Image Description: A Torah scroll unrolled.

“Would you like to hold it?” he asked me.

I was deeply honored by the question but also concerned about dropping it or making ignorant missteps, so I declined. I did smile though, and the Torah scroll was handed over to another person for additional whirling and merriment.

As a Presbyterian seminary student, I was grateful to visit a Conservative Jewish synagogue with members of my class. We were present for Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday that marks the end of a cycle of public Torah readings and a new beginning for the next cycle. On this night, the Torah scrolls of the ark are removed, and the community dances with them.

I knew I was going to experience a meaningful interfaith encounter; I had no idea I was going to cut a rug with Torah scrolls. And cut a rug we did!

This celebration was joyous and gleeful, and it lasted for a couple of hours. It was an meaningful experience, and along with my classmates, I was grateful to be welcomed into the community holiday. It was the kind experience you cannot quite anticipate as a guest. You have to be present with it as it unfolds, finding yourself within a moment in the midst of community.

The dancing was meaningful and memorable, but right alongside it, there was an another moment when I suddenly found myself within a community experience I could not have anticipated. The Rabbi invited everyone to come close together, and members of the synagogue unrolled the Torah scroll so that it encircled the people. We were inside the text, in a sense. Then the Rabbi traveled around that circle of text and shared its stories as the larger, unfolding story of the people. He said things like,

“This is when we were created, along with the entire world.”

“This is when we were liberated from slavery in Egypt.”

“This is when we received the law.”

This is when we…

We stood there, peopled.

And I was so drawn to that sense of being gathered together, encircled by story, peopled together by a shared story.

It was the kind experience you cannot quite anticipate as a guest — the kind of experience when you find yourself suddenly peopled too.

Renee Roederer

Home is Love With All Its Names


Image Description: The word ‘language’ in a dictionary.

In the English language, we have one primary word for love. Just… Love. There are certainly synonyms and words that expand upon it, but we typically use one word while other languages are a bit more expansive.

I’ve decided that it would be wonderful if these kinds of experiences and feelings of love had names:

— There’s a wonderful feeling of discovering that you are known in your specificity and loved in your limitations, and that without saying anything, people anticipate and accommodate what you need, including barriers that might be challenging for you.

I’ve experienced that in the last two weeks. That’s love. I wish it had its own name.

— There’s a wonderful feeling of discovering that people think about things and frame things in particular ways because they’ve internalized stories you have told, and when they reveal this to you, there’s a beautiful surprise of recognizing that they have internalized pieces of you, just as you have internalized pieces of them.

I’ve experienced that in the last two weeks. That’s love. I wish it had its own name.

— There’s a wonderful feeling of discovering you have commonality with a person, that simply being in their presence returns you to a part of yourself, a piece you didn’t even know was missing.

I’ve experienced that in the last two weeks. That’s love. I wish it had its own name.

–There’s a wonderful feeling of discovering that people now see you — really see you in some of your more challenging moments — not in an exposed way but in an expansive and affirming way, demonstrating a recognition that you have suffered and prevailed, and showing you a surprising amount of compassion, awe, and respect.

I’ve experienced that in the last two weeks. That’s love. I wish it had its own name.

Renee Roederer

At Home With Who We Are


Image Description: A blank and a question mark in black writing. The image has a gray background.

Chasidic masters told this story about Rabbi Zusya of Hanapoli:

Once, the Hassidic Rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:

“Zusya, what’s the matter? 

And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?”‘

Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?

[________], why weren’t you [________]?

We can easily place our names in those boxes. In lifting this story up today, my point is not to raise the possibility of judgment, either here or in some future afterlife. My point is to raise questions like,

[________], what has gifted you to be [________]?

[________], what could be possible if you lived as [________]?

[________], how might your neighbors connect meaningfully to [________]?

[________], what is possible if you are fully [________]?

After all, there are gifts and abilities that come quite easily specifically to you. What could be possible if you felt their joy — a joy that then extends well beyond yourself? What could be possible if those very qualities, traits, gifts, abilities, and passions were turned in the direction of some of the greatest needs we witness and experience? What is possible when we feel at home with ourselves?

How could we give? How could we receive?

