The Dolly We Never Knew

It is great that Dolly Parton is being appreciated for all of her charitable contributions. But the best thing about her is that she never needed that appreciation in the first place.

Am I a fan of Dolly Parton the musician? No, I most unequivocally am not. (Yeah, I said it).

Never could get behind “Islands in the Stream” or “Here You Come Again.” But let’s give credit where credit is absolutely due: “Jolene” and “9 to 5” are as close to classic as Dolly is likely to get.

This is the Dolly Parton I remember growing up.

Truth be told, I do not even like Dollywood. (Yeah, I said that too).

Dolly is suddenly everyone’s darling. People are swooning over her $1 million contribution to COVID-19 vaccine research, and her unapologetic declaration that “And of course black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”

Naturally that last line did not get rave reviews from everyone. But it is part of a confluence of events that have garnered the nation’s attention for her ongoing contributions. You can read a partial list here because I frankly do not have time to write a 10-page blog.

She simply makes the world a better place.

Dolly periodically receives attention for her work, particularly in children’s literacy. But she has never received the widespread accolades and appreciation that seem to be coming her way right now. The vaccine contribution has opened a rare door into the broad actions of a celebrity who seems to act on an overwhelming love for community, country, and humanity.

Yet, maybe we are missing the most appealing aspect of her contributions as we pour praise on her.

She never wanted our praise in the first place.

The breadth and depth of her initiatives have fully come to new light in the last few weeks. That is not to say Dolly did not promote her work, raise money for causes, or accept recognition along the way. From where the rest of us sit with our limited view, far from her fame, it does seem her primary motive was the good of humanity rather than personal recognition.

There are two unique and amazing components of her work. Let us begin with her recognition of a legitimate need and responding to it rather than acting on a personal whim. She did not decide what she wanted to do for her charitable work. She let the identified need guide her contributions to education and literacy in her home community–and around the world.

Then there is her lack of desire to seek the spotlight for her work. Again, I do not personally know Dolly Parton, so I can only draw conclusions from a distance. She comes across as having a humility that drives her desire to empower people out of genuine concern and love.

This is the Dolly that many of us never knew. She is a millionaire who likely could be a billionaire—except she chose to give it away. Her initiatives demonstrate a thoughtful, responsive heart that remembers a father who never learned to read and write. And a desire to help the children in her hometown avoid those same circumstances.

It is not that she is afraid to speak out, as her BLM comment shows. She raises her voice when and where it is most needed, which makes her voice that much more powerful.

This, in fact, is truly the heart of the matter. Evangelical heroes climb to the mountain top or fall off of it every week—all with the cameras rolling and the press corps typing.

What could prove more refreshing than a proclaimed born-again Christian celebrity using fame and fortune for good, without seeking to rack up news headlines, retweets, or viral TikToks?

Let us make it even more appealing by recognizing Dolly’s biblical approach towards empowering others. It should never be about our publicity photos on social media or fundraising opportunities while we pat ourselves on the back in our “holiness.” It is about offering—and perhaps sacrificing—for the good of others without expecting anything in return.

We live in the era of market-driven Christianity, partnered with high priced, highly publicized “missional” activities. We somehow miss that the Scriptures guide us to do exactly the opposite in our interactions with other people, particularly those who are deeply in need.

Jesus says in Matthew 6, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” We are not supposed to use our service as a great photo op or Facebook post to illustrate how bold and great and brave we are. Serving others in silence ensures that we are being the hands and feet of Christ rather than serving our own self-righteous egos.

Occasionally, people may take this in the opposite direction. One could easily use it as an excuse for judging others. “See, I do ALL of my good deeds in secret, while all those people are looking for recognition!” Is this not just a different expression of the same problem?

Here’s the thing: Doing for others is always about the “other.” Anything that brings it back to you, in any way, drifts towards spiritual bankruptcy.

Matthew 25:31-46 is eternally one of my favorite passages in the Bible. To sum it up, the “sheep” are those who give to the needy and help the poor or imprisoned, without seeking any personal reward.

Beyond that, they do not even realize they are doing something special! They are just going where the Spirit is leading, doing what is needed without the least expectation of any return on their investment. In the passage, they are genuinely shocked that God even recognizes the value of their deeds.

No one “owes” us for the kindness we show towards others, or the gifts that we offer to others, even those who are recipients of those gifts. If we are looking for gratitude or thank you notes or a simple pat on the back, then we are still looking for more than we deserve.

Rather than giving with caution and expectation, may we give offerings in the truest sense of the word. Let us do for others and be present for others without any pretense towards getting something for ourselves.

In other words, maybe we could all be more like Dolly Parton, seeing the need and responding to it—even then the cameras are turned off.

I may not be a huge fan of her music. But I am absolutely a fan of Dolly’s humanity, where she shows a biblical and Christ-like example for how we are called to empower the lives of others.

May we go forth and do likewise.

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