Monthly Archives: November 2009

Mother’s Day – Mary Elizabeth Atwood

I’m in Germany for the month of May, so this will be the first Mother’s Day that I am not at home with my wife and children. The children are old enough to handle things for their mom, so all is well. But I’m been thinking a lot about my mother who died on Thanksgiving Day in 2009 while I’ve been traveling this semester. Especially when I was in Paris I knew that my mom would have loved to have seen so many of the places we visited and to hear the church bells on Sunday morning. She was from a poor, rural Southern family, but she always dreamed of seeing places like Paris. And I know she would have been happy that I’ve gotten to do some of things I’ve done. Moms are like that. But she is gone and Mother’s Day is always bittersweet now. And so, for those of you who knew her and those who would have like to have known her, here is my Mother’s Day present to her. It is a republishing of the memoir or Lebenslauf I wrote for her funeral. It’s a bit longer than those ugly hand drawn cards I used to make that she said she loved.

In the Moravian Church, it is customary to read a memoir of the deceased at the funeral. Here is my mother’s memoir that will be read this afternoon.

Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Brown Atwood

March 25, 1930 – November 26, 2009

Elizabeth Atwood was born on March 25, 1930 in Forsyth County, NC. She was the daughter of Solomon Levi Brown and Pearl Swaim Brown, and she had seven brothers and sisters. Elizabeth was known by many affectionate names through the years, which reflected the changing circumstances of her life. One of her older brothers tried to call her Wee Bess or little Bess when she was young, but instead it came out as Wee Bet, and the name stuck. She was still called Wee Bet by many relatives even when she was grown. She preferred the name Lib, and that was how most people knew her as an adult, but when her first grandson was born, he called her Nanny. Eventually most of the family called her Nanny since all of the grandchildren did. When she was in the hospital after her last surgery, some of the nurses called her Nanny. It was a name that expressed the love that many people had for her.

Elizabeth was born near the beginning of the Great Depression, and that terrible time had a profound impact on her life. When she was just a toddler the family moved to a farm in Iredell County where they lived in a large house. The family’s first house had burned down a few years earlier, along with most of Pearl’s family heirlooms. They moved into the new house with high hopes, but it was hard work living on a farm. Years later, Wee Bet could recall how frightened she was of the chickens when she had to get eggs from them each morning. She was too tender hearted to watch as some of the country food was prepared. It was lonely in the country with so little to entertain a bright child, and so Wee Bet made a pet of one of the goats and got in trouble one day for taking it into the house upstairs to her room. Mr. Goat was banned from the house.

Elizabeth and the rest of the family looked forward to Vacation Bible School each year, but the annual revival services and all too frequent funerals were frightening to a sensitive child. She loved to read and draw as a child, and she continued to do both for most of her life. Her brothers used to make things to amuse her and her sisters loved to sing. Her younger sister Ima was her closest friend to the end of her days. They supported each other through countless trials and tribulations, often meeting troubles with laughter. They were known to play tricks on each other, even as they got older. Everyone thought it was Ima who was the source of trouble, but Wee Bet had a very funny, wicked streak, too. She loved to laugh, and she taught her children not to take hardships too seriously.

Life was often hard. The Depression took its toll, and the Brown family, like so many thousands of others, lost their farm. They moved to Winston-Salem where Sol could work as a carpenter. They moved to a small house on the south side of town, and the children became active in the Sunday School at New Eden Moravian Church. Elizabeth attended Gray High School where she excelled in art. She went to work as a young woman and was able to help support the family.

Elizabeth married Wade Lee Weatherman when she was a young woman. This was during the post-war “Baby Boom,” and she and Wade Lee had three children: Reenea, Keith, and Lynn. She loved her children dearly, and they remained very close to her through the years. Since her husband was in the service, they moved for a time to Texas. She often talked about how hard it was to take the train back to North Carolina alone with three children and remembered fondly the small acts of kindness from strangers. Sadly, the marriage ended painfully, but she and the children were always welcome at Grandma Weatherman’s house.

Elizabeth and her small children returned to her parent’s house and she went to work at Western Electric. It was there that she met her second husband, Albert Atwood. His family had a dairy farm in the western part of the county, and he always wanted to be a farmer like most of his ancestors. Unfortunately, the Atwood Dairy could not compete with the new conglomerates, and so Albert had to go to work in the factory, too. After he and Elizabeth married, they were able to build a new house on land that had been part of the farm in the new development of Atwood Acres, on Atwood Road. It made it easy for their child, Craig, to remember his address when he went off to school. That was a hard day for Elizabeth as the last of her children went off on the school bus, but she was always there to greet the children when they returned.