Renee Roederer

I inserted this story of Zusya, as I found it here: Be True to Yourself — Ask Zusya’s Question

The Great Gift of Dirty Dishes


Image Description: A sink of dirty dishes (not mine; a different set than I’m about to describe below!) One side of the sink has lots of bubbles from dish soap. Public Domain image.

For the last year, I’ve had the great privilege of hosting a group of young adults in my home. We are an interspiritual discussion community. Over that time, our conversations have been wonderfully enriching, and our relationships have grown very deep. As both have happened, we have become a family group for each other.

Young adults in their 20s experience a lot of transience, moving often. It’s a gift to have a sense of home with one another. I feel so fortunate that I get to host them in my house, providing home-space for these home-relationships to develop.

On Sunday, they all came over for a family meal. I made tortilla soup, and we gathered at the table, which we expanded with the typically-stored table leaves. We told stories, laughed hard, and had a discussion around this question:

What does it mean to home-build?

At the end of our time, we all took a photo on couch, something that has become a tradition. Then before they left, we cleaned up, organizing dishes into the dishwasher. But those dishes didn’t all fit, so after everyone left, I organized the stacks a bit more, cleaned the counters, and went to bed, leaving the rest for the morning.

When I woke up the next day, I encountered the mess of them in the sink, and instead of inwardly groaning, I beamed. I delighted that I had had all of these beloved people with me in one place the night before.

This is part of what it means to home-build.

Dirty dishes. A memory of a shared meal. Home-space. Home-relationships.

Renee Roederer

Radical Homemaking


Image Description: A wall hanging in the shape of a heart reads, “Home Sweet Home.” 

Today’s piece is re-post from March 21, 2018. It was written after I attended the “Why Christian?” conference in Durham, North Carolina. These themes have been with me in renewed ways over the last few days, and I intend to write in these directions for the rest of the week. I love this language of Radical Homemaking. I also love my own calling as a Radical Homemaker. How does this resonate with you?

What could be possible if we put joy at the center?

For me, this question is connected to Radical Homemaking, and it has been energizing me since I’ve returned home after spending much of last week in Durham, North Carolina. I visited very beloved folks there and then attended the Why Christian Conference.

Some context…

The name of the Why Christian conference is actually pretty apt. Organized by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans, the conference invited eight incredible women to give testimony, answering these questions:

“Why, in the wake of centuries of corruption, hypocrisy, crusades, televangelists, and puppet ministries do we continue to follow Jesus? Why, amidst all the challenges and disappointments, do we still have skin in the game? It’s a question that may take a lifetime to answer, but we hope the next two days inspire you to wrestle with it in some new and fresh ways.”

All of the stories were remarkably powerful and compelling. They weren’t crafted to convince people of anything, or move to some sort of ‘or else,’ grand conclusion, as many of us have experienced in fire-and-brimstone churches. These were life testimonies of experience, speaking to deep conviction, love, and joy, and that took place right alongside stories of honesty, confession, loss, trauma, and vulnerability.

The piece that impacted me the most was one of the breakout sessions. I attended a session with the Rev. Amy Campbell, pastor of the BeLoved Community in Asheville. This session was called, “The Radical Art of Making Home.” “What if our primary vocation as humans is to make home?” she asked. Over these last years, she has been making home together with people who are acquainted with the painful experiences of homelessness. The BeLoved Community is an intentional community in a house in Asheville. People worship, share meals, sleep, build friendships, and beautifully celebrate one another — especially making space for people who have no shelter or people who are estranged from a sense of home in one way or another.

Radical Homemaking. . . I can’t begin to tell you how much this spoke to me. In my own context, I feel like this framework names the calling that energizes me as well.

What does it mean to be at home. . .
. . . in our bodies?
. . . in our selves?
. . . in our relationships?
. . . in connection to the Sacred?
. . . in the ways we organize our communities?
. . . in the beautiful broadening of kinship-belonging?
. . . in the ways we shape family and choose family?
. . . in the cultivation of space (including literal homes) for hospitality and nurture?
. . . in the inclusion of people (or perhaps, parts of ourselves) that feel estranged from home in one way or another?

Radical Homemaking. . . Radical: meaning, of, relating to, proceeding from a root. . . Last week, I found myself pondering this so much. This is newer language for what I know has been calling me all along.

