Toward the end of an absolutely gorgeous
day at our friends’ apple harvest festival,
a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year asked
if he could talk with me for a minute.
Sure, I said.
We huddled in a corner of the kitchen,
fresh apple pies baking in the oven,
dried ice rising up out of the sink,
children running through to another room,
and adults basking in a time to unwind and relax.
My friend said, “I was talking to some relatives
about a month ago and one of them said,
“Can you believe all the gay ministers in
the United Methodist Church?” What is
going on with that church anyway?
My friend listened, then said, “Who cares?
If God called them into ministry, to do
this kind of hard work, then they should be left to do it.
What difference does their orientation make?”
“Yeah, but I’d never want to go to one of “those”
churches,” said the relative.
“What do you mean?” my friend responded.
“I’ve been to a church where I live (MCC of the Blue Ridge
in Roanoke), and it has a gay minister,
and it’s the most welcoming, spirit-led
church I’ve ever been to.”
When he finished telling me this story, I said,
“You are such a blessing. And you’re courageous.
Thank you for offering your relatives a different
Then, he said, “I don’t get to see you very often,
but I want you to know how special you are to me,
how much I love you, and I’m grateful for your
church and how you are open to God’s Spirit.”
On the cusp of All Saints Sunday, I don’t know
of any gift more precious than transforming one
person’s woe into a blessing. And then sharing
the blessing with a friend who had been a
I thank God for that moment last evening,
because it reminded me of the power of blessing
in a season of woes.
Jesus and I have been having some long and
difficult decisions these past few months as I
have struggled with how to be a faithful blessing
in a storm of political and spiritual woes.
Along with many other Pastors in the United States
and in other parts of the world looking in, I find myself
wrestling within two realities: what can I say today that
will bring some faithful perspective to our troubling
times and what can I say next Sunday, because of what will
be said this Tuesday.
In the face of this struggle, as I turned to the Gospel
reading for All Saints Sunday, I met Jesus and he
basically said, “you may want to stand up for this.”
So I did, much like his first followers who were standing
around him, as he sat, like a first century rabbi, and
said to them:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek,
offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Now, I don’t know how the first disciples responded,
but when I read this, this week, I thought:
Get real, Jesus. Surely there’s something else you
can tell me that will make more sense than this.
And then, I decided to think differently.
I thought about people from three hundred
different and diverse tribes, setting aside their
centuries long disagreements, to camp together
and pray together, and protest together and
protect together the sacred land called
Blessing isn’t passive. Blessing is active.
I thought about over five hundred clergy
leaving their homes and making their way
to a sacred land in the heart of North Dakota
to walk a sacred road and sing
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water…
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Blessing isn’t pouting. Blessing is praying.
I thought about this spiritual groundswell
of faithful pilgrims from around the world
Standing Rock-solid in their call to stop
a pipeline from damaging their land and
poisoning their water.
I realized that Jesus’ timeless teaching
in a small circle of followers is continuing
to transform our woes into blessings.
To live a life of blessing
we have to wade through a lot of woes.
And these woes, while they seem daunting,
and deepening, will not diminish or destroy
They will only do that if we choose to live
in them and act out of them.
The life we are called to
live is a life of blessing – maybe not what
we imagined, yet filled with the faithfulness
of God who is with us:
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude you, revile you,
and defame you on account of me.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
for surely your reward is great in heaven;
for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
Whatever the outcome on Tuesday,
I choose to live by these words.
Whatever anyone seeks to throw my way,
whether taunting or tormenting,
diminishing or demonizing,
falsehoods or fear,
I will live as one who is blessed:
to love my enemy,
to do good to those who hate me,
to bless those who curse me,
to pray for those who persecute me.
Being a saint means living blessed
in a world of woes;
Being a saint means overcoming
fear with love,
overcoming hate with good,
overcoming shallow emptiness
with deep gladness.
Being a saint means walking in the dark
with a heart full of light.
There was a little girl in church with her mother
on a sunny Sunday morning. She looks up and
sees the sun shining through figures
in the brightly colored stained glass windows
and asks her mother,
“who are they?”
Her mother answers, “Those are saints.”
Later her mother hears her telling her friends,
“Saints are people the light shines through.”
Shine, saints, shine.
Several years ago, I offered to take one of our church choir singers home after a rehearsal. After I dropped her off at her apartment, I drove down the dimly lit street, around the corner, and back on to a main street headed toward home. I was tired and eager to get home and get some rest.
