Tag Archives: cliches

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.

On Letting Go of Our Poverty Myths

Most of what I know about poverty are myths.

What I know about poverty is wide-angles and broad strokes. It’s filtered and fictionalized. I know the story of the good, hard-working, honorable poor, against whom the deck has been stacked. I know, too, the story of the ignoble poor — alcoholics who can’t keep jobs, drug addicts and prostitutes, high-school drop-outs who keep getting knocked up.

I am a white, middle-class girl from an affluent Chicago suburb. I live now in another suburb near Minneapolis, and though my husband and I have, at times, struggled to make ends meet, we’ve never known poverty. The shades of it. The nuances of it. All the secret and hidden feelings; the way it bleeds through all the lines and fictions we use to define it.

I came to Armenia thinking that I understood. I came with my glossy photo of my sponsored child, and I had invented a story of mythic proportions of what all this would be like. The details were fuzzy, but I knew that my fictional sponsor child would be sweet, grateful and a little dirty around the ears. He will love me immediately, I thought. He will be speechlessly grateful over the gifts I’ve brought him. He will crawl in my lap, and I won’t miss my boys so much.

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision
Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

My real sponsor child, Aleksandr, is five years old — dark haired, dark eyed, and beautiful.

He is also kind of a rascal.

He spends the first fifteen minutes of our lunch meeting on Saturday with his face hidden in his vest, ignoring me in spite of his fathers pleas. When he comes out at last, he is sassy and wild-hearted and not about to snuggle up his brand new World Vision sponsor for a cute photo op.

Aleksandr prefers to bond over faux karate chops, and it does not surprise me to learn that his favorite show is Power Rangers. What does surprise me is to learn that his father spends several months every year in Russia — the only place he can find work — and only sees Aleksandr and his mother for a few months every winter.

I give Aleksandr the soccer ball I brought him, and he kicks it across the restaurant and laughs loudly when it glides behind the bar. “He’s a little bit naughty,” his father says with a shrug and a wistful smile. “My boys too,” I say with a grin.

Aleksandr roundly ignores the plate full of food in front of him. “My children are picky eaters too,” I tell the father, and he shakes his head and gives Aleksandr a woeful look. “Now that Alie’s father is back for a little while, they cannot be parted from each other,” the translator tells me. Every now and then, Aleksandr father shovels a spoonful of something into his mouth, and he sighs and accepts it.

Along with the soccer ball, I give Aleksandr a set of paints and paintbrushes and suggest that he share it with his friends. “ALL IS MINE!” he says, then he does that crazy laugh again. The translator whispers to me. “Aleksandr is an only child. He is still…learning…to share.”

He never does give me a hug, but we karate chop at one another for a while, and he tells the translator that he plans to break my airplane so I can’t leave…so I think that means he likes me?

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision
Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Today is Sunday. I spent the afternoon wandering around the city of Gyumri, thinking about myths and poverty and beauty and reality. It’s the first day of Spring here, and the snow is starting to melt, leaving the streets wet and muddy under my boots.

We pass the blown-out windows of an old textile factory, and there are snow pants hanging from a ledge. I wonder if someone lives there, in that crumbling place. On that same street, there is a gaggle of Armenian teenage girls in high-heeled boots and blown out hair. In the park, young boys play soccer, and old men play backgammon on benches, and the lines that define “poverty” for me are washing out, changing, becoming indistinct in this broken, beautiful old city.

The truth is, poverty not a myth, and it’s not a stereotype. It is not the primary definer of a life — or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s not just a backdrop of some heroic tale. It’s not a personality trait.

This is not some story about “The Westerners” coming to help “The Poor.” This is a hundred thousand different stories. This is about Andranik and Janet and Nikol and Ani. It’s about Anahit and Vahan and Mariam and Margarita.

This is about beautiful, broken people who are happy and sad and noble and petty. This is about real people who get grumpy and frustrated and ecstatic and sleepy. Who make mistakes. Who spoil their children sometimes. Who give up every now and then…and then get back up and try again. It’s about the ways that the community is learning to come around each other, and the ways that organizations like World Vision are helping with that.

