IMG_4678The following is a letter to my beloved church, after an announcement on Sunday April 3rd, that God was calling Janis and me to California. The video of my Sunday message can be viewed through the “Sermons and Podcasts” tab. Click on “The Promised Land – Living The Adventure Of Faith”.

Monday – April 4, 2016

My dear, dear Grace family,

Someone asked yesterday if that was an April Fool’s joke. Sad to say, but no. It is with a heavy heart – and an excited heart as well (how can both be possible at once?) – that I formally announce that in June I will be stepping down as the pastor of Grace, and that shortly thereafter, Janis and I will relocate to the Los Angeles area to be near our daughter Hannah, and to jump with both feet into an adventure that God has prepared for us.

What is this “adventure”? I believe that God has granted me his permission to devote most of the next year attending to another part of my heart and calling – to writing.

 Since there is no way in a few short paragraphs to summarize this, what follows is a partial transcript of what I shared with the church.

The Promised Land: Living The Adventure of Faith

The God who is the Keeper of my Soul, the Creator of my Dreams, and the Author of my Story has made it abundantly clear to my heart and mind that my chapter of life and ministry with you here in Bristol is drawing to a close, and a new season of life and ministry awaits me and Janis.

It’s something that has been building in my heart slowly for a year-and-a-half now, and I’ll tell you the story in full in a moment. But what it means for Janis and me, and for you my dear friends at Grace, is that sometime later this month we will place our house on the market to sell it, I will serve as your pastor through the end of June and then we will head west for California, where I will take the bulk of the next year to devote not to pastoring – I have no job waiting for me there – but to writing.

This is so difficult to share, and we are very sad that this day has come. Nervous as well, and excited, and a whole hodge-podge of emotions are churning inside of us. But since I know that many of you have your own relationship with God, I believe that not only has the Lord prepared you for this, but that when you hear what I have to share you will know that God is in this. And if God is in this, we’re all going to be OK.

Let me dispel a few myths at the outset that some might be thinking right now. One myth is that we’re going because something bad is happening at Grace. Excuse me, but we’re you not here last week for Easter? Did you not experience the joy and richness of our time together? This is a good church with godly people and Jesus is in this place.

If I wanted to leave Grace because something bad or hair-raising was going on, I would have left back in 1995 after three months here when our church chairman stood up and publicly challenged me as I preached. Talk about your Welcome to New England! moment. Challenges and problems just come with the territory. It’s life.

Some of you may go so far as to wonder if you’re the straw that broke my back. But nothing has happened that has caused me to say, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m outta here.” I’m not being driven away. I’m being led by a loving Father.

Yes, Grace has challenges in its future. And great opportunities also. Always has, and always will. That’s the fun of it. What will be different is that this will be the first time in 20 years where I won’t be with you to face those challenges. Or to enjoy those opportunities.

Cliftons - 95

The Cliftons 3 – in ’96

20 years is a good run for any pastor. To have ministered with such a wonderful congregation for a full generation is the highest privilege a pastor could ever have. But honestly, a change will be good for us, and good for you.

One thing that has also become so very clear to me in the last couple of years is that it’s time for you to hear another voice. It’s just human nature. I’ve preached almost a thousand sermons in my time here. I could preach a thousand more, but I think others out there need to hear my voice, and I think you need to hear other voices. I suspect we’ve gotten too comfortable with each other, and that’s not always a good thing.

God broke up the fellowship all the time in the early church. Paul and Barnabas had a good thing going on in Antioch, and then God said, “Guys, time to hit the road.” And the missionary movement was born. Grace has been good about releasing people over the years, who moved on to be pastors, missionaries, chaplains. This time you have to release me.

I feel saddest for those of you who are newest to join the Grace family. God has always filled in the ranks here with remarkable people, and to this day he continues to do so. You are proof of that. And for those of you in the leadership pipeline who are going to be future all-stars on Team Jesus, I feel badly that for my part, I can’t continue your training. There is never a good way or a convenient time to do something like this.

But if there were such a thing as a ‘good time’, this would be it. The fact that there is momentum here, that there is a solid strategic plan in place that will continue to guide Grace, that God has new people coming in, and leaders emerging all over the place is a confirmation to our hearts that we can go – that the work Jesus is doing here will continue long after we are gone.

Let me dispel another myth quickly related to the myth that there is something bad happening at Grace. The myth that we’re going because something bad is happening with us. With me. Sorry. I’m not going to get all Jimmy Swaggart on you and blubber away about some great sin I’ve committed, and now God and I have to go out in the wilderness and figure it out.

