Painful Lessons

After graduating from Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) and before becoming a “divine” at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I taught high school English and Latin in Leesville, Louisiana. I hadn’t taken a single course in education, and I didn’t have a teaching certificate, but I convinced the School Superintendent of Vernon Parish that my double major in Classics and Philosophy would suffice.  Desperate to fill out his roster, the poor guy took me on as a utility player.  

That was back in 1974.  In its wisdom, the Louisiana Legislature had banned any form of sex education in the public schools.  Teachers were forbidden to mention the “S” word or to allow the topic to be discussed in their classrooms.  

That was OK with me.  I wasn’t much older than the seniors in my Latin class and, as much as they might welcome the diversion, my ninth-grade English students had plenty on their plates learning how to write a solid paragraph.  (My goal had been to teach them how to write a convincing essay, but I lowered my sights when I realized that several of them could barely read.)  Adding sex to the curriculum would have been a bridge too far.  

The principal at Leesville High took full advantage of having a single male teacher on his staff.  He assigned me to take up tickets at sports events, to serve as an umpire for girls’ softball games, and to drive the cheerleaders’ Volkswagen minibus to away games.  In these days of hyper vigilance, it’s hard to imagine assigning a young male teacher to such tasks, but that was Louisiana in the 1970’s.  Laissez les bons temps rouler – at least when it came to athletics. 

Back in the classroom, however, more than one Big Brother was watching. In addition to keeping the topic of sex out of the classroom, we teachers also had to make sure we didn’t offend the many students who belonged to conservative Christian denominations, among them Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Christ.  Some students were not allowed to celebrate birthdays.  For others it was Christmas.  And depending on the topic, many students were forbidden to attend school assemblies. 

Innocent of any instruction in educational theory or practice that might have made me more cautious, I made it through that year without getting censored or fired.  I didn’t know enough at the time to fear irate parents or lawsuit-leery administrators.  I suppose you could say my naivete kept me safe.

If I were teaching these days, naivete wouldn’t cut it.  I’d have to avoid causing my students discomfort by discussing “divisive” concepts, such as slavery, racial discrimination, and the persistent influence of white supremacy.  A bill before the Florida Legislature (SB 148) declares that a student “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”  

God forbid that white students should feel “discomfort” hearing about slave-holding founding fathers or that black students should feel “anguish” when they view newsreels of the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

I used to feel a twinge of “psychological distress” every time I mounted the pulpit at First Presbyterian and looked up at the galleries where enslaved human beings looked down on their “owners.”  

I certainly don’t want the children of any race to be paralyzed by “guilt” or “anguish” for what their forebears did or suffered, but I can’t imagine how anyone can become educated without experiencing at least some discomfort.  

Without pain there can be no enlightenment.   

Still Not Acclimated

The surest way to make God laugh is to tell God your plans. After seminary, I served a wonderful small church in Virginia.  After five and half happy years in Altavista, Andra and I decided it might be time for a move.  In Presbyterian-speak, we were “open to a call.”  We duly informed the Almighty that we would go anywhere the Spirit should call – anywhere but Florida.  

That was thirty-six years ago.  We’ve lived in Tallahassee ever since.  

When you live in Florida you get used to those “Florida man” headlines in the newspaper.  You know the ones I mean:


Or my favorite:


Bizarre, right?  Well, as I learned in seminary, you must consider the Sitz im Leben.  When you live in Florida, you learn to recalibrate your bizarre-o-meter.  

Florida’s governor and legislature are a case in point.  The lawmakers down the street at the Capitol have declared all-out war not on Covid 19, the virus that has sickened over 5 million and killed more than 63,000 Floridians, but on health officials, business owners, and school board members who are trying to keep the folks in their circle safe.  They began by outlawing mask and vaccination mandates, and when our local School Board and Superintendent pushed back, they cancelled their salaries.  Even after the Supreme Court ruled that the Feds can require the vaccinations of most healthcare workers, Ron DeSantis, Florida Man in the Governor’s mansion, announced that Florida won’t be enforcing the federal requirement.  

This week the high hied yins in the State Health Department suspended Dr. Raul Pino, the health officer in Orange County, for the unspeakable crime of suggesting to his colleagues in Orange County that they have a moral and professional obligation to be vaccinated.  

Dr. Pino wrote an e-mail to health department staff that read, in part, “I have a hard time understanding how we can be in public health and not practice it . . . I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated.”

You probably think Dr. Pino makes perfect sense.  

Clearly, you don’t live in Florida.  

The last time I checked, Christians, no matter where they live, are called to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves.  

But this is Florida.

The rules are different here.

From First Drafts to Second Thoughts

On All Saints’ Day, 2020, I retired as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida. Polity, protocol and common sense require a former pastor to say well clear of the congregation he or she used to serve. Apart from bumping into folks from my former flock in the grocery store, that’s what I have endeavored to do.

However, I’m not quite out to pasture. I’m still a minister of Word and Sacrament and (so far, at least) a member in good standing of the Presbytery of Florida. I’m not ready to hang up my dog collar and sit out the remainder of my days awaiting entry into the Church Triumphant.

It turns out that I still have something to offer the church and community. In addition to serving on several boards of directors, I am getting the hang of driving the tractor at Dogwood Acres, our presbytery’s outdoor ministry, where Christina, the cook, allows me to chop veggies and wash dishes for retreats and conferences. (I leave the actual cooking to her, of course.) I’ve also been leading worship from time to time at churches that find themselves without benefit of clergy due to vacations, pastoral vacancies, and of course, Covid.

With some trepidation I have decided to re-boot this blog, which used to be titled “First Drafts.” As was the case with the previous blog, nothing I write here is intended to represent the views of any congregation. Those familiar with Presbyterian polity know that no pastor or council of the church — not even a session — can speak for a congregation. Presbyterians speak for themselves, and when they elect fellow Presbyterians to serve on councils, those councils speak for themselves.

Accordingly, I write as a Christian in the Reformed Tradition, a member of the Tallahassee community, and a citizen of the Republic. That should be more than enough to get me into trouble.

Presbyterians have a quaint term for old dogs like me: “Honorably Retired.” This honorably retired parson can’t promise frequent contributions to this blog, but every now and then he will have a bone to pick.