We have more chance of succeeding in our pursuits if we surround ourselves with others.
We are bringing our series, Pursuit, to an end here, but even though our theme is coming to an end, our pursuit is not. We have plenty of ‘year’ left and we have plenty of time to be able to continue in what we have already been making strides. We’ve already been chasing after the things we’ve written on, either on the board or in our hearts. The pursuit of our lives has been something we’ve been focusing on. Some of us have developed momentum. Others have experienced some setbacks or some side trails that have emerged. There’s a greater understanding of how challenging this pursuit might actually be. Wherever we’re at, I was considering how we could think about entering the remainder of the year in light of what it is we are chasing after. I think the best way I thought of was to settle on this idea. The strength of others has the ability to strengthen us. That is to say, other people’s strength has the ability to make us stronger. That is certainly true, especially in terms of our faith journey. The hinge point is we must decide to become part of a united pursuit. In order for that to be true, we must make the choice of stepping out of a place where we are pursuing and running after something alone. We need to join up with a team that is chasing something in a united way.
This is not unique to a faith journey. Certainly, it’s true for a faith journey. It’s also true in other areas of life. We know this because we know of companies and organizations that are capable of innovating or improving other people’s lives. It may be to increase their profit margin at the very end. They do so because of the teams within those organizations. They do so because they decided to soar on the strengths of the people within those organizations. We see this in sports, in athletics. We see this when a team is able to overcome the talent and mind-blowing abilities of an individual who continues to break record after record, despite their increasing age for the league they’re in. We see how a team can overcome what others would say is not possible. We’re seeing that unfold even now as Olympians are training and competing. Behind every Olympian is a devoted team. Not one of them has made it there alone.
We also see this in military units most effectively. I’ve always had an admiration for our military and our special forces. Perhaps recently, because I found the title of this book interesting. I decided to go ahead, pick it up, and start reading through this book called Resilience. It’s written by a Navy SEAL. His name is Eric Greitens. In his book, he shared a story that I thought had a lot to do with what we’re discussing here together. This book is a series of letters in which he is writing to a veteran, a former Navy SEAL who is going through an emotionally turbulent time. He’s seeking to encourage him. Through these letters, he ends up writing on different themes. One of them had to do with the reality that the strength of others has the ability to strengthen us.
He wrote about his experience in Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training, otherwise known as BUDS. In it, he says, “This six-month-long training had something that was searingly painful.” He said, “It was probably the hardest portion of this training.” He says it was the log PT. Log PT is an exercise that he described. PT stands for physical training and has to do with carrying a log. He recounted how it was forcing seven shivering-cold, salt-soaked men to carry a 150-pound log, run it up over a 15-foot high sand berm, drop it, pick it back up, and run it back into the water. They have to hold onto the log as they run into the ocean. They have to carry that soaked slippery log back through that soft sand, over those 15 feet, go through the finish line only to discover that’s not actually the finish line. They have to do it all over again until they say you need to stop.
He says doing that was physically brutal. I found what he was saying was, “but that was bearable.” What was unbearable was the unending nature of this activity. The idea that it would just continue to go on and on not knowing when it would come to an end. Discovering that when it did come to an end was when they would blow the whistle and say, “This is your last lap.” When they would come and find themselves at the head of the pack, their crew of seven would cross the finish line and drop the log. They would discover that they had cheated along the way and have to pick that log up again and redo the entire course. He writes, “Do you remember how after we would do that? We would cross the finish line the next time only to discover we didn’t win and we’d get punished for being in second place? That was brutal. Do you remember that?”
He starts to tell him this reality, the mental onslaught of this endless, repetitive, physically demanding exercise. It did a couple of things to the crews. He says, “Do you remember when we were going through this painful experience, how the process internally went? Some teams’ internal maps started telling them, ‘You can’t do this. You cannot bear the weight.'” That sense of doubt, fear, and anxiety started leading to their insecurity. That insecurity ended up leading to the team turning on each other. “Do you remember how they started to turn on each other? They started to wonder, ‘You know what? This is really hard.’ I wonder if the person behind me or in front of me is slacking off. They started cursing at and blaming each other. They started not working together but turning against each other.”
