In uneven jots of Sharpie, my youngest daughter wrote the letters of her name. The capital G sat like a mini spiral next to an oversized lower case r. She spoke the rest of the letters aloud as she wrote them on her name tag: a…c…i…a. I could smell the pungent permanent marker ink as she pulled the sticker from its backing.
In giving her the name Gracia, my husband and I connected our daughter to a news story that dominated global headlines more than a decade before her birth, a story that deepened our devotion to God and each other.
In mid-2001, I was just returning from a year of not-for-profit work on the other side of the world when my mom and I heard reports of Martin and Gracia Burnham’s capture in the Philippines. We prayed daily, staying on alert for proofs of life from the terrorist group that led them around in the jungle. Soon, my friend Craig would join us in our daily check-ins and ongoing intercession.
As Craig and I watched love flourish between Gracia and Martin in the ugliest of circumstances, and as we prayed big prayers for their rescue, we laid a foundation for our own persevering love and eventual marriage, a relationship that sees through the trappings of this middle class American life. Being audacious together is a bonding experience. And that emotional and spiritual investment in the Burnhams was one of the many things that turned my friend Craig into my future husband.
When you pray for someone in crisis, you enter the fellowship of their suffering.
You become connected, even if you don’t know each other personally.
You become related through our all-present God.
A year later, I was on the last page of a Bible study on the life of Paul when I got the call that Gracia Burnham had been rescued while Martin had been killed in crossfire. I cried mixed tears, part relief, part grief. It was not the full yes we had wanted, but the Burnham children were not orphans. I looked down at the lesson titled “Finishing the Race” where I had just underlined Beth Moore’s words: “Death was not God’s refusal to act. Death was God’s ultimate rescue.”
In the margin of the study, I had written two verses from 2 Timothy 4.
“The time of my departure has come.” -2 Timothy 4:6
“The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom;
to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” -2 Timothy 4:18
It felt like Martin was echoing those words in his passing.
We would come to find out that Martin was indeed preparing for departure, even writing a goodbye letter to his children days before his death. Through those serendipitous words in my Bible study, God ministered to me so personally in the loss, even though I was just one of the great cloud of people who’d been praying for the Burnhams from a distance.
In 2002, I sent Gracia Burnham a letter with a copy of the poignant pages from that Bible study. But with the overwhelming amount of mail she received from fellow believers who’d been praying for her too, I wasn’t surprised to receive a form letter in reply.
Recently, as I watched my little Gracia write her name on her name tag at the Voice of the Martyrs event in our city, I hoped we would get to introduce her to Gracia Burnham.
Having our kids along, we couldn’t manage being present for the whole event. So, we came toward the end when Gracia would speak. My mom, my pastor, and a woman from our former church had been there since the morning. They messaged me to say they’d each had a chance to meet Gracia Burnham earlier in the day. I found out later that in their three separate conversations, they had all mentioned our little Gracia.
My daughter smoothed her name tag on her shirt, crumpled the wax paper backing, and tossed it in the trash.
When the woman behind the desk saw the name on the tag, she said, “Your name is Gracia, too??!”
Our Gracia nodded shyly.
“Well, Gracia Burnham won’t want to miss meeting you.”
As soon as the session in progress ended, the woman jogged into the auditorium. She came back and quickly ushered us to the soundbooth where Gracia was adjusting her wireless mic.
My husband, children, mom, and our pastor approached the soundbooth to greet Gracia, and right away, she stooped down on her knees, eye to eye with our Gracia, hugging her and talking to her about their shared name.
My pastor said when he talked with Gracia Burnham that morning, he was surprised at the emotion that welled up after all these years. He had had the honor of introducing Gracia at her first speaking event in their home state of Kansas a few months after her rescue in 2002, and felt a special connection to the story. As I began to talk with Gracia Burnham and express the connection my mom, my husband, and I felt with her through that year of prayer, I, too, was surprised at the wincing and tears that came over me.
When you pray for someone in crisis, you enter the fellowship of their suffering. You become connected, even if you don’t know each other personally. You become related through our all-present God.
We don’t need to shrug off our first world problems as we pray. We can use them. Our tiny sufferings here can help us keep vigil with our brothers and sisters facing much graver discomforts, dangers, or doubts wherever they are.
Our inspiration in naming our daughter Gracia had nothing to do with Gracia Burnham being an extraordinary person in and of herself. She is careful to opt out of hero status. In fact, Gracia says that the strong one died and the weak one was sent home to do ministry.
When her beliefs met her day to day experience as a traveling prisoner, there were many unanswered questions. She witnessed the evil of humankind up close in the rugged terrain of the Philippine jungle as many fellow captives and local citizens were killed in the year-long crisis. She saw the depths of her own brokenness in her starvation, sickness, and exhaustion. She needed Martin to continually bolster her with Scripture and hymns. Understandably, her faith was feeble.
But just as we sometimes wrongly define courage as absence of fear, we sometimes wrongly define faith as absence of doubt. Faith is choosing to trust in the goodness of God even when we have unanswered questions. In her message, Gracia quoted George Mueller, “Faith is the hand by which we lay hold of Jesus. The trembling hand is still a hand.” Faith doesn’t have to be strong and steady and sure, it simply has to be reaching toward Jesus. We named our daughter Gracia because praying for Gracia Burnham in her weakness made us reach toward Jesus, too.
I told her about the time I had to walk across a sloshy field in dress shoes and how, as the water and mud seeped in, I thought of her swollen, cracked feet, and inadequate boots in the jungle. My minor irritation put me in tune with her much greater suffering and led me to intercede for her.
We don’t need to shrug off our first world problems as we pray. We can use them. Our tiny sufferings here can help us keep vigil with our brothers and sisters facing much graver discomforts, dangers, or doubts wherever they are. Hebrews 13:3 tells us, “Keep returning your thoughts to the captives as though you are bound up together. Be mindful of those who are mistreated as though you are present in body” (my translation).
Day after day of the Burnham’s ordeal, news from the Abu Sayyaf captors or video of Gracia and Martin’s tired eyes and hollowed faces would give us fresh ways to connect to their story and pray. Mindful, specific, empathy-filled prayer for the oppressed connects us deep into the heart of God and links us to each other in fierce and tender ways.
Keep returning your thoughts to the captives as though you are bound up together. Be mindful of those who are mistreated as though you are present in body.
After chatting at the sound booth, we still had a few more things to say, so we lined up at the book table following the keynote message. My son asked Gracia about the shrapnel in her leg and she laughed about what an adventure it is walking through airport metal detectors. My middle girl asked her about the letter Martin wrote to their children. And little Gracia gave her namesake another series of hugs.
Gracia Burnham pulled the Sharpie across the title page of the book to sign her name, and we said our goodbyes. As I stood near, I noticed how warmly she interacted with each and every person, receiving their stories and their tears. It was a living example of Hebrews 12:12-13 in two directions: “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”
In every interaction, I could see the fellowship of suffering over these 18 years playing a vital part in Gracia’s healing and renewed strength, a strength that she gives back in her books and messages, helping trembling hands reach again for Jesus.
What about you?
How has the fellowship of suffering impacted your relationship with God and others?
Who are you being mindful of today “as though you are present in body”?
I’d love to hear from you.
Please take a second to share a thought in the comments….