A Prodigal Christmas Story

Picture1Today I am releasing a Christmas short story called “A Prodigal Christmas” which is available for a nominal fee on Amazon.com.

“A Prodigal Christmas” is the story is about Austin Shelton who is a successful sports writer for the Atlanta News Press. His father is the Reverend Bobby Joe Shelton who is a TV minister. They haven’t spoken since his mother’s passing. Austin receives a letter from his father which seems to end all hope at any reconciliation. Just when Austin gives up hope, he finds an old family Christmas portrait. Is it possible that this portrait could be the key which unlocks a Christmas miracle?

As I watch the Hallmark Christmas movies, my wife said that I should write a Christmas story.  Unfortunately, you can’t always just sit down and write a story without some good inspiration behind it.  They say that writers should write what they know.  I know this story and the emotions that are the foundation of the story.  The inspiration for this story came upon me one night last week and I could not sleep until I had written it.  So at somewhere around 2 a.m. one morning, I typed this entire story out on my iPhone then tweaked it over the next couple of days.

During the holidays much is said about being with family and enjoying the holidays with those that we love.  For some, relationships aren’t so good.  Words are said, deeds are done and decisions are made which strain the relationships we have.  In this story of an estranged father-son relationship, it depicts both sides of the strife that often occurs.  While it’s quite cliché to say to each one to “forgive and forget” the act of making the effort becomes the obstacle that neither side can overcome.

A “prodigal” is a characterization of someone who is reckless or wasteful with something.  In the Biblical account of the Prodigal Son,  a father has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance and after wasting his fortune, becomes destitute. He returns home with the intention of begging his father to be made one of his hired servants, expecting his relationship with his father is likely severed.

When we are wasteful with the years of a relationship, there is a void in our souls.  Nothing can fill it except a reconciliation of the severed relationship.  In spite of all our reasons for it whether our reasons are legitimate or not, nothing can cure it like forgetting the past which has passed and birthing a new relationship.

It is my hope that this story will give people the nudge they need to reconcile with a family member or friend at the most magical time of the year.

To purchase and download a copy for only 99 cents, click the link below:

“A Prodigal Christmas”

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I Ran Where Jesus Walked

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Jerusalem on 2005 Tour

In 2005, I travelled to Israel for a Holy Land Tour with Perry Stone Ministries.  Okay, don’t tune me out yet until you read everything because this won’t be a touchy-feely religious article.  It certainly won’t be a glowing endorsement for you to take one of these trips either.

As you know, I grew up in church. My dad was a preacher. I attended Sunday School, Bible Studies and have heard countless hours of sermons. When the opportunity came up to be able to go to Israel and visit the “Land of the Bible” I was naturally excited about it. I was looking forward to the Bible coming alive.

I had high expectations for this trip to the land of the Bible stories I had been taught and read all of my life.  It was quite an experience to actually visit places that was in the Bible but the “spiritual experience” I expected to have there never happened.  The trip was advertised as being a 14-day tour of the Holy Land but two of those 14 days was actually the travel to and from Israel.  There were also a lot of places advertised in the brochure that we did not get to visit for some reason. There were never any explanations why these places were skipped.

If you think travelling with 500 other Christians is “heavenly” – think again.  I won’t say everyone was difficult because there were some really genuine good people but the majority was either super spiritual or very moody.  If you were to ask people about their experience with me I’m sure I would have been in that moody group because the tour was a colossal disappointment for me.  Yes, I’m sure my church friends will probably let out a collective gasp right about now.  Sorry, but I won’t sugar coat this one. The expectations did not meet the reality.

The main issue I had with the trip was that it was a tour with Perry Stone Ministries and their tour partner crammed in way too many people.  It was supposed to be 300 but they squeezed in 200 more than they had planned. They put groups of 50 people into 10 buses for the tour.  Everywhere we went we were rushed through the sites. It got so bad that at one stop where they were showing us something etched into the wall where Jesus was held before his crucifixion, the guide yelled at me – yes, YELLED at me to keep moving.  I had enough and refused.  I told him that we paid a lot of money for the tour and I was not going to be rushed through something like this.  Seriously, you save money to go on this trip where you may never go again and you have a guide yelling at you to hurry? Yeah, you aren’t going to get a Christian reaction from me.

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Perry Stone at a TV taping

Also, at several stops we had to gather around Perry Stone as he had a TV taping for his show.  It took away valuable time for us to be herded around him to listen to his preaching.  The best times were when we could breakaway with our own guide for our bus.

Let me say that as for Perry Stone, he was very down-to-earth and didn’t have an ego like you would think some other TV preachers have. He actually spoke to you when you approached him.

