A Downton Doubting Thomas? That would have been a good idea this time

Downton Abbey season 3 has ended some time ago and I’m now beginning to wonder whether or not Duck Dynasty will end up taking its place. I almost feel anachronistic blogging about it, as though I’m writing about “that movie” that just came out called Star Wars. Will it rebound and once again charm the nation across the pond or will it go the way of the Titanic? Regardless of whether or not season 4 will be worth watching, one thing the bloody season finale cannot take away are the number of fantastic illustrations Downton which preceded it. One of my personal favorites came from my least favorite person on the show: Thomas.

Always the schemer (reminds me a bit of Genesis’ account of Jacob I guess in that regard), Thomas hatches a plan to that will get him really rich, really quickly. He soon realizes after the War, that if he buys up all kinds of cooking supplies, Downton will, ironically, then be dependent upon this servant. Apparently a black market deal, with a man who only met in some shady place, is exactly what he’s been waiting for. 

After stockpiling his goods, he offers the head cook a chance to give them a test run. The cake or sufflet or truffles or corn-dogs (I can’t remember which one) doesn’t turn out the way its supposed to. We now know from Papa Johns that better ingredients means better tasting pizza, or better tasting anything for that matter. And the reverse is also true. Bad tasting ingredients make for bad tasting cake or corn-dogs. 

Figuring that the flour or sugar might have been spoiled, Thomas goes to his warehouse only to find his worst nightmare has come true. When opens the sack of flour, or sugar, or sack of whatever, he finds that it is instead a sack of just white plain stuff. It is not what he spent every last dime of his money on. He’s been tricked. This mystery con-man didn’t deliver the goods he promised.

Thomas’ desperate moment of truth was worth the price of admission. Well at least for me.

This is simply a wonderful portrayal of Satan’s deceptive work. Thomas, like his name-sake in the gospels, actually should have doubted this time. But like Adam and Eve, he got duped.

Sin is so often disguised as something profitable, that is worth the payout, worth the risk. And for a season it can deceive. But it never delivers. In the end, all we are left with is worthless ingredients that can’t even make a tasty corn-dog (and that’s saying something.) 

Sin promises the world, but in the end has nothing to offer. It dupes. It cheats us. It leaves us empty and disappointed and yet we come running back to the same place and say, “What else do you have that I can waste my money, time, life, and hurt my relationships with?” Pretty nuts.

But a more vivid picture of sin must lead to a more vivid picture of a Savior. Sin is this irrational, this stupid, this terrible, this wasteful. And yet we are told by another, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden, for my yoke is gentle and my burden is light.” That’s Jesus talking if you hadn’t heard that before.

Unfortunately for Thomas, he wasn’t broken and just went to back to “business” and schemed his way back into servant-hood. Let’s not waste our sin but come back to the one died for people who regularly get taken to the cleaners on bad “business” deals.

A Let-Downton Abbey finale with a Redemptive Jimmy

Well Downton Abbey’s third season came and left us. But I wouldn’t say too soon. The last episode was a bit of a letdown, with some extremely sappy (not expecting this from the Brits) dialog, perhaps some over-acting, and a few too many story-lines. I actually am not looking forward to the 4th season now because of it, but will probably give it a go the way I did The Office after Steve Carell left-though that proved to be a monumental mistake and waste of time. If you do like Downton Abbey, definitely check out North and South, which features a fiery Mr. Bates as a union leader. Good stuff.

Even despite the dramatic last “Let-Downton” episode, there were a few fairly redemptive moments. Thomas the gay lad who has the hots for Jimmy, ends up with a golden opportunity to win his affection. Instead of another “Jimmy’s down” (a la the Jimmy in Seinfeld) in a fight, Thomas breaks up the scuffle and for some reason gets beat up instead. I guess those guys, who clearly wanted revenge on Jimmy for taking their money during a tug-of-war battle, were happy simply to beat up somebody. Didn’t make a lot of sense. Thomas offered himself in Jimmy’s place, as a substitutionary atonement, and as a result was beaten like the 1977 and most of 1978 Bucs (literally winless during that stretch). I know that’s a bit theological, but that was the gist. Again, I didn’t buy what they were selling.

