Every parent whose son or daughter has left home in distress or run away from home has the same sick and sinking feeling in their hearts. Is she alive? Is someone out there caring for her? Is she dead in a ditch? Is he in a homeless shelter? Or has he found happiness and a sense of sanity? Has he found a home – somewhere? Anywhere? Did some other woman or man look into his eyes or her eyes and see the hurt child that I see? And the wondering turns into a prayer – with the same depth of anguish and concern. And the prayers are lamenting prayers, painful prayers. And the prayers are all you have. A cry to God for help.
Finally, the son reaches what’s left of the family farm. His father sees him first and runs to his side. The son’s speech has been muttering under his breath the whole way home. But as the son begins to speak only half of what he wants to say gets out of his mouth before his father declares in a totally unrehearsed way to all those who can hear: “Quick! Dress him with a robe, a ring for his finger and sandals. Get the fattened calf and kill it and we will have a celebration feast because my lost son who was dead has come back to life! He was lost and is found!”
Let the party begin! Grace abounds! Love has spoken.
Not so fast. Stop everything – again!
Before we get too excited about the party, let’s remember the father has an older son, too. The older son comes home from yet another hard day’s work and hears the music playing and smells the unfamiliar, but glorious smell of beef cooking, and he asks one of the servants what is going on. (Which one of us would want to be THAT servant?) “Your brother has come home, so your dad is throwing a party!” Big brother shares no delight in the return of little brother. His brain fills with visions, too. All he can see, and smell, and hear is a future of a smaller estate, harder work, sale of more of his future inheritance for his screwed-up brother.
In every family, some are blessed not to be “as crazy” in the blood. Big brother might have gotten the genes that didn’t make his mind muddled and his behaviors erratic. It is hard to watch his brother come back and the cycle start again. Compassion is in the big brother – but it is buried really deep. He has witnessed the pain caused to his dad and he has felt the pain, too. He sees his brother now living off his inheritance. And he sees his father being played again.
Big brother has reached the end of his rope. Baby brother has come home, not to penance, but to privilege. It’s bad enough that he has wasted father’s estate, but he isn’t required to change any of his actions for all the pain he has created.
One has to wonder – Is it possible he left in the first place because he couldn’t watch his successful brother get up and be normal every day? But that is not a question to ask Big brother….
When the older son confronts his dad, the father listens to everything he screams. Unlike his younger brother who has rehearsed all his words there is nothing rehearsed in big brother’s explosion (although he must have thought these words inside his head a thousand times). He lets it all hang out. The dutiful son, the loyal son, the obedient son finally loses it! The NOT SO “Crazy in the blood” son, has been good. He has followed orders. He has been faithful. He has done everything right – as opposed to everything wrong.
And dad takes it all in. He has no angry response. He has no lecture about honoring your father. He has lost his younger son to the afflictions of the brain and misbehaviors of waste and recklessness. Now he is watching his older son disintegrate in front of him – getting lost to anger and self-righteousness. The father simply loves his oldest son in return. He says, “son, you are always with me. Everything I have is yours . . . but your brother was dead and is alive, he was lost and has been found.”
Grace abounds for the father of these two sons. He finds a way to speak to each son.
Reading the texts through the lens of brain diseases and family systems helps us see that when one out of five people in a family system is afflicted with a brain disease, the other four family members are affected. These may be our children, but they are also the siblings of our other children.
I have also witnessed that sometimes parents forsake the child with a brain disease and circle the wagons around the other children. I have seen denial of the diseases and disturbing amounts of rejection for the children in need. While that may surprise some of you, I think it speaks deeply to the difficulties of admitting there are brain diseases in our family systems – “there is crazy in the blood.” There are other times when the child who appears to be well and healthy runs away and does a shift geographically from the family – seeking to create a “safe distance” from the crazy in the blood.
Can you see how complex brain diseases are and the effects of them on the one afflicted and the ones affected are far-reaching?
No matter where you are and how you read yourself in this story, I pray for return… for grace… for love.
Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens
The Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens is Senior Minister of The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio where he has served since January 2000. Ordained in 1985, Tim is a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ.