Monday, May 28, 2012 at 11:30 am, Lee Dell Thomas, Jr. climbed up into a construction crane on the campus of Southern Methodist University where he held out in the sweltering heat for over 15 hours in a standoff with police. Bystanders stood with binoculars observing his every move. I heard them say things on the evening news like, “Now he’s taking off his shirt.” “Now he’s tearing off a paper towel and wiping something up.” “We’re not going home to watch the basketball game till we see how this turns out.” Hundreds of thousands of others watch from the cool interiors of their homes. Nobody knew his name until later, when, Tuesday morning, tactical officers scaled the crane to try to talk him down. He had greased the platform in front of the crane cabin and, as they approached, sprayed some oily substance at them. Before they could say a word to him, he climbed out of the crane and slipped, falling to his death. Lee was homeless, with a history of mental illness and a felony conviction. He had stolen a truck on Monday before climbing into the crane. Senior Pastor Brad Weir of City Church International in Old East Dallas remembered Thomas as a “cordial but troubled” man who came to church now and then but always sat at the top of the balcony, by himself. Weir recalls how he repeatedly tried to befriend Thomas, but how he gradually withdrew.
It’s a sad story of anguish, isolation, and violence. Such stories always hurt others as well as the self. It started with addiction as a young man, continued with a prison sentence for assault, and, once out of prison, it continued with a struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. No matter what was going through his troubled mind, death wasn’t the only possible outcome to the situation.
Self destruction can come from situations in which someone feels they can’t go backwards and they can’t go forwards either. They are stuck.
I have always enjoyed climbing trees. It goes back to summers at my grandparents’ farm when I climbed high in an apple tree to avoid chores. At a recent family picnic I found a perfect climbing tree. Everyone was busy eating, so I took my opportunity to go climb it before they noticed what I was up to and protested. All I needed was a boost to the first limb which I convinced my daughter Rebecca to provide, and then I was up! I climbed higher and higher until I got to a spot where I didn’t think the limbs above me would bear my weight. I stopped. My legs were trembling with the exertion. Rock climbers call that “sewing machine leg”- the involuntary trembling that comes with fatigue or panic at the knowledge that you are stuck, you have no hold higher up and it’s too far down. When I looked down I realized I was way higher up than I had thought. After a brief rest, I climbed down and my daughter helped me maneuver the space between the lowest limb and the ground.
A family picnic is a far cry from the man in the crane, and yet my experience helped me connect with Lee’s plight at a visceral level as I watched the news that evening. Rock climbers have a name for the situation: when you can’t go any further up because there are no more holds, and it’s a long way down. They say your route has “run out.”
Maybe you know what that feels like. Or maybe you know or suspect that someone else in your sphere of life feels like their route has “run out.” It’s not always clear how to help, and anguished people often respond like a wounded animal, snapping at anyone who comes near to help. But this story makes me ask myself a question and make God a promise.
The question is this: In my own life, no matter how fearful or frozen in place I may feel, am I ever permanently stuck as long as God is with me?
The promise is this: I will ask for wisdom to discern who around me feels “stuck” and for guidance in how I can offer them practical assistance, encouragement, and love.