Unfortunately for poor Thomas, now bloodied and left for dead, Jimmy still didn’t turn gay. I guess Thomas had hoped a good old country whoopin’ (his whoopin’) would have changed Jimmy’s orientation. It didn’t and in a rare, fairly powerful scene, Jimmy admitted, “I can’t ever give you what you are seeking.” Then later, “What is it that you want from me?”

Thomas responded, “Simply for you to be my friend.”

Jimmy comes back with, “Yes, I could be your friend.”

I fudged the lines a bit, but that was the short of it. Simple but actually rather brilliant.

From what I’ve read, particularly in Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, as well as from counselors, that this was exactly the kind of response someone in Thomas’ britches needed to hear. The knee-jerk heterosexual reaction of “get away from me” that probably is far more common, is exactly what someone struggling (or has already accepted gay as an indentity) with same-sex attraction doesn’t need to hear.

Again, I’m not an expert in such studies, and I didn’t stay at Holiday Inn Express, but I have read some, studied, and dialogued with those more knowledgeable. What such men need is not for guys to say, “Ooooohhhhhh gross, get away.” Instead they need more male friendships.

So remember that the best (or rather the first) thing you can do to someone of the same sex who has the hots for you or others of the same sex is not to run. Should they still want to be your friend despite your commitment to the biblical sexual ethic, stay and love them as a friend. This is powerful. Powerful enough to begin the slow redemptive process of a professor of gay and lesbian studies becoming a Christian. Powerful enough for gay leaders to become friends with those firm on their stance on homosexuality. The truth is we just never know what will happen if we stay. But regardless of the result, Jesus stayed with all kinds of sinners like you and me, and refused to run. Thankfully.

Downton Lessons: Will your community miss you or your church when you’re gone?

Perhaps one of the most redemptive shows I’ve watched on TV, ever, is Downton Abbey. It seems every episode illustrates clearly or presents something which challenges/encourages me in my daily walk, or points me to Christ or my need of Him (as is more common in one of my other favorites Breaking Bad).

One of the sagas raised in Season 2 (and I’ll do my best to not spoil anything if you do choose to watch but haven’t yet), is the real possibility of being unable to keep Downton up and running. Some of the characters will clearly miss this more than massive house. And it is simply personal. They will have to downsize, which is the ultimate faux pas for such aristocrats. Though is probably just as much a stretch for suburbanites today. 

But others have greater concerns than just having to downsize: what will this mean for the community? Because Downton is so massive, it relies upon and employs numerous workers, who might not be able to find work elsewhere. The whole “servant” profession is on the way out Post WWI, as the British society progressively becomes more and more democratic. The Earl also wonders what will become of the community surrounding Downton if it were no longer to exist. He cares about his workers but also about the community, and recognizes that it will be a legitimate blow to both if Downton went away.

Ultimately Downton, at least in his mind, and perhaps a few others, exists not for itself alone but as a blessing for others. In Genesis 12:1-3, Abraham is blessed SO THAT he would be a blessing to others. Now this blessing clearly points to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of that blessing. But Jesus commands his disciples to live out this passage by bringing the gospel and its ultimate, as well as its concomitant blessings, to the entire world (Matt 28:19-20, Acts 1:8). As a church, we are blessed, not as an end in and of ourselves, but as a blessing to whatever community we find ourselves in. 

One of the most helpful diagnostic question I’ve heard when thinking about the existence of a local church is, “Will the community miss you if someday your church did not exist?” Clearly the answer for Downton is yes, because that is a major concern for the Earl. 

Would this be the same case for your church? This isn’t a question primarily for pastors, but for members. If your church were taken away, its lamp-stand snuffed out, would your community miss it? Would your community, not simply your members/attenders miss it or at least be sad to see it go? Would it miss your love in word and in deed? The answer to this question will indicate, at least in part, your community impact. And since the church isn’t a building, but the people of God, this question is more properly directed to its members than its pastors. There are simply more of them and therefore more community impact. Let me put the question like this: would people in your community miss your love to them? If you had no worshiping community, and therefore no base where you could rest, rest, worship, and be trained and sent out into the world, would people care? Can your community say, “I don’t believe what they believe, and they annoy me with their truth claims, but they do love me and my family?”

