Gracia Burnham, former missionary to the Philippines and Abu Sayef hostage, spoke at Tabor College Monday to 60+ Learning in Retirement participants in the morning and to the student body during the afternoon convocation gathering.
Burnham now lives in Rose Hill. While being held hostage for more than a year in the Philippine jungle, the lives of Burnham and her late husband, Martin, were transformed.
Martin was killed in the 17th gun battle they experienced between the Abu Sayef and the military.
As new missionaries in a new country, they were faced with challenges of the language, climate, public transportation, money, food, bugs and electricity.
But through that rough beginning, Burnham said they were already experiencing Gods transformation.
“Transform is a verb-to change in composition, structure or character, to convert-and transformation is the act or process of being transformed,” Burnham said. “We all know who the Transformer is in our Christian walk.
“The Holy Spirit does a lot of things in our lives. We are born again, he makes us alive when we were dead, he assures us that we are God’s children, teaches us, prays for us, makes our prayers make sense, and he transforms us.
“That’s what happened to Martin and me during our year in the jungle. In one quick sweep God got our attention and started changing us.”
Taken hostage from a resort, the Burnhams were transported across the ocean to an island that is a Muslim stronghold.
There, the Burnhams hoped negotiations for their release would take place and they would return home within days. But the first day, they were forced to flee for safety with their captors from the Philippine military.
Along their hike, she realized her prayers were nagging God for the needed water to continue on the walk.
“I made a conscience decision I was going to change my thought process and my prayers,” Burnham said. “I started praying, ‘God, I think you know what I need. Help me to be patient until you bring it to me.'”
Daily, she said, God’s answers to their prayers showed them he was listening, but their ultimate prayer to return home was left unanswered.
Around Easter, the ransom was paid but their captives decided it wasn’t enough.
“That’s when we started thinking that maybe something besides what we were going through was going on,” Burnham said. “Our thought process started changing and both of us thought we never would get out alive so our prayers were changed.”
The Burnhams went to the Philippines, where they hoped that God could use Martin’s gift as a pilot to help reach tribal people. But with his death came the death of their dream.”
“The death of the dream is not necessarily a bad thing,” Burnham said. “It’s a sad thing for the person whose dream just died, but what is important in life is not our dream. What’s important is God’s glory, and we must pursue that glory over our own dream. It’s an honor to serve Jesus and I told him long ago I’d follow him anywhere.”
That promise has led Burnham back to Rose Hill, where she is raising their three children.
“I learned two things from Martin in the jungle that still help me today in Kansas,” she said. “One was something he’d say to me if I had had it and would not take another step.
“Martin would say, ‘Gracia, what would the kids say if you pick up a phone and talk to them?’ They would say, ‘Mom, keep going today, because tomorrow you might get to go home.’
“The other thing was something he told me during a gun battle,” Burnham said. “The military was coming up the river shooting at us. The only place for us to go was up this bluff. We had to haul ourselves us up.
“Halfway up the mountain I was spent physically and just couldn’t go on and I fell apart emotionally. He looked at me and very pointedly but kindly said, ‘Now is not the time to cry. Crying takes energy. Let’s get through this and you can cry later.'”
Burnham reminds herself of her husband’s words when she is discouraged and life is difficult.
“I figure when it’s time to sit down and have a good cry over life, there’s not going to be any reason anymore,” she said.