Stairway to Heaven

This week I had the pleasure, and I do mean pleasure, of attending the funeral of my 45-year-old cousin whose body finally gave in after a 4-year battle with cancer. It was a celebration of a life well lived despite the circumstances that ended it too soon. We celebrated his life, not mourned his death. During the tailgating at the funeral home, which lasted two hours after the funeral home closed and only ended when the lights went out, it was a “celebration” in a very literal sense. His favorite band, Led Zeppelin, was blaring and the most famous rock song of all time, “Stairway to Heaven,” was played multiple times. The visual imagery of climbing a stairway to heaven is a great reflection on life’s journey.

Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s most important and original philosophical theologians in the early 1700’s, noted: “The way to Heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel uphill, though it be hard and tiresome, and contrary to the natural bias of our flesh.” Edwards, like my cousin, grounded his life’s work on the simple concepts of beauty and harmony. A hard and tiresome ascent means living life to the fullest, not complaining, always willing to help others, living to see others smile and enjoying shared blessings, giving of oneself not when convenient but when needed, no matter what the personal cost. It is living in the vision and not in the circumstances.

That stairway climb, when done right, means that a Tuesday mid-morning funeral that typically draws just family becomes a filled church. A life of love that engages with everyone along the staircase creates a 100+ car procession to the gravesite and provides a beautiful but awkward moment when it was time to leave, yet everyone wanted to linger just a while longer.

My cousin’s stairway climb was filled with many simple life lessons. In the game of life, he may have gotten dealt some crappy genetic playing cards with a physical body that would fail him to soon, but he played those cards well and with all he had. He didn’t ask for a reshuffle or re-deal of the cards. He never counted the days, instead focusing on making the days count –he officiated middle school and high school football games his final two days of consciousness. What mattered to him was serving others, making people smile or laugh, and not sweating the small stuff. What never mattered was pride or ego.

On the song Stairway to Heaven, John Paul Jones elected to eliminate his standard bass guitar because he thought the song sounded more like a folk tune and the bass wouldn’t really fit. So instead, he added a string section, keyboards, and flutes. Very different from anything Zeppelin had done in the past, but it worked perfectly. At some point in our lives, we’re going to be in a place and time where the usual or expected is not going to fit.

Slow progress is often the way to attack a stairway. Stairways have landings that allow for pauses. We can stop the climb, look around, take a fresh perspective. Time to construct and strengthen an inner core. Time to discover new spaces or ignored areas that could flourish. As the song sings, there are “two paths you can go by” a path to be positive and serve others no matter the circumstances or a path focused on ourselves and possibly one of wallowing in self-pity. “Makes me wonder” permits us to question whether we are on the right path and provides an opportunity to change because “in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

As I reflect on the song lyrics in a more thoughtful way than ever before, I read the second to last line, “To be a rock and not to roll.” My heart now leaps with joy and I smile when hearing that line, as my cousin was the epitome of being a rock for his family, friends, and those in need. He used the gifts he was given for the good of everyone. He stood firm with who he was and in his battle with cancer and “not to roll.”

The Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 5:3-12) are like the stairway where each one leads to the next and they build upward. The first three Beatitudes deal with our internal personal needs – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.”

The next four Beatitudes grow outward and concern commitments with others, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The final Beatitude is different as we are not pursuing it, but we’re to understand that when we seek the life that Jesus lays out for us, persecution will pursue us, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant spent much of the ’70s answering questions about the lyrics he wrote for “Stairway to Heaven.” The only part Plant ever explained is that it is about a woman who accumulates money, only to find out the hard way her life had no meaning, and it will not get her into heaven. We cannot purchase our path to heaven with money. The Stairway to Heaven is already bought and paid for by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is important to note that it is not ‘a stairway’ that was purchased by His blood, but ‘the stairway to heaven.’

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