By Deacon Marlin, Senior at Wichita East High School, St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Hello, my name is Deacon Marlin (not an ordained deacon, that’s just my name), I’m 18 years old, soon to be a graduate of East High School and in the fall I’ll be going on to Wichita State to pursue degrees in audio engineering and electrical engineering. I’ve been attending mass at St. James since November 2014 and joined the Youth Group in the fifth grade.

As somebody who considers myself a very faithful person in my wisened 18 years of age, there was absolutely a time when I found myself overflowing with skepticism and cynicism about most things in life: but chiefly – organized religion and the existence of God. Now I’m going to go into more detail about this here in a bit so just hang on to that context for a little bit here.

There was an important point at the beginning of my junior year of high school where I really reconnected with this beautiful. It was when a tragedy occurred that I could’ve never imagined. I hadn’t talked to Colin in well over a year when I first found out we had lost him, and immediately there was a colossal wave of guilt that passed over me for my lack of communication. This still haunts me to this day; but this church and the adults? involved in our youth group–people like Racine, Father Dillon, Mother Dawn, Dakota, and of course our beloved Anne–created an incredible sense of connection that absolutely helped me begin to come to terms with the loss of our beautiful friend.

We as a congregation do really attend an incredible church. The clergy has been incredible since I’ve been here, Mother Dawn, Mother Sarah, Father Dillon, Father John, Deacon Jeff, and Deacon Peg, have all helped me so greatly in coming to understand my own relationship with God and have instilled in me essential tools for growing into an adult and creating a life of my own.

We go to a church that doesn’t claim to have every answer. We go to a church where we’re exempt from the shame and guilt that plagues other denominations. We go to a church that truly does not discriminate; a church where a true relationship and devotion to faith is the criteria for clergy status and not race, sex, or sexuality. I say all of this because as a young man of about 13-14, I took all of this for granted and grew resentful of religion and faith as a whole, proclaiming in my misguided teenaged hubris that I had the answers.

Upon reading works by people like Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in sixth grade, I found myself dissociating from religion with the science fiction interests I had previously been fascinated by being proven potentially true. Not understanding that the two were in many ways the same thing, the idea of the black hole became far more interesting to me than what I perceived as “the place where I have to sit still for an hour every Sunday.”

Of course, I’ve grown to love and appreciate the almost meditative nature of Sunday mass as well as the profound connection to both God and those around me. And I talk about not believing in anything during this period, but that isn’t really true. You see I’ve come to define hell as being completely dissociated from God. Whether that be on earth or in death, I find it to be a significantly more cerebral thing than a place where a soul goes. My point in telling you this isn’t to tell you what to believe, but I believe faith is a profoundly sacred and personal thing that I have no right or reason to trample upon; rather I mean to tell you that even as I denied my belief in God and thought of religion as a “fairytale,” I was never in hell. To think that God is such a loving force that even in my abject denial of all spirituality, I was still loved and nurtured much in the same way that my own mother or father would, has (on multiple occasions) brought me to tears.

I would attend the virtual youth group sessions in 2020 and early 2021 fairly consistently for good conversation and debate but when we all found out about Colin’s passing, I at first felt an obligation to return to the youth group whenever I could. It was hard for that first night or two. We’d sit around and talk with the chair that Colin and I always fought over remaining empty and I couldn’t help but fixate on it every time I found my eyes drifting away from whomever was talking. Yet my increased attendance and the ideas presented by people like Father Dillon, Racine, and of course Anne, led me to re-examine ideas of faith and start to mull over my own beliefs.

It was a night in October of 2021 that everything really clicked. I was lying in bed and this profound feeling of warmth passed over my body. I still struggle to find words to describe it, but suddenly things made sense to me. I’d been toying with notions of agnosticism for a while at that point,  and I was sure that divine creation and science would likely be one and the same; but that night in my insomnia, I found myself thinking back to my baptism and my confirmation.

Of those days I look back and recall feeling something inside my heart and lungs that I couldn’t put into words. It was clearly different from any kind of physical sensation, but it also transcended any kind of psychological effect. I hadn’t thought about either of those days in years but that night it hit me that there was some profound love in the universe, something I’ve since described as paternal (perhaps out of historical habit) and something that I describe solely as god. If hell is complete dissociation from God then by that logic, what I felt on those three occasions must have been something very close to heaven.

Youth is a challenging time; particularly in the last 5-6 years. The brain is at its peak growth and as new ideas are presented they’re often either completely discarded or taken as absolute truth. Thus I think it’s extraordinarily sensible that a young person would drift away from what they’ve been taught growing up–After all our brains are wired to reject our parents so we can move into our own lives at a certain age, (this is almost evolutionary fact).–And that a young person would develop a cynical or otherwise unpleasant attitude about things like religion or politics. If you were raised in a particularly conservative household you might start to lean left. If you were raised in a particularly religious household you might begin to reject those beliefs and move closer to agnosticism or atheism. And look, as someone who still questions everything,  I intend to pass less than zero judgment on anyone who questions faith.

In a world where there are rampant instances of different Christian and Catholic denominations showing beliefs to the world that promote bigotry and hate and the foul, malpractice of certain higher-up religious bodies, it’s understandable that anybody would be hesitant to be too heavily involved.  There’s also the historical context of the hundreds of wars waged, religious governments that took advantage of their people, etc. for a person to be wary of. But I’d like to submit the idea that religion is not faith. Religion and faith can go together very well but when it comes down to it, religion is how we reckon with and come to accept our faith. You can’t have a meaningful religion without meaningful faith, and truly that is the beauty of this church.

It’s in Isaiah 58: 3-5 that these words are written: “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” We are foolish to tell ourselves we seek God if what we seek is something out of God. Faith is not ritualistic, it’s not a matter of going through the motions and waiting for your reward. , Faith is connection, belief, and love. And that dissonance is something that I find permeates many of these large-scale megachurches alongside many of the more extreme instances of other Catholic and Christian denominations. Prayer becomes a chore: you pray before bed, you make a confession for sins you’re not even sure if you think are wrong, and then you’re given a punishment for being sinful, more prayer. And yes, we follow the Holy Eucharist in this church and go through communion every service, but I would argue that there is nothing resembling punishment in our practices here.

Through communion, we connect with Christ’s love for us and how that reflects the love of the God we pray to. Through our confession of sins, we are called upon ourselves to be the driving force in our moving forward with better intent and kinder ways of living. There is a substantial ego in any one person claiming to know the exact workings of God, and I suspect that the more we try to claim we know how things work, the further we stray from a true connection with God. This is a church where we seek to love God instead of analyze Him. This is a church where we seek to love each other instead of judging each others’ actions. I am extraordinarily proud to have grown up in this church.

I think that the beauty of this short life we live is that we’ll never have time to truly understand God or the forces at work around us, because the more we fret about these celestial matters, the harder it is for us to truly live. So I say to you this: if you feel that you’re stuck, or confused, maybe you don’t yet know what to believe, just calm down. I suspect from my own experience that the greatest way to form a true connection with the things that are bigger than us, is to slow down and love life, love each other, and remember that we’re never truly alone.