The Fire of Transformation – Rev. Tessie Mandeville

Please join me in a moment of meditation and prayer.  Spirit of Life, we open our minds, hearts, and spirits to all that is good and we pray for a spirit of renewal and new life to dwell in us deeply.  May the words of my mouth, the meditations of all our hearts, and the ways we live our lives bring more love, justice, and compassion into this world.  May it be so and amen.

Let me begin this morning by saying what an honor it is to be offering a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta.  I want to offer a heartfelt thank you to Rev. Anthony David for this opportunity.

Many of you have wondered who I am, where I’ve come from, and how I ended up here.  When I served as worship liturgist at UUCA for the first time in November 2011, some of you thought you’d never seen me before.  I think a lot of you have seen me but you didn’t recognize me because this is generally what I look like when I come to UUCA:

My partner, Lisa, and I often ride our bikes to service and we come in shorts and t-shirts.  We sit way up in the top row, as far away from people as possible, since we are generally a little sweaty.  We consider it an act of kindness because we really like you!

As for where I’ve come from, you can tell by my accent that I am from New York.  Okay, that’s not quite right.  I was born and raised in the low country of Charleston, South Carolina.  You might be interested to know that I grew up Southern Baptist and because of that, I know that the Sunday after Easter is called “Canon Sunday”.  Do you know why?  Because on the Sunday after Easter, you can fire a canon from the back of the church to the front and not hit a single person—because no one is there!  But I’m so glad you, the faithful remnant of this congregation, are here this morning on “Canon Sunday” and I’m glad to be here with you.

As for how I ended up here at UUCA, well, that’s a longer story and I’ll share some of it with you later in this sermon.

We are in a wonderful season of the year.  Spring has officially begun.  Flowers are blooming.  The grass is turning green.  The days are lengthening because the light shines a few more minutes each day.  Everywhere we look, the signs point to new birth.  They tell us that the earth is being reborn and that life is being renewed.  Last Sunday we celebrated new beginnings with stories, songs, and our wonderful Flower Communion.

But before we made our way to Easter Sunday services, we embraced our UU diversity by having a Good Friday service and a Passover Seder.  At the Good Friday service, seven people from this congregation courageously examined the dark times in their lives beneath the shadow of the cross.  At our Passover Seder we told the stories of bondage and enslavement and then told the stories of freedom.  I have found over the years that the deeper I am able to experience the season of darkness, the more I am able to fully appreciate the light.  Maybe you’ve discovered this too.

I participated in a Lenten Book Study this year.  My study group read and debated Richard Rohr’s book, Hope Against Darkness.  In it he says, “Spiritual transformation is often thought of as a movement from darkness to light.  In one sense that is true, but in another sense it is totally false.  We forget that darkness is always present alongside the light.  Pure light blinds, only the mixture of darkness and light allows us to see.  Shadows are required for our seeing.” [1]

Shadows are required for our seeing.  I imagine all of us have had shadow times, those times when we fall so far down that we don’t believe we’ll ever get back up.

Sometimes our lives become a complete mess before we experience transformation.  During those times we face the dark night of the soul and walk through the fire of transformation.

In alchemy, fire is considered the primary agent of change.  It is the agent of action.  Fire has the potential to create something new or to destroy life.  Uncontrolled fire raging through a forest can have devastating effects like what is happening in Colorado right now.  Controlled fire that warms our skin, cooks our food, and gives us light, has a positive effect.  The fire of transformation, I believe, is a combination of the two.  When we live in the fire, we feel its heat.

Fire consumes and reduces whatever is in its path to ashes.  When we are personally, spiritually, or emotionally reduced to ashes, it’s hard to believe we can be reborn from those ashes, like the phoenix.

Myths and legends of the phoenix exist all over the world.  According to the writers of ancient Greece, the phoenix was a magnificent bird larger than an eagle, with an extraordinarily beautiful plumage of red and gold feathers.  It dwelt in Arabia, nearby a cool well.  Each morning at dawn, it would bathe in the water and sing such a beautiful song, that the sun-god would stop his chariot to listen.  It was the only creature of its kind and was said to live for up to 1000 years.  When it knew its life was to end, the phoenix would retreat to a palm tree in the Arabian desert and build a nest of herbs and spices during a single night.  As the sun rose at dawn, the nest would burst into flames, and the phoenix would perish.  But at the same time, a young phoenix would arise from the flames of the nest, born anew. [2] There are other myths of the phoenix from Egypt, Japan, China, and Russia.

The phoenix is a symbol of triumph, beauty, hope, and love.

My favorite phoenix is Fawkes from the Harry Potter series.  He is Professor Dumbledore’s phoenix.  Watch with me if you will this scene from Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets….

The phoenix represents life after death.  It reminds us that though we are reduced to ashes sometimes, we can be reborn into something new.

To confront the ashes of our lives is to confront our suffering, our pain, our vulnerability.  As the wonderful Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, reminds us, “When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize.” [3]

Often we want to go around our pain and I understand that because the way through the pain is always more difficult than the way around it.

