As part of my practice to review the previous year, I look back over the books I completed, I read through my journal entries, and I do a spiritual review using the Fruit of the Spirit.  I also take a look back at some of the topics and events that prompted me to write over the previous twelve months.  You may have already read some of these, but if not, the links will take you to each story.

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

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

I began last year in the Psalms, considering whether the imagery in some of the psalms are more pedestrian than we take them to be.  In Praise of Emails and Errands examines one of these psalms and asks whether or not we can find spiritual significance in the mundane, seemingly trivial chores of life.  This turned out to be somewhat of a theme for me this past year: Finding God in the everyday rhythms of life.

The Psalms, as a whole, turned out to be another theme as well.  In The Courts of God, I look at the imagery of being in the presence of God.  It should be no surprise that the same idea was being conveyed.  A person need not go to the Temple or other buildings to find God.  Wherever we find ourselves throughout the day, that space can become sacred space.

RoccoLast March we got a new dog, a one-year-old German Shepherd.  In Dog Training, I am reminded how much dogs can reflect our own emotions and energy levels.  Having a dog is like have a living, breathing barometer in the room giving me constant feedback on my own state of mind.  I will often find myself uttering something to the dog in frustration, only to hear the echo of God’s voice saying a similar message to me.

In May, I did a bit of housecleaning on my blog.  I combined the contents of another blog onto this site.  As a result, there is much new content related to my book, Ten Essential Words, on this site.  For a full index of that content, check out the Top Posts page.

I have already discussed the books I read, along with some of the posts that relate to my reading.  In December, I took time to reflect on all the transition that last year brought and reaffirmed my desire to be more present in each moment.  In Gift of the Present, I explore yet another reoccurring topic from last year: that of the past, present, and future.

As the holidays turn into a busy beginning to a new year, I hope you take some time to reflect on the past, live in the present, and trust God for your future.  Thanks for allowing me to share my own musings with you.  Please click the ‘Sign Me Up’ button on the home page to follow along this next year.  Not all content is posted to Facebook.

Peace and Blessings!

We recently used some Christmas money to re-sod our lawn and fix some drainage issues in our yard.  While my wife and I have almost finished all the work inside our house since moving in last July, the yard was a mess.  The grass was patchy and drainage was poor.  I spent several weekends last fall weeding the yard, only to find that the weeds comprised most of the green ground cover.  I tried grass seed, but with our irrigation system non-functional and a lack of rain, the seeds sprouted, but never took.  When it did rain, two or three areas in our yard would turn into small ponds.

So last week a crew showed up, tore out all the existing grass, fixed the irrigation system, and brought in a dump truck load of dirt to level out areas of erosion.  It was a flurry of activity for one morning and the crew did a great job.  There was just one problem.  The new grass won’t be delivered until sometime this next week.

As I had my coffee the next morning, I was looking out over our revamped lawn and all I saw was dirt.  In that moment, I actually started thinking the old yard wasn’t that bad.  Better than just dirt.  I had to remind myself that what I was looking at was not the finished product.  It was a necessary step to restoring the health of our lawn.

Landscaping

But this post is not about our lawn.

Being the beginning of a new year, I am working my way through my annual look back at my spiritual life, using the Fruit of the Spirit as a guide.  I couldn’t help but think that this was all a parable for the state of my soul.  I want spiritual growth in my life.  I can identify the areas that need some work.  I want to open myself up to the transforming work of God’s Spirit.

But – truth be told – I prefer God pluck a few weeds, scatter some seed, and hope for the best.  It is much less painful, but it will never create an environment where my soul flourishes.  Meanwhile, I wonder if God is ready to plow up all that is unhealthy, alter the landscape of my soul, and lay bare everything in preparation for something new.  But the laying bare part is the part that is painful, and it isn’t pretty.  It is, however, a necessary step in the formation of an environment that will promote flourishing.

So which will I choose?  The tinkering around on the weekends with some plucking and primping of the current state of my spiritual life?  Or the laying bare of all that isn’t compatable with the kingdom of God, so that new growth can take place?  Which will you choose?

Dirt isn’t pretty, but it is the foundation of healthy, new growth.

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.

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!

Back in the spring, I shared, through a blog series, my experience of using the Fruit of the Spirit as a reflective exercise and a way to periodically gauge one’s spiritual growth.  The response was great and I received some requests to publish my notes, blog posts, and my experiences to encourage others.  I am excited to announce that my new eBook, Connected to the Vine: A Reflective Guide to the Fruit of the Spirit, is now available!  Here is a brief description:

Fruit is a common metaphor found in the Bible.  It most cases, the imagery refers to the virtuous actions of those who follow Jesus.  This is why Jesus says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”  Picking up on this metaphor, the Apostle Paul lists nine of these qualities in his letter to the Galatians that have come to be known as the Fruit of the Spirit.  Few would argue that these nine qualities on this list are good and noble qualities to embody.  But how are they manifested in the way we live?  Are these pieces of fruit qualities that we can nurture within ourselves or are they simply qualities that God forms within us?  After all, they are the fruit of God’s Spirit.

