choirIt was a typical Advent worship service. I was the choral director, a job I was ill-prepared for, yet I executed my duties for four years as if I knew what I was doing. During this particular Advent season, I had chosen a simple, harmonic Christmas hymn entitled, “Love Came Down” as the choral introduction for Sunday morning worship.

Each Sunday, at the appointed time the choir marched into the choir loft at the front of the sanctuary, sat facing the congregation, and waited for my cue. At the right moment, they stood, I waved the downbeat for the pianist and organist, and following the introductory measures, the choir began, “Love came down at Christmas…”

The sound was angelic and within a measure or two, I settled in to focusing on the music rather than on the anxiety of the sequence of all the preliminaries to the worship service.

We were several measures in when something to my right, something on the front row of the soprano section, caught my attention.

Now I was not the choral director when the elegant choir robes were purchased many years prior, so I do not know if the question was ever asked if the robes were made of flame retardant material. I’m not sure I would have been concerned about that even if I had been the purchasing agent. However, at the moment my attention went to the sopranos, that became an issue.

votive candlesThis year for Advent we offered a new feature. The railing in front of the choir was lined with votive candles, providing a cozy but also more formal (think Episcopalian) ambiance to the service. Baptists don’t do candles very much lest we be seen as too “high church.” But here we were, Baptists with candles but without much experience.

Dear Mrs. Ashcroft, one of the anchors of the section, unbeknownst to her, had allowed the long draped sleeve of her choir robe to hang a bit too long and too close to the votive candle directly in front of her. The tip of the left sleeve had caught fire.

It was not yet a big fire, but it was close enough to skin that she flinched and then looked down. To her credit, she did not shriek, she did not throw her music and begin waving her arms, she did not panic at all as many would have. She was holding her music folder in the hand that was about to be consumed, so she snapped her folder shut and began swatting at her left sleeve with her right hand. The person to her left immediately assessed the situation and, to her credit she did not shriek either. She simply began to swat at the flame as well. By this time, I was aware of the situation but continued to conduct the choir as if nothing else mattered.

Within a few seconds, after several frantic swats from the two women, and by the time the smell of smoke got to me, the fire was extinguished. The two women and a few more by that time began blowing out all the votive candles they could reach. This added to the smell of smoke and, if you had not been aware of the barely averted disaster, to the feeling of this being an Episcopalian service.

This all happened directly behind the pastor who sat pensively and unaware. In fact, he blocked the scene from most in the congregation, though those who saw it, I’m sure, were wide-eyed and glancing around for the nearest extinguisher for those few seconds.

The choir and I, well, we finished the song without a hesitation. It was beautiful. The votive candles were conspicuously absent the next Sunday. Love indeed came down, but the candles were put away.