(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
I have very few memories of the 1960’s. I was born at its beginning and so I remember a few events from that decade – but not much about its cultural, spiritual and political significance. Even so, the decade clearly shaped both me and most of us here today.
The sexual revolution began in the 1960’s and the gay rights movement emerged from that. Attitudes about equality for African-Americans, women and other marginalized people also improved. Spiritually, the sixties saw a wholesale change in religious attitudes. No longer did most people accept, without question, the religion of their parents. Universal values such as equality, justice, love, peace, simplicity, and humility were embraced by sixties youth as synonymous with what they considered to be honest “spirituality”. Many hippies even became involved in the so-called Jesus movement which celebrated expansive love, radical equality and communal sharing.
The term “flower power” originated from the poet Alan Ginsburg who encouraged young people living in San Francisco to use flowers as a “visual spectacle” against non-violence. For the so-called hippies of that era, flowers were symbols of their motto to make love and not war. Flowers are the antithesis of guns and bombs.
Indeed, flower power was a statement of peace. It represented what activist Abbie Hoffman described as “friendly weakness” or a willingness to purposefully set aside anger and violence. Flower power echoed the non -violence of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who all taught that the meek, gentle and humble people of the world are the truly strong. It’s easy to be verbally or physically violent. It’s far more challenging and courageous to be forgiving, gentle and gracious toward enemies.
During the summer of 1967, one which was called the summer of love, youth across the nation rallied in huge numbers against the Viet Nam war. It was the high point of the flower power movement. Using non-violent tactics borrowed from the civil rights movement, over 100,000 young people marched on Washington D.C. and surrounded the Pentagon. Three thousand soldiers formed a protective ring around it. Each one held a rifle with a fixed bayonet pointed at the peaceful protesters. One of the most iconic images of the sixties is a photograph of a young man at that protest placing daisies in the gun barrels of soldiers lined up against him and others.
For us as Unitarian Universalists, the flower power movement of the sixties expressed many of the values we hold – ones which we celebrate today. Flower children, as they were called, believed in equality such that many chose to establish communes in order to equitably share work and resources. And those communities had a few similarities to ours. People of all races, sexualities, beliefs and genders were welcomed. There was minimal hierarchy. They made decisions collectively. They worked to achieve common goals of a peaceful, loving, and compassionate community. And flowers were their symbol.
Interestingly, the flower children of the sixties were unknowingly following in the footsteps of one of Unitarian Universalism’s heroes – the Reverend Norbert Capek. As the originator of flower communion, he was also a champion of the ideals flower children adopted forty years later. Capek learned about Unitarianism during a tour of the US and, in 1919, he resigned as a Baptist minister and founded a Unitarian fellowship in Prague, Czechoslovakia. His congregation grew in size to include 3200 members and was the largest Unitarian church in the world. Capek dispensed with most religious trappings like the singing of hymns, prayer, clergy robes and ornate decorations in the sanctuary. Services consisted mostly of lectures on universally accepted ethics.
In 1941, he was arrested by the Nazis who were against his liberal religious views. He was tortured, imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp and killed in its gas chambers in 1942. At his death, the President of the Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, said, “Another name is added to the list of heroic Unitarian martyrs…”
Capek’s ministry had two foundational beliefs. People must first love all creation. In order to practice that ethic, he believed in the power of spiritual communities to improve the world by enlightening and empowering individuals. He was a champion of positive thinking and having a happy outlook about life – no matter one’s circumstances. His fellowship focused on compassion towards those who suffer while teaching that people who hurt can learn to adopt a positive attitude. We must see beauty in ugliness, good in the midst of evil, joy in the throes of despair, and peace in the face of pain. As he said, “The dominance of mind over the body is everything………and helps to overcome everything.”
Spiritually, he believed that each person yearns to be in harmony with the Infinite – his concept for God. Every person is an expression of the Infinite not only because each person has inherent worth, but because we can also act much like The Infinite in our compassion and love for others. The Unitarian church’s task, he said, should be to “place truth above any tradition, spirit above any scripture, freedom above authority, and progress above all reaction.”
