The Duggars, Rock Hudson, and the Courage to Change the Narrative

people magazine

We have a three-and-a-half hour trip home from our girl’s weekend in Iowa, so I buy a People magazine off the rack in Walmart. “You can read this to me while I drive,” I say to Barb, knowing that she shares my guilty pleasure of celebrity gossip. “Perfect,” she says.

The magazine cover story is a “Duggar Exclusive” about Jill and Derick Dillard’s brand new baby. On the centerfold, the young couple stare adoringly at each other over their sleeping baby. “We took on everything that happened during our labor with prayer,” Jill said. “We could feel that God was with us.”

Jill and Derick’s birth story is the topic of the article, and I almost choke on my Diet Coke when Barb reads that after Jill’s water broke, she “managed to get some sleep, get in a morning appointment with the chiropractor — ‘I wanted to get aligned before birth’ — indulge in a couple’s pedicure alongside Derick and take a two-and-a-half mile walk to get labor going.”

“How do you get a pedicure while you’re having contractions?” I ask, trying to envision it. “Wouldn’t it be hard to keep your feet still?”

“You’ll love this,” Barb says, and then reads that “to distract his wife, Derick played spiritual songs the couple both love and read Bible verses and inspirational sayings.”

“What, like Footprints in the Sand?” I ask.

“And ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle,” Barb adds.

She reads on about the home birth relocated to the hospital (a meconium sighting a clear sign from God that they needed to go in, according to Michelle Duggar), and a divine leading toward a C-section. (“We were grateful for God showing us what to do in time.”) The final quote, near a photo of Jill swaddling her new baby says, “We have such love and support around us. God answered my prayers.”

Barb puts down the magazine and sighs. “But what does that mean for other people — whose babies don’t make it?” It’s a valid question — especially for Barb, whose twelve-year-old son died suddenly from an undetectable viral strain this past September.

“I need to take a break before we read anymore,” she said. “Digest.” We’re quiet for a while, listening to the mellow song pumping out of my iPod into the car, looking out the windows at the slate-gray of the April sky.

I think about the first-married daughter of the 19-Kids-and-Counting-famous Duggars. I don’t doubt their sincerity and love — this sweet young couple with their brand new baby. And who knows? Maybe it did go exactly like that. Maybe the “inspirational sayings” really did calm Jill down in labor; maybe her cries of pain were laced with prayer and gratitude, and maybe they did feel God’s leading and presence every single step of the way.

But the story doesn’t leave me feeling encouraged or hopeful or less alone. At best, it makes me feel cynical and suspicious; at worst, spiritually inferior — too earthy and combustible to respond to life’s pain with that kind of shiny-eyed faith.


The second People Exclusive of the magazine is “The Untold Story of Rock Hudson’s Final Days.”  I knew that Rock Hudson was gay but had somehow forgotten the fact that he had died of AIDS until Barb begins to read the story aloud.

She reads about the slow decline of the handsome, Hollywood leading man of the 50’s and 60’s. His illness was marked by secrecy and shame in a world where AIDS was a little-understood disease that “stoked homophobia and terrified the public.” When Hudson was diagnosed, little was known about AIDS and there was nothing for him to do but slowly succumb to the disease. I listen to Barb read the accounts of friends and doctors and co-workers, and though I only glance at the pictures from the driver’s seat, I can see a certain sadness about Rock Hudson’s eyes.

Dr. Gottlieb, the immunologist who identified AIDS and who worked closely with Hudson, is quoted extensively in the article. Barb reads his recollections to me while edge through Minneapolis traffic and back toward the Northern suburbs where we live. “I spoke to Rock. He was lying down. I said, ‘The press wants information on your condition. Should I tell them you have AIDS?” and he said. ‘Yes, if you think it will do some good.’”

I was only two years old in 1985, so I can’t imagine the fear, the paranoia, the stigma of AIDS. The loneliness. I suppose it would have gotten out — that Rock Hudson died of AIDS — whether he publicly confessed to it or not. But there is something about the fact that he did that gives me a chill up my spine. He gave up a persona, a beloved public identity, his rights to privacy — and in doing so, he was the first voice in a changing narrative about AIDS.