When the light changed from red to green, I slowly made my way forward toward the bridge when I saw red lights flashing behind me. No siren, just red lights. A flash of headlights signaled that I should pull over.
My body sank. What is going on? I wondered.
I went through my mental checklist of how to respond when stopped by an officer, which was heightened because it was night.
As I recall there were two officers (which I thought a bit unusual). I rolled down my window as one officer approached and asked me to step out of the car. That freaked me out. But, I stayed calm and carefully stepped out of the car. “Please step to the rear of the car.” Again, I felt my adrenalin rushing, and my mind racing.
“May I see your license, please?”
“Sir, are you aware that you have a headlight out?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Will you please open the back of your vehicle?”
“Certainly,” I answered. “May I ask why?” (At this point, I was concerned about asking anything, as I was feeling on edge and uncertain about why the officers were wanting to search my car.)
The officer then directed me to stand in front of the police car with the other officer while the search commenced.
The officer at the car informed me that there had been a rash of recent crimes involving unlicensed guns and other weapons found in vehicles, and because my jeep’s headlight was out, and my windows had a darker tint on them, they found it suspicious and stopped me.
After searching the rear of the vehicle and underneath the seats in the front, the officer cleared the vehicle. The other officer returned my license, gave me a warning to get the headlight fixed and released me.
I was shaken.
I did not grow up being instructed by my parents on how to respond to police when stopped. Other than general rules of being polite and respectful to people in authority, I wasn’t instructed on how these encounters were anticipated or expected as part of my reality. I wasn’t taught about the deep impact of these encounters on my mind or my body. I also wasn’t instructed on how what I may experience was very different from how my black neighbors would experience the same encounters. I wasn’t taught that my every move might be suspect because of the color of my skin.
This is my white privilege and it sickens me. It sickens me because I have privilege and because it creates a chasm between me and my black neighbors that I must work to change. It is my responsibility to take ownership of my privilege and the problems it raises in regard to authentic relationship with all of my neighbors. It is my responsibility to address the white privilege in our country and its roots before and during the founding of our nation. It is my responsibility to educate myself and my children as to the problems of privilege and why white bodies and black bodies are treated differently in our world.
It is my responsibility to form relationships with my black sisters and brothers, without the expectation for them to educate me. I hope for these relationships to be a source of love and grace and blessing, in which I can hear and see the depth of pain and struggle and the beauty of liberation and justice.
I’m often asked “Don’t all lives matter?
However, as is clearly evident historically and recently, this is not true in the United States and many other countries in the world.
Until all lives truly matter, we must raise up and stand with our sisters and brothers whose lives are in the balance and are treated unjustly and violently. And, we must educate ourselves as to our privilege and how it contributes to injustice and violence.
This is the most important work of my life.
An Offering for the Interfaith Prayer Service
Remembering and Honoring the Lives of our
Beloved in Orlando, Florida
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Reverend Joe Cobb
When I was coming out
and into my authentic life
a dear friend took me to
sing karaoke in a neighborhood
bar called Ralph’s.
Over time, Ralph’s became a
sanctuary, and “Get Me to the Church
On Time” from My Fair Lady
my sacred karaoke song.
Late Saturday night and early Sunday morning,
many of our extended family were gathered
in an Orlando sanctuary called Pulse to dance,
to celebrate life and love,
to honor their authentic selves.
One among them, angry and lost,
with fire in his eyes,
in an act of hatred and terror,
ripped apart the tapestry of beauty
and left forty-nine without a pulse
and over fifty more clinging to life
and countless others hurting, grieving,
aching, in an indescribable despair.
The ground beneath us gave way,
our hearts sunk,
our minds raced to make sense of
the absolutely senseless.
The world around us became quick to blame,
while we who have been here before paused
to weep, to hold one another,
to remember that even in the most
devastating times of fear,
because we are loved.
I am so glad there is a sanctuary in Roanoke
called Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge.
As you pray and huddle close there in the Love that
will not let us go, I am walking an ancient path of prayer,
nestled beneath sacred Taos mountain,
whispering your names and the names of those who
died in Orlando.
With every beat, beat, beat
of our heart’s love,
may we know this:
Love’s pulse is growing strong –
With every prayer we utter,
With every breath we take,
With every work we engage to
Inspire justice and shalom,
With every fiber of our being,
We have the unique and awesome
calling to proclaim Love as the ultimate
and eternal beat, beat, beat of our
I love you,
I love you,
I love you.
Carry the pulse of God’s eternal
Love within you, now and always.
