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Spiritual Practice

Advent-ures!

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Advent-ures!

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An Invitation:

Do something each day to celebrate the approach of Christmas.


What this looks like for me:

I love traditions. Growing up, my sister and I were sticklers for them—if my parents did something once on or around a holiday, it was a tradition and we had to do it every year after. We ate the same kind of fudge, listened to the same CD while we decorated the tree. We played the same card game in bed while my parents got ready on Christmas morning. All those tiny traditions built up into some wonderful childhood memories, and I want to help my boys (now 2 and 6) build memories of their own.

Inspired by a friend, after my oldest was born I created a calendar with one activity to do each day throughout Advent. (Our advent calendar is made out of paper envelopes, but you can use anything!) Some activities require advanced planning, others are very simple. Some are thought-provoking, many are just fun. What I love about this is it forces me to slow down on work and other things for a month and spend a lot of time with my kids.

This year I collected input from friends and family and put together the list below. I’d love for you to share your ideas in the comments!

Advent is also a time for listening with hope and longing as the darkness deepens. Last year I wrote a bit about what my time with God looks like in this season, and you can read about that here.


Advent Ideas

Daily:

Cut a ring from paper chain

Read a winter/Christmas book (library!)

Read from All Creation Waits (or another devotional) and talk about what we can learn, draw a picture and write a word (Or use coloring template!)

Hide (and find) a star and get a piece of the nativity when kids find it


Specific Dates:

Make a paper chain countdown (first day of Advent)

SUNDAYS: Read Scripture and light Advent candles (4)

St. Nicholas’ Day--open stockings and talk about St. Nick (origin story of Santa Claus)

Church Christmas Event(s)

Cut a Christmas tree

City tree lighting

Solstice sunset hike

Make Stuff:

Make Christmas cookies

Make awards for best Christmas lights

Wrap Christmas presents

Make ornaments as gifts

Make a gingerbread house

Make Christmas cards for family

Christmas Lego set (same set each year)

Try a Christmas recipe from another country, learn about and pray for them

Decorate outdoors

Decorate Christmas tree/inside

Holiday Jello

Make gifts for friends: holiday playdoh, coloring books

Plant seeds as an act of waiting

Make Christmas pancakes for breakfast (green and red)

Make a nativity (popsicle sticks? clay?)

Other Christmas art projects?

Be Generous:

Bake cookies for neighbors and deliver

Deliver a surprise gift to a neighbor

Deliver mini candy canes to neighbors

Take coffee to someone who needs it (teacher, friends)

Give toys/books away (3 wise men story)

Give cards/cookies/truffles to neighborhood folks: mail carrier, restaurants, coffee shops, UPS store, dry cleaners, nail salon, the crossing guards, garbage collector, street sweeper

Box of water and treats on the front step for package delivery folks

Operation Christmas Child/Angel Tree/Shoebox shopping

Pick out food for a food bank


Go places:

Drive to look at Christmas Lights with jammies and hot chocolate (and give awards)

Go for a hike

Ice skating

Box sledding or ice blocking

Go see a live nativity

Visit a model railway (Larkey Park)

Tilden Park sunset, Redwood Railway and Carousel

Zoo lights

Visit a giant Christmas tree

Easy-peasy:

Read the Jesus Storybook Bible Christmas story

Watch a Christmas movie (Elf, Polar Express, The Snowman, Peanuts’ Christmas, Home Alone)

Tea or hot chocolate and Christmas books

Lunch or dinner picnic by the Christmas tree

Evening game(s) by the Christmas tree

Make paper snowflakes

Christmas Madlib

Christmas coloring books/free printable coloring pages

Holiday puzzle

Pajama Christmas Music Dance party

Listen to Christmas music

Set up the nativity

Read Luke 1:26-38 (Jesus’ Birth Foretold)

Read Luke 1:48-58 (Mary’s Song)

Read Luke 2:1-21 (Jesus’ Birth)

Go on a night walk and look at Christmas lights

Sing Christmas Carols

Christmas activity books/joke books

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Nature Mandala

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Nature Mandala

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An Invitation:

Go on a walk outside. Bring a tote bag to collect fallen objects like leaves, sticks, flowers, or stones. Create a sacred circle—a mandala—using the found objects.


What this looks like for me:

Nature and art are two powerful ways I encounter God’s presence. Through both creation and creativity, I deepen my awareness of God’s infinite love, which permeates all things.

