What is a Christian?

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

John 14:23-24

My boys holding candles representing the “Light of the world” during a Christmas Eve service.

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My children are filled with curiosity fueled by their tireless and abundant energy and (possibly) too many sweets. This curiosity makes me the direct target of many, many challenging questions numbering into the hundreds during our average 12-hour day. Inevitably, I leave them disappointed… unable in my aging, finite and exhausted mind to meet the herculean challenge of answering all of their earnest questions.

If you have enjoyed the privilege of spending any significant length of time with someone between the ages 3 and 7, you probably understand the feeling—and you likely well know that one deeply philosophical question is followed in strict pattern by one absolutely ridiculous could-have-fallen-from-the-sky inquiry. It goes something like this:

“Mommy, how close can I actually get to the sun without dying?”

“Mommy, can you describe exactly what a booger should taste like?”

“Mommy, can you ask God if we will live in our human bodies when we die?”

“Mommy, do sidewalks have shadows?”

“Mommy, is God a number since numbers never end?”

“Mommy, how are batteries made?”

“Mommy, if I eat an apple seed will I have a baby?”

“Mommy, what is the biggest thing in the whole world?”

You know… typical questions from the pint-sized philosopher.

Although tiresome, these questions are not at all useless. They are great warm-ups for the questions occasionally thrown at me from an adult over a hot cup of tea—and especially for the ones too important to forfeit a response, such as this:

“So, what is a Christian?”

It’s such a great question—and one that always stops my breath for a second. We absolutely need church-attending (or not) folks to consider this question here in the South, and we absolutely need to be asked to answer it. It can be tempting to stack many assumptions regarding the intentions behind this question and balance them on top of one another to avoid the awkwardness of getting right to the heart of the gospel. Oh, how we don’t want to offend. Oh, how we want to make others feel good so that we can also feel good about how they feel about us. Oh how easy it feels to say a Christian is any or everybody who calls themselves one. But what good is this if it’s not true?

The reality is that “What is a Christian?” is an earnest question in need of an honest answer. And we can not fabricate this one, lest we do so out of the delusion that we are mini-gods. Jesus tells us explicitly in his teachings: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:23-24).

A Christian is someone who obeys and submits to the teachings and commands of Jesus Christ.

“But how do I do this?”

You must prioritize a discovery and an openness to learn what Jesus taught and submit to it seriously in full faith so that it leaves nothing in your life untouched by what you have learned from Him.

“What did Jesus teach?”

He taught many things, but foremost Christ taught that we are all sinners (have turned away from God) and that we must repent (earnestly ask forgiveness from God) in order to receive enormous and incredible forgiveness given through Christ to our souls (the merciful, unearned favor of God to return to His presence). Jesus taught that if we are to “take up our cross and follow Him” (Matt.16:24-26) — we are to make a study of Him and His life that we may learn from Him and model our actions by Him here on earth.

And He stated that the road following Him is not easy, but when we follow Him He provides us a Helper (the Holy Spirit) and we will never be without His help for us.

So many of us have spent our time sitting in pews, singing hymns, owning a Bible, attending Christian private schools, and saying bedtime prayer poems that we may have missed it…

And others of us have devastatingly never heard this good news offered by Christ before. Forgiveness! The presence of God to help us! Could this be true? Is this not a myth?

It is true! And it is so real, my beloved reader…

And just in case you are one of the many who may have missed it, I wanted to make sure I stop and answer this question (like I do with my own children) that you receive a very straight-forward answer here.

In brief, a Christian is someone who believes this to be true: that Jesus is the Son of God who died for their sins, rose from the dead, reigns now as King over all, and because this is true they follow His teachings found in the Holy Bible and repent of their sins, accept the beautiful gift of forgiveness so that they may enter God’s presence, and submit to Jesus’ kingship over their life for an eternity.

Reader, a Christian is someone who believes that God has done the seemingly impossible because He is the very definition of LOVE itself. He has offered rescue to a broken, dying, and undeserving world.

You may need to ask yourself one very important follow-up question in sincerity: “Am I a Christian?”

And if you find yourself in need of a friend to discuss the possibilities of the answer to your question, my husband and I are absolutely available.

With all of my heart—Your humble servant,

Reagan

If a brisket sizzles in Austin, but you’re not there to eat it—does it still make your mouth water?

