Carl Buffington’s Testimony
You asked about my conversion, how I came to know the Lord. Thanks for asking. It’s odd, but the longer I am around the less clear I am about how it all came about. Hopefully it is more than old age, but a surrender to, or acknowledgement of, the vastness of our Lord. I am pretty sure that I have not come to understand God more over the years, but less. I am appreciating mystery more and more, and the extent of God’s grace constantly overwhelms me.
Anyway, a couple Sundays ago, after church, a young man named Connor, 14 years old, waited around to talk to me. “What's up.” I asked? He said, “Is something supposed to happen when you accept the Lord?” I paused, waiting for help, or figuratively pinching myself, and then I shared about my experience, which I'm about to share with you, but in much greater brevity with Conner.
“Why do you ask? Have you done something like that lately?” And he said, “ a while ago.” I asked, “when?” He said, “a week ago, last Sunday night, at youth group.” He said that he had been told that the Holy Spirit would take up residence in his heart and he wanted to know how he could know that that happened. I said, “Indeed, the Holy Spirit will begin to nudge you to bless people. Because you are blessed to be a blessing. And whether you feel anything or not you have been transferred from one kingdom to another, you have a new citizenship, and the new promised inheritance… da da da.“ I was so excited! You can imagine. Don’t you love moments like that? Would that they were less scarce!
Talking with Connor, listening to him, was such a blessing! This is what makes ministry worth it, isn’t it?
The pin point moment , if there is such a thing -- ?
I walked through the front door of the retreat center and was instantly confronted by a person who shook my hand and promptly asked me if I was a Christian. What a greeting. At least, as I recall, he was smiling, or maybe not. I wondered if he was joking, maybe that’s why I now recall a smile. I mean, I was wearing a gray suit, a black shirt and clergy collar. Of course I was a Christian, I informed him. I was on the staff of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. He said, “I don't care where you work or how you dress, are you a Christian?” he persisted. So I said, “Clearly, something isn’t clear. What do you mean by Christian?” He said, “Have you willfully surrendered your life to Jesus Christ for him to be Lord?” I said, “No,” knowing immediately it was the wrong answer. But, too late. What sort of thing had I brought the youth group to? Could be a long three days, I fretted.
The retreat we were attending was called Camp's Farthest Out. It included singing contemporary Christian songs (some of the youth group boys were in the Cathedral men & boy choir which regularly toured Europe so this was a non starter for them), Bible studies, and workshops as far out as one called devotion in motion. The youth group quickly and miraculously united and came to one mind, let's mutiny! So I struck a deal. I said if you attend everything for the 1st day and a half, and then if you're still of the mind this isn’t for you, you can skip out on the 2nd half of the retreat. I felt pretty safe making the deal, thought I might take it myself after that introduction, but since the retreat center was in Baghdad Kentucky, I couldn't imagine where they would go.
That first night, as I lay in my top bunk watching creepy spiders crawl above my head in the rafters, which is the grist of nightmares for me, I couldn't get my inquisitors challenge out of my head, Was I a Christian? Had I ever really asked Jesus to be Lord, to rule my life? So I prayed, “Lord, if he has a point, if what I need to do is to surrender my life for you to be Lord, then so be it.” Somehow, mercifully, considering I had 14 adolescents boys in my bunk room, and it seemed to me as many spiders above my head, I fell asleep. I felt nothing. Had I been converted? I think so. I believe so. Barbara tells me that she could see a difference when I returned. That means change, doesn’t it?
I asked the kids at the end of the retreat how it had been for them. They told me that they learned that they didn't know anything about the Bible or about prayer. And, too, they didn't want to do another retreat like this one, ever again. Fair enough, I thought.
So, given their feedback, for the format of our youth group, we decided we'd study the Bible and then pray. The 1st meeting after the retreat, two kids showed up. Knowing Mark was the shortest gospel, we began there. Knowing, too, the paragraph was the basic unit of thought we read a paragraph and then asked, “what do you think?” The two shared their opinions, we said a prayer, and then we headed to Baskin Robbins.