Connected to the Vine is a brief reflective study of the Fruit of the Spirit.  Each piece of fruit is examined for its biblical meaning, before applying it to modern life.  These qualities were meant to be put into action, and not only something felt within.  Each one also includes a couple of reflective questions to contemplate the presence of these qualities in the life of the reader.  There is also a section on how to utilize this guide for personal reflection or group study.  When periodically revisited, this guide can be a challenging tool to help cultivate these virtues and assist the reader to stay vitally connected to God.

As always, thanks for the words of encouragement and feedback.  If you enjoy the book, please like, rate, review – whatever the case may be.  It all helps spread the word!

Connected to the Vine is available at most online retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes.  For all formats, visit my Smashwords page or click the cover image on the sidebar of the home page.

Connected-thumb

The final piece of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of Self-Control. For an introduction to the series see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.  For an overview of the entire series, click on the Top Posts page.

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For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

The final piece of fruit is that of self-control.  To understand the issues being addressed with this fruit we must delve briefly into a bit of theology.  Scripture often makes a distinction between the flesh and the spirit, or the sinful nature and the new nature made possible through our relationship with God.  The flesh is not evil – that would fall into gnostic thinking – yet it is clear that the flesh, absent the work of God’s Spirit, is driven by cravings, compulsions, and temptations that can lead us into destructive habits.  The flesh needs to be controlled by a strong mind, discipline, and a spirit connected to God.

It should not be difficult to be convinced of this battle within us.  We experience the flesh in action whenever we have that craving for another piece of chocolate or choose the couch over the treadmill.  We can either be controlled by every whim and yearning of our body, or we can bring our body under submission through discipline and exercise.

This discipline to resist capitulation at every desire of the body is what Scripture calls self-control.  Classically, it is often used specifically in reference to sexual desires.  Perhaps it is this sense in which we see a stark contrast to the life God desires for us and the desires our culture promote to us.  We live in a world where we are encouraged to indulge every passion we feel or experience.  To give into our appetites and indulge our passions is to be human, or so we are told.  But God has a different message: The ability to control our appetites, curb our passions, and express them in healthy ways is what makes us human.  Otherwise, we are just another biological animal.

The tension we feel when it comes to self-control can be seen in the Apostle Paul’s words at the beginning of this piece of fruit.  We often know what the better, healthier choices are in life and we have a desire to make those choices.  We want to change.  We really don’t want to continue down a given path.  But it is a battle to make those choices and keep our desires in check.  Self-control is choosing the better way over the immediate route our body is telling us it wants and wants now!

Elsewhere in Scripture we are told that our bodies are temples of God’s Spirit.  It is our job to make them suitable dwelling places for the Spirit.  Temples were holy places that needed to be purified and cleansed on an ongoing basis to make them acceptable to the deity that lived there.  Anything less was unacceptable.  When we are able to curb our appetites, control our emotions, and resist unhealthy desires, we exercise self-control and create an environment in which God’s Spirit can move freely.

Self-control encompasses many areas of our life.  With this last piece of fruit, how suitable is your temple as a dwelling place for God’s Spirit?

  • Are my energies being wisely directed?  Am I less distracted in my pursuit of God?
  • What specific area do you have the most trouble telling your body “No”?
  • What disciplines could help direct your passions and energies in a better way?  What activities could replace some habits you would like to change?

The eighth piece of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of Gentleness. For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

In its original language, gentleness often stood in contrast to harshness.  It is closely related to the Scriptural idea of meekness or humility.  Followers of Jesus were often implored not to be overbearing and harsh with their words and their beliefs.  Thus gentleness was to characterize their disposition when interacting with others.  At the same time, truth was never to be compromised.

We have already covered the first fruit of love and we also examined the role of truth with the fruit of peace.  Gentleness then could be described as – to use the language of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians –  “speaking the truth in love.”  Truth is not being set aside, but neither is it being used as a harsh weapon that serves to turn people off from the message of grace, because it is wielded with a gentle stroke.

Speaking the truth in love is more of an art form than a science – a delicate balance that, as followers of Jesus, we must strive for in our words.  Words that contain both truth and love provide valuable nourishment for others and ourselves.  Yet it is rather easy to leave one of these two ingredients out of our words.  Some people speak the truth quite freely.  They have absolutely no problem pointing out faults and offering criticisms to those around them, even reminding others that the truth sometimes hurts (a sure sign that it was probably not spoken in love).  What they say can even be rather accurate; there is truth in their words.  But love is absent.  Their words are not delivered with gentleness.

Other people extend love quite easily to those around them.  They are often encouraging and make others feel good about themselves with their words.  But when the truth does need to be spoken, they shy away from it, often settling for the approval of those around them.  Truth is skirted if there is a possibility that it may bring disagreement or rejection.

The truth is that on the truth-love continuum, most of us lean more toward one than the other.  Some of us are truth-tellers, while others of us are grace-givers.  One comes easily for us while the other is a bit more difficult to muster up.  But finding that balance is part of expressing the fruit of gentleness.

If gentleness is the art of speaking the truth in love, how would you characterize the fruit of gentleness being evident in your conversations?

  • Am I speaking the truth with love and humility?
  • Do you tend to be more of a truth-teller or a grace-giver?
  • Have you interacted with a person who exuded gentleness with their words?  How did you respond to their words?  How was truth about yourself presented to you?