One summer, when my son Harry was eight, I took him up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for a hike. We would climb Mount Madison, stay overnight at the Appalachian Mountain Club lodge near the summit, and hike back down the next day.
By that age, Harry had reached the point at which, when your parents tell you something is going to be fun to do, it’s treated with a certain skepticism. (He had not yet hardened into automatic refusal.) And hiking in the Whites is not a casual stroll – the trails go pretty much straight uphill, ours was going to be a four-hour hike up (at a grownup pace), and four hours down the next day, and I didn’t know how his eight-year-old body would hold up. So I knew it was not a given that the trip was going to be a success.
We drove up a day early so we could start the hike fresh in the morning; and we got there with a couple of hours of daylight left, so I took Harry to a place called Silver Cascade Falls (I’d never been there, but it sounded like it might be interesting.) It turned out to be a stream with a series of beautiful waterfalls and pools up a gentle incline, and as we walked up the rocky trail beside it, I could feel Harry’s mood change from grudgingly putting up with it all, to mild interest, to growing excitement. We talked a little bit as we walked, but mostly he was taking it all in, looking at the stream and the trail and the mountain in front of us, and after about fifteen minutes he said, “I’m getting the hang of this.”
When he said that, I thought it sounded kind of funny, in the way of a child using a figure of speech he’s picked up that he’s not quite on top of; but it wasn’t until many years later that I realized what he said was dead on. He was talking about the whole experience. When you “get the hang” of something, it means you’re learning how to do it, but it also means you’re acquiring a taste for it, you’re understanding what it means, on a level you hadn’t been aware of before, and it’s becoming part of you: even though it might be in a small way, there’s something new about life that’s opening up for you.
Well, something had opened up for Harry. The next day when we did the big hike up Madison, he settled right into a steady rhythm (which is essential to hiking any kind of distance), because he understood that it wasn’t just a matter of getting to a destination: the hike itself was part of the experience we were there for. And the next day, after four hours of hiking down the mountain, when we came out of the woods to the trailhead on the valley floor, and to the little lot where we’d parked our car, the first words out of his mouth were, “Where are we going next!” He felt himself to be, not at the end of our hike, but at the beginning of something larger. He’d gotten the hang of it.
The point is not that Harry went on to become a great mountaineer. The point is that he made a little discovery that he didn’t expect, that enlarged his world; he’d experienced a revelation – a revealing – of a dimension of life he hadn’t known existed. And once that happens, you understand that it can happen again. Of course, in childhood life is full of discovery. But unfortunately, we tend to lose that capacity as we get older. It has something to do with what Jesus meant when he said, Unless you receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you will never enter it.
This is the first Sunday in the new year, 2015. The beginning of a calendar year is a time when it’s natural to take a fresh look at things. New Year’s resolutions are a brief nod in this direction – people treat them as a casual joke, and they usually are, because they trivialize a healthy human impulse: to stop, and take stock of our present situation, and make decisions about what needs changing: how to make our lives better, how to enlarge our world, how to open ourselves to the possibilities that we know we’re missing.
One of the great things about our church calendar is that it serves this purpose. Our religion, if we get the hang of it, teaches that being human means being a work in progress: we grow, we’re always evolving. So every year, in the church calendar, in a regular sequence, we focus on different aspects of the life of the Spirit as we are currently living it: which is always at least a little different from how we were living it the year before. In this brief season of Christmas, we behold the reality of the Incarnation, the reality that God is here, living as we do, and what that means for us. Because of Christ, we now stand in a new relation to God. There’s a dimension of life that opens up for us because of that; and therefore, as Christians, we are called to live our lives in a new way. There’s something in today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians that speaks to this.
The passage we heard today is from the very beginning of the letter. As we heard, Ephesians begins with praise of God and thanks to God, like most of the New Testament letters. This is because the apostle Paul knows that everything he has, everything he knows, everything he can do in this life, are all gifts from God, they can come from nowhere else, because God is the origin of all life. This comes first, in the letters, because this acknowledgment of our dependence on God is like a valve through which the Holy Spirit flows into our lives. It’s not a slavish dependence, but rather like our dependence on food and water and air, it’s what gives us life. Somehow the extent to which we acknowledge this, that we hold up before ourselves our dependence on God, that’s the extent to which we keep that valve open; and in the same measure, the extent to which we ignore it, or deny it, is the extent to which that valve is closed. That’s one of the reasons we come to church.
Having opened with praise and thanks to God, as we just heard, the letter praises the church in Ephesus for their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love toward all the saints (and, in the New Testament sense, “saints” means simply all the members of the church, all who are committed to following Jesus Christ; “saints” means people like you and me.) So the letter states plainly, right up front, you guys are doing it right, you’re practicing the faith the way it’s meant to be done; you’ve got the hang of it.
But then – having just said this – the very next sentence is a prayer for the Christians in Ephesus, a prayer which asks God for something on their behalf; which seems to imply that there’s something they haven’t quite gotten yet. But I think it says something different. The prayer is one sentence, three whole verses, and I’m going to repeat it; and see if you hear what I hear: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation, as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”
Do you hear how all of that looks forward? Do you hear the open-endedness, the limitless possibility, to which Christian faith invites us? Everything about that sentence anticipates the life that remains before us, gifts of God that are yet to come, and which, as Christians, if we’ve really gotten the hang of it, gifts that we’re always on the lookout for.
This does not contradict what the letter says about the Ephesians’ faith in Christ, and their love toward all those around them. Rather, in the prayer we learn something essential about the nature of that faith. The prayer is not for a particular state of the Spirit that the writer hopes the Ephesians will get to, a destination, like the top of a mountain. It’s a prayer for continual growth in the Spirit that already exists among them, a Spirit whose very nature is to grow, to look forward, a Spirit that is always open to the infinite possibilities God is always offering us, every day; a Spirit that understands that God the Creator never stops creating: never has, never will; and invites us to join in that creation. It doesn’t matter who we are, or what we’ve done, good, bad, or indifferent: there are new worlds waiting to be revealed to us all the time. It is through our life in Christ that we get the hang of that. Thanks be to God.