“It’s the pivotal event of the country’s consciousness of the HIV epidemic,” Gottlieb said. “He showed tremendous courage and allowed his diagnosis to change the face of AIDS.”

And it’s no “inspirational quote” of the Duggar variety…but it inspires me all the more for that.


I have been absent from this blog lately for a lot of reasons, but the preeminent one is that I’m trying to finish the next round of edits on my second book. There are lots of changes to be made, but the biggest ones have to do with honesty and authenticity. Am I telling the whole truth here? Or am I just playing with filters, trying to make myself look better than I really am?

And Lord, it is so much easier to give the golden, gilded answer — the one that paints me in a prettier light. Just because I managed to be honest in my first book does not make it easier to expose my flaws now — especially as they feel more unfinished, unconquered and unreasonable.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not tempted to make myself the victim or the heroine — anything but the broken mess that I am.

I want you to like me. I want you to love me. I don’t want you to think I’m unstable or ungrateful or selfish or self-destructive. I don’t particularly want to show you how much wine I can drink if I’m not careful, how toxic my inner-monologue can be, how much I yell at my kids.

Deep down, I want to look wise and lovely, like someone who has come out the other side of things feeling blessed and together. Someone sings Jesus Loves Me to her children while playing Legos for hours and hours. Someone who, when stressed, says a prayer and makes a warm mug of lemon water.

But even more than that, I want to change the narrative. I believe that we can only become the transformative community that we’re meant to be when we stop pretending that we have it all together. When we get brave enough to show our broken pieces. When we get brave enough to say “Me too.”

I wonder how it would have felt if Jill Dillard had said. “There were times during labor when I did not trust God. When I was afraid that he would let me down. When I wanted to take Derick’s inspirational quotes and shove them up his ass.”

I’m not trying to crucify the Duggar/Dillards — truly, I’m not. But still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have done to the narrative of trust and performance and God’s grace to admit that they failed in the process and in the pain…but that God does not. God does not. God does not.

Maybe it would have made someone feel less alone. Less stigmatized for their failure. Less terrified of their own lack of faith.

On the cover of People magazine, the Jill Dillard grins at the camera, while in the corner, a black-and-white-toned Rock Hudson gazes off into the distance, and the truth is that we’re all telling our stories the best we can.

May we find the grace to show our un-posed, un-smiling, un-airbrushed hearts.

May we change this world’s most destructive narratives one candid, courageous word at a time.

What I’m Into: The February/March 2015 Mashup

what i'm into

I know. I’ve been really bad at blogging this last couple of weeks. I’m not entirely sure why. I have things to say…but when it comes down to it…no energy to say them.

February and March were an exhausting couple of months for me. February started with major revisions on Book #2 from my editors that I’m still trying to figure out how to integrate. Shortly after I received those, I left to speak at a great little writing conference in Texas…which would have been excellent if I hadn’t come down with the flu while I was there.

I spent the entire three-flight trip back to Minnesota puking. Luckily, everyone seemed to think I was just pregnant. At one point a flight attendant told me to sit down because “We have to keep that precious cargo safe!” I wasn’t sure whether to go with it or just burst into tears on the spot. (I am not pregnant, and have been working VERY HARD to ensure my stomach does not look like it is. Sigh.)

I’d barely recovered from that flu when I headed off to Armenia with World Vision. (I was in Armenia between February and March and didn’t have the time to post a What I’m Into post…so I’m mashing the February stuff in here.)

The trip was astonishingly beautiful and I don’t feel like I’ve finished processing it all.

Coming back, however, sucked. The kids, who had been fairly good for their grandma while I was gone, spent a week or so like this once I got back:

angry boys

Because I talk ad nauseam about my own struggle with Depression on this blog, I’ll tell you that I spent much of March feeling like I was slogging through concrete.

I am doing everything that I know how to do to manage this part of my life. I take medication and exercise regularly and use essential oils and drink lots of water…but still, sometimes, I wake up steeped in it all over again. I spent the latter part of March feeling both powerless and resigned, and I’m just starting to shed some of the extra weight of that darkness now.

What I’ve Been Reading


The Road from Home, David Kherdian: I picked up several books about the Armenian genocide before I went on my trip, but this is the only one I managed to finish. It follows the story of a young girl — the author’s mother — who experiences the full atrocities of the genocide herself. It’s a Newbery Honor book…and easy to see why.

