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The Faith of Dolly Parton: Lessons from Her Life to Lift Your Heart

The Faith of Dolly Parton: Lessons from Her Life to Lift Your Heart

by Dudley Delffs


Learn More | Meet Dudley Delffs

Introduction

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

I always ask God to work through me and let me be a light of some kind and help in this world, so I always pray for that, and I always want to do good.

DOLLY PARTON

I love Dolly Parton.

I grew up with her, really. Dolly graduated from Sevier County High School the year I was born, which technically makes her old enough to be my mother. But to me she seemed more like an extended relative—a favorite aunt or beloved cousin. While I'd have loved for her to be my godmother, like she was for Miley Cyrus's character in Hannah Montana, Dolly hovered at the edges of my life, part muse urging me to dream more and part guardian angel pulling me back to my roots.

As a boy growing up in small-town Tennessee, I spent many evenings sprawled on the pea-green carpet of our family room watching Dolly on The Porter Wagoner Show, my daddy's favorite. Later, as a young man I prepared to propose to my wife beneath the watchful gaze of Dolly's bronze statue in front of the courthouse in Sevierville, Tennessee. And as a young father, we took our three small children on vacation to Dollywood.

I’ve never met Dolly in person and have only seen her perform live a couple of times. But like the University of Tennessee, the Smoky Mountains, biscuits and gravy, the works of Flannery O'Connor, and the lonesome sound of the night train echoing from beyond the pasture on the farm where I grew up, Dolly Parton is woven into the fabric of my life. And it’s not just her music that has shaped who I am—it's her Christian faith.

When I talk about the spiritual role models in my life who continue to inspire me, most people laugh or raise their eyebrows when I include Dolly on that list. But why not? In a world filled with so much turmoil, division, strife, and conflict, Miss Dolly models a kind of Christian faith that manages to be authentic, positive, hopeful, and contagious. In a world where public figures fall from pedestals daily, if not hourly, Dolly Parton is the exception. She keeps the faith, holds her ground, and keeps on being who she has always been ever since rising into stardom over fifty years ago. Whether celebrating a new album or unveiling an addition to her eponymous theme park, Dolly has never been shy about crediting God and her relationship with him as the source of her success. Even when others prefer to focus on her iconic curves, the mysteries of her love life, or her latest groundbreaking endeavor, Dolly still manages to give God credit for it all.

More important than what she says, though, is how Dolly lives out her faith in tangible, openhearted, mountain-moving ways. She's a philanthropist and a humanitarian*mdash;big words for a little lady who says she only wants to share her songs with as many people as possible. There's a simple childlike joy about her generosity and desire to help other people, whether teaching children to read or enabling residents of her beloved Smoky Mountains to recover from devastating wildfires.

Dolly doesn't preach or presume to tell us how we ought to think and behave. She doesn't discuss denominations, politics, or other people's mistakes. If anything, she goes out of her way to take the high road, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to hope for the best in her fellow human beings. Dolly frequently quotes the Bible but has refused to be baited by matters of interpretation or theology. She keeps her faith simple, mostly private, and action-oriented.

She’s a "Backwoods Barbie" as fervent as Billy Graham, but Dolly would never set herself up as a spiritual role model. Yet you will struggle to find a better example of what it means to be hugely successful and still humble, gifted yet grounded, both faithful and fabulous, as genuine as they come despite the glamor, a cultural icon yet still a simple gal from the holler down near Locust Ridge. Positive and profound, upbeat and down-home, sequins sparkling on an old soul, Miss Dolly can teach us a few things about accepting ourselves, loving others, chasing our dreams, trusting God, and celebrating the life he has given each of us.

Her lessons of faith are often small and subtle, which reflects what Jesus said about giving: "When you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself" (Matthew 6:3, TPT). The way Dolly Parton lives out her faith reminds me of the butterfly effect. Borrowed from science and mainstreamed into pop culture, the term butterfly effect usually refers to the way small, seemingly trivial events—such as a butterfly flapping its wings in one location—can have enormous consequences, contributing to a tornado, for instance, in another part of the world.

