top view of a family praying before christmas dinner
Advent, Christian Living, Intentional, Relationships

A dinner of hope and celebration – a Slavic Christmas tradition

Sauerkraut, peas, cream of wheat, and evergreen stems on the table – not the first thing you think of when someone is referring to a Christmas dinner. But, in my husband’s family, it’s a yearly tradition.

Vilija dinner foods

Passed down through generations

Twenty years ago I married into the Suvar family. I knew that they had family roots from the Czech Republic and Slovakia but didn’t know how much of that had carried forward from the move to America. But, like many traditions that get passed along through families – food and holiday traditions were part of it.

A tradition that has become special to me is the Vilija dinner that we enjoy together every Christmas. There are specific decorations used and certain foods that we eat. Each part points to the story of Jesus in some way and I love the reflection that comes with it as we gather together as a family to commemorate Christ’s birth.

As with every great meal, the prep starts way beforehand. Special nut breads are made called Kolace – grandma teaches the grandkids how to make them – and the whole house fills with the scent of fresh baked bread. Everyone joins in with the setting of the table and going down the list to make sure everything is accounted for. The house is warm, the noise is high, and the kids bounce around with excitement knowing gifts are coming later that evening.

The Vilija Dinner

The Vilija Dinner is like a Passover Supper. Everything we eat and do has a special meaning. To begin, a candle is lit in the window to tell the Holy Family that they are welcome in our home. The table is covered in a white cloth, signifying Christ’s purity and how He covers us with His righteousness.

Down the center of the table is placed hay – to represent the manger Jesus was laid in, evergreens – to represent eternal life, candles – to remind us that Jesus is the Light of the world, and money – to remind us that all good and perfect gifts come from God. There is an empty place set at the table to help us remember the less fortunate and that we should always open our hearts and homes to those in need.

A Slavic Christmas —> hold your own Vilija Dinner – a free downloadable resource! Click To Tweet

The dinner is traditionally held on Christmas Eve, when the first star appears. This reminds us of the star that guided the Wisemen who sought after the King.

Connecting it to Christ

Twelve dishes are served at this dinner – to represent the 12 disciples of Jesus. In Slovakia, foods varied depending on what village you lived in, especially since the mountain villages were so remote.

To begin, the oldest son leads the family in a prayer of thanks and a blessing for the meal. He then takes honey and makes a cross with it on everyone’s forehead wishing them a sweet new year. Oplatky, a thin wafer used for communion is shared. One large one is passed around the table, each person breaking off a piece and wishing each other Merry Christmas. Then each person gets their own oplatky to eat with honey and drink with wine. This is done in remembrance of Passover and Communion.

The oldest son picks up an apple and cuts it in half. If the seeds form a star, then the family will have a healthy year. The apple is cut into slices and shared around the table. Three walnuts, still in their shells, are placed at each person’s plate. Everyone takes turns opening them up. Good nuts mean a good year ahead, bad nuts mean hardship.

Dinner is shared

After this, the rest of the dishes are passed around and shared.

There is no doubt that our Vilija dinner does not look like the Vilija dinners from generations before, tucked away in the cold, snowy Slovakia mountains. But, for certain, the meaning remains. Family gathers, joy is shared, Jesus is celebrated, and hope continues. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate Christ’s First Coming while we wait in hopeful anticipation of His Second.

If you want to try out your own Vilija dinner, there is a free download available below!

Want to celebrate your own Vilija dinner?

Get your own free printable instructions – recipes included!

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Anxiety, Christian Living, Encouragement, Health, Love Your Neighbor, Mental Health, Relationships

When service has left you empty

The word “serve” can evoke many types of emotions – good and bad.

If I am at a restaurant: I am glad for that waiter who serves.  And I expect good service.

man and woman wearing black and white striped aprons cooking

But if I am doing the third load of laundry of the day and one of my children walks in with mud from toe to teeth – I then serve my family with clean laundry. Oddly enough, that type of service can sometimes rub the wrong way.

We can often find ourselves struggling with the day to day and trying to find joy in the work of the mundane. We often feel unseen. We know we are needed, because often some things don’t get done until we do them. But we wonder if anyone would miss us if we were gone, or they would just wonder where their clean clothes went to. Often those mundane task are also necessary. We are performing a service that is needed and maybe even appreciated, though never put into words.

photo of woman standing inside the laundromat

In Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, she touches on a similar feeling:

Whenever man is made the center of things he becomes the storm-center of trouble.  The moment you think of serving people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains…You begin to bargain for reward, to angle for applause…When the laundry is for the dozen arms of children or the dozen legs, it’s true, I think I am due some appreciation. So comes a storm of trouble and lightning strikes joy.  But when Christ is at the center, when dishes, laundry, work, is my song of thanks for Him, joy rains.  Passionately serving Christ alone makes us the loving servant to all…the work becomes worship, a liturgy of thankfulness.

Ephesians 5:1-2 (The Message) gives us more:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

This is part of our problem – we are looking for something in return.

Life as a Christ-follower is servant focused. If we are walking as Jesus did we will serve and love, not in order to receive, but to give. Our days will be filled with service in one form or another. And we won’t necessarily get something in return for the work that we do.

Life as a Christ-follower is servant focused. If we are walking as Jesus did we will serve and love, not in order to receive, but to give. Click To Tweet

Sometimes we may even yearn for a simple thank you, but those may be lacking, as well.

But Jesus served.  He loved.  And he didn’t look for anything in return.

I’m reminded of the story in Luke 17 where he healed 10 lepers.

Ten mean were healed … and only one came back to thank him.  It makes one pause to consider how often thank yous were actually said to Jesus.

a man greeting an elderly woman

But as the verse in Ephesians says, love by giving everything.  When we envision a life of serving and giving without expectation, then we will be to a point that at the end of the day we will be empty.

Emptied – so that He can fill us back up.

When we give of ourselves completely, everyday, our life may look like this at the end of the day:

  • worn out body
  • messy living room
  • laundry still needing to be folded
  • dirty dishes stacked by the sink

Your first thought may be that nothing was actually completed. But look at what was accomplished:

  • quality conversations made with the 13-year-old
  • snuggle on the couch with the 3-year-old
  • meaningful time with the husband
  • heart warmed from relationships built just a bit stronger

The world tells us to look out for, and save time for, ourselves. That is a valid point. We can’t serve if we are worn out, empty, and unhealthy.

But to be filled up, our “me time” needs to be more “God time” – time we spend with Him to fill us up when our tank is running on empty. God is the owner of unlimited resources, He has the power to give you the stamina you need to live out the calling He has led you to. When we pull our energy from the true source, instead of what the world tells us we need, we can find the stamina we didn’t think we had.

back view of a person walking on a forest path

When we take this perspective on service and how we use our time, it can soften our hearts towards those we are asked to serve. When some one disrupts our plans, throws off our schedule, or makes us have to redo what we just completed, we can remind ourselves that Jesus’s love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. We can love like that.

Because when we serve others we are ultimately serving God and not man – when we are serving without looking for anything in return.

And that kind of service can make all the difference.

Looking for a short devotional that will help center your heart on the true reason for the season?

Purchase the digital download of Prepare Him Room: an Intentional Advent devotional and also receive the free devotional Intentional Heart.

handwritten thank you on craft paper
Encouragement, Health, Mental Health, Relationships

Rewiring your brain with gratitude

Growing up, my mom made us sit down and write thank you notes to family members for birthday and Christmas gifts. As a young kid, I found it a chore. It seemed silly, writing a thank you note when I had already thanked them for the gift in person! But, I’d do it anyway. 

handwritten thank you on craft paper

And, though I found the exercise tedious, I must admit I felt an uplift in my spirit as I sealed the envelope and dropped the letter in the mailbox. It seemed the act of thinking back on something, and showing gratitude for it, made my heart feel a little lighter.

Though my mom hadn’t read the research, she was on to something. 

A few years back, a study was conducted at U of C, Berkeley. They followed the mental health path of 300 adults as they sought counseling for depression. The group was split up into three parts. The first part, along with counseling, was assigned to write a note of gratitude to a different individual each week for 3 weeks. The second group was asked to list their deepest complaints and grievances. The third attended counseling without either assignment (Brown & Wong, 2017).

It was discovered that the group who expressed gratitude through their writing practice, reported better mental health at 4 and 12 weeks, over the other two groups. So, not only did expressing gratitude help them feel better in the moment, it also had effects long afterwards as well (Brown & Wong, 2017).

They continued the research further and found some more surprising things about gratitude.

