In chapter six, Mark’s gospel begins to focus on the call and burden of discipleship – following Jesus. We hear less about the crowds and more about this small band of followers who travel with Jesus. There are fewer miracles and more teaching focused on ‘denying yourself’ and ‘taking up your cross’. For some, this is where we get to the good stuff. All the stuff that Jesus said before is nice and all, but eventually you have to leave the crowds behind and ‘get serious’. You can talk about grace at the beginning, but then you have to talk about discipleship. And discipleship is not for the timid, the lighthearted, the fickle, or the capricious.
I heard someone talking about the recent closure of all 170 Lifeway Christian bookstores after Family Resource and Cokesbury had already shuttered all their stores. It wasn’t Amazon that killed those stores. They died because they sold Christian fluff and religious tchotchkes. In other words, they weren’t serious enough.
There’s the old line from J.I. Packer that Christianity in North America is 3000 miles wide and one inch deep. And it’s probably true.
The New Crop of Millennial Nuns
So let’s talk about serious devotion. I mean really laying it on the line for Jesus. I am going to tread carefully here because I am neither a millennial nor a Catholic. (Although my dad used to make the joke that I was a son of a Nun… see Judges 2:8. Biblical humor and an insight into my upbringing.) But I thought ‘Behold, the Millennial Nuns’, an article on High Line, nailed the appeal of deeper devotion. By Eve Fairbanks, this long-form essay is an anecdotal investigation into the uptick of younger people seeking a ‘vocation’. The statistics are pretty fascinating; 180,000 nuns in 1965, down to fewer than 50,000 in 2010. More nuns were over 90 than under 60. But that dramatic decline has turned around, at least for the moment. An organization that receives inquiries and received on average less than five hundred calls a year has been taking upwards of two thousand calls now. Fairbanks reports that in 2017, 13 percent of women from age 18 to 35 who answered a Georgetown University-affiliated survey of American Catholics reported that they had considered becoming a Catholic sister – more than 900,000!
Of course, considering is a long way from becoming, especially when taking holy orders. And the Catholic church really seems to have a sense of helping these young women really test it out. They place wise barriers in place to test a call and discern whether taking a vow of obedience, simplicity, and chastity is for you. I recommend reading the whole article – I learned a lot.
But the thing that seemed to surprise the author the most was that the discerners tend to be more theologically and institutionally conservative, many wanting to wear a habit, for example. One story she shares is from a teacher at a casually Catholic school who would bring a priest in once in a while to tell students that they could become priests… you know, if they wanted. Sort of like career day for clerics. The priests would invariably share some version of; “Whatever you want to be, you can be it. And you can also be one of us!” The more the priests tried to ‘relate’ and make the priesthood seem accessible, the less effective they were.
But one day “a sterner priest came to talk to [the] class. He was dressed in all black and a tight clerical collar. “You are called to holiness,” the priest exhorted the class. “You are called to be saints.” The teacher thought this priest was a guaranteed dud. But then “this one kid, a lacrosse player, very stereotypical, stopped to ask me, ‘Is that guy coming back next week? [We] want him back,” the lacrosse player saying. Other classmates agreed.”
This doesn’t surprise me at all. Like I said in the sermon, this is the grace of Jesus to human beings. We are made for more than convenience and criticism. We are made to give and serve sacrificially. We are called to holiness. There is something incredibly appealing about watching people commit to something, especially spiritual things. We admire true commitment and it inspires us. It gives us a hint of what we ought to be. Once I read the article, I start looking at some blogs and youtube channels of aspiring nuns. There is a whole subculture of dedicated discipleship growing within the church. It really encourages you about humanity.
Getting Serious about Discipleship?
But I have my doubts. Not about the calling these young people experience. Each story is beautiful and filled with love and genuine spiritual experience. But over time, the love story turns into a story of seeking certainty. What is attractive about Christ is his love. What becomes attractive about taking church orders is the certainty and order it gives. The young women start to talk about the nuns they meet as ‘serene’, filled with peace. They loved the idea of having it all together, giving everything away and having a superior making all the decisions. Discipleship very quickly becomes a way of making life simpler.
There was a desire to have the love of God without the uncertainty and complications of that romantic love threatened. Some of the young women in the story start to drift away from the call precisely at the same time as they make their peace with some of the boys in their life.
And the ones who keep pursuing the call start to understand that their discipleship is not an entry into pure commitment, but an ongoing struggle of doubt and mixed motives.
After finishing the article I thought two things:
“Getting serious about discipleship” is not necessarily the same thing as meeting Jesus: By their very commitment, the Pharisees missed Jesus. They were so focused on their own performance that the presence of Jesus and his easy grace was offensive to them. Instead of leading them to Jesus, it led them to sit in judgment on him. And I’ve seen this among Christians today as well. Getting serious about discipleship meant that no church was every really good enough for them. Eventually, after moving from church to church, it turned out that Jesus wasn’t good enough for them. Jesus didn’t discipline people enough and the Holy Spirit wouldn’t improve them quickly enough, so they left the church in disgust. Some went to the internet where purity reigns. Others joined the military. Some just did Crossfit.
“Getting serious about discipleship” should not the same thing as a new attempt to take control: If we think that our ‘getting serious” about discipleship is some decisive thing that will fix us, we are overestimating our control over ourselves and the world around us. At best, we will have a rude awakening. At worst, our journey with Jesus will more and more focus on ourselves and our self-improvement, with all the pride and despair that comes with that.
So what is discipleship? Quite simply, discipleship is hanging in there, bringing your real self to Jesus day in and day out. Even if all you can bring is a shrug, bring that. That’s what trusting Jesus is. And sometimes, you’ll have this moment when your heart starts to beat faster when you consider taking a risky step or changing something. Sometimes, you’ll bring something truly interesting and gutsy, like your career or your love life, and you’ll say to Jesus “this too. I want to trust you with this.” It’s decisive. It’s serious. But it’s a permanent act of trust.
And the same Jesus that loved you when you were a mess, will be the same Jesus that takes your gift and your commitment and treasures it. The same love that called us in the beginning will be the love that saves us in the end.