Slowly, that became the crumbling point of each crew. They didn’t see each other as strength givers, but as ones who took strength from them. “Do you remember how the crew rose and fell on the individual and the individual rose and fell in the capacity of the crew? Do you remember the other ones? The ones that actually succeeded? They were the ones who figured out how to work together. They were the ones who figured out how to lift that log cohesively. They understood they were struggling and having an extraordinarily hard time. They never thought they were having a harder time than the person to the right, left, front, or behind. They recognized ‘we are all in this together.’ So when the person behind them faltered, they encouraged them. When the person in front of them faltered, they encouraged them. They received encouragement and ended up drawing near together. Do you remember how we figured it out? How, in a single breath we could lift this together and move forward in a synchronistic fashion?”
He says, “Do you remember how in the mess hall afterward, you would see the teams that won and the ones that didn’t, the ones that succeeded and the ones that didn’t. The ones that succeeded were laughing and joking and the beginning of lifelong friendships were being formed. The ones that didn’t, do you remember how quiet, isolated, and individualized those crews were? One led to enemies, one led to long lifelong friends. Then he wrote something that I thought stood out as he himself is a Navy SEAL, the personification of strength and might. He says “I remember that moment. It taught me something. One moment in log PT, I came to a realization. We were carrying the log at the low carry so that our arms extended in front of our bodies. We collectively had the log cradled in the crook of our elbows. My biceps, shoulders, and back were burning. I remember thinking, If these guys weren’t here right now, I’d probably stop. I wouldn’t believe I could go on, but these guys are keeping on right beside me. Because they’re continuing to move forward, I guess I can too.”
Their strength ended up making him stronger. I guess the reason I share this is because a lot of us are pursuing what we believe God has placed into our hearts. Like most people, our pursuit is very clearly personal. Otherwise, it wouldn’t ignite something within us. We are so driven passionately. We are convinced this is what we were made uniquely to do. Perhaps this is our assignment for this season. This is what we are supposed to chase after. All the while, we are something that God has breathed into our souls. If He has and it is a God-given dream desire, passion, and that won’t let us go.
What I’m saying is we have to recognize that it will be far more like a 150-pound log that cannot be carried without a team. If it is something that God is inviting us into, it will be far bigger than any one of us are capable of completing alone. This means we need to understand in order to pursue the things that God has asked us to pursue. One of the greatest principles we could adopt is the strength of others has the ability to make us stronger. I cannot think of a person who is more individualistic in terms of the scriptures than the Apostle Paul. One of the portions he wrote spoke about how he engaged in this life, journey, and pursuit, but he never did it alone. In fact, if you open up your handout, we’ll just take a look at a portion of a letter he wrote to the Philippians. It’s called Philippians because Paul wrote to a group of believers in Philippi. Philippians verse 12, “Not that I have already obtained this or I’m already perfect. I press on and make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” What Paul is saying is, “You know my life pursuit. You know what I’m chasing after, but I want you to understand something. I’m the one chasing after it but it didn’t begin with me.” In a way, what he’s saying is God was the one who was relentlessly pursuing him with His love and grace.
We know this. We know part of Paul’s story. Before he was Paul, his name was Saul. He was a witness to the love personified through the different people of Jesus. We’re told he resisted it passionately and it fueled his anger. It ended up moving him on a road in Damascus, in which God ended up interrupting him in a rather dramatic fashion. What Paul is saying is, “There was a moment in my life where the love of God, yes, I felt it.” Even Jesus called him out on it. You’re kicking against it. But there was a moment, he says, “His love won me over. It won me over. I relented and I let Him in my life. I discovered that He didn’t just want to love me, but He initiated me into a race to run. He invited me into a pursuit.” Some of us might be here. We might not be at the place where we would say His love has won us over. That’s okay. We must note that He is one who just never quits. His love continually, tenaciously, gently, patiently, and kindly invites us to consider. It invites us to allow Him to win us over it. Others may actually be in a place where we would say, “You know what? Yes, I have allowed Him into my life and now His love is beating within my soul. He has now initiated me into a pursuit.”
