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Prattle or Practice

Are your sermons prattle or practice?

The phase, "prattle or practice," comes from Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day. Danny, a police officer, was assigned to an uncover job in the Boston Police Department of 1918. He was to spy on the men trying to form a union. He was to report on the people involved. His superiors wanted a sense of who the leaders were and who were the weak ones that might be bought or coerced. Danny didn’t like the assignment. He found himself creating categories such as the Talkers (loud men who fought over semantics and minutiae) and the Bolshies (the radicals). “There were also the Emotionals—men like Hannity from the One-One, who had never been able to hold his liquor in the first place and whose eyes welled up too quickly with mention of “fellowship” or “justice.” So, for the most part, what Danny’s old high school English teacher, Father Twohy, used to call men of “prattle, not practice.”

Are your sermons prattle or practice?

Over the years I’ve heard many prattle sermons. Probably even offered a few myself. Sermons that ramble on from one thought to another. Sermons that are filled with drivel about the preachers’ days in seminary. Sermons that are inconsequential or shallow or a sales pitch for parish programs.

At some point I found myself coming at the preaching task in terms of practice. A task related to Christian proficiency. A task about the habits of prayer and ethical and moral living. It’s a wonderful way to avoid prattle.

Though there are still dangers.

I discovered three dangerous side trips. The first was when we focus on the moral and ethical; when we scold and beat the drum; when we manage to cause the congregation either to feel self-satisfied because “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” or defensive because we have suggested they are racist, homophobic, misogynic fools. In this we forget Underhill’s insight that we will get service and action right as we give ourselves to adoration and awe. So, more focus on prayer life and the relationship between that and moral action.

The second, was when instead of helping people think about moral and ethical dynamics and dilemmas, we provide an answer based on our political ideology. It’s easy to spot because in most case the preacher is lazy and uses phrases straight from the talking points of the right or the left.

Third, we keep referring people to our own spiritual practices. We press them toward the practices that align with our comfort and skill instead of helping them consider seeking a fit between their personality and the broad range of practices of the spiritual life. We fail to consider the uniqueness of the person. Often this is due to the narrowness of our knowledge. We need a broader grasp of approaches to spiritual life and types of prayer. We need to do our homework.


More on prattle and practice in the coming days