The Summer of Knees


“Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

These words defined a movement. They were uttered by Timothy Leary in January of 1967 at a celebration in Golden Gate Park called a “Human Be-In.” People who attended experienced a radically different style music, creative expression, sexual freedom, and psychedelic drugs. As word spread about this exciting and transformative event, people from all over the country came seeking a similar experience. San Francisco became the epicenter for a political and cultural revolution. Students flocked to the Bay area during Spring Break, and many more came for the Monterey Pop Festival in June. They were called forth by a song written for the festival by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, and named after the city:

Sing: “If you’re going to San Francisco, Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. If you’re going to San Francisco, You’re gonna meet some gentle people there… ” (San Francisco)

A crowd of 30,000 gentle people swelled to 60,000 by the last day of the festival. Over the course of the Summer, 100,000 people would descend on the Haight-Ashbury district, Berkeley, and other places in the Bay area. They were drawn by the promise of a “hippie” experience that included free food, free drugs, and free love. The 1967 Summer of Love was a defining moment when the hippie counterculture movement burst into public awareness.
What made this movement countercultural was that it challenged the conformist and materialistic values of modern life. Young people born at the end of WWII or shortly after were rejecting the fruits of their parents sacrifice and labor. They challenged a path to success that demanded a college degree, a career in corporate America, a traditional family, and a house in the suburbs. The revolution emphasized sharing and community, compassion and love. In essence, the young people of 1967 were revisiting the big questions of life for themselves and challenging the nation: Who am I? What is my purpose? What does it all mean?

If we were to travel back in time to 1967, we would find the US heavily invested in a war in Vietnam. Students who were eligible for the draft protested our involvement, questioning the war machine that sent their friends off to die and put their own lives at risk. The daily television news reports began with the casualty count from Vietnam, bringing the reality of war directly into everyone’s living room. As the war intensified, protests spread across the country. Mohammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the Army in protest of the war. We were a country divided by those who believed that being patriotic meant fighting for democracy around the world, and those who questioned the purpose and cost of war in a far-away land.

In 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. continued organizing a civil rights movement for blacks in America, articulating a vision of equality that challenged the status quo and brought the oppression of people of color to national consciousness. In April of 1967, King delivered a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” in which he suggested that there was a common link forming between the peace movement and the civil rights movement. He opposed the war because it diverted much needed funds from domestic programs that helped blacks out of poverty. King declared that the war was “taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Exactly one year later, King would be assassinated.

In 1967, there were 139 uprisings in cities across the country as people of color protested police brutality. The most violent and destructive was in downtown Detroit, a city gutted by white flight to the suburbs, and a people impoverished and abandoned by an auto industry that moved out of the city. Over the course of five sweltering hot days in July, 43 people died, 342 were injured, nearly 1,400 buildings were burned. Some 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops were called into service.

In 1967, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first black justice on the Supreme Court. That same court issued a decision in Loving vs Virginia, ruling that state laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
1967 is the year that we think of when we talk about the 60’s. It was a time of tensions about race and class, conflict between police and citizens, division regarding intractable war in a foreign land. Sound familiar?

It was one of those pivotal moments when we as a nation faced big questions: Who is included in “we?” What do we believe in? What defines success? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for?

Our answers to those questions in 1967, and the questions themselves, have influenced our nation ever since. The backlash against people of color who protested police brutality and students who protested the war contributed to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. The successes of the civil rights movement created a model for change that fueled campaigns for gender equality and LGBTQ rights in the decades to come. The US withdrawal from Vietnam and a sense of failure changed how our nation viewed our role in the world and dampened our willingness to go to war.

This past Summer, as we were marking the 50th anniversary of our national identity crisis during the Summer of Love, I was facing an identity crisis of my own. I’m calling it “The Summer of Knees.” This past Spring I injured myself, so I spent much of my Summer working around and living with a very sore knee. My days were consumed with finding ways to be as comfortable as possible walking, sitting, sleeping. All of the things that I took for granted were suddenly hard—stepping into pants was difficult, putting on shoes and socks, impossible. My weeks were punctuated with doctor appointments and physical therapy. When I left home, I paid attention to where there were curb cuts and elevators.

As I travelled this Summer, I realized that I had to pay attention to every detail of my trip. When I learned that it was about ½ mile through the Portland airport to my gate, I requested a wheelchair. I used a cane to walk through the conference center for the event that I attended. Everything took much longer than I expected.

In all of this accommodation, there was one message that I got loud and clear:

Sing: “Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last, just kickin’ down the cobble stones, do do do do……..(The 59th Street Bridge Song)

Ok, so maybe I wasn’t so much “feeling groovy,” but I definitely got the message to slow down. Especially after I stumbled when I was rushing somewhere and wrenched my knee, again. Apparently knees have a lot to do with balance, and I was, well…unbalanced. I am usually not someone who walks slowly or tentatively; I once had someone tell me that I would do well on a military drill team. But walking quickly hurt even more, so, I slowed down.

