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Tools: A sacrament, a holder of memories

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By Martin Elfert

In 2008, my wife Phoebe and I packed up a bunch of our belongings – furniture and kitchen stuff and a gaggle of lamps – and hoisted them up through the little trap door in my parents’ ceiling and into their attic. And then we drove away from Vancouver and went south so that I could start seminary in the Bay Area.

Some of the stuff came back out of the attic when we made the move to the Cathedral in Spokane in 2011. More of it came out after we arrived in Portland in 2015. Still more recently, I’ve been bringing down my tools. Home ownership is a built-in hobby, and these days I am once again reaching for the drill gun and the wrench early and often.
 
I didn’t expect the emotional weight that has come with handling these tools again. Tools – well, as their very name implies, they are utilitarian. And yet holding this hammer, this square, this clamp: it is like I am encountering an icon for another time in my life, for something that is gone.

Yesterday, I unwrapped a length of cord that I had coiled up north of a decade ago. My youngest son and I were going to use it to pull electrical wire through a length conduit.

Now, doing a project with your 7-year-old is an experience that is already soaked with a fragile beauty. Maybe that is a because, when we are 7, we have not yet internalized the story that work is a burden, and for our fathers to invite us to climb the ladder or to saw the wood is to participate in something marvelous and grown up and thrilling.
 
Or maybe it is because, when we stop being 7 and become parents ourselves, we are aware that time is passing and that this life has an ending. And when we look upon the days of childhood, vanishing before us like the moats and spires of a sandcastle as the surf comes in, we understand how fleeting and wondrous the moment is in which a parent and a child might build something together.
 
As I uncoiled the cord that I had put away when the calendar said 2007 or 2008, I remembered all that has changed since then, everyone whose funeral I have attended since then. Unwrapping the cord was like letting those things and places and people drift just a little further away. Standing in my basement with my son and undoing something that I had done before he was born, before all of the change, was a strange act of remembrance and grief and gratitude and joy.

When we open the Book of Common Prayer to the very back, we learn once more that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward state of grace. There are seven sacraments that the church identifies: two big ones and five smaller ones, if you like. And then, as the theologians remind us, there are thousands and thousands of sacraments more. A birthday cake can be a sacrament sometimes. So can be a book. So can be a cabin or a bicycle or a painting.

So can be tools, with their history written on their bodies in flecks of paint and old sawdust and patterns of wear. In my basement I unwrapped the cord that had been in my parents’ attic for some 10 years. And like John Lennon singing “In My Life,” I remembered people and places and I loved them all.

And then my son and I threaded the cord through the conduit and tied it to the wire that we wanted to pull through and he and I built something new.

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About Martin Elfert

Martin Elfert
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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