The Thank You Note

As I pulled up in front of our house to park, I noticed a small piece of paper flickering in the wind, gently attached to our yard sign which reads in Spanish, English and Arabic:  “Wherever You’re From, We’re Glad You’re Our Neighbor.”

We’ve had it up for about a month, following an initiative launched by Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to remind all of our neighbors, regardless of their origins, that we are a welcoming place.

The sign is a reminder to me that my neighbors come from everywhere.

When I first noticed the note, I thought it was something our children had added to the sign during their afternoon play time in the yard.

As I turned it over, I found this message, hand-written:

“As an Arab American facing hatred now more than ever, your sign brought me to tears.  Thank you for your support, we are honored to be your neighbors.  Much love,…”

I know my neighbor’s names, yet because of the hatred they face daily, I’ve opted not to share their names.

I invite you to celebrate them, their family, their ancestors, and the gifts all of our neighbors bring to us.

A Story Behind a Prayer

For months now, as a way to unburden my soul during the election crisis in the United States, I’ve been writing a daily prayer.  I call it “A Prayer for Today.”  I write it first thing in the morning, usually near 8:00 am.  This time has no significance other than it has become the time of my prayer practice.

Each day, when I type “A Prayer for Today:”, I open to Spirit and move with what comes forth.  This morning, what came forth were two words:  overwhelming failure.  These two words emerged from a conversation with my youngest daughter last night about failure.  She is driven, like her Dad and me, and is quickly frustrated when the magic of words and projects doesn’t go according to pre-conceived plan.

She wants to create a magazine called Questions.  These questions are openers for people to respond in whatever way they feel led.  Yet, according to my youngest daughter, these can’t just be random questions.  They must be brilliant questions.  And because these brilliant questions weren’t pouring forth from her endoftheday tired mind, she became frustrated and overwhelmed.

All my questions are dorky, she said.  Every question is a good question, I said.

The conversation (or should I say dueling monologues) continued into dinner.  I felt as though I was dining with monkey mind.

I’m a failure, she said.  I fail at everything.  I’m just going to give up.  It’s hopeless, helpless and hapless (my trilogy, not hers).  Dad and I both tried to soothe the savage beast by introducing Thomas Alva Edison.  I googled “how many times did Edison fail before creating electricity?”

I found memes quoting Edison that revealed a range of 700 to 10,000 times of failure and any number of quotes attributed to Edison that were all about creating until it worked.

Failure is a damnable human creation.  The word, like perfection, should be stricken from our lexicon.

I wanted to sweep my baby into my arms and rock her to sleep, while whisking away the pain of failure.

So, when the words overwhelming failure emerged on my screen, I fashioned them into a name for the divine:  Looking for a Way through Overwhelming Failure.  Then, I paused to let Spirit bring forth some guidance.  The word create came forth.

Then, the invitation emerged:  open in me a stillness to create, create, create.

Creating is the antithesis of failure.

And this is the prayer for today:

Looking for a Way through Overwhelming Failure, open in me a stillness to create, create, create.  Amen.

 

Saying No to Trump’s “Carnage”

During his inauguration speech, President Trump painted a bleak portrait of the nation I have been raised in, am a citizen of, and believe is much, much better than he will ever acknowledge.

He described this “American carnage” and then went on to plow under anyone who aimed for a higher, more lofty image of who we are and can become.

His tone, his words, and his demeanor, left me completely empty.  For those who were celebrating, and implored me to “get on board,” “give Trump a chance,” and “grow up,” I ask of you:  don’t give in to this mindless, heartless demagogue.

I am not and will not support Trump’s “alternate fact” in describing the United States.  His dark forecast of who we are and where we are in our history is a last bastion of ego-mania, white privilege, and a complete denial of hope.

That’s not how I roll.

I roll with hope (the evidence of which is not often seen) but is heard in the voices of the marginalized (the ones Trump blames for the carnage.)  I roll with courage when I witness the footsteps of millions (that’s not an alternate fact) who marched around the world to share our vision of the beauty of these United States.

Not everyone can see the beauty, and some can only see the pain they live in day after day. I understand this and work every day, in my own little corner of the world, to make the life of my family and those I don’t even know better.

Let’s look to each day with a vision of the beauty that is within us all, not the tragic carnage born in one man’s head to feed his ego.

We are better than this.

 

Resistance is Faithful

When the film Star Trek: First Contact came out, the Borg engaged me.  I, along with every other Trek movie goer, were brought into their dark, oppressive, wired world of control, conformity and compliance.  Their moniker “Resistance is Futile” became part of the film’s lexicon of coercion to not only bring Captain Jean Luc Picard back into their fold, but the whole of humanity.

Were it not for Lily (played by Alfre Woodard) playing the part of Captain Picard’s alter ego in the film and shouting at him to get over his Captain Ahab mindset to destroy the Borg even at the cost of eliminating all of the Enterprise’s crew, futile resistance may have won the day.

Lily brought reason in the face of madness.  When madness lures us into believing that any form of resistance is futile, we have lost our way and the way of authentic resistance.

