Cole Arthur Riley is the founder of Black Liturgies. If you are on Instagram, I strongly urge you to follow her at @blackliturgies. (She is also on Twitter and Facebook for anyone who doesn’t have Instagram.) I always find her words to be challenging, encouraging, and wise.
This Here Flesh is her first book, and it’s a collection of spiritual reflections, which are entwined with family stories. We meet Arthur Riley’s gramma, who endured both a traumatic childhood and an abusive marriage, to become a strong woman who guided her grandchildren with wisdom. Equally important is her father, a gentle and loving dad who taught her about dignity, but who is also a man with demons. And, of course, we meet Cole Arthur Riley herself who is as shy and reserved as she is intelligent and wise beyond her years.
The book is set up as a series of essays on different topics: dignity, place, wonder, calling, body, belonging, fear, lament, rage, justice, repair, rest, joy, memory, and liberation. As a whole, these writings explore finding God in all things, both the everyday and the extraordinary, and preserving your own worth in a world designed to attack your dignity and joy. I found Arthur Riley’s observations to be fresh, especially since she did not have a church upbringing. She did not grow up speaking Christianese or learning theology through well meant clichés, allowing her to see things that church kids don’t. She writes:
“I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart?”
I was raised in white Christianity, and while the church I belong to now is quite different from the church where I grew up, I am of the opinion that there are some things that the white church does not do well. Lament is one. Looking to the Bible for a true understanding of justice is another. The Black church hasn’t had the luxury of taking these things lightly and instead these are essentials of faith. On lament, Arthur Riley writes:
“I am most disillusioned with the Christian faith when in the presence of a Christian who refuses to name the traumas of the world. I am suspicious of anyone who can observe colonization, genocide, and decay in the world and not be stirred to lament in some way. For all the goodness of God, my ancestors were still abducted from their homes, raped, and enslaved. I will not be rushed out of my sorrow for it . . . I shouldn’t need to recite a litany of wounds and injustices and decay in order to justify my sadness. In lament, our task is never to convince someone of the brokenness of the world; it is to convince them of the world’s worth in the first place. True lament is not born from that trite sentiment that the world is bad but rather from a deep conviction that it is worthy of goodness.”
This is not a breezy read you finish in a couple of days. You linger over it because each chapter leaves you with too many thoughts to simply move forward. For me, I would read a chapter either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. And when you finish it, you will want to pass it on your friends and your sisters because it is simply too good to keep to yourself. This is easily the best book I have read so far in 2022, and I suspect when we reach the end of the year, it will still be the best book I have read all year. It left me grateful to Cole Arthur Riley for sharing her thoughts, her beliefs, and her stories.
Trigger warnings: sexual and physical abuse