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Commentary: How Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired An Observance Of Lent

Library of Congress

For many of the faithful in North Texas, the season of Lent is winding down, and concludes April 15th. But for Brent Barry, Pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church in Dallas, this Lenten season has taken an unexpected detour.

What does a pastor give up for Lent?

I ask myself the question every year.

But this year is different. By what I’ve read and seen in the news, by my friends’ posts on social media, even by my congregants’ faces as they walk through the doors on Sunday, it’s a different Lent.

So, I have decided that my Lenten sacrifice must reflect how different things really are this year.

The color purple is not only the color of Lent, it is the color of my church. The political leanings of my congregation are not solely red or blue. They sit and mix together in the pews like a beautiful purple tapestry. Presbyterians love that kind of thing.

Many of us find common ground somewhere in the middle. We’re not extreme; we don’t see things black and white. If you’ve got something to say, we listen. Above all, we enjoy peace wherever it can be found between people and groups of people.

Maybe that’s why we’re so used to giving up the peaceful things for Lent. Chocolate. Soda. Television. It doesn’t rile up anyone to give those things up.

Credit Library of Congress
The arrest that led to Dr. King writing “A Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

But this year, after my annual reading of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s A Letter From Birmingham Jail - which deeply affects me every year - I was moved and more convinced than ever that I needed to give up something greater than candy and Netflix for this Lent.

The passage from Dr. King’s letter that impacts me most reads:

" . . . the Negro's great stumbling block in our stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

As in previous years, I asked myself once again, “Am I one of those white moderates? Do I prefer negative peace to positive peace? The absence of tension to the presence of justice?"

It haunts me every year…this year, it even hit me deeper than normal.

After examining my answers, I knew what I’m giving up for Lent during this very different year:

I decided that I’m giving up the need to find a political middle ground. Instead, I’m going to do and say what’s right no matter what.

I decided I’m giving up praying for peace –and talking about peace—if it’s only to promote the absence of tension. Bring on the tension, as long as it promotes justice.

I decided I’m giving up fear. I won’t let fear, especially irrational fear, consume me and get in the way of doing good in this world.

Finally, I decided I’m giving up inaction. I won’t sit back and wait for others to do the hard work. I will reach out to the vulnerable, the marginalized, the poor.  I will not let needless suffering continue when I can take action to help stop it.

Are these the kinds of things only a pastor gives up for Lent?

I hope they’re the kinds of things that members of a congregation give up, too.

Brent Barry is the Pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church in Dallas.

For more information:

Dramatic reading of "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail"