Means of Grace

By Elaine A. Heath-

“The thing is,” my neighbor said conspiratorially, “I really love to iron. I iron everything. I iron every day.” Corrine, a Lutheran, lived across the street and was a faithful member of a neighborhood spiritual formation group that I led. She had grown up in the Depression, kept a very tidy house, and was a fabulous cook. She adored Elvis Presley. I adored her.

“What is it about ironing that you find so meaningful?” I laughed.

“When I iron, it’s a kind of ritual. I put the water in the iron and plug it in. As I press the fabric, the steam rises, all fragrant and clean. All the wrinkles go away. One by one they go away. Something about the steam, the wrinkles, and the regular movement of the iron across the board brings peace to me. I feel at home and at ease. Things that were troubling me don’t seem so overwhelming. I even feel closer to God. It’s a spiritual thing.” She paused, then grinned sheepishly. “You probably think I’m crazy,” she said.

“No, Corrine, I think you are a contemplative,” I answered. “You have found in ironing what others have found through forms of prayer that involve the five senses, bodily movement, and a repetitive activity that quiets the mind and opens the heart to God’s presence.”

“Golly,” she said. “Who knew?”

What Corrine discovered in ironing is a “means of grace,” to use John Wesley’s language. That is, ironing is a pathway for her to encounter the healing, peaceful, loving presence of God. Thomas Keating might note that, for Corrine, ironing became a form of centering prayer, a way to descend from her mind into her heart. Wesley didn’t write about ironing as a means of grace, but he would likely affirm Corrine’s experience, especially since Corrine regularly participated in worship, partook of the Lord’s Supper, read the Bible, prayed, and took part in our neighborhood spiritual formation group. Wesley felt that anything and everything can become a channel of God’s love for those who are always open to and seeking God.

With wonderful generosity Wesley argues that people can experience God without external acts such as reading the Bible or fasting. The acts themselves are simply channels through which grace flows. He also firmly denounces empty ritualism in which Christians go through the motions of prayer, worship, and so on but have no desire for God’s transforming work in their lives. Indeed some of his harshest words in sermons and elsewhere are directed toward Christians who love “a form of godliness without the power.”

But Wesley was concerned about these spiritual disciplines because he faced in his own context a “spiritual but not religious” movement of Christians who left the church and abandoned the means of grace. These Christians felt it was no longer necessary to read the Bible, partake of the Lord’s Supper, gather in worship, or engage in other ordinary Christian spiritual disciplines because Christ’s direct love was enough. Wesley was alarmed about the corrosive effect that this movement would have upon Christian commitment, because most of us need habitual practices that daily open our hearts and minds to God’s transforming love. Moreover, without regular reminders we will drift away from God’s missional call to love and serve our neighbors.

In all things Wesley’s goal is for Christians to participate in God’s good work, carrying the love and power of Jesus into the world. He calls this process of increasing holiness “going on to perfection.”

There are five means of grace that John Wesley called “instituted,” meaning these are spiritual practices that were instituted in the New Testament and are binding for all time and in all places. The five means of grace are prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conferencing.

One beautiful aspect of Wesley’s theology is that spiritual practices are seamlessly integrated with practices of loving our neighbors well. This is why Wesley said there is no holiness but social holiness. A life of genuine prayer inevitably leads to a life of hospitality, mercy, and justice. Each of the five means of grace help us as communities of faith to pray more deeply and live more missionally as followers of Jesus Christ.

Elaine A. Heath is Dean of the Duke Divinity School and Professor of Missional and Pastoral Theology. She is the author of numerous books, including Five Means of Grace: Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way (Abingdon), from which this was adapted. Reprinted by permission.

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