“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
– John 1:1-5, 10-14, 16
Emelyn Weissinger Lilley, “Nenie” to all her grandchildren, knew the power of a well-placed word. She had a prodigious vocabulary. But it wasn’t just that. Nenie had a knack for picking just the right word and deploying it at just the right time. A few weeks ago now, after an unpromising period in the hospital, several of us, thinking it could be our last chance, came to see her. But the day that we were there turned out to be a good one. Nenie was lucid and conversational. Someone reminded us that the hospital was near the erstwhile office of our sometime family dentist, who years ago had been dubbed “Dr. Cutie Pie” by Emy. Nenie then reminded us, “Tooth brushing is a big priority for me.” She then turned to Emy and, admiring her smile, asked her, “Are those teeth yours?” Emy assured her that they were hers, albeit the beneficiaries of teenage orthodonture. Nenie said, “Well, they look awfully…commercial.” That, mind you, was admiration, not accusation—but with just enough ambiguity to catch you off guard. It was a word of affection and liveliness, a word that took me back to a thousand words just like that from Nenie. Just the right word at just the right time.
“In the beginning was the Word,” John tells us. “And the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things came into being through him….” The Word creates. The Father makes heaven and earth by his word. “And God said…, and it was so,” Genesis 1 repeats. In Nenie we saw reflected God’s creating power. Now, I’m not saying that Nenie created the world. That would not be possible mathematically or historically; after all, she was only 26 years old. For those who don’t know, I should tell you: Nenie insisted, for going on 70 years, that she was only 26. She declared it to be so, and so it was! Who could possibly doubt her word?
We trusted Nenie’s word because she and Tease created a family, our world, on Tinnin Road. Two of my favorite pictures of her J.B. found several years ago now in a digital archive at Mississippi State. The Lilleys were the “Farm Family of the Week” on WLBT sometime in the mid-50s, and the station took pictures of Nenie by the somewhat newly acquired electric stove and freezer. When Nenie and Tease married, electricity had not yet made it to the country—but she left town for him and for farm life, a life that would soon change not just with modern appliances but with a growing family of 4 boys (all of whom inherited their mother’s knack for a well-turned phrase) and a very good life together. My generation received that life—the gift of an extended family all on the same stretch of country road and grandparents who let us spend countless days and weeks and nearly entire summers with them and each other.
Nenie created, and in so doing she gave us a glimpse of the God who makes us in his image—God who has made us for relationship and connection, God who has given himself to us and for us. In the way that she gave all of us life, I have understood better what it is for God to give us life by the Word, a well-placed word, a word of life and light and love.
Nenie’s well-placed words were always words of love. Her way with words was always to build you up, even when she was telling you what to do. Many times when I was staying over during the winter she would stop by my room at night to make sure that I had taken care to correctly turn off the gas heater. She would always say, “I wouldn’t want a smothered Smith”—a phrase that somehow spoke both love and terror in the same breath, delivered alongside a look of deep love.
Nenie knew that words had power, power to connect us and make us by conveying love. She was always on the phone with friends and family. And she was the first person I knew with a cell phone (I’m not sure if it was the car phone that came first or the giant bag phone)—and the first person I knew with an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Like the electric stove and freezer before them, they enabled her to communicate, to share in common, the love she had for all of us.
You hear Nenie’s loving voice reflected in the nicknames she gave out: Miss Wilson (Emy), The Neighbor (J.B.), Miss Lilley (Johnelyn), The Babyship AKA The Baby Uncle (Uncle Ben), Johnce (Uncle John), Frank Buck, Nice Kitty (Uncle Jack—I just learned that one yesterday and am still confused by it), Marileen (Marilyn), Angel (Jessie), New Jack (the newest Jack, that is). Now, the naming of love and in love has reversed—as shown in the fact that there are three Em(m)(i)es (all spelled differently) named after her. These names are well-placed words of love.
You heard it in the names for her cats, too—Red and Redder most recently. At one point there was a cat named Beauregard, a very dignified name for a cat. Dell suggested renaming it Kit Kat, which I thought, frankly, was a terrible idea. But Nenie agreed with Dell. Beauregard became Kit Kat, and the younger cousin got to be a part of the naming. Nenie knew the power of naming.
So too God names God’s love for us. God names it in the well-placed Word, the Word that was “in the beginning” and the Word that “became fleshed and lived among us.” The Word became flesh; God became human. That means that God knows—God knows not only our sin when we reject him, John says, but also our sorrow. God knows and God is with us. In Jesus God is present with us even in the face of death, which the God who took on flesh knows first hand, and in the face of darkness God brings a light that cannot be destroyed.
When this sanctuary was built, our family dedicated a stained-glass window to Nenie and Tease. I don’t know what it’s intended meaning was, but on it you will find a scroll with a heart and a lit candle, all together illuminated by a light from above, shining on them in the midst of the world. Today, at least, I’d like to think that we see there imaged the Word of God, coming down from heaven to earth, bringing the light and love of God.
Nenie received that Word. She, for a while now the longest-tenured member of this church, received that Word in the words spoken over her in baptism. We prayed just this as we gathered: “As in baptism Emelyn put on Christ, so in Christ may Emelyn be clothed with glory.” She received that Word in the creeds that many of us said alongside her. She received that Word in the scripture proclaimed here. And in Nenie’s life, I have seen, we have seen, reflected the Word that creates us out of love. But what is reflected in her we see in its fullness in Jesus Christ—the Word that dwelt among us, the Word of light greater than any darkness, the Word that gives us power to become children of God, the Word stronger than death. That Word is available in its fullness for those who believe in his name.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John says, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” That is the power of the well-placed Word.