“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
-Hebrews 12:11 (NRSV)
I very much enjoyed the dialogue between my friends Matt and Joel about the nature of the via media in the UMC. I would like to add a personal rejoinder of my own to that conversation. Yes, I would agree that the Via Media or Third Way is about priorities rather than just positions. I would also say, as I’ve told Matt, that it is also about tone. But perhaps there’s another, deeper element at play – at least for me.
In Unleashing the Scripture, Stanley Hauerwas writes something I’ve heard him say in person on more than one occasion:
“…I call myself a pacifist in public because I am obviously so violent. Hopefully by creating expectations in you about me, you will help keep me faithful to what I know is true.” (64)
What Hauerwas says about his identity as a Christian pacifist, I would also claim for my identity as a Third Way/Via Media Methodist. I hinted at this at the NYAC dialogue: I am not a “middle way” person because I am especially moderate or tepid. As Allan Bevere said in our recent interview, we Middle Way folk are people of deep convictions – and one of those deep convictions is that neither the left nor the right have a monopoly on the gospel or the Wesleyan Christian witness.
More than once, I’ve had people call me out for things I’ve said by reminding me of my own commitments to raising the level of discourse and being the change I want to see in the church. At the time, such accountability is frustrating, and I resent it. The author of Hebrews wasn’t joking when he said discipline is never pleasant when it happens.
But I’ve come to appreciate this insistence by others that I live up to what I have claimed. Like Hauerwas, I claim this identity so publicly, not because I have achieved all the virtues necessary to live it out, but because I need others to keep me true to the life for which I am aiming.
The truth is, I can often be an extremist, judgmental jerk – just like I was in my fundamentalist days. Whenever I fool myself into thinking I have exorcised this particular demon, its hideous head pops up again. This is not who I wish to be, and its not who I want to be. It is not who the church has called me, through baptism and now ordination, to be. So I thank you, my friends near and far, for keeping me faithful to what I know is true, for caring enough to expect from me (to cite Lincoln) the better angels of my nature.
A crucial aspect of Wesleyan discipleship is a combination of radical grace with high expectations for growth in holiness through the Spirit’s power. I vividly recall Heitzenrater saying, of early Methodism in England, “it was very easy to become a Methodist, but it was hard to stay a Methodist.”
I ask for God’s grace, and your patience, that I – that we – might live out the highest ideals of the Christian life in all of our interaction. If this project can move the needle one millimeter in that direction, I will consider it this a smashing success and a great gift from God.
May the Triune God draw us all nearer to the Crucified, and nearer to each other, that we might be salt and light in a bland and dark world. Peace.