This Sunday is Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian Church. Every year at this time I think about this story from the church I used to serve and it makes me giggle: Pentecost in this particular congregation is always beautiful. The church has a huge round communion table that the flower guild fills with red, orange and yellow candles—twenty-five or thirty of them, at various heights, on a lovely red tablecloth. The effect is quite dramatic. They also turn all the chairs to face the exterior windows, to represent our call as the church, to be focused outward.
I had set up a way to dramatize the reading of Acts 2. During the verse when the tongues of fire rest on the disciples, the reader paused and several people (mainly children and youth) lightly tossed about half a dozen streamers of red, orange and yellow crepe paper across the heads of the congregation, while the bells did some free-ringing. People figured out quickly that they were supposed to receive the streamers and toss them in a different direction, forming a web of sorts. Happy chaos ensued. Lots of smiles.
Then at the end of the service, my colleague was praying after the offering right before the closing hymn when a woman close to the front of the meeting house yelled “Fire! Fire!”
I thought, “Oh my goodness, is this is a skit? Or is she testifying?”
I opened my eyes and saw. The communion table was on fire.
One of the tapers had burned down and, aided by an unfortunately-aimed air conditioning vent, had ignited the red tablecloth—a sheer billowy thing that, in retrospect, was basically festive kindling.
My first (selfish) thought: “Thank God it wasn’t the streamers. Although, as this story morphs over the years, it will probably be told that way.” (And it didn’t take years; by the second service people were asking, “You’re going to do the streamers again even though they caught the table on fire?” Sigh. Northern Virginia, where even the rumors travel at breakneck speed.)
Several of us sprang up and stood stupidly around the table for several seconds. I think we were all trying to figure out how to smother the fire, but the only thing available was the Amazing Flammable Cloth of Doom. So I’m sure to onlookers, a proper caption would've been, “Well I’ll be darned. The table’s on fire. Who’s got marshmallows?”
Finally my colleague yelled, “The baptismal font!” Which someone promptly brought forward. So in an absurd clash of symbols, the waters of baptism actually extinguished the fires of the Spirit.
My favorite part was after the fire was completely out and the table was assessed to be just fine: my colleague proceeded to pick up where she left off on her prayer. I admired her desire to Continue As Planned, but I wanted to walk up and pat her hand and say, “Honey, I’m sure you worked hard writing this, but the prayer is over.”
I always try to pray before worship, “God, let something happen here that isn’t in the bulletin.” Moral of the story: If you pray this, have a fire extinguisher handy.