Prodigal Son: Billy Bell
Prodigal Son: Billy Bell
I love the hymn “Were You There?” You see, I was there at the cross on Calvary. I was one of those lost sinners who Christ gave his life to save. I truly am a “prodigal son.” I grew up in Florence, Alabama, a few miles down the road from where I live now in Huntsville. My father was a retired navy chief, very strict, and hard to please. My family went to the Southern Baptist Church. My parents were really active in church, so it seemed like we were there every time the doors opened. It was in that church, in Sunday school and in youth activities, that I first met Jesus Christ.
I made good grades, didn’t give my parents any problems; but, my life changed when I went away to college at Auburn, and I joined a fraternity. Not just any fraternity, but the wildest one on campus. My fraternity house was just like the one in the movie “animal house,“ and I was introduced to a whole new world of no parental supervision, beautiful college girls and longneck buds. I had a double major- partying and girls, and I finished first in my class in both subjects. I was as far away from God and the Cross as I possibly could have been.
The problem just got worse when I finished law school, because my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer, and needed to have surgery. In his hospital room, on the night before his surgery, was the first time that he had ever told me and my little brother that he loved us. I was 25 years old. You see, my dad was an alcoholic, and he had been raised by an alcoholic father who never told him he loved him either; so he thought that was normal. He told me that night that the biggest mistake he had made in his life was not telling us that he loved us, and for me never to be afraid to tell someone that I loved them. We told each other that we loved each other that night for the first time; and, unfortunately, as it turned out, for the last time.
He never woke up from surgery, and was in a coma in ICU. When I visited him in ICU, the only way he could communicate when I told him I loved him was to squeeze my hand. I’ll never forget receiving that dreaded call at 2 am the next morning after surgery that “he’d taken a turn for the worst,” and running through the halls of Huntsville Hospital to the ICU like I was in a bad dream, going in slow motion. As I took his hand, I leaned over his bed and told him I loved him; but, there was no response, no squeeze. He was gone. Oh, I was really lost then, and it seemed that I was just kind of drifting through life- partying, broken relationships, affairs, three failed marriages. In spite of all that, I was a successful lawyer, made a lot of money, had everything materially I wanted; but something was missing in my life and that very important something was a close, loving relationship with Jesus Christ.
My life changed once again 23 years ago in the pediatric ICU at Huntsville hospital. I was standing in a dimly lit room next to the bed in which my then only grandchild was lying. His body was almost lifeless, and his little four month old head was badly swollen. He was suffering from hydro encephalitis, and he had been scheduled for emergency surgery to place a shunt in his brain to relieve the pressure. All the money I made, all the influence I arrogantly thought I had in the community made no difference whatsoever. I felt so helpless. As I stood next to Tucker’s bed, I bowed my head and went to my Lord and Savior in prayer. I prayed a prayer I think any grandparent in my situation would have prayed-“please, lord, save his life; take mine instead.” Tucker is now in college, working, and is perfectly normal; and, I’ve tried my best ever since to keep the promise I made to God that day- to give Him my life.
My life truly changed, because I turned my life over to God, and I started trusting Him with everything in my life. I was 45 years old, but just like the “last servant” hired in Jesus’ wonderful parable of hope, I received the same wages, the same reward, as those who came to Christ before me; and I came to know a Heavenly Father who tells me every day -”I love you, my son.”
