Our family joined with several who gathered together for the fourth of July this year at Camp Ladore in the Poconos. It’s a favorite spot for so many.
After a boat ride, an afternoon at the pool and burgers and dogs on the grill, the perfect end to yesterday was a campfire and s’mores. We built the beginnings of the fire and lit the cardboard kindling. It took a few moments for the small pieces of dry wood to catch and as we set the first small log on, the gaggle of kids ran around the corner ready for their evening snack.
“It’s going to be a while before we can roast the marshmallows.” The response brought a mixture of hopeful anticipation and utter despair.
I’m not much different, if I’m being honest. I want the s’mores, but I’m not all that interested in waiting for the fire to burn down. I want to eat the fruit but I’m not always up for the labor. Rather than a rant on programmed instant gratification and the inherent flaws of a society built on “the customer is always right” fallacy I figured we could just talk about a campfire.
You start small. In this case, we had some cardboard boxes that we ripped up and built into a small pile. On that, we built a teepee sort of shape out of thin pieces of wood and small dry sticks. All of this is in place before we take a flame to anything. A campfire doesn’t just happen.
When those first few thin pieces of wood start to really burn, the fire is a bit deceptive. You’ll get flames and smoke, but you’ve only just begun. If you throw a log on now, you’ll smother the whole thing and it won’t stand a chance. There’s still some growth needed. And growth requires attention and care. Always.
Fire needs three things to sustain itself. A fire will continue to burn until it runs out of heat, fuel or oxygen. We aren’t so different, are we? Won’t we also burn (succeed) so long as have passion, support and breath? And don’t we find ourselves smothered when the process of growth isn’t given the care and attention it requires? I digress.
Once the teepee structure caught fire, we added a few thicker pieces that we had set aside. You add the larger pieces carefully so that the fire can breathe. You leave channels, or spaces at the base of the fire so air can get in. The bigger the pieces, the more air is needed. If you want the fire to grow, you need to give it the space and breath it needs.
Throughout this process, the kids kept running back to the fire. “Is it time yet?” “Can we have ‘mushmilloz?” I think my favorite was “I want s’mores, please. We’ve been waiting all day.” (She is four and adorable.)
Who can blame them? They smelled smoke. They saw flames. Surely if we have smoke and flames we can burn a few marshmallows. It makes sense.
“A few more minutes and we’ll get started.”
Because you need more than flames to do marshmallows the right way. The fire needs to burn down a bit to be most effective. In our campfire effort we were not without challenges. There was some damp wood, which took time but can always be overcome if you build the fire right. The pile fell down on itself a few times which tends to cut off the air supply. If you leave it be, this is when the fire burns out. If you’re tending the fire, though, so that you don’t lose what you have, this is the moment to adjust and rebuild.
When the time came, we spread what was mostly burned out and added a few more pieces of wood to the center, which caught quickly. With edges of red-hot coals, we had some prime ‘mushmilloz roasting real estate. The graham crackers were stacked, the chocolate broken up and the marshmallow forks were ready to go. We called the kids and soon enough everybody was smiling with no small amount of smeared chocolate and marshmallow stuck to their faces.
As with many experiences, there are many lessons. Lessons in leadership and cooperation. Lessons in relationship and trust. Lessons in campfire management and lessons in spiritual formation…
Our formation is like the fire. And we must be clear that we are the fire and not the one tending it. That is God, beginning small and building step by step. We do not manage or control our own growth, though we can slow it down or stop it completely. If we are being honest, we submit ourselves to the One who tends us in the same way that the fire itself is powerless to the one building it. That requires our surrender. God does not smother us or wander away to let us burn out. Those are a matter of our own choices if, or perhaps when, we fight to regain control again.
We cannot rush it. We can endure a dampened spirit and moments of breathlessness because we will be guided through them. We must not get caught up in early flames and smoke. Our purpose is not to burn brightly for a short time, but to burn well for a lifetime. We must not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We are most effective at bringing God’s kingdom in this world and bringing this world toward God’s kingdom when we have burned a while. We are most effective when we have spent time in surrender and trust and when we have given ourselves to the hand and the heart of the One who kindles all of life and every blessing.
Burn, my friends. But do not burn up. Burn down and be a sticky, delicious and memorable blessing to this world.