I’m Lorraine Ray, and this is how I’ve been living deeply.
“I was raised in a conservative synagogue in Toledo, Ohio, where I attended Sunday school, marched in Purim parades, was confirmed, and even won an essay award. I learned a great deal about Jewish history, about an oppressed people, about tradition, and about staying with my own kind. I don’t remember learning about God’s character -except as punitive- and certainly knew nothing of His love or desire to be in a relationship with me. I also learned that when you die, you die. During college, I was able to intellectualize missing spiritual links and became officially agnostic. It was ‘in’ to be agnostic in the 60s and 70s, the era of ‘God is Dead.’ But God’s plan for me was already in place. Shortly after college, I pursued a lifelong desire to sing and became a member of a civic choral group. When the director asked for volunteers to help with special music at his church, I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand. After all, it was only for two weeks. I felt so welcome singing with the church choir! They knew I was Jewish and accepted me just as I was. It was an atmosphere of laughter, openness, friendship, and, of course, beautiful music. Okay, so I stayed a bit longer than two weeks- seven years, to be exact! My director became a lifelong friend and mentor, and he and his wife are godparents to my son. In my seven years with the choir, my faith developed slowly. I fought it, as most Jews would. I felt uncomfortable saying and singing the name of Jesus. In the early years, I only sang the choral anthem- I did not recite the prayers, sing any of the service music, or partake in communion. Little by little, though, God was breaking down barriers and I began participating in the entire service. Taking communion for the first time was huge. Who would’ve ever thought a ‘nice Jewish girl’ like me would have a first communion?! To this day, words cannot describe the sweetness of the “wine” and the fullness I feel from a small bite of bread. Yet I was still a spiritual toddler. My heart was being softened, for sure, but it would be another 20 years before I would actually be saved.
I became a member of this same church and had my son baptized, but I had privately asked the minister not to use the name of Jesus in the ceremony. I’m not sure if he should have agreed to do this, but he did. I knew nothing about what a baptism actually is or means. I just saw it as a sweet ritual and a wholesome thing to do for my out-of-wedlock child. During this spiritual interim, I was completely oblivious to how sinful my life was. I had never studied Scripture, not even the Old Testament. I had learned about the Old Testament but never studied it directly. So I did what so many nominal Christians do: profess my belief in Jesus, but on my terms. I believed in the God I designed myself. Meanwhile I continued my long-term relationship with a married man, the father of my child. I was also deeply involved in the occult- calculating astrological charts, reading tarot cards, and interacting with psychics. I even got involved with a pseudo-Christian cult where the leader channeled spiritual entities. All this time, I still attended traditional churches and always sang in the choir. I was even asked to speak on Laity Sunday at my church -maybe because I was a college professor; I’m not really sure- but God allowed it and my words were well-received. The beauty of looking back is that every crazy -even dangerous- step of this journey ultimately led to my true conversion. In my thirties, God again blessed me with an amazing, seemingly premature opportunity. I was asked to direct a church choir. I had absolutely no training for this and had never even considered such a thing. So I quickly said ‘no.’ Well, just try to thwart God’s will! A week later they called again, explaining why they thought I could do it and offering all kinds of help and support. My mouth said ‘yes’, almost without my permission. It’s significant to note that the married man I was still seeing was a musician and an experienced choral director. He gave me a crash course in conducting to get me started. How amazing that God used even this sinful alliance for good and for His ultimate glory!
My first Sunday with the choir was an unforgettably divine moment. When I stood up to conduct and looked at the sweet faces of the choir members as they anticipated my direction, I was overcome by a powerful, transcendent feeling, which I now understand was the Holy Spirit. The next -and most difficult- phase of my spiritual conversion was underway. My double-life was put on notice. The first stage of this demolition brought about the demise of the choir director position. Although it was my decision to leave, it was agonizing. I was then in my forties, and God was shaking the foundations of all the idols and worldly pursuits that were important to me. Shortly after my choir position ended, God orchestrated events that caused me to leave my ‘cult.’ This was especially heartbreaking because these people had become my friends, support group, and surrogate family. And then, after 20 years, my married lover ended our relationship by means of a typed letter in the mail. I was stunned and devastated. That same week, another letter came- this one was from my son’s physician. Following a series of tests and diagnostics, he needed a kidney biopsy. I was feeling rumblings of discontent, opposition, and perhaps some burnout at work as well. All these things occurred almost one right after the other. When God demolishes, He doesn’t play games! I’d never felt such despair, as if nothing would ever work out for me. Everything was broken. Unable to push past the emptiness, I resolved to end my life. Having a plan to end my pain actually energized me, except for one thing: my teenage son. The thought of him going through this medical challenge without a mom was inconceivable to me. So my son’s medical scare delayed and temporarily dissuaded me. By God’s mercy, that biopsy was completely normal; in fact, my son went on to do sports and to this day holds his school’s high jump record. Meanwhile, God had other things in play: I had started Bible Study Fellowship in September 1993. A colleague invited me. Though neither of us knew the Lord, studying the Bible was on both of our bucket lists. Then something wondrous happened to change everything once and for all.