What you see is what you get. Just Janis and me. In fact, what I can say with a clean conscience and full confidence is what Paul said to the Ephesians when he stepped away from serving them to go to Jerusalem. “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” (Acts 20:26-27).  My life has been an open book before you. You’ve watched us raise a beautiful girl into an amazing young woman. That’s our Hannah. You’ve watched our marriage, go from 12 years to 32, and here we are, still madly in love. That’s my Janis. As best I have been able, I have tried to show you how a follower of Jesus Christ should live in this crazy world.

So why do this now? At its simplest level, I need only say one word to you to explain this. And with this one word I know you will understand. And I just mentioned her – Hannah. It’s not the only reason we know this is of God. But my goodness, she’s our only, precious child. And none of us are getting any younger. She turns 30 this year. I don’t want to have to Skype for that birthday. I’m tired of Skyping for our birthdays.

The Cliftons 3 - in '16

The Cliftons 3 – in ’16

That Hannah seems to have settled down some in her life in LA is another confirming sign for us. We miss her tremendously. It will be awesome to see our daughter more than twice a year. And not to have to spend $8 to $10,000 a year on vacations to see her – which we have done the last three years – will be a plus. To be able to pick up the phone and say, “Hey girl, let’s grab dinner” or “Wanna go for a hike?” will be a blessing to our hearts.

But there’s another huge reason why we’re going to LA. And for those of you who know me at all, what I have to share with you will in no way be a surprise.  Paul said to the Ephesian church before he left them in Acts 20:22– “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.” And my friends, I am compelled by the Spirit to go to LA – I absolutely believe with all my heart that this is where God is leading – and I absolutely do not know what will happen to us there. But if I have any sort of relationship with God, have any ability to hear even the faintest whisper of his voice, then I know this is him.

I am leaving my pastorate, stepping down from formal ministry, walking away from people I love and care for, selling a house that I’m working to own (to pay more money each month for a smaller house or apartment that I’ll be renting) and why? So that I can devote most of this next year of my life unfettered, unhindered, uninterrupted to write. No job or paycheck or church to catch us. I sense that other vistas of ministry will open for us eventually. But for now, these are my marching orders. “My child, I want you to write your little heart out,” is what God is saying to me. And if I do not take this step of faith, then something inside of me will die.

If you know me at all, you know that the Lord has given me a passion and call to write. It’s like that scene in “Chariots of Fire” where Eric Liddel the Christian track star says, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” Well, when I write – sermons, journals, songs, stories, screenplays, essays – I feel God’s pleasure. If you don’t write, you can’t understand this. It sounds like a sickness to you. But this has been a part of who God made me to be since I was the smallest child.  My mother tells me that when I was in the first or second grade, one of the Christmas presents I asked for was a dictionary. (See this is a sickness of the highest order!)

It is in my family genetics to do this. My great-grandfather wrote poetry. But he struggled with alcohol, and never did much with it. His daughter, my grandmother Hazel wrote poetry and short stories as well. She published some articles, a book of poems, and was a blessing to her small Iowa town and to her family through her writing. My mother is very good with words. And here it is as well in me.

As soon as I learned how to wriWritingte, I began writing stories. In the 7th grade, living in Chicago, we lived through a terrible winter, buried in snow and cold. For reasons I cannot explain, I began to write a 163-page screenplay – why a screenplay? I don’t know – about a 30-foot snowstorm that wiped out a small town and the adventures that followed. At the same time, I handwrote out a 200-page novel of the story in some notebooks. (7th grade, mind you.)

Last year, the story came back to mind again, and during a one-month writing leave, I cranked out a new and improved 120-page screenplay of “Deep Freeze” then sent it off to Hollywood to a half-dozen script contests. More on that later.

In high school, in my spare time I sketched out full seasons of a TV series about a kid detective. I wrote out the outlines for at least three other movies in high school. Before Steven King wrote “Christine” I wrote out a story about a killer car. Swear to God. The jerk stole it from me. I launched Steven King’s career.

In my first year in college, the Lord drew me back to himself after a few years of backsliding, using the movie Ben-Hur as the Ben-Hur: The Odysseydrawing card. As that incredible movie stayed with me, I began to ask the question, “I wonder what happened next? Judah Ben-Hur’s a young man at the end of the story. What might he have possibly done?” In seminary, as I studied church history, reading about the first century church and the persecution started by the wicked Emperor Nero, all the elements of a sequel for Ben-Hur began to crystallize in my mind. So of course, I wrote it. I came to Bristol in 1995 with a full screenplay written out for Ben-Hur: The Odyssey, and in my first three years here, I gradually carved out a 400-page novel.