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So when I was first invited to create a nature mandala through an online offering by Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts, it felt like a beautiful convergence of two of my favorite things. 

Making a nature mandala is a simple way to become more present to the God who is always and ever present to us.

Last week, my dear friend Linda and I walked the meandering paths of Descanso Gardens nearby my house. Linda and I share a love for the natural world and enjoy lingering over the fragrance of a rose or marveling at the aerial acrobatics of a hummingbird. We walked slowly, sharing our hearts with one another and stopping often to soak in the sensory beauty of the gardens.

At the end of our walk, we found ourselves in a small redwood grove with camellias blooming in the tiny forest’s understory. Together we collected pinecones and fallen leaves, faded blossoms and sculptured twigs. We carefully created a sacred circle using each lovely item.

The circle held our time together—the beauty of sharing space was given concrete form. Standing over our completed nature mandala with our hands dirty and our hearts full, we took turns offering each other a blessing and giving thanks for the good gift we had received in one another.

Creation and creativity invite us to experience anew the One who created all things.


*Unless the garden you are walking is your own, please select items for your nature mandala that are already fallen to allow the growing things to complete their life cycle, and to remain for others to enjoy.


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Middle school teacher, foster mama, and creative contemplative, Stephanie Jenkins is a southern California native who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Billy. In addition to relishing time spent outdoors, she also enjoys yoga, art-making, poetry, and journaling. 

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Fool-proof Art as Prayer

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Fool-proof Art as Prayer

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An Invitation:

Read a scripture passage. Choose one phrase that jumps out at you and write it slowly in a journal or notebook. Paste an image from a calendar or magazine with it as an act of reflection and prayer.


What this looks like for me:

I’m on a three-week trip away from home—the longest I’ve been away in over a decade. Sometime it’s hard to keep up with spiritual practices when I’m out of my regular rhythm.

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Shortly after I arrived at my parents’ house in Wisconsin, my dad received a Nature Conservancy calendar in the mail. I admired it, and he gave it to me. The beautiful photographs sparked an idea.

Every afternoon, I drink a cup of tea and read a short passage of scripture. I’m slowly making my way through the Psalms. Many days I read only a few verses before a phrase jumps out at me. I sit quietly with that phrase for a few moments, listening for God’s whispers. What does that phrase say about God? About me? About the world?

Then, I cut a strip from the calendar to go with the phrase. I tape it into my journal, and slowly write the phrase under it. 

It’s only recently that I call myself an artist. Not all art requires skill or training. Creating, even something this simple, can connect us in powerful ways with our Creator.

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Words on the Page

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Words on the Page

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An Invitation:

Uncover a “found poem” in an old book, a magazine, or a newspaper. Allow words to jump out at you and discover hidden meaning and beauty there. Invite God’s spirit to speak.


What this looks like for me:

I discovered “found poems” in my high school writing class, and rediscovered them much later as one of many creative ways to listen for God’s voice in my life. 

Where can I uncover truth and beauty? Almost anywhere, when I pay attention.

I like using old book pages. Our library has a giant book giveaway every year, or I find books at thrift stores.

I begin by scanning over the page for words that jump out at me. I try not to read whole sentences, just a word or two at a time. Anything that jumps out, I circle.

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Then, I look at the words I’ve circled. Is there a pattern? Any meaning in them? Are there more words on the page I want to add to this poem?

After I’ve finished selecting the words to keep, I cover the rest. Usually, I just doodle with the same pen I circled with. Occasionally, I’ve pulled out watercolor paints and used those instead.

Years ago, as I was first writing A Good Way Through, I had questions and anxiety about whether or not the book might help people. As I put my soul on the page, I feared how it would be received. Was it worth putting this story out into the world?  Would it be good enough? Would there be fruit from this labor? 

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In that season, I “found” this poem.

 

Later, I rewrote it like this:

 

THE GREAT OAK

Standing before the altar, 
I raised my eyes to heaven, 
unashamed.

There grew, by the place,
an oak with wide-spreading branches.

Then the tree shook—

and night came on.

Dawn, and morning.

The tree stood before me, 
still,
her branches blooming,
twigs swirling, 
and her flowers were faces.

I heard, “Behold!”

I gazed with wonder,
kneeling.

