A Review of
Means of Grace: A Year of Weekly Devotions
Edited by Laura Bardolph Hubers
Reviewed by Robert D. Cornwall
on the reviewer’s website.
It is reprinted here with permission.
Browse his website for other excellent reviews!
Down through the centuries, Christians have counted on devotional books to guide their spiritual journeys. Authors, editors, and publishers have provided such guides. New ones are produced every year. So, one should be able to find just the right devotional guide. Some will be light and airy and others deep and even dense. For some, a daily devotional is a perfect companion. Others might like a weekly devotional guide. Some take one through the year and others through a season. For some, all of the above will be required in pursuit of a deeper faith. The choice is yours.
Means of Grace is a collection of weekly devotions that takes one through the Christian/liturgical year, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent. That title gives one a sense of the origin of these devotions. It has a distinctly Anglican feel to it. The author of this collection of fifty-two devotions is Fleming Rutledge. The title is suggestive of its orientation within the Anglican tradition. The collection of devotions was edited by Laura Bardolph Hubers, who was, at the time, Director of Marketing and Publicity at Eerdmans. It was Huber who devised the idea of a weekly devotional utilizing Rutledge’s sermons.
Fleming Rutledge is a well-known preacher and author. As an Episcopal priest, she has published several well-received sermon collections. Ordained in 1977 as one of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church, one might call Rutledge a theologically traditional Episcopalian, with perhaps a Barthian orientation. Whatever her theological orientation, her sermons have depth to them, making them a worthy companion for a year’s journey in faith.
For those who follow the Christian Year, the format will be recognizable. We start with the First Sunday of Advent and move through the year, stopping at all the significant moments in the life of the church along the way. This includes Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. In total there are sixty devotions, so the reader has at least one reading per week, and during special moments there may be more opportunities to encounter Rutledge’s thoughts on the journey of faith. While the sermons are Rutledge’s, it was Laura Huber who took these sermons and formatted them in a way that makes them useful for this purpose. Each reading is approximately four pages in length. This includes an opening excerpt from the scripture for the day and along with a prayer at the end of the devotion. These prayers are collects (brief general prayers) that have been taken from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which helped form Rutledge’s own faith journey.
To give a sense of the way she writes/preaches, here is a paragraph from her reflection for the First Sunday of Advent,
“The church lives in Advent. That is to say, the church lives between two advents. Jesus Christ has come; Jesus Christ will come. We do not know the day or the hour. If you find this tension almost unbearable at times, then you understand the Christian life. We live at what the New Testament depicts as the turn of the ages. In Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God is in a head-on collision with the powers of darkness. The point of impact is the place where Christians take their stand. That is why it hurts. That’s why the church has to take a beating. This is what the Scripture tells us. No wonder there are so many who fall away; the church is located precisely where the battle line is drawn” (5).
Both the editor, Laura Hubers, and the author, Fleming Rutledge, provide prefaces to the collection. Hubers shares with us that the book is a product of her own admiration for Rutledge’s work. Since Eerdmans has published most of Rutledge’s sermon collections, including the award-winning The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, she had much to work with. Hubers writes that reading the sermons, “over and over again I was struck by her unique gift for placing God’s majesty and power and mercy in direct conversation with a real, empathetic understanding of human experience—all in a way that makes it clear she cherishes the power and beauty of language” (p. xi). She adds that her summary of Rutledge’s preaching is that “God is God and we are not; he does not always act in the way we expect” (xi-xii).
As for Fleming Rutledge, she notes that this is likely her final collection of sermons. As such, she chose to use the preface to this collection to say something about how she envisions preaching. Having taught preaching informally, and once formally (at Wycliffe College, Toronto in 2008), she notes that, for her, preaching isn’t about persuasion as there is little persuasion in Scripture. Thus, “the sermon, when it is working, is neither a collection of spiritual reflections nor a program for sociopolitical action, but most essentially an event of the irresistible Word of God” (xvii). That description of preaching sounds very Barthian, at least to this reviewer. So, as you read these “devotions” what you will encounter is that irresistible Word of God. Each sermon/devotion is rooted in Scripture and points to Jesus, as Barth would want.
Rutledge’s sermons won’t be for everyone, but for those who are open to a direct word, Means of Grace will be a great guide for the spiritual journey. Just one reflection per week to mull over and consider what God might be saying at that moment.
Robert D. Cornwall
Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, MI, and editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.