It’s hard to believe that there are two weeks left of my spring quarter of my junior year here at Northwestern. This year has gone so incredibly fast. I’m starting to realize that adulthood is looming ahead of me. Strange, terrifying, exciting. I’ve had so much fun this year getting closer to so many friends. I’ve had a ton of amazing and unique experiences–leading a Bible study for freshman on campus, sharing my testimony for the first time, living in my first apartment, learning a ton about God, writing a 40-page novella in the Creative Writing Sequence, landing a student teaching job at New Trier High School (one of the top high schools in the country!!), and becoming a member of my church. I’ve also had many hard experiences–making the decision to leave my a cappella group indefinitely, learning how to handle conflict with friends, seeing my campus ministry go through huge changes in leadership, facing a lot of doubts about the future, and identifying a ton of brokenness in my heart.
God’s been with me through all of it, even though it hasn’t always been easy for me to believe it.
Even now, I confess that it’s difficult for me to look at this summer and be convinced that God will be just as much at work in me there as He is when I have close-knit Christian community surrounding me. Obviously, staying home with my family and working with 5th and 6th-graders for 30 hours a week at a summer day care program is going to look a lot different than living on the Jersey shore with a bunch of my best friends and going out on the boardwalk to share the Gospel every day.
Not that being home or working are bad things, not at all! I genuinely look forward to spending time with my family, taking our biannual vacation to Hilton Head, and running around all day with the kiddos in Summer Kids Club. But it’s going to be different–meaning that it’s going to take a lot more effort on my part to spend time with God, plug into a community of believers, and be intentional in growing in and sharing my faith. I will be working a lot, none of my friends from high school will be home, and I can’t just go to the beach or hang out in Ocean City Coffee Company when I’m bored.
In other words, this summer will not be Ocean City Summer Project. And that–to put it as delicately as I can–scares the crap out of me.
Ahh. Ocean City. Three days ago, the next generation of OCSP students arrived on project, making it one year since the project that changed my life began. I made the very emotionally healthy decision to stalk their Twitter and Instagram feeds that night, and I could barely contain the flood of emotions washing over my heart. Giddy fondness. Bittersweet nostalgia. Prickling jealousy. Overwhelming sadness. An intense longing to hijack a car and go back.
Yes, although some of it has faded in intensity over the past year, I still really, really miss OC. The people, the place, the experiences I had. As the months passed, I realized that one of the hardest things about leaving Ocean City was realizing that most people in my life never went there in the first place–they don’t get it, and they can’t. And that’s okay–I can’t blame them for that. But that doesn’t make it any less hard to explain to them why that Cher Lloyd song makes me tear up or why I hashtag everything #ftsohn or why I sometimes whisper “Boom, shotgun, full circle” under my breath or why I freak out every time someone reads Romans 1:5-6 or why there’s a foil ball named Leonardo hanging out benignly in a corner of my sock drawer. It’s impossible.
And honestly, those are just the small things. I learned more about God there, saw him doing more miracles, experienced more spiritual growth in those ten too-short weeks than anywhere in my entire life.
It’s not really something one can describe. As you would expect, I came into my fall quarter riding off of this high, feeling closer than ever to God, totally pumped about sharing my faith, and completely certain of what He had planned for me after college. Coming out of Ocean City and into my junior year, it was like I stood on the shore of some great ocean, raring and ready to walk with Jesus toward the golden horizon and wade with Him into glittering waters, full of excitement and possibility. I took His hand, and took my first steps into this next chapter of my life.
And for a while, it was fine–God was holding onto my hand as I kept taking strides through the shallows and into the larger waves. But somewhere during the beginning of winter quarter–the waves began to crash around me, and no longer could I feel the ground below my feet. Somehow I forgot that the farther you walk into the ocean, the deeper the waters get. The darker and fiercer the storms. And in my fear–fear of rejection by friends with whom I was having conflict, fear of failure as a leader in my movement, fear of instability in my future, fear of having to give up comforts to do God’s will, fear of the unknown, fear that He would not give me what I wanted, fear that maybe Ocean City was just a spiritual high after all and that I was just a huge fake and a hypocrite and maybe, just maybe, I was not even saved–I did the worst thing I could possibly do.