(Excerpt from A Good Way Through)

 

Poems can mean many things, but to me, in that season, it was one piece of the answer to my questions. There would be fruit from this work I was doing, and it would be beautiful, but it wouldn’t be mine. I wouldn’t have to create the fruit, only to behold with wonder.

There is beauty in obedience to a call. I was called to write; I was not called to make the perfect book or fix anyone else’s life with my words. I was called to obey, and by God’s help the rest would follow.

 “In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel.” -Isaiah 4:2

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Even the Rocks Cry Out

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Even the Rocks Cry Out

An Invitation:

Discover the gifts hidden in the natural world. Enjoy them where they are, or bring them into your home as tangible reminders of God’s love and the truth about God, yourself, and the world.


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What this looks like for me:

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My friend Stephanie and I often joke about “nature trash.” Both of us are constantly bringing things into our homes that look might surprise the average interior decorator: bowls of pinecones and acorns, vases full of dried leaves, sun-bleached bones or driftwood. Most of these things look pretty when elevated by a nice piece of pottery or when an air plant is tucked inside. But there is more to these items than their beauty.

Last weekend I was at the beach with my family. It was sunny, but cold and windy with powerful waves: a day for exploring, not for swimming or sunbathing.

“Look, Mama!” Everett, the five-year-old scientist in our family, called me over. “I just discovered that the sand is actually tiny rocks!” I hunched down next to him, and so began hours of sifting through rock and sand.

The rocks on this beach were every color of the rainbow. Granite, limestone, opal; veins of white running through deep red; brilliant yellow; soft, mossy green. We collected rainbows of tiny rocks. Asher, age two, scooped them with a small shell. Dave brought me a handful of green in every shade and Everett a handful of gold.

How am I changed when I pray with a handful of stones?

We talked with Everett about God’s love, and how these rocks are a gift from God, reminding us that we are beloved. “These rocks tell me that God loves me, Mama,” he said, “because God knows how much I love rocks.” (It’s true, this boy LOVES rocks.)

There is more to the metaphor. The colors in these rocks were particularly brilliant because the rocks were so smooth—pounded day after day by the surf. This was a wild beach, with water that wrecks and tumbles. It is not a gentle place.

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” So ends the Psalm that begins with “As the deer pants for water, so I thirst for you…”

Today I ponder this as I hold one smooth rock in my palm and pray.

It is important to remember that to enjoy nature does not mean we get to possess it. There are wild places and things that should be left as they are (like state and national parks, for example). Be mindful of where you are and what you put in your pocket as you explore this invitation.

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This Body

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This Body

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An Invitation:

Remember the goodness of your body. Remember the truth of who you are in Christ. Speak a blessing over yourself and anoint your body with fragrant oil. 


What this looks like for me:

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Several years ago, during a long bout of depression, I happened upon a little bottle of frankincense anointing oil that I bought on a whim. Frankincense was one of the gifts the magi brought to welcome Jesus at his birth. Although it was mid-August at the time, I felt drawn to this fragrance given to the infant Christ. 

At Christmas we celebrate the Divine Incarnate—God revealing God’s self in flesh and bone, blood and breath. The Incarnation reminds us that God became a body, and that our bodies are very good. 1 Corinthians proclaims our bodies are the very dwelling place of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. What good news!

During my long season of sorrow, I desperately needed to remember this truth. Each morning I would look at myself in the mirror, and anoint myself with frankincense oil, speaking a blessing over myself as I did:

This is the fragrance of the infant Christ
Who created you in God’s image (anoint forehead)

washed you in his blood (anoint wrists)
indwells you with the Spirit (anoint throat)
With great Love you have been welcomed.

For good measure I would dab a little under my nose so I could smell it throughout the day. When depression washed over me, I would press my wrist to my nose and take a long, deep breath allowing the fragrance to remind me of the goodness and wonder of this body, this life. 

Gratefully, I have been free from depression for some time now, but the goodness of this anointing practice is one I still relish. Each Advent season, I pull out my little bottle and add its fragrance and blessing to my morning quiet time. I carry the bottle in my purse, and sometimes occasion will arise to share its blessing with another. 

We cannot offer what we have not received. May we open ourselves to the profound blessing of God, that we may extend it forward into our world. 


