I think I must have a nerve that goes straight from my nose to a file of old memories in the dusty attic that is my brain. The scent of autumn leaves on the ground takes me back to kicking my way through the park and burying my little brother in a mound of leaves so he could suddenly sit up and scare the wits out of passersby. He was a fun kid.
I learned as a kid that leaves and flowers stuffed in a plastic container with a layer of snow to preserve them didn’t smell so good when you opened the lid a few months later. The odor of rotten vegetation triggers memories of bad ideas.
Not all smells are good. Before the Lord healed me certain odors could trigger flashbacks and bring on anxiety attacks that felt like hanging over the fires of hell by an unravelling rope. If you don’t understand what that means I thank the Lord for his goodness to you and pray that sentence will never make sense. Just let me assure you that God does heal memories and removes their power over you. (My friend, Praying Medic, has written a book about one very effective method of healing prayer for memories and emotions. His blog with link to book here.)
But sometimes God lets some memories remain.
I was struck by a story in the Bible that mentions a campfire on the beach after Peter and the boys decided to give up this whole disciple-schtick and go back to the old job, wondering what those three last years were all about.
Wood fires smell all Kum-by-yah and marshmallow torches to me. Charcoal fires put me back in the scene of a crime I vaguely recall with some not-so-sober friends who tip over a little hibachi grill onto the Parks Canada picnic table. We drag it lakeward with the intentions of throwing it in because we are afraid of starting a forest fire, which really would really tick off the rangers, when somebody has the bright idea of pouring some of the lake on the table instead.
But I digress.
So there is Jesus, no longer dead, cooking fish over a charcoal fire. Maybe he had a hibachi. I don’t know. He yells at the boys, who were failing as badly at fishing as they were when he first met them. (Why, in the face of disappointment, do so many of us return to the very same thing that didn’t work for us the last time either?)
“Throw the net on the right side!” he yells.
The same miracle happens. Lots of fish, Many, many, many fish.
Now Pete, bless his heart, is still not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and it takes his buddy John to point out the coincidence to him. Then he does his impulsive thing, although perhaps less impulsively than before because this time he puts some clothes on first, and swims for shore. When the other guys catch up they see the charcoal fire and a fish fry happening on the beach.
Now I don’t think the Bible throws in a lot of extra detail because the Lord knew the book needed to be portable (although I’m still working on understanding why I have to haul all those genealogies around every time I throw it in my big old tie-dyed hippy bag). So why mention charcoal?
Because when Peter denied Christ he was standing near a charcoal fire.
When Jesus asked Peter twice if he loved him (agape -God’s total all-encompassing love) Pete was again standing beside a charcoal fire, but on the beach this time.
The memory of the last time he stood beside a charcoal fire would have been very strong. He could not answer that he loved Jesus with agape love because he knew that in himself he did not have that ability. His ceiling had already caved in on that issue. He was publicly exposed as a coward and had wept bitterly at his own weakness.
And now Jesus is rubbing the memory of his failure in his nose.
By making him a meal over charcoal early in the morning, Jesus is reminding him of his worst moment, yet serving him and loving him at the same time. My stomach would have been willing to give back the fish at that point. In the midst of the smoke, which I can see drifting his way, Peter has to be totally honest and humble before Christ -and himself- and admit he can, at best, only offer a lesser phileo (brotherly) love. So Jesus asks again and after receiving the same response lowers the ante and asks the broken man if he loves (phileo) him.
This is the moment when Jesus chooses to call him to leadership. “Feed my sheep.”
While Peter’s nostrils are sending the memory of the worst moment of his life straight to his heart and mind, Jesus says he is ready to care for His sheep and lambs.
Have you noticed when you feel like God might be asking you to step up and do something courageous, something that might look like a promotion to anyone else, he often picks the moment when you are most aware of your personal inadequacies, the moment when you know without a doubt the task is beyond you?
There you are, bravado and enthusiasm stinking like a Tupperware casket full of last season’s rotten leaves, as you slink off the stage hoping no one remembers what you look like. And then God says, “Now you’re ready.”
Why? Because he doesn’t need your talent, your muscle, your wit, your confidence and excellent self-esteem. He wants your love. That’s it. That’s the only qualification. And he doesn’t even expect you to drum up a lot of that on your own either.
Three times Jesus asked Peter the question, giving him the chance to confirm three times what he had denied three times. Jesus is very good that way. He takes our worst moments and burns them up to cook breakfast over, just for us. He is not afraid of our failure. His kindness is relentless.
He puts his love in our trembling hands so we have something to hand back to him.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)