In October 1992 my family and I drove from California, where we then lived, to Oregon so we all could be present for Karen’s sister’s wedding. We stopped at what then was the first reststop inside the Oregon border which sat along a river. The air crisp, the sky clear, the river crystal clear and flowing over rocks and around a bend captured us all. It was beautiful. The air felt different in Oregon with the extra humidity and all those negative ions floating around us. Karen especially was jubulent. She laughed with a childlike pleasure and joy, leaping across the grass to the overlook of the river, arms wide, heart rejoicing exclaiming, “I love Oregon!” This picture spoke to my heart of our need to come home to Oregon sooner than we had ever planned. I flew back to California a few days later to complete work there before returning for the wedding. God used the picture of Karen to prepare me to hear and accept his call upon us to move north. We moved two years later.
The brilliance of the skies in Oregon always seem a richer, deeper blue (to me) than other places I’ve lived. I love rain, grey clouds, and the cold weather we get to experience, too. But it was not until last week, on the tail of the months of the “stay home” order that I realized how much, how very much I love air. Plain, fresh, clean, breathable air. And I tend to take it forgranted!
After the fires in Oregon, we experienced air described as very hazardous due to the smoke. The worst air in my memory. The air quality index (aqi) was into the 400s in some places just south of us, and in the mid 300s for us. Good air is below 25 aqi, so our air was bad. A friend went jogging one of those days and wondered why he felt ill the next day. Clearly a bad idea. And although crazy to do it, I understood. We have already felt fairly trapped for months, and this smoke, the inability to open windows and doors, the actual danger in going outdoors, just added another layer to it. The air was unbreathable.
Losing air underlined the importance of clean air. Now air we could see and couldn’t breathe surrounded us. It felt as if we might not see the sky again.
One friend uses a C-PAP machine and usually you remove the filter, wash it with water and return it to the machine. But her filter during this week of bad air turned black and would not come clean. Made me wonder what my lungs might look like!
The fires behind the smoke, also brought devastation — loss of life, homes, possessions, and livelihoods. Not only could we not breathe the air, many struggled to breathe through the loss. My wife leads two congregations near one of the fire areas, so was in the middle of the care of souls encountering such losses. It is no small thing to encounter the loss of everything. That air “within us” encountered in crisis gets smoky as well.
Yet in the middle of loss, again, good news. Stories of people helping one another. Neighbors sheltered the animals of other families. An excavator brought in all his equipment to dig lines and trenches around people’s houses for fire blocks. In the middle of bad air, the good air of real humanity. The crew called themselves the “Red Neck Crew,” but one woman named them “Angels with Skin On.”
I’m on a walking team that every year walks the 132-mile route from Portland to the coast. This year, due to the COVID restrictions the whole race was canceled. We had decided to do a short relay together of 21 miles on Saturday September 19th. Due to the smoke, with an aqi of 186 the day before, we were anticipating we might need to cancel. But, God sent rain. It was glorious. I think the whole state had been praying for rain by then. By Saturday the air quality was down into the 30s and dropping.
Walking in the fresh air filled with those negative ions was so beautiful.
Conversation, laughter, stories, friendship and a day alongside one another was such gift — it was a washing of the air between us, within us as we breathed the good air around us.
We even met up with folk running the COVID “Boston Marathon” on the Oregon route!
Experiencing the relief from the smoky air,
I noticed how much I can allow the circumstances of life impact me. The loss of the exterior air felt like I was beginning the COVID journey all over again. How long will this last, was my question. Instead of viewing it as an opportunity for growth, I automatically wanted to know who was to blame. And would agree when someone uplifted any theory of responsibility. Many went there. Emergency lines were flooded with calls. Blame does not solve anything. Check out Brene Brown’s great explanation of it. It’s as if, if I can blame someone, the situation will be easier on me. Truth is: I still need to walk through it and the expression of blame will complicate the journey.
Interior and exterior air gets smokier with with blame. So, what might be a way through? No matter what kind of air you are experience, ask: how can I use this for good?
I am staggered and inspired by the story of Samuel Logan Brengle.
This Boston Salvation Army Commissioner lived a century ago, was recognized as a prophet of holiness, and walked through a really “smoky air” experience. His experience lasted 18 months but impacted his entire life:
One night in Boston, a drunken thug hurled a brick at Brengle as he stood in the doorway of the Salvation Army building. The man was barely ten feet away so the brick blasted full force into Brengle’s head, smashing it into the doorpost.
For weeks, the preacher who had laid his life on the line to help the poor and needy lay in limbo between life and death at the hands of one to whom he had come to minister. As a result of the blow, Brengle was incapacitated for more than eighteen months. For the rest of his life, he experienced recurring bouts of depression and intense headaches that his doctors attributed to the blow from the brick.
During his recuperation, Brengle kept busy by writing articles for “The War Cry,” a Salvationist magazine. Later, those articles were collected into a short but powerful book, “Helps to Holiness.” The book was an instant success. The little volume was distributed around the world and translated into dozens of languages. It continues to be an encouraging guide for many Christians searching for a deeper walk with Christ.
Whenever people complimented Brengle or thanked him for the blessing that his book had been to them, Brengle would smile and say, ‘Well, if there had been no little brick, there would have been no little book.'”Ken and Angela Abraham, A Treasury of Wisdom Journal, September 20, Barbour & Co., c. 1996, ubp
Did you notice too, Brengle didn’t blame the man for nearly killing him? He didn’t hold onto a grudge. In fact, he was grateful. Because of that brick to his head, his work impacted millions. Who is to say what good will yet come of all the bad associated with COVID and fires. Even and especially through losses, God yet works. Remember Brengle’s brick and use whatever comes for good.
Perhaps, too, it helps to remember: “Breathe. Just breathe.”