I can still smell the incense. My dad would light three sticks of it, prop them up in a bowl of uncooked rice, kneel, and bow until his forehead met the ground. Three times he would bow—slowly, reverently—and the room would grow somber and silent. I remember watching the smoke curl in the air and disappear into the dining room lights.
Platters of our favorite Chinese delicacies filled the dining table. My mouth waters thinking about the sea cucumber, bamboo shoots, abalone, extra-large shrimp, flavorful shiitake mushrooms, and special vegetables we procured from the only Asian supermarket in our area—which was still over an hour away.
A single chair, situated away from the table, represented the spirit of my grandmother. Each dish represented a special offering to honor her memory. She had died from lung cancer, and I had never met her in person. I only knew of her from a portrait in my dad’s office. When I was a little girl, this portrait frightened me—I was convinced her eyes were following my every step.
After all the family members took turns kneeling and bowing, my dad would take the incense out the back door, and we would sit down to enjoy the feast.
The Glow of New Life
I grew up in a culturally Buddhist home. By “culturally Buddhist,” I mean that religion didn’t influence my day-to-day life. When it came to rituals like honoring the spirit of my grandma, I was only going through the motions.
Our family lived in Boulder, Colorado—a beautiful city nestled in the mountains. The fresh mountain air was scented with pine—and sometimes pot. Boulder is filled with granola-type hippies, plenty of new-age crystals, and throngs of the spiritually open-minded. Growing up culturally Buddhist in an immigrant home, I knew nothing about American holidays except for what I learned at school. Christmas revolved around presents and Santa Claus. Easter had something to do with a giant white bunny, jelly beans, and colorful hidden eggs.
During my sophomore year of high school, a friend I sat next to in math class, Jean, underwent a notable change in disposition. Intrigued, I asked her the secret of her newfound glow.
“Well, Viv, I became a Christian. I have a personal relationship with Jesus now. He died to forgive my sins, and now I’m born again and made new. The glow is from my new life in Christ.”
Oh, no. Disappointment filled me from head to toe. Jean was funny and smart. How could she get duped into becoming a weird Jesus freak? But over the course of the year, the change in her stuck, and she continued to transform before my eyes. God worked in her life in specific and unexplainable ways. She liked to say that human beings could never be satisfied with relationships, shopping, awards, or achievements. God had made people with a God-shaped vacuum that only he could fill.
My heart felt restless. Even as a teenager, I could already see the futility of going after bigger, brighter, better. The temporary thrill of winning an award or buying something new to wear could not relieve the emptiness I felt inside.
I started going to church and attending the youth group, mostly to check out the cute boys at first. Before long, I started asking questions and learned that I wasn’t expected to have blind faith. Over time, I grew captivated by the person of Jesus, who spoke words of radical hope. His invitation to enter a relationship with the God of heaven proved irresistible. The summer before my junior year of high school, I gave my heart and life to Jesus—or so I thought.
I knew Christians were supposed to read the Bible, so I bought a copy at the bookstore. But no matter how much I read, very little made sense. To be honest, I found the Bible pretty boring. I also knew that Christians were supposed to pray, but whenever I tried, I would get distracted or fall asleep.
On Sundays, if I happened to wake up in time, I would drive by myself to church. I cried through every song during worship. I wanted to know God, to love him and live for him. But then I would drive home, and life went on as usual. I would return to my selfish ways and take matters into my own hands. Christianity wasn’t working for me, so I planned to casually toss it aside like just another teenage phase.
Then my life got turned upside down. My dad went through a midlife crisis and moved our family from Boulder to Hong Kong. I had big plans for my senior year. Now they were dashed. I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t read or write Chinese, and I didn’t speak Cantonese (we grew up speaking Mandarin, a completely different dialect). Everything was different: the currency, the climate, the culture and customs, the ferry, the red taxicabs, and the railway system.
I remember sitting on my bed in our little flat, tears burning in my eyes. Angry and confused, I unleashed my frustration and let God know exactly how I felt. But at the end of my tirade, I added a sincere prayer: “In my heart of hearts, I want to know you and do your will. I need a church and a youth group, some Christian friends. And if you do that, I will give you my whole life. I’ll hold nothing back.”
Into God’s Hands
Shortly thereafter, I got involved with the debate team at Maryknoll Convent School, the all-girls Catholic school I attended. One of the top schools in Hong Kong, it sat at the corner of a busy intersection in Kowloon. The girls at Maryknoll were polished and confident. I’d never been in a more academically challenging environment.
Classes there were taught in English, but the students bantered in Cantonese. When I learned that the debate team competed in English, I decided to take part. The girls on my team became my closest friends.
After one of the debates, a boy from a rival boys school approached me. “Excuse me,” he said. “Are you a Christian? Would you like to come to our youth group?”
The following Friday, I attended the meeting, hosted at a Christian and Missionary Alliance church near our home. That night, I learned that the Christian life wasn’t just hard to live—it was impossible to live, at least by our own efforts. God supplied the power source. Reliance upon him and his Spirit enabled us to live as Christians.
When we moved to Hong Kong, all the things I had clung to so tightly were suddenly stripped away. But in their place came a spiritual breakthrough. For the first time in my life, I felt willing to give God total control. Once I made this commitment, Scripture came to life in a new way. And God’s Spirit began to lead, guide, comfort, and convict.
In Hong Kong, I met regularly with a mentor who showed me how to study the Bible and live out my faith. I asked her a thousand questions, and she faithfully invested her life in mine. I wrote her name next to Hebrews 13:7 in my Bible (“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.”), and since then, I’ve added the names of several others who have aided my spiritual growth.
Over the years, I’ve often needed to recommit to God’s rule and reign. This was especially true as I puzzled over my career path after college and suffered through financial challenges, family and ministry heartbreaks, and a cancer diagnosis several years ago. But each time I placed my heart, life, plans, hopes, and dreams into God’s hands, I found that his faithfulness is unwavering.
Vivian Mabuni is an author, speaker, and host of the podcast Someday is Here. She and her husband have served with Cru for 31 years. Parts of this essay were adapted from her book, Open Hands, Willing Heart: Discovering the Joy of Saying Yes to God (WaterBrook).
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