Editor's note:

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster explores the central paradox at the heart of Christianity in the chapter on the Incarnational Tradition. The Incarnation is what makes the highest and holiest things accessible and homey to humankind; it also brings out the sacramental aspects of the most humble and natural of human endeavors.

The Incarnational Tradition “underscores the fact that God is truly among us in the warp and woof of our very earthy existence,” Foster writes. “Indeed, the very presence of God is manifest in the smallest, most mundane of daily activities.” He is with me in the mystery of the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. He is with me as I punch down bread dough and enjoy a glass of wine in my kitchen. How many times he has been made manifest to me “in and through the created universe,” and yet always remains Someone beyond: high and holy and personal and penetrating.

I’m delighted to share with you the last part of Foster’s chapter on the Incarnational Tradition where he, as practical as ever, offers ways to engage in this stream.

—Justine Olawsky

Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

The first action in practicing the Incarnational Tradition is the invocation of God’s manifest presence into this material world of ours. Here the initiative rests squarely upon us (even though we know that we are only responding to God’s prior initiation upon our heart). God, you see, will not enter many areas of our life uninvited. So we invite God to enter every experience of life. We invite God to set our spirit free for worship and adoration. We invite God to animate our preaching and singing and praying. We invite God to transform the bread and wine of Communion. We invite God to heal our bodies. We invite God to inform our minds with creative ideas for our business enterprises. We invite God to touch broken relationships and resolve conflicts at work or home. We invite God to make our homes holy places of worship and study and work and play and love-making. We invite … we invite. Perhaps we could speak of this as “invited grace”—the grace of God coming in loving response to our invocation.

A second action comes as we recover a Christian spirituality of work. We are helped in our thinking by the Benedictine notion of the dignity of manual labor and the Franciscan ideal of serving the poor as a way of worshiping God. We can add to this Martin Luther’s conviction that “the menial housework of a manservant or maidservant is more acceptable to God” than the work of monks or priests. And we can learn much from the Puritan notion of calling or vocation.

In our day special emphasis needs to be placed upon the sacredness of the work of our hands and our mind. If ours is God’s world, any true work for the improvement of human life is a sacred undertaking. As Elton Trueblood has noted, “We should see the ordination to the priesthood as a sacrament; but we should likewise see ordination to any worth-while human task as a sacrament.” You see, we can never confine the “call” to “full-time Christian service” to clergy-related vocations. Farmers and plumbers and secretaries can be equally “called” and equally “full-time” and equally “Christian,” and they can equally render “service.” The really crucial decision comes, not when we decide to be a pastor rather than a biologist, but when we decide to allow our entire life to be a channel of divine love.

So what does a Christian spirituality of work look like? I can give only the barest essentials here. We have a sense of calling, a God-given ability to do a job linked with a God-given enjoyment in doing it. We have a sense of responsibility to do something in our own time that has value. We have a sense of freedom from the burden of the workaholic, for we are not asked to do more than we can. We have a sense of creativity that enables us to place the autograph of our souls on the work of our hands. We have a sense of dignity, for we value people over efficiency. We have a sense of community, for we know that our life together is more important than the end product. We have a sense of solidarity with the poor to empower them to do what they cannot do by themselves. And we have a sense of meaning and purpose, for we know that we are working in cooperation with God to bring the world one step closer to completion.

A third action comes through the recovery of marriage and family life. From prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancée Maria, “Our marriage shall be a yes to God’s earth; it shall strengthen our courage to act and accomplish something on the earth.” Bonhoeffer affirmed this in spite of the fact that his world—indeed, the whole world as it was then known—was crumbling. We need Bonhoeffer’s courage.

Marriage is covenantal. Marriage is no marriage at all if it is conditional or partial or entered into with fingers crossed. It involves an uncalculating abandon, an utter and mutual outpouring of love and loyalty. It is a “one flesh” reality in which the two become one functional whole, not unlike the way a computer disk drive and its disk form one functioning unit or the way a bow and arrow are essential to each other. And so a home is formed and children most normally follow.

Family life should be expressed in its fullness in the home, because this is the place where the specifically religious dimension and everyday life meet. The home is intrinsically a religious institution, and the family table is the center of the home. The idea that a meal can be a sacred occasion is so deeply rooted in many religious traditions that it cannot be accidental or of passing significance. The Jewish Passover and the Christian Love Feast are among the more familiar examples of sacred meals. Of special significance for us is the fact that in the Gospel accounts the risen Christ was recognized by his disciples at the moment they began sharing in an ordinary meal (Luke 24:31-35). This leads to the hope that every common meal may be, if we are sufficiently sensitive, a time when we are conscious of the real presence of our risen Lord.

Common labor too should be found in the home. Our grandparents’ farmhouse was large because it was far more than a place to eat and sleep: it was a place to work. In the past the home was a workshop, a school, a church, and a club all rolled into one. True, those days are gone forever, but it is still possible to discover work together in the home. Floors need cleaning and windows need washing. In addition, modern computer technology makes cottage industries once again a genuine possibility. It is worth our best thinking and most creative efforts to make the home not just a rooming house, but the center of family life, the place for work and worship and play and love-making. 

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Excerpted from Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster, published by HarperOne. Copyright Richard J. Foster. Used with permission.

Originally published October 1998.