This is on my mind because I am feeling what a friend of mine beautifully described – devastation and inspiration.  I’m devastated that we have elected an ego-maniacal bully as President of the United States.  I’m inspired that millions (and that’s NOT an alternative fact) of people marched in protest and in love for our nation (including people from all over the world) and our future.

Through my devastation and inspiration, I am called to a new level of resistance that has no strain of futility in its DNA.  The resistance I am called to is sacred, spiritual and faithful.

Every day, beginning with the first one hundred days of this administration, I will engage in an act of faithful resistance.  It began by participating in an Interfaith Community Prayer Vigil on January 20.  It continued by marching in the Women’s March on Roanoke on January 21.  It continued on January 22 by making a covenant in worship at MCC of the Blue Ridge in Roanoke stating:  I am Reverend Joe Cobb and I covenant to devote this year to living and loving in faithful resistance to powers of coercion and oppression in any form.

And, today, January 23, I am posting this blog and preparing to call my Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and my Congressman Bob Goodlatte to express my support for their work in congress and my discouragement of gutting the ACA or confirming cabinet nominees who are clearly unqualified to lead in this way (namely Dr. Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos).

How are you called to resist faithfully?

Blessing Our Enemies

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
perspective.”

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
blessing.

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
Standing Rock.

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
our souls.

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.

Why #blacklivesmatter is important to me

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.

Fast forward.

Trayvon Martin.
Michael Brown.
Kionte Spencer.
Alton Sterling.
Philando Castile.

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?

Yes.

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.

Pulse

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

Beat,
Beat,
Beat…

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.

Beat,
Beat…

 

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,
we love,
because we are loved.

Beat,
Beat,
Beat.

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
life together.

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

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

in Greenfield.

 

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

underground.

 

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,

dig up,

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

or disappear,

leaving us one less travesty

to consider.

 

Yet, our voices still rise,

Calling out the atrocities of

our daily evils toward each other—

in Baltimore,

in Ferguson,

in San Bernardino,

in Paris,

in Charleston,

in Greenfield.

 

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.

My Response to Jerry Falwell, Jr., Donald Trump,and Hissers

A Christian university president calls for his students to lock and load so that when provoked they can take out the muslims.
A presidential candidate calls for the United States to ban all muslims from entry.
A local employee of a national bookseller is stunned to encounter a middle-eastern family (two parents and a child) buying a book on how to be part of ISIS and then listening as the child hissed aloud that this wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t for our U.S. President.
Our President calls for all Americans to bring forth our best nature and resolve to seek the best in each other and not to be defeated by the whiffs and whims of terror and fear.  He is roundly mocked.
This is a difficult, if not impossible, calling.  It is so because it asks us to reconsider and even change the ways in which we love and live in this world.  This calling requires us to rediscover love–unconditional and non-violent–as our core values.
To place our safety and security in weapons only leads to one thing:  death.  If extinction is our desire, then we will surely extinguish ourselves.
If life is our desire, then we must consider what it means to live.  Is life about battoning down the hatches and looking out only for ourselves? Is life about protecting our own interests to the detriment of living in community?  Is life about cowering in fear?
Or, is life about opening our doors and entering a world filled with wonder?  Is life about knowing that we are loved and able to love? Is life, really, about carrying our light into a world of darkness, and brilliantly shining?

Smidge

I was sitting in the school office, going through my morning ritual of checking in with the school secretary, Carrie, and giving our morning banter on the state of our children, checking in on PTA matters, and generally gabbing.  Richard, one of our morning comrades stopped in.  I forget what we were talking about, but he replied with “just a skosh.”  And, he did so while holding up his thumb and index finger, pinching them together.
Cool!, I said.
I’ve never heard of a skosh.  Is that like a smidge?
Yes.
Knowing he was originally from the United Kingdom, I asked if it was a uniquely British word and he replied that he didn’t think so.
Why does this even matter?
Some years ago I was making a list of events that happened during 2001, a catalyst year in my life.  The idea that kept showing up, whether as a title for the collection of essays, or the notion behind each as a fragment of the whole, was the word my Mom used when she was describing a taste or small portion of a thing, or idea:  smidge, or sometimes, smidgeon.
I looked up the word recently and discovered that it means “a very small amount or portion,” something like a fragment or piece of something larger.
This made me wonder:  what would a collection of stories, based on the most transformative year of my life look and sound like?
During a recent retreat at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Natalie Goldberg invited us to consider lists, not only as a form of writing practice, but also as a way to bring forth bits of memory that could be both prompts and seeds for new writing.
I made a list centered in 2001, and then, looking back through an old notebook, found a comparable list.  Some pieces on the lists were consistent, some seemed strange now, their memory fading, and some seemed as full of fire as they were fourteen years ago.
During this month of NaNoWriMo, I’m dedicating myself to this collection, to remember where I was then, and to consider what, within me and around me, has brought me this far.  I suppose there is an inner resilience that has urged me on, yet I venture to add that this resilience has a lot to do with an unnerving courage and abiding faith that I CAN DO THIS.
Every smidge, or skosh, every fragment of life has something to teach us.