The War…

When I was in high school I smoked. Not like a chain smoker or anything, but I was more than a dabbler. I kind of quit when I got to college, and then really quit when I got married. Well, mostly really quit anyway.

I’ve had the same pack of cigarettes hidden away in the bottom of my desk drawer for the last three or four years, and when I’d get really stressed or feeling especially low I’d revisit my old addiction in hopes of finding some relief. Without fail, instead of relief I’d just find myself feeling nauseous in a cloud of guilt, hacking like an asthmatic cat with a hairball.

I wasn’t remembering any of that downside though when I collapsed into a chair on my deck and with shaking hands lit up the last cigarette in my antique pack.

The evening had started out normal enough. Brandon, my teenage neighbor, had asked for a haircut. He had an absolutely glorious afro, the stuff of legends, but he wanted it gone, so I brought out my gear and right there in the front yard we commenced operation Fropocalypse.

As I began hacking away, I noticed Tony, another neighbor, pick up a pair of my scissors. I didn’t say anything, but watched him out of the corner of my eye as he walked over to my van and while looking in the mirror started cutting chunks out of his afro.

After seeing enough of the damage he was doing, I offered, “Dude, need some help with that? No Charge.” He quickly turned me down and kept hacking, so I let it go. As Brandon’s haircut got crispier and crispier (better), Tony’s got raggedier and raggedier (worse), and despite my repeated offers to help, and the merciless flaming (teasing) from the mob that had gathered, Tony wouldn’t let me fix the train wreck that was happening on top of his head.

I’m not sure what caused him to finally give up on his misguided mission, but eventually he plopped down in my barber chair and just said, “Fine”.

Raggidy cut...

As I began cutting, it became instantly clear why he’d been avoiding me and trying to cut his own hair…

It was the worst case of lice I’d ever seen.

It’s not often that I get grossed out to the point of puking. Maybe it’s because since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by things like boogers and bugs. My dear Mother recently reminded me that I used to impress the neighbor girls with my ability to crush rolly pollies with my teeth.

This was different though. There were so many lice I could hardly see his scalp and the parts of his scalp that weren’t covered in lice were covered in scabs and open sores. As the reality of what I was seeing hit me, I threw up in my mouth.

The Lord and I had a quick desperate conversation that left me feeling sick but determined to help get this kid rid of his tiny tormentors. I quickly sent the crowd that had gathered to the backyard to work on a project, and quietly asked Tony if he was aware of the infestation. He hung his head and nodded.

“How long you been battling?” I asked him. “Too long,” he replied. “You ready to be free of them?” I asked.   He shot me a weak smile, and with an approving nod the war began.

I can’t recall how long it took, as the haircut is still kind of a blur, but I still shudder when I recall the lice crawling up my arms and legs like a massive army of tiny invaders. Eventually, after waging war for what felt like forever, I declared victory. His head was still pretty raw, but it was clean, and his heart seemed to be overflowing with the peace and joy of someone that had tasted victory in a war they’d been stuck in for too long.


After gathering my gear, I frantically tried to brush off as many lice as I could, ran upstairs and promptly threw up in a trashcan. Without thinking I grabbed my last cigarette, ran to the deck, and collapsed into a chair, sobbing.

I took a couple drags off the cigarette and between coughs wondered aloud, “What was that!?”

I’ve never heard God audibly speak, but it was as if He whispered in my ear clear as day, “That, was you in that barbers chair…”

As I sat there in a puddle of tears, the scene played out in my mind like I was watching a movie, only I was Tony, and it wasn’t lice on my scalp, it was my sin crawling all over my soul. The ugly sins and the respectable ones, the sins I hide beneath my fro and try not to scratch at when I think people are looking. The sins that I justify, minimalize and think I can manage and deal with on my own. The sins I’ve entertained for far too long thinking I’d never be rid of them, and the sins that are leaving my soul sucked dry and scabby. The laziness, the lust, the greed, the judgmental pride, the jealousy, my all too frequent selfishness induced indifference towards God and the people He’s sent me to love, the worry, the lies, and all the impotent idols I run to for life… like the cigarette I was holding in my shaking hand.

I felt sick, and not just my body, but my whole soul felt nauseous. I can grow pretty numb to my sin sometimes, even justifying it as a good thing on occasion, but as I sat there in that chair I saw it for what it was and felt utterly repulsed by it.

As I leaned over and extinguished the cigarette with spit, another question penetrated my guilty fog and hit me in the heart…

“Need some help with that? No charge…
“How long you been battling?”

