Riding Coattails

I watched the story of Johnny Cash recently. Walk the Line. And I was mesmerized by a conversation between Johnny (nick-named JR) and his brother, Jack, when they were children:

“Jack”

“Um-hmm?”

“How come you’re so good?”

“I ain’t”

“You pick 5 times more than me.”

“Well, I’m bigger than you.”

“You know every story in Scripture.”

“You know every song in Mama’s hymnal.”

“Songs are easy.”

“Not for me.”

“There’s more words in the Bible than Heavenly Highway Hymns.”

“Look, JR. If I’m going to be a preacher one day, I gotta know the Bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell em the right story.”

It was that line right there… “you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell em the right story.” And of course, that led me to thinking of my own story and what Jack said. About one being helpful. See, supposing my story is shallow… would it be worth telling anyway? Just suppose the biggest hurdle I’ve had to clear in life is simply myself. That being the case, would it even be worth the breath required to utter the tale? Because in light of the very real struggles, tragedies and pain so many undergo, my minor upheavals in life seem inconsequential. Trivial and small. So then, does my story have any redeeming value? Could it possibly be helpful? And so again, I ponder, is it worth the telling…

Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; Isaiah 51:1

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Look at that little girl. Oh, I can recall how she felt all too well. Awkward. Shy. A wall-flower that blended into the background. I was scared of my own shadow. And I just knew everyone was talking about me. Negatively, of course. And why wouldn’t they be. My clothing was usually second-hand. My home was the back-side of a store. My front yard? Mainly a cow-pasture while the back consisted of a parking lot complete with gas pumps. The grey pavement of highway stretching out beyond. This was my playground. I ran free through the fields like a wild thing. But when forced to interact with civilization, I turned inside myself.

Early on, I developed an inferiority complex. I just didn’t think I measured up. Materially, physically, or intellectually. Through the duration of my youth and early adulthood, I felt minimal. Small. And forever second best. It seemed as if I were destined to stand in the shadows cast by the bright light of my friends. Perhaps those substandard feelings I housed went all the way back to my infancy…  

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See, Mom tells of a time I slipped through the crack of the bed and the wall. Maybe it was the very bed in the photo above. I was laying there as she walked down to the mailbox. However upon her return, she found I was crying out… trapped between bed and wall. And my infant cousin? He was being bounced upon my grandma’s lap. Oh, an aunt was there trying to get me out. But just maybe it started there. The root of insignificance birthed when I literally slipped through the crack unnoticed by the one I wanted to notice me. And ultimately, that fear has chased me my whole life. Scared I’d slip through the cracks unnoticed. And those that mattered the most caring the least. In essence, me mattering naught.

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I wanted to be noticed. And so, early on it was the material that mattered to me. The tangible. The outer. In my eyes, things would make me special and image was of utmost importance. Like in the photo above. I was pleased and it’s obvious. For I felt pretty here. Can’t you see it on my face? Mama (that’s what I called her then) had fixed my hair. And because I liked the way my hair looked, I liked me. If only for a day. As I said, image mattered. And in truth, I thought clothing would fix me right up. If I just had nicer clothes. New clothes. And perhaps a new coat?

And therein lies my foundation. I was a little girl who felt ugly most of the time. And small. Plain and dumb. And unimportant. And what happens when this type of foundation gets laid, is a girl begins to ride coattails without even knowing that’s what she’s doing. Like me. See, my thoughts just weren’t that important. So I began to absorb my friends’ thoughts. Their mindsets became my mindset. And what they liked was better than what I liked. And what they wore was better than what I wore. And so, I tried to be like them. Before I knew it, I didn’t have an original thought. Or idea. Or opinion. And while they stood in the spotlight, I hid in the shadows. Trying my best to be just like them. Living vicariously through them.

And when a girl feels less than, if she discovers there’s something she’s actually good at, she clings to it. She tries to excel in the one thing that makes her feel the tiniest bit special. And she begins to crave the words of affirmation it can bring her. This one area is where she finds her value. And she feasts on the praise it brings her way.

Naturally, I became one who strives. I’d say since the fourth grade. I think that’s when I decided deep down that I wanted to be the best. The greatest. I know for certain that’s when I wanted to be famous because of a little notebook I saved all these years. My name scribbled all over it where I practiced my autograph. That little lime green memo pad is quite telling in that it’s also filled with pictures of women drawn by me. Complete with notes and poems of what I wanted to look like when I was all grown up.

And these were my beginnings. Like I said, my story is shallow. For I was shallow. Because image ruled and appearances mattered the most. The outside was all I cared about. And so, I became an adult. At least that’s what my age indicated. And because I had no ambition of my own other than to be pretty, to be known, and to be liked, I ended up doing what my friend’s mother suggested we do. I joined the U.S. Air Force. And I was excited. Hopeful even. For I thought in leaving my hometown behind, I’d leave the little girl I was behind, too. I thought in leaving, I’d actually become someone new. And exciting. And worthwhile. Maybe for once, I’d be able to grab a little light of my own… And so I tied on my Air Force Blue Raincoat and hoped for the best.