Within a couple months we had about 30 kids sitting on the floor in our apartment reading the Gospel of Mark and then praying. I remember one time one of the girls started to pray, and she began to pray that this person in school would be nice to her and stop being mean. Which was fine until we realized that the person she was referencing in prayer to the Lord was the person sitting next to her. Barb and I said, “timeout.” We adjourned to the kitchen. Scratching our heads, we knew there was something wrong with the prayer, I mean, it was at minimum manipulative, if not of the Lord, of her friend. What to do?
These were exciting days for us days of trial and error learning, a steep curve. We were in uncharted waters. And they were about to get mirkier.
The person at the Cathedral, who had talked to me about taking the youth group on this retreat in Baghdad Kentucky, would periodically show up for our youth Bible study and prayer group. He was a wonderful man and a bit eccentric, which I have come to respect in followers of our Lord. I mean, we should be off center if Jesus is the center, right? In addition to running a printing business, he started a number of halfway houses for people in recovery. Every so often we would go to lunch in downtown Indianapolis and he would just stop to pray for people randomly, out loud, in public. Weird, and worse, embarrassing, especially in clericals. Anyway, sometimes during our youth group meetings he would pray in something that sounded like a very strange mixture of foreign languages. When Barb and I would meet in the kitchen to confer we would ask each other, was that Greek, sounded sort of French like too. Following these unintelligible prayers he would usually recite something that sounded sort of like a psalm. It later got out that Barb and I were teaching the kids to pray in tongues. At this point we had no idea what that meant.
It was during these days I had started an Institute of Religious Studies (IRS) at the Cathedral. My speaker for the 2nd year canceled on me, and just about that time someone had left a tape on my desk by the Rev. Terry Fulham, who was then Rector of St. Paul’s in Darien, CT. The talk was entitled, Equipping for Ministry. It was a Bible study based on the person and work of the Holy Spirit and how he empowers people to do ministry, and that we really cannot do ministry apart from him. We played it at our youth Bible study and the kids thought it made good sense, no problem, no issues, cool. After all, Terry had taught logic to law students. It occurred to me why not ask him to come and fill in for my IRS speaker. He agreed.
One of Terry's presentations was the same presentation we had listened to on the tape, I mean word for word the same, Equipping for Ministry. That night at dinner I asked him, “How does one get the Holy Spirit?” He replied by naming a chapter and verse from the Gospel of Luke. I told him I had not read Luke yet, we were still in Mark. Looking at me quizzically, he quoted the passage he had referenced, “...how much more will the Father give the Spirit to those who ask?” “That's it?” I asked? “All you need to do is ask?” “That's it,” he said. “Let's ask then shall we?” And so we did, right there between bites of roast beef.
Did things change? Again, Barbara noticed some. While I was not speaking in tongues, and still wasn't sure what that meant, we would soon be accused of teaching the kids glossolalia.
Coincidentally, or not, the Bishop began to put my name into churches for interviews. It may have just been time for a change, or maybe I was being pushed out.
I interviewed at a parish in southern Indiana. The Bishop didn't want me to go there, but wanted me to have the interview experience. I did get a call from the search committee, several actually. The first two were to inform me that they were calling somebody else. Wonder why they felt the need to keep me so tightly in the loop? Later they called back, and said the other 2 candidates have turned them down. Would I consider coming to be rector. And so, sensing a nudge from the Holy Spirit, off we went, Barb pregnant with Peter, our first born, and me pregnant with conversion and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. What a yellow brick road crew we must have looked like?
So there I was in charge of a parish, still reading the Gospel of Mark, trying to learn to pray or figure out what prayer was, but knowing nothing about church and, at least I suppose, it was good that I knew I knew nothing. So I called Terry Fulham. Help! He flew directly from the World Conference on the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem to southern Indiana to spend the weekend teaching our leadership about the Holy Spirit and His church.