“Too long,” I mumbled under my breath.

“You ready to be free of them?”

What followed was a painful but liberating, repentance filled soul war that left my heart feeling pretty raw, but clean and overflowing with the kind of peace and joy you’d see flowing out of someone who’d just tasted victory in a war they’d been stuck in for too long.

The Gospel that I too often grow numb to was the key that set me free, for the millionth time.  As I sat there in that chair, I felt utterly overwhelmed by the reality that Jesus not only shaved my sins away, but He actually took on all of my lice so I could be clean.

What wondrous love is this, o my soul…?

A love that blows minds, changes lives, and frees repentant prodigals and religious older brothers with His purifying embrace.

“Observe how Christ loved us.
His love was not cautious but extravagant.
He didn’t love in order to get something from us,
but to give everything of himself to us.
     Love like that.”
(Ephesians 5:2)

Hemmed in…

Kids in our neighborhood can be like our chickens sometimes. They’ll find someone with something wrong and peck on them mercilessly. Well a couple of weeks ago I overheard Marquis getting pecked on by a group of kids because of his hairline.

In our neighborhood there are a couple of givens regarding hair: One, if you haven’t had a haircut in a while and your hairline isn’t “crispy” you will get pecked, and two, the barbershop world is super segregated racially. I’ve been cutting hair for over 20 years and have offered countless times to cut hair for free in our neighborhood only to be repeatedly rejected. I understand the risk of trusting a new barber with your hair, but it wasn’t until recently that someone explained the racial component.

Anyway, a few weeks ago it was Marquis’ turn to get pecked on for his uncrispy hairline. It went on for a while until I blurted out, “Hey, I’ll cut it”. It suddenly got really quiet as he chewed on his two bad choices. His face looked like he was chewing on a sweaty sock as he weighed whether to face the ongoing bullying or risk getting pecked on further after being butchered by a white barber.

“Ok Jonathan… But you’ve got to ask my mom first.”

After briefly talking to his mom Marquis handed me the phone. As I began to introduce myself she interrupted me…

“If you, f*** up my son’s hair, I will F*** you up.”
“Oh wow… ok. Um, well I’ll…”

She cut me off me again to clearly repeat her non-negotiable terms and then hung up on me. I stood there for a bit with the phone still stuck to my ear chewing on my two bad choices: Getting thrashed by a crazy lady, or turning this kid back to the chickens. I think Marquis knew how the conversation with his mom went and how the conversation in my brain was going because he hunched his shoulders up and said, “Please?”

I couldn’t say no after an ask like that, so I dove in. Shortly into the haircut though I heard what sounded like a chainsaw, getting closer and closer. I turned to see a beat up car power-slide to a smoky stop right in front of my front porch barbershop. Then, like it was in slow motion, an enormous half woman, half grizzly bear gets out of the car, followed by an even grizzlier man covered in tattoos and bling (gold).

Marquis haircut

I didn’t have to ask who it was. The whole crowd knew who it was and quickly parted without saying a word. As the couple lumbered towards me I awkwardly tried to start a conversation while they were still a ways out, but with a wave of her hand the momma-bear made it clear she wasn’t there to talk. After what felt like an eternal inspection, she waved her hand again and was off as quickly as she’d arrived.

Her large male escort was still standing there though staring at me with a constipated look on his face and his arms crossed. Had she told him with her hand waving sign language to  wait until she left to kill the bad barber? My curiosity was killing me so I asked him, “Soooo… did I pass?”

He said he thought so, and proceeded to ask me a whole bunch of questions while I finished the haircut. Questions like, “Why’s it free?” and “Why you here?” I got to explain to him, and the crowd that was listening in, about our desert oasis / Living Water dream and about the generosity of our Heavenly Father to give us the free gift of Jesus who moved into our neighborhood to save us. Before leaving he wondered if I’d cut his hair sometime, and I said I’d be honored.

Ever since Marquis risked it all and ended up with the crispiest cut in the neighborhood, word has spread and now I’m having trouble keeping up (over 20 cuts in the last couple of weeks). The haircuts aren’t technically free now, so if you want a haircut you have to beautify the neighborhood in some way (usually pick up trash, move mulch etc.), and I get to ask you any questions I want, and if you don’t answer, or you lie, the haircut is over. They’re just haircuts, but God has used them to open so many doors to new and deeper relationships.

