Elder Cook and Songs Unsung

It’s cold comfort when, as a faithful Saint in a situation outside the ideal, you get repeated platitudes about everything being better… after you die. If you’re a sister who is righteous, you will find a husband… after you die (Though Steve P’s scientific demographics cause one to wonder.) If your children are not sealed to you, it will be worked out… after you die. If you have questions that you simply cannot resolve in the hallway outside Releif Society where you sit crying yet again, never fear sister, you can ask the Lord… after you die.

I have to admit, it was with this ever-so-slight tinge of bitterness that I began listening to Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk in the Sunday session of General Conference. Oh no, please…not again. Perhaps it was time to go start the breakfast dishes? Or build another block tower with the kids? Yet there I sat, in my sunbeam on the couch, perhaps from laziness, and I forgot about hiding in the kitchen. I was rewarded as I listened to an apostle of the Lord address me in a way I found surprisingly candid and valuable.

Elder Cook didn’t wade in gradually or frolic in the shallow end of the pool- he opened by talking about the suffering, pain and death of innocents the world over- citing victims of war, natural disaster, evil and human cruelty. He spoke of collective mourning and bearing of one another’s burdens- and I thought of Sunny’s poignant and beautiful post commemorating 9/11.

Among the most frequently asked questions of church leaders are: “Why does a just God allow bad things to happen, especially to good people?” and “Why are those who are righteous in the Lord’s service not immune from such tragedies?”

Elder Cooks knows there are no answers to these questions, as do any of us who have experienced any modicum of life, and he falls back on some very basic Gospel building blocks- enumerating the love of God, the power of the Atonement, and the Plan of Salvation, including the familiar three-act-play, mortality being the middle act. He then give us two historical stories from the sinking of the Titanic, now approaching its 100-year anniversary.

The first story is of a group of Elders returning from missionary service who reschedule their Titanic passage for the following day on another liner, due to their desire to all stay together. They are saved from sure loss, and thanked the Lord for preserving them. Elder Cook points out that it would be easy to assume their preservation was due to righteousness, but we are not entitled to such a presemption. He follows their story with that of an equally righteous Saint who lost her life aboard the Titanic, returning from midwifery school in London, while she passed on the safety of lifeboats to tend the wounded.

“In many ways the sinking of the Titanic is a metaphor for life and many gospel principles. it is a perfect example of the difficulty of only looking through the lens of this mortal life. The loss of life was catastrophic in its consequences but was an accidental nature.”

Sometimes, great blessings come to those who are faithful- this is true, but Elder Cook quickly followed these stories with what I held to be the true meat of his talk:

“Adverse results in this mortal life are not evidence of lack of faith or of an imperfection in our Father in Heaven’s overall plan. The refiners fire is real, and the qualities of character and righteousness that are forged in the furnace of affliction perfect and purity us and prepare us to meet God.”

Oh thank you, Elder Cook! I know this doesn’t give me any answers to keep from wondering what happens…after I die. But it does shine some Apostolic light on the frequent shadow I feel over what must I have done to bring on my less-than-perfect life.

I believe one of the reasons we ask and seek answers to unknowable questions is akin to whistling past a graveyard. If we can turn the person who has painful life events into The Other- into someone who surely must have done something, deserved it somehow- then it allows us to hold tighter to the idea that we are safe. It’s a false comfort, but is born out of the very human desire to waylay the pain and uncertainty of life.

Cutting right to the chase, Elder Cook tells us, in no uncertain terms, while obedience to God’s laws could save us some trials, that obedience is no guarantee or promise of a life without pain or tribulation. It is only the Savior’s atonement that covers all of the unfairness in life.

“With our limited understanding, we lament the things that will be not accomplished and the songs that will not be sung. This has been described as dying with your music still inside you. Music in this case is the metaphor for unfulfilled potential of any kind.”

This is the crux of the human heart, right here. This is why we seek answers- why we fear the loss, why, even those of us that try to live faithful lives, fear our own mortality and our own frailty. We so often lack the modicum of faith required to actually believe that our songs are not, in fact, lost.

And Jesus listening can hear
The songs I cannot sing. [1]

There is promise in those words- a promise that is richer, more nuanced and full than any question I could ask. I’ve sung that song dozens of times, and never been particularly struck by it, but that small verse actually holds a promise that answers all of my “…after I die” cynicism. No matter what befalls us in this mortal life, what pain brings us to our knees, or perhaps even takes our very voices; our songs are not lost. I’ll take those words from an Apostle any day, and put them in my pocket for next time I feel like whistling past the graveyard.