I let go of His hand.
And suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a spiritual maelstrom of towering waves that thrashed me back and forth, black and bone-numbing, thunder and lightning raging above. I saw my own depravity swirling all around me–pride, ungratefulness, lust, selfishness, sloth, greed, apathy, and so much more. The heart that once ached for the lost and the world in Ocean City was now barely beating as I fought and struggled to swim and keep myself afloat under a crushing weight of schoolwork, a looming pile of student loan debt, hours of ministry duties, a job I barely had time for, and too many extra-curriculars. I knew my relationship with God was suffering, that it wasn’t as good as it was in Ocean City, but I just couldn’t seem to get my bearings in this storm, to discover which way was forward. I felt guilty and ashamed for what I deemed “backsliding” in my faith–I would often have conversations with myself that sounded like this: “Erin, you’re such a fake. You were so spiritual and close to God in Ocean City, but look at you now. You’re not sharing your faith. You’re not excited about the Gospel. You haven’t read your Bible in a week. And you haven’t prayed for I don’t know how long. How can you be leading a Bible study? How can you call yourself a Christian!? Face it. Ocean City was just a high. It’s the best you’ll ever be, spiritually. It’s only downhill from here. What is wrong with you!? Why can’t you love God like you did there? Oh, and by the way, you’re a huge hypocrite.” Sometimes lies sound so much like the truth that it’s hard to tell the difference.
As a result of believing these lies that Satan had put into my head (comparing where I was now to where I was in Ocean City) I avoided God, withdrawing because I thought that my life and my motives and my priorities were no longer pleasing to Him–that I was no longer pleasing to Him. And in the midst of the tossing waves, I began to cling to flimsy, but seemingly-sufficient life-rafts that could never have borne my weight in the first place–the approval of guys, image management, attention on social media, affirmation from my girlfriends, escaping via TV, treating myself to material things, watching or playing games on my phone. These rafts all sunk, after a while, but the storms were not finished with me. This spiritual beating lasted for months, pretty much all of winter quarter and a lot of the first half of spring quarter.
Thankfully, God did not allow the storms to drown me–and by His grace, for one weekend in April, He gave me the strength to fast from social media and spend my time totally and completely focused on being with Him instead. It was an eye-opening time, separating myself from all of these useless life-rafts for a while, staring up into the clouds to try and find His hand again. My soul was weak–battered and bruised, a purpling wreckage from the crushing power of spiritual depression. My heart for God still beat, but faintly. I had swallowed a lot of salt water, false promises that only left me unsatisfied. The storms were over now. But I still found myself in the middle of a blue expanse with no idea which way was forward–no idea how to move toward God again–and no more strength to keep myself afloat. My faith muscles, though I wanted to use them, had atrophied long ago. My time treading water would soon end.
…Or, swim. Even though I knew that, in my current state, trying to suck it up and continue with this performance of spirituality would only exhaust me further until I died trying .
Both seemed unthinkable.
But then–a voice.
I’ll tow you.
Take My hand. I’ll pull you through. Trust Me. I will help you cross. I’ll get you to the next shore.
God. I’m just–I’m gonna monologue here, so, sorry, but I guess You made me this way, so You know how I get–but honestly, I don’t even know where You are anymore. I wouldn’t even know where to look for Your hand! This year has not been what I wanted it to be, at all. After OC, I mean, I felt like I could trust You with anything. But, I don’t know–with everything that’s been going on, it’s just so hard!
