Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of "For the Plane Ride: A Father's Counsel to a Departing Missionary"

Writing this review, like the one I wrote for my friend Steven L. Peck, is personal. The author, Mark E. McKell, has truly been a father and mentor to me since I was 16. While I am not his biological son, he has certainly treated me as such, and to be completely objective I should admit that upfront before I review his book. Put simply, I am a fan of both the man and the book.

In his book For the Plane Ride: A Father's Counsel to a Departing Missionary, McKell provides in 188 pages a final epistle to his second son Aaron. As the title suggests, the epistle contains counsel of things he should know just prior to serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He admits in the opening chapter that he had wanted to have this advice in writing before his eldest son had left, but other things prevented that from happening. Luckily, he had more than one son and was able to complete the project before Aaron left for his mission in Spokane, Washington.

The book is comprised of short chapters which deal with various subjects, the most important of which include missionary psychology, the "why" of missionary work, having a vision, understanding that you are not in charge, and various other things (it is amazing that so much could be covered in so short of a book). Since these were the most important themes in the book (according to me anyway), let me touch on psychology and the why of missionary work, offer my several criticisms of the book, and then conclude with why I recommend the book.

Missionary psychology has to deal with the everyday life of a missionary. When you first arrive in the field, even the most confident person will be overwhelmed. You are doing a job that in many ways you can prepare for and in many ways you cannot, you may be in a different culture, and you have much expected of you. As time goes on, you get into a routine and then have a sense that you can do this on your own.

If you have thought that, take a step back and understand that you are applying a business attitude to something that you are not in charge of. McKell mentions that he had two episodes where he learned this lesson, but the first one struck me as particularly significant. To set the scene up a bit, McKell mentions that had been in a new ward for several weeks, but because he had come from an area of the world where the church ran rather smoothly, he saw many imperfections in how the ward he was serving in was being run, and when he was assigned to speak in church he thought he would tell everyone howto run a ward correctly. Now, this may seem brash (and it is), but I can see many people having the same reaction early on in there mission, even if they wouldn't have the courage to tell everyone in an open setting. Unfortunately and fortunately, things did not go as planned:

I took my place at the podium, looked out at the congregation, looked down at my notes, but the words wouldn't come. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.... I looked at my notes and looked at the congregation, but still nothing. I was like I has peanut butter in my mouth and couldn't formulate any words.......What was happening to me? This was nothing like my sacrament meeting farewell talk back in the States, or the countless times I spoke in church back home.... The reality was that the Holy Ghost had completely left me. In my arrogance and pride, it had left me naked on the stand. My Heavenly Father was trying to teach me a lesson, and teach me He did. (pgs. 56-57)
If you knew McKell personally, you would know he is a gifted speaker, so this experience seems almost like it may be made up or exaggerated. But, the principle comes through clearly that the Holy Ghost will not stay with us when we are not worthy of His presence, even if we are the Lord's full-time servants. You may have a right to the constant companionship of the Spirit, but on his terms, not your own. In short, you need to always remember that you are on the Lord's errand, not yours.

While this was perhaps the most memorable story told in the book, the most important part is the last chapter, where McKell talks about the "why" of missionary work, something that missionaries and members cannot afford to forget. The why is the testimony of the Jesus Christ, the restoration of his gospel on the Earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and the reality of living prophets and priesthood keys. Because you have a knowledge of these things, you serve a mission and remain in the Church. There are, of course, other things that are important. But the why of missionary work is fundamental to everything else we do.

I enjoyed reading this book very much, but I have two criticisms of it. First, McKell, like other Mormons, paints a very optimistic version of missionary service (which is not surprising, he mentions early on that he is a glass half-full kind of guy). The reality is that missionary service has very beautiful moments, but for the most part it is mental anguish. Someone once said that the two years a person serves in the mission field are the closest humans will come to being like the Savior in Gethsemane. If I recall the story correctly, that was not a pretty sight, even if the outcome was.  A mission is a grueling task that regardless of your attitude will test you to your limit. You need to be emotionally and spiritually prepared or it can be a damaging rather than a lifting experience.

The other criticism I have is that McKell seems to think (maybe this comes across this way because he is writing to Aaron who earnestly wanted so serve), that everyone will want to serve or that they should serve. A mission is not a commandment; I know of no church president saying that a revelation had been received saying otherwise. The simple fact is, missions are not for everyone. If you have no desire to serve a mission, have a shaky testimony or none at all, have a philosophical mind, or are a generally questioning person, the mission field may not be for you. We sometimes want people to share in our experience because of what they meant to us, but it should be remebered that your experience will not necessarily mirror everyone elses. It might have been your best two years, it might be another persons worst two. Missions are a good option, but they are one good option among many good.

In closing, I recommend that every young man read this book before he decides to serve or not to serve. For one, you will not be bored; McKell is able to make you laugh, smile, feel the spirit, and bring you to tears, sometimes in one chapter. In addition, this book is not just about the two years that you will have in the field; it is about the life you will life after it as well. As Eldon McKell (the author's father) told him "You have two years to serve and a lifetime to think about it" The lessons you learn in the field (if you care to learn them), will change and alter the course of your life. If I had read this book prior to departing for my mission, I would have been a much better missionary than I was. I encourage all who can to read McKell's book from cover to cover. It will make you a better missionary, spouse, and disciple of Christ; what is there not to like about that?

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