Last Christmas, my dad, Joey Bonifacio, gave me a book entitled King’s Cross by Timothy Keller, to Joseph, he gave a book on the Coca Cola company. For a moment I thought he had mistakenly switched his gifts. Everyone knows that religious books go to Joe and the business books go to me. I was even tempted to trade with Joe. Just goes to show how UN-interested I was in reading more about “churchy” stuff.
But as I started reading the book, the words started speaking to me in a new way, and as I read the verses included, it came to me so fresh and alive, not the way a manual instructs us, which is what everyone told me the Bible was: a manual for life, but something more. All of a sudden the pages seemed like letters, infused with passion, stained with tears and love, full of emotions of pain, of pleading, of hope, of faith, of rejection, of anger, of mercy, but most of all, of love.
It wasn’t a manual. It was a love letter.
It wasn’t a book of examples on “how-to-live”. No. It was collection of romances and adventures. It was God telling His lover, “You have to see the view from up here. Come up. Come up.”
All of a sudden, it hit me. I had been going about this whole thing wrong, and no wonder I kept failing. No wonder fear came over me so quickly when there was a threat. No wonder my anger rose so high when I felt offended. No wonder I fell so frequently to temptation. No wonder I became so proud with achievement. No wonder the condemnation lasted so long.
I had a system of beliefs, a religion, but I was missing the important ingredient that made this particular religion special. I was missing the Love of Jesus. This is why we say Christianity is more than a religion, it is a relationship.
I had not fallen in love.
That is why church, religion, spirituality, or whatever you want to call it, didn’t satisfy me. It couldn’t. I’m hard to satisfy as it is with my constant need to go deeper, to try more, to experience, and this empty religion wasn’t just unsatisfying, it was frustrating.
And of course it is. It’s like playing a game you’re never going to win – and getting punished every time you lose.
No one falls in love with losing every day.
What do we fall in love with?
We fall for beauty.
And what is beauty?
It is an assemblage of graces, of excellences, or an assemblage of properties in the form of the person or any other object, which pleases.
I like how Marie-Henri Beyle (better known as Stendhal) put it, “la promesse de bonheur” or “the promise of happiness.”
We fall in love with people, with things, that promise us satisfaction. Those who satisfy our eyes we call them beautiful. The music that pleases our ears we call beautiful as well. There are beautiful feelings, beautiful moments, beautiful scenes, beautiful tastes, and beautiful memories, all pleasing to experience.
Yet these were not the experiences I associated with Christianity or church. With family and friends, yes, but not religion.
A good indicator that we are simply being religious is this: We feel safer because we break less rules and we feel more satisfied with our personal performance, yet we are less willing to open our hearts to receiving and giving love.
So I took an honest look at my religion, and it was this: I was a spiritual slut. I knew that good behaviour brought blessing, and blessing brought comfort and security. So I worked my best to deserve the blessing. I exchanged myself for the benefits. I also knew that bad or wrong behaviour resulted in shame, in missed destinies, in pain, in being ostracised, in loss of trust, so I just dealt with my bad things as quietly as I could. I would read the Bible to see what I had to do to look as pretty as I could, so that I could walk the alley, attract me a blessing, and avoid the cops when I did wrong. Religious people make amazing cops by the way, yet so blinded by our own planks.
I don’t think a prostitute goes home satisfied. Neither was I.
Fortunately, God knows where to find the soul again, as the author, Victor Hugo, put so well. He really does.
This Is Who He Is
I probably have two more blog posts for the rest of 2012, this one and one for New Year. My simple encouragement for us this Christmas is this:
Fall in love.
How? That’s a good question. It’s a great question. No one can be forced to fall in love. We can neither force ourselves. We truly have to fall. (Which is why I find it so silly that people think we can process love into people. We can process the motions of loving acts but love cannot be manufactured. It has to bloom.)
How do we fall? How do we fall for anything?
Gaze at His beauty.
And what makes Him beautiful? What are His graces and excellences? Let me share the little that my small mind can conceive.
