But what do you do with sacred texts that trigger painful memories of trauma? How do you use them in worship in a way that is helpful, not hurtful to a trauma victim’s spiritual path?
There are more than a few “texts of terror” found in the Bible. There are scriptures about Abraham raising a knife above Isaac in order to be faithful to God, texts in which the writers have God telling the Israelites to slaughter neighbors, stories of rapes and threats of rape, and a parable about bridesmaids being shut out of a wedding because they didn’t conserve their lamp oil, just to name a few.
No matter how you exegete these texts in the pulpit, there are aspects of them that can trigger awful memories for some people in the pews. Memories of child abuse, combat, sexual assault and painful exclusion from religious communities.
What can the responsible worship leader do to be sensitive to the tender hearts of trauma victims?
Be selective in use of scripture
Not every sacred text needs to be preached on. Some stories are best taught in age appropriate small groups. Do children need to learn the story of Abraham and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac? Is there any way to explain that one and still emphasize the steadfast love of God? Choose scriptures for group study, reflections and sermons that are life affirming. If they drip with blood or terror, they must be handled delicately, and at the very least, put into a context that helps 21st century people understand who was likely writing the passage and why.
Be prepared for people to be triggered
While we can’t live in constant fear of saying something that might trigger painful memories for a trauma victim, we can be ready for it because it will—at some time—happen. It can happen in worship, scripture study or in spiritual sharing groups. You’ll know it has happened when someone runs out of the room, has a highly emotional reaction to what was just said, or stares into space as if they are no longer there (dissociating, a coping mechanism).
To be prepared, appoint a care team that has been trained in a few simple techniques that may help:
• Encourage the triggered person to take a few deep breaths with a slow exhale. This tells the nervous system to slow down and can help the person relax a bit. Don’t grab them for a hug. Don’t offer advice. Just breathe with them.
• Help them come back to the present moment. The painful memories are in the past but it doesn’t feel like that to them. Gently ask them to look around and name what they see (it’s a grounding technique that brings people into the current moment).
• Listen. Be present to anything they need to say. Again, no advice. Just listen and convey your empathy with eye contact and a relaxed body posture. If they want to talk about the trauma or the trigger, allow them that grace.
• After they have become more peaceful, offer them the opportunity to talk with the pastor or study leader about the scripture in question. Knowledge about why scholars think that text was passed down to us may be helpful for some.
Enlist a professional from your congregation or as a consultant to educate your community about trauma
Therapists, counselors, physicians and some spiritual directors have been trained to help victims of trauma. They are also helpful in teaching about trauma so everyone can develop a sensitivity and understanding about the nature of trauma and what to do when people begin to relive trauma.
Your congregation needs to be a safe place for people who have experienced trauma. You can’t know where every trigger hides, but you can be prepared for it and can even find your experiences responding to trauma to be a place of potential healing and growth for your congregation.
* Interested in learning more trauma-informed best practices? Visit the ICTG training menu to purchase ICTG’s most popular resource guides, assessments, modules, seminars, and more.
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