It happened when we lived in our first apartment, shortly after we got married. As a friend was leaving our home, she asked why we had two last names on our mailbox at the front door. I teasingly stated the obvious, "Because my husband and I have different last names." Then I explained that I had not yet legally changed my name to my husband's, due to moving abroad eight days after our wedding, and not wanting to start something that might be tricky to finish before moving internationally once again.
My explanation was not good enough for her. "Well, in Germany, if there are two last names on the mailbox, people will think you're unmarried but living together. It's not a good testimony to the neighbours." I tried to explain again that I understood her concern, but that with various pieces of paperwork pending, it would not be wise to start on a name change process. "Besides," I told her, "Anyone who comes to our house will see our wedding pictures in the living room."
She didn't pester me any further, but I was surprised how much her words bothered me for the rest of that day. Did we have a poor testimony with our neighbours (who virtually never talked to us anyway) because of a label on our mailbox? Did I not explain our reason well enough? Had we made the wrong decision in delaying my name change? I had felt funny about having my maiden name on the mailbox too, but because individual apartments here don't have numbers, the mailbox and doorbell had to reflect both names, in case we received mail in my legal name.
See, I'm still trying to justify our decision to you several years later.
On that day, I realized how easy it is to allow one person's comment to make me second guess something we did in good conscience, and virtually out of necessity. That same week, I came across Ecclesiastes 7:20-22, where Solomon instructed:
"Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins.
Do not pay attention to every word people say,
or you may hear your servant cursing you—
for you know in your heart
that many times you yourself have cursed others."
By opening our home to people of all kinds of different backgrounds, we open ourselves to their comments, too. In the past five years, I've been told by international friends that my hallway is dirty, that my kitchen cabinets are cheap, and that the food I've made is not as good as my guest's wife's food. And yes, that I dishonoured Christ by delaying my name change.
Usually there's an element of truth in the comments. But as a person who has always been a bit too sensitive to other peoples' remarks, I'm trying to learn to process the truth in the statement (dirty hallway duly noted) without overthinking or second-guessing.
Solomon's reason for telling us not to take others' remarks to heart is perhaps not what we'd expect — he reminds us that we've all made comments or had thoughts about others that weren't right. Humility lets us overlook others' awkward or even sinful remarks, remembering that we are no more righteous than they are.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the paperwork was completed and we could finally remove my maiden name from our doorbell and thereby declare even to the mailman (who's never seen our wedding photos) that we are truly husband and wife.
But now that the name label is fixed, I'm sure other disconcerting remarks are not far away, as long as we keep opening our doors to people of different opinions, cultures and backgrounds. Cross-cultural hospitality requires the wisdom to balance humbly paying attention to any kernel of truth in our guests' statements and yet humbly not paying attention to every word people say.