Would this be the same for you as a neighbor? God puts people into neighborhoods, the exact time and places for where they should live in those neighborhoods, apartment complexes, condos, shelters, etc..SO THAT, people could seek and hear the gospel (Acts 17:26-27). Will they find people ready to share the gospel and their lives as well? Will people be sad if you move? If the answer is, no, or “I’m not sure,” then your house is seen simply as an asset (or liability if you purchased in FL during the housing bubble), but not as a blessing to be used to bless others.

In Christ, we have the freedom to ask these questions and feel convicted of their answers. Because our performance doesn’t put a smile upon the Father’s face-Jesus did that-we can be open and honest about failures and successes. Our failures don’t remove the smile and our successes don’t maintain it. Jesus work assures us of both.

Why I think so many people like Downton Abbey

There is no doubt that Downton Abbey is quite a popular show in America. After several folks recommended it to me, I finally caved. I hadn’t watched any Masterpiece Classic stuff at the time. I since have watched and enjoyed several mini-series like North and South (which features a very feisty Mr. Bates) along with Wuthering Heights. But at the time, the premise of an aristocratic family pre/post WWI didn’t seem to strike a nerve, or even tendon for that matter. I didn’t care. Until my wife and I watched, and were immediately hooked. Gut hooked.

But we only comprised a small portion-you do the math, (seriously I don’t feel like it)-of the viewers.

The Season 3 premiere of the World War I-era British costume epic on PBS on Sunday drew 7.9 million total viewers, its highest total yet, according to Nielsen. That figure is four times PBS’ typical nightly average and nearly twice the 4.2 million who showed up for the Season 2 premiere last January.

The question is why? For a show on PBS to draw these kinds of ratings, we have to stop and ask this question. If we are to live lovingly and responsibly within our culture, and probably among neighbors who appreciate this show, we need to ask this question. For any show to garner such viewership, there is usually a reason for its success. Now for shows like Baywatch, or other shows which profit from showing gals in bathing suits, the answer lies very much on the surface. For other shows like Parenthood, the answer is fairly easy: many people still value the traditional marriage and nuclear/extended family unit. But for a show to take us to another century, to another continent, to a life like none of really know, and leave many wanting more, we have to dig much deeper.

So why is Downton Abbey popular and growing in popularity? Is it because people empathize with the characters (and we do)? Yes, but why is there such affinity for these lads and chaps? And even with crazy neurotic and often manipulative lasses?

Nicolaus Mills, writing a piece for CNN.com takes a stab at offering a suitable explanation.

The earl of Grantham, played with enormous subtlety by Hugh Bonneville, doesn’t look like a democrat or speak like a democrat. When crossed, he even displays an imperious temper. But appearances are deceiving when it comes to Lord Grantham’s character. The earl treats those who work for him with a compassion that goes well beyond noblesse oblige. He regards the World War I deaths of those who once worked on his estate as a family tragedy.

I wouldn’t disagree with Mills, but would rather expound a bit upon his explication. The earl’s compassion is extraordinary and exemplary, a challenge for all Americans who find themselves in the role of an employer. Yet it is also in some ways still limited by his stratified societal worldview. It is more than compassion, and it is more than the Earl of Grantham.

Why I appreciate Downton so much, and I think what may draw people to it, is the character redemption. It’s the opposite of Breaking Bad. Some people do change. And people want to change. And people want to see people changing, becoming “better,” or at least more compassionate people.

At Downton, that is what exactly what we see. For the most part we see people moving from selfishness to selflessness. We see a movement from envy to rejoicing at the fortunes of others. We see remorse over past actions. We see class segregation begin to slowly fade away in some cases. We see people changing for the better as the seasons progress.

Under the roof of Downton Abbey, we begin to see the normally slow process of sanctification (I’m of course now using Christian terminology) unfold over the course of an hour, just as we hope to see in those who take refuge in the grace found and preached under the “roof” of Christ’s church.

People like to see people changing. People like to see that people can change. We see these things happening in most of the characters (some go back and forth) and that’s why I think it is so popular. At least that is one reason why I’m drawn to enjoy and empathize with almost all of the characters.