The Heart of Narrative Focused Trauma Care

We believe that healing, wholeness, connection, and flourishing are not just possibilities – it’s what we’re made for. We’re meant to know and to be known.

Join Dan and Rachael as they guide you through a profound exploration of Narrative Focused Trauma Care and its theological roots. This conversation shares some of the “why” behind our healing and training offerings at the Allender Center.

They delve into the Genesis narrative, illuminating the intersection between beauty and brokenness, tracing the shattering of shalom, and recognizing the lasting impact of trauma. Dan introduces the concept of “already and not yet,” framing salvation as a journey encompassing past, present, and future. The conversation emphasizes the intricate interplay between brokenness and beauty, acknowledging humanity’s struggle to find connection amidst trauma.

Get ready for an insightful exploration that will deepen your understanding of Narrative Focused Trauma Care and its theological foundations, as we journey together toward healing and hope. Be sure to listen to part two of this conversation, “The Foundations of Narrative Focused Trauma Care,” to unpack the specifics of NFTC and the training process involved in this holistic approach.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Rachael, you know, I don’t do time terribly well. I know that we began the Allender Center less than 20 years ago, 14, something like that. And then we began in that process something called Narrative Focused Trauma Care, which we’ve been offering as one of our most significant training opportunities for now fill in the blank. How many years? 5? 10? 400?

Rachael: It’s actually been 11. Our first cohort for Narrative Focused Trauma Care, which it wasn’t called Narrative Focused Trauma Care at the time, it was called the advanced counseling certificate, but it was this methodology that’s been forming the first cohort was 2011-2012.

Dan: Alright. As we invite you listeners to two core questions over a number of episodes, this and another is when you are face-to-face with a dear friend, with somebody in your family who’s going through a significant struggle of heartache or in the broader sense of the word trauma. How do we engage? And we know there are so many good and sincere people who feel a great deal of empathy, enter something of the heartache of that moment. Well and often have the capacity to express a kind of, I’m so sorry, I am so sad you’re having to go through this. Is there anything I can do to be of help? And as human and righteous as that engagement, if we can put it bluntly, it’s just not enough. And that’s what prompted this labor. So as we’re beginning to talk about Narrative Focused Trauma Care, why it is important, I want to keep coming back to this question: How are you engaging good friends, family members who are in the middle of crisis conflict, trauma, heartache? Because that’s the central focus that we want to develop. What’s the theology underneath good story engagement and then what do you do in order to facilitate that? That’s what Narrative Focused Trauma Care is about. But even more importantly, it’s what good care is about. So given that beginning, why did you do this to the universe?

Rachael: Why did I do this to the universe?

Dan: Yeah, you were a central core. I actually remember a small story that I can’t help, but we were in the very first process of offering this. We had the privilege of going to St. Louis. There were a number of covenant seminary grads who had linked together, not entirely the whole cohort, but pretty sizable. And it was, shall we say, we were rough. The process was rough. And I remember coming at the end of one of the first weekends internally saying, this is not a good choice. This is not a good choice. And I remember almost, I had not word for word, but I remember your preaching, so yes, you are highly responsible for this.

Rachael: Okay, well I guess the most simple way I would answer that was out of necessity for my own life. Like most people trying to create healing context, attempting to be a part of creating something. And specifically for me coming out of a master of divinity program at the Seattle school that invited me to take seriously the impact of trauma and abuse because why did you help create a grad school? We could probably start there. And so many of my theological questions were asking in some ways is God’s story big enough for the heartache I’ve suffered, let alone the heartache of the world. And this place we find ourselves as a way, a lot of theologians put it, the already not yet reality of being people who live after Jesus has come and change our metaphysical reality opened the way for God’s heaven to be on earth. We’re pulling that new heaven and the new earth that’s coming and fulfillment. But we’re not there yet. But something has already happened. So we live in this constant tension of God is good, God is making a way and yet death persists for the time being. And so the more I was understanding the impact of trauma and abuse, the more I was questioning if some of the theological imagination I had been given actually was big enough for what my human experience was. And so that led to a lot of good theological, but I think getting to be a part of the Allender Center and not in any way providing an answer, but attempting to offer care that takes more seriously the human condition but also takes more seriously the story of God. And there are parts of the story that sometimes get skipped over or reduced in a way that I think cause us to miss out in our imagination and in our lived experience ways in which God is with us for us and moving on our behalf.