I can't think of a better metaphor for Dolly's faith and its cumulative impact on millions of lives. Her faith demonstrates the effect small habits and patient dedication to one's dreams can produce. Captivated by butterflies since chasing them as a girl, Dolly was inspired to write and record her hit song "Love Is Like a Butterfly," gradually adopting the little winged beauties as her brand symbol and personal totem. When asked why she loves butterflies so much, Dolly said, "They remind me of myself . . . they just go about their business, gentle, but determined."

No doubt about it, Dolly's gentle, determined way of living out her faith has pollinated so many people's lives, including my own, with joy, inspiration, and hope. She has become known for her compassion, generosity, inclusivity, and philanthropy as much as for her voice, musical artistry, and famous figure. The positive impact of her music, personality, storytelling, songwriting, and generosity is undeniable. She makes me proud to be from Tennessee, to love country music, and to be a Christian.

Whether you're just discovering Dolly or are a lifetime admirer of the Queen of Country, I hope you will be encouraged, inspired, amused, and energized by the life lessons that follow, all drawn from Dolly's life. I don't know her personally and she hasn't paid me to say nice things about her. If anything, she would probably joke about much of what I have to say and then change the subject to talk about her new album or the latest books donated to kids participating in her Imagination Library. That's just who she is. She would be the last person to make a fuss about her faith.

But that's the very reason we love her. Hers is the kind of faith that inspires you to be all that God made you to be. The kind of faith that can help you hang on when times are hard and to set your sights higher after your latest accomplishment.

She models the kind of faith that takes big leaps, gets back up after a fall, and trusts God for the next giant step. The kind that causes you to pray, to really talk to God openly and honestly from your heart again. To keep quiet around others if you can't say something nice. To pause and marvel at purple wildflowers swaying on a sun-kissed hillside.

The kind of faith that hums a little song through the darkest night and still finds something to laugh about when there are plenty of reasons to cry. The kind of faith that celebrates blessings and joyfully shares them with others.

The kind of faith that lasts a lifetime.

The kind of faith this book is all about.

The faith of Dolly Parton.

Chapter 1

DREAM YOUR WAY FORWARD

In the midst of the direst poverty and despair, the human spirit, especially that of children, will find some hope to cling to, some promise of a better day.

DOLLY PARTON

I'll never forget the first time I saw Dolly Parton.

I was probably about six at the time, sprawled on the carpet of our family room—the den as we called it—arranging green army men among plastic farm animals and Matchbox cars while my parents watched shows on the large oak-veneered RCA console angled in the corner. Our viewing skewed toward my father's favorites or shows considered appropriate for our family, which basically meant me, as the only kid in the house and my parents' only child together.

The same shows always seemed to be on: staples like The Andy Griffith Show and Gunsmoke, along with Bonanza, Mannix, and Hawaii Five-O. Two country music shows, however, stood out: The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw. While my father loved country music, these programs didn't interest me much. Some of the music was okay, even good sometimes, but the country cornball humor annoyed me.

I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but the corny jokes and predictable routines puzzled me. They were goofy and silly, playing up the stereotypes that even as a kid I found over-the-top and limiting, if not insulting. My father tended to laugh, especially if he was on his third or fourth drink, and my mother would grin or chuckle, usually following his lead.

Despite my usual disinterest in what my dad was watching, one person on The Porter Wagoner Show always drew my attention. I know it’s easy to assume that I was fascinated by her extraordinary figure and frothy blonde hair sculpted like cotton candy—and maybe I was—but there was something special about Dolly Parton. I couldn't have put it into words then, but it was more than just the fact that she was young and pretty and had big breasts. It was even more than her beautiful voice that reminded me of birdsong, sometimes bright and chipper like a robin and other times as lonesome and sad as a whip-poor-will.

Yes, Dolly had—for lack of a better word—presence, that mysterious star quality exuding from certain people who seem more alive, more aware, more positive, basically, just more. Many of these larger-than-life people are entertainers, performers, and celebrities, but many wait tables, manage retail stores, or repair computers. I suspect Dolly would still be Dolly even if she were a bank teller, a soccer mom (now there's an image!), or an attorney.

