“Today is another Spare the Air day.”
If it seems like we’ve been hearing those words a lot lately, well, it’s because we have. Due to the smoke from the fires surrounding the Bay Area, today is the 15th consecutive Spare the Air day, breaking the record for the longest stretch of days with hazardous air, which was set only a couple years ago when the smoke from the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise filled our skies. Even if the local PurpleAir sensors may tell us the Air Quality Index in our neighborhood is less than 100, seeing the red disc of the sun reminds us of the dangerous particulates we’re breathing into our lungs during this extended period.
The Spare the Air alerts are meant to encourage us to not only watch what we take in – staying indoors, setting HVAC units to recirculate air, avoiding outdoor exercise when the AQI levels are excessive – but also to watch what we put out – minimizing driving, reducing the use of gas-powered equipment, not using outdoor fire pits. As if we weren’t already in a state of heightened awareness of harmful things being spread through the air – did you have any N95 masks left at home from the 2018 fires when COVID hit? – there are other hazards that are transmitted through the air that may not harm our body but can deeply impact our soul.
If you do a Google search for the meaning of the word “sound”, you’ll find the following definition: “vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear”.
So many sounds travel through the air and reach our ears. There are certain sounds that delight us, that bring us joy – the rhythmic crashing of waves along an ocean shore, the melodious songs of birds, the laughter of children, the voice of a loved one. There are sounds, often man-made, that disturb the peace – a low-flying aircraft, the ubiquitous sound of traffic, the banging of tools from a couple houses down way too early on a Saturday morning when you were trying to sleep in. But the sounds which seem to penetrate the deepest into our souls and can cause the deepest hurts are from words.
I don’t know if it’s mere coincidence or definitive cause-and-effect, but I couldn’t help noticing how the air quality got worse the last two weeks while the conventions of the two major political parties were in session: blue smoke the first week, red smoke the second – wait, is that why the air monitoring website is called PurpleAir?! – too much talking, too little listening, words that tended to tear down rather than build up, words that tended to diminish the light needed to see things clearly. It would be too easy to fool ourselves into thinking the problem rests only with politicians from the other party, whichever one that may be for you, but it’s more pervasive than that. How has the air quality been recently in our homes, in our relationships?
James’ words seem particularly apt during these days we’re currently in:
“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (3:5b-10)
While it’s apparent we all have a problem with air quality, what would clearer skies look like? Earlier in his letter, James writes:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak ….” (1:19)
Paul also gives us a glimpse in Ephesians:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (4:29)
“Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (5:18b-20)
The fire and weather professionals tell us that the skies in the Bay Area will eventually clear out and the record streak of Spare the Air days will come to an end as the fires are contained and either burn themselves out of fuel or are dampened by the marine layer.
The spiritual professionals tell us that the fires caused by our tongues are not likely to be extinguished anytime soon, but that can change by the power of the Spirit, giving thanks to the Father in the name of the Son.
But for now, wouldn’t you know it… “Tomorrow is another Spare the Air day.”