Watch Yourself

How well do you know yourself, that person you wake up to and carry around all day?

Truth be told, we may know the people around us – spouse, children, co-workers — better than we know ourselves.

We learn people by watching them, constantly and unconsciously. If we watch closely, we can learn their strengths, their gifts, their little irritating habits, their inconsistencies, their default settings, their besetting sins, their go-to themes of conversation, the triggers that set them off.

My problem, maybe yours too, is that my being “other-focused” in this way is not always a good thing because it takes my eyes off me.

Paul, writing to Timothy, gave him this instruction: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” (I Tim 4:16, NIV) or “Pay attention to yourself and to your teaching.” (NASB)

Paul doesn’t tell the young pastor to watch the lives of people in his church. He tells Timothy to watch himself. The word for “watch” has the meaning of pay attention to, observe, apply, to check.

At street level, we’d say: watch yourself. This is not a new idea. The same instruction can be found in Deuteronomy

Paul reminded Timothy of what we so easily forget. In relationships, we naturally focus on other people’s ills: what they do wrong, where they have blind spots, where they need work. If we are leading something, whether it be a ministry, a team or a family, we can begin to view ourselves as the professional fault-finder and fixer.

Paul points Timothy to the man in the mirror. If Timothy wants to make a difference in the lives of the people around him, Paul tells him to keep a close watch on himself and the example he sets. He is to be a demonstration of the truth he teaches.

His first letter to Timothy instructs him on “how people are to conduct themselves in God’s household.” (I Timothy 3:15 NIV) Specifically: what to teach, the qualifications for a deacon or overseer, the appropriate way to related to older men, widows, young men etc. He admonishes Timothy to avoid false doctrine, reminding him of the book-ends of true Christianity: faith and love.

In the midst of this discussion, Paul tells Timothy to pay close attention to how he lives as well as what he teaches.

Paul knew the importance of both right teaching and personal discipline. He wrote to the believers in Corinth that he disciplined himself as an athlete in competition: he beat his body down and made it his slave, that after he had preached to others he himself might not be disqualified for the prize. (I Corinthians 9:27)

I know firsthand the damage so-called Christians can do when we teach one thing and live something else; fixated on straightening the crooked lives of those around us, we do more harm than good when we fail to bring our own lives under the dictates of Scripture. Our actions give God’s enemies an occasion to blaspheme.

Paul reminds us that the biblical challenge is to watch ourselves.

“You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? (Roman 2:21-22)

Want to lead others to the faith? Watch yourself.

The Great Car Debate

My teen-aged son is desperate to have his own car now that he’s a worker bee. Realistically, we parents expect him to put up his own money. He doesn’t see why we can’t “just buy” him a car.

It’s pretty simple to us. Nothing in life is free. Nobody “just bought” us cars. I got my first car courtesy of an enlisted brother-in-law whose friend was deploying to Germany and couldn’t take it with him. I got a big-engine, leather interior Cutlass Supreme with power everything for a couple hundred dollars. The rear windshield leaked. My husband got his first car, an oil-burning Vega, for a few hundred as well.

Being almost free meant, these cars weren’t expected to be in mint condition. We were happy just to be riding. Our son considers our first cars clunkers. His friends, after all, drive the coveted Mustang, BMW or Lexus or lowly but new Hondas. And so we’ve been inundated with an email stream of acceptable luxury models: Volvo 850s, SAABs, Acura. On the advice of our trusted mechanic we’ve steered clear of these high mileage potential nightmares.

Our latest suggestion – an affordable, American-made, one-owner only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady (not exactly but close!) – has been rejected as not “stylish.”

The “Great Car Debate” continues, reminding me of something I heard a preacher say: “It is possible to be madly in love with someone you should never marry.”

Men fall in love with cars as well as women. And it’s a good thing to avoid “marrying” a lemon no matter how lovely. Automotive lemons can be detailed to look pristine even after floating through a New Orleans flood or surviving a frame-bending wreck. CarMax showrooms like to display these beautiful wrecks – the kind they pledge not to sell – and to reveal their cleverly disguised flaws.

While there are lemon laws for cars, when it comes to women, there is no legal protection for unwise choices. Whether it’s women or cars, we hope to teach our son that it’s wise to consider the end from the beginning. So what if he can swing a car payment or buy the car outright? What matters is whether he can maintain it over time: pay the insurance, make the repairs.

The Bible says, “Count the cost.” (Luke 14:28)

Just as a car’s value is under the hood, a person’s true value is revealed in character. Like a rust bucket polished into showroom brilliance, people show well when we want to make an impression. Time tells the real story. Keep a car through a few oil changes and its quirks begin to show: the leaks, the squeaks, the controls that are a little wacko. In time, people reveal their true colors, too.

The message to our son: Avoid “buyers’ remorse.” It’s what happens when we’re sold on the sparkle, the new smell and the performance. We drive home and the reality of 48, 60 or even 72 months of payments sets in. We can’t believe we bought it! Can we take it back?

