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Friday, Jan. 30, 2015

Till death do us part

Thursday, June 13, 2002

The minister pauses as he chokes back the tears. His voice cracks but he continues, asking for prayer for the families of Martin and Gracia Burnham.

This was supposed to be a joyful occasion, a wedding. The sanctuary is full as his congregation welcomes guests from Minnesota and Texas and Oklahoma who have come to celebrate the joining of two hearts in marriage.

And yet Brother Mike, as his Baptist congregation calls him, can't get the Burnhams off his mind. Earlier in the day he had wept as he prayed for the Burnhams. And now he pauses from this celebration to ask the congregation to pray.

Martin and Gracia had been celebrating their own 18th wedding anniversary at a Philippine resort on May 27, 2001, when they were captured by the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf. After a year in captivity -- on the very day of this wedding -- Martin Burnham had been killed and his wife had been injured, shot in the thigh. But Gracia had been rescued and was now receiving medical attention in a Philippine hospital.

The Burnhams were more than just names in the news to Brother Mike. Gracia's parents, Norvin and Betty Jones, lived in the same community. Norvin Jones had served as pastor of another Baptist church just three miles north on Highway 62 until his recent retirement; worry over the captivity of his daughter and son-in-law had taken its toll. Foothills Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church were not much different from one another.

Brother Mike had been praying for the Burnhams and the Joneses all year. So had the entire community. Pictures of the couple were posted in offices and behind counters. Many wore yellow ribbons on their clothing as a reminder to pray.

For that matter, the community in prayer for the families extends far beyond Cherokee Village, beyond Arkansas, beyond the United States.

On this day, Brother Mike does not question why God has answered the prayer in this way. The scriptures say, "In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." But the minister knows the families will need more prayer as they work through the grief of losing a husband, a father, a son, a son-in-law.

The Burnhams had been missionaries with New Tribe Missions. Until the day of their capture, they served joyfully, bringing a message of hope to a people who had no hope. Then, in captivity, they brought a message of love to a people whose hearts were filled with hate. Their captors became their new mission field.

Other captives who had been released told of the Burnhams' gentle spirits, how they responded with kindness to torment at the hands of their captors. When the Abu Sayyaf began to allow them to receive care packages -- apparently to ensure the packages would continue to come for them to pillage -- the Burnhams shared what little reached them with their captors who were also hungry.

The Abu Sayyaf kidnapped the Burnhams for a $2 million ransom. But in recent months it became clear they were holding them as an insurance policy against a raid from American-trained Philippine special forces. The militants may not understand the response they received from the Burnhams, but they clearly anticipate the response they will get from the United States. President Bush has promised justice will be done. The same scripture that commands the individual to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" also defines government as God's "agent of wrath to punish the wrongdoer."

It is a cowardly army that treats innocent civilians as the enemy and makes war on the unarmed and defenseless. The Abu Sayyaf, which until now has merely played war, can now expect a taste of the real thing.

But war is not on the mind of Brother Mike tonight. He looks at the couple before him. He tells those assembled that the two are in training to be missionaries themselves. After one more year of college they will leave for the foreign missions. In gratefulness to the God who showed grace and mercy to them when they were undeserving of either, they are now ready to devote their lives to bringing the same message to others. They have counted the cost; but this is a calling, not a vocation.

Together this couple will be stronger than alone. When he stumbles, she can lift him up. When she is discouraged, he can encourage her.

Gracia Burnham went out with her husband to celebrate 18 years of marriage, not knowing how much she would depend on Martin in their 19th. Separated from all other loved ones, the two could cling only to one another. They suffered abuse, hunger and untreated illness, but at least they had one another to provide comfort.

And then, as they began their 20th year of marriage, he was taken from her. For a year Gracia had only Martin. Now she has everyone except Martin. As she eagerly anticipates the joy of reuniting with her children and parents, she is also in mourning for her faithful companion whose love strengthened her in captivity.

The news of Martin's death has meaning for Brother Mike beyond the fact that the young couple before him is embarking on a life of missionary service. His heart is filled with both joy and apprehension, because just as Norvin Jones did 19 years ago, tonight Brother Mike is giving away his own daughter.

After the long ordeal, Gracia Burnham's loved ones have joy in their hearts; Gracia is coming home. And though her husband is gone, she knows he has received his eternal reward. Martin is already home.