Lenten Reflections: The Travails of Change, or Transition Comes to Downton

March 28th, 2014

During the Lenten season, I find looking at popular culture helps me connect with the pondersome questions of what it means to be human. As Christians journey through Lent, we look at the state of the world and know that Christ's story (life, death and resurrection) is one well acquainted with the pain of the world, just as we find our hope in Easter's alleluias. With this in mind, some Lenten reflections while watching PBS this winter:

The television show Downton Abbey is a formidable ratings winner for PBS stations. Chronicling the "upstairs" and "downstairs" of the historic house and grounds of the Grantham family, "Downton" is the creation of Lord Julian Fellowes, a member of the British aristocracy himself and an Oscar-winner for his script of "Gosford Park", set in similar times and situations as Downton Abbey.

The intrigue of Downton Abbey is less about the period costuming and customs but telling the story of an era as it begins to change. The premiere episode in the first season begins the tumult, as the heir apparent to the estate goes down with the Titanic. The line of succession reflects the values of the time, as Lord Grantham, also known by his given name as Robert Crawley, has three daughters and no sons. By the standards of the era, the Lord finds himself without an heir, other than distant male cousins. The lineage is checked, and the new heir apparent is a cousin named Matthew, who was raised decidedly with different values.

As Matthew tours the estate with Lord Grantham, the elder Crawley notes his cousin's detachment.

Lord Grantham: You do not love the place yet.
Matthew Crawley: Well, obviously, it's...
Lord Grantham: No, you don't love it. You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that will crack in the frost.
Matthew Crawley: But you don't?
Lord Grantham: I see my life's work.

When this episode aired first on PBS, I heard in Lord Grantham a kindred spirit. At the time, I was serving a congregation whose facilities could be "Downton" sized. I thought of the many conversations and decisions that consumed many Trustee meetings worrying about the building's rising utility costs and the major commitment the facilities placed on the budget. I had learned by this point the grim truth of many churches built in the grand and heady heights of the 19th and up to mid-20th century: A 19th century building was not built with 21st century utility and heating costs in mind. Further, as a congregation's numbers declined, the building did not magically shrink to fit the present day needs of the church.

We made some excellent strides forward during the years I spent at the congregation. Through Missional Church training, we discovered how our big building could have a sacred and social responsibility. Classrooms that were largely unused (and often filled with dusty "church junk" that always accumulates) became space for non-profit organizations to set-up their offices and provide needed services.

As Downton Abbey reached its fourth season, the Crawley family is now in 1923. The Abbey itself has full electrical light throughout its rooms, above and below. The economy, however, had changed after the first World War, bringing a great deal of opportunity for the "lower" classes but a great deal of instability and threat to the well heeled landowners. Matthew Crawley brought a willingness to change with the times, and even though he died dramatically at the end of Season Three (aka "the actor decided to move onto other projects"), the plot line of Season 4 shows how some around Downton Abbey are willing to move ahead while Lord Grantham is guarded, hoping that things will turn around and return to what was normative before WWI. One gets the impression, however, that times will not be with the elder Crawley generations, trying their best to live the future on the terms of the past.

The stories of congregations today are the stories of times before and still yet to come. How we embrace change matters greatly with how we manage our way through unpredictable times (and economies). Learning to live with the present challenges with receptivity to what is at hand and just emerging makes our future look brighter, rather than with mere foreboding. Further, while I have your indulgence, may I also suggest that quick fixes be shown the door as fast as possible! Managing change takes time and energy. Don't be fooled by short-term answers!

In the third season as the financial challenges began to come into view (if not into focus), Matthew Crawley introduced the idea that the estate should have a sense of cash flow and financial management. Lord Grantham wondered about investing in a financial opportunity by some bloke named Ponzi. Thankfully, even though disaster and heartache struck the family later in the season, Matthew Crawley's level headed thinking may have been the gift that will help the Downton characters move forward rather than flounder in the tides of time.

May we cultivate leadership, vision and fortitude among our congregants to do the same!

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