Of all the podcasts available for my listening pleasure, I have to say I never expected to listen to one called “Dolly Parton’s America”. However, I spent the last number of weeks doing just that. It all started when the show popped up in my feed; after seeing that it was produced in part by the host of Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, I knew I had to at least give it a shot. I’m glad I did. Each episode presents some aspect of Dolly’s life: Her impoverished upbringing on the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, the backstory of some of her biggest songs (I’m not much of a country music guy, but that “Jolene” song is pretty catchy), the challenges and victories she’s had in her 60-year career and much more- It’s all pretty interesting stuff. There might be no part of the series more interesting than the final episode focused on her faith.
Dolly tells of growing up in church and hearing “hellfire and brimstone” sermons, accompanied by seeing most around her having charismatic type experiences: People were “slain in the spirit”, speaking in tongues and proclaiming that God had saved them. But as much as all that was happening to her friends and family, she hadn’t experienced any of it. She experienced the opposite: Isolation and fear. She was fearful of God, fearful that she was left out, and fearful that she was going to hell. At one point, she said in the interview, “I just wanted to feel safe, that’s all I needed was to feel safe.”
Perhaps you’ve experienced similar feelings of isolation and fear in your church background. Maybe you’ve heard a steady drumbeat of “do more-try harder” sermons that have left you wondering if you’re really even a Christian at all. Maybe you have friends with great stories of spiritual victory, but you’re still struggling with the same old sins. You’ve asked God to reveal Himself in a more dynamic and powerful way to you, but alas, no lightning has struck and no voice has spoken from above. I remember when I was a kid in church hearing people talk so regularly about hearing from God. He would tell them which job to take, which car to buy, which girl to marry, and oh so many other things. I’d be left wondering, “Why doesn’t God speak to me like that? What’s wrong with me? Does this mean I’m not “chosen”? That’s where Dolly was at, but that’s not where she stayed….
Down the hill from Dolly’s house, there was an old abandoned church she used to like to go in to practice singing. The way she tells it, by that time, this old house of holiness had been transformed into a den of sin. People went there to party, not to worship. Curse words and dirty drawings littered the walls of the place. The only vestige of the sacred the place had left was a broken-down piano with just a few keys on it. One day, when Dolly was particularly troubled about her relationship to God, she walked down to that old abandoned church, not to party, but to pray. She needed a “safety” she didn’t have. She began praying the words of Psalm 23 out loud:
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Suddenly, in the midst of the Word of God being spoken, she felt for the first time God had revealed Himself to her, not as the terrifying judge she feared, but as the loving and tender father He is. She felt “safe”.
What a picture of how God so often chooses to reveal Himself. We expect He’ll reveal Himself in halls of splendor and glory, but he chooses a manger. We expect impressive miracles and theatrics, but he bends down to wash our feet. We expect Him to crush the unjust rulers of the world and take His throne with an iron fist, but instead, He submits to a wooden cross. We expect God to meet us “when we’ve cleaned our lives up enough”, but instead He stoops down to old abandoned churches filled with dirty pictures and curse words to show His mercy to a scared 12-year-old little girl. Yes, this is the God we worship: The God who takes up residence in the hearts of human beings that look all too much like this abandoned church: Though it has the remnants of once reflecting something holy, it has been filled with the profane. Nevertheless, the God we celebrate swoops in to resurrect old abandoned churches and old sin soiled hearts so that people just like Dolly Parton might have peace and fellowship with Him.
Towards the end of the program, the interviewer says that many people refer to her as St. Dolly. Immediately, she interrupts him to declare that this is not the case at all. She is all too aware of her ongoing imperfections (indeed, she goes on to express some doctrinal ideas, well, a little awkwardly). This is understandable, with the way the term “saint” is used in popular culture, but the truth is according to the Scriptures, way back on that day in the old abandoned church, she did become St. Dolly. Because that’s who her God is: The one who pursues sinners wherever they’re at, and by faith in Christ, declares them to be His saints.