The year 1968 was a momentous one for me. All around the country, revolution was in the air. I was a freshman architectural student in Boston, with nothing to prevent me from being radicalized.

I grew up in a liberal Congregational church, which my sister and I attended with my mother. During my junior year of high school, my mother—at the behest of my uncle, a Gideons member—came to genuine faith at a Baptist church where the gospel was preached. (My father, a lapsed Catholic, and grandmother would eventually meet Jesus there as well.)

As for me, I remained uninterested in Christianity. And by the time I went off to architectural school, I was falling in with the ’60s counterculture. Educated by my liberal church and public school to believe I could be a good person without embracing the supernatural claims of the Bible, I soon affirmed the moral and spiritual relativism that reflected the counterculture’s blend of Eastern religiosity and American optimism. I believed all religions were heading for the same glorious summit.

I joined the Boston Resistance, a student group promoting nonviolent opposition to the draft and the Vietnam War. I was present during a massive antiwar rally at the Boston Public Garden, where the counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman referred to the John Hancock building as a “hypodermic needle in the sky.” We felt certain our movement was every bit as important as the American Revolution. We were a vanguard poised to change the course of Western civilization.

Shattered illusions

In 1970, I left school to join a commune in Oregon. Nearly every hippie dreamed of taking a pilgrimage to the West Coast. Plus, the mountains of the Pacific Northwest appealed to my outdoorsman side. During my summer there, we hiked, camped, and climbed among the Three Sisters Wilderness of the Cascade Range. We also enjoyed many deep discussions about Eastern religion and the meaning of life.

Ultimately, however, life in the commune was deeply demoralizing. If nothing else, it washed away my naïve confidence in the inherent goodness of humanity. Despite my supposed rejection of mainstream morality, certain residual attitudes about sexual ethics and personal responsibility simply refused to die. One of my fellow hippies even labeled me a “Puritan,” which wasn’t a compliment.

I still believed, for instance, that sex was meant for marriage—or at least for serious relationships. But that norm was flouted everywhere I looked. I believed, too, in an ethic of working hard and paying my own way. But many members of the commune were essentially mooching off their parents, a lifestyle that showed up in their chronic neglect of chores like washing dishes or cleaning the toilet. Even though I smoked pot and indulged in an occasional psychedelic trip, my behavior was fairly tame by commune standards.

Article continues below

The breaking point, for me, came during a weeklong music festival known as Vortex I. Funded jointly by the Portland counterculture and the Oregon government, it was meant to divert attention from an appearance by President Nixon and put a peaceful face on the antiwar movement. But the depths of depravity I witnessed there convinced me I had to get away.

I returned to the Boston area in the fall of 1970 literally singing the blues. I had gone to Oregon in search of peace and love, but now I felt the weight of my ideals collapsing. This was a dark time for many committed counterculture enthusiasts. Janis Joplin, who belted out the blues like no other, and Jimi Hendrix, who mesmerized us with phenomenal guitar work, had both recently died from drug overdoses.

Disillusioned with life in the counterculture, I sank into a period of cynicism. A sense of mankind’s hopelessness closed in like a thick fog. A few forays into Eastern mysticism left me with a yawning emptiness of soul. Only the I Ching (or Yi Jing), an ancient Chinese divination manual, offered any ray of hope. (A friend had warned me that its powers lay beyond the ordinary influence of religious literature.)

The I Ching consists of various “changes,” or oracles, which promise individual guidance based on the supposed order of the cosmos (the Tao). But instead of following along in sequential order, like a Christian reading a daily devotional, I Ching users toss six yarrow sticks (stalks of medicinal herb), with the resulting pattern determining which text they read.

One day I tossed my pennies—the American substitute for yarrow sticks—and an unlikely combination lay before me. Each penny turned up heads—all six of them. Within the I Ching framework, this equated to six horizontal lines on top of each other, a pattern symbolizing the meeting of heaven and earth. The corresponding oracle predicted an encounter with one who would guide me into the future, claiming, “The movement of heaven is full of power.”

A motto in my high school yearbook had promised, “He is the architect of his own future.” I was discovering, however, the far greater power of heaven’s own movements. God was using false religion to draw me toward the truth.

Article continues below
The liberating truth

Several days later, I sat despairingly in my room, realizing my own desperate condition: I was the problem—not the “establishment,” not my hedonistic friends in Oregon. My heart was dark with selfishness. I knew I was living for my own pleasure and satisfaction. I looked at a picture of Jesus I’d received from a friend in the commune. In his mind, Jesus was the quintessential guru.

The picture showed Jesus smiling benignly. But his bleeding heart reminded me of the Crucifixion. Then the realization stole over me: Jesus had died for sinners just like me.

Almost immediately, I grabbed my Bible and turned serendipitously to the book of Jonah, where I read:

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. (1:3–4)

This was me: fleeing from a God who graciously let the Woodstock generation swallow me up and spit me back out, all so he could get my attention.

From there, I read the Bible voraciously, quickly latching onto John 8:31–32: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” I wanted to tell everyone the liberating good news of Jesus Christ. So I sought out fellowship with other Christians, including some Harvard students in my Cambridge co-op. And I drove to New Hampshire most Sundays to worship at my mother’s church.

My spiritual and intellectual hunger led me to study with Francis Schaeffer at his L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Here I discovered the rich heritage of Reformed theology, which launched me toward Westminster Theological Seminary and 40 years of ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Sixties revolutionary fervor did nothing but plunge me into despair. Now, thanks to Christ, my hope is built on solid rock, not sinking sand.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age and the editor of Ordained Servant: A Journal for Church Officers.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.