The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty: I bought this for my Kindle because I wanted a good, fun read for all my travels. I liked it…but I figured out the twist pretty early in the book, which took away some of the fun. I do like how she played with what we know vs what we don’t know and how that affects the twists and turns of our lives.

Allegiant, Vernoica Roth: As far as young-adult-distopian-type literature, I have to tell you, this series was not my favorite. I’m totally willing to suspend all the disbelief in the world for a well-told story, but I don’t know…there were just so many leaps in this series that I had a hard time keeping up. I made it through this last book, but barely.

One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper: I picked this up from the library because I loved This is Where I Leave You. This one I didn’t like quite as much, but I do like the wry, compelling way Tropper writes men.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins: This was a fun, fast read, but didn’t really live up to all the hype for me. The ending felt anticlimactic. I mean, I get it. Endings are hard. But still.

The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it For Life, Twyla Tharp: Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended this one, and I picked it up this month because I was feeling creatively stunted. Tharp is famous choreographer and is totally no-nonsense about creative work…which I both hated and appreciated. I did find myself inspired, and even found some things that I could integrate into my own creative process. So it was definitely a win.

What I’ve Been Watching

Nashville, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and Vampire Diaries. Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Andrew. Hallmark movies more than I’m comfortable admitting.

I stuck with How to Get Away with Murder for a good long while, but sometime in February it got a little too dark for me, and I gave it up.

I accidentally-on-purpose signed up for a month of HuluPlus so that I could watch last season of The Good Wife, and I’m frustrated that they don’t have episodes from this season on there. I’ll have to binge watch that one later, I guess.

What I’ve Been Listening To

A little Pandora…and not much else. I’ve had sort of a passive relationship with music this past couple of months. I do love music — I really do. But it’s just that I’ve been needing a lot more silence lately. The first thing I do when I get in the car alone is turn off the radio. I’m not sure what that’s about, but there it is.

Other Things I’ve Been Into

Best friends’ babies! Kim and Alissa — the high school best friends that many of you got to know in my book — both had their first babies within a day of each other.  I got to hold Alissa’s sweet boy last week, but it’s sort of killing me that Kim’s little girl is all the way in London. So unfair.

alissa and baby

Old-school video games: I bought Andrew a RetroBit for Valentines Day — a system that allows you to play all of your old Nintendo video games. Soon after, high on nostalgia of his youth, he purchased a refurbished SuperNintendo as well…and now there is lots of talk about Yoshi coming from our living room.

video games

Armenia. Obviously.


The small, lovely beginnings of spring. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty cold here in Minnesota. But every now and then, we get a nice-ish day, and it’s a quiet reminder that winter can’t last that much longer. The ice is gone from the pond, and we haven’t had snow in a while…and even though everything is still brown and half-dead, it’s starting to feel just the tiniest bit hopeful.


(Yes, they are playing “pretend campfire” and roasting fruit over sticks. My kids are awesome.

A quick, family spring-break trip to Duluth. The North Shore of Minnesota is one of the reasons that I still love this freezing cold state. It is so beautiful, and Lake Superior is my muse. We got to make a quick trip up there with the kids at the beginning of their spring break…and though it’s a little less magical when there are temper tantrums and fighting and a thousand hours in the hotel swimming pool, it was still a really nice little trip.


Related: there is no “early morning” quite like “hotel swimming pool early morning.” Can I get an amen?

On the Blog

This piece about things we should probably stop telling youth group kids got a lot of attention and was republished on Relevant.

I wrote, of course, a lot about Armenia. My favorite of the series, I think, was this one called You Don’t Have to Care About Everything.

I also loved writing this post for the one who still feels like they’re a long way off. Doesn’t it feel like we’re all there sometimes?

I had a nightmare last night that someone wrote a forward to my new book that said the writing was “a decent second attempt” but that I was “very boring on Twitter and Facebook.” In the dream there was also something about an elevator that wouldn’t stop to pick me up…and a part where I was trying to walk a really far way pushing two strollers and corralling Liam. INTERPRET PLEASE.

(I am probably a little boring on Twitter and Facebook. But if you want to follow me there anyway, I’d appreciate it.)