Lib worked hard to make the house into a home and to be part of a growing neighborhood. Since the Atwoods kept extensive vegetable gardens, much of the summer was spent picking, shelling, shucking, canning, and freezing green beans, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes. She was a wonderful cook, and the children did not mind the chiggers they got picking blackberries once the fruit was baked into a pie. Lib loved all children, and would make up funny songs to sing to them, including one about a “big gray elephant” and another about the donkey singing at the break of day. She knew lots of games and there was almost always laughter when she was around. As the children grew up and had families of their own and Lib became Nanny, she loved to attend family parties at their houses. Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4, and even Halloween were times to laugh over family stories. Everyone loved to be with her, but would playfully compete over who was her favorite. It was Craig, of course.

The family decided to join Hope Moravian Church, where John Walker was the minister, and everyone was deeply involved in the congregation. At one point, everyone in the family except Craig sang in the choir. People at church will always remember Lib’s hats which she wore every Sunday. Lib excelled in writing liturgies and poems for church. She had a gift for language, but she did confess once that she sometimes changed a word if she wasn’t sure how to spell it. One of the major themes of her writing was the need for people to live as Christ intended us to live rather than simply observing religious traditions. What is the point of a beautiful lovefeast, she would ask, if you do not live in Christian love? Lib had a probing mind, and she probably pushed one son into theology by posing questions such as whether Solomon was really wise to suggest dividing a baby between two women.

Lib loved art, and for many years she painted. Even after she gave up painting, she would make cartoons and cards for family members. At this point, the truth can probably be revealed that it was indeed Nanny who wrote dozens of letters from Santa Claus to children in Winston-Salem. She thought it was unfair that children wrote letters to Santa without getting a reply, and so each year she would compose Christmas poems with illustrations for children on behalf of St. Nick. As they got older, some of them noticed that Santa’s handwriting looked suspiciously like Nanny’s, but that only made them love her more. Nanny’s greatest joy was her four children, ten grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

She saw many of them through extremely difficult times, and she was like a second mother to Erik, Jodie, Nicole, and Mark. Young grandchildren often slept in the bed with her when they were afraid of the dark, and she would sing silly songs about Sweetums or play games to get them to go to sleep. Whoever went to sleep first would be the princess and the last one would be the frog. Her granddaughter Allyson would wake Nanny up if she fell asleep because she did not want to be the frog. The younger grandchildren Emily, Billy, Kelly, Sarah, and Madeleine didn’t get to spend as much time with Nanny because of distance and her failing health, but she loved them dearly.

Nanny suffered from ill health for many years, mainly gastric problems. She grew increasingly frail, but her mind and spirit remained strong to the end. In the last year of her life she attended the funeral of her beloved grandson Erik here at Hope Church, and a few months later was able to attend the wedding of her granddaughter Allyson also at Hope Church. One of the last times she went out in public was for the baptism of her youngest great-grandchild, Cooper, who is now part of Hope Church, too.

In August Nanny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she endured surgery for the sake of her family, hoping against hope for a cure. When it was evident that she would not recover she made the choice to discontinue treatment. She faced her death with grace, courage, and confidence in her Savior. She died on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 2009. It is hard for those who loved her for so many years to let her enter into the more immediate presence of Christ, but all were thankful that day for many years of love and joy. Nanny was ready to lay down her burdens and died peacefully. One of her requests was that no sad songs be sung at her funeral. She wanted to be remembered with laughter and joy. It is appropriate that her ashes will be buried here at Hope Church where she found so much joy in the midst of hardships and sorrows.

This 26th day of November 2009

The Rev. Dr. Craig D. Atwood

Imago Dei

Image of God (Theology Lecture given at WFU School of Divinity)

Genesis 1:26-27: Some passages of Scripture have been especially fruitful for theological and ethical reflection in the history of Christianity. We may legitimately say that they have been more revelatory than other portions of Scripture in that once the teaching sinks in, it profoundly changes the way you view God, the world, yourself and the relationship between them. Gen. 1:26-27 is such a passage.

One of the nice things I like about these verses is that they have driven theologians and Sunday School teachers crazy for centuries because it clearly states that God says “let us make humankind in our image.” There have been solutions proposed for the plurality of divine beings implied in this verse, but none of them have proven entirely satisfactory. It is interesting that there has been a marked reluctance by interpreters to connect the “our” here with the creation of males and females. Only a few folks like Jacob Boehme and Ann Lee proposed that the plurality refers to the masculine and feminine aspects of God.

