The 10th of January was a beautiful day in Austin, Texas. It snowed, a lot, well, a lot for Austin anyway, and the snow accumulated and settled leaving the city silenced under a thick duvet of pristine potential. It was a beautiful end to what had been a tumultuous and disturbing week in American life (the riots at the Capitol had taken place a few days before), and as I played with my kids in the surprisingly deep snow in our backyard, I couldn’t help but think that God was providing a joyful distraction to the stress we were all enduring, allowing us to briefly blanket ourselves in the cold comfort of snowmen, snowball fights, and the astonished wonder of kids from Africa who had never seen real, fresh snow before. It was a welcome respite in what had been (and continues to be) an incredibly difficult season of leadership.
As I got the kids to bed and started to wind down the day, I was reflecting on what had been another week full of painful critique and opposition. I honestly welcome critique and constructive feedback and think that most leaders would do well to develop thicker skins and more humble hearts so that they would be more willing to listen to the objections of their people. But, 2020 (and the early weeks of 2021) had brought critique that was so constant, so extreme, and so painful in its nature, that it was starting to leave some real emotional and even spiritual scarring on my mind and heart. That week had been particularly intense, as, in response to what I had seen on the 6th of January, I had written a pastoral letter to the congregation that I serve. I had also offered some very brief comments along the same lines in the introduction to my sermon that Sunday. Many had found some of my admittedly pitiable remarks to be helpful, for which I am thankful.
Many had not.
Some said that I lacked the kindness of nuance and painted with brush strokes that were too broad, leaving those at the conservative side of the political spectrum feeling that they were tarnished by the width and clumsiness of that brush. I understand what they are saying. I do lack nuance and wisdom most days.
Some said that I lacked the boldness and conviction to clearly and courageously condemn not just the acts of January 6th, but also the environment of political thought that made the day possible, which left people feeling vulnerable, wondering if their church and leadership was soft on things like white supremacy and political extremism. I understand what they are saying. I do lack boldness and courage most days.
Most of this feedback was offered in a spirit of Christian love, and was helpful as a result. Some of it wasn’t.
It was a tough few days in the valley of the shadow of my inbox. Which is why I had been so grateful for the distraction of the snow. It was a chance to play with my kids. A chance to cuddle on the couch with my wife. A chance to enjoy the supernatural silence that snow brings, to at least temporarily drown out some of the cacophony created by the friction of striving to navigate leadership in an extremely complicated and divided world.
And so, as I prepared myself for bed, I thanked the Lord for the snow, but as I went to check if our front door was locked I knew that something was off. Someone had been at our house. I felt it before I saw it. I can’t describe how or why, but I felt it. As I opened my front door the hair on my neck and arms stood on end, my heart rate spiked, my breath was sapped from my lungs. Right there, a few feet from our front door, in the middle of the otherwise untouched snow of our front yard, someone had carved a 12-foot by 12-foot swastika. I wasn’t prepped to see that symbol. I knew something was off, but I wasn’t prepped for the depth of that. I closed the door, prayed, asked the Lord for courage and clarity, and then stepped out into the cold night, fairly certain that whoever had wanted to leave that message was probably still around.
They weren’t. Thank God.
After a few minutes, I called Sue outside to see it, and then we raked its stain out of our yard through tears, before the two of us spent the evening trying to figure out who would do such a thing and why. We learned a lot about who it was in the following few days, and so before I get into the lessons we have learned I do want to clarify a couple of things.
First, I do not know for sure if this was specifically targeted at me or my family. It may have been and it very well may have not been, and we have run out of information to make further determination on that. The last thing that I want to do is to adopt a false posture of victimhood or a perception of being targeted if that wasn’t actually the intent. I know that this is a small thing in the big picture of the world and that many face greater hatred, hostility and deep suffering on a daily basis. So this is not about us at all. However, it landed up at our door, and we were left to deal with it in a season where we felt like there was intense scrutiny, opposition and objection. The timing was very peculiar to us. It still is.
Second, we have seen the footage of who did it, and this wasn’t kids playing a “prank.” It was two grown older men and I won’t say much more than that on their identity. They took their time to place a message in a way that ensured that the owner of the home got it. It was sad and difficult to watch the footage. And yes, it has been offered to local law enforcement.
With all that said, we have asked to the Lord to teach us what He wants to teach us through this over the last few weeks. We are stewards of whatever comes into our lives, and we don’t want to miss the opportunity to learn and grow in godliness even if it comes through a medium that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. So below, are ten observations, or fresh learnings – if you like – that we are working through as a family. I hope and pray that God uses them to encourage you and maybe teach you in some small way as He has encouraged and taught us so much in the last few weeks of learning them.