[1] Hymns, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “There is Sunshine in My Soul Today”, No. 227, 1985

Comments

  1. I had not listened to Elder Cook’s talk previously but it sounds as thought it was quite significant. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I loved his talk. When he was talking about the missionaries who were saved by sticking together, I was a bit annoyed because I was thinking that it doesn’t always work out that way, and I happened to know that there were other members of the Church on the Titanic who lost their lives. Then, he went on to tell about one of them, and talk about how things don’t always work out the way they did for those missionaries. I then felt a bit ashamed for assuming I knew where his talk was going… I enjoyed it much more after that. It was very well presented, and I feel that the message is one that is not repeated often enough, in favor of the “faith-promoting” “protection of the righteous” stories.

  3. “dying with your music still inside you”. Ironically, we have a perfect example of how this motivates us in Steve Jobs, whose impending death caused him to live life as fully as could be accomplished on a daily basis. He tried to “get the music out” before it was too late, and I think in large measure he succeeded.

  4. Stephanie says:

    This was an incredible talk. I really appreciated it.

  5. I am more familiar with the sources on the Titanic — primary and secondary — than anybody you have ever met ever, and I loved Elder Cook’s talk. Except the part about how Irene Corbett died tending to the wounded; there actually were no wounded from the iceberg collision. On top of that, she went to England against the direct counsel of President Joseph F. Smith. So I can’t wait to see what his source was on her! The missionary story was absolutely miraculous and true and he told it in a very accurate way. I was so pleased to hear him speak on one of my favorite topics!!

  6. Ben, the same thing happened to me as I listened. Tracy, thanks for the post. It was a great talk.

  7. Ben and geoffsn, that’s exactly my reaction too- at first I was thinking we were getting more of the same old faith-promoting boilerplate- but then he took a different tact, and I was grateful.

    Matt S, yes, I did think it was odd that he mentioned wounded from the iceberg- though my knowledge of the Titanic is limited to a few PBS specials and the film. Thanks for your input.

  8. It’s amazing how much Elder Cook looks like Christopher Walken.

  9. If only Fred hadn’t been held up. All the missionaries would have sailed on the Titanic, the ship would have been kept safe to carry out its appointed duty of tranporting the elders home to Zion, and the world would have been spared a century of Titanic nostalgia.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Well said, Tracy. Sounds like a great talk.

  11. Theodicy!

  12. Wow — “the songs I cannot sing.” I don’t particularly like the “sunshine” hymns, but I’m looking at this one with new eyes this morning. Thanks for this, Tracy. Beautiful.

  13. I’m ashamed to say I slept through his talk. But I did listen later, thank you podcasts. This talk touched me deeply because it was not more of the boiler plate. I have struggled with dissapointment over some opportunities I’ve never had. The talk, and your write up, are amazing and timely

  14. 5: Elder Cook’s wording seems to echo statements made by Irene Corbett’s grandson Don, so I’m guessing one or another of his accounts will be the cited source. And I don’t remember exactly how Elder Cook worded it, but Don Corbett usually leaves wiggle room by saying something like “we don’t know, but it would have been in keeping with her character if …” And although there were no known collision injuries, there could easily have been slips and falls, or even a woman going into labor, due to panic or the rush to get on deck.

    I’m also one of those who believes that Pres. JFSmith’s “direct counsel” for her not to go was not given as a priesthood leader, but was given as an in law. Irene Corbett’s parents supported her going, even paid her way and cared for the children while she was gone (and after, it turns out), but her husband seems to have opposed the inconvenience of her leaving for those months and appealed to his side of the family to persuade her to give up her plans. The statements after the sinking that she had gone in direct opposition to priesthood counsel sound too much like the old Mormon trope of apostates going insane and mobbers dying of horrible diseases. God seldom works that way, in my experience.

    A bit off topic for Tracy’s post, but I liked Elder Cook’s more compassionate take on Irene Corbett. There’s more justification in Elder Cook’s compassionate assumptions than in Pres. Smith’s “thus be it ever to sinners” approach. Irene Corbett cannot defend herself or her reputation in mortality any more, and I’d like to give her the benefit of any doubt the way Elder Cook did.

  15. This is one of the talks I missed. I’m looking forward to reading it now. Thanks, Tracy.

  16. Ardis, thank you so much for that additional information and nuance. I really appreciate your knowledge and willingness to share- I was worried the “thus be it ever to sinners” approach might be trotted out, and I was grateful Elder Cook took a different direction.

