“Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight;
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.” – Anonymous
As a child, I recited this nursery rhyme as a bedtime prayer. I did not know which exact star or god I was trying to reach, but this ritual reflected my deep longing to connect with a Supreme Being.
As I reflect upon this yearning many decades later, it is clear that God has placed a huge hole in my heart that only He could fill. Saint Augustine said it best in his book Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Indeed, my heart was empty in my early years, and I spent a considerable amount of time and effort searching for meaning.
I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and lived comfortably, as my parents owned several businesses there. After Communists took over Saigon, my parents bribed various officials and brokers to allow us to escape by sea. We became refugees, or boat people. I was 6 when we arrived in America. At first, we were homeless—in contrast to our former bourgeoisie lifestyle. But God provided. After camping out inside a church, the eleven of us (my parents, three siblings, four cousins, uncle, and I) settled in a cramped house in Daytona Beach, Florida. A few years later, we moved west to San Jose, California.
My parents were Buddhist, but we rarely had an opportunity to visit a Buddhist temple. We probably visited the temple only once or twice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Needless to say, I did not grow up with much religious influence at home.
I did attend a few Buddhist gatherings in the park with my neighborhood friend Karat during my elementary school years. These events usually featured plenty of food and games, as well as a large statue of Buddha with incense, burnt offerings, and a donation box on the side. I remember looking out for passersby as Karat stole money from the donation box. He did the actual stealing, and I was his accomplice; we’d split the earnings equally. I knew it was wrong; but, without a god, we did as we pleased. I’m reminded of the last, sad verse in the Book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)
Rick Warren, paraphrasing the famous French mathematician Blaise Pascal, wrote, “The Bible tells us that there is a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. There is a hole in our hearts that only God can fill.” In high school, I was searching for an answer to this need. Unfortunately, I did not find Him in Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle’s writings. I definitely did not find God in the works of the German philosopher Nietzsche.
Famous poets such as Octavio Paz, E. E. Cummings, and Galway Kinnell gave me a deeper appreciation for the power of words; but each failed to paint a picture of a grace-filled, loving Heavenly Father. Moreover, it did not help that my friends—nearly all atheists—kept reminding me that “God” is just “dog” spelled backwards.
So, I filled up this void with lots of chess, poetry, school clubs, Student Government, and of course, academics. Drawing on my Buddhist roots, I reasoned that I could somehow earn my way through rebirth to become perhaps a rat, then a squirrel, and then a bird in my subsequent lives.
Poetry was a wonderful outlet, and allowed me to define my god through creative writing. Here is an excerpt from Shattered Reflections, an anthology of poetry published by San Jose State University:
Humanity’s motivation in developing our
philosophies was to conquer
ourselves and our curiosity;
later, we blame
God for our existence. — From “The Ten Thoughts of a Kyist”
It’s clear from this excerpt how distant I was from understanding God’s truths.
College was a defining moment for me. I am blessed that school was far enough for me to live in the dorms, but close enough for my parents to do my laundry.
Stanford had a mandatory, year-long Humanities course for the entire Freshman class. I bought my first Bible for that class, since Genesis, Job and a few other books were required reading. But, sadly, I never had time to open the Bible and relied mainly on the lectures to pass the class.
One evening during my Freshman year, my dormmate John Ly invited me to a Bible Study. I agreed to go, since I needed a break from my studies. This was my first time reading God’s Word. In the following weeks, I asked myself and others in the Bible study who this Jesus was. During breaks between classes, I’d often hang out at Memorial Church and just stare out at a stained-glass window of a man stretched out on a cross. There, I felt a certain peace that words could never describe.
After my junior year, I was in Denver for an AT&T summer internship. It was my first time living away from my family. God used this time of solitude to draw me close to Him. Against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, I read God’s Word. Without any pressures to run to my next class or to prepare for an upcoming midterm, I was able to reflect upon God’s character, particularly His goodness and sovereignty. I learned that despite what happens around us, God is in control, that “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
When I returned to Stanford that fall, I was thankful that I already completed the necessary units to graduate and only had to work on my Honors Thesis. With ample free time, I was able to attend church and join a one-on-one Bible study led by Matt Hills, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering.
I remember studying the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. It’s a story about how the younger son wasted all of his father’s inheritance. With nothing left, he decided to return to his father and ask for forgiveness. Rather than rebuke him, his father accepted him with open arms and even threw a party to celebrate his son’s return.
I was never rebellious as a child, so I identified more with the older son. However, I was perplexed and amazed by the father’s love for the younger son, despite all his wrongdoings. What kind of love is this? It’s irrational. It’s selfless. It doesn’t make sense. I learned that it’s a crazy kind of love—one that only Jesus can provide. And, more importantly, I learned that it’s the love He has for me as an individual. On the cross, Jesus has already paid the price for all my past, present, and future sins. There was nothing more I could or needed to do in order to enter Heaven’s door. As we closed the study in a short prayer, I remember shedding a tear for the first time at a Bible study.
Later that week, I placed my faith in Jesus as my Lord and Savior. And, on November 5, 1995, I was baptized in Mountain View, CA.
My perspectives on life began to change in very concrete ways with my new faith. For example, I became much more aware of my speech. Growing up in East San Jose, I, along with most of my childhood friends, would say the A-word, the B-word, the C-word—all the way down the alphabet—in our everyday vernacular. It was an ingrained habit, like smoking. As a new Christian, cursing really bothered me. As I prayed for God to help me change, these vulgar words were gradually cleansed from my vocabulary. Today, whenever I hear someone swear, I would feel a sharp twinge in my heart, a reminder of who I once was.
Also, “doing the right thing” became more important to me, as I know that God values my character more than my accomplishments. A couple of years after college, my friend Thien Nguyen and I found a purse on a bench at Burger King. The purse had over a thousand dollars and a plane ticket to Las Vegas. Thien and I drove to the San Jose Airport, ran to the appropriate terminal, and handed the purse to the lady—with every dollar intact. This is in stark contrast to the “Buddha theft” from an earlier life.
As I grew in my faith, life still came with its troubles and big question marks. But rather than worry, I’d pray over them. This was especially true for life-impacting decisions, such as what I should do after college, where I should work, and if I should marry Delphine. Acknowledging and believing in a sovereign God, One who knows me inside and out, is the very essence of peace. Jesus reminds me, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25-27)
Perhaps the most important change is the hope I’ve gained from placing my faith in the Lord. This hope reassures me that that there is a greater purpose to the challenges I’m facing, that God has a plan beyond what I can see or comprehend. This hope reminds me to seek things of eternal worth, rather than get caught up in the rat race. Also, this hope encourages me to share Jesus with others so that they too can have eternal life in Heaven.
One of my favorite Proverbs summarizes this well: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
My soul has been made whole through my faith in Jesus.