Babylon, Downton, and Presbyterians: Season Finales and New Beginnings
Word is there is a big season finale coming up tomorrow night. I have to admit I was a latecomer to the Downton Abbey craze – if public television viewers are capable of a craze. It’s more like Presbyterians responsible for a pep rally, very dignified enthusiasm.
For a few seasons, I made fun of my friends and family for tuning into a high-brow soap opera every week, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I watched the first episode on a hot, summer Saturday morning while the rest of my family was playing tennis. By the time they came home, I was three episodes in and committed to my first weekend of binge watching anything ever. I convinced my husband, Doug, to catch up and watch with me and by the time the next season hit the airwaves, we were caught up and eager for a standing Sunday evening date with a glass of wine or a cup of Earl Gray. When tomorrow evening brings to an end six seasons with the Grantham Family and their downstairs servants, I will be grieving. It’s been a fun ride.
This last season of Downton has highlighted the dramatic social change as experienced by the English upper class – and their servants – between the time of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (when the series began) through the First World War, the Spanish Flu, the English suffrage movement, the Irish war for independence and the rise of Hitler in Germany and the Labour Party in Britain.
By the time the series concludes, we will have made our way through all of that to 1927 when the Granthams, their servants, and all of England stand at the beginning of a new era, a time when opportunities for education and advancement are expanding for women and the working class, social and sexual mores are shifting, and the economy no longer affords the maintenance of lavish estates run by Lords and cared for by staffs of valets and footmen, lady’s maids, and tenant farmers. The entertainment value of the season for me has been found in watching the different characters navigate the shifting realities of the world as they have known it.
Daisy the kitchen maid, undergirded by her new education and inspired by the political reforms of the British labor movement, finds her voice and begins to speak boldly to Lady Grantham about an injustice she sees. Her efforts are met with every possible response from surprisingly harsh criticism from her peers for her impertinence to curious welcome and humility from the family who holds the power to right a wrong. It’s an honest and interesting mix in which those who have much to gain often can’t imagine a future brighter than their past, and the ones who have much to lose can’t manage to look at what is clearly just around the corner – at least not for long. Each of the mini storylines is the tale of an individual trying to figure out what has to change and what will stay the same and how he or she or her parents or her children will fare in the strange new, world.
It’s almost if they are exiles in place. They haven’t been deported to a foreign land as prisoners of an invading army. Instead, the ground right under their feet, the land they have made their home for generations, is changing all around them, and they have found themselves to be resident aliens in a familiar landscape that works in a whole new way.
What if the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah were the word of God for the residents of Downton Abbey? What if the promise of a hope-filled future begins with the command to dig in, dig deep? What if the people of Downton took a good, long look at the world around them – the world right there out the grand front doors of the estate – and understood, This is the place where God has planted me. My future and well-being, my health and prosperity, is intimately connected to the health and well-being of this place in which I find myself.
What if the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah were also the word of God for Presbyterians, indeed all American Christians, right here, right now? What if God is saying to those of us who find ourselves in the hills of Northwest Georgia, surrounded by hiking trails and waterfalls, interstates, carpet mills, and chicken houses, colleges and suburban big box stores, recreational lakes and rivers with disputed water rights… communities brimming with Central American, West African, and Asian immigrants, neighborhoods and schools adapting to changing models of the American family… what if God is saying to us in the midst of this here and this now – dig in? Your hope and your future are tied to the future of this place and these people all around you. Build a house. Get to know your neighbors. Plant a garden and learn the local cuisine. Get married. Let your children marry someone you never expected. Work for the good of your whole community. Care about it. Pray for it. This, too, belongs to me, and I have put you here for such a time as this.
Exiles and English aristocracy have reason to lament. We Presbyterians can make a list of what we have lost too. We could – and we probably should – sit down by the waters of Babylon, or along the Themes, or on the banks of the Chattahoochee and weep… and remember what was.
It is important to remember the way things used to be.
Even more so, it is important to remember that we have been formed by a place and a people and a history that sacrificed much so that we might thrive. We do well to know the places and the people from which we have come.
We do well to know the shape of what came before and how our history shapes us still.
But Jeremiah says: you are here now. It feels like the end of an era – and it is. It is the finale of a grand and glorious season… for some of us. But it is time – whoever you are – to get out your rake and your hoe. Exchange the elbow length dinner gloves for some thick, gardening gloves and get on your knees both to learn and to tend the ground under your feet and to pray for the people around you.
This is an end, and it is also a beginning.
Here we are.
Let’s give thanks for the good gifts that have brought us to this day. Let’s shed tears for the ground and – most especially the brothers and sisters – we have lost. And let’s look around us for the signs that God’s grace has preceded us to this time and place.
In this sacred hour, God is already here beckoning us to join in the work that is already begun.
Through familiar voices and in exotic accents, God is wooing us into deeper and more fruitful relationships with one another and with Him.
From this holy ground, God is blessing us that we might be a blessing to all the world.
From these tangled roots, God is promising us a future filled with hope.
May it ever be so.