My purpose in life and the focus of my mind started at the age of two. My mother told me that at the age of two, I told a Presbyterian minister that I planned to be a minister and a Democrat. I have remained faithful to both goals, although with some changes of mind.
My first defining moment came as I was reared in the Norwegian Lutheran Church. The community that made up the Elk Creek Lutheran Church was located in the midst of a Norwegian farming community. We lived on a farm next to my grandfather’s farm where he was among the first settlers in Worth County. He and his family had come to Iowa from Norway in about 1886. My Sunday school class was taught by a farmer near us whose excitement for his faith meant that he often lapsed into Norwegian, a language I did not know. However, I knew that whatever he was saying lit up his weathered face with joy and passion. I carried that with me as a defining understanding of religious faith.
My next defining moment came when I was a senior in college. My professor of Greek, Leonard Frey (a YDS graduate) convinced me that YDS was the school for me to pursue my preparation for the ministry. So in 1957, I set out for Yale with hardly a clue about what lay ahead for me.
I enrolled in Paul Minear’s exegesis class on Ephesians and Colossians equipped with four years of classical Greek. I was quite convinced that the language would come easily, as it did. My first presentation in class was on the word, musterion. After completing my short paper, Mr. Minear quietly commented. “Mr. Teaford, I think you might want to explore that word more fully for next class period.” Alas, there was much more to exegesis than knowing the language. I did not realize that I would be spending the rest of my career exploring that word.
Harry Baker Adams gave me my next defining moment as he guided me through a class to prepare me for my first call as a national missionary in the foothills of the Ozarks. I had already been told my by presbytery advisor that there was no point in my seeking ordination in the “Southern Presbyterian Church” since I had my degree from Yale. (This was the beginning of the ‘60s. So I became a “Northern Presbyterian.” I had five years as missionary and then 8 years in Southern Illinois. 1973 marked the beginning of my ministry in Louisville, Kentucky where I remained in ministry at the Bardstown Road Presbyterian Church for 31 years.
My next defining moment came from a lecture by Johanna Bos at the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. She told us that her translation of the Hebrew “I am who I am” was better translated as “I will be who I will be.” This started me on a rethinking of my traditional understanding of God through the influence of Robert Calhoun and Julian Hartt. I began to audit courses with Burton Cooper and his process theology. I began to rethink and rework this understanding and the mystery of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. I began to write a bit to Paul Minear and again sought help in thinking through this troublesome word from Ephesians.
My next defining moment came as I began to explore the writing of one of the doctoral students who was at YDS during my time there, Sallie McFague. My well worn copy of Metaphoric Theology began to shape some of my thinking and changed many of my understandings of God and how to use language about God.
I have continued to move more in my changing mind in the directions of these theologians, as well as my studies of Kierkegaard which started with that remarkable man, Paul Holmer. His class on Kierkegaard was a delightful part of my time at YDS and continued in conversations with Burton Cooper.
When I retired in 2004, I sent a copy of my sermon to Mr. Minear which was his 99th birthday. The sermon was on living through the mystery of Christ. Mr. Minear very kindly wrote back to tell me that part of that mystery was to arrive at places such as ours where we were able to share and be brought together again in that mystery. I cherish that letter and his influence and that of the others will continue to guide me as I change through the coming years.
I am now struggling (with the help of our son who teaches neuroscience in California) to think through how understandings of neuroscience, developmental psychology and theology all began to reveal new ways of seeing God’s presence in our world.