Dan: Oh, I love that. Honestly, I think the labor theologically began with that core question, is God’s story big enough? And we know intuitively if we have had a rich encounter with Jesus and with scripture, the answer is of course yes. But that’s facile and too quick. So the bottom line is how in a world that is so binary at one level when you say Jesus is central to the human heart’s healing, what I encountered so often was I don’t want to talk about your life. I don’t want to talk about the complications in your world. You just need to be faithful to what Jesus has called you to do. Forgive people, look to the future, stop looking to the past, et cetera. Or I would say the field of therapy, psychology, et cetera, is fairly well known for at best at times having a kind of additive element called spirituality where the real psychological process is at a horizontal level and it’s good if you meditate, good if you have a sense of transcendence, mystery, gratitude, good words, but linked not particularly to death, resurrection, ascension and incarnation. So I think one of the core things that we began with is the gospel story told from Genesis through Revelation.

Rachael: That’s right.

Dan: It is not merely to be additive with a verse here and a verse there or a broader sense of, but God loves you, but actually is meant to form and shape how we think and how we actually assess something of the nature of human brokenness and therefore the context of where trauma exists. So I love that that’s how you have begun. When you think about, in one sense the Genesis one through three playground, and really I don’t want to limit it to that only, but it kind of the mythic Genesis 1-11, how has that shaped something of the labor of what we have created in Narrative Focused Trauma Care? Yeah,

Rachael: That’s a great question and I’m going to answer that, but maybe the long way around only because I want to draw out what so many of us in some ways how that story has started for many of us or how it’s been told in the kind of Genesis to Revelation because I think a lot of people would go, but I do have a Genesis to Revelation understanding of the story of God, but it’s often mitigated in very, I would say, spiritually bypassing terms that are true. It’s not an untruth, but it takes it… So this sense of we’ve all seen the metaphor of like you’re separated from God by this chasm because of the fall, which is a part of the Genesis one through three story. It’s not the beginning of the story, which is what often gets left out. We could talk about that. And Jesus comes and dies on the cross for our sins and the cross falls over the chasm and makes a way for us to walk across to this other side to be with God. And I know people can’t see my hand and the little fingers walking across.

Dan: This is hilarious. I’m sorry, as I see your fingers walk across your arm, I’m like, yeah, that’s pretty bizarre. Go ahead.

Rachael: And the truth is, Jesus did make a way that changed everything. So it’s not an untruth, but what happens is that gets used as the metaphor for all of our life with God as if this someday when we stand and face judgment because we’ve chosen Jesus and walked across the chasm that in the here and now in the already night yet, that there’s no impact of the chasm, there’s no impact of that separation and everything in some ways we’re saved like salvation. And yet the reality of our story is that salvation, sanctification, whatever big words you’re going to use are an ongoing process. And it’s not like God is the kind of parent. I mean I think a lot about Romans 8 as a good frame for this. God’s not the kind of parent… If you want to think about God as a parent who’s like, oh, I gave you basic needs, so good luck with everything else. I dunno what more you could need from me. No, the beginning of the story in Genesis 1 is that God created this Trinitarian God a God in relationship, created out of abundance, a desire to be in communion with creation and created human beings in God’s very image to be image bearers and called creation good. There was so this sense of like we’re wired for love, we’re wired for faith, like trust, fidelity, experiences of good care, attunement, we could talk about attachment. We’re wired for hope, we’re wired for love. That’s how we’re created. Now we know that there’s other stories in Genesis that we don’t stay in that place of communion because we have a deceiver who lies and twists and distorts and there’s a shattering of this, what we would call shalom, like this shalom that we’re made for and meant for with God. There’s this shattering that comes and there’s a universal shattering, but then there’s ongoing realities of loss and death and betrayal and powerlessness and deep sense of why would we really, in many ways what’s at war with our faith and our hope and our love that are not just cognitive a sense to truth, but deeply holistic categories of what is core to us being human and made in the image of God, this capacity to love and that we’re wired to need other human beings in order to be human. And so that’s the very beginning that I think is missed in a lot of theological, especially I would say evangelical, protestant theological articulation that needed to emphasize our sin. And usually in very individualistic ways we miss out on this reality that actually what we’re intended for and created for is this, which makes the shattering even more tragic.

