If you’ve spent any time in the past few weeks on social media or keeping up with the news, you’ve likely heard of the “ice bucket challenge.” Or maybe you’ve seen a video of someone doing the ice bucket challenge. Perhaps, like me, you’ve even been nominated yourself and you’ve experienced firsthand the breathtaking pleasure of having someone dump freezing cold water on your head.
The ice bucket challenge has become a cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the challenge has clearly raised awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as “ALS” or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” By way of brief background for those who are unfamiliar, ALS is a degenerative neurological disease that causes
muscle weakness and muscle atrophy. As the disease progresses, people with ALS often begin to have trouble speaking and swallowing. And in its late stages, people with ALS usually succumb to pneumonia or respiratory failure.
The ice bucket challenge started as the brainchild of Pete Frates, a former Boston
College baseball player who now lives with ALS. Yet I doubt Pete Frates had any inkling of how quickly and widely his idea would sweep across this country.
In fact, the ice bucket challenge has seemingly gained momentum daily as
it’s been embraced by politicians, celebrities, athletes, and countless everyday
Most importantly, in addition to raising awareness, the ice bucket challenge has resulted in a significant upswing in donations to help prevent the ALS disease. In the three week time period from July 29thto August 18th of last year, the ALS Association reported that it received 1.8 million dollars in charitable contributions. In the same recent July 29th to August 18th timeframe this summer, the ALS Association
reported that it received 15.6 million dollars in charitable contributions,
along with more than 307,000 new donors. Clearly people who are doing the ice bucket challenge and people who are choosing to donate money to the cause in lieu of the actual challenge are making a huge financial impact.
I don’t know anyone currently living with ALS. But I have done funerals for people
who’ve died from the disease. And the stories I’ve heard from grieving loved ones have been marked with a good deal of struggle and pain, both on the part of the person with the disease and the spouses and family members who care for them.
As a result of my pastoral experiences with ALS, I happened to pick up a book on my
mother-in-law’s coffee table a couple of weeks ago. Entitled Learning to Fall: The
Blessings of an Imperfect Life, it was written in the year 2000 by a man named Philip Simmons, who was diagnosed with ALS at the age of thirty-five. When I first started reading the book I hadn’t even heard of the ice bucket challenge. But the fact that I saw my first ice bucket challenge video between the time I started and finished the book now strikes me as more than coincidence.
Learning to Fall isa powerful testimony. Not particularly long or difficult to read, I commend the book to anyone who may be interested. Philip Simmons began
writing in the wake of his initial diagnosis and continued to write as his disease progressed. His finished work serves as a profound and sacred life primer for those living with diseases like ALS. And also for those who are not. It is a book filled with
humor and faith and wisdom, written by a man who came to unusually keen
awareness and appreciation of the things in life many of us take for granted.
The fact that Philip Simmons wrote his book in the woods of New Hampshire, right in
the same area where I just vacationed, added to my interest. And I was hooked in one of the first chapters in the book, when he talks about the Sandwich dump.
Believe it or not, going to the dump in Sandwich, New Hampshire, is an experience not to be missed. Having been there dozens of times myself in recent summers, it’s a far cry from the rather sterile routine of leaving your trash container in the dark at the end of the driveway and paying no attention to the garbage truck when it comes by to hoist your trash mechanically onboard.
For the past decade or so, the Sandwich dump has tried to upgrade its image. If you were trying to get there for the first time nowadays, you would have to type in the words “Sandwich Waste Transfer Facility” on your GPS. But for Sandwich locals and those of us who have been in and around Sandwich enough, it will forever remain the dump.
I remember not too many years ago when you could throw different colored glass
bottles into great big metal containers on one side of the dump and watch them
shatter into small pieces. Or if you were really ambitious you could pick through the big, assorted pile of open air odds and ends near the end of the dump to see if anybody else’s junk struck you as a treasure.
For me, however, the biggest attraction of the Sandwich dump has always been
Marilyn. I don’t even know Marilyn’s last name, but when Marilyn is on duty, she is the undisputed head of the dump. She has a well weathered face, maybe in her early sixties, with eyes that squint just enough to make you think she’s about to scold you. A
cigarette barely hangs out of the corner of her mouth. And when you pull up in your car, Marilyn has no problem telling you where to put the household trash and where to put the recycling and how much you have to pay to get rid of the paint cans that sit in the back of your trunk and anything else you might be unclear about.
Once you get past her gruff exterior, however, Marilyn is one of the best things
Sandwich, New Hampshire has going. If you’re moving to the area and you tell Marilyn you need to furnish your house, Marilyn will keep her eyes open and set aside anything she thinks might be helpful. If you bring your dog to the dump, Marilyn will have a dog biscuit ready. And if you know anything about Marilyn’s story, you can’t help but love
You see Marilyn became a millionaire a few years back when she won the state
lottery. She clearly doesn’t need the money she earns working at the Sandwich dump.
I have no doubt she could retire and live comfortably for the rest of her lifetime. Plus I’m not sure I would want to stand outside at the dump in the dead of a New Hampshire winter and direct people where to put their garbage.
But all these years I’m thinking Marilyn works at the Sandwich dump, in spite of her
personal wealth, because she genuinely likes her work. In a small town where people know her and respect her. Doing a job she’s really good at.
As he writes in his book, Marilyn at the Sandwich dump symbolizes for Philip
Simmons a truth that is both faithful and fundamentally human. Every day human beings get up and out of bed in the morning, we are blessed. Each day that any of us
can move our arms and our legs to do work that gives our lives meaning, we are
blessed. And even if we have ALS and our limbs wither and our speech fails and we can’t safely swallow the food we eat, we are still blessed.
As long as we can breathe and as long as our hearts beat, you and I and all of humanity rise each day to the work we have to do and the work we want to do and
the work we need to do. Even when we have other choices. Even in the face of loss and grief. Even in the face of pain and struggle. Even in the face of disability and a relentless disease. You and I and all people remain blessed.
The writer of Psalm 113 puts it this way. “Praise the Lord!” Praise, O servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.”
hold on to those words. Blessed be the name of the Lord from the rising of the sun to its setting. They make me think of Marilyn at the Sandwich dump. They make me think of Philip Simmons sitting in a cabin in New Hampshire and chronicling his thoughts and emotions in a body gradually failing him. They make me think of Pete Frates, who
could have given in to the despair and depression ALS typically inspires. But instead he came up with a quirky, crazy, amazing idea to have people dump buckets of ice water over their heads as a sign of hope.
Yes, every day is a blessing. From the moment the sun rises in the morning to the moment the sun sets in the evening, you and I have the opportunity to wake up and do our sacred human work. And to do it well. Praise be to God! Amen.