Many of you have wondered how I ended up here at UUCA…I wasn’t planning on coming to UUCA or learning about Unitarian Universalism.  I really thought my life trajectory was laid out before me and I was happy following it along.  As I mentioned earlier, I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and while there are many things that I learned from that tradition, and that I appreciate, I had to eventually let it go because there was no place for me when I came out as a lesbian.  In 1995, I was introduced to MCC, Metropolitan Community Churches, a Christian denomination that ministers primarily in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities.  My call to ministry was reaffirmed by this denomination and I will be forever grateful.  I went to seminary at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, and obtained my Master of Divinity Degree in 2002.  One of my first classes was at Starr King School for the Ministry.  I was ordained to professional ministry in May 2002 and since then I have served churches in Oklahoma, California, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Being in professional ministry has been one of the greatest joys of my life.  My beloved partner, Lisa, has been with me the entire time and she has always supported me in following my call, even when it took us away from our friends and family in San Francisco where we lived for many years.

My call brought us to Decatur, Georgia, where I served a local church as senior pastor.  After being there for only two and a half years, I resigned.  I then served a MCC church temporarily in Chattanooga, TN.  After this I returned to my work as a hospital chaplain and decided, like the Episcopal Priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, that sometimes the only way you can keep your faith is to leave the church. [4] When I left full-time church ministry, I was heart-broken and devastated.  I wasn’t sure that I would ever pastor another Christian church again and I wondered whether my career as a parish minister was over.

It was in that spirit that both Lisa and I washed up on the shores of UUCA.  It was late fall 2009.  The first thing I saw when I entered the building was the phoenix, that beautiful art work hanging on the wall.  We came into the service and The Phoenix Choir sang.  Later the congregation sang, WoyayaWe will get there.  Heaven knows how we will get there.  But we know we will. All I could do was cry.  I couldn’t sing that song but I desperately wanted to believe it and so I listened as you sang it for me.  And I remember thinking and saying to Lisa, “They have the phoenix as their spiritual symbol.  Maybe this congregation knows what it means to rise from the ashes and to live again.  Maybe we can rest here for a little while and find healing.”  UUCA became our refuge and I clung to the spiritual symbol of the phoenix.

As I worshiped with you every Sunday, riding my bike to service and sitting up top, far away from everyone, I learned more about your history and discovered through hearing your stories and watching the 50th anniversary film, The Phoenix Rising, (show slide with pix of DVD on it) that this congregation does indeed know what it’s like to rise from the ashes.  If you haven’t watched that film, I encourage you to do so; it’s amazing and you can check it out of the UUCA library.

After worshiping regularly with you for over a year I finally “came out” to Rev. David as a minister and I offered to be a volunteer in ministry with him and Rev. Marti Keller.  I was so grateful for the healing I had experienced in this congregation that I wanted to give back to it.  I was also beginning to explore Unitarian Universalism more fully and discovering that it really spoke to me.  My offer to do volunteer work was countered by Rev. David and he hired me last summer as the part-time Pastoral Care Coordinator.

Over this last year I’ve been studying more about Unitarian Universalism and I have officially entered the process of plural standing with the UUA, which means I’ll maintain my credentials with MCC but I hope to also be credentialed with the UUA when I complete the process.  I think that means I’m becoming a “born-again UU”!

The phoenix represents life after death.  It reminds us that though we are reduced to ashes sometimes, we can be reborn into something new.

I believe that healing is always possible but we do not heal by avoidance.  We heal when we courageously face our pain and tell our stories.

In talking about pain Richard Rohr says this: “Spirituality in its best sense is about what you do with your pain… You can take it as a general rule that when you don’t transform your pain, you transmit it.” [5] We all probably know people who transmit their pain to everyone around them instead of transforming it.  We probably all know people whose personal identity is wrapped up in their pain and woundedness.  I don’t know about you but I would much rather be known by the healing I’ve experienced in my life rather than by my wounds.

It is said the tears of the phoenix have potent healing powers and capabilities.  Please watch with me another clip from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Harry has been mortally wounded in a fight with Tom Riddle, also known as Lord Voldemort.  Watch what Fawkes the phoenix does….

Fawkes, who was reduced to ashes, was born again, and he used his tears to heal the wounds of Harry Potter.

In doing this, Fawkes becomes the archetypal “wounded healer”.  It’s a dynamic that psychologist Carl Jung described.  He said that it is our own hurt that gives us a measure of our power to heal.

In his book, The Wounded Healer, author Henri Nouwen says it this way: “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.  The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’  When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” [6]
In other words, our healed wounds can serve as a source of strength and healing to others.  Yours certainly did to me and I hope mine do the same for you.
Today, the phoenix has not been forgotten, especially here at UUCA.  It remains a symbol of triumph, beauty, hope and love.
As we continue on our spiritual journeys together, may we embrace the healing and transformation that is available to us.  May we remember that though we may be reduced to ashes sometimes, just like the phoenix, we can be reborn into something new.  Let it be so, blessed be and amen.


[1]Richard Rohr, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of St. Francis in an Age of Anxiety.  St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinatti, OH, p. 163.

[2] Megan Balanck, http://www.ancientspiral.com/phoenix.htm

[3] Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Shambhala Classics, Boston, 2000, p 9.

[4] For more on this thought, refer to Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.

[5] Richard Rohr.  Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis n an Age of Anxeity. St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, p. 19.

[6] Henri J. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Image Publishers, 1979.