a letter to my fifteen year old self.

Dear fifteen-year-old Erin, 315_40079260820_2003_nIts me, twenty-three year-old Erin. It may seem impossible to you in this moment, but believe it, girl, because we are here, and here is sticky sweet like all the sweat and honey.

Let's be honest, though: you're feeling like your life just fell apart.  Mom decided that she enjoyed the idea of freedom more than she enjoyed being married to Dad. She'll choose other men over her husband and children, and your friends at school will tell you that divorce is normal -- fun, even, because you get two of everything now. And even though it might be normal in 2005, you are painfully aware that there's nothing fun about it.

Your friends will end up ditching you because you feel too much. And it isn't really that you feel too much, its more like you don't know where to put your thoughts and feelings, so they're kinda mashed up right now.

Those angsty poems you've been writing lately? Yikes, girl. I'll let you in on a crazy good secret: someday, your blog will be read in thirty-three countries.

You might not feel like it right now, but you are important.

Not because of how many countries your blog will be read in someday, or in that shallow, "I only wear A&F and Hollister and date the cutest guy in school" kind of way, though. You might think you want that, but trust me, deep down, you really want more than that.

I know that you used to get made fun of a lot when you transitioned from homeschooling to public school a few years ago, and it seems like that has worn off a little. But there's this one girl who just has it in for you, and you have no idea what you did to ignite such a hateful blaze.

I've learned that they naysayers are everywhere. There are a few every now and then with skin on, but most of them live in your head, and they're much harder to get rid of. Stick to your guns, girl. You possess a strength beyond what you can even comprehend.

You'll fight hard with depression, even before your mom decides out of the clear blue sky to call it a day and wash her hands of eighteen years of marriage. It won't make sense and it will be scary, and you'll feel like hiding all day long. And I still have days like that, but they are much fewer and far between. We are making it, one day at a time. And that's okay.

People will tell you that your standards are too high. It happened to me, just the other day. I was doing an activity for job training (by the way, you're going to be a social worker someday) where we talked about personality traits that we sought out, or at least tolerated in a mate at sixteen versus the ones we looked for and tolerated at thirty. The instructor will be shocked when you tell him that you would in no way tolerate someone being disrespectful to you at sixteen. He'll make fun of you, and you'll feel sad, but only for a nanosecond. Then you'll brush it off and pat yourself on the back for the fact that even at the flighty, impressionable age of sixteen,  you never settled for less than what you deserved.

Speaking of dating and finding a mate -- that guy in the yearbook you thought you would end up marrying? You don't marry him. Instead, you'll go off to college and find out that the man of your dreams was living just three hours away the whole time, and you'll think its hilarious how God does it. And let me tell you, he is cute and sweet and quirky and all the things you wrote down in your journal that you want to find someday.

The Lord has a plan. I know that sounds super vacation Bible school, even to you, but its true. Hard things will happen to the people you love, and you'll question. You'll shake your fists at a God you've believed in all your life, and you won't know it at the time, but He uses those things to take you to places you have never been. Your faith will grow in ways you never thought possible, and you will learn that all is, indeed, grace.

You'll realize that you're important, not because of what anyone else thinks of you, but because He loves you. And your soul will fall in love with life in a thousand and one beautiful ways. Your heart will overflow. You will find joy in the most unexpected places.

In the meantime, keep going to football games with Dad and screaming your head out for the Panthers. Keep believing that in spite of everything, these are the best days of your life. Eventually, you'll realize that everyday is the best day of your life because everyday is an opportunity to grow.

You are awesome, and I think about you all the time.

-- Me

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Contributing to the beautiful Emily Freeman's collection of letters and shamelessly plugging her amazing book for young women. You can check out Graceful here on Amazon.

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Dear Church, I'm Still Here.