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Middle school teacher, foster mama, and creative contemplative, Stephanie Jenkins is a southern California native who currently lives in Los Angeles with her wonderful husband Billy. In addition to relishing time spent outdoors, she also enjoys yoga, art-making, poetry, and journaling. 

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Napping as Prayer

Napping as Prayer

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An Invitation:

Autumn and winter are seasons of rest and release. Enter into this seasonal invitation by curling up in a cozy spot.  Allow yourself to fall asleep as an act of surrender and prayer.


What this looks like for me:

The second half of the year, nature’s seasons invite us to slow down, do less and rest more. In southern California where I live, the seasons are quite subtle. With almost constant warmth and sunshine, it is easy to forget or ignore the seasonal changes happening in the natural world. Even though these months still might hold 80-degree days for Angelenos like me, I find the pull of shorter days and lengthening nights inviting me to rest nonetheless.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us of the goodness of rest : “in returning and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.” 

Rest is an act of radical surrender and bold trust. It is an act of salvation. 

In a culture bent on productivity, choosing rest is daring to claim that there is already more than enough. That the world will keep turning even though we stop our anxious striving. Choosing rest is choosing to place our trust in God rather than in our own frenetic efforts.

So in these shorter, cooler days, when my body feels more tired and in need of a nap, I don’t beat myself up about it. I choose not to listen to the riot of “shoulds” in my head telling me how much better my time ought to be spent.  

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Instead, I choose to recognize the goodness of rest. I choose to claim that rest is an act of trust in a God who doesn’t need my busyness, who created the seasons, who made both day and night, winter and summer. I choose to believe that rest is a way to say yes to the abundance of God’s Love.

Keeping Isaiah’s words in mind, I curl up on my couch, lovingly cover myself with a quilt a dear friend sent me in a time of struggle, close my eyes, and imagine that I am falling asleep in the arms of God.  

In this way, a midday nap becomes a countercultural act of prayer.


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Middle school teacher, foster mama, and creative contemplative, Stephanie Jenkins is a southern California native who currently lives in Los Angeles with her wonderful husband Billy. In addition to relishing time spent outdoors, she also enjoys yoga, art-making, poetry, and journaling. 

God Hides in a Catalogue

God Hides in a Catalogue

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An Invitation:

Find words and images of hope and truth hidden in a holiday catalogue. Use tape or glue to put them into a poem or a work of art.


What this looks like for me:

The Christmas season means that my mailbox is suddenly stuffed full of catalogues and advertisements urging me to “get into the spirit” by buying things I don’t need.  The advertisements tell me that I need more, what I have is not enough, if I really love my friends and family, I will spend a lot of money buying them stuff. 

Christ have mercy.

Rather than getting pulled into the consumer frenzy or falling into depression over our excessive consumption, this week I decided to use the extra supply of glossy images for creative exploration. 

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The Incarnation of Christ invites us to expect the Divine disguised in the ordinary, the everyday. Jesus came as a little baby, born in a stable.  Hardly the form or the place anyone would expect.

So I decided to look for God in a catalogue.  

From our recycling pile, I pulled out a catalogue with a stunning image on the cover and gently leafed through with eyes open to see what might be hiding there. 

Images of darkness and light emerged—stars, snow, search lights, night sky. I ripped out the images, carefully tearing away any evidence of advertisement, and glued them into my journal. In gold I rephrased the verse from Isaiah I’d read earlier that morning: “those sitting in darkness have seen a great light.”

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Next I found a page with a large text bank of words that all seemed to jump out at me. I tore out the page and began to cut out all the words that stirred me. After arranging and rearranging them in my journal, a simple poem emerged. I taped down the words with clear tape. It felt a bit like wrapping up a lovely gift. One I both offered and received. 

In this season when so many voices vie for our attention, may we have the clarity of vision to see what truly matters, and may we find God hiding in the ordinary stuff of our lives.


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Middle school teacher, foster mama, and creative contemplative, Stephanie Jenkins is a southern California native who currently lives in Los Angeles with her wonderful husband Billy. In addition to relishing time spent outdoors, she also enjoys yoga, art-making, poetry, and journaling. 

Lists as a Spiritual Practice

Lists as a Spiritual Practice

An Invitation:

Make your to do list help, not hinder, you. Let you to do list become a prayer.

First, listen in stillness. Then write somewhere on your list what you hear. Then categorize your tasks, focusing on what is essential. Let go of those things that can wait (for now or forever).


