Just after Thanksgiving last year, we lost our dog of 13 years to a heart tumor.  It was a painful couple of weeks, but a small sacrifice for the many years of service he provided us.  At that time, I intended to write about lessons I had learned from my dog, but with the holiday distraction, that intent never materialized.  Then a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I welcomed a 1-year-old German Shepherd into our home.  He was basically well-trained and house broken, but had a couple unaddressed issues that we needed to quickly get under control– he is no small lap dog and still a puppy!

Dog training has fascinated me over the last several years.  I enjoy watching Cesar Millan’s show, The Dog Whisperer, and have read his book as well.  If you have ever seen his show, you may be aware that one of his mantras is that it is as important to train the human as it is the dog.  Dogs derive a great deal of their energy and disposition from their humans.  In that sense, a dog can act as a barometer of the emotional mindset of the people in their life.  It is both a fascinating and sometimes scary insight.

RoccoSo last weekend we enlisted the services of a dog trainer for a couple hours work, primarily to address walking (not pulling!) and handling the volatile energy level of an adolescent dog.  I was quickly reminded that some of the issues with the dog’s state of mind could be addressed if I would only change my state of mind.  I was impressed as I watched the trainer whip the dog into a playful frenzy and then within 30 seconds, have the dog lying calmly on the floor.  I became aware that in my attempt to be forceful, I was also projecting excitable energy, sending the dog mixed messages.  And in trying to keep the dog from pulling, I was essentially getting into a tug-of-war contest I was not going to win.

With a few adjustments in how I communicate with the dog, but also with my own state of mind and energy level, this past week has been a reversal of the first couple of weeks.  The dog walks right beside me, calm for the better part of the walk.  Not only does the dog respond better to a few verbal commands, but I have much more confidence in my ability to bring his energy level down when it gets quickly elevated.  And I am now freer to play with the dog at home without fear that I have just unleashed a whirlwind of chaos.

Yet returning to Cesar Millan’s philosophy, all this is not as much about our new dog as it is gaining insight into my own state of mind.  Keeping a dog calm at home requires me to remain calm.  Over the last week, I have been aware of how many times I face the choice of whether to let some little incident send me fuming or whether to calmly address the issue and move on.  Calmly, yet assertively, communicating my wishes works much better than raising my voice and yelling the command.  (By the way, this works on humans as well.)  There is a living, breathing (and panting and slobbering) barometer in the room that is giving me constant feedback.

While we two-legged creatures may not be quite as dialed in to the energy levels of each other as dogs are, it does make me wonder if I can apply this understanding to my human interactions.  What energy level am I bringing into my conversations?  What emotions do I think I am hiding, but actually projecting through my non-verbal cues?  Am I fully present in these interactions?  Having just finished my annual reflective exercise of the Fruit of the Spirit, it is much easier to “vibe” love, joy, peace, and patience when my mindset is already in that state.  Perhaps we give ourselves far too much credit for being able to contrive these virtues when our spirit is flustered and fuming.

The training continues.

The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.
You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it.
You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.
The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing.

- Psalm 65

I was reading this psalm the other day, which praises God for watered lands, abundant crops and hillsides dotted with flocks.  It struck me how easy it is to view a psalm like this as a spectator, perhaps driving through farmland taking it all in from the comfort of my car.  I remember driving from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem and seeing sheep scattered across hillsides.  It was a perfect scene – and easy to give praise to God in that moment.

But what is really taking place in this psalm?  In an agricultural society sheep on the hillsides and grain in the valley represented the mundane and difficult work of a farmer – early mornings tending the sheep, caring for sick animals, plowing fields, praying for enough rain to bring about a harvest.  The observations of the psalm above represent a brief respite from constantly working the land to both give thanks to God and to ask God for blessings on your labor.

 © Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

It struck me that while it may be easy to read this psalm as I would appreciate a photo of such a scene, the intent was to take a brief break from your labors from time to time and give thanks to God for these blessings.  Would such a psalm today speak of full email inboxes and project deadlines?  What about the ability to fill the cart at the grocery store and getting the oil changed in the car?  Can we lift our heads from our work throughout the day and thank God for jobs, errands, and the comforts of modern life?  In doing so, we may also remind ourselves of the spiritual value of the mundane, be it at work, at home, or at school.  The mundane can take on great spiritual significance when we pause to allow God to water our efforts.

