As I mentioned in my last post, I read Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol each year at this time. As a result of reading it and re-reading it, for me this story has passed from mere entertainment to something much more.
In the story Dickens introduces us to Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge hears his approach as chains and weights rattling over the floor and on the stairs and sees Marley weighed down by chains when he appears. During their visit, Scrooge asks Marley where his chains comes from, and Marley replies:
“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
“would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
The symbol of chains here is fascinating. What exactly is the chain Scouge wears? How is he laboring on it?
We might assume that the chain is made up of sin. But I’m not sure that fits exactly. Dickens never suggests that Scrooge is actively doing anything wrong or illegal. The firm Scrooge & Marley seems to be some kind of warehouse or real estate concern or perhaps a lender, no doubt like many others of its day—respectable enough. So I don’t think Dickens wants us to think that Scrooge is committing acts that society would condemn. Indeed, I think a Scrooge today, in the western world at least, would be unremarkable. He or she would fit right in. We wouldn’t even notice him or her. He wouldn’t do anything wrong.
He just wouldn’t help.
Instead, in A Christmas Carol Dickens is pointing out what Scrooge has failed to do — his failure to be generous with his clerk; his failure to celebrate Christmas with his nephew; and his failure to choose to give to the poor are all made clear before Marley’s ghost even appears.
In fact, this is also made clear to Scrooge, because after Scrooge hears what Marley’s chains are about, he seeks to justify himself, and suggests that he, like Marley, was just doing his job. “You were always a good man of business, Jacob.” But the ghost thunders back, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
If we really examine our own lives, I think we have to admit that to some degree Scrooge is just like we are. How many of us can truly say we are significantly different from Scrooge? Are we acting like Scrooge? Do we look behind our current “drop of water” to the “ocean of our business”?Yes we celebrate Christmas, but where is our focus during the holiday?
So the chains that Marley wears are because of his failure to be truly Christian—his failure to act in the face of need around him and in the face of relationships that he should nurture. The chains represent these burdens.
But lets take this a little further than Dickens. Yes, sin is a burden, and failing to do as we should is also a burden. But we also have other burdens in our lives—burdens that aren’t based on things we choose. Some burdens are physical—illnesses, infirmities and inabilities that prevent us from doing what others can do and make our lives more difficult. Other burdens are mental or emotional. Many of us have social burdens, from our relationships with friends, parents or children or even with spouses. All these can also feel like chains that we carry around with us, even if it doesn’t seem like we have labored on them ourselves.
I suppose even listing out all these types of burdens could be a kind of burden. But bear with me. There is reason for hope despite the chains we bear.
Let me now contrast Dickens’ image of chains, and the idea that we are laboring on our own chains, with a very Mormon metaphor that appears in our scriptures and occasionally in General Conference talks. D&C 128:18, referring to Malachi, says:
“the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children.”
In a recent talk with the title “The Welding Link” Elder Bednar quoted President Hinckley describing this metaphor:
“As I sat in the temple looking at my great-grandchildren, a peculiar thing happened to me. I suddenly realized that I stood midway, with three generations with which I am familiar behind me and three generations ahead of me. My heart literally turned to my fathers. My heart also turned to my posterity. I envisioned a chain of the generations; that chain goes back a very long way into the distant past of which we know so very little. It now reaches for three generations beyond me. I pictured that chain in my mind’s eye, to date unbroken and shining and strong. …
This “welding link” is literally a chain connecting us from generation to generation, family to family. Its no accident that it is called a “welding link”, for we are sealed that way, and the chains we construct are meant to be unbreakable. So while we, as humans, are actively laboring on the chains that Dickens describes, we, as members of the Church, are also working on chains of a very different sort.
Or are these sometimes the same chains?
The chains we build in our Temples are chains of relationships. It has long seemed to me that the most valuable things we can learn in this life come from what we learn in our relationships with others. In fact, the very meaning of Temple work is that our relationships can be eternal. But learning from our relationships is hard—and requires effort from everyone in the relationship. You can not make a relationship work simply of your own volition. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” As a result, relationships can sometimes be seen as burdens, and those burdens can be so heavy that we do not want them and even actively run away from them.