Paul is saying, “I am pressing on toward that. I have not made it my own. I’m far from perfect. I press on and make my own brothers.” verse 13, “I do not consider that I have made it my own. I haven’t gone there yet. But one thing I do, forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. This is the one thing I do. I continue to move in such a way in which I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God and Christ Jesus. I am forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” In a way, what we would not see in this section but clearly see in the letter he was writing to the Philippians was what he was describing. Paul had just finished describing his life prior to God winning him over was a life dictated by a very different code of ethics. In many ways, we would say he was describing a life in which he measured his value and sense of worth based on his accomplishments, heritage, knowledge, and social standing within his own tribe and people. He lived a truly morally rigorous life. Those were the factors that he utilized to elevate his sense of worth and accomplishment. That was his pursuit.
What he’s saying is, “When the love of Jesus entered my heart, something changed. I no longer evaluate things, not to say they mean nothing. It’s just that they do not mean what they used to.” In a way, every step in his journey is something of a step. He’s saying “I am no longer captured by my past. It no longer holds me. It no longer informs my present. It no longer dictates my future. I’m not captured by my past. I’m captivated by my future. I am filled with something of a desire for what is to come. I’m discovering that every single step of the way is one in which there is increasing wholeness, an increasing sense of grace, strength, peace, and hope. A hope that does not disappoint. This is my pursuit now. You know this about me. I’m striving after that very thing God is calling me into. Each step takes me further away from who I am and how I was. It takes me closer to who I’m supposed to be and will ultimately become. This is my pursuit.” This pursuit that is so intensely about his personal life ends up being something that he ends up turning outward. He does not simply think about himself. In verse 15, he says, “so let those of us, all of us who are mature think this way. If anything, you think otherwise. God revealed that to you too. Let us together hold true to what we have attained. Do not drop it. Do not let it go. Do not go back. Do not retreat. Together, we can do this.”
He’s saying. “Brothers, I want you to join me. I want you to join and imitate me. God has brought people around you that you can keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have within us.” Remember, you are never meant to do this alone. We’re meant to do this together in this pursuit of the mind. It is mine, but every single one of us has someone to step or move within this way together. In the midst of that is encouragement. But what Paul is doing and what we would not know is that He is penning these words while sitting in a prison cell. He’s writing these words while he is facing tremendous pressure to quit his pursuit. He’s writing these words in the midst of a challenge that took him off of what he thought he was supposed to go in. It was not the direction he anticipated or he wanted to be in. The remarkable thing is this letter was initiated by the Philippians deciding to send him provisions and something that would strengthen him. As he receives these permissions, he decides, “You know what? I want to thank them.” This letter comes out of that desire to thank them for the strength they are giving to him. Paul decides to encourage them. Do you see the reciprocity?
In the midst of this, he writes this letter to the Philippians. The Philippians know he is in prison. At the beginning of his letter, he says, “I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped spread the good news. It looks bad. It’s turning out that my pursuit is increasing. In fact, everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ.” He’s saying that’s a good thing. “And because of my imprisonment, because I’m not relenting and continuing to pursue no matter what circumstances I’m in, most believers here have gained confidence. They boldly speak God’s message without fear. I have a pursuit, but you ended up strengthening me so that I received that strength and I’m continuing. My ability to continue has empowered those who are connected to me to continue. Not only do they continue, but their strength has also increased. Though it may look like I’m in dire circumstances, they are actually improving because we’re connected.” Given the circumstances, this has the touch of the miraculous. There’s really no other way to say it. It doesn’t deny reality, but it doesn’t allow the circumstances to squelch. There’s something that together they are overcoming what would destroy one person.