Whether performing a duet with Porter or pretending to be a dumb blonde in a hillbilly skit, Dolly seemed both smart and sincere. She didn't mind poking fun at country stereotypes because she was in on the joke. She was self-aware enough to deliver her punch lines with that tinkling-bell laugh of hers and then emotionally intense enough to beg "Jolene" not to take her man and mean it. The fact that she wrote many of her own songs only reinforced my impression that she was not like every other performer or country music singer.

Simply put, Dolly was special

Humble Beginnings

Dolly's origins have become the Smoky Mountain mythology her brand is built on. She has always joked about it ("Sure we had runnin' water—when we'd run and get it!"), but the reality must have been severe. Working their small farmstead from a two-room cabin in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, her parents, Lee and Avie Lee Parton, focused on keeping food on the table and a roof over the heads of their growing family. They were so poor that the local doctor who delivered Dolly, Dr. Robert Thomas, received a pound of cornmeal as payment.

One of Dolly's earliest biographers, Alanna Nash, then a journalist for Country Music Magazine, visited the old Parton cabin and wrote: "No matter how many pictures you have seen or how much you have fantasized about it, you are not prepared. It is the most extreme rural poverty imaginable—direr even than Dolly has painted it—and as you stand there gazing at the ancient washing machine on the porch and the inoperative still off to the side of the house in front of the rusted automobile parts, and the scraggly chickens, you feel guilty for having wondered if Dolly has exaggerated her humble origins."

Dolly's father raised a bit of tobacco as a cash crop, tended the family's vegetable garden, and worked construction and odd jobs in nearby Sevierville and Knoxville to keep his family going. Mama Parton stayed home with their young children, keeping them all clothed and fed while often expecting their next one. Early on she disguised their poverty through her imagination, teaching Dolly and her siblings how to make "stone soup," turning a meager broth with potatoes and a few vegetables into a magical meal.

By virtually all accounts, little Dolly was a happy, carefree child, usually running barefoot in the swept, dirt-packed yard, chasing after chickens or listening to her mama tell Bible stories from their tiny porch. She had older siblings to play with and younger ones to chase after. Nonetheless, as the fourth of twelve children, Dolly also realized early on that her parents simply didn't have the time or energy to devote to each child's specific preferences, talents, and personality. "[Daddy] and Mama had so many kids that none of us got special attention." But what they did have, she's always quick to add, is plenty of love. Dolly and her siblings knew what being in a loving family was all about.

And Dolly quickly found a way to stand out. Music became her natural means of self-expression, a shared language that commanded the attention of her family, friends, and neighbors. Whether at home doing chores, worshipping at church, or performing at school, Dolly's sunny smile and crystal clear voice could not be ignored.

Even before she was born, Dolly was surrounded by music. Her mother frequently sang hymns and old mountain folk songs to her children while cooking, doing chores, and sewing by the fire. Her maternal grandfather, Reverend Jake Owens, was a Pentecostal preacher, so Dolly was exposed to more hymns and church music in the tiny mountain church where he preached. She was singing in church by age six and playing guitar by age seven.

And it wasn't just to get others' attention. Writing songs and singing them was as natural to Dolly as breathing in the fresh mountain air. She's made up little melodies for as long as she can remember, with "Little Tiny Tasseltop," a song about a beloved corncob doll her mama made for her, being the first song she ever wrote. Young Dolly noticed the natural rhythms around her while growing up—the two notes of a bobwhite, the sound of her mother snapping beans, the tap-tap-tap of a spoon on a cup—and found herself humming and riffing throughout the day.

Dolly knew she loved music and never thought about whether it was practical. With the joyful assurance of a child doing something she loves, Dolly never questioned her attraction for words set to music. She just seemed to know that songs and singing were part of who she was, part of who God made her to be.