It’s about Aleksandr, who is not a caricature of my imagined version of “poverty” — but a regular, wild, five-year-old boy. He likes Power Rangers and he misses his Dad and he’s going to school for the first time this fall. He doesn’t really know what to say about any of this. A few years from now after a couple dozen sponsor letters from our family, maybe he’ll understand what this day was about and why we were there. But for now, he he karate chops me in the arm and grins and impish grin…and for a moment I am part of his complicated, beautiful, many-faceted story.

It’s a story of poverty and joy and love and hope and life, and my heart fills up with it all as I watch him put on his hat and gloves and walk out the door.

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision
Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

I’m so thankful to be part of the real, beautiful story of Aleksandr and his family. I’d love for you to join us. There are currently 1500 registered children in the Amasia area, where Aleksandr lives, and right now, only 543 are sponsored. Click here to sponsor a child there and join in this beautiful work!

Somehow I Didn’t Punch Him In The Neck

I’m so honored to have Tricia Williford sharing here today. She is a beautiful writer with an incredible story to tell — which she does in her new book And Life Comes Back which releases this Saturday (CORRECTION: It actually comes out FEBRUARY 18th, not January 18th. I blame my vacation-addled brain) and which I can’t wait to get my hands on.

This piece speaks to every part of me — particular the part that will never stop hating Christian jargon and easy, oversimplified answers. Give her lots of love in the comments, and then go preorder her book!


“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

We were sitting and standing on the plane; we had just landed, and we were in that impatient place between landing and leaving the plane, the time frame that seems an easier place to make conversation somehow, when we feel braver to talk to strangers since we know we’re all about to go our separate ways anyway so there’s less pride and conversation at risk.

He had gray hair and he wore a bowtie “at least twice a week,” he said. We realized in our small circle in rows 22-24 that we represented several Christian colleges in the midwest.  The man with the bowtie was writing his dissertation

“I just turned on the computer, and it crashed.  I don’t know what happened.”  He spoke so sprightly, like, oh dear, I’ve misplaced my car keys, or something even more trivial.  Let me just say – if I had lost any or all of a doctoral dissertation, I would need a nicotine patch (and I’ve never smoked a cigarette).  I didn’t want to ask the obvious question, and yet I just had to know: “Did you back it up anywhere?”  I was crossing my fingers for him, hoping he had been so careful.

“Well, I think it’s on a thumb drive.  But all of my family has Macs, so I wasn’t able to check.  I’ll try when I get home.  Everything happens for a reason.”  (I wanted to suggest that perhaps this travesty had happened because he wasn’t using a Mac.  But I digress.)

Just then, the line started moving forward as we were finally allowed to deboard the plane.  Which I think is a funny word.  Board and deboard. Like one can just add a prefix to tell the opposite; like the opposite of enter might be to de-enter.  Seems like somebody ran out of ideas in the words department on that one.

The couple sitting next to me, the Wheaton college grads who now have prestigious jobs in finance and cancer research in Chicago, offered to let me exit before them.  I had a connecting flight that was already boarding in another concourse and expected to leave in the next few minutes.

I declined their offer.  “No, it’s okay, really.  I’ve resigned myself to missing the flight.  If I make it, I make it.  If I don’t, I don’t.”  I was going to visit a friend for a long awaited reunion, and I desperately wanted to make that flight.  But there’s only so much you can do, and I tend to err on the side of not throwing a fit in public over things outside my control.

As we walked up the aisle, all of us preparing to go our separate ways, the man with the bowtie said behind me, “Ah, yes.  Sweet providence.  This is when we are thankful we believe.”

I’m sorry… what? Sweet providence?  What kind of providence are we talking about?

He implied that the outcome of whether I made the flight is an example of God’s faithfulness, an example of when we are thankful we believe.

No, I cannot say this is when I am thankful I believe.

I am thankful I believe when I realize that it doesn’t matter at all whether I make the flight or not, that there are bigger and greater things happening in the world, and I am part of a greater story.  I am not ‘thankful I believe’ because I am hoping the crowds in the airport will part like the Red Sea.

My husband died three years ago, and I learned to have grace for people who said the wrong thing.  Because what is there to say?  Nobody knows what to say to a 31-year-old single mom of two children who was widowed overnight and now must somehow begin again.  Nobody knows.  But people want to say something because silence sounds uncaring, and in their efforts to fill the void, sometimes they say the wrong thing.