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-11

Too much has happened since my last post to fully catch you up on the transitions. The short of it is that at the same time I launched into homeschooling my children, my family sold our beautiful home in Wake Forest and lived in transition for a while in that beautiful small town. Then we packed up and moved to the most oxymoronic city in the South—Austin, Texas (if you are wondering what I mean by ‘oxymoronic’ then you’ve probably never been to this incredible city).

I now have a better understanding what people mean when they use the verb “to uproot“, as in “What do you mean you’re uprooting your entire life to move to a new and unfamiliar place?

And even more… “Why would you uproot you’re entire life to plant a church in the South? Isn’t it saturated?

If the saturation of churches in the South were equivalent to a saturation of the gospel, then—sure—you may be right.

And, yes, there is some gospel here.

Someone once told me that sharing the gospel is like working to clean up a pile of bricks in the middle of the road… the more hands, the better, so I’m not really worried about the logic behind our decision.

The truth is that we don’t know why God moved us to Austin, but we know HE did it. He opened the doors and provided the confirmation through the faithful leadership at our small church in Wake Forest. He cut ties back home for us and propelled us forward onto Highway 40 toward our next life assignment—to live humble lives loving the people God puts around us in Austin by sharing the gospel with them through word and action. He provided a job waiting for my husband, free furniture, and a 3-bedroom apartment in a city where finding anywhere to live is a miracle from Heaven. He did this. We did not choose the details, we just chose to follow Him. We put all of our cards on table and He took them.

So, you can understand what I mean when I say I feel like all of this has been happening to me. I have motion sickness from the massive amount of change and hardship this transition has brought with it. I am ready to settle in, establish routine, and somehow readjust to living in a city that is simple beyond our economic means. I’m ready to see God move—but I am selfishly asking that He steady the boat a bit. I’m not as steadfast and faithful as I believed myself to be, and I desperately need Him to calm the storm. I don’t want to walk on the waves. Steadfastness is not this girl’s strong-suit, but I am repentant and fully reliant on this God of grace who saves us.

Here is a picture of the great contrast between myself and God in this transition:

When I panic, He is constant.

When I am afraid, He is steadfast.

When I can’t sleep, He bids me to rest in Him.

When I am unwise, He offers loving correction and wisdom from His throne.

When I am angry, He wins me with kindness.

When I am intimidated by the beauty, style, and knowledge of the world, He reminds me that He looks at the heart.

When I am sinful, He is just and accepts the blood of His son at the weak offer of my repentance.

When I am scared of what other people think of me, He reminds me that He is to be feared above all.

When I am convinced I can not share the gospel—that my life is too messy and my walk is not straight enough to provide a great witness for Him—He reminds me that if all I am is a life upheld by His mercy and grace for me, that will be enough.

One friend once asked me, “Reagan, what do expect to find at the end?” and my answer is the same now as it was then… “Jesus. Just Jesus.”

And just maybe some good Austin brisket… in the end.

One beautiful, anonymous day at a time

Over the past month almost every major sphere of my life has shifted. I’ve transitioned from being a corporate wageworker to a stay-at-home homeschooling mom.

My husband and I moved our family and all our things into an older, repair-needy home.

And my social circle has shifted. I no longer have regular adult conversations sprinkled throughout my day between meetings or over slow cups of coffee. I now converse mostly with my five- and two-year old boys over juice boxes and legos, and on occasion I manage to speak to the weary retail worker at Target.

And I am so impressionable. My conversations have morphed so that I now sometimes sound like I, myself, am five years old… or maybe even two.

My husband has been rock solid in the change. He speaks calmly, makes thoughtful decisions, and doesn’t panic in the new sole-breadwinner responsibility thrust upon his shoulders. In fact, from my vantage point, he is thriving.

I have not been so heroic in the wake of all the transitions. I find myself hunkered down in awe, arms stretched protectively over my soul… asking the Lord to mercifully put His hand over my eyes as He orchestrates the crashing waves of change. I can hardly handle the weight of His sovereignty in all of it. In every breakfast prepared… in every counting exercise completed or storybook read… in every dinner plate washed and stacked by my exhausted hands after bedtime…

I feel seasick and exhausted as I watch the plans He has detailed for my life unfurl in the fresh winds of each new day.

I had always assumed that my calling and my legacy was something to be discovered beyond the walls of home base… that the adventure was out there somewhere. The Lord has opened my eyes to see that the greatest adventure of my life is happening right here… in this place where I scrub toilets and fold laundry and hold children as they cry over scrapes and bruises.

