May 2, 2017

Church is a Triggering Place

By Rebekah Curtis

Last spring a man from my congregation was terribly injured in a work accident. He spent the last month of his life in a burn unit while a whole town cried and prayed. Finally he left behind on this earth a wife, two children, and a close extended family.

Not long after that, the saints of Trinity Lutheran Church were singing our way through "How Firm a Foundation" on a Sunday morning when this stanza crashed into our piety:
When through fiery trials your pathway will lieMy grace, all-sufficient will be your supplyThe flames will not hurt you; I only designYour dross to consume and your gold to refine.

I couldn't get the words out. Far less could I imagine they were being sung a few pews back by this family who had suffered so recently, so horribly, so relevantly. All I could think was, "NOT THIS HYMN."

Or here's another version: When I was in high school, a girl from my church suffered a severe asthma attack and lay in a coma. Her older brother, who had been in my class, had died a few years earlier. Our congregation could hardly believe that a mother would lose two of her children. On the Sunday when Julie hung between life and death, the lectionary gave us the raising of the widow's son.

The lector held on, but we all knew what was coming. Jesus: "Do not weep."

The lector wept. The pastor wept. We all wept. Finally the pastor finished the reading for us.

The widow at Nain, THAT Sunday?

Church, the immovable object of safe space, has been known to meet the irresistible force of triggering, and something's got to give.


There are triggers for lesser things:

pericopes that overheat rebellious blood;

banners with errorist messages in heretical felt;

22-year-old Lutheran school teachers who know so much more about children (yours, especially) than you do;

operatic mezzos who can't accept that we're just singing the Offertory here;

hipster pastors who adopt the personal appearance of criminals;

VBS volunteers who force your godson to sing stupid songs with actions;

antiquated ladies' societies that think you ought to be available on Thursday mornings;

the elder you know very well has no business being an elder;

bulletin boards that haven't been changed since 1974;

that blasted phrase in the new Catechism translation;

Sunday schools that think third graders can't make it through an hour without a cookie that was born in plastic;

church council minutes that always end by documenting the move to executive session.

Had enough yet? Doubtless there are other churches.


At church, we're going to see people we don't like praised for their faithfulness.

We're going to hear that we have royally fouled up other people's lives with our own sins.

We're going to hear that we are every bit as bad as the people who don't like us say we are.

We're going to see that reprehensible person kneeling before the altar of God, receiving His pardon and comfort.

We're going to hear that stations and gifts other than our own are positive goods.

We're going to hear that God is our Father regardless of what kind of father we had.

We're going to hear that God brought some people back to life, even while our own beloveds lie dying.


At church, our triggers are going to get pulled, and they must. They will get pulled from the lectern and the pulpit, from the hymnal and the choir loft, from the nave and the chancel, from the narthex and the parking lot. Anything that keeps us from where God has promised to meet us for the forgiveness of our sins reveals itself to be what we truly fear, love, and trust. Making a god out of triggers is protecting pride, resentment, sensitivity, and self-righteousness. It will keep us out of the only safe space there is. A really safe space isn't one where your feelings don't get hurt, but one where you find out that there's more to you than your hurt feelings. 

When the Lion peels off our dragon skin, it hurts like billy-oh. And it smarts like anything when He throws us into the water, but only for life's little day after day after day.


Rebekah Curtis is married with seven children, and participates in Sunday School, Altar Guild, Trinity Brass, Ladies' Aid, yearbook, debate, and Friday dodge ball.


  1. Outstanding. That is exactly how it works. Thank you for these uncomfortable reminders. I identified with so many of the "lesser things" triggers is like you wrote this while looking over my shoulder (and in a way, you did). God works through you, Sister. Thank you for being a willing vessel.

  2. Could nit, still won't be able to , a year from now, sing, "When You Woke that Thursday Morning" because one week before that Thursday morning this year was the week we woke to find my youngest Sleeping. It's still a good hymn, but I can't get past the first line. Nevertheless, Jesus is still risen, and we will survive for now, until we Live outside this valley of the shadow.

  3. Thank you for this very thoughtful, insightful, article. At church ought to be the very safest place for a person to get triggered, and I'm thankful that I feel safe getting emotional in church. Recently singing in "Awake My Heart with Gladness" I realized that I didn't yet agree with the line "misfortune now is play and night is bright as day." Yet, I'm also thankful that I cannot yet understand it, since the author of that line suffered far, far greater misfortune than I have, perhaps more than I ever will.

  4. So many think they can't go to church when they're falling apart because, after all, the tears and the grief, are ... (Well. What are they? Unseemly? No. Embarrassing? Shouldn't be. Weak? Of course, but that's no problem. I can't think of an adjective. But we all know that It-Is-Agreed-Upon that we can't fall apart at church.) Oh, but good Lord, of course we weep. So maybe nobody can get the whole way through a hymn. Okay. And maybe the lector has to stop and weep. Okay.

    Anything that triggers a devastating reaction shows us that we have no strength. And where on earth will we ever find any strength, but in that holy sanctuary of forgiveness and mercy for the weak and undeserving?

    Honestly, if a particular church is never a "trigger," it's probably a useless place to be.

  5. DD, thank you.

    Bethanie, I've tripped on that very verse myself.

    Susan, amen and amen.

    David, I am so sorry. May our Lord hasten the day when we are all awakened together.


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