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Searching for a Place of Grace

Somebody asked me, “How are you?” recently. It was the first time in a while I felt someone was really interested – my role can be intimidating and off-putting to people. And the answer is that, honestly, I’ve been feeling lonelier as I go through further emptying ceremonies in this season of an …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Somebody asked me, “How are you?” recently. It was the first time in a while I felt someone was really interested – my role can be intimidating and off-putting to people. And the answer is that, honestly, I’ve been feeling lonelier as I go through further emptying ceremonies in this season of an empty nest. 

My son’s wedding was that – at once an epochal event and a thing of grace. On seeing Christina coming down the aisle, his tears fell like the Florida evening rain outside – suddenly, almost surprisingly.

Grace, when it shows up, is usually a big surprise. 

In life we expect an equivalent response – an eye for an eye, tit for tat. We expect to say, “He got what was coming to him.” Something inside us expects reciprocity, just as one note follows another in a song or a pendulum swings back at the end of its arc.

In contrast, grace says, “Unilateral disarmament is better.” It says weakness makes room for spiritual strength. Jesus pointed to it as the hallmark of his soon-coming kingdom.

Rules vs. Grace

Yes, rules are necessary – they define our limits and help us respect others. And truth be told, most of us prefer rules to grace. When something bad happens to us, we want justice – a reckoning based on the rules.

Rules are predictable and grace is not. Rules define life in such a way that you don’t have to rely on an unseen deity. You have more control over circumstances. Rules keep chaos at bay. God himself gave us ten rules upon which to organize our lives and multiple books of the Bible to show us the specific ways in which we should live.

But Jesus, knowing we’re terrible rule-keepers, has a better idea. He wants to help us make a paradigm shift away from the old covenant and toward a new way of living.

My own experience

As I reflect on my upbringing in the church and in missions and I think about all the complicated situations I was in that needed grace, it’s amazing how graceless many of the communities I was in were. When people messed up, they were kicked out. And sometimes you found yourself sitting in the ejection seat and didn’t know why.

There were times when as a young man I was summarily fired. There was a string of churches that imploded and fired their pastors. And the church splits. The divisive meetings. The bitter and broken relationships that resulted.

Sometimes the Christian communities that we’re a part of can look like train wrecks. It’s no wonder that close to half of young people are leaving the church and want nothing to do with it. All they want is authenticity and grace, and they don’t see it in our communities.

Would Jesus feel welcome?

And so you and I, living in the now, not bound to some old wineskin, have the opportunity to try to re-invent community as a place where Jesus would feel welcome. A place where people get a second chance. A place where the truth is told in love. A place where we fight for one another.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but you don’t get to live in a place of grace without fighting. We don’t get to live in a place of grace unless we are all prepared to fight for it. You have to appreciate the role of rules and then you have to be willing to break them when grace is more right than the rules. And after that you have to fight all that’s within you that wants to be proven right.

I want to live in a place where rules are respected, but grace is normal. For 25 years I’ve been fighting to create a place like that at Adventures. I’ve been wrong a lot and apologized a lot. We’re still struggling to get there, and yet I haven’t given up.

A place of grace is a thing of wonder to behold. It’s a rarity. It’s worth the pain. It’s worth the humiliations and struggles along the way. It’s what we seek in our churches and our relationships. It’s the only environment in which true disciples are made.

It’s the glistening white surface on the pearl of great price that Jesus described. A thing our spirits know to be timelessly beautiful.

I think I’m prepared to do just about anything to find it. What about you?

Comments (26)

  • I really appreciate this blog Seth, the authenticity at the beginning reminds me of something my dad and mom have told me… That we need to pray for our family and elders because they are being tempted and tried as well. When the “strongest person” you know goes thru an affair it catches you off guard. Most of my life, I only knew rules and grace was a term that wasn’t and still isnt fully understood. It was only when I went to jail and saw true forgiveness that I caught a glimpse of grace but it still took 6 months to get to a place of serving. It was worth the pain.
    What I’ve been struggling with this week is how to live within the rules and boundaries that are good and the grace that sometimes feels abused.

    • Hugh – isn’t it amazing how those hard times where we learned the tough stuff can become so precious to us? Places where the kingdom of God manifested.

      BTW, grace will always be abused. That’s what it’s for. There’s no reciprocity with grace. Expect that and you’re good!

  • I believe this may be what our Racers find in their 11 months of tight knit community; Grace. They learn to receive it from God and their teammates, and just as importantly, how to give it, to their teammates and to others. We all need more grace but moreover, to learn to share God’s grace with the world. Thanks for reminding us.

    • That’s it, Carl. It is a rare thing. It costs in authenticity and risk.

      BTW, we’re starting a parent activation team to help parents go on their own journey – would love to connect w/ you some time about it.

  • This Thanksgiving Seth I’m reminded that the insights and questions you pose here have been part of your spiritual journey for as long as I have known you which is now more than thirty years.

    The “holy discontent” which characterizes your narrative is in fact the spiritual agent which prevents the hardening of your heart and the calcification of your soul.

    People who want the journey of faith to be a preschool experience where cookies and milk await each day just before soft maps are pulled out while safe naps occur quickly find that authentic pursuits demand getting dirty.

    And while the theme of grace has become the theological flavor of the month in many pulpits and even in New York Times bestsellers the reality remains it remains the blood stained thread through the vagaries of our lives.

    Grace isn’t cheap even if we are casual with her. It cost the Planet Maker everything.

    We are called to be stewards of our story. For me those skills are honed in places like the Twelve Step meetings I attend. Resisting the temptation to speak in generalities or intellectualize the messy matters of our often maddening journey is the only way to embrace truth.

