Prophets and Martyrs

Artists, poets, writers, and dreamers

I was reading about the injustices that the Water Protectors are enduring at the hands of corporate, state, and federal authorities. When I finished reading the article, I realized who the author is: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

A Brief History of Time

My parents met in a Canadian city on the West Coast, a doctor in residence and a nurse in training in a hospital named after the Apostle Paul. My father is Chinese, an artist and intellectual. My mother is Canadian, of English heritage, a figure skating instructor. They met because he wanted to learn how to skate. They were the quintessential counter-culture couple. They married the year Buffalo Springfield released their song, For What It’s Worth.

I was conceived just before the devastating events of the year, 1968. That is the year I was born. While my mother was pregnant with me, she was watching a black and white television in horror, as she and her family learned about the news that set off a series of riots throughout the United States, in the cities of Detroit, New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Avondale, Kansas City, Wilmington, and Trenton. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated. For 10 days starting on April 4, 1968, the United States of America erupted into violence in reaction to the death of one its finest leaders.

Martin Luther King had a dream.

But, in a moment, the dream died.

Then, in the summer of 1968, another shot rang out in the Los Angeles sky, and another of that generation’s heroes was slain, Robert F. Kennedy.

When, I was born, my parents named me after the first martyr of the early Christian church, Stephen. I was born in the same hospital where my parents had received their training, the one named after Saint Paul.

I wonder if a child in the womb senses the fear and anxiety of the mother. I wonder if I absorbed my mother’s emotions, and internalized them, only to live out those fears and anxieties throughout my teenage years, when all those latent emotions became activated by the toxic, competitive social culture of high school. My strategy has always been conflict avoidance. I was the fly on the wall, the quiet one, observing, but rarely interacting. It was the same at school as it was at home.

I had been steeped in Evangelical Christian culture as a child. My father was obsessed with technology and gadgets. We grew up with turntables, cameras, televisions, video cameras, VCRs, boom boxes, and Sony Walkmans. We would go to a Christian family summer camp for a week and Dad would lug around a giant Betamax VCR and video camera to capture all the shenanigans in full colour. (That was the same camp where I met a girl who became my best friend.)

My father had a room full of his video machines and libraries of cassette tapes and Betamax video cassette tapes. The tapes were recordings of evangelists, from the churches, tent meetings, camps, and conferences that our family attended … religiously.

He recorded things off the television so we could watch them anytime we liked. He was way ahead of his time. It was like iTunes before there was such a thing.

We could watch The Sound of Music, The Beatles, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Jesus of Nazareth. And of course, The PTL Club, 700 Club, and the Canadian version, 100 Huntley Street. I listened to Christian radio, piped into Canada from a little farm town across the U.S. border. Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) on repeat, 24 hours a day, along with Insight for Living and Focus on the Family. And, if that wasn’t enough, my father ran a Christian bookstore next to his Paediatric practice in our little bedroom suburb. I could order whatever music I liked, as long as it was CCM. I leaned more toward the stuff that didn’t get radio play.

Sweet Comfort Band: Contender

When I grew older, my taste in music evolved. My brother was more of a rebel when it came to music. Debby Boone did not light up his life. He played guitar. He was inspired by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Clash, Pink Floyd, The Police, R.E.M. and Sarah McLachlan. He opened my world a whole lot wider, and it was difficult to close the door to these more polished productions. For us, it was like the difference between watching The Beachcombers or The Littlest Hobo on CBC compared to the production values of the Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

I found solace in music, imagining that one day in my life, I wouldn’t have to worry, and I might come to really understand what is true, pure, good, and lovely.

54-40: One Day in Your Life

A new wave of music flooded my mind with the possibilities of creativity and imagination, and what I could make of my life.

Talk Talk: Life’s What You Make It

In my generation, our youth was spent listening to a band of Irishmen who decried the death of MLK, crying out, “What more in the name of love.”

U2: Pride (In the Name of Love)

Still, those early childhood years had planted in me a faith, a fire that I could not put out nor forget.

