“The world would be a better place if everyone had to wipe another person’s butt every day.” I remember thinking this when I first started changing diapers. It’s hard to feel cool and important when a baby is yelling at you and his poop is a few inches from your face. I mean, I feel cool every now and then when I change a diaper incredibly quickly or with one hand or something. But it’s still not a task during which you want to meet your neighbors. This is especially true when you’re just getting started with diapers and you still think of yourself as a smart, cool college guy. That confidence is shaken when your baby has that first big blow out and now you’ve got poop on your hands. Not so cool now are you, Poop-Hands?
So, sometimes I wonder how much better the world would be if everyone had to change a nasty diaper blowout everyday. And every time we interacted with each other, we would keep that experience fresh in our minds. I’m kind of joking. But not really.
My first fulltime job out of college was at an emergency mental health facility. We worked mostly with people who had just tried to commit suicide, schizophrenics experiencing “episodes,” and homeless people with mental health issues. Sometimes those three groups overlapped. As you can imagine, it wasn’t the most fun job in the world but I did enjoy talking with the patients and trying to bring a tiny bit of light into a pretty dark place. Most patients only stayed for a few days. But, occasionally, we would end up with someone who wouldn’t improve at all and would need to be moved to a more long-term facility.
One such patient was Frank (obviously not his real name). Frank was a homeless man picked up by the cops. Unlike many patients, it wasn’t violence or extreme verbal abuse that landed him in the psych ward. In fact, his issue was quite the opposite. He was totally non-communicative. He wouldn’t talk, sign, nod, anything. He would just stare blankly through gigantic glasses that magnified his eyes comically. He was easily the goofiest looking old man I’ve ever seen. He looked to be in his seventies but I think he may have aged prematurely.
Frank would sleep at night, get up, and sit all day. He would eat when food was put in front of him. He would take medicine if you gave it to him. And that was about it. After a few weeks in the facility, his condition seemed to worsen. He couldn’t perform even the most basic personal hygiene. So he ended up needing to wear adult diapers. As I was often the only man on my shifts, I was usually his main caregiver. I would change his soiled underclothes, clean him off, and get him dressed again. He was a large man and not exactly helpful. The task was… unpleasant. I would help him shower every few days and would usually get soaked in the process. I remember showing up for a shift and finding that Frank hadn’t been changed during the entirety of the previous shift. I was furious. Partly because I’m sure it had been uncomfortable for Frank. And partly because I knew it would make the task even more disagreeable for me.
I wasn’t exactly a saint when dealing with Frank. He was incredibly frustrating to take care of. And it was a thankless job: he literally wouldn’t speak. And cleaning human excrement off a grown man’s ass is just not fun. It was humiliating. There I was, a recent college graduate. I could read the Bible in its original languages, I could discuss all sorts of ancient religious texts. I had written a dang THESIS on Melville and Calvin and ok it wasn’t very good but I was still SMART. I had knowledge and wisdom to offer the world but there I was cleaning up shit for little more than minimum wage!
But it was good for me. And an experience I needed. Because it’s easy to spout platitudes about “loving other people” when that “love” is returned and recognized and appreciated. It’s easy to serve when serving is fun and the people you serve know how lucky they are to have you. It’s easy to give when it’s old clothes or the money that you know deep down you don’t strictly “need” or when someone tells you how generous you are. It’s easy to “serve” when the service isn’t beneath you. But then that isn’t really service at all, is it? Because to truly serve is to place yourself beneath another person. A person who, in the proper order of things, ought to be beneath you instead.
Jesus was that kind of servant. I think we forget that for Jesus to take on the role of servant was the ultimate act of humility and debasement. Sometimes we see his washing of the disciples’ feet as “a super sweet thing Jesus did!” Instead of as an act of extreme humility and service, a task suitable only for the lowest of servants. Since the humiliation of feet-washing doesn’t quite translate into our contemporary culture, it might be helpful to think here of something we DO recognize as humiliating; like cleaning the excrement covered behind of a mentally ill homeless man. I’m not trying to be crass or irreverent here, just trying to get at the meaning of a pretty important passage.
Saint Paul explains the idea a different way in Philippians where he says Christ “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
I think most of us have some concept of what this means, theologically speaking. I think I do, kind of. I know, in my mind at least, how incredible it is that my God became a servant in order to save and redeem me. But, startlingly, Paul’s purpose in this passage isn’t just to impress us with Christ’s humility but to call us to imitate it.
Of course, that kind of servitude is a huge drag. And its call is easy to ignore or explain away. That’s what I wanted to do when I had to work with Frank. “Surely God doesn’t need me here! I have gifts that God should use! Cleaning poop isn’t a gift, it’s a punishment!” But what if that was exactly the work God had planned for me? What if I was just supposed to clean up poop forever? Without any recognition or honor? What if God doesn’t actually need anything I have to offer?
I don’t know. I don’t work there anymore. Now, I have a different job that I gripe about just as often. So, in this job, how do I become the lowliest servant? I often think of Thomas A Kempis’ advice in The Imitation of Christ, “To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom.” And this is what Christ did. Jesus who was truly God and all dererving of honor and glory and power. He set aside all those things that were rightly his and thought only of those who were clearly beneath him.
So what I ought to do is look at everyone around me and think of their infinite worth to God. I ought to think first of their concerns and troubles and treat them as more important than my own. I ought to pray for my family and coworkers and strangers and focus on them with the love of Christ. I think that’s what Thomas means here. And I know he’s right. But I know this is something I just. Can’t. Do… Yet.
I’ll think instead of how smart I am. And I’ll treat my own struggles as if they were the only ones in the world. And I’ll sulk when I’m not given the honor I’m sure I deserve. I’ll weigh everything on the scales of the world and be forever unsatisfied when they tip against me. I’ll say I want to follow Christ but balk when that means truly humbling myself.
So maybe I ought to go back to helping out Frank. It’s good for me to get my hands dirty; literally. Because it’s a bit easier to assess myself rightly when there’s poop on my hands. Instead of wallowing in narcissism, I have to ask myself the question: “Where’s that impressive book learning now, Poop-Hands?”