In spite of some of the issues I had with the tour, one of my favorite moments was when we were on a boat on Lake Tiberias (a.k.a. the “Sea of Galilee”). While many others were in the middle of the boat for another TV taping, I sat on the front of the boat with my own moment of meditation. It was pretty awesome to know that Jesus had walked on the water. It was one of the rare times I had to myself to enjoy something on the tour.

Here are some of the things about the trip to Israel that wasn’t what I had expected:

  • The Jordan River – It isn’t exactly a river in most places. In my mind i had always pictured it as a huge river but in reality it wasn’t. There was an explanation that it had gotten smaller over the centuries since the Bible days due to various reasons.
  • The Valley of Elah – This is the place where David killed Goliath. I had always envisioned it with huge mountains on each side and a huge valley. It wasn’t. There were barely hills on each side of the valley along with a busy highway running through it.
  • The Garden Tomb – While the location of the crucifixion was still there, just below it at the base of the hill is a busy bus terminal.
  • Caesarea – This was a location of Paul’s ministry next to the Mediterranean Sea and it would have been awesome to see it but when we arrived it was night and they drove us directly to this site from the airport in the dark. It was a lame attempt to fit it in like this. I heard the Mediterranean Sea but never saw it.
  • Baptism in the Jordan River – This was an assembly line for baptisms.
  • Where did Jesus really walk? – This is a question asked frequently on the tour. In fact the place they say where Jesus ascended into heaven is actually three locations depending on your religious affiliation.

Would I ever go back? Probably with the situation and the right tour group. I would never discourage anyone from going but I would caution you to temper your expectations. Here are some things I would do differently on a future trip to the Holy Land:

  1. Go with a small tour group. In 2005, I was in a group of 500. Although we were grouped by 50 people per bus, it was still quite chaotic. I would go with a group of no more than 50 people.
  2. Don’t go with a TV minister. They want to do their tapings for their TV shows which really take away from your touring time.
  3. Try to stay at one location during the tour. Jerusalem is a good central location for most tours.
  4. Take good walking shoes. You will do a lot of walking.
  5. Get a direct flight to Israel if possible. Your body will thank you for it.
  6. Go with the right group for you. Some are geared toward Catholics, Pentecostals, etc.
  7. Manage your expectations. This is a tourist location and more modern than you will expect.

Although it wasn’t the spiritual high I had expected, it was a unique experience. I really don’t need to go back and I honestly probably didn’t need to go in the first place. It was never about going to a place to experience God. I should have known that.

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Taking a drink at the location where Gideon’s Army took a drink

I will also tell you that no one cares about your trip when you get back. They won’t be in awe that you went to the Holy Land and they will be bored with your pictures from the trip. Friends and family weren’t the least bit interested and I guess I can understand it since I really lacked the enthusiasm due to my personal experience.

If you want to visit the Holy Land, I certainly don’t want to discourage you from going but just go with realistic expectations. You don’t NEED to visit there to experience God.

“The Star” Shines Brightly

This weekend my wife and I watched the movie “The Star” which has to be the best movie of the season.

“The Star” is an animated movie about the first Christmas. It’s not your typical nativity movie. The movie features a brave donkey named Bo who dreams of being famous and getting out of the grind mill in Nazareth. Bo teams up with other animals to help Mary and Joseph as they avoid one of King Herod’s goons as the birth of Jesus approaches.

The movie includes the voices of Steven Yeun, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Clarkson, Patricia Heston, Kristin Chenoweth, Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.

The movie is very inspiring and has a positive message. It is also surprisingly close to being Biblically accurate aside from the talking animals. It shouldn’t ruffle the religious folks too much. It is a good retelling of the nativity that is very entertaining for the entire family. Yes, it’s an animated movie but don’t be a hater about it. This movie is worth seeing and one of the best Christmas movies this season.

I have to admit I got chill bumps when Mary was visited by Gabriel. It was very spiritual. The movie has a good message. In one of the scenes, Joseph makes the statement that “just because God has a plan doesn’t mean it will be easy”. This is the main theme throughout the movie. Bo also shows us how to follow our destiny.

In this day when people cringe at Christianity or any mention of Jesus or Christmas, it is refreshing to see this kind of movie that isn’t preachy or cheesy but still presents the birth of Christ in a powerful way.

Want To Make God Laugh?

If you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans.

I like to plan.  That’s just how I am.  I make God laugh a lot because my plans also slip into my prayers.  Sometimes I have it all figured how God can do things.  I’m sure He doesn’t need my help but at least I give Him some good entertainment.

I have heard that God has a plan for our lives.  (Jeremiah 29:11). I’m sure He does but I can’t resist trying to help Him out anyway.

