Teri's Blog

Charcoal Fires and Second Chances


The Rev. Teri Daily


Campfire at Night (PublicDomainPictures.net)
Campfire at Night (PublicDomainPictures.net)

NPR did a story on aging prisoners who are released after spending thirty or forty years in prison.  The step out into an entirely different world from the one they left—a world of smart phones, and ATMs, and the internet.  They have to get used to life in such a fast world.  So the Colorado Department of Corrections has a Long Term Offenders Program that teaches inmates how to adjust to life on the outside.  Part of the rehabilitation—the second chance—includes the Dahlia halfway house on the outside.  Once a week they grill hot dogs, standing around an old grill together, talking about life—sometimes with jokes, sometimes with straight or tearful faces.  On this day, Chris Mayes, a one-time bank robber, tells the other parolees about a bank account he has set up for the group.  One of the other men jumps in and jokingly says: “I want to ask you a question about that though, Chris.  When you went in to set up that account…did it feel different [for you] going in and doing that instead of robbing them?”  The men all laugh but, standing there around the grill with other former inmates, his question was a subtle recognition of redemption.[1]  It was the acknowledgment that sometimes we find ourselves in a place that is similar to where we have been before, with the opportunity to choose a different path this time.  We find ourselves face-to-face with a second chance.

I suspect it was the same for Peter that day almost two thousand years earlier, when he also gathered with friends around a charcoal fire—this one on a beach.  The scene from our gospel reading begins with Peter and the other disciples having fished all night without catching anything.  Jesus calls to them from the beach, but they don’t know it’s Jesus.  He says to them: “Cast the net to the other side of the boat and you’ll catch some fish.”  So they do, and end up catching more fish than they can haul.  Somewhere in this invitation to try again and the different outcome this time around, the disciples recognize Jesus.  Peter jumps into the water, and makes his way to the shore.  There Jesus is with a charcoal fire waiting, fish on it.

After they all eat, probably while still lounging around the fire, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Each time Peter answers: “Lord, you know that I love you.”  And each time Jesus follows with this command: “Feed [or tend] my sheep.”   Only a few days before, standing around yet another charcoal fire, this one in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter had three times denied being one of Jesus’ disciple.  And now, for every time Peter denied being a disciple, Jesus offers him an opportunity to answer differently this time around—an opportunity to claim Peter’s identity as a disciple of Jesus for every time he denied it before.  What grace!

The gospel writer tells us that by the third time Jesus asks this question, though, Peter begins to feel hurt.  I wonder exactly what brings out this pain in Peter.  Does he read Jesus’ repetition of the invitation as doubt, and not grace?  Perhaps.  But I think Peter may know exactly what Jesus is doing here.  It’s just that the very thought of that night in the high priest’s courtyard, of his own failing, is more than Peter can bare.  Second chances confront us with the reality of the first opportunity, and so second chances carry pain as well as grace.  After all, redemption isn’t about forgetting the pain of the past, but about new life that happens on the other side of it.

But if Peter can acknowledge or sit with the pain of his failure, then he can also grasp the grace of this second chance.  He can see in these questions and instructions of Jesus an invitation to be who he most truly is, at the very core of his being.  This whole exchange isn’t really about the specifics of how Peter will live the rest of his life—what he will do, where he will go, the actions he will and will not take part in.  It’s much deeper than that.   It’s about vocation.  And as Parker Palmer writes in his well-known book Let Your Life Speak: “The deepest vocational question is not ‘what ought I to do with my life?’  It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’”[2]  This exchange is about who Peter is at his innermost core, in his truest self, the part of him that knows itself to be a child of God.

We so often forfeit who we most truly are and, instead, put on another face or identity.  We act out of fear, or desperation, or a sense of being lost.  Sometimes we live from the desire to conform to a vision of what our culture expects from us.  But who we are comes from a more basic place than any of these.  Palmer puts it this way:

Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not.  It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.  It is a strange gift, this birthright of self.  Accepting it turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else!  I have sometimes responded to that demand by ignoring the gift, or hiding it, or fleeing from it, or squandering it—and I think I am not alone.[3]

No, Parker Palmer is not alone in that.  And neither is Peter.  But here’s the thing:  We are most free when we live from this deep place within us, from this selfhood given to us at birth by God.  This is the irony of how our gospel reading ends.  Jesus tells Peter about a time when someone will fasten a belt around Peter and take him where he does not wish to go.  Having seen how Jesus ended his earthly life, Peter shouldn’t really be all that surprised.  But freedom is not so much about choosing what happens to us and how our life plays out, as it is about being true to who we are.  I wonder if Peter was able to look back later on these words and find them to be words of hope and freedom, words that predicted Peter’s faithfulness as a disciple of Jesus, his faithfulness to his deepest calling.

Well, we miss the full meaning of this story if we see it to be only about Peter’s redemption.  We receive the same invitation to claim who we are each and every time we celebrate Eucharist; gathering around the altar is, in a sense, like gathering around that charcoal fire on the beach with Jesus.  It is an invitation to say yes to who we are and who we are called to be.  But even this isn’t the fullest expression of today’s gospel.

The truth is that we all live our whole lives around charcoal fires, around invitations to live from our deepest and truest self.  Sometimes these charcoal fires prove to be those in the courtyard of the high priest; for, in the lives of each one of us, there are times when we are not true to our deepest callings.  Sometimes these charcoal fires show themselves to be like the charcoal fire Jesus prepared on the beach, or like the grill at the Dahlia halfway house in Denver; they bear witness to opportunities for redemption, to second chances, to resurrection.

Such second chances don’t usually come to us as a bright and blinding light from heaven, as it did for Paul on the road to Damascus.  They come much more often in the almost imperceptible glow of a charcoal ember—as for Christ Mayes when he walked into the bank on an ordinary day and opened a bank account.  Or for us when we stop and speak to someone instead of giving in to the busyness of a day and walking on by, or when we forgive and accept forgiveness in return, or when we respond out of love and not fear.

No matter what has happened before in our lives, no matter what choices we’ve made, every moment offers us another opportunity to be who we most truly are, to act from our deepest selves, from that place in us that knows we and all others are beloved children of God.  These moments may not come with loud shouts of alleluia or festive clothes or baskets full of candy, but, trust me, they are Easter nonetheless.



[1] “Life after ‘Life’: Aging Inmates Struggle for Redemption, from NPR’s All Things Considered, June 4, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/06/04/317055077/life-after-life-aging-inmates-struggle-for-redemption.

[2] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000) 15.

[3] Palmer, 10-11.