Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life[d] because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of[e] his Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8: 5-11)
What we’re about to watch is a Palomino horse and his owner/rider doing an obstacle course at a horse show. Horse and rider are judged by how well they execute a rather complicated route preset by the judges, that the rider has to memorize. The tasks include some things that horses don’t normally want to do, like backing up at an angle, or going over obstacles when they’d usually just go around them.
I’m going to ask our resident expert on raising, training and showing Palomino horses, Harold Hall, a few questions about what we just saw: How would you rate that horse and rider’s performance? Did you notice anything unusual about the way in which this horse and rider moved? Like how they stopped before the one barrier, and then jumped over it from a standing position? Would they have lost any points for not just jumping it at a canter? And then, when they got to the bridge, would they have lost any points for stopping first, and then going over it, after the horse had put his outside hoof on it?
[Harold noted the above, plus the fact that the horse’s head did not go from side to side, but stayed straight, indicating intense focus and attention on the rider’s voice and cues]
There’s a reason for those somewhat unusual moves. The horse is blind in both eyes. The horse’s name is Endo, and he belongs to a young woman here in Oregon, named Morgan. Morgan got Endo when she was 13. Perhaps Mom and Dad were thinking, “Get her a horse and that will distract her from boys for a few years.” But then, Morgan developed an illness, lupus. That serious chronic disease should have sidelined her from riding. But Endo, and something about his friendly, loving, adventuresome spirit gave her the incentive to push beyond the limits of her illness and keep riding. So she’s still training and showing Endo, despite her chronic pain and fatigue.
And then Endo went blind, first in one eye, then the other. At the barn where Becky and I keep our horses, Toby and Tess, there’s a horse who is blind in one eye. But he’s still quite happy, lovable and loving, and quite ridable. He has a very good quality of life, thanks to his owner. Having both of a horse’s eyes go blind however is usually a death sentence. Ranchers and trail guides would typically put such a horse down.
But I wonder if Morgan’s illness gave her greater compassion for Endo and his disability. And maybe the gumption she had to keep riding through her own illness also helped her keep working with Endo. Morgan would be Endo’s eyes, and Endo would move or stop by hearing her voice and feeling her touch. Morgan’s trustworthiness toward Endo, and Endo’s trust in her, is the difference between a one-way trip to the slaughter pens, and his wonderful life on the show circuit.
Wow. Now how many parallels can we draw between Endo’s story and today’s text from Romans 8? For a start: Blind and in danger of death, if left to our own devices, that’s one way to describe the desperate human condition that Paul calls “the flesh.” To have the flesh set the direction for our minds and lives Paul says is “death,” a living death, even before we die.
Now, whenever the New Testament talks about “the flesh,” do not confuse that with our physical bodies. Paul is very careful in today’s passage to distinguish between our endangered spiritual condition, “the flesh,” and “our mortal bodies,” which the Holy Spirit will bring back to life in the Resurrection, along with our souls and spirits. In themselves, our bodies are good things, created by God, and destined for eternity with all the rest of us, soul and spirit.
“The flesh,” however, in New Testament parlance, is actually more of a spiritual thing than a physical one. “The flesh” is an orientation of our spirit only and entirely toward the fears, the wants and the needs of just our bodily existence, on the terms of this world. “The flesh” means living as though only our physical urges, needs, comforts, fears and status mattered. Paul describes this condition of the flesh elsewhere as having “our bellies as our gods.”
Paul boldly says, “the mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so,” and that “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” That’s easy to see when people indulge in drunkenness, gluttony, greed, violence, pornography or promiscuity. But Paul could very well have had himself in mind. Those same words would apply to when he was a well-connected, highly trained, street-legal scribe and lawyer, zealous for Hebrew law, identity and nationhood, back when he was so very sure that he was so very righteous, responsible, respectable and religious. But it was still an idolatrous over-reliance on natural, human qualities and strengths for this world that led to death, including the deaths of Christians whom he persecuted.
There’s a warning in that for us: Seeking to do God’s work and God’s will with only human wisdom, only human talents, relying only on human resources, like our good intentions, our charm, our education, our organization and our culture and ancestry, like Paul did, thinking that we can do the work of God and earn God’s approval by our smarts, our work ethic, and our merits, is as much a matter of the flesh as are pornography, promiscuity, drugs or drunkenness, violence and warfare. Either way, whether in self-righteousness or selfish riotousness, a mind governed by the flesh is no better off than a blind horse.
