As a young pastor, years ago, my father was often bemused by the variable of travel — especially travel of great distances — to the significance, value, and draw of a guest speaker. A speaker that had been “flown in” was endowed with a crowd-drawing gravitas with which the local options couldn’t compete. (The same could be said about the now quaint concept of a long-distance call on a landline telephone. A long-distance call once made you sit up and pay attention in a way that a mere local call did not.) Even Jesus understood that dynamic and named its reality: hometown prophets and their messages aren’t as readily accepted and certainly not honored (Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; Matt. 13:57). People know the local prophet already. A local prophet doesn’t glow as much as one from “elsewhere.” The distance clouds familiarity and adds an attractive mystique.

While the globe has grown dramatically smaller with the (relative) ease of modern travel, the images and words we use to convey who we are technologically (think: well-designed blogs, twitter feeds, etc.) create other kinds of value-enhancing distances between us. How we consume these media matters a lot to our hold on what is real and true about God, people, and creation. Branding, images, and public relations aren’t inherently evil, but they do have a powerful potential to deceive and dislocate us and others.

In April I was deeply touched by Fred Smith’s blog entry celebrating the faithful life of Brennan Manning at his passing, and the post bounced a bit around the blogosphere and feeds. Fred reflected on Brennan Manning’s thoughts about leadership and the idol of ambition, and was struck by this snippet of Brennan’s advice: “Do the truth quietly without display.” But, Fred noted, many Christian leaders succumb to the idol of ambition shrouded in the most noble of intentions. With distinct poignancy, Fred wrote “The world does not reward obscurity, does it?” The reality is, to get to the place where one has enough public recognition to make a difference, do some good, and maybe change a corner of the world, one must build a personal platform. You have to make a name for yourself.

The builders at Babel knew that too. They designed the tower to enhance their relative worth and public significance. It was a physical platform upon which to secure a powerful, value-enhancing identity and to project that identity far and wide. The tower was to create a kind of psychic distance between them and others, and to secure their place in the world, lest they be scattered. Or, lest their branding be dissipated, ignored, or obscured into worthlessness. In an act of severe mercy, God instilled true distance among the builders and confused their languages. He mercifully thwarted their seemingly unstoppable power before their perceptions and projections took them off to the far and distant country of their own increasingly demented souls.

International work and the missionary enterprise are not immune to these temptations of perception and deception because of distance. My father also recounts a time in his early days of pastoring (likely when he wanted to run away from some of the harder, local realities of being a pastor) when he entertained the idea of becoming a missionary in a distant country. But, on a bench near Boston, he heard the quiet voice of God saying, “What would you do there that you are not willing to do here?” The dream mercifully died on that park bench.

Laura Parker, a gifted writer whose family is involved in global counter-trafficking work, has written similar words of wisdom on her blog in her “8 Reasons You Should Never Become a Missionary,” including the first two of a terrific 8-point list:

1. Don’t Become a Missionary if You Think You Are Going to Change the World. First, high expectations doom to disappoint, but, also, maybe your desire to change the world is trumping your desire to serve. Ask yourself if you would be happy moving overseas to a much harsher environment in order to quietly help a local, while getting no recognition and seeing no fruit in the process.  If you can answer honestly yes, then maybe you’re still in the running. {Don’t worry, we thought we would’ve answered yes, but found out that we really had some unhealthy saviour-complexes to begin with. You can read about that here: On Living a Good Story and Not Trying So Hard  and The Guy in the Orange Shirt.}

2. Don’t Become a Missionary to Make Yourself Better. My first mission trip was as a middle schooler to Jamaica. I’m not really sure how much good we actually did, but I do remember one of the missionaries we worked with. His name was Craig, and he had some of the biggest glasses I’d ever seen. And the dude talked to everybody about Jesus. Everyone– the pot-smoking Rastafarian in the line, the tourists at the store, the check-out guy at the food stand. And I remember turning one time to another missionary who worked with him and asked what made him so “good” at evangelizing.  The older missionary said, “Craig?  Oh, he didn’t come to Jamaica and become like that. He was already like that in the States.”

And I think Craig with the big glasses dispels the lie that if you move overseas, then you will magically become a superhero Christian. Um, false. What you are here, you’ll be there. And while it’s true that the change of environment can spark growth, it doesn’t mean you’ll go from luke-warm average Christian to Rob-Bell-Cool-On-Fire-Mother-Theresa just because you suddenly find yourself on another continent. Pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.

Obscurity and familiarity. In the end, at the end of the speech, the flown-in speaker returns to her hometown and to her family, to the people who know her in her fully, human complexity. The missionary’s efforts may be so obscured and unknown to the powerful and great, but, really, who cares? Our destiny is not greatness, but it is, assuredly, as Thomas Merton said, “a great one.”

Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. It is therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are. (No Man Is An Island)