… Creator be with us as we are born anew
Amidst the frail anxiety of our lives
Come among us with your healing spirit
Carried through Christ, our brother, your child. Amen.
—Carol J. Gallagher, “Heaven and Hell”
Episcopal bishop and member of the Cherokee nation Carol J. Gallagher reflects on how her Indigenous ancestry and the profound suffering of her people enrich her understanding of heaven and hell:
To reflect on heaven and hell is to honestly walk in the ways of my ancestors…. I have heard their ancient stories, the stories of survival and persistence, and I have lived the inheritance of people who have been removed, reviled, and turned away. It has been an inheritance of pain and suffering, and an inheritance of light and beauty….
Heaven and hell are not so much places we end up in the afterlife or places of reward and punishment, but rather, they are moments in relationship, lived experience here and in the time that follows our sojourn on this earth. On the one hand, the sense of heaven, for me, rests in the connection and interwoven sense of life that is organic to a tribal community. On the other hand, hell might be imagined as those times of severe dislocation, removal, and dis-connection to tribe and family….
Gallagher understands heaven and hell as the impact of our choices to live in relationship with creation and to follow a God with a “bias from the bottom”:
Our place of removal, Oklahoma Indian Territory, was a dry place, ever so different from our homelands. Yet, even there our people found promise, small hillocks and shaded streams, places that sang to us of home…. In the midst of the worst kind of hell people can live through—displacement, dislocation, and dishonor—we sought a little heaven in our little gardens and small streams, and in one another. In the night we sang our songs and told our stories. From the outside we might have looked damned, but on the inside we knew there was yet more to come. We knew our God to be understanding of the heavy burdens we were bearing, as one who walked the removal road with us, who suffered such loss and indignations, who would hold us close and carry us to a place of healing and renewal.…
To me, then, heaven and hell are concepts that are part of all creation. Heaven and hell exist within and beyond the confines of our world of space and time. We can participate in heaven by living in harmony and respect with all of creation or in hell by bringing greed, selfishness, and disease upon the whole earth.…
We are endowed by the Creator with power to live our lives for the well-being of all. Heaven and hell are about living (or not) in right relationship with all of creation, of honoring or dishonoring all, and knowing the love of God by sharing it with all of our relatives: human, plants, trees, four-legged, winged, water, and earth all woven together.
Carol J. Gallagher, “Heaven and Hell—Heaven (Ga lv la di tso sv) and Hell (Tsv s gi no): A Cherokee Mother and Bishop’s Perspective,” in Coming Full Circle: Constructing Native Christian Theology, ed. Steven Charleston and Elaine A. Robinson (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 75, 78, 84, 86–87, 87–88.
Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Izzy Spitz, Everything at Once, digital oil pastel. Izzy Spitz, Wings, digital oil pastel. Izzy Spitz, Tuesday Chemistry. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image.
Perhaps those on the “bottom” of our societies, like the bottom shape in the image, have colors those “on top” have never dreamed of, like corals, reds and yellows.
Story from Our Community:
As a minister who [has] recently experienced partial blindness and profound deafness, I struggle with finding the humility to accept the fact that I am becoming a dependent, vulnerable person. Feeling that my hopes and plans have been dashed, I still find myself asking: “Why?” and “now what, God?” …. As so many times before, the CAC Daily Meditations spoke to me when I most needed a special word of encouragement. The email from March 29, 2023 includes a passage from John of the Cross that says: “A person who can see a little bit will resist guidance; a person who cannot see at all will stretch forth their hands and be led to unknown places where they don’t know how to go.” Admitting total blindness is poverty of spirit; it is experiential humility. My hopes and plans are not gone, they are being rewritten by the Divine Hand. A new path is before me—where will it lead? Thank you, CAC, for being an instrument of God’s guidance. —Edward L.