“How shall we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?” —Psalm 137:4
This haunting question—asked by the psalmist after the people of Israel had been swept into captivity, hundreds of miles from home—formed the theme of an address by the Bishop of Central New York, Gladstone (Skip) Adams, to the annual meeting of Albany Via Media (AVM) this past Saturday.
But it was a different question, asked immediately after the address, that revealed another potential way into dialogue across divides.
Alas, there are divides aplenty around these parts. AVM describes itself as “Episcopalians striving for a middle way of diversity and tolerance in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.” I think of AVM as the loyal but progressive opposition in a conservative diocese. This, as you might expect, carries with it a great deal of tension and occasional rancor on every side.
On Saturday, Bishop Skip addressed the psalmist’s quote on several levels in a talk that was remarkable for its depth of thought and spirit. Then, during the Q&A, one priest noted that the “other (conservative) side” uses the exact same verse from the Psalms to mean something entirely different: how to be faithful to God in a rapidly secularizing society—of which many conservatives consider AVM to be a part.
That would seem to be a conversation stopper right there. How can we talk with one another when we can’t even agree on language?
But maybe it can be a conversation opener—if we use the language difference to probe gently for specific meanings.
Let’s say I fall into a dialogue with a conservative in the diocese, and she quotes that verse. What happens if I say something like “I love that verse, and I’m curious: when you refer to ‘alien soil,’ what are you thinking of? What does that phrase mean to you?”
I may not like what I hear in return, but the question opens an opportunity for me to understand my dialogue partner on a deeper level. Moreover, asking the question can prompt a dialogic question in return: “Why, what do you think of when you read ‘alien soil’?” This gives me the encouragement to share my thoughts in a nonthreatening way.
Several good things can happen from there. We might, for instance, discover how much common ground we share. We might also see how our respective viewpoints can inform and even change each other. For instance, I share my conservative colleagues’ concern about the secularizing of society, but I know very well that AVM members are not part of that problem. This kind of mutual questioning enables me to share that. Perhaps it helps my dialogue partner dispense with stereotypes about the “other side.”
And maybe, because we now see each other more clearly, the next conversation becomes easier, we go deeper, and our bond across divides grows stronger.
What about you? Have you noticed a word or phrase that means something different on the “other side”? What happens if you ask someone who uses it to explain its meaning?