Thanksgiving more than a secular holiday

In eyes of the faithful, giving thanks is always a reminder of the giver of all things

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Football, turkey, pumpkin pie and Macy's parade.

For many Americans, that constitutes the Thanksgiving celebration.

"Thanksgiving certainly is secular in the sense that everybody has this opportunity to look around their own lives and see what they have to be thankful for," said Pastor Jay Klein of Zion Lutheran Church in Hinsdale. "You need not to have a particular faith or trust in God to enjoy Thanksgiving."

But Klein and other Hinsdale pastors say the entire concept of being thankful is rooted in the Christian tradition.

"God's word is filled with understanding of giving thanks to God for all things," Klein said. "Everything we have comes from him."

That's true even in the midst of challenges that can be difficult to understand, he said.

"With COVID, with all of the things that we see around us that we're either affected by or not affected by - fires out west, wind storms in the Midwest, hurricanes that are devastating people's lives - we see all of these things in the midst of a pandemic and we are just trying to make some sort of sense out of all of this," Klein said.

"The Scriptures tell us we live in a broken world. This is not how God intended it. And yet we have the faith and the presence of God in the midst of these things."

Klein pointed to a passage in Philippians 4, when Paul writes about the secret of being content. Klein said he's not suggesting people be content with injustice, but rather that they learn how to find satisfaction in a deeply spiritual way. He was struck while folding a load of towels recently how much he has to be thankful for.

"How many people are cold, who don't have a shelter over their head, who are unemployed, who are struggling on a daily basis who would give anything just to be able to do this small act?" Klein asked.

Reasons to be grateful can be so obvious and yet go unnoticed, said Pastor Geoff Ziegler of Trinity Lutheran Church, which has been renting worship space in the Hinsdale Seventh-day Adventist Church for the past couple of years. Until this year, Ziegler and other church staff members paid little attention to the church's large lawn with a beautiful shade tree and a slope that creates the equivalent of stadium seating.

That lawn became the place of worship for many months this year during the pandemic and is a clear sign of God providing what the church needs, Ziegler said.

"I see stories of how God in these very difficult moments has actually continued to show his kindness," he said.

He acknowledges that it's easy to get sidetracked while focusing on all the world's problems.

"That's keeping me from recognizing in this year God has kept on giving me these gifts," he said.

He, like Klein, believes that whenever people experience gratitude, there is "something almost inevitably Christian about that," he said.

"Whenever there is this posture of gratitude, we have to ask who we are thankful to."

Ziegler also believes God wants more for his children than to just endure these trying times.

"I'm confident that God is doing something in this that is also good," he said.

Being able to acknowledge difficult times is something Pastor Katie Hines-Shah of Redeemer Lutheran Church appreciates about working in the church.

"We can say, 'You know, this really sucks and life is pretty grim right now,' and that is true. We can say that because we know that grimness doesn't have the last word, and we believe that Christ enters into the darkest time of the year," she said. "In this dark time is when God chooses to be born into the world. That's why we're thankful - not that the darkness doesn't exist, but because those are the places in which God chooses to be born."

God's hope was not overcome by Jesus' crucifixion and it won't be overcome by COVID, she said, even though many will feel deep sadness this holiday season.

"We do know there are 250,000 more empty chairs in America," she said, plus countless others who have lost jobs and experienced other hardships.

"It is rough. We're going to have a lot of work to do next year," she noted.

And while Thanksgiving will be different this year, that doesn't mean the holiday can't be an enjoyable one. As someone who has to work every Christmas, Hines-Shah said she has learned to make adaptations to family celebrations.

"This year we can't do all the things," she said. "You can still do some things and just enjoy the things you do."

Making donations, performing acts of service to neighbors or calling a shut-in can make the holidays more meaningful.

Even simple things like lighting an Advent candle can help. This Sunday marks the start of Advent.

"The ancient church, the ancient world, knew a lot about pandemics and about hard times and about war, and our ancestors gave us all kinds of tools to get through, including the Advent wreath," she said. "That helps us mark the time and have hope and watch it getting brighter.

"They are working on this vaccine," she added. "They are going to get more and more of it produced every week. They are going to figure out new things every day. If we can just hold on we will get there."

All three pastors said they are thankful for their congregations this Thanksgiving and the connections created in a community of faith.

"It has really come alive on a personal level for me to see people continue in their faith life, and it's now always strong, it's ups and downs, but we're all together," Klein said.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean