My Spiritual Role Model May Surprise You
by Dudley Delffs
The people of God have always looked to one another for inspiration, encouragement and strength. While we tend to think of our family, close friends and church community as our primary sources, God’s children have frequently looked to the lives of others they didn’t know for examples of keeping the faith.
In the Old Testament, for instance, each generation looked at faithful ancestors such as Abraham, Moses and Jacob for exemplary instruction on how to know God and live out one’s faith. Most Jewish people before the birth of Christ studied the lives and teachings of rabbis, high priests and prophets, often appropriating the knowledge, experience, and wisdom learned as foundational to their own. This tradition continued after Jesus arrived as well. In Hebrews, we find the Faith Hall of Fame where we’re reminded that we have a cloud of witnesses, all those who have gone before us, watching and cheering us on as we run the good race.
There’s also a long history of pilgrimage, visiting the places where our faithful heroes lived, loved, served and died, sites where they had dramatic encounters with the same Living God we now know and serve. Various Christian traditions have long encouraged such journeys of faith, whether tracing the footsteps of the apostles (or Jesus Himself) in Israel or following the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, in northwestern Spain. And who can forget Chaucer’s bawdy pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, traipsing from London to the tomb of Saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral?
We may not consider any of Chaucer’s pilgrims exemplary but, ironically, perhaps that’s part of the point of having a spiritual role model. None of us are perfect, but God still chooses to shine through us anyway. He allows us all to grow together, to learn from one another and to motivate one another. We’re saved by grace and won’t achieve perfection in this life, but we can aspire to be all that God created us to be. We can encourage one another and hold one another accountable on our life’s journeys.
Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed to have a number of people model their Christian faith with transparency, integrity and humility. Some are family members, some are friends, teachers and pastors, and others are people I can know only from a distance, such as Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham and Mother Teresa.
One of my spiritual heroes, however, may surprise you. When I tell people that I’m inspired by the faith of Dolly Parton, they assume I’m joking or raise their eyebrows in disbelief. And I share their surprise. We expect to find spiritual role models in people like Billy Graham or Mother Teresa. But when we see someone living faithfully in an arena not particularly known for reflecting God, his example stands out. Over the course of my life, I’ve grown in my appreciation for the way Dolly consistently lives out her faith while being true to herself and the person God created her to be.
In a world filled with so much turmoil, division, strife and conflict, Dolly models a Christian faith that’s authentic, positive, hopeful and contagious. As public figures—particularly celebrities—fall from online pedestals daily if not hourly, Dolly Parton keeps the faith, holds her ground and keeps on being who she has always been ever since rising to stardom over fifty years ago. Whether celebrating a new album or unveiling an addition to her eponymous theme park, Dolly’s never been shy about crediting God and her relationship with Him as the source of her success. Even when others had rather focus on her talent, her figure or her success, Dolly manages to keep the focus on God as the source of her success.
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 humanitarian, 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 bless others, whether helping children to read through her Imagination Library non-profit 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. And she’s probably the last person who would set herself up as any kind of spiritual role model.
But the older I get, the more I appreciate Dolly’s example. She helps me see the kind of Christian I want to be, the kind of person I believe God wants me to be. Amidst the pain, suffering and trauma of the world we live in today, I’m convinced we need authentic spiritual role models and heroes of the faith more than ever. There is no substitute for a personal relationship with Jesus, of course, but knowing how to live out our faith can be challenging. As followers of Christ we’re told to be in the world but not of it, connected within the human family of creation and yet set apart by our commitment to serve others and extend the love of God.
We have direct access to God through the gift of His Son, Jesus, and the presence of His Holy Spirit. But God also likes to reveal Himself through His children—people like you and me—and Dolly. We draw strength from each other, sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron and uphold each other when we stumble and fall.
Yes, we all need heroes of the faith to demonstrate what it means to know God each in our own unique way. Whether it’s Dolly Parton or the Apostle Paul, spiritual heroes remind us to keep our eyes on Jesus. They provide a daily dose of fresh insight, spiritual strength and renewed hope. They also remind us to choose faith over fear—so don’t be afraid to look for them in surprising places!
Who are the people that inspire you in your relationship with God on a daily basis? What is it about them that helps you keep going, keep hoping and keep believing during hard times? What do you see in them that you want to practice in your own life? How do they reflect God in a way that draws others to Him?
Dudley J. Delffs, Ph.D., is an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction, and president and founder of Creative Fidelity, Inc., an agency focused on writing, editing, and consulting for authors, agents, and publishers. When he’s not reading and writing, Dudley enjoys traveling, hiking, watching college football, and listening to country music. He and his wife, Dotti, have three adult children and live in Sewanee, Tennessee. Dudley’s latest book is The Faith of Dolly Parton (Zondervan).
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