Building a good fire

At summer camp bonfires when I was a kid, we used to sing “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…” (Evie, 1976).

It made fire building seem easy. Light a match: done!

Not true.

Several years ago I read “Making Fire,” a short story by one of my writing friends. In it, an outdoorsy guy takes a girl on a camping trip and teaches her to build a fire.

He shows her how to set the logs up like a teepee, how to build an island of bark and twigs inside and then layer the island with dried grass. If the dried grass is brittle enough, a spark will set it ablaze. The hope is that the flames will lick the logs above into ignition while the base gets hot enough to spark the bark underneath. “Never rest,” he instructs her. “You have to keep watch, keep feeding it.”

By the end of the story, it’s clear this guy is good at building both literal and figurative fires, and if this girl stays with him, she will get burned.

Still, he is a good fire builder (he was based on a real character), and I’ve followed his instructions this winter as I’ve coaxed fires to life in the wood-burning stove in our “new” house (though I use the cardboard and paper contents of my recycling bin for kindling). “It Only Takes a Spark,” though true in its context, is not enough. A spark may create a flame, but it takes a lot more effort to get and keep a good fire going.

Fire building has a strong parallel to my faith. It took a holy spark—not created by me—to begin God’s work in my heart. He had already prepared and built up a readiness for that spark to take hold. Again—all God’s work.

But what about the “feeding” of the flame?

That’s partly MY work.

And I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my spiritual fire-tending of late. I’m feeding it twigs and balled-up newsprint. They create spurts of flame but no lasting burn. I’m reading three books at one time—and each of them is worth reading slowly, thoughtfully. I’m doing devotions quickly, without much deep thought. I’m reading through the Bible in a year, but I’m doing it on my Kindle just before I fall asleep at night, so I’m not taking notes and reflecting on it; I’m barely keeping my eyes open for the Psalms and Proverbs. I’m listening to podcasts while I work out in the mornings—each morning a sermon from a different church. I listen to more sermons on the radio during all my commuting. This is all good stuff—but it leaves no time for reflecting. My thoughts and my prayers flit from one “small” piece of truth to the next.

It’s like I’m trying to keep the fire going with a steady influx of little stuff. It keeps the flame alive, yes, but stop feeding it for about a minute, and the flame is gone. There is no deep-burning core to keep it going. I need larger pieces of wood to do that. The flame burns into the core of these pieces, and the glow from that produces long lasting heat and a fire that is not easily put out. Eventually you have the kind of fire that ignites other pieces of wood when they are placed on it.

That’s what I want.

And to move toward that, I’m going back to the basics. I’m not saying “the basics” is the only way to combat my 21st-century, technology-fed, short-attention-span spiritual growth, but I want to focus, and when I can easily switch from my Bible reading to check my schedule or e-mail and can get sidetracked by an interesting link I see on the sidebar of Bible Gateway, it’s really easy NOT to focus. So here is my plan: I’m studying one book, reading it again and again and then slowly, verse by verse. I’m reading it in my good old print Bible. I’m going to write notes on the margins and journal with paper and pen. If I want to compare translations, I’ll just have to get out another print Bible (okay, I might use Bible Gateway for that—I love that feature). I’ll read commentaries only after I’ve studied it myself. I’m going to find some logs rather than wood chips of time for study and reflection and prayer.

I’m not going to get rid of all the other stuff (the podcasts and sermons, etc.), but I’m hoping that with a source of deep flame, the other twigs will become part of that flame, feeding it.

God is a deep, steady flame Himself (the burning bush, the pillar of fire in the wilderness, the symbol of the flame in the tabernacle that was never allowed to go out).

He wants that for me, too.