Dolly enlisted her siblings, especially her sisters, to join in her performances too. She even jokes that her sisters were "musically abused" by Dolly's attempts to make them her backup singers. But she would perform even when she couldn't find an audience, well, at least a human audience. In her autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Dolly recalls how she'd stand on their front porch, grab a broom handle or tobacco stake to use as her microphone, and sing her heart out to the hens, roosters, ducks, and pigs roaming in the yard. She wrote, "They didn't applaud much, but with the aid of a little corn, they could be counted on to hang around for a while."

Her Little Old Chapel

With no formal training or professional instruments, Dolly still managed to practice her songwriting and singing skills daily. When she was around twelve, she began to regularly visit an old abandoned chapel in the mountain community not far from her home. There she discovered a kind of sacred space to think about herself, her life, her dreams, and her faith.

She also discovered an old busted piano. Keeping the loose ivory tops of keys as treasures, Dolly also took some of the piano strings and fastened them to an old mandolin she'd found in her family's barn. She describes the result as sounding more like a dulcimer than anything else, but she used this improvised instrument to write many of her early songs.

Curiously enough, this deserted, run-down little church became a kind of Pandora's box for a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, for in it her three passions, or three "mysteries" as she has described them, collided and converged: God, music, and sex. In her autobiography, Dolly describes how this little chapel became the place where she reflected on her growing attraction to boys, aided by some graphic graffiti left by some of her peers, as well as the place where she met God at a deep, personal level.

Dolly had plenty of exposure to matters of Christian faith by this point. After all, her grandfather was a preacher and her mother was a "devoutly religious woman." Dolly witnessed the way their faith worked for them. But the notion of God as an angry old man throwing lightning bolts down at sinners that she'd heard about in Sunday school and in her grandpa's sermons didn't appeal to her. Dolly describes herself as "the ultimate nightmare for a fundamentalist Christian out to save souls. I was a kid with her own opinions." She explains, "Like everything else in my life, I found God in my own unique way."

Coupling her contrary nature with the unique mix of curiosity and embarrassment most of us experience going into adolescence, Dolly struggled to understand why Christians seemed to condemn something as powerful and natural as physical attraction and sexual feelings. She grew up on a farm in a rural community and had seen plenty of animals coupling and bearing their young. It was just part of the cycle of life.

She was also keenly aware of her own developing body, and the increased attention she was receiving from boys—especially at church. Apparently, it was no accident that lots of local boys showed up on the Sunday Dolly was baptized, drawn more by the image of her rising from the water in the white sundress her mother had made than by the desire to share hallelujahs for her salvation. The church ladies noticed, of course, and made their judgment known regarding the kinds of boys these were, but they also judged Dolly for being so young, nubile, and beautiful.

Could it be true that loving God and loving boys didn't mix? And yet both kinds of love, the spiritual as well as the physical, stirred up such deep feelings. So for Dolly, it seems that her budding interest in sexual feelings got intricately tangled up with her feelings and impressions of God. That is, until she began seeking time alone with God in that deserted little chapel.

She describes the way she would sing songs to God, talk with him, and share her heart while sitting alone inside the cool shadows of the decrepit sanctuary: "One day as I prayed in earnest, I broke through some sort of spirit wall and found God. Away from the stares of boys and the mothers and the preachers, I had met him not as a chastising, bombastic bully but as a friend I could talk to on a one-to-one basis. He is our father, after all, and that's the kind of heavenly father that made sense to me."

Many Christians would label Dolly's encounter with God as her moment of conversion to a personal relationship with her Creator. But this meeting was about more than her salvation; it was about her purpose. During this encounter with God, Dolly also had another epiphany. She realized that her dreams of making music and becoming a star were not silly and childish but "grand real schemes ordained and cocreated by my newfound heavenly father." She concludes, "The joy of the truth I found there is with me to this day. I had found God. I had found Dolly Parton. And I loved them both."

Dolly never focused on what she lacked in her early life. She consistently chose to be thankful for what she had and chose to trust God for more. Living by faith, she has seen God bless her in ways she never imagined.

