LDS leader describes writing Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s inspiring life story

When he set out to write the biography of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Elder Bruce C. Hafen wanted not just to record the life of a famous Church leader – as important as that was – “but also to honor his experience as one model to anyone seeking to be a true disciple” of Jesus Christ.

Elder Hafen, now an emeritus General Authority, spoke Feb. 13 of his experience in writing the book A Disciple’s Life. He was the first speaker in this year’s Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series organized by the Church History Library and held monthly in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Several members of the Maxwell family were in attendance, including his wife, Sister Colleen Maxwell; several members of the Seventy and other General Authorities, and members of the Relief Society general presidency and board.

Elder Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles died of leukemia on July 21, 2004, but not before helping Elder Hafen with the preparation of the book.

Called to the First Quorum of Seventy in 1996, Elder Hafen was assigned to an area presidency in Australia, where he would serve four years.

“Like so many of you,” he recalled, “my wife, Marie, and I were stunned when we learned that Elder Maxwell had leukemia later that year of 1996. He was 70 years old.

“After we heard that he was receiving daily and intensive in-patient chemotherapy, we prayed continually for him. We then shared with the Church a profound sense of gratitude when his cancer went into remission in 1997 and he made that unforgettable appearance in general conference.”

Two years later, during October conference, Elder Maxwell invited Elder Hafen to his office.

“I still remember this phrase: ‘Well, I am OK now, but one of these days the leukemia will be back,” Elder Hafen recalled. For that reason, the apostle anticipated he hadn’t long to live, that he was finally yielding to the prodding of people to have his biography written.

“I thought he was asking for my advice about that. I said, ‘Yes, you should have it written, by all means,’ and I told him the reasons why. He asked if I would write it, and I couldn’t believe he was serious. I was honored that he would even think of me. I hadn’t written a biography before.”

Elder Hafen tried to cite reasons why he didn’t think it was a good idea: He was overseas on assignment and it would take a lot of work, research and interviews. Elder Maxwell hadn’t even kept a personal journal.

“I said I’d be glad to recommend somebody else, and he just nodded quietly and kind of waited for me to be done with that.”

After some subsequent prodding Elder Hafen agreed to go ahead with the project.

“I would remember scriptures about how the Lord will help us when we have a work to do,” he said. “Then, as time went by, I found really wonderful people who wanted to help, and that brought about peace to both Marie and me. We realized we had been given a rare privilege.”

Elder Hafen said he believes in retrospect that Church members witnessed a miracle in Elder Maxwell’s prolonged life after the initial diagnosis. The oncologist, a Church member named Clyde Ford, said the apostle had beaten the statistical odds when the disease went into a first remission; when it returned in 1998, the odds were much worse.

Then, in his research Dr. Ford found a small-scale study done in Sweden about a new treatment pattern. Though the sample size was too small to justify much of a prediction, the treatment was attempted, and it kept the leukemia at bay for another six years, until 2004.

“That miracle made possible a biography that drew on lengthy interviews with Elder Maxwell, and … he and Sister Maxwell were able to read the whole manuscript and offer comments,” Elder Hafen said.

The work caused him to reflect on the question, “Why do we read and write biographies?”

“When we tell our own stories to each other, we realize the cosmic quest to overcome evil and find God is a very personal quest for each of us,” he said.

“Elder Maxwell’s story is valuable … on a couple of levels: one as a chapter in the history of the Church; the other, particularly his story, illustrates the process of trying to become a disciple of Christ.”

Saying he learned a biographer can’t be much better than his primary sources, he said he asked Elder Maxwell if he had written letters home while serving in World War II or on his mission.

“Oh, there’s nothing profound in those little letters,” was the reply.

But searching the letters, he found matter-of-fact accounts that allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

For example, young Neal Maxwell wrote of being on the island of Okinawa when a shell exploded not more than 5 feet away. In terror, he jumped from his foxhole, moved away seeking protection, then crawled back into the foxhole. “There, he knelt trembling, and spoke the deepest prayer of his life, pleading for protection, and dedicated the rest of his life to the Lord.”