Principalities and Powers are Real
There is something truly demonic about the symbol of the swastika and all that it stands for. It is a symbol of evil, which is a reminder that very real forces of evil exist. We tend to forget that the Scriptures are very clear that the true battles of life aren’t taking place against flesh and blood, but against rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of darkness and evil (Eph 6:12). Again, I am not saying that demons did this. No, people did it, I saw them, and … I am utterly persuaded that they were led by demonic forces to do it. That doesn’t diminish their responsibility, but rather awakens my sensitivity to the real and determined forces of evil in this world. It was a helpful reminder to my family and I to take the battles of this life seriously, and to seek the Lord for help, protection and comfort.
You Can’t Build Enough Comfort to Prevent Evil from Coming to Your Door
We live in quintessential American suburbia. It is embarrassing in all of its comfortable suburbyness. Kids ride bikes in the street, neighbors know each other well, the HOA measures hedge heights. All of it. It is a very non-aggressive place, and as South Africans who were previously very aware of and extremely exposed to violent crimes and its effects, we have loved that element of it. But, it can numb you to reality. It can feed the lie that says that if I control the comfort of my surrounding circumstances, then I can effectively layer my life with a bubble wrap protection which keeps the sharp edges of a fallen world and all of is sufferings and sins at bay. It doesn’t work. Where people are, sin is. That means that at any given point there is as much threat from sin inside my house as outside it, and equally that there is as much in the hearts of the residents of immaculate homes in comfortable suburbs as there is anywhere else. You can’t keep it out, which is why you need a Savior who forgives sin, not a false comforter who denies its existence.
People are Being Radicalized Under Our Noses
I never thought that I would see a swastika displayed in America in 2021. I never thought that we would see a noose set up on the steps of the Capitol in 2021. I never thought I would see such open hostility and such extremism from people around me who now seem to be circling the drain of extremism and radicalization. What is happening? Well, that is a topic for another blog, but I am watching people (not all, but certainly some) become more extreme in their views as they gradually narrow their information sources, and increasingly reduce their community to only those who share agreement.
The fight against this, I am persuaded, will be a greater response of urgent and radical love, truth-telling and discipleship. If ever there was a time for the people of God to radically pursue and imitate Christ, it is now. Reach out to those around you who you see drifting off. Check the areas of your own heart that are giving in to extreme thoughts, ideas and emotions. Ask if you are giving the same emotional energy to your pursuit of Christ as to your pursuit of whatever ideology has gripped your heart.
It is Unhelpful to Paint People You Disagree with, with Evil Labels
I have seen too many people call other people Nazi’s. The problem with labeling other people into extremes into which they do not fit, is that it removes our ability to recognize and resist the actual evil we claim to hate when it does appear. I have had so many friends reach out in empathy and who equally called this act what it was, evil. These friends are all over the political map, and some of them find themselves in modes of thought that I am not totally comfortable with, but they were unified in a recognition that Nazi iconography has no place our society. And yet, in regular public discourse they may have been tempted to label each other as someone who subscribed to such evil. We have to do better.
Not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a white supremacist.
Not everyone who voted for Joe Biden wants to kill babies.
Not every conservative is a heartless capitalist with no empathy for the poor or desire to alleviate poverty.
Not every progressive is a socialist, or Marxist, who wants to erode all individual liberty and responsibility.
There are times, and they may even be frequent, when we need to disagree strongly with each other. This is not a call to centrist denialism. It is a call to Christian charity, kindness and truth-telling though. Choosing to label people as the worst aberration of the most extreme version of their convictions is unkind, ungodly, untrue and it breaks the Scriptural command to not bear false witness (Exodus 20:16).
One of the things my family and I are committing to this year is to being continually curious friends who long to find out what people believe and why, rather than making unkind and unthoughtful assumptions. People are fascinating, and almost always more interesting than the caricature we hold of them.
What Looks Terrifying in the Dark, Looks Really Foolish in the Light
The day after this event I asked one of my neighbors, who lives a couple of houses away, if I could watch his video footage. I always thought it was pretty funny that someone in our neighborhood had security cameras. I have them now. They aren’t funny at all, although the nightly visit from a small gray fox is fairly amusing to my wife, to be fair. The footage from my neighbors cameras though made me cry. It made him cry too (he is Jewish and this was extremely painful for him).
And then, it made both of us laugh.
There was something so genuinely pathetic about two grown men carving a sign in the snow, constantly looking up at my front door to be sure that they weren’t being watched, and then skulking off into the cover of night to hide from me, who would shortly emerge in all the terrifying intimidation of my night gown and flannel pajamas.
Let me be clear, if it was you who did this, and you are somehow reading this by God’s sovereign hand, I do not think YOU are pathetic. I think you are an image bearer of the Divine, and as such, you are worthy of dignity, value and respect. But I do think THIS ACT WAS PATHETIC, and weak, and sad, and the cold light of day revealed that to be true.
Friends, there are so many things that look super scary that just need the perspective of daylight to diminish their threat.
Fear is Overwhelming and Corrosive
Don’t get me wrong, I was brave in the daylight, but I was terrified when it happened, and have been on a couple of occasions since. Sue and I didn’t sleep much that first night because I was genuinely afraid that this person was coming back and that I wouldn’t be able to protect my family (my greatest fear by far).