I’m linking up with my lovely friend Leigh Kramer, as usual, for her monthly What I’m Into Linkup.

What have you been into lately?

Why I Didn’t Try to Save His Soul [Guest Post]


My kids scrambled over the single piece of playground equipment, filling the air with sounds of make-believe.

“There’s a fire! Come on! Let’s go put it out!” “Back to the station! Up the ladder!”

I sat on the edge of the playground area guarding the snacks and water bottles, and posting a peaceful picture to Instagram, hoping the depiction would rub off on my soul. I certainly wasn’t at peace.

It had been the kids’ idea to walk/ride their scooters to the park. I humored them because it was a nice day and we needed to be out and doing something instead of letting the overwhelming feelings of life cloud us.

Truthfully, I was hoping the adventure would distract them enough so I could have a few minutes of inner solitude to sort through all my fears and worries. I was grateful to discover we had the playground to ourselves.

So, there I sat, trying to find peace, occasionally checking social media on my phone while the kids played.

The solitude didn’t last long.

A dad and daughter walked up, and the girl, younger than my two, jumped off the little bike she was riding and joined in the fun.

The introvert in me silently prayed the man would ignore me.

“How’s it going?” he said, as he took a seat on a bench nearby.

I mumbled a reply that might have been friendly. I put my phone away so I wouldn’t appear rude. We both watched our kids from opposite sides of the park in silence. The kids soon came over for a snack, so I pulled out a bag of pretzel crackers and a container of dried cranberries and offered them the choice. The little girl looked at us, and even though I’m not always comfortable talking to strangers, I called across the park to her dad.

“Is it okay if she has some of these pretzel crackers?”

His face showed surprise.

“Yeah, if you want to give her some, that’s fine. It’s up to you.”

I offered, and the little girl took one then spit it out. I wrapped it in a tissue until we could find a garbage can. Then the kids were back to the playground, leaving me with the uneaten snacks.

I glanced at the dad who was smoking a cigarette now and checking his phone, and I thought about days past when I would have called this a perfect Opportunity (capital “O” intended) to share the Gospel.

Back when I was a new believer and part of a strongly evangelical, highly conservative church, I was trained for times like this.

I was taught that every person we met was a sinner in need of Jesus, and every chance encounter was a chance to rescue someone from the pit of Hell. And to not “make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5) was to risk that person’s eternal fate. After all, they could walk away from our chance meeting and get hit by a car and then how would I feel if I hadn’t shared the Gospel?

I lived most of my 20s thinking I was a failure when it came to evangelism. I’m an introvert, so talking to people I know is sometimes a stretch, much less starting conversations about Jesus with strangers. I would walk away from “divine appointments,” as they were called, feeling guilty and like God was surely disappointed with me. After all, hadn’t I just denied Christ before men? (Matthew 10:33)

And the times I did try to work Jesus into the conversation ended up awkward and sounded unnatural. But I thought that’s what it meant to be faithful—to steer a conversation toward Jesus even if it didn’t really fit the circumstances. I’d done my duty, even if nothing ever came of it. My conscience was clear whether the person ever came to know the Lord or not.

So I thought.

That day at the park, though, I didn’t say a word about Jesus. I let my kids play longer than intended, and I encouraged them to ask the girl’s name. I offered what little food we had. And I felt like Jesus was near.

When it was time to leave, the kids told their new friend good-bye. I offered a friendly, “Have a nice day” to the man, who countered with a “Hey, thanks for sharing those things with her!”

And I walked away with more gratitude and peace than I had when we arrived at the park.

I didn’t try to save his soul because I don’t know if that’s what he needed right at that moment. We all need saving again and again and again, even if we already know that Jesus has rescued us, but sometimes we just need someone to acknowledge our existence. To reach across the divide that often separates us and say, “I see you.” To model sharing instead of greed.

Those things–kindness, inclusion, sharing—are as much a part of the Gospel as the words we might say about heaven, hell, sin and salvation.

Please, don’t misunderstand. I have a high regard for those who are able to preach the Good News from street corners and platforms and pulpits and draw people to the Lord. And I desperately want people to know about the love of God that changes lives, about the kingdom that brings hope and restoration.