Alas, we live in a very imperfect world, one fraught with error and evil, insecurity and impiety, pride and, well, prejudice. This must needs be so. We need an imperfect environment to help us seek perfection. Our longing for justice in an imperfect world should lead to our learning of the Lord. And the result is the links in our chains can turn from burdens into strengths as well as from strengths into burdens.
Whether our burdens are Dickens’ chains or the welding links of the scriptures, these connections are all one and the same. And the Gospel teaches us how to find the potential in these connections.
For those suffering in malformed relationships, that might seem paradoxical. But the gospel is full of paradoxical teachings like this: the weak become strong, the lowest becomes the greatest, yokes become easy and, perhaps most importantly, burdens become light. Joseph Smith pointed out the necessity of these paradoxes when he wrote: “By proving contraries, truth becomes manifest.”
We all have burdens, and in our culture burdens are often associated with shame or privacy or stoicism. We are often loath to share our burdens, fearing that others will think less of us, or worried that our personal privacy will be invaded, or that we will be irresponsible for not taking care of things ourselves. Unfortunately, one of the biggest lies in our American culture is that we must be responsible solely for ourselves; that we should not share our burdens with anyone else. That lie is almost as bad as its opposite, that we bear no responsibility at all—that society that must be responsible for us.
The reality is that we all have burdens and we must also be responsible. But responsibility doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek help. A popular poet hinted at the problems that can arise when we don’t share our burdens. He wrote:
“And anytime you feel the pain,
Hey, Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool
Who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder”
The more that I study and pray, and the longer that I seek to do as the Lord wants me to do, the more I am convinced that through the gospel all things can work for our good. The burden of a troubled relationship can turn into a strength. Our disabilities and deficits can turn to our good. Our omissions and failures can motivate us. And even our sins can provide us with strength when their stains are washed away through repentance.
I think there are several ways that the gospel can help us with our burdens.
First, Christ teaches us how to handle burdens. He provided for us a way to repent, and he provided for us a source of strength for the burdens we face. He said explicitly what we need to do:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I know this often seems like His consolation, a gift that we are given to lighten our load. But I wonder if we shouldn’t also read this as a commandment: “Come unto me…” He orders us. “Take my yoke upon you…” He commands. Elsewhere, the scriptures actually command us to share our burdens. Galatians 6:2 reads:
“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
I believe lifting burdens is the chief responsibility of a Bishop. He is not the school principal, dealing out punishment for misdeeds. He is instead a spiritual counselor, a guide who can help you figure out how to reconcile yourself to God.
In A Christmas Carol Dickens’ creates three characters who, in three visits to Scrooge on the same night, manage to relieve his burdens. They are like his ministering brothers or ministering sisters. And, interestingly enough, the spirits don’t do a lot of preaching. They DO do a lot of showing. One explores and understands Scrooge’s past. Another shows Scrooge alternate ways of living now. And the third demonstrates the end of Scrooge’s current path — but the third only does so after Scrooge is largely convinced. Good ministering brothers and ministering sisters don’t preach, they listen, learn and lift burdens.
I have to add here that its hard to lift burdens that are not known. Bishops (or their equivalents) and ministering brothers or sisters, feel the same way. On the other hand, I also realize why burdens aren’t always shared: those who share their burdens feel vulnerable and hesitant. They need someone they can trust. Wise friends, ministering brothers and sisters and local leaders work to gain that trust.
A Christmas Carol is ultimately a hopeful story. In the end Scrooge changes. Think of that! He actually changes a core part of who he had become! His attitude is not “its just who I am.” He doesn’t claim that this was his “authentic self.” The visits of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, not only help him see the error of his omissions, but also help relieve him of burdens that he carries. His chains are not gone, I don’t think, but instead his connections with friends and family turn from burdens into bonds. His focus has changed, and he has taken upon himself the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light.
At this Christmas time, I pray that those with burdens can find that relief, and I hope that local leaders, or ministering brothers and sisters, can earn the trust they need. And even if that doesn’t happen, I pray that those with burdens can find relief in he who commands, “Take my yoke upon you… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”