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AFP Photo/Handout/Courtesy of Tom Little Family/Newscom

The smell of death and the aroma of Christ

Like martyr Tom Little, we carry both

Issue: "2010 News of the Year," Jan. 1, 2011

Sometime after Taliban affiliates gunned down Tom Little in northern Afghanistan, the FBI visited his wife Libby to give her personal items recovered from his body.

Included was a small notebook, and in between the pages listing medical equipment and supplies for the team he led to the upper reaches of Nuristan province last summer were what looked like penciled sermon notes. "They were stained with blood and blotted with sand," said Libby, carefully unfolding them before an audience of several thousand at Cape Town's Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in October. "Were these some of the things he shared with the team on that last Sabbath rest before they were killed? I'd like to think so."

There were several notations from Ephesians and a reference from 2 Corinthians 2:15, where Tom wrote, "For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing, to one we are the smell of death and to the other the fragrance of life." To the side Tom had jotted, "Use the Nuristani goat cheese story."

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As Libby explained, "Some aromas take some getting used to," and Nuristani goat cheese is packed on donkeys in animal skins and carried for weeks, permeating even the saddlebags with its strong sour scent. Herdsmen who carry it are smelled from far off, she added, but once you have acquired a taste for it, you're hooked. Folks travel miles for a taste of Nuristani goat cheese.

Think of Tom Little with his colleagues, hiking mountains and fording rivers in Nuristan and Badakhshan provinces last August, reeking of Christ as they delivered medical care to remote villages-before militants killed them one by one in a forest. The Taliban accused them of spying and proselytizing. Dirk Frans, the head of their organization, International Assistance Mission, insisted both charges were "out of the question" as they were "against the laws of this country and the rules of our organization."

What Frans didn't say is that those accusations were beside the point, the aroma of Christ already so strong among them. Little, a 61-year-old optometrist, had worked four decades in Afghanistan, spoke fluent Dari, was referred to among Afghans as one of "the ones who stayed": He and Libby reared three daughters there, survived the Russian occupation, civil war, and Taliban takeover. When a rocket attack flattened one of his eye hospitals, he built clinics and expanded into remote areas. He was on his fifth trip to the Nuristan region when he and nine other aid workers were killed Aug. 5.

The year 2010 has brought multiple encounters with people like the Littles, "ones who stayed," men and women of whom the world is not worthy, as the writer of Hebrews calls them. One is Joel, pastor of an evangelical church in Baghdad. Asked how to pray for a congregation that has faced death all year long, he didn't ask for safety or prosperity but for his church to experience deliverance from a "spirit of religion, where we worship creation instead of the creator" and from "our spirit of pride, rooted as we are so close to ancient Babylon."

Another, Baptist pastor John Bell in Zimbabwe, told me that living through dire crises has taught his church better to appreciate the reality of Jesus' life. Feeding 5,000 or walking on water are sought-after traits when grocery shelves are empty. "There are certain things about Christ you only learn in a storm. That has been our privilege here to have Christ manifest Himself in ways that you do not see in the calm," he said.

And there is my friend Labib, an Arab Christian living in a Jewish settlement facing the security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. How do you survive this place? I asked him one day waiting in Jerusalem traffic. "The importance of the Christian community does not come from its numbers but from our presence and our service and our witness for Jesus Christ," he said calmly.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race set before us in 2011, looking to Jesus.
Email Mindy Belz


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