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.

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?

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?

This is the third of the nine pieces of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit. For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

You may be picking up on a pattern that in order to better understand what a given characteristic of the Fruit of the Spirit is intended to convey, it helps to explore what the absence of that characteristic leaves us with.  Peace may be one of those nebulous concepts, until we understand that peace is noticeably absent when our lives are filled with chaos, anxiety, and fear.  In Scriptural terms, peace is very much linked to the absence of fear.  Notice that we did not say the absence of negative circumstances, but rather a fearful attitude toward our circumstances.  And we rid our lives of fear and anxiety when we learn to embrace God’s truth.

Several years ago, I went through a difficult time where things were being said about me that simply were not true.  I found myself increasingly living in fear and had to learn through many anxiety-filled nights that the truth is not something to be feared.  I had to learn to embrace truth.  For a time, I had a white rock sitting on my desk with the word truth written on it as a constant reminder to embrace the truth.  The more I returned to the truth of that situation (or any given circumstance) the less fearful I became and my life was characterized more by peace.

Similar to joy, it is fallacious to believe that peace is attainable only when our lives are free from all troubles and concerns.  If that were the case, possessing a spirit of peace would be beyond the normal human grasp.  But that is not the case.  Like each of these pieces of fruit, we are called to possess them in the midst of life’s troubles and concerns.

Jesus is recorded often as saying, “Peace be with you.”  He was usually saying this in response to a stressful situation.  He also commanded us not to worry.  The two go hand in hand.  We can only assume he said these two things because as human beings we are apt to worry and be fearful of things that are out of our control.  It is only when we take responsibility for what is in our control and entrust the things that are out of our control to God that we can truly live a life of peace, free from the burden of fear and anxiety.

So instead of waiting for that fictitious day when our lives are free of worry in order to experience peace, we can reduce stress and anxiety where it is within our control and we can rest in the truth of God when those stressors are out of our control.  This is the pathway to a life of peace.  If peace, as part of the Fruit of the Spirit, is the absence of fear and the presence of truth, how peaceful would you say your life is currently?

  • Am I refusing to live in fear as I come to embrace truth?
  • What issues cause fear to resurface in your life?
  • In what ways can truth keep those fears from overwhelming you?