Believe it or not, God DOES have our best interest at heart even if we don’t see it at the time.  Sometimes we have to go a little ways down the road before we can understand why and others time we never know.

I once had a job opportunity in Pensacola, Florida. I knew the guy that I had worked with for several years.  He was on the interview panel.  I was qualified for the job and I just knew we were moving there.  We even started packing and while we were in Pensacola we even looked at a house.   The plan was coming together. Or so I thought.

I didn’t get the job.   I was shocked beyond words.  It totally took the wind out of me.  I hadn’t even considered the possibility of not getting the job.  It took me a long time to recover from that.   About a year later I was able to see things that happened with that office and people that were moved around. I eventually realized that it would have been a terrible move.  When I realized this, I couldn’t thank God enough for closing that door and having another plan.

It’s very difficult for planners like me to pray and wait on God to work things out. I’m the kind of person that if I see where I want to be then I want to go directly there as soon as possible. God isn’t always like that. In my experience, He is rarely like that. Most of the time there is some waiting involved. Frustrating? Yes. Rewarding? Absolutely. In the end, His plan is always better.

The Bible says He is a rewards those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) That’s why it is important to spend more time getting with God’s plan than trying to force Him to work into our plan.

It’s always tempting to want to know God’s plan and try to help Him with it but honestly He doesn’t need our help. He is very capable of doing it Himself.

So how can we stay out of God’s way and let Him work His plan?

  1. Be patient. Let God do what He wants to do. It’s a lot better in the long run.
  2. Have faith. Even when it’s not working the way you think it should.
  3. Pray. Keep communication with God and conform to His plan.
  4. Stop being a control freak. Let it go and let God do His work. He doesn’t need our help.

The best thing we can do is hang in there and roll with the direction God is moving. Trust in His plan to be the best plan.

When Prayers Get Stale

It is a challenge to maintain a consistent prayer life.  We all know the importance of prayer but if we have to be honest, sometimes it can get stale.  I know that I get tired hearing words come out of my mouth.  The same petitions daily.  It’s exciting when there is something new to pray about but when the need stretches into weeks, months or even years, it can lose a little steam.  

Trust me, I have said many times that prayer would be a whole lot easier if God talked to us like we do each other.  It can often feel like a one-sided conversation or even that we are talking to ourselves.  Prayer is about communicating with God but honestly it doesn’t seem like it sometimes. 

So what can we do when prayer gets stale?  What can we do to freshen it up?

  1. Stop asking and start thanking.  It’s easy to get stuck always asking God to do things.  The Bible says we should but it can make our prayer life weak when we are always asking.  Make some time to just thank Him for things and reminisce about prayers He has answered in the past.  Your faith will be stronger when you do that.  
  2. Pray for other people.  Just pray for people that pop into your head.  If you know their need or what they are going through spend time praying for others.  If you aren’t sure what to pray for ask.  Most people aren’t going to be offended if you want to pray for them.  
  3. Stop doing all the talking.  Be quiet.  You will be surprised how hard this is.  If you need help just focus on thinking about a verse to keep your mind engaged.  
  4. Listen to music.  Music is very uplifting and encouraging.  It will energize you and your prayer life when nothing else can.  I have found that lyrics in a song can say things better than I can say and stirs my emotion.  
  5. Listen to the Bible.  Yes I said LISTEN instead of read.  Listening to the dramatized version of the Bible can speak to you in ways like never before.  I have mentioned this before and some thought I was crazy for suggesting it.  All I can tell you is that it worked for me when my prayers needed a boost.  Try it.  You will be amazed.  

Honestly, maintaining a prayer life is hard.  There are so many distractions that can get in the way of meaningful and emotionally involved prayer.  When it gets stale, you need to do whatever works for you to make it fresh again.  One of the worst mistakes I have made was to stop praying altogether.  Trust me.  If you stop, it will be even more difficult to start again.  

God has never answered me audibly and there was a time when that really frustrated me.  I didn’t understand it or I didn’t think I was holy enough for Him to speak to me.  I still wish He would but I know that He works in many ways.  I refuse to let that hinder me in doing what I know to do to communicate with Him.  I really can’t explain it.  I wish I could convince you but I can’t.  It just simply takes doing it to experience it.  

Don’t let your prayers get stale.  Freshen it up and keep it going.  

When Prayers Make Things Worse

Have you ever prayed for something or someone and things got worse instead of better?  Answers you desperately wanted worked opposite of how you had prayed.  Without a doubt, this seriously causes your faith to take a hit.  

