Monday, July 1, 2013

No Turning Back: Deciding to Follow Jesus

This past weekend's readings, where several people receive calls from God and are tempted to take care of worldly concerns first - barbecuing the oxen, burying a father, etc. reminded me of a time in my life when I had that experience... and heard those readings in a very real and life-changing way. It's a tale of struggle, but one I am convinced proves that God has something in mind for each of us and is never far away. Several people have mentioned I should write about this, so here it is. It is my witness to the power of God's call.

I had received my Masters in Pastoral Studies (with emphasis in Liturgy) from Loyola Institute of Ministry Extension (LIMEX) in 1994, but had been unable to find full time work in ministry. By 1997, I was still working as secretary for a diocesan vicar for clergy (priest personnel) and part-time as liturgy coordinator in my parish, while moonlighting as a reviewer of classical music concerts for the local newspaper. I could not help feeling this was not what I wanted in the long term. A change in supervisors a couple years before had made me restless as my relationship with the new one was slightly rocky - unlike his predecessor, he did not treat me like a partner in ministry.

In the fall of 1997, I had made my Cursillo weekend, despite some severe health issues prior to major surgery - a long story, really - but during the weekend I had had an epiphany. For months before that, a "voice" in my head kept saying "Bloom where you're planted." I wasn't really blooming, just really getting by. After making a pretty routine confession at the Cursillo, I heard that voice again as I returned to my seat in the chapel. I finally rebelled - and retorted inwardly "I CAN'T bloom where I'm planted - I HATE where I'm planted!" Back at me, I heard, quite plainly "Then plant yourself where you can bloom!" That completely shocked me. I had never thought of leaving the city where I had lived for 19 years, raised my children and had my parish roots. I would never have considered it on my own.

That experience set off a job search which lasted for a number of months, with a number of false starts. However, when things did fall into place there was no mistaking that the choice to leave everything familiar and to follow that inner voice of the Spirit was the right one. Here's why:

  • Liturgically, Lent 1998 was the worst thing ever in my parish - everyone was at each other's throats and an "interesting" decision by the environment committee had unleashed a small firestorm. As the embattled coordinator, I could not help but feel that the "tail of the snake", as St. Ignatius refers to it, was slithering around every corner. I felt like it was time to leave.
  • Several job interviews were pleasant, but not successful. Nothing surfaced.
  • I had the surgery in January - the recovery was 6 weeks away from work, during which I had time to think, discern and pray. I kept the regimen of walking around the neighborhood each day. That's when it happened.
One day, after an interview during which I found out that a parish seeking a liturgy coordinator was actually looking for an organist, even though that had not been advertised, I went for that daily walk. I was sad that this had not worked out, and in conversation with God about what he could possibly want from me. As I walked, I encountered a piece of a broken dish in the alley. Since I am a cantor and the psalms are all stuck in my head somewhere, the first thought was "I am forgotten like a dish that is broken." (Psalm 31:12) Picking up the fragment, I took it home, wrote the psalm verse on the back of it with a marker and put it into a box of prayer objects. God was obviously still in the process, I thought. Unmistakable sign.

Later that day, I talked to a friend in ministry - who told me that the parish I had just interviewed with had been replacing their director of religious education, had someone, but that person had just reneged on the signed contract. I called the diocesan RE office and asked the director what were the minimum requirements for becoming a DRE: a master's degree and three years as a catechist was the answer. I had that!  I immediately wrote the pastor a thank you note for the interview. I also mentioned that I had heard they were now looking for a DRE, and that I had the minimum requirements for that position. The next day, after he opened his mail, he called me and said "We need to talk."

What resulted was the creation of a dual position in religious education and liturgy. What happened next is that I had to get ready to leave all that was familiar - to go to a town where I knew exactly no one to do the work to which the Lord was calling me. It was frankly scary.

Over the weeks prior to my departure I heard a series of readings at Sunday Mass - John the Baptist saying that if the tree does not bear fruit it needs the ax - and a version of the story we heard this weekend - with the line “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” I know God was speaking directly to me.  I left. I did not look back. My life was changed... forever.

That was 15 years ago. The journey later led me to diocesan ministry and life in a mostly-Hispanic parish. I have never regretted a thing because I have always known this was all part of the call. No turning back.


  1. I love this! "Then plant yourself where you can bloom!" That's the best!

    Great story Joyce. Glad you found some rich soil.

  2. Thanks, Marc. The funny part of this - I was an English major and consider myself too sophisticated for cliches like "bloom where you are planted." It would never have been part of my interior dialog with myself. That's how I knew this was not coming from me, but from God. And yes - it was such a facepalm moment when I heard it reversed!