My wife, oldest son, my in-laws, and myself just got back from Zambia, Africa. My sister-in-law who is a missionary in Zambia/Congo got married to a wonderful Zambian guy named Saviour. It was a blessing to take part in their beautiful wedding overlooking a gorge full of rapids coming down from Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world.
While we were there we also had the opportunity to do many other things. We went on a safari and saw elephants, giraffes, zebras, and baboons among other animals. We stood 20 yards from very coveted Rhinos living in the wild but protected by men with rifles (because of poaching). We went to a crocodile farm and stood next to crocs who have killed numerous people and even held a 2-year-old crocodile.
We also got to share in some amazing ministry with the team that my sister-in-law has been leading. They are a collection of missionaries from Zambia and the US who actively reach into local villages to share the Gospel and train people on how to do Farming God’s Way. I was able to do some teaching with the team about Transformation Prayer Ministry. Then we separated into groups and went out into the community to minister. We sat on the property of the headman of a local village and shared the Gospel and asked for passage to talk to others in his village. We sat with other families and answered questions about witch doctors, strange church practices, and faith in Jesus. We sat with some guys at a bar and shared the Gospel with them for a while. We also hosted a revival service at night that my wife spoke at.
During our times on the main base of the mission organization we talked to missionaries working in other parts of the world and in other spheres of ministry in Zambia. We talked to the founder of the ministry and others who are amazing leaders.
We experienced an incredible amount on the trip. One major thing that was conspicuously absent was worry about Covid-19.
Before I go on, I will put out the usual disclaimers:
*I am obviously not a doctor, although I don’t think that makes a difference in the point of what I am writing. Being a doctor makes you an expert in medical diagnoses, but not necessarily in diagnosing realities of the human condition.
*I know that some people have suffered consequences from Covid either in severe illness or on occasion death, and my heart breaks for their families. Nothing I am saying here takes away from that.
*I am speaking specifically to Christians and the Church. Although there may be overlap, I am not primarily speaking of political/policy points, but more about how the church should respond during this season.
Like I said, Covid-19 seemed like a distant memory or afterthought in Zambia. Sure, some stores and billboards in the main cities still had some signs up about Covid. Hotels had some signs and restrictions. In the cities, some people wore masks (although very rarely was anyone wearing a mask “properly”) and at many stores they would squirt your hands with some kind of sanitizing liquid. But all of these things were very relaxed, if done at all. And once you left the cities, Covid was a distant memory. Life felt like it was back to normal. We sang, ministered, worked, and played without thinking about Covid.
What a strange experience to have as I turned my attention back toward the US on the way home, hearing that there were more and more Covid cases, new threats and restrictions at play from political leaders, churches shutting down preemptively, schools shutting down again, and news organizations talking about Covid more than ever, threatening a “dark winter.” Many Christians and Christian leaders I talk to are more likely to talk about government guidance, frustrations about non-mask wearers, and how you don’t love your neighbor if you express frustration about restrictions than about the Gospel and the work God is doing.
Two very different experiences. Two very different worlds to live in. So what made the difference? How is it that in a place like Zambia, where the medical, political, and economic infrastructure is significantly less than America could people be so relaxed? Why does it seem like the main superpower of the world is suffering the worst from a disease that seems like it should be affecting other parts of the world like Africa? And what should our response to Covid be as Christians?
Here are just a few simple reality checks I was hit by as I was in Zambia:
- We in the US have let ourselves get mentally and physically weak.
Some might think that because, in general, people in Zambia have less access to resources than an average American does that we are stronger. But we forget that strength comes from struggle. You only get strong in the gym when you apply resistance to your muscles. In the same way, it is really those that have faced the least resistance that tend to be the weakest.
When I look at our culture and the limited amount of struggle that the vast majority face, I see a people that have become weak both mentally and physically. It is self-afflicted as well. We have indulged in pleasure and relaxation to such an extent that obesity and all of the health complications that come with it are extremely high in the US.
Also, we are constantly filling our brains with movies, video games, social media, and so much other entertainment that our mental fortitude is so fragile. How strange it is that people are constantly falling apart mentally in the US despite access to the “best” resources in mental health.
When I look at the Zambian people, I see people who are more physically and mentally prepared to face life’s challenges, including something like Covid. When I was teaching about the Transformation Prayer Ministry we do in the states, we talked about emotions. I was impressed with the mental fortitude so many of our new friends had there despite going through things that many people in the US would consider extremely difficult. I found it hard to give examples of struggle in the US because so many of the examples would be silly in comparison.
I am not saying that no one here in the US struggles or there are no strong people, but I was reminded how on average we as a people have become mentally and physically weak and more susceptible to a situation like Covid.
