Looking Backwards

When we ordain a new elder or deacon at my church, a substantial proportion of the congregation gets into the act. We have the custom of inviting all of the current and former elders and deacons in the congregation to come join in the laying on of hands. Possibly other churches have this tradition, but I had never been in one that did this until I joined this church. Since I was elected elder a number of years ago, I have had the opportunity to join the crowd. So many of us come forward that we don’t all fit up in front. People are lined up in the aisles. Obviously, we can’t all lay our hands directly on the newly ordained elder or deacon, so we have a kind of chain of hands on heads or shoulders that connects everybody to the person being ordained, however indirectly.

We did this again just a couple of weeks ago, and this time I saw that more people than I had thought were participating. I sit near the front, so I was able to make my way very nearly to the new elder, and most of the crowd was behind me. I looked over my shoulder, and I saw my friend Phyllis Bruggers with her hand on my shoulder. Other people I knew were behind Phyllis. But then I looked farther back, and I saw some of the old Saints of our congregation, now dead, with their hands on the shoulders of the last live people in line.

I recognized a few of them who were still here when I arrived 25 years ago, and I recognized a couple of others because I had seen their pictures in a book on the history of our congregation. There was John Ver Beek, whom I remember, and back a bit farther, one of the founders of our congregation, Isaac Cappon. I was paying close attention now, because I saw yet more people behind those old folks from our congregation. There were some people from way back in the early days of Holland, Michigan, who must have laid their hands on the heads of our old Saints, even though some of them left the congregation and even the denomination during one of the frequent splits characteristic of our community.

I had to crane my neck now to see over those old folks from Michigan, and when I did, I could see people from the Netherlands itself, even some from way back before the ancestors of our congregation pulled up stakes and moved to America. Streams diverged again as the “Afschijding” people detached themselves from the official state church. There were a couple of centuries worth of Reformed worthies in the Netherlands who were laying their hands to the chain, and then I perceived back behind those people, some people of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, who preceded the ones in front of them and on whom they were laying their hands.

I could see now centuries into the past, hand on head, hand on head, clear back to the early missionaries who converted the pagans living in what was to become the Netherlands. Those missionaries had been ordained when they went out from Rome and who knows from where else, and I could see the hands of their bishops on their heads, and the bishops’ bishops behind them. The crowd was now immense, all those streams of people splitting and joining. Some had extended the church in directions that those who claimed the mainstream called heresy, but they had been laying on hands too until they were expelled from the fellowship. I noticed that some hands had blood on them from wars and persecutions, and others had bloody heads. Not a few had no heads at all. Then way in the back, I could see twelve men with their hands firmly placed on the heads of the earliest bishops. And what about those twelve? A single figure stood in the back, laying his hands on the heads of his apostles. Could he see the whole stream issuing forth from that act? Could he see me?

And was that really the end of the line? I stood on tiptoes and looked through the distance vision part of my bifocals to see some more. What of Jesus’ teachers? When they approved of his study of the Scriptures, they too may have laid their hands on his head and sent him out to teach. Who knows? I tried but I couldn’t see that far. I scanned along the line back toward the present and finally to the future represented by the elder kneeling before us. Lots of branches in that stream, some branching off, no longer part of that continuous chain of hands and heads that I could see. In another congregation perhaps, in another denomination certainly, the stream would look different. My convergent branch would be their trunk from which our old ancestors had diverged.

I think this was a vision of fragmentation more than of continuity. Looked at from here and ecumenically, there is no single line that carries me back from one true church to the next until we reach Jesus. There is instead this constant interweaving of error and truth which characterizes the scandal of church disunity and the miraculous creativity of the church as well. Still, from my vantage point in front of the congregation and looking down the aisle, all those people were there, the communion of Saints, howsoever fragmented they might be. If the new elder kneeling there at the end/beginning of the chain could see what I saw, would she get up and run out while there was still time? That chain of hands is an awesome responsibility.

Donald Cronkite is a professor of biology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan and a contributing editor for Perspectives.