Monday, March 17, 2008

"In the Presence of My Enemies"

by Gracia Burnham with Dean Merrill

Some of you might remember having run across Gracia's story some years back. From May 2001 to June 2002, she and her husband Martin were hostages of the Abu Sayyaf--the Filipino branch of Al Qaeda. The book is her account of that year, and a tribute to Martin, who was killed during the rescue. Gracia was here in Warsaw, speaking at my friend Lindsay's church--Lindsay invited me along to hear her speak and then, when I was standing at the book table browsing the book to decide whether I wanted it said, "I'll get you a copy of that!"

The prose is pretty much the horrible boiler plate that you'd expect from this sort of first person account. Very Reader's Digest. What can you expect when the account is put on dictaphone and then handed over to a professional page producer to cull down to manageable book size? But you don't read a book like this for the prose . . .

The Burnhams came out of standard Very-Conservative-Christian-America. She was a PK. He was a missionary kid. They met at Bible college. Back out to the mission field. The luncheon that I went to was very much standard BCW (Better Christian Woman) fare. Getting up to speak, Gracia was obviously at home in this setting and fluent in church speak . . . and yet. And yet, more than five years after her rescue she had obviously still not come fully to terms with her experience. It had marked her too deeply. And the book, written in the first few months after her rescue shows that even more. Even when she tries to shove all her feelings and reactions into standard conservative Christian boxes, things keep leaking out. There's too much, and it's too messy and too complicated. She's grown beyond her boxes. And here's the interesting thing. Maybe I'm just reading this in, but it sounds to me like she's really not sure she likes this growth or wants it. If her year as a hostage and the life of her husband--a truly horrible ordeal--was the price God extracted from her to grow her more into the woman in the image of Christ . . . well, couldn't God have put up with a little less Christ? Or, do I really want my God to be so big and so ruthless about turning me into exactly who he created me to be that he would use a method like that to get me there?

This has me thinking a lot more about the whole BCW thing. As I noted on my own blog, those posts of Erin's have been very influential on me this spring--they've given me language and a framework to explore and understand some things that I've been thinking about for a long time but only in a very muzzy manner. This book has collided with all that and produced some very interesting wreckage. But that's another post.

(Cross posted at The Unfinished Book Club)


Abigail said...

Wow, I find this post very interesting. I'm coming from the opposite background-- solid Methodist girl, strong feminist, career minded, served as the primary bread-winner for our family while my husband stayed home with our first born. I always had God in the forefront of my mind (my job was serving the poor), so it wasn't like I suddenly discovered a personal relationship with Jesus at age 28.

It's more like getting pulled into this "Catholic thing" which seems to have the most "box-like" thing in religion. The very Better Christian Women ideals that Erin seems to rebel against.

Each day, I just find it so compelling. I'm going to daily Mass. I spend time contemplating Jesus in the presence of the Eucharist. I got a serious Marian devotion going along with my close friend Jennifer from Et Tu Jen?. We are doing this "lend me your heart" prayer to Mary in the tradition of Mother Theresa. That prayer is proving to pack a real punch!

Each day brings me further on that roller coaster ride that you posted about earlier.

It's not about 'faking it" or trying to fit in. If anything, I'm starting to become more and more weird. (I wear my scapular, I home-school my kids, I eager for yet another baby!)

At the same time I'm more real than I've ever been. We have the sacrament of confession, which I now feel drawn to go frequently. Once I started going to daily Mass there's nothing like realizing how drastically you can fail Jesus in one 24 hour period. There are deep patterns of sin which I never thought were a serious problem, such as yelling at my kids & being disrespectful to my not-so religious parents--which I have to painfully unlearn each day.

I guess what I'm trying to say, is that Christianity doesn't have to be about "faking it until you make it." It's about being painfully realistic about your short-comings, leaning on Jesus for strength-- at the same time that you don't downplay that Jesus has some real, hard demands for us.

"Those 9/11 Terrorists, you have to sincerely pray for them!" That's what he says to us. The truth is the truth, so if we are not there, lying and saying that we "have forgiven them" harms only ourselves. No matter how much we hurt, no matter how justifiable our anger seems, the demands from Scripture are pretty clear.

It's not that we are "Better Christian Women" already, but that we are constantly cloaked in humility, struggling women and men who are trying to follow Jesus and knowing that we will fail him time and time again. In my speech I call it "stumbling after Jesus."

Anyway, I'm really interested to hear you further develop your thoughts about the "BCW" boxes issue. Thanks so much for writing!

Sara said...

Wow, I think that your comment is as long as my original post!

I think that in order to get the full context of the BCW thing, you might need to go back to Erin's blog and read some of her original posts the the discussion that followed. Suffice it to say, that "BCW" is something of a derogatory lable. :P It speaks not to actual Christian devotion for the most part, but for the . . . cultural expectations that are rife within so much of Protestant church-dom. Expectations not that we all stumble along with/towards Jesus together, aware of our own sin, etc., but that because we are "in Jesus" we have no more sin that we need to worry about. Nothing is really wrong anymore. Whatever was broken has been fixed. If you had any baggage from before you were a Christian--well, you shouldn't have it anymore. Such things aren't nice.

I completely agree with you that we need to be painfully realistic about our short comings . . . but there is a lot of church culture out there that isn't really interested in dealing with anything so messy as a short-coming.

There's plenty more I could say, but it's late on a Saturday night and Sunday morning comes early here . . . :)