I really like Rachel Held Evans, and anything related to the culture of a young and growing church, so when a Christian friend in Generation X asked that I comment on Rachel's CNN article on why millennials are leaving the church, I was more than happy to share my thoughts. For the majority of young people, our moral compasses are calibrated by the culture around us without question. For me, personally, the culture around me was The Bible Belt. At twenty-two years old, I've never known any different. I have attended church my entire life, and prayed to receive Christ into my heart at a young age. I grew up to attend an evangelical college, where I minored in biblical and theological studies. Needless to say, my faith has always been an important part of my life.

I wasn't the girl who cursed or got in fights at school. I never drank or went to parties, and I didn't have sex. I barely even listened to popular music. I went to youth group and participated in the prayer circle and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. My identity throughout school was the good Christian girl. But I also battled depression, and felt like I had nowhere to turn.

My parents fought at length throughout my teen years before deciding to separate during my sophomore year of high school. It was during this period that my depression reared its ugly head. When I attempted to talk about it, my feelings were shrugged off, even by my Christian friends. There was a deep seeded shame that I, as a Christian, felt deprived of joy and abundant life. Church didn't feel like a very safe place, and the majority of that time was spent simply going through the motions.

Now, thankfully, depression isn't the monster in my life that it once was. But I know that the slope is slippery. There was a time in college that I deeply questioned my worth, and even battled self-injury. I don't know if I would be where I am tonight had it not been for the love and support of patient friends. If you want to read more about that, click here.

In college, I met a man named Jake.* He was incredibly nice, attractive, and popular. He played basketball, and participated in a variety of activities. I was and still am very fond of him. He was a senior when I was a freshman, and after he graduated, Jake posted a note on Facebook admitting his attraction to the same gender. Later, a group of students extended the opportunity to the student body to anonymously discuss our secrets via a blog. Many of the secrets had to do with homosexuality.  It occurs to me that many Christians view gay people as threatening, even defective. My heart breaks, thinking of how I watched Jake and an untold number of others struggle to feel safe or welcome in the greater evangelical church.

I also met a woman named Katherine* who disclosed in a counseling class that she had gotten an abortion when she became pregnant as a teenager. I was shocked to receive this information, and she admitted that she didn't discuss it on a regular basis (for obvious reasons). Nothing in me can fathom the fear a woman experiences that drives her to scrape out her occupied womb. Fear that she will be abandoned if those around her find out what she's done; fear that life as she knows it will be over should she go through with bringing this life into the world.

Then there was Joyce, who repeatedly posted on Facebook that democrats were idiotic sheep, and that all Muslims rape their babies and hate Christians and seek only to kill. And Kyle,* who says he loves Jesus, and that anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot, and will be called out.  And Dan,* who told his daughter that her testimony and their family name were tarnished because of her decision to get a belly-button ring. The list could go on forever.

The conservative church brims with judgment, often with blatant disregard for the hearts behind the statistics. Until these issues become lonely and scared flesh and blood, I fear that we will never learn to exhibit the love and sensitivity required of those who represent Christ.

Gandhi is quoted as saying "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Those in Gen X question why young people are leaving the church. To borrow Rachel's words, it is because we don't find Jesus there. It has nothing to do with skinny jeans or coffee or high technology, or whether there is a drummer in the band or the congregation sings from a hymnal.

There has to be something more. There has to be substance. Because simply not swearing or drinking alcohol or getting pregnant in high school because I was told that they were wrong things never led me to a better understanding of who Christ is. What has? Being loved, and reminded of it often, and experiencing the freedom and safety within the Body to ask questions, wrestle with and heal from my own issues, and become who I was created to be. Don't read me wrong: I'm not trying to downplay sin, and I don't believe Rachel is either. Scripture states very plainly that the consequence of sin is death. We're good at preaching that. What we're not so good at, though, is proclaiming life, and making Church a safe place for sinners.

Now that I'm older, and have gleaned some experience and understanding, I'm working to make a change. Because I believe in the Bride of Christ. I love her dearly, despite her faults. And I desperately want for her to resemble Jesus by drawing in those who are hurting and confused and searching for hope and truth.

*Names have been changed.