My perspective on life and faith was eternally changed while listening to a radio interview with Gracia Burnham years ago. Gracia is the extraordinary individual who is best known for being the hostage who was rescued from the Abu Sayyaf Muslim militant group back in 2002. Gracia and her husband, Martin were missionaries who lived and worked with their 3 young children in the Philippines. Martin was a jungle pilot for a missionary aviation program that delivered mail, supplies, and medical patients. Gracia served in various roles of support for the organization plus homeschooled their children. While celebrating their anniversary at a resort in Palawan in May of 2001, they along with more than a dozen others were taken hostage by the radical Muslim group who were known for beheading their victims.
For over a year they were prisoners constantly on the run with the militant group through the primitive jungle of Basilan Island. Many days they did not have any food or water. They grew weak, they were mistreated, they watched in horror as fellow hostages were brutally murdered, they didn’t know if they would ever see their children again. They had every reason to doubt God because of their circumstances. They were tested physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Instead of turning against God, they leaned into Him.
They constantly prayed and asked God for everything they needed. When they needed water, they would pray for a drink of water. When they needed food, they prayed for food. Sometimes their prayers were answered, sometimes they weren’t. They prayed that God would let one of them come home to raise their kids. They prayed that they would be set free.
While she was recalling one point where they were incredibly weak, sleep deprived, homesick and scared she said they started to question God. Why would He let this happen? Why wasn’t He answering their prayers? Why them after all they’ve done in His name? They started to question everything.
But then they did something amazing and her iron clad faith hit me like a brick.
Grappling with their doubt, searching for answers, they said
“What do we know to be true? We know the bible to be true. God Loves us. God is always with us. God’s promises are true.”
They named off everything they could remember in their weary state of God’s truths and it consoled and comforted them.
There in the wild, dangerous jungle, where they didn’t know if they would die from something in the jungle, from one of their captors, or from starvation, after they were taken hostage from doing God’s work, while malnourished and dehydrated, they thanked God for his promises and His word.
They remained thankful.
I was just stunned.
You know how when you are in a bad situation and you can always still find something to be thankful for, knowing there are so many others out there in worse situations than you? I’m pretty sure they were in a situation as bad as it gets. There was no downward comparison to be had. Yet they demonstrated rock solid faith. They demonstrated that even if everything is stripped away, there is still much to be thankful for.
I prayed at that moment for God to please let me have a faith as strong as theirs that I could remain thankful no matter what the circumstances.
The story gets even more astonishing.
In June of 2002, another rescue attempt was made from the Philippine military. This time Gracia was shot in the leg at the onset. She fell and slid down the hill they were descending. Once she stopped, she ended up near her husband Martin, who she could see was shot in the chest. His breathing was heavy and labored. There on that hill, as the shots of their rescue attempt continued to ring out, she watched Martin take his last breath.
Her rescuers found Gracia and Martin and started dragging them up the hill. As she watched her husband’s lifeless body she said. “ God had answered our prayers. We were free. I was being rescued and would be able to return home and Martin had been called home. We were both free, just in different ways.”
At this point listening, I was crying and MAD. Are you kidding me?! That poor man who after serving as a missionary his entire life, surviving a year of captivity in deplorable conditions and he DIES DURING THE RESCUE?!?! He was SO CLOSE! Their children were so close to seeing their Father again! How could she be grateful and say their prayers were answered?! I was going to be mad for her even if she was not! That was not how I wanted to the story to end!
Turns out that’s not how the story ends. As if this story couldn’t get any more exceptional, it does and continues on in extraordinary ways because that is how our God works.
This woman had already stunned me twice with the magnitute of her faith and was about to once more. You see, Gracia prayed to God for forgiveness towards her captors. Not only did she forgive them but she started the Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation to help reach Muslims in the Philippines. She forgave them, prayed for them and reached out trying to save them.
I was flabbergasted. This woman had so much taken from her and here she was serving those same people with love and concern.
A few of the men that held Gracia and her husband hostage for that year, got a hold of some of the printed material from her foundation. They knew they had taken a year of her life and that her husband had died because of their actions. What they read moved them and they were impacted by Gracia’s faith.
It changed them. It changed them so much that 4 of her captors became Christians.
Gracia eventually met the men and greeted them with hugs. Hugs! Talk about a poster child of unshakable faith, forgiveness and grace. I had found my role model.
There were people in my life I hadn’t forgiven for far, far less offenses. So I prayed again….God please let me practice grace and forgiveness like her!
Life inevitably leaves us questioning our state of affairs from time to time. It can be hard to comprehend the truth in all of the muddiness. Maybe it’s emotion that is clouding clarity or the noise of our culture. It’s easy to recognize that life isn’t always fair but it’s not always easy to discern the truth.
Gracia taught me that in those times of confusion, hurt, abandonment, disappointment, etc. to look for comfort and guidance in the Voice of Truth and Light. To remind myself of what I know to be TRUE. And that there is still ALWAYS much to be thankful for even if the current state of affairs doesn’t match my idea of desirable.
I know I was meant to hear that interview. I had no idea that when I got into the car that day it would forever change me. Even though I had believed in God my entire life, at that time my faith was still immature. I used to try to figure things out on my own, with my limited logic and reasoning. I’ve come a long way since then and have learned that the first place I should be looking is to our omniscient, omnipotent, loving God in ALL matters. This has served me well. I’ve faced plenty of challenges since then and I’m sure my outlook would be drastically different had I not matured in my faith or heard that interview.
The departure day for our Kilimanjaro Cause Trek is drawing near. Needless to say I’ve got plenty of voices good and bad swirling in my head. Our trip leaders have warned us that you’ve got to prepare mentally and spiritually before a trip like this just as much as you do physically. Thanks to Gracia, I know the very first voice of truth and light that I need to seek out.