Even harder than slowing down, I was suddenly struggling with my identity. Who was I if I couldn’t easily walk where I needed to go? Who was I if I used a wheelchair? Or a cane?

In my career as a social worker, I had been the one who helped people get the medical equipment and personal care that they needed. I was the helper, I wasn’t the one who needed help. Who was I now? Was this me?

I want to acknowledge that there are many people who use a walker, wheelchair, cane, personal attendants as part of their daily life. Many people have successfully adapted to an injury or disability. I have a new appreciation for how difficult that can be. And I know in a new way that our ablest culture does not give much support for those who are different than a mythical ideal. This experience helped me realize in a profound way, our culture’s bias against people with disabilities.

This injury brought my sense of who I was front and center. Underneath all of these identity questions was a sense of vulnerability, of fragility, and loss of control. And, under all of those feelings was more big questions; those that have to do with aging and mortality. How will I find meaning and purpose as I age? Who will I be if I can’t do as much? When I come to die, will I have lived?

These are the some of the big questions of life. It is struggling with these questions, consciously or unconsciously, that shapes our lives. Whether as a nation or as an individual, the answers to these questions determine the values and beliefs that we hold, and that in turn affects how we behave.

I believe that engaging with these big questions is our spiritual work. It is how we “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” as Thoreau said. And, the big questions are often why we seek out religious community. Roman Catholic nun and theologian Joan Chittester suggests that religion is simply a way to address the great questions of life that puzzle and plague us all. For Chittester, God refers to the mystery of life—the big questions and an acknowledgment of how serious they are.

Some say that religion provides the answers to these questions. In our liberal religious tradition, we don’t provide answers; we encourage and invite the questions. For Unitarian Universalists, asking the questions may be even more important than finding the answers.

In the course of asking these questions we define our values and beliefs; in religious language, we define our theology.

Theology is one of those words that may be difficult for those who question or do not believe in God. How can you have a theology without “theos” or God? I find meaning in the definition of theology offered by Anthony Pinn, a humanist theologian. He says this:

“Theology is a method for critically engaging, articulating, and discussing the deep existential and ontological issues endemic to human life.”

In less academic terms, theology is the process of actively engaging with the big questions of life and making meaning. You could say that the young people of 1967 were engaged in theology. Through their rebellion, they were asking those big questions, seeking meaning in life, and forcing a nation to do the same.

This notion of struggling with the big questions of life is as ancient as we are. The book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible gives us the story of Jacob and the angel. In this tale, Jacob and an angel wrestle through the night. As dawn breaks, the angel touches Jacob’s hip socket so that it is damaged forever. As they part, Jacob asks the angel for a blessing and the angel gives Jacob a new name: Israel.

I read this as a story of a man wrestling with the big questions of life, wrestling with God in the form of an angel. Jacob is wondering who he is, where he has come from, and where he is going. The message of this story is clear: we do not wrestle with God or the big questions, without being changed. We do not come through unscathed. Perhaps it affects our hips or knees; it most certainly transforms our hearts and souls. By having grappled with the questions, we are never the same.

Unlike Jacob, we do not have to wrestle with these questions alone. At its best, our faith tradition not only invites us to ask the big questions, it creates a community that supports our seeking answers. We bring our questions to worship, to coffee hour, to social gatherings, to small group discussions, to classes. Some of you bring your questions to your ministers. Because, we get by with a little help from our friends.

Karen Hering wrote: “It was an embrace between souls, wordless and timeless, bottomless as love can be—big enough and strong enough to hold a question, even an unanswerable one.” This is want we seek to create in our beloved community—timeless, bottomless love big enough and strong to hold us and all of our questions.

Sometimes we experience moments that we look back on as times when our lives changed forever by new answers to big questions. The Summer of 1967 was one of those times for our nation. This Summer was one of those times for me. However, the reality is that we are always and forever being invited to engage with the big questions of life. All of our experiences–big and small, one-time events and the every-day mundane—are invitations to ask: Who am I? Why am I here? Where have we come from? Where are we going? What does this mean? And, who are “we” anyway? These are the questions we have faced since we became human. These are the questions that we must face if we are to remain human, and humane.

On October 6, 1967, those left in the Bay area staged a mock funeral called “The Death of the Hippie” to mourn the end of that eventful Summer. The Summer was over, and the questions remained; they always do. In October of 2017, we are once again at a pivotal time, facing the big questions, as individuals, as a denomination, and as a nation. Whether we have the courage to name the questions, and how we answer them, will affect who we are and how we are for years to come.

I don’t know what pithy wisdom Timothy Leary would offer if he were alive today. This is my take: May we have the courage to turn toward, lean in, carry on.

May it be so. Blessed Be. Amen.