his personal storm, Bill was unwavering in his commitment to His greater glory. Like the men and women of faith in Hebrews 11, the full harvest of Bill’s faith did not come in his lifetime but I am convinced that the greater glory that Bill lived and died to see come to earth…will indeed happen! Again, Janet McMullen’s comment on the One Day Closer phrase is pregnant with insight: “The revival we hoped to see when Bill was healed is still coming, and it may well be that the GREAT THING to which we are closer is far greater than one man’s earthly healing. It is the healing of hundreds, if not thousands in this community. Whatever the GREAT THING is for us, it makes me smile to think that Bill already knows what it is and he is grinning from ear to ear.”
There are mysteries in life that we will never understand. It behooves each of us to life a life of faithfulness so that “When It’s All Said And Done”, because in life or death, there’s just one thing that matters: “Did I do my best to live for truth…Did I live my life for You?” However, one truth is undeniable. One way or the other, revival or transition, each of us is One Day Closer to His greater glory!