One purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles is to teach us to remember. From its very inception, the Feast was designed to remind the Israelites of events that occurred as they came out of Egypt: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days… that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42–43). God wanted them to rehearse, generation after generation, a yearly reminder of their experience in the wilderness.
In God’s Church, we continue to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. We are reminded of God’s deliverance of His people in the past, and of the prophesied millennial reign of Christ in the future. And as each year goes by, we each build personal collections of Feast memories. For many, it is the spiritual and physical highlight of the year. We leave our homes, gather with other brethren, and worship God for eight unforgettable days. We obey God’s command to assemble, we worship Him as one body, and we take away valuable memories that guide us throughout our lives. Everything about the Feast—the tastes, the sights, the sounds—is intended by God to create memories that give us lifelong strength and encouragement.
Whether we have been in the truth for a few years or walking this Way for decades, we have memories of Feasts past. The question is, what will we remember from this year?
We can probably all agree that the 2020 Feast of Tabernacles experience will be especially memorable. None of us expected the COVID-19 virus and the consequences it has brought. A year ago, most of us probably assumed that when the Feast rolled around again in 2020, we would plan for another Feast just like all the others. Little did we know the upheaval this year would bring!
Although Headquarters announced this year’s U.S. Feast sites in February, the decision was made to postpone Festival registration until after Passover. And we all know what happened in February and March: The COVID-19 crisis hit with a vengeance. Governments around the world shut down international travel and issued edicts severely restricting group meetings. This had a dramatic effect on our Sabbath, Passover, and Feast of Unleavened Bread services. But it also directly impacted our Feast plans. Looking back, we can see that God directed Mr. Gerald Weston’s decision regarding the timing of registration. It gave everyone more flexibility when plans had to be revised. It meant that thousands of brethren did not have money tied up in hotel reservations, housing deposits, and airplane fares. Sometimes God’s hand is best seen in hindsight.
As April came and went, we held meetings to discuss options for the Feast. While it seemed possible that everything would be opened up and normal by Feast time, there was also the real possibility of extended restrictions or even a second wave of the virus bringing new regulations. Important questions were asked: What was the most likely Feast-time scenario? What steps could be taken to prepare for a multitude of possibilities in dozens of different localities? What should be done about contractual agreements the Church had already signed? Not only was the virus “novel,” but the Church was facing an entirely new situation regarding Feast planning.
The decision was made to reevaluate our sites all over the world. It was vital to consider the existing local restrictions as well as likely scenarios that could arise five months later. The goal was to come up with broad guidelines that could apply to sites all over the world, and yet also allow for local conditions. The decision was to go “smaller and more local.” International transfers were put on hold, sites would be limited to 200 attendees, and brethren would be directed to their local sites.
During the months of May and June, existing sites were renegotiated and new sites were rolled out. While many international sites stayed the same size, some adjustments had to be made and some additional sites located. Sites in Australia and Canada were multiplied to hedge against potential travel restrictions that might prevent members from crossing state or provincial borders. Sites that attract a high number of international transfers were scaled back to accommodate local members only. As of this writing, many countries are still in lockdown or in early phases of opening up, and few concrete plans can be made with hotels. In some countries, “micro-sites” had to be organized, where local brethren will watch sermons via livestream. In the United States, 23 sites were organized, with either renegotiated contracts or brand-new agreements.
As plans unfolded, the flexibility and creativity of Festival Site Coordinators and the help of local volunteers assisting with searching out new venues proved to be crucial elements in the massive task at hand. Online meetings provided a vital link with coordinators, Regional Pastors, and Regional Directors for instant feedback and advice on major decisions.
When speaking of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Bible dictates that God’s people come before Him where He has placed His name. As He commanded, “You shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide” (Deuteronomy 14:23). But how do we know where God has placed His name? The leadership of the Church makes decisions about venues that fit the parameters for the Feast. But, more importantly, we pray for God’s guidance to open the doors that He wants us to go through. And how encouraging it is when doors open quickly and in unusual ways! As one member who volunteered his efforts commented on the amazing way plans came together in that area, “We just hit it at the right time.” Coincidence? Those working on Feast arrangements have no doubt that God’s hand was at work.
For some brethren, 2020 has been “the year of canceled plans.” For those accustomed to transferring away from their assigned sites, staying local is a new experience. Travel restrictions have put people’s plans on hold. In some cases, such restrictions are even in place between states and between provinces. As of this writing, some countries are not accepting travelers from the United States. There are many uncertainties as to what restrictions will still be in force at Feast time or what new ones will be added.
This year, we are strongly encouraging brethren to attend their assigned Feast site. For many of those living outside the United States, Canada, and other more affluent countries, this is nothing new. In many places, there is one Feast site for an entire country—or for several countries. Even in the U.S., where more people travel to other locations, around 50 percent of the membership normally attend their local Feast sites. So, this is nothing new for them. They appreciate the privilege of attending the Feast, even at the same site they have attended for many years in a row, because it is where God has placed His name.
Some who have the blessing of traveling each year may be wondering, Why the cutback on transfers? There are several reasons for this. For one, government restrictions may not allow travel at Feast time. If we make plans to stay local, it is less likely that plans will be disrupted if restrictions are issued. As the news constantly reminds us, this is a season of massive volatility in government regulation, and we need to plan accordingly, staying flexible in an environment where local restrictions may change dramatically without much notice. Another reason to stay local is in case someone comes down with the coronavirus at the Feast—the closer to home they are, the better (for hospitalization, or even just to return home for self-quarantine). The guidelines also enable us to plan for a consistent number of attendees at each site—this year, 200. If an open-transfer policy were enacted, it would be impossible to maintain consistent numbers across the board and satisfy many of the Church’s contractual obligations. And if facilities in any area are suddenly faced with unexpected restrictions on the number of people they can allow in their hall at any one time, a group of 200 provides flexibility to adapt as needed, to ensure the Feast is not disrupted.