Like David says in the Psalms and my Dad often repeats, it seems like a lot of times in life God “Hems us in”. We can’t turn to the left or to the right and it feels like no matter what path we choose we’re going to lose. I’m learning, slowly, that these moments, as uncomfortable as they can be, are opportunities to watch God break down unbreakable walls and build unbuildable bridges. I’m learning, slowly, to embrace His Red Sea gifts and to go with His flow.

Ministry Snapshots: Friday Fire

Friday Fire

One of the ways we’ve felt called to display the Gospel in our neighborhood is by hosting a cookout / hangout time every Friday for our neighborhood where hungry stomachs and hungry souls can come and get fed.  Sometimes 5 come, sometimes 50.  Sometimes it’s peaceful and we have great, deep conversations, and then sometimes it’s an unruly mob and people get in knife fights and set stuff on fire.

We’ve gone through close to 1500 hotdogs this year and probably close to as many S’mores, but to us they’re more than just dinner and dessert.  We see each dog and each sugar sandwich as an opportunity to display the Gospel truth that Jesus wants to freely fill our hungry hearts (minus the cavities and bad gas). It’s been amazing how hungry hearts can be to process this truth after hungry stomachs have been satisfied.

This event has also provided many awesome opportunities to build relationships with our neighbors. We believe that meat, toasted sugar and fire are key building blocks in any meaningful relationship.

On a deeper level though, our motivation and our model for pursuing these relationships is Jesus, who didn’t just hope we’d somehow find Him, but instead, moved into our neighborhood and started knocking on our door in pursuit of us.  We want our neighbors to experience that loving pursuit of Jesus in the way we pursue them.

It’s usually an exhausting evening, but there’s something so refreshing and rejuvenating about shining the light and the love out into our dark neighborhood that Jesus has shown into our dark hearts.

Here am I…

An update on our journey…

I feel like we’re about ¾ of the way through our Red Sea rebuilding project.  I’ve never felt so helpless and small, and yet, at the same time, so held by the living God.

Our first step on the path towards seeing God bring the light of His Son to our dark neighborhood has been the restoration of our fourplex as a lighthouse.  God has used the impossibilities that this project has produced like a megaphone to declare, “Here am I”.

What that has looked like…

Electricity: Quite simply, a sea we couldn’t cross, until a couple of months ago when God connected us with an electrician named John.  Weeks after retiring from overseeing the electrical installation for nuclear plants and presidential bunkers, he courageously and generously volunteered to deal with our electric nightmare: pulling permits, jumping through the city’s hoops, and replacing 99% of the wiring on the interior and exterior of the fourplex.  Maybe the hardest thing of all, he’s been patiently training me and a handful other young guys how to wire a house, from start to finish.

Captian John & Trainees( Captain John and Trainees )

Last week we gathered in our fourplex as a family around a single lamp and celebrated having our electricity finally on.  When the light clicked on for the first time we spontaneously burst into dancing, cheering, and a few tears. It wasn’t a very civilized worship service, but I think God was smiling.

First Light( First light )

HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Cooling): Again, completely impossible moneywise, permitwise, skillwise and everyotherwaywise.  That is, until God introduced us to the amazing folks at Anthony Plumbing, Heating and Cooling.  They volunteered to pull the permit and install the four air handlers, four heat pumps, and all of the ductwork. We just needed to provide all of the machines.  The estimated cost was around what we paid for the building, so we started praying.

After a couple of days we got an email from Anthony’s stating that they’d found a way to cover the cost of all of the machines.  I wish you could have been there for the worship service that erupted in my bedroom as I read the email to my wife and kids about God’s provision.  I think jumping on the bed is now one of my favorite ways to celebrate our amazing God.

( Air handler #1 of 4 )

Heat Pumps 1 & 2
( Heat pumps #1 & #2 )

Heat Pumps #3 & #4
( Heat pumps #3 & #4 )

Yesterday, I asked the Lord to help keep these expensive machines from walking away and to help me figure out how to assemble and install the incomplete fence I got off of craigslist.  Later in the day, a friend brought a friend over, who it turns out, just happens to be a member of the family that runs the premier fence company in town.  He has volunteered to weld cages over the heat pumps and to help install the fence.  True story.

Plumbing:  Again, another impossible mountain to climb.  I don’t know squat about plumbing, other than it’s really important and if you do it wrong you have to deal with sewage.  Again though, God is moving that mountain too by bringing in a group of mostly retired handymen that are attached to Church of the Resurrection. Not only have these guys plumbed most of the fourplex, but they’ve also tackled all kinds of other dirty jobs.  These guys may be old, but they seem to glow.  I think it’s from their discovery that truly living happens when you give your life away.