    God cannot paint with new colors of redemptive possibility if we refuse to offer up the tattered canvas of our broken life. He lovingly accepts pottery shards of disappointment and failure only to grind them up…mix them with water and add fresh clay to what becomes a masterpiece waiting to happen on a spinning wheel of wonder.

    God’s not afraid of our stumbles. We are. Jesus promised He wouldn’t leave…would never, ever forsake…would come back to retrieve His ragamuffin tribe.

    And He unlike me can never lie. There are days where it all seems like a muddled mess. It is in those moments when tempted to “organize” failure into something pretty… which it is not… I remember again the power of simply saying…”Abba…I need you.”

    Those are words always heard even when we feel they are shot into a black hole and sucked away into nothingness with no audience.

    The book of Hebrews tells us we are “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.” On many days I’d like to think they are leaning over and saying “Don’t sweat all that small stuff. It isn’t about you anyway.” Thanks for your missives Seth. Its a daily gift. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Thank you for this. I appreciate its honesty, and I ‘get’ it. For me, not sure what I’m experiencing lately is loneliness as much as some tiredness from some of the blows of life, but as I shared with my grad school class last night, because I know that I know that I know God is good, that foundation helps give me something solid to stand on and provides the footing for all that comes.

    My prayer for you is that though there may be some ‘quietness’ that comes in while the ’emptying’ occurs, and that you will find His company feeds that space. There is much that is missing in the loud graceless discourses of our media/internet connected world, but you have His shalom to offer into that space. The greatest gift you have to give is only as good as the relationship strength you have with our Jesus-and that secret solid special vital life-giving intimacy you have with your Maker is what the world truly hungers for anyway.

    And just want to say, love hearing of Seth Jr’s tears. Many people told me the highlight at our wedding was David’s face as I came down that aisle, and of course, the gaze of the beloved is where our strength and grace will flow from….

    • Hey Melinda – I’m praying for you too. Where do we go when our ministry of emptying leads us to personal drought? And where do we replenish the grace that we’ve poured out?

      Man, I need a community of grace so bad. It’s here at the ministry I lead, but I feel like a grandpa these days and there’s something about where I’m at that feels anonymous to all but God…

  • Butch, turns out you were posting about the same time I was so I didn’t see yours until after my post went up. You have some deep gems of wisdom in there, and if I am able to get my act together in time to get a Thanksgiving newsletter out, there are a few lines you wrote that I would like to borrow. Do I have your permission to do so?

    • Butch – this is really good. There’s poetry here. God only seems to paint on tattered canvases. I think I’ll borrow that for a blog post if Melinda doesn’t beat me to it!

      And God isn’t afraid of our stumbles.

      A group of racer alumni have started a church for the homeless and the street walkers recently. If I feel spiritual isolation, that’s probably where I belong.

  • As Frank said, you nailed it!

    “I want to live in a place where rules are respected, but grace is normal.” and anything good is worth fighting for and the patience to fight the long fight.

  • Seth the irony I’ve found in life and it may be something you are feeling is that when I’m in the trenches with torn and battered people that is more “peace filled” than navigating the treacherous waters of pretension. When things are gilded and mistakes and sin are swept under Persian rugs designed to distract attention from dirty floors I become disruptive. Its almost as if there is a visceral “knowing” that Machiavellian terrorists still have a few places in my being and need to be ruthlessly rooted out. Grace is a garment I have to put on each day. And when I’m spiritually lazy the default is to a legalistic model where I’m able to fill out my scorecard of “do’s and don’ts”. In recent days God seems to be saying by the way that “sins of the flesh” are much easier to deal with than “sins of the heart.” Grace is a power wash filled with the aromas of forgiveness. And our souls are nurtured when standing naked in our nothingness without Christ we somehow feel “connected” with the limping tribe around us. Disclosing weakness is in fact a key to healing and strength. And we all long for the safe places where that is the norm. Namaste…..

  • Shame/Pain + Grace. -> Humility. -> Healing. -> Strength. -> Restoration. So humbled to have received it personally from you, Seth. Thank you for practicing what you’ve taught me.

    Blessings and happy Thanksgiving!

    • Zeb, you are an encourager! And the best encouragement you give me is the way you are walking out the process you describe.

      Hope your Thanksgiving is wonderful.

  • Seth, This spoke right to my heart too concerning our small fellowship in Texas! How easy it is to get caught up in rules and asking questions about being right or wrong, only to realize that our freedom in Christ makes any answer incomplete. I love Jesus’ answer in John 8:7 “…He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”… He didn’t condone sin but made a way to extend grace to this women. That is my heart too…that we would make a way to extend grace in all circumstances.

  • Another great word Seth. Thanks for consistently bringing a deep and thoughtful reflection that makes us all better. Just want you to know I never take you or your blogs for granted. I know they are a labor of love at times and require sacrifice to “birth” but only in heaven will you ever fully know the impact that have on those you may least expect and many that you don’t even know. Please be encouraged today and rest in that fresh place of grace.

    • Thanks, Ken. You are such a great encourager. I was thinking about you this morning as we were talking about WR coach stuff – you and Martha did such a great job as coaches – you hit it out of the park. Hope you are well.

  • Seth, in rereading this piece I was struck by the first paragraph and also your reply to Melinda. The loneliness and anonymity you feel put you in sync with so much of humanity, friend. And in truth, they put you in closer sync to the longing heart of God. Stay in that place with submission and a patient spirit, Seth, and you will find great riches. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Your humility and transparency about your need for grace is a gift to us all.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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