And I just feel like a fake, like I’m being legalistic, because I know I do all the good Christian stuff, but my heart’s not in it, and faithless deeds are worthless to You, so why even bother trying, right? I mean, I want to have a great relationship with You, I want to want to share Jesus with people. And I thought You wanted that for me, too. And I prayed about it. But my heart hasn’t changed. And that sucks. It sucks because I remember how it used to be. How I used to be. I wish I was–I wish I was the version of myself that I was in Ocean City. Remember that Erin? OC Erin was bold. She was heartbroken for the lost. She was excited to spend time with You. She loved talking about Jesus, all the time, and not just in her Christian bubble. Her faith was incredible back there, back then…
But I’m not her. Not right now. Not anymore. And that’s the worst part of all of this. So I don’t want to surrender to You because I don’t feel I can trust You to not just leave me here. To not just ruin my life–give me what I deserve. I mean, aren’t You disappointed in me–in this shell, this–hollow vessel? Wouldn’t it make better since to leave me here, anyway?
…Uh….are You still there?
Do you honestly still think that the depths of My love for you are dependent on something as changeable and wavering as your level of faith in Me? That I cared for you more in Ocean City than I do in Evanston or in Northville? My beloved child. I sent my Son down to earth to die for you so that you could be held and loved and protected and cherished–by Me! Not because you deserved it, but because I wanted to! I love you! There is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from My love through Jesus Christ.
Daughter, My faithfulness to You is unchanging and unwavering, because the great I AM does not change, and the great I AM does not waver. I will never leave you, nor will I forsake you. Because you put your faith in Jesus–even if that faith is small sometimes–you are forgiven, you are declared righteous, and you are My child, and I will never, ever, ever stop loving you. And that’s why you can trust Me. Because as much as the waters rage around you, I am still here.
So please, little one. You can’t swim anymore. Stop trying to do this on your own. Stop clinging to what you thought you were in the past. Stop condemning yourself. Stop treading water. Let Me pull you along as you float. Trust Me. Give Me your hand, in the middle of this ocean, where your feet can’t reach, and let Me take you to shore. I cannot promise there won’t be any more storms, that your faith will never waver again. But I can promise to be holding you the whole time. That My love for you will never change. That I will be closer to you than your own breath. I can promise to guide you home.
Close your eyes. Stop treading. Start trusting. Rest in Me.
Will you let Me carry you across this ocean?
I remember recording this conversation in my journal, and a very familiar tune popped into my mind. A song that I will forever associate with that summer, that place–and not just because of its name. They played it in almost every worship set there. It was the last song they played on everyone’s last night there. I had wept openly on my knees in the pew. I still consider that particular moment to be one of the peak worship experiences I have ever had. And now, here He was, shoving it in my face at the worst possible moment.
God. Seriously? This song. Come on.
You call me out upon the waters…the great unknown…where feet may fail. I sighed. My own feet had failed. The ocean I now trod was deep. And I had no idea what was in store for me out there, on the horizon. It was terrifying. And that song kept running through my head. Where feet may fail, and fear surrounds me.
You never fail.
…He never fails.
He would never, ever fail me.
And you won’t start now….
He didn’t fail me back then. He wasn’t failing me now.
He was God.
And God could not fail.
…Okay, Lord. Okay.
I took His hand.
Allowing God to take me across this ocean–this summer, my senior year, graduation (!), and adulthood (!!)–will require radical stillness–not meaning inaction or stagnancy, but the ability to come before Him and truly rest in Him, to float peacefully along on the promises of His grace as He pulls me through. It will also require radical discipline, which means recommitting myself to spending consistent, daily time with Him for at least an hour, a habit that departed from me bit by bit over winter quarter. It will require prayer, from you and from me. And most of all, it will require radical dependence–“Lord, I can’t. But You can.” It will mean re-surrendering everything–my summer, my family, my friends, school, ministry on campus, student teaching, my future career, my desire for marriage, my plans, my writing, my heart, my life story–to Him and His will. It will mean drawing ever nearer to Jesus. I am embarking on a new journey, the beginning of a new summer, and many waters wait ahead for me and God to cross over together.
Maybe–maybe I’m not in the ocean any longer. Maybe I was so busy struggling that I didn’t notice the change in scenery. Maybe, as I gaze out into the brilliant sunset and watch newborn stars etch trails of light across the sky, I’m just standing on a different shore.
This post is dedicated to the people I met that summer. I love you all dearly.