Lord, may we be like mycelium: A Missional Lesson from Creation

As I read, my mind traveled past the abbey church across the fields to a cluster of sheds, where millions of tiny threads of mycelium worked in the darkness. A stringlike network of fungal cells, mycelium is the organism that produces mushrooms. The brothers cultivate mycelium, whose ‘fruit’ supports their life of prayer…the relationship of fungi to life as we know it goes back nearly 450 million years. Indeed, without mycelium, there would be no life at all. Only recently have we come to understand the true magnitude of our dependence on these organisms. We now know, for instance, that at least 90 percent of all plants on earth form symbiotic relationships with a fungus called mycorrhizae. Greek for ‘fungus-root,’ mycorrhizae are ubiquitous, found in nearly every ecosystem in the world.

The relationship works like this: the fungus penetrates a plant’s roots and provides the plant with nutrients and water from the surrounding soil, which the fungus accesses through its mycelial network. The fungus in turn receives starches from the plant. When mycelium grows out into the surrounding soil it is said to ‘run,’ and in doing so it not only forms symbiotic relationships with single plants; it provides links between plant species. In 1964, two North Carolina scientists chopped down a red maple tree and poured radioactive liquid into the stump. Eight days later they found that, within a radius of twenty-two feet, the leaves of nearly half of all the trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs contained radioactivity; mycelium provided the pathway through which the radioactive material spread. The experiment confirmed fungi’s link to every living thing. And every dead thing. Fungi are our biological go-betweens to the world beyond animate life. And like monks at prayer, fungi do their best work in darkness. – Fred Bahnson in Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, p. 19-20.

Mycelium:

– Connect non-related living things in mutually beneficial ways

– Provide pathways for mutual nourishment, not the actual nourishment itself

– Skillfully, intentionally, and silently do their essential work

– Work communally

– Become involved in all areas of life for the sake of the ecosystem

Lord, may we be like mycelium.

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“In the end, the lion is God.”

I recently received Leighton Ford’s The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things. It’s been on my radar for awhile now, as I have been diving head first into resources geared towards the contemplative. I grew up in a world of faith bereft of the stillness and silence central to reflection and contemplation. In its place, individualistic devotions and missions trips comprised of agenda-driven questionnaires were dominant.

Nowadays, I find myself drawn towards activism. In a world driven by causes, I have become convinced in the strength moving into the neighborhood and finding where God is already at work. This means that activism takes on a very regular look, can seem humdrum and ordinary, and is a slow process. We don’t enter into situations and relationships as the ones bringing wisdom and learning; no, we enter in as ones who are in need of being taught as mutually live life together. Humility, vulnerability, and mystery lead the way as we devote ourselves to a place and a people, not merely a cause.

This also means a holistic approach is much needed. Activism without contemplation falls flat as we tend to move in our own strength while finding ourselves drawn to the flashy, big splash realities of what we think needs attending. Likewise, contemplation without activism gives us big ears full off of listening as we gorge ourselves on the whispers of God without doing anything about them.

I say this because I love the following story of missionary Vincent Donovan. He went to the Masai people of East Africa, a people I have spent a little time with myself. I love this story because it tells of a man who went into a place and a people expecting certain things and finds himself changed on the other end. He was honest with his own doubts and allowed “the High God” to teach him through the people he was supposed to be “reaching.”

I also love this simple story because of the lessons we can learn about God and God’s missional nature. God is a lion and I need to be reminded of that.

Once he [Donovan] told them how God has led the nomadic Abraham to see that he was the God of all peoples and not just of one tribe. Could it be, he asked, that they had worshiped this High God without knowing him – the truly unknown God?

There was silence. Then someone asked a question. ‘This story of Abraham – does it speak only to the Masai? Or does it speak also to you? Has your tribe found the High God? Have you known him?’

Donovan was stumped. He thought of how in France since the time of Joan of Arc, the French people has associated God with a quest for glory. He thought of fellow Americans who had always asked God to bless ‘our side’ in wars. After a long time he replied, ‘No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him. Let us search for him together.’

Months later, as he spoke with a Masai elder about his own struggle with belief and unbelief, the elder explained that his language had two words for faith. One simply meant to agree with something. That, said the elder, was like a white hunter shooting down an animal from a distance.

To speak of real belief, he said, took another word, a word that referred to a lion going after its prey, speeding to catch it, leaping at with a blow that kills, then enfolding it into its great arms to make it part of itself. That, said the elder, is faith.

Donovan listened in amazement. The elder continued.

“We did not seek you out, Padri. We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush…into our villages, our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this…We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

In the end, the lion is God, the God who began to seek us even before we knew it, in the time before our time. – Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life, p 62-63.

