“You need to understand how I grew up,” Nehemiah said. “You know how you heard stories from your mom about how your great-grandfather left Sweden and left his wife and son for a decade while he went to Wisconsin to make a new life? You remember how she wanted you to have a sense of the sacrifice?”
“When I was three or four, sometimes in the evening my mother looked west. I thought she was looking at the sunset until one night I heard her humming. I listened. I heard her start singing.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
“It was so melancholy. As a little one I couldn’t handle the pain in her voice. I walked away.
“When I got older, she started to teach it to me. It’s what you call Psalm 137. And I understood why she waited. The end of it talks about Edom and Babylon. In one of those sections you never read in church services, the song talks about tossing infants…never mind.
“And of course, this wasn’t about her own life, exactly. She had learned the song from her father who learned it from his father. But it was his father who had lived it. Who had watched the siege of Jerusalem. Who had watched the temple burn. Who had seen the infants killed.”
He stopped. I waited. I had not expected this detail. Nehemiah was a book to me. Something I read five chapters at a time. But sitting across from me was a real person. With a history. With a story.
(From the first chapter of A Great Work)