Of course you probably know that this August, MGM is releasing a third major reboot of Ben-Hur. A huge window of opportunity is open for me once again. God has made it clear to my heart that I must be there. To get on the dance floor. To mix it up. To make connections. To cast my bread on the water. To give it my best shot.

You’ll hear people say, who are frustrated with life, “I’m quitting my job and moving to a writing cabin.” It’s almost a cliché. This is not a cliché. This is not a pipedream either. Three completed projects are not a pipedream. They’re a dream that’s trying like crazy to come to birth. And there’s the rub. I have no time to get this baby out.

Of late, I have been unable to give you my best, and you deserve a pastor who can give you that. For twenty years I’ve lived this life. And enjoyed it immensely. And before God I say to you, until recently, I have always given you my very best. I have not short-changed you. I leave it all on the field Sunday in and Sunday out. My call to pastoring has always superseded my call to write. But God is now saying to my heart that I have his permission – at least for a season – to bring writing front and center. And to give it the full attention it deserves. Not a month. Not three. A year is what’s beating in my heart.

If only to get these stories out of my head and onto paper. If only so that I can stand before my Lord on the last day and not hang my head in shame that I didn’t have the faith enough to trust him to follow the dream he planted in my heart.

I need to do this. And you have to trust that God is in this and let us go. In fact, you have to show us the door. And if we hold back, you have to kick us through. Not only that, but you have to help us pack and load the truck. Then you have to force us onto the truck and make us go. Kick dirt at us as we drive down the road. Like they did with Elsa the lion, you gotta scream at us, “Get outta here!” (while “Born Free” plays in the background.)

How do I know this is God? That I’m not just being a lunatic?

Well most of the time, God asks us to live life obeying his laws of stewardship. He tells us over and over again in the Word how we’re to run our lives, our families, our pocketbooks, our relationships. There’s no great mystery to this. The Bible gives us the blueprint.

Leap of FaithBut then there are times when God asks us to go beyond the laws of stewardship and to take a leap of faith right into his arms. So how do you know when God is asking you to do the thing that’s beyond the ordinary? How do you know when God is saying to you, “OK I’ve given you these laws of stewardship to follow, but for now, I want you to set those laws of stewardship aside and do what I tell you to do.”

I like to describe it this way. To land a plane safely, a pilot has to line up runway lights. Once those lights are lined up, he knows the way home. Well, there are runway lights that God lays out for his children to navigate them safely through life. How do you know what God’s will is for you in a given situation? Line them up.

The first runway light, the most important one is the blueprint of God’s Word. If God’s Word doesn’t endorse what you’re doing, forget about it. It’s not God. 90% of our lives is already revealed to us. We don’t have to guess, don’t have to hem and haw about it. Just get your life inside those runway lights, would you? God’s trying to keep you from crashlanding.

The second runway light is the voice of God within you. What do you sense God is speaking to you? (Not, ‘What are you feeling?’ That’s different.) “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. This isn’t something that is out there in the Twilight Zone. If you walk with Jesus in your life, there will be times when something arises within you that’s different from every other voice and thought. A word. An image. A sentence. Sometimes even a fuller conversation.

Two summers ago, while visiting Hannah in California (spending another $4,000) a voice spoke within my heart – Come to California. God saw the growing agitation in my heart to write, and he saw our longing for our daughter. In my mind for the first time, he was green-lighting the thought of moving. Come.

In response to that leading, we did something we hadn’t done before during all my days in Bristol – we began a conversation with Converge our national conference and let them know that we were open to a move. God said that we were to come to California. That’s all I knew. My assumption was that God would open the door to a new church, or a new work setting where we would be near our daughter, and I would have more time to pursue my writing. And it would happen seamlessly, effortlessly, no faith required, easy-peasy, transitioning from the East Coast to the West.

The third runway light is essential. Confirmation from trusted, godly friends. “There’s safety in the multitude of counselors,” the Bible says. So you share with others what it is you believe God is telling you to do. Does that message resonate with a good number of them?

We talked to numerous people over the past couple of years about what we were thinking, Particularly people in the entertainment industry. I met with a Christian media expert who knows the ins and outs of Hollywood. I asked him straight-up, “If my dream is to be able to bring to life stories inside my heart, and attempt to get them to the big screen, do I need to be in Hollywood?” And without hesitation, he said, “You need to be here. Hollywood runs on networking, the power lunch, the face-to-face pitch, the chance meeting at a party – if you’re not here, you’re just making a long shot as long as can be.” Over and over again, this is what people ‘in the know’ told us.