My "Testimony"

Where I grew up, we called personal stories of meeting God and getting saved "testimonies." Like Dolly, I struggled to make sense of what I heard about God in church. There seemed to be a big dividing line in the Bible. The Old Testament God seemed scary, inconsistent, arbitrary, controlling, and willing to harbor a grudge for quite a few generations. In the New Testament, God seemed accepting, forgiving, compassionate, and loving—to the point of sending his only Son, Jesus, to live as a man and to die on a cross so we could enjoy an eternal relationship with him.

I'm sure the church in which I grew up was a fine church in many ways, but like many communities of faith, it struggled with welcoming and loving people who were different. It was made up of strictly Baptist, white, blue-collar, heterosexual, teetotaling, Bible-reading families—and divorces were frowned upon. While my family ticked some of those boxes, we missed a few. Both my parents had been married and divorced before marrying and having me. While they were working class, my father didn't fit in with other fathers who were salesmen, mechanics, managers, or farmers. And unlike those folks, he was a drinker.

While working construction on a government project, my dad suffered a crane falling on his leg, which led to disability for the rest of his life. But you can't keep a good hillbilly down, so my dad found other ways to fill his time and attempted to make money in addition to his pension. He was a redneck entrepreneur: buying, fixing, and selling used cars; buying, repairing, and selling antiques, and gambling—on football teams, cockfights, pool games, dog races, and poker games. The fuel for such unique endeavors was usually beer but occasionally something stronger.

My mother and her parents were strong people of faith, born and raised Southern Baptists. Though my father was similarly raised, as an adult he had rejected organized religion. He knew the gossip and secrets of most people in our small town and scoffed at their pretense of being devout Christians on Sunday mornings when he knew what—and who—they had been doing the rest of the week.

But my parents threw a wild card into the deck from which the cards of my faith would be dealt. They made the decision to send their only son to a small Catholic parochial school in a town nearby. What possessed them, other than the Holy Spirit, to send me there and pay monthly tuition of thirty-five dollars a month, we still don't know.

What they told me was that they wanted me to have opportunities they never had. They wanted me to do better than scraping and scrounging from paycheck to paycheck. Education was vitally important. They wanted me to go to college someday. As a result, I attended the School of the Good Shepherd and received one of the best early preparatory educations available. I attended Catholic school through eighth grade before attending the local public high school.

As one of only a handful of Protestants among several hundred Catholic students, I attended mass most every day along with my classmates. I sat in on catechism and confirmation classes. I learned to say the rosary (despite my grandmother's warning not to pray to the Virgin Mary) and began collecting favorite saints like other kids collected baseball cards.

There was a sharp contrast between the faith system at school and the one at church. The mystery, the beauty, the history of the Catholic Church and its Liturgy appealed to me. I liked the way the priest used real bread and wine instead of crackers and grape juice for communion. I liked the smell of incense and the intricacy of the nativity scene during Advent and the stations of the cross during Lent.

Although I joined the Baptist church and was baptized into it as a twelve-year-old, I rebelled in my heart until my junior year of college, when I encountered God while sitting alone in a small, dark chapel at the Pope John XXIII Catholic Student Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The private conversation I had with God that day remains a turning point, one in which I found my salvation as well as my sense of purpose in the world.

Like Dolly, I rejected much of what I grew up experiencing in my local church and school and found my own personal path to God, with help from so many godly people over the years. I take to heart Paul's words to believers in the church at Philippi to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12, KJV). I suspect Dolly would too.

We all have various events, experiences, and individuals that have shaped what we believe about God and how—or if—we live out our faith. Whatever your faith background, regardless of the positive and negative associations you may have with organized religion or institutions of faith, Dolly's story reminds us to embrace the unique relationship each of us is called to have with God. To approach him not as a bully or curmudgeonly tyrant but as a loving, generous, compassionate heavenly Father. To seek him in the quiet, still places of our lives.

Dreaming is Free

Discovering her own unique relationship with God wasn't the only way Dolly overcame the expectations and limitations into which she was born. The poverty she experienced seems only to have made her more determined to succeed. Being poor wasn't a barrier any more than being female, young, or blonde. They simply were part of the world as she knew it, the same world that inspired her to chase butterflies, hum little tunes, and make up words to them.

Dolly knew she had something to give. She knew she didn't want to be contained by the mountains, living the life she witnessed growing up there. At the same time, she knew the Smoky Mountains and being "country folk" were parts of her, foundations shaping who she would become. Dolly writes, "Being born poor is something I am neither proud nor ashamed of. I have found that poverty is something you don't really realize while you're in it. At least not if you're a kid with a head full of dreams and a house full of loving family."

For me, and I suspect many of her fans, part of the magic of Dolly's story is that she grew up about as poor as one can be. She's never tried to sugarcoat it, and while she often jokes about it, she also tries to avoid romanticizing it. She shares stories of how, during particularly lean times, her mama would send the kids out to look for stones to make "stone soup." So caught up in the fairy tale of finding the perfect magic stone to season their supper, Dolly and her siblings shifted focus from their empty bellies to the thin soup made with little more than potatoes and onions. She has plenty of other stories, and they have become an integral part of her iconic status.

While I was fortunate to grow up in a lower middle-class family, I know my father grew up in similar conditions to those Dolly experienced. My dad was one of five and grew up in a small farmhouse in rural Bedford County, Tennessee. He grew up with no electricity or indoor plumbing. His father was a carpenter by trade and did odd jobs when he was sober enough to hold a hammer without his hands shaking. His mother sewed and did leather work for the burgeoning Walking Horse industry there in Shelbyville.

Like J. D. Vance describes in his recent bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, my upbringing could have led me to a very different, dark, dead end. While my childhood wasn't nearly as chaotic and traumatic as the one he describes, I endured the abridged version, never sure what I'd find when I came home from school or what my father's mood and sobriety level would be.

Would he be sober, and therefore tense and angry, or would he be on his second six-pack, which meant mellow and talkative? Would he be using his .22 to shoot wasps off the ceiling in our dining room? Or would he order me to our back barn to feed and water more than two hundred roosters he was grooming for the next big cockfight that weekend?

With an unstable home life due to my father's drinking and gambling, I might have turned to alcohol, weed, meth, or a host of other illicit substances to numb my pain. Instead I channeled my energies into my education—that escape hatch my parents opened by sending me to Catholic school. Instead of pouring myself into music as Dolly had done, early on I discovered I had a gift for writing—stories, poems, school papers, jokes and riddles, really anything that could be put into words.

I was a good student, smart enough to skip grades, and basked in the academic affirmation. I was going to college come hell or high water, and I was going to make something of my life. I would write books someday, the same kinds of books that inspired, entertained, and informed me of a bigger, brighter world. I would have a different kind of life than the one my parents and most of my peers accepted.

A Patchwork Past

One true story about Dolly Parton's childhood has reached nearly mythic status—and tells us a lot about her resilience at a young age. Dolly's desire to be noticed and feel special didn't go entirely unnoticed. With the love and intuitive wisdom only a mother could possess, Dolly's mama knew the perfect way to delight her little girl and help her stand out. Mrs. Parton brought a beloved Bible story—one that's also about someone wanting to feel special—to life when she used a box of fabric scraps to make a special coat for Dolly.

The implied parallels to the biblical character of Joseph, who was his father Jacob's favorite, could not be missed. For one thing, crafting such a garment took considerable time—a precious commodity for the mother of such a large family.

But the result was worth it. Little Dolly loved the handmade gift. She describes how she couldn't wait to wear it to school and have everyone notice her beautiful coat, a one-of-a-kind symbol of Dolly's bright personality.

But when she did, her classmates didn't appreciate her new crazy-quilt jacket. Instead they teased and bullied her about it. With the vicious cruelty that kids seem to reserve for those who dare to be different, they told her it looked homemade, nothing more than a bunch of old rags stitched together.

Dolly's heart was crushed, but she loved her beautiful coat and refused to take it off the entire day. She did not let the jeers, taunts, and bullying of her classmates deter her. For her, the coat represented the love of her mother, a recognition of her uniqueness, and a sense of her divine destiny. She wouldn't give her peers the satisfaction of turning her against it.