Missional Wisdom from the Tree Firmly Planted: Day 30 of Lent

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. Psalm 1:3

When I was 20 I went to Kenya to visit my sister and her family for about a month. It was my first international traveling experience, which I will never forget. Sights, sounds, and smells filled my senses and altered my imagination in profound ways. Acts of hospitality, the deep sense of community, and the ambivalence towards a utilitarian use of time all ensured that the white, middle-class suburban, college kid I was didn’t go home the same person.

One of the terms I kept on hearing while there was “mzungu.” Everyone I met repeated that term when I came into view. My immediate assumption was that it meant “white person.” I was correct in a sense; “white person” is its connotation.

However, what it really means is one who is always on the move, always wanting to see everything. There is a sense of constant swirling. It stems from the original Europeans entering Africa and “busily swirling around”. It is definitely a loaded word.

In many ways it still holds true today.

One thing I have learned over the past several years is the allegiance to the myth of productivity. We in the West, due primarily to the Industrial Revolution and technological boom of the past 100 years or so, are addicted to being busy in ever-increasing ways. Email, social media, and instant means of “checking in” have allowed us to take our offices with us in our pockets. People are literally working themselves to death in efforts to prove their productivity levels and the evidence of self-worth that comes along with them. It doesn’t take much to show this. Seeing the human as a machine has morphed from a metaphor into an identity.

Buying into the myth of constant productivity is a result of our seeking after growth and results. We think that if we are always busy, things will grow. Our businesses will grow, our intellects will expand, and our bottom lines will be blacker. Results will flourish based on how often and how long our noses are against the grindstone. “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil” quipped Carl Jung.

I wonder how much of our result-driven busyness comes out of our formulaic attempts at growth. If we implement this guru’s wisdom here, align this methodology there, add enough pressure, and we’ll succeed. A + B = C. When this doesn’t pan out, we often give up or think we are not busy enough with the correct solutions to the problem.

The same postures and practices are found within the Church, the very community in which fruitfulness and growth cannot be coerced.

Perhaps it is from our fervent evangelistic outreaches. Perhaps it is our pursuits of justice. Whether we’re a megachurch or a church that fits in a living room, in many ways, we tend to fall into the trap of thinking fruit is always in season and that growth is always available. Again, we tend to bail out when produce is not easily seen.

If you are like me and the communities of faith I’ve been a part of, we tend to love the “whatever he does prospers” section of the above Psalm. We tend to think that we are infused with the power of God and as we do the things Christians do, we will find ourselves and our efforts bearing fruit.

Yet the natural world knows nothing of this. Seasons of produce give way to seasons of stagnation. Fruitfulness comes in harvest, yet is only possible after plowing, seeding, and waiting. Like the tree firmly planted, fruitfulness only comes in its season.

This reality is essential for those partnering with God in his missional movement of renewal. Despite our best efforts, we can formulate growth. We cannot read books, attend conferences, and listen to podcasts from “the experts” and expect growth to occur. Like the tree firmly planted, we are called to do just that: be firmly planted.

Staying put, working among others, and being present within the contexts we have been placed is the core of what it means to engage in mission. The supermarket mentality of fruit always being in season begins to fade into a farmers’ market reality of seasons as we remain rooted where we are. Constant swirling around and busyness will not bring about produce; it is the long, aching, persevering staying-put-ness that will. As we do this, we will see seasons of fruit come along with the seasons of plowing, seeding, and waiting. Discerning the different seasons is key. It will give us roots to see beyond the seemingly lack of fruit for the season of plowing we are in.

Seeing fruit comes to those who remain firmly planted waiting for its season.

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Suffering and Lent: Words from Joan Chittister: Day 14 of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Loneliness: Day 20 of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

If Lent Had a Theme Song…

The Difficult Place of Those Who Are Weaker – Jean Vanier: Day 27 of Lent

Humility, Place, and the Everyday: Lessons in Mission from John the Baptizer: Lent Day 7

This morning’s Lenten reading was the entirety of Luke 3. Here we find Luke’s version concerning the beginnings of John the Baptizer’s public ministry. I was struck by its missional attributes of humility, place, and the everyday.

Humility

John takes up some prominent space in the gospels. He has an angelic proclamation to his parents in preparation for his birth. Zacharias, his father was a priest, which made him known in their region. And his mother, Elizabeth, was Mary’s cousin. He even had his own group of followers, disciples, living and learning with him. If someone was looking for an impressive CV, you wouldn’t have to look much further beyond John.

Yet when it comes to wielding this recognition and authority, John deflects to Jesus. For the sake of mission, John understands his role as one pointing to Jesus. This comes to a head when he is asked if he is indeed “the Christ.” “No, but he is coming and he is mightier than I.” Personal limitations were well-known to him.

