Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock: Forty Years Later

Woodstock FestivalImage via Wikipedia

Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, Tell me, where are you going?
This he told me

Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm,
Gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

I wasn’t at Woodstock.

It’s not because I didn’t want to go. Being 15 years old, without transportation – and, although I don’t know for sure, I’d have been stunned if my parents would have given their permission, going to the event was impossible. I’m still fascinated by the event today; all the more so because the 40th anniversary of the final day of the “three days of peace, love and music” will have started by the time I have finished this reflection.

Well, then can I roam beside you?
I have come to lose the smog,
And I feel myself a cog in somethin' turning.
And maybe it's the time of year,
Yes, and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am,
But life is for learning.

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

What is it about that time that triggers so strong a response in me, even today? First of all, I know it isn’t the music – although, to be sure, it was the music of my youth, and the songs I enjoyed back then are still enjoyable today. The best I can determine, it is the fact that, for a period of three days, some four hundred thousand people lived side-by-side, sharing an experience, with virtually no friction arising: no fights; only two deaths – one as the result of an overdose of heroin, the other a young man killed while sleeping in a field when a tractor ran over him in his sleeping bag. People were hungry, as the organizers, who had planned for a maximum of fifty thousand people, were overwhelmed. People got soaked as a storm on the second day dropped over an inch of rain in about an hour’s time. People got sick; some "freaked out" as a result of taking drugs. With all of this, almost everyone who attended and has gone on record about the event comments about the peace and the smiles that were shared; how people responded to calls by the organizers to share what food they had with their “brothers and sisters” – who were identified as, “the people on your right, and the people on your left” – in other words, your neighbors. This has always been a point of focus as I reflect on the event: the Biblical connections that arise. There are echoes of the feeding of the five thousand in the call to share food; and there is the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ about who is our neighbor. For me, in part, at least, what I have seen and heard of what took place at Woodstock has a mystical component, and is a metaphor for so much of what seemed possible for us at that time. Even as wars raged around the world – the one looming largest at that time was the war in Vietnam, with its very real connections (and potential threat) to the larger, more ominous, if less immediate, “Cold War” – even as our culture seemed doomed to become spiritually dead through the pursuit of material possessions, status and power, the young people who gathered on Max Yasgur’s farm, and those who, like me, wanted to be there, yearned for a different world, a different culture; and we thought, for a time, that the power to achieve a new society of peace and love was within our grasp; a new world was a very real possibility, if only we could work together to achieve it.

That yearning stayed with me into the decade of the 1970’s. Among other things, I immersed myself in the various movements that grew out of the festival at Woodstock, as well as the tragedies that followed, not the least of which was the death of four students at Kent State University, shot by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest. One of the four killed had graduated the year before from the high school I was attending. I didn’t know her; but I knew, and cared for, people who did, people who lost a friend that day – and their grief touched me, and ignited an anger in me. I was involved in a number of anti-war protests in downtown Washington, D.C., and resolved to go to Canada rather than be drafted, if necessary. I also was drawn to the beginnings of the environmental movement, and the “back to the land” movement that was spurred on when I discovered the teachings and philosophy in The Mother Earth News, and especially its reports on the Twin Oaks commune in Louisa, Virginia, not far from where we lived and worked and went to college. When an “outreach team” from Twin Oaks made a visit to our college campus, I was there to hear every word, and always wanted – but could never quite manage – to make a visit to the commune. I wouldn’t say that I did anything consequential. My protesting the war didn’t bring it to an end; and while I would never negate the importance of each person doing what they can to conserve energy and water, and to recycle, and so on, I doubt that my contribution, even to this day, has really made the kind of difference my heart has always yearned to make. As much as I’d hoped otherwise, this is the only honest assessment I can make.

By the time we got to Woodstock,
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes
Riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation.

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are caught in the devil’s bargain,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

By the time I finished seminary, over twenty years distant from the Woodstock festival, I had started to figure out why we hadn’t been able to change the world, and why the communal life exerted such an attraction. The two are related; and Joni Mitchell’s song about the festival, which was a monster hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, gave me valuable clues. My thoughts along these lines were triggered in part by an invitation a group of us received on the eve of graduation from seminary to consider becoming part of an ecumenical community of Roman Catholics and Episcopalians living and working and worshipping together in rural Maryland, not far from our campus; and by a chance event that took place a few years later while driving along California Highway 99 near Merced, while on my way to a youth ministry event. I happened to look up, and was shocked to see a B-52 flying at a relatively low level overhead. My thoughts immediately flashed to the line in the song: And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky… There it was – but it didn’t turn into a butterfly. Within a year’s time, I was the vicar of the mission in Atwater, at the time the home of Castle Air Force Base – closed a few years later. Castle Air Force Bases was home to a squadron of bombers; and one of the lay leaders of the mission, and a good friend, was a B-52 pilot.

The song begins: I came upon a child of God, he was walkin’ along the road… There are hints of the road to Emmaus, being traveled by two of the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, who are traveling from Jerusalem after His passion and death on the Cross. They are not aware that He has risen from the dead, even when they meet Him walkin’ along the road. It is not until He accepts their invitation to stay with them for the evening, and reveals Himself when He blesses and breaks the bread, that they realize what has happened. This is what is missing in the song. This is what Twin Oaks didn’t have; and this is why our hopes and dreams for a better world did not, and could not, materialize. Can you hear it? It’s in the last line of the chorus: And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden… What garden? Why, the Garden of Eden, of course! The Garden, the place of Paradise, where we lived in the immediate and intimate presence of God, Who would walk with us and talk with us, and we could, presumably, see Him face to face. We lost our place there by our disobedience – as the song says, We are caught in the devil’s bargain… An angel with a fiery sword was set to guard the entryway to prevent us from trying to get back; and the only way a return is possible is through our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing else will work; our strength alone is not sufficient; nor are we permitted to enter, unless we are joined to the Son of God Who gave Himself to make this possible, because of His great and unfathomable love for us; and Who, having risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, sitting at the right hand of God the Father, has done so with our human nature still joined to His divine nature – restoring us to living once more in the immediate and intimate presence of God.

Can we change the world? Maybe. The task of doing so begins by changing ourselves; by grasping what has been done for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. By His incarnation, our humanity has been united with His divinity. By His death, the power of death has been brought to an end. By His resurrection, we, too, are raised from death to life. We have been buried with Him in baptism, and raised by Him to a life that will not end. When we accept this incredible gift of God’s love, and yield ourselves to Him in love, and take responsibility for how we live, with the intention of allowing the life of Christ in us be seen in us, through what we say and what we do, in who we are – the hope and the dream of a better life is possible. Woodstock is only the beginning; and the joy of the kingdom of heaven awaits!

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are caught in the devil’s bargain,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

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