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The aroma of Christ


Flowering tree on the Chongqing Medical University campus.

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August 21, 2009
- Phil and Julie Bender

But thanks be to God, who in Christ…through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God… –2 Cor. 2:14-15

CHONGQING, China — Chongqing is a city of aromas— intoxicating flowering trees on our campus, the peppery hot pot that bores through the nostrils and explodes in a sneeze, and “stinky dofu,” (barbecued bean curd) that wrinkles your nose because yes, it stinks.

The Apostle Paul was familiar with aromas, and not only the ones involving the body’s olfactory system. He knew that one’s life and witness to faith also leaves a scent trail. Sometimes, as for us in Chongqing, it is not possible to witness to Christ through doing explicitly religious things, like preaching, Bible teaching and translation, leading prayer groups, and the like. But even when overt witness is constricted, as the New Testament well shows, it still happens indirectly, like hidden seeds growing silently, and leaven that subtly transforms, and the aroma left by one’s presence.

We often have been humbled and sobered in realizing that, as foreigners, we are being observed. Our Chongqing Medical University students know that we are Christian, and that we belong to a church organization. And while some have found that odour peculiar, to others it has been appealing.

“So you are a Christian?” asked Tang, one of Phil’s English students and a twenty-something university teacher.

“Yes,” Phil replied.

“Are there many Christians in Chongqing?”

“Yes, more than you might think.”

“I respect Christians,” Tang said. “They believe in something. We don’t believe in anything.”

This past May 12 was the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake of 2008. Emma, a former student of Julie’s, whose home was damaged in the disaster, came to talk to Julie. She was still shaken by the event and was having trouble adjusting.

“The earthquake has made me want to learn more about the Bible,” she said. Emma had questions: “How can I pray? Why are there so many different churches?”

After the visit, she wrote, “I plan to go to the church, if I am free.”

Of course, the aroma of one’s life carries peril as well as promise. We’re sure that the scent we have left in Chongqing has sometimes been more like that stinky dofu than sweet floral fragrance. Still, it has been gratifying when someone has responded positively to the life witness we have tried to give.

Of the many most recent end-of-semester notes we received from our students, two in particular are meaningful. One is from Maria, from Phil’s class of nurses: “You taught me not just oral English and various interesting ideas, but something far more beyond words.”

A second came from Ariel, a young pharmacist who attended a continuing education hospital English class for doctors and nurses we co-taught. “Most of the people I know are so ambitious to develop themselves, and are so eager to climb up the ladder,” she wrote. “In the pursuit of happiness, few of them get past material things, and the rest are caught in the next trap that is power. I see something different in you….living simply but working dedicatedly.”

If our five years in Chongqing have taught us anything, it has been how God delights to work through small seeds and hidden leaven. And how powerful can be the aroma of Christian presence!

After spending five years with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network in Chongqing, Phil and Julie moved to the smaller city of Dazhou at the end of July, where they say they are looking forward to experiencing another area of China and teaching English through Mennonite Partners in China at the Sichuan University of Arts and Science.