My heart is full. My soul is feasting. And I am being refined in the fire of the obvious and humbling fact that I can not do this without Him. I am nothing without His grace.

My job as a follower of Christ is to obey my Lord. My role as His daughter is to do His will. In this I will fail completely on my own. Jesus is the only one who can truly accomplish the will of the Lord… and here in my home, in the rare quiet of a forced afternoon nap time, He is pouring out His mercy and showing me the way. One beautiful anonymous day at a time.

Let’s talk about reading the Bible in context and why you should stop being a lazy reader

If you would prefer to listen to this article, click the play button.

At this point in time, I have facilitated eleven Bible studies in the span of three years––ten for women and one that was co-ed and co-led with my husband and another couple. I don’t know if that sounds impressive to you or not. But, just in case it does, let me add a little bit of color for you on what these Bible studies actually look like in real life so you don’t make the mistake of thinking too highly of me.

Typically, I am washing the dishes or changing a diaper and the idea pops into my head that I would like to read some random book in the Bible (likely one I have not read before, because reading the Bible consistently is still pretty fresh to me). I quickly deploy a text out to some intelligent and passionate women in a few of my circles and ask if they might be interested in reading this book of the Bible as well. I generally toss the idea out to about fifteen people and maybe seven of them say they are in.

So, then—during nap time or perhaps during one of those moments when I am holed up in my closet seeking some much needed space (introvert here)—I work out some sort of reading schedule, which generally means I scribble random chunks of verses into the tiny boxes in a calendar of some sort.

In the weeks to come, I build up the hype and confirm that these women are indeed going to show up to my house if I pour the coffee. Then I plan for my kids to have early bedtime. I light candles. I make decaf. I set out all the mugs and arrange all the chairs. I might apply some makeup. And then I sit. 

I sit in a circle of empty chairs and watch the minutes tick by and––like a middle school girl at her first big birthday bash––I chew my fingernails and hum until someone finally shows up.

Once they do and everyone gets settled (sometimes awkwardly––me, awkwardly excited), we pray and then we dive in. And, mostly, it’s me getting my mind blown by things I’ve never read in scripture… and sometimes someone else also gets their mind blown… but, mostly, it’s me learning a million things I never knew and asking a million questions and puzzling over interpretation and reveling in the poetry of it all, until finally ending in some sort of mouth-open, starry-eyed dopy gaze––stunned that I am living wide awake in love with a God that loves me too. Eventually, the weeks go by and the study comes to a close and I end up more convinced than I was at the beginning that the Bible is the most miraculous work of literature ever created.

I am currently wrapping up a Bible study in the book of Psalms. The other day I asked the women in my study if they felt like scripture has authority in their lives. They kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah… I mean, we’re Baptists.” And, there, I recognized the great terrain between how I was raised and how they were raised and why it is so incredibly mind-blowing for us to simply read the Bible in context.

I grew up in a whirlpool of innuendos that suggested that I had authority over scripture. I was taught to use scripture to mystically force my teenage desires upon the world… demanding healing and prosperity and secret spiritual knowledge some called prophecy. 

The Baptists I know grew up (some of them) under the weight of the law without grace. They grew up hoisting the Bible on their shoulders and trying to carry it from one wasteland of works-based salvation to another. They walked around knowing scripture, but not really knowing God.

Until one day they did.

And now their mind is blown by the fact that the God of the Bible is real and my mind is blown by the fact that the Bible is a real book about my real God, and all of us are waking up to the freedom available in a Bible that both leads us to conviction and repentance and dowses us in reminders of a loving, merciful, and near-to-us Savior prophesied since the beginning of time.

Much of what we get out of the scriptures has to do with how we start out. Most of us in the south have thick, leather-bound study Bibles with tiny little reference notes and scholarly introductions we never read or—if we do—it’s because we are distracted during a sermon that lost us at “hello.”

Being an avid reader and a literary scholar, there is one thing I have learned about myself that is true for not all—but most. We don’t really retain what we read until we have to regurgitate it, and because most of us are not Bible teachers or scholars, this rarely applies to the content in those tiny print introductions inserted into our study Bibles (I feel like I just heard a hundred Bible scholars gasp… sorry guys).

I live in a seminary town. Like, there is literally a seminary in walking distance from my house where young Baptist scholars go to learn how to be older Baptist scholars, and so when I confess to the average Joe on the street that I do not know who wrote the book of Phillipians, for example, I am often headed with a quizzical look followed by a quick answer and a smirk of satisfaction… one Bible illiterate taught.

