If it walks like a duck…

In 1738, an eccentric but very serious French inventor named Jacques de Vaucanson created a life-size, copper-plated mechanical water fowl that amazed an audience at the French Royal Academy of Science.[i]  The bird could quack, as well as move its head and wings.  It ate kernels of grain.  And most spectacularly, it digested and excreted that grain like, well, something malodorous that moves through a duck.

This was the Age of Enlightenment, when such philosophical giants as Hume and Kant were asking the big questions about life, knowledge, and the universe.  And Vaucanson’s invention oddly, if but for a moment, took center stage.  It begged a philosophical question of its own.  Copper or not, some contended, if it quacks like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, and…excretes like a duck, it must be a duck!  And thus was created the “duck test.”

The “duck test” entered more commonly into our lexicon a century later through the poet James Whitcomb Riley, who said explicitly, “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”[ii]

Incidentally, in our own era the duck test has gained in sophistication through the artificial intelligence test developed in 1950 by Alan Turing.[iii]  The Turing test monitors the workings of computers to determine whether they exhibit functions equivalent to that of human thought.  If (or when) a computer passes the Turing test, we will have to ask seriously, “If it thinks like a person, if it is intelligent like a person, is it not a person?  Is it not alive?”

mechanical duck

A blueprint for Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck

Though that’s both ominous and interesting, it’s a lot deeper than I intend to dive in this sermon.  We’ll stick with ducks.  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.  The idea is simple and compelling.  It’s also theological.  Proverbs 23:7 reads, “For as a person thinks in his heart, so is he.”[iv]  In other words, whatever resides within us—whatever anger, grudge, resentment, suspicion, self-regard—is not separate from us.  It is us.  Despite our twenty-first century tendency to detach and compartmentalize, Holy Scripture will have none of it.  Sooner or later, I am not a man who is angry or resents or self-serves.  Rather, I am anger and resentment and self-serving. That’s who I am.  In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis mentions, for instance, the grumbling woman who becomes the grumble.

We may be able to mask this from the world.  But we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking we’ve fooled God.  The Prayer Book has us remind ourselves by praying to God each and every Sunday, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”[v]  God knows what is in our hearts, and God knows, even if no one else does, who we are.

My goodness, that’s depressing.  It may help to note that it is not only dark thoughts and vicious feelings that can define us.  Ducks are not inherently ominous, and the Proverb is not necessarily negative.  As a person thinks in his heart, so is he, and if we are inwardly loving, empathetic and compassionate, selfless, then that, too, is our identity.

But what if we aren’t?  That brings us to St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians today.  Unlike most of the New Testament epistles, Ephesians wasn’t written to address a specific problem.  In fact, it likely wasn’t originally directed only to the church in Ephesus.  Most likely, the Letter to the Ephesians was a general letter directed toward all or many churches.  It addresses general, universal issues that face everyone.  And one of the issues it addresses head-on is our human tendency, often without awareness, to be formed into the kinds of people God doesn’t want us to be.

Paul diagnoses that we “live in the futility of [our hearts and] minds…darkened in [our] understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of [our] ignorance and hardness of heart.”[vi]  That sounds hopeless.  But is it?

Years ago, married friends of mine saw their marriage fall apart.  The reasons for the breakdown were common and mundane, and eventually the couple lived as uncomfortable roommates in the same house.  They reached a point where it was extremely awkward even to be in the room with each other, and physical contact of the slightest kind was abrasive.  The husband said to me, “I can’t even remember why I ever wanted to be married.”

For the sake of their children—and only for their sake—the couple went to marriage counseling.  The counselor told them to go out to dinner at least once a week, and when they did so, to hold hands at the table.  She told them to sleep in the same bad and scoot toward the middle.  She told them to sit down together at the end of each day and recap the day’s events to one another.  And she made them, verbally and in writing, promise to do these things for six months.

holding hands at dinner

In the counselor’s words, she told my friends to act “as if” they were a contented couple who enjoyed and were interested in one another.  At first, it was physically and emotionally painful.  Everything in them rebelled against the practice.  And things didn’t get better in a day, or a week, or in several weeks.  How could it?  As my friends thought in their hearts, so were they.  They disdained each other.  They were disdainful.

But eventually, subtle shifts began to happen.  On the drive home from work, he would realize with surprise that he looked forward to recapping his day with her.  She would catch himself wanting to try out that new restaurant with him.  They would brush past one another in the kitchen and linger rather than recoiling.  They pretended and practiced, with dedicated intention, until, finally, the “as if” became real.  Their outward actions transformed their inner selves.  More than a decade after these events, they are married, and they are people marked not by disdain but by joy.

Acting “as if” is a common prescription in psychotherapy.[vii]  It also turns out to be a spiritual practice with deep roots in Holy Scripture.  In his Letter to the Ephesians, in addition to diagnosing us so deflatingly, St. Paul reminds us that we are called to union with Jesus Christ and with one another as his Church.  Paul encourages us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called.”[viii]  And how do we do that?  How do we go from being people with darkened and futile minds to become grace-filled people who live through grace in the world?  By acting “as if.”  Today Paul is our counselor.  He says, “Put away falsehood.  Speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but…do not let the sun go down on your anger…Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up…so that your words may give grace to those who hear…Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Kaczka mandarynka (Aix galericulata)

St. Paul puts a fine point on his prescription when he says, “Be imitators of God.”  Act “as if.”  When we do this with dedicated intention, Paul affirms, then slowly, perhaps imperceptibly at first, and with God’s help we are changed.  You see, one who speaks consistently in love will eventually find it very hard to hate.  One who lives in community with his neighbors will find it impossible to disregard them.  One who dwells upon God’s blessed forgiveness will, perhaps to his own surprise, find that he cannot hold on to his grudges.

We walk in grace; we speak with grace; we spread our wings in grace; and we discover that we have become a different duck.  In Paul’s words, we mature to “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[ix]  In this way, and no other, the kingdom of God dawns.  In this way, having been transformed, our lives of grace begin to transform the world.  As if it could be true…We’ll never know unless we start quacking.


[i] https://www.mirror.co.uk/usvsth3m/you-know-phrase-if-looks-5235884

[ii] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6770726-when-i-see-a-bird-that-walks-like-a-duck

[iii] http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/reingold/courses/ai/turing.html

[iv] New King James Version

[v] BCP 355

[vi] Ephesians 4:17-18

[vii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201606/when-fake-it-till-you-make-it-and-when-you-shouldnt

[viii] Ephesians 4:1

[ix] Ephesians 4:13

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