Editorial: The Heart of “A Third Way”

In various attempts to end partisanship and polarization in the society and church, the phrase “finding a third way” is often used and proposed.  As a United Methodist Christian, I have seen the phrase used a lot for upwards of a year, and I have used it myself. It is especially prominent these days as Annual Conferences are meeting to (among other things) elect lay and clergy delegates to the 2016 General Conference next May in Portland, and to the Jurisdictional Conferences which will follow it.

Most of the interpretations of “a third way” are viewed in terms of the political compromises that will be necessary to create unity among persons and groups which are now far apart.  I do not want to underestimate the institutional challenges and flat-out hard work that must attend any efforts to find “a third way,” but I want to lift up a reminder that the possibility of any future unity does not begin in a political process, it begins in the heart.

I was recently struck afresh with this reminder as I listened to an interview Kristen Tippett conducted with Jean Vanier.  Clearly, his protracted efforts to establish L’Arche communities has required and included multiple third-way processes, without which (he admits) the ministry would have been severely curtailed.

The phrase used to describe the efforts was “the wisdom of tenderness.”  Vanier recounted how third-way progress is rooted in tenderness, which is a form of wisdom that transcends votes and viewpoints.  The wisdom of tenderness is a kind of soil into which the seeds of change can be planted to produce a harvest of life together in the midst of enormous diversity. 

The wisdom of tenderness is essentially the willingness to treat everyone as a human being (made in the image of God) and to seek their best by listening attentively to their concerns.  The wisdom of tenderness is a deliberate suspension of placing my/our views above those of others and laying down the weapons used to try to “win.”  In the wisdom of tenderness the word ‘family’ replaces ‘factions’ and ‘community’ replaces ‘caucuses.’

The”third way” has many other dimensions, but there is no need to explore them prior to the arousal of a will to come together to love, listen, and learn.  In fact, as Vanier points out in the interview and in his other writings, many aspects of third-way living fall into place after the fundamental commitment to love, listen, and learn are in place.

Like so many others, I am praying that we will find a “third way” in the many problems facing the society and the church.  And in The United Methodist Church in particular, I am asking God to give our leaders and delegates the wisdom of tenderness prior to (and as the soil for) the difficult work of creating a plan that illustrates and enacts life together.

I am grateful that God gives us historic and contemporary examples of third-way living in people like Jean Vanier, and I pray that the mantle of their spirit might fall on us as we face the challenges of our time–that God will give us a third-way heart, so we can craft a third-way plan.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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