Our focus today is on humans as being created in the image of God and what that might mean for Christian doctrine. This is not spelled out for us in the Bible, and so there has been ample room for speculation in the tradition. Those who claim to base their theology on Scripture alone generally rely on tradition to interpret this verse.

Male and Female: First of all we should highlight something that is already well known to you, I suspect. The text clearly states that males and females are both made in the image of God. Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 11 that man is the image of God and woman the image of man is a common misreading of the text. Man and woman are both created in the image of Elohim here. Thankfully, Paul admits that sometimes he’s speaking for himself instead of for God, and I think this is one of the times. He was led astray by traditional rabbinical teaching on Genesis that tried to integrate the two creation stories. Paul’s reading of Genesis became the norm in Catholicism, but as good Protestants here, let’s begin with the plain meaning of the Genesis text rather than tradition. In this crucial passage, both men and women are made in the image of God. This is the one text that feminists in the church tend to literally why so-called biblical literalists use tradition to contradict the plain message.

Rather than revisiting the material discussed on Friday, let’s first focus on what this idea that both men and women are made in the image of God tells us about God. We could conclude with Mary Baker Eddy and other unorthodox thinkers that God is both masculine and feminine. Or we might conclude that the image of God in human beings is not connected to gender at all. Gender is part of biology and human society, and may have nothing to do with the Creator. It seems likely that gender, like race or individual attributes, is not definitive of the image of God, but that the image of God is something shared by all people regardless of gender or race or age. It seems to me that Genesis is teaching us that all humans, simply by virtue of being human, share in the image of God as an aspect of their creation. To be human is to have the image of God.

Universal Image of God: Notice that the image of God here was not given at baptism or circumcision; every person is a living image of God. Sometimes we read the Bible too quickly. We sweep right past one of the most important affirmations in the history of civilization and jump into the story of the Fall or the flood or the call of Abraham without considering the global implications of this claim. Genesis 1 does not say that only two of ancient ancestors were made in the image of God, and that later generations lost that image. It says that men and women alike were created in God’s own image as part of the fundamental, foundational goodness of creation.

If all that God made is good, humans are especially good because we are the living images of God on the earth. Turn to someone near you – in pairs or triads if you like. So long as you can share the gaze of another person in the class. Look into the face of the other person and examine her or him for a moment. Don’t be embarrassed. Look in the eyes, at the face, at the body of the other person. Now say to each other slowly, “you are the image of God.” Ponder that for a moment. Shelley, Barrett, Christa, Orita, Alfonso, Wesley, each of you is the image of God. Say to yourself, “I am made in the image of God.”

A Physical Image: Turning our attention back to the Bible, it is important to ask what the phrase “image of God” mean? There has been a lot of linguistic research and debate over the meaning of the world translated as image here. It refer to a likeness or a copy of something, such as a graven image is a likeness of a person or a deity. We cannot exclude the possibility that the original intention of the author of this verse was to claim that humans are smaller versions of a bi-pedal deity. Many of deities in the ancient world were represented in human form, and we know that the ancient Israelites had graven images of deities at least until the time of David, probably later. If Genesis was the only Scripture we had, we might conclude with the Mormons that God is like a human with legs and hands since he is often depicted as walking and doing things with his hand or finger.

But there are reasons why the whole tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has rejected this extreme anthropomorphism. The most compelling reason is that for much of the history of Israel and Judah the prophets railed against graven images and other forms of idolatry. Not only did the Jews promote a form of radical monotheism in contrast the dominant polytheistic cultures around them; they also adopted a view of God as radically beyond human constructions. They worshiped an invisible deity who spoke to priests and prophets but who has no physical form. By the time the litany of creation was attached to the beginning of Genesis, the rejection of anthropomorphism was normative for Judaism. I think we can safely dismiss the idea that the image of God refers to the physical attributes of humans as indicative of the divine being. It is not our opposable thumbs that make us bearers of the image of God, and we do not have to worry that birth defects or accidents make us lose the image we bear.

Stamped Image: Another meaning of image is like the image that is stamped on to a coin, usually the image of the governor authority (emperor, king, etc.). This marks the coin as legal tender. The same type of image may be stamped on official documents as a royal seal or guarantee of the authenticity of the document. In this case, the image is representative of the authority of the one whose images appears on the seal. In light of the fact that humans are created on the day before God rests and that they are explicitly given dominion over the creatures of the earth, it makes sense that the image here refers to a royal stamp of authenticity and authority.

