This search through my mental files is complicated by the fact that I have very rarely heard a woman preach.
There was Leslie, draped in black robes, who took the pulpit one Sunday evening in my childhood church. This I did not understand. Her vestments were foreign, to be sure, but stranger still was her gender. How could a woman preach God's Word to a roomful of Christian Reformed men — men who spent a good deal of time arguing over whether a woman could even pass the offering plate? This contradiction tugged my small brain into knots. I probably squirmed in my pew and scanned the sanctuary for furrowed brows. I suppose she even blessed us, but I don't remember. My Opa, who never missed a service, must have been livid. I was simply puzzled.
Then there was a woman in 2005 whose name I can't recall, and whose message I could not understand. She spoke Dutch. Oma and I had traveled together to the land of her birth, the plot of ground where she grew to adulthood, and the church in which her faith was formed. It was startling to see a woman take to the stage in the very church that had produced my conservative grandmother. I sat there, intensely curious, I — a woman — who felt called to teach God's Word. What would Oma say? The service ended. I braced myself as Oma turned to me with the inevitable judgment. "Well," she pronounced with considerable disgust. "You could have done much better." I'm sure my eyebrows rose, unbidden. Was this my grandmother's blessing? I received it as such.
Rebecca, a riveting speaker at Good Shepherd in Charlotte.
Octavia, who captivated us in chapel at Gordon-Conwell.
Maggie, drawing us into the story by performing a monologue as Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Karen, offering a simple, back-to-the-basics homily at the IBR worship service one year.
If I push myself, perhaps I could fill the fingers on both hands. I who am 37 years old and have rarely missed a Sunday. I'll do the math for you. That's 1,924 sermons, not counting evening services or chapel messages in college or Sundays since my last birthday. So perhaps it's not surprising that I cannot conjure up a picture of a woman pronouncing the blessing at the close of the service.
At least 99.5 times out of a hundred, it's been a man.
And so when Pastor Dave invited me to give the benediction after my sermon on Mother's Day, I hesitated. Is that ok here? A sermon is already outside the box for most conservative evangelicals. I didn't want to start a riot. He assured me that it would be fine, and so I agreed.
The priestly blessing in Numbers 6 is one of my favorite parts of the entire Bible. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, studying it, and writing about it. But this is a blessing only the priests are authorized to give. And they are all men. And these are not just nice words, they are efficacious words -- they do something. With these words the priests confer the Name of Yahweh on his people, verbally branding them as His own (see Numbers 6:27). They invite God to act on behalf of his covenant people in accordance with his promise.
I no longer believe that gender is a prerequisite for preaching. For similar reasons, I think "blessing" is not limited to clergy (or to members of just one Israelite tribe, for that matter). We are, after all, a "kingdom priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9) and in Christ there is "neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). But frankly, I don't have much practice with benedictions, and hardly any precedent. It might have looked as awkward as it felt when I extended my hands over the congregation that Sunday.
But I meant every word.
May the LORD bless and protect you.
May the LORD smile on you and be gracious to you.
May the LORD show you his favor and grant you his peace.