A place to stand

by Mark Safstrom

In the climate of dry humor in which I was raised, there was no shortage of historical quotes and proverbs shared, often creatively adapted to the situation at hand. The game was to use them incorrectly, but cleverly, so as to get a laugh. One reoccurring favorite is the following by Archimedes: “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I shall move the world.” Though this quote celebrates mathematics and the merits of levers and all that – playing our game well requires reworking the quote so that it can be applied to something completely unrelated. For instance, if someone asks you to do a chore (such as washing a car) or asks whether something is possible (such as painting the highest gable on the house) an appropriate answer in both cases would be, “Give me a lever long enough.” Okay, if you’re not laughing, you had to be there…

The focus of much of our problem solving in life is on finding the right tools. When faced with challenges and setbacks in our financial situations, health, careers, or relationships, we will likely look to a financial plan, a medical cure, our own talents, or a self-help book. Many of these things can be viewed as tools; formulas, schemes, ideologies, political agendas, and other silver bullets. But are we also looking for a place to stand?

I don’t often think of Jesus as a comedian. But in one profound moment he did in fact make a pun, one that established the church itself. When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, he responded by making a pun out of Peter’s name (being reminded that the Greek word for ‘Peter’ means ‘Rock’ infuses this scene with some humor). Christ announced, “On this rock, I will build my church, and the power of hell will not overcome it.” Some interpretations have focused on the fact that Peter, as a leader, is the ‘rock’ on which the church is built. Others focus on Peter’s statement itself as being the “rock.”

This is also a useful punchline, and an unexpected solution. The early church faced the pressures of a hostile world threatening to divide it. In Ephesians 4, Paul warns against “winds of doctrine” that will scatter the church. It is telling that the solution Christ offers does not involve a tool, but a place to stand. On this rock – Christian community – a space has been carved out of the world for stability and countercultural problem solving. The world has its wisdom, and even the church has the tools of scripture and the sacraments. But the secret weapon against the assault of the storm is not a tool, but a place to stand. A rock, in fact. The strength of the church is the community itself, the incarnation of the Gospel.

In this contentious age of ours, there are a lot of problems to solve, and it can be tempting to prioritize our ingenuity and convictions. But many churches and denominations have been split apart by seeking definitive answers to divisive questions. What a great help to be reminded that the church, from day one, was not a tool but a place to stand, not a system, but a community! No lever will move the earth, and no faith will move mountains, without this place to stand.

This theme of communion comes through in several of the articles in this issue. Bob Bach’s article celebrates the key role that human interaction played in his recent recovery from a heart transplant, in which tender care was every bit as valuable as medical procedures. Carolyn Poterek’s sermon reminds us that the movement of Pietism was a community that started when people heard and lived into their calling, which was received by reading passages like Ephesians 4. Michelle Urberg notes that the ancient monastery at Vadstena in Sweden was started, not to be an institution, but a community to reform society in the Middle Ages. Jay Phelan points out the historical precedents and great potential for dialogue between Jews and Christians, as each has a similar tradition to stand on that emphasizes life over theology. ‘Where do you live?’ is the question that P.P. Waldenström’s allegory, Squire Adamsson, sought to pose, and could also be rephrased as, ‘where do you stand?’ We invite you to consider this question and find or rediscover that place.

Guds frid – God’s peace

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and an assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom