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