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But as for you, do you seek great things for yourself? Stop seeking! Jeremiah 45:5

At nineteen, I left home. And in four short years, I made some of the biggest mistakes of my life. I tried to be everything I thought I always wanted to be. I thought I’d be happy. I shed riding others’ coattails in favor of trying on my own coat. And while donning my new attire, I worked at being pretty. I tried my best to be likeable. And popular. And fun. It was exhausting. And truth is, trying to have a coat of my own led to my demise. Because I’ll tell you, if a young woman sets out to get known, she will be noticed. And when she hears someone call out her name followed by “You’re famous!” Well, that’s really not such a good thing. Oh, I at last found myself in the spotlight I always sought. It’s just that once I was there, I found it wasn’t such a nice place to be after all. And ironically, once I was there, I really just wanted to be elsewhere. I wanted to be seen in a different light.

Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. Daniel 12:3

Today, I think about JR and Jack and their conversation about stories. You know, had Jack lived and I ran into him, I think he would have used the story of Joseph with me. That’s because of his coat of many colors. See, I think it’s quite possible that Joseph wanted to be the best, too. See, he was one of the youngest and I think he wanted to prove himself to his big brothers. For whenever he had a God given dream, he’d tell it. And he was a tattle-tale, eager to cast himself in a better light. And because Daddy gave him this great colorful coat, he’d wear it for everyday. Like the time he was told to go out and check on his brothers. Why, they must have seen him coming from a mile away. And they hated him for his showy coat. Because truth is, it was proof that Joseph was the favored child.

So there was Joseph with his colorful coat. But what good did it do him? In fact, his coat may have hastened his demise. Because first, he was thrown into a pit. And then, he was thrown into a prison. His outerwear couldn’t keep him from harm. Being the best in Daddy’s eyes didn’t soften his fall. But ultimately, Joseph learned a lesson. For he was humbled. And he learned how to lead. In the end, he became great. Truly great.

Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8

You’d think I’d learn from Joseph’s story. That his fall would serve as warning to me. Because doesn’t pride come before the fall? Like with Joseph. Well, actually, he was thrown down, but it was a fall nonetheless. But every now and then, rather than heed the caution of Joseph’s saga, I throw caution to the wind instead. Because deep, deep, deep down, I still want it. Honestly, I want glory. My glory. Deep, deep, deep down there’s a piece of that little girl inside who grew up feeling small. And she wants to feel big. Larger than life. So she constructs her tower and hopes it will reach the sky. For she wants to be the best. The greatest. At everything. And not only that, she wants everyone in sight to know she’s the best. God help me, this is the truth. Despite how far I’ve come and all I’ve learned, I still struggle with the inferiority complex.

As God’s child, this is what I’ve been cutting my teeth on. See, what I’ve strived so hard for sets me up in direct opposition to Christ. For His teaching is totally opposite of what I’ve been trying to accomplish my whole life. I find we’re at cross purposes. A war within my heart. Me wanting to be more. His wanting me to be less. Me wanting to hold to my life. And His telling me to lose mine. Me wanting it to be all about me. His proclamation that it be all about Him. It’s been a standoff. Right here in my hometown.

See, God brought me back here as a grown woman. He wanted me to see the truth. That despite everything, I was still the little girl I was. My foundation hadn’t changed.  The material still mattered to me. The tangible. The outer. In my eyes, things would make me special and image was of utmost importance. And despite a closet full of clothes, I was still seeking a new coat. One that says I’m special. Favored. Valuable. And yes, full of color. Perhaps like Joseph’s…

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Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment; Psalm 104:1-2

So what do I do now? Well, what else can I do but shed my tired old coat. Because really, it’s time for a new one. But before donning a new frock of my own, maybe it would be okay if I just rode someone else’s coattails for a while. See, I’m tired. So tired. As such, maybe God would just let me ride His. And you know the great thing about His cloak, right? It’s light. And when light is refracted through a prism, well, you can see all the colors of a rainbow. In essence, God’s light is made up of all the colors. And so, it seems to me that if I simply ride His coattails for a while, well, I’ll find myself surrounded by a coat of many colors, after all. And isn’t that what I’ve been striving for my entire life anyway?

Yes, I think I’ll start there. I’ll ride God’s coattails. And in doing so, I’ll begin to see myself in a new light. His light. Red and yellow, blue and green. It’ll be like a rainbow…

I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another… Isaiah 42:8

Back to Jack. Had he lived, I wonder if he’d have thought my story was worth the telling? Could it actually help someone? Well, I think that will have to do with how my saga ends. Whether it turns out being all about His glory. Or about mine. See, if I let it become about His glory, and His light, it may well be worth the breath required to utter it after all.

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