Singing to Preserve the Truth of the Land
A Tribute to Wisdom, ancient and new
Inspired by a hymn sing at Greenfield
in Botetourt County, Virginia
on February 18, 2016
Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Her voice springs forth,
leaping out into the frozen air,
dancing amongst huddled souls
standing beneath the raised house
that once housed slaves on a hillside
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
The voices of James Weldon Johnson,
who penned these lyrics,
and our ancestors who lived each day
in the chattels and chains of oppression,
join with this powerful woman,
challenging the movement of supervisors
seeking to relocate these ancient abodes
to a less obvious place,
to make room for a shell of industry,
a new blot of capitalism on the backs
and bodies and graves of those
who gave their lives for the sake of freedom.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
They sang then,
as we sing now,
for a new day,
and a new way of seeing each
other, not as property,
or as less than,
but as beautiful and beloved.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
As I stand still,
I can feel the earth beneath me
begin to rumble—
not with the sound of construction
to make room for capitalism,
but the clanging of chains
falling to the ground
and countless souls rising up
like the sun,
to follow the north star,
and the bear’s claw,
symbols of the old, now ragged
quilts marking the way of the
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
As our contemporary voices
join the chorus of those gone before,
ancient and new harmonies
soaring into the clear, blue sky,
I sigh at the audacity of our
systemic failure to see –
to truly see—
the beauty in each other
and in the land.
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
The north star casts our eyes above
to see how blithely we toss aside
each other’s spiritual essence
for the sake of capital—
to turn out,
and send away
ancient quarters of beloved souls,
only to stomp on their graves,
with the thud of big buildings
distorting the truth of their stories
and blighting the gorgeous
view of the mountains
calling us to a higher plane
of thought and grace.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
As tears gather in our hearts,
and well up in our eyes,
we stand in defiance to the notion
that by moving the remains
of our past awful sins,
they will somehow be diminished
leaving us one less travesty
Yet, our voices still rise,
Calling out the atrocities of
our daily evils toward each other—
in San Bernardino,
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Our voices still rise,
our ancient guides still soar.
May we have the wisdom
to keep singing and preserve
the beauty of our ancestors
and our land.
To all the gowns I’ve loved before
who traveled in and out my door.
Why is Willie Nelson in my mind as I consider the word shimmer? I’m immersed in a week-long writing practice retreat at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe and all kinds of writing topics are landing in my mind.
Back to shimmer and Willie Nelson.
I am thinking about gowns, not girls. Or, maybe, both.
The fantasy that occurs in my mind from time to time, of being a contestant in Miss America, like my sister in 1984, shows up again. 1984 was the year the organization grabbed the crown from Vanessa Williams because of her nude photos.
Exploitation! they shouted. We cannot celebrate the nude image of Miss America – no, only the clad one in shimmering gown, and sultry suit, and safe answers to form questions that don’t seem real.
Maybe this is why I like gowns. They’re something to wrap up in, to sashay in, to disappear in, leaving behind the naysayers who never risk anything in their lives.
I remember Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey, the story of a drag queen turned zen Buddhist monk and his transformation from shimmering gown to shimmering soul.
Shining through his mind and heart, compassion his fierce practice, AIDS his theatre for hospice and his own welcome bed. Issan created the very thing he needed. Yet, it wasn’t just him, and perhaps it was never about him. It was something he saw, in others, that spark or “sparkle” of divine presence, waiting to rise from the ashes of despair, abuse, burden, darkness. Waiting to rise and shimmer, to bring forth that which was eating away at him and transforming it into energy emerging from the hauntings of past indiscretions and lonely nuances desperately searching for solace.
When he put on his new gown and walked the runway of his new zendo, did he shimmer?
Did he sashay away?
Did he slip into something more comfortable that was meant for him all along, the gown that chose him, the gown that wrapped him in a solitude that would carry him to the crown?
Queen Anne Chair
Hunkered down and nestled in, I am talking with my new therapist. I’m here because my wife of twelve years, when asked what I can do to help her, responded through gritted teeth: go to a therapist.
My secret life has begun to take its toll on me, on her, and on my family. I’m depressed, despondent, and barely able to function in my work as a Pastor.
This is my second, or third, session with this therapist. She is very patient. I am very good at dancing around what really needs to be discussed. Finally, I know it’s time.
“I’m struggling with homosexuality.”
After throwing this announcement into the room, I awaited what I was certain would be a cold, sneering response.
“I’m honored that you shared your struggle with me.”
