One never expects to find a theological mentor behind the glass at a Pennsylvania turnpike, but then God seldom works the way we expect.
I was there on business, on a trip I didn’t want to make, during a time when I really couldn’t afford the time away to make it. On my way to another meeting that I didn’t want to attend, in a rental car that felt far too small and unfamiliar. The coming nor’ easter came early, making travel even more cumbersome and tedious. Visibility dwindled with each passing mile as buckets of rain waged war on the Buick’s over-worn wiper blades.
And I was angry. Angry that I had to be across the country in a blinding rainstorm when I’d rather be home with my family, chipping away at some overdue writing deadlines on my desk, spending time with my kids, sleeping in my own bed at night. I was angry and tired and dreadfully imposed upon.
And that’s when I pulled into the toll booth. The one that was about to confiscate another buck and a quarter from me, even though I was certain the road had long since been paid for. I considered complaining about the pits and potholes, until I caught a glimpse of the kind eyes and warming smile waiting for me behind the tollbooth window.
“How are you this fine evening?” she sparkled.
“Okay,” I answered, digging for my wallet, dogging bullets of water through the open window. “How are you?” I only asked because it seemed expected.
“I’m very blessed! Thanks so much for asking!”
I mustered a grin and passed her a five. “Isn’t this rain wonderful?” she asked, making small talk and change at the same time. “I just love it when it rains like this. It makes the air smell so clean. And the good Lord knows we need it.”
“It is nice,” I lied, reaching for my change, trying to sound more pleasant than I felt.
“It certainly is,” she chimed. “I can’t wait for Spring this year. With all this rain we’ve been having, why it’s going to be beautiful!”
I nodded politely, gathering my change and sliding it into the cup holder.
“You have a blessed time in Pennsylvania,” she continued. “And be careful on these slick roads.”
“Thanks, I will,” I said, coasting forward as I spoke. Then just as the window inched shut one parting phrase pierced the air. A comment I would have missed had I been a few seconds faster on the button.
“God bless you!” Like one last heaping coal of kindness singeing the hairs of my already convicted spirit. I waved to acknowledge her words, but I’m sure she didn’t see. So I drove on, the brief exchange resonating in my mind.
It’s amazing how God can use a simple, unexpected encounter to shake your attitude back to center.
Here I was, a man more blessed than most, with far more going for me than against me, with a rewarding career, a beautiful wife, two wonderful kids and a dog named D.C., all who love me dearly, a great home, even greater friends… a life more blessed than any man deserves. Yet I couldn’t see far enough past the inconvenience of the moment to appreciate it.
And in the other corner, a woman who makes her living making change in a six-by-six box on the freeway, pelted by wind and rain and gravel each day, suffering the smog and smoke from passing motorist for a paycheck that’s clearly far smaller than she’s worth, yet she exuded joy and contentment from every pore of her being.
There was clearly something wrong with this picture. And it wasn’t the woman behind the window.
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,” wrote the apostle Paul, “whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Phil. 4:12)
And the implication is that you and I can learn it as well. More than that, we can learn to live it. Just like Paul. Just like Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Just like Francis of Assisi… Just like the Toll Booth Woman of Pennsylvania.
Contentment is not a condition of the body but a state of the heart. It’s not an attitude that overcomes you, but a conscious decision to overcome your poor attitude, even when things don’t go your way. It isn’t the by product of a happy life; it’s a choice of the soul to make your life happy, even when there’s little reason to justify it.
Contentment isn’t something that finds you; it’s something you find when you suddenly realize just how blessed you are to be a loved child of the Most High.
Not a particularly profound thought, but an important one I thought worth sharing on this very fine Saturday afternoon.