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“To my precious wife, family, and friends, and to faithful disciples everywhere.” This tender tribute is found on the opening page of Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s final work. If you have heard Elder Maxwell’s steady call over the last decade to deepen your discipleship, then this conclusive life reflection is for you. It is an Apostle’s final thoughts, written for disciples of the Lord.
In the foreword, Cory H. Maxwell, Elder Maxwell’s son, notes that Elder Maxwell finished working on this manuscript just ten days before he passed away on July 21, 2004. Two priorities consumed him the last weeks of his life – time with his family and time to complete his last manuscript. Cory Maxwell hopes that his father’s objective in writing this book will be achieved, namely, “to help us resolve to become more committed disciples and to deepen our gratitude for the inexhaustible gospel he loved so deeply and proclaimed so tirelessly.”
A Teacher and Poet
Elder Maxwell includes three chapters, adapted from talks he gave, not previously published. The book is full of original thought about agency, “the cosmos”, the inspired Constitution of the United States of America, conversion, revelation and the Holy Ghost. Elder Maxwell has learned very personal lessons about each of these topics. Always a Teacher, his final wish was to instruct us in the ways of truth, truths he sometimes had to suffer to obtain. “Everywhere in nature we are taught the lessons of patience and waiting. We want things a long time before we get them, and the fact that we wanted them a long time makes them all the more precious when they come” (7).
Expressed in that distinguishing lyrical style we have come to cherish from Elder Maxwell, we find wondrous and expansive thought. His ideas, to the unbelieving, would seem esoteric, but to the faithful and searching, present as reassuring and subduing. They are echoes of the heavenly world. Each chapter could be read and re-read, studied and pondered. One time through was not enough for me. This collection, in a sense, is Elder Maxwell’s book of personal scripture. We are privileged to read it.
Our ears embrace the poetic ease of Maxwell’s words. “Our freedom to choose is a shining and shimmering gift, but it is also one that can cause some shivering at times” (5). In describing Enoch, who saw the God of heaven weep because of man’s failure to keep His commandments and love Him, Maxwell wrote, “When Enoch saw the heavens weep, they reflected the same drenching and wrenching feelings of the Father (see Moses 7:29, 33). Still, even in the agony of such ultimate rejection, we see God moving in his majesty and power’ (D&C 88:47)” (17).
The way Maxwell repeats sounds and rhymes, the rhythm and creativity he finds for each sentence, demonstrate his mastery of language, his desire to say things in a way we will not easily forget.
Ask the Difficult Questions
“God is giving away the spiritual secrets of the Universe…are we listening?” (20). What a jolting question. Maxwell’s interplay of answers with questions makes for an active teaching method. He does not simply provide answers; he asks difficult questions and expects us to do the same.
Maxwell sites Dr. Allen Sandage, one of Edwin Hubble’s two graduate students, as believing that science is concerned with what, when and how, but does not, and cannot, answer why (25-26). Maxwell appeals to God for such answers. Only God can answer the difficult questions. He continues, “In our age, some arrogantly believe that if they cannot comprehend something, then God cannot comprehend it, either (see Mosiah 4:9)” (27).
When contemplating and seeking after truth, Elder Maxwell encourages us to utilize a new definition for pondering. It is “not idle speculation but rather, patient and meek anticipation of further revelations” (23). Elder Maxwell wraps his fingers around the universe, describing it as a “cradling cosmos”, vast yet personal, because the God who created it knows each of us intimately. He teaches us that if we will look at the universe closely, we will not see unexplained chaos – we will see God, going about his work, moving in majesty…”and all for us!” (29,17).
Elder Maxwell discusses discipleship and conversion, proffering yet another question – how do we measure our conversion? His answer, “Jesus says in effect, we are heaven-bound if we are becoming more child-like (see Matthew 18:3)…Another measure is the degree to which we are giving away all [our] sins’ in order to know God better (Alma 22:18). All real disciples believe in and apply the Atonement regularly in their lives, shedding sins and shortcomings along the way” (49).
Each chapter is beautifully tied to the next. Each subject carefully addressed, yielding answers and reflections that were the result of deep study and meditation. It is a choice window into one man’s soul – a man whose final years were spent as a special witness for the Lord, Jesus Christ – a man who was not afraid to ask the difficult questions, who never gave in to circumstance, but sought diligently, despite his physical condition, for answers, deeper spirituality, and the furthering of God’s work.
Elder Maxwell’s concluding chapters are filled with sentiments of paradise, the spirit world, the letting go of mortal existence in exchange for a “state of rest”, a “state of peace” (Alma 40:12). In a short section entitled, “On Dying”, Elder Maxwell reflects, “I go on the remainder of my journey, short as it may be, through the process of dying, with a calmness…After all, in gospel grammar, death is not an exclamation point, merely a comma” (91).
What wisdom, peace and meekness. One gets the feeling that Elder Maxwell was a proponent of meekness. He mentions it regularly in most of his writings. In one chapter, he remarks humorously, “In the same way that a whiff of bad breath can detract from a whispered compliment, a lack of meekness can likewise diminish the impact of one’s testimony” (76).
He also wrote the following of meek individuals, “Dozens of biographies have underscored, for me, the crucial role of the meekness and greatness of soul. Significant contributions are made by the unmeek, to be sure, an unanchored genius can still bless mankind. Nevertheless, the master spirits, the truly great ones, always display a goodly measure of meekness!” (76)
It is meekness and love, along with spiritual submission, that define Elder Maxwell. He is one of the “master spirits” he unknowingly described – a “truly great one” that will always be remembered. I read with reverence and respect the final thoughts of this beloved latter-day Apostle. His tender testimony will enlarge each reader’s view of God’s movement in both majesty and power. When we contemplate true discipleship, we will think of him.