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

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

“What I did on my summer vacation,” by Barkley Thompson…Remember those grade school essays?  I’ve been away for a while.  Sixty days, to be exact.  I was on sabbatical, which is not exactly vacation but was hugely fun.  So, what did I do on sabbatical?

I finished writing a book, which is this very day available in the Cathedral bookstore.  I wrote a historical essay on a dark chapter in my family’s Texas history, in which one family member murdered another in 1878.  (I’m hoping a journal will pick it up.)  And, I prepared the lectures for the Dean’s Hour series on God in Southern literature that I’ll teach in October.

I read a lot.  I read the morning newspaper, which was a rare treat.  I read Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  I re-read a sublimely good Wendell Berry novel.  And I read one other book, to which I’ll return in a few minutes.

But I didn’t simply sit at home, read, and write.  At the beginning of June, Jill, the kids, and I traveled to Malta, where I served as the summer vicar of Holy Trinity Anglican Church.  While in Malta, the Thompsons lived in the big, rambling one hundred ten-year-old former Bishop’s House, which had what I’ll call a “moldly nostalgia” to it.  It was shabby chic, with a strong emphasis on the shabby.  Even so, it was home for most of a month.


Valletta, Malta

After returning stateside, I supplied one Sunday for our sister parish, St. Mary’s in Bellville.  I visited General Convention for a day in Austin.  We hosted twenty-two Thompsons for a family reunion at our little place in Austin County. I returned here for a day to honor the life of, and lay to rest, our friend and brother Ardell Ray. Finally, we traveled to Linville, in the mountains of western North Carolina, where I served at All Saints church last Sunday.

As I said, the sabbatical was hugely fun, but it was also taxing in a way I did not expect, both intellectually and geographically.  I’ll explain why.

In writing the essay about my Texas family, I traveled back in time and read century-old letters that chronicle my own kin betraying kin, loved ones disowning loved ones, family spilling blood with acts of violence.  In reading Ron Chernow and Southern authors, I revisited periods in our national history in which we treated one another as less than human.  In reading the daily newspaper, I was reminded that such periods are not only past history, but also present.

Geographically, on Malta I again encountered a place that has been conquered more often than perhaps anywhere else on the planet.  Every empire that has ever traversed the Mediterranean has invaded, at one time or another, Malta.  From the Middle Ages to the Second World War, the Maltese have been a people under assault, pawns in someone else’s geopolitical chess game.  This identity is in the Maltese psyche, and for a month I experienced just an iota of it through osmosis.

I. G. Killough letter to Eliza Faires, June 19, 1878, p. 4

A letter written by my great, great, great grandfather, lamenting the family feud that would ultimately lead to his murder in 1878.

Just down the road from here in Bellville, St. Mary’s church is between rectors, and the good folks there are experiencing the palpable anxiety that comes with such between time.  The parishioners of St. Mary’s wonder who will emerge to become their next spiritual shepherd.  They wonder if they’ll be o.k.

A bit further on, in Austin at General Convention, the day I visited the anxiety there was heightened because the debate was Prayer Book revision.   You want to discomfit a convention center full of Episcopalians?  Talk about revising the Book of Common Prayer.

And then I met grief, as did each of you, when Ardell died.

When I think back over the summer, over all of these things, I realize I should be drained and famished, spiritually speaking.  Betrayal, disregard, violence, conquest, anxiety, grief: These are the things I visited on sabbatical.  But then, one doesn’t have to go on sabbatical to encounter any of these.  They are part and parcel to everyday life.  We need only turn on the news, or peek around the next corner, or get out of bed in the morning to find them.  Perhaps we should all be famished.  And yet, today I stand here with and before you, and I am full.  Each experience I had on sabbatical—both in my armchair and traveling far and wide—sustained me.  Why is that?  How can it be?

The last book I picked up on sabbatical (the one I am still reading) is Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie’s classic Tales of Old-Time Texas.  Dobie shares one tale about the ubiquity of cornbread in the wilds of old Texas.  Those who left their old lives behind to blaze a trail in Texas often suffered depredation and want; they encountered betrayal and loss; their souls, like their mouths, at times become so parched as to leave them desolate.  But every time it seemed that hope was gone, when they’d reached the farthest edge of the frontier, the weariest traveler would come upon some cabin or campsite and be offered cornbread.  Wheat was scarce, and even salt pork sometimes ran out, but cornbread was reliable.  When life was precarious, a kernel or two of corn ground into meal and mixed with a sprinkle of water was enough to sustain.  It was like a gift from heaven.