Dan: Well, and let me go back to one of the key phrases from my standpoint, and that is very few people bring the category of already and not yet. And the category is primarily that salvation has been one, but it’s a past tense, present tense, future tense. We have been saved. We are being saved, we will be saved. So in that sense, even the notion, whatever salvation means to you as a listener, there’s a sense in which it’s finished and not. So right there, it’s the complexity in some ways of the gospel as we look at Genesis 1-3, we are stunning, beautiful, compelling beings made in the image of God. If we take that category seriously, then it has to be held with a level of tension. When we look at the reality that in the brokenness of rebellion, the fruit, initial fruit of that rebellion, as God walks in the cool of the day waiting for conversation, interaction with God’s creation, Adam and Eve, they hide, they cover, they blame. So right there we would say is something of the key theological frame that we’re trying to engage in Narrative Focused Trauma Care. And that is the complexity of the intersection between brokenness and beauty, between the reality we were meant to be known and to know. And yet being known sends us into flight and into fight into the very reality of covering ourselves with leaves, hiding. And then when being exposed, you’ve got that contemptuous violence of Adam, the woman you made, she gave me the fruit. And this last phrase almost said in a whisper, yeah, I got alright or whatever. Yes, I did eat it. So what we’re trying to engage is how do we engage the human condition and the story that’s unique to every person and yet has a commonality thematically that we all are in this bind, that we are made to be known and we’re terrified and in the terror we create new levels of chaos and trauma that in one sense goes back to some of the original, literally, original Adam/Eve trauma, but also the traumas that relate to our own families and our own lives. So right there, I hope folks are getting a sense that we’re entering the complexity that often gets resolved when you won’t look at one’s owns story or at the story of God, both somewhat simultaneously.

Rachael: And I think there’s this reality too that because we need to hold on to maybe a more, I dunno, trying to find the right adjective. Well, we need to hold onto a certain story of God that makes God look good all the time. God is good. It’s like we tell stories that aren’t true in attempts to protect God from our lived experience. And I don’t actually think, think the truer story of the gospel actually has a lot of space for what is true, that suffering exists and is brutal. And that in our attempts, as you’ve often put words to, which is in some ways another part of the gospel story, that in the midst of this shattering, in the midst of this initial shattering in the garden, but then all the ways that feels true in our world around us and the ways in our culture, in our world, in our families, and in our bodies, even the ways in which our bodies are disordered and our imaginations are disordered, that there are ways we seek Eden.And we see that even in the earlier stories in Genesis, like ways in which we cope with the loss in attempts to almost, it’s, it’s so ironic because in our attempts to protect God from the truth, we then try to be our own gods to defend. And we have all these coping mechanisms, which again, because we’re wired for love and we’re wired for resilience and we’re wired to survive, have to be honored in some way that we’ve made it. We’ve survived, we’ve utilized ways because we didn’t believe goodness would be for us. We didn’t believe trustworthy people exist. We didn’t believe we’d find care. And based out of aspects of our story that we have to engage, we’ve developed ways to reconstruct a sense of shalom that kind of tries to mitigate risk, that tries to minimize harm and then find that they end up actually setting us up for more harm. We need other people. God is bigger than what’s happened to us. And so it is a very ironic way in which the seeking of shalom by our own, and I want to be tricky, it can almost hear, it can almost sound like that sin language we’re just sinful people who make idols. And there’s like, yeah, of course that’s true. But is that helpful? Is that a helpful way to engage it? Just stop your idolatry and just, it’s like when you try to tell a child who’s hurting and having an emotional outburst, just stop crying as if that’s ever…