So if God’s Word says ‘yes’, and God’s Spirit says, ‘Yes’, and godly friends say, ‘Yes’, the fourth runway light helps drive it home. Confirmation of circumstances. We talk about God opening doors and closing them. Life is sometimes like navigating a maze. You just keep turning in the path that opens to you.

This one was tricky with us, because I was operating on the assumption that the confirmation would be a new job. But there was something contradictory about this idea also, and sometimes God would point it out to me. “I thought you wanted to write?”

Sure enough, with each of the work avenues we explored, I couldn’t even get inside the door. Not only was there no open door, but every door was slammed in our face. I could hear people on the other side nailing boards across the door, then running away laughing.

And there it was again, God speaking to me. “My son, I thought you wanted to write.” “I do.” “Then come out here and write. You don’t need to look for a job right now.” “You mean just drop everything and move out?”  “Doesn’t that sound like fun?” “No!” That’s about how the conversation went.

So last summer, I said to God, “Alright I get it Lord. You’re asking us to take a big step of faith. I’ve been teaching it for 20 years. I never actually expected that you’d ask me to do it though. That’s kinda nasty of you. But I need a sign that this is you. I’m in my early fifties. I don’t want to blow through our savings. I’m not 30 anymore. We’re putting a lot at risk here God.”

So I said, “Lord, if this leading is from you, then I want to place in one of these script contests I’ve entered. In fact, I want to a semi-finalist. And that’ll be enough to convince me that this is you.”

We started the ministry season in the fall. I heard back from two of the contests and received an honorable mention which was cool. Some of the ones who read my script saw potential in it. In contests where there are thousands of entrants, that’s something. If this were horseshoes, it’d be worth a point. But it wasn’t the sign I was looking for.

The fall came and went; I heard nothing from the other contests, so I assumed that was that. Back to square one. Torn between two lives, two worlds, two callings, and having no ability to make them co-exist.

EstherIn the meantime, God was occasionally speaking to me in my quiet-times that a big change was coming in our lives. One day Janis and I were in prayer. And in her prayer for us, Janis quoted that great verse from Esther, “Lord, for a time such as this would you open the right doors for us, and show us what to do.” Her prayer – and that verse – bounced around my heart the rest of the day.

The very next day, I threw down my Bible on the couch to have my quiet time. It flopped open. After I fetched my coffee, I sat down. And the sensation arose within me, “Put you hand right now on the Bible.” It felt odd, but I did. “Read the verse your thumb is pointing to.” Now I really thought I was going mad.

My thumb was pointing straight at Esther 4:14, “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this.” The very verse that Jan had prayed the day before. There are 31,102 verses in the Bible. Coincidence? Possibly. They say when you’re looking to buy a blue car, you start seeing blue cars everywhere. Was I seeing what I wanted to see? Maybe. But really? The exact verse a day later.

 Little things like that blazed the trail for what then happened the first week in December. I have an email account dedicated to my writing contacts. I hadn’t looked at it for several weeks. But as I saddled up to my home office computer, I sensed a strong tug that I should do so. And couldn’t believe what my eyes saw. Sitting in my inbox was an email from the Final Draft Big Break script contest.

“Congratulations Barry. Your script Deep Freeze has been named one of the top-ten scripts in your genre. This is quite an accomplishment as we received almost 7,000 scripts this year.” I clinked on a link, and there it was in a list titled semi-finalists, my name, my script. The next morning as I mulled it all over the Lord came calling. “So son, what do you say? Do you wanna write, or don’t you?” And when my prayer was finished that morning, do you know what I felt, and feel still? Perfect peace.

 Which is the fifth runway light you look for in discerning God’s will about something difficult. Where do you feel God’s peace? The Bible talks about having a “peace that passes understanding.” That’s what this is. Janis and I are scared and nervous about all of this. But we have peace anchoring it. I don’t have answers to a lot of the questions yet. Like: where are we going to live? Don’t know. We’re going out to LA in a couple of weeks to look around. But we have peace. What happens if the house doesn’t sell right away? Don’t know. But we have peace. What if you never get published, or sell anything? Don’t know. But I have peace.

 “Compelled by the Spirit, we are going to LA, not knowing what will happen to us there.” We must go and you must let us go. In fact, I meant what I joked about earlier. I want you to help us go. Knowing that God is in this, would you pray with us and for us. And weep with us, because we’re going to miss you terribly. And laugh with us, and be excited for us, because it’s going to be a great adventure, both for us but also for you dear friends. For Jesus is with us, nudging us forward on the adventure of faith.

 

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