Standing at the car rental counter, I was grumpy. I’d had to wake up at 4 a.m. to make my early flight. I am not a morning person, so all I really wanted was to get to my car. I wanted a car that was quiet and clean. One that smelled brand new. One that would sync with my phone so I could let the navigation system kindly instruct me regarding miles and turns and directions, while I zoned out behind the wheel.
But Aneata was too nice for that. She stood on the other side of the counter and smiled at me from over the top of her red-framed spectacles, which rested calmly—Aneata style—on the end of her nose. I was doomed from the start.
“Where are you headed today?” Aneata asked me as she made herself look preoccupied with whatever was happening on her computer screen.
“Oh, I have a two and a half hour drive ahead of me,” I answered, not feeling up to a small-talk session.
“OK,” she said. She is good at this, I thought, against my will. She probably prays each morning before she heads out to work. She probably prays for the customers she’ll encounter throughout the day. I spied a small, unspectacular cross hanging from an unpretentious chain around her neck. But, honestly, that cross could mean anything, right?
“So are you going to visit family?” Aneata smiled at me.
“No. No,” I answered. “I’m going to . . .” and this is where things always have the potential to fall apart. Like when people ask me how I came to live in Nebraska, of all places, and I say, “My husband’s job.” Then they ask, “Oh, what does he do?” And I know my next words have to be: “He’s a pastor.” I say each word carefully. But not in a way that sounds as if I’m being careful, because that would make it worse. I try to make it sound the same as whatever it is they might do for a living (which it is, for all work is holy) because, once it’s out there, things change—sometimes for the good, but mostly the conversations become awkward. And then I try, awkwardly, to ease the awkwardness, which only makes things more awkward.
“I’m going to speak at an event,” I said.
“Nice,” she said.
Whew! I thought. And then . . .
“What kind of event?” Aneata asked, handing me my license and credit card over the counter. I slid my card into my wallet and surrendered to the early morning work of being drawn out of myself at the airport car rental counter. My shoulders dropped, and I let my defensiveness slide off onto the linoleum tiles. I returned Aneata’s warm smile with my weak one. I’d been caught—defenses up, tension high, nerves frayed. “I’ve been invited to speak at a women’s retreat,” I said.
“Mmmmm . . . “ Aneata replied, her eyes on her computer monitor. Aneata wasn’t alone behind the counter. Her co-workers were there too. Each one of them, from what I had picked up from snippets of their conversations, was just as warm and gracious as Aneata. I’d been watching as they greeted one another with a level of affection that felt more familial than functional. They engaged their customers the same way Aneata was engaging me: gentle, respectful, and reaching for something that might lie just beneath the surface, but in a way that felt welcome and not a violation. Getting us in a rental car and on our way to our destination felt more like a means to an end than the end itself. Connecting people with a vehicle seemed to be the vehicle they were using to, I don’t know, bless us, or something. Maybe they all prayed before they came to work each day. Maybe they even prayed together, I thought. Who knows?
I guess in some part of my consciousness I hold out hope that people are praying for me. But even with this hope in my heart it’s clear I must not really anticipate I will actually be on the receiving end of that kind of grace—the grace someone prayed they might be able to demonstrate toward me, before they even knew me.
“So what are you going to speak about?” Aneata asked me.
“I’m going to talk about God,” I told Aneata.
It was a make-it-or-break-it answer. Like telling people my husband is a minister. It’s vague but also specific. It opens a door but could close a few. It speaks volumes but also might generate more questions. “I’m going to tell the women how much God loves them,” I said, unprompted by Aneata.
“We need that,” she said . . . . Her co-worker looked at us from the corner of his eye. Just then, another man behind the counter, talking with his co-workers, let out the most beautiful sound. It was sparkling and bright and soulful and free and sincere and true and unashamed. He was laughing. Was he laughing at something someone said? It was hard to be sure from my side of the counter. But he seemed to have burst open with joy—and this man had been gifted with a glorious laugh.
“That,” I said, “is the best laugh ever!”
The kindness and joy of these workers at a car rental counter in a bustling, metropolitan airport was washing away my gruff exterior. I felt my travel-weary self begin to come to life again. It was a tiny resurrection. Someone had hit the reset button on my soul. In fact, another of Aneata’s co-workers said that very thing. He had been watching and listening to Aneata and me. He looked at me and said, “Like a reset button, right?”
“That’s right,” I said. “A reset button.” I was talking metaphorically, but the true meaning of my words was more like, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
I’d brought my grumpy self with my ugly attitude into these people’s space, and they had returned my gruffness with grace. They provided the opportunity for God to reach through and warm my heart—and the laughter had been the cincher. The car rental people were my confessors, and they humbly wore their cassocks—which looked like red polyester vests—as they willing listened to me. And maybe they had prayed together that morning. But maybe not.
“Maybe I can do for these women what you’ve all done for me here, today,” I said.
“All right, now,” Aneata’s co-worker said, waving his hand in my direction. Aneata slid my paperwork over to me and said, “It’s all good,” which sounded a lot to me like, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.”
We all need confessors. We need people who will take us as we are and let us be that way. We need people who won’t try to change us simply because we’ve shown them that we know we can be improved on. We need people who receive our sincere apology and let it be just that. “My bad,” we say. And they say, “It’s all good.” And mean it.