Sunday, September 6, 2009

Spirit in the Sky

Cloud formation making a gateway in the sky over Northern Ohio last month. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

I’m not a religious guy. Not that I haven’t had my moments. When I was in the third grade, my mother was certain I would become a priest when I grew up because she said I was so “self righteous.”

Whether or not that was true, I do remember being lured by the buzz of Norman Greenbaum’s guitar in “Spirit in the Sky” as it drifted like magic over CKLW’s AM airwaves in my old man’s car. 

Greenbaum's lyrics made sense to me, even though I was only six at the time. They were matter of fact and kind of happy, despite the fact he was singing about death.

“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.”

"When I lay me down to die; goin’ on up to the Spirit in the Sky.”

 It was simple, it made sense and it was a catchy tune to boot:

“Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must, you gotta have a friend in Jesus,

"So you know that when you die, he’s gonna recommend you to the Spirit in the Sky.”

That song, more than anything, became my mantra for all things religious. I prayed every night as a kid, even though I rarely went to church. On those rare occasions when I did go to church, I found myself looking at the larger-than-life Jesus nailed to the cross behind the altar of St. Pete’s Catholic Church and I would start to sing the song in my head.

It was like I was wearing headphones or something. When everyone else in the congregation was standing, sitting, kneeling or praying, I was tapping my foot to the sound of Greenbaum’s guitar, buzzing in my head.

I felt a real connection with Jesus back then. He did, after all, look like most rock stars of that era. It was 1970 and long hair, beards, and flowing robes were very much "in" at the time. For all I knew, it could just as easily have been Norman Greenbum nailed to that cross behind the altar because they sure looked a lot alike.

I knew, even back then, I was never going to be the world’s best Catholic (but I may have been the most hip). Where most folks blindly followed with their faith, I always had questions:

How could I know if the things being taught to me in catechism were any more valid than Greenbaum’s guitar solos, or Ian Gillan’s searing vocals in Jesus Christ Superstar?

For example, why was the sky always referred to as the Heavens? Even as a little kid, I knew that the sky was just part of our atmosphere. Was it really possible that God, Jesus, and all the souls of well-behaved dead people were up there somewhere looking down on us?

And what about hell? Could it really be possible that somewhere in the bowels of the Earth, a fiery land of eternal damnation and torture awaits if we do something as innocent as not believe in Heaven?

I was a little kid, but I was curious to know what happened to all the Egyptians, Buddhists, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and American Indians who all believed in something different than what I was being told to believe. Were they all in Hell? Or were they in several different Heavens, co-existing in space separately, but very much equal?

I didn’t know the answers and I felt certain the church wouldn’t give me any objective advice on the manner, so I did the next best thing I could think of, I tried to talk to God.

I vividly remember laying in our backyard looking up at our neighbor’s giant oak tree as it stretched into the blue sky on a beautiful summer day with puffy white clouds drifting along just beyond the tree's branches. It looked like Heaven - or at least the way I thought Heaven should look. But it was a beautiful day - of course it looked like Heaven. 

The next day might be hazy, or gray, or raining. Was it Heaven then? And what if God wasn’t there? What if he was down here on Earth taking care of some business at the time. Would he still hear me? And exactly how do you talk to God? I mean, I assumed language wasn’t a problem, he must know several, including English, but did I need to speak out loud, or could I just think it and let him read my mind?

It’s something I still think about today, some 35-years later. Why is it I still associate Heaven with the sky on a beautiful day? And why is it I still don’t know how to talk to God?

Just last month I was driving along the shores of Lake Erie at sundown when the most amazing cloud formation began to take shape on the horizon. It was so amazing, I felt the sudden need to feel spiritual. It had been a beautiful day, and now it was shaping up to be a beautiful sunset. 

 My whole family was with me; my wife in the front seat, the kids in the back; not unlike my own childhood cruising along with my sister, two brothers, and my mom and dad. 

The days of listening to CKLW on AM radio had long past, but my love of music had not. I flipped on the radio and tuned it in to 94.5, a classic rock station out of Toledo. Lynard Skynard’s Freebird was on, quite possibly the worst song ever recorded. I nearly changed stations but it was near the end of the epic song and I decided to leave it alone.

As the sun continued to fire up the cloud formation in front of me, an amazing thing happened. The last annoying guitar riff from Freebird faded into oblivion and the fuzzy, buzz-saw sound of Norman Greenbaum’s guitar took its place.

“Unbeliveable!” I said out loud.

“What?” My wife asked.

“I was just thinking about Heaven and those clouds up there, and then 'Spirit in the Sky' comes on the radio.” 

For the next four minutes I cranked up the volume and told my kids to listen. Even though they’re more into the world of hip hop and pop music than classic rock, I knew they’d still dig Greenbaum’s guitar riffs and catchy lyrics – and they did.

“That’s a pretty cool song.” My son admitted.

After the song ended, I told them how much it affected me when I was a young kid; recounting my stories of toe-tapping in church and trying to talk to God in my backyard while lying in the grass and looking at the sky.

“That’s it,” I said, “I gotta pull over and take a picture of those clouds, they’re just too amazing to ignore and if I don’t do it, I’m going to be pissed at myself later.”

“Well then do it.” My wife insisted.

I turned right at the next crossroad and headed north toward the lake. I kept driving until I had a clean shot of the cloud formation with no trees or power lines in the way. It was a country road with no shoulder and I was surprised that once I found my clean shot, there just so happened to be a school parking lot there for me to pull into.

At the time, I wasn’t paying attention to anything other than getting my picture before the sinking light levels made it impossible. It wasn’t until I was done shooting that I noticed the name of the school where I had pulled off was Jerusalem Elementary.

“No way!” I said.

“What now?” My wife asked.

“First I’m thinking about Heaven because of those clouds,” I said, “and then ‘Spirit in the Sky’ comes on the radio, and when I finally decide to pull over and take a picture of those clouds, I pull into a school called Jerusalem.”

No one in the car seemed to care.

“C’mon, don’t you think that’s just too weird?” I asked.


“Well, whatever,” I said mockingly, “but if we crash and burn on the way home I’m going up there to them clouds and you heathens are going to be burnin’ down below!”

Five minutes later the amazing cloud formation that had me so entranced, broke up and flitted away as darkness began to take hold. An hour after that, we were back home in Ann Arbor getting the kids ready for bed. I kissed my children goodnight and decided to turn in myself, but before I let myself drift off to sleep I tried to dial up God in my head one more time.

“Lord,” I said to myself, opting for the mind-reading route, “I don’t know what that was tonight – if it was anything – and I don’t know if there’s a heaven up there - or if there’s a hell - and if there is a heaven and a hell, I sure don’t know where I’m going to end up. But God, if you do exist and you are responsible for what my life has become, I just want to say thanks and please keep it up; because when I die and they lay me to rest I wanna go to the place that’s the best!”

Can I get an Amen?


  1. This post has me BAWLING!! It's SO BEAUTIFUL!!! God is showing Himself to you in a way that only YOU can see!! Ask Him also to STAY with you and live in you, too!! You'll see SO MANY MORE amazing things!!! God Bless!