Even with all their faculties intact, horses are pretty much only about food, fear and status. Supreme status in a horse herd belongs to the alpha mare. She watches outside the herd for best grazing and for predators. Within the herd, she watches out for misbehavior, and punishes it. Horses and humans can only partner as long as we convince horses that we are the alpha mare of our little herd of two. You don’t achieve and keep that alpha mare status by cruelty, but by proving yourself trustworthy, caring and consistent in your cues, instead of confusing and self-contradictory.
Some of my struggles with my horse, Tess, are because of what I just mentioned: confusing and self-contradictory cues and message on my part. But she also is an aspiring alpha mare. If I’m walking her on the lead rope, she’ll sometimes give me a good bump on the shoulder with her head, as if to say, “I think I shall be the alpha mare now.” I have to be alert and ready to meet her incoming head butt with my elbow or even just my outstretched fingers. Then she lowers her head as if to say, “Nothing personal; just checking.”
Whenever Tess acts out her fear and status-seeking like that, I have to wonder, “Lord, is that anything like how I act toward you?” If so, that’s “the flesh.”
That limited focus on fear, food, and status is how God made horses. But God made us for infinitely more, to be his images, or his representatives, God’s viceroys, in the natural, material world. For that we must look beyond things like fear, food and status, to God for power and guidance, if we are to be like Endo, responding in trust to the voice and the touch of our Master. That is what it means to have a “mind governed by the Spirit.” It is the way of life and peace.
There were two things the video of Morgan and Endo’s partnership could never show: One is how much Endo has to concentrate on his master’s voice and touch, because of all the distractions going on in that arena. I asked our projectionist this morning to turn off the sound, because for one thing, I just don’t like the song to which Morgan and Endo were performing. It’s not appropriate for worship, either. But in every arena where they perform, Endo has to ignore the distracting sounds of the crowd, the announcer and the music that’s usually playing and listen only and carefully for Morgan’s voice.
The other thing no video from an arena will show is all the time that Morgan and Endo put in back home, in their arena, to practice for each show. And not only for the more complicated maneuvers, but even the most basic ones. Even before Morgan gets in the saddle, she works with Endo on a long line, on things like, “back up, stand, move left, move right, walk, trot and canter and stop.” Some of that is to re-establish that Morgan is the alpha mare.
Then, once she’s in the saddle, Morgan can’t just try newer and more complicated routines. Most horses will need to succeed by warming up with the familiar and basic things, like walk, trot and canter again, then back up, sidestep left, sidestep right, haunch turns and more, before you challenge them with something new. Again, this requires a partnership between horse and rider, in which the master has earned the horse’s trust through time, love, care and consistency, and the horse is keyed in on the master’s voice and touch.
Athletes and musicians among us will probably recognize this and say, “Hey! That’s like all the scales, or stretches and warm-ups I have to do before performing or competing.” And you’re right. No matter how good you get or how far you go in such things, you never ever really get beyond the need for the basics. So why would we ever think that life “in accordance with the Spirit,” and” to have “a mind governed by the Spirit,” would take any less time, attention, care, or consistency? Or that it would just happen naturally, of itself? Having a “mind governed by the Spirit,” is no more natural or automatic to us than letting a human being onto its back is natural to a horse, because, to horses in their wild state, because everything about us humans says, “predator.” It’s like how “the mind governed by the flesh,” sees God as a threat. Like horses, we have to learn to trust our Master, focus on him through all the distractions, and let him guide us.
Having a mind governed by the Spirit is very different from “Spirituality” as our culture and commerce would treat it today, as just another side of ourselves to develop, another thing to achieve, along with six-pack abs and a well-padded resume. “Spirituality” today is marketed and bought as a range of consumer commodities to sample at our leisure, like food at a smorgasbord, or fashion at a department store. In which case, it is we who think we govern the Spirit, rather than the Spirit governing us.
I have friends who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” meaning, they want to explore and develop their spirituality, but at their choice and leisure, and not under the guidance of any “organized religion.” They may have some legitimate grievances against “organized religion.” Perhaps their experience with church was abusive or just irrelevant. I’m glad they still care about more than just material, social things. Although anyone who would accuse me of organized religion has not looked into my office nor at my desk.