U2: Unforgettable Fire

One of the biggest events of my young adult life was when U2 came to town on their Joshua Tree tour.

U2: Where the Streets Have No Name

Then, there was the day when Love came to town.

U2, B.B.King: When Love Comes to Town

As I look back at those years gone by, I realize how much the themes of race, religion, status, and class have been the background soundtrack of our lives. But it has been the topic that one can ever speak of, because, in a consumer society and the trivial social media culture, nobody got time for that. There are ski hills to conquer, clothes to shop for, cars to buy, and mortgages to work for. When would anyone have time to talk about race, relationships, faith, and culture?

Yet, this is what I have always craved: honest, authentic conversation about race, relationships, faith, and culture. So, my life has been a 48-year search for the kind of community where those sorts of conversations could happen. That also meant that I needed to reinvent and transform myself from brooding, anti-social loner to well-traveled, erudite, articulate conversationalist.

The poets and musicians have been the prophets pointing to an alternative vision. The writers and dreamers have been the mentors who took me on intellectual adventures in abstract thought. But the concrete world has been an impenetrable artifice of banal, mundane existence, with rare glimpses into an alternate universe of meaning, purpose, and belonging.

I have asked, I have knocked, I have sought, but for not.

Then, I had a crisis of belief. I had never given up belief, but I had given up on the hope of seeing God’s goodness in the land of the living. I remember being taught how to pray in tongues with a group of kids, when I was around six or seven years old. I made the sounds like the rest of the kids, but I knew I was faking it. I wondered what the other kids were doing.

Since then, I’ve always had that same feeling. I can go through the motions, but how will I know? Praying to a silent, invisible God is disconcerting, at best.

Whitney Houston: How Will I Know

The ones that we look to as heroes in our culture have succumbed far too early to the spectre of death that haunts and hunts each one of us, and we can only imagine the struggles that they had to endure in wrestling with their own identities and the reality of the divine. We weep over the tragedies of lives taken too soon.

Prince (and others): While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Strangely, though, it feels that over the past few weeks, the struggle and the wrestling have become much more intense, as I intentionally ask about meaning by exploring new ways of working and living, as I intentionally knock on the doors of opportunity to discover purpose in my role as a peacemaker, and as I intentionally seek the sense of belonging that I am finding in the willingness to be vulnerable.

However, this has coincided with the social unrest and political division that so deeply scars our common humanity in these days of crisis and dangerous opportunities. It seems we have indeed reached a moment of crisis in human history, the likes we have never seen before.

Except that we have seen this before. The times of Jesus were just as brutal and tragic, only on a smaller scale and set on a much smaller stage. I was born in a hospital named after Saint Paul, who had once been known as Saul, the murderer of the man for whom I was named. Stephen died while Saul held the garments of those who stoned my namesake. This is the same conflict that has being going on from the beginning, blaming others for our own wrongdoing, leading to envy, murder, and attempts to hide our own guilt by lying to ourselves about whether we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Political, religious and racial divides were just as fractious then as they are now, with our squabbles over left or right, liberal or conservative, black or white, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, communist or democratic, socialist or capitalist, coal or solar.

We are forced to take sides, because of a social identity granted to us by accident of birth and circumstance. How can we choose when the choice has been made for us unconsciously by the culture we have become accustomed to?

I think the answer is in seeing our common humanity and in seeing the spark of the divine in the eyes of another. That is, love.

As we see the battle lines being drawn between the gathering of love, peace, and good will on one side, and the forces of evil, greed, and violence on the other, it seems pretty clear to me who stands on the solid rock and who is mired in shifting sand.

Water Protectors at Standing Rock

If you see things differently, well, I know it can take a long time to experience a shift in perspective, but I know for sure that it makes all the difference.

Perhaps, we can listen to the son of one of our fallen heroes, and discern wisdom in his words.

It’s time to take a stand. Which will you choose: rock or sand?

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