But despite the fact that the most famous disciple of all time—Paul—wrote Phillipians while he was in prison for sharing the gospel of Christ, I will likely not bring this to recollection if I am randomly directed to Phillipians 3:14 in a cheeky Hallmark card that tells me to keep at it and finish the race for [insert whatever activity I am being encouraged to complete here].

The Bible is an incredible, often intimidating literary work displaying the historical memoir of the greatest character of all time—our God. It is worth taking a few minutes to ensure that we are reading the passages in the Bible in the intended context of the work.

Although those few minutes of gathering context can feel like a timewarp to your fifth grade English class, it is worth it and it doesn’t take too much time to complete. Luckily for us, there are in fact many Bible scholars who have done the work for us… we just have to engage with it and I would argue that we must do so before we attempt to extract the applicable meaning of the scriptures to our lives (and, especially, to the lives of others).

Now, you might be thinking that the Bible is the living Word of God and there are times when we can open it to a passage and it speaks directly into our circumstances. So, you ask, are you saying that’s not true? No. I am not—I’ve experienced it. The Bible is the living Word of God and God can use it however He deems best, but here in America where we have access to multiple translations of scripture with built in scholarly context and Google resources galore, why would we choose to be lazy about the most impactful work to ever stand on our bookshelves?

So, yes, I sometimes flip open my Bible and read without looking up context. But I have reaped the deep-rooted benefits of examining the books of the Bible before I dig in, and the benefits are countless for my ability to extract deep truths regarding the character of God and His desires for my life—and it will be for you as well.

Here’s what I’m proposing:

I’ve created this simple little worksheet to help you establish a new type of behavior as you approach your Bible to feast on the Bread of Life. This worksheet is not revolutionary. There are many, many Bible study approaches that guide readers through the contextual questions I have provided. However, I never experienced one of those Bible studies before I was thirty years old and I grew up down the street from a seminary… so, I’m guessing there is a high probability that this might be new to you as well.

Give this a try. Pick a book of the Bible that’s not too intimidating or one you don’t really know much about (say, the book of Job or the letter of Jude) and using the Bible Reading Guide to Establish a Contextual Framework (provided below), take 15 minutes to learn the basic context of that book… and then read the first chapter. What about the context changes or informs your perspective?

Next week I will dive a little bit more into building basic Bible comprehension when reading the scriptures. If you get into the scriptures and you need a little guidance, give me a ping or reach out to your church leaders for assistance. Apart from prayer, I’m not sure there is a better use of our time… so, let’s get started.

Side-note: A lovely person (not from the bible belt) who read the first draft of this article asked how I reconcile the fact that I can meet an average Joe on the street who is a Bible scholar with my claim that the average person (and my reader) is more like me, a little more Bible illiterate. I think that it is one of the many oddities of living right next to a seminary campus. It seems that many people within a certain radius of the campus know a lot about the Bible, but most people a few blocks out know very little… and I will just leave that observation here for you to ponder.

Scripture as Authority: My search for a solid foundation

“In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

John 1:1-5

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Growing up, I was taught to discover God primarily through life experiences rather than through scriptural study. And, truly, experience is a legitimate and good way to discover God. In Romans, Paul writes, “They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities––his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Romans 1:19-20), and I can attest to this.

Encouragement to seek God through my personal experiences with Him and my observations of His work around me provided me with the confidence to proclaim the presence of a God I knew loved me. Even in my wayward college years, I never questioned the existence of God because I had experienced Him––I heard His voice, I saw His perfection in creation, and I observed His movement in the world in both charismatic and private encounters.

I knew God. 

Growing up, it wasn’t God I questioned.

It was Jesus.

As I was taught Christianity, Jesus was kind of this hand-wavy thing over on the side of an all-powerful miraculous God. I knew about Jesus. I believed He was a real person in history––but I was not completely confident in His divinity.

I fell where I think many bible belt Christians fall on the belief continuum. I was a deist at most who thought of Jesus as that impactful man in history who may possibly,  in some way or another, be the Son of God. But I was unsure.

My lack of confidence in the Lordship of Jesus is what enabled my prodigal years during college. I walked away from Christianity (who am I kidding… I sprinted away from Christianity) in an attempt to find something solid I could stake my flag in. I didn’t want a hand-wavy possibility… I wanted firm truth, even if that firm truth went against all I had previously experienced. I was willing to consider that I may have missed the mark on who God is and who I am in relationship to Him.

