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.

What follows is part two of the Ninth Commandment from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.  The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

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We began discussing this Ninth Commandment with the modest example of ordering a cup of coffee.  It may have seemed insignificant at the time, but it is in these little daily interactions that our name and our reputation can either gain or lose credibility.  We may have lost some sense of the value of a good name – if it is not in a written contract, it usually is not worth anything today.  But there are still places where our name has a certain value.

The online garage sale eBay still relies on the value of a name.  Each time a seller or buyer engages in a transaction, the other party has an opportunity to rate them.  If the person was positive to work with, paid their money on time, or shipped the item in a timely manner, a point is added to that person’s name.  A neutral experience nets zero points.  A bad experience, such as a delay in shipment or failing to pay results in a point taken away from the person’s name.  Each transaction, whether selling a comic book or purchasing a plasma-screen TV, counts the same when it comes to assessing the value of a name.  In general, the larger the number, the more trustworthy the person will be.  Here is a hint: avoid negative people – literally!

ebay-seller-ratingsWhat if we stepped out of the world of eBay and literally had a hologram number hovering above our head in real life?  Every conversation and transaction either bumped that number up or pulled it down.  Would it change the way you conducted your daily routine?  Would it change the content of your conversations?  To be people who embrace truth would mean that we would have no fear of that number hovering above our head.  It would be visible for the entire world to see that we place a high value on honesty and speaking the truth in love.  Truth is, that number is probably more visible to people than we realize.

Consider the ways in which you can fully embrace truth.

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!

The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”  The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.

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A cursory reading of other ancient law codes would indicate that laws against giving false testimony in a legal case were not as common as other laws, which is not to say they were absent.  This may be the result of the ancients having a more holistic view of the trustworthiness of a person’s words: if a person was trustworthy, then it did not matter if their testimony was part of a legal proceeding, a business transaction, or simply part of casual conversation.  Contrast this to our practice today of swearing in a witness as part of a legal proceeding, almost as if to say, “You can say what you want out there, but in here you must tell the truth!”  In fact, witnesses in ancient Israelite and Greek trials were not usually placed under oath.  There does not seem to be any Hebrew text in which a witness is said to have been sworn in, as we might conceive of it.  Similarly, in ancient Athens most witnesses were not placed under oath, and prosecution for false testimony did not depend on whether a witness testified under oath.  In essence, we might say that in ancient times, a person was continually under oath.

If you recall, this entire topic of oath-taking was also covered under the Third Commandment regarding taking Yahweh’s name in vain.  In some sense, the Third and the Ninth Commandment are almost redundant. To revisit the topic, an oath was similar to making a covenant, but could have a lesser, informal meaning of simply buying something or making a promise – but binding none-the-less.  Oaths usually involved invoking the name of a deity as a witness as well, hence the prohibition against using the name of Yahweh in this fashion. While oaths were the language of treaties and contracts between people, and breaking an oath had serious consequences, giving false testimony was the language of the legal system and referred specifically to the credibility of the witness.  In essence, with this Ninth Commandment, Yahweh was protecting the integrity of the legal system that had just been put into place.

So with its original inclusion into the Ten Commandments, this commandment had an unmistakable legal undertone to it.  Yet, as with many of these commandments, the Hebrew Scriptures continue to broaden their application beyond the legal realm and into everyday life.  Turning again to the book of Leviticus, where the Ten Commandments are reiterated and expounded upon, the Law expands on this commandment prohibiting the giving of false testimony, “Do not steal.  Do not lie.  Do not deceive one another.  Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.  I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:11-12).  So the broader concept, “Do not lie,” associated with this commandment is not off the mark.  While we can see a wide range of dishonest activities associated with lying included here, we cannot miss that last statement, “I am Yahweh.”  With that simple addition, God was constantly reminding the people, “I am Yahweh … who brought you out of Egypt.  I am Yahweh … who has led you this far.  I am Yahweh … who will make you into a great nation.”  These commandments are the righteous standards of Yahweh, and when we deviate from these standards, we stray from the righteous life Yahweh desires of us.

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