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Lessons from (failing) to build a campfire

I grew up around campfires, whether I was tent camping with my family or staying at sleep-away camp. I love roasting marshmallows; I love the smell of burning wood and smoke. But no one ever taught me how to make a campfire, nor did I ever express interest in learning this skill growing up.

I’ve tried twice in my adult life to build a campfire during solo camping trips. Both times, I’ve failed to keep the fire going after the fire starters burnt out. I attempted to base my campfire lighting methods on what I’d observed growing up and on camping trips with my husband (who is an expert at this whole campfire thing). I arranged the wood based on what had been told to me in the past. And still the fire went out before burning down to the coals. Here’s what I’ve learned from these experiences:

  1. Observing a skill is far different than doing that skill. There’s something special about tending a fire that goes beyond following written instructions. How does one know when to move the wood around to keep the fire going? Or when to add new logs? Tending a fire takes more than the knowledge and tools to start it.
  2. Becoming an expert takes repetition and humility. This is a “no duh” lesson, and yet I think we too often forget it. I am tempted to give up building campfires and simply delegate it to people who do it well. But then I’d end up on solo camping trips without the pleasure of a campfire. It is humbling to not be able to build a fire after spending so much of my life outside. But I won’t learn unless I keep trying and asking questions of those who know more than I do. And both of those things – trying and failing and trying again AND asking for help – require humility.

I believe my campfire lessons can apply to how we think about faith formation as well. Growing up, I observed the skill of Bible study through the teaching and preaching of pastors and Sunday school teachers. But I didn’t practice that skill myself. Because I observed my teachers, I thought I knew the Bible. However, it wasn’t until I started studying it on my own that I truly began to learn it. Bible study feels just as intimidating as building a fire when you first begin. But my best Bible teachers growing up taught me how to read it for myself and pushed me to practice, ask questions, and make my own conclusions on how those Scriptures applied to my life.

Now, as a preacher, I am in the position of being the Bible teacher. I’m well-practiced in studying Scripture. Therefore, it’s easy for me to assume that those around me are well-practiced as well. But hearing a sermon is not the same as studying the Bible for oneself — I know this from personal experience.

So, I wonder, what it would it mean to preach in such a way that I’m empowering my listeners to study the Scriptures for themselves? How do we nudge people, without shame, to admit that they don’t know the Bible well and want to learn more? Perhaps it’s paying attention to the people who are willing to admit they need help and walking alongside them as they learn.

Which is all to say, I am motivated the next time I’m with someone who knows how to build a fire, to ask them to observe me while I build a fire and offer advice on how to do it better. It will take humility, but it will be worth it to become an expert.

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