I searched for my solid foundation in books. I read voraciously and devoured every critical perspective: postmodern, marxism, feminist, post-colonial, queer, deconstructive theory and more. I began to wonder, is it possible to be something other than seasick in the ocean of personal discovery?

It wasn’t until after my college years and into my early married years that I faced the God I had experienced in childhood and began to seek the answers from Him, and that is when I found redemption and a Savior. I was reintroduced to Jesus entirely by faith, which is really all it takes for a life restored by Christ.

But, still, not fully certain. 

I am the Christian who has prayed time and time again “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Then, over one inconspicuous dinner, my faith was bolstered by a very simple question. My friend sat calmly on the other side of a steaming plate of baked chicken and said, “I think the meaningful question to ask yourself is ‘do you believe scripture has authority’?”

Up until that point scripture was most often presented to me as some sort of highly suggested self-help guide, although rather than “five points to a better life,” the Bible felt really difficult to apply and therefore difficult to open at all.

I longed to know the answer… do I believe scripture has authority? 

I was recovering from an emotional block towards the Bible that caused me to hold the scriptures at a firm distance during my young adult years. In all my reading, I never included my Bible in my critical study. I was so emotionally confused by the use of the Bible as a method for claiming prosperity promises from God that I just felt it best to keep it sidelined for most of my academic career.

But that season was over, and I had claimed my faith in Jesus, although still searching for my solid foundation, so I began to intentionally read the Bible. I approached the Bible as a literary text: in context, holistically and as separate distinct written forms. I began to ask the question “who is this text about?” and discovered––to my surprise––that it wasn’t about me at all. The Bible is a book about God.

My Savior. The one I have experienced my whole life through creation, in private prayer, and in my wonder at His miraculous power. I was reading the Old Testament and seeing descriptions written thousands of years ago that matched the very character of the God I knew.

And that God and those scriptures continuously asked me to consider the divinity of Jesus.

From the beginning of creation, through the early years of Israel, in the laments during the Israeli oppression, and in the warnings of the prophets I read one consistent theme––the Messiah is coming. And in the very detailed accounts in the New Testament I read that Jesus answers every longing for that coming Messiah.

A mantra began to form solid and secure within me: Jesus has been prophesied since the beginning of time, and He is now alive in his human body sitting at the right hand of the Father as the Son of God ruling over all.

Over time––guided by scripture––Jesus, the living Word of God, took His place as the authority over my life. Everything just kind of clicked into place once that was cemented.

I no longer feel seasick in the search for my identity––I am a child of God, completely unworthy and fully redeemed, created for a purpose, placed in this time for His glory, called to simply and steadfastly follow in the footsteps of Jesus my Savior and the Lord over my life. The Bible is now the cement that solidifies my firm foundation in Jesus. What a joy it has been to open the scriptures and discover more about the character of my Savior!

Friend, I want that joy for you as well. If you are one of the many who struggle to approach the Bible, I want to help you open this journey into the scriptures. You don’t have to be a literary scholar, an expert in Hebrew, or a staunch legalist to find meaning in the Word of God. You can be you. The scriptures are not mystical or unapproachable. They were written for you by the One who created you about the One who created you.

If you read that and think Yes, I want to know about the One who created me! then you are my audience over the next few weeks.

But, look, you don’t need me. You need Him. So although I will share about reading in context, building biblical comprehension, and establishing a regular meditative practice with the scriptures, you really only need to do one thing to get started in scripture today.

Pray.

With no exaggeration, anytime I have approached God with the request to help me read His Word, He has responded by setting my heart on fire for His holy scriptures. God is willing and eagerly waiting to answer.

Scripture does have authority. It is life-giving and transformative. It reveals our shortcomings leading us to repentance before a loving Father––a God who wins us over with kindness (Romans 2:4). And, yes, the scriptures are ancient and long and sometimes seem culturally irrelevant or confusing, but the scriptures also breathe life into our existence by setting us right on who this whole thing is about and how much the God of all Creation is willing to fight for our redemption.

Paul writes that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  

If you struggle to understand how that Bible on your shelf may be useful, you’re not alone. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a few simple steps and tools that have helped me approach and understand this beautifully written gift of truth from our loving Creator. My hope is that, like me, you will find a solid foundation to bolster a life-giving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

But it starts now with a simple hello to our heavenly Father, followed by a request for His help in opening the scriptures to us. I can’t wait to dive deeper with Him.