The “I” in Faith

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. — Ephesians 4:4-7

Years ago, when I started both Education for Ministry (EfM) and writing for Episcopal Café, I customarily wrote “We” in sentences and paragraphs in the first person plural form. I know that preachers, priests, and clergy use, “We,” in prayers and sermons, and even our BCP uses the plural form in liturgies and collects. I intended its use as inclusive, showing that all of us are part of a single family, group, organization, congregation, denomination, or whatever. “We” worked for me until one of my EfM mentors, Ann Fontaine (of blessed memory), began insisting that each of us start to and continually use “I” instead of “we” when talking in our group sessions. It was hard to break the habit, but I finally did it, finally understanding the reasoning as to why “I” is so important.

Using “I” required me to state my own beliefs, positions, actions, tradition, and culture. Each of us is a different person with different experiences and customs, and even two people sitting next to one another in the same pew often hold beliefs and thoughts anywhere from slightly different to widely divergent. It allowed me to take ownership of what I think and feel. I know that ministers, priests, and clergy generally speak in “we” terms, including themselves in the congregation and hoping to thus unify it. I do not feel I have the theology or the authority to speak using such group-speak, as I am only a lay person. I speak for myself, not to impose my beliefs or thoughts on any group. I own my particular theology and acknowledge it, not speaking for others or even for God.

Wrestling with this ownership thing, I have concluded (at least for now) that when I use the word “Faith,” I must break it down into parts.  “FA” is like family – the Trinity, The Holy Family, my EfM group, church congregation, close friends, and neighborhood. “TH” is like theology – a system of beliefs and traditions, some of which go back hundreds if not thousands of years and sometimes change for me as I learn more about it. That leaves the letter “i” in the middle, which is where I see myself, balancing the two, trying to be fair and just to both, and being willing to learn with an open mind which is subject to change, sometimes without notice. The “I” I would use, though, is a lowercase letter, as I do not see myself worthy of a capital letter, especially when speaking about (and certainly not for) God. 

Jesus used a lot of “I” statements, particularly in the Gospel of John. “I am the vine…” (14:5), “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” (14:6), and “I am the light of the world…” (8:12), among others. I believe he used them to convey his message; he stated his job and news, often metaphorically or allegorically, which took egotism out of the equation. Had he come out and flatly said that he was the Son of God, his life would have been much shorter than it was since to make such a claim was not only blasphemy to the Jews but high treason to the Romans. Still, we understand what his “I” statements mean, just as the crowds who heard him teach recognized him in such metaphors as the story of the good shepherd or the good Samaritan. 

Using “I” statements in speech or writing has made my faith stronger by forcing me to come to grips with pretty much exactly what I mean and be able to enunciate it when the opportunity presents itself. It leaves room for others to disagree to one degree or another but without an outright argument or disagreement. It allows me to recognize the right of others to have their own beliefs without arguing them into agreeing with mine. Hopefully, they will also respect my right, but if they do not, then it is their choice.   

Reciting the Apostles’ Creed gives structure to my faith, whether said aloud or repeated silently. I may have slight twinges about one or two words or phrases, but I can also fall back on the ambiguity being an Episcopalian allows me to be. I have learned to be comfortable with that and make it part of my family, faith, and theology. 

Amen.  God bless you all.  (Painting by R. Gieselmann)

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