Dan: And again, this is where I don’t know if we can weave the pattern with sufficient clarity because it’s often done in the moment as you engage a personal story. The category here again, is when you leave out brokenness. And in that it’s not just we’ve been harmed. The reality is we’ve harmed, we’ve harmed, and they’re intersecting. And you can’t say that one takes precedent. It’s more like looking at a wheel and motion. You can’t really see the XY axis going, but they’re both there. So one of the things that we underscore in the nature of trying to be consistent with a biblical narrative is that Jesus talks about that human failure, sin, is an intersection between lust and anger, but then he ups the ante almost immediately that lust is actually adultery and anger is murder. Well, come on. That’s really the little snippy interaction I just had with Becky before we did this. Really, you’re going to say that that’s lust and anger. And from my standpoint, I was hurt. I think she really failed. I’m not going to go into detail, but there’s the intersection. There was something in me legitimately failed and I failed in that process. Now we’re right back to the category of can we look at both? Can we look at brokenness? Can we look at human beauty? And where there is a violation of the way things were meant to be, there will be an effect in our bodies. In other words, trauma. Because when we talk about Narrative Focused Trauma Care, the reality is that whether I have sinned or whether I’ve been sinned against my body is going to engage a level of trauma. And in that, at least historically from my standpoint, trauma would’ve been either ignored, erased, or denied, versus being able to say, even when I, again, I wouldn’t even put it in the top 10 of fights even in the last month, but that interaction circulate a little bit of cortisol and there was a decrease of oxytocin. And in the cortisol rise, there was still some level of pleasure and yelling. So my body is experiencing something of trauma. And if all we do with regard to our lives is to erase it, pretend it didn’t occur or come to it theologically with nothing other than I’m a sinful man. And yes, I was hurt, but my response was disproportionate to the interaction. I just need to repent and ask for forgiveness and let it go because the cross is sufficient. Again, as you put it so well at the beginning, there’s a lot of truth to that. But what it doesn’t take into account is this element of I was meant to be known. I was meant to know. And in that internal war, there is a lot of shame even in being failed, let alone in failing. That is a really important category that we think is so central to the Genesis narrative, to the arch of the arc of a theological story from Genesis to Revelation that so often either gets ignored again or psychologized so that it is nothing other than, well, people shouldn’t shame you. You shouldn’t feel shame, which helps about as much as being told with a severe headache, well, why don’t you take an aspirin? It isn’t enough.

Rachael: Well, and like you’re saying, it’s very decontextualized, right? And I think that that’s another way of talking about we’re meant to be known, we’re meant to know. We’re meant to actually, we are made in vastly diverse and particular ways in very real realities that are contextualized. And so part of what happens is we’re told that the way in which we pursue spiritual health, especially with regard to trauma and abuse, is just have more faith without addressing what’s come against faith in the shattering and the ways in which we’ve joined some of, we’ve added to the debris because trauma wounds us in ways that there’s an initial wound, but then there’s a way in which we live that brings more and more debris and how that beauty and brokenness plays out in this already, not yet. There’s a lot of tension. What does it mean to actually… and we do this in a very disembodied way, and not just because we don’t want to be in our bodies, but because we have massive theoretical philosophical systems that we’re under in our current time that invite us to be very disembodied. And shame invites you to be disembodied and contempt invites you to be disembodied. So in many ways, part of what we believe happens, the more we can actually let the story of God intersect with our stories is we actually begin to recontextualize our stories. They come closer, we talk about this coming closer to the dirt. And the reality is we have a God who is a lover, who came in the dirt through the womb to be with us in a wildly particular context and time. And so God is saying something about our bodies, about our histories, our context through the incarnation. That’s really important. And we miss out on this capacity to actually experience the living God through the Spirit in places where we need comfort, where we need illumination, where we need to undergo grace because we’ve also harmed others. And undergoing grace rarely feels like lovely. It usually feels agonizing, but unto life.

Dan: Well humbling. And actually sometimes with that intersection of humbling, like the word humus, dirt, also feels close to the experience of humiliation, which a lot, not all, but a lot of our trauma has to do with the experience of being seen and somehow experienced as revulsive, as undesirable as… So when we begin to play with these categories, we also would got another being in the universe. And I don’t like even using the word being, but we have another entity that I don’t believe is personal in the sense of personhood like the Archangel Michael, like the Archangel Gabriel. They’re not persons. Scripture does not say that they’re made in the image of God, but they reflect something of the personhood of God. We believe that evil and the kingdom of evil, fallen angels, but so bound in hatred, in disgust and violence in some sense, bear maybe a minuscule remnant of their very intended being. But we do know this, whatever evil is, it’s intentional. And agonizingly it knows us, knows our desires, our susceptibilities, and though limited because finite still extends its kingdom to bring about harm, particularly in the presence of trauma. So if we’re dealing with trauma and we’re opening the door to the already, not yet to the complexity of brokenness as this intersection, not only of lust and anger, adultery and murder, but actually embodied in a way that needs care, care and rest, I’m reflecting on Isaiah 30, about verse 15, that your salvation is in rest and repentance. There’s the intersection, put down your efforts to find life on your own. And let me tend to your wounds. With all that, we have an enemy that is very intentional and active to bring about all sorts of lies or agreements with things that are not true. And internalizing on our part vows about how we will shape the future given our unwillingness to, in one sense, I will never be shamed again. I will never trust a man again. I will never let my heart be harmed by an authority like a pastor again. So we take our wounds, the traumas of life and a whole bevy of lies, a whole host of vows get made that is part of trauma care. We can’t ignore, at least if you hold certain convictions about the kingdom of evil, you can’t do good care with regard to one’s own trauma without looking into the unseen world as to what it has been working to accomplish in not only creating debris, but creating despair.

