Featured Reviews

Cole Arthur Riley – Black Liturgies [Feature Review]

Black LiturgiesNaming the Tenderest Places

A Feature Review of

Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human
Cole Arthur Riley

Hardcover: Convergent, 2024
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Reviewed by Rachel Lonas

As a writer, I’m always most impressed with books that manage to get raw emotion and wise reflection on a page at the same time. I can open a blank document and spill out all manner of myself on a page, not knowing where it’s going to end up. It could get deleted entirely, turn into a published piece, become a journaling exercise, a blog post, or a beautiful idea that collects dust until I am ready to revisit it again.Trying to get at my feelings and thoughts about something significant rarely comes easy. What is beautiful about reading liturgies is that they help people like me name their struggles and move toward self-compassion and focus that sense of life’s significance toward honest praise or lament. Through honesty, liturgies create community worship that lets us hear God say, “I see you, you are loved, and you have permission to process these feelings here.” Naming the tenderest places inside ourselves and offering them to God is a sacred process.        

Cole Arthur Riley’s Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human hits these notes so well. She came to this work from a non-traditional, organic place, starting these thoughts on Instagram during the Covid-19 pandemic, initiating this project as a bid for connection with others who were isolated during that season of upheaval. It clearly resonated. Since then, she published her first book, 2022’s acclaimed spiritual memoir This Here Flesh, before moving ahead with organizing and publishing Black Liturgies

This book is organized topically, making it accessible if someone needed a resource or a healing reflection—coupling the deeply poetic with the practical. Riley has structured the book in two parts: Part 1 by story (wonder, doubt, artistry, repair, etc.) and Part 2 by time (birth, Pentecost, reunions, Juneteenth, etc.). Many of the sections have epigraphs, a letter, prayers, a confession, a benediction, breathing exercises, and contemplation questions. Some have a distinct call and response. Even the book’s physical design is geared toward welcome—brown ink on sturdy cream-colored paper gives it a warm, inviting feel.

I found myself taking my time through this book, remembering a recent conversation or situation a friend was going through and snapping a picture of one of Riley’s prayers and sending it to them. Her words of compassion meet us right where we are. We are often used to hearing the name Jehovah Jireh, but many of Riley’s names for God are likely new: God of the land that cries out, God of black sheep, God of the ashes, God of the kitchen table. These intimate addresses remind us of the times we have wanted American churches to be vulnerable and name heavy things in corporate worship, but instead found fear of political insinuation, denominational backlash, or of being too therapeutic. It’s true churches can’t please everyone, but they sure can make people feel invisible in trying to cast their net too wide. In many places of worship to name specific sins of omission threatens established norms and patterns of comfort. It’s easier to leave confession broad and open to individual interpretation. It is easier to talk of “what we have done and left undone” than it is to say, as Riley does in her chapter on rage:

“God of the prophets,

We confess we have demonized anger, confining it to an interior prison instead of granting it time and space to be free, just like any other piece of our selfhood. We have not acted in defense of those who’ve needed it. We have let fear of how we might be perceived keep us from the truth-telling that others are worthy of, that we are worthy of. We have ignored anger in our bodies, disguising it with whatever mask feels good to us. We have valued the comfort of the wounder over the dignity of the wounded. Have mercy on us for all that suppression has stolen from us. Forgive us our emotional numbness and grant us access to self-rage, collective rage, a rage that liberates. Amen” (115). 

   

This language invokes the many Psalms that encourage righteous rage as a form of lament. Black Americans have had their rage weaponized against them time and time again without investigation as to the cause of it. This confession about rage becomes a prayer for bravery and also a chance to be seen by a God who knows what they have had to endure at the hands of those who would continue to harm them. Riley knows that rage means survival. When it occurs there is always a root provocation. To witness someone’s rage is an opportunity for curiosity. This confession is holy work.  
Riley’s contemplation questions are thoughtful and therapeutic (often precisely the sort of thing a therapist would gently ask in a session before listening quietly as you revealed some undiscovered parts of yourself). This book could easily be used for journaling, discussing emotional turmoil with a loved one or friend. I personally imagine the long-form essays that could come from mining one’s interior in the healthy ways she encourages.

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In some of her letters and poems she reveals some neurological issues with fine motor skills which inhibit her ability to do certain tasks. It drew me to reflect on my sister, who from a young age had similar struggles, so it was touching to see her shed light on how disability affects her faith and how the world works (or doesn’t at times) for her. There is a beauty in the vulnerability of a letter or poem, carrying the sense that the author is whispering the words in your ear as you read it.

Although I’m not necessarily the target demographic for this book, Riley’s writing serves for me as both a mirror and a window. I can readily identify with many of the emotions and questions she wrestles with in this book, but I know that the deeper significance for her as a Black woman makes this work such a healing word for her audience. Having specific references to Bill Withers, Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston, and August Wilson remind her readers of a rich legacy of Black excellence, truth-telling, and joy. In my own reading life, I continue to be taught by the influences she draws from in this book. Their words are companions on my spiritual journey much like many of these liturgies are now coming to be for me as well.

Her Liturgy “For Those Whose Homes Who Were, or Are, Unsafe” connected me with a memory of listening to singer-songwriter, Tracy Chapman. Her 1988 song “Behind the Wall”, is a tale of hearing domestic abuse through the apartment walls, wondering if there will ever be a place of shelter for women who society has ignored and disbelieved. Riley prays, “Accompany us toward the door as we honor the cost of displacement, while believing we are worthy of peace” (28).

Her words help bring a proximity to those who struggle to see Black brothers and sisters rightly in their own church bodies. However, proximity is not enough. Her words encourage both the stillness that spiritual reflection requires and action in the name of justice motivated by the heart of Jesus.   
     
One principle of reading that would be worth noting here, is her invitation to let the things that resonate with you fill you up and to let the things that don’t (or that perhaps you’re unsure of) pass you by. She gives readers space to engage with her work by challenging them to “stay in the room” to hear the voice of another and not throw everything out because something “may not be for you” (xvii). Riley is asking you to see her intent and the communities that she is writing to.

I will continue to use Riley’s winsome and precise liturgies in my personal book of collected quotes, in my home, with my friends, and share them with churches. Black Liturgies lives up to its subtitle, helping us stay grounded in our humanity. I hope others continue to name those difficult and joyous parts of life with the strength of this book and being sensitive to where the Spirit is speaking to them through it.

Rachel Lonas

Rachel Lonas is a writer and educator specializing in literature and composition. Several of her pieces can be found at Fathom Magazine. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband,
Justin, and their four daughters. She enjoys all things creative—watercoloring, nature journaling, landscaping, and being inspired by botanical gardens.


 
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