Shedding Tears Over Sorrows That May Never Come

We prayed as a family before Nick and Abby left for their fall semester, then snapped a photo of the two of them standing together outside our home—our two college students. It was August 1, 2020, and they were headed to Louisville, Kentucky, Nick for his junior year and Abby for her freshman. I made the journey with them since CDC regulations at the time mandated foreigners quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. We stayed isolated together in a borrowed basement apartment until the 14 days were up, then drove to campus and unloaded a tower of suitcases and boxes. I hugged Nick, told him I loved him, and watched as he walked away hand-in-hand with the woman who, just weeks later, would accept a ring from his outstretched hand. And that was the last time I ever saw him. It was the last time I ever will see him on this side of heaven.

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Abby returned home after the on-campus memorial service, and has been with us ever since, waiting out the long winter break between semesters. But now school is opening again, classes are beginning, and we have had to bid her farewell. It’s a good thing, we know, but it’s also a very hard thing. It doesn’t help that pandemic regulations are tightening, that America’s new administration has added mandatory testing before anyone can enter the country and that they’ve promised to soon revive and strengthen the quarantine regulations. It doesn’t help that Canada’s Prime Minister, while admitting that he has no right to prevent Canadians from leaving the country, says there is no rule against making it as hard as possible. When Nick was in the second half of his freshman year we were never more than a few hours away from being able to get to him in an emergency; with Abby in the second half of her freshman year we are a couple of weeks away. It’s alarming. It’s intimidating.

Abby was booked on the first flight of the day—a short hop to Detroit where she would be able to connect to Louisville. We got up at 4 AM to make sure she had time to clear security and customs before her 6:30 AM departure. While we were confident her paperwork was in order, we’ve learned not to take much for granted when it comes to transiting international borders. Leave two hours at minimum, they advised.

We rolled to a stop outside Toronto Airport’s terminal 3. Abby had to pack for two seasons, for a cool southern winter and a warm southern spring. I wrestled two giant suitcases to the ground behind the van and, doing the math, realized they weighed about the same as her. Regulations forbade me from as much as going through the terminal doors, so she was going to have to manage them on her own.

I already knew that she had her boarding pass and passport with her; I already knew she had figured out how to navigate all three airports; I already knew she had arranged a ride on the far side. I had already prayed with her—Aileen, Michaela, and I had huddled together and prayed for her safety and protection before she headed out the door. So what was left to do but to say goodbye?

I did my best to be brave, as I knew I wouldn’t be doing her any favors if I broke down and cried. I took her face in my hands, looked her in the eye, and said, “I love you. Be safe. I’ll see you soon.” I kissed her on the cheek, then left her to drag her two full-sized suitcases into the terminal. Climbing back into the van I had one more prayer: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

My temptation in a moment like this is to be anxious. It’s to think of what happened the last time our kids headed south, to use my mind to fabricate a vision of a similar future, then to feel all its sorrow, its grief, its trauma—to “shed tears over sorrows that may never come.” I could cripple myself under the weight of such fantasies. I could crush my spirit. I could commit a slow suicide.

I often sense that temptation building. The first scenes begin to play in my imagination and I have to decide whether I’ll let them roll or whether I’ll shut them down. I know what Jesus said: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” I know it’s God responsibility to concern himself with the future and mine to live well in the present. I know God promises grace sufficient for every trial, but only trials that have actually happened, that exist in the real world rather than in the world of fantasy. I know God’s power is made perfect in genuine weakness, not imagined. But still I sense anxiety’s tug, still I begin to see those scenes in my mind, to feel them with my emotions, to dread them in my heart.

How, then, can I let go of such anxiety? If I have learned any antidote it is this: deliberately submitting myself to the will of God, for comfort is closely related to acquiescence. As long as I fight the will of God, as long as I battle God’s right to rule his world in his way, peace remains distant and furtive. But when I surrender, when I bow the knee, then peace flows like a river and “attendeth my way.” For when I do so, I remind myself that the will of God is inseparable from the character of God. I remind myself that the will of God is always good because God is always good. Hence I pray a prayer of faith, not fatalism: “Your will be done. Not as I will, but as you will.”

There is comfort in any prayer—comfort in asking God for his care, for his blessing, for his protection. There is comfort in expressing my desires, my preferences, my hopes and plans. But there is more comfort still in wrapping it all in this prayer. I pray it as a profession of faith, an acknowledgement of God’s love, of God’s goodness, of God’s sovereignty. I pray it as a declaration that his knowledge is more expansive than my own, that his will is better than my own, that his wisdom is higher than my own.

So I will pray for the desires of my heart, I will ask God to bless and protect my girl, I’ll plead with him to bring her home to me in May. But the steel thread woven through the fabric of such a prayer is not “my will be done” but “thy will be done.” Ultimately, if there is to be comfort, it will not be grounded in the hope that nothing bad will happen to me or to the people I love, but in the perfect God whose perfect character is displayed in his perfect will.