In 1923, Capek initiated the flower communion ritual. The first one he conducted looked almost exactly like what we and hundreds of other Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate every year. He intended it to echo his congregation’s spiritual belief in the dignity and diversity of all people. For Capek, flowers brought to the service symbolize individual uniqueness. Their placement together in one vase represents the communion and shared love people must have for each other.
Blessing the flowers at the first flower communion, he said, “In the hearts of humanity is the longing people have to live in neighborly love. In the name of the highest, in whom we move and who makes the mother, the father, brother, and the sister what they are; In the name of sages and great religious leaders who sacrificed their lives to hasten the coming of the kingdom of peace and justice – Let us renew our resolution sincerely to be real brothers and sisters regardless of any kind of barrier which estranges person from person.”
As I said earlier, many of us have been heavily influenced by the ideas of 1960’s flower children. Indeed, some of us may have even been flower children – or at least sympathetic to them. As Unitarian Universalists, we are also heirs to the principles of Norbert Capek. What we celebrated today in flower communion is not just a nice way to conclude our September to June program year. It’s not just a simple ritual with tradition and history. Its imbued with a meaning that exemplifies who we are and what we believe. The diversity of flowers is not just a pleasant thought. It is a perfect symbol of our values.
We believe that everyone is welcome here, and everyone is celebrated as they are – no matter what. To that end, those who choose to join us also accept that value. We don’t just say we respect and honor differences in spiritual belief, age, gender identity, race or whom one romantically loves. We practice it. Everybody has a voice. Everybody seeks to listen more than opine. Everyone speaks gently, with kindness, and with love. We may disagree, we each may hold opinions on a range of subjects that are deeply important to us, but that does not prevent us from listening to, respecting and trying to understand the views of others.
Toward that end, we are like the flower children of the 60’s. We are one community united in purposefully seeking collaboration with one another and with the wider world. Ours is not a community that shuts itself off from those outside our doors and arrogantly assumes we have all the answers to life, death and eternity. In a world awash with extremism where too many factions and too many religions believe they are right and all others are wrong, we say something very different. We have more questions than we have dogmatic answers. We are open to exploration and learning. Such is the essence of humility and gentleness – with one another and with people who disagree with us.
This practice of friendly weakness is precisely what motivated flower power. It was a response to American arrogance that presumed to tell Viet Nam how it should govern itself. We fought a war against their people that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths – all based on the belief we were right and they were wrong. Flower power, as a counter movement, offered another way. The flower children of the sixties idealistically but sincerely believed people should make love, and not war.
Norbert Capek believed the same. His beloved spiritual community in Prague, Czechoslovakia stood against the intolerance and violence of racist Nazism. It taught compassion, gentleness and universal harmony – race to race, religion to religion, sister to sister, enemy to enemy.
We each implicitly know and accept those Unitarian values. The flowers we brought here today represent them. Consistent with my praise of us as people of action in my message two weeks ago, we don’t just say those things. We don’t just put them in our Mission Statement and Unison Affirmation. We don’t pat ourselves on the back because our Social Justice Action Team discusses them. Each and every one of us endeavors to actively live according to them – in how we speak to others, how we disagree, how we act to improve the world and how we openly welcome, love and celebrate everyone. Forgive me for borrowing the flower power motto and sounding a bit risqué, but we don’t just talk love here, we make love here. That is a spirit in this place that we must forever honor and hold dear. It is a Unitarian Universalist ethic – everyone deserves to be loved. And every adult and child here strives to do their best to honor and practice that.
Flowers are brief but glorious displays of nature. In truth, they are ways plants reproduce through beauty and a delicate display of color. It may sound simplistic to compare ourselves to flowers but that is what we are like. We offer the world the beauty of our principles. And then we work to spread those seed values not by our words – but by our actions. I look out here on almost any Sunday and honestly see black, white, child, senior, gay, straight, transgender, cisgender, male, female, Jewish, Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Humanist, Buddhist – all in communion together! What I see is One Human Family – a vision of the world as it should be and one we must continue to help create. (Stop and personal observation here).
As we end an historic program year, one which saw us legally merge, one that added many new faces to our midst, one in which we experienced highs and lows, laughter and tears, let us go off into our summers ready to boldly continue this good endeavor we call the Gathering at Northern Hills – a vibrant bloom of peace and joy for all.