Learning to Pray
Several years ago I attended a funeral officiated by Rev Terry Elsberry, an Episcopal minister from Bedford NY, who not only spoke about the deceased like the friend of his that he was, but also spoke of Jesus like he was a personal friend. Everything Rev Elsberry said about our mutual friend was true.
After listening to him talk about Jesus I wanted to know how or why he felt he could speak so truthfully about Him as well. Extremely curious, I emailed the good Rev to find out. His answer was "from personal experience". It's taken me a few years, but I think I get it now.
Around this same time I had a health scare that prompted me to stop dreaming about things I've always wanted to do and start doing them. Talking about this over lunch with a close friend, she asked me to name something that I'd like to do but hadn't. Sing in a gospel choir I answered without skipping a beat. This particular friend belonged to First AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in LA for years and had taken me there many times. Every time I went the choir had me up out of my seat singing and dancing, filled with energy, joy, and the extreme desire to be up there with them.
My friend suggested I join the choir at FAME. I laughed and said "they'll never take me" Not one to miss a beat herself, my friend asked me why. "Number one I'm white and number two, I don't have a good voice" said I with a mouth full of Caesar salad. "Number one doesn't matter, number two you'll work on. If you really want to sing in the choir be at my house on Wednesday night at 6."
I, who am notoriously late for most things, pulled into her driveway that Wednesday night at 5:50! We drove down to FAME where she marched me in before the start of the 7 o'clock Brookinaire Gospel Choir rehearsal. Marched me right up to the musical director, a tall elegant rather formidable looking gentleman (in front of a choir stand full of people) and said quite proudly, "Dr. Jackson, this is my friend Annie Stein and she'd like to join your choir." Staring at the pale petite blond woman in front of him, Dr Jackson who may or may not have been taken aback just said, "I see. Well do you sing alto or soprano?" Not knowing an alto from a soprano if it bit me, I just stared blankly. "Oh she's an alto" said my friend jumping to my rescue. With just a hint of a smile the elegant Dr Jackson said "Alright then "and directed me to a spot in the alto section. (photo by Clayton Everett)
To say that my friend gave me an enormous gift by bringing me to the choir that night is to put it mildly indeed. What she did was bring a thirsty person to the well to drink.
I have been seeking a personal relationship with God for as long as I remember. I have a vivid memory of sitting looking out of my bedroom window as a little girl of 6 or 7 staring up at the sky talking to God. When I was a teenager and my mother was sick I would pray and try to make deals with God. "If you make my mom well, I'll be very, very good" type of deals.
At twenty I went off to live with Maharishi in Spain for 9 months learning to teach Transcendental Meditation hoping to experience God that way. After marrying a Jewish man I studied Judaism so I would understand and have a feel for the traditions and celebrations for our daughter's sake. After studying for a year I felt drawn to what for me are the two major components of Judaism, love and respect for family, and service to mankind, and I converted. I felt I was my best self while studying, learning and bringing the teachings into our home.
So this is who I walked in that first Wednesday night I attended choir practice; a petite white Jewish woman from Beverly Hills, completely out of her comfort zone yet desperately wanting to be there. I was embraced with open arms by some. Looked at skeptically by others. But I kept coming back. Every Wednesday night. My heart would race and my armpits would get wet as I approached the parking lot. Walking to my seat in the alto section to the beat of my heart I held my arms close to my sides.
After the first week the woman in front of me turned and gave me a look. What I saw was a cringe. The next week the woman next to me moved. The third week I leaned in front and said to the woman in front of me, "I'm sorry I have such a bad voice". She turned around, looked me straight in my eyes and said what changed my experience from that moment on. She said, in essence, this is not about you or your lousy voice. She said that we were there for one purpose and that was to uplift the congregation by praising God with our voices. To minister to the people by bringing the joy of God through song. Make it about that, and not about if your voice is good or bad. Keep showing up and make it about that, and you'll do OK. End of story.
That was basically the truth I've been seeking my whole life.
When my daughter was thirteen and snarky she accused me of being a bad Jewish mother because I sang my heart out about Jesus in a Christian choir. I owned up to the fact that in a sense I was a bad Jewish mother because although we did go to High Holiday services and lit the candles during Chanukah and observed Passover, we didn't do Shabbat on Friday nights the way I had intended, nor did I become involved with a temple.
But then I went on to explain that for me Jesus was a man who spent his entire life teaching people to love and take care of each other. His only reason for being on this earth was to bring people to the experience of God through love of self and one another and by being kind. I told her it was my great joy to sing to someone who was the embodiment of that. What I didn't say but have learned is that by praising, bringing the joy of Jesus to others, I was, in fact, creating the relationship with God I'd been seeking for so long.
Over the years the Brookinaires have taught me many things; strength, courage, true commitment, real community, but the most important thing they have taught me is how to pray. A phrase I heard often in choir is "prayer changes things." To praise with ones whole heart is to pray. To give everything you have in order to lead another to feel the joy of God is to pray. In order for me to have a personal relationship with God I needed to learn to pray.
Recently I've been on a hiatus from my beloved Brookinaire Choir due to a health issue. Never have I missed being a part of something so much. My life works better when I am in choir. I am a better person when I'm in choir. There is a passage in the bible that says something like "Whenever two or more are gathered in My name." In Judaism when you have a group of at least 8 people you have a "minion," a prayer group. It's about creating the energy for good, two creates more energy than one, 8 creates more still. The Brookinaires are 60 plus and we create an amazing amount of energy!
Last Sunday I went to FAME to worship and hear my choir sing. From my pew seat I sang and danced and praised God with my whole heart. Since it's Black History month my choir was dressed in African attire. They looked beyond beautiful. They looked regal. At one point I looked at each member of the choir. Going from row to row through the sopranos, the tenors and the bass section to my darling alto sisters, I looked at and felt true love for each and every person. Pure love.
I am indeed a spiritual mutt. If one has to label one could say I am a Bu-Jew who loves Jesus, but we really don't have to label. I argue with friends who say that it is religion that causes all of the wars and say that it's not religion, it's man 's greed and desire for power hiding behind the name of a religion and that God is love by whatever name you choose to call God.
Thank you Reverend Elsberry, I am beginning to have my own personal experience of Jesus. And thank you Dr. Henry Jackson. Besides being extremely elegant, formidable and an amazing Gospel singer in your own right, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAtSzj9mzxw) you are a man of great wisdom who saw a seeker standing before you and you took her in.