I learned to have grace for this; ‘to have grace’ is our Christian cliche that means, in a general paraphrase, ‘I managed to keep from punching that person in the neck.’

I heard the whole gamut.

“This happened for a reason.”

“It was his time to go.”

“All things will work together for your good.”

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

“He’s watching over you.”

“Maybe you can encourage your children to behave by telling them that their daddy is watching them from heaven.”

“The stars are holes in heaven where the ones we love are peeking through.”

Photo by Nicola since 1972 Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Nicola since 1972 Flickr Creative Commons

I forgave them for saying those things, and I ask you to please forgive me for the following caveat: Those are stupid things to say in the face of crisis.

First of all, stars are stars.  Not holes in the floor of a world floating above us.

Next, I will not further damage my children by telling them that their dad is now omnipresent and omniscient, always watching and knowing, so they should mind their P’s and Q’s because Daddy will know.  That’s weird and creepy, worse than any Elf on a  Shelf. Hebrews tells me we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before who cheer us on as we finish the race.  So, if Robb is watching, then he’s cheering us on.  Not watching like some appointed tattletale of judgement.

God absolutely will give me more than he can handle; he never promised not to.  He promises to meet me there, he says his strength is perfect when my strength is gone.  That right there says it all: I’m going to run out of strength, and he’s going to take over. And that’s the beauty and the magnitude of who he is.

All things work together for the good of those who serve him.”  Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean my good, it doesn’t mean now, it doesn’t mean today, and it doesn’t mean life and happiness.  It means there’s a bigger story, and if I want to be part of it, I can step in and watch as it’s written around me, in me, and through me.  But it doesn’t mean that because I love Jesus my husband should be alive.

It was his time to go.” Yes.  God ordained his days, counted them long before Robb was born.  His days were numbered, and he lived every single one of them.  But I don’t believe it was God’s plan for Robb to die.  In fact, I don’t think death is what he wants for us at all.  I don’t think he wants my children to be fatherless, he doesn’t want me to be a widow, he didn’t want me to have to watch Robb die, he doesn’t want this heartbreak for me, and none of this is what he wanted in the first place.

Everything happens for a reason.”  I struggle with this one.  Sometimes we are tempted to say hurtful things to each other, words that don’t really help at all, in the name of finding a reason. If I may be so bold, I think God allows these things to happen, he raises beauty from ashes so his name may become greater.  Acts of terrorism do not happen so that people may hold tighter to their families.  Infertility does not happen so that married couples may be thankful for the opportunity to invest their money wisely.

Things happen.  Sometimes, they just do.  Hard drives crash.  Planes are delayed.  Hearts get broken.  Children get sick.  Parents die too young.  The beauty that comes in the face of this – the flowers that push through the sidewalk, the sun that rises again – these are examples of God’s faithfulness.  His favor may rest on me for a moment or a season, but this is different from his faithfulness that never fades.   To confuse favor with faithfulness is dangerously near the ragged edge of the cliff of believing at all in God’s sovereignty.

My God is faithful.  This makes me thankful I believe.

(By the way, I made the flight.  But I don’t think it’s because I’m a Christian.)


tricia willifordTricia Lott Williford is the author of And Life Comes Back, to be released February 18th.

For more of her words, thoughts, and writings, visit her blog: www.tricialottwilliford.com.

To the Current Pastors – From the Formerly “On Fire”

Photo by Sam Knutsen
Photo by Sam Knutsen

The people who collectively have the hardest time with my book are those involved in full-time ministry. Pastors. Youth Pastors.

My Mom, who’s a children’s minister, has been unfailingly supportive from the beginning. After she read my book for the first time, we went for a long walk around the block, and she asked, What do we do? What are we MISSING in kids’ ministry?

It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot since the book came out, and I never know how to answer. After all, I’m no expert here.

The Church is a kind of prism through which the Light is reflected and refracted, and we all have our own experience there. My story is just one particular slant.

For me, the youth group experience was mostly very positive. It gave me a sense of community and belonging when I needed it the most. I felt loved and I learned to love God with my whole, open heart, and I am grateful for that time. I wouldn’t trade my “on fire” years, even though there were things that I stumbled into during that time that wounded my fledgling faith in really profound ways.

And yet, as I read through the 100+ entries in the When We Were on Fire Synchroblog over the last couple of weeks, I started seeing some themes. Trends. Common threads that tripped many of us up as we stumbled through the evangelical youth culture.