Rachael: Absolutely. And again, many of us have experiences of certain forms of prayer, certain forms of intercession that are attempting to get at a lot of these places. And again, I would say can be effective and grace is grace. It comes, I’ve experienced incredible deliverance from some things like deliverance prayer. And again, when we’re coming at those things at a really 30,000, 40,000 feet very decontextualized way, I think goodness happens. But if we can’t get closer to the ground as to why, in some ways it’s almost becoming a student of your brokenness, not in a way to glorify it, but in a way to understand how did it come? There are themes and patterns. How did this come to be true? And I think God so wants us to be an authorized, empowered part of our healing journey. And we wouldn’t even be doing Narrative Focused Trauma Care if we didn’t think healing and restoration was possible, but true to the gospel, that healing and restoration doesn’t happen through splitting off broken parts of us or trying to banish them. We all know that doesn’t actually work because they’re connected, they’re tied up with our goodness. It shouldn’t. So there has to be a more tender kind of work with these parts of us. And we also know that our God loves taking our vulnerability and our weaknesses and our ashes, and bringing beauty in a way that punches evil in the face in a very roundabout way, to say, what you mean for harm, I will turn for good. And even the fact that we know Jesus today still bears wounds. And so that’s that piece of, we often in our theological imaginations are our understanding of the biblical story. It’s almost like, oh, well, if I’m really faithful, then I won’t have questions. And if I’m really hopeful, then I won’t think anything bad or have fears or doubts or I’ll just be optimistic. And I think what we’re saying is no, this gospel story invites us into full humanity, in relationship with God who sees our bodies as a temple, wants to bring deeper liberation, not just to us personally, but to bring restoration to all of creation, to our families, to our communities, to our cultures. And that doesn’t come as you’ve named so well through avoidance of, that’s why I’m so deeply troubled that we find ourselves in another cultural moment where people are trying to ban books. First of all, the Bible refuses to whitewash a single detail of a atrocity and horrendous human brokenness out the wazoo. And we’re actually told to remember our stories. So I’m so troubled that the way I think in a lot of fear that’s been exploited in a lot of shame, that people feel and contempt on a larger scale, that the answer is, well, we just don’t want to hear or tell those stories because they’re too troublesome. And it’s like, we know that’s not how we get well, we don’t get healing by denying what’s true. And I just think as Christians, we should be leading the way as truthtellers because we actually have a theological frame that says that death and our brokenness never has to be the end of the story. I feel like we don’t know the story anymore. There’s such a fragmentation and such a numbness that we don’t know the story.

Dan: Abram the first, at least recorded human trafficker selling his wife twice into inevitable sexual slavery. It doesn’t get said a lot, at least as we talk about the character of our patriarch Abraham. The category of David had an affair. Sure, yeah. A king selecting, even if they were a significant couple, because of his role in the military, Bathsheba is not somebody whom can make a choice as to whether she’s going to be involved in a sexual relationship with a king of Israel. So we have language, even when we read the scripture, that allows us to, in some sense, make the story more palatable. And again, we’re just trying to honor, can we engage the story that we know to be true about ourselves and about the person you’re sitting across at a cafeteria having a good meal with that, you hear something about the heartache of her marriage. Can we begin to engage what’s true without necessitating this splitting off either to a pure spirituality that just sort of like what, just trust Jesus or to merely the empathetic, I’m so sorry, this is so hard. Again, they’re all good roots, but our task in trying to create Narrative Focused Trauma Care was to bring the richness of scripture, the reality of the complexity of the human condition into the interplay of the presence of God in the truth about our own condition. And if that sounds intriguing, well we’re going to have another, shall we say, glimpse into this world by moving from the why into talking about what do we actually do?

Rachael: Sounds like a plan.