DAY 29: THE FUNGUS AMONG US

...one sinner can destroy much that is good.

As dead flies cause even a bottle of perfume to stink, so a little foolishness spoils great wisdom and honor. A wise person chooses the right road; a fool takes the wrong one. You can identify fools just by the way they walk down the street!

ECCLESIASTES 9:18b, 10:1-3 (NLT)

Few television experiences can rival witnessing something new and unsettling on a nature documentary. For as much as our human lives seem endlessly connected and broadcasted, the world around us feels so hidden. Rare species, newly discovered animal behavior, uncharted territory – the planet is still so full of mystery.

I have spent countless hours with my wife glued to a TV screen watching shows like Blue Planet, Life, and Our Planet. In many ways these series have justified a Netflix subscription on their own. For all the incredible sights these documentaries have offered though, nothing has stuck with me quite like one of Planet Earth’s segments on the Amazon.

Deep in the rainforest grows a unique genus of fungi called cordyceps that sprouts unlike any other organism on the planet. Rather than emerge from the soil like common mushrooms, this downright evil fungus stretches its witch fingers up from the body of an unsuspecting insect. Like a real-life Alien xenomorph, this parasite infects its host and waits for the right time to “bloom,” bursting from all parts of the creature it inhabits and killing it in the process.

It’s a truly horrifying image, but you really can’t look away. (Here’s a link to the entire segment, if you’re still curious after reading this morning.) As this particular Planet Earth episode moved on, I couldn’t maintain focus. I kept pausing to think about what I had just seen. There were so many disturbing aspects of this Amazonian fungus. For one, there is a unique type of cordyceps for nearly every insect in that rainforest. This fungus is adaptable, finely tuned to infect and destroy any creeping thing it comes across. Cordyceps is also contagious, and once they sprout they quickly spore, firing tiny clouds of “seeds” to spread to future hosts and colonies. The very existence of cordyceps makes you wonder how any insects survive in the Amazon at all with such a pervasive and powerful threat.

Fortunately, cordyceps is not a perfect secret keeper. Before an infected host dies, its behavior will start to change. Sporadic twitches become more frequent. Activities outside colony norms attract the attention of the surrounding group. Eventually, the insects around the infected realize that something is very wrong. How they know what is infecting the host remains undetermined, but the colony recognizes the potential for collateral damage. Before the parasite can kill and spread, members of the group will carry the infected far outside of the colony and ensure that no reentry is possible. What began as a silent infection became a loudly ticking bomb, and measures are taken to isolate and avoid the explosion.

The terrifying and fascinating picture of cordyceps has stayed with me for years since I first came across it because I’m not sure there is a better living, breathing analogy for how sin corrupts a person.

Scripture paints a shockingly similar portrait of a “fool,” a person defined by their chosen godlessness (Psalm 14:1) and life of sin (Matthew 7:26). Like an infected insect, we learn that sin does not begin on the outside, but rather emerges from silent, internal corruption. The host shows symptoms far after the disease, uniquely adapted to its host, has taken hold. As Jesus says in Mark 7:21-23, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

As these behaviors rear their nasty heads, the outcome is clear even if the inner condition is not: death awaits. The sinful man begins to cave in, his body actively destroying itself. Ecclesiastes 4:5 goes so far as to say the fool “eats his own flesh.” Worse still, his sin is contagious, and the Bible warns that those tolerating such a person will be present when his ignorance sprouts and spreads (Proverbs 15:7). In the end, they will suffer like him (Proverbs 13:20).

Like the segment in Planet Earth, the picture here looks bleak. But the Bible reminds us that infection of sin, unlike cordyceps, is curable. As Titus 3:3-5 notes, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.” We have been set free from the bondage of a corrupt heart. We have freedom and life and a new way to contrast the old. The dying, sinful fool is no more. Christ has taken his place.

In light of that, there are two places we can sit in this cautionary illustration.  Either we can be the infected, walking around with a diseased interior, showing more and more the death lurking and approaching within. Or we can remain vigilant, eyes open and waiting for any sign of sin, ready to carry it away and to keep it from spreading. Being alert is a discipline, and not just for our group. We have to remain cautious of death’s influence within ourselves. When the symptoms appear, the disease of the flesh has taken hold. It’s in these moments of recognition where we must turn in helplessness and repentance to the only one who can break death’s grip. The unavoidable truth is you can only hide your heart from others for so long. Eventually the darkness finds the seams and claws out.

PRAYER:
As in a previous entry, I found in one of Malcolm Guite’s poems a perfect prayer for today’s devotional. The tone of “O Clavis” is confessional, so as you read it today, find in its vivid imagery a place where you can be honest with God and receive his forgiveness with repentance.

“O Clavis”

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

WALK:
One of the benefits of looking at cordyceps as a metaphor for sin is that it reminds us of the need and responsibility of community. Accountability is critical for avoiding the trap of sin, and we can edify and encourage one another in our faith by being alert and maintaining communication. As you think about the symptoms of sin, foster relationships with people who will notice erratic behavior and speak out before it’s too late. Remember too that you must be this friend and watchman for your brothers and sisters in Christ.