The Lord could have sent me no greater witness that he knows and cares for me than what happened when I was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Utah. I attended a fireside given by Neal Maxwell in a large hall, packed with students. The seats rose tier upon tier and I sat somewhere in the middle, hearing him speak for the first time.
I don’t remember what he said that day, only how I felt, as his message pierced and expanded me, seemed to rivet me in place—as if across those rows he were talking just to me. Isn’t it interesting the way the Spirit makes you feel so personally known, while affirming the same thing to every person in a room? When you feel that swelling, the words come spiritually customized directly to your soul, as if the universe were designed specifically to answer the yearnings of your heart.
After his talk, he opened up a few moments for questions and I asked one. Later, I was one of a flood of students who approached him. I had another question.
After all these years, I can’t reconstruct what those questions were, but I know where I was in my life. I had begun to feel inklings of the Spirit, shots of light across the bow of my soul. I had felt a quiet voice of invitation from the Lord inviting me to Him. These hints were delicious to me, but my gospel understanding was scant. It seemed that what I had heard most about in my Church classes growing up was keeping the Word of Wisdom. For me as a teenager, the gospel had been a habit, like a suit of Sunday clothes I could put on when appropriate. Only in the briefest moments had it penetrated to my soul.
But in the last year or so I had really been striving to know for myself, to weigh the gospel against all the secular learning I was assimilating at a much greater rate. I read the Book of Mormon for the first time, asked for Jesus the Christ for Christmas. I began to sense that there was a powerful world of spiritual awareness beyond the material surface of this world. I wanted to open that door that seemed to hang between me and something more.
So I asked my question, and Neal Maxwell, who was not yet an apostle or a general authority, but an executive of the university, did such a kind thing, an astonishing thing really. I wasn’t someone who could remotely be considered as part of his responsibility. I wasn’t in his church stewardship. He wasn’t my teacher, counselor, or advisor. Yet, he turned and listened intently to me, sensing everything I felt behind my question. For a few moments my concerns were his entire focus. He communicated compassion and understanding, and he offered real help for my quest. He suggested things I could read and invited me to come to his home and he would point me toward more reading.
Later, in his living room, he pulled book after book off his shelf about coming to know God, suggested authors I hadn’t studied, sent me home with a book to read. I remember being so excited about one book he suggested, I stayed up all night reading in the bathroom, the only light available since my roommates were asleep.
I thought it so gracious at the time, but it was only with maturity that I began to understand the magnanimity of the soul who would look at one earnest, but unsure freshman and be willing to take time to give her a bit of gospel tutoring. How could he have taken time from a pressing schedule for one random person, just a face in the crowd really? How could he have worked me in to a day that must have been flooded with too many responsibilities already? And, I know from letters that have come in from others here at Meridian, that he was never too busy for individual ministrations like this.
Casting those calm and discerning eyes about that day at the fireside, he must have sensed the enormity of my yearning for spiritual things and answered it with a sacrifice of his time. How could I have been so privileged? Only because, like all of us, I am a child of God, and Neal Maxwell was—long before being called to the apostleship—his true disciple.
Zeezrom “was convinced that” Alma and Amulek “knew the thoughts and intents of his heart” (Alma 12:7). So I felt when Neal Maxwell answered my simple question that afternoon with an invitation to deeper study. It changed my life. It expanded and matured me in spiritual things and I felt light bursting upon me as I read and studied.
Elder Maxwell said, “God, who oversees the interlacings of galaxies, stars, and worlds, asks us to confess His hand in our personal lives, too. Have we not been reassured about the fall of one sparrow and that the very hairs of our heads are numbered? God is in the details! Just as the Lord knows all of his vast creations, He also knows and loves each in any crowd—indeed, He knows and loves each and all of mankind.”
“Consider His tender salutations to Moses—“I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight” (Exodus 33:12)
God knows us by name, and that day in a crowded hall when I was 19, he sent Neal Maxwell as his emissary to tell me.
Not Yet the Ending
It is tempting to end the story there—wrap it up with a nice neat bow, but life doesn’t usually offer such tidy finishes. Even after you see the valley of peace in the distance, you have to walk there on a sometimes rocky, stumbling road.
So life went on for me as it does for everyone from age 19 and that ignited fire of spirituality. My vision of what life would be was often edited and changed, my expectations sometimes dashed. I found that life offered joy, but also heartrending disappointment and even tragedy, that it was one thing to embrace eternal principles wholeheartedly and another thing in the face of tedium, sorrow or dimmed hopes to live what you know. I learned that we can comprehend more than we can developmentally deliver, be farther ahead in our minds than we are in our hearts.
