Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "Rescued: A Prodigal's Journey Home," by Jerry Earl Johnston and published by Covenant Communications.
In 1980, Elder Neal A. Maxwell was a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and the commissioner of church education. I was the book critic for the Deseret News. I wanted to do a series of stories on the favorite books of prominent people and called Elder Maxwell to ask if he’d contribute. He graciously agreed and mailed me his list.
“Jerry, I read intensively but sporadically,” he wrote in his letter, “so that new books would replace the last two or three on my list, whereas the scriptures, for instance, have a deep and persistent value for me.”
Some of his choices, like the scriptures, were naturals. “There is never any question of being disappointed when one ponders these pages,” he wrote.
"Mere Christianity," by C.S. Lewis, was on his list, along with "Democracy in America," by Alexis de Tocqueville (“increasingly relevant”), and Elizabeth Longford’s "Wellington: The Years of the Sword" (“excellent”).
But one book caught my eye — the little gem, "A Gift from the Sea," by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. He praised the book’s “therapeutic perspectives in the midst of a busy and pressing world.”
Generally considered a woman’s book, "A Gift from the Sea" became a prototype for most of the slender volumes of self-help advice that followed. Lindbergh wrote about walking along the beach, where she picks up various shells. Each shell has a lesson to teach — how to be alone, how to dig deeper and other insights.
The reason I flashed on its choice by Elder Maxwell was I often kept copies of the book around to give as gifts, though I seldom mentioned it when discussing literature with my academic friends.
It was a guilty pleasure. I was, as I said earlier, still a disciple of the God of Good Taste. And lofty little tomes of spiritual awakening didn’t qualify.
But Elder Maxwell was an academic and knew literature better than I did. And he had put the book out there for all to see, without a drop of self-consciousness or shame. He didn’t worry about what others thought. He owned up to the things of his heart.
I had to admire that.
And I admired a mind that could be as hard and reflective as agate, yet still embrace tenderness and sentiment — even popular taste, froth and all.
I wanted to learn how to do that.
I felt — or at least hoped — we would one day become friends. I didn’t know then that he would be the man to calm the turbulent sea that was sinking my life and set my sails for better things.
Over the next few years we exchanged letters, phone calls and books we were fond of reading. From time to time we’d share a meal. He was a stickler for promptness, and at least once I tested his patience by arriving late.
We’d meet in the small dining room of the Church Administration Building. The wooden fixtures and cozy atmosphere reminded me of the dining car on my train to Mexico.
Sometimes his wife, Colleen, would join us. Together, it seemed to me, they formed two halves of the same orange.
Our conversations were filled with friendly thoughts about heavy matters.
“Colleen is so tenderhearted,” Elder Maxwell once said when she was away from the table. “She’s convinced the Rich Young Man in the parable went out, sold all he owned and returned to follow the Savior.” When he spoke about her, there was a soft sparkle in his eyes and voice.
At those lunches I came to realize that wives make us better than we are while never letting us believe we’re better than we are.
When his wife was with him — or when Carol was with me — Elder Maxwell and I ate our vegetables dutifully. When they weren’t along, we dug deep into the meat and potatoes.
We were husbands — except when the topic turned to spiritual matters. Then something magical happened. Elder Maxwell would turn a simple observation into a moment akin to William Blake’s line about holding infinity in the palm of his hand and finding “eternity in an hour.”
More than once I found eternity in those hour lunches with Elder Maxwell.
Elder Maxwell’s personal ministry was vast. He helped dozens along the strait and narrow. But he made each one of us believe we were the most important person he knew. Somehow, I don’t know how, he actually felt that way when he was with us, and that made it so.
His letters to me always began with gratitude — “Just a note of appreciation,” he’d write. Or, “Thanks, as always, for your kindness in sharing.” “Thanks so much for your note, but even more for being my everlasting friend.”