It was one of those breathtaking autumn days: clear skies, sunshine, a tapestry of color everywhere. I felt a surge of energy because I was about to go forward with my plan. Since I saw no way out of my despair, no hope for things to improve, and nothing to look forward to, I had decided to end my life. That decision gave me purpose and great relief. It was no longer a question of if but when. ”The Secret Garden” was playing at the local cinema that day, and I took off in the late afternoon to catch the matinee. It would be a diversion, a pleasant escape. I had no idea this film would be the impetus for the most significant day of life. I knew it had to do with life and death, but resurrection was a topic I had never explored. As I rejoiced in the film’s depiction of branches and briers evolving into the most lush, ethereal garden I’d ever seen, it was as if God was whispering, “I can do this with your life, too.” The heavenly song from the film ‘Winter Light’, a ballad by Linda Ronstadt about life starting over, underscored the miraculous resurrection. It still echoes through my soul. When I returned home -uplifted, touched, and filled with a hope I didn’t understand- I beheld my own ‘secret garden.’ In the time I was away, the most glorious purple chrysanthemums had been planted along the side of my house. They seemed to welcome me with a fragrant cloud of their cool, mint-like fragrance. Was this really happening? I had just felt God’s whisper about transforming my ‘briers’ into glorious flowers. Did these blossoms miraculously drop from Heaven? Of course they didn’t. Yet, in a sense, they did. Months earlier, a friend had offered to help me with landscaping. Since I hadn’t heard from her, I was sure she’d forgotten. Why, on this day, was she led to come over and plant purple chrysanthemums? That afternoon I knew God was real. I knew He had a plan for me and wanted me to live, and I never turned back. I’ve never again had the desire to end my life. In fact, my life was transformed in ways that my unspiritual eyes could never have seen or imagined. Entering into a relationship with my Christ, who wooed me with music and flowers, changed everything.
Shortly after all this, there were positive changes in my career. With encouragement from many colleagues I admired, I was asked to chair my academic division. My teaching seemed rejuvenated. The broken love affair, while still painful, was no longer an active source of agony or despair. I gave up my weekly meeting with my gal pals to read their Tarot cards. I pitched all of my books, charts, and occult paraphernalia. The truth of God’s Word began jumping off the pages of Scripture and straight into my heart. I couldn’t get enough. And God once again opened a door to direct a church choir, where I would stay for several years and direct both the adult and children’s choirs. From there God opened more doors. Who would’ve thought a professor of business communication would end up teaching preschool music and starting a community children’s choir in Aiken, South Carolina?! My life had become purposeful in ways I could’ve never imagined. For the first time, I knew true contentment. Fast forward to March 12, 2020– the last ‘normal’ day before COVID closings and lockdowns. I had just finished what was ultimately my final rehearsal with Aiken Kinderchoir, the group I founded and loved for several years. My son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren had been living in Savannah, Georgia, an easy two-hour drive away. In the summer of 2020, however, work took them to Knoxville. It was then that God made it abundantly clear I, too, was to move to Knoxville, as it was only my work with children’s music that was keeping me in Aiken. To prepare for the move, I began following virtual worship services in Knoxville and happened to tune in to CSPC on Pastor James Forsyth’s first Sunday. Right away I knew this was my church. We were still in the thick of pandemic life when I moved here, so I only know a handful of people at CSPC. Thankfully, I was able to participate in ‘Just Moved’, and last summer, I was part of the women’s Bible study. As post-pandemic numbers continue to be promising, I’m hoping to do the same -and more- this year!”