In short, I received the hard and wonderful lessons of mortality, what Elder Maxwell sometimes called the “wintry doctrines.” In mortality we experience chastening, wrenching, the bitter as well as sweet. We are pushed to exceed what we thought were our limits. We fall to our knees in desperate need and sometimes wonder if we’ve been heard. We feel the push and pull of the battle between light and darkness raging around us, the seemingly continual struggle against discouragement as we quest to be disciples of Christ. We find that sometimes progress is inch by inch and the journey to wholeness is only for the adventurous and courageous, for those who can finally confess that they are nothing without the atonement.
In those years and then decades ahead from 19, it was still Elder Maxwell who so often taught me through his words in General Conference and his prolific writing, saying just the things I needed to hear as if speaking to me personally.
Life taught me, for instance, that I had a tendency to want to counsel the Lord about what I wanted my life to be like and feel crushed that he didn’t rearrange reality to fit what I wanted or sometimes desperately felt I needed. I found out that some times I pledged consecration with my lips and then held part of myself back, as if afraid what the Lord would ask or angry at what he didn’t seem to deliver.
Yet Elder Maxwell’s writing addressed this failing and so I carried a copy of one of his talks with me until it was dog-eared and worn out. It is called “Willing to Submit”, his conference address from April of 1985.
I do not apologize for trying to speak about one of what Paul called “the deep things of God,” (1 Cor. 2:10), only for my inability to go deeply enough.
While we see this quality in the quiet but spiritually luxuriant lives of the genuine, spiritual heroes and heroines about us, the lack of it keeps so many of us straggling in the foothills and off the peaks in the adventure of full discipleship. I refer to our hesitancy and our holding back in submitting fully to the Lord and His purposes for us. This holding back is like leaving Egypt without journeying all the way to the Holy Land, or waiting in Nauvoo for the railroad to come through, or staying permanently at Winter Quarters…
Required, in particular, is meekness of mind which recognizes God’s perfect love of us and His omniscience. By acknowledging these reassuring realities and accepting that God desires our full development and true happiness, we are readied even as the learning experiences come. Such meekness requires genuine intellectual honesty, owning up to the learning experiences of the past and listening to the Holy Ghost as he preaches to us from the pulpit of memory.
As the Lord communicates with the meek and submissive, fewer decibels are required, and more nuances are received. Even the most meek, like Moses (see Num. 12:3), learn overwhelming things they “never had supposed.” (Moses 1:10.) But it is only the meek mind which can be so shown and so stretched—not those, as Isaiah wrote, who “are wise in their own eyes.” (Isa. 5:21; see also 2 Ne. 9:29 and 2 Ne. 15:21.)
Being willing to submit to the Lord’s purposes for us. This is a requirement matched in its promise only by its difficulty. He continued:
If faithful, we end up acknowledging that we are in the Lord’s hands and should surrender to the Lord on His terms—not ours. It is total surrender, no negotiating; it is yielding with no preconditions.
Suppose Enoch had demurred when called by the Lord? He would have gone on being a good person, serving the Lord part-time, living in a city which was a slum compared to the glorious City of Enoch; nor would Enoch be a part of that scene of glorious greeting yet to come. (See Moses 7:63.)
Suppose Peter had not left his nets “straightway”? (See Mark 1:18.) He might have become the respected president of the local Galilean fishermen’s association. But he would not have been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, Moses, and Elias and heard the voice of God. (See Matt. 17:4.)
We have been given three special words—but if not—by three submissive young men who entered their fiery furnace, knowing “our God … is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, … But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods.” (Dan. 3:17-18; italics added.)
Here is a description of grace under pressure, the deep lessons of endurance as we seek to find God and trust that as we wholeheartedly give ourselves to him, we are in the only safe hands.
Elder Maxwell understood this. His conference talks ring with titles like “Swallowed up in the Will of the Father,” “Consecrate Thy Performance,” “Content with the Things Allotted unto Us.”
He once said, “Unless we are filled with resolve, what will we say to the heroes and heroines of Martin’s Cove and the Sweetwater? That ‘we admire you, but we are reluctant to wade through our own rivers of chilling adversity?’”
So, when it came to enduring leukemia, Elder Maxwell waded in, demonstrating what he had always taught—that God is to be trusted and his schooling accepted.
Last year, Scot and I went to the dedication of the newly restored buildings in Kirtland to cover the event for Meridian. It had been a long time since I was 19. Now I had grandchildren, yet some things hadn’t changed. Elder Maxwell was still the disciple of Christ, reaching out in kindness when by all rights he could be absorbed in his own struggle. At one point in our tour, Elder Maxwell and his wife, Colleen, were being driven on a golf cart from one location to another to spare their legs the walk. Elder Maxwell saw me, pointed to an empty spot on the cart and said, “Maurine, come and ride with us; we’ll give you a lift.”
I demurred but Scot said, “Maurine, if an apostle of the Lord offers you a ride, you should surely take it.” Elder Maxwell reached out a hand to help me, and I had a few precious moments to tell him how much his reaching out to me before as a 19-year-old had meant and–when he hadn’t known it–he had reached out to me a hundred times since.
It seems Elder Maxwell was always giving me a lift.