I scoured my closet to find the perfect pair of jeans, and a t-shirt to go with it. My outfit would showcase everything about me with one glance. The next day on the first day of high school, a new classmate cheerfully asked me, “What church do you go to?”
I looked down at my grungy black T-shirt, JNCO jeans, traced my ear lined with piercings, put my hand on my Krishna necklace, and looked at her as my eyebrows shaped into a V. Words tripped out of my mouth. “Oh, I, uh—I don’t go to church.” Her eyebrows changed too, they went up for a moment. “Oh,” she said. She squinted, “Well, where do you go?”
In Oklahoma where I grew up, everyone went to church. And not just Sundays, but Wednesday nights, before school for prayer, an endless weekend youth events. My peers couldn’t comprehend a non-church life. If you didn’t go to church, then what did you do?
My straight-edge personality, punk-persona, Hindu faith, and brown skin kept me at the margins of a white Christian public high school. The social-status Christianity I encountered in high school led me to reject the existence of any God. Why would I believe a God that was the center of a shameful religion like Christianity. The very name of Jesus Christ conjured the hypocritical actions and thoughts I encountered in high school. The heinous acts of slaughter of Native Americans, slavery of Africans, and inhumane treatment of Indians in India—all these further solidified the notion that Christianity existed as evil. And so I wanted nothing to do with God. Through high school and into college, I never went to a church, let alone a temple. And because of this, I never belonged anywhere in my community. I felt excluded—and exclusion terrorized me.
I wasn’t just excluded from people, I felt excluded from the very promises of the Christian faith. But where does Christianity truly exclude people? Simple. “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” I read: “everyone who believes”—that meant not me. The result of exclusion wasn’t good either—“will not perish.” Since I was outside of belief I read it: you will perish. Ouch. So here I stood, excluded from the circle by the very words of scripture. The problem of exclusion followed me.
Because of the exclusion I felt in my life, I began to believe in the opposite: pluralism. Pluralism asserts that all faiths lead to the same salvation in the end. How one gets to the end depends on one’s choices. I prided myself in holding this stance. Christianity kept me out. Pluralism included me, and everyone else, in.
Hearing My Invitation In
Five years after college graduation a friend invited me to church. As a good friend, and softened by pluralism, I accepted her invitation to experience church. That Sunday I wore my best. As people shuffled into the rows of chairs, my eyes focused forward at the musicians on stage. I shifted the weight in my feet from foot to foot to the rhythm and kept my hands in my pockets. I heard the words sung—all your sins forgiven. Sins forgiven? My sins? Suddenly I felt remorse. I felt ashamed. I felt trapped by my past actions. Tears found their way down to my chin, one after another. They didn’t stop. But I didn’t know what that meant. So I kept avoiding God and I avoided church.
A few months passed and then another good friend invited me to church. I went expecting nothing but the pleasant company of my friend. I didn’t cry that day and I kept going back to church with him. One Sunday I came across the verse, “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him.” That contradicted what the Old Testament said about the chosen people and what I believed about Christianity up to then. Here I could see echos of my beloved pluralism—a God who welcomes all.
Another Sunday, I found my way to John 3:16, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus indicated that Jews, Gentiles, and everyone else can come to Christ in search of salvation. God accepts and loves anyone and everyone. I no longer saw this verse as an attack, but instead—an invitation. With a new vision of God, I forgave the exclusionists and buried the notion that true faith excluded people. And I realized that I only had to believe
I accepted the invitation, and believe I did. I transformed not as a follower of cultural Christianity as I had previously experienced it but as a follower of Jesus Christ. Realizing that Jesus ought to guide my life, I committed myself to following the teachings of Jesus as the way to salvation and eternal life. I followed the great guru, Jesus Christ.
The Dance of Inclusive Exclusivity
As I grew in my beliefs about God and Jesus, the problem of exclusion rose up out of its grave. I had to abandon my pluralist inclinations. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” How could I reconcile being exclusive in my faith when I myself had stood excluded, and here Jesus excludes? I desperately wanted to remain with Jesus Christ. So, I chose to throw the problem back in the hole and shovel the dirt over it.
After another five years, I found myself having a conversation with philosophy professor Dr. Timothy Yoder at Dallas Theological Seminary about being a Christian. He confirmed things about who Jesus accepts and how we can look at history. Yoder said, “Because Jesus died for everybody, anybody can exist as a Christian . . . Christianity lives not in the domain of any one culture.” I thought, alright Jesus can save anybody and they don’t have to abandon every aspect of their culture. He continued, “The sins of the church, the errors of Christians don’t impact the truth of what Jesus and the New Testament says. He forgives our sins, he reconciles us to God.” We don’t follow other Christians, we follow Christ.
But Yoder is no pluralist and he reminded me that Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Yoder said, “If we’re going to try to make a case for Christianity, these hard truths happen as necessary truths. Truth remains exclusive, you can’t just say I’d like three plus three to be twenty. No, there remains a right answer.”
And so I looked down at the mound of dirt under which this problem of exclusion laid. Jesus Christ lived and died for the outcasts of society. He said, “Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” He didn’t give up his life for those who didn’t need saving, but he gave it up for those who could not pay the debts of their sins. He calls them to turn away from their old ways and follow the path to life with him. He gave up his life for everyone. He gave up his life for me, the unloved outcast heathen.
“Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus did not exclude me. Instead he came to where I was. He found the excluded person and invited me to follow him down the narrow way.
Cover photo by Alexander Watts.