At the close of the week end with Terry, I said to our leaders, “Now you know as much as I do. This is the only way I know to go, shall we proceed?” They surrendered, and a bunch got on board, after all, everyone else said, “no thank you.” So for almost 10 years we attempted to do church in the power of the Holy Spirit. I fear we offended many of her people, and, too, many were touched, and some were healed and converted. God’s grace is amazing! Barb and I had all three children there.
Now as to my conversion, I now wonder how much of it actually happened or began with my infant baptism at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. And how much of it might have occurred at my Confirmation when I was 9 years old in Fairfield Connecticut. I know I said the right words then. Knowing better now that so much relies on God and his grace and mercy and so little depends on me, I respect and honor His sacraments more and more the longer I live. I also know that those events in Indianapolis turned me in a direction, intention, and purpose from which I have not returned. I knew then, while I would no doubt experience soul slippages along the way, I would never surrender my soul to another.
In addition, it’s hard to imagine what has gone on since conversion i.e. transformation, growth, maturing. I think we grow fastest in our pain -- “the only joy to be trusted is the joy found on the far side of suffering.”
Following IN we did a short tour in TX. The big event there for all of us was sharing in a families loss of their 17 year old son to AIDS. Chris, their son, set up our stereo when we moved in, fast friends from the git go. They ended up buying a place in Evergreen, CO when we moved there with Episcopal Renewal Ministries, which we did after just 19 months in the Houston area. The days with ERM were wonderful. People who had mentored me through their tape ministries since my conversion, like John Howe and Terry Fullam were involved with the renewal movement, live and in person. Lee Buck became a dear friend during those days, took me under his wing like a dad. He also purchased a condo in Evergreen, and as you know, our friend Brennan Manning stayed in close touch through these years.
One day, when we saw that our friend, for me a model of Christian maturity, and director of the ministry, Chuck Irish, was going to retire to care for his wife Jan who was dealing with MS, Barb mentioned that if I wanted to see our kids before they left for college I might look for a parish. She said TX was out for her and I said so was FL. God listened to her.
I have just begun the end of my second decade here at New Covenant. I have been blessed to experience a community of faith as family. A lot of love and loss, growth and grace. A lot of folks have come and gone. Including one who our Bishop described as the only full fledged sociopath he ever met. He was also, according to a therapist friend, a borderline personality disorder. That was a rough chapter, but educational.
And then, as you know, our son AJ died in ’04. We had lost all four of our parents in our first years here, but that didn’t touch this pain. The saints here were truly God’s people for us. It’s not odd to me now that I still recall so well your journey with Sylvia. Your newsletter about her birth and your learning of the Kingdom of God from her birth. Your call about all the tubes in her little body, and then that she died.
One night, not long after AJ’s death, I sat up praying with Emmanuel Kolini, former archbishop of Rwanda, he was here in FL, who had lost a son and a daughter. As we prayed, he said something like, “Lord, it hurts so bad and yet it is so common.” Strange isn’t it? It is so common to each of us, and yet we suffer with it. Without our faith I have no idea how people do it -- “the only life to be trusted is the life on the far side of death.”
Tom, if I stay healthy, I figure I have a few years left to serve the Lord through ordained ministry in His church with His people. I love it when Conners hang around after church with their questions! I really do. There is life in that, real life, beyond existence. I wonder what this last chapter looks like.
I have gotten through the Gospel of Mark, Terry will be glad to know, and I still wonder about prayer. Every once in a while I see the Holy Spirit move in people's lives. I am sure He moves far more than I see, and that I miss most of what He does. But what a joy when He allows us a glimpse.
I am constantly amazed, too, that God has not been utterly embarrassed (perhaps he has?) by most of my life and ministry. As I reflect, I know I am. It is hugely humbling the older I get to realize how little I know. But then, that seems to be how I began from what I have written here, so I suspect that is how I will end.
Thanks for asking, this is likely more than you asked for. You are a good friend!