Prior to my retirement in January, 2015, I served as a circuit court judge in madison county for 12 years, with the first 8 of those years dedicated to the family court. I had to try cases where children had been sexually and physically abused; a boy whose own father pushed him into a fire; a man who put his wife’s dog into a microwave; and a newborn baby whose father cracked his fragile, little skull while hitting the mother with his fists, as she tried to shield the child from his blows. I had 4 women for whom I had entered protection orders who were killed by their abusers after they left the courthouse. I’ve seen unbelievable pain and agony as families go through divorces, and I hurt for every one of them, especially the children. There were a lot of days that I didn’t think I could do it any more; but, on those days, God always seemed to send me a message telling me, “it‘s ok, Billy, trust me, I’m here”:
-By sending me notes and emails from special friends who told me that they and their prayer groups were praying for me, by name, and for those unfortunate families who were going through a divorce. And, by sending me a young father, who was on jury duty, who told me that his wife had recently left him and their 18 month old son, and moved in with her boyfriend out of state. As he left, I told him that I was going to pray for him and his son. I’ll never forget him turning as he walked away and saying “please, judge, pray for her, too.”
To remind me to trust him, I had a sign next to the door going into my courtroom that I would read every time I went in to try a case:
“Good morning, this is God. I will be handling all of your problems today. I will not need your help, so relax, and have a great day.”
That sign in my office reminds me of the first of my favorite verses in the Bible, Philippians 4:6:
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell god what you need, and thank him for all he has done.“ (NLT)
This verse says that when we worry, we’re telling God that we don’t trust Him enough to go to Him with our problems, and to turn our lives over to Him. I’m a “type A” person who likes to be in control of things, so it was hard for me to just relax and let God handle everything for me. I have to admit that I struggled with it, until I experienced the reward that comes with being able to trust God enough to turn everything over to him. The next verse in Philippians, chapter 4, verse 7, tells us what that reward is:
“Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (NLT)
I wanted that peace in my life so badly; and I discovered that it’s offered to all of us, just for the claiming, because the price has already been paid, on the cross at Calvary. Some of the things I do to stay in a close, loving relationship with God, and in that peace that comes with it, are:
-I talk to him, by praying at times all throughout the day. No one could have been busier than Jesus, but he was never too busy for prayer. I make prayer a priority in my daily life.
I listen for his answers, because I know that he will answer my prayers. Now, it may not be the answer I want, or as quickly as I want an answer; but the important thing to remember is that it’s His will to be done, not mine.
-I ask God every day to fill me with his Holy Spirit.
-I look for the doors he opens for me- it may be in the form of a person I meet, or an opportunity to share my faith.
-I go on our church’s Appalachian Service Project mission trip (called ASP) with other adults (including my younger daughter, Amanda) and high school students (which this year will include my sweet granddaughter, Sarah Jordan) and college students from our church. Those who know me will tell you that I can’t drive a nail straight, but when I offered to give up my spot on the team to someone who could, our former youth leader, Matt Bell, told me- “we build more than houses on ASP. You’re going.”
-Another thing I do is I read my Bible daily. I read the Bible cover to cover. If you read just 3 chapters every day, it’ll only take you about 12 months. I’m reading my 7th translation of the Bible now; and I learn something new every time.
-I also read a daily devotional, which can be a simple message, but can also be so powerful that it changes your life. For example, I carried around a whole lot of guilt and shame for a long time about being divorced 3 times, the lifestyle I had led, and the pain and hurt I had caused to others. Then one day in 2007, I read a daily devotional on my Billy Graham calendar that I kept on my desk at work, that included this message: “Marriage is a symbol of the unity between Christ and his church-a unity that should never be torn…. If divorce has happened to you, God can forgive the past, heal the present, and give hope for the future; but, if you are married, treasure your spouse as a gift from God, and yield your marriage to God.”
I finally understood then that God had forgiven me, and I left that guilt and shame with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at the foot of the Cross. Now I read “Jesus Calling,” which seems to speak directly to me every single day; so much so that I have even accused my wife of calling the author and telling her the way I am.
I am truly blessed. My beautiful, loving and extremely patient (more is required now that I am retired) 4th wife, Monica, and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary this July; and I have 3 great children, and 6 beautiful grandchildren. I think that these words to one of my favorite praise and worship songs sums it all up – “just one touch from the King changes everything.” I hope that the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, has touched your life, like he has mine. I promise you- it will change everything. May God bless your life, as he has truly blessed mine.