To read the full article, visit Kingdom Edge Magazine, who featured my article.

Rewiring your brain with gratitude –> read more here. Click To Tweet
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Christian Living, Encouragement, Intentional, Relationships

Who are you listening to?

When faced with decisions, who are you listening to?

Your sphere of influence determines your thought patterns.

crop unrecognizable female psychologist and patient discussing mental problems during session
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In I Kings 3, Solomon’s first response when he became king was to offer sacrifices to God. He came with a humble heart and asked for discernment to serve his people well. He was surrounded by David’s advisers, men who had been positively influenced by King David himself. Though Solomon eventually drifted away from this positive sphere, as long as he was in this place, the kingdom prospered.

In contrast, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, went in a different direction. He became king in tumultuous times. Many tribes were frustrated with Solomon’s handling of things and even approached the newly crowned king, asking for reprieve. Rehoboam originally asked wise, experienced men what he should do. But he quickly rejected their advise and instead turned to his real sphere of influence – “the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him.”

Their advice ultimately led to the split of the kingdom – only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were left for Rehoboam. The rest left and formed the kingdom of Israel.

Rehoboam’s friends may have told him what he wanted to hear, but it wasn’t what he needed to hear.

Now, your decisions will not end up dividing whole kingdoms or countries. But, it is still important to take a look at how you are making decisions in your life and who you are allowing to speak into them. Are they telling you what you need to hear, or just what you want to hear?

Who are you listening to? It is important to take a look at how you are making decisions in your life and who you are allowing to speak into them. Are they telling you what you need to hear, or just what you want to hear? Click To Tweet

read the full accounts in I Kings 3:7-9 and I Kings 11:7-11

ESV

Think through the five people who you speak with the most each day or week. 

This isn’t going to be necessarily your favorite people or the ones you want to hang out with the most. Instead, this would be the five people who interact with you the most. These five people, whether we want them to be or not, end up being the ones who feed into our decision making. It could be a boss, employee, neighbor, friend, or family member.

person leaning on bike while holding smartphone
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One influential “person” that may be overlooked, but has a huge effect on our thoughts and actions – Social Media. It is a tricky ‘friend.’ Time spent with them can be short and sweet – like catching up with friends you haven’t seen in a long time. But it also can be time-consuming and discontent-inducing when you find yourself scrolling way too long and wondering how ‘she’ can have it all together.

When you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious, it could be time to evaluate your circle. Who are the people you are allowing to speak into your thoughts and days? Do these people make you operate from a point of comparison? Are you doing things because you see others doing it and feel like this should be what you are doing too?

When you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious, it could be time to evaluate your circle. Who are the people you are allowing to speak into your thoughts and days? Do these people make you operate from a point of comparison? Are you… Click To Tweet

The people in your circle can lead you towards wisdom, as in the example of Solomon – or towards pride or fear, as in the example of Rehoboam.

This week, let’s take some time to look at our own circle of influence. Who are we allowing to speak into our life? Who are we listening to? If God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit isn’t the first on the list, then we need to start there.

Being intentional with our relationships and evaluating their effects in our own life, can be beneficial for our mental health. If we have people within our circle that we feel are leading us toward negativity and anxiety, we shouldn’t cut them out of our lives. We may actually be the light that they need right now. Instead, think through others in your life that you need to interact with more. The people who are going to encourage you, speak God’s truth, and even call you out if you’re moving off the right path.

Let’s seek to have a heart like Solomon in I Kings 3 – humble and desiring to serve, surrounding himself by wise counsel. And let’s also seek to be that in others’ lives as well.

Believe it or not, it’s not too early to think about Advent!

Looking for a short devotional that will help center your heart on the true reason for the season?

Prepare Him Room: an Intentional Advent welcomes you to come along on this journey of seeking to be intentional with the Advent Season – to look at several areas of our life where we can Prepare Him Room.

group of people making toast
Anxiety, Depression, Encouragement, Intentional, Love Your Neighbor, Relationships

3 time-wasting busters

We all like the idea that our time is not wasted, yet how often do we fall into the time warp of distractions: social media, emails, procrastination, streaming videos, and lack of priorities. We know these things can suck up our time, but yet we fall into their traps time and time again. How can we break free? 

With small, intentional moments.

Of the myriad of things we do each day, we want something to count– not just in a quantifiable way, but in a soul-filling, joy-inducing way.

