Understanding Your Story - An Interview with Dan Allender
Dan Allender is known to many people as an author, psychologist, and founder of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. We know him as a cigar-loving, fly fishing partner and as an early friend of And Sons. We don’t know a more playful, brilliant or beautifully odd man. An hour conversation with him is like talking to G.K. Chesterton or maybe even Jesus.
And Sons: In your books and teaching, you talk a lot about the importance of story, or “narrative”—what do you mean by that? Why is it so important?
Dan Allender: We were written not only to hear and tell stories, but we are a story. Our lives are composed of millions of stories, but most have been forgotten or simply don’t register as important enough to remember. When I say that we are a story I’m saying that we’re more than the sum of our stories. We are, in fact, a unique, once-on-the-earth life that reveals the story of Jesus in a fashion that no one else will ever do in the way we are written to reveal. If we fail to know the themes of our unique story, we are less likely to live that story well or play our role.
AS: Why is it critical for a person to understand his or her own story?
DA: Our story is meant to reveal the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
DA: It is our suffering and struggle with sin and injustice that reveals what Jesus endured for our salvation. It is the rescue of God—the surprising, life-giving wonder and awe of his goodness—that proclaims the glory of the resurrection. And it is our use of the gifts that he has given us to reveal his glory that shouts the blessing of his ascension. If we refuse to suffer—and grieve the depths or our suffering—then we lose power to reveal his death and resurrection. If we don’t name and bless the remarkable gifts he has given us, we cannot celebrate the stories he has written in us to reveal his story.
AS: That sounds like something we’re going to have to re-read and think about. How does a person begin to get some perspective on their story?
DA: Hang out with people who are confident of the wild goodness of Jesus and who aren’t apt to offer quick or silly and superficial solutions to life’s struggles. These people are more often than not curious-to-the-bone about the human heart, voracious readers of fiction, lovers of theatre, and absolutely intrigued by the heart of Jesus. If you can find this pearl of a person—a counselor, a sage, or just a compassionate friend—then tell him a single story of some event that deeply shaped who you are. Chose a story that bears heartache in a highly formative period of life. Let your friend listen and feel your story and then let them pursue understanding through conversation. Take it in. Give all the new thoughts to Jesus. Invite him into the heartache with you.
AS: Feels really risky. But okay—as we try to bring clarity to the narrative of our lives, what are the key things we should be looking for?
DA: Linger longer than you’d prefer in those moments where you felt shame. Shame is one of evil’s most effective weapons to silence us and shut us down. It is where Satan divides our heart most effectively from God, others, and even from our self. Especially look at your sexual history even as a younger child and how the dark prince was thieving, killing, and destroying your integrity and joy as a man or woman. Look as well at what you know in your heart you don’t really want to remember. It is often as simple as this: What is easy to dismiss or pass over or rewrite in your story? Take pen and paper or computer and write out the story as if it were fiction. This allows us to see in black and white the reality of our life that we are apt to skirt over as if the past had no impact.
AS: Whew. Not sure we really want to go there. Can you give us some hope? How can story bring healing to our stories?
DA: Healing comes when I am willing to face the truth—deep and specific truth about myself. It is when my deepest desires are seen in light of what I can’t do for myself that I turn, again and again, to the One who loves my ache and knows my sin better than anyone in the universe. Healing comes when our story is raw, bone-deep and full of hunger for what only Jesus can offer.
AS: How do we look for the hand of God in our story?
DA: Okay, be patient with me. I love Jesus. I know he is intimately involved in every freaking moment of my life. But most of the time he appears on stage at the most odd, surprising moments. I sat on the side of a mountain in Colorado with the man you call Padre years ago debating whether or not one could really hear the voice of God. In the middle of the argument, I heard Jesus say: Ask John to pray for your defiance and cynicism. Whether it was the voice of Jesus or my own odd head, it felt like being asked to jump to my death. Dying would have felt easier. But I did. We entered some of the stories related to my father’s death when I was four. The work Jesus did in that time I hold today as one of the sweetest hours I have known. How do we see the hand of God? Perhaps, by being more willing to be far more surprised and freaked out than we often allow ourselves to be.
AS: Surprised and freaked out—we can do that. What do you do in these "Story Workshops" you hold around the country?
DA: We combine teaching on story with small group work with six other participants. We invite each person to tell one “tragedy’ story—where there was loss, heartache, and/or shame in their life from the ages of 5-15 and then under the care of a brilliant story listener/guide we invite the group to explore the story in its implications for the person’s past, present, and future. The process invites me to see that I often try to escape my own suffering and equally refuse the kindness of God in the midst of my struggle. It may sound boastful, but the four days feels like a four-month life changing pilgrimage. (Check it out on theallendercenter.org)
AS: We're guessing that you are still discovering important parts of your own life story. Has anything surprised you in the last few years?
DA: How about the last week? I was fishing in Montana with a dear friend and I fell down a steep incline and punctured my palm on a staub. (AS – we had to look it up; “staub” means a small protrusion of tree root). I patched myself up and then put my rod together. As I began to string up my rod I noticed the top piece of a 6-piece rod had fallen off and apparently floated away. I was enraged—full of contempt and blasphemy against myself. My whole last day on a beautiful river was ruined. I walked back to the car as my friend kept fishing and I heard Jesus say to me: Ask me to father you. I am not a man who easily complies with what Jesus asks. It took me a half-mile to finally shout at him: “Fine!” And he did. It brings tears to re-tell it. He was so kind, direct, and helpful. He settled my heart, turned me from petty rage and reminded me how I could use the hours for good. I guess what is obvious but somehow always new to my heart is how much I need the Father to father me.
AS: Now that we really understand. Looking back on your own life as a young man, what do you wish an older man had told you, or taught you?
DA: Okay, more tears. Thanks a lot. I wish my father had been able to not be afraid of me and withdraw into silence and distance. In seminary, a brilliant professor called me into his office after he had sensed (primarily smelled) that I had been drinking heavily the night before. I figured he was going to throw me out of this respectable, dignified seminary. Instead, he wept. I have never in my prior life—including having a gun held to my head—been more soul-terrified. He then told me how gifted I was at reading people and reality and then told me that I was running from delight—his delight and the delight of God. He told me that if I wanted to ruin my glory, God would wait, expose, and constantly invite me back. That’s what I needed: an older man who saw me, was not afraid, but captured by the glory God has written in me and then free to call me to whatever my heart most deeply desired—ruin or redemption. I am grateful, even as a slow follower of Jesus that I chose and was chosen for restoration.