Sheep Pen Confession: 5

My current writing obsession involves something of a time warp. The word confession in my title is not an admission of guilt but a throwback to a time when people used the word to express their belief in something of value. Blinded by the specter of our current political trials, we are more inclined to think of a confession as part of someone’s plea bargain to avoid the full consequence of their stupidity.

My own inspiration for saying “I confess” is the Augsburg Confession of 1530. It was a revolutionary statement of faith aimed at a much needed institutional reform, which promised relief from a dogmatic oppression. I am thereby trying to resurrect the historic act of confessing, this time to a plan of hope relevant in the 21st Century.

My confession is based on a story told millennia ago about a king, who returns from a long absence and divides his people into two groups, likened to the way a shepherd divides his herd between the sheep and the goats. The king’s intent was to impart a blessing on the people, whose behavior during his absence best reflected the life-sustaining qualities of his own character.

The story illustrated the king’s desired behavior with six different benevolent actions: feeding the hungry, providing water to those who thirst, giving hospitality to wanderers, clothing the naked, nursing the sick, and visiting those in prison. Performing any one of these services for the sake of another meant the doer would be inducted into the king’s metaphoric sheep pen, the abode of the blessed.

My Sheep Pen Confession proffers three virtues I see embedded in this story. They are easily remembered using the Confession’s initials SPC for Service, Presence and Compassion. In my last message I wrote about the nature of Presence. This time the focus is on the virtue of Compassion.

I make a distinction between pity and compassion. Pity is the passive impression that others are more unfortunate in comparison to one’s self. Compassion transcends mere emotion and demands action. It is the link between the other two virtues, Service and Presence. Compassion propels our fragile egos into the gap between life and death in order to give a cup of water “unto the least of these, my brothers.”

One of my favorite letter writers, the cynical James of the New Testament, called out people for their lack of transparency concerning their self-proclaimed beliefs. He did this with a question appropriate to this message.

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

What good, indeed! Such a query seems to presage the narcissistic illusion of those who believe singing John Lennon’s Imagine is a sign of moral rectitude. Compassion can never be so supercilious.

To paraphrase another letter writer, compassion is the substance of our heartfelt desire, the evidence of character’s presence in a time of visible scarcity. It cannot endure shameless neglect.

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