Christmas Reflections - 2023

Christmas 2023 comes during troubling times—both globally and at home in America. The new year, 2024, could go down in history as a decisive time in an epic struggle between those of us who still believe in democratic republicanism and those who advocate autocratic Christian nationalism. With a few exceptions, I have avoided posting my political opinions online. However, I feel it is both unpatriotic and unethical not to speak out when I feel the future of my nation is at risk.


As a Christian, I feel I am put in an uncomfortable position. I find it difficult to understand why Christians would advocate an autocratic Christian nationalist form of government. On the other hand, many Christians may find it difficult to understand why, as a Christian, I would not. Admittedly, many Trump supporters simply adhere to the enterprise ethic that the worth of a person is reflected by what they contribute to the economy rather than the democratic ethic that everyone is of equal inherent worth. Regardless, between 75% and 80% of evangelical Christians voted for Trump in the last two elections. I was not one of them and will not be if he is allowed to run again in 2024.


So, this year's Christmas reflection is on what it means to me to be a Christian.  First and most important, I’m a spiritual person. For as long as I can remember, I have always felt I was somehow connected, or at least could connect with, something that existed beyond anything I could see, touch, hear, or sense by any means other than what I now understand as spiritual. I attended Sunday school and church services with my family at a small country church almost every Sunday while I was growing up. The purpose of Sunday school was to instill the belief that Jesus Christ was sent to the Earth by God to be our personal Savior—if we would repent and ask forgiveness for our sins.


I remember being mentally conflicted from a very early age. I certainly wasn’t a perfect kid, I had a quick temper and occasionally resorted to throwing rocks at bigger kids who taunted me. But I couldn’t think of anything I had done that was serious enough to condemn me to hell if I didn’t repent. I also had a difficult time thinking of Jesus as “my personal savior,” since I didn’t know what I needed to be saved from other than the possibility of going to hell—which I had a hard time believing I deserved.


During my teenage years, I would sometimes ask questions in Sunday school class about how I should deal with some of the many challenges of becoming an adult. The answer was invariably something like “Just pray to God and He will give you the answer.” So, I would pray to God but He never seemed to answer, or at least didn’t give me the answers I wanted. My sense of spiritual connectedness did seem stronger when I was at church. But it was telling me to be skeptical about what I was being taught because my relationship with God is too important and too personal to be entrusted to anyone else. It seemed I was going to have to figure things out for myself.


Over the years, I learned a lot about religion and I learned a lot about spirituality, and God, from questioning as well as accepting various religious beliefs. I drifted away from churchgoing when I left home for college and didn’t become a regular churchgoer again until my wife and I decided to “raise our children in the church.” We went through Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and Methodist churches searching for someplace more comforting and less irritating. When our kids left home for college, we left the church but kept our spirituality.


Regardless, I am glad that I was “raised in the church,” as they used to say around home. The Baptists believe in the Holy Bible as the gospel truth, and as a Baptist, I learned a lot from reading the Bible and even taught a Sunday School class for a while. The Church of Christ was more theologically liberal but the church we attended became intolerable when the preacher joined the Moral Majority and began campaigning for Ronald Reagan. The Methodist church in Georgia was warm and welcoming when were visitors but turned cold and standoffish when we decided to become members—as I learned later is typical of Southern culture. I decided to become a member of the SBNR church, “spiritual but not religious.”


I have been and remain a devout Christian. I believe Christianity is distinguished from other religions by two basic tenets or beliefs. The first is forgiveness of sins. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I don’t believe we are born in sin, or that we are sinful by nature, but I do believe we are fallible beings who sometimes act in ways that are bad rather than good or wrong rather than right. I believe if we acknowledge when we have made a mistake and vow not to repeat it, we will be forgiven and not be held morally accountable otherwise. As a Christian, I believe in the forgiveness of sin.


The second distinction of Christianity is salvation through grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Instead of being sinful or immoral by nature, I believe we are inherently good at the core of our being—we are good, spiritually. I don’t believe we did, needed to do, or could have done anything to earn this goodness. Our goodness individually and the goodness of humanity is a gift from God. We are good by the grace of God. As a Christian, I believe in salvation through grace.


I am a Christian also because I believe our connection with God is spiritual. At the last supper Jesus had with his disciples he told them he would be leaving soon and said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). Jesus told his disciples that after He was gone, they should be guided by their spiritual connectedness with God—by the Holy Spirit. To believe in Jesus is to believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit—in spirituality. As a Christian, I believe in the Holy Spirit.


Regardless of the differences, the most important tenet of Christianity is consistent with virtually every other major religion and enduring philosophy in the World—The Golden Rule. When Jesus was asked by a religious scholar, “What is the greatest of all the commandments,” He answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31).


I am a fallible human being who needs forgiveness for shortcomings and mistakes and has done nothing worthy of the goodness of God that is inherent in my spiritual being. The goodness in me is in the whole of God’s creation. Thus, I should treat others, meaning all other living and nonliving things of the Earth, as I would have them treat me—if I were them and they were me. This is what I mean when I say I am a Christian. 


John Ikerd