By being stamped with the image of God, humankind is identified as the representatives of God on the planet. This would agree with the theme of stewardship proposed last week. We do not have divine authority to pillage, plunder, and rape the earth like brigands and blackguards; we have divine authority to care for the earth with the same love shown by the creator in making the earth. To wantonly destroy or passively allow the desecration of the earth is tantamount to rejecting the image of God in yourself.

Sharing in Divine Wisdom: A third way of viewing the image of God takes elements of both the first two. Children are said to be the image of their parents since they have traits of each parent. They are reproductions of their parents, at least partially. For centuries, theologians have discussed what it is in the human character that is a reproduction of the being of God. For the most part, theologians have focused on reason as the thing that distinguishes us from animals and makes us most like God. If God created the heavens and earth through the Word or Logos, then it makes sense that it is our Logos that connects us most intimately with God. Or, if you prefer to follow Elizabeth Johnson, it is Sophia that is the image of God in humankind.

If this is true, then the commandment to be fruitful and multiply takes on a different nuance. It is not simply to reproduce like other animals, but to be fruitful through our reason and our wisdom. The commandment to have dominion over the earth should then be read as a commandment to exercise wise and intelligent dominion rather than spreading across the earth like a ravenous swarm of locusts.

Churches in recent decades have been too quick to denigrate reason, primarily because of the attack on faith by certain types of naïve rationalism. The doctrine of the image of God should call us to exercise our God-given abilities wisely and courageously. As far as we know, we are the only earthlings who can use our minds to investigate the mysteries of the universe far beyond the confines of our own bodies. Without leaving our homes, we can travel to distant lands, predict solar eclipses, and marvel at the subatomic world. In our minds we a fleeting glimpse of eternity and are freed from the constraints of the body.

Creation: We do not have to enter into a contest with the Creator to prove that we are powerful. We seem to think that as our power and knowledge grows, our awe in God’s creation should diminish. Too often we are like children who learn how the magician does the trick and become cynical about magic instead of being inspired to learn how to do the magic ourselves. Personally, I think a recovery of the doctrine of the Image of God may help us recover a proper sense of reverence for the creator. I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that there are miracles that humans can perform, such as raising the recently dead, that the Creator cannot do. We are the first generation that can cause a virgin to conceive through scientific means, and yet we find it hard to believe that God could do so. If our minds can move our bodies or use electrons to move machines, why do we doubt that God can work subtly but intentionally to move the natural world?

Perhaps part of being made in the image of God is the desire and ability to do miracles and wonders. Perhaps the image of God that humans share is the quality of creating, of calling new things into being. It may well be that we live most fully into our divine image when we create or at least re-create the world in which we live – or at least share in God’s appreciative love for creation.

Morality: Others have identified the moral sensibility of humans as the uniquely divine-like quality we share. Even though attempts to find a universal moral code running through all human societies has failed, we can assert with confidence that all human societies depend on some type of moral code. The ability to look at actions as having moral consequences appears to be a uniquely human trait. Contrary to the teachings of some schools of philosophy, humans do not act solely on the basis of self-interest or to satisfy the desires of the flesh. Humans can and do exercise restraint and self-discipline. They sometimes even sacrifice their individual desires for the sake of others. The ability to view actions in terms of right and wrong rather than in terms of success or failure may be our most important quality as human beings. We’ll talk more about this on Wednesday.

There is another approach to understanding the meaning of the image of God. We could look at the concept in the context of Genesis 1. What does God do in this litany? God creates, God speaks, God names, God orders, God plans for the future, God encourages life, and God blesses the world. It makes sense to me that this tells us about the image of God that humans bear. Humans think, create, speak, name, order, love, and plan for the future. We do these things and we should do these things because this is our essential nature. Moreover, humans are called to be like God and encourage life and bless the world God has made.

Fully Human/Fully Divine: And here we come to a conclusion that may be surprising, and many theologians have rejected this idea, but Genesis teaches us that we are most like God when we are most truly human, and we are most human when we act toward creation as God acts. We are called by God to use our God-given reason and our remarkable powers to care for what God has given. We are to share in God’s loving desire for creation, which ironically means we should limit our own appetites and desires in order to make room for creation to take place around us. We are to exercise a benevolent dominion over other living things, just as God does. It may be that we are most divine when we are most fully human.

