Stairway to Heaven

Sonya Belaya, one of our gifted musicians, effortlessly brought the mystery of this melody into the holiness of our sanctuary during our prelude this morning at King of Kings in Ann Arbor.  It was a moment of worship nirvana for me, for whom finding the places where holy mystery meets human creativity is a never-ending pursuit. For these two reasons, I’m resurrecting this piece, first published here in 2011, while in my first call. Now in my 4th call, it still makes me tremble to read it and remember that day in the cemetery. 

A die-hard Led Zeppelin fan from way back, I can of course sing every word of this classic rock tune.  Along with every word of every song on albums 2 & 4.

Within the vocation as a pastor, Stairway to Heaven has returned to me twice in surprising but noteworthy ways.

At a confirmation retreat in Lancaster once, 8 pastors and I were locked into a rustic cabin with 50 early teens of both genders.  In February.  With limited power.  At 1:00 in the morning.  We were gathered in the boys cabin because the girls cabin was without heat.  We were gradually losing control of the little darlings, partially due to our own fatigue and discomfort and partially because their entertaining themselves by playing Texas Hold ‘Em seemed a forgivable sin and surely a lesser evil, even though it would be hard to make a case for it being relevant to our retreat on the Sacraments.  As the chatter around the groups of budding card sharks rose to an alarming pitch, one pastor produced a battery-operated jam box and the room filled with the sacred and instantly recognizable distinct guitar introduction.  Some of the younger generation recognized it and fell silent.  Others pretended it was music that demanded to be talked over.

Before Robert Plant ever began to croon, There’s A Lady…a former-Marine-turned pastor commanded the entire assembly to HUSH!  In the ensuing silence, the children looking at him guiltily and confused.  Pastor Marine, realizing his command was perhaps a bit above and beyond what the situation required, explained meekly:

“We must listen to this entire piece with absolutely no additional noise, because…”

To which a brave 12 year old squeaked:  “because why?”

“Because…” said the Marine now using his best pastoral cadence, “…because…it’s a prayer.”

The pastors strategically placed around the perimeter of the room exchanged a quick glance before biting their lips and turning away from the pondering faces of the children.

And that is how an entire room of people separated by at least 2 if not 4 generations, absorbed every single word of Stairway to Heaven in a dark cabin with both reverence and celebration bliss.

Three years later, a deeply grieving woman asked me to say some words at the graveside service of both her mother and her brother who had died two days apart.  At their request, they had been cremated, and the only service was to be graveside.   The mother had died on Sunday.  Tuesday, her son, who had refused to come to the hospital when the family disconnected her life support, and who had suffered from depression his entire life, walked into the woods in the morning and  destroyed his demons at last.

It was pouring rain when we arrived at the cemetery.  I gingerly walked to the site that was sparsely covered by the cemetery blue tent.  On the ground, where the casket might have been, sat two small urns.  Filling the space and flowing out into the rain were the grief-stricken friends and family including an abundance of larger than life bikers, who were weeping like preschoolers.

I had only had one hour before the service to interview the daughter who had requested my services.  She spoke quietly, slowly, in the way of the newly heartbroken.  After :45 minutes of gently probing for details of her loved ones that might allow me to personalize my graveside remarks she said casually, “even at 83 she was quite a rocker, my mom.  My brother too.”

“Tell me more,” I coaxed.

“Well.  They both loved Led Zeppelin.  I know that for sure.  When Zeppelin was on it was like they were singing a hymn together.”  She smiled sadly, remembering.

The widow of the woman’s brother was a half an hour late to the funeral.  Those who had gathered waited patiently, water pouring off their hatbrims and  beards as the all-too-thin widow made her way past the marble headstones,  her boots sinking into the sod, one hand shielding the Marlboro she was breathing.  A friend guided her steps, her arm firmly around the widows waist.

I don’t remember much of what I said.  But I do know that this soggy and committed group of roughlife friends periodically added Baptist-worthy Amens! to my monologue of blessed assurances.  I do know that they joined me confidently, spontaneously joining hands and patting forearms, when I invited them to pray The Lord’s Prayer.  I do know I awkwardly knelt down by the urns when I committed these two dearly beloved to their final resting place.

And I will never forget the way the Holy Spirit seamlessly enabled me to weave a few lines of Stairway To Heaven into the final benediction, and that these blessed bikers raised their hands in the air as I did so.  Nor will I forget the way  they filed past me afterward, one by one, thanking me for having blessed the passing of their friends in a way that brought them a tiny bit of peace and honored the truth of their lives.

The bereaved lingered awhile as often happens.  Finally, I followed their bikes out the gates in my Mustang which for the first time seemed appropriate at a funeral.

And as we wound on down the road and out the cemetery gates, the rain, unexpectedly and abruptly stopped.  The sun emerged with such force that the raindrops on the tree leaves sparkled.   And I like to think that as our procession turned in different directions at the first crossroad, the shine of the sun enabled these saints to see shadows taller than their souls.


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