This is the case when we allow the strength of others to strengthen us and vice versa. I think this also demonstrates a couple of things. It models for us, one, that the weight of the past is best lifted in the safety of community. I think we need to clarify what the Apostle Paul is not saying is that he’s not ignoring his past. He’s not pretending it doesn’t exist. He’s not pretending that he didn’t live a rather violent life prior to meeting Jesus. He’s not behaving in such a manner in which he would deny it. He’s not starting over. This is what I most appreciate about him. He acknowledges it. In a way, what he’s doing is respecting the power of memories and the influence potential it has. How did he do this? His life and past had to be reconciled through the means of people. It began with one man named Ananias who initiated him and spoke of God’s love to him.
Paul continued when he was initiated not just into his own journey, but into a team, through a man named Barnabas, whose name means encourager. The most individualistic person who was strong in his own right, and even he needed people. Every step of the way, he always journeyed with others. It’s hard to overstate this. When we try to address our past alone because we’re embarrassed or afraid, a couple of things happen. One, we end up thinking we could deny it. We think, “You know what, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to start new. I’m going to start fresh. Where can I do this? I could do this on one of the coasts. The East Coast or West Coast. Let’s pick the West Coast. Where’s the most beautiful city on the West Coast? Well, clearly San Francisco. I’m going to move to San Francisco. I’m going to start new. No, I didn’t grow up with anybody there. I didn’t experience life there. There’s so much activity and new stuff going on there. New circumstances, new people, new surroundings, new me. I’m going to go to church. There are good people at church, so that’s a good environment to be in. I’m good.” This redressing, entertaining away, ignoring, pretending it doesn’t exist, behaving as though we have the capacity to actually cut ourselves from our past, jump into a different setting, and pretend it as though it doesn’t exist, you know what it ignores? That the past decided to pack up their bags, got on the plane as well, and moved into our home with us. That past sneaks up and surprises us. That past undermines us.
Those of us who would say, “You know what? I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to accept it and live with it. I’m going to go ahead and resign myself to the reality that this is a life in which I could say, this is my lot in life. So I’m not going to deny it.” We would say, “Wow, that’s courageous.” But the reality is, we are carrying a 150-pound log. Every step gets harder and we start sinking. The future isn’t one in which we would say, “Man, that’s bright and beautiful.” It’s actually bleak and painful. So what do we do? Well, we repair it. How do we repair it? Some things they will scar over. They will not completely heal. They will be with us and elicit pain, but we do it. We do it in the company of others. A lot of times, not all things, the best way to start that repair is to own what we are responsible for and practice that ancient tradition. It’s called repentance.
Remember what James said to a group of believers who were struggling. He says, “Listen, I want you to practice something. I want you to confess your sins to each other. I want you to pray for each other. If you do this, understand that you will be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” He is saying, when we bring our weight to someone else, it’s not their weight, but we invite them to help us lift it. It’s one thing to receive words on a page speaking of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. It’s another to hear them uttered through the lips of another person. Together with being able to say, “Yes, that is my past. Yes, I’d rather it not be so. Yes, it might be embarrassing. It might be painful. Even now, it brings tears to my eyes. But together, will you pray for me? Will you pray with me, you no longer have a hold on me. Yes, give me a limp. Will you walk with me? Will you strengthen me?” What if it comes about and we go to that other place again and again and again, because it was dealt with. What Jesus did on the cross and His burial and resurrection have the power. So you have a brighter future. You have a brighter future because what we discovered is our ability to pursue. It is sharpened by our friendship, the friendships we form.
Look at these verses in Ecclesiastes. Soloman says, “If the iron is blunt and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength. But wisdom helps one to succeed.” Think about that. What he’s saying is if somebody is a lumberjack and he has an ax and goes out to the tree, that is his pursuit. He’s going to remove this. He goes at it, but the harder he goes, the longer he goes, the harder it gets. The harder it gets, the worse it gets, you get less return. It’s the law of diminishing returns. He’s saying life is that way. This is why day one of the year, our pursuit is so easy. Have you ever felt it gets harder the longer you go? You have to work harder just to take a single step that yesterday you could have taken three. Solomon is saying, the tendency is to get alone and to just say, “I’m just going to muscle this out.” No, that’s not how you do it. Wisdom tells you to sharpen the blade. How do you sharpen the blade? The same man says iron sharpens iron and one man sharpens another.