This doesn’t just happen to young boys. I heard a middle-aged caller to a financial radio program confess to being mesmerized by a new car she purchased in a whirl of emotion. She later realized that she works two full weeks of every month to make the payment and barely is able to cover other bills. She was looking for a way out.

The way out, of course, is to do what she obligated herself to do: pay the price. Here’s hoping we can convince our son to first, count the cost.

Got Compassion?

I grew up in an Army town with a Mom who practiced hospitality. She welcomed my drill sergeant brother-in-law and his Fort Benning friends. They ate, played cards, smoked Kools and sipped Budweiser and Heineken under the trees in the backyard.

She was a church-going Methodist, but she knew a thing or two about relating to people that I had yet to learn.

When I married, I forbid my father from visiting my home if he had to smoke indoors. (He chain-smoked unfiltered Camels; and nobody smokes in my house.) Result?

I was married nearly 20 years by the time he succumbed to lung cancer, and he hadn’t visited once. By valuing my rule over the relationship, I’d say I flunked the “show and tell” test of Christianity.

Jesus, on the other hand, ate and drank with sinners. His demonstrated love, and people opened their lives to Him. They gave Him what my friend calls “a front row seat” to the drama of their lives, an  insider perspective.  They were not disappointed.

Jesus “had compassion.” He embraced people, and their lives were never the same. Never underestimate the power of relationship… or the impotence of lacking one.

A church acquaintance contacted me the other day, wanting to have a heart-to-heart talk.  While I appreciated their “concern,” frankly, we don’t know each other well enough for that kind of conversation.

Oh, we’ve smiled politely at one another in church hallways over the years and shared the quick hellos and obligatory half-hugs that pass for Christian fellowship. But we know nothing about each other’s real lives. We have zero relationship.

Concern is good, but compassion has the idea of “co-suffering.” Stronger than empathy, it’s an intimate understanding that makes you want to do something to alleviate a person’s pain. Jesus lived this. Modern-day saints, on the other hand, are more likely to offer a plastic smile and a platitude than genuine compassion.

It may be easier to phone-in Scriptural cures for people’s ills than to soil ourselves with the messy details, but why would anyone want to bare their soul to someone who has no idea who they are? Christians may have “The Answer,” but we often are unwilling to invest the time to develop the kind of relationships that prompt a question. I regret having made this mistake with my father.

We have to earn the privilege of speaking into people’s lives. It all starts with establishing a loving connection. Such things require time, patience and sacrifice. Like anything worthwhile, it takes effort. Jesus is our model.

So I’ve committed to be more available to people, more open to the quick phone call, the drop-by visit, the inconvenient conversation over coffee. It’s not always easy. I’m still learning what my Mom wordlessly expressed in entertaining those Vietnam vets:  Love covers a multitude of sins, and mercy triumphs over judgment.

Give and take?

This morning, I pulled up to a Cadillac bumper plastered with stickers decrying the “socialist” government in Washington. One read: “The problem with socialism is you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

I hate to sound like a civics teacher, but any money the U.S. government has or ever will have is collectively “somebody else’s money.” Lincoln described our nation as “government of the people, by the people,  for the people.” And, like it or not, we the people pay to run our government with taxes as provided for in the U.S. Constitution.

Article I section VIII states that  “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”

Yet, we love to hate taxes. We want good roads and free-flowing traffic, but we don’t want the bill. We demand law and order, but we complain about the cost of paying policemen and building prisons. We want fast ambulance service when we need it, but we insist lawmakers cut the very taxes that pay for it.

Where did we get the idea that we can enjoy the collective benefits of community and pay ala carte?

It may come as a shock, but Jesus paid his taxes. When someone questioned whether they should pay Caesar tribute, a sum of money, Jesus didn’t encourage a Tea Party rebellion. He said to give Caesar what was his. Mark 12:17

At the heart of tax grumbling is selfishness: less money for taxes theoretically means more money for me. In reality, to borrow a sound bite from the Reagan era,  there is no free lunch.

With fewer tax dollars to distribute in a tough economy, governments at every level are facing massive budget shortfalls. The remaining expenses are headed to every mailbox in America in the form of higher fees-for-service.

The bill already arrived at our house as letters from desperate boosters.  My daughter’s choral performances are threatened by less money to buy sheet music and rent concert halls. At a son’s school, we are being encouraged to buy a nearly $200 family athletics pass because Wake County no longer will pay to water, seed and fertilize athletic fields or provide sports medicine kits and several other things necessary to field athletics.

If we want education with some arts and athletics thrown in, we’re being asked to pay for it. At schools where parents won’t or can’t pay, these things likely will become a memory.

No one is thrilled to pay taxes, but it’s biblical to pay what’s due. Want lower taxes? Expect less. Accept fewer services, more potholes, longer lines, shorter hours. We have no right to ask more from our government than we are willing to invest.

After all, the Bible says: “Give, and it will be given…. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)