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    Reading 2012: In the Presence of My Enemies

    June 26, 2012

    I remember hearing about Gracia and Martin Burnham in 2001, when the New Tribes Missions couple was kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf, Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. I also remember hearing of her husband’s death and her release, and then, sometime later, my alma mater’s in-person honoring of her faith (a couple of her nieces were on the dormitory staff) during her ordeal. Her book has been on my “want-to-read-list” since I heard of is publishing, but I never followed through until this month, when the book, In the Presence of My Enemies was offered free via Kindle (no longer available free Kindle download, although the first chapter is available to read here).

    In the book, Gracia shares her early life and marriage to Martin, their 17 years of ministry as missionaries in the Philippines, their life there with their three children, and then the 376 days of their captivity (after being kidnapped while at a small resort where they were celebrating their eighteenth wedding anniversary). With only the clothes on their backs (which wasn’t much, as they were taken away in the early hours of the morning), they faced over a year of difficult travels, near starvation, absence of of basic sanitation and comfort, constant exhaustion and physical pain, false hope of release, gunfights, and even having fellow captives face rape and decapitation. In the end, all but one of the other captives besides the Burnhams and those who were killed were released. Martin was unintentionally killed by the gunfire of their rescuers, and Gracia wounded.

    The struggles they faced were not merely physical. Gracia humbly and honestly recounts her spiritual struggles during their time in the jungle, one which allowed her to emerge believing in and testifying to the gracious and loving sovereignty of God. The book gives readers a glimpse into fundamentalist, Islamic-based terrorist groups, particularly the dynamic that comes to play when the militants are somewhat uneducated to their own religion and even the manipulation and hypocrisy that is used to force others to join.

    After her rescue, Gracia was asked to return to the Philippines to testify against her kidnappers. Eventually, those who were not killed in subsequent gunfights, or who had not escaped, were imprisoned. In an ultimate expression of loving her enemies, Gracia writes these men and shares with them the Gospel. She has also started ministries to help provide financially for their families by buying some of their craftsmanship. As the pastor at our church reminded us this Sunday, many religions ask their adherents to “love their neighbors as themselves;” yet, it is one of the marks of true Christianity for one to love their enemies. Clearly, it is an evidence of God’s sanctifying grace in Gracia that she emerged from this ordeal able to truly love her enemies.

    As a wife and mother who at times thought our family would be in a similar missions context, such a scenario is still only one I could have imagined. Yet, there were countless scenarios that placed Gracia in a position dealing with the same experiences many first-world Christians face on a regular basis.
    As a young mother, I found this lesson from Gracia to be a helpful admonishment and reminder:
    Poor Martin — he was so good to put up with my emotions. If we were in a gun battle and I was falling apart, he would say, “Gracia, this isn’t the time to cry. You’re wasting energy. You need to get ahold of yourself—you can cry later, okay?”
    But he never reprimanded me for crying. It made me think back to earlier  days, when I was homeschooling the kids, and I pushed Jeffrey so hard to perform that he would burst into tears. On more than one occasion I had said, “I don’t want to see you cry, because you’re just trying to get your way.” I was really impatient and unfair with him.
    Now in the jungle, I thought to myself, How would you feel if someone walked up to you right now and said, “I don’t want you crying, because you’re just trying to get your own way?” I promised myself that if I ever got back to Jeff, I would sit him down and apologize for pushing him so hard. He was actually a good student, and so were the other kids. I just expected them to be perfect little adults instead of kids who were learning to make their way in the world.”

    The story is engaging, though at times difficult to read and imagine what the Burnhams and fellow captives faced. Gracia divides her story into 22 chapters:

    Table of Contents:

    • 1 Seized at Dawn
    • 2 Bright Beginnings
    • 3 The Nicest Guy
    • 4 Rookies
    • 5 Toddlers and Traffic
    • 6 The Perils of Palawan
    • 7 Hospital of Horror
    • 8 The Threat
    • 9 Left Behind
    • 10 Surrounded
    • 11 A Song for the Jungle
    • 12 Justice or Mercy?
    • 13 September 11
    • 14 Wedding Time
    • 15 The Package
    • 16 Silent Nights
    • 17 So Close
    • 18 Ransomed!
    • 19 One Rainy Afternoon
    • 20 The Embassy
    • 21 Going Home
    • 22 Reflections