(This is the fifth and last of a series of essays celebrating my anniversary in the ministry by remembering characters who influenced me greatly.)
It was my first time to be inside a mental hospital and my first time to meet Thelma Black. But it wasn't Thelma's first time to be institutionalized. The time I met her she was there for a two-month stint because her meds weren't working. Back in those days, the mid 70s, the meds seldom worked for Thelma.
I met her in the day room where all the other patients were located, and we chatted, and she invited me to the vending area to buy her a hot chocolate.
On the next visit, I took my friend Jeff along. On that visit, Thelma recruited another patient and organized the four of us in a game of Scrabble. The other patient informed us that he was in the hospital for murdering his wife. I never knew whether that was true or not. When he put the letters "ZHGFDEE" down on the board, over the space that gives triple points for the word, I started to argue.
But Jeff, who always knew better than me when to keep his mouth shut, kicked my shin. I took the hint. Competitive as I am for a win, even in a board game, I didn't want a broken nose.
Thelma suffered from severe bi-polar disorder with psychotic episodes during her manic phases. Today, almost 6 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and prescribed relatively
effective medications. The intensity of the manic or depressive episodes that people experience covers a wide spectrum. These days, you may never know that some people have a diagnosis of bi-polar unless they tell you. But when I first met Thelma, everyone knew that something was terribly wrong. She was on the extreme end of the spectrum, the debilitating end.
Thelma was in her 40s, of conspicuously large girth, divorced, a mother of three grown daughters and a grandmother of one. She lived in a modest two-bedroom house on the wrong side of the tracks, making do off her alimony checks. Her kids didn't know what to do with her, so they stayed away.
Her church family didn't know what to do with her either, but they weren't sophisticated enough to argue with their Lord when he gave orders to "love your neighbor." And so that's how the little church in Madison, Illinois, was often hijacked into ministry with Thelma during her manic phases.
I did regular altar calls while I was the pastor of that little church, and Thelma got saved nine times. Worship services were always an adventure when she was 'up.' Before my pastoral prayer each Sunday, I would ask people what they wanted me to include. Thelma raised her hand one Sunday and said, "Pray for me that I don't pee my pants during your prayer." I countered with, "Why don't you leave for the bathroom
right now and we will pray for God to give you a safe journey there and back." She thought that was a splendid idea.
Closing hymns were particularly tricky. Thelma would extricate herself from her pew, amble up the nave (the part of the sanctuary where the people sit) and head toward the chancel (the part of the sanctuary where the pastor and choir locate.) She would head straight for me, sometimes to give me a hug, sometimes a kiss, sometimes to give a speech, sometimes to present me with the altar flowers. As we had a chancel ample enough for me to roam around, I was quite entertaining: trying to sing and escape at the same time, all the while pretending
not to notice that I was the prey.
The fact is, Thelma evoked both my love and my fear. Both were appropriate and necessary postures for relating to her. I recall that five or six of us came to her house one day to pray for her. It was the best prayer I'd ever given, before or since. I was a prayer-warrior: battling bi-polar disorder and coming to the rescue of a person I loved deeply. I was positive that she had been healed by that intercession. But at 3 a.m. the next morning, she called me on the phone, as frenzied as ever. It would take me 20 years to recover some semblance of confidence in
When Thelma went into her manic phases, she would call all of us in the church, in the middle of the night. And then she would call us during the day: offering to do our ironing, cook meals for us, invite us over to watch TV, suggest we start a business together out of the church basement, or join her in the park for a hymn-sing. We were going crazy! And so one day I had the bright idea that Thelma just needed some structure in her life. So I wrote up a daily schedule for her, went over to her house, and explained it to her. She was very excited to give it a try. I gave her a dozen things to do during the day, including putting a little time in there for calling us and chatting on the phone. My plan called for her to start her "list" at 6:30 in the morning and to spend at least an hour on each task.
I got a call at 4 a.m. from her the next day. "Mike, you're gonna be really proud of me...that list you gave me to do...my new schedule."
"Okay, Thelma. Now remember, you go back to sleep for two more hours and you can start your list at 6:30."
"Oh...I've already done the list! I just called to see what you want me to do now."
Pastors (particularly male pastors) are earnestly deluded in thinking we can fix things and people. My confidence and compulsions in that arena were legion. But by the fourth year of my ministry, Thelma had singlehandedly knocked out about half of that legion. (The remaining illusions have been slowly absconding ever since.)
Thelma and her story introduced me to psychology, to the true measurement of a fruitful congregation, to a saner understanding of my own abilities, to streaks of mental illness in all of us, and to humility in prayer.
When we in the church talked about Thelma with one another, conversation frequently drifted into how she was so different. But when I thought about Thelma in private, I realized how much her problems were also mine. Her restlessness, sadness, exuberance, and neediness were in me too, only better hidden. May God have mercy on us all. --Mike