Sabbatical books

In last week’s Gospel lesson, five thousand hungry people were fed with fish and bread.  They ate their fill and felt good.  Their grumbling stomachs were assuaged.  Today’s Gospel lesson begins the very next morning, and the crowd is ravenous again.  The full-bellied satiation of the evening before has worn off, and the crowd craves for something more.  They follow Jesus doggedly across the Sea of Galilee, and one senses that their desperation is not of the kind that comes from missing breakfast.  Their hunger runs deeper than their stomachs.  The Gospel is trying to tell us something more here.  It is revealing to us what we already know in our own lives: that material sustenance—whether food, leisure, abundant things, or manufactured summer experiences—is always transitory.  It can fill us up and satisfy us for an hour, a day, or maybe even a season, but eventually we recognize that transitory things can’t nourish the spirit.  At best, they are like a faddish diet pill that merely masks the emptiness caused by the anxieties, griefs, and disappointments in our lives.

The crowd who follow Jesus around the lake want him to feed them again like he did the night before, to keep their gnawing emptiness at bay. But this time Jesus won’t give them something transitory.  Jesus says to them with a truth so simple as to be elegant: “The bread of God gives life to the world…I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Each of my sabbatical experiences could have ended with a gnawing spiritual hunger, an emptiness.  But none of them did, because in each of them I met Jesus.  Each time the landscape began to look desolate and the pangs began to throb, some kernel of grace, some sign of God’s very presence appeared.  In the often convicting Southern writing of Flannery O’Connor; in the fierce Catholic devotion of the Maltese people; in the anxious but ardent faith of Episcopalians in Bellville and Austin; in the vulnerable love of this congregation for Ardell Ray; in blessed moments with my family—in each of these Jesus was present this summer as the bread of heaven.

And so it is with all of our encounters.  At the very edge of our frontiers, when we are drained and empty and the landscape seems desolate, there is a kernel of grace to be found, it we will but look.  Jesus is always there, ahead of us on the lakeshore.  He meets us, assuaging our deepest hunger, filling our emptiness, redeeming our bleakest encounters and greatest challenges with God’s embracing love.  He is the bread of life, the very gift of God that never runs out.  And like those met in friendly cabins or around warm campfires, he is ours to share with one another.

It’s good to be home.  I’ve missed you all.

The Big Bang

Imagine, if you will, a time before time, 13.7 billion years ago. [i]  The four fundamental forces—gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force—abide, properly speaking, as a single, unified force with no differentiation. Everything that is, is huddled tightly together.  The universe (which can’t yet really properly be described as a universe) is the size of a pinprick.    All is static and immobile.

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Who’s In?

I am a terrible basketball player, maybe the world’s worst.  That is not an exaggeration.  When I was seven years old, my mother registered me for a summer basketball camp.  Each morning camp began with a simple warmup in which all the boys dribbled the ball up and down the court, first walking, then trotting, then finally running as if on a fast break.  I can still recall the flummoxed look on the coach’s face when I, during the slow-walk part of the drill, couldn’t keep the ball under my hand after the second dribble.

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ANZAC Day Address, by The Honorable Linnet Deily, Former United States Ambassador to the World Trade Organization

“Glorious day,” read the opening to many entries in my great-grandfather’s journal documenting the harsh life on the Texas frontier. “Glorious day,” as he wrote about carving out a farm, a living and a legacy, from difficult terrain, not unlike that of Australia. “Glorious day,” became for me, a sign of an unusual quality in extraordinary individuals able to stare down the toughest life has to offer and celebrate it.

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Without Love, All Is Lost

On Monday I wrote a sermon.  I drafted it, let it sit overnight, worked on it some more, and then had Jill read it.  She gave it the clergy spouse seal of approval, so I was ready for today.  It was a pretty good sermon.  As I always am, I was relieved when it was neatly printed and placed in the center of my desk.  (I’m fastidious like that.)  But I’m not preaching that sermon.  Late in the week I deep-sixed it in the recycle bin.  I’m preaching something different.

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April Fools

This holiday is unlike any other.  Over the years, people faithful to this day have observed it in myriad unforgettable ways.[i]

I suppose its unavoidable that the day would become commercialized, but at least in this case companies that hope to capitalize on it have been creative.  For instance, in 1998 Burger King used the holiday as the opportunity to advertise the “Left-Handed Whopper,” a brilliant culinary move from the standpoint of this left-hander, who has suffered under the discomfort of eating right-handed foods my entire life.

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