God’s word calls us to be purposeful with our time, even calling us to “redeem” it. To redeem something means that you buy it back. But, how can you take back something that is fleeting and slipping away constantly?

We have an Enemy that wants to distract us, to keep us from our mission of spreading the Gospel and God’s love. Every moment spent distracted from that work is a moment that he has won. So, to redeem the moments we are in right now, we can intentionally take it from the enemy that wants to distract us, and focus these moment on lasting things. We can take a temporal moment and use it to fulfill something on an eternal timeline.

Sounds great, but how?

Be aware that you are an ambassador
Colossians 4:5-6
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Even when you don’t think anyone is watching, someone is. It may only be one person, but to that person you may be the hope and encouragement they need to desire to seek a joy-filled life like yours. Keep your words kind and be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you.

group of people making toast
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Encourage others with God’s Word
Ephesians 5:19
…Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…
The world is full enough of discouragement, be the one to encourage. Find ways to spread the hope of Jesus to your fellow brothers and sisters. Be willing to take the time to listen to another’s hurts, be willing to pray, and to point them back to the hope of Jesus.

crop psychologist supporting patient during counseling indoors
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Look for ways to do good
Titus 3:8-9
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 
There is always an opportunity to do good. Prayer, generosity, showing grace, choosing selflessness – these are all excellent and profitable. Choosing to step away from discussions that you know will go nowhere, choosing instead to have those intimate chats with a person’s heart can move more obstacles than a rant on a social feed.

man couple love people
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Your turn. How are ways you can redeem your time this week? Where can you take back the time that the Enemy distracts and use it for furthering God’s Kingdom work? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

selective focus photography of child s hand
Encouragement, Intentional, Relationships

4 ways God is not your dad

For over a decade I have worked in the social service field. A recurring theme among the cases that I work with is absent fathers. Children are being raised by single moms, the father long out of the picture. Sometimes a dad will show up at court, but usually because rights are going to be terminated and he wants to try to stop the proceeding. Other times the father is in the picture, but he is neglectful or abusive, creating a level of trauma for the children that will leave scars – both physically and emotionally.

Perhaps you have your own story of absent fatherhood. Nearly 25 percent of American households are mother-only homes. Maybe your father has always been in your life but there are hurts from your childhood, even ones your dad is unaware of, that still stick with you today.

Because fathers are part of humanity, they are also prone to the sin nature we all possess. And with the high amount of fatherless children, many can get the distorted idea that all fathers are prone to this – even our heavenly Father. It can be difficult to believe that a God who calls Himself our Father could do any better than the actions of the dads we know. We project our hurt from our own fathers onto Him and assume the worst.

But our God can stand up to these allegations and is the perfect example of Fatherhood. Scripture is full of the promise of this. The following are just 4 of the ways that God is a good, good Father.

family of four walking at the street
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  1. His patience knows no end. 

There are times that we may have felt like we have used up our dad’s patience and have gotten “on his last nerve.” Thankfully, we do not have to worry about this with our Heavenly Father. Psalm 103:17 says “from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” And Psalm 106:1 says “for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Not only does God’s patience and kindness never wear out, but God’s ability to forgive you never runs out either. We never have to worry about our Heavenly Father berating us with our past failings and mess-ups. Psalm 103:12 assures us “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” 

2. He loves you no matter what. 

Some fathers cause their children to feel like they need to earn their father’s love and respect by accomplishing great things to make him proud. Thankfully, God is not a father like that. Romans 5:8 tells us that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were still sinners, messing up and not measuring up. When we were still oblivious to Him and His love, God sent His Son to die in our place. This unconditional, sacrificial love is unlike anything you can experience on this earth. God is a Father who chose to love us and we didn’t do a thing to earn it.

photo of man in raising baby under blue sky
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3. He is always available.

God never has a bad day, is never in a sour mood, and is never too busy or distracted for His child. When you are in relationship with His Son, Christ Jesus, you have complete access to your Heavenly Father’s ear, His heart, His focused attention. Hebrews 4:16 tells us we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” In Zephaniah 3:17 we have the promise that “the Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

4. His discipline is for love and protection.

If you were disciplined out of anger and impatience, this one can be hard to understand. How can a loving God show discipline without also inflicting pain and suffering? In Proverbs 3:11-12 we are reminded: “do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”

Have you ever had a circumstance in life where God does not give you what you are asking for? Or a time when something you love is taken away? Because God’s ways are always perfect and He can see your entire life laid out before Him, we can trust that our Heavenly Father was either protecting you from something or disciplining you out of love, or both.

selective focus photography of child s hand
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As we think on God as a father, in what areas of our life have we projected negative attributes from earthly fathers onto our Heavenly Father? Do we have hurt and scars from our own experience that is causing us to not completely trust God to be the perfect Father to us?