Here is a person who had His life completely at its best. Full comfort. Full satisfaction. Full fellowship. All power. All authority. Yet He offered His life for breaking, that my broken life may be offered love. He doesn’t want me standing in the alley. He wants me walking down the aisle. He doesn’t want me performing for tips. He wants me dancing with Him. He doesn’t need me to read four chapters a day. He wants to remind me of His love. He doesn’t need me to do anything for Him, how arrogant of me to even think that the Creator is hostage to me, but He does want me so badly, that He laid down His life for mine. And He loves me so much that He promised, “You may walk away from me, but I will never walk away from you.”
What a beautiful person. What a promise of Happiness.
I’m convinced I didn’t fall sooner because I was too busy looking at everyone else and at the mirror. I wasn’t looking at Him.
You Just Know
I used to ask people, “How do you know if you’re in love? I’m not talking about emotions or feelings. How do you know that you are truly crazy madly in love?”
Some would give me classifications that didn’t seem to stand under scrutiny, but there was one answer that always baffled me, that I thought was extremely stupid and useless, “You just know.”
Now I think I understand what that means, and I believed it is this:
Once and for all you’re convinced that you love this person.
For us, lovers of Christ, it is this, once and for all we are convinced that we are loved. Period.
(You may read my exploration on this thought in another post I wrote entitled You Are Loved.)
As I look back, I realize how proud I was, and pride makes us foolish, thinking I was earning His love when I was really pushing away His embrace. I was trying so hard to make myself beautiful For Him, when I was already beautiful To Him. When I reflect even deeper, a lot of that was driven to prove myself to myself and to others, that I could deserve something beautiful.
When talking about this with my dad, I asked him, “Do you love mom?” He said instantly, “Yes. What kind of a question is that?” I followed this up with a “I don’t believe you. Why were you impatient with her the other day?” He looked at me sensing a point, and the point was this:
It’s not so important whether I think my dad loves my mom. What is important is that he knows he loves her and, equally important, is that she knows he loves her. It’s not so important that their friends think they’re compatible, or the church gives its approval, and especially not the opinion of strangers.
This is what is important: Does my dad love her? Does my mom know it, does she feel it because my dad has done everything he can to communicate that?
Sometimes we burden our relationship with God trying to convince everyone we’re “Christian” through our behaviours and achievements. We’re trying to show people we deserve blessings and a good life. How much of our effort is really geared towards securing ourselves and the approval of others? How much of our time and energy truly goes to enjoying our Lover?
I saw a read a great reminder to stop living this way from the author Paulo Coelho who wrote, One is loved because one is loved. Don’t ask a stupid “why me?”
Do we love God? Do we really know that He loves us?
Or are we still trying to deserve it? Are we still asking, “why me?”
I hope this Christmas, you will let Him show you His love. That you will not miss His gift to you looking at all the other gifts. That you will not miss His presence amidst the presents or lack of. That you will not close your eyes to the dark circumstances and miss His star. I pray that you will stop trying to deserve a beauty you’re already free to enjoy. Most of all, I pray that you will fall in love this Christmas with He who loves you most.
And the crowd was stilled. One elderly man, wondering at the sudden silence, turned to the Child and asked him to repeat what he had said. Wide-eyed, the Child raised his voice and said once again, “Why, the Emperor has no clothes! He is naked!”
– The Emperor’s New Clothes
Who is a better priest? The man in his pure unsullied frock or the man made naked because his cloak went to the shivering? Who is more like Christ? The respected man whose achievements, traditions, wealth, and social standing justified him or the poor man who served, who gave, and who loved unto death?
To those of you who have messaged me about more of my thoughts, I apologize for not writing more. I’ve been so busy with work. I do not write or take time to help others because I have nothing better to do. I do so because it is important to me that others are encouraged to grow deeper in their beliefs, motivations, thoughts, and actions, and to live lives that, though imperfect, make positive contributions to the lives of others. This is my motivation, yet as you are all familiar with in your own situations, the realities of life, physical, emotional, relational, financial, mental, internal and external all come into play and we are forced to make value choices on what to act on and what to let go of, even if just for the moment.
