How can we be thankful when times are tough?

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A: It's November. The holidays are coming we tell each other, sometimes with a wild, fearful look in our eyes. But think about that word—holidays. Holy days. Its etymology is far removed from its current stress-inducing connotation, but I want you to consider something. Can your holidays become holy days?

I love Thanksgiving. It's a truly American holiday and one that has, perhaps because of its name, retained at least some of its original meaning and purpose. Of course, I'm the kind of person who shows love by cooking, so it's a holiday made for me. I'm already perusing glossy magazines, figuring out which recipes I want to try.

But our national holiday is not just about entertaining or eating. It is a day, as the name implies, for giving thanks. It's national gratitude day and I, for one, am planning to be as grateful as possible even though this has been, in many ways, a challenging year. We often travel to see family on the west coast for Thanksgiving, but because finances are tight and airfare for our family of four is expensive, we will be at home.

Gratitude and celebration are necessary for living a joyful and meaningful life. To be grateful, even when times are hard, transforms you. And, the Bible commands us to celebrate.

Page after page of the Old Testament contains very specific instructions about how to live: what to do, what not to do. But there are also many pages dedicated to instructions on how to celebrate. That's right—God commands us to feast, enjoy and celebrate. Leviticus 23 outlines the Jewish calendar and its various festivals. The Feast of Tabernacles, a harvest festival, for example, was to be celebrated for seven days. Seven days of worship, feasting, being with family and friends. Everyone was welcomed.

Deuteronomy 16 elaborates: "be joyful at your Feast—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. For seven days celebrate the Fest to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete."

I love God's inclusive instructions—it is not just the wealthy who may celebrate, and not just the Israelites, but everyone, even the aliens. He reminds us that this is the pathway to joy.

The American Thanksgiving has evolved from harvest celebrations around the world, including the Feast of Tabernacles. And so, I want my holy day to draw from and connect with these rich traditions.

One way we are doing that this year is to pay attention to that word in the text: "the aliens, the fatherless." As we have done before, we are inviting a refugee family to our home to share our Thanksgiving meal. Our church is connecting us with Exodus World Services, a Chicago area organization that helps with refugee resettlement. (Browse the websites of both World Relief and Exodus World Services at www.worldrelief.org or at www.e-w-s.org, to learn more.)

The last time we invited a refugee family join us for Thanksgiving, we explained that Thanksgiving was a holiday first celebrated by pilgrims who had fled to our country to escape persecution. I will never forget the look on the faces of the Sudanese family at our table, whose children had grown up in refugee camps, as they slowly nodded—that look you get when your story connects with another.

The first Pilgrims who held that meal of gratitude had been through a tough year. More than half of their number had died during the first harsh winter. Without the help of the friendly Abnaki Indians Squanto and Samoset, they likely would have starved. They were grateful anyway.

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