Humorist and actor Robert Benchley, in a piece for Vanity Fair in 1920 said,
“There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.”
Benchley succinctly describes our penchant to divide the world into opposing camps and to align ourselves with one of them. Then in a witty twist, he provides a third option–of seeing the world in a way that does not do so.
I’ve written in the past on the idea that those who call themselves Christ followers are a People of the Third Way. In fact, one of the earliest referents to followers of Christ was to refer to them as “the Way” (Acts 9:2). Early on, this group, particularly as Gentile adherents joined those of Jewish descent in following Christ, did not fit the conventional way of dividing the world into Jew and Gentile. Some other name was needed. Eventually, the term Christian (“of Christ”) was used of the mixed Jewish and Gentile community in Antioch by outsiders.
I was recently at a conference that brought home to me the blessing and burden of being this people of the [Third] Way. The conference focused on the Magnificat, and of our calling as like that of Mary. One of the observations made by a conference speaker was that Mary came neither from the ruling class nor was part of a radical counter movement. She was a very young women, perhaps as young as thirteen, from a hill country town of Nazareth. God chooses to enter the world, and accomplish God’s redemptive purposes through this apparent nobody–a non-entity on the political map of her day. And she says “yes” to the blessing of, and the burden of bearing the Christ into the world.
There was indeed blessing. To be the one who is chosen of God to birth this one who incredibly is fully God and fully human. To be an instrument of bringing God’s saving work into the world. To birth one whose rule would outlast every power and every movement of her day.
And there was burden. Of course the burden of every child-bearing woman of carrying a baby for nine months. But there was more. Doing so under what seemed suspicious circumstances–who is the father? Doing so under the forced migration of the census, a naked wielding of Roman power. Doing so under the threat of Herod’s genocide and the life of a refugee. And there was Simeon’s prophecy of the great, and yet terrible destiny of her son “(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) (Luke 2:35).”
Being a Third Way People is never easy. Most of us are “burden averse.” We just want the blessing, which is why I think we align ourselves with one pole or another of the dichotomies that our human systems create. We choose to be “conservative” or “liberal”, “Left” or “Right”, “Red” or “Blue”, “orthodox” or “progressive”. We identify with movement slogans like “creation care” or “responsible stewardship”, “Black lives matter” or “All lives matter.” It makes life simpler–you don’t have to wrestle with the tension of the truth of “the other” and the living in community with “the other.” But life is also smaller, and a constant struggle for survival in a zero sum world.
The challenge for Third Way People is different. It is to walk in the tension of blessing and burden, of truth and grace. Another speaker at our conference proposed that we most flourish as human beings when we live in the paradox of being both strong and weak, living with the authority to use our gifts and the vulnerability of our sins, failings, and blind spots, and of a world deeply in pain.
What does that tension look like for me? One is the tension of coming from a lower income, working class neighborhood, and working among the educated elite–sectors of society that tend to hold each other in contempt in our current socio-political life. Another is working in a historically “evangelical” organization committed to “the faith once delivered” and “the communion of the saints” while also seeking to be “ever reforming” as we seek to bring the good news of the kingdom into every corner of the university world addressing people who have experienced injustice and pain because of ethnicity, because of their sexuality, and sometimes because of their encounters with culturally captive forms of Christianity. It means working in a marketplace of ideas in which I see reflections of the glory of the Creator in every discipline of the university, and the effects on thinking of human alienation from that Creator.
How does one live in the tension of the Third Way, the tension of blessing and burden? Again, there is the example of Mary, who said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary didn’t understand how she would conceive a child without a man or work out life with all the complications such a pregnancy would bring. She simply said “yes” to the Lord to live with the tension of bearing Christ into the world. Some time back I read a book titled, The Way is Made by Walking. I often want to know the way, to work out how to “walk in the tension” in my mind, before I walk in it with my feet. It seems that Mary’s message is that we walk the way by saying “yes” to what we know, by trusting where we do not, and by cherishing Christ who dwells within who we bring into the world. Mary walks to Elizabeth, to Bethlehem, to Egypt, to Nazareth, and ultimately to the cross. In it was blessing and burden. Because of her and through her son, a Way was made for us all, and a calling to be the People of the [Third] Way.