All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. Mark 4:28
A friend of mine is doing a doctorate in spiritual formation and studying Imago Dei as a model of spiritual direction-in-community. We got together a little while ago to discuss the process of formation that has been evident in our Imago Dei communities over the years. It provided me with a rare opportunity to describe a pattern of growth that I’ve seen often repeated in people’s lives as they bear the particular fruit the Spirit cultivates among us. As many of you are in such groups, I thought it would be good to share what we have observed.
The overall objective of Imago Dei’s ministry is similar to the old adage that motivates missionaries: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you feed him for life.” Our hope is not to establish ourselves as the local fish market, where people come to be fed for a day, but to teach and encourage people to fish on their own—to seek and find God through prayer so that they can become who they are called to be in this world.
The vocabulary of spiritual direction that we use at Imago Dei resonates deeply with the invitation many people feel God already making to their hearts. They seem appreciative of the language we speak, and the emphasis we share in our discussions. This language allows us to communicate our deepest yearnings for God, and the truth we seek in our innermost beings. It both affirms what we believe is possible for the spiritual life, as well as provides the basis for a dialogue that encourages a life of prayer, in the context of community.
Though our emphasis is mostly on personal prayer, I would assume many people attend Imago Dei groups for weeks, months or even years before ever establishing a regular discipline of prayer for themselves. In the meantime they glean from others who have cultivated these practices in their own lives, and their hearts are kindled in the direction of such hope for themselves.
Through the consistent fanning of their desire for God, people do eventually develop a more disciplined prayer life. They enter the “school of prayer” where the Holy Spirit helps them negotiate the ebbs and flows of the flesh that contest the primacy of God in their lives. Prayer soon becomes non-negotiable. They recognize it as the hub around which all else revolves, and gladly submit to God’s initiatives in their hearts, and in their circumstances. At this point, whether they realize it or not, they have become sources of encouragement and motivation to others who hope to establish a similar priority in their own lives.
A significant sign of maturity happens in people when they begin to look outward, encouraging others in this pilgrimage of trust. They pursue personal prayer more diligently now, not only for themselves but for the sake of others. They study and equip themselves through books, retreats or courses in order to better serve the mystery of God’s invitation in the lives of others. Some become leaders of Imago Dei groups, facilitating communities of encouragement where this type of nurturing takes place. Others train to become spiritual directors, helping people keep to their pilgrimage. Some who are pastors, convinced of the priority of prayer in their ministry, bring such expressions to the centre of their communities’ self-understanding. Prayer becomes the catalyst for the Spirit-birthed churches they are becoming.
Such is the path of growth that we are witnessing in the lives of people around us —from the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruit,” (Luke 6:44). The sustained vitality of spiritual life that many of us are enjoying is proof indeed that God is doing a good work among us, and that this tree seems blessed by the fruit it bears. For this we give thanks.
I will give thanks to you, LORD, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.