  17. whizzbang says:

    http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/regional-studies-latter-day-saint-church-history-british-isles/6-%E2%80%9Cnearer-my-god-thee%E2%80%9D-sinki

    Here is an article written by my former Stake President about the sinking of the Titanic, although I don’t know if Elder Cook used this as a source or not

  18. Frankly, this is a marvelous talk and many parts would have been very apropos for a mormon response reflecting on the post 9/11 decade. Many of these points would have contributed to the national ecclesiastical discussion in a unique mormon way.

    That being said, I’m pretty amazed that this came from the same person who gave the ‘Hope Ya Know” talk on adversity during last conference. To my ears, that adversity talk ‘Hope Ya Know’ trivialized and provided a hollow platitude for various types of horrific adversities (named and shown wordlessly) which he had no personal experience and for which he did not show any personal empathy or sympathy. Seriously, a multi-million dollar corporate healthcare lawyer relating to Joe Blow whose blue-collar job was nixed due to the economy? Hope ya know that didn’t resonate with me. However, his new adversity talk does.

  19. observer fka eric s says:

    It is taboo and understandably viewed as insensitive to those who have deeply suffered to say it alound: but the circle of self-aware repair (situation–>fear–>challenge–>harm–>pain–>suffering–>resentment–>foregiveness/repentence–>egoic liberation) is evidence the existence of a God. Indeed, those whose concept of and relationship to God is shaped by the BOM necessarily believe in a God that “inflicts” this cycle. That is, it is by divine design that all mortals (rich, righteous, poor, evil) pass through it. But it only will refine mortals into Gods if they complete the cycle each day, each time, until the last breath of life. No other creation has this privilege or awareness.

  20. I have to admit that I was also glad that he didn’t take the “and thus it is to sinners” approach, but it surprised me that he didn’t take it considering that’s how Sis. Corbett’s story has been considered for the last one hundred years. And I would like to think that she spent her last minutes delivering a child or attending to the injured, but there is very little evidence of panic until after the last boat left the ship fifteen minutes before she sank; before then a woman in Second Class would have had ample opportunity to board a lifeboat. So while I’m certain there is a good reason she didn’t board a boat, I just don’t see her tending to the masses of the injured that mysteriously don’t appear in any other record. If she had, I am positive that we would have another source for it, like a testimony in one of the inquiries or a recollection of a surviving passenger or crew member.

    Then again, the ship sank and nobody knows.

  21. Nice Fatboy slim reference (QLC); it was the first thing I thought of when he was called because I loved the Housemartins as a kid.

  22. THANK YOU TStevens! I was waiting for someone to get it.

  23. Having recently been challenged by serious illness of my teenage daughter and my own trial of faith, I was very comforted by Elder Cook’s talk. Especially the phrase that “we don’t know” all the answers. That, to me, help ameliorate many of the bombastic egos that have blasted from the General Conference pulpit in previous years when I was young and naive both about life and about personalities amongst the General Authorities. Thank you, Tracy M, for spreading the good word about his talk. I’d not heard anyone commenting on it and am glad you did. For me it was a wonderful talk; helps me also feel more kindly towards E. Cook, too, since I was not impressed with his “incredible women” talk last conference.

  24. I was touched by his mentioning songs that will not be sung. My wife died nearly six months ago, and it tears me up inside each time I force myself to clean up or box up one of her unfinished art projects. Our house is full of scrapbooks, oil paintings, collages and quilts that will never be completed. Months ago I would have been glad to get rid of them, but now I am hanging on because they are now precious to me.

  25. Researcher says:

    This was a beautiful talk. Between the sudden and tragic death of my niece not quite a year ago and the sudden and tragic death of the cheerful, young teenage daughter of a childhood friend Saturday night, Elder Cook’s talk was very timely and said many things very pertinent to grief. (Which means that I cried through much of it.) This talk was mentioned again and again in comments on the Facebook pages of members of the extended family of the child who died Saturday night. This talk was a great comfort to me and to many others.

    And, since it was discussed in the comments, the source for the statement that Irene Corbett was helping the injured on the Titanic is listed in the footnotes to Elder Cook’s talk as “Interview with Irene Corbett’s grandson Donald M. Corbett, Oct. 30, 2010, by Gary H. Cook.”

  26. I’m a little late, but I have to disagree with (18) regarding the “Hope Ya Know” talk. Having experienced some pretty serious trials last year, that talk (along with the Mormon Message adapted from it) was a great source of comfort and inspiration to me. I continue to cry through that Mormon Message every time I see it, and I’m not much of a tear-shedder.

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