But I’m learning that God does not need me to save someone’s soul. That’s too much pressure, and I would fail more than I would succeed. He needs me to love people. To show them the Gospel through my actions. And yes, sometimes, to speak words of life and healing.

I didn’t try to save that man’s soul, and oddly enough, I don’t feel guilty about it.

I’ve imagined how it would have played out if I’d witnessed to him instead of just being friendly, and while it’s possible he might have walked away thinking more about Jesus, it’s also possible he might have walked away thinking I was just one more religious nut who didn’t really care about him.

I wouldn’t blame him. I’m a Christian and I sometimes wonder the same thing.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, but I hope he walked away that day thinking maybe there’s still some good in this world.

That, too, bears witness to God.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALisa Bartelt is a child of the flatlands fulfilling her dream of living near the mountains. She loves reading, writing and listening to stories—true ones, made-up ones and the ones in between— preferably with a cup of coffee in hand. Wife, mom of two, writer, ordinary girl, Lisa blogs about books, faith, family and the unexpected turns of life at Living Echoes (

Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

For the One Who’s Still a Long Way Off

photo credit: almost there via photopin (license)

photo credit: almost there via photopin (license)

“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off,
his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son,
threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20

So you’re taking the long way back, hobbling along, still a little amazed, actually, to find yourself heading back to that place you left so long ago.

Back then, you were young and drunk on the idea of independence, on your plans, on your dreams — your inheritance burning a hole in your pocket. And, besides that, you were sick to death of the whole damned thing, not sure what you believed anymore or why you’d ever believed it. Not sure if you belonged anymore in that house, among those people, the ones bowing their heads in prayer one moment and whispering side-eyed in the foyer the next.

You weren’t sure, even, about Him. The Father whose love sometimes felt like it might crush you, flatten you into something smaller than you wanted to be. Love as familiar and bland to your tongue as the bread you’d eaten every day of your life. And from the threshold of that doorway between past and future, the world looked like a buffet…a hundred thousand things that you’d never had a chance to try. And you found yourself ravenous.

If you’re being honest, it’s not like you’re particularly ready to go back. This isn’t how you saw this playing out. You thought this would all work better, and who can imagine, at first, the fragile nature of success? Who would think that it’s just a soap bubble getting bigger and bigger until it could almost swallow you whole. And then. Pop.

You’re going back, frankly, because you’ve run out of options. Because you never could manage to outrun your past, because it kept creeping up on you as you lay in the hollow of your despair, wishing things had turned out differently.

Go home, go home, go home, the phantom lullaby sang in your ears, and it was so familiar and soothing, that eventually you found yourself thinking, What the hell. What else am I going to do?

And so here you are, taking the long way, dragging so much baggage that you can hardly keep going. Failure. Resentment. Pain. Anger. Doubt. Distrust. It feels like a long way from where you are to where He is, and you don’t even know what it’ll be like when you get there.

Is it as bad as you remember it? Is it as good?

What is waiting for you at the end of this grudging acceptance? And Who?

A hundred miles away. A thousand. It might as well be a million for all you can imagine, and each step feels hard as you lift your leaden, heavy feet and walk.

You are not as far away as you feel.

You have turned, barely, in the direction of home.

So little. The least and the most that you could possibly do.

It’s exactly enough.

Somewhere far away from where you think you are, the Father is waiting, watching. He sees you who are a long way off. He comes running.

And, after all, who can outrun that crushing Love that, in the end, makes us so much larger than we ever thought we could be? That Love that has been waiting, watching all this time for you to run to the edge of the world and then turn, finally around.

I’m not saying it’s not a long journey. Anyone who has ever run away knows this. Anyone whose heart has calcified from sadness to anger to cold, stony cynicism knows that it’s a hard road home. But also, it’s so much closer than you think.

Because the Father is running toward you, His eyes full of joy and tears and all the love that’s been yours all this time. He will walk you home to where that same bread will taste familiar in your mouth and fill up your emptiness. To where you will finally understand that it was always enough.

You are still a long way off, I know, but I want you to know that he is coming anyway. Maybe you can’t see him yet, but he is sprinting, laughing, calling your name across the void.

He is closing the gap with raucous, echoing grace.