It's happened twice in as many months: God showing up in an older woman. A stranger offering me her blessing. Not offering it so much as insisting on it, now that I think about it.
I had no idea what to do about the first time. Walking off the stage at The Great Emergence event at St. Mary's cathedral in Memphis, a British woman in her 70s walks straight toward me and in front of God and everybody, embraces me. Not a friendly "thank-you" hug, but embracing-with-the-intent-to-bless.
I had just read aloud an essay about my call to ministry; how it involved stand-up comedy and suicide and AA and pornography and seeing the gospel from the underside. "Immediately," like full-on gospel of Mark style, a "certain woman" clearly in her 70s embraces me without letting go. And she was certain.
A red cardigan covers the arms enfolding me as this stranger whispers in my ear "God has given you something precious." She kisses my cheek not breaking embrace: "Jesus walks with you." Again she kisses me. Again she whispers a blessing but always she embraces me. Me. A heavily tattooed Lutheran who swears like a truck driver. I can't believe I'm not trying to shorten the exchange, but I can't stop hugging her back. I never even hug people I know this long. Such a long embrace from a total stranger. But it is like God's own self blessing me with warm breath and a scratchy sweater.
When I sit back down I think, "What the hell just happened?" My friend Sara, having seen the interaction, slides next to me in the pew saying, "Girl, you gotta just open up and let people bless you."
It's hard though. I offer others my prayers and blessings all the time as a pastor. But Sara's right. I need to let people bless me.
So last Saturday, just as I finish preaching at Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, Washington, it happens again. Almost exactly like the last time, only this time it's a Franciscan nun in her long brown habit. With a hand on each of my shoulders, she looks me in the eye without a hope of me turning away. "God has given you a great gift, and you've chosen to serve God. You have been blessed." She chokes up and embraces me.
Any public speaker is familiar with people approaching with "What you said really touched me" or "That was great, thanks so much." It's nice, but it's about them and what they heard, and truth be told it's not uncommon for people to come up after a sermon and say how much something meant to them that actually wasn't even in the sermon. All this to say, I try to honor what people say to me but only because it's important to them. I don't generally take it as a message for me. The blessing-giving old ladies were different though. I think maybe God has caught on to the fact that 70-year-old woman are the only people whose blessings even I can't resist.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she is developing a new emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.