So that brings us back here: What could be possible if we put joy at the center?

Radical Homemaking is one of my deepest joys. And I have returned home with such deep awareness that I need to put this calling and joy right at the center. Giving and receiving from this framework, I wonder what is possible?

Renee Roederer

We Need Each Other’s Questions


Image Description: A solid oak dining room table with chairs. A green candle and vase of yellow alstroemeria flowers are on the table.

This sermon was preached at the joint service of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church and Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was focused upon Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

Years ago, I attended a Thanksgiving dinner with no mashed potatoes. Gasp! Clutch the pearls! No mashed potatoes. And I love mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.

Now I’m sure if we went around the room, we could probably all name a favorite dish that we enjoy at Thanksgiving or some other holiday meal altogether — the kind of dish we cannot imagine that meal without. And I’m just curious what yours would be.

For me, it is mashed potatoes. I pile them high every single year. But twelve years ago, I attended a Thanksgiving dinner with no mashed potatoes. That year, far away from my family, I was living in Texas, so I traveled from Austin to Dallas to visit the Thanksgiving celebration of a good friend’s family. And it turns out, that meal had far greater surprises than the mere dearth of my beloved, holiday spuds.

On the way there, I was nervous. Very nervous in fact. My friend’s family was much more theologically conservative than I was. My friend’s family was tremendously more theologically conservative than I was… To give you an example, when I arrived, I was introduced to a family friend who attends their Thanksgiving celebration every year. She was a scholar — a brilliant one — and she had recently resigned her faculty position at a Southern Baptist college because she felt they were moving to far to the left.

Now, I’m not interested in a stark delineation between conservative and liberal, at least, the ways we tend to be reductionistic and stereotypical about both. That’s too shallow. I wasn’t interested in that then, and I’m not interested in that now. What I was interested in then, and what I am interested in now is how we love our neighbors, and to be honest with you, I felt a great deal of nervousness because I was a 25 year old, young woman in seminary. I had left my own fundamentalist upbringing behind, and I loved theology and thought I might like to teach it someday, perhaps also in a seminary. I had no idea what they were going to think about me or that. I had no idea how they would engage my presence there.

And so we had the meal with no mashed potatoes. No one brings them in this family, or at least, they didn’t that year. And after that meal, the family friend, the scholar who had resigned her position, said, “Alright everyone! Let’s move into the next room. It’s time for the Plato Philosophical Society!”

Apparently, this was a tradition too. After the meal, everyone would move into an entirely different room and talk about theology, philosophy, and also, politics.

Alright… here we go… my blood pressure probably went up a bit. As we moved into this other room, I thought, “I’m going to have to defend myself, who I am, why I’m studying at a seminary, and why these things are important to me.”

But the first question at the Plato Philosophical Society had nothing to do with these. The family friend raised this question at the table:

“Do you think that the earth is is 6,000 years old?”

She was basing this question off of a fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The friend who invited me to this gathering is an astronomer. I was curious if she might feel like she may have to defend what she studies. But as for me, I can tell you that this is not a question I typically ask of the universe or even the Bible.

And so, there I was, plunged into a question that I never ask. And something very interesting began to take place… once we opened up that question… once we entered it, a whole other set of questions emerged… very human questions…

The universe seems older…
Would God trick us? Can God be trusted?

What can we know with our senses?
In fact, what can we know at all?

Can we be trusted to understand?
Who and what do we trust to teach us things we can’t understand?

Are there times when we knew something to be true, outside of rational ways of understanding?

These questions were connectional questions. Suddenly, we were thinking about human experience; our spiritual lives; our human living, learning, and loving; and our collective living with one another. And as we pondered these things together, something took me by surprise — something more surprising than a lack of mashed potatoes at a Thanksgiving meal. This family friend, the scholar who resigned a position at a Southern Baptist college because she thought they were moving too far to the left, called me, a 25 year old woman and seminarian, a theologian three times in this conversation. She said that word aloud. She assigned it to me. I felt seen and affirmed. I even felt called in that identity at the table. And I did not see that coming. I was grateful for it.

I learned something that day, and twelve years later, I still think of it:

We need each other’s questions.

