Yesterday morning, I wasn’t planning to go to church; I was going to donate platelets instead. (My prioritization of church, or lack thereof, is a topic for another post.) But my hemoglobin was a little too low to donate, so I ended up walking into the 11:00 church service about 15 minutes in, toward the end of the singing. Normally I carry a big, black leather-bound ESV study Bible to church, as well as a hardcover journal for taking notes. (Never mind that I take notes mostly in order to stay awake in my church’s soft-seated, dimly-lit sanctuary and rarely go back and look at my notes. Having the journal makes me look serious.) But yesterday, because I didn’t think I was going to church, I didn’t have my Bible and journal. So I walked in late, with no Bible (in a church where most people still carry bound Bibles) and with a new short, somewhat asymmetrical haircut that could, I suppose, be interpreted as countercultural. And, because I don’t know the words very well yet, I didn’t sing most of the song that had just started when I walked in. Taking together all of these factors, I was worried that the people next to me were going to assume I was a visitor, probably an “unchurched” one.
When my pastor began preaching on Matthew 12:15-21 (at least I had the YouVersion Bible app on my phone and could follow along), I quickly realized how silly my worries were–even if the people next to me were actually thinking about me, which is unlikely. In that passage, Jesus heals a lot of people and then forbids them to tell anyone. My pastor pointed to this action as a demonstration of Jesus’ humility: Jesus’ goal on earth was to do his Father’s will, not to “make his own name famous” (a phrase that is popular today in some church circles but is inconsistent with Jesus’ whole way of operating). It’s not that Jesus didn’t want people hearing his message; he just didn’t want fame, which is shallow and temporary. We as Christians, my pastor said, spend too much time doing image control, worrying about whether we’re giving a good impression of Christianity. Even when we say that we don’t care what people think, we’re showing that we care what people think. My pastor said that all we are called to do is to live in obedience (which sometimes means proclaiming a message verbally–that’s not what is being forbidden here); it is not our job to control how we’re perceived.
It made me think of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (okay, I haven’t read the book, but the movie absolutely wrecked me), which is about a man who has an intensely personal faith in God of which he cannot speak, but which, we understand in retrospect, has driven his actions all through his life. This character doesn’t have the luxury of branding himself as a Christian, as so many of us do in America today, but all that matters to him is that he knows that God knows of his faithfulness.
I ended up putting away my phone and just listening to the sermon. My church follows the current trend of putting the words of Scripture on the screens at the front, so I didn’t really need to follow along in my app anyway (unless I wanted to look at the context, which using the screens can’t really replace). I tried to think of myself not as an individual sticking out like a sore thumb, but as another member of Christ’s body, just like the people next to me. It helped. I listened. I worshiped. And, wonderfully, I didn’t fall asleep!