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I won't repeat the whole speech nor itemize all of his points, but I will pick out 5 principles which really resonated with me in my role as a teacher and spiritual leader. With apologies to Admiral McRaven for borrowing heavily and adapting slightly that which he had to learn by hard and long experience, here are some things we as spiritual leaders can learn from the Navy SEALs.
1. Do little things well. McRaven talks about how in SEAL training they had to make their beds every morning to very exacting standards. The beds were then inspected by their instructors to ensure that they had done the job correctly. It might have seemed like a silly task that was a waste of time and energy when the trainees already had very full days, but it reinforced the principle that the small things count. In the work of pastoring or teaching or discipling, I can find it discouraging to look at the big picture because so often there is little progress to note. However, if I look at the small things, at faithful practices done daily or weekly with consistency, at relationships that have withstood the test of time and trial, I am reassured. If you have ever entered into a building where prayers have been uttered for hundred of years (like Iona Abbey), you notice that the very place seems transformed, distinctly different from other places, holy and set apart and heavy with the presence of God. This is what small things, over time, can produce. A kind word given, a floor swept of crumbs, a pat on the back, a cup of cold water offered. Learn to do the small things well, because as Admiral McRaven says: "If you can't do the small things right, you will never do the big things right."
2. Do life with someone. The Admiral uses the example of a SEAL team paddling a boat where everyone has to pull in unison. This is true of any faith community. We are so much more together than we are separately. We need each other, not only to pull together and get where we are going, but to be agents in each other's transformation. Discipleship happens when we do life with others. Jesus showed us that.
3. You won't always get it right. Move on. Inevitably, every SEAL trainee found themselves having to endure some humiliating and physically demanding consequence as a result of their performance not measuring up. In fact, the instructors made sure to find things wrong even when all seemed perfect because it was important for the trainees to learn to keep moving no matter what. This is a tough lesson for someone with perfectionist tendencies like me. We can't always go back to fix our mistakes or make things right. We must learn to accept what has happened and move on. I am not talking about giving up on people or making restitution or restoring broken relationships wherever possible. I am talking about trying to get everything perfect. It's impossible. A wise person knows when to acknowledge that the talk they just gave wasn't their best, that they said something inappropriate, that they forgot an important task, that they stepped over the line of good taste, that they disagreed with someone just a little too vehemently, etc. It's bound to happen. No matter how hard we try, some people will be offended, some friends walk out of our lives, some opportunities will be lost, and we will be disappointed with ourselves. Despite our best efforts, it will not be good enough to keep everyone happy or make things work out exactly as planned. This is where we must learn to live in mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and keep moving.
4. Failing can make you stronger. The Admiral tells about the rigorous physical tests the SEAL trainees had to do. These tests all had standards and if a person did not meet these standards, they were invited to what is called the "circus," extra hours of grueling physical workouts. Though some people ended up in the dreaded "circus" time and again, the result was that they eventually grew stronger and stronger. All that extra work paid off! We all hate this lesson, but it's true. Those who have to struggle, to do extra work to catch up with others, to suffer through disastrous consequences and find a way to work through them, to patiently start from the beginning again and again, to keep going when everyone else has finished- if they do not give up, these people become some of the most resilient people you will ever meet, exhibiting an inner strength that comes only from struggles like these. Thomas Edison, the American inventor,admitted that many of his ideas did not work. He said: "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Those who fail and keep going inevitably gain strength and skill in the process.
5. Be your best at the worst of times. The example Admiral McRaven gives is the SEAL training exercise where they swim underwater for 2 miles and then have to find the keel underneath a large ship. When one gets under the ship, you cannot see your hand in front of your face, that's how dark it is, and the noise from the ship's engine is disorienting. At this darkest moment, the Navy SEAL must be at their most calm and composed, able to call upon all their skills and do what they were sent there to do. The ability to be at your best in the darkest times is really tough, but it is something I am intentionally trying to cultivate in my life. When I am tired, sick, overworked, unprepared, in a high pressure situation, or just in a dark time in my life, that's when I want to be living in the most peace, exhibiting the most grace and patience, living fully aware of the nearness of God, loving and kind to those around me, and able to draw on the wisdom and discernment of the Holy Spirit. This doesn't happen by accident; it takes some practice, so I should not be surprised if I get a few "dark times" coming my way. May I see the potential they hold for training.
Doing theology can often seem theoretical, philosophical, and detached from everyday life, but it should not be. It should be a gateway into spiritual exercises which not only test our ideas and beliefs but increase our stamina and strength in the qualities of love, mercy, grace, justice, and hope. And it is this combination of theology and spirituality which makes us fit for great service in the kingdom of God.