Ethical Implications There is a problem with most of those approaches to the Imago Dei, however, which some of you may have picked up on already. They are very logocentric, and could be used to say that only humans who are rational, wise, creative, and moral are made in the image of God. Those born with disabilities or who lose significant brain functioning could be dismissed as not fully human. It is not just theologians who are in danger of viewing some humans as more divine or more human than others. Pay close attention to many policy debates in industrialized nations and you may find a tendency for wealthy, white, well-educated people to define humanity in their terms. Health care if for some, not all. Resources are for some, not all, for instance.

According to Genesis, all of humankind bears the image of God, but this image may be obscured through diseases of the mind and body, including the diseases of a society that dehumanizes the poor, ignorant, and neglected. We are the ones who tarnish God’s image, often with our racist and elitist attitudes. I am often bemused by the fact that many “Bible-believing Christians” reject the plain teaching of Scripture that all humans are created equal in God’s eyes. Souls and minds do not come in racial colors. Incidentally, this idea of that all humans are made in the image of God was the central issue behind the early opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It is interesting that it was religious liberals and social progressives who generally opposed Darwin in the 19th century because they feared that Darwin would undermine morality and social justice.

Among them was Samuel Wilberforce, the son of William Wilberforce—the man who was mostly responsible for freeing slaves throughout the British Empire. Samuel recognized that Darwinism could be used to justify racism, slavery, military aggression, and the worst forms of cut-throat capitalism. Wilberforce was wrong about the science of biology, but he was prophetic in his warning of the evils that can result when humans no longer view themselves and each other as the image of God. Ideas of racial progress and “survival of the fittest” played important roles in some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The misuse of Darwin’s theory demonstrates that it is not just theology that can be distorted for destructive purposes. Science can also be an ally in the service of hatred, greed, and oppression.

Living Images of God: It may be a good thing that the Imago dei is not explicitly discussed in Genesis 1. The text leaves ample room for us to develop our own thinking, and I personally think that we should not choose a single human attribute as the sign of the Image of God. Rather, we should think of the whole human person as being in God’s image, and we should worship the creator by living into the identity that he has given us.

What is most important, though, is that we recognize that the image of God applies to all humans, not some humans. There is no indication that some are more like God than others. It is even possible that we most clearly reveal the Image of God in our own lives when we are able to view others as representatives of the Image of God in their own right. Think how differently we would raise our children, speak to our spouses, treat our employees, and live in society if we let every single person remind us of God, our creator and judge. In times of war governments work very hard to dehumanize and even demonize the people on the other side in order to make it easier for soldiers to kill them. What if we simple refuse to go along with that demonic program? What if Jews, Christians, and Muslims with one voice said to every person in the world: “You are the image of God, and your life is sacred to me.”

Comenius: What happens when we view every child as a representation of God on earth? What happens when we look into the eyes of our enemies and see the eyes of God? Despite the claims of Augustine, Calvin, and others, there is little support in Scripture for the view that we lost the image of God in Adam’s fall. More on that Wednesday, for now let me just assert that the only way we lose the image of God is to refuse it. For now, let me leave you with this quotation from Comenius with apologies for the sexist language of the translator: “Whenever you encounter one of your neighbours, regard him as yourself in another form (which he is), or indeed as God in another form, for he is the image of God, and God will be watching to see how reverently you treat him.” Panorthosia, I:22.


All Saints

Today is the festival for all the saints. You may know that the church intentionally created this festival in the fall to reinterpret Samhain and other festivals for the dead. The fear of the dead is common in most societies, but the lesson of All Saints is that those who have died in the Lord are to be remembered with joy and thanksgiving rather than fear. All Saints is not just for those who have official status as decreed by Vatican officials. It is for all the saints, especially for those whose names we do not know. Many of these people suffered horribly at the hands of others. They were raped, tortured, starved, and wounded in countless ways. The history of the saints is grim indeed, but the message of All Saints is that the forces of evil and hatred were not victorious when they try to stifle the message of love through threats and intimidation. In Christian art, the saints are often depicted as both physically whole yet honored for the signs of their ordeal. It is a statement that even our woundedness and our suffering may be holy and honored before God. We should not fall into the trap of viewing suffering itself as good or divine, but we should remember that the roll of saints includes those who were abused and broken. So, on this All Saints Day, honor those who loved to the end. Honor them not just in song, but in acts of extravagant love and daring goodness.