Living in a troubled world with so many unknowns, we take comfort in our God who protects those who draw nigh to Him. One of my favorite scriptures through any tense moments in the Church or personally has always been Isaiah 41:10 Isaiah 41:10Fear you not; for I am with you: be not dismayed; for I am your God: I will strengthen you; yes, I will help you; yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.
American King James Version×:
“Fear not, for I am with you;
Be not dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
Yes, I will help you,
I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”
We not only take comfort in these words—we rejoice in them.
We are returning to our regular routines after the recently completed Feast of Tabernacles. In the history of the United Church of God, this was the most challenging year in terms of preparing for the Feast. In a normal year we have around 60 sites around the world, and this year it was fewer than 30 due to COVID-19 complications and impact.
Less than two months before the Feast, sites were being canceled—which created an immediate need to search for new locations. The hand of God opened up additional sites at the last minute, plus within two weeks of the Feast we had to change to another venue at Rapid City. A number of small satellite sites were developed at the last minute to accommodate local needs. There were over a thousand daily webcast connections to the two official webcast Feast sites.
One highlight at all Feast sites was the virtual special music produced by the home office. An often unrecognized crucial contribution to the success of our Feast sites is the many volunteers who take personal time off work to arrive early and serve, plus those who sacrifice personal time during the Feast to serve others. I want to express a special thank you to everyone who helped in the many resourceful ways to make the Feast a success to our brethren, young and old.
Obviously, COVID-19 will always be a part of the memory of the 2020 Feast, but regional pastor Ken Martin attending in Gatlinburg mentioned, “Masks were inconvenient but did not deter the positive atmosphere among the brethren.” Over 6,000 people attended live services in the United States and Canada, but less than half of one percent of our members have informed us that they tested positive for the virus after their return. Only about half of those said they displayed symptoms. We thank God for our protection and for our members being conscientious and diligent.
Yesterday I received a letter from “Lighting the Way Outreach” in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Our Gatlinburg Feast outreach was to this group. They wrote:
“Thank you for your donation of all that food to Lighting the Way Outreach. We very much appreciate any and all donations, but especially from another ministry. We know that feeding the poor and taking care of the widows and orphans is the very heart of Jesus Christ. We very much appreciate your wonderful donation.”
—Jim Odom, President, and Pastor Bill Haley, Executive Director
There are many stories of kindness and even valor that we can recount from this year’s Feast. This coming issue of the United News will feature more of them, but, here are a few.
From Panama City Beach, Florida, Clint Porter recounted this story:
“Twenty or so Church members pooled some extra festival tithe. Many of them had enjoyed a particular restaurant at the Feast over the years, so they went to the restaurant’s manager the previous day and asked him if he had anyone on his staff who could especially benefit from a gift. He said he knew exactly the one—a server he’d employed for several years who was maybe his most dependable worker, but who as a single mother had encountered some particularly trying hardships over the past year.
“They arranged to have that server for their table that evening. After the meal, they left a very large tip and a note from the group. As the server came to clean the table, one of our members watched from a distance and shot a video to share privately with the rest who had contributed. I don’t know what they wrote in the note, but the server was clearly moved by it, tearing up as she stood there appearing to re-read the note a few times, and then turning to some of her coworkers to show them. Our friends were thrilled to have been able to share God’s blessings in this small but personal and useful way at the Feast.”
From Ronda Creech in Cincinnati, a sad happening that turned into an inspiring event:
“When the senior dinner could not happen because of COVID restrictions, a plan was made to present gift bags to 25 of our seniors age 80 and over. The bags were carefully prepared, but overnight they were stolen! This was so disheartening. But God showed us that He can make something turn out good through our brethren’s outpouring of love. Donations were sought to replace those bags that far exceeded the replacement of the stolen gifts. A replacement of around 140 bags was made, and now all the seniors would be able to receive one. A few days later, the bags were passed out in a small recognition event after services with the help of some of the children and a few adult volunteers who walked the bags to each senior.”
From Nick Lamoureux reporting on the Nkhwazi, Malawi, Feast site:
“This year, the Lilongwe and Nkhwazi congregations combined for the Feast of Tabernacles at the Church land in Nkhwazi, where we own a pavilion, a bathhouse, and grow some small crops. The Thursday before the Feast began, heavy winds disrupted Festival preparations at the Feast site, removing the roofs of many of the temporary bamboo booths, and even lifting the edge of the tin roof on the pavilion!
“Sometime on the third day of the Feast, early seasonal rains arrived unexpectedly in heavy torrents, along with half-dollar-sized hailstones. Some of the brethren were staying in tents, with others staying in bamboo booths. Understandably, everything was soaked, with many of the temporary dwellings partially-damaged by hailstones. The Feast-goers from Lilongwe traveled back to their respective homes via minibus and bicycles in an attempt to dry out for a day, with plans to reconvene.
“On the fifth day of the Feast, undaunted by Satan’s attacks on their physical comforts, the Lilongwe and Nkhwazi congregations were able to meet separately at their respective church areas. The rains did not return until the Sunday after the Feast. During these last days, the brethren spent their time singing hymns, playing games and feasting on foods they were able to enjoy in great abundance as a result of the outpouring of love from many of God’s people throughout the world.
“On the Eighth Day—that Last Great Day of the Feast—four baptisms were performed: in Lilongwe, Mr. and Mrs. Darlington Misomali, and in Nkhwazi, Mr. and Mrs. Lytton Gideon. I began counseling with some of these people for baptism in the middle of 2019, and am so pleased to see this wonderful development! As is our custom in accordance with the example of Jesus Christ, a blessing of little children was conducted for 24 little children.
“Our Malawian brethren are thankful for your prayers. They look forward to the return of Jesus Christ and a time when Satan will be locked away. And they yearn for a time when there will be no more pain or suffering and the saints will reign with Christ for a thousand years.”
I could recount more stories. We are thankful that some of the adversity caused us to think more resourcefully. Some of this brought the attention of the community to see what we were celebrating. At the hastily organized Feast in Berlin, Ohio, 24 people from the community attended our services.
I received many notes from members and ministers telling me how much they appreciated the attention and care that festival coordinators provided at their site. The overall attitude of all at the Feast in 2020 was exceptional this year.
I pray daily for you, our brethren and ministry. Remember, we have nothing to fear because God is close to us when we are close to Him.