We do. There are times when we are separated enough from one another that we begin to ask entirely different questions. There are some questions of my faith that frankly, I have stopped asking, and I imagine that some have stopped asking the questions that my communities tend to ask. Even if we may have very different answers… we still need each other’s questions because they are places to encounter God and meet one another. They can even be places of transformation. We may even discover that within them, we are named and called, sometimes even by people we’d readily assume would never name us or call us genuinely.

We need each other’s questions.

Now, you may wonder, Renee, what does any of this have to do with our scripture texts today? Quite a bit actually, because when I hear this morning’s texts from Isaiah and Luke, it seems they are speaking two different languages. One is filled with an abundance of hope and re-creation, and the other is filled with destruction and apocalypse.

They speak to unique contexts, of course.

The text in Isaiah speaks to the people of Judah who had been taken captive to live as exiles to Babylon. Their temple had been destroyed. They lost their homeland, their entire way of life, and their sense of dignity. They lost hope for themselves, and this passage proclaims hope in abundance on their behalf.

The text in Luke speaks to 1st century Jews who were living under the occupation of Rome. Jesus was in the presence of people who were talking about beauty of the temple — the longed-for, rebuilt temple — and he warns that it will be destroyed with large-scale, cosmic apocalypse and the personal betrayal of relatives and friends. This passage speaks about destruction.

Listen once more to these passages side by side:

Isaiah says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

Luke says, “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places, famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

Isaiah says, “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” And, “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

Luke says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.”

Of course, these two passages are written to two different contexts and entirely different groups of people, each with their particular emphases. But I wonder, if both of these passages could suddenly become personified, what would that be like? What if they could sit down together at a table and have a conversation? Say, have mashed potatoes together?

Maybe we’d discover that their statements of healing and destruction come from a place of different questions: “After losing everything, will we ever experience healing again?” one might ask. “Is it possible that our occupiers will ever face accountability and lose their power over us?” the other might ask.

Different questions and different statements, but once they are entered, don’t they come from similar places? Very human places? Desiring the end of evil and longing for a hopeful, flourishing future? I wonder what kind of family meal these personified passages might share with one another. I wonder what sort of encouragement they might give each other. I wonder how they might name each other and call each other.

I also wonder how they might name us and call us.

Because the truth is, we bring very different hopes, questions, desires, longings, and wonderings when we walk in the door of this sanctuary on Sunday morning, even if we’re all a part of the same community. Those hopes, questions, desires, longings, and wonderings are present right now. Perhaps some of us are filled with joy and possibility this morning. Perhaps some of us are tired, having had experiences where we were not named or called in light of who we truly are. Maybe some of us have a sense of aliveness in creation right now. You might love all this snow. Maybe some of us are wearied by the world’s troubles right now.

We need each other’s questions. Because frankly, we need each other. 

We need the encouragement of one another. It’s a great gift that God has given us to each other, and here we are. So for the rest of this service, may it be a family meal, even if no literal food is present right now. May words be nourishment. May song be refreshment. May the human presence of our neighbors be accompaniment. May this place house us at a family table — all of our learning, our growing, our naming, and our calling. Amen.

Renee Roederer

I Am Afraid of a Harmless Thing


Image Description: A close up image of a daddy long leg, standing on a green leaf.

I am afraid of a harmless thing.
It looks like it could creep,
or bounce,
or pounce,
or charge awkwardly with its considerable appendages.

But it does none of these.
It stays in place all day long,
content to rest in a single crevice,
or reside in clumps of countless others.

It wishes me no harm;
likewise, I wish it no hurt.
Unlike curious schoolchildren at recess,
I will not examine it,
or smash it,
or dash it,
or remove any of its legs.

But –
I will stand irrationally in fear.
I will freeze in the presence of a childhood phobia.
No matter the logic:
“It can’t bite you,”
“It can’t poison you,”
“It can’t jump on you,”
I will cringe with revulsion and anxiety.
I am afraid of a harmless thing.

It makes me wonder. . .

the word can’t enters our thinking, or
the word won’t enters our hoping, or
the word don’t enters our dreaming,
perhaps we fear something harmless too?

Renee Roederer

[1] Photo Credit: Mehran Moghtadai/Arad/Wikipedia