The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
It’s almost a year since I returned from my sabbatical at The WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine. The effects of that time were life-changing in the moment, and the reverberating echoes of School remain strong and clear. Chief among those echoes is the raw boat I brought home; it is nearly completed and about to be launched, and there is a fine sense of accomplishment in that.
That little boat carries so much labor (more graceful than frustrated, for which I am grateful), so much affection and hope, and it carries these things in ways that continue to nourish me as a man, a husband, father and grandfather, and as your priest and rector. It reminds me that the oldest icon of the Church is the boat, and that sabbatical theme began over a year ago and continues to be played in an emergent harmony that is strengthening the parish as surely as it strengthens me, and the coda is nowhere in sight.
The boat unites me to my friends, instructors and classmates at School; every time I touch her I can hear the shop, and smell the wood, and see their splendid faces. It honors its naval architect Joel White and its draftsman Spencer Lincoln. It unites me to Gretchen+ through our shared labor in making the sail. It unites me in a renewed relationship with Little Egg Harbor- a body of water I have come to love in other boats over these last 19 years. It provides a way for our children and grandchildren to learn and keep sharp their skills as sailors, and I am humbly grateful to say that it’s good enough to go into the Will. Perhaps it is disturbing to think that so much is borne in 12½’ of cedar, bronze fasteners, varnish and paint, oak and spruce and mahogany…but such vast freight is precisely the capacity of such a craft.
Among the strengthened and expanded gifts of my sabbatical is not just the boat but also a renewed sense of connection with distant past, and ancestors, and the realization that they are present in tools.
“A tool is anything that helps a human being to do work.” From my father’s definition proceeded the early manual training that he provided- training that has accompanied me throughout my life. Burke and Ornstein describe the changes brought into human culture by tools in The Axemaker’s Gift, and they are clear in that book that all tools have a double edge metaphorically if not actually. There is a cost and a promise in everything, tools included, but that’s another essay.
It is not the benefits or the dangers that tools have brought into our lives, but rather our connections, that come to mind. The hand tools of a wooden boat builder certainly fit the broad definition Daddy taught me, but they are more. The best hand tools employed by wooden boat builders generally are old, in many cases a century or better. This means their age brings an effect beyond what happens when the tool is properly applied in its intended purpose.
As surely as you are seeing history- literally seeing history- when you look at starlight coming across the night sky from another galaxy, so also you are handling history when you are handling tools. When you lay hands on old tools you’re laying hands on history in a profound way. Among the tools I used was a Stanley 110 block plane my Father gave me in 1960, and a Buck Bros. 2” chisel given to me by her father and originally owned by Gretchen’s great grandfather. These certainly connect me with familial ancestors, but tools connect me as well to ancestors in the craft- predecessors unknown by name yet fully known as those who loved what I love and revered what I revere.
While on sabbatical I came to possess a Stanley No 49 tongue-and-groove plane; though new to me, the Stanley No 49 and its big brother the No 48, went out of production 11 years before I was born. There is no way I could ever have owned a new Stanley No 49.
The forged steel in the irons and the cast steel of the body, are exquisite. The tool is beautiful. I found it on a low shelf in a barn loft in Hulls Cove, Maine, stacked amid several dozen of its kin. I don’t know the last time a human hand had warmed its grip, but the irons, though misaligned, were still sharp and the fence and its latch worked perfectly. I did not insult the proprietor by haggling; it’s not in my nature in the first place, and even if I did find haggling amusing, he’d set what seemed to me to be a fair price and I was glad to pay it. He looked at me and I looked at him, and we both knew that I had a good plane, and had obtained it in a fair and honorable transaction. We both were satisfied. He gave an ever-so-slight nod and a slighter smile as he handed it to me, acknowledging that a good tool had been redeemed by a man who knew what he had. I treasure that unspoken yet tangible esteem- it is gracious lagniappe.
I don’t know the story of this individual tool- who actually made it at the Stanley Works in New Britain, who first bought it, or how it came to be in that barn loft- yet I do know its story. This is a tool that made possible joining floorboards and bulkheads, decking, and deckhouse roofs. This is a tool that was made at a time when the person who first owned it used it as often as I use a laptop computer or a wireless telephone; it was a part of that small suite of daily essentials that permitted work to be done. That plane’s unique place in my life began as the utterly unremarkable, mundane occupant of an anonymous working person’s tool box. What is mundane, however, is made holy in its enduring beauty, its sharp utility, and its connections to the actions of another person- by another name we sometimes call such transformations “sacramental.”
That’s where and how the sabbatical we all had last Summer connects to our future as well as our past and present. As the crew of His boat called Holy Innocents’, you and I share such tools, and use them all the time. They are in some cases very old, and in some cases relatively young.
We are people of two books- The Holy Bible first and foremost. It is far and away our most enduring and ancient tool, and it remains as useful today as ever it has been in any generation of the Church. As a record of the relationship between Creator and creature, between completely faithful God and less than fully faithful people, the Bible is the principal tool with which we do work on ourselves personally, and with which we do His work in the World.
Added to that primary book is the other great tool and treasure we use to build and maintain the boat- The Book of Common Prayer. Still growing and being revised, it remains the elegant inspiration with which we give voice to our deepest grief and soaring hopes. It is that tool by which we practice ministry as surely a shipwright practices the craft…the principal tool with which we embody lex credendi, lex orandi- “we pray as we believe and we believe as we pray.” It too is old, yet bracing….refreshing in its strength and currency.
Tools come to hand as the need requires. Tools also come to hand in quiet meditative moments in the shop when twilight is falling and the labor of the day is over. They comfort us in their sharp utility and they comfort us in their peaceful, faithful readiness. They comfort us in the connection they provide with all who have gone before, and with the hope of work yet unfinished before us.
I love our tools. I hope that you do too. They connect us to each other in ways that make of us more than we alone can be. They remind us that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”  and our work goes on in their presence most days because of us, and some days in spite of us. Treasure the tools. Savor where they’ve been and who’s used them. Be thankful to be their steward now. Be grateful for the work they permit us to do. Do them the greatest honor you can- use them.
Love you. See you in Church
1 Burke, James and Robert Bornstein. The Axemaker’s Gift. Putnam, New York. 1995 ISBN 978-0399140884 2016
2 Hebrews 12:1 NRSV
| Sunday Holy Eucharist ~ with music
Perhaps you're a visitor on Long Beach Island. Maybe you haven't been in Church for a while and would like to start back. Whatever is going on in your life, you are welcome at Holy Innocents. Your past affiliations don't mean nearly as much to us as your present affiliation with us.
410 South Atlantic Ave
between Atlantic and Beach)
Beach Haven, New Jersey 08008