Certainly this is not an exhaustive list. It’s not an accusation or a recipe. But here are three things that struck me as I read through the experiences of others and thought about my own. I’m hoping that maybe these insights will be helpful as we continue to try to help kids and teens find Jesus.

1. We need to rethink the way we talk to kids about salvation.

I know this is a sticky, theological issue and that we need to be careful here. But something about the weight of the Prayer of Salvation Moment in evangelical culture paired with the focus on big, brave, outward signs of faith creates a perfect vacuum for fear and insecurity.

In the majority of posts I read from the When We Were On Fire Synchroblog, people wrote about a compulsive need to keep asking Jesus into their heart over and over again. There was a pervasive sense of having somehow “done it wrong” when the felt experience of faith didn’t match the hype. My own experience is no exception.

And so we kept asking, kept going forward to the altar – just to make sure. Just to get it to somehow “take.”

Somewhere the most important message of this free gift of Grace is getting mixed up with performance. We speak about salvation like it’s always a Before and After sort of thing, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it doesn’t fit that mold, and we’d do well to be honest about that with kids straight away.

In reality, transformation is holy, aching lifelong work, and it looks different for every single one of us.

2. The “on fire” faith is not sustainable and there should not be the primary goal of ministry.

I think that deep down, everyone knows this, which is why when we haul vans full of teens to retreats and conferences, we talk about mountaintop experiences and valleys of faith. We warn them that the feelings won’t last and try to help them figure out how to hold on to what they’ve learned in spite of that.

And yet, in my experience, the unspoken ethos of church youth groups and parachurch organizations is that, when it comes to faith, bigger is always better. We try to encourage others toward passionate faith by putting students who seem to have sparked into fire on pedestals.

And I don’t think it does anyone any favors – not the kid on pedestal, not the kids looking up at him.

What it does do is create a culture of trying harder to attain some elusive feeling, scrambling to earn God’s love, and the constant need to prove devotion through bigger and better sacrifices. (Like this guy who preemptively broke up with a girl he wasn’t even dating…just so he wouldn’t replace God as Number 1 in his life.)

I love what blogger Kristin Tennant said about the on fire moments – that they serve an important purpose, often providing “an important bridge from one solid faith ground to the next.” But those great bursts of passion for Jesus can only lead us to new ground if we’re honest about their transitory nature.

Yes, the fire matters. But also, when we glorify that kind of faith, we inadvertently set kids up for feelings of failure when the emotional high fizzles out.

I’d love to see us get really purposeful about honoring every stage of faith – from doubt, to anger, to fire…to the routine, daily work of practicing love. All of it matters, and all of it can lead us to Jesus, and this faith business is not a ladder, climbing ever upward to God. It’s a spiraling, circling around and around this beautiful Love.

3. Create a safe space for hard questions.

I think there was this general feeling in evangelical youth culture when I was there that if we could just get kids fired up enough about God during high school and college, they’d be able to sail into a steady faith of adulthood on the momentum of that passion.

But the more I talk to others, the more I’m convinced that questioning and doubting is inevitable. Regardless of how “on fire” we were in the past, most of us go through something that quakes the solid ground we thought we were standing on.

It’s a part of the messy, beautiful process of becoming. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s necessary for most of us to enter more fully into the mystery of Grace. But when we use language like backsliding and falling away, and when we talk about doubting as though it something to be avoided at all costs, we create a sense of shame and hopelessness around this necessary breaking and reassembling.

The best thing that we can do for one another is to create safe spaces for questions – not just from those who haven’t embraced the Christian faith, but also – especially – from those who have been in the faith for as long as they can remember.

Too often, church culture responds to these people with fear – If it could happen to them, then maybe it could happen to me – and as a result, we tend to dismiss doubts and questions with neat answers. Just pray about it. Are you having your quiet times? God doesn’t give us more than we can handle…

We have to get better at leaning into the questions, at believing that God is big enough for them all. That in the midst of all the pain and questions and mystery, He is always, somehow Enough.


What about you? What would you add? I don’t normally add little “response questions” at the end of blog posts because it feels sort of contrived. But I’m making an exception today because I really want to know. What can we do with kids and youth moving forward to help foster healthy faith?

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