What this looks like for me:

I've hoped that Advent will be a time of winding down, a space for listening, rest and celebration. Yesterday, I found myself overwhelmed. Each time I looked at my list of tasks, anxiety crept to the surface. Each task was just a pebble, but I had a mountain before me.

So I turned to a fresh page: December.

I started with a simple doodle—tiny circles and bulbs, then lines to connect them into strings. I let my mind calm and wander as I doodled. I wrote “December” slowly and carefully across the top of the page. I wrote “What is essential?” underneath, a question a friend posed to me recently on a day I felt stressed. 

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As my hands were busy, my mind stilled. I listened. The carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” came to me. It's not a carol I sing often, but as I thought about the words they felt fitting: “God rest ye… [be] merry… Let nothing you dismay… Jesus Christ our savior was born upon this day!” These are words I need right now. I need good tidings of comfort and joy. So, I wrote those words at the top and bottom of the page, framing my list. When I turn to my list of tasks, they will remind me of what is important: in this season, I want to slow down, be present, be merry, and rest in joy. 

Next, I categorized. I’ve been playing with how to categorize tasks lately, and this month, I have four columns: 1) projects (major things that require ongoing work), 2) tasks (for those little things I just need to cross off), 3) ideas and questions (to keep track of and look at later), and 4) things to do later or never (tasks I’m not quite ready to forget I intend to do, but that don’t really need to be done right now.) These categories help, because my work time is unpredictable. Sometimes I catch 5 minutes while my kids are playing—good time for a quick task, but not for a project. Other times I have a few hours that I can use to dig into something bigger. I also have discovered that I like monthly lists for work and separate weekly or daily lists for home-related things. For a while, I made my lists on a whiteboard, because I loved that when everything was finished it was clean instead of messy. 

It takes time to figure out how your lists can work for you, and plenty of trial and error. Seasons change, and your needs change with them. But lists can be more than lists; they can be intentional practices that center you and remind you of what you need to remember.

To download a free template for Advent listening, see last week's post. :-) 

A Practice for Advent

A Practice for Advent

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An Invitation:

This Advent, listen for one word for each day. Find a simple way to record your words.


What this looks like for me:

I love Advent. I love the sense of longing, the deepening darkness, the waiting for the already-not-yet arrival of Jesus, hope of the world. In what is often a season of scurrying, I desire stillness and reflection, warmth and conversation, creativity and peace.

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Each year, I read at least one Advent devotional along with some scripture. (Here are a few of my favorites.) This year, I will listen in my daily reading and prayer for a word or phrase to rise to the surface. Perhaps it will be something I’m hoping for. Perhaps it will be the name of a person I’m praying for. Perhaps it will be something I recognize that day as a gift.

Inspired by Praying in Color, I’ll write my word in a calendar-of-sorts I drew based on a stained glass window I found on the internet (pictured above).  Then I’ll paint over it in watercolor, because that’s my favorite medium these days. (Sign up for my email list for free downloads of 2018 and 2019 calendar templates.)

Some other method may work better for you. You could find a friend and text each other your words each day. You could write them in your planner or Google calendar. You could cover your mirror with Post-Its. However you do it, I invite you to find some tangible way to record your words—it will put them into your body’s memory in a deeper way than just thinking about them.

May God bless you as you listen this Advent season!

Practice Remakes Us--Announcing a New blog series!

Practice Remakes Us--Announcing a New blog series!

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My friends, I'm excited to tell you that tomorrow launches a new series of blog posts about spiritual practice!

As I’ve thought about this blog, I’ve been asking (and praying) the question: What do people need? A friend said to me recently, “Don’t forget that most people don’t do the kinds of practices you do.” An answer, perhaps, to that question.

This series will be simple. Each post will start with an invitation into a spiritual practice, followed by a bit more explanation of what the practice looks like for me.

Why practice? Practice is how God transforms us. Take hospitality, for example. We can read about hospitality and think about it and talk about it, but our transformation into more hospitable people is limited unless we practice hospitality. It’s much more effective to act our way into a new pattern of thought than it is to think our way into a new pattern of action. Spiritual practices open us to the work of God’s Spirit within us. 

 In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul writes:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

This series will show you how I practice. I’d love to hear how you do, too.

Stay tuned for an invitation into practice for Advent tomorrow!