It may not be as romantic as a hillside scene dotted with sheep and a valley full of wheat, but I wonder if it strikes closer to the intent of such a psalm?

Last week, I posted a screenshot of books I read during 2013.  Today, as a means of reviewing the past year, I will take a look at some of the topics and events that prompted me to write over the last twelve months.  You may have already read some of these, but if not, the links will take you to each story.

Connected-thumb

2013 began just as it has for me for the past several years, with a spiritual review of the year by studying the Fruit of the Spirit.  I have built upon this idea for the past couple of years, and this past January/February I wrote further on each individual piece of fruit.  It has been a great way to begin the new year and I am embarking on this same exercise even now.  For a full index of the Fruit of the Spirit, go to Top Posts and review all the entries on this topic.
Better yet, go here and download the complete guide!  Yes, 2013 marked the release of the short study, Connected To The Vine, inspired by this topic and your feedback.  Thanks to those who have read it, provided feedback, and even used it as a group study guide.

Corinth

In March, my brother and I took a trip visiting many biblical sites throughout the Mediterranean region.  Our journey began at Athens, and continued to Corinth, over to Ephesus in Turkey, then to the Cappadocia region of Turkey, and finally concluded in Istanbul.  It was an amazing trip that continues to impact and shape the way I read scripture.  I shared just some of my observations from each stop through this space.

2013 had its sad moments as well.  Personally, I experienced the loss of a couple of loved ones.  Death seemed to be a theme in the late summer/fall.  More broadly speaking, two authors whose writings impacted me deeply, also passed.  Brennan Manning and Dallas Willard always challenged me and their spiritual insights will be missed.  I was fortunate to meet Brennan Manning in person and he was a great example of spiritual strength in brokenness.

I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to post this past fall – primarily due to the previously mentioned loss of loved ones.  But I did have a moment sitting in an airport that reminded me how easily relationships can be pushed aside by electronic distractions if we are not careful.  We can be so engrossed in our on-line world that we are not present for those actually along our path.

Finally, I completed this interview for my book site, where I share some of the events that led to my writing, as well as provide a glimpse of my upcoming project.  God willing, 2014 will see the completion of A Journey Through Ephesus, a project I am very excited about!

Thanks for your support and encouragement; follow this blog to stay up-to-date on my observations and projects, and blessings in 2014!

Goodreads has a pretty cool feature that allows you to display all the covers of the books you completed that year.  Since I am always reading something – and am always interested in what others are reading – I thought I’d share the books I finished reading in 2013.

2013 Books

 

I try to use this site to review or comment on many of the book I read, but don’t always get to all of them.  I did manage to get my thoughts down on the books below (click for the link):

The end of the year is always a great time to review memories, milestones, and significant moments from the past year.

I recently had an opportunity to complete a brief interview for my author page on Smashwords.  I thought I would share it here as well.

When did you first start writing?

As a pastor, I wrote sermon outlines, but I always felt like there was so much more to explore in any given topic. There was one series I had taught a couple of time, and even after teaching through it more than once, I still had ideas bouncing around in my head on the topic. Then on a trip to Israel with a couple of good friends, one of these friends encouraged me to start writing. I came home and began writing my first book, Ten Essential Words, where I really took a comprehensive look at the Ten Commandments and their relevance for today’s world. I’ve been writing ever since.

Who are your favorite authors?

There are several authors that I love to read for different reasons. Brennan Manning, who recently passed away, has probably influenced me as much as anyone. His writing really reaches deep inside me and brings out emotions and insights that tend to get pushed aside. N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard bring an intellectual approach to the Bible and to faith that I really resonate with. Bruce Feiler‘s books on exploring the actual places and sites of the Old Testament hit close to one of my biggest passions: traveling to places rich with Biblical history.

What motivated you to become an indie author?

I had finally finished the manuscript to my first book. Like any unpublished author at the time, I sent several book proposals to publishers. I was investing time and money, getting no where. Meanwhile, I had this manuscript saved on my hard drive, not being read by anyone. I began reading a couple books about how the internet was opening channels up to people that have been traditionally controlled by a handful of big players – be it record labels, publishers, or mainstream media. I realized that I had a choice to continue to play the game of getting the attention of a publisher or to go the indie route and get my ideas out there available to people. It has been both challenging and rewarding.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Reading a good book at a coffee shop, most likely. But outside of work and writing, I always have a couple books I am reading my way through. I am always planning my next travel adventure. And when time permits, I enjoy cooking and trying new restaurants. I enjoy food that has been prepared with passion!