I can tell you that trying to understand it is very difficult.  I have prayed for people to be healed only to see them get them get worse. Now these are the experiences that can really throw you for a loop.  They can push you to the point of asking yourself why you even pray in the first place.   You have to be a strong person to get through this and realize that your prayers aren’t necessarily any kind of jinx or cause for something getting worse.   

When you pray and you get the opposite result doesn’t mean that things are getting worse.  That is our perspective but we have to understand that God has a view of things that goes beyond what we can see.  This gets a little deep but basically it comes down to the fact that we have to trust what we don’t see to God who can see it all.  

Our prayers are embedded with what we want to happen but sometimes God’s will can be something totally different.  Honestly, sometimes it simply doesn’t make sense.  Try explaining this to someone who doesn’t believe at all.  It isn’t a fun position to be in.  How can you help someone else believe when it isn’t working for you?  

I get annoyed when I see preachers on TV talk about faith and prayer as if faith is some kind of magic spell that if you have enough of it God will do anything you ask.  If not, then maybe you need to “sow seed” into their ministry. If you aren’t familiar with that terminology, it means to SEND MONEY to them.   If you do that somehow God will be compelled to do what you ask.  

God ain’t your personal genie.   Sending money to a preacher isn’t going to guarantee you a positive result.  In case anyone needs a reminder, God will do what He wants to do when He wants to do it.   Our job is to pray according to His will and accept the results.  

The Bible even tells us that God’s ways aren’t our ways (Isaiah 55:8) so there will be times that we aren’t praying according to what God wants to do.  This can be awfully frustrating.  Believe me, I have had my share of these times in my own life.  

Once I was praying for a situation and was sure of the direction everything was going to go and never considered any other option.  When the door closed on my answer I was devasted and didn’t understand at all why God shut it down.  I will be honest and tell you that it knocked the wind out of me.  But in time I saw why things happened the way they did.  I am very glad how things turned out.  It took some time but I learned to appreciate how God answered my prayer even if it wasn’t what I prayed for.  

Here are some important things I have hopefully learned when my prayers have made things worse:

  1. Don’t get mad at God.  Yep, that’s the first that happens.  It doesn’t work.  He’s still God.  We have to get over it and understand that He knows what He’s doing. 
  2. Don’t stop praying.  We may think it doesn’t matter if we pray or not but praying isn’t always about asking it is also about simply communicating which also involves listening or being quiet. 
  3. Realize that God has a better plan.  Clear your mind and get yourself lined up with God’s plan instead of your own.  

Timing is everything.  When things get worse when you pray, it’s not you.  It’s God at work.  Trust in God and don’t trust in your understanding about things. (Proverbs 3:5)

There Is A God And I Ain’t Him

It’s hard to wait on God to do something.  You pray the prayers and engage your faith yet you wait.  I don’t know about you but I’m not any good at waiting.  

I have even found myself telling God how He could get something done.  Yeah, I’m sure He had a good laugh at that one.  I had a pastor once that liked to say that there is a God and we ain’t Him.  It’s funny how we can forget that little fact.  

I’m good at figuring things out for God but the truth is that I have no clue and I’m certainly not God.  For me, it’s hard not being in control.  The waiting and seeing nothing change is quite frustrating.  It’s like you see where you want to be and simply want to get from Point A to Point B.  

God doesn’t work like that.  

If there is one thing I think I have learned in time I have had to wait on God is that He has his own timing and ways in answering prayers.  It is evident that to answer prayer which involves people that God won’t force people to do things.  There is still that wildcard of free will.  This is where some times where God has to work in His mysterious ways. The dynamics of everything working together can get quite complicated.  

So I’m still waiting.  What can I possibly do while I’m waiting?

  1. Accept it.  There’s nothing I can do to change it.  Even if I did I could make it worse.  The best I can do is be where I am now. 
  2. Keep the faith.  Faith can waver. Some days it’s really strong and other days it needs a little boost.  What helps me is to look back when God has helped in the past.  
  3. Be thankful.  Instead of constantly asking and repeating my petition it is good to be thankful on how I got to this point.  Being thankful actually strengthens your faith. 
  4. Be ready.  Look for the answer and be ready when God opens the door.  

It’s hard not being in control but it’s better to let God do His job.  Nothing surprises God and it’s certain you would never hear him say “Oops”.  He knows what He is doing.  

Another good thing about God is even if we get in the way and mess things up, God can still take our mess and work it out. Of course, it could delay things but He’s still able to work it out.  

Do I like waiting?  Heck no.  I see the answer but there is no way to it yet.  I have to keep calm and not stress out about it.  It’s a delicate balance.  I have also reminded myself of times past when I thought I knew the plan but it turned out differently but later saw how it worked out like it should.  

Yeah, I think I’m going to let God do His thing and try to stay out His way.