The Handshake

Cabbages and Kings

When Did Christian Reformed Ministers start shaking worshipers’ hands after services? There was a time this was not in our tradition.

Even today, in Europe, you don’t see the minister once the service is over. When on a visit to the Netherlands, I asked why not. A cousin, a comic, said it was because preachers were so ashamed of their sermons they didn’t dare show their faces afterward.

In my childhood days there was a Methodist church in our neighborhood. Its bulletin—in giant letters—screamed, “The Church with the Handshake.” I went there once with my friend Stanley and never got one. I figured I didn’t count.

Today, preaching here and there, I am generally asked to stand at the center exit after the service. There, remembering my experience as a boy, I make sure to greet the children as best I can.

Like everything else, handshaking after the service has its do’s and don’ts. I once told a seminarian to look people in the eye when shaking their hands. I picked up that rule years ago on vacation, while attending a certain church for a few weeks. The minister never saw me even though my hand was in his. He always looked to the next person. That rule should apply to parishioners as well. There are people who take my hand but never look at me. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain about that when I consider there are more pleasant sights to behold.

Handshakes should be firm, yet not too firm. Some men, especially big ones, are bone crushers. I remember a parishioner—now gone to glory—shorter than me but built like a Mack truck. The first time I shook his hand I couldn’t play piano for a week.

Then there was that leading citizen whose hand was all flab. I called it a “fish hand.” So I gave him one back. One day he stopped me and complained, asking why I always gave him a fish hand.

There are many kinds of hands. Small. Big. Soft. Hard. Strong. Weak. Old. Young. All doing the Lord’s work.

In Germany stands a handless statue of Jesus. The inscription beneath reads: “I have no hands but yours.” That would include the lady with the most unenthusiastic hand I ever shook, even after having preached a better-than-average Eppinga sermon. But one day she paused, looked me up and down, and said, “You’re improving.” With her right hand in mine she gave me a left-handed compliment.

Why right hands? Only last week a small worshiper reached up to me with his left hand. “Wrong hand,” said Mommy. But a left hand is better than none. I recall visiting a Christian Reformed church some years ago. We walked the length of the parking lot with kindred souls, found our seats, heard an excellent catechism sermon, exited, walked the length of the parking lot again with the spiritually fed, yet received nary a handshake or greeting from anyone. I hope that is a lone exception. Many of our churches now have greeters. Good idea!

This is a right-handed world—even in heaven, where Jesus is seated at God’s right hand. Years ago I read an article on the origin of the handshake. A declaration of peace. When right hands are engaged, there is no weaponry.

But hostilities do not always cease when opponents shake hands. A classis once assigned me to establish harmony between some warring elders. I got them all to shake hands. I offered a prayer of thanksgiving. Alas, an hour later they were at each other again.

Recently I offered my hand at a church door to a young teen and got a high-five instead. I returned it with gusto.

I know a minister who is a hugger. Not for me. Are customs changing? I’ll stick with handshaking even though Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 13:12, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

About the Author

Rev. Jacob D. Eppinga was pastor emeritus of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich. He went to be with his Lord March 1, 2008. This column concludes his popular “Cabbages and Kings” series, which he wrote for 40 consecutive years. Watch for It’s All Grace, a collection of his best and more recent columns to be published in book form this fall by Faith Alive Christian Resources.
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