2. We are incredibly obsessed with safety as a culture to the detriment of truly living.
One of the things I was reminded of when we were in Africa is that nature and the real world is inherently wild and dangerous. And living life comes with risk. Whether it was standing on top of the largest waterfall in the world with no safety ropes or seeing a scorpion on our porch one night or driving on dirt roads that were washed out and dangerous or being 15 feet from a crocodile that has previously killed many people or flying 17 hours across the ocean in a metal box, being on this trip reminded me of risk. It is inherent in human life. All good adventures come with risk.
But as our lives in the US have gone more virtual and sedentary we have become safety obsessed. We are willing to sacrifice so much in the name of safety. We as a culture are obsessed with liabilities and guarantees of safety. We demand absolute safety from our political and social leaders. We sanitize our lives and the lives of our kids from experiencing danger. We box things in, we wall things off, and expect safety at all costs. We are even willing to sacrifice our personal liberties and freedom of choice if it means we have a chance to be safe.
In a world in Africa where things are wilder and freer, safety is never the first consideration. It is not that safety is never taken into account, but it is never “safety first.” In fact, Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame started an organization called, “Safety Third,” and I think he’s onto something. His point is that when we decide to live life with safety as the first and primary consideration, we will sacrifice the parts of life that really matter. It is not that safety shouldn’t matter but it should never be the primary determination of how to live life.
As I consider this in terms of Covid, the metrics continue to change. At first, it was taking a few weeks to prepare health officials to get things in order in hospitals. Then, we were told to continue to have restrictions because people were dying. Then, when death rates dropped drastically and the younger and healthier population that had a 99.9% chance of survival from Covid started to spread it the focus went to cases and the elimination of cases. Politicians and health officials started to mandate and require more and more in the name of “Safety first.” Lockdowns, crowd restrictions, masks, sanitizing, plexiglass, distancing; the list goes on and on. Millions of dollars were spent, confusing rules were enforced, and restrictions were made up that may or may not work all the time. But whenever anyone would ask a question, the consistent theme was “safety first” and why would you be so cruel as to “put someone else in danger?”
I won’t comment on each one of these restrictions, but my point is the reality check that I received in Africa is that life is never safe. We don’t have to be stupid with situations like Covid, but it doesn’t matter how much we try to wrangle or require or limit something like a virus. Life will never be truly safe. And sorry to say, it never has been before. Every day of your life you have made risk assessments about what you choose to do.
We have to decide if life for us is going to be about “safety first” or if there are some noble things that require us to put safety further down the list. For instance, we have friends working in nursing homes who have seen many of their residents die of loneliness. Not everyone would make this choice, but I know of many 80-90 year-olds that would most definitely risk Covid over being alone and isolated from their family and friends for the few months or years they have left. They would consider community a more noble thing than safety in this case.
3. We forget that the kind of decisions we make have consequences on the world.
I was sitting with the leader of the mission organization we were visiting one night at dinner. As we discussed world events, I was enthralled with something he brought up. He told of DR Congo where my sister-in-law and brother-in-law are going to be stationed. He said right now they have 4 epidemics currently active. I believe he said there were epidemics of ebola, measles, Covid, and one other disease. His point was that they have been actively fighting epidemics for a long time and of the epidemics listed the one of least concern was Covid. The other epidemics were killing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. Covid in Africa has not been deadly.
In fact, African countries looked at world leaders like the US earlier in the pandemic and followed our lead in shutting things down expecting the worst. Yet to this day, despite things pretty much going back to normal there are almost no deaths or cases being reported. With the lack of extensive health resources, the consequences could have been disastrous but not much transpired as far as they could tell.
What has hurt or killed people is the lockdowns that were put in place and the continued fear that has caused tourism and other industries to die. There are not the same kind of safety nets in Africa that people in the US might expect. Lockdowns disproportionately hurt them.
Now, the average American would not see this because we are not there, but I was reminded about how much influence we have over the attitude and reactions of the rest of the world. Even though Zambia probably never needed to lockdown they did partially because of our reaction and the rest of the world’s reaction. In fact, the WHO offered a billion dollars to countries in Africa to shut down. There was much pressure. But there are significant amounts of people in Zambia and other countries that have suffered and are suffering because of decisions we are making and the focus we have.
Now, before I say my theory on why we are investing too much energy into focusing on Covid let me clarify again that I am not saying Covid is not real nor am I saying that Covid is not serious for some. For those over 60 it drops from being 99.99% survivable to a little bit lower and over 75 or so it drops to 94.5% survivable.
But my theory is this. Obviously, it can’t be true that nobody has cases in Africa. Every part of the world has cases. Yet, the population is relatively healthy from a comorbidity standpoint and the population is relatively young. What is not happening right now is a massive amount of tests. Since media coverage has focused on cases, one of the things that people have lost sight of is the massive amount of testing we do as a country. According to the CDC, we have done around 170,000,000 tests since the pandemic began. That is enough to test close to half our population if each test was done on a separate person. Just yesterday, there were 1,500,000 tests done.