What are you working on next?

I am really excited to explore the New Testament letter of Ephesians from the context of the Greco-Roman world of the recipients. Most commentaries tend to either lack depth, avoiding any contextual discussion, or be so deep, dissecting the sentence structure of the original language to an extent that the larger narrative is lost. I wanted to take a letter like Ephesians and really tell the story: who where these people, how would they have heard Paul’s words, why did Paul write what he did, and what did it mean to be a Greek person in the Roman Empire trying to live out the message of Jesus. This past spring, I actually travelled to the archaeological site of Ephesus, so I am really excited to finish this project!

One of the things you quickly realize living in Orlando is that while you might be flying into Orlando headed home, at least half the flight is filled with people headed to Disney World.  Excited kids, large international groups, and even the occasional entertainer are not uncommon.  All were present on a flight last week as I headed home from business travel.

Preparing to leave Dallas, the announcement was made over the intercom that the plane could not pull away from the gate until all electronic devices had been turned off.  A minute later, an attendant walked up to the man seated one row behind me and kindly, but firmly, informed the man that the plane was waiting for him to finish his text messages.  The man replied that he took off work early to take his family to Disney World and that he was getting slammed with urgent emails.  With the same demeanor, the attendant again told the man that the entire plane was waiting on him.  He apologized, hit send and powered off his phone.

I am always a bit amazed at how oblivious people can be to their surroundings.  Airports seem to bring out the worst of this tendency.  I (along with the rest of the plane) was pondering this very thing, waiting for Exhibit A to wrap up his business.

Then as the plane began to pull away, the man’s young son pleaded to his father in a tone that captured the moment, “Daddy, when we get to Disney World will you please keep your phone turned off?”

My heart immediately went out to this kid.  I could guess that it was not the first time this kid watched his dad frantically pecking away at his keyboard during family time.  But enough about Exhibit A.

It was a reminder of how often I see people engrossed in their portal to virtual connection at the expense of actual people around them.  I have chuckled silently as every single person in line at Chipotle is sending out texts as fast as they can type.  It is common to observe  people out to dinner – presumable with each other – engrossed in virtual conversations as they sit quietly across the table.  No doubt, I’ve been guilty of this as well.

To be clear, I love my iPhone and I am not grumpily clamoring for the good ol’ days when a phone was only a phone and affixed to the wall.  But there are times throughout each and every week when the announcement to please turn off electronic devices would serve us well.  One of my co-workers this past week was expressing her level of stress, stating that she begins answering texts and emails beginning at 5 am each morning for the East Coast and usually doesn’t stop until about 10 pm wrapping up West Coast correspondence.  It is not an uncommon complaint.

Perhaps, with the ability to be accessible 24 hours a day, we have lost our discipline to be accessible only to to those physically present – or at times, not at all.  Are we taking ourselves too seriously?  Maybe my job isn’t that important, but there are times when I definitely choose to be inaccessible.

When are the times during your week where you could benefit from the announcement to please turn off electronic devices?  Wait, is there an app for that?

I read a book a couple months ago titled Grateful by Ryan Sprague.  Sprague was a member of the 1999 National Championship football team at Florida State University and the book recounts his journey from walk-on to starting tight end his Senior season.  I enjoyed reliving many great memories of that season and Sprague’s insights into being a part of that team.

SeasonsNow Sprague has written a second book, Seasons.  Seasons remains in the world of college football, but takes an entirely different perspective on the subject – this time imparting wisdom to the athlete who is about to embark on college life.  But this wisdom is communicated in a unique way.  Seasons is the story of a recent high school grad named Justin Foxe.  J (which is how everyone knows him in his town) has received a football scholarship to the state university.  But before the summer ends and two-a-days begin, his grandfather has planned a day for a number of different people to come spend some time with him, talking about how to prepare himself for life as a student athlete.  The advice ranges from dealing with adversity given by a local college coach to faith dispersed from a professor to leadership from a CEO.  Other topics include dealing with the media, decision-making, and integrity, among others.  The book’s storyline makes for an enjoyable and engaging read.

While written specifically for student athletes , the book contains welcome advice for any high school grad advancing to their next phase of life.  In fact, being well past my own college days, there is much in the book that served as great reminders for jobs, relationships, and life goals.  Seasons has application well-beyond the narrow target audience.

For more information on the book and how to order, visit Seasons web site.

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