This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley: book review (faith/memoir)

This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley: book review (faith/memoir)

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

On the Church and Books: A New Year’s Resolution

On the Church and Books: A New Year’s Resolution

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My church experience began small. Literally. Until the age of almost five, my parents took us to a tiny Russian Baptist church with maybe a couple dozen members. My sister and I were the only children, and my parents were the youngest adults. Perhaps you are saying, “Russian Baptists are a thing?” Yes, it’s a thing, if an extremely small fringe thing, as Slavics are entirely too verbose and dramatic to embrace fundamentalism. Imagine reading War and Peace aloud from beginning to end with no breaks, and you’ll begin to understand the patience required to attend Russian Baptist prayer meeting.

When I was about to start kindergarten, we moved to a more traditional and American Baptist church, which provided my early religious training. I feel that both my best and worst qualities were sharpened by that church. After graduating from a Baptist college, I tiptoed away from fundamentalism very slowly. First, I attended a conservative Presbyterian church (EPC) that curiously seemed to serve as a refuge for both former Baptists and former Catholics. I then moved to a nondenominational church in the Reformed tradition. Finally with J, I joined a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) that is now my church home.

But one thing has been consistent in all of my church experience: It has been very, very white.

Church is both a tangible thing (a building you can visit, a group of people you regularly worship with) and an abstract notion (a body of believers all over the world, throughout all of history), but we tend to experience church as the people who surround us. To say that the American church is segregated is not a new observation. Both conservative and progressive churches acknowledge this as a truth and a deeply problematic one. “We’re all one body; it shouldn’t be like this,” we say and move on with our business.

I have no solutions to this very obvious problem, but I did identify one additional problem in my own life: Of all the books I have read on faith and Christianity, most were authored by white people. The church is big and diverse and beautiful. Why isn’t my bookshelf? We cannot separate loving God and loving others. We are the church when we see Christ in those around us, and we are unified.

Therefore, one of my new year’s resolutions is to read more books on faith from authors of color. My first selection is Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley. I don’t have the reading list for the year set, but the recent passing of Desmond Tutu has made me realize that I haven’t read him either, with the exception of The Book of Joy, which he coauthored with the Dalai Lama. If anyone has any books that you think I should add to my list, please let me know in the comments.

Happy new year to you all. I hope your year is full of joy, opportunity, and authentic connections.

A Rhythm of Prayer, edited by Sarah Bessey: Book Review

A Rhythm of Prayer, edited by Sarah Bessey: Book Review

Recently, a Christian author tweeted that she wanted to get into the women’s devotional market, only she needed a husband and four children for Instagram first. I snorted into my morning coffee as I read this, immediately able to to picture the hypothetical Instagram family all color coordinated for Easter service. Dad with a beard and a bowtie, photogenic children, and mom with blond waves worthy of a Hallmark movie. He is risen. Get 25% off my favorite curling wand with the special offer code JESUS. 

This is 100% what the Christian publishing industry markets to women, and it’s exhausting.

This collection is authored by women, but it’s anything but girly. And my favorite thing about it is there isn’t even the slightest whiff of American prosperity gospel in it. A Rhythm of Prayer is a collection of prayers and essays on prayer by female theologians and writers. 

This collection is real. It’s about being grounded in faith when times are difficult, when injustice is all around, when physical and mental health issues are all consuming. It doesn’t shy away from addressing the sins of the church, such as racism and ableism. It’s poetic and practical and very approachable, a guide to finding God in the everyday. There were authors I knew like Barbara Brown Taylor and Nadia Bolz-Weber and many I didn’t but now follow on Twitter. One of the authors (Marlena Graves) is someone I went to college with, while another (Emily Swan) pastors a semi-local church.

Sarah Bessey and Winnie Varghese write about growing up in communities that prayed faithfully. Alia Joy writes about faith and prayer in the midst of the highs and lows of bipolar disorder. Chanequa Walker-Barnes addresses praying while struggling under the weight of injustice. Nish Weiseth uses Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer of Examen to guide us in developing our politics around our faith and not the other way around. Sarah Bessey details how to use breath prayer to meditate on scripture. In my favorite piece, Osheta Moore writes about praying for justice as she makes chicken noodle soup, finding meaning in each ingredient: carrots for wisdom, celery for anger that mellows when directed towards action, noodles for connection. 

I would recommend this to anyone—male or female—of the Christian faith. Whether you are a pillar of your church, or questioning your childhood faith, or not questioning your faith but definitely questioning the church given current Christian cultural clashes. As Sarah Bessey writes in the introduction, “Prayer is still for you. You still get to cry out to God, you still get to yell, weep, praise, and sit in the silence until you sink down into the Love of God that has always been holding you whether you knew it or not.”

A Rhythm of Prayer is a reminder that while life may be difficult, prayer is a gift. A beautiful privilege rather than a duty.