It is alarming what extreme fear does to your soul. It shrinks it, distorts it, shapes it into something unrecognizable. There is a great Springsteen song called “Devils and Dust” which has some lyrics in the chorus that always hit me.
Fear’s a powerful thing babyBruce Springsteen, Devils and Dust
It’ll turn your heart black, you can trust
It’ll take your God-filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust
I know that some of you don’t like Springsteen (and as I write this there appears to be some breaking news around a DWI arrest which is obviously very poor behavior), so perhaps something from Yoda would be more helpful to you.
Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.– Yoda
I was reminded again this last Sunday as I preached from the account of the transfiguration from Matthew 17 that the bible calls its adherents again and again to not be afraid. The fear that entered into my body and soul on that evening had the potential to corrode the faith that ought to have been in its place. Left unchecked, it would have left me with nothing but devils and dust.
It is amazing how in response to this moment I was tempted in fresh ways to sin. I was tempted to unrestrained anxiety. I was tempted to deep suspicion of my neighbors and even to some who are in our church community. I was tempted to the sin of judgment and the dehumanizing slippery slope of assuming others ideas and intentions. I am ashamed of that.
My fight, it turns out, wasn’t just against the men who left Nazi iconography on our house, but ultimately against the inherent wickedness that lay in my own heart, just waiting for an inkling of justification to rise up and roam free and unrestrained, reveling in the opportunity to be explained away by the sin that had been committed against me. This is the insidious nature of sin. It isn’t content to flow in one direction, or to impact us only as a victim of its actions. No, it loves to flow from us as much as it loves to impact upon us, and it must be fought by all lest it spreads unchecked under the cover of our real pain and suffering.
Love Covers a Multitude of Sins
Clearing that sign of sin from my yard was one of the most powerfully moving things I have ever done. As I began to rake it away (we live in Texas and we are not prepared for snow events), its shape and its power began to evaporate into the surrounding landscape of perfect white snow. It was such a picture of the sort of grace that God gives us in Jesus Christ. Our scarlet stained sins and the signs that they leave are cleansed and made as white as snow through God’s mercy (Isaiah 1:18). But, Jesus didn’t just rake over them to cover them, He became them in order to absorb them (2 Cor 5:21). Such grace from our Jesus, it is almost too much for my simple soul to fathom, but I cling to it with all I have.
Genuine, Loving Community is an Antidote to Hate
The outpouring of love that we experienced from friends on the days that followed this incident was truly astonishing and quite overwhelming. Friends brought us meals; some showed up to pray for us and over our house; one drove right across town to bring us homemade bread and a great bottle of wine so that Sue and I could center ourselves on the love of Christ again through the shared elements of communion; some staked out our house late at night to make sure we were safe; others helped us to install security cameras so that we felt even more safe. In a world full of viral hate, genuine neighbor love and truly sacrificial friendship is like an antidote, one that heals, one that restores, one that immunizes against further infection. We are more persuaded than ever that these sorts of relationships matter more than anything else we could possibly do with the time we have been entrusted with. Be a good friend.
It’s God’s Kindness that Leads to Repentance
One of the most difficult things about this incident was explaining it to my 10-year old son. Understandably, he teared up and displayed some physical manifestations of fear and frustration. “I just don’t understand why people have to hate” was his summarizing statement. He is a very special boy. That night when I was lying with him in bed, I asked him him how we was feeling and if he had thought about it more. He had, and what he was thinking about was that he really wanted an opportunity to meet the person who did it. I understood the motivation but suspected that we may have had different underlying reasons for such a meeting and that was confirmed when I asked him why he would want to meet them. He said,
“I want to tell them that the reason they hate is because they don’t know that God is love, and that if God loves them then they don’t need to hate anybody anymore.”
I desired a meeting of confrontation and potential intimidation while my son wanted a meeting of reconciliation and mercy. Oh that the children would lead us. Daniel understood and believed that the love of God and the kindness with which He meets sinners would be way more persuasive than the anger of his earthly father. Daniel gets it.
Again, to the man who did this. Daniel and I would like to meet with you. We would like to tell you that God loves you, and that the way of hate is not the liberation you hope it might be. We would like to forgive you and invite you into the love that God alone can give.
That is the way of real freedom. The only icon that truly represents the hope and safety that you desire is the icon of the crucified King Jesus. Though this icon has been unfortunately hijacked as a cultural sign of strength, it is an invitation to genuine weakness. Instead of making others fear for their lives, it is an invitation to come and find yours.
As we prepare for more snow this weekend, my hope and prayer is that Daniel won’t have to see a symbol of hate defiling his front yard, and that rather we will again get to sit under that blanket of silence and wonder at how God makes all things new, and how the stains of sin have been removed by Christ, the one who washes us, whiter than snow (Ps 51:7).