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Not quite right: Drains, toilets, and the truth about Christmas

How can we make Christmas good news to all people?

by Joshua Bower | Presbyterians Today

I feel the presence of Jesus in a lot of different places: hiking in the woods, walking on the beach, singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. But I never expected to meet Jesus under a musty, old kitchen sink.

The church I serve as pastor partnered with Habitat for Humanity this Advent to rehab a house in our neighborhood. My dad is a plumber and I grew up going to work with him, so I had the honor of disconnecting the pipes. I started by removing the trap underneath the kitchen sink. For non-plumbing types, the trap is that curved metal tubing under the sink. The water goes down the drain and collects there, trapping the drain’s odors. When I disconnected the trap the old water in it spilled all over my bare hands. Except it wasn’t water. Somebody nearby asked, “What is that smell?”

It was urine. We knew that a homeless person was living in the house a few weeks prior to our work there. We had no idea that they were using the kitchen sink as a urinal. I don’t know if you’ve ever had weeks-old pee on your hands, but the smell doesn’t fade quickly. A woman ran to her car and grabbed some hand sanitizer for me. I’m not normally a Bath and Body Works “Japanese cherry blossom” kind of guy, but I bathed in the stuff. I took my well-scented hands to the bathroom to pull up the old toilet. I’ll spare you the story of what happened when I walked the toilet out to the dumpster. Just know that my shoes will never be the same.

Joshua Bower working at the Habitat house following the kitchen sink incident.

You won’t receive any Christmas cards this year with pictures of your friends’ kids in color-coordinated outfits laughing together next to a toilet. Chanel didn’t release the hot new fragrance Coco Mademoiselle Eau de Urine just in time for the holidays. But I swear to you that the truth about Christmas has never hit me so powerfully as it did then. As I stood in the front yard waiting for the hand sanitizer to dry, I couldn’t stop thinking, “There is somebody out there whose best option is to break into a house and pee in the sink!”

I’m deeply aware of the issues of homelessness and poverty. I know there are desperate people out there. But the suffering of those in poverty felt more poignant to me when I had a homeless person’s excrement on my hands and feet.

The truth that hit me so powerfully is that the first Christmas was profoundly good news to the poor. Remember the words of Jesus’ mother Mary? “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53). And there’s the fact that the first people God told about the good news of Jesus’ birth were shepherds. They were poor, outcast people living on the fringes of society. The news of Jesus’ birth was good news, first and foremost, to the poor.

If Jesus’ birth was such amazing news to the poor when it first happened, shouldn’t it be good news to them today? I can’t speak for all Christians, but I know I’m not spending most of this season leading up to Christmas blessing the poor.

Instead, I’m tracking packages from Amazon to make sure they’ll arrive in time for Christmas. I’m making sure we have the ingredients we need to make our family’s Christmas dinner. I’m planning what to do with my kids on their Christmas break. I wonder about that nameless, faceless person whose urine ended up on my hands. What are they doing? Do they even care that it’s Christmas? Will they know that Christmas is good news to them?

Jesus did infinitely more than identify with poor people. But it would be crazy to deny that love for the poor was at the heart of his ministry. How can those of us in the church make it the heart of our Christmas celebrations? How can we celebrate the birth of Jesus in a way that ensures those in poverty know that God “lifts them up” and “fills them with good things”? Maybe most importantly, how can we do this with a humble, non-judgmental spirit? After all, we’re all poor in one way or another and “should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to” (Rom. 12:3). Finally, how can we do this not from a sense of guilt, but from a place of love for and worship of Jesus?

What creative ideas do you have for celebrating Christmas that bring good news to the poor? How can we make this Christmas good news for all people?


Joshua Bower is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Georgia.