And just the other day, France released a report detailing that it has clear evidence that it tested people for Covid-19 antibodies the whole way back in September 2019. Our country and others have reported similar things. What that says is that Covid was circulating without knowledge for a while before we started testing so much.
I am not a doctor and don’t know for sure, but my theory is that Covid probably is in Africa, but there are not a ton of tests being done. They are also not seeing tons of people dying everywhere. But because of the tests being done in the states (more and more everyday) and therefore more cases being observed, the fervor of Covid persists. And it has impacts on others around the world. We can’t underestimate the damage that we have done to our country and others around the world because of the scenario we are in that perpetuates continual lockdowns and restrictions. There are people suffering in Africa right now without a job or income because of some of the decisions we and others in the west have made.
When we say we are doing things because we need to love our neighbor we need to consider the impact it has on the wider world as well. Loving our neighbor does not just mean hiding in our houses and avoiding people out of fear of Covid. Loving our neighbor needs to include helping people who are thinking about suicide because of hopelessness, people who are unemployed because of lockdowns, and people who will starve because of the fears we allow to dictate our policies.
The average age of people dying from Covid is often over the average life expectancy in countries. For instance, in Scotland one study showed that the average age of people dying of covid was 79 for men and 84 for women. Yet, another study from the UN said that because of the perpetuated fear, lockdowns, and decisions being made around Covid there is a possibility of over 100 million people dying from starvation by the end of 2020. 100 million people!!! When put in that context, what does loving our neighbor mean? Does it mean being terrified and shutting down economies for a disease that on average kills people over the average life expectancy age or does it mean allowing young and healthy people to get back to normal life so that we can help 100 million people avoid starvation?
4. We should be ashamed of ourselves if we ever let anything stand in the way of the Gospel.
All of these reality checks are silly in comparison to this most important one. What was refreshing being with these missionaries stationed in different places and also getting to travel into villages sharing the Gospel is that the Gospel was first and foremost off their lips. All the other decisions, considerations, and thoughts came second to sharing the Gospel with people who are dying and going to hell.
This was so refreshing because I feel like I have infrequently heard this kind of passion from pastors and churches within the States in this past year. More often than not this past year I have heard pastors and churches discuss keeping your neighbor safe, black lives matter, online church metrics, politics, and many other things. I am not saying these things should not be talked about, but what are we on this planet to do? We are on this planet to glorify God and share the Gospel with those who are lost.
Here are a list of questions that it feels like have been more important to church leaders and churches than the question of where does God wants us to share the Gospel:
*Are we abiding by the Covid restrictions well enough?
*Have we sanitized things effectively?
*Is our live stream quality good?
*Did we have enough discussion on racism?
*Did we address politics correctly in society?
*Are we teaching people to love their neighbor?
*Are our online metrics good?
Now, don’t get me wrong, our church has had to ask these questions as well during this season. I am not shaming the questions themselves. What I do feel ashamed at is how I never hear the most important question come out of many of these churches first. Where and how should we be sharing the Gospel right now? Also, are we effectively sharing the Gospel right now?
Just because of Covid, the main metric didn’t change. Our goal as churches and Christians is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those who are lost. And that trumps everything that would come in its way. It trumps our safety, it trumps our political correctness, it trumps our moralistic teaching, it trumps everything.
If we were to find that online ministry alone was not working to reach people for the Gospel would be willing to push against restrictions so that we could be sharing the Gospel in person with people? If we found that focusing all of our attention on social issues was hindering our declaration of the Gospel would we refocus our attention on the most important thing?
Are we still willing to risk whatever it takes to share the Gospel? This really incapsulates the reality check I got in Africa. The organization that we were staying with has a slogan: “Any road…Any load…Any time.” Are we willing to have this type of attitude with our lives no matter what is happening in the world around us?
I write this not to stir up controversy or anything else. I have attempted to stay quiet in this covid season for the most part because people are so emotionally exhausted. I couldn’t stay quiet right now because when we left Africa and entered back into America I felt this heavy cloud envelop us. There is a heavy, emotionally-laden, controversy-charged environment here right now. I felt like it was my responsibility to speak since I was able to get outside the bubble for a couple weeks.
If you have bristled at what I have written and disagree with much of my assessment in relation to Covid that is fine. I would simply ask that you truly stop for a second and ask yourself the question: if you started with the foundational question of not living in fear and instead doing whatever it takes to share the Gospel right now would anything change about how you’re living your life? If not, then praise the Lord. If so, then please be willing to speak to the Lord about that.
If you are frustrated and confused about the whole Covid situation right now, then I hope in hearing this that you would be refreshed as I was. There is a bigger picture than just the US. We must not let ourselves get tired of moving forward and pushing the boundaries. We must not let safety be our first and only metric. We should be wise, but also not forget the most important aspects of life. This too will be over soon. Will the Lord be glorified in what He has seen in us during this season?