Best gift ever. No judgment. No agenda. Only deep listening and honoring.
That night after talking with my therapist, I concluded that I needed to start speaking my truth.
Leigh Anne (my wife) and I went downstairs to our den, which was dark. This seemed a fitting place to deliver my news.
As we sat next to each other, I gently told her about an intimate encounter I’d had with a man while away at a conference.
“I don’t know if I’m gay or straight,” I said.
She listened, and then, almost playfully, punched me in the arm and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
I was relieved, yet knew this was only the beginning.
She slept upstairs; I slept downstairs.
Over the next year, Leigh Anne and I agreed to work on our relationship, and she agreed to stay with me until I figured out for certain whether I was gay or straight.
On the night of our thirteenth anniversary, we went out to dinner and then to a bookstore to listen to music and browse books.
We went in different directions and I made my way to poetry, where I picked up a volume of Emily Dickinson.
While reading, I leaned up against Fiction and Literature, and occasionally glanced down Mystery and Science Fiction.
One time, when I looked up, a store clerk was walking down the aisle followed by two young men, the last one wearing a red bandanna over curly long brown hair.
He winked and smiled.
I nearly dropped Emily.
Everything fell away and I came face to face with my sexual identity, orientation and nature.
I am gay.
The next day, Leigh Anne and I went for our combined session with the therapist.
I knew what I had to do.
“I’m more attracted to men,” I said.
Though I couldn’t say directly, “I am gay,” I made it clear that the thing I’d known for a long time was now being spoken.
I stepped out of the room, while Leigh Anne visited with the marriage and family therapist.
I don’t remember what either of us said after that, but we both cried and went separate ways.
I ended up driving back to our house, and along the way, so overcome with tears, I had to stop the car and collect myself before driving on.
Some days after this revelation, Leigh Anne decided she could no longer live in isolation and told me she was writing a letter to her family and reaching our for support. I understood.
I went to meet with a mentor, a clergy colleague who had known me since college. I shared my struggle with him, he listened and then he told me this:
“Joe, I invite you to look back over your life and your experiences of sexual nature and expression, and consider what of those moments was gift and what has been covered in shame.”
As I did this, I realized that my sexuality as a gay man is a gift, is natural, and should be treasured. I began to honor my authentic self and also consider how I could best serve the changing nature of my relationship with Leigh Anne.
We both agreed that speaking our truth was essential, though painful.
Kitchen Table 1998
On Labor Day, I called my parents and told them I needed to talk with them. They knew I’d been struggling, so were concerned.
When I arrived, they were in the kitchen finishing up breakfast. I gave them both hugs, then sat down and said, “Mom and Dad, I had a fling with a man, I’m gay and Leigh Anne and I are separating.”
They sat in silence.
Tears welled up and spilled out of Mom’s eyes. Dad was still.
Now, I look back and realize that was a lot to hear and take in.
They were kind and comforting, even if they didn’t understand.
Mom eventually came over and sat next to me, patted me on the leg and said, “Joe, I don’t have a problem with you being gay, I have a problem with you getting divorced.”
Kitchen Table 2015
When I came out seventeen years ago, I had no certainty where my life would lead.
I am happy to say that through abundant grace, integrity, authenticity, honesty and the power of reconciliation, coming out has made me whole.
Coming out has transformed the way I see myself, and those I love. They, in turn, have had their own coming out experiences – coming out and into a new awareness of their own authenticity and integrity as beautiful, beloved people.
Coming out is a gift and a blessing, and a treasure that will transform your life and set you free.
In ancient wisdom, there is a sacred imperative
to welcome the stranger.
I remember my first night in Roanoke.
It began with spaghetti and ended in candlelight.
And, in between, I found myself seated against
the back wall of the Unitarian Universalist Church
of Roanoke sanctuary, a stranger taking in the
extraordinary event known as the Roanoke Pride Auction.
Dale Weddle was the emcee,
and the evening was a feast in the rich diversity
and beauty of community that we affectionately
Early in the evening, I noticed three men walk in.
My curiosity gave way to wonder—
Who are these three beautiful creatures?
One, in particular, garnered my full attention,
and being located where I was, I could observe
without being observed.
At some point, he turned to scan the room,
Just as I fixed on him, and our eyes met in what
I now call a divine glance.
This began a “divine glance dance” which continued
throughout the evening—amidst all the chatter,
raucous bidding, the delight of being together.
In the end, as I was helping clean up, the stranger
whose eyes had danced with mine, met me in the
middle of the sanctuary.