Glowing Old Guys( Jerry, Rich and Greg: Glowing old guys )

These are just a few of the peaks in the mountain range that God has been bringing us through.  There have been so many more stories I don’t have time to tell of our great God using His body to accomplish amazing things that we never could have done alone.

Through all of this, I get the sense that God wants to make a couple of things clear
to us, to our neighborhood and to anyone else that is watching…

* No one and no thing is beyond His ability to redeem. When the love of Jesus is flowing through His body, there is no rot that can’t be restored or mess that can’t be cleaned, human or otherwise.

* If we will choose to loose the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free, share our food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, and clothe the naked, then when we call on the Lord, He will answer.
When we cry for help, He will say:

“Here am I”
(Isaiah 58)

God: Our Protector…

As smoke filled our little apartment on Thursday, I faked calm for all the people that were panicking around me.

A generous church had connected us with a generous heating/air company to check over the furnace before winter, for free.  Wes, the furnace guy, had just turned our furnace on for the first time this season, and before we even saw the smoke, he smelled, “The wrong kind of smoke,” and shut the thing down.  As he was quickly drilling holes and pulling panels, I suggested that the smell was maybe just the dust burning off, cause, you know, I’m kind of a qualified expert due to my years of turning the furnace on, and then off.  I was interrupted by the smoke detector, followed by all the smoke.

After digging around for a bit, Wes pulled out the culprit, a matted mess of something that just looked like a fire wanting to be born.  As Wes was leaving, I asked him what would’ve happened if I’d’ve let the furnace keep running to burn off the dust like I always do.   “You’d’ve had the fire department here for sure…” he replied.

I got chills thinking about what might’ve been if God didn’t set the whole thing up like He did… using our stinginess with the thermostat to stall us, while connecting us with this generous Church, that connected us with this generous company… to keep us safe and this building unburned.

Later that night I’m in bed, and right at the point where I’m about to tip off the edge into sleep I hear shooting… pop… pop, pop, pop, pop…  Hannah and I lay there quietly for a second, and then she whispers, “That was close”.   My brain starts to squeal and spark like a train that’s spinning on it’s track but going nowhere.  What would I do if one of those bullets…?  And down that familiar fear track my train brain started rolling.

There have been nights I’ve ridden that stinking fear train till sunrise.  Lately though, like a scared kid in a thunderstorm, I’ve been trying to quickly run to our Fathers room and find refuge in His presence.  He doesn’t always stop the storm, but somehow, the storm in my heart gets stilled anyway.

As Hannah and I processed this storm in the shelter of our Heavenly Father’s arms, it didn’t take long before our souls were at rest and we were drifting off again.  At some point I drifted into a lovely dream where I was at an amazing dwarf rave.  As the lights got brighter and the sirens got louder I realized that they weren’t coming from the midget rave but from my bedroom window.  I squinted through the blinds and saw three guys coming towards our building.

Thankfully Sam, our neighbor, came to the door and dealt with the questions from the cops about some guy they were looking for, that, I’m assuming, was connected to the shooting earlier.  As my head hits the pillow this time, the worry wheels are quiet and the storm in my soul is still; resting in the shadow of this God that’s called us to dwell in His shelter.

I’ve been learning that real rest in the face of real danger can’t ultimately be found if I’m the peace source. Real rest seems to be learned through this process of repeatedly crawling back up into the arms of my Heavenly Father, and emptying my hands of the things that hold me so that He can fill them with Himself.

“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”
• Psalm 91:1 

Our Septober…

Have you ever watched a movie that took you on a wild ride of exhilarating highs and devastating lows, and left you feeling exhausted but deeply satisfied and fully alive?  Over the past couple months or so, at the end of the day when the credits roll, we’ve been feeling like that.

The Neighborhood:
In addition to our “Friday Fire” neighborhood campfire/cookout, we’ve started camping in the yard after the Friday Fire dies down as a way to connect with the community and let our little lights shine.  Between the hard ground, my aging body, and the night noises (yelling, foot traffic and occasional gunfire), I don’t get much sleep, but it’s been great for connecting with the community and the King.

We’ve been seeing a lot more cops and other traffic passing through the past couple of weeks.  Apparently drugs are on the rise.  Please pray that God would show us how to connect these hungry, desperate souls with the real source of life.