The best way we can put this is it’s not about hurting each other. It’s about encouraging, spurring each other onto good works, love, and forgiveness. It’s about sharing one’s grievance with another so that they can then remind us of the goodness of God in our lives and help us. Don’t do anything reckless. Forgive. In this situation, I understand. It’s very frustrating. How do we love? How do we endure? Let’s do this together. Let’s pray together. Let’s talk about this together. How are we going to overcome this? There’s a sharpening effect when we encourage and strengthen one another. It also has a cleansing effect as well.
The dulling of the blade is stuff that is unworthy. What the sharpener does is scrape away the things, the qualities in our heart that lead us to bitterness, jealousy, resentment. and envy, which we are all susceptible to. None of us are above it. It is in friendship that we discover the ability to strengthen each other and let things go. When we do this, we choose to step into somebody else’s life and be that person for somebody. We choose to speak words of life into them. Those words of life were first thought within our minds, then when we speak the words. We are the first ones to hear them. When we say them, we’re the ones putting utterance to them. We say it to one person once, then we hear it three times. It solidifies what we want to see happen in somebody else’s life within our own soul.
The same thing happens back to us. The strength of someone else can truly strengthen us. At the end of the day, our pursuit is so much more connected to direction, not perfection. The Apostle Paul himself said, “Listen, I am not already perfect, but there’s one thing I do. I press to make it my own. I am moving forward. I thought I was going to go here, but I found myself in a jail cell. I’m still moving forward. I’m still doing it. You’re helping me and I thank you for that. I’m going to help you. We’re going to do this. It’s not about perfection. It’s about moving in the right direction. One step at a time.”
This journey of Paul’s ended up converting him miraculously from one of the most passionate opposers to the way of Jesus, to an advocate of Jesus. Paul literally was described as one who uttered violence in his breath. It transformed him into a man who became in the first century one of the biggest advocates of Jesus, who endured and suffered, shed sacrificially blood, pain, tears, and angst. The man he was at the end of his life was nothing like the man before he encountered the one who pursued him. It was a miraculous transformation. It was something that he says, “This is what leads me. This is what is meant to lead us.” Each of our races is not decided by our ability to race it perfectly. If it was, none of us would have a chance. That’s why we need Jesus.
It does mean we have to run. It does mean we have to pursue it. It certainly means we need others in our lives. What if we fall through? What if we fall? What if we stumble? We get back up, and Lord willing, we’ve surrounded ourselves with people that will help us get back up. If we find ourselves in the midst of somebody stumbling, we help them get back up. What we discover is that this journey is fueled by something of divine power that fuels our hearts with grace, unending kindness, patience, and relentless love that simply never quits. Do we understand that? Our pursuit is possible because He will never quit on us. Look at what Paul said to the believers in Ephesus. It’s a verse not often cited but I just think it says so much. He says, “God, why does he do this? He does this so He can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of His grace and kindness toward us. He does this so it is shown in all He has done for us who are united in our pursuit with Christ Jesus.”
This pursuit of ours is possible because we are united to the one whose love will never stop. Whose wealth of grace and kindness knows no end. We are United to Jesus and He unites us with each other. We together and individually are capable of running forward. I don’t know what our past looks like. I don’t even know what our present might be like. I know this. Our future is one in which each one of our lives is a miracle in the making. He will hold us up like a trophy. Do you remember where they started? Look at them now. I did that. I did that, not me and them alone. They did that together.
May we unite with Jesus in our pursuit. May we unite with those He has placed in our lives. May we be in a united pursuit. In a moment, we’re going to receive our time of giving and our closing song. But Lord, I thank you. I thank you that you meet us where we’re at individually, but you never leave us alone. I thank you that you know everything about us and you never use it to shame us. I pray that you would help us take steps to connect or reconnect with those you have placed in our lives. To be the ones who give strength and the ones who receive strength. I pray, Lord God, that each one of our stories be something of your work of art, something others would say, “What a miracle that life is.” Help us unite with you and others in this pursuit. We pray for that in Jesus’ name, amen.