“Hi, I’m James,” he said.
“Hi, I’m Joe.
We introduced ourselves, talked briefly about
being new to Roanoke, and agreed to meet at
Pride in the Park the next day in Highland Park.
He left, and I went into the kitchen, where two
new friends, Jeannie Moses and Thom Russo,
invited me to join them for a candlelight vigil
at a place called Backstreet Café.
I went. I found them merging into a crowd of
people and a sea of candles spilling into Salem
Avenue in front of the small café.
I listened as voice after voice spoke solemnly
and courageously about the events one year
before—a peaceful night shattered by gunfire—
and the lives of our community forever changed.
They spoke in memory of Danny Overstreet
and in honor of the six who were wounded.
They invited prayers for healing, while acknowledging
our collective grief.
Then, two voices filled the night with songs of healing:
One was a beautiful soul named Angie, who offered
Amazing Grace; the second beautiful soul named Barbara
offered us all the opportunity to Light Our World with
Tonight, I thank all who were there that night, from
the spaghetti servers to the candlelight singers, for
welcoming this stranger into the beloved community
When I was nine weeks old, my mom and dad took me to be with my grandparents and great-grandmother, Nana, for a baby shower.
Everyone oohed and ahed at my thin, spiky red hair, my sparkling blue eyes and my precious grin–everyone, that is, except Nana.
Nana was old school when it came to babies: if you didn’t birth ’em, they aren’t really yours; it’s just not natural.
Well, my mom and dad couldn’t birth babies, so they did what was natural for them. They adopted them. Four of them!
Their natural act of love, born of God’s work at love in them, created a beautiful, natural family.
Yet, Nana was pretty set in her ways. When mom and dad gently placed me in her hands, she held me for a while and then said, “Well, at least you can return him if it doesn’t work out!”
Now that may be how some humans react to what they perceive is “unnatural;” but, this is not how God acts.
So God created humankind in God’s image, and blessed them and said, these are very good!
These words from Genesis remind us that God creates us in Love, that Love is our nature, our natural expression and our greatest gift. We embody the nature of our Creator who has give us a spirit of wisdom and the capacity to love one another.
It is our nature to love.
What is unnatural is when we are forced to be and live as someone we are not, apart from who God created us to be, or forced to be what someone else thinks we should be to meet their criteria of natural.
On Thursday evening, I was part of a diverse community who witnessed an extraordinary expression of God’s natural household of faith–Roanoke’s first Interfaith Pride Worship Celebration.
Each person who spoke, prayed, sang or danced, witnessed to the beauty of their unique, natural authentic selves–creations of the divine.
There were no labels, no disparaging remarks, only Love–in its most natural form, revealing that in divine love, we are one!
That night, one of our local stations WDBJ7 ran a beautiful story, created by reporter Khiree Stewart, conveying the power of the celebration.
Having cried with joy during the celebration, I cried again in its memory, and rested in God’s blessing.
The next morning, I receive an email through our website from a “concerned” Christian. He didn’t address the email to me personally, but went right to the core of his message:
To love does not mean to condone sin. Love saves from sin, not keeps one in it.
He then went on to quote Romans 1:26-28.
For those of you who don’t know how it starts, it begins: because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another…
Yes, this “concerned Christian” pulled Paul’s words right out of context and cut and paste them in an email to me. My eyes rolled so hard they nearly fell out and danced around on the floor.
But, he wasn’t done.
You can read the right approach to homosexuals here at my blog, titled THE Christian response to Homosexuality at ransomforsouls.blogspot.com. (Feel free to write him and share your perspective!)
Well, as you can imagine, I had several responses:
First, if you’re going to send me an email, address it appropriately to Reverend Joe Cobb.
Secondly, while I appreciate you writing to me, don’t cut and paste me your idea of right and wrong or expect me to consider you THE expert on a Christian response to me.
Thirdly, if I’m going to read anyone’s blog on this matter it will be Jesus, whose response to my sexual orientation was and is:
Oh, and also, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
And, lastly, give Paul a break.
Paul was dealing with people who were mean, nasty, and intent on being as unloving as they could possibly be–not bringing forth the nature of God’s unconditional love.
Paul was not talking about people who get it–
And to this, I want to thank all of you who DO get it; who do realize that within each of us is the natural Spirit of Love, gifted by God.
I especially want to thank our transgender Lovers out here who teach us daily what Paul also taught:
do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is falling away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16)
In God, and through God, we are transcending the boundaries of what others define as unnatural.
God is creating in us a new natural!