A few nights ago, we were watching a movie when I saw a hooded guy right outside our window pick up a bike and take off.  Without thinking, I took off after him.  He ended up wiping out and running off without the bike. After the adrenaline wore off, I felt like I saved the bike, but missed the soul. I’m not sure what Jesus would’ve done in that situation, but it’s hard for me to picture Him chasing down a thief to get His stuff back.  Bottom line, pray that we’d be so connected to Jesus that when we get squeezed, He would pop out and greet the neighbors instead of me.

Confession:  It’s been too easy to be like Saul lately: On the battlefield, but hiding in the dark with the light, while the ships in our stormy sea crash into the rocks. Pray for the boldness to live on a lampstand.  

The Fourplex (Spiritual ER / Training Center) :
• Setbacks:
 Had a roofing/guttering guy tell us last week that our roof was installed over cardboard thin / rotting wood and would need to be replaced before we move forward with finishing the inside of the building.
• Progress: Insulated the exterior of the house and finally finished the siding. Rebuilt the rotten walls inside and tore down a wall to open up a community gathering place. Repaired and rebuilt the burned out / band-aided walls.
• Next Up: The roof is the next section of this Jerichonian wall that we’re marching around and blowing our trumpets at.  In the meantime, we’re designing floor plans for each of the apartments in preparation for the electricity and plumbing.

• The Westbrooke College/Career group has been coming once a month to cookout / serve (they camped with us on Friday, and all survived🙂 ).  They have been a huge source of encouragement and fourplex progress.
• We’ve been greatly encouraged by and able to connect with some amazing individuals / Churches who’ve come out to see and process this dream of seeing Jesus transform this neighborhood from the inside out.  If you want to come and see this pile of dry bones, that we believe one day will rise and sing praises to our King, please, email or call me.
• We have a meeting next week with a free/local/Christian fundraising organization to help us communicate our vision more effectively.
• God has been providing for our needs by connecting us with His manna bearing messengers.  Whether it’s candy and food for the neighbors, 6,000 cups, a toaster, a bike, extra hotdogs, a listening ear, an encouraging letter or money to pay the bills, God has continued to keep us afloat.
• We’ve had several folks verbally commit large resources toward some of our pending Red Sea type projects.
• Most days lately we’ve felt an excitement deep in our bones about the journey we’re on.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a hard stretch of road, and I’m not saying we always like it, but we do feel like we’re where we’re supposed to be.

Exhausted, but feeling deeply satisfied and fully alive,

(This is an excerpt from our prayer letter.  If you’d like to partner with us in prayer and get regular prayer updates, let me know via email,

The Future: Timeline…

-What’s your timeline for finishing the fourplex and beyond?

I feel like we generally have a timeline for finishing the fourplex: as soon as possible.  As far as specific dates and times for when it’ll be done, we’re trying to trust God with that.  My youngest daughter Lydia’s timeline for finding Prince Charming and starting a kingdom is pretty much now.  Her father’s timeline is very different, and better, and I hope she’ll just trust me.  On our timeline, the fourplex is already done, but God’s timeline is different, and better, and we’re trying to rest in that fact.

This doesn’t mean that we’re just passively sitting back assuming that God’s going to miraculously do all the work. Like Nehemiah, we’ve been called to give all of ourselves to rebuild this pile of rubble for the display of God’s splendor.  The reality we’re daily dealing with though is that our calling is way bigger than our all.  Even if you put all of our mental, physical, and financial abilities and resources in a trumpet and blew them at this wall, there’s no way it’s coming a tumblin’ down.  And this beefy wall is much bigger than just the fourplex.  There’s the community basketball court, the urban farm, the rural farm, the discipleship school, the rescue wing for people in crisis, the saving and transforming of souls, the job training classes, the food pantry, clothing store, and furniture warehouse, the church, the greenhouse, the afterschool and ESL programs, the free landromat and on and on… and it’s all way bigger than us… but not our God.

I feel like a kid that has a few sardines and a PB&J that’s standing here with Jesus trying to process this hungry multitude in front of us.  My timeline for feeding everybody here with my meager meal is irrelevant.  All I can do is give Him all I’ve got and hope for a miracle. Jesus can, and we believe He will fill the emptiness that plagues so many hearts in this community, and He will do it His way, in His time, for His glory.  He’s already begun to use His body to supernaturally transform this place; we’re just trying to hold on tight so we don’t fall behind Him or get ahead of Him.

Here is our general ministry timeline:

Carry the Cross Timeline (click to view)

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain (Psalm 127:1a)”.