Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Means of Grace

This Lenten season at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries, we have been exploring alternative forms of prayer as spiritual disciplines. In doing so, we hope that people will discover new practices that draw them closer to God.

Our Christian tradition offers us rich resources of a variety of contemplative and meditative methods that can aid us in our spiritual journeys. Within the Wesleyan tradition these spiritual disciplines are often understood as "means of grace."

For Wesley the means of grace were "...outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby God might convey to humanity, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace." That is, they were methods by which one could have access to or be receptive to God's grace moving in and through the world.

In the Large Minutes, Wesley distinguishes between “instituted” and “prudential” means of grace.[1] Instituted means of grace were those means either recorded in scripture or practiced by the early church. In the list of instituted means, Wesley included prayer, searching the Scriptures, communion, fasting and holy conferencing.

Prudential means of grace, on the other hand, were distinctly Methodist disciplines that proved helpful in holy living. These practices, including the society’s General Rules (do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend on all God’s ordinances), attendance at class and band meetings, vegetarianism, abstinence of late meals, temperance of alcohol and drinking water, were all acceptable alternative means of living a holy life. While not instituted in Scripture, they were for Wesley nonetheless appropriate means of coming to know and follow God. These means tended to change and vary over time as the people called Methodist adopted new practices to assist them in their pursuit of holiness.

Wesley understood that our spiritual journeys are as individual and diverse as we are. Each one of us comes to know God in and through different means. For Wesley, the point was not which means, but how often and how seriously one devoted themselves to these practices. While all should partake in the instituted means of grace, individuals had to choose for themselves which of the prudential means of grace helped them to draw closer to God.

Likewise today, in our own communities of faith, we are invited into a deeper relationship with God through a variety of spiritual disciplines. Perhaps it is the Jesus prayer or Scripture or holy communion through which you sense God's presence. While for others it might be through origami, or labyrinths or silence that they sense the Holy Spirit. The point is that we try every available means of grace in our journeys toward God and God's kin-dom. The more we practice, the more we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit living and dwelling and breathing in and through us.

This Lent may you find your own means of grace and draw nearer to God day by day.

[1] “Large Minutes,” question 48 in Thomas Jackson, ed., The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M., 14 vols. (London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1873), 8:322-324; See also Sermon, “The Means of Grace,” in Albert Outler, ed. Sermons (Bicentennial Edition of the Works pf John Wesley), 4 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984-1987), 1: 379-380.

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