This has been disappointing to some, and that’s understandable. The Feast is a time to enjoy the blessings of life, and maybe in most years God has blessed you with the resources to travel. But if you can’t travel this year, does that mean this Feast of Tabernacles will be the “great year of disappointment”?
Moments That Bring Joy
We sometimes face challenges at the Feast. When we look back to past Feasts, we may remember times when things went wrong, when we had difficulties. Think about your life. In the past, you may have had to deal with a debilitating health crisis or serious car trouble at the Feast. Sometimes members come to the Feast while grieving over a lost spouse. Let’s not kid ourselves—sometimes we have trials even while keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. For some, the test is not being able to go to the Feast at all. Perhaps you are in that situation this year. It would be easy to “write it off,” so to speak, and consider this Feast as one we would rather just forget. But is that what God wants us to do?
In every difficult situation, there are unexpected blessings if we look for them. Even in the direst of trials, we can and should look for blessings from God. As we submit to God’s will—and even when His answer to some request has been “No!”—we can still ask God for His blessings, believing with rock-solid faith that He is involved and seeks to reward His faithful people. Notice what the prophet Joel writes about a very difficult and serious time to come. He writes that the servants of God, facing very dark times, would mourn, fast, and humble themselves—and expect a blessing from God! “So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him?” (Joel 2:13–14). Sometimes, even in grievous trials, there have been moments that we remember and smile—even though we would rather not repeat the trial. When we think back to those memories, we remember the “peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
What will you remember about this year? It has been an unusual one, to be sure. Many plans have been disrupted. Sites are smaller, meaning fewer teens or singles at each site. Activities may be scaled back, with no large banquets and dances. But we will still have the opportunity to fulfill what God wants for the Feast. As God desires of us, we will still be able to “eat before the Lord your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide” and will have the opportunity to “learn to fear the Lord your God always” (Deuteronomy 14:23). And we will still be able to include “the stranger and the fatherless and the widow” along with our family, as we rejoice before the Eternal (Deuteronomy 16:14).
When it’s all over, what will be our primary memories of this year’s Feast? The ways we were disappointed, or the moments that brought us joy and stirred us to rejoice before our Father in heaven? It really depends on how we choose to approach the Feast and what our expectations are. It depends on whether or not we have our focus on what the Feast is really about.
Challenges, Growth, and Satisfaction
When I was a college student, I worked one summer at the Church’s youth camp in Orr, Minnesota. For six weeks, we took campers on three- and four-day canoe trips into some of the most beautiful wild country in America, the northern Minnesota Boundary Waters. It was one of the most memorable summers of my life. I loved being in the outdoors, the camaraderie of working with the canoe staff, and the responsibility of guiding the campers through an unforgettable experience.
Over a six-week period—two camp sessions—we took dozens of campers out on the water. But the trips I remember most are the ones during which we faced and overcame adversity. Some memories are of waking up on a frigid and sunless morning with ice on my tent, pulling on still-wet clothes, stopping on a rocky point to eat lunch while huddled under tarps because of the driving rain, and hauling canoes over a muddy portage trail nearly a mile long and strewn waist-high with debris and logs.
Ironically, these memories are much more vivid—and even more meaningful—than those of days when the sun was shining, the breeze was gentle, and the puffy clouds drifted in the blue sky. Why? Not because they were more pleasant, but because they were times when we all dug deep, pulled together, and worked as a team. We helped one another and made sure no one was left behind. We shared our burdens and finished the race together.
I also remember being a young person in the Church and going to the same assigned site, Wisconsin Dells, nine years in a row. The Feast site was a two-hour drive from our home and not an “exotic getaway.” We stayed in the same hotel year after year, and its outdoor pool was empty, save for a few moldy leaves and the occasional dead squirrel. Most years, the Last Great Day in that area brought the first chill of winter, a biting wind, and even snow flurries.
But I look back and count those nine years as some of the best Feast memories of my life. What do I remember? Sure, we had sibling arguments on the way to the Feast—but those turned into fun times with those same brothers and sisters as we went on outings together, laughing and joking with one another. Did the Feast orchestra rehearsals seem boring and never-ending? Absolutely! But they also turned into experiences of playing stirring, chills-up-your-spine brass fanfares to announce Opening Night services. Was setting up chairs what I dreamed of as an optimal Feast experience? Not exactly. But those same service projects turned into meeting new friends and having a part to play in enabling a whole congregation of Feast-goers to worship together, sing together, and learn together. I will never forget those Feasts.
What will you remember from the Feast of Tabernacles 2020? Undoubtedly, this year’s Festival will be an unforgettable one. It is not “business as usual.” Things are different. But will our primary memories be the inconveniences, obstacles, and annoyances? Or will we someday look back and smile as we remember the little things that will happen this year: working together, pulling together as a family, and learning deep, spiritual lessons from our heavenly Father?
The last few months have reminded us of just how important it is for us to keep the Sabbath and the Holy Days. As the end of this age draws near, we will live through the worst time of trouble in history. We need this Feast and the lessons God is teaching us. We are all making memories this year. What will yours be?