August 6, 2020
With the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus in most regions of the world, it is hard to find much good news. Here in the United States, there are some areas where the number of new cases is decreasing, and there are other areas where the number has flattened or is still on the increase. This seems to be the pattern around the world. To this point, we have seen very few infections of Church members, but we never want to let our guard down or take God’s protection for granted. We must do our part and trust God for the rest.
In this member letter I want to give you an update on the Feast of Tabernacles. We are now only eight weeks away! The time will go by quickly, and the Feast will be upon us. What will this year’s Feast look like? As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will definitely be different.
Let me begin with some important announcements about our Festival sites outside the U.S. As things stand today, it is not possible for Americans to travel to most other countries, at least not without a 14-day period of quarantine upon arrival at your destination. This would essentially negate traveling outside the country for the Feast.
Currently, the border between the U.S. and Canada is closed to all but essential traffic, and American tourists are not permitted to enter Canada. Originally, we had 245 U.S. members registered for Victoria and 74 for Quebec, but because of the border closing, we have canceled Victoria and will limit Quebec to Canadians. We have already informed those registered about these changes so they can recover housing deposits and make other plans for the Feast.
For those in the northwestern part of the U.S. who were planning to attend in Victoria, we are in the process of locating a new site that should be announced in a few more days. We are also making alternate plans for the members in western Canada who cannot travel to Quebec. Americans who were planning to go to either of these Canadian sites will need to make alternate plans, either attending their assigned U.S. site or choosing another open site.
In the case of other international Festival sites, most will now become local sites, since people from outside the individual countries will not be able to travel to those countries. This list includes France, England, New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the Philippines, and all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. If you live in the U.S. and were planning to travel outside the country for the Feast this year, we advise you to make other plans.
In the case of Latin America, churches are currently not permitted to hold services, though that could change in the next month. For this year, we feel it is best for those in the United States to cancel their plans rather than risk losing housing deposits and flight costs, which, in most cases, would be fully refundable this far out from the Feast. If things change, we are confident that housing and flights will be readily available even at the last minute. The pastors in Latin America have set Sept. 1 as the latest date for confirming the local plans for this year.
If there are any changes in our U.S. sites, we will let you know as soon as possible, but we still plan to hold the Feast at all locations listed on our website for the United States. There are lingering questions about some areas where more restrictions may be added because of a rise in new cases, but no site in the United States has been canceled as of this date.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly complicated planning for this year’s Feast! In the early years, our Feast plans were always quite simple. Our family traveled to Big Sandy with a trailer and a tent. We attended services twice a day for the full eight days! When I was 15 years old, being at services twice a day didn’t sound that attractive. But over the years, I learned to appreciate that experience—and even more so of recent date, when we have been forced to depend on webcasts for our Church experience. I have come to realize even more so than in previous years that the Church, as a community of people, needs to meet together.
Recently I read a book titled The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, written by Rod Dreher. The book is about the 21st century and the need to maintain close relationships for the sake of our children and for the sake of Christianity. The statement is made in the book that “when the light in most people’s faces comes from the glow of the laptop, the smartphone, or the television screen, we are living in a Dark Age.” His point is clear. Relationships that are established and maintained solely on social media through smartphones and computers are missing something very important.
Technology has been important for the Church in recent months, making it possible for us to conduct services in the midst of a pandemic. This year that technology will make it possible for those who can’t attend in person to still keep the Feast. But technology can never permanently replace the personal touch and interaction among people that are so important for our individual Christian development.
The Feast of Tabernacles is the highlight of the year when we can be together. In spite of the unique challenges we are facing this year, our desire to be together has not changed. We will take all the precautions to provide a safe environment for those who are able to attend in-person services. And for those who are unable to attend, because of age or health concerns, we will provide a daily webcast of services.
Based on Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 14, we understand the importance of going to a specific place where God “chooses to make His name abide” and living in a temporary dwelling.
Leviticus 23:39-42: “Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD for seven days; on the first day there shall be a sabbath-rest, and on the eighth day there shall be a sabbath-rest. … And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. You shall keep it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations. You shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths.”
Deuteronomy 14:23-25: “And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.”
These instructions were written 3,500 years ago. Later, after the temple was built, the Israelites observed the Feast of Tabernacles by traveling to Jerusalem, where they moved into a temporary dwelling. This reminded them of the time when they lived in tents as they journeyed from Egypt to Canaan (Leviticus 23:43).
As the Church, we still believe in the principles found in these scriptures—going to the place where God has placed His name and living in a temporary dwelling. But this year it is understandable that some will be limited to viewing services from home, given the spread of COVID-19 and the number of people who are in the vulnerable category. This is one of the reasons we are expanding our ability to webcast from every U.S. Feast site. Sadly, in some parts of the world, for the year 2020, this will be the only option for the members.
Today, at the Feast, we focus on the reign of Jesus Christ during the Millennium and its meaning for all of us. It is followed by the Great White Throne Judgment, which is pictured by the Eighth Day, the Last Great Day. Then comes a new heaven and a new earth along with the arrival of God the Father, as described in Revelation 21.
The most exciting events in God’s plan of salvation are yet ahead of us, and each year we gather to celebrate their fulfillment. This year will be different. For those who are able to meet in person, there will be restrictions on the maximum number of people allowed at one time in the meeting facilities used in many of our Feast sites around the world. We will abide by those restrictions and rotate our services to keep the numbers at the appropriate level.
In order to help us work out all the logistics necessary, it is very important that those attending a U.S. congregation respond to a survey that will be announced in your congregation the next two Sabbaths (Aug. 8 and 15). The results of this survey will enable us to determine where we will need to rotate services to comply with facility restrictions at our U.S. sites.
One thing for sure, this won’t be a normal Feast of Tabernacles! I have attended the Feast in person for 58 years and, prior to that, another 10 years at home. When my mother was first called in 1952, my father would not allow us to attend the Feast, so we had no choice but to keep all the festivals at home during those years. In 1962, after an intensive study of the Bible, my father decided he was ready to come to church services. From then on—until his health did not permit travel—he attended the Feast. He died in 1998.
There are still many unknowns as to what conditions will be like by the Feast. As we get closer, we will need to make a number of decisions. Because of this, I am asking that we all take the time to pray and fast about those decisions and for God’s protection during this holy day season. I believe that in spite of the difficulties and challenges we will face this year, it will be a wonderful Feast—and possibly the most memorable one of our lifetimes for a number of reasons. We expect God to be with us, and when it comes to observing the Feast, that makes all the difference in the world!
Sincerely, your brother in Christ,