From books about the fighting on Okinawa, Elder Hafen learned of the adverse conditions that beset the servicemen there, including constant thirst. One historian wrote that the only thing that saved them was coffee, which was boiled and rendered relatively sanitary.

Later, he ran across a paragraph in a short letter 18-year-old Neal Maxwell wrote to his parents: “Had a dream the other night. You folks were holding Carol [his sister] up to a window and I was saying ‘Boo’ to her. And she laughed as she does. Boy, if that didn’t make me blue! It’s rough here. … Still not smoking, drinking tea or coffee. Nothing great, but the coffee is tempting sometimes.”

Elder Hafen said that helped him discover how the battle shaped Elder Maxwell’s character. “I believe the coffee was a very practical, youthful expression of the commitment and sacrifice on Okinawa to serve the Lord. This illustrated for me the value of specific details and contemporaneous sources in telling the story.”

Elder Hafen spoke of Elder Maxwell’s prolific writing and speaking, his distinctive style, his keen sense of humor – and his nearly illegible handwriting. He quoted President Gordon B. Hinckley as saying, “Surely a man who has so many virtues must have a vice or two. Have you ever seen Neal’s handwriting? I don’t know how in the world Colleen ever derived any comfort from anything he ever wrote to her.”

Elder Hafen said the tales of Elder Maxwell’s gifts in writing are legendary, adding that translators at general conference assigned conference sermons to categories ranging from one to four, indicating level of difficulty. Category 5 was reserved for only one speaker: Elder Maxwell.

“The challenge was not that he used big fancy words,” Elder Hafen said. “The challenge was that his language was so compressed, full of carefully chosen imagery, metaphors and allusions.”

Elder Hafen told of the mentoring relationship that Elder Maxwell had with many young students in academia.

“He encountered with zest the confusion and doubts of the modern secular world at very sophisticated levels and emerged with a spiritual maturity that was enriched rather than undermined by his educational and professional experiences. Then, as a role model, he taught other young teachers and students how to blend their hearts and their minds.”

Elder Hafen said he began his research thinking Elder Maxwell’s example as an educator would be central. “It soon became clear to me that the long-term central message of Neal Maxwell’s life and his teachings had a much broader, deeper focus, and that was how to become a true follower of Jesus Christ.”

His use of the word disciple changed over time, Elder Hafen said, from being essentially a synonym for Church member to being a Church member who has disengaged from the unclean, worldly distractions of the secular culture.

“And then, a few years later, after his call as a General Authority, his experience with two young fathers who had terminal cancer launched him on a quest to understand the connections between discipleship and adversity,” Elder Hafen said.

“In a book he dedicated to these two young fathers, he used a phrase that hauntingly anticipated the leukemia that wold strke him nearly two decades later.”

Elder Hafen quoted Elder Maxwell: “The very act of choosing to be a disciple … can bring to us a certain special suffering. … [A]ll who will can come to know [what Paul called] ‘the fellowship of his suffering.’”

Such suffering, when part of a divine tutorial, can be personally sanctifying, helping the disciple develop the skills and attitudes he needs to learn, Elder Hafen reflected.

For Elder Maxwell, it brought an increased measure of empathy both for sufferers and what he called “secondary sufferers,” loved ones who provide support to the stricken.

One day, during his cancer years, Elder Maxwell invited Elder Hafen to come with him on a lunchtime break to LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City to give a priesthood blessing to someone. They had a half hour before they needed to be back for a meeting.

Walking down the hospital corridor, some people saw them coming and said, “Elder Maxwell, you came! How did you know? We’re so glad you came.”

Though unacquainted with the family, Elder Maxwell ascertained that the father needed a blessing, and the two General Authorities provided it. Then, Elder Maxwell said, “How about your mom? Does she need a blessing too?”

“We gave her a blessing, and we embraced the family, then hurried down to the other room, visited those we were going to see, and then rushed back to the meeting,” Elder Hafen said.

“The increased empathy that Elder Maxwell had found looked more and more to me like what the scriptures call charity,” he reflected. “He was coming to feel more fully the pure love of Christ for other people. Then came what was, for me, the most significant doctrinal link – the connection between charity and affliction.”

For more information on the Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series 2014, including a schedule for upcoming lectures, click here.

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