This stood out to me because I know I am a competitive person. Henri Nouwen says of our current culture,

We are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry.

How true and frequent this is. Unfortunately, it happens within Christian community – read: family – and puts mission at a stand still.

It takes humility to know that we have a role within the family of God. We are not all called to be hands. No, some of us are called to be feet. We have different skill sets, giftings, and personalities, that together allow for the mission of God to flourish.

When we give into power and pride, we often assume roles that we have no part in taking. We bad-mouth, become overly critical, and, typically, ragingly jealous. I wonder how badly John wanted to say, “Yes” to the crowds’ question of him being Christ.

Humility isn’t merely a private posture; its effects are communal as we either live into humble love or arrogant power with others.

I wonder how often we assume the role of Christ – in our own lives or the lives of others – when we should humbly point beyond ourselves to Jesus and his unifying mission.

Place

John had an astute understanding of the role of place. It wasn’t by coincidence that he was meeting people and baptizing them in the Jordan River. The Jordan had (has) a special place in the social imagination and memory of the Jewish people. It was the geographic boundary the Israelites crossed over as they entered into the Promised Land. Found in the wilderness, John called people to repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Now, we shouldn’t think of this as personal salvation, but as a renewed call to be the community of people they were meant to be. And this would have been obvious to the people there as they knew how place was intimately linked to themselves and their story.

John evokes a dual call to both coming judgment and hope by placing himself in the wilderness and baptizing in the Jordan. It was this rootedness within his place that allowed him to enter the social imagination and memory of his people. He didn’t just know his role, his people, and his story. Rather, they all combined with his knowledge of place to make one coherent proclamation.

With his humble call to the One Coming After Him, he offered this hope and called into being a picture of (finally) entering into the true Promised Land. Through his recapitulation of the ancient Israelites’ dealings in the wilderness, he was calling people to a life of justice and peace. It began with an understanding of the role of place in the mind of his people. From there, he called them into the continuing mission of God.

I wonder how we might understand place in our own contexts and by doing so tap into the social imagination and memory of the people around us as we join God in his mission.

The Everyday

I have found over and over again how enamored people are with the glamorous and the spectacular. We like things done big and done well. We’d rather make a huge splash than tiny ripples.

I’ve heard many times of peoples’ dreams of going big. People chase after the title, the organization, the complex social issue. Within the Church world, I have heard many people say they want the title of Pastor, the Homeless Shelter non-profit organization, and that they’re going to stop the social issue of human trafficking.

We tend to chase after the grandiose while missing out on the everyday. We reach for the stars, but forget the dirt we’re standing in. We’d rather flirt with the universal and reject the particular.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think we often lose sight of where God has us now in lieu of pursuing something else. If we don’t start with the small, we will have a much, much more difficult time attaining the character and skill required for the large.

This was a temptation for John’s listeners as they heard and saw ancient words coming true before them. Their longings were finally being met and now the show could get started. Let’s do it big and do it now.

Our participation in the mission of God, however, always begins where we are in the everyday. 

John reminds us of this when he tells his questioners to start with themselves in the regularity of the everyday. “If you have two tunics, give one of them to someone who has none.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than what you’ve been ordered to.” To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t take any money by force; be happy with your wages.”

N.T Wright says,

What we discover at this point is that the sorting-out process begins here and now. We’ve come to hear about the big picture, about the whole world being put to rights. But we are brought down to earth with a bump by the questions people are asking and the answers they’re receiving. People ask: ‘What are we to do?’ Answer: ‘Straighten your lives out in the simplest, most direct way.’

And by doing so, they would begin to be the people they were created to be with Jesus as their Christ.

I wonder what would happen if we began to cultivate eyes to see and ears to hear God’s missional movement in the everyday.

Connecting the Dots

I have found that these three qualities intersect and overlap in mission. Often it is our lack of humility that pushes us into seeking after the grandiose. This seeking often results in a relegation of our everyday and our place as we yearn for the prideful position, organization, or eradication of the social ill. It takes humility to realize our placedness and to begin there by seeking God’s voice and movement. I think John was on to something as he deliberately prodded his community into humility, place, and the everyday.

May we do the same as we participate in God’s mission.

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

David Fitch on Missional Order (video)

I’ve been blessed to be able to spend some time listening to and learning from David Fitch through a few Ecclesia Network events. He’s a professor at Northern Seminary and a pastor at Life on the Vine, both of which are in the Chicago area. This makes him not only a theorist, but also a practitioner; a somewhat rare breed here in our American context. Basically, the man knows what he’s talking about  because he is living it. If you need more, check out his blog at Reclaiming the Mission. Enjoy.

Any thoughts? Comments? Complaints?