Article courtesy of HomeLife magazine

Which is the most powerful of the senses? A smell can take you back to a time and place that happened decades ago or recall joyful or painful memories you thought you’d long forgotten. Recently, smell had a different effect on me. Allow me to explain a little.

About a year ago, my family moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to serve as missionaries from our church. My husband, David, and I raised support, sold 90 percent of our stuff in yard sales, and pried our 15-month-old from his grandparents’ loving (and strong) arms — all in the name of sharing Christ with Thai people. Over the past year, we’ve adjusted well to living in a huge city. We love Thai people and have even seen some accept Christ.

Though I’d like to pretend that I wear a missionary halo — suffering gracefully in the name of the gospel, enduring all things with a smile on my face — I can’t. I usually kick, scream, and whine over trials. Inevitably, I find it’s the little things, not the big things, that cause me to break down.

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We don’t have to sacrifice many creature comforts in Bangkok. David and I live in a nice apartment. Though small, it meets all our needs. We have a TV, Internet, air conditioning, and a washing machine. But we also happen to live on the fourth floor, which isn’t high up and is directly above a sewage drain. That means that several times a week (not every day), our apartment reeks. There’s nowhere to hide from it, and no amount of air freshener, candles, or whining could cover the stench. It usually lasts until early evening, retreats, and returns about 11 p.m.

Earlier this year I began meeting regularly for Bible study with a group of other local women. After one such session, I happily sang and prayed as I walked home with my 2-year-old, Josiah, strapped on my back. As I opened our apartment door, I was knocked over by the smell of sewage. It was disgusting and made me want to gag. Had I been pregnant, I would’ve vomited. I slumped to the floor,  unstrapped Josiah, and bawled. Josiah looked at me the same way David looks at me when I cry, as if to say, I’m so uncomfortable right now. Please stop! My sweet boy hugged me and said, “Love you.” Welcome to the world of crying women, Son.

I prayed to God, “Lord, I know I have so many blessings, but why does my apartment have to stink?” Our home is supposed to become our refuge from the world, not the refuse of the world! I know He cares about my stinky apartment just as much as He cares about me. I know that even small things matter to Him because He’s my Father.

I began to sense a purpose in the odor. The Lord gave me a powerful and disgusting olfactory image of what my sin must look like to Him. It’s one thing to know intellectually that sin makes us stink before God. It’s another to process that concept as you’re overwhelmed by the nastiest smelling, gag-inducing stench you can imagine. How does God not vomit over me when I come to Him smelling like this? How does He not gag when I take Him my pride, my selfish ambition, or my critical tongue? Layers of Bible study and godly words can’t mask the stink of sin.

I live in a country where everyone is trying all day long not to stink. In Thailand, “winter” means temperatures in the mid 80s, and the hot season means temps well into the 100s. We all walk everywhere, and most of us sweat all the time. Deodorant, multiple showers, and lotions are our friends. We’re all constantly aware of how we smell.

How is it that I can be so unaware of my spiritual aroma before God and to other believers? Once again, I left Bible study with my head in the spiritual clouds, only to be brought back to the real world that happens to stink and is desperate for Christians to be different.

As a missionary wife and mom, Jennifer McCaman is adjusting to the new sights, sounds, and smells of inner-city living — and loving (almost) every minute of it.

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Comments

  1. Hi, Jennifer,
    My husband and I lived in Bangkok as missionaries for a year. Our work was spread through several southeast Asian countries, but Bangkok was our home and hub. Our apartment was on the 25th floor, so we didn’t have a big stink problem there, but even so high and with the window a.c. unit running, car crashes sometimes woke us in the middle of the night. (We were on Ekamai, Sukhumvit Soi 63. Not a quiet stretch.) And even so high up, ants found us when a bird died on a window ledge.

    As far as stink goes, my strongest memories are durien (sp?) season. The oppressive heat beat me down more than the smells, but the smells are distinctive too. (My body thermostat never seemed to recalibrate.)

    Thank you for sharing how one of the irritants of life in another culture became the Lord’s lesson to you. I appreciated your thoughts and the prompt to remember some of my own Bangkok experiences.

    (On the opposite end of the smell spectrum, have you discovered gai yang and khao niaw with som tam, i.e., grilled chicken with sticky rice and papaya salad? Yum! One of my favorite meals ever, and we haven’t found quite that combo in the Dallas area. So there are some pluses to big-city life in BKK!)

    Enough rambling. May the Lord pour His strength and refreshment into you, sister in Christ. May He make you and your believing friends a sweet fragrance, like the plumeria blooming around you, to that dark, largely lost city. I admire you, especially for facing the challenge of motherhood abroad in addition to the rest. Be of good courage, and He will strengthen your heart.

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