If you have a positive relationship with your dad, be sure to encourage him in his role, thanking him for the love and example he gave you. If you have pain from your dad, or your dad is no longer around, take your wounds to Jesus. Ask Him to redeem the scars and hurt, to turn the ashes of your past abuse into beauty for His glory. Take your doubts and hurts to the Heavenly Father, the One who is truly capable – and willing – to listen, heal, and restore.

Encouragement, Intentional, Relationships

How are you smelling?

A few years ago, when my grandparents were moving from their home into an Assisted Living facility, I helped them sort through their things in storage. I came across some old pillowcases and sheets and thought they could be repurposed into a craft project someday. They gladly passed them on to me.

Not long after, I pulled out one of the pillowcases from my grandparents’ home. I loved the vintage flower pattern and I could remember summer nights, falling asleep on that pillow, listening to the peaceful sounds of the country and farm life.

In preparing to use the fabric for my project, I needed to iron it. As I pressed the iron to the material, a sweet scent wafted up from the fabric – the scent of my grandparents’ house.

The scent was so reminiscent that it stopped me in the middle of my activity. I stood there at the ironing board and cried.

wildflowers with quote

It was such a nostalgic, beautiful scent that it took me back to the nights I would snuggle under one of my grandparents’ comforters, falling asleep on their couch. It evoked happy memories with cousins and the security of my grandparent’s home.

It brought back so many wonderful memories of time spent at their house.

In II Corinthians 2:14-16 Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (ESV)

quotes with wilflowers

In the Old Testament, priests would offer up sacrifices to God for the sins of the people. The aroma of a good sacrifice would be pleasing to God. It wasn’t so much what was actually burning on the altar that created the pleasing aroma, it was more about what the sacrifice represented – substitutionary atonement for sins. The shedding of blood is required as a payment for sins and the animal sacrifice was given as a substitute for the sinner themselves. The same was said for the grain offerings, those given as the first-fruits back to the Lord in thanksgiving. These sacrifices, when given with a humble heart, were a pleasing aroma to God.

Jesus came and fulfilled the Law by becoming the ultimate sacrifice for all of our sins. And we, when claiming Jesus as our Savior, claim that ultimate sacrifice to cover our own transgressions. And, in doing so, we become part of that pleasing aroma of Christ to God.

So, how are we smelling? Just as Paul was encouraging the Corinthians, are we “spreading the fragrance of knowledge of Christ” in how we live? What aroma do we give off when we are living our daily lives and the pressure and heat of life, like an iron, is pressed upon us. When we encounter other people are we giving off a pleasing aroma or one that stinks and causes the other to wish they had just stayed away? Are our actions ones that reflect our Jesus; grace-filled and loving? Our actions and words are born out of where our heart is rooted. Our truest nature comes out when we are put under pressure or the heat is turned up. It’s not difficult to be a pleasant and loving aroma towards those who compliment us, make us happy, or fulfill a need. But when someone makes us late, misunderstands a conversation, or takes from us without permission it can be challenging to continue to give off the aroma of grace. In order to be a pleasing aroma to those around us, we need to have our heart’s scent rooted in Truth and Love.

flowers in bloom with quote

Is our scent one that reminds others of Jesus? Does it fill other believers with joy, and maybe a few happy tears, as they long for their home in heaven? Does your aroma give life to other believers, encouraging them on their journey?

If we are truly living for Christ, our aroma will be a sweet reminder to our fellow believers that our Jesus is a living and redeeming God. It can also smell sweet to those who do not yet believe, but have a soft heart, ready to receive the Truth. They smell that sweet fragrance and want to have that aroma, too.

Just like how that little bit of material’s scent reminded me of happy memories, I want my aroma to be pleasing to God; a scent that glorifies Him.

So, how are you smelling these days?

quote with wildflowers in bloom

This post originally was published with Kingdom Edge Magazine.