But to my friends I would say, “Speaking for myself, I have to be religious if I am to be spiritual.” By “religious” I mean that I have to do like Endo: 1) make concerted and conscious efforts to listen for the voice of my Master through His Word and His Spirit, despite all the noise and distraction of the world around us; and 2) keep putting in the time and effort on the basics of the spiritual life, like horses doing basic groundwork. Then I have to recognize and resist the tendency to say to God, “I think I’ll be the Alpha mare now.”
If I am to be governed by the Holy Spirit to any extent, I have to attend to spiritual disciplines, ceremonies and doctrines and accept some accountability to a spiritual community, the church. If I don’t start my day with Bible reading and prayer, if there is no one with whom to review my sins, victories and struggles, like a spiritual director, if I don’t participate with others in worship, study and service, I soon lose what is spiritual, the sense of connectedness with God, people, creation and myself that my spiritual-but-not-religious friends also value and seek. I will feel instead as dry as desert dust. Or even fearful, reactive and resentful. If anyone wants to call all that “a crutch” for the weak, okay, I’ll admit, I’m weak.
You may have noticed that the leadership of Zion Mennonite Church is giving all of us more options and encouragement for exercising and going through our paces “in the Spirit.” By that I mean the scripture readings and questions for reflections for Lent that we send out in print and by email. And the mission board’s suggestions for daily Lenten observances. Hopefully someone among us is finding those helpful, some days, if not every day. If those are not your cup of tea, I hope it’s because you have found something better that suits you. If you have, good for you. If not, I hope it’s not because of a lack of interest in deepening and developing our spiritual lives. Because the greatest danger of the Christian life is not so much that we will deny God, but that we will just ignore God, in favor of this world’s many distractions. Or in favor of making ourselves our own little gods.
This is as good a time as any for me to again put in a plug for small groups too, as a way of deepening and developing “a mind governed by the Spirit.” For a life and a mind governed by the Spirit is not a do-it-yourself affair. If you’re interested in joining one of our small groups, or in starting one, please let Jana or me know.
But as they say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” We can offer and encourage ways to deepen and develop our “minds governed by the Spirit,” but all of us are responsible to respond to these offers and opportunities. This is becoming all the more crucial as our world changes from one that once accommodated the church to one that now resists it. Like horses in a noisy arena, there’s more coming at us to distract us from the Master’s voice, and the Master’s touch. More of us are working on Sundays, our sports and schools no longer respect any notion of a weekly Sabbath, our families are more widespread geographically, and we have more options and obligations to travel all over the place. Our computers and our TV’s and our cell phones are constantly ringing and beeping and tweeting at us, saying, “Read this!” and “Watch that!”
We could wring our hands and load everyone up with guilt trips about all this competition to the programs and schedules of the church. And there still remains a Sabbath commandment. But we’ll need to be more flexible about how and when we observe it. And more responsible. Our understanding of church needs to change from one in which we see this church as just this building, an Inspiration Station, into which we just zoom in on Sunday morning to get filled up for the week ahead, and then zoom back out. Church is going to become not just a place we go to, but a life we live, and a life we share in all sorts of ways, times and settings. Church is going to become more like an inter-locking network of support group for people who want to help each other hear the Master’s voice and respond to the Master’s touch.
For today we heard that a life and a mind guided by the Holy Spirit to any degree is not just another nice option among many from which to pick and choose at our leisure. Today we heard that it is the only option to a living death. And it doesn’t happen by itself, spontaneously.
But it’s not just fear of such living death that makes us grow. Endo enjoys relationship, whether with other horses, or with humans. And, like most horses, he enjoys movement. With Morgan as his master, his friend, his caretaker and his eyes, he finds in her the security and confidence by which to enjoy moving his feet, even, to enjoy being a horse. Most importantly, Morgan delights in Endo, Endo knows that, and Endo delights in Morgan, his master, and in his Master’s delight in him. That cycle of delight is a wonderful picture of life and a mind governed by the Spirit. It helps that Morgan can identify with Endo’s disability, just like our Master has identified with us, when he took on the limits, and the weakness of our existence. Such life, love and delight together is “the joy set before” Christ, and before us.