"When we tell our stories to others, we realize that the cosmic quest to overcome evil and find God is our very personal quest."
Church membership is the aggregate of individual testimonies, and these testimonies are "unique, richly textured, full of meaning and full of lessons about life," said Elder Bruce C. Hafen, keynote speaker at the annual BYU Family History Conference, July 30, 2002.
These testimonies, like the collection of stories in the scriptures, teach the gospel, said Elder Hafen of the Seventy. "When we tell our stories to others, we realize that the cosmic quest to overcome evil and find God is our very personal quest," he said.
In encouraging members to write their personal stories, Elder Hafen recounted spiritual and practical lessons that would benefit other writers of personal histories that he learned while writing A Disciple's Life, the biography of Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve.
"Elder Maxwell's life story is valuable at two levels," he said. "One as a chapter in the history of the Church and the other to illustrate the process of trying to become a follower of Christ."
Elder Maxwell is a "clean desk man" who did not keep a great deal of correspondence or personal papers in earlier years, and has but a brief written history. So it turned out that letters the young Neal wrote to his family during his service in World War II and his mission provided valuable insights and became a turning point for his biographer.
"Memories recalled years after an event are helpful, but they are not the same as uninterpreted, contemporaneous evidence that allows readers to draw their own conclusions," he said.
An example of Neal A. Maxwell's early experiences was as an 18-year-old infantryman on Okinawa during World War II. In combat, the younger Neal Maxwell noticed that three shells in a row had exploded in sequence, and he realized the enemy had triangulated his position. "Suddenly, a shell exploded no more than five feet away from him. Terribly shaken, Neal jumped from his muddy foxhole and moved down a little knoll seeking protection, and then, uncertain what to do, he crawled back to the foxhole. There he knelt, trembling, and spoke the deepest prayer he had ever uttered, pleading for protection and dedicating the rest of his life to the Lord's service. No more shells exploded near him after that moment."
Later in his life, Elder Maxwell would compare that experience in Okinawa with his leukemia, "both in its terror and its deep spiritual impact on him."
Elder Hafen said that to get background on that experience in Okinawa, he began reading about the fighting that was conducted there. In so doing, he discovered that the intensity of the fighting and deplorable conditions led to severe emotional trauma for many men. Troops were also hungry and especially thirsty; their only relief from the oily, foul water was boiled coffee. The young soldier once wrote home that he was keeping the commandments, but was sometimes tempted by coffee.
"The combination of knowing the messy battlefield context and seeing his innocent reference to being tempted but not giving in was for me a moving discovery about the way that the battlefield shaped his character," said Elder Hafen. "I believe his determination to avoid coffee was a very practical, youthful expression of the commitment he made there to serve the Lord."
In his years as Commissioner of Church Education, Elder Maxwell served as a mentor to many young students as he encouraged them on to professional excellence with such comments as "A disciple's excellent scholarship is a form of consecration" and "In a morally deteriorating culture, we must lean into the fray like Joseph of Egypt, rather than just being another hungry mouth to feed."
In this capacity, said Elder Hafen, Elder Maxwell, a commissioner of Church Education, helped mentor Elders Dallin H. Oaks, Jeffrey R. Holland and Henry B. Eyring. In turn, he had been mentored by Elder G. Homer Durham and Elder Harold B. Lee.
"Neal Maxwell came from a 'background of rural and quite literal Mormonism,' " said Elder Hafen. "[In higher education] he then encountered with zest the confusion and doubts of the modern secular world at sophisticated levels, emerging with a spiritual maturity that was enriched rather than undermined by his educational and professional abilities."
Elder Hafen said that to him, the central message of Elder Maxwell's life is one of discipleship, a concept that grew more meaningful over time.
In the 1960s when he was a teacher and leader at the University of Utah, Neal A. Maxwell used the word "disciple" essentially as a synonym for Church member, said Elder Hafen. In the 1970s, as Commissioner of Church Education, he saw a disciple as a Church member disengaged from the things of the world. Later, as a General Authority, Elder Maxwell began seeing the connection between discipleship and adversity.
"The very act of choosing to be a disciple can bring to us a certain special suffering," Elder Maxwell then noted. After his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, "he began to see discipleship as a personal growth process designed to develop Christlike attributes," said Elder Hafen. "This let him see that suffering, when it is part of a divine tutorial, can be sanctifying in the sense of developing the very virtues a particular disciple needs to learn."
A statement from Elder Maxwell explains: "If we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do. . . .
"Sometimes the best people have the worst experiences, because they are the most ready to learn."