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HomeCommentaryRestoring the joy of servanthood – a lesson from ‘Downton Abbey’

Restoring the joy of servanthood – a lesson from ‘Downton Abbey’


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We've lived in our current home for nearly eight years, and when we moved in it just seemed like “a no-brainer,” with five kids in the house, that we would have cable television installed. However, we found that we rarely took the time to watch it, and when we did, we were mostly filling “dead time” in a completely unproductive way. Within two years, we cancelled our service. We have never looked back.

Neither of us considers ourselves to be “separatists” in any sense of the word; however, we certainly have not cut ourselves off from the world of entertainment. In lieu of cable, we simply began buying DVD seasons of shows or renting movies and became far more intentional about when and what we watch.

Just recently, on a friend's strong recommendation, we acquired the DVDs for season one of “Downton Abbey,” “a British-American period drama television series.” We knew we'd hit the jackpot after watching just one episode, and now we are hopelessly hooked.

If you are completely in the dark about this program (as we were when we bought it), “Downton Abbey” is primarily about the complexities of relationship that take place within a wealthy family and its servants in pre-World War I England. The opening episode kicks off with the tragic news that the Titanic has sunk, killing hundreds of people … some of them wealthy! In fact, it is the death of the presumed heir to Downton that brings the key players into relationship with one another.

We are still working our way through the first season, and while we're only halfway through, it seems like a foregone conclusion that we will be ordering season two before long. In the meantime, however, both of us have noticed that this popular show has actually had much to say to both of us in terms of how, when and in what frame of mind we serve others.

The most well-adjusted characters in this series seem to be those who have embraced their proper place in the early-20th century English way of living and who live out their days with at least some sense of gratitude. Conversely, the characters that seem the most troubled or unstable are those who struggle against who they are, where they have been stationed in life, and whether or not their situation will ever improve, in their eyes: “Why should I be content to remain a footman while a crippled man becomes his lordship's new valet?” (That sort of thing.)

As Christians, we have both been called into various forms of church service, and to be completely honest about it, there are times when offering that service is inconvenient, entirely unappreciated and sometimes even irritating. So neither of us think it at all “coincidental” that we have stumbled upon “Downton Abbey” in a time when our own attitudes regarding selfless service needed a bit of refreshing.

During the work day, we want to serve our employers selflessly, and yet too often find it feels far more difficult to serve them than we think it “ought” to. It's a strange, curious truth to observe that the human heart is capable of growing colder toward someone even as it seeks to serve that person! “Yes, I want to serve you, but I still wish to retain my own 'lordship' over how, how much, when and in what fashion.” Who wants to be served by someone like that?

For the two of us, we are regularly humbled by the pictures of servanthood and service touched on by the Apostle Paul in his New Testament epistles. As we are both latecomers to Christ, we had to go through a period of a few years during which we struggled with the novel idea that in giving ourselves over to Jesus Christ, we had actually joined hands with Paul in becoming willing instruments in the hands of God … “willing” perhaps being the key word there. The selfishness of the human heart does not die all at once, and the intervening years since our conversions have shown time and again how critical it is to live with an ever-widening awareness of the desperate need every community has for willing, sacrificial, self-forgetting and cheerful servants (2 Corinthians 6:3-11).

In the more agreeable characters that populate Downton – the Earl of Grantham, Lady Cora, Bates, Mrs. Hughes, etc. – we meet people who seem entirely comfortable within their own skin and perfectly capable of discharging the duties that accompany their lives, whether those duties are to serve or involve being served. There is, within the halls of Downton Abbey, deep, abiding joy to be found in a meal precisely prepared and elegantly delivered to the table, a suit properly cleaned and pressed, a fire stoked to just the right level of comfort, a chandelier carefully dusted so as to maximize its appearance for an incoming visitor.

But of course, as with any situation that involves more than one human being, there are some at Downton who “get it” and others who are caught up in relentless self-seeking, thinly veiled (or sometimes not) by proper observance of manners and social prohibitions. While most of the characters at Downton seem to have an ingrained understanding that their part really matters in the grand scheme of things – and that “it takes a village” to greet a visiting duke at the front door – there are those treacherous few who will use any occasion to advance their own dark schemes.

The American ethos has always been one that is strong on self-fulfillment and self-rule, with at least one visible result being that it really is “hard to find good help” these days. No one, it seems, likes to be the one to clean up the empty coffee cups once the meeting of far-more-important people has adjourned, and yet both of us have often felt a far deeper kinship with God in those moments when we have given ourselves over to humble servanthood. Our paradigm for service, of course, is Jesus Himself, who was able to get up from his final supper with his friends, wrap a towel around his waist, and lovingly undertake the task of cleansing his disciple's dirty, nasty, undoubtedly-smelly feet.

As Christians, the standard for service to others does not stop at “willingness,” but is instead a gentle call deeper inward, a promise that what is truly best for our souls is to be found in self-forgetfulness. Willingness is good, of course, but the astonishing promise of Christ is a greater, settled and consistent joy. The “small” things really do matter; done with both love and excellence, they unleash the greater good that we tend to want to seek elsewhere, quite apart from serving others.

If you've yet to be bitten by the Downton bug, we'd like to invite you to give yourself over, at least to the first episode. We suspect that if you are at all fascinated by how human beings love, hate, plot, bicker, make amends and go through the very serious business of getting along with one another in the wake of upheavals of one sort or another, you too will be hooked – and perhaps even find yourself within one of the characters, convicting as that may be.

Warren and Michele Mayer are self-described “latecomers to Christ” who previously lived through the turmoil of divorce who write for Columbia Faith and Values.

Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of FāVS.News, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.

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