It wasn't until several years later (about nine, to be honest) that I understood how much of my story was washed in the water that day.
And these days, it's a story that has melded into being a part of me, a part of what I'm doing, and a big part of what I know God is doing through me...but it's also a story I tell less often.
There are a great deal of people who have strengthened and encouraged me by sharing their story, and I have witnessed the telling of tales that changes lives. It does. God uses our stories for the benefit of each other. I trust that He uses mine that way, as well; in fact, I have seen it.
But the story I knew, the story I took into that baptismal pool with all my fears, my worries, my history, my self-hatred, it was a story that I never told anyone until sometime after that night when those youth minister people finally got me talking. But once I started telling it, I couldn't stop. It felt like a betrayal to try to tell any other story, so this - this brokenness, darkness, painful story that was all my own - became my primary narrative.
I felt like I had to preface everything I did or said with what used to be. As such, I was hauling around this heavy baggage and calling it almost noble. I wanted to show what God was doing in me, give credibility and credence to my words somehow by showing the contrast between what it was and what it was coming to be, though I knew in my heart I wasn't getting any closer to it. Because dragging it with me all those years, working it out in very public ways, burdening myself with that truth being the preface of everything that was and that ever could be...was only making me continue living that story.
I couldn't figure out how all of these people were sharing their stories with me with so much love, respect, and freedom from living them while every time I spoke a word, I felt like I was driving myself further into my own little hole. (Which for those of you who don't know, was a deep, dark one.) On the few occasions when I felt like I could break free and not have to tell it for a few minutes, something about it came through anyway - like the time I gave a short talk to our congregation about one of our youth mission adventures and the newly-hired associate pastor shook my hand afterward and said, "You're deep." Then clarified that he wasn't talking about anything I'd just said, about any of the quips or Biblical applications I'd put so much work into. He was seeing my story, and then I felt bad about not taking that opportunity to tell it. Because now, this guy's first impression of me wasn't coming from that story that I thought I had to tell everyone (warn them) lurked beneath my surface.
Maybe it was a blessing that he saw something else first.
The thing was, I wanted my story to be like that. I wanted my story to be the kind of strength and hope that so many other stories had been for me when I was able to listen and really hear them. My heart wasn't there yet; it was still living that story like it was the most true thing about me. As I've come to know, not everything that's fact is Truth.
A few years ago, I finally understood what story really is. My story, in particular, but more largely, His story. In another one of those dramatic personal encounters with a God who wouldn't leave my heart alone, He gave me permission to stop telling it. Altogether. Just stop. He'd never be able to use it, He said, as long as I refused to stop living it and since I hadn't figured out how to tell it without embracing it, then it was best for the time to just leave it alone. Lay it down.
I can't tell you what that feels like. When you're exhausted, deepening into a darkness you're more convinced each day you'll never crawl out of, burdened with this story that is...pain and yet so powerful when used right, longing for something more to come of this and starting to suspect it never will...and all of a sudden, someone tells you that you can just stop. You can. (Not that it's easy to just do so. It took many strong, emotional, intimate encounters, an increasing weight of sheer exhaustion, and an undefeatable whisper of hope that there has to be something more for me to finally...for a second, just to see if I can do it, Lord...lay that story down.)
Good, He said. Now start to tell my story. And when it's appropriate for a burden of hope, we'll use yours and weave it back in. Then He showed me the strength and the power and the real good that my story has...when told with honesty and respect for what has been but with graciousness for what is and an audacious faith for what is to come.
That's redemption. That's how He gets us. When He invites us to tell - to live - His story and simply to use ours. That's the God I met in the water. It took me nine years to get back to Him, though I visited His house every week. I was so glad to see Him again.