My second apology is for the length of my articles. I know that blogs are supposed to be short and concise, and I will try my best with future posts. But not this one. Haha! While I sometimes try to be lighthearted, I do not write to entertain or to tickle your minds or emotions. I write for those who want to go deep and appreciate thoroughness. The readers that are intimidated by the length will most probably find the content too intimidating to act on anyway. Thus, nothing is lost.
Before I continue, I would like to make a very clear disclaimer. You have seen me put disclaimers in the past and the reason for this is that sometimes I write about lessons that are new to me and have not practiced, such as the ones on relationships, and I don’t want to be some poster boy for relationships because of what I’ve written when I clearly have failed on the practical end. The other reason why I add disclaimers is because I do not want to misrepresent my ideas as automatically the ideas of my family or the institutions I am connected to directly or indirectly. The ideas I write about are my own, and may sometimes be controversial because they are not commonly prescribed ways of thinking.
As I explore my own beliefs perhaps they will clash with yours, perhaps your opinions will be different, and that’s ok. In a highly opinionated family like mine, it is not uncommon that we don’t always agree or hold differing opinions. It doesn’t mean that my opinion is superior to others, it could actually mean that the thinking and manner by which I came about my position makes it inferior. Nevertheless, I think it is important that people rigorously think through what they believe and hold to be true.
I have many questions in my head. Many of these questions, when answered lead to more questions. I don’t believe it’s a bad thing to ask questions. I think it’s good to look for answers. But there’s a difference between open-minded and close-minded questioning. When an open mind encounters a question, she embraces the mystery, and this leads to discovery and learning. When a close mind encounters a question, she embraces her bias, and this leads to doubts and insecurity.
Let me give an example:
You have a business and you think you have this killer product. You go out, market it, sell it, but for some reason it doesn’t fly. An open mind will consider the many different reasons that has not led to success or has led to failure. A close mind will look at its biases. Guess who is most likely to come up with something more meaningful? The guy who considered different perspectives or the guy who insists on his biases?
Could it be that your product sucks?
If the bias is “I have a great product” then there will never be any reason to alter, or adapt, or pivot on the product front. The fault will fall somewhere else, maybe it’s a marketing problem, or a sales issue, something other than our bias. Yes, it is true the problem may be somewhere else, but problems and disfunction are not exclusive to one area. A wise person knows that we can grow in all areas hence we must be open to learning in all areas as well, and this also means we must be open to questioning and being questioned, keeping a soft heart and an open mind.
The enemies of a soft mind and an open heart are pride and fear.
Pride is simply valuing oneself most. We may or may not be openly arrogant. We may or may not be boastful. We may or may not challenge. But pride is not a matter of what others see, it is a resident of the heart, though it is a squatter. Unless we boot him out he will remain and entrench.
How do I know pride rests in my heart? Whenever “I” am more important than him (or her), I know that in that situation, I am valuing myself more. Give this reality, I must admit that I am guilty of being very prideful. I see it in my argumentativeness. I see it in my stubbornness. I see it in my difficulty to forgive. I see it in my gossiping. I see it in my inability to love. I see it when I cannot forgive. I see it in how I use most of my money on me. I see it when I justify my unkindness. I see it when I turn my back on those who need me. I see it when I hammer a Bible verse into a person. I see it when I don’t want to be embarrassed. I see it when I don’t want to be hassled. I see it when someone wrongs me. I see it when I wrong someone. I see it in almost every area of my life. I must recognize it so that I may admit it. I must admit it that I may deal with it. I must deal with it that I may be free of it – even if it is in one small area at a time.
When I am prideful my heart hardens and my mind closes, and the discoveries waiting for me slip away.
Fear is the sense that something bad is going to happen. Fear in many ways can be healthy, it can keep us safe and prevent us from doing dumb things. Being fearful on the other hand, being “full of fear”, is a to live caged. And what am “I” afraid of? Isn’t it that usually “I” am afraid that harm will come upon the things “I” value?
Every day thousands of people go hungry, yet for the most part we do not fear for their meals. We fear when we can’t afford our own. Thousands of kids live naked and exposed to the environment and to influences of evil individuals, we do not fear for them. We fear for our own children. We do not fear for the embarrassment of others, if we did we would not gossip, but we do. Yet we fear for our own embarrassment. We do not fear the failure of others, if we did we would serve and help, but we won’t and don’t go out of our way. Yet we fear our own failure. In fact, we finally act, when another’s failure affects our own.
We do not fear until the danger threatens to affect us. We do not fear the evils others face, but our hearts pound when they show up at our door. This is the selfish reality of our fears.
What am I saying? Even our fears are rooted in our pride: I am most valuable.
When I am fearful my heart hardens and my mind closes to protect and shield. Protect what? Shield what? My self. My pride.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
In Hans Christian Andersen’s popular story, there is a king who is excessively fond of grand expensive clothes. So much so, that he is fooled by two rogues into investing in the construction of a “special garment” for himself. The rogues, pretending to be experts, dress the kind in this imaginary garment of elegance, and went on a procession this way. Everyone around him, from his court to the crowds, though they saw a naked man, praised the king and his amazing garment.
From the story:
… every one in the streets said, “How incomparable are the Emperor’s new clothes! what a train he has to his mantle! how it fits him!” No one would let it be perceived that he could see nothing, for that would have shown that he was not fit for his office, or was very stupid. No clothes of the Emperor’s had ever had such a success as these.
Here we see pride and fear in silly cooperation. Pride led the king to be fooled for elegance that didn’t exist. Fear led the people to believe the farce.
Until a child, unspoiled by the pride of life nor the fear of man, shouted:
“But he has nothing on!” a little child cried out at last.
I think it’s time we admit that in many areas of our life, we have nothing on. We have believed rogues and given money, time, effort, and affection to lies. Just because everyone else praises our stupidity doesn’t mean we are wise. We can parade ourselves but the child in us, and our actual children will wonder, “What’s so special about that? You have nothing on!”
Someone told us to wear success, if you put it on others will respect you. So we strive and earn, strive and earn, and for what? To earn the respect of people who don’t really care and lose the respect of those who have cared all along. This emperor has no clothes.
Someone told us to wear sexiness, if you put it on others will desire you. So we strive and strip, strive and strip and for what? To please people who treat us like paper plates, so common, so used, ready for disposing, not realizing we are fine China, not unknown, but preserved. This empress has no clothes.
Someone told us to wear religion, if you put this on you will be justified. So we strive and moralize, strive and moralize, and for what? To deserve acceptance and receive blessings, without realizing that we are called to a love relationship not enslavement and certainly not religious prostitution to get what we desire. This emperor has no clothes.
Someone told us to wear wealth, if you put this on you can afford everything you want. So we strive and grasp, strive and grasp, and for what? To afford the life we thought we wanted at the cost of the beautiful blessings God has given for free. This emperor has no clothes.
Who is more successful? The man who achieves high position or the man who achieves high purpose? And what about the man who enjoys eternal relationship with God with no recognized success to His name?
Who is more desirable? The woman who traded her dignity FOR validation or the woman who faced rejection TO love?
Who is a better priest? Who is a better priest? The man in his pure unsullied frock or the man made naked because his cloak went to the shivering? Who is more like Christ? The respected man whose achievements, traditions, wealth, and social standing justified him in the eyes of man or the poor man who served, who gave, and who loved unto death though remain unknown?
Success, desirability, religion, are great things. I believe we should work towards success, that we should take care of our bodies, which includes our appearance, and that religion, a system of beliefs can be incredibly beneficial for deepening in our faith. But they are not enough to clothe us and to hide behind them is to someday find what the boy found: nakedness. These questions float in my head as I think through them myself. I don’t have specific next steps for you or for myself. I do know I do not want to parade wearing a non-existent garment held up by straps of the pride of life and the fear of man.