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Grace: Responding with piety and mercy

Throughout the centuries, God has been extending grace to people through everyday practices. These means of grace, as John Wesley called them, continue to inform and enrich people of faith who put them into practice.

Chris Wilterdink, director of Young People's Ministries at Discipleship Ministries, said he views the means of grace as "the things we do to express our love for God, stay in touch with God, and love and serve our neighbor as ourselves."


These practices are not ways of earning grace but of responding to it, noted the Rev. Luther E. Smith Jr., professor emeritus of church and community at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

"We are not earning God's favor," Smith said. "God's favor is already given to us, and in light of that, we seek to respond to God's grace in a variety of expressions."

Many of the means of grace emphasized by Wesley are still significant today, Smith said.

"Care for the poor is one; another is Wesley's response to the issue of slavery. The various ways in which we are involved in the spiritual disciplines, prayer and communion, baptism – all of these, for Wesley, are ways in which we express our understanding of receiving and responding to God's grace," he said. "Both the (pietistic) dimensions and the social witness dimensions of this are very much a part of Wesley's commitment and have very much been part of the Methodist tradition."

Soaking up grace

Kathy Reiter, a spiritual director and retreat leader who attends A&M United Methodist Church in College Station, Texas, said she views the means of grace as "different containers that help us soak up grace."

"The means of grace are almost like buckets we can hold and catch the grace that's just abundant in our lives," she said. "Some of the different buckets we can hold are being in spiritual direction, attending retreats and participating in daily prayer."

Participating in the means of grace provides a way to grow deeper in faith, Reiter said.

"Our spiritual lives are engaged with God and the Holy Spirit," she said. "It's one of the ways that we grow our interior muscles and our interior faith. I think it's part of what puts flesh on the framework that our church proper gives us. The way that we go back and it changes us is when we use the means of grace privately."

The means of grace traditionally are separated into two categories – works of piety and works of mercy – which Smith said he views as "essential to one another."

"Acts of piety are not done for themselves, but are efforts to be formed in the way of Christ," Smith said, "and that way takes us into opportunities to exercise our discipleship through acts of mercy or acts of compassion and acts of justice. I think the various spiritual formation practices are fundamental to compassion and justice. And I think compassion and justice are fundamental to having an authentic experience of what the spiritual practices are about."

Reiter said she engages in the means of grace through prayer and reading on a daily basis.

"My time includes some spiritual reading, some daily Scripture reading, silence in my prayer and intercessions for people," she said.

Contemplation and community

In addition to her contemplative practices, Reiter said she tries to be aware of ways the Holy Spirit can lead her into community.

"I also think, 'In my week, when have I been in touch with people? Did I stay in control this week or was I open to being with people I didn't choose, being in places I didn't choose? Did I let the Spirit move me?' I try to make sure there is community that is almost a surprise to me."

Wilterdink recently joined a covenant discipleship group to help him intentionally practice the means of grace.

"Like historical class meetings in the Methodist movement, it's a group of people who talk about what they're going to do in sharing compassion, being in worship, giving," he said. "Being able to share that with the group, that kind of accountability, I've found to be really helpful."

Wilterdink said he also takes advantage of resources, such as The Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide email, that support daily scripture reading and prayer practices.

"I get that every day. They send it out really early in the morning, so it's always one of the first emails I see," he said.

Reiter said engaging in spiritual practices that add variety and bring exposure to new voices can be beneficial.

"Some of these more intentional environments, like being in retreats and being in spiritual direction, are about really being present in that moment and soaking up the ways the Spirit is moving in your life," she said. "I like that intentionality; it's a really fruitful time."

Wilterdink said there is "unlimited creativity" in applying the means of grace to daily life.

Following the emphasis on the means of grace at Youth 2015, Wilterdink said he knows some churches created prayer rooms or focused on fasting. Other youth groups started doing monthly service projects, such as helping in food pantries or soup kitchens.

One youth leader emailed Wilterdink to share how a student, who attended Youth 2015 because his grandmother paid for it, ended up being transformed by the means of grace after the event.

"For his birthday, instead of asking for gifts for himself, he asked for presents and supplies for a local homeless shelter," Wilterdink said, noting that the student had previously not been very involved with church or youth group. "This youth leader that emailed me said that kind of attitude would have never happened without exposure to the means of grace."

Service and advocacy

Wilterdink and Smith also highlighted working for justice and advocacy as being significant in Wesley's teachings about the means of grace.

Wilterdink, for example, encourages churches to both serve at shelters – and to ask questions about the systems that lead to homelessness.

"How could youth leaders and churches look at the reasons why that homeless shelter needs to be there in the first place? Is it an education thing, a jobs thing?" he said. "I would encourage youth and leaders to not be shy about asking why."

For Smith, practicing the means of grace includes serving as coordinator for the Pan-Methodist Campaign for Children in Poverty.

The organization, which involves six Pan-Methodist denominations, seeks to empower and challenge Methodist-rooted churches, agencies and seminaries to serve children and youth at risk of experiencing poverty.

"This work of responding to children living in situations of poverty and their families, I think, is a true expression of faith," Smith said. "Our working hard at this is in response to what God has already done and our profound appreciation and commitment to God."

Regardless of the specific practices that are implemented, Reiter said she wants people to be encouraged that experiencing and extending the means of grace doesn't have to be complex.

"One of the wonderful things about the means of grace is that grace absolutely abounds," she said. "It's not so hard to step into the means of grace. God wouldn't have made it difficult. It's just not out of reach to be in the means of grace."

Emily Snell is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other print and electronic publications.