Dolly tells of how she walked home from school that day with her head held high, showing God her coat and knowing that he delighted in its vivid colors and the love-stitched care with which it had been made. She knew he thought she was special because he had made her that way. Despite the cruel teasing of others, she refused to be tainted by shame.

Coat of Many Colors

The story doesn't end there, of course. Dolly transformed the pain of that bittersweet memory by writing and recording the hit song, "Coat of Many Colors." "[It's] still my favorite song that I ever wrote or sang," Dolly shared in her autobiography. No wonder then, that this incident became the basis for the recent television movies about Dolly's early life, "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors" and "Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love," both on NBC.

While it's easy to romanticize the past when looking back from a more prosperous present, Dolly's song does more than honor a special childhood memory. Deceptively simple and straightforward, the poignant lyrics of her song place us as listeners in her hole-worn shoes. The song transcends the incident it recounts to reveal a deeper revelation. For the heart of the song is that Dolly felt rich in her new coat even as those around her mocked her for what their limited thinking deemed poor. Through the song, she tells us she tried to make her classmates see that one is only poor if they choose to be—coincidentally pointing out the same timeless truth to you and me.

This truth is at the center of Dolly's success. She knew even as a little girl that "the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). None of us wants to be judged, labeled, or dismissed based on how we look or the ways others perceive us. We want to be known for what's on the inside, for the unique, special creation God has made each of us.

Through her words and in her music, Dolly consistently reminds us all to embrace our dreams in a big old bear hug of perseverance and possibility. Despite the poverty into which she was born and the hurtful attitudes of many around her, Dolly would not be deterred in pursuing her dreams. As one biographer observed, "With an active imagination, Dolly, the child, was able to transcend her desolate surroundings and circumstances, and before long, that imagination and unyielding faith provided a way to spare her the bleak future that seemed so certain to be hers as a woman of the mountains." Simply put, Dolly had faith that God was doing something bigger in her life than anyone could see.

Dolly’s story inspires me. I'm reminded that no matter our external circumstances or what haters might say, I never want limitations to define me. I want to pursue my dreams, confident of God's unique plan for my life. Dolly's example inspires us all to use our gifts to reach beyond where we start and to look ahead at where we're going. No matter what we're up against, we can dream our way forward.

Divine Dose of Dolly

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

JEREMIAH 29:11

At the end of each chapter, you will find a few questions and exercises to help you apply Dolly's inspiring lessons to your own life and journey of faith. You don't have to write your answers down, but you might be surprised how helpful it can be if you do. Dolly has frequently said how much she loves making lists and how important it is for her to write down her dreams.

You'll also find a relevant theme song from Dolly's discography that you're encouraged to listen to in order to enhance your appreciation and understanding of Dolly and how she expresses her life and faith through her music. A couple questions for reflection are also provided for your consideration after listening to the suggested song.

Finally, you'll find a short prayer to adapt and use as a model for your own time of "talkin' with God." These prayers are mine, inspired by what I've learned from Dolly, both throughout my life, as well as while writing this book. There's nothing magic about my words here, but I hope they'll kindle a spark to ignite your desire to talk to God. None of this is intended to be homework but just a way of enriching your personal experience and strengthening your faith.

  • What childhood dreams does the story of Dolly's coat of many colors stir in you? What incident, conversation, or gift from your childhood stands out in your memory as one that has sustained you through hard times?
  • What unfulfilled dreams do you still harbor from childhood? What's one small goal you can set and pursue today to rekindle your passion from when you were young?

Listen to Dolly sing "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" before answering the following questions.

  • What feelings stirred within you as you listened to this song? Why?
  • Do you believe we tend to romanticize our past and the hardships we've endured? Based on the words in this song, which Dolly indeed wrote, how do you think she regards her early struggles in light of her present success?

Dear God,

You're in charge. You've made me and brought me through good times and bad to where I am now. Help me see past the limitations in my life and focus on your many blessings. Thank you for the talents and resources you've poured into my life. Give me wisdom about how to use them to be the best version of myself—the person you created me to be—so that I may bless others.

Amen.


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