As a military chaplain, I spent the Gulf War living in a small tent next to an airstrip in the middle of the desert along with 4,500 Marines.
As you may know, the Marine Corps motto is "Semper Fidelis," which means "always faithful." The Marines often abbreviate their motto to Semper Fi. It must be their recruit training experience that instills their love for writing, speaking, or shouting "Semper Fi" whenever the opportunity arises. Of course, the motto offers me wonderful cannon fodder for extemporaneous sermons to Marines regarding God's continued and permanent faithfulness to His children. Consider Deuteronomy 32:4: "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he." Semper Fi!
That was a message I needed to hear at one point during the Gulf War. Discouraged, I sat in my lonely tent wondering why God had me here. Why would God want me in the desert, surrounded by all the jet noise and frequent Scud alerts?
The Marines provided me a three-by five-foot marker board for outlining my sermons. I mounted this board inside my tent (called, in Marine parlance, a "hootch"). As I considered my discouragement and sought remedy from God, the word came to me—"clarify." Maybe God had me in the desert to clarify my purpose and life's vision. He wanted my aspirations distilled down to serving Him willingly with a whole heart. So, I wrote "clarify" at the top of this blank white board.
I prayed a while longer, and after some time I sensed another word—"purify." I thought to myself that God frequently took his people away from all the distractions in order to purify them for His purposes. There's Jacob in Genesis 35:2 ordering the people to rid themselves of foreign idols and to leave for Bethel to worship God. Paul writes to Pastor Titus at the First Church of Crete: " … our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good" (Titus 2:13-14). I wrote the word "purify" on the board immediately below "clarify."
Finally, I sensed one more word—"mortify."
I remembered that in the early centuries of church history, anchorite monks such as Simeon Stylites (390-459) lived in the desert for extended periods of time. Some of them built isolation platforms for the express purpose of mortifying their flesh and thereby increasing their faith.
In the desert, far from home and family and comfort, I saw I had become a reluctant follower of their early path. So, I wrote the word "mortify" under the first two.
Before the ink dried, I could hear several aircraft on final approach after a combat mission. I left my hootch and ran to the flight line in order to welcome the pilots back.
My fog lifted as I experienced first-hand the pilots' relief at successfully and safely completing their mission, as I witnessed the esprit-de-corps of the ground crew as they quickly turned around the aircraft for another take-off. My discouragement was washed away as I found myself smiling at the optimism of those Marines. I was encouraged. I had renewed vision and a sense of purpose here in the desert. I had hope.
As I returned to my empty tent, I saw a Marine had dropped by while I was away. Maybe he wanted to talk. He left me a message. To the three words on my board, the Marine had added a fourth: Clarify, Purify, Mortify, Semper Fi.
God has his purposes, even in the desert. God, who is always faithful, reminded me to be faithful as their chaplain, serving God's purposes.
Alan Baker is Principal of Strategic Foundations and ministered in the Navy and Marine Corps as a chaplain. He now serves Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as an adjunct faculty member, and Senior Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy.