Harry Thacker Burleigh
Sing to the LORD a new song
Today is a unique day. Since 2001, we are unable to hear the words “September 11” without associating the date with the events of that fateful day 13 years ago. We remember where we were, what we saw, and how we felt. We remember those who died – family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. September 11 is a day associated with pain – on both personal and national levels. For many of us, we had never experienced a sense of such vulnerability to terror and devastation in our home country. And though we do not live in an active war zone, the events of that day changed life here forever. In fact, there is a whole generation now that has grown up in a post-9/11 world.
Harry Thacker Burleigh knew a little about what growing up in the shadow of darkness meant. Born in 1866 in Erie, Pennsylvania, right after the Civil War, Harry’s grandfather, a former slave who had been blinded by a savage beating, passed along old spirituals to Harry. That music was a gateway for Harry. With some difficulty, Harry won admission to the National Conservatory of Music. Meanwhile, he became a soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City. He faced resistance at St. George’s as a black man in the choir, but over time he became a beloved part of the congregation. In time, Harry became a respected composer, arranger, and music editor. He also played a key part in making old spirituals widely accessible.
Despite living in the shadow of slavery, Harry seemed to have embraced the words from Isaiah: “Sing to the LORD a new song.” Harry could have easily kept his head down and simply survived in a post-slavery world. Instead, he pushed for a new life – for the freedom to express himself. He literally and figuratively sang a new song to the LORD, making music that reinterpreted the old spirituals, but also making a new life through music. His making a new song made light shine into the darkness all around him – and he transformed the world around him.
God invites us to sing a new song in a post-9/11 world. The invitation for us is to figure out what our new song will be. We cannot erase what happened to us and to our country on that fateful day. But we can change how we shine light into the shadows left over from that day. So sing to the LORD a new song – in only the ways that you can. Amen.