We were at an amusement park a few weeks ago. It was a day when the heat index was 108 degrees, and so we did a lot of hiding in the shade and going to shows. One of the shows featured country music. The set looked like something left over from a local production of Pump Boys and Dinettes. The talent, college students hired to do three shows a day, was really good. For some reason they had fastened big stiff wigs on all the girl’s heads. It seemed someone had raided Dolly Parton’s closet (or Donald Trump’s). Most of the songs they sang were recent – not what I consider “country” (if I can’t imagine Hank Williams, or Kitty Wells singing it, I’ll pass), but at one point a young woman stepped forward and sang “Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton. The girl’s voice reminded one more of Patty Lupone than Dolly Parton, but “Coat of Many Colors” is a perfect song, and although it was delivered like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” it made me weep – it always does.
I don’t believe anyone has ever written a better song. “Coat of Many Colors” tells the story of Dolly’s mother sewing a coat for her from a box of rags and scraps because she could not afford to buy a new coat. As she sews, Dolly’s mother tells her the story of Joseph, and how he received a coat of many colors because he was special. The story transforms the rag-coat into a love-coat. This alternate reality persists even when the children at school make fun of her rag coat, as she explains defiantly how her coat is special.
I remember when the song was a hit, and seeing my grandmother tear-up any time it came on the radio in the corner-cabinet in her little dining room. Though a child, the song had the same effect on me. Now that I am a grand-parent the song has an even greater effect because it is about the way love can transform anything from ugliness to beauty. We may not be able to avoid hardship and poverty, but love can use any circumstance for its own strength and growth.
The story which transforms the rag-coat into a love-coat is from the Bible of course. Joseph was just a Hebrew boy from a big (albeit prosperous) family – the 11th of 12 sons. But to his father he was special. He was special to God too, and he became one of the most powerful men on earth. It seems every story in the Bible insists that we see things through God’s eyes. Samuel is told that none of the strapping sons of Jesse he has met qualify as king – God wants the boy out in the field tending sheep. Do not look at his appearance or at his height…for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart, God reminds the prophet (I Samuel 16.7).
Jesus, in the beatitudes, seems to invert our whole system of value, telling us that is it a blessing to mourn, to be poor in heart, to be ridiculed and persecuted (Matthew 5.1-12). In fact, the entire story of Jesus turns common notion on its head – God arrives as a new-born baby, and achieves universal victory by being executed as a criminal.
Isn’t it grand that the Bible serves as a pair of blood-colored glasses through which we see the world through the eyes of God. The world, otherwise, is too menacing, too gloomy, too ugly to behold.
In the academy award-winning film Life is Beautiful (1997), actor Roberto Benigni convinces his son that their stay in a Nazi concentration camp is merely a game. He succeeds in shielding his son from the psychological horror of Nazi oppression. He protected his son by getting him to see what was not there. God shows us what is.
The coat of many colors did not make Joseph special, God did. The coat confirmed and expressed reality as God established it. Dolly’s coat of many colors did not make her special, her mother’s love did. God makes that possible too.